Curating the Pantheon

I recently wrote a piece on history, memory and heroes in Mexico for the Age of Revolutions blog. You can read it here.

Nineteenth Century Latin America… in London

If you are passing through Kensington, Richmond or Bloomsbury sometime you can see Blue Plaques and statues of Brazilian abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco as well as several of the best known leaders of Latin American independence movements:

Joaquim Nabuco Blue Plaque:

Francisco de Miranda/Andres Bello Blue Plaques:

Miranda statue:
Simon Bolivar:

Bolivar statue:ón_Bol%C3%ADvar,_London
O’Higgins Blue Plaque:
O’Higgins statue:
San Martin Blue Plaque:
San Martin statue:

 Feel free to add any more that you know of in the comments section!


Jeremy Corbyn and Latin America

Setting aside Corbyn’s other policies and proposals, over which a great deal of ink has already been spilled, if he wins there could be a significant shift in the Westminster discourse relating to Latin America. Corbyn has long been associated with solidarity movements for radical governments in the region, and he has frequently spoken up for the legacy of Sandinismo in Nicaragua and also that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Since the close entanglement of George Canning in the independence struggles of the new republics, Latin America has received little attention in Westminster politics (the Falklands/Malvinas conflict being a great exception, and hence poorly understood at the time and since), and where there has been interest from Foreign Office ministers* (consistently from Tristan Garel-Jones, intermittently from William Hague, reluctantly from most others) it was an interest based on a revival of a historic business relationship, not necessarily invoking the ‘informal empire’ of Britain in Argentina, but certainly elite-to-elite in the realm of global capital.

Corbyn’s ascendancy may signal a shift towards a popular relationship, one couched in terms of solidarity. This will be unwelcome among the political class, and while references to Chavez won’t quite retain the toxicity of those to Hamas et al, blood will boil at the prospect of an opposition leader who has openly endorsed land expropriation and the nationalisation of subsoil resources. But beyond the endorsement of ALBA or the domestic policies of radical populists, Corbyn’s rhetoric has engaged Latin American communities in the UK because he couches his opinions in terms of Latin Americans as people – people, in his view, upon whom many great historical wrongs have been visited.

To see what this humanisation (as opposed to being either worrisome migrants or potential markets for exports) means for London’s Latin American** community, just have a look at the beginning of this clip:

*To give an idea of how little attention is given to many parts of the world in the Cabinet at least, Hugo Swire currently has responsibility for: the Far East and South East Asia; India and Nepal; Latin America (including: Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba); Falklands; Australasia and Pacific; Commonwealth

**Eliding the differences between Latin American expatriate communities is problematic, but I think it’s fair to say (at least in my experience) that enough events and organisations (not to mention residential areas) cutting across national ties exist in London  to make the idea of a London Latin American community valid.

Book Review: Race to Revolution, by Gerald Horne

N.B. This review has appeared elsewhere

Gerald Horne’s new volume casts light on a ‘special relationship’ which is often ignored or forgotten: that of the United States and pre-revolutionary Cuba. Horne, a Marxist historian whose work has covered a multiplicity of themes including race, empire, revolution and communism, has been committed to the study of narratives and topics excluded from the (particularly US) mainstream. He describes the manner in which academic historians have generally dealt with communist history, for instance, as ‘incredibly biased, one-sided, deeply influenced by the conservative drift of the nation’.[1]

One of his ongoing concerns is to challenge the notion that the twin processes of genocide and enslavement which took place during the establishment of the United States as a political and geographical entity were ‘a step forward for humanity’. Another suggestion he has made on numerous occasions is that we should view the United States through the lens of the wider territory of African experience (and thus examine US attitudes to sites of black resistance in that light). Race to Revolution brings two pairs of overlooked histories together: the US and Cuba as nations, and communists and black activists as political actors. It also tells the latter part of the history of slavery, conventionally defined, and offers a corrective to those accounts of abolition in the US which fail to set that story in any kind of wider structural context.

The first part of the book (chapters two to five) cover the period from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, taking in the annexation of Florida (a key event in drawing US attention ever closer to Cuba), Texan secession, slave revolts, the rise of abolitionism, and the Civil War, which ‘split the island, just as it divided the mainland’ (p.102). Throughout these early chapters, the deep ties between the two nations are clear, and often surprisingly so. Not only did these interconnected racial histories reinforce solidarity across the strait but also the fear of another black republic, like that produced by the slave revolution in Haiti (1791-1804). With this in mind, the possibility of a massacre of the ‘162,983 whites of foreign birth’ was raised by alarmist mainlanders (p.17). In fact, for Horne, the spectre of Haiti – both the violence of independence and the racial nature of the conflict – loomed over the entire US-Cuba relationship.

The second part of the book (chapters six to eleven) charts the waxing and waning of US imperial control over the island and its population, from initial informal empire, to invasion, to proxy control, ending with the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 by Castro’s guerrilla army. The role of black Cubans in the independence struggle is given prominence by Horne, who sees this enhanced political-military position as a key distinction from mainland activists. Part of this difference springs from the Spanish tradition of arming some of its black imperial subjects, creating both a (heavily managed) social mobility and some degree of military – and potentially revolutionary – knowledge.

A more significant difference, though, surely lies in the commonplace that in the US, the dominant racial signifier in terms of categorisation is black ancestry (that is, the ‘one drop rule’), whereas in Cuba (and elsewhere) this was less definitive. This fact provoked a good deal of worry for those reliant on racial gradations as a tool of governance: ‘it is impossible to make a distinct separation between any of the races; a fact of difficult management in the event of self-government or any step toward it’ (p.122). There is a danger that racism within Cuba is set to one side in such an interpretation; among even the highest echelons of the armies fighting for independence (1895-8) there was racial tension, not least in the prejudice against Lt. General Antonio Maceo. Among labourers these conflicts manifested themselves in attacks on West Indian migrant workers in the early 1930s.

Horne has published prolifically, particularly since 2000, and his work ranges widely with books on Kenya, Mexico, Brazil, and Zimbabwe (among others), but the crux of the global structure of repression he identifies is primarily the United States. The nature of racial persecution in the US means fascinating differences emerge with other societies where ethnic tensions or persecutions have dominated. Writers and campaigners from the United States were amazed by the different racial dynamics in Cuba. Langston Hughes, for instance, noted the inspiration drawn by mainland radicals from Cuban political activism (p.223). Horne’s overarching thesis lies in this difference. While on the mainland, the ‘erosion of legitimacy’ of Jim Crow led to the (largely liberal) Civil Rights movement, the same political impulse in Cuba produced support for the revolution.

Though international and transnational aspects of political activism are present throughout, chapter ten in particular draws out a multiplicity of links between antifascist socialism and racial political consciousness. ‘The rise of fascism,’ argues Professor Horne, ‘can readily be seen as an ineluctable outgrowth of the racism to which Africans had been subjected for centuries’ (p.233). A key example of this confluence of interests comes with the role of Cubans in the Spanish Civil War, demonstrating very well the internationalism which was at the heart of Cuban radicalism long in advance of Castro’s revolution. The same interests, though, led to the vexing (for leftist historians, at least) contradiction of support for the authoritarian Batista among Harlem’s black Latin Americans; Horne calls this a ‘messiness’, which though understandable, is perhaps a little reductive. This was further complicated by concerns among US commentators of a budding alliance – with some form of anti-American sentiment – between Batista and Juan José Arevalo of Guatemala.

The book is exhaustively referenced, drawing on material from both sides of the Atlantic and in English and Spanish; fully one-third of the pages are devoted to endnotes. Horne meticulously builds his argument across varying periods and locations in a way that requires particular attention. There are a few points where it perhaps feels a little rushed, but with a writer as prolific as Horne that is almost inevitable. It is an unapologetically political book, offering both implicit and explicit commentary on the political practice of radicals, and particularly highlighting the ‘messiness’ and contradictions in the period immediately prior to the Cuban revolution.

Alongside The Counterrevolution of 1776 (also 2014) this book gives a striking revisionist history of the post-colonial United States, yet it also brings Cuba to the centre of a North American story which all too often fails to look beyond the immediate shoreline. Cuba is shown to be the epicentre of European (and, later, North American) imperialist impulses. Professor Horne’s book should prove a useful addition to any shelf where studies of slavery, imperialism, and the politics of race or socialism have a place. It should also provide an important background to the current purported changes to US-Cuba relations, seen so often through the prism of Castro and the 1959 revolution, but in fact rooted in events dating far back into the nineteenth century.


Book Review: The Fall of the US Empire – Global Fault-Lines and the Shifting Imperial Order

A review I wrote of Vassilis Fouskas and Bülent Gökay’s 2012 book. N.B. This review has appeared elsewhere.

The study of empire, hegemony and long-term power structures has attracted many prominent and respected authors. On the left these have included Giovanni Arrighi, Eric Hobsbawm, Hardt and Negri, and of course Lenin and Trotsky. Vassilis Fouskas and Bülent Gökay, two professors of international relations of socialist sympathy, are among the latest to attempt a reframing of the debate for the contemporary period.

‘Global fault-lines’ is the way Fouskas and Gökay explain the decline of US power, an approach to international relations which uses the geological metaphor of ‘tectonic plates’. Inspired by Andre Gunder Frank, and specifically his post-Marxist works, Fouskas and Gökay sketch out various fault-lines which mark the points at which the ‘tectonic plates’ collide and crumble: the ‘failure of financial statecraft’, ‘the power shift to the Global East’ and ‘depletion and degradation’, the latter referring to both the impending scarcity of oil, water and food but also to climate change and its associated problems. The main thrust of the book is that the US is in serious decline, and that even if it manages to recover, it will only be one power among many: Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, China and India, referred to (in somewhat puzzling fashion) as the ‘Global East’. This is contrary to the assertions of Leo Panitch (for whom US hegemony is not declining, merely ‘restructuring’) and Ray Kiely (who sees a ‘clash of globalisations’).

Fouskas and Gökay make a historical comparison between contemporary China and India on the one hand, and the United States in the nineteenth century on the other: ‘a huge continental economy with a young population, providing the driving force that enabled it to grab the lead in agriculture, apparel and the high technologies of the era’ (Fouskas and Gökay, p.115). In this way they follow several of the other authors referred to above in seeing both a generalized leeching of global power from the US to China, and the specific possibility that China will emerge as the new global hegemon.

This is in contrast to the work of Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, who claim that China has no imperial ambition beyond its own borders. This sort of political-culture argument is, however, undermined by the economic reality. [1] In their recent book The Making of Global Capitalism (2012), Panitch and Gindin refer to the American crisis of the 1970s as ‘neither decline nor moderation but restructuring’ (Panitch and Gindin, p.183). That restructuring, they claim, was borne out of necessity: the necessity of expanding markets to a global scale but on American terms. They argue that hegemonic power is not shifting eastwards, instead suggesting that the world is entering a multipolar phase. Fouskas and Gökay seem to see the multipolar near-future as a transitional stage before the hegemonic rise of the ‘Global East’.

In other ways, The Fall of the US Empire is similar to The Making of Global Capitalism, arguing that US imperialism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. In this respect, there is some crossover with the political ‘realism’ of Chalmers Johnson (Dismantling the Empire) and David P. Calleo (Follies of Power) who argue that the US state ought to recognise its own (overreached) limits before the costs of running an empire become prohibitive. Fouskas and Gökay do not necessarily see such ‘overstretch’ in military terms though: their critique is rooted in political economy, and they identify ‘Open Door Imperialism’, the imposition of free market ideology (and eventually financialization) through coercion and without reciprocation, as the destabilising factor.

In fact, one of their main objections to Giovanni Arrighi’s work is his apparent underplaying of the weakness inherent in America’s imposition of economy policy throughout large swathes of the world. The other objection cuts to the heart of the debate on empire, hegemony and power: does the rise and fall of imperial nations constitute a cyclical pattern or are should we be thinking about a series of related but ultimately separate phases of capitalism? On this matter, the authors of The Fall of the US Empire are somewhat unfair to Arrighi, as indeed are Panitch and Gindin. They present a caricature of his work which does not, as they suggest, equate early modern city states with contemporary global empires. Arrighi made it perfectly clear that he considered the concentration of power in the financial sector, over-commitment to foreign wars, and increasing government debt, to be signs of American decline.

Hardt and Negri (in EmpireCommonwealth and Multitude) argue that the globalisation of both ‘empire’ – broadly, the state, military and financial elites and their power structures – and the ‘multitude’ (the rest of us) has set up the world for a generalised conflict between the two. They are optimistic about the prospects for a revolution of the multitude against the empire. Fouskas and Gökay do not go into much detail about broad (transnational) class solidarity in this way, instead concentrating on the relative positions of nation-states, though they are also optimistic about opportunities for ‘socialism and green politics … [and] new radical forces’. Against this optimism, though, they (rightly) emphasise the emergence of what they call the ‘increasingly predatory state’ whose functions – ‘police, surveillance, violence’ – are intended to suppress the ‘multitude’. Care must, of course, be taken with the entire concept of ‘multitude’: in its broad nature and inherently vague definition, it tends to obscure crucial class dynamics.

Finally, how does the theory of ‘global fault-lines’ relate to Trotsky’s thesis of uneven and combined development? Trotsky argued that despite an inherent interconnection between national economies and societies, development could advance along various paths and at strikingly different speeds. Fouskas and Gökay characterise their work as a challenge to Trotsky’s position, an attack on not only Trotsky’s supposed Eurocentrism but also on his privileging of economic factors. Yet within uneven and combined development we can find many of the factors (or ‘fault-lines’) they identify. As with their objections to Arrighi, there is a tendency towards the construction of a straw man. Trotsky always claimed that the Russian Revolution could only be understood in a global context, as the expression of many long-term historical processes; where Europe takes centre-stage, it is often simply as a reflection of concrete realities.

Though the book is partly conceived of as a challenge to Trotsky, the authors concede that uneven and combined development in conjunction with the imminent environmental and resource crises will undermine the current dominance of the US and its allies. Finally, Fouskas and Gökay do (despite their claims to the contrary) return to economic determinants in the final analysis: as capital ‘gains mastery’ over global markets’ ‘inherited unevenness’, it exerts pressures in contradictory ways, and this accounts for the counterproductive nature of ‘Open Door Imperialism’ (Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, Part One, Section Four).

This is a compelling, interesting book. It is punchy, has a clear line of argument and is written in an engaging style and with some fascinating data. In short, it has much to add to the discussion of the future of the US as an imperial power, including some very strong sections dealing with trends and predictions. However, it does have two significant flaws: one, its claims to originality are a little overstated, since many of the battles it picks with existing left-wing theories of empire turn out to be minor quibbles or changes of emphasis, or based on apparent mischaracterisations of other authors’ work; and the other, a tendency to give the concept of ‘global fault-lines’ a much more profound and revolutionary explanatory power than it perhaps merits.


  1. A different political-culture argument can be found in Walter Nugent’s Habits of Empire, which sees a longstanding and inertial culture of imperialism as determining the US’ foreign policy.


Some recent articles on Mexico

A couple of fantastic pieces on Mexico in the Guardian recently, and certainly help to undermine the crass, simplistic view of the likes of Jim O’Neill and other MINTies. That said, as I have argued elsewhere, I don’t think decapitated torsos are unequivocally bad for business as they have allowed a constant pretext (taking over from the waning armed threat of Zapatismo) for the heavy militarisation of the Mexican state apparatus: not good for all business in a broad sense, granted, but certainly cementing the position of a particular part of Mexico’s capitalist class and its allies to the north.

The first piece is a brutally Bolano-esque roll-call of kidnappings, or rather ‘robberies’ as they are called, of young girls who are forced into working as prostitutes and often then end up in jail. Some have been lucky enough, as if one can use the word ‘lucky’ in this context without grimacing, to find some sort of shelter in convents. But this is clearly a deeply-rooted and widespread phenomenon and is happening with the implicit connivance of the state. It is an appalling, stomach-churning story.

The second piece takes as its starting point the recent arrest of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman (with a nice illustration of the cross-border military-industrial complex in action). Ben Smith gives a devastating account of the history of collusion and control of the drug trade by the Mexican state and – particularly – the PRI.