The committed intellectual: reviving and restoring the National Project man or woman with no passion has no heart; one with no power of reasoning has no mind, writes Yash Tandon. It is the combination of heart and mind that produces the balanced person who uses their mind to pursue their passion. Let us speak truth to power, but let us also speak the existential truth of our people’s world to the negotiated truth of the diplomatic world. Our collective efforts, he continues, will lead to a new vision of a better world, one that is fair, just, peaceful and bountiful to all the peoples of the world.

The National Project began before countries in the South achieved their independence from colonial rule, continued for several years after political independence and then, in the era of globalisation, died a sudden death. It needs to be revived.

However, let me first address the issue of what I call the ‘South intellectual’. Is it artificial to describe certain scholars and intellectuals by their geographical domain? We talk about ‘an Indian scholar’, ‘an African intellectual’, or a ‘Caribbean scholar’. Does it make sense to go beyond the nation and the region? Is there something distinctive about a ‘South scholar’ or a ‘South intellectual?’[1]

My answer is yes. There was something in the writing and engagement of Caribbean scholars and writers – such as Norman Girvan, Arthur Lewis, M.G. Smith, C.L.R. James, V.S. Naipaul, Walter Rodney and Clive Thomas – with which those of us at universities in East Africa in the 1970s easily identified. Something in common pulsated in our hearts. How else could we in East Africa have resonated so ardently with intellectuals thousands of miles away in the Caribbean? Of course, the writing of many others from Asia, Africa and Latin America contributed to our lively debates. All these scholars were trying to define the specificity of peoples who had gone through the colonial experience.

Intellectuals were only a small part of the National Project. Political leaders such as Nehru, Nkrumah, Nasser, Sukarno, Manley, and Nyerere were the real inspiration. Politicians and intellectuals alike sought answers to some critical questions of self-identity and collective destiny: Who are we as a ‘nation? What do we do with our hard-won independence? How do we build our nation in ways that answer to the needs of our own peoples rather than those of colonising powers? In challenging the claims of neo-classical economics and neo-liberal policies to universal validity, Professor Girvan writes, significantly, that the objective of ‘policy autonomy’ in the South is self-determination [2]. This, in my view, is the crux of the National Project: self-determination.

What does the National Project mean for the engagement of Southern intellectuals today? In my view, three passions should steer or motivate their intellectual creativity: to critique the dominant imperialist ideology, to critique the dominant structures of power (speaking truth to power), and to provide ideas for a future vision of global society. I will first address the larger question of the relationship between ideas and political practice, and then outline an alternative vision or strategy to the dominant neo-liberal paradigm. Finally, I will take one aspect of this strategy, which is close to my heart, and that is integration in the regions of the South as a counterweight to globalisation. CRITIQUE OF THE DOMINANT IMPERIALIST IDEOLOGY

The language of discourse of the dominant imperialist ideology is economics. Economics has an aura of the scientific, although we know that its scientific pretensions are based on make-believe (much of it self-motivated) rather than rigour. Furthermore, when economics is bolstered with mathematics and graphics, it acquires an added aura of ‘authority’, which is often quite spurious. Does it then follow that the language of counter-ideology must also be economics? Our own economists have answered the orthodox economic theory of mainstream economists and trade theorists with what is called ‘heterodox’ economic theory. Like its adversary, this is largely an abstraction from the reality of power and politics; substantial political analysis is lacking. None of the heterodox economists that I know deal with the issue of imperialism; it is not in their vocabulary. Furthermore, I am not sure what real impact heterodox economics has made on the ground. Even in the realm of ideas it has not made as much impact as it might have.

I do not want to be misunderstood. I think that heterodox economics has provided a valuable and necessary critique of orthodox economics. In my own writings I find that, among some audiences, quoting Joseph Stiglitz or Dani Rodrick gives me a better punch than all my efforts to rally data and evidence on behalf of my arguments. My point is that heterodox economics is good up to a point but that it is not good enough. It must move beyond the realm of economics to the realm of political economy. In other words, I endorse the theme of this conference – ‘Reinventing the Political Economy Tradition of the Caribbean’.


I shall start this discussion with a quote from none other than the late Michael Manley:

‘Those who have to face the challenge of action may make mistakes. Meantime, those who reside permanently in the world of ideas, alone and untested, do not help anyone when they refuse that reality is more complex than theory’ [3].

I must say that I sympathise, even empathise, with Manley. Academics can speak truth to politicians, but when do politicians get an opportunity to challenge the academics with a reality check? We who research, write and critique have an obligation to speak truth to power – to say how things are and how they should be, from the vantage point of some distance from political power and authority. That vantage point is extremely important: it gives a larger perspective to the drama of daily politics. At the same time, however, we cannot escape the question of what we would have done were we in power at the time that difficult decisions had to be made. Theoreticians speak truth to power. Politicians, in return, provide theory with a reality check. The coin has two sides.

The challenge is how political leaders and theoreticians meet and work together when it matters rather than after the event. When there is a separation between, as it were, the philosopher and the king, how do we create a synthetic ‘philosopher-king’? The Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, gave a partial answer to this question in his concept of the ‘organic intellectual’. For Gramsci, an organic intellectual arises as part of society and in the midst of struggle for liberation from oppression and exploitation. An organic intellectual is always in the midst of struggle, always on the move, drawing strength from history and from the society in which they are embedded and that nurtures them.

Let me go a step beyond Gramsci. There is also an ‘organic institution’, held together by a shared vision of society and long-term strategy among a group of organic intellectuals. Both organic intellectuals and organic institutions are involved in daily struggles, not from the privilege of distance, as academics do, but in the heat of battle. There are many research and academic institutions in the South, but they mostly remain on dry ground. Organic institutions, on the other hand, have to swim in the middle of the ocean.


Truth, of course, has many dimensions. The kind of truth that we at the South Centre deal with on a daily basis is what I call ‘diplomatic truth’, or truth as negotiated between asymmetrical power relationships, in our case between the North and the South.

Let me give an example of diplomatic truth. Globalisation is defined in the course of negotiations between contending political forces in a particular context. Africans might argue, for example, that they have seen few benefits from globalisation; that they have only seen its negative consequences. They would present it as a “challenge”. On the other hand the North might argue that many of the benefits of globalisation have not permeated Africa because of problems with internal governance and corruption, and the failure to create the conditions for investments to flow; that globalisation is an “opportunity” that Africans have missed. The “negotiated” or “diplomatic” truth about globalisation is thus a compromise between these views and presented as both an opportunity and a challenge. This compromise camouflages huge differences in ideology and policy that obscure the reality on the ground.

As organic intellectuals and organic institutions we have a moral obligation to speak truth as we know and experience it to the diplomatic truth that is negotiated by our governments in the forced circumstances in which they find themselves. In the South Centre we have often taken positions against those that some of our governments have been compelled to take because of the pressures put on them by powerful forces in the North.

The trade negotiations in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) are a case in point. Ever since the WTO was formed, the countries of the South, especially the smaller and vulnerable ones, have been subjected to enormous pressures to conform to agreements entered into by the bigger trading powers such as the USA and the European Union. These powerful trading blocs divide and rule the South. To the poorer countries of the South they offer ‘technical assistance’ and incentives such as ‘quota-free’ and ‘duty-free’ access to their markets. Once these smaller countries are taken out of the loop of negotiations with promises of technical and financial assistance and privileged access to their markets, the Northern power blocs then face the bigger countries of the South in hard bargaining over the technical details. Once the big powers, including the larger trading nations of the South, have agreed to a compromise deal in which they have taken care of one another’s interests, this jointly agreed formula is then imposed on the smaller countries. They are forced to surrender the illusory and temporary ‘concessions’ that they were earlier given and accept full reciprocity as, so to speak, ‘equal’ partners in the negotiations. This is the existential truth of the global trade negotiations.

In the case of the negotiations between the EU and ACP countries over Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) the diplomatic truth put out by the European Commission and some governments in Africa and the Caribbean confounds all logic and evidence. The European Commission (EC) argues that EPAs are good for ACP countries. Our analysis in the South Centre shows that the agreements in their present form will further de-industrialise African countries. They may even threaten their food security and policy options for endogenous development. The EC has systematically practiced a policy of divide and rule in Africa, especially in Eastern and Southern Africa, where older, indigenous efforts at regional integration within the context of SADC, COMESA and the East African Community are now in shreds.

Fortunately, there is growing resistance from some African governments to this old-style, colonial policy. Civil society social movements in Africa are also very active in this area. On 23 March 2008 50 of them called for a stop to the EPAs, saying that they will destroy the economies of African countries, lead to a substantial loss in government revenue accrued through tariffs, and a loss of jobs and policy space. They demanded that the interim agreements must be nullified. In the Caribbean context, Norman Girvan has argued that the Cariforum-EC EPA negotiations have been subject to lesser disclosure, debate and parliamentary oversight than legal and constitutional changes of lesser importance, and that the agreements must be subject to full public disclosure and debate, and possible review.

This, in my view, is the most challenging issue of our time that those engaged in the National Project must address, one in which all social and political forces from Jamaica to Cape Town and Vanuatu must join. They must invite bigger countries in the South, such as China, India and Brazil, to fight in solidarity against this European aggressive effort to recolonise a significant and vulnerable part of the South.

Other examples of the struggles of Southern countries in today’s globalising world, in which the South Centre is involved, include: – The struggle for access to knowledge and innovation, protection of indigenous knowledge, and flexibilities in intellectual property and copyright laws that would permit the diffusion of knowledge as a public good.

– The importance of resurrecting the original mandate and vitality of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

– The ‘aid effectiveness’ project of the OECD, called the “Paris Declaration” which will be the subject of negotiations in September 2008 in Accra, and which we must oppose. Many of our countries have become so dependent on aid that it is impossible to talk about self-reliance or the National Project unless effective exit strategies from aid are offered to them.

– The debate on finance for development and the so-called Monterrey Consensus, which will be the subject of further negotiations in Doha towards the end of this year, and which has acquired an entirely new dimension in the wake of the financial crisis in the North.


Let me now come to the third task of the South intellectual, that of offering alternative visions of a future society. It is not enough to critique the present system without offering an alternative vision of where one would want to go.

I give below the elements of an alternative vision taken from an initiative of activist trades union leaders in Southern Africa called the ANSA project – Alternatives to Neoliberalism in Southern Africa [4]. 1. A people-led political and social strategy, as opposed to one led by the IMF/World Bank/WTO/donors.

2. Grassroots-led regional integration, as opposed to the current fragmentation of the region by the Empire.

3. An alternative economic production system, based on domestic demand, human need and the use of local resources and domestic savings, as opposed to the present export-oriented strategy based on foreign investments.

4. A phased withdrawal from globalisation, rather than further deepening of integration within the existing iniquitous global system.

5. A science and technology policy that harnesses people’s collective knowledge and wisdom, instead of blind emulation of techno-science rooted in the commodification for profit of nature, human labour and social structures.

6. Alliance-building and networking with progressive forces at national, regional and global levels, rather than their co-option by capital-led globalisation.

7. Politically governed redistribution of wealth and opportunities from the so-called formal sector to the informal sectors, instead of the misallocation of resources and the integration of informal sectors through their provision of cheap inputs and semi-employed labour.

8. Women’s rights as the basis for a healthy and productive society, replacing the present system based on the exploitation of women`s labour.

9. Education linked with production and improvements in the technical, managerial, research and development skills of workers and those directly in control of matters of production and governance, as opposed to education for a bureaucratic and technocratic elite.

10. Peoples’ demonstrations in support of the evolving ethical and developmental state regarded as embodying the democratic strength of society and creating a dynamic, participatory and radical democracy, rather than the present system in which mobilisation is seen as a threat and in which the representative democracy can sign away people’s future rights.

The ANSA project aims to evolve into a mass movement, a renewed liberation struggle, through sustained education, consultation, debate and action. It is fully compatible with and an extension of the National Project.


One of the major challenges that the National Project and the ANSA project face is the question of how we in the South integrate our own countries in the face of continuous fragmentation and balkanisation by the forces of globalisation. I identify four main types of regional integration. The first type is what I call distributive regionalism between countries that are roughly equal in economic and political strength. The gains and losses are closely tabulated and calculated. No state surrenders anything unless it gets something of equal value in return. When this kind of distributive regionalism takes place between roughly equal partners that share borders, and when these relations stabilise over a long period of time, it can lead to the second type: integrative regionalism. States are perceived to have compatible interests. Conflicts are sublimated by consideration of the common good that comes from integrating into a single economic or political unit. The best example of this type is the European Union.

A third type is what I call enforced regionalism, where one country is subject to the diktat of another largely because of an asymmetrical power relationship. In theory the weaker partner could walk out of the arrangement, but in practice walking out may be even more costly than a bad bargain. The African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) is an example of this. The fourth and final type is structured regionalism where the outcome is determined not by negotiation but by historically created conditions or institutions in which asymmetry is embedded. One example of structured regionalism is the ACP-EU Partnership Agreement, signed in Cotonou in June 2000.

It is hardly necessary to make the case for integrative regionalism. The economic case based on market size and the benefits of large-scale production is obvious enough. However, the argument that must be reiterated here is the political one, i.e. that only through integrative regionalism can the populations of the region acquire a negotiating clout in the global fora of trade and investment negotiations.

The biggest hurdle to integrative regionalism in the South is forced or structured regionalism imposed on them from above by the dominant economic and power blocs, namely the United States and the European Union. Their interventions result in the disruption and disintegration of efforts that Southern countries have been making to move towards genuine integrative regionalism.


A man or woman with no passion has no heart; one with no power of reasoning has no mind. It is the combination of heart and mind that produces the balanced person who uses their mind to pursue their passion. Let us speak truth to power, but let us also speak the existential truth of our people’s world to the negotiated truth of the diplomatic world to which many of our governments have surrendered their people’s mandate and trust. Let us hope that our collective efforts will lead to a new vision of a better world, one that is fair, just, peaceful and bountiful to all the peoples of the world.

*Yash Tandon is the Executive Director of the South Centre, an Intergovernmental think tank of the developing countries.

* This essay was edited and summarised by Izzy Birch of Fahamu from the keynote speech given by Professor Yash Tandon in honour of Professor Norman Girvan at the 9th annual conference of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES), Kingston, Jamaica, March 2008. The fuller version may be requested from Professor Yash Tandon at [email][email protected]

*Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at

For further notes, please follow this link:

Leave a Reply