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Life After Capitalism? A Document From Another Time

April 4, 2012

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]

15 Comments leave one →
  1. sambukan permalink
    April 4, 2012 11:36 PM

    It is a Brahmanical stuff …… naturally intellectually impotent …… castrated document….

  2. Soumitra Ghosh, North Bengal Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers permalink
    April 5, 2012 12:05 AM

    But did CPI(M) ever believe in class struggle? One remembers its initial stints in the Government in West Bengal way back in 1967 and 1969–revolution was on the air then and all the walls abuzz with revolutionary graffiti. Were things fundamentally different even then? Did the party, after the split in 1967, ever seriously consider anything other than ‘good’ social democracy–if there’s such a thing? An anecdote here: Comrade Jyoti Basu, the undisputed icon of the CPI(M) in Bengal and perhaps also in India thus advised his young Confidential Assistant(usually a party recruit) in his first year(1967) in the Writers Buildings: “Do you really believe in revolution? Well, then, you better understand that revolution will not come in this country—we can at best be a bourgeois party, a good one. You’ll have to choose between the revolution that won’t ever succeed and us”. The CA didn’t listen to these words of wisdom, went underground, and ultimately landed in prison. He got disillusioned with the 1960s brand of revolution later, but that’s another story.

    The point here is that the CPI(M) always wanted to share state power with all the non-revolutionary and reactionary parties, despite all its ideological pretensions. Sankarda is shocked in not finding class struggle in their political resolution, but what’s in a few words?
    The class struggle of CPI(M), if ever, consisted of anti-feudal land struggles up to a point, but that too vanished as a new breed of feudal chieftains took control in rural Bengal in the name of party hegemony. The militant trade unionism disappeared soon–and the new class of trade union leaders became some of the most corrupt politicians imaginable, who not only short-sold the workers and their struggles but also the factories–literally. The so-called political line of fostering ‘progressive’ capitalism to usher in socialist revolution is a fable which nobody in the party believed, the least those in Bengal. In 1978, the then Bengal party Secretary Pramod Dasgupta issued a party letter with a call for transforming CPI(M) into a mass party. The ranks kept on swelling ever since then–and most people who came in never heard of a political resolution, let alone reading or believing in one. It was rank, crash opportunism–people flocking together looking for quick monetary or other material gains. The older people in the party who once suffered a lot had by then had either metamorphosed into ministers or were too apathetic(sometimes even terrorised) to speak out. The rot therefore spread unchecked.

    The Indian state has long since gobbled up the mainstream left including CPI(M)–flesh, skin and hoof. Can it emerge afresh, from the devil’s belly? Not likely, given how the party lived during the 40+ years of its existence. Apparently it enjoys being devoured.

  3. April 5, 2012 12:06 PM

    Aditya, good article and I cannot agree with u more. If Marxism can be considered as a theory in Social Science it has to change with new evidences like any other Scientific theory. A political party like CPM founded on such theory will also have to change it’s ideological position as Science advances and Society changes.
    Unfortunately for many in the Left camp Marxism-Leninism is like a Divine Book, unquestionable!

  4. April 5, 2012 1:35 PM

    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.

    This sounds interesting..I’ve never heard of this before. DId he write any further books on the subject? And was it a disillusionment with his earlier views on communism or something else?

    • Aditya Nigam permalink*
      April 5, 2012 5:57 PM

      Rex, actually, he did not write anything significant after that. It is well-known of course, that Marx’s most widely circulated wirititng on India, for example, (Future Results of British Rule in India and another follow up piece) were written early in his career as a ‘Marxist’ in the 1850s when his information about India was actually quite sketchy. It was basically in the period after 1872 (till his death) that he undertook a serious study of non-Western societies (also non-capitalist in varying degrees) like Eastern Europe, Russia, India, China, Indonesia, Algeria and Latin America.Already, by this time he he had revised the theory of history that came to be associated with his name and with the first edition of Das Kapital. He had already begun to feel that that unilinear view of history was unsustainable and that there were societies that really did not have the private property form (and also capitalist development) of the kind that Western Europe had. The entire episode of these nine years would have been lost to us, thanks to the Lenin-Stalin orthodoxy, had it not been for a Japanese scholar Haruki Wada, who unearthed it from archival materials in the 1960s. A book by Teodor Shanin in the early 1980s, brought some of this material together in a book called The Late Marx and the Russian Road.
      Really, it is not his theory of communism that is at issue here but, at some level, the more important question of whether all societies must follow the same historical trajectory. The theory of communism is premised on the assumption that there is a universal history of human society that is ushered in by capitalism and socialism and communism only build on that. This is what is really at stake here.

      • April 6, 2012 10:02 AM

        Thanks for the detailed reply.

        whether all societies must follow the same historical trajectory.

        Could that be the reason for the Sino Soviet split in the 50s? As I understand it, Mao felt that the Russian model of Communism was not applicable to China or something like that.


      • Longmemory permalink
        April 10, 2012 11:30 PM

        Longmemory: like many, I am aware of Shanin’s book. In fact, he gave a talk on the radically different Late Marx at Godavari hostel in JNU sometime in the early 1980s. I was standing at the outside edge of a “Standing Room Only” crowd (those were the days indeed!) hanging on to every word. Suddenly, from behind me, a short, stocky man standing on his tip-toes said with a strong Punjabi accent, “arre, yeh kiska line de raha hai?” I turned around to find none other than my professor, Bipan Chandra! What has surprised me since is that the Shanin book and the profound revisions it calls for in our understanding of Marx don’t quite seem to have caught on. Or maybe I am just remiss in reading more on it. Citations welcomed! As to the CPM’s sclerotic thinking, there is an essay to be written about its always-theological approach to reality, its ineffable upper-caste roots and attitudes to thought, and the latest document is hardly a surprise. Why would they focus on caste struggle in India at this time when all the truths come uncomforably home in the literal sense of that term? Long ago O.V. Vijayan’s brilliant novels exposed the Indian left’s (and the rest’s) humbug – they remain worthy reading.

  5. questioning permalink
    April 5, 2012 2:44 PM

    Something about Althusser:

    “In fact, my philosophical knowledge of texts was rather limited. I…knew little Spinoza, nothing about Aristotle, the Sophists and the Stoics, quite a lot about Plato and Pascal, nothing about Kant, a bit about Hegel, and finally a few passages of Marx…Starting from a simple turn of phrase, I thought I could work out, if not the specific ideas of an author or a book I had not read, at least their general drift or direction. I obviously had certain intuitive powers…”

    thats’ from his posthumously published memoir.

  6. Venkatesh Bapat permalink
    April 5, 2012 9:54 PM

    Stalin and Mao by themselves accounted for a 100 million deaths. Long live the revolution! Zindabad! Zindabad!

  7. Inasu/poet-writer/Paris permalink
    April 5, 2012 11:06 PM

    Cher Aditya,

    Excellent reflections on the evolution of Marx’s theorisations and their relevance or irre-levance in the Indian context. As for Althusser, the above phrases quoted from his posthumously published memoir shed enough light. It has been recently discovered that he strangled his wife(!) apparently during an uncontrollable rage. As for the “universality” of Marxism/Communism/Leninism/Stalinism, it is all derived from the Judeo-Cristian notion of being “called” or “elected” to save the world. Marx was no exception to this legacy nor Che Guevarra who toiled with missionary zeal to spread “communism” and to bring about “the kingdom”. Latin America being highly influenced by Catholicism turned out to be a rather fertile terrain for the experimentation with, as you rightly pointed out, the indigenous cultural ethos and valu orientation. Regis Debray, in his almost autobiographic novel THE MASKS some 20 years bqack, mentions sadly that he could not understand his Latin A’can comrades as their reactions to issues and situations were entirely different from his, from Western Europe. Remember Althusser was his professor! In India, the Left politics should have taken up long ago the question of caste, religion, environment and invented a new definition of “progress”, “order” and “governance”, inspired by the age-old structures that
    existed already in our country. Post-Stalinist rhetoric of our Indian comrades is risible today the least. Mr Pavan K Varma has something to say about the Indian sensibility to revolution or drastic change as it happened in France or in Russia. Of course, we can imagine other ways, other methods, other ideological combinations to bring about social changes.
    As you said Marx did not have the means (datawise, informationwise, etc) to fathom the complexity of Indian society and culture. Unfortunately, our Leftists, except very few, only parrotted what they concocted in the West and later on in China, reason why M.K. Gandhi was almost vilipended by the then communist party.! Kudos and courage!

  8. Ram Sharma permalink
    April 6, 2012 5:42 AM

    In my opinion, probably the most thoughtful article in Kafila since I got interested in reading the postings. It may not affect those for whom Marxism is a religion, or those who do politics in its name while overlooking the objectives. But I wish even they read this article and introspect. A doctrine which is stagnant, is not scientifically examined for its relevance for a particular time and place, and not subjected to modification or even total rejection, if that is warranted by the experience and logic, then it can endanger the very people for whom it was originally advanced. Marxism has been preached, initially tuned and implemented in some form in many counties for decades. With some initial successes, it has mostly failed in its objectives. Some Comrades advocate revolution, some want to follow the path of Latin Americas, but for what gain? Does a poor in Latin Americas have better life than those in Capitalist Europe or in the US or even in India? Capitalism has been revised and reinvented several times and the same is required for Marxism for its survival as a practical ideology. Otherwise, it will become a subject of academic interest only on which a few people may be awarded a PhD degree. If I is practiced in its already experimented forms, it will be disastrous for India. Again, my compliments to you, Mr. Nigam.

  9. April 6, 2012 12:03 PM

    dear Aditya,
    if the notion of “objective constraints” were to be interpreted with greater catholicity and imagination than orthodoxy permits, it would be possible to argue that Marx as well was cognizant that life precedes and must direct theory. Naturally, “life” never has or ought to have the same resonance for all human beings universally, and indeed any attempt to force such homogenisation in a polity like India must confront disaster. This indeed may be, as you suggest, at the root of many failures that we have been witness to.
    best wishes,
    badri raina

  10. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    April 7, 2012 8:28 AM

    The Sino-Soviet split has something only indirectly to do with the question. It is very unlikely that Mao would have known of the Late Marx’s intellectual crisis. His problem was really borne out of the fact that his feet were very firmly planted on Chinese soil and he knew that no revolution in China would make any sense if the peasantry did not have a central place. Much of his theorizations about ‘new democracy’ or ‘people’s democracy’ were therefore about different ways of imagining China’s future where even small capitalists (peasants too, are after all a property owning class) would find a place. All this was anathema to the Comintern and Stalin. His first conflict therefore started very early – when he once refused to meet our very own MN Roy, who went as Comintern’s emissary to meet him. Later, this disagreement was to develop into a major disagreement on what socialism in China would be too. And of course, it is another matter that eventually, many of his notions about how to avoid centralized, large-scale industrialization turned out to be quite fanciful and disastrous. Much has been written about all that. The road to hell, they say, is paved with the best of intentions!

    And thanks Badri. I agree. Indeed it seems that even Lenin was fond of repeating Goethe’s “All theory is grey, but, ah my friend, the glad golden tree of life is green” (suitably paraphrased to make it more portable! My point however, is that homogenization and rigidity is one thing but the inability to think the new (‘life’ – always in a flux), is the surest route to irrelevance. After a point people even stop expecting that they can get anything from such parties – look at Europe, Latin America, Africa (except South Africa, for the forseeable future).

  11. Ashumane permalink
    April 7, 2012 12:24 PM

    “Buddha and Karl Marx”, 1956 speech by Dr. B . R . Ambedkar. Outlines the historical epistemology of Socialism/Communism, where it fails in contemporary societies, the methodological crises within the Communist ideology and how Buddhism potentially provides a solution for state and its public.

  12. Ritaja permalink
    April 9, 2012 1:34 PM

    excellent analysis, Mr Nigam – this is what makes Kafila interesting. I am curious about one more thing. No analysis is presented why it is in such a sorry state in both Maharashtra & Gujarat with the largest chunk of industrial workers in India aiding the capitalist growth.

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