ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Asia: A Social History

Third World Whence and Whither? Protective State versus Aggressive Market by Wim F Wertheim; Het Spinhuls, Amsterdam, 1998; FREDERIC F CLAIRMONT At a moment when the crisis of Asian society has reached qualitatively new and explosive crescendos with no respite in sight; or rather when the political and economic implosions of Asian capitalism can no longer be fudged by the ideological engineers of imperialism, publication of the reflections of a lifetime on global development by the grand old man of Dutch social science is a moment of celebration. This is not a work of abstract theorising as the title would presumably lead us to surmise, but the vivid articulation of ideas of an academic and a man of action. His life and teachings continue to be wedded to the progressive movements of his time, notably in Asia. The continent was the seedbed of his pioneer research work in Indonesia and elsewhere.

At a moment when the crisis of Asian society has reached qualitatively new and explosive crescendos with no respite in sight; or rather when the political and economic implosions of Asian capitalism can no longer be fudged by the ideological engineers of imperialism, publication of the reflections of a lifetime on global development by the grand old man of Dutch social science is a moment of celebration. This is not a work of abstract theorising as the title would presumably lead us to surmise, but the vivid articulation of ideas of an academic and a man of action. His life and teachings continue to be wedded to the progressive movements of his time, notably in Asia. The continent was the seedbed of his pioneer research work in Indonesia and elsewhere. <P>
His academic and legal career began in 1931, when he was appointed a member of the judiciary in the Netherlands Indies, followed by a law professorship in 1936 at the Batavla Law Academy. One would have thought that from such bastions of Dutch imperialism a rebarbative conservative would have emerged. Rather, these seemingly impregnable institutions of colonial rule gave him a commanding vista of the nationalist liberation struggles that were sweeping Asia; and, indeed, the world of the capitalist great depression. An offshoot of these changes was that he was able to analyse the counter-revolutionary horrors of fascism of which racialism was but one important segment. <P>
Like so many intellectuals of the 1930s this young Dutchman was introduced to Marxist thought, but his Marxism had been a tool that was never blunted by dogmatism, and he repudiated the monocausal interpretation of social history in terms of an economic basis and an ideological superstructure. As one of the greatest Dutch scholars and social scientists of our century, he recognises his debt to his greatest of teachers whose teachings are today more relevant than in other previous moment. “I wish, first of all, to make clear, that to me Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels remain the Founding Fathers of critical sociological and economic analysis. In order to express my indebtedness to them, I can use Isaac Newton’s words: “If I saw farther it was because I stood on giant shoulders”.” This reminds of the illustrious confession of George Bernard Shaw: “Indeed, I must confess that Karl Marx made a man of me”. <P>
This perceptive and tightly knit creation is composed of five parts: north versus south; farmers of 40 centuries; political conditions for a breakthrough; emancipatory state strategies and a concluding section on the end of the myth of the 1990s: Mammon’s Pyrrhic Victory. The authentic social scientist is not someone who studies social phenomena from an ivory tower but one who perceives the study of history as a process, and in so doing reveals the unity of dialectical theory and dialectical practice. <P>
The development of the thinker was not therefore confined to the Netherlands Indies but ramified into other parts of Asia, notably China. It was the revolutionary world of chairman Mao and the years of the Long March, the legendary resistance to Japanese imperialism, combined with the poverty of China that gripped him. Here we see the influence of Richard Tawney’s <I>Land and Labour in China,</I> John Lossing Buck and Edgar Snow. The quote of Rewl Alley, one of the founders of the cooperative movement in China, and one who grasped early the enormous potential of China’s revolutionary masses, highlights the forces against which a revolutionary movement was to be pitted. “There for the first time” writes Alley, “I saw children dying by the thousands, in a famine which eventually took more than five million lives but was scarcely noticed in the west”. <P>
To his credit he had never seen revolutionary China through rose coloured spectacles. His position on overpopulation in China at a time when the evocation of that concept brought forth howls of abuse from orthodox Marxists are indicative. His advocacy of such policies, as those of his Chinese colleagues, would triumph over Marxist dogma ultimately, but the battle would be long and arduous. At every step the author makes the comparison with Java, India and China. He realised like many at that time that the land reform movement initiated in the liberated areas and relentlessly pursued on an all-China basis in the 1950s remains unmatched in terms of its consequences and magnitude. <P>
His exposition is elaborated in his chapter on the dialectics of emancipation. What however does emancipation mean in the context of the third world as it has evolved over the last three decades. He does not pontificate when he tells us that regular interaction between the rulers and the ruled is the essence of Mao’s ‘mass line’. It is far removed from Nkrumah’s pithy comment: “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else will follow”. <P>
But the world of Mao has been changed and the reformist leadership of China since 1978 has radically altered the social relations of China. There is still lip-service paid to Mao and his cult has not been eliminated. But the mass line that stressed human solidarity has been replaced by Deng’s formula: “To be rich is glorious”. A cursory visit to China and perfunctory talks with its bureaucrats and capitalists unmasks the widening gulf between the masses and the elites. And nowhere is this more glaring than in the gap between the rural masses that still account for over four-fifths of China’s population and the urban population. Within these two specific categories the inequalities are not only large but also ominously growing larger, as Beijing acknowledges. <P>
That raises the basic question: how long can China’s Communist Party survive in this context? What is its<I> raison d’etre?</I> Already the private sector buttressed by the foreign corporate gulag account for over half of the nation’s wealth. A class of kulaks that Mao dreaded has soared conspicuously. At the People’s National Congress in March 1998, ‘diverse forms of public ownership’ were introduced. Privatisation is not merely public policy; it is exalted as the way forward. China’s political elite is looking for a model and its choice of the Korean chaebols is one more step of an industrial model that discloses the extent of its myopia. <P>
The changes over the last two years has revealed the bankruptcy of the tigers and no less so of Japan. China has so far beaten off the crisis of the Asian financial virus in that it has not devalued the yuan but whether it will continue to do so remains problematical. But all the symptoms of crisis that affect Asian capitalism are conspicuously present in the global economy. His question ‘has socialism a future?’ is a perceptive commentary on the mechanisms unleashed by the corporate gulag. <P>
The euphoria that greeted the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has vanished, and so have the myths propounded by the IMF and the World Bank. “The crucial issue”, he writes “is still whether, in the third world, radical emancipation movements have survived the end of the cold war, so as to be able to challenge the supremacy of Mammon, both in the north and east Asia. The virtual disappearance of the two great powers, the Soviet Union and Maoist China, which were generally viewed as the strong champions of radical socialism has, at least for the time being, weakened movements for which they had fulfilled a model function.” Today, there are no models of socialism. <P>
His discussion of the progressive changes in Kerala, which he regards as part of the emancipatory movement, is a measure of his humanism and perceptiveness. For all of us his concluding reflection is a timely reminder that the struggle for a better world cannot be achieved by the dictates and praxis of economic liberalism and its hand maidens: the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. <P>
“My perspective on the future derives from my conviction that if, in the long run, these emancipatory movements were to succeed, be it only within certain limits, they might point the way forward towards a reversal of existing trends in human history. If this innovative trend were to be effective on a global scale, it might not only influence the future of the third world, but even could extend its impact to the industrially-developed part of the world – hopefully, before it is too late.” </FONT>
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