A Review of Alf Gunvald Nilsen’s “Dispossession and Resistance in India”

Bhumika Chauhan

Alf Gunvald Nilsen, Dispossession and Resistance in India: The River and the Rage, Routledge, 2010

The book seeks to explore the processes of dispossession and the accompanying resistance within the context of post-colonial India, and more specifically that located in and around the NarmadaValley. Nilsen hopes to build this understanding on the basis of a perspective on social movements and struggles that is very different from those conventionally applied in the social sciences, and by most who have studied the movement around the Narmada, i.e. the Narmada Bachao Andolan (henceforth, NBA).


Developed out of his doctoral thesis, Nilsen’s book offers a vast and critical survey of much that has been said about the NBA along with ample information on the course of the two main and most controversial projects, the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) and the Maheshwar Hydroelectric Project (MHP). Supplemented with his own field notes, Nilsen is able to provide a picture in which one does not see only the costs and benefits of the projects, but also the class nature of the distribution of these costs and benefits, or what he calls the distributional bias of the post-colonial development project. Nilsen’s attempt considerably helps place the NBA and similar movements within the new social movements of India as well as within neoliberal restructuring.


The main contribution of the book is perhaps the perspective it introduces into the social scientific discourse over social movements, particularly (and hopefully) into Indian social sciences. Nilsen rejects those perspectives that posit a social movement as a “fixed institutional entity” with a set of demands and means (p.4). Rather he looks at it as a collective action that gradually developed in “activist skills, practices, forms of consciousness and knowledge” (p.5). It is asserted that movements have internal processes of learning that are involved in initial mobilisation and further radicalisation. He also rejects the popular idea that social movements are organisations engaging in extra-parliamentary collective action within a more or less stable and given socio-economic background in favour of a broader and more dynamic view. For Nilsen:

“A social movement is the organisation of multiple forms of materially grounded and locally generated skilled activity around a rationality expressed and organized by (would-be) hegemonic actors, and against the hegemonic projects articulated by other such actors to change or maintain a dominant structure of entrenched needs and capacities and the social formation in which it inheres, in part or in whole.” (p.14)

It is asserted that sociality of praxis for the satisfaction of needs under the given level of capacity produces dynamic structures, which are reproduced over extended periods of time in accordance with extant relations of power between the “dominant and subaltern groups” within a social formation. Furthermore, praxis within this “structuration of need and capacities” (mode of production?) involves a constant contention between the dominant and subaltern social groups that embody the internal contradictions of the structures (classes?). These contentions may bring about changes in the dominant “structure of needs and capacities” and/or within the overarching social formation, therefore both groups are forever on the move, so to speak. This implies that social movements may happen from above or below. The author means to stress the fact that not only the subaltern groups but also the dominant groups engage in collective actions based on the dominant rationality to maintain or strengthen the dominant structure. It is the central argument of this book that the post-colonial development project and the ongoing accumulation by dispossession are part of a social movement from above, a result of collective action of the dominant social groups (p.13-14).

Significantly, the movement process is seen to start from the “common sense” of “concrete lifeworld in which people are situated”, the “particular as opposed to the universal” (p.193), and works outwards to the “good sense”, “local rationalities” and “militant particularisms” which transform the concrete lifeworld into a “locale or resistance”. The social movement project per se is said to emerge when a common ground is found between different militant particularisms through a “campaign”. This social movement project addresses the totality, the universal. Nilsen’s engagement then with the NBA starts from its constituent local mobilisations, their coming together and divergences, the formation of the NBA as a pan-state, anti-dam movement, its eventual questioning of the post-colonial development project. However, the project is not complete here (and here lies one of the key problems of the NBA according to Nilsen). Nilsen suggests that the few activists[1] who make the connection between the local conflicts and the universal structures that reproduce them – that is, they who have a political agenda against the totality – will have to convince others to come along. This can be accomplished only by grounding the social movement project again in militant particularism and local rationalities from whence it originated. This dialectic of the particular and universal that Nilsen tries to demonstrate in the, admittedly incomplete, trajectory of the NBA may provide some practical insights worth heeding.


An interesting, even brave, aspect of this work is its attempt to bring back concepts of class and class conflict in the analysis of the NBA, and other such movements in India. Nilsen takes note of the distributional bias of the SSP and MHP that constitutes accumulation by dispossession. It is precisely by situating this displacement within class relations that Nilsen demonstrates its nature as accumulation by dispossession and as a “social movement from above” (p.14). The distributional bias expresses a “dual transformation” where (a) property rights in water and electricity, as well as profitable investment opportunities are concentrated into the hands of regional, national and global propertied elite, and (b) the displacement of peasant producers from their land without adequate resettlement and rehabilitation generates pressures towards proletarianisation (p.20).

This thesis is substantiated in the case of SSP by first tracing the class formation of the agroindustrial capitalist patidar elites of south and central Gujarat, as well as the expropriation of the subsistence peasants (Bhil and Bhilal adivasis of Alirajpur) and petty commodity producers (caste Hindu peasants of Nimad) of Madhya Pradesh. While the former, after mobilising themselves to push the project (from Vallabhbhai Patel to the recent chief ministers of Gujarat have all had their support base in these patidars), accumulate the benefit of irrigation and electricity in the farms and factories, the latter are proletarianised and are expected to join the migrant labour force of south and central Gujarat.

In the case of the MHP, the petty commodity producers of Nimad bear the costs of the project, but the support for the project does not come from local elites but private corporations and national and transnational financial institutions that seek investment opportunities. The MHP, Nilsen argues, needs to be viewed in the context of the privatisation of the power sector and the liberalisation of the finance sector. The “structural inefficiencies” of the power sector led to the consensus on privatisation. But when S. Kumar, the private corporation took up the MHP, it had trouble acquiring foreign equity due to the resistance of the NBA. The solution came from the liberalising Indian finance institutions – LIC, SBI, IDBI, PFC, PNB and many others. Other than the MHP, it is a general trend that many transnational finance institutions are financing the restructuring of the power sector. Nilsen refers to David Harvey’s remarks about privatisation and about the management of fiscal crises, like the one that initiated the 1991 reform, being intimately linked to accumulation by dispossession as it creates opportunities both for devaluing public assets and for releasing them onto the market where capital may seize them.

Nilsen argues that the aforementioned distributional bias is not a glitch particular to big dams; it is part of India’s passive revolution (p.41). At Independence, capital was not singularly dominant, nor would universal suffrage allow forcible expropriation, and moreover, a counter-check was needed against the growing radicalisation and socialist tendencies. The Bombay Plan was to offer the solution: capitalist planning. Instead of a total assault, capitalist development was to, and did, progress gradually on the basis of the fragile coalition of “industrial bourgeoisie, the landed elites and rich farmers, and the politico-bureaucratic elites”.  And instead of forceful dispossession, developmental planning, with its big dams and the like, was instituted. The elite support for state intervention was strong, though only for state protection and not so much for regulation. This untenable position eventually led to the fiscal crisis of 1990s. Also, new business groups emerged to support the neoliberal reform that saw state controls as impediments to their growth. All in all, Nilsen argues following Harvey, that “Through the management and manipulation of a fiscal crisis, dominant proprietary classes have managed to push ahead reforms centered on privatisation, liberalisation and financialisation.” And with this accumulation by dispossession has also been facilitated.


The other way in which class enters his analysis is when Nilsen explores the “movement process” of resistance struggles. He asserts that subaltern groups experience constraints of their needs and capacities in their concrete, everyday lives. Collective experiences like in movements can combine and extend the individual “fragmented knowledges” to develop a better view of the underlying structures and relationships. Nilsen calls it a movement process when a social movement from below expands its collective oppositional action beyond specific, local, particular experience, scope and aim to a more “encompassing counter-hegemonic project” and a conception of a universal alternative to the social system (p.15).

In his study of the NBA, Nilsen exposes the appearance of homogeneity of the NBA as well as that of the local communities that constituted it, as is characteristic of all populist struggles. The discourses of the movement came to be hegemonised by the local elites, the rich farmers (p.161-8). Class, gender and caste, posed a challenge to the NBA mobilisation that the latter could not in the end surpass. “Oppositional populism”, Nilsen argues, has been responsible for obfuscating relations of oppression and exploitation within this and other such movements. For instance, the ‘farmer-worker’ organisation within the Nimad region that arose in response to the hike in electricity prices, were undeniably more for the farmer and less for the worker.

The stratified nature of seemingly homogenous identities and communities becomes evident, Nilsen notes, when we look at the various kinds of views of alternative development that emerge when one digs beneath surface discourses. Relatively marginalised groups within these communities are obviously unable to develop or express their position. The subaltern groups of women, dalits and landless labourers fail to expand their “fragmented knowledges” of the social structures. The cause, Nilsen points out, is firstly the “differential appropriation” of the discourse of resistance by the different groups, and secondly the “limited dissemination” of the discourse to the mass base of the movement.


Strangely, it is at this point, where Nilsen’s understanding of the internal segmentation of communities comes out most clearly, that we espy a possible problem in his argument. The solution that Nilsen proposes for the abovementioned issues of discourse dissemination and appropriation is the development of methods for collective and participatory learning, to “deepen processes of conscientization” (p.187). From his thorough analysis of the political economy of accumulation by dispossession, we now seem to have arrived at a vague statement that in this notion of “collective learning” once again ends up positing the “collective” that he just deconstructed. Evidently what he is suggesting is that such learning can allow the collective to overcome its internal divisions, so that it could begin its attack on totality. What Nilsen seems to have forgotten is precisely the materiality of this segmentation, that he brought out so well, and which is not suitably addressed by a concept like “collective learning”. What is this collective learning? Who learns? Do all segments of the collectivity learn from the same experiences, forgetting, one would assume all they have learnt from experiences that vary according to socio-economic positions?

When the traditional, the “orthodox” Marxist stresses the importance of a working class for-itself perspective, or the importance of the leading role that the working class must play in the attack on totality, the idea is to take cognisance of precisely this class-ified nature of experience, that subjectivises individuals and groups differently, in keeping with the unequal apportionment of value and power in society. To be clear, one is not saying that Nilsen ignores the social inequalities – that would contradict much of what was said in the preceding paragraphs – but only that he ignores the leading role that the downtrodden must necessarily play, owing precisely to their history of being downtrodden. While it is hard to miss the author’s clear attribution of post-colonial development project to the capitalist class, it is surprising to find that the working-class is completely absent from this narrative of resistance and change.

Another possible way of addressing the problems of addressing the limits of movements like NBA also emerges, though it never gets spelt out explicitly, from Nilsen’s own work. A movement against displacement can easily stagnate and take on a petty bourgeois character unless it generalises its proletarian moment and builds “alliances” with (in Nilsen’s terms) other movements that are articulating that same moment. Nilsen quotes an essay published in Radical Notes:

“Understanding all these diverse processes in the framework of primitive accumulation has several strategic implications. Perhaps, most urgently, this can provide a unified framework to locate the numerous struggles going on in the country…”(Chandra and Basu 2007 cited in p.201)

If we read beyond the segment he quotes, we could understand better what this “generalisation,” that could allow movements to transcend their own internal limits means:

“… right from the ‘new’ social movements, like landless workers movements, Narmada Bachao Andolan and other local mobilisations of ‘development-victims’, to anti-privatisation movements of public sector workers, all the way to the revolutionary movements led by the Maoists. This unified framework can then possibly facilitate dialogue among these movements, something that is more than essential at this juncture if the movement of labour against capital is to be strengthened.” (Chandra and Basu 2007)

Although an understanding of the contradiction between capital and labour is implicit in most of Nilsen’s analysis, in the end he either remains blind to, or sidesteps the implications of the centrality of this contradiction. In a famous review of Raymond Williams’s The Long Revolution, EP Thompson observed Williams’ unwillingness to use Marxian terms. He noted that though sometimes it is not entirely clear whether Williams is merely steering clear of using that language for the sake of wider intelligibility, or is he also trying to move in a non/anti-Marxist direction with his conclusions. The same can be said about Nilsen’s work. Though his analysis is usually spot on, the attempt to stay away from the register of a Marxian analysis has to be explained. Either he is out to, despite the validity (from a Marxian perspective) of his analysis, find non-Marxist answers to anti-Marxist questions, or his is an attempt to appease the vulgar anti-materialists who rule the academia today – a Gramsci like self-censoring to fool the fascist prison-guards.


[1] However, there is reason for concern about what it is that Nilsen means by “activist”. On several occasions he uses the term to refer to the external agents that provided a much needed perspective and impetus to the oppressed communities within the Narmada Valley. In fact, on most occasions, it seems Nilsen is addressing such external agents, and only on rare occasions does it seem possible that he might be referring to agents from the militant communities themselves as activists.

On the Struggle at Maruti Suzuki and the 18th July event – A Conversation with Shyambir

Bhumika Chauhan talks to Shyambir, an activist with Inquilabi Mazdoor Kendra, Gurgaon

A Review of Henry Bernstein’s “Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change”

Bhumika Chauhan

Henry Bernstein, Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change, Fernwood Press & Kumarian Press, 2010

This book, written by Henry Bernstein, is the first in the Agrarian Change and Peasant Studies series published by ‘Initiatives in Critical Agrarian Studies’ (based at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands). Considering the size of the task it takes on in barely 125 pages – of providing an introduction to, an overview of, and a perspective on agrarian formations and transformations under capitalism – it would not have been possible, perhaps, for anybody else but Henry Bernstein to undertake it. His intimate and longstanding involvement in setting the agenda for the debates on the agrarian question allows him to paint the “big picture” of agrarian change in capitalism through generalisation and periodisation, yet remaining extremely sensitive to the specificities of its realisation in diverse spatial-temporal locations.

Marx derived the logic of capital and capitalist transformation by studying the industrial capitalism of northwest Europe – his account of agrarian change was also delimited by this concern. This leaves much space to be filled, as is one of Bernstein’s aims in this book, with an understanding of capitalism and agriculture before and since modern industrialisation. This is furthermore required in order to grasp the richness of Marx’s critique of political economy, and for its internal nurturing by exposing its conceptual and analytical tools to diverse empirical realities. As Bernstein himself states, the initial concerns of the book are “how capitalism developed in primarily agrarian societies before industrialization”, and “how agrarian change has been shaped by industrial capitalism once it was established and spread” (p.9). Of course, many have already made significant contributions in this direction. The importance of this slim volume lies in its attempt to consolidate them into a fairly coherent account of the complexity of agrarian change.

In attempts at understanding the development of capitalism, Bernstein distinguishes between two dominant approaches. The first focuses on understanding diverse national paths to agrarian capitalism. The classic case in this regard is of course the English path which Marx analysed – the crisis of feudalism in the 14th and 15th centuries leading to a change in class structure and the rise of the capitalist tenant farmer. In Prussia the feudal lords themselves became capitalist commodity producers and converted the peasants into wage labourers. In America, engagement in commodity relations led to the emergence of capitalist farming out of the independent small holding farmer, while in Japan and South Korea, the transition was a result of primitive accumulation for industrialisation through taxation of peasantry, without the development of agrarian capitalism (pp. 27-32).

The second perspective traces the “long march of commercial capitalism” since the 12th century towards agrarian capitalism. Bernstein finds elements of this perspective in the works of Giovanni Arrighi, Jairus Banaji and Jason Moore. They argue that if one were to look at international patterns of trade and finance it would be clear that capitalism was world-historic since its birth. In this line of thought, the English transition to agrarian capitalism occurred in the larger context of Dutch hegemony over world-capitalism, while England became hegemonic only after pioneering the Industrial Revolution. Rather disappointingly, this assertion which is apparently central to the theorisation of the development of capitalism is not sufficiently explained or substantiated.

However, despite lacking sufficient elaboration as far as the larger picture of the ‘long march’ is concerned, Bernstein’s exposition of the dynamics of labour and capital within commercial capitalism is nuanced and complex. The key classes in commercial capitalism, he writes, included aristocratic and colonial landlords who organised specialised commodity production, merchants who advanced credit and material to handicraftsmen and other producers of manufactured goods, capitalists in extractive sectors of mining and forestry, and financiers who funded this development. All of them were true capitalists according to Bernstein: they exploited labour for profit, invested to expand production, even through increased productivity, funded new sites for commodity production, and developed new markets for those commodities (p.33). Bernstein lays great stress on the fact that even before the emergence of industrial capital, and outside of the agrarian capital that developed in England, commercial capital in agriculture was already capitalist.

Commercial capitalism also utilised more flexible forms of labour than the ones Marx observed to be predominant in industrial capitalism. Bernstein endorses Banaji’s argument that capital is capable of exploiting labour in a variety of social arrangements and in varied historical circumstances, like in the form of slavery in specialised commodity production in plantations. The labourer may not be entirely dispossessed but loses the ability to reproduce himself outside commodity production. Here, Bernstein uses Robert Brenner’s concept of commodification of subsistence, which is shown to be central to the early trajectory of capitalism, along with the persistence of small farms, especially in the South.

Bernstein goes on to discuss the incorporation of the remaining world peasantry into the capitalist world through colonialism. The colonial state brought new agrarian production structures into the colonies: slave plantations in southern North America, haciendas in Latin America, zamindari and ryotwari in India, trade economies, labour reserves and concessionary companies in Africa. These did not only serve the budgets of the administration and the colonial state, but also led to “forced commercialization”. The peasants of the colonies were now the producers of cash crops for export, food crops for the domestic market as well as for export, and of labour power (workers, who also migrated from farms to plantations, railways construction etc.). The specialised industrial plantations of the nineteenth century experienced the classic type of capitalist commodity production although the majority of agricultural production in colonies witnessed petty commodity production. Undoubtedly, commodity production and commodification of subsistence had set in colonial peasantry in various forms and at various levels.

In this exploration of the relation between capitalism and colonialism, we encounter many debates surrounding colonialism, especially ones that centre on this question, and the connected one of how colonialism contributed to an incomplete capitalist transition in colonies. These discussions invariably keep coming to the issue of capitalist and pre-capitalist organisation of labour. Not all of the varied forms of labour regimes that colonialism instituted in the colonies – forced, semi-proletarian, family labour/petty commodity production and proletarianisation (p.54) – fit the classical model of capitalist production. Most of them were hybrids of ‘forced/unfree’ and ‘free’ wage labour. Those who understand the English path of transition to capitalism as the paradigm for this transition, think of all forms of labour except the ‘fully free’ one, to be ‘pre-capitalist’. Bernstein affirms Banaji’s contention that ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ labours are fluid and ambiguous in social reality, and like others who argue for the “long history of commercial capitalism”, identifies social relations characterising all regimes of labour, established in the South by European colonialism, as capitalist.

Bernstein’s account of agrarian change since the 1870s highlights the role played by upstream and downstream activities in agriculture; it is through such activities that capitalism has penetrated to the most independent of farms. Upstream activities concern the conditions of production such as the supply of inputs and instruments of labour. Downstream activities include marketing, distribution and processing of farm produce. The book shows how with industrialisation, these activities have risen to such great importance that even so-called self-sufficient farmers have come to depend on powerful agents like agri-input and agri-food capital. This dependence has made them ever more dependent on money income for the purchase of means of subsistence: what we have called commodification of subsistence.

With the rise of neoliberal globalisation in agriculture there is a further deepening of commodification. With substantial withdrawal of the State from agriculture (more in the South than the North), transnational agribusinesses have become major agents in organising and regulating conditions of production and consumption within the global food economy (p.81). Along with the commodification of subsistence, Bernstein notes, there has been a new wave of depeasantisation. Much like in other domains, neoliberalism in agriculture is propped upon “accumulation by dispossession,” or to put it in a more orthodox manner, primitive accumulation, which entails the divorcing of the farmer from the means to farm.

That capitalism is still dispossessing the peasantry forces us to take note of an interesting fact: that the dispossession of the peasantry has been a very slow process, that capitalism has for a very long time, allowed a large portion of the population some means of production (in this case, land). This persistence of peasants or the continuing survival of non-capitalist farms is of particular interest to Bernstein as are those movements that strive for their preservation and restoration, movements that neoliberalism has re-invigorated. The issue of the persistence of peasantry, significant for epistemological-methodological as well as political reasons, comes up frequently in the book but receives a detailed treatment in the last three chapters that deal directly with class dynamics in agriculture. It is a methodological issue insofar as the simplistic way of understanding small farmers that grasps class as a sociologically fixed category and makes use of crude binaries, prevalent in even Marxist circles, is undialectical, and is often guilty of shying away from engaging with concrete facts; it is political because only an accurate analysis of class dynamics makes visible the struggle that lies inside the apparently homogenous class of peasants.

Bernstein presents three sets of explanations for the slow pace of depeasantisation. One, peasants themselves have, in various ways and to varying degrees, resisted commodification, dispossession and proletarianisation. But Bernstein finds this explanation to be inadequate because it does not take into account the interests and power of capital; he points out that often indigenous peasants, of their own initiative, turn to commodity production, and eventually capitalist farming (p.97). Peasant response to commodification has not been one of simple acceptance or rejection. It is marked by a complicated process of negotiation. The second set of explanations is that farming consists of certain technical and social aspects that obstruct capitalist investment. Because of this, capital is more comfortable letting the farmer take all risks and burdens involved, preferring upstream to downstream businesses. This second explanation is closely related to the third.

The third set of explanations for peasants’ persistence is that they work to the benefit of capital. Bernstein argues that family farms are not merely to be seen as competing with or independent of capitalist corporations. Many of them are dependent on upstream or downstream corporations and banks via contracts or other arrangements. Following Kautsky, he explains that the peasantry persists, or rather, is allowed to exist by capital, only so long as it helps lower the cost of labour-power (p.94). That is to say, family-worked farms could produce cheaper food commodities and lower the cost of labour power, and hence wage. Furthermore, peasants and small farmers who sell a portion of their labour-power can make do with low wages, because a part of their reproduction is provided for by their farms.

In all such explanations, there is some notion that small farmers are exploited by capital. According to Bernstein there are several notions of exploitation by capital as far as family labour is concerned: “as labour force working with other people’s means of production or as self-exploiting in ways that represent indirect exploitation by capital or at least in ways that benefit capital” (p.101). For some, the agrarian populists particularly, the small-scale farm is to be treated as one class in relation to capital which exploits it. Such notions are further fuelled by the recent spree of peasant dispossession. However, Bernstein argues that the small-scale, family farms are themselves differentiating into classes with the increasing penetration of capital, and not all of them are at the losing end.

To explain this assertion, Bernstein explores the class dynamics of family farming. This requires us to first understand the process of commodification in family farming. He asserts that the tendency of capital towards generalised commodity production does not imply that “all elements of social existence are necessarily and comprehensively commodified. Rather it signifies the commodification of subsistence: that reproduction cannot take place outside commodity relations and the discipline they impose” (p.102; emphasis original). And as has been demonstrated already, commodification of subsistence is characteristic of small farmers. Small farmers are also (before further differentiation) petty commodity producers, and petty commodity production in capitalism combines the class “places” of capital, in the form of land, tools, seeds, fertilizers etc., and labour, in the form of families/households. There is then, in petty commodity production, a contradiction between these two class places, that is between the reproduction of capital and the reproduction of labour; money, on the one hand, has to be allocated for rent and replacement of other means of production, and on the other, for consumption.

This contradiction, Bernstein asserts, is the source of differentiation among small, ‘non-capitalist’ farmers. Rich peasants or emergent capitalist farmers expand themselves as capital and tend to employ wage labour. Those struggling to reproduce themselves as capital as well as labour are the poor farmers. The contradiction of the two class places in petty commodity production is most apparent in the poor farmers when they try to push down the scale of consumption of the family, the labour, in order to keep ownership of land, the capital. The middle farmers are those who can reproduce themselves as capital on the same scale of production, and as labour on the same scale of consumption. These relatively stable petty commodity producers are at the heart of agrarian populism and its notion of self-sufficient farmers. They are of special interest to Bernstein since even these seemingly self-sufficient farmers usually exploit wage labour.

After explaining the class position of small farmers, Bernstein goes on to explain how these farmers are integrated into capitalism even outside the farm. The emergent capitalist farmer invests in upstream and downstream businesses like crop trading and processing, rural retail trade, transport, advancing credit etc. Poor farmers, it has been seen, cannot survive without selling their labour power wherever possible. Even medium farmers engage in off-farm activities including labour migration. Such off-farm activity is necessary for many medium-farmer households if they are to avoid proletarianisation. The facts are that there are no self-sufficient family farms that neither hire nor sell wage labour, and that all three classes of farmers are engaged in the wider capitalist market. And these facts clearly go against the assertions of those who claim that (1) there are ‘non-capitalist’, self-sufficient ‘small family farm’, and (2) they need to be guarded against capitalist penetration. Bernstein effectively demonstrates that there is no self-sufficiency in family farms, and capital has already penetrated to the roots.

So, if one places the agricultural sector, as one should, within the larger context in which it is truly situated, that is, if one takes into account the determinations beyond farming and agriculture, then the diversity of class formations in the countryside of the global South (the very many in-betweens we encounter: semi-proletarians etc.) begins to become comprehensible. As such, Bernstein speaks of classes of labour: “[t]he social locations and identities the working poor inhabit, combine and move between make for ever more fluid boundaries and defy inherited assumptions of fixed and uniform notions of ‘worker,’ ‘famers,’ ‘petty trader,’ ‘urban,’ ‘rural,’ ’employed,’ and ‘self-employed'” (p.111). He also distinguishes between different “classes of capital” on the basis of different “interests and strategies of capital in particular activities and sectors like industry, finance or agriculture and on scales from local to regional, national and international” (p.112). By this logic, the corporate agribusinesses and the “rich peasants” are different, yet part of the same capitalist class.

In the final chapter, Bernstein arrives at the political aspects of class struggle. Class exploitation, he writes, is not experienced in any pure form, but is mediated through specific identities like “urban/rural dwellers, industrial workers/agricultural labourers, urban craftsmen and women peasants, men/women, mental/manual labour, young/old, black/white, regional, national and ethnic differences and so on” (Gibbon and Neocosmos 1985 cited on p.117). Differentiating between “struggle over class” and “struggle between classes” (p.117), Bernstein concludes that the former is a condition of the latter, that is, the struggles over class of the working poor are inflected and restricted by social divisions such as religion, caste, colour and gender. The struggle between classes can only be successful subsequent to the working class resolving the social divisions within. He asks us to appreciate the complexity of the experience of the circumstance of oppression.

Bernstein’s thrust in the book is on uncovering the class reality of the small-farmers, refuting positions that assert that a homogenous class of independent farmers exists, and exposing farmers’ movements that claim to represent all farmers but actually serve the interest of the rich peasants. While these are very relevant theoretical and political issues that need to be addressed, a greater attention could have been given to the task of providing a more thorough perspective on agriculture in general and its overall class structure. The book also lacks adequate empirical support for assertions regarding the contribution of off-farm activities to the household income of family-farmers. Furthermore, despite being so concerned with the South, there is not much said on the various positions articulated within the mode of production debate on Indian agriculture (excepting Banaji’s); another oversight for a book aiming to make new students of agrarian relations familiar with important works and debates. Additionally, a small issue with the style of the book is that its simplicity at times ends up giving a very simplistic sense of very complex processes and experiences to the unfamiliar reader.

However, for the not so unfamiliar reader, and for the activist, for people, that is, who are aware of the numerous compounded issues that the agrarian working class, and the working class in general, faces, Bernstein’s book provides a ‘big picture’. Instead of focusing on one or a few problems of the agrarian population, like so many works on agrarian change have already done, Bernstein attempts to create a broader perspective about capitalist transformation in agriculture.

Politically, the book makes several significant contributions, not perhaps in saying something very new, but certainly in reiterating some very important things. In focusing on the fact that capital may exploit labour in many ways, including, without completely divorcing it from the means of production, the book tells us, like a few have tried to in the past as well, that the working-class may be found in many locations. Bernstein understands class as a process, intersecting with other determinations like gender, age, caste, ethnicity etc. In recognising the fluid nature of identities in this world of complex experiences, denying the exclusivity of class and yet insisting on its universality, such an analysis can only bolster our understanding of working-class unity, and ways of its construction.

A Review of “The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution”

Bhumika Chauhan

Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution, Haymarket Books, 2010.

Whenever the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system have developed into an overt crisis, the unevenness of capitalist development has acted as a sort of pressure-release mechanism. In our neoliberal times, the unevenness can be seen on many levels – from the formal labour-informal labour binary to the so called North-South divide. To maintain its rate of profit in the face of proletarian struggle (and/or the tendency of the rate of profit to fall), the capitalist class found, like always, new avenues to exploit. When the accumulation of absolute and relative surplus value became problematic, like it so often does, capitalism turned yet again to its so-called ‘originary moment’ – primitive accumulation. As such, primitive accumulation is still very much a part of our present. For instance, today in India, the capitalist system is turning to those pockets that it had kept in reserve (literally) for so long. In backward, agrarian and/or tribal regions, plans are in motion for the acquisition of resources.

A few centuries ago, when capitalism first took over Western Europe, the whole of India was one such pocket, which the British managed to tap. In coming ouLowy's bookt of colonialism, the bourgeois leadership of the Indian National Movement took the road to capitalism (albeit via a ‘maturing’ period, which we traditionally call the ‘mixed economy, in which the state systematically developed infrastructure that was handed over to private ownership in 1991). That very road has led us here: unevenness of capitalist development within the same country, and the colonisation of one part of the country by another.

Was there any other route that would have possibly evaded the destruction that the chosen path cannot seem to leave behind? Could India have leapfrogged over the ‘capitalist stage’? The various communist parties of India did not seem to think so at the time (most, if not all, do not even now). The ‘iron laws of history’ would not allow any form of a leap over capitalism, and into socialism. This was the view, in fact, of the entire Communist International and its participant parties since the death of Lenin, as we shall see below; and this, despite the success of the Socialist Revolution in Russia in 1917.

Half-a-century before a ‘free’ India took to capitalism, Leon Trotsky was contemplating questions about the possible roads out of feudalism for Russia. Marxist though he was, Trotsky’s conclusions defied what had become common sense in Marxist circles. This common sense believed in the objective necessity of capitalist development before socialism. Against this view, that history progresses through fixed, determined stages, Trotsky, and later Lenin, began to argue for the possibility that Russia might not have the same historical trajectory as the western capitalist countries for which Marx had produced the schema of feudalism-capitalism-socialism. In fact, according to Trotsky, the unevenness of capitalism was a pre-condition for a possible leap towards socialism for Russia.

It is one of the arguments of Michael Löwy’s book, that it was Trotsky’s and Lenin’s dialectical understanding of history, and the consequent direction it provided to the 1917 revolution, that the objective possibility was transformed into an actual socialist revolution. In demonstrating this, the book undertakes the very relevant and important theoretical task of evaluating Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution in the context of the situation in countries peripheral in the capitalist system. The essence of the argument is that the same unevenness that in times of crises helps capital recuperate is also potentially its grave. If escape routes become enemy camps capital would have nowhere to run.

It is this belief in the possibility of one uninterrupted, combined and permanent revolution from the pre-capitalist to the socialist stage that disappeared somewhere between Trotsky and Lenin, and Stalin. The ‘permanentist’ perspective of the Comintern under Lenin, for revolution in all backward countries, was also replaced by the ‘stagist’ ‘neo-Menshivism’ of Stalin. It was again asserted that capitalist development under bourgeois leadership was a necessity for all countries before a socialist revolution becomes possible. The Indian communist leaders too thought that they should give their complete support to the bourgeoisie in the anti-imperialist struggle. Undoubtedly, this would have had a weakening influence on the working class movement on the ground. And ever since Independence, the mainstream communist parties, as a consequence, have struggled and failed to move beyond social-democratic reformism. That has been on account of their inability, or unwillingness, to pose the question of democratisation, which in India doubtless continues to be the principal political question, as one of overcoming capitalism (see note-1).

Of course, there is no more any question of India or any other country skipping the capitalist stage and entering socialism; we are now completely immersed in it. The relevance of the theory of permanent revolution still holds because the capitalist world continues, as is its wont, to be uneven. Michael Löwy’s book may be considered a first step towards regrounding Trotsky’s theory in the present context.

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Löwy’s exposition of the theory of permanent revolution begins with Marx and Engels. The first chapter discusses their writings with the purpose of determining how much Trotsky really deviated from the essence of the perspective and method of Marx and Engels. In the process, Löwy also attacks those readings and critiques of Marx and Engels that attribute to them a mechanical economism and evolutionism. Löwy convincingly argues for the essentially ‘permanentist’ tenor (which increased with time) of Marx and Engels’ writings. Although many passages can be quoted, without distorting their meaning, that lend support to a stagist understanding of history, in the very same writings as well as others, Marx and Engels do shift towards permanentism.

The concept of permanent revolution appears in their writings mostly in the form of ideas and intuitions, not as a coherent theory. The most coherent statement of their view of permanent revolution is to be found in The Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. While condemning the alliance with the bourgeoisie, the Address champions the common action between the proletariat and the democratic parties of the petty-bourgeoisie. This alliance too must be made keeping in mind the larger aims of the proletariat: ‘to make the revolution permanent’. The Address already contained three themes that would become fundamental to Trotsky’s theory: ‘(1) the uninterrupted development of the revolution in a semi-feudal country, leading to the conquest of power by the working class; (2) the application by the proletariat in power of explicitly anti-capitalist and socialist measures; (3) the necessarily internationalist character of the revolutionary process and of the new socialist society, without classes or private property’ (15).

After demonstrating that the basic underpinnings of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution are in fact to be found in the writings of Marx and Engels, Löwy, in the next two chapters, explores how the theory was developed with the experience of ‘living revolutions’. While doing so, Löwy juxtaposes Trotsky’s perspective with that of his contemporaries (and also later commentators). This helps bring the stagist and permanentist perspectives in stark contrast as these influential thinkers embody one of the perspectives in their deliberations on the revolutions of their age; sometimes this binary emerges as different moments in the political thought of the same person. Löwy identifies Plekhanov, Kautsky and the Mensheviks, and later, Stalin and the Comintern leaders under his leadership (all in theory but not in practice) as giving voice to the stagist perspective. They believed that a semi-feudal and backward country like Russia must first witness a bourgeois revolution to be led by the bourgeois class itself, undergo capitalist development to its ‘exhaustion’, and then finally welcome socialism. It was to be an automatic, step-by-step process. The level of ‘maturity’ for socialism might vary slightly in each conception, but they all agreed that some capitalist development was essential.

Lenin and Luxemburg too had characterised the 1905 revolution as a bourgeois revolution with necessarily bourgeois tasks, again a stagist view of history. They did not, however, believe that the revolution would be led by the bourgeois class, but by the proletariat and the peasants. By 1917, both had begun to agree with Trotsky, that the revolution would be led by the proletariat, with support from the peasantry. More significantly for Löwy, since he puts great effort in countering what he calls Stalinist distortions of Leninism, Lenin had made a permanentist turn after his philosophical engagement with the dialectical method in 1914. Under his leadership (and Trotsky’s, who had joined the Bolsheviks in 1917), the Bolshevik Party led a revolution that let its logical development carry itself towards socialism, not in spite of Russia’s relative backwardness but because of it. To understand what this statement means is to understand the essence of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

Trotsky’s starting point, Löwy writes, was Labriola’s dialectical and anti-dogmatic Marxism. Labriola’s emphasis on totality and his appreciation of the essentially critical nature of Marxism are evident in Trotsky’s theories and the ease with which he could contradict Marxian orthodoxy. It is his grasp of the dialectical method that sets him apart from the somewhat static and mechanical evolutionism of Plekhanov and Kautsky.

Löwy presents five fundamental features of Trotsky’s method that form the basis of the theory of permanent revolution.

  1. Unity of opposites: Trotsky saw a dialectical unity between the ‘democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants’ and the ‘socialist dictatorship of the proletariat’. Consequently he criticised the early Bolsheviks for drawing rigid distinctions between the two, and also the Mensheviks for their even more stagist view.
  2. The viewpoint of totality: For Trotsky, the maturity of capitalism, and a country for revolution, was always to be assessed on an international level. When capitalism has bound the whole world in one mode of production, then class struggle too must become a world-process rather than be restricted by ‘national economic determinism’ (49).
  3. Anti-economism: Unlike Plekhanov’s unmediated reduction of all social contradictions to the economic infrastructure, Trotsky’s dialectics grasped the importance of the ‘subjective’, and rejected the notion that the revolution depended ‘automatically’ on a country’s technical development and resources.
  4. Historical method: Trotsky’s study of social formation was concerned with the possibilities of a revolution. His is an open historicism, not fatalistic like Plekhanov’s. That is, Trotsky saw historical development as a contradictory process where alternatives are posed at every moment. He saw ‘permanent revolution towards socialism as an objective possibility…whose outcome depended on innumerable subjective factors as well as unforeseeable events…’ (Italics original, 50). Success or failure was not inevitably assured by any one factor. Thus revolutionary praxis had a central place in Trotsky’s politico-theoretical system.
  5. Russian social formation: Most Russian Marxists tended to deny the specificities of Russia’s social formation in their fight against the Narodniks, and insisted on its similarity with Western European development. Trotsky, however, achieved ‘a dialectical synthesis of the particular and universal, of the specificity of the Russian social formation and of the general tendencies of capitalist development…[He] was able to simultaneously transcend-negate-preserve (Aufhebung) the contradiction between populism and Menshivism, and to develop a new perspective, which was both more concrete and less unilateral’ (italics original, 51).

Using the above methodological guidelines, Trotsky’s analysis of Russia and its class structure was quite different from that of the thinkers mentioned above, and so were his strategic conclusions. Parvus, a very important contributor to the development of Trotsky’s thought, had already (in 1904-5) realised the peculiarities of Russian social formation: that early Russian towns and cities were administrative-bureaucratic in function rather than economic, and hence the artisans and petty-bourgeoisie, the base of revolutionary democracy, were weaker than in Western Europe. With capitalist development in the nineteenth century, the factory concentrated the proletariat hugely within urban centers. Trotsky found the Russian bourgeois class to be small in number and mostly of foreign origin, and hence isolated from the people. Therefore, for him, the Russian bourgeoisie, small and weak, and more afraid of the armed proletariat than of the Cossacks, was not revolutionary and would betray the democratic revolution whenever it went beyond its control or against its interests. Compared to the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, the socio-political weight of the Russian proletariat was much more. Thus the proletariat was the only true revolutionary class. Hence, Trotsky proposed the following formula in 1905: ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry’.

This went against the Menshevik insistence on a bourgeois leadership and revolution, which was based in mechanical economism. It also goes against Lenin’s 1905 formula of the ‘democratic dictatorship’ of the proletariat and peasantry. Trotsky’s objection to this formula was that it might restrict the revolution to the level that the peasantry was comfortable with; it would have remained a bourgeois revolution (35). In Trotsky’s scheme the proletariat was to be decidedly hegemonic, that is, it would not stop short of supporting the workers’ interests in the town and the village. And this alliance, in his scheme, was decidedly transitory. Löwy writes that for Trotsky, the proletariat could count only on the passivity and ignorance of the peasantry to gain its support but that too only till the ‘rich peasants’ realised what the revolution was heading towards. When the proletariat state applies its uncompromisingly socialist policies, just as Trotsky believed it should, it would lose the support of the landed peasantry and a counter-revolution would be inevitable (55-56).

The solution to the problem, Trotsky believed, lay in the international working class movement: the Russian revolution must be extended to the rest of Europe if the proletarian state in Russia is to survive the loss of its allies. The fate of the socialist revolution in Russia was to be decided less by its economic backwardness than by the politics of national and international class struggle.

As has already been indicated, Trotsky did not differ from the Mensheviks and the early Bolsheviks only on the issue of the ‘class nature’ of the revolution; he also differed from most Marxist thinkers of the time over the issue of the ‘historical tasks’ of the revolution (54). Not only did he believe that the proletariat would lead the revolution, he also thought that the revolution could and should combine democratic and socialist tasks into one combined, uninterrupted, permanent revolution. Why? Because by logically extrapolating the dynamics of class struggle in a ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship’ led by the proletariat, Trotsky concluded that the revolution could transcend bourgeois-democratic limits and take anti-capitalist and socialist measures. Trotsky pointed out that when the proletariat comes to power it would be compelled by the ‘very logic of its position’ to implement ‘collectivist’ measures, unless it were to betray its own class (something the pre-1917 Bolshevik policy would have done). For instance, in meeting even its ‘minimum democratic programme’, if the state supported workers’ strikes, it could lead to widespread lock-outs by the capitalists and the cessation of production. This would necessitate that the proletarian state take over the factories and organise production. Basically, ‘the political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with economic enslavement’ (Trotsky as quoted on p.54). Löwy, at several points in the text, highlights how the political is given its due weight vis-à-vis the economic in Trotsky’s dialectical model.

When 1917 came, Löwy writes, Trotsky’s 1905 predictions came true. The bourgeoisie and their Mensheviks supporters were incapable of completing the national-democratic revolution (see note-2) and satisfying the revolutionary democratic aspirations of the peasant masses. Only the proletarian victory was able to accomplish the crucial tasks of the democratic revolution and emancipate the peasantry from feudalism. Also, once in power the workers’ government of the Bolsheviks, now headed by Lenin and Trotsky, and unwilling to betray its class, could not restrict itself to democratic reform. It was forced by the dynamics of class struggle to undertake socialist measures. Without the dogmas of the Second International, the 1917 Revolution saw two distinct phases of an uninterrupted and combined revolution: ‘from its (unfinished) bourgeois democratic phase in February to its proletarian-socialist phase in October’. For Lenin, the second phase resolved the contradictions of the first phase. ‘With the support of the peasantry, the Soviets combined democratic tasks (the agrarian revolution) with socialist tasks (the expropriation of the bourgeoisie), opening a “non-capitalist road” for transition to socialism’ (63).

* * *

It is on these same lines that Lenin and the Comintern now attempted to frame a general policy for revolution in colonial, semi-colonial, dependent or backward countries: the national liberation movements of the ‘Orient’ must aim for the establishment of soviet-based workers’ and peasants’ power, towards socialism without capitalism. Thus, although specific tactics within each country, especially with respect to alliance with the bourgeoisie, remained controversial, the orientation of the Comintern leadership from 1919 to 1922 to revolutionary movements in the dependent world was in line with the theory of permanent revolution.

It can be seen in Löwy’s exposition how the change in the Comintern’s above orientation was the beginning of the generalization of the theory of permanent revolution to the dependent parts of the world. From 1925 onwards, with the Stalinist doctrine of ‘socialism in one country,’ and the adoption of the ‘four class bloc’ or ‘popular front’ policy for the colonial and semi-colonial world by the Comintern, and the experiences of their repercussions for the Second Chinese Revolution, Trotsky gained certain insights that gave the theory of permanent revolution in countries of peripheral capitalism a very strong dialectical foundation. These insights are scattered in Trotsky’s writings after 1928, The Permanent Revolution and The History of the Russian Revolution being the most important ones. Löwy takes us through a number of these writings, drawing out relevant details from each text to elaborate on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

The first thing to note is the similarity in the empirical situation of the dependent, colonial and semi-colonial countries with that of Russia and China: the indissoluble dependence of the national bourgeoisie on the imperialists and the landowners, the political weight of the proletariat disproportionate to its numerical strength, the impossibility of an autonomous political role of the peasantry. Also, the very existence of the USSR had its own implications for proletarian revolutionary aspirations and the bourgeois counter-revolutionary tendencies. Having realised these situational factors, Trotsky set out to extrapolate his theoretical understanding of the Russian Revolution to the countries of peripheral capitalism.

The most important historical-theoretical principle for a general theory of permanent revolution however was the law of uneven and combined development, which was fully elaborated in The History of the Russian Revolution (1930). The development of world history becomes qualitatively different once capitalism becomes a world-system. Looking at capitalism as a totality, one will realise that ‘although compelled to follow after the advanced countries, a backward country does not take things in the same order’; it tends to skip and leap over stages that the early capitalist countries went through. ‘The development of historically backward nations leads necessarily to a peculiar combination of different stages in the historic process’ (87). The very existence of unevenness, of advanced and backward countries (and the socio-economic linkages between them), creates a situation in which history progresses through sudden leaps and contradictory fusion.

From this universal law of unevenness derives another law – the law of combined development, a drawing together of the different stages of development. The appearance of modern industry alongside pre-capitalist or semi-capitalist rural conditions creates the objective possibility for the leading role of the proletariat at the head of the rebellious peasant masses. The unevenness of this development becomes the structural foundation for the combination of democratic and socialist tasks in a process of permanent revolution. The advanced capitalist countries solved certain common democratic tasks: abolition of autocracy, liquidation of feudal survivals in agrarian relations of production, establishment of parliamentary democracy based on universal suffrage, and national unification/liberation. Due to uneven development of capitalism, and the existence of imperialism, the democratic tasks of backward countries are similar but not the same. Yet they must be solved through a democratic revolution, or even a bourgeois-democratic revolution since these tasks are quite compatible with bourgeois society. This is not to say, however, that it will have to be led by the bourgeoisie, or that the revolution cannot transcend capitalism.

Uneven development means contradictory combinations of national and international, modern and traditional, ruling classes. Löwy gives the example of China, where at the bottom of the economy, the agrarian capitalists were ‘organically and unbreakably’ linked to feudalism, while at the top, capitalists were similarly linked to world finance. As such they could never have broken these links with landlords and imperialists because they were always more fearful of the proletariat. Hence, the national bourgeoisie could never fully accomplish its democratic tasks. The only condition on which Trotsky would have accepted any (short-term, for long-term alliances were out of the question) alliance with the bourgeoisie was to have no illusions that they would ‘lead a genuine struggle against imperialism and not obstruct the workers and peasants’ (Trotsky quoted on p.92).

In universalizing the theory of permanent revolution Trotsky stressed the role of the peasantry. They were important not only in the fight against feudal productive relations but, as the overwhelming majority in backward countries, they were central to the task of establishing democracy as well. Hence the proletariat had to ally with the peasants to complete the democratic phase of the revolution. Due to their heterogeneous and intermediate character the peasants could not play an independent political role, but had to choose between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The incapability of the former to solve the peasantry’s problems made it possible for the proletariat to acquire their support.

According to Löwy, Trotsky’s view of the peasantry contained ‘a very deep political truth’ but if understood in sociological terms, it was contradicted by the course of historical events in many dependent countries. There are instances when Trotsky commits the error of ‘sociologism’ in his understanding of the peasant (93-94). For example, he remained pessimistic about the revolutionary nature of the peasant movements in 1930 China. He also tried to deduce the political nature of the Red Army from its social nature. Since most of them were peasants, Trotsky did not think them to be true communists. Though at some moments he did perceive the anti-capitalist nature of peasant insurgency in China, in general Trotsky does seem to have believed that the peasantry could not acquire a communist consciousness before a proletarian revolution.

Löwy thinks this to be due to the classical Marxist attitude towards the peasantry as a ‘sack of potatoes’. He argues that Trotsky, like other western Marxists, generalised his assessment of European peasantry to the peasantry of dependent countries. Many of them possess very different structural features, such as ‘collectivist village traditions, massive uprootedness resulting from capitalist penetration, very high rates of demographic growth, proletarian or semi-proletarian status of rural laborers on the great plantations’ (96). Thus Trotsky was less perceptive of the specificity of the rural class structure of non-Western countries, and of the revolutionary capacity of their peasantry. Nevertheless, in one of his last works, he wrote:

‘The Narodniks saw in the workers and peasants simply “toilers” and the “exploited” who are equally interested in socialism. Marxists regarded the peasant as a petty bourgeois who is capable of becoming a socialist only to the extent to which he ceases materially and spiritually to be a peasant…It is, of course, possible to raise the question whether or not the classic Marxist view of the peasantry has been proven erroneous…Suffice it to state here that Marxism had never invested its estimate of the peasantry as a non-socialist class with as absolute and static character’ (Trotsky quoted on p.97).

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In the beginning of the fourth chapter, ‘Conclusions’, Löwy presents us with many cases of revolutions strangled due to the stagist and ‘four class bloc’ strategy of the Comintern. The hold that the Comintern and Marxist orthodoxy had on the communist leadership of many such movements, it is contended, restricted them to the bourgeois-democratic phase, and a moderate attitude towards and alliance with the bourgeois class made them vulnerable to coups and attacks. In Spain (1931-1937), Guatamala (1952-4), Chile (1938-47 and 1973), and most starkly in Indonesia (1965) the blind faith in the intentions of their allies, the refusal to arm the proletariat, and the refusal to follow the revolutionary path to its logical conclusion, despite mass support, led to many a bloody defeat.

Furthermore, Löwy adds to his (and Trotsky’s) attack on stagism the fact that no non-European, dependent, peripheral capitalist nation has been able to find stable solutions to national-democratic tasks (see note-2; consider India for instance). Agreeing with Ernest Mandel, Löwy points out that no dependent country has actually become ‘ripe’ for a purely socialist revolution through its process of development like the advanced capitalist countries have; they still have not been able to accomplish the democratic tasks which the advanced countries had completed decades ago. Also, the process of ‘semi-industrialisation’ in the Third World seems to be making it more dependent on imperialism rather than more autonomous. However, Löwy warns against underestimating the ability of bourgeois- and petty bourgeois-led revolutions to accomplish important reforms and establish stable states. To take for granted the instability of these regimes would be to commit the error of political fatalism. Knowing the capabilities of such regimes, the revolutionary, Löwy hopes, would be more determined to prevent their stabilisation, and to struggle for an alternative future.

On the other hand, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution has been proven correct by the revolutions in Russia, China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam and Cuba. While three of these were always under proletariat leadership, the Russian and Cuban revolutions started under bourgeois leadership but were soon taken over by the proletariat. All of them had a bourgeois-democratic moment but the democratic tasks in each of them were completed only in the socialist moment of the revolution. This edition of the book does not carry the details of these revolutions that would explain the process of the combined revolution. However, Löwy does discuss the Nicaraguan revolution of the 1960s.

Nicaragua saw a popular insurrection against dictatorship with mass peasant and worker participation. The leadership was largely petty bourgeois but through its struggle, it had developed an anti-imperialist and anti-autocratic programme. Due to the precedent set by the Cuban revolution, and direct support from Cuba, the Nicaraguan revolution developed along communist lines. According to Löwy, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSNL) took radical steps: it dissolved the old army and established its own army with soldiers from the guerilla army and the militia, it organised the masses into unions and other organisations, and it enforced its anti-capitalist policies. (Löwy had written this back in 1979. Since then the FSNL has weakened and it would be interesting to know how Löwy explains its trajectory now.)

Löwy, after establishing that Trotsky’s politics passes the test of history, moves on to his ‘sociology’ – his analysis of the roles of the social classes (and social categories). In discussing these – the national bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, intelligentsia, peasantry and the proletariat – Löwy clarifies some of the finer points Trotsky makes on the subject, and tries to make certain amendments in his perspective. It is here that Löwy’s (admittedly slight) departures from Trotsky, some of which we have already come across, become even more clear.

Löwy agrees with Trotsky about the usually moderate nature of the bourgeoisie. Most advanced democratic revolutions, it is asserted, were under petty bourgeois, not bourgeois, leadership. However, he does briefly note that Trotsky, at times, underestimated the indigenous bourgeoisie, especially in the case of India. With respect to the petty bourgeoisie, Löwy agrees with Trotsky that they must eventually choose between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. On the question of whether the petty bourgeoisie could play a significant role in the revolution, Löwy points out the leading role they played in many Third World countries, at times even going against capitalist interests. Though only for a limited time, petty bourgeois regimes, contrary to Trotsky’s belief, did manage to hold power and forge their own distinctive policies, which Löwy calls a sort of petty bourgeois Bonapartism.

Trotsky had, by and large, ignored the role of the petty bourgeois (and increasingly proletarianised) intelligentsia. Löwy believes the ideology of the petty bourgeois intelligentsia to be a sort of Jacobinism combining ‘plebian democracy and romantic moralism’, like in Rousseau. In peripheral countries, their radicalisation is stronger, compounded by imperialist penetrations, conciliatory position of the national bourgeoisie, and the success of socialist revolutions.

Adding to his disagreements with Trotsky on the question of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry in dependent country which have already been noted, Löwy goes on to highlight the greater uprootedness of the peasantry of the third world due to uneven development and imperialism, which leads to greater radicalisation. Most post-1917 revolutions had the peasants as their main social base. However, here he also complicates the term ‘peasantry’, which tends to conflate a broad and heterogeneous body. The rich or big peasants are usually neutral or hostile to communist revolutions. Borrowing from Hamza Alavi’s analysis of the Hunan struggle (and events in Russia, Cuba, Mexico, Vietnam and Algeria), Löwy argues that in the initial phase of the movement, the greater material security of the middle and small peasantry, allows them to attack the oppressors. Their complete dependence on their overlords holds back the poor peasant and the landless labourer until the struggle has already shaken the local authorities and the landlords. The presence of the Red Army in China, for instance, encouraged the poor and landless peasants to join the struggle. But once they joined, they proved more radical than the middle peasants. This external force that pushes the peasant to rebel and gain a socialist consciousness (even prior to a socialist revolution) still came from the urban intellectual and the proletarian communist vanguard. Without this the peasant struggle may have remained local and ineffective.

However, with increasing industrialisation in the dependent countries, Löwy expects the struggle to shift to the cities, with the working masses playing a more central role, like in the ‘classic’ October revolution. In 1917, the revolution was ‘directly’ proletariat, that is, the Bolshevik Party, was proletariat not only in ideology but also in social composition. In subsequent revolutions, the working class played a seminal part in the initial phases but was largely absent during the seizure of power. In China, Vietnam, Cuba and Yugoslavia, the peasantry was the main social support. To explain this absence, Löwy points to the heavy repression the working class encountered in the early phases of all these revolutions, and also the insistence of communist parties to ally with the bourgeois class. These revolutionary parties were indirectly proletarian, that is they were proletarian in their ideology.

* * *

The last chapter of the book is a 2010 interview of the author with Phil Gasper, which seeks to apply the logic of uneven and combined development and the theory of permanent revolution to the present context. Löwy points out that the capitalist system is still very much characterised by the centre and periphery distinction, and since this is so the theory of permanent revolution remains a topic of central importance. The essence of the theory, its dialectical approach to analysis and the uncompromising praxis that this entails, holds true even though the form of unevenness has changed. When Trotsky first formulated the theory in 1905, Russia had a modern urban industry and a backward rural area. Today we can find advanced and backward elements in both urban and rural regions, as well as among nations (what is figuratively called the North-South divide). This unevenness has given birth to many a movement for autonomy at all levels – local, regional and national. Though there are reactionary tendencies, there are also radical ones whose anti-imperialism has taken international proportions with several nations, in Latin America primarily, combining their efforts for autonomy.

Michael Löwy is quite optimistic about such developments, and also about the so-called global justice movement. Although acknowledging the definite liberal, moderate, and even Keynesian tendencies in the global justice movement, Löwy highlights the stated anti-capitalist goals of the World Social Forum. Although anti-capitalist does not necessarily mean socialist, let alone Marxist-socialist, Löwy enthusiastically claims that many of the participants do indeed hope to create socialism. For Löwy, the kind of international solidarity that is fostered by this movement is not one based on sympathy but more on convergences in the ‘common struggle against a common enemy, neoliberalism’.

The reason for his faith in the global justice movement and the WSF is that he sees it as a forum for combining anti-imperialist, agrarian, democratic and anti-capitalist struggles, none of which can succeed without the others by the logic of the law of uneven and combined development. Whether he is right in his expectations from the global justice movement or the WSF will need further study. However, even if they do not meet the potential that Löwy identifies in them, his general argument would still hold: ‘if movements for national liberation, or agrarian reform, or radical democratisation do not develop, in an “uninterrupted” process, into a socialist revolution, they will sooner or later be defeated’ (154). This is only a ‘conditional’ perspective. But with no Stalinism (read as: restrictions from within the workers’ party), the primary conditions that determine the trajectory of the international movement is the class structure of the participant local movements, an analysis of which is not offered in this book. Without class analysis, the arguments for the possibility that this ‘movement of movements’ could develop into something significant are somewhat hollow.

* * *

The entire length of the book, in delineating the features of Trotsky’s theory, argues for the possibility of permanent revolution in backward, dependent capitalist or non-capitalist nations. In this it primarily uses cases, like of Russia and China, which can no longer be called socialist or post-capitalist. But does the failure of permanent revolution here tell us that the theory is erroneous? It does not. The predictions or hypotheses derived from the theory are, true to its dialectical method, contingent on the political developments in the situation: whether the revolutionary ‘fervour’ can push its leadership (even despite themselves) into following the flow of the process towards an uninterrupted, combined revolution. That is, whether the leadership can see the logical development of a bourgeois-democratic revolution led by the proletarian vanguard into a socialist revolution. But for the various factors pressing on the Soviet leadership (the theoretical and practical Menshevism is the only factor Löwy discusses; there might be others given the spread of the same ideas among most of the Comintern leadership), Trotsky might have been proved right and we might have seen a socialist revolution radiating from Russia. It is characteristic of Trotsky’s dialectical approach to not impose determinist diktats on reality – the political trajectory of a revolution is always too complex and overdetermined for that.

This edition of the book is an abridged version of a much longer book originally published in 1981. What has been reproduced is Part One of the two-part book. Replacing the second part is the 2010 interview of the author that makes for a helpful supplement to the chapters that are republished, though perhaps not a substitute for the chapters that are not. Löwy explains in this interview that Part Two, which contained analyses of events in Russia, China, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Cuba on the basis of the theory presented in Part One, has become ‘outdated’. Although there still is considerable, albeit scattered, historical analysis in this edition, one cannot help but feel deprived (due, in part, no doubt to references, which were not edited out, to the unpublished chapters that make promises of more in-depth study to come). When historical events are discussed they do sufficiently concretise some of Löwy’s assertions. However, a more detailed study would have demonstrated what is meant, for instance, by the ‘dialectics of totality’ within uneven and combined development and its significance for revolutionary praxis. To better explain how the interests of the peasants are bound to the proletarian revolution, or how the interests of the workers of one nation are bound to those of workers of all nations, and most importantly, how these can be successfully translated into revolutionary praxis, an analysis of the class structure of societies under transformation in the past would have been invaluable.

A great deal of what Löwy has to say on the subject seems to imply that the demise of the Russian and the international working class movement was the result largely of Stalin’s ideological distortions, or at least of the failure of the communist leadership to see what Trotsky and Lenin saw. Would the working class movement have remained strong if it were not for Stalin and the Comintern’s fallacious understanding of history and socialism? The international communist leadership in its entirety might have been convinced that socialism could thrive in one country, while other nations must necessarily embrace capitalism first. But were there really no other factors that worked for the detriment of the working class movement, along with the definite suffocating repercussions of the leadership’s conservatism? The only way to be sure and accurate is to do a detailed class analysis of the conditions in which the proletarian struggle weakened in Russia and other countries where Löwy holds the Comintern leadership directly responsible. One wonders whether the historical analyses in the original edition would have been helpful in this respect as well.

An updated historical analysis would go a long way in not only strengthening the theory of permanent revolution, but also in understanding recent class dynamics, and formulating new revolutionary strategies. For instance, what contingencies created the situations that led to China’s capitalist turn in the ’70s, or even to Cuba’s recent economic ‘reforms’? Would it be right to suggest, as Löwy does for Russia, that the still predominantly stagist and economistic credo of the communist parties is the primary cause?

For us here in India, lessons from Trotsky take on significance in view of the hesitations, on various grounds, of the various communist parties to organise on the basis of proletarian hegemony. Some seem to believe that there is a need to stay with the bourgeoisie until capitalism exhausts itself, while others are still fighting semi-feudalism alongside the rich peasantry, both of them alienating the proletariat in the process. Much of what Löwy says about the inability of the bourgeoisie to fulfill the three national democratic tasks (see note-2) fits the Indian situation like a glove. There is social unrest and mass movements resulting from the failure of the capitalist economy and state on each of these counts. Löwy is also right about the ability of the bourgeoisie to create a more or less stable state despite these failures, if the revolutionary forces do not develop within these locations of unrest and push them towards an alternative.

This book is not only a very helpful introduction to Trotsky’s work but also an important step towards contemporizing the theory of permanent revolution. Löwy limits himself to applying Trotsky to international social (not necessarily socialist) movements. It is obvious that much is still needed. Löwy does not omit the moments of real or apparent contradictions in Trotsky’s work. Attempts to explain these contradictions are convincing on most occasions if not all (perhaps someone more familiar with Trotsky’s texts and his time would be a better judge). But the reader will undoubtedly realise that Löwy’s loyalties, like Trotsky’s, lie with explicating the possibilities of permanent revolution rather than with particular persons or texts.


(1) Capitalism, as an ever-expanding social totality, is constitutively contradictory and is thus, in essence, uneven. Such unevenness renders the deficit of democracy (a la primitive accumulation) as much a constitutive part of capitalism as the democracy of competition (a la normal accumulation through market-based economic means and mechanisms). The failure of most Indian communists to grasp this essence of capital is the key reason for their inability to realise that struggles against all forms and kinds of democratic deficit cannot any longer be struggles against feudalism and for the ushering in of capitalism. Instead, such struggles for democratisation must be re-envisaged as movements to unravel capitalism, as a total network of democratic and undemocratic space-times, to go beyond it towards socialism.

(2) A national-democratic revolution according to Trotsky comprises of the following tasks:

  1. The agrarian democratic revolution: the bold and definitive abolition of residues of slavery, feudalism and ‘Asiatic Despotism’; the liquidation of all pre-capitalist forms of exploitation (corvee, forced labour, etc.); and the expropriation of the great landowners and the distribution of the land to the peasantry.
  2. National liberation: the unification of the nation and its emancipation from imperialist domination, the creation of a unified national market, and its protection from cheaper foreign goods; the control of certain strategic national resources.
  3. Democracy: for Trotsky this included not only the establishment of democratic freedoms, a democratic republic and the end of military rule, but also the creation of the social and cultural conditions for popular participation in political life by the reduction of the working day to eight hours and through universal public education.” (89)