Red Star over the Third World By Vijay Prashad

Pluto Press, London, 2019, pbk, 131 pp,
12.99 pounds, ISBN 978-0-7453-3966-5

Reviewed by Kenny Coyle. This review first appeared in Communist Review, theoretical magazine of the CP Britain. Re-posted with permission. <<>>

The author describes his work as “a small book with a large hope”, the wish being that new generations will come to see the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia as the Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh did, when he likened it to “a brilliant sun” awaking the world’s oppressed and exploited.

Vijay Prashad is a talented and prolific writer, as well as being engaging and amazingly concise, given the breadth and complexity of the material covered. Although based in the United Stales, he is a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). As a result, the combination of Prashad’s familiarity with Marxist-Leninist concepts and his clear sympathies with the October Revolution’s participants brings this book alive.

One of Lenin’s strengths, compared to many Marxists of the Second International, was the seriousness with which he approached the agrarian question and his subsequent arguments for the potentially revolutionary role of the peasantry. This was essential for communist work in the colonial and semi-colonial countries, where the industrial working class was weak and in some cases practically non- existent. It is a question of continuing, rather than simply historical interest, given the still considerable rural populations in much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

A second strength lay in Lenin’s opinion that the reality of national oppression affected wide sections of the population in colonial and semi-colonial countries that went far beyond the workers and peasants, Intellectuals and the middle strata were obvious allies. However, under specific circumstances and in certain conditions, sections of the local bourgeoisie could be brought into national anti-imperialist coalitions. The debate over which tactics communists should employ in relation to their indigenous bourgeois nationalists was one that remained alive in the Comintern throughout its existence. The problems this raised, in countries such as China, India and Indonesia in particular, proved more complex to resolve in practice rather than theory, and in these cases the early communist parties encountered numerous problems of alliances and rivalries that affected their own independent development.

The Russian Revolution also set as one of its goals the liberation of women from the ‘despotism of men’ as well as the ‘despotism of capital’. This was no easy task given that patriarchy seemed even more deeply embedded in pre-capitalist societies than in economically developed ones. The burden of religious superstition and misogynistic cultural practices prevented women from developing themselves in broader society, reinforcing social backwardness. The Russian Communist Party’s women’s department, Zhenotdel, had undertaken the unequal task of pushing for the fullest possible liberation of women in the new Soviet republic, often against the indifference or even obstruction of otherwise exemplary male communists.

Setting these basic parameters, Prashad proceeds to mine a mountain of historical experience across Asia, Africa and Latin America of how workers and peasants organised themselves to replicate the October Revolution. If we refer casually to the ‘Russian Revolution’, this is true to the extent that it was a revolution in a Russian-dominated empire, ‘the prison house of nations’ as it was often referred to. Prashad devotes an entire chapter to the role of non-Russian peoples, specifically those of Central Asia. Here the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz and hundreds of other nationalities and national minorities belonged to pre-capitalist and even pre-feudal social structures, speaking dozens of non-European languages and dialects, connected these peoples with the East rather than the West. Prashad also shifts the focus away from the Moscow-centric histories of the Comintern in a chapter (somewhat misleadingly) entitled ‘Eastern Marxism.’ He also recovers names such as Aime Cesaire, a communist and poet from the French colony of Martinique, and Peru’s Jose Carlos Mariategui from undeserved obscurity in the English-speaking world. There is space too for one of Prashad’s intellectual heroes, the remarkable Indian theoretician and activist EMS Namboodiripad, in his pioneering work on the inter-relationship between class and caste in India.

In the chapter ‘Polycentric Communism’, Prashad takes this further, looking at the practices of the mass Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and his own CPI(M). He is open about the defeats suffered by the communists, such as Indonesia in 1965 when the powerful PKI and its related mass organisations were drowned in blood by a right-wing military coup, assisted by local Islamist militias with the blessing and direct assistance from Western imperialist agencies. In the chapter ‘Colonial Fascism’, Prashad brings out a theme elaborated by the late Italian communist Domenico Losurdo, namely the common features of colonialism and fascism. The outright racism of white supremacy that permeated colonialism, rising to extermination of entire tribes and peoples in some cases, was to an extent a precursor of the Nazi programme. However, Prashad correctly does not equate the unique event of the Holocaust with colonialism per se.

A final chapter, ‘Memories of Communism’ offers a useful and concise account of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its disastrous effects, not only on the peoples of the former Soviet republics but on communist parties and national liberation movements worldwide. To keep the book as readable as possible, Prashad’s arguments flow without footnotes or detailed references – although these are available from the author. However, the lack of an index is disappointing as readers will pick this book up again and again, diving into its pages for Prashad’s insightful commentary.

These minor points aside, this is a brilliant and thought-provoking book, an essential starting point for understanding the complexities of international communism over the past century, Buying directly from the publisher’s website also entitles the buyer to a free ebook version.