Mainstream, VOL LIV No 8 New Delhi February 13, 2016
On the Question of Socialism Today
Sunday 14 February 2016, by
The following are excerpts from the conlcuding part of an address that Prof Randhir Singh delivered to the journal Itihasbodh at Allahabad on March 8, 2007. The full text of the address, entitled ‘Future of Socialism’, is available in the Monthly Review website http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org The concluding part of the address was published in Mainstream (February 16, 2008).
It was Engels’ adjuration to followers to ‘not pick quotations from Marx or from him as if from sacred texts, but think as Marx would have thought in their place’. He had insisted that ‘it was only in that sense that the word Marxist had any raison d’etre’....
Accordingly, I would make a few concluding observations on the question of socialism today, again with the help of passages culled from my Crisis of Socialism—Notes in Defence of a Commitment, which carries a detailed discussion of the issues now being touched upon.
Socialism arose in opposition to capitalism with the rise of modern capitalism itself. Marx’s many-sided critique of capitalism soon provide it with a scientific theoretical basis, establishing it as socialism of our times, distinguishing it from its various other forms—some of which (Reactionary Socialism, Petty-bourgeois Socia-lism, German or ‘True’ Socialism, Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism, Critical Utopian Socialism, etc.) Marx himself noted in the Communist Manifesto—forms in which it keeps reappearing from time to time. In other words, socialism came up long before Soviet Union did, and we are socialist because of capitalism and not because of Soviet Union. Some of us were in fact socialist despite Soviet Union. And socialism remains on the agenda of history so long as capitalism lasts.
For Marx socialism is essentially a negation of capitalism, a negation of its economy, politics and ethical-aesthetic values, its multiple alienations and commodification of life. There are no blueprints of socialist society of the future in Marx’s social theory. His scientific method forbidding any such speculation, Marx simply refused to ‘compose the music of the future’. He visualised the construction of socialism, or communist society proper, as constituting a long period of transition. But the problems of this transition were never seriously discussed or theorised by Marx.
There are only scattered references to it in different writings of Marx and Engels, concerned primarily with characteristics of socialism as a transitional society between capitalism and communism (which they regarded as the goal towards which history was moving). The most important single document of classical Marxism here, that is, on the subject of construction of a new socialist society, is Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme—really Marx’s marginal notes to the programme of the German Workers Party, published by Engels after Marx’s death, sixteen years after Marx wrote them. The very title is significant. The only time Marx is drawn into making somewhat detailed, yet all too brief, comment on the subject, it is as a critique of his own party or followers in Germany for their confused and shoddy thinking over several issues, which also included that concerning the socialist society of the future—a critique distinguished for ‘the ruthless severity’ and ‘mercilessness’ typical of Marx in matters of theory. To be specifically noted here is that Marx never saw socialism, ‘advanced’, ‘develo-ped’, or any other, as a social formation existing in its own right (as Soviet Marxism did); that would be plainly violative of its essential character as Marx defined it, that is a transition between capitalism and communism. As was common in his times, there is a certain loose usage of the term ‘socialism’ in Karl Marx. Quite often he used ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ as synonymous terms, both referring to the same kind of society, that is, a ‘cooperative society’ or ‘association’ based on ‘free associated labour’. More specifically, it is what Marx called ‘the first phase of communist society’ which later Marxists, including Lenin, came to describe as ‘socialism’ (as opposed to ‘communism’ proper). Marx, therefore, nowhere speaks of ‘socialism’ as a distinct stage or social formation or of ‘transition between socialism and communism’. For Marx, as the new society emerges from the capitalist society itself, the former is obviously an integral part of the same new society, being its ‘first phase’ only chrono-logically, with the specific kind of developments corresponding to it. For him between capitalism and communism lies no stage or stages, only a transition, more or less prolonged according to circumstances, possibly a whole epoch or perhaps even more than one historical epoch. Lenin, though sharing the loose usage often equated socialism with communism, was equally explicit in speaking of ‘transition period between capitalism and communism’....
I would suggest that Marx’s view here is theoretically correct and politically more fruitful as against positing the transition in terms of stages such as ‘new democracy’, ‘people’s democracy’, ‘revolutionary democracy’, ‘socialist society’, etc.
That there is no foreordained model or blueprint of socialism or socialist transition, certainly none suitable for all countries and all times, does not mean absence of general principles that flow from the Marxist tradition, the experience gained in national liberation and social revolutionary struggles and the efforts at socialist construction so far. For this reason critical understanding of Marxist tradition and revolutionary struggles of the past, and an equally critical analysis of and drawing of lessons from the past experiments in socialism, even when they have failed, is more than an intellectual game; it is an urgent and practical necessity for socialists everywhere, including those in the Third World, seeking a proper perspective on possible socialist transition in their countries....
Socialism, for Marx, is not merely a set of humane economic arrangements; it is anemancipatory project. Marx saw socialism in its transition to communism as humankind’s transition to ‘the realm of freedom’ which according to him lies beyond material pursuits, beyond all activity geared to economic needs. He wrote:
... The realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all modes of production.... Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by a blind power; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human power which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis.
The aspirations or vision that Marx here sets forth is in fact as old as civilisation; it is there, for instance, in Plato and Aristotle, though its realisation, then and afterwards, was seen possible only for a few. Marx put more substance into this aspiration and sought its realisation for all human beings. In other words, economic activity was, throughout, deemed to have meaning only if it serves something other than itself. For Marx this is activities ‘valued as an end in themselves’ (as he phrased it in the Grundrisse), which for him is indeed ‘the true measure of wealth’....
Marx, in line with his mode of thinking, took a historical view of the growth of needs and desires of human beings as one aspect of the general development of human nature, which is also the subjective aspect of the growth of human powers and capacities. His argument is suggestive of an infinite future of creation and cultivation of ‘the wealth of subjective human sensitivity’, of specifically human senses, which is really the same as human nature all the time becoming more human. And the important point is that, for Marx, the exercise of these naturally and historically produced specifically human senses—the sense for music and poetry, art, science and history, love, justice and compassion, and so on—constituted the very essence of a truly human appropriation of life and nature, a genuinely rich human life. That is how in pointing out the alienating, depersonalising and dehumanising consequences of capitalism, Marx particularly focused attention on the fact that for all the glorious human senses, whose active and concrete exercise alone constitutes the true content of a genuinely rich human life, capitalism substitutes a single abstract sense, the sense for property, a particular, historically transient, substitute sense which plays havoc with human personality and plunges man, in the words of Ladislav Stoll, ‘into the terrible inner sickness of a dehumanised world’. Marx wrote: ‘In place of all these physical and mental senses there has ...come the sheer estrangement of all these senses —the sense of having. The human being had to be reduced to this absolute poverty in order that he might yield his inner wealth to the outer world.’ ‘The more you have,’ said Marx, ‘the less you are.’ Hence his insistence that ‘
the transcendence of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and attributes’
. He spoke of communism, ‘the actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation and recovery’, ‘as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being—a return become conscious, and accomplished within the entire wealth of previous development’. Marx added: ‘What is to be avoided above all is the re-establishing of “Society” as an abstraction vis-à-vis the individual. The individual is the social being. His life ... is therefore an expression and confirmation of social life.’ Marx is an individualist in the basic sense that his ultimate vision was a society where every individual could be a fully human being, where, as Marx himself put it, ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’....
Such is the fulfilment Marx’s socialism/commu-nism seeks for humankind. As Engels expressed it, ‘it is humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom’, the end of its ‘pre-history’ and beginning of ‘truly human history’.
For Marx socialism is nothing inevitable, it is something to be struggled for.
Marx was no determinist, ever. Whatever determinism there is in his Marxism is a most conditional one, which accords primacy to human praxis, to revolutionary politics. If attention was drawn to the economic-structural necessities underlying the historical processes, it was for enhancing the freedom for praxis, for not foreclosing but liberating human practice, for freer choices by humans, free not in some abstract or metaphysical sense, but in the only possible human sense of men and women choosing and acting with the fullest possible knowledge and consideration of the necessities of the objective material situation or circum-stances. Such is the dialectics of freedom and necessity in Marx....
Thus there are no inevitabilities in Marx and no guarantees of victory either; only alternatives. Even as he insisted in the Communist Manifesto that ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’, Marx had immediately added that this struggle ‘each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes’. Again, he had hailed the productive achievements of capitalism—‘it has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about’, creating ‘more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all prece-ding generations together’. (Communist Manifesto) But he had also pointed out not only the damage that capitalism regularly inflicts upon humans and nature but also its long-term destructive potential—‘its accumulation process’, Marx wrote in Grundrisse, can have ‘the consequences even for the total destruction of humanity’—a prognosis which Rosa Luxemburg later summed up as the alternative: ‘socialism or barbarism’.
Incidentally, these alternatives to socialism— the threat of ‘common ruin of the contending classes’, and ‘the total destruction of humanity’ —are already a part of the reality of our world today.
For whatever reasons, which certainly included an underestimation of capitalism’s productive potential and resilience, Marx gave capitalism a short lease of life, which allowed for the possibility of realising socialism as an emancipatory project, that is initiating the epochal transition this project implied. In his main theory on the subject, based on his view of the historical tendencies of advanced capitalist development in Europe, Marx visualised the necessity as well as the possibility of a transition from capitalism to socialism/communism in the countries of advanced industrial development, with their mature productive basis and proletarian presence—‘Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with them’ is how Marx put it in The German Ideology. Accordingly Marx looked forward to an early revolution in Europe— though he also recognised (in a letter to Engels in 1858): ‘For us the difficult question is this: the revolution on the Continent is imminent and its character will be at once socialist; will it not be necessarily crushed in this little corner of the world, since on a much larger terrain the development of bourgeois society is still in the ascendant.’ The hoped-for European revolution finally arrived in the aftermath of the First World War but it survived only in Russia, confronting Lenin and his Bolsheviks with a totally unanticipated task: attempt a socialist transition in a single backward country, a situation or possibility that was never theorised by Marx. And now, though not inevitable, the attempt has failed. History seems to have played a trick on the doctrine of Karl Marx. This trick including the failure in the Soviet Union is eminently amenable to explanation in terms of this very doctrine, but more important is to note the consequent reality of the contemporary world in relation to Marx’s own perspective on socialism and the struggle for socialism in our times.
Of this reality three features need to be particularly noticed.
Firstly, as a capitalist world, it is a world of ‘overdeveloped’, ‘underdeveloped’ or so-called ‘developing’ countries. The latter two categories are generally well understood but we need to take a closer look at the ‘overdeveloped’ countries of advanced capitalism. For one, capitalism survives and is indeed dominant today, but as noticed earlier, it remains a failed system. Other considerations apart, capitalism has been a failure in terms of possibly the most legitimate criteria for assessing the performance of a social system: ‘fullness of employment’ and ‘goodness of employment’ of the actual and potential resources available in society. Never before in human history has the gap between society’s potentiality and society’s performance been so immense as it is today in capitalism’s current stage of development. Evidence is there, as we have already noticed, in the extraordinary productive capacity that three successive industrial revolutions have put at the disposal of humankind and the poverty and illiteracy, squalid slums and homelessness that are the lot of millions of families in the wealthiest countries of the capitalist world and the hunger and misery of hundreds of millions of people, living out their empty and barren lives in the hovels of the peripheral or semi-peripheral poor countries of the Third World....
Capitalism continues to survive, but this, by itself, cannot be seen as an argument for the desirability, or a sign of the progressiveness of the capitalist order, much less as any sort of ‘triumph’ of capitalism. ‘That position,’ says Paul Baran, ‘is no more defensible than would be the view that an inability of the human body to resist tuberculosis, however caused, furnishes a proof of the harmlessness or even usefulness of that illness.’....
He adds: ‘The failure of an irrationally organised society to generate internal forces pressing towards and resulting in its abolition and replacement by more rational, more humane social relations results necessarily in economic stagnation, cultural decay, and a widespread sense of despondency. Such a society —even if once the most advanced in the world —loses its position of leadership, slides into the backwaters of historical development, and turns into a breeding ground of reaction, inhumanity, and obscurantism.’ This is indeed the case today, not only in the United States but increasingly in the other so-called advanced societies of late capitalism....
The US leading, these societies are, in a profound sense, to a greater or lesser degree, sick societies. Concerned scholars have written of the phenomenon of ‘alienation’ in these societies, their citizens’ growing sense of anomie and estrangement, of isolation, hostility and frustration. They are sick with these and a hundred other social and psychic ailments born of prolonged living under an essentially irrational system, sick with apathy and boredom, with ‘other-directedness’ and conformism, with fears, insecurities and neuroses of all kinds. Their sustained social regression is reflected as much in the reaction and obscurantism they breed, their frivolous consumption and culture of drugs, and even guns, as in the debilitating barrage of fraudulent politics, barren culture and stupefying entertainment, inspirational rackets and demoralising press, and comic books, to which their people, even otherwise ill-educated, are exposed all the time. Societies in the grip of crises which they cannot resolve, they are inevitably producing deep pathological deformations which manifest themselves variously in different places as racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, ethnic or national hatreds, fundamentalism and intolerance, even as plain cruelty and aggression. Poverty, unemployment and insecurity-related crimes and associated phenomena—ill health and suicides, alcoholism and drug addiction, racist discrimination and criminal violence, violence against women and child abuse, etc.—are on the rise everywhere. In many of these ‘advanced’ societies marginal indigenous populations are rapidly being wiped out for one reason or another. By their very nature profoundly immoral societies, based as they are on domination and exploitation of man by man, along with humanistic values and culture and all human relationships, even their professed moralities and principles now stand devastated by the morality and values of ‘the market’. And, most significantly, there is the near-absence of ideals in these societies, of any concern for a better future to strive for, that has been the motive force of all human progress in the past. The instruments of communication and discovery invented by their technological genius have become the means of debasing people’s under-standing and preventing them from looking beyond the capitalist horizon....
Indeed, the sickness of these so-called advanced societies, the spiritual disarray of the capitalist civilisation they represent, is nowhere more evident than in their cynical idealisation of capitalism as it exists and utter lack of any vision of a secure and more satisfying life beyond their ‘consumerist heaven of instant gratifi-cation’, a life which would be satisfactory of basic human needs—decent livelihood, knowledge, solidarity, cooperation with fellow human beings, gratification in work and freedom from toil—and provide the possibility of men and women appropriating the world with all their glorious human senses. It needs to be added that these societies are all the more sick societies because they need to change the existing state of affairs but are unable to generate the necessary social forces for carrying out the revolutionary change they so badly need....
The continuance of capitalism as ‘sick’ societies of advanced capitalist West has an important implication. In a sense socialism arrived a little before its time, attempted as it was first in Russia, a society that was not prepared to build it. The Bolsheviks had to contend with the problems of a backward, underdeveloped capitalist-feudal social order, problems which caused grave distortions and contributed to the ultimate failure of their attempt to build socialism. Those who may be called upon to build a late-arrived socialism in advanced capitalist countries will have to contend with equally difficult but different problems of an ‘overdeveloped’ capitalism—a capitalism living beyond its time as it were, beyond the period of its historical legitimacy. In other words, as with ‘underdevelopment’, ‘overdevelopment’, too, poses its own unanticipated problems for the realisation of Marx project of socialism.
Socialism, of course, remains on the agenda wherever capitalism exists, be it ‘overdeveloped’, ‘underdeveloped’, ‘developing’ or any other. And there is always the overarching question as to what kind of society we, as human beings, want to have. Surely it is people and not ‘economic growth’ or productivity that must come first in such a society. It has to be a humane society that fosters cooperation, solidarity and respect for universal ethical values, and makes for a non-alienated, ‘truly rich human life’ that Marx spoke of. Of course such a society is impossible without basic material security and need satisfaction. But to believe that you can assure need satisfaction through greed, private acquisitive drives, universal competition and strife —the values of capitalism—and yet hope for a humane society of cooperation and solidarity is utopianism of the worst kind. Subordinating humanity to economics, to imperatives of the market, capitalism commodifies life and undermines and rots away the relations between human beings which constitute societies. Its ethos of the market place—competition, egoism, aggression, alienation, universal venality, in short the rat race—creates a moral vacuum in which nothing counts except what the indivi-dual wants and can grab, here and now. At the end of it all, even when wants are satisfied, the people are ever more subordinated, ever less free, ever more flattened and made passive by the dictatorship of consumerism, that arbitrarily shapes values, imposing on them the heavy burden of uniformity. The values of difference, individualisation (not individualism), all-sided development of man, of human freedom itself, disappear in the market place which is proclaimed to be free. As human beings, people simply don’t fit into capitalism, which is a quintessential market society. For a truly humane society to come into existence, capita-lism has to go....
But, in view of their ‘overdeveloped’, ‘under-developed’ or ‘developing’ character, to speak of socialism in relation to these capitalist societies is not to posit socialism as achievable today or tomorrow, or even the day after, but to posit it as people’s alternative strategic goal, as the principle governing people’s politics which links together their immediate, ongoing and emerging struggles in an ultimate project of revolutionary transformation of society, as the goal of a long transitional process whose specifics and speed will depend on the objective material conditions and the nature and balance of class forces involved at each stage of the struggle....
In other words, while expressions like ‘building socialism’ or ‘building socialism of the 21st century’ have a certain historical and political legitimacy, what is on the agenda is a socialism-oriented development, such that, no matter how slow or halting or contradictions-laden, it is a development away from capitalism and the imperatives of its market and towards Marx’s emancipatory vision of socialism, which, in any case, was visualised as a transition spanning an entire epoch, even more than one epoch.
This, again, is not to suggest any ‘model’ of socialist politics. Just as there is no single or foreordained model of socialism, one that is suitable for all climes and all times, there is none of socialist politics either. The specific conditions or demands and the forms of struggle they generate will vary from country to country. Which, however, does not mean the absence of general principles to guide it that flow from the Marxist tradition and the experience gained in social revolutionary and national liberation struggles. The recovery of these principles is in fact a must for any successful pursuit of socialist politics today....
Secondly, since global capitalism is nationally organised and immediately dependent on national states, national economies and national states remain the primary terrain of anti-capitalist organisation and struggle. Of course an international perspective, working people’s solidarity across national frontiers, remains vital to any socialist movement. And today there exists a focus for such solidarity as has, perhaps, never before existed in the history of capitalism. The universalisation of capitalism has not brought about the cessation but instead the universalisation of struggle against capitalism. When, with globalisation, just about every state is following the same destructive logic, domestic struggles against that common logic can be the basis—in fact the strongest possible basis—of a new inter-nationalism. But looking for that inter-nationalism must not be an excuse for giving up on local national struggles. The main arenas of struggle against global capitalism still remain local and national. ‘Workers of all countries, unite’ remains the motto but this ‘unity’ obviously begins at home. There is a growing space for common transnational struggles, but the established order has still to be primarily fought on our own home pitch. As the Manifesto put it a long time ago:
‘the proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.’
If the historical experience of more than a century since the Paris Commune is any guide this is exactly how it has been. The world revolutionary process has turned out to be extremely uneven and has moved from country to country....
In other words, the nation-state is indeed the concrete terrain on which the struggle for the radical transformation of society must begin and may have to be carried forward. It may be added that to argue that a nation-state—and this includes states of the size and resources of Britain, France or Italy, or for that matter, India, China or Russia—cannot provide the ground on which the radical transformation of society can be attempted is to rule out such a transition for the forthcoming historical period. It is to abdi-cate the struggle for socialism in our time. ...
Thirdly, it was Marx’s prognosis that capitalism in its ultimate consequences could spell even ‘the total destruction of humanity’. But, giving capitalism a short lease of life, Marx never explored this distant possibility. The distant possibility is now an imminent threat hanging over the future of humankind. As noted earlier, Rosa Luxemburg had summed up Marx’s pro-gnosis in her famous poser: ‘socialism or barbarism’. Capitalism living beyond its historical time indeed spells a future of barbarism for humankind. It could be a nuclear holocaust that its politics has threatened for more than half a century or the almost certain ecological disaster which—noise over so-called ‘sustainable development’ notwithstanding— capitalism’s accumulative logic now portends. This makes the struggle for socialism all the more imperative and urgent today....
My observations so far are directly or indirectly relevant to the struggle for socialism in India. But, exemplified by the crisis of CPM politics in West Bengal, the issue of this struggle has also come up, in a sui generis form, at the level of state politics in India which calls for a brief discussion in its own right.
Our struggle for freedom was a struggle to break out of a globalisation whose structural logic meant wealth in England and poverty in India. This was a necessary, though not sufficient, condition to be able to build a better life for our people. Aware of this exploitative logic of the global capitalist market, of centuries of experience of imperialism which provides little evidence of the beneficial effect of foreign investment in countries of the Third World so far as the common people are concerned, and in its own way influenced by the interim successes of the Soviet Union, the post-independence (Nehruvian) national project opted for the strategic goal of a state-led self-reliant development promising economic growth with ‘equity and distributive justice’ to the people. For understandable reasons, it did not work out as Nehru had intended. There was a degree of economic growth but not much equity or distributive justice for the people, and the project ended up building an India-specific government-supported Third-Worldist capitalism. The rhetoric of ‘socialistic pattern of society’ only deceived the people, legitimised the statist capitalism that was coming up and created confusion about it as ‘socialism’ so that when, passing through a series of economic and political crises mid-sixties onward, the project finally collapsed in 1991, it was, and continues to be, misinterpreted as the failure of socialism in India.
The post-independence national project having collapse, 1991 onwards, India’s ruling classes, through their different political formations, notably, the Congress and the BJP, have gone in for ‘globalisation’ as their new strategic option—a shift from the state-supported capitalism to a wholly privatized ‘free market’ capitalism and from self-reliance in economic development to reliance on Foreign Direct Investment and the multinationals, a shift euphemistically described as ‘economic reforms’ which has little to offer to the common Indian people. The much touted ‘growth rates’ are no indication of general well-being in a capitalist society and the so-called ‘trickle down’, if and when it occurs, is no better than feeding horses with oats so that something passes down to the road for the sparrows, as Galbraith once described it. Over the past decade-and-a-half or so, whatever be the benefits ‘economic reforms’ has brought to a small section at the top, it has further polarised our society, played havoc with the lives of our common people and pushed them still further into a peripheralised existence within the global capitalist system.
This is nothing surprising . ‘Economic reforms’ is only a euphemism for capitalist development whose structural logic, as a former President of Brazil once reported it to the masters in Washington, is: ‘the economy is doing fine, the people are not.’ A market-governed economic growth simply cannot deliver ‘inclusive growth’, to use another of the proliferating buzz words of our time. Instead, it is by its vary nature exclusionary, and the logic of the market, with its inevitable winners and losers, only makes for
‘the secession of the successful’,
as the economist Robert Reich once phrased it. One look at their economic policies or concerns, their lifestyles and values, will reveal how far ‘the successful’ of India’s market place have already ‘seceded’ from the vast majority of their supposedly ‘unsuccessful’ fellow countryman.
Pointing out that ‘the unprecedented high economic growth on which privileged India prides itself is a measure of the high speed at which India of privilege is distancing itself from the India of crushing poverty (and that) the higher the rate of economic growth along this pattern becomes, the greater would be the underdevelopment of India’, Amit Bhaduri has written: ‘Destruction of livelihoods and displace-ment of the poor in the name of industrialisation, big dams or power generation and irrigation, corporatisation of agriculture despite farmers’ suicides, modernisation and beautification of our cities by demolishing slums are showing everyday how development can turn perverse. ... The devil in angel’s guise would soon appear when large populations in rural India would be rendered landless, jobless, homeless, incomeless, rootless and displaced making way for gargantuan SEZs, the so-called epitomes of economic development.’
This raises what I have elsewhere described as ‘contemporary India’s most important unraised political question’, the question of a people’s strategic option, an alternative path of develop-ment distinct from and in opposition to that of India’s ruling classes. The absence of this option, an alternative path of development, which can only be a socialism-oriented autonomous development, is the tragedy of the Left in India, part of the larger tragedy of the Indian people today.
And this is where lie the roots of the current crisis or tragedy of the CPM politics in West Bengal. That is how despite its 30 odd years of uninterrupted power in the state, the CPM has not been able to project the image of doing something significantly different from or better than what is happening in other states; instead, operating on the terrain of bourgeois politics, responding to issues it presents and accepting the choice it offers, has entailed a corruption of consciousness and loss of revolutionary commitment. Criticism of bourgeois parties for failing by their own standards and programmes—a staple of parliamentary politics—has led to the CPM endorsing these standards and programmes itself so that its own original concerns have come to be given a go-by. And now, to the adulation of the corporate world and ridicule of the bourgeois media, West Bengal, like the other states, often in competition with them, has chosen to tread the centre-decreed neo-liberal, that is capitalist, path of development. Left rhetoric apart, the only difference is that, possibly because the commu-nists, unlike others, take theory—no matter what it is—seriously, their government alone, in its pursuit of this path (its corporate-led industrialisation and Special Economic Zones), has gone in for a shooting spree against the people!
The best of official defence is in terms of ‘the role of a Left-ruled state government in a situation when the Centre has embraced neo-liberal policies’; ‘The state governments,’ we are told, ‘function within severe constraints. The simplistic notion that the West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura governments can adopt an alter-native model to the Centre’s policies has to be dispelled.’ At its worst there is unqualified justification and advocacy of neo-liberal policies, the corporate-led industrialisation and Special Economic Zones. As this ‘defence’ is repeated by one Party leader or ideologue after another, one is reminded of the ‘secondary illiterates’ that poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger has spoken of —those who had the benefit of literacy once and come to know a few things, know them to be true, but now, gone illiterate, have forgotten whatever they once knew. (The tribe of ‘secondary illiterates’, in a truly rich variety, is growing and prospering outside the CPM too, if the media, especially TV, its talk shows, ’debates’ and ‘big fights’ are any indication.)
Capitalism is today so powerful and pervasive as to have become invisible, and it is all the more powerful for being invisible. You no longer see or recognise it, even refer to by its proper name. Thus it is ‘globalisation’, ‘neo-liberalism’ or ‘liberalisation’, ‘structural adjustment’, ‘new economic policy’, ‘economic reforms’ (and now with the CPM joining in) ‘industrialisation’, ‘development and progress’, even ‘civilisation’ —that is anything but capitalism. If you cannot even see or think capitalism you obviously cannot argue or act against it. And if capitalism is not recognised, its negation, socialism too disappears from your theory and practice. CPM leaders no longer speak in the language of socialism or class politics, not in public at least, not even when bourgeois ideologues or TV anchors get provocatively aggressive. And on the rare occasions they refer to Marxism, only vulgarise it. Here is a gem of a vulgarisation from Budhadeb Bhattacharjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal: ‘From agriculture to industry, from villages to cities, this is civilisation. We Marxists never deny this aim. We too want this to happen.’ One again recalls Hans Magnus Enzensberger. This time his moving short poem, “Karl Heinrich Marx”:
I see you betrayed
by your disciples
only your enemies
remained what they were.
Let me cut this dismal story short and speak of what the situation demands and what needs to be done. The situation demands that we return to calling things by their proper names and that right questions be asked if right answers are to be had. In other words, ‘economic reforms’ has a proper name, capitalist development, which, therefore, has to be rejected by communists or socialists at both national and state or local levels; and the question to be asked is: what can be done and what should not be done in West Bengal in the light of socialist principles? The need is to mobilise all the available resources within and without the Left parties to work out an answer to this question, that is, a programme of possible alternative socialism-oriented policies for the state. The resources are there, among them the Left’s own mass base and organisations, the state’s revolutionary traditions, a significant section of supportive intelligentsia and what Victor G. Kiernan has called
‘mankind’s moral reserves, its accumulation of moral capital’,
which socialism as an ideal can legitimately claim for itself and bank on. Socialism today, more than ever before has the potential to be ‘a movement of immense majority in the interest of immense majority’ as the Communist Manifesto had proclaimed. Whole areas—education, health care, people’s empowerment, ethical governance, environment, the closed down or locked out factories in urban areas, the stalled land reforms in rural areas and poverty and hunger in both places—are crying out for possible socialism-oriented initiatives in the state. The question is really of priorities, of putting politics, that is class politics in command and making socialism-inspired choices. The CPM itself could do with some socialism-inspired rectification.
It is not for me to suggest any concrete policies. This is best done by the people of West Bengal, its workers, peasants and the allied intelligentsia. I will only share a few general considerations. Primarily relevant at the national level, these considerations are not without their relevance for policies at the state or local levels.
The concept of ‘development’ is by nature ideological, suggestive of something desirable, involving ‘the overarching question’ I have raised and answered earlier, as to what kind of society we as human beings want to have. And the answer holds even for our poor and back-ward people. With its subordination of humanity to economy, and the consequent commodification of life, its ethos of greed, private acquisitive drives, egoism and aggression, competition and strife, in short rat race, its ‘pseudo-moral principles’, as Keynes once put it, ‘which have hag-ridden us for 200 years (and) by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues’, and its production process which, as Marx said, turns worker into ‘an automatic motor of a fractional operation’ and ‘cripples his body and mind’, capitalist society is not the society we want to have. However poor or backward today, we need to move away from capitalism-oriented development and, however slowly or falteringly, move towards building a humane, socialist society that fosters equality, cooperation, solidarity and respect for universal ethical values.
Again, ‘development’ is not synonymous with capitalist development, nor industrialisation ipso facto industrialisation sponsored by the private sector, corporate or any other. Nor is it that industrial activities are a natural monopoly of private entities, domestic or foreign. These are all ideology-determined positions, bearing witness to the hegemonic control of bourgeois ideology in our society these days. Historical experience makes it abundantly clear that paths of development other than the capitalist path are possible and there can be varieties of ways of industrialisation. For example, under the aegis of public or cooperative sectors, or as ‘a programme of decentralised, employment intensive rural industrialisation through participatory democracy at the local level’.
The public sector by itself has no socialist implications. But it remains a serious industriali-sation and employment option. Leave aside its successes elsewhere, even in India, the public sector has not been the kind of failure bourgeois ideologues make it out to be. There are,
‘the stunning achievements of the National Thermal Power Corporation, Bharat Heavy Electricals, Nalco, the Oil and Natural Gas Commission, the Gas Authority of India or the Indian Oil Corporation’
as a knowledgeable scholar has recently pointed out. And even the failure of public sector in India, such as it has been, is better understood as the failure of Indian democracy whence alone correctives to its malfunctioning or failure could have come, unlike the private sector where correctives come from the market, though often needing to be backed by the state. Therefore, the answer to this failure is a differently working democracy, an effective exercise of people’s power in the state, and not a market-based private sector with its record of now well established worse failures.
As for corporate-led industrialisation as an answer to the problem of unemployment, such industrialisation generally does not generate much employment. Even as it simultaneously destroys employment in activities supplanted by it and its offshoots, its primary concern with profit-making involves cutting costs including labour costs. It is indeed an illusion that corporate industrialisation with its labour-saving automated technologies can ever generate net employment opportunities. As to the promise of ‘indirect’ employment created in the wake of industry, it has been well-described as ‘a pie in the sky for the peasants’. Above and beyond all this is the overarching issue of the quality and even more quality of employment in this age of globalisation, with its ‘jobless growth’, ruthless competition in the markets at home and abroad, and vast masses of our people reduced to be ‘the reserve army of labour’ for national and global capitalism.
Yet again: that the initial modern economic and industrial development, that in the West, occurred in the capitalist form is no reason to believe that this is the only way it can take place. Marx, who studied and theorised this development, certainly did not think so. In
his now well-known letter to the editorial board of the Russian periodical, Otechestvenniye Zapiski, in response to a critic, ‘honouring me too much’ as he said, Marx specifically disowned any claims of having provided a ‘master key’ or ‘universal passport’ of ‘a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical’. Rejecting the very notion of such a theory, he insisted that Capital contained ‘my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western-Europe’ and it must not be metamor-phosed into ‘an historic-philosophic theory of the general path every people is fated to tread, whatever the historical circumstances in which it finds itself.’ ...
Later, apropos of the possible historical options for Russia, Marx wrote of
‘the finest chance ever offered by history to a people’
to pass directly from a feudal to a communist phase of development. Marx believed that it could, provided there was an early revolution in Russia, early enough to save the peasant commune from being destroyed. Marx specifically distanced himself from his ‘disciples’ in Russia, Plekhanov and others, whose strictly evolutionist Marxism saw history as constituted by necessary stages and postulated the necessity of a capitalist stage in Russia’s advance to socialism. Marx found their doctrines ‘boring’ and referred to them derisively as
‘Russian capitalism admirers’.
Marx’s position also involved a new recognition of the great revolutionary potential of the peasantry....
I may add that historical experience of construction of socialism in the Soviet Union, during the Mao years in China and now in Cuba, more than validates the view that economic development including industriali-sation along other than the capitalist path is possible.
I would here also like to reproduce a couple of passages from Marx and Engels which are in their own way relevant to the context of the issue under discussion. The passages from Marx relate to the Marxist concept of ‘primitive accumulation of capital’:
The capitalist system presupposes the complete separation of the labourers from all property in the means by which they can realise their labour... a process that transforms, on the one hand, the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, on the other, the imme-diate producers into wage labourers. This histori-cal process... appears as primitive, because it forms the pre-historic stage of capital....
Most basic in this process are
those moments when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and ‘unattached’ proletarians on the labour market ... law itself becomes ... the instrument of the theft of the people’s land.... The history of this expropriation, in different countries, assumes different aspects, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different periods.
The passage from Engels deals with the question of ‘small peasantry’:
What, then, is our attitude towards the small peasantry? How shall we have to deal with it on the day of our accession to power? ... we foresee the inevitable doom of the small peasant, but ... it is not our mission to hasten it by any interference on our part.
Secondly, it is just as evident that when we are in possession of state power, we shall not even think of forcibly expropriating the small peasants (regardless of whether with or without compen-sation), as we shall have to do in the case of the big landowners. Our task relative to the small peasant consists, in the first place, in effecting a transition of his private enterprise and private possession to cooperative ones, not forcibly but by dint of example and the proffer of social assistance for this purpose....
We, of course, are decidedly on the side of the small peasant; we shall do everything at all permissible to make his lot more bearable, to facilitate his transition to the cooperative should he decide to do so, and even to make it possible for him to remain on his small holding for a protracted length of time to think the matter over, should he still be unable to bring himself to this decision.
We do this not only because we consider the small peasant living by his own labour as virtually belonging to us, but also in the direct interest of the Party. The greater the number of peasants whom we can save from being actually hurled down into the proletariat, whom we can win to our side while they are still peasants, the more quickly and easily the social transformation will be accomplished.
Worker-peasant alliance was always at the core of revolutionary politics in Marx and Lenin.
Finally there is the consideration that backwardness, such as there is, is not without its advantages. To put it most briefly, we can learn from the past experience with economic development, avoid its negative consequences, for example the damage that capitalist development regularly inflicts upon human beings and natural environment. We can avoid the supposedly Marxist fascination with ‘development of productive forces’ that characterised the erstwhile ‘socialist’ economies and the obsession with ‘economic growth’ that plagues a capitalist economy. We can better negotiate the necessary trade-offs between economic development and social justice, between requirements of produ-ctivity or efficiency and environmental sustaina-bility or quality life which is not entirely a matter of material progress or economic growth. In other words, our backwardness gives us the oppor-tunity ‘to do something new’, the all-important option of a path of development which, subordi-nating economy to humanity, plans and develops it in a way that is, in Marx’s words, ‘worthy of our human nature.’
To conclude: it is simply inconceivable that there can ever be a situation where socialist principles do not indicate what can be done and what should not be done in the light of these principles. With politics, that is class politics, in command, socialism-oriented initiatives are indeed possible at the state and local levels in the Left-ruled states. The need is for the CPM to mobilise all the resources within and without the Left parties to work out an alternative path of development geared to the strategic goal of socialism, implement whatever part of it is implementable at the state and local levels in the States where the Left is in power, and mobilise the people elsewhere for it, with primacy given to extra-parliamentary struggles. This will make the Left-ruled States an example for the rest of the country and help the Party and the Left to rally all the radical forces in the country—NAPM, ultra-Left formations, militant NGOs etc.—to emerge as a genuine and effective alternative to the ruling class politics at the centre, with its own agenda of pro-people, self-reliant socialism-oriented development for the country. Of course, it is going to be long haul and we don’t have to mix up our own mortality with a time-table for the achievement of socialist goals.
But then, perhaps, it is too much or too late for the CPM to make a principled Marxist response to the situation it faces.
Some time back, in a critical comment on CPM’s lack of a strategic goal, distinct from and opposed to that of the ruling classes, and its pursuit of neo-liberal policies in West Bengal, I had written:
May be the Bhattacharjee turn in CPM politics signals that the old fire gone, happily ‘in power’ (rather quarantined) in its three States, the party, ‘changed’ and ‘reformed’ by its Bhatta-charjees, no longer ‘dreams’ or thinks in Marxist or Leninist ways. ‘One residual consequence of the Soviet collapse,’ I have noted elsewhere, ‘is the sudden inhibition of social imagination.’ May be, like so many other Communists and Socialists, the CPM too has gone ‘realist’ and finally succumbed to this inhibition. It may even be that the party does not hope of ever being in power at Delhi with its own agenda, and, unable or unwilling ‘to do something new’ that the situation demands, it sees its future as a pro-people pressure group at the Centre and the best manager of ‘economic reforms’ in the States. There is plenty of room for such social democratic politics in our country today. And, as that ‘most ambitious and intransigent theori-sation of ultra-capitalism as a global order’, Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree has sloganised: ‘one dare not be a globaliser today without being a social democrat’!
But I had then added:
Sad about the situation one hopes that these ‘may bes’ are not yet a reality with the entire leadership of the CPM, that the party retains enough of Marxism and revolutionary commitment to keep its original promise to the Indian people.
Today, while sadness persists and hope has continued to dwindle, a possibility threatens which critics on the Left, including the ultra-Left, themselves unable to develop a genuine alternative to ruling class economics and politics, need to take serious note of. The policies and politics currently pursued by the CPM in West Bengal may well lead to its disintegration and decline as any kind of Left force in Indian politics. And this will be yet another tragedy for our long suffering people.