On the Organisational Question of the Working Class

Arvind Ghosh

“I have tried to dispel the misunderstanding arising out of the impression that by ‘party’, I meant a ‘League’ that expired eight years ago, or an editorial board that was disbanded twelve years ago. By ‘party’, I mean party in the broad historical sense.” (Karl Marx, Letter to Ferdinand Freiligrath, February 29, 1860)

“All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.” (Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848)

(1)          Within certain parameters, Marx was practical and impartial on the question of the form of organisation. Marx emphasised the concept of working class as an active, conscious SUBJECT, along with the forms, concepts and activities created by it. According to Marx, the organisational form is not pre-determined, but is created from within the real movement of the conscious and creative working class.

(2)          The most important historical process, for Marx, is the one through which the working class establishes itself as an independent, conscious revolutionary subject. It is this viewpoint of self-emancipation of the proletariat, which forms the content of the socialist revolution, and it is from this viewpoint that we ought to consider the question of organisational forms.

(3)          The positive aspect of this viewpoint is that it avoids fetishism of organisational forms as well as the tendency of these organisational forms to get ossified. It is open and flexible in accordance with the needs of the ever changing special conditions of the transforming agencies. Historically, it has been noted that the working class achieved maximum success when it succeeded in developing new forms of collective activity that challenged the established relations. Similarly, the working class experienced disastrous failures when in spite of the existing forms of collective activity getting degenerated and ossified, the working class continued to defend them instead of building new ones. In order to protect the forms of collective activity from degeneration, it is necessary that these organisations are developed continuously through a process of regeneration and reorganisation, and preserved in their changing forms.

(4)          Marx recognises the working class as the revolutionary agency. The basis for this recognition is that the working class is capable of independently determining its political-organisational forms. Although Marx’s theory of proletarian revolution is intimately connected with the organisational activity of the working class, Marx never attempted to theorise a proletarian organisation. In fact, any attempt to develop a theory of organisation from the point of view of the self-emancipation of the working class is contradictory, since such attempt would amount to declaring independence from the conscious activities of the working class and thus reject the creative powers of the working class.

(5)          For Marx, Subject plays the most important role in the process of revolution. Subject is the one responsible for both theory as well as practice, and also for uniting the two. Therefore, it is dialectically incorrect to say that the subject must unite with its theory, or there has to be a fusion of socialist theory with the advanced workers (for the birth of a communist organisation), as if socialist theory exists independently, outside the class struggle of the proletariat with which its advanced section must unite. “The long-prevalent conception of revolutionary theory – the science of society and revolution, as elaborated by specialists and introduced into the proletariat by the party is in direct contradiction to the very idea of a socialist revolution being the autonomous activity of the masses” (Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘The Proletariat and Organisation’, 1959). In fact, the working class while assimilating and developing socialist theory through its praxis moves towards its goal of destroying capitalist mode of production (CMP) and establishing  a new mode of production which Marx calls associated mode of production (AMP). This process is what constitutes working class self-emancipation.

(6)          From the dialectical viewpoint of Marx, means and aims are inextricably interconnected. From this viewpoint, means are the socialist end in the process of becoming. Means advancing towards communist revolution prefigures the communist society. Since organisation is the most important means to achieve a communist society, it is essential that its form is in complete accord with this objective and in no way does it contradict this objective. In other words, the journey of self-emancipation of the proletariat begins with self-activity and self-organisation capable of achieving the goal of a socialist society.

(7)          A socialist revolution can become a reality, according to Marx, only through conscious, active participation of the working class. A proletarian organisational form is a pre-condition for this revolution, which the working class itself creates through class struggle. This task cannot be done by representing class interests of the proletariat in an abstract manner. An organisational form established independently of this process of self-development of the working class forestalls this process midway, as a result of which the working class comes under the control of an agency outside or above it. Thus through a separation of the organisational form from the class, the division between leaders and the led existing within the bourgeois society is reinforced. Here the organisational form becomes an abstraction with an inherent possibility of incomplete development of the proletariat and its political alienation.

(8)          Marx had advocated a range of organisational forms suited to different politico-economic situations – from workers councils, workers clubs and committees to unions, general assemblies and even parties. But Marx’s argument that the working class needs to organise itself into a party did not amount to working-class party-building. For Marx, organising itself into a party meant getting organised as a revolutionary subject. By ‘party’ Marx had meant a party in an ‘eminently historical sense.’

In ‘The Fourth Annual Report of the General Council‘ (1868) of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), Marx had written: “That Association has not been hatched by a sect or a theory. It is the spontaneous growth of the proletarian movement, which itself is the offspring of the natural and irrepressible tendencies of modern society.”

(9)          To declare any specific form of organisation as the only appropriate form means that the working class is not the revolutionary subject, but rather this specific form of organisation is the subject. It means that the proletarian revolution can be determined beforehand and that the development of the working class is not a creative process but a pre-determined process. To come out of this illusion, it would be necessary to establish the creative aspects of socialist revolution and to clarify how the free and conscious activities of the working class (expressed in whatever form) can create new communist social relations.

(10)      The existing communist movement defines power as a thing which might be captured (seized), monopolised and made more powerful (knowingly or unknowingly), whereas, from Marx’s standpoint, power should be defined on the basis of social relations. Instead of concentrating our entire energy on the seizure of power as a thing, the communist movement ought to be directed towards the transformation of social relations. Thus we conceive revolution not as an event but as a process.

(11)      The most important reason for the crisis in which socialism finds itself today (which is also the real tragedy of established Marxism) is that it has abandoned the concept of proletarian self-emancipation, whereas this concept is the essence and specificity of Marx’s Marxism. As a result, the existing communist movement has been alienated from its class as well as social roots. The established communist movement considers socialism to be a product of organisational activities. From this standpoint, it is the Party and not the class which acts. From this perspective, organisational form has been considered to be of crucial importance, while the conscious role of the class is neglected and even negated.

(12)      From his early critique of Hegel’s political philosophy Marx had initiated a new type of political discourse which goes beyond the division between economy and politics existing in the bourgeois society towards transition to a non-ruling class and stateless society. According to Marx, political activities should be subordinated towards the goal of social revolution. This principle is clearly stated in the provisional rules of the International Working Men’s Association thus: “The economic emancipation of the working class is the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means.”

(13)      As has been pointed out by Anton Pannekoek in his essay ‘Party and the Working-class’, “in relation to the proletarian revolution, a ‘revolutionary party’ is a contradiction in terms. This could also be expressed by saying that the term ‘revolutionary’ in the expression ‘revolutionary party’ necessarily designates a bourgeois revolution. On every occasion, indeed, that the masses have intervened to overthrow a government and have then handed power to a new party, it was a bourgeois revolution that took place — a substitution of a new dominant category for an old one. So it was in Paris when, in 1830, the commercial bourgeoisie took over from the big landed proprietors; and again, in 1848, when the industrial bourgeoisie succeeded the financial bourgeoisie; and again in 1871 when the whole body of the bourgeoisie came to power.” For Pannekoek, the Russian revolution of 1917 was no exception to this rule when party-bureaucracy monopolised over state power, and as we all know, what was established in Russia through this party-state was not socialism but state-capitalism.

Thus, we find that the party-form of organisation, although appropriate for a bourgeois revolution, is hardly adequate to the needs of a proletarian revolution. In a proletarian revolution, the working class has to seize power as a class. In this revolution, the proletarian class power is established through the destruction of the bourgeois state. But the workers’ state thus formed is not a ‘state’ in the conventional sense of the term since it is not an institution separated from the masses. Workers’ power is direct power of workers organised in the spheres of production. The specificity of the working class regime lies in the fact that in this regime the spheres of politics is not separated from the sphere of economics (i.e., production) but is integrated into one entity. In a workers’ regime, the working class takes control of the means of production, makes plans and executes them collectively. Thus a new mode of production is born designated by Marx as the ‘associated mode of production’ (AMP). In this new socialist society, time spent on ‘necessary labour’ (‘socially necessary labour time’) would be progressively reduced and humanity will have more ‘free time’ at its disposal geared to the development of creative powers of human beings.

However, the abstract representation of the working class through ‘Party Power’ contradicts the very concept of working class power. In spite of all the good intentions of the theoreticians in suggesting the new ‘revolutionary working class party’, party power can only be an elitist power, since this party will be an organisation of the so-called advanced sections of the working class frequented by the ‘socialist theoreticians’ from the bourgeois as well as middle class intelligentsia, presenting themselves as the ‘teachers’ of the working class. Marx’s philosophical dictum that ‘the educator must himself be educated’ is perfectly applicable in the context of these ‘teachers’. These elements from outside the working class naturally occupy the upper echelons – the “superincumbent strata” – of this hierarchical organisation. In its due course of development, this organisation begins to rule over the masses by bringing them under its control and trying to regulate their lives through the directives of their highest committees. Thus, the so-called ‘revolutionary party’, instead of helping the struggles of the working class, becomes an obstacle in the creative activities of the class. But, as we know through our experience of the failed revolutions of the 20th century, Socialism cannot be built through directives from above but is possible only through creative participation of the productive classes.

(14)      In order to grasp which form of organisation is most suitable for the working class, it is necessary to correctly define the aims and objectives of the working class movement, since organisation is only a means to achieve these aims and objectives.

The working class not only needs to destroy capitalism but simultaneously needs to create a new communist society which would be qualitatively different from capitalism. The task before this revolution is to go beyond capitalism by completely transforming this mode of production and establishing a new society based on this transformation.

The working class in accordance with its class objectives must create an organisational form and provide a political content adequate to these revolutionary socialist objectives. Historically, the Soviets and the Workers’ Councils – i.e., the organisations created and directed by the workers themselves during their attempts to act as a conscious, creative class – have proved themselves to be the most appropriate organisational forms to accomplish the socialist revolution and for the purpose of functioning of the socialist society. It is through these Workers’ Councils/Soviets that workers directly establish their political-economic power and organise a new socialist system of production. These organisations are inherently democratic, composed of delegates, not representatives, mandated by those who elect them and subject to recall at any time.

The basis of representation in Workers’ Councils is not abstract, since they represent workers engaged in revolutionary struggles. Based in the spheres of production and distribution, there is no place in them for either bourgeois interests or bourgeois representation. Thus, they represent exclusively the working class interests. During the revolution when the working class is faced with the responsibility of reorganising society economically, politically and socially, it becomes possible only through workers’ councils/ soviets and factory councils. In other words, these organisations are the instruments of proletarian dictatorship – the most complete democracy of the working class.

(15)      Socialism is not possible without the management of production, economy and the society by workers themselves. The experience of the Russian Revolution teaches us that the destruction of economic domination as well as of the state power of the bourgeoisie is not enough. The proletariat can achieve the objectives of its revolution only if it builds up its own power in every sphere. This implies that the power in post-revolutionary society has to be solely and directly in the hands of the organisations created by them, like the soviets, factory committees and councils. For a special organisation like the party to take on the function of governance or exercise power means perpetuating the existing separation between producers and the controllers of the conditions of production, the division between the rulers and the ruled.  However, this proposition necessitates a reconsideration of all the theoretical and practical problems facing the revolutionary movement today.

(16)      The question of organisation is not merely a technical question or a question of its form; rather, it is a philosophical question. Marx’s philosophy of revolution is not only about working class emancipation, but is primarily a philosophy of human liberation. According to Marx, working class cannot emancipate itself without simultaneously emancipating the entire oppressed humanity. The final goal of the proletarian revolution is to create a new human society free from all forms of exploitation and oppression. Thus the proletarian revolution is integrated with the women’s liberation movement (WLM), the movement of the oppressed castes, races and nationalities for Freedom. The proletarian revolution is also about redefining humanity’s relationship with Nature, the degradation of which has reached its limit today (to the point of a total extinction of the human as well as other species on the planet) due to the very existence of the capitalist mode of production.

Hence, while forming any proletarian organisation today it should be our endeavour to construct them in accordance with Marx’s vision of a new human society which takes care of all these concerns. This means first of all posing a direct challenge to the existing alienation between Organisation and Philosophy (which is also an expression of the separation between physical and mental labour existing in today’s bourgeois society), through the very functioning of the Organisation.

In other words, any proletarian organisation we build today ought to be free from Vanguardism, Hierarchy and separation of mental and physical labour. The organisation should operate on the principle of democracy from below. We may call it centralised democracy where the emphasis is more on democracy than on centralism to distinguish it from democratic centralism which amounts to control from above in practice.

Academia as a site of class struggle

Raju J Das

The recent student demonstrations in Britain, Quebec (and elsewhere) against neo-liberal education cuts (and fee increase) is an encouraging sign of sentiments of legitimate class anger brewing among students. This prompts one to think critically about academia as such. The academia must be a site of class struggle. And funding cut is only one issue. There are major problems with the academia itself. Students should fight not just for more educational opportunities, for an educational system that is not to be treated as a commodity. They should critically think about the very content of education being given to them by their professors.

One of the problems with the academia – universities, research institutes, etc – is that it is a great ‘leveller’, a ‘bourgeois-democratic terrain’. Take any topic, say, child labour. Lots of professors talk about the social-cultural identity of children (e.g. what does it mean to be a younger person, and all that). If you, as a Marxist, question them saying, what about how capitalism creates conditions for child labour to exist, these academics would say ‘yes, that is one approach, and ours is another’. Take the environment. Nature/environment gets transformed into ideas about nature/environment. So, anything and everything goes.

Marxism, as Terry Eagleton correctly remarks in Why Marx was right is ‘the most theoretically rich, politically uncompromising critique of … (the capitalist) system’. Marxism, however, gets constructed as one among several approaches. Irrespective of the intellectual merit of an approach, all approaches are considered valid within academic, on an apriori basis. Often, approaches which have little to do with Marxism at all are constructed as Marxism with a pre-fix (as in ‘post-Marxism’): those who do this practice double standards. They want to enjoy some prestige associated with Marxism’s rigour while denying the validity of every major principle of Marxism’s theory and politics. The history of the academic world, of production of social knowledge, appears to be a history of running away from the class question and its politics which define Marxism.

The effect is this: Marxism is forced to live in peaceful coexistence with other ideas. Here is the problem though: Marxism cannot naturally live that mode of life. No peaceful existence is possible (just as socialism in one country co-existing with capitalism in other countries is such a stupid idea in theory and practice).

There are only two types of approaches in the world, as Lenin says in What is to be done: socialist/Marxist and capitalist. Because Marxism lays bare the exploitative, destructive and oppressive character of capitalism which is the most dominant feature of our life, which is the most important cause of major world problems, therefore Marxism must be the dominant approach in society. To think otherwise is to fool ourselves.

It is not the friendly battle of ideas – Marxism vs the rest – that leads to this sort of peaceful coexistence. It is partly the structure of the academia which allows this to happen. And it is a structure whose main function is to reproduce capitalism and blunt class struggle.

Within this structure, then the agency of non-Marxists to weed out Marxists in various ways works. Within this structure, what works is the agency of bourgeois professors – which is what nearly all the professors are, although sometimes they give themselves a ‘critical’ name – in imposing nonsense and semi-ignorance, packaged as knowledge, on ‘helpless’ students (who constitute a ‘captive market’). This includes making students or encouraging them to do intellectually non-stimulating and politically infertile research, by making them read nearly-rubbish things in the class room, by holding out the threat of a low grade if students write radical stuff about society, and so on. Many students, thankfully not all, are complicit in this sort of game being played.

Within this structure – the supposedly democratic terrain – some ‘Marxists’ also get seduced and turn to non-Marxism (in the name of theoretical innovations to be peddled in the knowledge-market) or do not critically object to the non-Marxist nonsense on the pretext of collegiality, etc. This collegiality is in a way a reflection of crass class-collaborationism on an ideological plane: to the extent that non-Marxists represent the interests and ideas of the bourgeoisie and to the extent that Marxists represent the interests of the working class, poor peasants and all those still engaged in communal modes of life, collegiality is equal to collaborationism which is given a sweet-sounding name.

It is said that professors’ research should inform their teaching. But what kind of research do professors indeed do? To the extent that professors’ research is driven by a critical agenda – and note that being critical is as mandatory as younger students taking a writing course – their critique is a critique of those aspects which can be changed a bit: talking about things which cannot be changed are off their radar and therefore of their students. Professors ‘find fault’ with society (more accurately, they find fault with superficial aspects of society which can be modified a bit through the drama of so-called human agency as expressed in the form of NGOs, governmental action or union bureaucracy). But they get very edgy if someone points fingers at them. Much of their research agenda is primarily driven by whether their research will, for example, obtain a grant in the grant market, whether from business or from a bureaucratic state, which often sets its own agenda for giving money, and whether their research conforms to the agenda (‘strategic research plan’) of their institutions. Much of the research – funded or not – celebrates economic individualism or cultural individualism (the identity stuff, abstracted from the sheer material conditions). Poverty is replaced by ideas about poverty. The child is replaced by ideas about the child. And so on. Research has attained magical powers. If some workers think that they are not workers, the professor declares that the working class as a reality does not exist, and therefore class is as defunct as Stalinist USSR. By touching the keyboard on their laptops, professors can make an entire reality disappear at an instant.

Much of the research even by so-called critical scholars is about everything else other than capitalism’s class and systemic character. Research is about how to make the existing society look a little progressive on the basis of a little gender parity here, racial or regional equality there, and so on. Much research is purely descriptive: attempt to find causes of things is not a worthwhile project any more. No need to penetrate the structure of the world. Penetrate the minds of people around you. The entire reality is there. What and how people think about things is the main thing. ‘Ies’ (geographies, sociologies), ‘ality’ (governmentality), and a plethora of similar words decorate the academia, which signify multiple realities and social (=mental/emotional, etc.) construction of realities.

If a student garnering some courage tries to talk about class, or the state, the immediate response of the professors is: that’s old stuff or that is too orthodox or that has been done. ‘Do new things, man!’ is what a student is told. What to research is not to be determined by the lives and struggles of ordinary people, by people in their flesh and bones, as they produce and reproduce their lives. What to research is to be determined by ‘silences’, by what has not been researched (I will not be surprised to see a research project that will study the physical and socially constructed average distances among people defecating at dusk on the outskirts of a village in India).

The ‘democratic’ character of the academia will be put to test if lots of professors honestly follow the Marxist approach in a university. One or two Marxists can be allowed in a University as a token existence of radical dissent. The ‘law of dialectics’ will work if the number becomes large, too large. The quantity will change into a quality. The democratic character of the academia will also be tested if students start challenging their bourgeois professors, including in terms of what they make the students read and what is the content of what professors say in the class-room (which is supposedly based on their research). It is not too difficult to see students at the forefront of a renewed class struggle.

Raju J Das teaches at York University, Toronto.

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.

Michael Lebowitz: Foreword for the Indian Edition of “FOLLOWING MARX”

Michael Lebowitz (2012), Following Marx: Method, Critique, and Crisis, Daanish Books, INR: 425.

In his notes on Hegel’s Science of Logic, Lenin came to an essential conclusion that I embrace and which is reflected in the essays in this book:

Aphorism: It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later, none of the Marxists understood Marx!! [1]

Lenin’s comment did not drop from the sky. Rather, its germination can be traced in his Philosophical Notebooks; it can be seen in his growing appreciation of Hegel’s conception of the interconnection of all elements (‘the necessary connection of the whole world’, ‘the mutually determinant connection of the whole’) and of Hegel’s dialectical process of reasoning (‘the immanent emergence of distinctions’).[2] ‘The basic idea,’ Lenin observed, ‘is one of genius: that of the universal, all-sided, vital connection of everything with everything and the reflection of this connection — Hegel materialistically turned upside-down — in human concepts, which likewise must be hewn, treated, flexible, mobile, relative, mutually connected, united in opposites, in order to embrace the world.’[3]

But it was not only Hegel’s understanding of the inner connection that Lenin embraced. It was also the recognition of the problems inherent in appearances and therefore the necessity to go beyond appearance. ‘Thought proceeding from the concrete to the abstract,’ he indicated, ‘does not get away from the truth but comes closer to it.’ This process of abstraction is essential: ‘From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice — such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality.’[4] In short, as Hegel stressed, we must go beyond even the regularities in appearances if we are to understand what underlies those regularities. Developing ‘laws’ and theories simply on the basis of empiricism, Lenin learned here, is inherently ‘narrow, incomplete, approximate’.[5]

Reading Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, I was guided through Hegel’s Logic and from there to an understanding of the Grundrisse and Capital. In these collected essays on method, appearance and essence, crisis theory and one-sidedness — as well as in my Beyond Capital and The Socialist Alternative (Lebowitz 2003, 2010), I try to pass on what I have learned. It is my hope that Indian scholars and activists can follow the same path — the one that Lenin pointed to:

Continuation of the work of Hegel and Marx must consist in the dialectical elaboration of the history of human thought, science and technique…. And purely logical elaboration? It coincides. It must coincide, as induction and deduction in Capita1.[6]

For, if there is one thing clear to me, it is that what Lenin called ‘the eternal, endless approximation of thought to the object’ has not come to an end, and it has been a great error to believe that we have inherited ‘truth in the form of a dead repose’.[7]

References

Lebowitz, Michael A. 2003. Beyond CAPITAL: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lebowitz, Michael A. 2010. The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Lenin, V.I. 1961. Collected Works, Vol. 38: ‘Philosophical Notebooks’, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Notes:
[1] Lenin, 1961: 180.
[2] Ibid, 97,106.
[3] Ibid, 146–7.
[4] Ibid, 171.
[5] Ibid, 150–1.
[6] Ibid, 146–7.
[7] Ibid, 195.

Video: Werner Bonefeld on “The nature of the state”

Werner Bonefeld: The nature of the bourgeois state from Communist Party of Great Britain on Vimeo.

Discussion And Reading Team of Socialists, Bhubaneswar (Second meeting) – A report

Discussion and Reading Team of Socialists (DARTS)

On Commodity Fetishism

The second meeting of DARTS was held on 30-12-2011 from 5:00p.m to 7:00p.m. at XIMB, Bhubaneswar. Prof. Raju Das of York University began his talk with a Power Point Presentation on Marx’s theory of ‘fetishism of commodities.’ Fetishism of the commodity, according to Marx, means that ‘the relationships between producers, within which the social characteristics of their labourers are manifested, take on the form of a social relation between the products of [their] labour’. In his talk he explained this idea with a simple example using export-oriented shrimp production in Orissa. The conditions of the shrimp producers, as that of numerous other workers, in Orissa (as elsewhere), are simply bad. The work they perform in producing the shrimp as a global commodity not only fails to fetch them enough money for their daily maintenance. The production process oriented towards producing the maximum amount of exchange value (profit) for the shrimp producers/traders is inscribed on their labouring bodies: chemicals used in the process affect the (women) workers’ fingers so badly that they cannot even eat with their hands. When the shrimps are in the market, every buyer, including the buyer in advanced countries, wants to get the maximum counts of shrimps for every rupee/dollar she has in her pocket. Doing this is in her own material interest. The buyer (who is also a producer of other commodities, be it a service or a physical commodity) does not care about the conditions under which shrimp workers work. And the buyer does not care because her own conditions of work and wage-level, like those of the shrimp-worker, are beyond her own control. So, it is as if shrimps and other commodities start talking in the market. The actual people who produce those commodities are not directly and socially interacting. It is immaterial whether or not people know the conditions of shrimp producers because given their own position they have to command a maximum amount of the commodity (e.g. shrimp) they want for every unit of the commodity they own (or its money form). There exists, in the words of Marx, ‘the social relation between commodities’ and ‘material relation between men.’ In Prof. Das’s words: “commodities rule over us instead of ourselves ruling over articles of use to us.” Relations between commodities replace – or at least, become much more important than – relations between people, i.e. people-as-producers of things-for-use.

Then Prof. Das explained the aspects of Ideology using I.I.Rubin (author of Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value), Terry Eagleton (author of Ideology) and Slavoj Zizek (author of Sublime Object of Ideology). Marx’s ideas of fetishism are connected not only to his ideas about alienation (partly in the sense that fetishism – the rule of commodities over us — happens because of the absence of democratic social regulation over production) but also ideology: the objective reality is such that we think that things for use necessarily have a money-tag and have to be bought and sold (for a profit) and we behave accordingly. The reality – and not (just) our discursive inability to comprehend it – is such that it makes us think that our needs can only be satisfied through commodity exchanges. Commodity fetishism is not our failure of intelligence. It is an intelligent failure. The commodity form hides the real social relations from us. It acts as a veil. And, in the words of Marx: ‘The veil is not removed …. until [the production process] becomes production by associated [producers], and stands under their conscious and planned control’ (Marx). The question is what is to be done to make this happen. Marx, of course, ends Capital Vol 1 with his most definitive answer to the question. Marx’s discussion of the commodity (dealt with in the inaugural meeting of DARTS) and of fetishism clearly shows that if we want to understand the capital and the society it dominates we must understand Marx (and his Capital).

There was an audience from several disciplines – students and teachers of Technology, Literature, Economics, Business Studies, etc. A number of political and civil rights’ activists were also present. Interesting questions were raised and discussed in the meeting. The questions included: ‘What is the distinction between objective and intrinsic in the context of value?’; ‘In a particular village, where people know each other and produce agricultural products and consume them, how is the theory of ‘fetishism of commodities’ relevant?’. What is the distinction between concrete labour and abstract labour, and why is such a distinction important? One perceptive member of the audience and a senior scholar explicitly linked the idea of fetishism to alienation, building on early Marx’s writings.’

There was an active participation as each participant found Marx relevant in her/his field of work and/or area of interest. All the questions posed could not be addressed properly due to the lack of time, which meant that there was a great need for several rounds of discussion on such concepts as the commodity and fetishism.The discussion had to be limited to commodity fetishism; there was no time for a discussion of the other form of fetishism in Marx’s work: capital fetishism.

The DARTS provisional organizing committee has decided to meet on the 29-01-12. The topic to be discussed was proposed to be ‘Labour-power as commodity.’ The time and venue will be conveyed by e-mail.

We collectively hope that we will continue to discuss important ideas of Marx both from the standpoint of their theoretical value and from the standpoint of their ability to shed light on contemporary issues facing the humanity. We also hope that there will be reading teams such as ours in many other cities and towns of Orissa and India.

Bhubaneswar: Discussion And Reading Team of Socialists (DARTS) – December 30

The second meet of ‘Discussion And Reading Team of Socialists'(DARTS) is to be held on the 30-12-2011 at Xavier Institute of Management (XIMB), Bhubaneswar Room No. 229 from 5p.m to 7p.m. In the first meet Prof. Raju Das from York University, Toronto delivered a short talk on the relevance of Marx’s Capital and on Marx’s Labour Theory of Value followed by discussion among the participants. Marx’s Capital is an essential read for activists and intellectuals alike. The analysis of the commodity in the first chapter ‘Commodities’ is, as Marx claims, the point from where he begins his analysis/critique of capitalism (see Marx’s Introduction to first edition of Capital). It requires more effort understanding this chapter than the rest of Capital. Prof. Das, in the second meet of DARTS will deliver a small talk on the last section of this chapter ‘the fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof’ after revisiting the initial section of the chapter. We request you to be present for discussion.

P.S: In the third meet the discussion team is supposed to meet after reading Chapter I (or a part of it — this shall be decided in the second meet). The date, time and venue will be let known via e-mail.

Please send your suggestions to darts.bhubaneswar@gmail.com

Andrew Kliman on “The Failure of Capitalist Production”

The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession
by Andrew Kliman,
Pluto Press

The recent financial crisis and Great Recession have been analysed endlessly in the mainstream and academia, but this is the first book to conclude, on the basis of in-depth analyses of official US data, that Marx’s crisis theory can explain these events.

Marx believed that the rate of profit has a tendency to fall, leading to economic crises and recessions. Many economists, Marxists among them, have dismissed this theory out of hand, but Andrew Kliman’s careful data analysis shows that the rate of profit did indeed decline after the post-World War II boom and that free-market policies failed to reverse the decline. The fall in profitability led to sluggish investment and economic growth, mounting debt problems, desperate attempts of governments to fight these problems by piling up even more debt – and ultimately to the Great Recession.

Kliman’s conclusion is simple but shocking: short of socialist transformation, the only way to escape the ‘new normal’ of a stagnant, crisis-prone economy is to restore profitability through full-scale destruction of existing wealth, something not seen since the Depression of the 1930s.

About The Author

Andrew Kliman is Professor of Economics at Pace University, New York. He is the author of Reclaiming Marx’s ‘Capital’: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency and many writings on crisis theory, value theory and other topics.

Significance of a counter-hegemonic culture: : An Urgent Need for Marxist Reading Groups

Raju J Das

Capitalism creates poverty. It indeed requires poverty and thrives on it. It causes and requires massive social and geographical inequality. And capitalism is inherently crisis-prone. We have just witnessed a major global economic crisis. In part because of its crisis-proneness, modern world capitalism is necessarily imperialist: advanced capitalist countries try to shift the effects of the crises they experience to politically and economically weaker countries (often with the connivance of the state in these countries). Normal mechanisms of capitalism and the combination of economic crisis and imperialism have major adverse impacts on the living conditions of the working masses in general and workers and poor peasants in the less developed countries such as India in particular.

No system of injustice goes unchallenged, however. Away from the pre-occupations of the corporate-controlled mainstream media, people’s movements against the profit-driven system have been taking place. Consider, for example, the Arab Spring, various social justice movements in India and elsewhere, as well as the ‘occupy movements’ in the US and Europe, which are bound to leave an impression on the radical imagination of the masses, even if they are being repressed. Humans have an irrepressible quest for justice and have a desire for a humane world. These various movements have emerged in response to the heightened levels of exploitation of workers, massive amount of dispossession of peasants from their property, undemocratic control over socio-economic activity and the government by large companies, and the irreparable ecological devastation and cultural impoverishment.

Many activists and movements have been inspired in their thinking by the critique by Marx and other progressive scholars of capitalist commodification and development. Ideologically, these protests and the recent economic crises call into question the legitimacy not only of capitalism, including its neoliberal form, but also of capitalist nation-states and global ‘state’ apparatuses (e.g. World Bank; IMF). This happens in richer countries and in poorer countries such as India as well.

There has indeed been an extraordinary resurgence of interest in a Marxist worldview recently, which as Terry Eagleton put it, is the ‘most theoretically rich, politically uncompromising critique of [the capitalist] system’ (Why Marx was right?). The process of resurgence of this intellectually insurgent worldview (Marxism) has been helped by the fact that the social relations of authoritarian ‘communism’, and other related views, which had acted as a fetter on the development of productive powers of Marxist research, have been burst asunder. In this context, question of alternatives to capitalism (beyond Keynesianism, state-bureaucratism, and neo-populism) – and the role of (Marxist) intellectuals whether in academy, in the media or ‘civil society’ in radical social change – are being actively discussed the world over. This has led to a series of important interventions rethinking political parties, democracy and visions of viable socialisms. More and more people are reading Marx and Marxists, and reading them critically, for Marxism is a science which must be updated where necessary. There is an outpouring of Marxist discussions including in journals such as New York-based Science and Society, world’s longest continuously published Marxist journal, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in October 2011, Review of Radical Political Economics (from Cornell University), Historical Materialism (from SOAS, London), Capital and Class, and so on. Much of this resurgence is exhibited on- online, Radical Notes itself being a testimony to this as is, for example, Sanhati.

The remaking of socialist visions – which emphasize socialism as the flourishing of optimal level of democracy in all spheres of human life – has also meant extensive considerations of race, caste, tribality, gender, sexuality and disability. These issues of social oppression/discrimination are important in their own right. But they are important dominantly because of the ways in which capitalism subordinates them to its own logic. Capitalism furthers its accumulation projects by using these sources of oppression to define certain working subjects as less than average workers who can be paid lower compensations. Capital also politically dominates the suffering subjects (workers and peasants) by dividing them on the basis of these non-class identities. An aspect of the resurgence of Marxist research is the immense popularity of Marxist dialectics as a holistic way of looking at the capitalist world, in terms of its unity as well as difference, from the standpoint of radically changing it. Such a dialectical method allows us to reflect on various methods of exploitation and social oppression as interconnected and as forming a concrete whole.

Reading Marx and those who engage in what the American Marxist, Hal Draper called ‘Marx’s Marxism’ would be more than apt at a political moment when neoliberalism, in theory and practice, is in crisis, when the turbulence of capitalist economies is part of daily life. As David Harvey and others have argued, Marx is more relevant now than he was during his own time.

The problems caused by capitalism are everywhere. These problems are, however, particularly acute in less developed countries and in the most under-developed parts of these poor countries. In many under-developed regions of India (e.g. Odisha), capitalist market relations in land and labour coexist with remnants of coercive production relations in some localities and with highly undemocratic relations of casteism, patriarchy and tribalism more generally. The institutions of the state are more or less ‘instruments’ of property-owners, including those whose main object is to subject natural resources and working people to cruel forms of commodification and ruthless forms of exploitation, all in the name of development and dollars (export earnings). There is an inverse relation between democratic rhetoric and its actual content. There is an absence of democratic values both in the economy or polity: ordinary people have little real democratic control over the way our resources and abilities to work are used. The cult of violence is everywhere. There is systemic violence as that caused when people’s livelihood is snatched away from them or when people do not have the money to buy basic necessities because of which they starve to death or suffer from poverty-caused diseases. Related to this violence is ‘agentic violence’: in some places ordinary people, often out of sheer desperation, tend to resort to violence (which is unproductive in the long run), in response to which and often to preempt which the state resorts to massive and disproportionate violence.

The situation in more under-developed regions of India and in similar other countries raises several questions. Why are these regions so poor when they are so rich in terms of natural resources and labouring quality of their workers and peasants? How does capitalism make use of undemocratic social and economic relations? What explains the inability of the political and intellectual elite to help the suffering masses in any significant way? Just why it is that the majority of our people have no access to nutritious food, decent housing and clothing, quality education and health-care as well as other amenities including safe drinking water and electricity? These and many other questions can be fruitfully explored only if we have an adequate understanding of capitalism as such and the ways in which it works in concrete circumstances. Understanding Marx is essential therefore. A proper understanding of Marx and his legacy would also make clear to people that the Marxist vision is a vision of a society which is authentically democratic and that Marxism has little to do with any political activity which is aimed at hurting individuals. Individuals are bearers of social relations. What needs to be changed is the system of social relations, not occupiers of positions in the system.

To understand the world, it is not enough to have sense-data. We need theory, this is because important aspects of the world are not immediately accessible to mere empirical observation. To understand the world from the standpoint of the majority, the working masses, we need a theory from their standpoint. Radical transformation in the direction of social, economic and ecological democracy and justice is not possible without a radical theory. Marx and his legacy provide such a theory. It would be useful to set up Radical/progressive reading groups in different places to promote a counter-hegemonic culture, a tradition of radical imagination in theory. Consisting of interested academics, activists, workers-peasants, and indeed anyone who is interested in critically understanding the current situation with a view to radically transcend it and deepen the democratic content/spirit of our society to the highest extent possible, this group could meet regularly to read the Marxist and progressive literature on topics of classical and contemporary significance and discuss it in a comradely and non-sectarian manner. It will also connect the readings and the discussions to the world around us and draw theoretical implications for political practice. There are thousands of progressive people engaged in theoretical-political struggle for justice. Often in terms of theory, politics and method of struggles, there are ‘deep’ divisions among them (including, and interestingly, over the fact of whether poor countries such as India are dominantly capitalist or not). Perhaps an understanding of Marx and his legacy would show that the divisions are not as real as they appear to be, and that there is cause more for unity and less for division: at least the divisions should be discussed in the light of theoretical discussions the foundation for which was laid by Marx. These reading groups cannot only read radical academic literature but also encourage performance of radical art in its various forms and reflect on these theoretically.

A culture that accurately reflects the interest and ideas of the majority of the people is a most democratic process to promote. Setting up Marxist Readings Groups is an important need of the hour therefore.

Raju J Das is an Associate Professor at York University, Toronto, Canada. Email: rajudas@yorku.ca

“The Ultimate Contradiction of the Revolution”

Pratyush Chandra

Published as Afterword in Ron Ridenour’s book “Sounds of Venezuela”, New Century Book House, Chennai, 2011. This article tries to address some questions that have been raised by many Tamil comrades regarding the foreign policy of the Venezuelan State, especially in the context of state repression against the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and the Venezuelan and other ALBA states’ support to the Sri Lankan government in international forums.

The narrative Ron Ridenour has woven here in these pages provides a glimpse of the Venezuelan reality, which exposes not only the significance of the Bolivarian revolutionary processes, but also their contradictions. Obviously, these contradictions are the source of much anxiety among the friends of the Bolivarian revolution throughout the globe. But is it not true that a revolution is as much about hope as it is about apprehensions and dangers? A revolution is always unsettling. You cannot ever pronounce the final judgement about the event called revolution. That is why what famous Marxist historian George Rudé said about the French Revolution is true for all revolutions—”the Revolution remains an ever-open field of enquiry.”(1)

I

Nothing remains settled in the revolutionary process—otherwise how can it be called a revolution? We need to understand that this process is constituted by conflicts among various ever-new possibilities that emerge at every moment therein. Ideological struggles are nothing but representations of these conflicts; expressed in political programmatic language, these possibilities constitute the various lines within the revolutionary movement. These conflicts are what determine the course of the revolution.

To be more specific, there is always an impulse internal to the revolutionary process that seeks to control or limit the pace and extent of the revolution—to make things settled. It can have a positive implication to the extent that it compels the revolutionaries to be conscious of the course of the revolution and to be vigilant enough to differentiate between the forces of reaction and revolution that are internally germinating. The ‘faces’ of these forces do not remain the same—what seems revolutionary at one moment might dawn as reactionary at another. The conservative impulse we are talking about lies somewhere in the interstices of the moments of movement and consolidation, trying to break the simultaneity of these moments. When it is able to break this simultaneity, it morphs into a Thermidorian form with the apparent task of consolidating the revolutionary achievements and protecting them from the enemies. This Thermidorian power externalises all problems of revolution—it tries to cleanse the revolution of these problems so thoroughly that what emerges out of this deadly bath is a revolution sans revolution—sanitised of all contradictions.

The formalisation or institutionalisation of the achievements cannot be avoided. However, this is what gives birth to a new status quo, which tries to guard itself against revolutionary impermanence. It is a conflict like this that could be understood as a two-line struggle—between the emerging headquarters and the forces of continuous revolution. This struggle is in fact the revolutionary truth which cannot be avoided. No moment in the revolutionary movement is devoid of the forces of conservation, which have the potentiality of turning into a full-scale centrism or even reaction depending on the balance of class forces.

With regard to the revolutionary processes in Venezuela, it has been regularly emphasized that “the ultimate contradiction of the (Bolivarian) revolution” is the struggle internal to Chavism—”between the ‘endogenous right’ and the masses who have been mobilised.” Chávez himself frequently describes the Venezuelan reality in Gramscian terms—”The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” However, as Gramsci said, in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear—which appear in Venezuela (alongside the continued existence of the old oligarchy, latifundistas, monopoly capitalists and US imperialism) in the form of the new ‘boli-bourgeoisie,’ the military-civil bureaucracy, and ‘the party functionaries and nomenklatura’ who seek to thwart the class and mass initiatives from below.(2) These are the material forces, which with their dispassionate mannerisms try to conserve a pragmatic and ‘realistic’ Bolivarian future against the erratic spontaneism of grass roots initiatives. These are the Bolivarian headquarters.

II

As is well-known, historically there has been a systematic erosion of productive sectors in Venezuela which are not allied to operations of the oil industry. Since 1998, there has been a consistent endeavour to rebuild these other sectors of production and infrastructure around them. In order to achieve this, many steps both backwards and forward have been taken. Many bureaucratic, intermediary and petty bourgeois interests have not just been tolerated but even encouraged and promoted to compete with old oligarchies and corporate interests. Incentives to ‘native bourgeoisie’ and petty bourgeoisie have been an interim strategy of the Bolivarian regime to fragment the corporate unity of capital, while helping in diversifying the Venezuelan economy. In fact, the imperative to create an ‘alternative social bloc’ against corporate hegemony has forced a vision under which “capitalist sectors whose business activity entered into an objective contradiction with transnational capital” are not considered unapproachable.(3)

However, the radical supporters of the Venezuelan transformation have cautioned that the pragmatic need to neutralise private capitalist interests in order to develop a broader bloc against immediate enemies, like transnational capital and imperialist interests, must not scuttle the anti-capitalist nature of the transformation. It has been shown how “‘incentives’ to private capitalists in order to increase productivity” fail generally because they tend to strengthen the historically nurtured rentierist character of Venezuela’s native bourgeoisie. For example, incentives in agriculture without having a fundamental structural transformation have cost the Chávez government heavily, both politically and economically, as “the big landowner (latifundist) recipients of the Government’s generous agricultural credits and grants are not investing in agricultural production, in raising cattle, purchasing new seeds, new machinery, and new dairy animals. They are transferring Government funding into real estate, Government bonds, banking and speculative investment funds or overseas.”(4) These latifundistas have successfully used to their own advantage the Bolivarian government’s urgency to ensure domestic food security and agricultural productivity amidst volatile international relations by bargaining protection from the upsurge of peasants and landless organisations demanding radical land reforms. However, there has been an increasing realisation within the Bolivarian circles about the futility of such compromises with the rentierist forces.

The emergence of the Bolivarians at the helm of the existing political economic institutions has, of course, intensified the internal class struggle leading to a tremendous crisis for the status quo. But there still exists a considerable space for the consolidation of powerful economic interests because these institutions were essentially built for this purpose. The most recent case of their successful manoeuvrings has been exposed by WikiLeaks, which narrates how a radical Chavista, “Eduardo Saman was replaced as commerce minister following pharmaceutical companies’ efforts to protect old patent legislation and their profits.”(5)

There is a massive danger of the containment of the revolutionary pace and agenda, if the revolutionary forces are not vigilant enough with regard to the activities of those social classes that are crowding the institutions of revolution for incentives and patronage. The new intermediate interests that have emerged close to the state structure, along with the old ones, have resisted every popular attack on private capital. They have attempted to thwart endeavours to institute workers’ control over economic activities. Even within the oil and other ‘monopolistic’ industries, these interests have not conceded any substantial move beyond nationalisation, as state monopoly allows them to use their own proximity to the state machinery for intermediary profiteering. There has been a consistent resistance to the attempts to institute co-management,(6) not just from the side of corporate interests, but also from economistic trade unionism (especially in the state-owned petroleum company, PDVSA), which cannot envisage a system of workers’ control that questions the institutional hierarchy and labour aristocracy.

As long as there is a popular movement which questions and subverts the norms and everydayness of the bourgeois state in Venezuela, with the resoluteness to build ‘a new state from below’ with the novel institutions of protagonistic democracy and communal councils, there is a hope for the Bolivarian Revolution. Or else, “it will lapse into a new variety of capitalism with populist characteristics.”(7) That is why there has been a growing need to envisage the alternative bloc and class alliances which are subservient to the exigencies of “an overall system of socialized production.”(8) The accommodation of capitalist interests in any form (state or private), even when they are in consonance with the immediate interests of the revolutionary transformation at a particular juncture, is fraught with risks of the reassertion of ‘the logic of capital,’ and “there will be a constant struggle to see who will defeat whom.”(9) It is this logic and its constitutive representatives, who try to consolidate their position through the so-called ‘endogenous right’ of the revolution.

III

The emergence of headquarters in a revolution is linked with the question of state, state power and hegemony. During a revolutionary period the state returns to its elements—it emerges as a naked instrument of suppression—of holding down adversaries. The proletarian dictatorship too will not allow its enemies to have a free play. Revolution is a period when class struggles begin to explode the barriers of the existing state order and point beyond them. On the one hand, there are “struggles for state power; on the other, the state itself is simultaneously forced to participate openly in them. There is not only a struggle against the state; the state itself is exposed as a weapon of class struggle, as one of the most important instruments for the maintenance of class rule.”(10)

The global division of labour and the US hegemony reduced the Venezuelan economy to mere accumulation of oil rents, thus making proximity to the state the only viable route to economic success. In such an economy, the statist tendencies are bound to be very strong and entrenched in every layer of society. To complicate the matter, revolutionaries in Venezuela found themselves at the helm of the bourgeois state by following its rules, not by any insurrection. In such a situation, reformist tendencies will definitely be stronger among the ranks of the Bolivarians, who find revolutionary measures futile and even adventurist. These tendencies did suffer a temporary setback during the attempted coup of 2002, but as time elapses the cautious self-critical forces begin to find safe-play, gradualism and tactical compromises essential to consolidate power and achievements and to pre-empt any such drastic attack by counter-revolutionaries in future.

The left Chavistas, on the other hand, stress on the task of smashing the bourgeois state from within while positing a new state from below based on co-management of social and economic life. Like the ‘endogenous right’ they understand the need to consolidate, but for them consolidation is not separate from the destruction of the existing state form. Like Russian revolutionaries, they emphasize the development and independence of the working classes and their organs of self-activity, because only in this way can the workers protect their state, while protecting themselves from it! The defeat of the 2002 coup also demonstrates the impact of the unleashing of popular energy and self-activity and what that could achieve. Moreover, unlike in Russia, the state in Venezuela remains a bourgeois parliamentary state, which is alienated from the everyday life of the revolutionary masses.

IV

Among several valuable insights that Ron Ridenour’s text provides regarding the nature of contradictions that pervade the revolutionary transition in Venezuela, there is an important point on the Venezuelan state’s approach to the struggles of the Colombian guerrillas, the FARC. Ridenour hints at the vacillation in this approach. However, such anomalies are numerous, especially when it comes to international relations. Throughout the globe, post-1998 developments in Latin America have been watched very intently, with a lot of hope and expectation. The consistent defiance of US hegemony by the Chávez regime has been a source of inspiration for various progressive movements everywhere. At least with regard to its position on the American manoeuvrings globally, nobody can fault the Venezuelan state—it never wasted any time to decry the imperialist interventions anywhere in the world.

But this has led to a genuine rise of expectations for support from progressive Latin American regimes (if not materially, at least through statements) for local movements against their particular oppressive states, even when there is no direct western backing to these states. In recent years, with many states lining up to define their own ‘war against terrorism’ in order to crush local critical voices and movements against them, the stance of the Venezuelan and Cuban states has not been supportive of the oppressed. In fact, any official voice from the West critical of the local states has many a time provoked statements from the progressive Latin American regimes that are supportive of the southern states like Iran, Libya, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka even when these are highly oppressive. This has greatly frustrated the solidarity movements—some even going to the extent of calling the Latin American revolutionary processes ephemeral.

However, one must understand that the revolutionary process is not linear and smooth. It is not something homogeneous, and its targets are not just external. The intensification of revolution is the heightening of contradictions that constitute it. In fact, these constitutive contradictions internalise the so-called external elements—’alien’ class interests, the vestiges of old regimes, etc. Any attempt to avoid contradictions is a conservative attempt from the ‘endogenous right’ to homogenise the revolutionary voices behind the new institutions, alienating them from their organic roots in class struggle, thus giving birth to new bureaucracies—the agencies of the new order. It is the ‘endogeneity’ of this tendency that forces the revolutionary leadership to reassess the coordinates of the contradictions time and again. A fine discrimination of these coordinates in the revolutionary process gives an insight into the apparent anomalies. It was not for nothing that the 20th century revolutionaries time and again stressed the need to differentiate between the state (which even well into the first phase of communist society safeguards the bourgeois law) and the revolutionary masses. An understanding of this aspect is crucial in order to comprehend the problems and prospects of policy designs under a revolutionary regime, including its foreign policy and international relations.

It must be noted that revolutionary internationalism of the working class is an important weapon with which a revolution generalizes itself and resists its degeneration into nationalist statism by not allowing ‘revolutionary passion’ to die out. But it is not simply a subjective aspiration to generalize that gives birth to internationalism. Rather, it “is a necessity arising out of the fact that the capitalist class, which rules over the workers, does not limit its rule to one country.”(11) Thus, internationalism is a result of the class struggle going global—it is an endeavour to thwart the capitalist strategy of intensifying capitalist accumulation by segmenting the working class and its consciousness. It is in this regard that a revolution can be termed as international both at the levels of its causes and impact. It represents a crisis for the capitalist system.

Solidarity efforts in support of revolution beyond the immediate location of its occurrence, along with ‘indigenous’ revolutionaries’ support for movements beyond their location are crucial even for the survival of the revolution as a revolution. It can survive as such only by constantly asserting its international character, its inseparability from international class struggle. Otherwise, it will implode or be reduced to a mere regime change.

It is interesting to see how revolutionaries have time and again talked about the foreign policy of a revolution, not just that of the state. And this has been assessed by the revolution’s galvanising effect on the struggles of the working class and the oppressed in other locations. While criticizing the foreign policy of the Provisional Government (that emerged after the February Revolution of 1917) for conducting it with the capitalists, Lenin remarked:

Yet 1905 showed what the Russian revolution’s foreign policy should be like. It is an indisputable fact that October 17, 1905, was followed by mass unrest and barricade-building in the streets of Vienna and Prague. After 1905 came 1908 in Turkey, 1909 in Persia and 1910 in China. If, instead of compromising with the capitalists, you call on the truly revolutionary democrats, the working class, the oppressed, you will have as allies the oppressed classes instead of the oppressors, and the nationalities which are now being rent to pieces instead of the nationalities in which the oppressing classes now temporarily predominate.(12)

It is in this regard that many struggling peoples across the globe find the foreign policies of the progressive regimes in Latin America wanting. Especially, Cuba and Venezuela, the countries which are in the leadership of the anti-imperialist realignment in the post-Cold War era, have been criticized for not standing against the oppressive regimes of the Global South. They have been chastised for their frequent open support to these regimes, whenever they are attacked by the so-called international community.

The genuineness of these criticisms can hardly be questioned; however, they must go further and explain these stances in terms of their material foundation, rather than locating them in some sort of ideological and personality-oriented tendencies as many have done, who reduce the Chávez phenomenon to populist demagoguery and the Cuban regime to Stalinism. The existential anxiety of these regimes in the face of a strong imperialist unity against them is definitely one reason that must be considered. This makes them wary of any interventionist strategy on the part of the ‘international community’ against any regime. Further, the existentialist need to have an oppositional bloc in the international forums puts them in the company of strange allies.

However, we will have to make a fine distinction between the revolutionary process itself and the institutions, states and individuals that come up during this process. We cannot reduce the revolutions to their particular passing moments. We will have to recognize and accept that these revolutions are marked by intense internal contradictions, whose astute descriptions we find in Ridenour’s travelogue. The states in themselves have a conservative agenda, even when they are deeply embedded in the revolutionary process. They have the task to defend what has been achieved, and in mounting this defence they frequently fail to differentiate between the actual enemies of the revolution and the revolutionaries who are aware of the dilemma, of which Rosa Luxemburg talked about:

“Either the revolution must advance at a rapid, stormy, resolute tempo, break down all barriers with an iron hand and place its goals ever farther ahead, or it is quite soon thrown backward behind its feeble point of departure and suppressed by counter-revolution. To stand still, to mark time on one spot, to be contented with the first goal it happens to reach, is never possible in revolution.”(13)

Notes

1. George Rudé: Revolutionary Europe 1783-1815. Fontana/Collins, 1964.
2. Michael Lebowitz: The Spectre of Socialism for the 21st Century (2008). Available online at: http://links.org.au/node/503/1594%20.
3. Marta Harnecker: Rebuilding the Left. Monthly Review Press & Daanish, 2007, p. 35.
4. James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer: What’s Left in Latin America? Regime Change in New Times. Ashgate: 2009, pp. 192-3.
5. Tamara Pearson: “Venezuelans to Debate Patenting Laws after Revelation that Companies Conspired in Firing of Radical Minister,” http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/6490 (September 15, 2011).
6. The system of co-management envisages social control against any competitive congealment of sectionalist interests over economic activities. Under this system the economic sectors are co-managed by workers with the community at large.
7. Michael Lebowitz: Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century. Monthly Review Press & Daanish, 2006, p. 116.
8. Petras and Veltmeyer, op cit, p. 234
9. Marta Harnecker, op cit, p. 36.
10. Georg Lukacs: Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought. Verso, 1970.
11. V.I. Lenin: Draft and Explanation of a Programme for the Social-Democratic Party (1895-96). Collected Works, Vol. 2, p. 109.
12. V.I. Lenin: Speeches at First All Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (June-July 1917). Collected Works, Vol. 25.
13. Rosa Luxemburg: The Russian Revolution (1918). Available at http://www.marxists.org.