Historical Materialism, Delhi: Legal Marxism Redux

M.S. Khan and Madan Singh

The HM conference in New Delhi, India, is the arch-example of sanitising Marxism and academicising it. The purported promotion of the “new cultures of the left” is nothing but an attempt to sanitise Marxism of its dirty old history in India and elsewhere, and present it to the liberal conscience of western academic tourists in Marxism in the manner that suits their taste. Initially, it proposed to base itself on a virulently anti-communist group of postmodern journo-academics in India. The danger of de-legitimation (of course, who would like to lose their brand name and business) and to provide space to radical international tourists and NRIMs (Non-resident Indian Marxists) forced it to tone down such alignment. As a result, we have an eclectic assortment of non-serious social democrats, NGO-secular-civil liberty activists, poor academics and perpetually passive learners ready to line up to welcome international Historical Materialists.

The recent vocalisation of an open dissociation with the Socialist Workers Party of Britain by the organisers of HM, Delhi, further reveals their desperation to satisfy and bridge liberal consensuses of the West and India. And the last straw in this regard was the withdrawal of their invitation to Alex Callinicos, perhaps the only Trotskyist in whom genuine Marxist activists in India find some ‘cultural’ affinity. This was obviously done to appease the disgruntled pocos, who were lately alienated from the organising committee. As they are on the lookout to find opportunity to vent their frustration of not having been included in this gala event, this was done to preclude any disturbance from their side.

If Marxism or historical materialism is able today to find an important place in academia, it means two things – one, that the capitalist apparatuses have conceded to the pressures from below, and two, in this concession they have been able to sanitise it of its anti-systemic roots and have found tools that would help them in reproducing capitalist ideologies and social relations. The ideological Marxism that academia produces is a form of Marxism that is entrenched within the disciplinary divides that help capitalism to control and regulate knowledge production.

The endeavour the HM conference in Delhi signifies has nothing to do with revolutionary politics insofar as theory in revolutionary politics is about being implicated in thinking the strategic orientation of movements in their socio-historical concreteness. This is precisely the modality of operation of theory in revolutionary working-class politics. Even theory in its bare philosophical abstraction, when its practice is internal to such politics, is meant to be in a dialectical articulation with the concrete political methods (tactics if you will) of socio-historically determinate movements, and are thus meant to clarify the strategy of praxis in seeking to be reconstituted with programmatic accuracy in the concrete tactical specificities of those movements. All this, in order to actualise the generality of the principle of revolutionary-proletarian politics.

Practitioners of radical, actually revolutionary, theory should always remember that their kind of theory cannot be a discursive articulation of tactics or the epistemology that frames the programmatic articulation of such tactics. And yet, revolutionary theory is not outside methods whose open constellation is the enactment and expression of that theory. Clearly, only when theory grasps itself as being internal to its constitutive methods does it become revolutionary. Methods that actualise theory while simultaneously interrupting this actualisation, thereby clearing the way for its refoundation. And this exercise in its continuously unfolding entirety is praxis.

This dialectical continuity between theory and practice – or philosophy and epistemology, or strategy and tactics, or concept and subject – if and when it becomes uninterrupted (by sublating its various inevitable punctuations) in practical materiality amounts to the actuality of praxis or actuality of revolution/communism. “Communism as the real movement” (Marx and Engels in The German Ideology) or “revolution in permanence” (Marx in The Class Struggles in France). In Marxism, theory is not – like Kant’s “categorical imperative”– a norm for the governing of practice. Rather, it is, or should be at any rate, the herald of practice to come. One which will abolish theory by realising it and thereby become praxis, which is a higher and radically different ontological level of actuality, positivity and the concrete than the finite empiricism (and positivism) of mere practice.  This is what is often referred to as the “future-anteriority” of Marx’s historical-materialist approach to praxis.

That is, however, not to contend academically-turned Marxism has no analytical connect whatsoever with really-existing movements in their historical concreteness, and is consumed solely by the ethics of theory or, which is pretty much the same thing, conceptual abstractions pertaining only to the internal  architecture of discursive formations. Of course, that has, more or less, been the orientation, if not the methodological protocol, of Critical Theory founded almost as a disciplinary paradigm. Nevertheless, there is a sizeable and ever-growing section of critical theorists who are equally exercised by the question of historically concrete movements. But even for them such historically concrete social and political movements as objects of analysis are meant, at best, to be occasions of inquiring into and demonstrating how those movements constitute the determinate actualisation and thus the limit of proletarian revolutionary praxis. The next step of how that praxis, as an excess of such historical limits, can be reconstituted as a constellation of specific socio-historical subjects — which can be posed only in the shape and register of a concrete programme of action and guidelines for the enforcement of that programme – is clearly beyond the remit of their theoretical practice. And it’s precisely this academicised Marxist modality of reflection and analysis of movements that would arguably be on display at the various panels meant to discuss Kashmir, Nepal, the Maoist-led tribal movements in central and eastern India, the recent workers’ upsurge in the industrial belt of National Capital Region and the like at the Historical Materialism conference here. For, even the best and the most well-intentioned among the panelists — their numbers are few and far between — engage with their objects of analysis as no more than sympathetic ethnographers. Their outside support for such movements eventually shirks the ultimate responsibility of plunging into the practical materiality of movements. A move, which if made through the immersion of their analytical engagement with those movements into the practicality of the latter, would render their analyses and the approach that underpins them to become the sublated constitutivity of programmes of those movements in question. That would not only rid their theory of its academicism but also simultaneously enrich the movements in question with the spirit of revolutionary generalisation, thereby enabling the revolutionary praxis constitutive of those movements to tend towards overcoming the historical limits imposed on them. Limits that inevitably tend to hypostatise the movemental materiality of revolutionary praxis into overgeneralising sectarianism at the level of practice and pragmatic epistemological fetishism at the level of theory.

The remit of critical theory that prevents it from straying beyond its own prettified gardens into the dank and malodorous world of really-existing politics that lie beyond them is, needless to say, imposed on practitioners of such theory by the position that is constitutive of the way they envisage their theoretical practice as an untainted and untaintable outside to the historically concrete social and political movements. Such a conception of theoretical practice and its actual operation – which is constitutive of the academicisation of radical theory in general and Marxism in particular – stems from the purist and puritanical yearning of its practitioners to evade in advance the vagaries, exigencies, impurities, ugliness and errors, which engaging with such really existing movements by being integral to their respective agencies of practice inevitably brings. Clearly, they know, or care to know, nothing about the revolutionary virtue of risking all that taint by going through those vagaries, exigencies, impurities, ugliness and errors of practicality in order to extenuate them in practice. Nor do they remember, drunk as they are on their ephemeral status of being philosopher-kings, that the foundational logic of their academicised theoretical practice is precisely a restoration of the effete Young Hegelian legacy of “critical criticism” or “critical philosophy” that Marx systematically demolished to establish the rigorous scientificity of critique of political economy as practical critique.

However, to explain away academicisation of Marxist theory merely in terms of such motivations of a group or section of intellectuals would be sheer psychologism unbecoming of a complete and rigorous Marxist analysis of the same. We need to understand the structural condition of possibility – structural causality if you will – of such psychological motivations to turn Marxism from a revolutionary theory for revolutionary practice into an accommodated, and impotent ideology. To effectively combat such academicisation, of which HM, Delhi, not unlike Legal Marxism in late 19th century Russia, is a typical exemplar, we must recognise it for what it really is: a symptom of the conjunctural crisis of both Marxist theory and revolutionary working-class movements. This crisis, which is currently manifest as movements without theory and theory without movements, has arisen from the shifting of the conjunctural regime from that of embedded liberalism to that of neoliberalism. Due to this shift, the theoretical recognition of the revolutionary subject lags behind its recomposition, which has devastated the forms of organisation – both political and conceptual. In such circumstances, we are confronted with, to paraphrase Gramsci, a monstrosity: a conceptually elevated theory that has emerged, in lieu of the yet-to-be-born revolutionary subject, by making the cognitive abstraction of negativity and critique into an autonomous ground from where it preaches to the impotent revolutionary subject of the earlier conjuncture and berates it for its expected lapses as if that ground were a transhistorical tribune of revolutionary reason.

So, what we have today by way of Marxism as revolutionary praxis is not a dialectical unity but a duality of two mutually competing ideologies – pragmatism (of movements under the leadership of various shades and sects of the party-left) and subjective-idealism (that goes under the name of critical theory). In such a situation, we have the party-left tendencies rejecting the academicised style of theoretical practice of academic Marxists as a psychological impulse of some individual intellectuals and the groups they comprise while engaging with the theoretical products of those academic Marxists by seeking to instrumentalise them. The party-leftists believe this to be their critical stance vis-à-vis academicised radical theory. But this attitude, in reality, amounts to no more than the playing out of the objective logic of competition and split between the theoretical subjectivity of analysis and the practical objectivity of movement, one in which the domination of the latter by the former is implicitly an established fact. Something that has reinforced and reproduced the capitalist logic of social relations within the twinned-domain of Marxist theory and working-class movements, thereby significantly undermining the radical tenor and orientation of revolutionary proletarian praxis. This hierarchical split between theory and movements has also meant that such academicised Marxism is no longer a constitutive theoretical moment of revolutionary praxis but is a reified analytic that, therefore, is destined to do no more than engage in a competitive war of one-upmanship with other non-Marxist and even anti-Marxist radical-theoretical analytics. That is clearly revealed by the liberal eclecticism that has gone as much into the making of the organisational core of the Delhi edition of the Historical Materialism conference as the conference itself. And the unsavoury controversy that has dogged the organising of the conference, what with a few pocos and semi-pocos, who had initially been part of that eclectically composed core of conference organisers, reportedly walking out of it in a huff, and threatening to boycott and even disrupt the proceedings further substantiates our charge on that score. That a good number of such pocos, semi-pocos, and non- and anti-Marxists are still very much part of both the conference and its organisational core, even as some of their friends who have abandoned it are now attacking the conference from the outside, reveals that the logic of competitive one-upmanship constitutes a marketplace of ideas which commodified academic trends share with each other in order to be part of the process of outcompeting one another. In that sense, the eclectically organised core of the conference, the conference itself and its so-called detractors on the outside are one extended continuum of academic capitalism. So much so that it would not be inaccurate to title this soap opera of a conference the ‘Extended Family of Histo-Mat and its Inner Feuds’.

This competitive co-habitation of academicised Marxism with other non- and anti-Marxist academic trends under the aegis of Historical Materialism, Delhi, is a travesty of critical dialogue the former claims to be engaged in with the latter. The only stake such Marxism has in its engagement with those other theoretical tendencies (read analytics/ideologies) is accommodation in the marketplace of ideas in competitive co-existence with all other kinds of discursive commodities. Need we tell these Marxist industrialists and their non-Marxist academic compatriots that their unctuous and self-important claims of a holding ‘critical dialogue’ among themselves can delude none for long save such sell-outs and hustlers as themselves?  Critical dialogue, they ought to be reminded, is polemical communication, not competition. One that constitutes radical antagonism between the horizons of commodification and the politics of decommodification, effecting radical separation between them.


  1. Narendra Mohan says:

    This is devoid of detail. When was the conference held ? What was the content of the proceedings ? And Alex Callinicos is equally a problem given his role in trying to conceal the sexual abuse scandal in the SWP.

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