Alternative Globalizations

Alternative Globalizations. Eastern Europe and the Postcolonial World

Mark, James; Kalinovsky, Artemy M.; Marung, Steffi
352 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Arianna Pasqualini, University of Bologna

This collection of essays embodies the first attempt to fill an enormous gap in the field of global history concerning the role of the socialist world in shaping globalizing processes after the Second War World. The book questions the prevalent vision that portrays globalization as a Western product and proposes a renovated history of globalization and decolonization, shifting chronologies, changing perspectives and bringing out alternative geographies. By doing so, the second wave of modern globalization becomes discernible already in the 1950s, when parallel processes of decolonization, destalinization and the consolidation of the Chinese communist regime ushered in a set of connections, trade links and routes of circulation (p. 6). In this context, socialist countries of the Eastern bloc became active agents in promoting a new model for an alternative anti-imperialist global order.

Such a perspective provides a picture of globalization as a multifocal process of adaptation and mutual influence. By shifting chronologies and geographies, in fact, the authors do not intend to diminish the role played by actors other than the so called “Second World”. They portray post-war socialist globalization “as a process shaping and shaped by […] other projects of connectivity” (p. 6): that of the post-war capitalist order, which embodied a source of emulation and trade, and that of the postcolonial countries, with their project of nonalignment.

The collection consists of 14 chapters, divided in four sections, in which scholars of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China analyse the economic, political, developmental and cultural aspects of the East-South exchange. The first section ˗ including contributions from James Mark, Yakov Feygin, Oscar Sanchez-Sibony, Péter Vámos, Alena K. Alamgir and Christina Schwenkel ˗ provides a framework of the alternative model of globalization pursued by the Eastern bloc from the 1950s, considering the preconditions for its birth, its internal division, its peculiarities and contradictions, its similarities and differences with the Western model, and its shifting over time alongside with social, economic and political changes. The socialist model, originally thought as the antithesis to global capitalism, emerges from such accounts as the result of the dialectical relationship between capitalism and decolonization, as a shape marked by internal pluralization, exacerbated by the Sino-Soviet competition.

The three essays composing the second section of the volume, by Massimiliano Trentin, Steffi Marung and Łukasz Stanek, seek to outline the socialist model of development, highlighting how it had to adjust to the global dynamics, to the competing internal networks, to the multiplicity of the actors involved in the exchanges, and to the encounter with the Global South, which, borrowing Marung’s words, led to a “coproduction of modernities” (p. 159).

In the third section, four essays written by Artemy M. Kalinovsky, Hanna Jansen, Maxim Matusevich and Bogdan C. Iacob point out the complexities of the cultural East-South encounters, which enabled new discussions on race, identities and historical development, raised especially in the international context of UNESCO. By doing so, the authors show the possibilities of exchanges provided by the socialist internationalism, but also the limits and the problems emerged from such encounters.

The last section, comprising three essays by Adam F. Kola, Kim Christiaens, Idesbald Goddeeris and Quinn Slobodian, analyses how East-East and the East-South encounters led to the global circulation of new languages that sometimes upset categories, created competing solidarities and challenged state socialism. In the closing chapter, by identifying alternative forms of internationalism from below, Slobodian highlights how global encounters enabled East German citizens to think internationally, to identify themselves transnationally and to reclaim the language of solidarity against their own regime.

Gathering contributions which analyse the many shapes of socialist internationalism during the post-war period, the book proposes a renovated and multifaceted frame of globalization. It provides an account of the economic, educational, labour-related, architectural, cultural and political exchanges between the Second and the Third Worlds, considering the plurality of actors, the varieties of world socialism, the responses and the contributions by the Third World and, interestingly, the impact of such exchanges on the contemporary world. Forms of capitalism and global integration which dominate from 1989 onwards ˗ most authors argue ˗ are informed by patterns hatched from the encounter-clash between various models of globalization during the Cold War era.

What is almost completely absent in such original account is the post-1959 revolutionary Cuba, key actor within the socialist networks. Cuba played a central role in Africa, both ideologically and militarily. Fidel Castro’s regime became a source of inspiration and a role model to African revolutionaries. Cuban intervention in the Southern African struggle for independence, for example, showed Cuban high attachment to the value of socialist internationalism and its independence from the Soviet decision-making process. With its history of revolution and resistance, Cuba, together with Vietnam and North Korea, held a significant symbolic capital within the Eastern bloc. Therefore, given its strong influence in shaping the communist and the postcolonial world imaginary, the Cuban model should be included in accounts of this kind.

Besides Eastern European countries, actors from China, frequently examined throughout the book, and from Cuba had a key role in shaping the international politics and the socialist imaginary. Trying to investigate the reasons behind the neglect of actors such as Cuba, we can find an explanation in the title and in the introduction, where the editors point out that the volume mostly draws “on socialist engagements from the perspective of the ‘Global North’˗ from Berlin through Warsaw and Moscow to Central Asia and Beijing” (p. 4). Yet the absence of a theoretical discussion on debated terms such as “Global North”, “Global South” and “Postcolonial World” and the strict separation between socialist and postcolonial worlds overshadows actors that cannot be easily included in such fixed categories ˗ in which Cuba seems to have no place and Beijing seems to be classified as one channel of the “Global North”.

It is remarkable that the authors of the collection repeatedly highlight the contributions provided by postcolonial countries in shaping globalizing processes, defining them as the result of the combination of different projects, in which also the nonaligned world played a central role. However, a more discussed theoretical framework and a more nuanced global picture could have led to a more comprehensive analysis.

However, inserting itself within the growing field of the global history of the Cold War, the volume emerges as one of the few works that challenge the dominant narrative on the history of globalization, of the Cold War and of decolonization. It provides a new definition of globalization as the result of historical processes that led to the entanglement of models which were thought to be antithetic. The ambitious objectives of the collection are fulfilled in so far as the global scenario of the entangled processes of Cold War and decolonization is described as a multilocal and multivocal context whose effects reverberate in the contemporary globalization.

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