Colonial Legacies and Post-Colonial Realities: Vijay Prashad in Conversation

The key lessons from the history of anti-colonial struggles emphasize the importance of hard work, patience, and sacrifice in building mass movements for liberation, self-determination, and social justice. These lessons serve as inspiration and guidance for contemporary movements striving to achieve similar goals in our present times.

9 mins read
Vijay Prashad, an Indian Historian, thinks it no longer a geographical concept, but a struggle for dignity from colonialism. [ Photo Credit: Thinkers Forum]

In this insightful discussion, Vijay Prashad, a prominent Indian historian and commentator, shared his valuable insights on various subjects, including the role of the Indian diaspora in shaping global perspectives on Indian politics and culture, his motivation to study the intersections of imperialism, capitalism, and globalization, and the enduring effects of colonialism on India and other colonized nations. Through his profound knowledge and expertise, Prashad provided thought-provoking perspectives that shed light on significant historical and contemporary issues.

As the Director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, Prashad continues to shape critical discourse and provoke thoughtful analysis. Prashad has authored numerous influential publications, which serve as intellectual milestones in understanding historical and contemporary issues. With a profound understanding of global politics, Prashad’s works unravel the intricate intersections between power, culture, and resistance, offering invaluable insights into the complexities of our world.

Excerpts of the interview;

Question [Q]: As an Indian historian and commentator, how do you see the role of the Indian diaspora in shaping global perspectives on Indian politics and culture?

Answer [A]: The Indian diaspora is varied, oscillating between people who have almost no politics to people who are adherents of the far-right. There was a time when the Indian diaspora was the home of the Left. The first left-wing Indian political party was established in California in 1913. It was the Ghadar Party. Many of those who were attracted to it later went to the USSR to learn how to become Communists, and then went on to join the Communist movement in India. The Communist Party of India was founded in Tashkent (USSR) in 1920, mostly by emigré Indians, a different kind of diaspora. But, after independence, the nature of migration changed, as sections of the Indian middle-class left the country for economic reasons and their political life mirrored the journey of the Indian middle-class within the country. The middle-class Indian diaspora today is the exact complement of the Indian middle-class inside India.

Q: What motivated you to study and write about the intersection of imperialism, capitalism, and globalization, particularly in relation to the Global South?

A: I was born and brought up in Kolkata, India, which is a city of great marvels but also a city of immense inequality. To people like me, born into education and means, the striking aspect of our lives was the gap between what we experienced and the absolute devastation of poverty that defined the lives of people around us. That social inequality hit me hard and continues to strike me. It is what forced me to learn about why inequality is reproduced, to seek answers from the facts, and therefore to discover that the source of such inequality was the ugly profit-driven system of capitalism that had absorbed wretched hierarchies that predate capitalism, such as the caste system. Why was India not able to transcend the caste hierarchies and the ugliness of capitalism? It was not just because of the greed of the Indian bourgeoise and the landlords, but also due to the immense power of the neo-colonial structure maintained by the former colonial powers. You can’t understand the poverty on the streets of Colombo, for instance, without having a full understanding of the imperialist system.

Q: In your work, you often highlight the impact of imperialism on the countries and regions it has affected. How would you describe the lasting effects of imperialism on India and other colonized nations?

A: Firstly, it is important to note that British imperialism – which ruled India for centuries – stole tens of trillions of pounds from the Indian people. Several economists have tried to calculate this enormous ‘drain of wealth’. Profits made in India and wealth built in India were not reinvested in the country but taken and invested in the United Kingdom. This led to a cascade of underinvestment in India, and therefore the impoverishment of the country. Second, as a consequence of this underinvestment – the lack of use of capital formed in India – was that there was reduced employment opportunities for the people, including lack of investment in agriculture that led to the catastrophic famines of the Victorian Era. Third, the British imperial state in India failed to invest in social development – namely in health and education – which grievously impacted the living conditions of people. When the British were booted out of India, the literacy rate was a mere 13% (in the UK, during the same period, the literacy rate was about 98%). These three impacts – theft of capital to the UK, the underinvestment in Indian agriculture, and the lack of social investment – have had long-term, catastrophic impacts on India.

Q: Some critics argue that anti-imperialist movements and ideologies often romanticize and idealize certain regimes or leaders, even when they may have engaged in oppressive practices. How do you respond to these critiques, and how can anti-imperialist movements avoid falling into this trap?

A: The journey out of the neo-colonial structures is not easy. People in very poor countries, with backward state institutions, struggle to establish their sovereignty over their territory and to create dignity for their people. They face attacks ceaselessly, which often leads beleaguered states to turn inward. The problems within the path of anti-colonial projects are nothing compared to the problems that structure those failures, namely the neo-colonial system. It is convenient for the old colonial powers to point fingers at the problems inside the post-colonial states, but harder for them to accept their own role in creating the enabling conditions for state failure and oppressive practices.

Q: What are some key challenges faced by post-colonial countries in achieving economic and political sovereignty, and how can they address these challenges effectively?

A: The most important challenges are two: first, the obduracy of the old colonial powers who refuse to allow for sovereignty and thereby use any means (including invasions and coups) to hold onto power (even if they allow for flag independence), and second, the theft of wealth by the colonial powers that leaves the new states in a dependent relation to their former colonial rulers, but this time not through political power but through economic interconnections. If a post-colonial state tries to establish its sovereignty over its own territory and raw materials (such as Chile in the early 1970s), it faces economic sabotage and then a coup (1973). This story repeats itself over and over again.

Q: Your work often critiques Western interventionism and imperialism. However, some argue that there are instances where international intervention can be justified, such as in cases of genocide or human rights abuses. How do you navigate this complex ethical terrain?

A: Obviously, there must be room for external intervention in times of genuine genocide. That principle is not established by the United Nations. However, that principle is also misused by the West to fulfill its own aims. For instance, it used the term genocide to justify the destruction of Libya in 2011 (after the bombardment ended, Amnesty International showed that there was nothing like genocide happening in Libya). Furthermore, Western interventions – such as in Iraq – have led to massive destruction (including loss of life and human rights abuses). We need to be very careful when we hear talk of genocide, since the term has been used instrumentally by Western powers to justify their own military interventions for their own narrow imperialist ends.

Q: The concept of “third worldism” has been central to your analysis. Could you explain this concept and its relevance in today’s global context?

A: Actually, I do not use this term, since the term itself is not precise enough. I use the term ‘Third World Project’ to specify the social dynamic set in place at the tail end of the colonial era, when colonized states got together to drive a combined agenda against the neo-colonial system. These states met in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955, and then later established the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. This Third World Project was destroyed in the 1980s during the Third World debt crisis, when they lost their political strength due to the devastation of their economies and the use by the West of the International Monetary Fund to damage the integrity of the new states. Today, we have a different context, different possibilities. That is our history.

Q: Marxist ideologies have been widely criticized for their historical association with authoritarian regimes. How do you address these criticisms, and what do you believe is the role of Marxism in building a just and inclusive society?

A: The term ‘authoritarian regime’ is an ideological term. Its most scientific basis was provided by Hannah Arendt in her The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), which made the case that fascism and communism are much the same thing. The association between fascism and communism is not only analytically lazy but it performed a task for the Western imperialist states that wanted to defame communism despite the historical role played by the USSR in the destruction of Nazism. So, what do we mean by authoritarian regimes? We do not add in their list the totalitarian regimes set in place by Western imperialism after the coups in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954), nor the money-driven democracies in the West that have corrupted democracy and driven people into either total social passivity or neo-fascist rage. Marxists stand against these kinds of totalitarianisms.

Q: Climate change is an urgent issue facing the world today. What are your thoughts on the responsibility of wealthy nations in addressing climate justice and supporting the Global South in tackling environmental challenges?

A: My thoughts are not as significant as the treaty obligations of the Western powers, who signed the 1992 Rio framework of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, which means that they recognize the common problems of environmental destruction and climate change but see that there are differentiated responsibilities based on the historical abuse of the planet by the imperialist powers. This is a treaty obligation. And yet, the West has not lived up to their own obligation. They should be taken to the International Criminal Court for this malfeasance.

Q: Your book “The Darker Nations” focuses on the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Bandung Conference. How do you view the relevance and legacy of these movements in the present-day geopolitical landscape?

A: Today, the context of that period when the Third World Project shone is very different. Certain states in the developing world – China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, South Africa – have taken on an important role in global leadership. The establishment of the BRICS (2009) and the emergence of the New Non-Alignment has opened up new possibilities. This opening is built on the legacy of the past, but it does not repeat them. These large states no longer want to accept the claim by the West that their parochial interests are universal. These states want to put forward their own national interests. We have to closely study this New Non-Alignment.

Q: Identity politics has become a contentious topic in recent years. What is your perspective on the role of identity-based movements in social and political struggles, and how can they contribute to broader movements for justice and equality?

A: The term identity politics is very general. Of course, there are historical social hierarchies – such as the caste system and patriarchy – that have to be frontally challenged and defeated. These will take place by broad based struggles against caste and patriarchy. An idea has come to the fore that only the victims of these systems can fight in this struggle. This narrows the fight and makes it weaker. We need to assemble broad based struggles of all people to fight to liberate humanity from wretchedness.

Q: How do you view the relationship between Marxism and anti-imperialism? Do you think Marxism provides an effective framework for addressing the unique challenges faced by post-colonial societies?

A: Marxism is one of the only frameworks that properly addresses the crisis-ridden system of capitalism that produces imperialist tendencies amongst its most powerful countries. No other theory of the world properly explains the cycle of crises and the punctuality of wars. If another theory comes along, let me know.

Q: However, some argue that globalization and capitalism, despite their flaws, have brought significant economic development and lifted millions out of poverty. How do you respond to this argument, and what alternative economic models do you propose?

A: If you look at the UN data, you will find that the country that has lifted the most number of people out of poverty is China. And the Chinese people have not eradicated absolute poverty through globalization and capitalism. They have done so, as our Tricontinental study shows, by the central work of the Communist Party of China and the state apparatus, which in a very studious and clear way went after certain social problems that had to be overcome for poverty to be eradicated. Countries that have weakened state structures – a necessary byproduct of extreme neoliberalism – have seen their poverty rates rise.

Q: Your analysis often focuses on the negative impacts of imperialism and capitalism. However, can you acknowledge any positive aspects or unintended consequences that may have emerged from these systems?

A: Can’t see any.

Q: In your view, what are some key lessons that can be drawn from the history of anti-colonial struggles, and how can they inform and inspire contemporary movements striving for liberation, self-determination, and social justice?

A: The most important lesson is from the hard work of the people who built these movements, their patience in working to establish the mass character of their movements, and the sacrifices they underwent to establish their movements and our freedom. Hard work, patience, and sacrifice: three things that we have to learn for our own times.

Q: In conclusion, as artificial intelligence continues to advance, there are concerns about its potential impact on the global workforce. How do you envision the future of work in a world increasingly driven by AI, and what steps can be taken to mitigate any negative effects on employment?

A: Capitalism necessary applies the latest in science to enhance the productive forces, whose advancement lifts the productivity rate but then eventually leads to crisis upon crisis as the rate of profit falls. This is a cycle of increased productivity and then heightened crisis that has been ongoing since the late 19th century. AI is just the latest in a new technological breakthrough. The only way to mitigate the negative impact of unemployment is to socialize the gains from productivity, which is another way of saying to transcend capitalism and go to socialism.

Nilantha Ilangamuwa

Nilantha Ilangamuwa is a founding editor of the Sri Lanka Guardian and has been the editor until 2018.

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