Trade is War

Trade is War criticises globalisation, but does not distinguish national from class struggle, and fails to understand capitalist imperialism, finds Orlando Hill

Yash Tandon, Trade is War, the West’s War Against the World (OR Books 2018), xviii, 225pp.

In Trade is War, Tandon seems like someone in the middle of a battle who does not know where the shots are coming from and cannot clearly recognise his enemies or allies. For the last thirty years, Tandon has been involved in trade negotiations at various levels representing Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Being involved for so long at the WTO and other international organisations has given him a distorted view of imperialism. This is not uncommon among Marxists who work within the state and its organisations.

In his opinion, the world is ‘drifting into a civilizational shift’ (p.177) where the nemesis of capitalism is no longer the international proletariat, but ‘the oppressed nations of the world (most significantly, the nationalism of the countries of the South)’ (p.178). In his own words ‘the Communist Manifesto is dead’ (p.178). There is no longer a class struggle; the contradiction now lies between ‘the powers of old Europe – led by the United States’ (p.178) on one side and on the other, the national-liberation movements and the Islamic resurgence. The former group have ‘entered into unholy alliance to exorcise’ (p.178) the spectre of the latter.

Tandon is not very clear what exactly he means by nationalism and does not go too much into ‘the definitional issue’ (p.179). Nation is an abstraction, and what is defined as a nation can evolve into something else. He describes himself as having been born as a Ugandan of Indian stock but who is gradually evolving into an East African. This seems to me to be internationalism by stages. This what we see with those who defend European unity as a means towards internationalism. ‘People seek liberation … from oppression and exploitation. People seek “self-determination”, where the “self” gets defined – and redefined – in the course of the struggle for liberation. Liberation is the constant motif; it is the self-identity that changes’ (p.179).


Even though Tandon declares the death of the Communist Manifesto he recommends that ‘students of international relations, especially those from the Global South’ (p.171) read Lenin’s Imperialism, the highest Stage of Capitalism, though not as a theoretical tool in the understanding of the working of imperialism, but as an historical document in the understanding of the development of imperialism. He implies that Lenin’s analysis of imperialism is outdated. What we have today was defined by Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, as neo-colonialism: the last stage of imperialism.

In Tandon’s view, imperialism is a Western phenomenon, and countries like China, Russia and India cannot be imperialist in their relationship with African countries because they never colonised Africa. They act ‘on the basis of “solidarity”’ (p.172) in their desire to change the global order. The strategic question in the fight against imperialism is the ‘building of alliances and solidarities between BRICS and African and other third-world nations’ (p.172). 

There are a lot of problems with Tandon’s analysis. The first is his concept of imperialism. Imperialism is a stage of development of capitalism. It is based upon the concentration of power in the hands of a few corporations, the transformation of competition into monopoly, and the dominance of financial capital. While commodity production is still the basis of economic life, the bulk of the profits no longer goes to manufacturers, but to the geniuses of financial manipulation. At this stage of development, it is no longer just the export of commodities that drives the expansion of capitalism, but the export of capital. Even the trade in finished goods has been replaced by trade in components, parts and semi-processed products, through transnational supply chains made possible by the liberalisation of capital flow and the improvement in transport and communication links. The transnational corporations use their own states to pursue this objective.

China is following the model described by Lenin in its expansion. The difference to the model described by Lenin is that China not only exports capital through its One Belt One Road project, but also its surplus labour. China uses its own labour in its export of capital. That generates tension in African and Asian countries. China should not be seen as a ‘reformist’ state that seeks to work on the basis of solidarity with third-world nations in its pursuit of challenging and changing the world order.   

Nation and class

Tandon has a misconception of what a nation is. Nations are not homogenous entities. They are made up of social classes, and the states of third-world nations, like any other state, represent the ruling class, i.e. the bourgeoisie (the capitalist class), of that nation or country. Although the bourgeoisie of emerging countries like Brazil, Iran, Turkey or South Africa are subordinate to the dominant imperialist states such as the US and Europe, they have their own regional expansionist interests. It is when these interests conflict with the dominant imperial powers that tensions arise.

Tandon sees these emerging countries as ‘revisionist’ states that challenge the existing capitalist and imperial order. He argues that emerging countries have already started to decouple from the globalisation project by ‘defying the IMF by refusing to liberalize capital flows’ (p.189) and putting in partial or full control over their currencies. Tandon confuses regulating capitalism with overthrowing it. Capitalism has a history of swaying from regulation to deregulation. It is strange to imagine that China is decoupling from globalisation when it is moving away from exporting goods towards exporting capital. Lula, the former president of Brazil, also thought that Brazil had decoupled when it escaped from the initial impact of the 2008 crisis, before it hit its shores in 2013. 

As an alternative to globalisation, Tandon develops a utopian vision of ‘thousands of nonviolent, more or less self-reliant communities that organize their own methods of production and consumption, trading in use-value and not commoditised exchange-value’ (p.187). It seems that the Communist Manifesto is after all not dead, and I would recommend that Tandon read the section that gives a critique of utopian socialism. 

A true alternative to the world of trade negotiations and globalisation which is Tandon’s milieu, is to build from below, and to create solidarity among the international working class, that is, the international proletariat. In January, the US AFL-CIO and Mexico’s Union de Trabajadores de Mexico (UNT) gave an example of unity when together they filed a complaint to the US office that oversees the labour accord attached to NAFTA. The complaint stated that Mexico failed to provide high labour standards and to improve those standards (Reuters). London’s massive protest against Trump’s visit is another example. The struggle for a better world cannot be expected to come from agreements from above, even if they come from nations in the south.

Trade is War is available exclusively from the O/R Books website

Orlando Hill

Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.

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