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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 27, New Delhi, June 20, 2020

Unmasking Marx in Post-Covid Masked Society | Pratip Chattopadhyay

Saturday 20 June 2020



by Pratip Chattopadhyay*

This is a review essay on Professor Sobhanlal Duttagupta’s edited Bengali volume titled ‘Marx 200:Ekusher Bhabna’ (Marx 200: Thinking for Twenty-first) published by Ananda Publishers, Kolkata in January, 2020. ISBN 978-93-89876-56-7, Pages, 255, Price INR 400.

Pandemic Covid-19 has ‘masked’ us all irrespective of who want and who do not want to ‘hide’ their ‘real’ face in ‘mask’. Global social order exhibits this reality of ‘sameness’ which is expected to continue for some years now. The underlying medical science dictum to fight against Covid-19 is simple- to maintain daily regular hygienic standard of living, at individual and social level. Nevertheless onset of the pandemic - its spread, its effect and its management has highlighted ‘politics’ from global to local level. When possibility of ‘social sameness’ and ‘politics’ goes hand in hand one cannot resist to read and re-read Karl Marx for contemporary guidelines. On that enterprise, this article explores Marx for post-Covid society drawing insights from Professor Sobhanlal Duttagupta’s edited Bengali volume which uncovers a different dimension of Marx on his birth bi-centenary, an attempt tantamount to ‘umasking Marx’.


Since the dismantling of former Soviet Union in 1991, the unrestrained run of liberal democracy with its open-market economy policy has faced regular interruptions in the form of 9/11 terrorist attack, 2008 financial crisis and the latest Covid-19 pandemic. These three moments raises critical questions on management of politics, economics and society in the neo-liberal era led by United States of America. In this period rapid progress in science and technology has to be noted as well. The pros and cons of the last three decades have actually created both attraction for and also indifference to ideas of Marx, indifference for the failure of practices of socialist countries to translate the Marxist idea of moving forward to a classless communist society, and attraction for the presence of revolutionary spirit in continuous resistances and struggles against ‘practices of unrestrained political power’ across the world. Reflecting on the applied reality in post Soviet world rooted in internal differences within CPSU in 1930s and in alternative Marxist understanding of Antonio Gramsci, George Lukacs, Karl Korsch, and Frankfurt school theoreticians, Professor Duttagupta reiterated a fundamental question as to whether “in the name of class struggle and scientism, Marx put forth some kind of universal, bound to happen ideas or he gave importance to people’s consciousness and particularities?”(p.7) Proper understanding of ideas of Marx is essential today because Covid-19 has given a severe blow to neo-liberal capitalist world order and associated way of life and discussion for alternative practices are on and Marxist ideas have always been fruitful to sow the seeds of alternatives to capitalism. Covid-19 originated in China, a socialist country with Chinese characteristic (capitalist technocratic market economy controlled by a regimented one-party system) which is dramatically different from Marxist model of a socialist society (post-commodity economic system to produce for use-value and not for profit). All the countries of the world irrespective of capitalist, socialist, welfareist, and authoritarian systems today have witnessed similar situations of lockdown to combat Covid-19 virus but death toll is on the rise and no vaccines discovered as yet to counter Covid affects. The political narratives emanating from United States accusing China of deliberately spreading the virus, of threatening India to stop trade relations on non-transfer of hydrocloroquine tablets, of criticising World Health Organisation to toe Chinese model of arguments on Covid situation, is a deliberate attempt to put under carpet the real narrative of failure of capitalist, consumerist, developed world to combat Covid virus and associated affects and deaths. The Chinese counter narrative is of silence and nationalist militarization drive to come out of Covid psyche. So everywhere people are questioning the State as suddenly State with its sovereign overlordship is back to the centre stage with people at the receiving end of sudden decisions affecting their daily living. So here is a world which is scientifically super-advanced yet fighting to manage a pandemic Covid-19 virus, both medically and politically. Particularly in India we are witnessing a competition among federal units and estranged centre-federal relations to manage Covid situation as if it will be an electoral issue! Professor Duttagupta in his preface highlights that “practically question of relevance of Marx is associated with entry and exit from power of the leftists. The possibility of getting dismantled from power and what to be done after exist from power remained unaddressed in left political and intellectual circle.”(p.12) Although this remark is typical to leftists, such a task is apt today for all political parties in power across the world. Professor Duttagupta’s remark- “in intellectual exercise on Marx and his ideas stereotypical thinking and practice have resulted in distancing practical Marxism from peasants and workers”(p.10) is crucial today as post-Covid society reflects that stereotypical thinking about cooperation, confrontation, State and international institution can suddenly be put into question and plight of huge labour force (mostly migrant and unorganized) can be jeopardised

Labour in post-Covid Society: Possibility of ‘Proletarian Nationalism’?

As global economy received a severe jolt from Covid situation, the condition of labour-force across the world is miserable and is going to be more so in days to come. The global prescription of continuous lockdown for a sizeable time has hampered the regular interplay between labour and market based on economic exchanges. Before this pandemic it was dawning on intellectuals that the idea of a united labour force as a class distinctly contra bourgeoisie industrialist class as Marx envisioned faltered in twenty-first century real economic space. In the edited volume in discussion, Partha Chattopadhyay in his chapter on ‘Communist Manifesto Ki Ajo Prashongik?’ (Is Communist Manifesto Relevant Today?) revisits Manifesto from the lens of class struggle, colonialism and nationalism. Three comments of Chattopadhyay, viz. “interests of organized sector workers and those of unorganized sector workers have no common ground”(p.23); “surplus manpower were seen as migrants....history of development of primary finance capital and industries in Europe is replete with colonialism for destination of migrants”(p.27); “ the sentence of Communist Manifesto that ‘workers have no nations’....this simple formula could not hypnotize workers in the face of nationalism and national movements of their own countries”(p.28), makes fruitful inroads in understanding the labour cause in post-Covid economy. During lockdown period, the distinction between organized and unorganized labour force was quite evident where ‘relaxed work-from-home’ was contrasted with ‘migrant labour harassment’. However post-Covid economy will substantially cut down on organized labour force in IT industries and in industrial mills like jute and textile industries to balance the loss incurred during lockdown period. Unorganised labourers will also face difficult times trying to get entry in its residential state’s economic space. So there might be an ‘Event’ ala Alan Badiou creating new subjects and new social systems which will merge to an extent the interests of organized and unorganized labourers to clamour for a just economy to protect labour rights to job. In India particularly the issue of return of migrant labourers to their respective states has been an issue of national debate on the nature of federal relations in the country. The migrant labourers on their return will definitely be treated as the ‘surplus manpower’ and their accommodation will be an electoral issue in the coming days. Chattopadhyay in his chapter noted that even Marx and Engels have not highlighted in their works the tension between European powers to get hold of colonial spaces to accommodate the migrant labourers(p.27). Definitely this issue needs to be analysed more in Marxian discourse to make it relevant in post-Covid economic order. Neither in Marx’s time nor in ours, workers (organized and unorganized) have found any commonality across the world to be a united force. In post-Covid economy, labourers would be ready to deal with national economy more than international one and present themselves as a vote-bank to ruling and opposition political parties. In so doing the economic and political utility of labourers will mix and a possibility of proletarian nationalism can emerge. If there are eyebrows about tampering with Marxist idea of ‘proletarian internationalism’, it is not. Rather it is a new understanding of workers’ situation in a new world. Even Chattopadhyay in his chapter candidly remarks— “Manifesto was written to enter into a dialogue with the then prevailing political situation and if we try to cull out some sermons from it, the fault is not with the authors but with us.”(p.30) Strictly speaking the interests of organized sector, particularly those in IT sector with unorganized sector labour force cannot match in face value. In a dialectical way of argumentation reflecting endless dialogue between construction and conflict, unity and struggle, their interests can collate on certain grounds (like right to have job security) in a revolutionary situation of post-Covid society. Shouvik Mukhopadhyay in his chapter ‘Marxer Itihash Chorchay Biplober Dharona: Ekti Sombhabbo Ruporekha’ (Idea of Revolution in Marx’s Historiography: A Possible Outline) rightly points out that “when Marx writes in Manifesto that industrial labour force born out of capitalist production system will be the death knell on capitalism then one can see an influence of dialectic particularly that of (Hegel’s)      master-slave dialectic in work.”(p.34) The State have opened up fair price ration shops for regular supply of basic ingredients for subsistence but the workers cannot believe on State’s continuous philanthropic attitude . Shouvik Mukhopadhyay highlights that “State fails to resolve social conflicts because it personifies private propertied class and cannot stay autonomous and neutral in isolation from competitive class interests of industrialists.”(p.41) Question of reforming the State rather than withering away of the State must be the guiding principle for ‘proletarian nationalism’ in post-Covid society. Ranabir Samaddar in his chapter on ‘Uponibeshbad Proshonge Marx’ (Marx on Colonialism) mentions that “in an era of competitive world trade system the need for revolutionary transformation of a system makes Marx relevant.”(p.56) Post-Covid society has reflected by now an enormous tension between United States of America and China on one hand and China and India on other. While the former is of trade, commerce and politics, the latter is of border dispute. United States of America have came out of World Health Organisation (WHO) on its allegedly China-influenced approach of WHO. China has started to escalate military personnel and constructions across Sino-Indian border areas. So even in post-Covid society, health care cooperation is belittled by rising nationalist fervor among important power centres of the world. In this situation the workers cannot but turn into a national class to serve two purposes — (a) supplement the nationalist fervor of nation-states and (b) enter into a bargaining dialogue with their nation-state itself from a class perspective. Samaddar emphatically concludes — “throughout his life, Marx remained enagged to understand the conflict between class and nation and it continues even after 200 years of Marx’s writing.”(p.65)

Nation-State’s Approach in Post-Covid Society: From Welfare to Equality?

For the last three decades a good number of discussions centered on the utility of    nation-states in the era of rapid globalization of neo-liberal open market economy and shrinking of nation-states’ service jurisdiction was the result. With governance becoming the catch-phrase in post-millennial world, nation-states are given only a ‘steering’ role to facilitate welfare of people through timely service delivery. In the post-Covid society, welfare activities of State need to be crossed to ensure equality of treatment, service delivery and arrangements for all sections of society keeping in mine internal differences among them across the country. For example those residing in slums in India may be representing a particular class but their conditions of living vary across federal units. Revisiting the Marxist template of an everlasting clash between two homogeneous category — the ruler and the ruled, Anjan Chakraborty and Anup Dhar in their chapter titled ‘Banglay Marx’ (Marx on Bengal) argue that experience of rural West Bengal questions this dictum as there are numerous internal differences within the ruling class and ruled class(p.80). Drawing on The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx, Chakraborty and Dhar note that reading Marx it seems like Marx was undecisive about nature of poor rural people living a mechanical subsistence life without any dream to reform its structure and hence rural people was downtrodden while workers and working-class, i.e. proletariat was progressive pro-changers. This dilemma in post-Covid society has amplified for nation-states to come to terms about the internal differences about nature of ‘poor’ in urban and rural areas and provide equal measures to cushion them in times of crisis. To remain oblivious of this difference, which mostly is the case, is a process termed by Chakraborty and Dhar as “colonization of economic geography radar of class-conscious vision”(p.85). In post-Covid society nation-states have to battle against two odds in reality— domination of finance capital and class-pluralism or in other words between homogenization approach and differentiation approach. In the words of Chakraborty and Dhar, “Marx is synonymous with thinking methodologically about two opposite tendencies — domination and pluralism, centralization and decentralization, hegemony and differentiation — at the same time”(p.85) and hence Marxist critical interrogation can be an alternative starting point for nation-states to address difficulties of commoners. Sudipta Kaviraj in his chapter ‘Marxer Rashtrobhabna’ (Marx’s Idea on State) categorically remarks that a “holistic understanding of revolutionary reconstruction of state structure is lacking” (p.87) in Marxist literature and reminds us of Etienne Ballibar’s criticism that in any rethinking on structure of state “freedom and equality should not to be treated as antagonistic ideals.”(p.97) In post-Covid society, nation-states are subjugating under economic pressures to open up spaces of economic activities without taking into account health-related effects of spreading of virus. This step of nation-states of gradual easing of lockdown is due to its incapacity to provide food, health and economic relief in an equitable manner continuously for three to four months. In new thinking of socialist state structure, Kaviraj reiterate that criticism of capitalism and prospect of spreading democracy should go hand in hand and “only then can the twin ideals of revolutionary thinking in contemporary time — equaliberty be attained.”(p.97) In the wake of Covid situation, Nation-states suddenly came up as the main savior of the people(interestingly NGOs have been sidelined to a greater extent much like a socialist state and hence this suggestion of Kaviraj holds good for  nation-states of our times. It is high time that approach of nation-states transforms from promoting only democracy and participation to providing equal footing for all in the society. Lamenting on Marxist understanding of state structure after occurrence of a revolutionary change, Kaviraj concludes that it is “important to remind oneself that there is no conflict between democracy and ideal of equal society.”(p.107) Therefore nation-states in post-Covid society must come out of fetishism with ‘democratic peace’ drive of neo-liberal world led by United States of America and embrace ‘equity-dignity’ approach to construct a new social order in making.

Post-Covid Society: Locking Ego Unlocking Identities

Covid-19 pandemic has erased differences across class, caste, religious lines that have long divided societies across the world. In fact the egoist elite sections of society have not been able to escape from the wrath of Covid virus. In last decade the idea of ‘massification of society’ cropped up in mass communication studies reflecting the milieu of sameness in cultural syndrome across social classes. For example similar songs, videos and movies are being viewed across class and caste divisions. However that did not hindered the egoistic attitude of rich and have’s of society contra have-not’s. Covid have blown out the egoisitic cover of the richer section of society as even they have no clues to stay away from the virus. Today ‘nature’ has forced sameness and equality through Covid and going beyond hygienic standards will affect anyone irrespective of their stand in social stratum. In post-Covid society identities will be umasked in the sense that all identities needs to be protected from the pandemic. Pradip Basu in his chapter on ‘Marx o Akjon Uttorkathamobadi: Ekti Kalponik Songlap’(Marx and a Postmodernist: An Imaginary Conversation) discusses how the decline of Marxism in critical theorization was in part due to the rise of post-modernist post-structuralist ideas. Nevertheless Basu concludes on a positive note of a prospective meeting ground between the two very valuable counter-narratives against liberal capitalism — “in the struggle against capitalism, global finance, imperialism, fascism, religious fundamentalism, patriarchy, national racism, if postmodernists becomes co-strugglers then Marxist thought and movement will be enriched.”(p.137) These ‘social viruses’ have long been proactive creating a structurally unequal society in the age of intensive globalization. In post-Covid society identities — including sub-nationalism, religious minorities, gender, LGBT, workers of all categories (unorganized, IT and organized), caste, class — must be addressed equally not only to protect them from Covid pandemic but to create policies reflecting an aggregate of their demands. Anuradha Roy in her chapter titled ‘Markshio Nondontottyo o Ekti Tritiyo Bikolper Sombhabona : Banglar Obhigyota’ (Marxist Aesthetic and Possibility of a Third Alternative: Experiences from Bengal) interrogates Communist Party stricture in Bengal regarding Party members who were engaged in art and literature to take up the responsibility of propagandist for Party principle and ideology(p.147). Detecting two forms of reading of literature and art undertaken by the Party, viz. ‘sympathetic reading with caution for the theme’ and ‘revolutionary reading to unearth revolutionary potential of the theme’, Roy highlights left minded novelist Bishnu De’s work and opens up a third alternative reading as to “how in a non-revolutionary situation art and literature can create possible milieu of change.” (p.153) This approach can definitely be an alternative to post-Covid societies while dealing with identitarian movements where the main focus would be to change the situations they are into for better economically and socially for all times be it a revolutionary post-Covid or non-revolutionary long term social order. In post-colonial societies like India the role of religion is of crucial importance in the daily life of individuals and society at large. One of the areas on which lockdown has been eased is religious places where limited number of gathering has been allowed in Unlocking 1.0 phase of June 2020. Keeping in mind its negligible economic value, this decision shows the extent religion holds a key electoral value for political leadership. Debojyoti Bandopadhyay in his chapter titled ‘Dhormo Proshonge Marx: Ekti Somokalin Mullayon’ (Marx on Religion: A Contemporary Appraisal) provides a new understanding of Marx on religion by discussing three moments of Marx’s interrogation with religion — school days(abiding moral value of religiosity), youth days (questioning religiosity) and professional days(questioning the use of religion by State and society) and finally distinguishing between religious festivities (differential space of religious groups) and religious values (unanimous space of religious groups). The way tension between secularism and communalism runs havoc in Indian society, one cannot but agree with the concluding statement of Bandopadhyay— “it is essential not to ignore religion altogether but to enlighten that aspect of religion which reflects morality and value.”(p.184) In post-Covid society religious places have a new role - to promote and propagate the cautionary healthcare measures in public consciousness to stay safe individually and socially and political leadership must use religious sentiments not for instilling communal antagonism but for abiding by ‘scientific’ and medically proven healthcare measures. In the entire battle against Coronavrus, Kerala government have fared best among federal units in India simply because it came out of the ‘big brother all encompassing no problem State’ syndrome and created a network with community and NGOs to arrest the spread of Covid virus. Achin Chakraborty in his chapter titled ‘Shreniprokriyake Kendre Rekhe Ekti Notun Rajnoitik Bhashyer Sondhane’ (In Search of a New Political Discourse Centering on Class Perspective) draws insight from Civil War in France written by Marx in 1871 on the experiences of Paris Commune (March to May 1871) to reflect on the possibility of a worker backed State structure. Jumping onto contemporary times, Chakraborty is moved by the success of management of societies by cooperatives across the world and hailing the success of Mandragon cooperative system of Spain and Urangul Labour Contract Cooperative Society (ULCSS) of Kerela as highlighted in T.M. Thomas Isaac and Michelle Williams book Building Alternatives. The Story of India’s Oldest Construction Workers’ Cooperatives(2017), sets the tone for a new political discourse based on intersection between class process and non-class process(p.197) to tackle the problem of distribution and alternative mode of production through a State management backed by workers cooperative by viewing State as a “social site having an aggregate of class and non-class processes.”(p.202) Suffice is to say that post-Covid society must lock egos on the part of State, Government, elites and richer sections of society and unlock/unleash the creative potential, passion and innovations of various identities from self to collective, from gender to cooperatives.

Marx for Post-Covid Society: One or Many?

In the last three decades since the disintegration of Soviet Union, two things happened parallel — at one level there was gradual drive to make practical Marxism irrelevant and at other level commodity fetishism grasped people in a neo-liberal world creating a consumerist society. Commodity-competitiveness has engulfed human society to such an extent that theory-building and theorization has receded in the background. Sourin Bhattacharyay in his chapter on ‘Marx: Noitik Matray Mullotottyo’ (Marx: Philosophizing Value-theory) aptly remarks that “human relationship has been boiled down to commodity relationship where interest-neutral relationship is like a dream.”(229) This one-dimensional social order got a severe jolt following global lockdown during Covid pandemic dawning on us that there may be times when interest-neutrality becomes a key driver in framing relationship and ‘social capital’ in neighbourhood counts more than ‘social capital’ across nation and globe. In post-Covid society any form of one-dimensionality must be replaced by multi-dimensional approach. Sobhanala Duttagupta in the last chapter of the volume titled ‘Marxchorcha: Ekush Shotoker Bhabna’ (Analysing Marx: Twenty-First Century Perspectives) shows how full implications of Marx’s writings were ‘masked up’/covered up behind the iron cage of official structural pattern of Marxist discourse backed by erstwhile Soviet Union and in effect to reduce entire gamut of ideas of Marx to some unilateral, unidirectional set of ideas attaching invincibility and infallibility to it.(p.231) Reading Duttagupta’s interrogations the reader feels that ‘official Marx’ is different from ‘many possible Marx’ that can erupt before us thanks to the MEGA (Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe) project originally undertaken by David Borisovic Riyazonav in 1917 to create an omnibus of write-ups of Marx and Engels in three phases — original language in which it was written; a dictionary (aparat) then to be attached; and then publication of all writings except Capital in one volume, Capital and related texts in second volume and a third volume comprising of letter exchanges.(p.236) This project was halted during World War period and in 1945 under official control of Soviet State Marx-Engels Werke(MEW) project was taken up to come up with 50 volumes instead of 114 decided by Riyazonav. However after 1991 MEGA-II era has begun which “gives us a Marx who is in an endless journey of investigation and findings... who moulds, breaks himself again and again by asking an endless pursuit to search the ‘Truth’ rather than establish any Super-Truth.”(p.240) In the light of this rediscovery of Marx, Duttagupta draws an epochal conclusion — “we have to view Marx’s ideas as a process and not as a fixated social circumventing Marx within rigid theoretical framework to use for our own purpose we may feel contended to have known Marx fully but in reality Marx remain away from our grasp.”(p.244) Underlying lesson from this statement for post-Covid situation is that there cannot be a singular model to tackle this pandemic and every nation-state and society has to engage in a search for an indigenous model to combat the pandemic having dignity, equality and social justice for the downtrodden as its cardinal elements.


We all must have witnessed that while during Covid situation political leadership in India across party-lines have masked themselves us going by medical dictum, political leadership in the West like Boris Johnson(got well after being corona affected) and Donald Trump have not covered their face ever in public appearances. Is this because they think themselves so powerful not to be affected by the virus or that Nature has exposed and unmasked the capitalist consumerist neo-liberal globalised market economic order to the extent that they have nothing left but to accept their ideological invincibility as a myth? Going through a timely publication like that of the volume in discussion, it seems that the second argument holds good because any invincibility is subject to correction through critical questions in times of crisis. As the editor distinguishes this volume from earlier similar volumes by highlighting that it not only hails Marx but interrogates some ‘absences’ in writings of Marx(p.12) by making it a critical project. Post-Covid society is surely going to be a chaotic one searching for alternative modes of production, accommodation, way of life, and to prevent alienation of surplus labour force. These are the themes that comes recurrently in writings of Marx and particularly in the light of MEGA project giving us original understanding of Marx, his differences with Engels, continuity rather than discontinuity between writings of young and mature Marx(p.243) a new Marx will unfold before us. Even if this volume is in vernacular, its ideas are universal in nature. As local experiences become valuable in global order today, an immediate task of translating this volume in English will not only extend its readership but will circulate new ideas, debates and discussions on Marx on a wider scale. The editor along with the contributors of this volume will find solace if a new post-Covid social, political and economic order and a new reading of Marx unfold together in unison in days to come. Let’s Begin from Beginning.

*Pratip Chattopadhyay is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Kalyani, Nadia-741235, West Bengal and can be reached at chatterjee23_pratip[at]

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