Resistance to Imperialism in Bangladesh and Haiti

Published on Friday, November 30, 2012

Following is a conversation between Anu Muhammad (an organizer with the National Committee in Bangladesh, which works against resource extraction and imperialism), two members of One Struggle (Daniel and Stephanie McMillan), plus Irtishad Ahmad and Swapan Majhi. It took place in Miami, on October 18, 2012.

Anu Muhammad: Tell me about your organization.

Stephanie McMillan: One Struggle actually started 20 years ago against the US occupation of Haiti and the forced return of the people who were leaving the Cedras regime. It first started out only focused on Haiti, and then it became a more internationally focused anti-imperialist group. And it disbanded after a while. But we recently, two years ago, decided to restart it because there was a need— and it seemed like there was a basis— to organize an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist group.

And then the Occupy movement started a year later. We didn't want to get sucked into that so much that we lost our identity and our autonomy. So we worked within it, but we didn't want to become the Occupy movement. We went there and formed an anti-capitalist caucus within Occupy in South Florida. And we also have a New York chapter starting, and people in different places who are interested.

Four of us just traveled to Haiti and met with workers organizations who are mostly garment workers, but also some agricultural workers fighting against the multinational corporations and factories and imperialist domination overall. I know you're (Anu) focused on the extraction of natural resources, like coal and natural gas, and they have a similar problem where entities like the Clinton & Bush Foundation are buying up a lot of land on the coast of Haiti to build hotels and...

AM: And it's related to President Clinton?

Daniel: Oh yeah. He's in Haiti all the time. It's an outgrowth of the Clinton Global Initiative.

AM: So they are very interested in tourism?

D: Oh yeah. Very interested in tourism and the sweatshops. AM: Because that "helps people"… (laughter)

D: I usually say after a hundred years of help, if we are in this situation, we don't need that help. (laughter)

D: We're still in the same, or worse situation than we were about 100 years ago, based on the occupation, so there is no reason we need that help. And also they just gave a contract to the Prince Charles Foundation to basically rebuild Port-au-Prince, which is the capital of Haiti. And again the Clinton Foundation is involved. So, what they are trying to do is to move all the popular masses outside the capital. So they have the center city Port-au-Prince to for businesses, tourism, and so on. They are trying to displace the masses and put them in the countryside.

AM: This must be being publicized as a huge development effort for the people of Haiti.

D: Oh yeah, that's what they are doing. They are trying to talk about it that way, and then they are taking fertile land to build free trade zones. They just took some in Ouanaminthe, under Arisitde. Around 2004, they built the Ouanaminthe Free Trade Zone that is controlled by the Dominican Republic, by Dominican businessmen, and they are building more now. Same in the North, but in a place called Caracol. In fact, Mrs. Clinton is going to go on October 20th to inaugurate the new one they just finished building. There's going to be free trade zones, textiles. Sherwin Williams, the paint company, is going to open a factory there too. So, that's the orientation for Haiti.

SM: And that was the most fertile farmland, that could provide one third of the rice of the whole population, right? And they took it and built an industrial park.

AM: Hmm, do free trade zones and bring imported rice.

SM: Exactly. Yeah, the US brought subsidized rice to Haiti and destroyed the rice production already. They called it Miami rice.

AM: This has been going on a long time, subsidies to grab this land. In Latin America there are so many stories of destroying food production. SM: And forcing people to come into the city and then work for a low wage. So we're starting to talk about working on an effort around CAFTA-DR, the free trade agreement between the countries, with workers to fight for an international minimum wage. So that the factories can't move from one country to another just to find the lowest wage. Bangladesh is another country where the workers are forced to compete for a low wage, just like in Haiti, in the same garment industry. So there might be a good connection there to try to build some common struggle.

AM: Yeah, there are so many issues and factors where we can build some common struggle. D: But it's got to be based on organizing. You know there is a difference between an NGO doing the job, and actual organizing on the battlefront. For example, we organize inside the factories. We go inside. We organize. We put workers' committees there. And in fact there's a trade union called SOTA, the trade union of textile and clothing workers. And we don't want it to be like a top-down form of solidarity where NGOs are doing it. It's got to be where the masses, the workers themselves, are engaged in the struggle, and are participating in the struggle. And then building a mass movement.

In fact, one of the objectives of One Struggle is to build a mass movement in the United States. It's the biggest capitalist country in the world, and there is no mass movement. Everything is controlled by NGOs and yellow unions, such as the AFL-CIO. So this is the objective, so if we could work together, it would be on that basis, where there will be actual struggle, and then communicate and coordinate our struggles together.

AM: Yes, yes, that's very important.

D: Yes, it is. And, also, trying to change our country, make it independent and free of imperialism, which is the long term objective.

AM: In many gatherings, I'm asked by U.S. citizens, "What we can do in the struggle in Bangladesh?" And I reply that yes, students can do a most important job because the U.S. government and corporations are doing the main crimes in countries like Bangladesh. So you have to raise your voice against U.S. corporations and corporate policies, because the U.S. government and U.S. embassies are not representing those people. They represent corporate interests. So you have to raise your voice because they're doing all these things in your name, and they're doing all these things with your tax money. So it is you who can bring these things to the U.S. people. But in your name, the U.S. government is doing all the bad things—occupation, destruction, war—all these things in many other countries. And that is in fact not doing any help to the U.S. people. They're helping U.S. corporations. And for the U.S. people what is needed—education, healthcare, jobs— all these things are going in the wrong direction. D: In the US I think the best weapon will be to organize in the United States itself and bring anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist consciousness. Because I think there is a class struggle where the different fraction of the capitalist class in the United States— the different forms of concentration of capital—are going totally against the interests of their own masses in the United States. This is why I think One Struggle is very important, in the sense that One Struggle is doing that job. We are trying to build and raise the consciousness of the people in the United States. So then you know the capitalist class in the United States is the enemy.

AM: So far I understand the population of people in the US are most ill-informed, mis-informed. They don't know what is going on, what is happening in the world. They don't know what their governments are doing and what is the class basis of this thinking.

D: That is also a lack of consciousness. It's not only being mis-informed. That too, because they watch TV. I think it's part of the domination that they are under in the United States, where bourgeois dictatorship in the United States is so strong that it controls the masses. I think they have been very effective in dominating their own masses and giving them leadership.

AM: And all are middle class, according to Obama. Everybody is middle class. There's no working class.

Irtishad Ahmad: That's probably true also in countries like Bangladesh. You mentioned that yesterday, that even our educated class, our Bangladeshi educated class, is not aware of this basic dynamics around the world.

SM: People in the US don't even know what capitalism is. They think it's the same as democracy.

D: That shows the amount of work that we need to do. And basically, also, one of the things we are trying to do in Haiti is get the leadership away from the petit bourgeois, the middle class, because they not taking us anywhere. They are incapable of actually waging any struggle, whatsoever, for long term objectives. They will wage struggle and then in the middle, give it back to the capitalist class on a platter. And I think our objective is to build the autonomy of the working class and make sure that the working class leads that struggle from the starting point to the end. Because the petit bourgeoisie cannot do that. In Haiti we've been messed up by them since...

AM: How are the Left parties, communist parties are doing in the US? D: In the United States? (laughter)

AM: There are some parties…

D: In my opinion, most US Left organizations are intermediate level organizations. They are not revolutionary organizations. They are not doing what they should be doing. So I think they are intermediate level, in a sense. One Struggle is an intermediate level organization. We are not... there are revolutionaries in One Struggle, but One Struggle is intermediate level. What we call intermediate level are people that are mostly from the petit bourgeoisie and do not have yet the capacity to become a revolutionary.

IA: Interestingly, we also face similar things in Bangladesh... we don't have any revolutionary parties. There are some groups, but there is not a revolutionary party. We were trying to form coordination committee…I do not think we are out of it yet…. D: Yeah but there is a need to get out of it. Because when somebody calls themselves a revolutionary and you don't do revolutionary work, you are actually bringing the struggle down. And this needs to be clear. There are revolutionary people. And I think revolutionary organizations should be the center of the production of theory. If a political organization cannot produce theory, understand reality, then most of what they do is turn Marxism into verse, scripture. They will cite something Marx said 100 years ago, without a change. Or Lenin, or Mao, or anybody else. And I think the Left, a Left organization is supposed to understand the reality that we are in front of, and develop a theory to transform it. Not try to see what Marx says about it. AM: This is a universal problem. A universal culture, and a universal sometimes self- defeating attitude. D: Totally correct.

AM: Theoretically, we have to do a lot more today, because there are serious challenges, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union. We need to do many things, theoretically. Theoretically we have to be much more creative, much more innovative. Ideas in organizing organizations. IA: Well I think that is the reason we are not theoretically mature. That's why practice is also haphazard.

AM: ...and this carbon-copying others.

D: Yes.

AM: But revolution is the highest level of creativity.

D: And this is why in One Struggle, we are at the intermediate level. We are not a revolutionary level organization. Some people in One Struggle could be revolutionary militants, and they belong to other organizations. But when they are part of One Struggle, this is what they do, and the objective of One Struggle is to basically participate in organizing a mass movement. So we do attempt to do work among students, among other people. We do different kinds of activities, and our objective now is to raise the political consciousness. Because without political consciousness, your engagement in battle will be like a blind person trying to drive a fast car.

IA: Well, maybe you'd like to hear from Professor Muhammad. He's in academia, but also an activist, which is a rare combination actually. And he's at the forefront of this movement, which is very limited in focus and scope, I think. Maybe you can tell us about your experience in third world countries. What are the challenges, what are the positives and negatives, so that they can also understand the situation better?

AM: In Bangladesh, we have a number of Left parties. They have good wishes and they have dedicated workers too. But the problem is, what is their priority, how can we do organizations, and how to reach to the people. How to speak people's languages. And our National Committee is a combination of different political parties, Left parties. There are many Left parties. Always there is a problem of unification of Left parties. Because everybody tries to prove that they're the most perfect, theirs is the right position, and others are doing wrong things.

But the promise of the National Committee is that it could successfully bring them together, under the National Committee. And it continued. And it is unlike many earlier experiments. This continued, for 12 years, until today. There are Left parties, there are academics, there are different types of platforms—academics, experts, individuals, cultural groups, activist groups, study circles. All these come together for certain objectives, especially against all bad deals with multinational corporations, land grabbing, the privatization and all these projects which are going to destroy the environment and livelihoods, lives.

But what is happening in the process, we have many some sort of small victories. Small, but it has a long term impact like stopping multinationals, some deals. Or stopping gas exports by U.S. companies to the foreign countries, or stop open pit mining, or leasing out seaport to a US company. It was proved later that this was a fraud company. But the US ambassador was trying to push that project. But it really brings development to this country. If US companies are granted lease on seaport, it will bring huge money, huge capital, huge development, but lately it was just proved it is a fraudulent company. But before that, we had to make a huge national mobilization against that.

So these are victories, which bring some sort of confidence and support for the National Committee from the different strata of the people in our country. And that is doing something because the issues we are raising, are addressing, are bringing a new type of development philosophy. That developmental projects, everything must be for the people. The people's ownership must be there. People's ownership over the resources and over the country. You cannot make any policy without the consent of the people. The people's interests must be there. D: Can I ask you a question? How do you see it, the people's control or a radical transformation of the social formation? How do you see it under domination? Because you talk about the third world… I don't use the term "third world." I totally disagree with that concept.

AM: Now, I personally use a different term— majority world. It's the majority world.

D: OK, I use domination. I use "dominated countries," because I don't think there is any possibly, any form of development in any of those countries, if we don't get ourselves out of domination. Because like Bangladesh, Haiti… I read one of your articles. You talked of peripheral countries. I think there is a limitation to that, because it doesn't really explain the relationship of the imperialist social formation to the dominated social formation. For me, in Haiti, there can be no advancement, whatsoever, if the social formation is still dominated by imperialism.

And the consequence is, what it does, it actually deforms capitalism. For example, Haiti has banks issuing credit cards, but at the same time, we have feudalism still present. And with that domination, the capitalist mode of production and the feudalist mode of production, are totally messed up. So, it creates unemployment. It creates the situation we have. So again, how do you see what you just explained, outside of the necessity of kicking imperialists out?

AM: Yeah, I totally agree with you. Because when you are bringing the issue of people's ownership, if people accept that as a possibility—that yes this is our resources, we must have the ownership of this—then it conflicts with the dominant ideology and the dominant development paradigm pushed forward by the World Bank, IMF, and all these imperialist organizations. So it is not talking about the fact that we are under imperialist domination, we must fight against imperialism. OK, that is there, but this movement is trying to push from the real issues, which is going towards that. Because without bringing freedom from imperialism and domination and also the ruling class within the country, you'll not be able to find all these resources, and all the policy making levels, under the people's ownership or their control.

So it is a type of bringing a new language, new words to bring the reality to the people, which they can understand. I think it worked, in the last 10 or 12 years; it worked. People sometimes say, "We don't like Left parties. They talk all rhetoric and they cannot do anything. But we support National Committee." But in the National Committee there are Left parties. And sometimes they say, "We don't like politics. Politics is bad, but we are with National Committee." This is an interesting development, that people can endorse and can understand what the National Committee is doing, but they cannot understand the Left Parties, which are part of National Committee.

IA: But do you feel that they are being limited because of that, in what they can achieve?

AM: Yeah. There are limitations. But I think this is sometimes one issue. National Committee issues which are dealt with by National Committee, can embrace a total of a whole horizon of the domination and development, defeating all this development rhetoric and development paradigms, or development projects, and the philosophy of privatization, liberalization, and all these things—new liberalization of other capitalist enterprises which are creating a very small but huge wealthy growth in the country, on the other hand, uprooted and poverty, sustainable poverty, and all these NGOs and the microcredit, and all the other things going on. So, this National Committee has in addition to that, all the theoretical work for bringing people's attention to the possibility of an alternative development paradigm: what can be done. What can be done if people are in power, if this ruling class is defeated.

So these theoretical interventions, as well as people's resistance, are bringing a sort of confidence and organizing, consciousness, and eye opening that OK, this is possible, this is ours. Why we are accepting these parties who are selling our resources and our lives and livelihoods? So we have to be in power. So this type of eye opening and consciousness is growing. That's why we became able to bring some success and some victories.

And that brings a huge load on us also, because the people's confidence is bringing new responsibilities. Will you do something on water resources? Water is being grabbed by all these private companies. Will you do something on railway? Railway is being destroyed. We are being deprived of all this public transport. Will you do something on education? Education is being privatized and becoming more expensive. Will you do something on healthcare? So all these demands are coming. So you add this, add this, add this, add all these, you'll become the revolutionary center. Being all this, this is revolution.

So we are learning by doing these things that sometimes, in some cases, in some phases of history, you have to innovate the form of organization too. It is revolutionaries of party practices that say yes there will be a party, Marxist-Leninist party that will lead everything and with this one center, everything will grow. But that didn't work, actually. And I think we have to change that mindset. Parties are important because there's the organized force and consistency. They have ideological formation, they have dedicated workers. But only one party going to do the revolution? That is not the case. Even in Russian case, Russian revolution also could not take place with just the Bolshevik Party. It was Soviets. It was a form of Soviets. And for me this idea of Soviets is very important. Bringing in different groups of people together. But the party is important. So this form of… in many countries, in Cuba, we have one type of experience. In Venezuela there is a different type of experience. In China. There are different types of experiences. You cannot say that this is the universal model that can work.

In Bangladesh the National Committee is showing that yes, there are some other forms of organizational platforms that can work. So we have to work on that. I'm not saying that this is the last word. But the success and failures and limitations of National Committees is showing that OK, we can go ahead with that, and we can maybe improvise, maybe innovate, maybe add something to it. And maybe that can bring other issues too.

D: Yeah, but, basically this could actually turn into enlarging bourgeois democratic rights.

AM: Bourgeois democratic rights?

D: Giving people water and giving people better education could be also, if you look at the United States, could be the enlargement of bourgeois democratic rights. It has nothing to do with popular democracy. This is what happened to many countries which actually engaged in the struggle. Without the leadership of the working class, what usually happens is an enlargement of bourgeois democratic rights. And that's one point that will need to be discussed and struggled around. Because most of the time, if you look at Nepal now, you have that experience where because of…

AM: Nepal made an armed revolution…

D: Yeah (laughter).

AM: …which is a dream for many other countries. Yes we are not making any armed revolution as Nepal is doing.

D: Yeah, but in Nicaragua, Nepal, basically what you have is an enlargement of bourgeois democracy. I think there is a difference between democratic rights and democracy. I think democracy is also dictatorship. In a sense, you may be able to win for water, you may able to win for education. As long as there is no radical transformation of that society, we are talking about the reproduction of capitalism in other forms. This is what history has been telling us. If we look at South Africa, most of the national liberation movement in Africa, this is what we have. China, it is on the capitalist path.

AM: China is saving global capitalism.

D: Yeah (laughter).

AM: I read in the Economist magazine…in the middle of this financial crisis, they said, "In 1978 we said that only capitalism can save China. Now we must say that only China can save capitalism." (Laughter).

D: Correct! AM: Without China, global capitalism would be in a worse situation. D: Yeah. But what we are doing in Haiti, there are different levels of organization. The revolutionary movement is basically organizing different sectors of the masses and constructing the movement, based on the leadership of the working class. Because only the working class, universally, will transform that reality and bring it to something else. Historically, there is no other class that could do this. To be clear, I am not now talking as One Struggle, OK? This is somebody else talking.

AM: You are with a party?

D: It's not a party yet. It's a revolutionary organization.

AM: Where is it? In the US or Haiti?

D: The US and Haiti also.

AM: Oh.

D: And we no longer call ourselves Marxist-Leninists. We study them. We study Mao. We study everybody. I think 100 years ago it was correct to call it Marxism because it was based on the triumph of Marxism over Anarchism. Now today, we call this a Proletarian Alternative. Mao's contribution, your contribution, everybody's contribution will be part of the collective property of the working class. Labeling it with someone's name keeps reproducing the personality cult. It keeps reproducing that sectarian attitude that you have—Trotskyism, Stalinism, and so on. But anybody who contributes, intellectuals—such as Balibar, Althusser… anybody who contributes to the theory, we take the theory, and it becomes the collective property of the working class. So we call ourselves the Proletarian Alternative, meaning all our contributions, all the struggle, the theoretical struggle, will be part of that collective property. So if we're looking for a new society, we gotta start right now, where that idea becomes the collective property and everything else will become the collective property of the working class.

Swapan Majhi: A few years ago in MeghBarta, the web zine that you established, you exposed in Sylhet and other parts of India, about the pesticide… You exposed some natural destruction and environmental issues. And we saw that most parties don't talk at all about new issues, new phenomenon, the new things that are happening, because they're so closed. Their attitude is, "Marx said this, or Marx said that. This is not in my dictionary. This is in my dictionary."

AM: They suffer from intellectual poverty. The poverty of philosophy. That's why they don't have any confidence to see new things or say new things. But we don't say new things. You cannot do anything called revolution. Revolution is a new thing, new phenomenon, new creativity. And yeah, Marx is very important for us. Lenin is very important for us. And Marxian methodology helps us a lot to understand the present reality of capitalism. But it is much better to bring many others in the concentration and try to look at yourself, maybe with the help of Marxist methodology, but you have to deal with it yourself. You have to deal with the present from your intellectual capacity. That is important. D: Historical materialism existed way before Marx. Marx did not discover historical materialism. AM: That's what I said in my last lecture in our country, in a workshop. That the dream of freedom, the dream of equality came much before Marx and continues after Marx. It emerges because of human dreams of equality and human society. So, we have to understand that. It is not from Marx. Marx is a part of all these struggles and dreams and intellectual work. And very influential and very powerful. D: I could even tell you that Marx's contribution is only one interpretation of a reality, which we need to continue. But, it doesn't mean that whatever he wrote was cast in stone, because there is a lot of things he said that I totally disagree with, we totally disagree with.

AM: What things, for example?

D: The concept of the development of the productive forces as the condition for abundance, for socialism. I disagree with that. It shows clearly in Russia and China what it actually lead us to. It didn't give us that abundance. If we look at the United States, abundance did not give us socialism.

AM: But Marx did not say that it wouldn't come automatically.

D: I understand.

AM: There's a human factor, and human revolutionary potential is very crucial to change this.

D: But Mao brought another element to it. Mao actually called for the transformation of social relationships. And he basically said the social relationship has to determine and define the development of the productive forces. I think Mao contribution was far better, more advanced than Marx's contribution. Marx even supported England's domination of India because he thought that was going to help develop... AM: I don't think so that Marx supported that. He thought it could have some revolutionary effect, but in other cases when he talked about colonialism etcetera, he said that it had made many disgusting mistakes. D: Yeah, but he did support it in the sense that it was going to help develop the productive forces in those countries, which it did not.

AM: But we don't have to take Marx as if he knows everything.

D: Of course, that's why we…

AM: He relied on all these British documents. He had some limitations in analyzing British India.

D: We agree.

AM: And so when he found that things were going different, then he wrote on this.

IA: We have six minutes left, so if there are any specific questions...

SM: Do you see any potential for the movement of garment workers in Bangladesh turning into an international struggle?

AM: I think the garment workers' struggle is an international struggle, because garments is not a national industry. It is a global industry. That's why more beneficiaries of the garments industry of Bangladesh, live outside Bangladesh. The department stores, chain stores, and also you have governments. The US government is getting more money from garments than the garment owners themselves. And you add tax, you know one shirt is priced at $25-$50. The US government is getting about 25 percent of that: $5. And garments employers are selling that shirt for less than $5. So they are making profit $2-$3, and the US government is getting $5. All these chain stores and department stores, they're also making money out of it. All these profit makers are having loads of wealth made by garment workers. Garment workers are producing this to give all these benefits and profits to all these groups.

So this is an international struggle because people in the United States should raise their voice against all these things. You're giving lowest minimum wage to the Bangladeshi workers, and you're making money out of this. You are bringing your duty free clothes, etcetera. You cannot do this. You must first ensure a minimum wage. This concept of an international minimum wage is, I think, very useful. Although we are now struggling for a national minimum wage. There is no national minimum wage in Bangladesh. SM: Nothing? No law at all?

AM: There is a federal minimum wage. Minimum wage for government workers, and this is very low. All the employers and world banks, they are totally against a national minimum wage. Because according to them, this will take investors out and this will have a really bad effect on development and investment. So that will squeeze job creation, and all these bullshit theories.

Swapan Majhi: Are any working class organizations currently active?

AM: I cannot name any working class organizations. Yeah, there are some, but our garment factories don't have any trade unions. And in the process of structural adjustment, the World Bank and others successfully dismantle all public sector enterprises, and with public sector enterprises, all trade unions also.

IA: But why are garment factories a public sector?

AM: No no, not garments. Before that, all public sector enterprises were closed down, all privatized in the process of structural adjustment for economic reform. And these garment factories got many incentives from government. Exporting industries got incentives and the green signal from all these global and national government organizations. And why? Because garments are very important for this market. And it's beneficial, the surplus value is a huge surplus value that is distributed in the U.S. or northern countries, on the garment workers. Most of the surplus value is taken by these who are not at all connected with the production process. That is happening. So this is a global industry. There is a globalization of production and distribution process, marketing process—and so the resistance must be globalized. That is very important. And this connection is very important.

Swapan Majhi: I heard that in Bangladesh, in the newspapers it says that there are a lot of NGOs involved in this movement. Is it true?

AM: NGO's are not involved in this movement. NGOs are not mobilizing workers. They have some sort of programs, some projects like some workshops or some programs negotiating with the government. They bring more photos than programs. Taking more photos and videos, and sending them to the funding agency to show they're doing lots of work. (Laughter).

D: In Haiti NGOs are mostly part of the penetration of capital. They are the first detachment of capital in the penetration process. For example, the NGO will go to assess conditions before the free trade zone comes in. Or when they are taking water, they are buying all the waterfront property, the NGO will do it. So, the NGOs in Haiti are basically the first attempt of capital for penetration. They're also a pre-emptive repressive force. In a sense, they help the state by doing privatization. Like instead of when you get sick you go to a state hospital, the NGO will give health care to you. So they basically are giving that alternative to the neoliberalism of the state. The state apparatus is not doing everything, so they are giving that alternative. AM: They must not do anything.

D: Yeah.

AM: They don't have any responsibility for the people.

D: For example, building roads. CARE is doing it in Haiti, which is an NGO. So NGOs are basically working parallel to the state.

AM: I think Bangladesh is one of the mother countries for NGOs, for the NGO model. These global rulers have become very happy to see the growth of these NGOs because NGOs are very convenient for privatization. It can argue that no, this is not privatization, this is owned by people. But actually this is privatization and in Bangladesh we have now corporate NGOs, big NGOs. They have many corporate businesses.

D: They are corporations.


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