Life After Capitalism? A Document From Another Time
The French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, who perhaps reflected most on the question of ‘ideology’, once wrote that “ideology moves, but with an immobile motion that keeps it where it is”. Althusser did not make any claim about the truth or falsity of ideology. At a certain level, ideology undoubtedly refers to something that is real or true. What interested Althusser instead, was the relationship of ‘ideology’ to what he called ‘science’ – namely, that critical activity, which continuously works to take knowledge forward. Science, according to him, always lived by focusing on that which it did not know; ideology on the other hand, was that which remained with the obviousness of the already-known. Every new question that a science poses is effectively subsumed by ideology to give us something that we already knew. That is why science, he believed, was always pursued, beseiged and occupied by ideology and had to continuously struggle to free itself from its grasp in order to live.
The CPI(M)’s ‘Draft Resolution on Some Ideological Issues’ prepared by the party for discussion and adoption at the party’s 20th Congress that began in Kozhikode today, is truly an ideological document in Althusser’s sense. It claims to move with the times and update the party thought apparatus but in reality, moves in order to stay where it is. It works to relentlessly re-present all the difficult questions of our times as if they were already known to the founders of something called ‘Marxism-Leninism’.
There are three sets of transformations that form the backdrop against which the document makes its appearance. Two of these are openly acknowledged and positioned upfront in the document itself. The first has to do with the ongoing crisis of capitalism in the West, which has by all counts already reached an unprecedented level. As usually happens, such moments of crisis become opportunities for celebration amongst communists who see in them a vindication of ‘Marxism-Leninism’. So does the CPI(M)’s document, quite predictably. The idea, very simply, is that capitalism’s crisis is seen by default as a vindication of the creed of ‘Marxism-Leninism’. Never mind the non-sequitor involved here. Just as not-A does not imply B, the fact that capitalism is in one of its most serious crises, does not imply that ‘Marxism-Leninism’ stands vindicated – except in the manichean world that the Left in most of the globe inhabits.
The second set of issues has to do with the new waves of mass struggles that shook the world from sometime towards the end of 2010 and continued right through 2011 – and in fact continue to do so in 2012. Beginning with the ‘Arab Spring’, which was more immediately concerned with the question of politics and democracy rather than with the financial crisis, the struggles soon spread to different parts across the world. In a very interesting way, the Arab Spring went on to inspire mass movements against corporate capital all across the Western world.
In discussing these contemporary waves of mass struggles, the document completely overlooks what is new and symptomatic of our times: the fact that virtually all these movements have burst forth from outside the domain of party politics – many of them explicitly positioning themselves against formal politics. In some fashion they hold the formal domain of politics responsible for the hijacking of popular will and point towards the desire for something like a post-party democracy. None of these even register in the minds of the drafters of the document who still aspire to play a vanguard role, little realizing that ‘the masses’ are rejecting vanguards, right and left.
The third transformation forms the silent, unstated background of the ruminations in the document. It remains silent because it cannot be uttered. For it is the humiliating defeat of the 34 year old Left Front rule in West Bengal that is at issue here. It is this traumatic event that becomes the occasion of the long and somewhat agonized reflections on what socialism might mean in the twenty-first century.
The document’s formulations regarding the crisis of capitalism and those relating to the mass struggles are quite predictable. There is not much that is insightful in the analyses of the crisis – save assertions about how correct Lenin was about the nature of finance capital. That finance capital today is an altogether different beast from what it was in Lenin’s time, seems to have completely escaped the drafters of the document. The only real difference, according to them, lies in the fact that unlike in Lenin’s time, finance capital today operates at the ‘international’ rather than national level.
The cavalier fashion in which the document treats issues of credit, mortgages and derivatives is quite astounding. After all, it does not take an economist for one to realize that something like the credit card and the expansion of the capital market have changed the relation of ordinary middle class people to capital/ism. One only has to have lived in this world in the past two decades or so to realize that ‘credit’ in all its forms – and derivative lives – transformed the everyday lived experience of capitalism. This was what gave late twentieth century capitalism its magic. Capital in the late twentieth century was populist capital that enlisted the support of large numbers of people by selling them a dream. Paradoxically, this was also what made it most vulnerable to the people whose lives thus became entangled with capital. That and that alone could give rise to a slogan like ‘We are the 99 percent”. Simply regurgitating old slogans about imperialism do not help us understand anything about the way in which capital was able to insinuate itself in people’s everyday lives as desire. Attempting to understand this late twentieth and twenty-first century finance capital through Lenin’s writings appears a trifle farcical, to say the least.
What is really interesting, however, is that because ‘West Bengal’ remains such a silence in the document and cannot, therefore, be addressed upfront, the effects of its trauma keep appearing in unexpected places. Thus for example, in a section entitled ‘The Working of Imperialism in the Era of Globalization’ we suddenly read that “all through the history of capitalism, accumulation takes place in two ways”: “through the normal dynamics of capital expansion” and through “primitive accumulation” and “forcible expropriation” (p. 10). It is difficult to miss the resonance of Singur or Nandigram here in this reference to forcible expropriation. This section, in fact, lingers on this theme of ‘forcible expropriation’ and tells us that “it has become an important feature of contemporary capitalism” (p. 11). Expectedly, nowhere do we find even a passing acknowledgement of the fact that it was its own government that was executing this capitalist imperative. After all, if it is a feature of contemporary capitalism, how is it that we find Marxist governments, from China to West Bengal, implementing it with such vigour?
The answer lies in another ideological truism. Did not Marx say that socialism could only be built when capitalist development had taken place everywhere? Unfortunately, the ‘socialist revolution’ took place in ‘backward countries’. There was a time when we were told that this happened and could only happen, thanks to Lenin’s genius. It was kosher then to say that Marx was wrong in expecting the revolution to take place in countries of advanced capitalism. After all, there was no imperialism in his time – and that is something only Lenin could see – he who lived in the era of imperialism. In itself a debatable proposition, we can leave this question here for the moment. The point actually is that this presents for most communists of the CPI(M) type, a real conundrum. So was Marx right? Or Lenin? Perhaps both. That is how the CPI(M) seeks to resolve this difficult question. Consider this: “Despite the unprecedented…advances made by socialism in the 20th century, it must be borne in mind that all socialist revolutions…took place in relatively backward capitalist countries” (p. 20). This is said now with a bit of regret. Almost as if, the drafters wished after all, if only Marx had been right, life would have been much simpler! That is why, the document goes on to argue that socialism in the twenty-first century “must establish its superiority over capitalism in achieving higher levels of productivity and productive forces…” (p. 20).
And do we still need to point out why communists in power in ‘backward countries’ must take the same route of forcible expropriation of the peasantry? To better capitalism at its own game, what else? Marx had also, after all, told us that the story of enclosures (‘classical primitive accumulation’) was the true, unadulterated story of capitalist development (the classic form, in his words). That the later Marx (the Marx of say early 1870s to his death in 1883) actually revised all this thoroughly and was increasingly coming to altogether different conclusions can hardly be of any import to the drafters of the resolution. They cannot even be blamed for not even being aware of that episode in Marx’s life, so successfully has Leninist-Stalinist orthodoxy erased that chapter from authorized history.
It also needs to be noted, if only in passing, that the slogan of ‘socialism in the twenty-first century’ that the draft resolution keeps repeating like a mantra, is simply lifted by the CPI(M) from the wave of new thinking in the resurgent Latin American Left. Unlike the CPI(M) that is in denial and refuses to even accept that there is something seriously wrong with the vision it espouses, the Latin American Left seeks to distance itself from the very same productivist imagination of twentieth century capitalism that the former insists on defending in the name of Lenin and Stalin. Not surprisingly, the document gives no indication of either the way sections of the Latin American Left have reinvented themselves and re-imagined their project by putting the indigenous peoples, for example, at the centre of their concerns. The CPI(M), it seems , want have its cake and eat it too.
For its part, all the CPI(M) has to offer us is a rehash of twentieth century state-socialism – which it does quite explicitly. If there is any doubt about that, however, one only has to look at the place that the document accords to questions of caste or the impending ecological disaster, for instance. Reading the document, one is struck by the fact that issues like these do not even begin to touch the thinking of these so-called vanguard/s. Clearly, neither the difficult question of caste and its continued life in contemporaryIndia, nor the vexed issue of climate change figure as ‘ideological’ issues worthy of discussion for the party.
[A shorter version of this article was published easlier in Bangla in the newspaper Ekdin]