Robert Mugabe, new prime minister of the new state of Zimbabwe, is a declared and avowed Marxist. Mr. Mugabe is also the last best hope of bridging with minimum violence and minimum dislocation the transition from white to black rule in what was the British colony of Rhodesia and is now the newly independent Republic of Zimbabwe. And that in turn means that he is the last hope of keeping Zimbabwe in the economic orbit of the Western industrial world.
He is the last best hope because, although an avowed Marxist, he is hoping to find a satisfactory economic future for his people in the Western context, well knowing that if he fails in the Western context he, or more probably a successor , will have to turn to Moscow. Moscow is of course waiting with open arms for an opportunity to be "helpful."
For many a Westerner the above facts pose a dilemma. How can a Marxist prefer a Western to a Soviet context for his country's economic future? Is Mr. Mugabe to be trusted? And why should a capitalist country help a Marxist politician set up a Marxist economic system in what used to be a capitalist country?
It is a fair question and a number of conservative members of the Congress of the United States are already asking it, and will ask it more urgently when the State Department comes to them for money to help in the economic development of Mr. Mugabe's Zimbabwe. The State Department has already promised $20 million in aid for the current fiscal year and another $25 to $30 million for fiscal year 1981. It would like to raise the annual amount to $40 million or even better.
The answer comes in two parts. Part one is that there is no longer an inevitable connection between Marxism and Soviet influence. Moscow of course claims that there should be, and wishes that there still were such a connection. But there are a number of important and some unimportant countries which consider themselves Marxist but have broken away from Soviet discipline and influence. The two most important are mainland China and Yugoslavia. Others include Albania and Cambodia.
The other part of the answer is that Marxism, whether real or nominal, can be useful to the new leaders of a less developed country emerging from a colonial era into self-governing independence. In fact to declare for a Marxist system is the quickest, easiest way of asserting independence from the old colonial system since such systems were capitalists. Hence capitalism is mixed up in the minds of the people with colonialism which they have been taught to consider is exploitation.
Marxism has an enormously important further advantage to the new leader of a newly independent but underdeveloped country. It can be used to justify the privation and austerity which can be essential in building a modern industrial condition whether the system be capitalist or Marxist. No country can jump overnight from primitive to modern conditions without hard work at low pay. Hard work and low pay are more tolerable, or less intolerable, in the name of a "people's democracy" than in the name of profits for some vast foreign corporation.
Is Mr. Mugabe at heart a true-believing Marxist? Who knows other than perhaps he himself? But we do know that in part he owes his success in reaching the top in Zimbabwe to China and Yugoslavia, not to Moscow. In the sweepstakes which preceded the formation of the new black government in Zimbabwe the South Africans and the local white Rhodesians backed Bishop Abel Muzorewa, the Soviets and some British interests backed Joshua Nkomo, and the Chinese and Yugoslavs backed the winner, Mr. Mugabe. The backing in all three cases included money and guns.
So, insofar as pre-victory support influences the thinking of the new prime minister, his brand of Marxism must have more Titoism and Maoism in it than Moscow orthodoxy. But he is also a pragmatist and a good observer of recent African history. Judging by his words and deeds he knows that a gradual and peaceful transition in the Kenya style is better for the welfare and the profit of his people and his country than a sudden and violent transition as in Angola and Mozambique.
Mr. Mugabe says, and appears to mean it, that he wants whites to stay on in Zimbabwe and continue to make profits. He says, and appears to mean it, that he wants to have good trading relations with South Africa and has promised not to support subversion in that country in spite of its all-white government.
This is the first clear case of Washington having to decide whether to support, hence encourage, a new black regime deliberately taking a country from old-style colonial capitalism to something its leader calls a mixture of Marxism and Christianity. It will not be the last time. The tendency will be towards self-styled Marxism. In every case Washington will have to make the choice it faces over Zimbabwe -- either accept the fact of avowed Marxism and help it along -- or drive it into the waiting and willing arms of Moscow.