My Journey from Marxism to Decolonial Theory

Sandew Hira’s profound recounting of his political and spiritual journey from Marxist to Decolonial thinker and activist, across several decades, challenges those in the current time, who claim that the only challenge to capitalism comes from the left.


On January 15th, 2023 I will present my book Decolonizing The Mind – a guide to decolonial theory and practice. In 600 pages, I deal with many aspects of the current colonial world civilization (philosophy, world history, economic, social, political and cultural theory, mechanisms of colonizing the mind, decolonizing mathematics and the natural sciences) and the idea of a new world civilization of the future. That idea explores the concept of a pluriversal world civilization that incorporates contributions of old world civilizations, including the Islamic one, and the development of a new philosophy of liberation: decolonial theory. In this article I will discuss my journey to decolonial theory and practice.

The road to Marxism

I am one of those tens of millions of people who moved from the global south to the global north in mass migrations. I was born in 1955 in the former Dutch colony of Suriname in Latin America. The country became politically independent from Holland in 1975. In 1970 I moved with my parents and eight of my siblings to the Netherlands, like 100,000 other Surinamese. Their tenth and oldest child stayed in Suriname where he started work as a lawyer. My family has a Hindu background. We celebrated the Hindu festivals like Diwali and Holi and had regular Hindu functions for different occasions.

In 1970 I began high school in Holland. During high school I became involved in solidarity work with the national liberation movements of the global south, specifically the movement against the war in Vietnam. In 1974 I enrolled at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam for the study of economics. The universities of those days were heavily affected by the May 1968 student movement in Paris and in general the anti-war movement against the US military intervention in Vietnam. The dominant ideology of those times was Marxism. Ernest Mandel, a Belgian Marxist economist and a leading member of the Trotskyist Fourth International, was a popular speaker at student rallies. As a student of economics, he impressed me with his arguments about Marxist economic theory. I started studying Marxism and joined the International Communist League, the Dutch branch of the Fourth International.

Within the socialist movement the Trotskyites were on the extreme left. The goal of the struggle was clear: a worldwide socialist revolution. The way to reach that goal was also clear: the building of a revolutionary cadre party that recruits and trains its members to prepare for a revolution. A revolution will come when a revolutionary situation arises in a country. A revolutionary situation is a situation in which the ruling class is unable to rule the way they were used to and the oppressed classes refuse to accept their oppression. Those situations arise during the periodic economic crises of capitalism. In these crises the capitalists drive down the wages of the proletariat. The working class reacts with mass strikes and mass demonstrations. The ruling class uses violence to suppress the resistance. In such a situation the working class needs a revolutionary party of trained cadres who can lead the oppressed classes to bring down the capitalist state by arming the workers and peasants, paralyze the security apparatus from within (workers in uniform who refuse to obey the orders of their officers), and at the right moment seize the army barracks and police headquarters, take over the communications infrastructure, set up a revolutionary government and proclaim the socialist republic. This will inspire oppressed people in other countries to follow this example. Therefore, in all these countries you need a branch of the Communist International so that a world revolution can be realized. For Trotskyists the model of a successful revolution is the Russian Revolution. Trotsky played a leading role in that revolution. The Bolshevik party led by Lenin was the model for building a party.

What did this mean for my daily existence as a university student? I studied Marxism and Leninism in a really intense way. With my student loans and work I bought piece by piece all the books in the series of the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and the Collected works of Lenin and the works of Trotsky. At one point I was a member of the Central Committee of the Dutch International Communist League. Political education, discussions and debates in the party and in social movements were a major part of our work.

Marxism is a science, not an ideology. That is what we learned. It is called scientific socialism, because it has an indisputable scientific analysis of society and history. Historical materialism argues that the driving force of world history is the material interests of the upper classes. Look around and you will see how greed is a driving force in capitalist society. Capitalism and the market economy are the evils of modernity. Look at how the military industrial complex and the multinationals operate. Their profits come first. The solution is nationalization and a planned economy that put people first, not profits. This felt right. It was science, not just a particular moral philosophy. You cannot argue against science.

At that time, we did not care about religion. We knew the slogan “Religion is the opium of the masses”. Our reference was Christian theology. In many countries the Church was supporting the ruling class, so the slogan made sense. We looked at religion through the lens of science. And science taught us that God does not exist, so the world is not created by God. Christians were against pagans and superstition, but how does one believe an ideology that tells you that a man, Jesus, is born out of a virgin, changed water into wine, healed the sick, brought dead persons back to life, drove out demons, made blind men see again, made crippled people walk, healed lepers, fed 5,000 families with loaves and fish that he multiplied, and ascended into heaven 40 days after he had been resurrected. For a Marxist this is superstition.

Another part of our work as a vanguard party was participating in demonstrations. There were always demonstrations: against wars in the global south, in support of national liberation movements, for women’s liberation, against austerity measures by the government or the celebration of the International Workers’ Day on the first of May. There was a certain culture with demonstrations. The most touching part was the singing of songs of liberation: The International, Italian songs like Bella Ciao and Avanti Populo Bandera Rossa, the anthem of the South African liberation movement Nksosi Sikelel’i Africa and Un Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido from Chilean Singer Victor Jara who was brutally murdered in the 1973 fascist coup in Chile. These songs are ingrained in my heart and I still cherish them today. Even now they invoke in me deep emotions of international solidarity.

The rhythmic shouting of slogans were a way to express anger, solidarity, messages of what are we fighting for and sometimes just fun.

In our Marxist philosophy the demonstration could – under the right circumstances – be the spark to ignite something bigger: a revolution. Sometimes there were confrontations with the police. They could be provoked by the police – just to test us and break the spirit of the demonstrators – or they could be stoked by the demonstrators. The anarchists were eager to engage in physical confrontation with the police and often the Trotskyites joined them. Occasionally these confrontations ended with arrests and a few hours in a police cell.

Demonstrations and mass strikes would create a revolutionary situation in which the vanguard party could act and seize the initiative for an insurrection. It never came to that stage in my lifetime. Usually, after the demonstration we went home, had something to eat, watched television and fell asleep.

Our socialist culture has the Russian revolution as a reference point. It was the dawn of a new world, free from oppression and exploitation. In 1921, a young revolutionary, Victor Serge (1890–1947) went through the archives of the tsarist secret service and wrote a guide for revolutionaries in the world “What everyone should know about repression”. He wanted to share this knowledge so that revolutionaries in the whole world would know how the security services worked. The Russian revolution established the Communist International in 1919 to promote world revolution, international solidarity and the liberation of mankind. Revolutionaries from different parts of the globe came to the annual international congresses in Russia and sang the song of hope in different languages. The revolution brought massive gains for women: the constitution guaranteed equal rights for men and women, abortion was legalized, women got universal suffrage, maternity leave was legalized, child-care centers were established in all parts of the country, social dining rooms and social laundries would relieve the burden of household work for women. Homosexuality was legalized. Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952), the first female member of a government in the world, wrote about how the revolution would change the relationship between men and women in areas of love and sexuality.

Friedrich Engels explained in his book on The origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that the family is a unit of oppression. There was a phase in history where women had mother rights through the institution of matriarchy. “The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.”[1]

I was a member of the International Communist League. My partner in life and love, Sitla Bonoo, was a leading member of a collective of Surinamese feminists, Ashanti, that published a feminist newspaper. We were against the bourgeois institution of family. Marriage was not an arrangement between families, as was common in our Indian culture, but a bourgeois institution. When we expected our first child we needed a marriage contract to take care of all the judicial aspects of child bearing and family obligations and rights. During a political meeting, we took a break to go to the city hall to marry. Our families were there to witness it, but they were not amused. After signing the contract, we went back to the meeting.

This is the culture and environment we grew up in. It was secular. It was militant. It was principled and did not know compromises.

Every student-activist enters a new phase in life, when (s)he graduates. A few might find a job at an NGO that enables them to see their work as part of the liberation struggle. But most of them have to enter the labour market as a wage-slave or a private entrepreneur (petite bourgeoisie). I had acquired the technical skills to conduct social research. I could not work under a boss, so I started a private company that offered research and project management services: surveys, desk research, interviews, brainstorming and the management of projects. I fared reasonably well. But there was a Chinese wall between my political work and the way I earned a living. Just like a worker goes to a factory to earn a living and after work can engage in political activities, so in my work time I did what I had to do to earn a living, and after work I would get involved in political activities. There was no connection between work and politics.

There were two projects in my work that brought me into contact with politics, and more specifically, with religion and Islam.

In 1996 I got an assignment to conduct a study of the Turkish Alevi community in the Netherlands for the publication of a book for the Dutch audience about Alevism. There I got a chance to do an in-depth study of Islam and in particular of Shi’ism. I saw that there were two schools of Shi’ism in Turkiye. The classical school that followed the life and teaching of the prophet Muhammad (570-632) and the fourth caliph Ali Ibn Abu Talib (600-661) and the school of the Bektashis, followers of Haji Bektash Veli (1209-1271), a mystic from Khorasan (Iran), who lived and worked in Anatalia (Turkiye). I carried out field work in Turkiye and in the Bektashi communities in Holland. The Bektashis don’t have mosques. They have cems. A cem is a ritual in which men and women join in singing and dancing. The research equipped me with some basic knowledge of Islam.

A second assignment was closely linked to politics and in some ways also to Islam. When Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Oslo Accords 1993 (Oslo I) and 1995 (Oslo II), a consequence was that from the Palestinian side there needed to be a practical plan of how the future of Jerusalem would look. Orient House in East Jerusalem, led by Faisal Husseini, served as the headquarters of the (PLO) in the 1980s and 1990s. They hired consultants from around to world to get involved in developing a vision for the future of Jerusalem. Through a contact from our network I became part of a research group that wrote a report titled Envisioning the Future of Jerusalem. Together with my Palestinian counterpart, the economist Dr. Samir Hazboun, we wrote the economic chapters of the report. I made three visits to Palestine for this project: Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. The report was published in 2003[2].

The Oslo Accords became a disastrous failure for the Palestinian people. The hope for peace is now gone. I witnessed the daily harassment of Palestinians by the Israelis and now believe that there is no way that the occupation will last forever. In my book I devote a paragraph to the argument that Israel will cease to exist in 2-3 decades. The occupation and oppression is just not sustainable in the long term.

During my trips to Palestine, I visited the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and was impressed by their beauty and historical and cultural significance for the world.

From Marxism to Decolonial Theory

During my membership of the Fourth International (FI) I began to doubt some basic tenets of Trotskyism and Marxism. How is it possible that the FI, that was founded in 1938, was not able to lead a revolution, although since then, there have been many successful revolutions? If they have the best theoretical analysis and the best cadre formation, why did they not succeed in turning the theory of revolution into practice? I met some great people in the FI, very smart and intelligent, very committed to the struggle and courageous in their attitude. But there is a culture of sectarianism that just did not resonate with me. There is no room for compromise. It is all about principles. There is constant infighting. A comrade from Latin America once told me jokingly: “Un trotskista una facción, dos trotskistas un partido, tres trotskistas una Cuarta Internacional.” In English it means “one Trotskyist one faction, two Trotskyists a party, three Trotskyist a Fourth International”. Often it seems as if the main enemy was not capitalism or imperialism, but Stalinism. My instinct and political analysis of struggle tells me that unity in struggle is the key for victory. Creating unity in social movements is not a tactical question. It is not about signing joint declarations against imperialism. It is about a culture of respect, dialogue, creating friendship and giving room to others to develop and excel. It is about acknowledging that you might be wrong and others might be right, but finding a way to work together and when mistakes are made correcting them together. It is not a scientific analysis. It is a moral principle.

I apply that principle in practice. I am a huge supporter of the Cuban revolution. I am an admirer of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and those courageous revolutionaries that conducted the struggle for liberation in Cuba. And if there was no Trotskyist involved, than that is a problem of Trotskyism, not of Castro. When an honest history of the world is written, then the contribution of the Cuban revolution to the struggle outside Cuba will not be over-exaggerated. The liberation of South Africa was in part possible because of the Cuban military struggle against the South African army in Angola where they dealt a decisive blow to South Africa in the battle of Quito Canavale in 1988. Cuba’s support for social movements in Latin Abya Yala (America = Abya Yala) has brought the continent to where it is now. And that happened despite the enormous costs of the economic boycott by the US.

The year 1979 was a pivotal year in world history. On January 7 the People’s Army of Vietnam and Vietnamese-backed Cambodian insurgents ousted the Pol Pot regime from power in Cambodia. On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from his Paris exile after a revolution led by clerics had brought down the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. On March 13, 1979, the New Jewel Movement (NJM) of the 110,000 Afro population of the island of Grenada overthrew the government of Eric Gairy in a bloodless coup and started a socialist revolution. The NJM was led by the charismatic Maurice Bishop. On July 19 the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew the 46-year-long Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua after decades of struggle.

The Grenada revolution was of huge significance for the people of the Caribbean and the Black population in the US. Its impact went beyond the size of the island and its small population. It was the first black revolution after the Haitian revolution of 1804. It was a big inspiration for the socialist and anti-imperialist movement in the Caribbean and the Caribbean communities in the US and Europe.

I was heavily involved in the solidarity movement in the Netherlands in support of the Grenadian revolution. I was president of the Grenada Solidarity Committee. With a group of supporters we visited the island on July 1983, three months before the dramatic split in the NJM occurred when a faction under the leadership of Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard arrested Maurice Bishop on 16 October 1983 and placed him under house arrest. Mass demonstrations against the coup succeeded in freeing Bishop. He was eventually captured and murdered by a firing squad of soldiers, along with his partner and several government officials and union leaders. The US seized upon this opportunity and on October 25 it launched a large-scale military invasion that had been years in the planning. It put a swift and final end to the revolution. Bernard Coard was captured and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was released in 2009.

The failure of the Grenada left a lasting impact on me. It made me question the basic tenets of Marxism and socialism. Is there no ethics in Marxism? How is it possible that somebody like Bernard Coard who has grown up with Maurice Bishop since early childhood could end up being involved in his murder? Is there something in the theoretical construct of Marxism that enables such horrendous crimes to be committed in the name of socialism?

There was another political event that impacted my life dramatically. On February 25th, 1980, a group of non-commissioned officers of the army in Suriname staged a coup d’etat. The group was led by Desi Bouterse. The group was diverse in its political orientation. There were left-wing and right-wing forces in the group. I did not support the coup. The left gained influence, which led to counter reactions from US and Dutch imperialism. The insurgents installed a civilian government under the leadership of president Chin A Sen, a right-wing nationalist. His government did not last long because the left wing of the army did not like him. Several efforts at a counter coup climaxed on December 8, 1982 in the arrest, torture and execution of 14 people. One of them was my brother, who had stayed behind in Suriname when our family left for Holland. A military government was installed.

I studied in Rotterdam but was in my parents’ house in another city when the news came through about my brother’s execution. I still remember how my mother cried out loud and couldn’t stop crying. My father was a broken man. Their first-born child had been tortured and shot like a dog. To witness my parents, who I dearly love, in such inconsolable grief was very painful for me.

A few days later a high official of the Dutch Ministry of Interior Affairs called me. He invited me for a meeting with former president Henk Chin A Sen. Chin A Sen explained to me that he had gone to the US, where he met with the CIA. They planned an invasion of Suriname, similar to the contras in Nicaragua. They tried to enlist the support of left-wing activists who were opposed to the coup. He asked for my support. I flatly refused. I could never join a CIA coup, although I saw the pain of my parents and their wish for revenge. It brought some strain in my relations with my parents, which hurt me a lot, because I love them so much. The CIA coup plan was aborted.

In Suriname there was another left-wing force against the military government and against foreign invasions. It was led by Fred Derby, the most important trade union leader at that time. His trade union federation controlled the most important sectors of the economy. From Holland I joined his efforts to build a campaign to get the military back to their barracks and reinstate civilian rule. At the end of the day the military agreed to civilian rule. In 1987 the first elections after the coup were held. The trade unions formed a political party: the Suriname Labour Party. I was involved in drafting the founding document. The party did not do well at the elections. They did not get any seats. The old parties won at a canter. In 1991 they joined the old political parties and entered the government. They became part of the establishment. I left the party.

Over the course of their life, many activists might come to a point when they evaluate their struggle. What are we fighting for? What have we achieved? Was it worth it? You can approach these questions in two ways: theoretically and personally. In both cases, you need time to think.

After my experience with Suriname, I dropped out of politics. My mother died in 2011 and my father a year later. They had never found happiness again after December 1982. I develop my consultancy business and in my free time became involved in culture, notably in writing books on history. In 2009, I was invited to present a paper on the history of slavery in Suriname at a conference in Amsterdam, where I met Ramon Grosfoguel. Ramon introduced me to decolonial theory. In 2012 he invited me for a conference on Decoloniality in Europe.  There I met Arzu Merali and Raza Kazim from the Islamic Human Rights Commission. Out of this encounter the Decolonial International Network arose. Through IHRC, I got re-acquainted with Islam. I started to work on decolonial theory, specifically on Decolonizing The Mind, and re-engaged in activism. In 2010 I began a weekly column on a popular Surinamese news site where I dealt with issues of decolonizing the mind. Many things had changed in Suriname. Shortly before the first elections in 1997 reactionary Suriname groups located in Holland managed to finance a group of rebels in the interior of Suriname that led to a bloody war that left 450 people dead out of a population of 500,000. Army leader Desi Bouterse had gone into politics. His National Democratic Party, with an anti-colonial and progressive platform, steadily grew support in successive elections. In 2010 his party formed a coalition government with Bouterse as the president. In 2015 his party won the absolute majority of the parliamentary seats and he became president again. Bouterse always held that the December 1982 executions took place without his consent and that it was an act that had happened while he was not at the actual scene. The December killings had caused a deep split in Surinamese society, both in Suriname and in the Surinamese community in Holland. There were differing opinions on how to heal the divisions: amnesty, truth and reconciliation, court cases. In my columns I made the link between the December killings and the Interior war and argued for dialogue and truth and reconciliation. This position came from decolonial theory and the way to overcome colonial traumas. It brought me back to politics and activism. Since 2015 I have been involved in a trajectory of truth and reconciliation in Suriname with president Bouterse. In this podcast with Arzu Merali I deal with this whole episode.

In the coming years I will spend time to build the Decolonial International Network. I will do book tours in different countries and meet academics and activists who are working on decolonial theory and practice. I will travel a lot in my political work. But things have changed.

In my Marxist period I always had a problem with how Marxism dealt with love, family and friendship. Class struggle was devoid of these topics. It is all about economics and politics. I always felt that there is more to life than that. Alexandra Kollontai had discussed how the Russian revolution changed the love life of people. In her short stories titled Love of Worker Bees she recounts how the revolution had changed relations between men and women and introduced the notion of free love[3]. That does not resonate with me at all. I am a revolutionary and a romantic. I believe that every revolutionary is a romantic. We fight for a world in which there is an end to oppression and exploitation. We dream of a world in which people live in peace, love, welfare and harmony. We are revolutionaries, because we believe that this world will not come about without a fight, without dedication and without sacrifices. We are romantic, because love is the basis on which we act in our daily life.

As a young boy I always dreamt that I would fall in love with a beautiful girl, who would love me as much as I love her, with whom I would walk hand in hand for the rest of our lives and who would start a family with me. I don’t regard family as a unit of patriarchy and oppression, but as a unit of love, care and happiness. I was twenty and she was eighteen when we met. We were deeply involved in activism and political struggle. We pledged to spend our lives together. Ten years later our daughter Pravini was born. Seven years later our son Amrit was born. They are the suns that light our life. Two years ago our granddaughter Diya was born. She is the supernova in our life. Marxism does not have a theory of love. I think decolonial theory should have one, which teaches us that family, friends and love are the bedrock of our existence as human beings.

Over the past ten years I have been invited to discuss decolonial theory at conferences, lectures and workshops in Belgium, Curacao, England, Finland, France, Malaysia, Mauritius, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Suriname, Venezuela and the United States. A certain pattern characterises during my journeys. Before I board the plane I phone Sitla to tell her I am boarding. When I land, I tell her that I have landed. When I arrive in the hotel I call to say that I have settled. My days are filled with meetings, presentations and discussions. When I am back in the hotel, we talk, gossip and kiss each other good night over the telephone. When I embark for Holland, I let her know. All the time I miss her, until I land, and we hug and kiss.

There was nothing abnormal in this routine, until my daughter, who is an activist and singer, produced a musical documentary titled The Uprising, that deals with decolonial theory through music. She did a tour of different countries. Her mother went with her. We kept the same routine, but when I woke up, I felt lonely. I work from home. When I had lunch, I felt lonely. When I had dinner, I felt lonely. When I went to sleep, I felt lonely. When she returned from her first tour with Pravini I asked her: “How come you never complained about loneliness when I was on tour? Were you glad that you had some time off from me? I think I love you more than you love me.” She laughed and said: “I am as busy here as you are abroad. Life is about being together. So I would love to travel with you, because I miss you just as bad as you miss me.” That is when we decided that in the future we will go together on tour. And so I hope that when we are abroad we start our day with a good morning kiss, fulfil our political and social obligations, Facetime with our granddaughter and end our evening with a goodnight kiss. I dream that we can walk hand in hand in love till eternity.


Sandew Hira[4]’s latest book Decolonizing the Mind: A guide to decolonial Theory and Practice will be published on 15 January 2023 and will be available on various platforms including the IHRC Bookshop. He has world-wide tours scheduled. For more information visit Hira’s website or the IHRC pages.  He is secretary of the DIN Foundation based in The Hague in The Netherlands.  He is a well known activist, author and researcher.  He heads the editorial board for Amrit Publishers, and is the founder of the International Institute for Scientific Research.  You can find many videos of his lectures on Decolonising the Mind and relate

[1] Engels, F. (1962), p. 30.

[2] The International Peace and Cooperation Center (2003): Envisioning the Future of Jerusalem.

[3] Kollontai, A. (1978): Love of Worker Bees. Cassandra Editions. Chicago

[4] Sandew Hira is the penname of Dew Baboeram. He is secretary of the Decolonial International Network Foundation.

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