A decolonial critique of Ten Theses on Marxism and Decolonisation by Vijay Prashad

Sandew Hira, The Hague February 21, 2023


On September 20, 2022, Vijay Prashad published an article with ten theses on Marxism and Decolonisation. It is an important article because it addresses the question of decolonisation from a Marxist perspective and that can be a good starting point for a conversation between Marxists and Decolonial theorists on the relationship between Marxism and decolonial theory.

I come from a Marxist tradition and have evolved to decolonial theory. Vijya Prashad is a firm believer in classical Marxist theory. He is doing great work in the anti-imperialist movement with the Institute for Social Research (Tricontinental) of which he is a director. I respect and admire this work. We are in agreement on issues like the need for a global unity against imperialism and the fight against capitalism. Where I disagree with him is his analysis that Marxism is the only correct theory of liberation and socialism is the only solution for capitalism. I argue that outside the Eurocentric Western Enlightenment – that produced Marxism – there are other philosophies of liberation possible and necessary (decolonial theory is one of them) and thus Marxism is not the only or even the correct one. I explain this proposition in my critique of his ten theses and in more detail in my book Decolonizing The Mind.[1]

In this critique I make a distinction between classical Marxism with basic concepts such as the labor theory of value, historical materialism, class and class struggle etc., and modern Marxism that still looks at socialism as an ultimate goal, but don’t base their arguments on classical Marxism. One example is Deng Xiao Ping in China who introduced the concept of market socialism which basically discard the labor theory of value whose direct policy implication is a planned economy. Prashad is clearly a classical Marxist.

Thesis One: The End of History

Prashad rightly criticizes the liberal concept of the “end of history” as articulated by Francis Fukuyama. His critique is that capitalism is not the end of history. The concept of the end of history is actually an old concept and was put forward by German philosopher George Hegel (1770-1831) in his notion that Europe is the pinnacle of human history, the end of history, or as Hegel puts it: “the last stage in History, our world, our own time.”[2] History has come to an end with the rise of European modernity. Hegel wrote this in 1830. Since then a lot has changed. He is an important philosopher in the history of Marxist philosophy. Fukuyama repeated this claim more than 150 years later in 1989. Since then a lot has changed. The decline of the Soviet bloc led to “the weakened confidence of millions of people with the clarities of Marxist thought,”[3] says Prashad. My decolonial critique of this thesis is that it uses the same concept of the “end of history” as was articulated in the European Enlightenment, but then it is not capitalism, but socialism, or more exactly, communism, that will be the end of history.

But the idea of the end of history is problematic. It has a unilinear view of world history. History moves from a lower to a higher form of social organization. In Marxism communism is the highest form of social and economic organization based on the concept of mode of production. In my decolonial view history moves like a spider web web and is based on the concept of civilization, not on mode of production.

A civilization is a collection of economic, political, social and cultural institutions in a society with a common cultural base. The common cultural base is a combination of a variety of elements: knowledge production, cosmology, religion. An empire is a political unit that operates from a specific geographical center (a country, an urban center) and controls nations and communities outside that center through an elaborate system of economic, political, social and cultural institutions. Liberalism and Marxism are based on the European Enlightenment. Both are Eurocentric theories of the world that claim to be universal.

In my decolonial view of world history, civilizations develop like a spider web in different directions. The colonial world civilization – in which industrial capitalism was part (not vice versa) – imposed its cultural base on the colonized world, but we are now in a phase that it is losing its power and other civilizations are re-emerging. My critique of Marxism is that it also has a concept of the end of history, and that this whole concept is false.

Thesis Two: The Battle of Ideas

Prashad refers to Fidel Castro’s campaign of the battle of ideas which proclaimed that “people of the left must not cower before the rising tide of neoliberal ideology but must confidently engage with the fact that neoliberalism is incapable of solving the basic dilemmas of humanity… the political forces for socialism must seek to offer an assessment and solutions far more realistic and credible.” Prashad holds that there are two tendencies that continue to create ideological problems in our time:

“Post-Marxism. An idea flourished that Marxism was too focused on ‘grand narratives’ (such as the importance of transcending capitalism for socialism) and that fragmentary stories would be more precise for understanding the world…

Post-colonialism. Sections of the left began to argue that the impact of colonialism was so great that no amount of transformation would be possible, and that the only answer to what could come after colonialism was a return to the past. They treated the past, as the Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui argued in 1928 about the idea of indigenism, as a destination and not as a resource.”

So the battle of ideas is between Marxism and Liberalism on the one hand and between Marxism and these two schools of thought that criticize Marxism. Apparently he does not acknowledge that there is another school of thought that criticizes Marxist theory: decolonial theory. In the theoretical framework of Decolonizing The Mind (DTM) I criticize Marxism and Liberalism for their Eurocentric views on world history, and their economic, social, political and cultural theories. My basic argument is that from a civilizational approach Marxism and Liberalism are not scientific theories, but theories of ethics. Other civilizations had developed ethical theories with concepts of social justice that is not based on the Marxist idea of surplus value, which I regard as an ethical concept, not as a scientific concept.

So what does the battle of ideas mean if we talk about Marxism and decolonization? In my decolonial view there are two dimensions of ideological struggle: a battle of ideas and a dialogue of civilizations. The battle of ideas has to do with how knowledge production has been colonized by the European Enlightenment and the need to battle these ideas by decolonizing the mind. Marxism, as part of the European Enlightenment, has made important contributions to emancipating oppressed people across the world. These people have different civilizational backgrounds. Another part of the ideological struggle is a dialogue between civilizations: how to build a new and just and pluriversal global civilization with ideas from different civilizations.

Thesis Three: A Failure of Imagination

Prashad says that in the period from 1991 to the early 2000s, the broad tradition of national liberation Marxism felt flattened and was unable to answer the doubts sown by post-Marxism and post-colonial theory. Prashad: “Platforms that developed to germinate left forms of internationalism – such as the World Social Forum – seemed to be unwilling to be clear about the intentions of peoples’ movements. The slogan of the World Social Forum, for instance, was ‘another world is possible’, which is a weak statement, since that other world could just as well be defined by fascism.” This is a lack of imagination. But it is a lack of imagination on the part of Prashad to think that there are no valid narratives of envisioning a new and just society outside Marxism and Liberation. I show in my book that these narratives have been there in many civilizational traditions from Islam and Buddhism to Indigenous philosophies in Abya Yala and Africa.

Thesis Four: Return to the Source

Prashad: “It is time to recover and return to the best of the national liberation Marxist tradition. This tradition has its origins in Marxism-Leninism, one that was always widened and deepened by the struggles of hundreds of millions of workers and peasants in the poorer nations.” Marxism has inspired many people, including myself, to become active fighters against imperialism, capitalism and colonialism. I believe that this experience gained more relevance as revolutionaries dared to go beyond the sources and develop new ideas. Che Guevara thought of an alternative for the Leninist vanguard party in the form of the guerilla army. Deng Xiao Ping, in my view one of the greatest decolonial thinkers, managed to dramatically change the face of China and the world by introducing concepts like breaking with mental slavery, developing policies based on facts and not dogmas and using market socialism to eradicate poverty. Hugo Chavez experimented with the concept of socialism of the 12st century. By going beyond the sources they have managed to make contributions that we can now acknowledge as being part of a new philosophies of liberation.

Thesis Five: ‘Slightly Stretched’ Marxism

Prashad: “Marxism entered the anti-colonial struggles not through Marx directly, but more accurately through the important developments that Vladimir Lenin and the Communist International made to the Marxist tradition. When Fanon said that Marxism was ‘slightly stretched’ when it went out of its European context, it was this stretching that he had in mind… The dual task of the revolutionary forces in poorer states that had won independence and instituted left governments was to build the productive forces and to socialise the means of production.” Well this has been done, and the results are not great. Socializing the means of production according to the “Marxist sources” means bringing all the means of production into the hands of the state and setting up a planned economy that does away with the market as an instrument of allocation of goods and services. This policy is based on and is a direct outcome of the Marxist Labor Theory of Value that says that in capitalism the capitalist is the exploiter who extracts surplus value from the worker through the combination of the labor market and the ownership of the means of production. So according to Marxist economic theory the only just economic order is a planned economy. Well, it did not survive the first social revolution in the world and it went down with the dissolution of the Soviet system. In the largest country in the world, China, it underwent a drastic transformation. Capitalists play a crucial role in uplifting the economy and eradicating absolute poverty. In Cuba it survived and was probably even necessary because of the US blockade. With these experiences I think there is a need to rethink rather than to stretch Marxism.

Thesis Six: Dilemmas of Humanity

Prashad argues that neither post-Marxism nor post-colonialism addresses the fact of illiteracy, ecology and other big problems of humanity. Prashad: “The theory of national liberation Marxism, rooted in sovereignty and dignity, however, does address these questions.” I would add: and so does Islamic Liberation theology or Bhuddhist social and economic theory. The idea that a theory of liberation should be an exclusive Marxist theory is basically a Eurocentric idea. It stems from the analysis of the European Enlightenment as the exclusive source of science and social theory.

Thesis Seven: The Rationality of Racism and Patriarchy

Prashad: “It is important to note that, under the conditions of capitalism, the structures of racism and patriarchy remain rational.” He explains that apart from the two forms for the extraction of surplus value that Marx has distinguished (absolute surplus value and relative surplus value) there is a third form: super-exploitation. Prashad: “How are the suppression of wages and the refusal to increase royalty payments for raw material extraction justified? By a colonial argument that, in certain parts of the world, people have lower expectations for life and therefore their social development can be neglected. This colonial argument applies equally to the theft of wages from women who perform care work, which is either unpaid or grossly underpaid on the grounds that it is ‘women’s work’.” Racism is reduced to the justification of the super-exploitation. There is huge difference with our DTM theoretical framework of racism. In our framework racism is not a matter of justification of economic exploitation. It is a matter of civilization. The colonial world civilization has experienced three forms of racism, whereby racism is defined as the collection of economic, social, cultural and political institutions that organizes society along lines of superiority and inferiority. The three forms are related to the authority of knowledge production: theological racism that is related to Christian theology that argued between 1500-1650 that superiority/inferiority is organized along theological lines. Between 1650-1850 we have biological racism where superiority/inferiority is organized along biological lines and is related to the rise of the European Enlightenment philosophy and natural sciences. After 1850 we have cultural racism where superiority/inferiority is organized along cultural lines and is related to the rise of social sciences. This theory of racism is much more elaborated and fundamentally different from the Marxist economistic approach, because it is based on the concept of civilization.

Thesis eight: Rescue Collective Life

Prashad: “The breakdown of social collectivity and the rise of consumerism harden despair, which morphs into various kinds of retreat. Two examples of this are: a) a retreat into family networks that cannot sustain the pressures placed upon them by the withdrawal of social services, the increasing burden of care work on the family, and ever longer commute times and workdays; b) a move towards forms of social toxicity through avenues such as religion or xenophobia. Though these avenues provide opportunities to organise collective life, they are organised not for human advancement, but for the narrowing of social possibility. How does one rescue collective life? Forms of public action rooted in social relief and cultural joy are an essential antidote to this bleakness.” And public action is socialist action: Red Book Day, socialist manifestations etc.

This is a very narrow and Eurocentric view of how to look at collective life. It regards religion as a backward phenomena. The Iranian revolution shows how religion can be a strong anti-imperialist force in the world. By limiting the rescue of social life to socialist culture is really doing a disservice to the millions of people outside the socialist movement who are anti-imperialist and decolonial.

Thesis Nine: The Battle of Emotions

Prashad: “A degraded society under capitalism produces a social life that is suffused with atomisation and alienation, desolation and fear, anger and hate, resentment and failure… Since human experiences are defined by the conditions of material life, ideas of fate will linger on as long as poverty is a feature of human life. If poverty is transcended, then fatalism will have a less secure ideological foundation, but it does not automatically get displaced… It is, after all, through class struggle and through the new social formations created by socialist projects that new cultures will be created – not merely by wishful thinking.” His economistic approach runs into an empirical problem. If ideas of fate will linger on as long as poverty is a feature of human life, then the eradication of poverty will lead to the defeat of ideas of fate. The rise of fascism in Europe and North America is not among the poorest of the population about among white people living an affluent life style! And again, by claiming that only socialism can create new cultures is a Eurocentric denial of the contribution that other civilizations and culture have made to philosophies of liberation. Only look at the African philosophy of Ubuntu that is based on a culture of promotion social life (“I am because we are”). Why should we dismiss these contributions and position socialism as the only way to elevate culture?

Thesis Ten: Dare to Imagine the Future

This thesis goes back to the first thesis of the end of history. Prashad: “One of the enduring myths of the post-Soviet era is that there is no possibility of a post-capitalist future. This myth came to us from within the triumphalist US intellectual class, whose ‘end of history’ sensibility helped to strengthen orthodoxy in such fields as economics and political theory, preventing open discussions about post-capitalism… Certainly, socialism is not going to appear magically. It must be fought for and built, our struggles deepened, our social connections tightened, our cultures enriched. Now is the time for a united front, to bring together the working class and the peasantry as well as allied classes, to increase the confidence of workers, and to clarify our theory. To unite the working class and the peasantry as well as allied classes requires the unity of all left and progressive forces. Our divides in this time of great danger must not be central; our unity is essential. Humanity demands it.”

Earlier I criticized the concept of the end of history in both traditions: the Liberal tradition that sees the end of history in capitalism and the Marxist tradition that sees the end of history in communism. There are more views of world history possible that these two views. For Islamic Liberation Theology, African Ubuntu philosophy or Aymara vision of the relationship between humans and nature a vision for the future goes beyond Liberalism or Marxism. It requires a non-Eurocentric imagination to see this.

I think that moving from classical Marxism to other philosophies of liberation including philosophies that still see socialism as a larger goal would strengthen the anti-imperialist movement as a whole.

[1] Hira, S.: Decolonizing The Mind. A Guide to Decolonial Theory and Practice. Amrit Publishers. The Hague, 2023.

[2] Cited in Hira, S. (2023), p. 476.

[3] Prashad, V. (2022). All his citations are from this source.