Riots, Protests and Global Adjustment: an interview with David Seddon

Continuing our series of interviews with scholar-activists from around the world, David Seddon reflects on popular struggles, politics and global adjustment in Africa and the world. Reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the North African revolutions, he argues that struggle takes place when the structural contradictions and inadequacies of the prevailing economic, social and political system are starkly revealed – the current period is one of these junctures.

Can you tell readers a little about yourself, your life, upbringing and early politicisation and activism?

I was born in London in 1943, during the Second World War. My parents had been married for ten years at that point, so I came as a surprise; sadly, I remained an only child, and my father died when I was eight, leaving my mother and me on our own. She remains the dominant influence on my ethics and my politics.

She came from a working-class family in Halifax (Yorkshire), left school at 13 and worked in a factory, while also going to night school to ‘improve’ herself. She married upwards. My father, who she met on a walking holiday in the Lake District, lived near Leeds and came from a ‘petty bourgeois’ background (his father, the son of a coal miner, had ‘bettered himself’ and become a baker and shopkeeper). My father won a scholarship and went to Batley Grammar School; he then became the first in his family to go to university, at Leeds, where he gained a first-class degree in physics, then went on to get a PhD and a lectureship at Sheffield University. My father died in December 1951.

My mother had to struggle to make ends meet. She sold our house in Blackheath and we moved to a flat; she learned to drive and got a job as an administrator in the local hospital, gradually working her way up to a senior position with the Woolwich Group of Hospitals, which she retained until she retired. In my school vacations, I worked in a variety of jobs, including as a hospital porter.

In the summer of 1961, having managed to get a place at Cambridge to read archaeology and anthropology, my mother arranged that I should spend a couple of months in Uganda, based at Makerere College with an old family friend from Sheffield who was Professor of Botany there. It was an extraordinary and transformative experience.

Although Uganda was still under colonial rule, there was excitement among Ugandans  about the future. Uganda gained independence the next year. At Cambridge, I enjoyed the freedom of university and also the intellectual challenge of my programme of studies. But now I wanted to travel. In my final year, I was torn between doing a PhD in archaeology or securing a job. I applied for several jobs and was delighted to be offered a junior lectureship in the School of African Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT). My mother was less delighted, but was amazingly supportive.

Can you talk about your early research and work – as a scholar-activist? You had a varied trajectory, traveling to Cape Town, and to Morocco on research. How were you radicalised by a world that seemed to be rapidly radicalising and changing under your feet?

In August 1964, not long after my 21st birthday, I sailed from Southampton. Two weeks later, we docked in Cape Town. It was the start of an extraordinary and critical period of my life. Already alerted to the social divisions of a colonial society by my brief visit to Uganda, I was totally unprepared for the impact of life under apartheid. I had been largely uninterested in politics in Britain, and only marginally aware of class and racial inequality and discrimination more generally. But from my first day in Cape Town to my last day flying out of Johannesburg – on the day Dr Vervoerd, the so-called architect of apartheid was stabbed to death (6 September 1966) – I was now confronted by something unavoidable.

By the time I arrived in Cape Town in late 1964, the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan African Congress (PAC) and the NCL (National Committee of Liberation), later the African Resistance Movement (ARM) ) had all initiated various forms of ‘armed struggle’ and had all been effectively repressed and crushed by the Special Branch, Bureau of Sate Security (BOSS) and other agencies of the state apparatus. Robben Island, where only a few months before (June 1964), Nelson Mandela had been incarcerated together with so many other ‘non-white’ political prisoners, was directly opposite UCT as a reminder. I was all too aware, furthermore, that some of my colleagues and friends were directly affected.

On campus, the main concern was the fall-out from the disintegration of the ARM and particularly the role played in that by former National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) leader, Adrian Leftwich. Some UCT students and members of staff were involved, either directly or indirectly. Some had been arrested and detained; some had already left the country, to go into exile, to study or take jobs abroad; others were soon to depart. It was the low ebb of the struggle. But even at this point there was considerable political activity at UCT and in Cape Town more generally. I was unavoidably drawn into this.

In the meanwhile, I also continued to be involved in teaching and in archaeological research. But I was beginning to consider my position, and when it came to a choice between a post as a field archaeologist or as a full lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, I chose the latter as a way of keeping open the direction of my future career. I was veering increasingly towards social anthropology as I struggled to make sense of contemporary social and political realities.

On arrival at the (London School of Economics (LSE), in September 1966, I decided to pursue research in Tanzania, as this was now an independent state with a growing reputation for progressive government policies and a centre for African political activists, from South Africa and Mozambique among other countries. I started learning Swahili. I joined the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Institute of Race Relations.

I was turned down for a visa to carry out research in Tanzania, ironically enough because I had lived for two years in South Africa. This was a major blow. While desperately exploring other possible field sites for my research, however, an opportunity arose to join a research project in Morocco, that would involve social anthropological fieldwork. I applied and was accepted. I started learning Arabic at once and re-registered for a PhD, with Professor Ernest Gellner, whose own thesis had been on Morocco and was about to be published as Saints of the Atlas, as my supervisor.

In the course of your early research you were influenced by E.P. Thompson’s ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ (1968), the writings of the French Marxist anthropologists, and the work of André Gunder Frank on ‘Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America’ (1969) and, of course, Walter Rodney’s work. Can you describe the influence of these writers on your own work, political development and teaching?

I had already become familiar with some of the work of the new French Marxist anthropologists, like Clause Meillassoux and Maurice Godelier, and I began to try to apply some of their thinking to my own field data, but to be honest, although it was helpful in trying to make sense of Moroccan economy and society in the pre-colonial period, as in its own way was Gellner’s own distinctive approach, it seemed about as useless as the other, more ‘traditional’ anthropological approaches and paradigms when tackling colonialism and the radical transformation of local economy and society during the 20th century.

It was not until I had read E. P. Thompson’s ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ (1968) and a Danish anthropologist lent me a copy of André Gunder Frank’s ‘Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America’ (1969) that I was able to see how the whole study of ‘economic and political change in the Eastern Rif of Morocco’ could be framed in a way that combined neo-Marxist theories of underdevelopment with a historical Marxist class analysis of agrarian change.

In the early 1970s, I translated a short work on the ‘Berbers of Morocco’ by Robert Montagne (a French colonial administrator and anthropologist) which was published in 1973 and then became involved in putting together a collection of work by the French Marxist anthropologists. This led to a collaboration with French Marxist anthropologist Jean Copans (with whom I wrote a joint introduction) and with translator and Middle East anthropologist Helen Lackner (author of several excellent books on Yemen). The collection eventually was published, after inordinate delays, in 1978, as Relations of Production: Marxist approaches to economic anthropology).

Sometime later, you moved to Development Studies at the University of the East Anglia. Can you explain why ‘development studies’ was an important and original (and in some hands) radical endeavour? How did your work progress through this period?

I always found the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at SOAS, and indeed SOAS itself, to be generally conservative – a place where even an attempt to form a branch of the Association of University Teachers was regarded by the management as threatening. One of my colleagues was nearly sacked for producing a pamphlet which analysed SOAS as a ‘Byzantine bureaucracy’, and I personally was reprimanded by my Head of Department for wearing jeans in the senior common room ‘because I might have been mistaken for a student’.

When I saw an advertisement for a range of posts in the School of Social Studies at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, with a view to working together to build a new School of Development Studies, it seemed very attractive.

I was much taken from the outset by the ‘openness’ of UEA, which had been part of the wave of ‘new’ universities set up in the 1960s. I was also impressed by the fact that the Professor who was to head the new School wore jeans and a roll-neck pullover! Several colleagues were members of the International Socialism Group (IS) – later, in January 1977, to become the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). I was impressed with the personal and political commitment of these comrades to the cause and with their intellectual rigour and became in effect a kind of fellow-traveller – as I suppose I continue to be.

The first year (1972) was very exciting as we planned for a whole new interdisciplinary undergraduate degree programme in Development Studies, with foundation courses in ‘natural resources’ and ‘social sciences’ as well as ‘development studies’. Our first intake was in 1973 and a small group of us taught a radical development studies course together. Key texts included works by A. G. Frank and Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which had just been published (1972). Exciting times.

During the heady political period of the 1970s – in the UK and in Africa – many far-reaching questions where being raised about Marxist political economy. A generation saw in Tanzania – and elsewhere – and the largely top-down project of transformation as signalling a possible dawn for socialist change. How did you understand what was happening in the radical movements at the time? Where did you put your activist energies? 

In 1974, Harold Wilson became Labour prime minister for a second time with a radical agenda for change; he also initially appointed a Cabinet Minister for Overseas Development. It began to look as though Labour might take a more radical approach to ‘overseas development’. I joined the Labour Party and became active in local politics, eventually becoming chair of my local branch and standing (unsuccessfully) in 1979 for district council. I was also active in trade union politics within the university.

As regards our practical involvement in what was still called The Third World, the UEA had already approved the formation (in 1967) of a not-for-profit international consultancy group, called the Overseas Development Group (ODG), which provided specialist advice and short-course training to governments and to non-governmental organizations, and fed the income earned into maintaining a level of staffing well above that funded by the University and into providing scholarships for students and trainees from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

During the 1970s, the ODG provided training courses for cadres from various organizations struggling for independence now but also looking to the future when they might spear-head new governments. These organizations included The Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), South-West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) and the Mozambique Liberation Front  (FRELIMO) from southern Africa. From 1976 onwards, I personally developed relations with the organization representing the Saharawis in their struggle for independence from Moroccan occupation, the POLISARIO Front and began to write about the Western Sahara and Morocco (including articles in the Review of African Political Economy). I also began to develop links with the PLO, particularly with the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), links which would become more significant in the 1980s when I visited Israel/Palestine several times with the covert support of OXFAM and Christian Aid.

In 1973, the ODG landed a major research grant from the Ministry of Overseas Development to undertake an evaluation of the impact of road construction in Nepal, where British aid was contributing to the building of the East-West Highway. The team working on developing the proposal into a viable research project was lacking a sociologist and social anthropologist, so I was drafted in to assist, although I knew nothing about Nepal and was still struggling with my PhD thesis. The differences and similarities with Morocco were fascinating, and needed more perspective on my theoretical framework.

So, in February 1974, I flew out to Nepal with one other member of the team and his family and we established our base in Pokhara, in the west central region, where several roads had been recently built or were in the process of construction. In March, our families joined us. We lived and worked in Nepal on the ODG Roads Research Project, on and off for two years. We learned Nepali, the children learned Nepali, and we walked and drove over a vast region, including mountains, hills and plains, to assess ‘the effects of roads in west central Nepal’ (the title of our main three volume report in 1976 and our summary in 1977).

As this interview is for ROAPE I shall keep this section relatively short, but suffice it to say that my evolving theoretical framework for my Moroccan thesis proved very effective as an overall framework for our research project in Nepal, although the canvass was far larger and our capacity for data collection immensely greater than for my solo study. Our approach was inter-disciplinary – the team included a geographer, an economist, an agricultural economist, a sociologist and a social anthropologist – and we tried to combine different levels and modes of analysis in a mutually complementary fashion.

Our final report, with its political economy approach and its conclusion that road construction does not necessarily bring about progressive economic development, created waves in the Ministry, which had now become subordinate to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The promise of a radical approach to ‘overseas development’ had not materialised and the Wilson government was in trouble. We were hauled before various committees, and our own ODG management, and roundly criticised. It was not until a mandarin actually commended our initiative and originality, that the row eventually subsided.

Vindicated, we felt, by this eventual outcome, and with funds from the ESRC and the OECD we took our studies in Nepal further, returning several times to the same region. We produced a number of publications as a result of our work there: Centre & Periphery: Social and Spatial Relations of Inequality in Nepal (1977), The Struggle for Basic Needs in Nepal (1979), Peasants and Workers in Nepal (1979), and, finally, Nepal in Crisis: growth and stagnation at the periphery (1980). All bore the hallmark of the neo-Marxist and Marxist approach we had now adopted. Nepal in Crisis (which was published in India to increase its availability on the sub-continent) was banned for a decade by the government of Nepal, and the British Ambassador vowed we would never work in Nepal again.

It still gives me pride to learn from Nepali comrades that this book (which was widely smuggled into the country) inspired them in their opposition to the party-less ‘panchayat’ democracy of the king of Nepal. I even have a copy signed by Babu Ram Bhattarai, one of the leaders of the Maoist movement which would lead a People’s War in Nepal during the late 1990s and early 2000s, while he was living ‘underground’, and dedicated to his “guru, David Seddon”. Amusingly, we met secretly in the garden of a hotel in Kathmandu mainly frequented by foreign development consultants!

Inspired by a workshop on ‘modes of production’ that I attended in Turkey in late 1979, I spent six months in 1980 teaching at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara and carrying out research funded by the Population Council with Turkish colleagues on ‘paths of rural transformation in Turkey’. I was able to contribute to the on-going debate on the left at the time regarding the nature of agriculture (feudal or capitalist?) and the appropriate strategy for socialist and communists as a result of my familiarity with the Indian ‘modes of production’ debate (which had informed our work in Nepal) and the wider debate on these issues now taking place in many parts of the world and being published in such journals as the Journal of Peasant Studies.

In 1983 I went to the University of Bir Zeit in the occupied West Bank, not just to give lectures at Bir Zeit but also to secretly tour the Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza with funds from OXFAM and Christian Aid to assess the potential for ‘development under occupation’.  I went again, under the same auspices and as a member of the Middle East Committees of both these NGOs, in 1984; and then again in 1986. These visits led to the development of several enduring friendships with Palestinian comrades, particularly those associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). I continue to have a very special relationship with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

During the 1980s, the School of Development Studies, where you were teaching in Norwich, had appointed André Gunder Frank as Professor of Social Change. Can you talk about the experience of working Gunder Frank – and discuss briefly, some of the strengths and weaknesses in his work?

André Gunder Frank’s ideas on development and underdevelopment started gaining circulation and influence after Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970, though when Frank, already persona non grata in the US for his support of the Cuban revolution, arrived in 1968, Allende, then president of the senate, had to meet him at the airport to prevent him being deported. Following General Pinochet’s military coup in September 1973, Frank became a political exile again. He dedicated the next two decades to analysing the global crisis and the failures of neo-liberalism and Reagan-omics, with posts first at the Max Planck Institute (1973-78) and then UEA (1978-83).

I had the privilege of being on the selection committee that appointed Gunder, as we called him, in 1978 to a Chair in Social Change, and of co-directing with him during the early 1980s a Masters programme in Development Studies, whose core course was on Contemporary World Development, and drew heavily on his own work, including Crisis in the World Economy and Crisis in the Third World, although the list of readings also included Nepal in Crisis. He tended to see ‘the big picture’ – at the global ‘world systems’ level – but was also prepared to see ‘development’ and ‘under- development’ as an issue of inter-national ‘exploitation’ and was, I felt, weaker on the articulation of modes of production and associated class struggle, which is where I felt in a stronger position, having done fieldwork at the grass roots and having been involved in political action at the local level. We complemented each other well, we thought, combining Neo-Marxist and Marxist perspectives.

Teaching with Gunder was an extraordinary and exciting experience, for his teaching style was unorthodox – using the daily newspapers to thread together an analysis of developments across the world in each session and demanding that the students try to make their own sense of ‘contemporary world development’ using ‘the news’ as a basic text rather than a range of academic works. In 1983, we jointly wrote a full description of the Contemporary World Development Course in the 4th edition of Peace and World Order Studies: a curriculum guide.

He was generous and friendly to his students, but intolerant of university bureaucracy and hierarchy, and many colleagues found him ‘difficult’. I managed to maintain a warm relationship with him and his wife and children while they lived in Norwich. His wife, Marta Fuentes, had been an influential activist in the women’s movement in Chile, where they met, and had a profound influence on Frank’s own political and economic thinking. They left the UEA and Norwich in 1983, after a disagreement with the University administration over his joint position at UEA and the Free University of Amsterdam, and he continued to teach, travel, lecture and write while based in Amsterdam until 1994, a year after the death of Marta his wife. Gunder died in 2005.

You also co-authored, in 1994, a pioneering book on Free Markets and Food Riots: The Politics of Global Adjustment – that placed popular resistance at the heart of development in the ‘third world’. Specifically, you saw how ‘global adjustment’ had altered the developing world, but also triggered an explosion of protest. More recently, in the last two decades, you have worked on political movements in Africa. What was your objective and motivation in carrying out this work?

In 1984, largely in response to economic reforms introduced as part of the increasingly pervasive influence of the IMF and the World Bank and their ‘structural adjustment’ programmes, there were major movements of popular unrest in Morocco and Tunisia (which were widely referred to as ‘bread riots’); and these were followed in 1985 by a popular movement in Sudan that led to the overthrow of President Nimeiry. I spent some time following the detail of these movements and started to write about them, in ROAPE, among other publications.

This interest in ‘popular movements’ became a major strand of my academic work over the next couple of decades, and eventually led to a collaboration with John Walton, a Latin American specialist, on what seemed to be a ‘wave’ of popular protest – a global phenomenon – reminiscent of the wave of riots and popular protest by the ‘English crowd’  in response to the rise of the market at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, so well described by E.P. Thompson and by Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé. The book, Free Markets and Food Riots: the politics of global adjustment, was published in 1994 at the height of the Western ‘globalization’ project.

The book started with a couple of theoretical chapters, setting out our understanding of political economy, moral economy and class struggle, and then explored the dynamics and contours of popular protest largely on a region by region basis, covering Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, and South Asia, as well as a chapter on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union/Russia, but with a special chapter written by myself and my partner, on women’s protest. In Africa, between 1990 and 1994, popular protest movements and strikes had brought down more than 30 regimes and led to multi-party elections for the first time, in some cases, in a generation.

What was striking, even at the time, was the relative lack of popular protest in three main regions – the oil rich states of the Gulf and Libya, South East Asia, and East Asia. These were, in effect, the regions most insulated against the Western project of globalisation, with its emphasis on ‘open-ness’ to foreign investment, on privatization and on ‘the rule of markets’. Indeed, there had been growing recognition, particularly on the left, that an alternative to the neo-liberal ideology of the ‘free market’ – which many referred to as ‘state capitalism’ – had been effectively maintained over several decades in many of the countries of South East and East Asia – something that was grudgingly recognised even by the IMF and World Bank by the mid-1990s.

But, this was to change with what was referred to as the Asian ‘melt-down’ or financial crisis that started in July 1997 in Thailand, and had serious repercussions throughout the region. The IMF stepped in, with its usual conditionalities, and by the end of the decade, the crisis was over and globalization continued apace, until the banking and financial crisis of 2007-2008. This decade saw the effective consolidation of the conditions for rapid economic growth, particularly in East Asia, and notably in China. Some countries in Asia, however, and even more in sub-Saharan Africa, remained poor.

Though your focus has long been on African political economy, you never limited yourself to the continent – and you have ‘strayed’ across the global. As we have seen, for example, you have worked on Nepal, and it’s astonishing movements and politics. Can you take us through this work, and your hopes – and disillusionment – with the Maoist movement?

By 2001, the People’s War had expanded from a local movement based largely in the remote hill areas of Western Nepal to have a presence and an impact across the whole country; also, whereas it had been seen mainly as a law and order problem in the late 1990s, to be dealt with by the armed police, towards the end of 2001, the Royal Nepalese Army became involved and the conflict intensified. For the next four years, I was employed as a part-time ‘conflict’ adviser and had good access to both civilian and military government officials, as well as to the British civilian (DfID) and military advisers.

At the same time, I was also engaged with different groups on the left, both those that had remained within the mainstream of party politics, like the United Marxist-Leninist Party (UML) and the Workers and Peasants’ Party, and with the Maoists, many of whom were now operating ‘underground’. I also started working closely with a UML-oriented NGO, called Rural Reconstruction Nepal (RRN) whose director was a former PhD student and now a UML civil society leader. RRN gained a reputation, during the People’s War, of being one of the very few NGOs that was able to operate effectively even in Maoist-controlled areas. This was largely because of the political sophistication of the RRN’s director – who was able to maintain close contact with the Maoist leadership throughout the conflict and ensure that RRN’s project activities were always undertaken with the approval or at least acquiescence of the Maoists.

Through my close relationship with this individual, I was able to meet several members of the Maoist leadership, including Dr Babu Ram Bhattarai, whose PhD thesis (1986) on development and underdevelopment in Nepal had been strongly influenced by our own work, especially Nepal in Crisis. His thesis was subsequently published as a book The Nature of Underdevelopment and Regional Structure of Nepal – a Marxist Analysis. In 2003, the director of RRN and I published a collection of essays – The People’s War in Nepal: left perspectives’ – which included pieces by Bhattarai and other Maoists, including the veteran leader of another Maoist faction, M.B. Singh, and various independent left intellectuals, as well as an introduction by ourselves. Later, in 2008, with another Nepali colleague, I edited a second collection of essays, this time by a combination of Nepali and foreign intellectuals, called In Hope and in Fear: living through the People’s War in Nepal.

The success of the Maoists in transforming the armed conflict into a political movement, was in part the result of an attempt by the king in February 2005 to concentrate all power into his own hands, engineering a coup d’état, banning all political and civil society organizations, controlling the media, and taking command of the army and security forces. This prompted a strong adverse reaction from a number of influential states, including India, the US and the UK; it also led to an alliance between the main political parties in support of democracy and against the king. For a while, it was unclear how the triangular balance of forces – Maoists, monarchists and political parties – would come to rest, but the Maoists managed to persuade the political parties of their good faith, and in November 2006, a comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) was signed that brought an end to the conflict and effectively ousted the king from power.

Shortly afterwards, an interim government was formed, Nepal was declared a republic and planning for elections to a Constituent Assembly began. After some difficulties, including popular unrest in parts of the country that felt left out of the highly centralised decision-making in Kathmandu, a Constituent Assembly was elected in April 2008, through a combination of first-past-the-post and proportional representation, with an unprecedented number of seats filled by women and ethnic minorities. When a government was eventually formed, it was headed by the Maoist leader ‘Prachanda’ (Pushpa Kamal Dahal), with Dr Babu Ram Bhattarai as Minister of Finance. It seemed for a short time in 2008 that Nepal was poised for the promised revolution, under an elected Marxist-dominated government.

Sadly, it was not to be. For reasons that have yet to be fully analysed, the Maoists failed to capitalise on their extraordinary success as a political movement, and, instead, became bogged down in the petty politics of what they had always complained was typical of ‘parliamentary democracy’. Personal rivalries, venality and corruption, plain incompetence and foreign interference have all been seen as reasons for the failure to implement that economic, social and political transformation for which the Maoists and their supporters had fought and died for; the difficulties associated with re-orienting a movement of military and political cadres into a democratic political party should also not be under-estimated. But fail they did.

In recent years, however, particularly after I took early retirement from the School of Development Studies in 2006, I have tended to re-focus my efforts on local politics in the UK, and on the relationship between popular protest, social movements and class struggle in Africa.

You have been very much involved over the years in debates regarding the relevance and pertinence of Marxism as an approach to African studies. You were forthright and original in your own response – refusing to follow ‘fashionable’ formulations, without careful and close study yourself. For our readers, please explain what was going on and how you responded.

I have been involved with ROAPE for many years and, in the early 1990s, co-edited several issues of the journal – with Peter Lawrence on ‘The Price of Economic Reform’ (1990), with Lionel Cliffe on ‘Africa in a New World Order’ (1991), and with Pepe Roberts on ‘Fundamentalism in Africa: Religion and Politics’ (1991). During the 1990s and early 2000s I was very involved with work in Nepal.

But towards the end of the decade, I began to develop a new working relationship with some of those working on sub-Saharan African politics. While still at UEA, I had supervised the PhD thesis of Peter Dwyer (one of very few students to go directly from a BA Hons to a PhD) on social movements in South Africa, and in April 2002, he and I presented a paper at the 8th International Conference on Alternative Futures and Popular Protest on entitled ‘The New Wave: A Global Perspective on Popular Protest’, which in part took up some of the themes of the ‘Free Markets and Food Riots’ book with John Walton, and also tried to break new ground in the light of the new international ‘anti-capitalist’ Social Forum movement that started in Seattle in 1999, then in Genoa in 2001.

Moving from a global perspective on popular protest to consider Africa in particular, where there were a number of Social Forum meetings in 2003 and 2004, Leo Zeilig and I published an article on ‘Class and Protest in Africa: new waves’ in ROAPE (2005). This was followed up by chapters ‘Marxism, Class and Resistance in Africa’ and of ‘The History of Class Struggle in Africa’ in a book edited by Leo Zeilig on Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa (Haymarket, 2009). In the meanwhile, Leo Zeilig and I had collaborated with left historian David Renton, to produce a book on the Congo (published by Zed Books in 2006). This work put ‘class struggle’ in the broadest sense at the centre of the analysis and, while recognising the structural constraints of the wider political economy, focused on grass-roots social movements and popular protest.

I have always been committed to the idea that ordinary men and women can make a difference and contribute to revolutionary change. I reject the idea that there is a set and prescribed ‘revolutionary path’ in which certain social actors and agencies must lead ‘the revolution’, and believe that Marx was right when he said, in effect, that ‘men and women make history albeit not under conditions of their own choosing’. This inevitably leads to a commitment to political activism as well as to analysis.

This month as you know (January 2021) sees the anniversary of the Tunisian revolution and the start of the Egyptian one. Given that your entire work has focused on popular struggle and resistance, within a global perspective and reach, and much interest and research in particular from North Africa, can I ask you about the North Africa revolutions of 2011. Briefly, how can we understand the immense hope and the defeats of this revolutionary wave? What are the lessons to be learned for popular and revolutionary struggles today from this period of revolt?

What you refer to as ‘the North Africa revolutions of 2011’ were part of a wave of popular struggle that has become known as ‘the Arab Spring’. Born out of a combination of desperation and hope for better things, this extraordinary uprising – involving everything from demonstrations to riots to armed rebellion – affected almost every country in the Arabic-speaking world. Given my long-standing interest in the region, I followed the development of this phenomenon very closely.

It began with popular protest in Tunisia following the death on 4 January of a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who had set himself on fire in response to the harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by municipal officials. Horror and outrage at this incident turned into popular protest against the petty bureaucracy and corruption of the authoritarian regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. A month later, after 23 years in power, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, to be replaced initially by an interim government and then, after elections, by an Ennahda Islamist government.

The protests in Tunisia were widely reported in the Arabic social and main-stream media and provoked mass demonstrations across the Arab world, from the Maghreb to the Mashreq. In a number of states, the protests transformed themselves into anti-government movements. In addition to Tunisia, these movements developed in Libya, in Egypt, in Bahrain, in Yemen, in Kuwait and in Syria to the point where they achieved significant purchase and brought about real political change.

For example, in Libya, the government crack-down on protestors sparked a civil war; in Egypt, Cairo’s Tahrir Square was the site of three weeks of mass protests that eventually forced President Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled for 30 years, out of office and he was replaced, after elections, by Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. In Syria, also, popular protest drew on widespread opposition to the authoritarian regime of President Bashir al Assad and included a significant number of Islamist groups. As in Libya, this led to a civil war. In Yemen, massive protests sparked a political crisis and forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had led Yemen for 33 years, to step down, eventually in 2012.

While hailing ‘the Arab Spring’ initially as a positive ‘democratic’ development, the West was also, from the outset, concerned both at the importance of radical Islamist groups in the opposition movements and also at the risk of instability in a volatile region. There was particular concern when Mubarak was replaced by Morsi in Egypt, when Islamic State (ISIS) emerged as one of the major groups fighting against the Assad regime in Syria, and when the government led by Saleh’s former vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, in Yemen struggled to fend off threats both from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and from Houthi militants who were increasingly supported by Iran.

Early Western military intervention against the Assad regime in Syria proved increasingly problematic, given steadfast Russian support for the regime and its characterisation of most opposition groups as ‘terrorists’; but reluctant Russian acquiescence to Western military intervention in Libya and support for the opposition militias enabled the overthrow of President Gaddafi and his assassination. Both Syria and Libya descended over the next few years into chaos and civil war. There is much more to say, but this would require more time and space and perhaps another interview!

Finally, in terms of your lifelong commitment to radical social change, in the UK and in the ‘developing world’, what prospects and hopes to you see for this type of change today? What is the role of an activist-scholar in the movements we have seen and specifically in the context of Black Lives Matter?     

These are hard times, as humanity struggles against covid-19. But, as always with crises, this struggle takes place at a turning point when the structural contradictions and inadequacies of the prevailing economic, social and political system are starkly revealed. The unacceptable inequalities that result from various forms of exploitation and repression ‘of the many by the few’ are shown to be not inevitable but the result of modes of production and ways of life that must change dramatically if we are all to emerge from the pandemic and have any prospect of sustainable development in a world whose resources we have so mercilessly and recklessly exploited and degraded in our greed and lack of concern for the consequences of our actions. There must be a better way!

In this context, our role as activist-scholars, as you put it, is to combine theory and practice, recognising our own position – in my case as a white middle-class older male – in the prevailing social, economic and political context (at local, national and international levels) and to assess when, where and how best to contribute to progressive movements and organisations. Those of us with a particular historical and on-going involvement with ‘Africa’ need to make sure that we work as closely as possible with African intellectuals and political activists on the left and provide whatever appropriate input we can.

But we also need to recognize that ‘Black Lives Matter’ provides us with new personal and political challenges, as well as opportunities for contributions in our own countries and specific local locations – in my case in Norfolk and south London, in England, the UK and Europe – which investigate and interrogate the complexity of both European and British imperialism and colonialism, and their heritage in Britain as well as other parts of the world, and also their contemporary features.

This interview was compiled, edited and conducted by ROAPE’s Peter Dwyer and Leo Zeilig.   

David Seddon is a researcher and political activist who has written extensively on social movements, class struggles and political transitions across the developing world. David is a regular contributor to and a former member of the Editorial Working Group of ROAPE.

Featured photograph: Children participating in protests in Egypt during the 2011 revolution (H. Elrasam, 1 August 2013).


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