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Melanesian Socialism vs. Democracy

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Socialism and democracy are often seen as being at odds. Does this change if we go to Melanesia? In this lesson, we'll see how Melanesian socialism and democracy have interacted throughout history.

Socialism and Democracy in the South Pacific

In the Cold War, basically everyone was expected to pick a side. Either you supported the capitalist agenda of the U.S. and Western Europe or you supported the socialist and communist agendas of the USSR. But what if you wanted to embrace an ideology without committing yourself to joining an alliance within this competitive world of proxy wars? Well, there's one obvious solution: just claim that you made up that ideology yourself.

This is basically what happened in the South Pacific archipelago nation of Melanesia called Vanuatu. In 1980, Vanuatu finally achieved independence and was quickly pressured to pick a side in the Cold War. The leaders of Vanuatu favored socialism, but didn't want to be seen as allies of the USSR or forced to support communist agendas around the world. So, instead, they embraced a form of socialism which they claimed not to be rooted in Marxism, but in the pre-colonial traditions of Melanesia. They called this Melanesian socialism.

Vanuatu in Melanesia
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Development of Melanesian Socialism

Melanesian socialism was first proposed as an idea by Reverend Walter Lini, a leader in Vanuatu's independence movement and the nation's first prime minister. Inspired by the attempts by African nations to resist choosing a side in the Cold War, Lini proposed a native socialism for Vanuatu by elevating the pre-colonial traditions of the Melanesian people.

According to Lini, Melanesia had a long history of welfare, communal support, and resource distribution overseen by centralized governments. These ideas didn't arrive in Vanuatu from European Marxists, but were still ingrained in the village and chief systems that were the root of Melanesian social organization at the time of independence. By arguing this native source for socialism, Lini was able to make a strong argument for non-alignment and worked to keep Vanuatu from being drawn into the violent competitions of the Cold War. Vanuatu was free to trade with both the communist and capitalist worlds, as well as to criticize both for their treatment of South Pacific nations.

The role of Melanesian traditions on the government of Vanuatu can even be seen in the architecture of its parliament building.
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Melanesian Socialism and Democracy

Ever since Karl Marx first popularized the term, there have been constant debates about whether socialism and democracy are actually compatible in practice. This debate intensified in the 20th century, after Stalin rose to power in the USSR and Mao reorganized China into the communist PRC. Both Stalin and Mao were authoritarian dictators who led single-party governments. Democracy was not a defining feature of either the USSR or PRC, despite socialist claims that socialism could only be developed democratically and had to be sustained democratically.

Melanesian socialism, however, was able to elegantly sidestep this debate. Because Melanesian socialism was rooted in native Melanesian communalism, and not Marxism, it didn't have to be understood as a step in the progression toward communism. It could simply exist as it was.

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