Great Objectives and Grand Strategy

Localism, "Tribalism" and Contending "Universalisms"

By Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1131, December 16, 2001, posted at

The RW is currently running this series of excerpts from an unpublished work by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian, "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy." Although written over a year ago, this work--and these excerpts in particular--contain much that is very relevant to the current crisis and war. This is the fifth in this series. It was written by Bob Avakian near the end of Clinton's Presidency, shortly after the war against Yugoslavia but before the current open-ended war being waged by U.S. imperialism "against terrorism."

Some important aspects of the current world situation are spoken to in the books Jihad vs. McWorld (by Benjamin Barber) and The Ends of the Earth (by Robert D. Kaplan). These books have somewhat different viewpoints. Kaplan's is a more straight-up liberal imperialist line, while Jihad vs. McWorld is more social democratic in character. Nevertheless, they both present the same phenomena or contradictions as central to today's world--in particular, the conflict (as reflected in the title Jihad vs. McWorld) of the "centripetal" or centralizing (and also "homogenizing") tendencies of present-day global capitalism vs. the centrifugal, de-centralizing (and they might characterize it as "tribalizing") tendencies in various parts of the world, particularly in the Third World (including "centrifugal" and "tribalizing" tendencies in the form of resistance to the effects of heightened globalism). It is not hard to see how these notions tie in with what I have referred to as a kind of refurbished "white man's burden" and the notion of the "civilizing" role of liberal, democratic imperialism--which, again, was blatantly expressed by Clinton and his supporters during the recent one-sided "war" against (what is left of) Yugoslavia.

The argument, particularly of The Ends of the Earth, is that, given the conditions and trends in the contemporary world, imperialist policy should be to enforce its rule where that is really crucial, and as for those areas of the world, particularly many places in Africa, which are not essential at this point to imperialist accumulation and imperialist rule overall, they should be more or less "quarantined"--fenced off and allowed to deteriorate and degenerate into internecine slaughter and other disasters, since this is what inevitably will go on anyway (as Kaplan sees things).

Now, again, the imperialist viewpoint in all this is very clear. But, notwithstanding this viewpoint, there is a real phenomenon of the breakdown, in some significant aspects, of the infrastructure and the administrative apparatus of some of these states and the exertion of "centrifugal" forces pulling them apart and leading to a fair amount of chaos--and this is in contradiction to the "universalizing" (or "homogenizing") tendencies of international capital and its superstructural expressions, with the heightened globalization in this period.

At the same time, one of the things that is important to understand about the contemporary world situation is that various forms of opposition to "imperialist internationalism," such as certain Islamic fundamentalist tendencies, are not simply "tribalist" or "localist." They themselves are positing a more "universal" or "universalist" vision in opposition to the Western imperialist one. This is not a progressive vision--it's not one that we can unite with as such. But, along with insisting on the rejection of secular society, these fundamentalists are aggressively putting forward the notion that Islam, as they interpret and apply it, is what should be the guiding and ruling principle in the world. So there is a "universalizing" tendency even within such things as Islamic fundamentalism, and this is adding further complication--to the world situation and to the world revolutionary struggle--which we're going to have to deal with.


It is also worthwhile pondering--and thinking about the implications of--the following statement by Jeremy Rifkin in his book The End of Work: "Rising levels of worldwide unemployment and increasing polarization between rich and poor are creating the conditions for social upheaval and open class warfare on a scale never before experienced in the modern age." (Here I have to interject that, even allowing for exaggeration, that is quite a statement: "never before experienced in the modern age"!) He goes on: "Crime, random violence, and low-intensity warfare are on the rise and show every sign of increasing dramatically in the years immediately ahead." And: "If massive unemployment of a kind unknown in history were to occur as a result of the sweeping replacement of machines for human labor, then the chances of developing a compassionate and caring society and a world view based on transformation of the human spirit are unlikely. The more likely course would be widespread social upheaval, violence on an unprecedented scale, and open warfare, with the poor lashing out at each other as well as at the rich elites who control the global economy." (pp. 290; 247-248)

The point that comes through in all this, once again, is not only the complexity of the world situation but, more essentially, the need precisely for the strengthening of the MLM trend, and MLM parties, and for the revolutionary struggles and revolutionary wars led by these parties to become a qualitatively more powerful pole of attraction. What is needed is for this line and trend to bring forth the correct synthesis out of all this peculiar complexity that we're facing on a world scale--including not only localizing or "tribalizing" tendencies, but also competing "universalisms"--not only "imperialist universalism" but at the same time what I've referred to as Islamic fundamentalist "universalism," in opposition to proletarian internationalism and communist universalism.

It is important to keep in mind that these various kinds of trends that Rifkin is referring to here, with all their chaos, while strategically favorable for us, would be wildly contradictory (as Rifkin's statement reflects, although through the lens of his own class bias). This is already the case to the extent that such trends are presently exerting themselves in the contemporary world, and especially where they are exerting themselves as international and "universalizing" trends. There remains for us--for our Party and MLM forces worldwide as represented in a concentrated way by the RIM--the challenge of "recasting" this and bringing forward out of all this a synthesis that represents the revolutionary way forward.

Now, also part of this contemporary situation--and somewhat related to the themes of Jihad vs McWorld--are the attacks, of various kinds and from various quarters, on the nation-state. "Imperialist universalism" does this in one way, as I have spoken to, and "Islamic fundamentalist universalist" trends do it from another angle. The nation-state, which is being brought under these kinds of attacks, is generally associated with the bourgeois era and to a significant degree also with bourgeois-democratic principles, such as the right of self-determination. Yet the kind of imperialist universalism that is articulated--in one major expression of it--by Clinton is bringing under attack these very principles, such as the right of self-determination, and subordinating them to ("trumping" them with) imperialist universalism, as expressed in the hypocritical declaration of "universal human rights."

Let's turn then to the revolutionary proletariat's answer, the proletarian internationalist alternative, to this. First, as a fundamental part of that answer, it is important to recall what Lenin said on how the advance to worldwide communism necessarily involves the liberation of oppressed nations (and the right of self-determination for nations), just as it involves the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessary transition. Lenin was saying this in opposition to people who had a sort of economist and national chauvinist line that it's just a question of class against class, and that nations and national liberation have no role in, and are in fact a distraction from, the struggle for communism.

Lenin was insisting that it's more complex than that: we live in a world divided into imperialist and oppressed nations, and the transition through this complex situation to worldwide communism can only take place through the struggle for the liberation of oppressed nations. We can't leap from the bourgeois state to no state but instead have to carry through a transition marked by the dictatorship of the proletariat (and by class struggle under the dictatorship of the proletariat, as experience since Lenin's time has shown us more fully). Similarly, we can't "leap in a single bound" from a world situation marked by different states and by the contention between different states--and, more particularly, by the great division between imperialist states and oppressed nations--to the achievement of world communism, without any separate states. Instead we have to advance through a whole transition period marked by the liberation of oppressed nations and the establishment of proletarian rule in separate countries, all guided by proletarian internationalism and the ultimate aim of a communist world, without class distinctions and without separate nations.


In this connection, I want to return in the philosophical dimension to the question of relative identity (which I have spoken to at some length in various talks and writings in recent years). Here I want to focus on the point that Lenin makes that all boundaries in nature and society are conditional and relative, and how that relates to the question of nation-states (and multi-national states as well). Once again, this important point that all boundaries in nature and society are conditional and relative divides into two: on the one hand, these boundaries are relative and not absolute; but, on the other hand, at any given time, they do exist. This is closely linked with the philosophical point about how relative identity divides into two. The identity that exists at any given time is relative; on the other hand, it is also identity--it does exist. (For example, water can become gas if it is heated to a sufficient temperature and, on the other hand, it can be transformed into ice if it is cooled to a sufficient degree; but there is a state--a relative but real state--in which water, after all, is water.)

The way this basic philosophical point applies to nations and the nation-state (and multi-national states as well) is that, from a broad, sweeping historical standpoint, these are things that will eventually go out of existence but, on the other hand, there is a whole historical period in which that will occur and a whole struggle on a worldwide level through which that has to take place. And, once more, the liberation of oppressed nations (and generally the upholding of the right of self-determination) is a crucial element in this whole process. If we were to distort Lenin's philosophical point and say "well, all boundaries are conditional and relative, so they don't really matter," then we would fall into a kind of mechanical materialist dogmatism--and, as applied to the question of nations, chauvinism--which didn't recognize that a crucial element in the transition to worldwide communism is the liberation of oppressed nations. So, here too, what is required is the application of dialectical materialism, correctly applying the understanding that boundaries in nature and society are conditional and relative.

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