Beverly Silver on “The End of the long 20th Century”


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

Bhumika Chauhan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

A Review of “Marx’s Capital: An Introductory Reader”

Pratyush Chandra

Prabhat Patnaik et al, Marx’s Capital: An Introductory Reader, LeftWord, 2011, pp 135, Price: Rs 200.

There is a tremendous renewal of interest in Marxism throughout the globe today, especially for the explanation of the economic crisis that has hit capitalism recently. It was quite natural that the only well-organised segment of India’s left intellectuals committed to theoretical endeavours in political economy sensed the need to popularise Marx’s Capital. Much to the discomfort of the radical/revolutionary left, the fact is that though this segment is broadly organised around the official, parliamentary Left, which is in a deep crisis of confidence today, its research and theorisations have more or less informed the practice and understanding of the whole of the Left that matters in India. This small book of roughly 135 pages, in my view, shows how much the mainstream Indian Left owes to Marx’s Capital.

This introductory reader claims to provide “some basic formulations” on Capital that are “stated explicitly”, but it is not just a “preliminary explication of Marx's Capitalconcepts”, rather it “has endeavoured to go into matters of advanced theory”. It contains seven essays – the first two are foundational, the next four essays “graduate from basic concepts to theoretical discussion and debates”, and the last essay is advanced. What is the function of an introductory reader for a theoretical work, if not to expose the readers to the basic conceptual structure or framework that characterises it? Of course, it need not shy away from taking strong positions on what the author(s) of the ‘reader’ think to be the deficiencies or inconsistencies in the structure. But we do expect them to present the basic formulations underlying the structure honestly and explicitly, giving us a glimpse of the rigorous conceptual edifice that these formulations imply.

The first essay by Venkatesh Athreya is rather motivational. Athreya narrates his personal experience with Capital – it changed his life. Being an engineer “with an inclination to analytical argumentation”, he was quick to figure out that Marx’s arguments in Capital are logical. As he read more, he found something else – “Capital read like poetry”. Then he enumerates what he found in Capital as “an engineering graduate trained in mathematical economics”. In fact, Athreya considers reading Capital to be “immensely, immeasurably, rewarding”. He goes on to tell us how people from diverse walks of life and interests can enjoyCapital in their own manner – those “who enjoy a historical account” should read the part on Primitive Accumulation, “Militants of the working class movement may find Parts III, IV and V… more immediately interesting than the rather abstract opening chapters”, “engineers and technologists will find absolutely fascinating Marx’s treatment in Chapters XII, XIII and XIV”, even environmentalists can see how “Marx anticipates some of the contemporary ecological concerns”. “Capital is thus not a daunting read”, but “a delightful read” and “eminently readable”.

In this jungle of adjectives and hyperboles, if one insists on locating a central insight (besides that Capital is “a great read”), I think it would be the author’s ‘something-for-everybody’ approach. Athreya explicitly propagates an eclectic reading of Capital when he states:

“There is no particular order in which the book has to be read, and each reader should decide, based on his or her prior preparation and inclination the sequence of reading.”

Apparently, this statement is harmless as the purpose is to motivate readers to take Capital in their hands. However, any serious Marxist knows the relative theoretical and practical consequences and implications of various orders in which Capital is read. These orders, in fact, reorder the conceptual framework inherent inCapital, leading to diverse schools within Marxism, and intra-Marxist debates. This is not a plea for any single reading of the text, as who can deny the fact that diverse ways of approaching the text can unearth various conceptual possibilities therein. But this relativism must not become an apologia for denying Marx his own original and consistent way of developing arguments and framework, his own way of approaching im-mediate reality through conceptualisations placed at various levels of abstraction. These levels cannot be reduced to a catalogue of concepts which you can pick, choose and use anywhere.

The next essay is Vijay Prashad’s ‘Writing Capital’, which provides us an interesting ‘biography of Marx’sCapital’. It shows how Marx’s personality, even his “coat” morphed into his writings. However, Prashad, otherwise an erudite and very careful writer, makes a crucial factual error about Marx’s own intellectual biography. He finds the difference between labour and labour-power already introduced in Marx’s 1849 work,Wage Labour and Capital. In reality, it was introduced by Engels in its pamphlet edition in 1891. Engels clearly writes in his introduction to the pamphlet:

“…this pamphlet is not as Marx wrote it in 1849, but approximately as Marx would have written it in 1891. Moreover, so many copies of the original text are in circulation, that these will suffice until I can publish it again unaltered in a complete edition of Marx’s works, to appear at some future time. My alterations centre about one point. According to the original reading, the worker sells his labour for wages, which he receives from the capitalist; according to the present text, he sells his labour-power.”(1)

In fact, Marx didn’t make this distinction even in his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that was published in 1859.

Let us now move on to the essays that graduate the readers “from basic concepts to theoretical discussion and debates”. It begins with Jayati Ghosh’s “Reading Capital in the Age of Finance”. The essay starts with defining capital. Ghosh touches upon the concept of “commodity fetishism”, where she confuses between the fetish-character of commodity relations and fetishism that ensues from those relations. This conflation feeds the reformist approach of “policy” Marxists who are lost in fighting specific fetishisms of particular juridical and accumulation regimes. She explains primitive accumulation, which she finds to be a continuing reality, but she is unable to locate it in the constitution of capital – in the fact that primitive accumulation is not just the historical presupposition, but also the constitutive presupposition of capital. Therefore, for Ghosh, as others in this introductory reader, primitive accumulation is always seen in terms of socio-geographical expansion of capitalism – capitalism meeting pre-capitalism. This notion of primitive accumulation is unable to explain the bourgeois endeavours to transcend the barriers in the accumulation process from within the critical framework of Marx’s Capital. This forces “economists” like Ghosh to borrow concepts from non-Marxist approaches without considering that these concepts do not have any organic foundation within Marxism, and can, therefore, be contradictory to its fundamentals.

The import of concepts and even methods in order to correct the “deficiencies” of Marx’s approach, without going into the abundance of debates within Marxism that these so-called “deficiencies” have generated is the hallmark of the whole essay. Noting the historical limitation of Marx’s understanding of financial markets, it calls for elaborating on Marx’s limited insights with the help of Kindleberger, Minsky and Kregel, none of whom were ever Marxists. There is no mention of rich debates on Money and Finance (especially after the publication of Suzanne de Brunhoff’s book) that have continuously engaged Marxists since the 1970s. Similarly, Ghosh seems to be unaware of the works of Marxist radicals like Harry Cleaver (who even engaged in the famous Mode-of-Production debate in EPW with Utsa Patnaik and others) and various Marxist-Feminists like Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James among others (most of them were part of the movement for “wages-for-housework” in the West) who greatly enriched the Marxist understanding of reproduction and reproductive labour, basing it on the labour theory of value and reproduction of labour-power.

R Ramakumar’s “Agriculture and Rural Society in Capital” at least concentrates on interpreting what Marx says. As expected, it starts with the concept of primitive accumulation and its relationship with the commodification of labour power. In his endnotes he criticises David Harvey for using primitive accumulation to understand expropriation in later stages of capitalism. This relegation of primitive accumulation to temporal prehistory is just another example of the reduction of Marxist conceptual architecture to an unmediated description of capitalism – an exercise which is rampant throughout the present collection. The author is not aware of the problems of the exclusively historicist reading of primitive accumulation – which is nothing but a Smithian reformulation of the concept which Marx himself criticised in the chapter on primitive accumulation, by comparing its reception in political economy with theological “original sin” – reducing the misfortunes of humanity to a distant mythical past.

Ramakumar summarises the various chapters in Capital on primitive accumulation and the agrarian transformation in England. He talks about variations in agrarian transformation from the English path in other geographical locations – about Prussian, American and ‘Asian’ paths. He describes Lenin as an enthusiast of the American path of capitalist development in agriculture – pinning Lenin’s criticism of the Prussian (landlord) path to the single point that “it retained elements of the feudal society”. However, as always, there is a problem in such appropriation of Marx’s and Marxists’ critique of political economy in a prescriptive mode – this sanitises them of their politics. It must be remembered that Lenin’s enthusiasm was not due to the Prussian path being less capitalistic, but because of the epoch of capitalism which Russia was in (i.e., “the epochpreceding the final consolidation of the national path of capitalism”), where the struggle between landlords and the peasantry over the path of agrarian development was very strong and the result of this fight was still open-ended.  The concrete “course of events, the facts and the history of 1905-07″, “the law of June 3, 1907, and by the composition and activity of the Third Duma, and—a detail—by November 20, 1909, and (what is especially important) by the government’s agrarian policy brought the agrarian question to the centre-stage as the “the national question of the final consolidation of bourgeois development in Russia”.  In such an epoch, struggle for the peasant (American) path to agrarian development would strengthen the arms of the working class, by bringing the peasantry under its leadership – by making the workers-peasants alliance possible. Lenin’s perception about the radical potentiality of these alternatives was clearly epochal, i.e., was not settled once for all – “In Germany the support by the workers of the desire of the “muzhik” to get for himself (i.e., for the muzhik) the land of the big landlords—the Junkers—is reactionary.” Lenin explicitly states: “a Marxist must not “vouch” for either of these ways, nor must he bind himself down to one of them only.”(2)

In India, Leninists have generally essentialised the agrarian question, without going into epochal analyses – whether a national path of capitalism has consolidated in India or not (whatever its specific character be that may or may not be akin to the ideal types). Growing impoverishment, inequalities and continuing stagnation in agriculture cannot themselves make the agrarian question “the national question”.

Ramakumar’s discussion of usury and absolute rent is useful but highly skewed when it comes to their pre-capitalist roots. The proper Marxist way of analysing these phenomena would be to show how capitalism exists and expands despite and through them. If financial liberalisation seems to encourage a networking of moneylenders “by providing them with incentives”, rather than their elimination, it evidences the specific epochal character of capitalist accumulation under neo-liberalism that could use the service of moneylenders to intensify accumulation and financialisation. Similarly, if Junker-style landlord capitalism preserves “a number of pre-capitalist elements”, that is not a sign of incompleteness of transition in itself. Nor is the coexistence of subsistence farming with capitalist cultivation and rent that squeezes wages and profits (of tenant farmers) necessarily pre-capitalist. They may define the spatio-temporal specificity of an empirical capitalism.

Most illuminating is Prasenjit Bose’s piece that makes mincemeat out of Marx’s dialectics and levels of abstraction. He really has constructed three stories. The first story of class exploitation confuses Hindu concepts of Maya and Brahman with the dialectic of appearance and essence, contingency and necessity:

“The starting point of the first story is that the realities of the world are not visible at its surface. More specifically, what is visible as the capitalist world around us is a veneer underneath which lies the actual apparatus that drives the system.”(78)

The second story of accumulation and crisis runs parallel to the first story. This notion of “parallel” rejects the concept of embeddedness and the law of internal dialectics that characterise Marx’s methodology and worldview. The third story is of course a (hi)story of capitalism, in which the “so-called primitive” accumulation is actually dumped to the prehistory of capitalism, but which nevertheless acts as the Newtonian primeval push behind capitalism.

Since there is no conception of mediations, the value theory is better glossed over as some thing unreal, valid only in some ideal free competitive capitalism, essential tendencies are reduced to symptoms – as crisis to a telltale underconsumptionism, surplus value to profits, and the whole conceptual rigour of Capital to another descriptive theory of poverty and income inequality.

But the real gems are Bose’s conception of “imperialist exploitation” and “labour reserves”. His Leninism makes Lenin stand on his head – the objects of imperialist exploitation have yet “to graduate from their present stage of imperialist exploitation to the stage of capitalist exploitation”. So much for “imperialism, the highest/latest stage of capitalism”. Further, imperialist exploitation creates labour reserves, which consist of people poorer than those in the US. They are “the unemployed, underemployed, informal wage workers and self-employed petty producers in the urban areas along with the peasants and landless agricultural workers in the rural areas”. Their presence keeps wages to the subsistence level. Also, the “category of ‘reserve labour’ is conceptually different from the ‘reserve army of labour’ in Capital, which basically implies the unemployed under capitalism.” Hence, the unemployed under capitalism is different from the unemployed under imperialism. In Bose’s extended framework, “a person can belong to ‘reserve labour’ even when she is informally employed”. All these characteristics of this novel conception are not available in Marx’s framework of reserve (floating, latent and stagnant)! Thence follow all sorts of novelties, for example the following:

“The diffusion of capitalist development in the poor countries has not led to a universalization of capitalist exploitation. It has rather created enclaves of capitalist exploitation, esconced within the overall landscape of imperialist exploitation.” (94)

This universalisation is not taking place because capitalism “ultimately remains a crisis-ridden system incapable of continued expanded reproduction. Periodic crises, which inevitably recur under capitalism, destroy capital and constrain its productive forces. This makes it systemically incapable of absorbing the ‘reserve labour’ by providing it with gainful employment.” (95)

This is indeed a novel conception of capitalist expansion, which obviously Marx didn’t have – capitalism expands only when everybody is provided “gainful employment”.

Prasenjit Bose has another (the fourth!) story about Capital to narrate – the political story. He has his own definition of the Marxist conception of revolution – “a revolution by the workers against monopoly capital.” InCapital, he finds, Marx envisaging a ‘pure’ proletarian revolution and that too in advanced countries, which obviously didn’t occur. What is possible is “a democratic revolution based on worker-peasant alliance against imperialism and monopoly capital” (characteristically the leadership of the working class is missing). In fact, now the classes comprising ‘reserve labour’ have come to the centre stage of political and revolutionary mobilisation – peasantry, rural labourers and “the unemployed, underemployed, informal wage workers and self-employed petty producers in urban areas”.

“It is on the bedrock of this revolutionary alliance between workers and ‘reserve labour’, against imperialism and the domestic ruling classes that the next tide of revolutionary transformations in this century has to be based.”(102)

T Jayaraman does well to bring out the contradictory implications of technological development and the historicity of technology, despite inheriting the overall ideological baggage that unites this priceless collection of essays. However, at no point does he demonstrate the ability to go beyond the linear conceptualisation of techno-development. Technology seems well and fine – harmless, the problem is under whose political command it is placed and who monopolises scientific and technical knowledge. There is no attempt to understand the constitution of technology itself as an arena of class struggle – how the direction of technological development too is class-determined.

Prabhat Patnaik’s contribution can definitely be called advanced, not just in comparison to other texts in this reader, but also at the level of arguments – it is a typical, yet distinctively neat ‘underconsumptionist’ presentation of the dark world of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism brings capitalism almost to a dead-end (and perhaps to an explosion too) – with real wages collapsing even in advanced economies, which are thus increasingly facing severe problems of realisation, with labour reserves bulging throughout the globe. Backward economies could escape the realisation problem (perhaps, for the time being) because of the relaxing of the export regime, yet workers there too should expect only precariousness as labour reserves could not be absorbed even by the opportunities created by capital immigration. As the rich in these economies have been emulating the lifestyles of the western rich, technology that is being used is more and more labour productive. Hence, even in these backward economies there is no depletion of reserves and increase in wages. Thus, at the aggregate level it seems accumulation is increasingly reaching its limits.

Patnaik builds his arguments from Marx’s observation that wage fluctuations are linked to variations in the size of the reserve army of labour. However, he improves upon it by inserting the notion of the “threshold level” of the labour reserve – real wages can be impacted upon only if the size of the reserve is brought below this level, while above that level, real wages will be stuck at the subsistence level and any productivity increase will fill the capitalists’ pockets. Prior to neoliberalism, real wages were increasing in the advanced economies because of the absence of any linkage between the real wages in these economies and the labour reserves in backward economies. But neoliberalism destroyed this segmentation.

Without going into a detailed discussion of the problems of underconsumptionism, we can enumerate a few of them that problematise the empirical basis of Patnaik’s arguments. Firstly, there is an overstatement of the significance of real wages in the constitution of effective demand. Even if we count the workers’ share in the national income, real wages are just one part of this share. There are other elements of the “variable capital”, but accounting them would imply not just empirical, but conceptual dislocation of underconsumptionism – workers’ compensation (viewed as variable capital) is part of capitalist investment which is not expended upon the output of their current activities, but of previous activities.(3) Secondly, even in the US (which has been the centre of the recent crisis) long-run productive investment has been growing faster than personal consumption (the fact which underconsumptionists consider impossible), so why should there be the problem of realization, as any demand gap could easily be taken care of by the former (4)?

However, much more interesting are the unique political implications of Patnaik’s analysis that he himself derives in his paper. Since globalisation or neoliberal integration of national economies has led to a generalisation of poverty, the only way through is by delinking the national economy from the global. He is among those few intellectuals claiming to uphold the legacy of Marxism and communism, who vocalise anti-internationalism in such a clear manner, as in this article. Prabhat Patnaik finds no place for the utopia of internationally coordinated struggles in his scheme of future. But he has enough utopian conviction to see the possibility of delinking the local economy from the global economy. He thinks that only this will improve the conditions of workers in any country – as workers cannot wait for a new World State. But why should they wait at all – even for a state that will realise the autarkic utopia? The Marxist plea for proletarian internationalism was not an apologia for the statist planning for social welfare (national or international), but a movemental vision based on the objective understanding of class struggle within capitalism leading the Marxists to envision the possibility of an eventual withering away of the state. Even at the height of the nationalist moments in their struggles, Marxist revolutionaries have tried to locate themselves in the international working class movement.

Despite objections to Patnaik’s analysis from Capital’s standpoint, one cannot deny its coherence and its being part of the legacy of a dominant stream within what has come to be known as Marxism. However, in an introductory reader for Capital, one at least expects him to provide an insight that relates the story to the analytical intricacies (and problems) in Capital – why is the production-for-consumption’s sake approach superior to Marx’s production-for-production’s sake approach in explaining capitalism? How is Marx’s understanding, that effective demand originates entirely with the capitalist class (as workers’ compensations too are investments, M-LP) defective? What are the problems of other explanations of crisis that find support in Capital (at least more than underconsumptionism)?

Such omissions are rampant throughout this reader. They demonstrate a refusal to engage with the logical structure of Capital and its theoretical-practical implications. Most importantly, there is a complete absence of any discussion of the labour theory of value, which is not just the foundation of the conceptual architecture inCapital, but is also what connects the concepts located at various levels of this architecture with one another and without which these concepts would be reduced to mere nomenclatures. In this reader, the concepts that Marx developed in Capital are used only for typological purposes, to name and describe apparent phenomena.

However, this introduction does show that Marxism is not “a set of religious beliefs or dogmas that claim to contain every truth about the world within its texts” – it has enough space for intellectual creativity. But religion has another aspect too – the dogmas or texts need not be followed; however they must be sworn upon, after which you can say or do whatever you like. This is what much of this volume has reduced Marxism to.


(1) Frederick Engels, “Introduction to Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital“, 1891.

(2) VI Lenin, “Letter to Skvortsov-Stepanov“, December 16 1909.

(3) Anwar Shaikh, “An Introduction to the History of Crisis Theories” in U.S. Capitalism in Crisis, U.R.P.E., New York, 1978.

(4) Andrew Kliman, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Underconsumptionist Statistics“, With Sober Senses, 2010.

Remembering R S Rao and His Critical Marxist Tradition

Gilbert Sebastian

Prof. R S Rao (74), retired professor from Sambalpur University, a long time intellectual of radical politics in India passed away on 17 June 2011 in New Delhi. He had suffered a stroke and was in the ventilator for around twenty days. The inevitability of death takes away from us his lively and jovial company and the sharp intellect combined with unswerving commitment to the cause of the common people.

Remembering the critical Marxist tradition of R S Rao, we would like to argue herein that it would not be appropriate to portray him as an uncritical loyalist of Maoist politics in India. On the other hand, it would be more appropriate to view him as someone who upheld the critical tradition of questioning and debates within the movement, something which is not commonplace in the Communist movement in India today.

It was a rare combination that R S Rao was a teacher of quantitative economics who taught econometric techniques in the class room and was a theoretician of Marxist political economy outside the class room. Quite uncharacteristic of economists in general, he was an economist who used to speak a lot about people and people’s agency. He used to say, Stalin hardly spoke about people but about material goods. He had a strong historical sense and was optimistic to the core. He believed that systematic application of methodology, as while doing a Ph.D., hampered creativity. He himself never did a Ph.D. He was not overwhelmed by scholarly papers in national and international journals. Rather he attached greater value to articles in activist publications because ‘they have a sense of purpose’, as he put it. He seldom contributed to the mainstream press.

Prof. Rao used to say that in order to understand, we need to focus not on the aspect of light but on the aspect of shade. In life too, he had moved from the light of the Gokhale Institute in Pune to the shade of Sambalpur university located in a backward region. During the hype of developmentalism in the early Nehruvian period, when there were many who praised the building of big dams, he focused on the shady aspects of displacement and misery caused by the Hirakud dam project which he considered as a symbol of exploitation. He had said that even in the ‘modern temples’, those who built them have no entry. Prof. Rao was steadfast in his commitment to the cause of the people until his last days. It may be recalled that he was one of the mediators in the case of the abduction of Collector, Vineel Krishna by Maoists in February 2011.

Although my personal encounters with him were limited to those in late 1990s, they were memorable and intellectually enriching. I would miss Prof. R S Rao, especially since I could not meet him for so many years now. As it is said, Prof. Rao had an ability to leave a strong impression on some people even in one meeting or two. About his person, I remember not only his personal habit of continuous smoking but also his non-hierarchical attitude and the hearty laugh he had, showing his toothless gum. He had a Socratic quality of intellectually guiding the youth through sharp and timely questions. This was very important about his personality since it is said that he still operated mainly within the oral tradition since his writings are few and far between.

His first collection of essays, Towards Understanding Semi-Feudal, Semi-Colonial Society was published in 1995 with a famous essay, ‘In Search of the Capitalist Farmer’. He has also co-edited with Venugopal Rao a collection on 50 years of the History and Development in Andhra Pradesh. Of late, five books and some essays by him have been published in Telugu. In his socio-economic analysis, he had an ingenious way of drawing insights from Telugu literature.

In March and April 1998, he had taken a few parallel classes for some interested students at Jawaharlal Nehru University. His analysis of Marxian dialectics and his observations on how the semi-colonial relations related to the semi-feudal ones in the Indian context were insightful. It still resounds in my memory how he summarised Marxian dialectics in three terms: totality, contradiction, change or movement in time.

During those days, once he chanced to find me with a book of P J James (1995), Non-Governmental Voluntary Organizations: The True Mission. He asked me to review this book for him. So I wrote a review of this book. The main idea of the book was that NGOs were serving the cause of imperialism by diverting people away from the path of class struggle. R S Rao guided me by posing mainly one question: ‘In what specific way(s) do the NGOs turn diversionary?’ He guided me into thinking that they turn diversionary by having no sense of primacy among social contradictions. For example, they would not address the land question but would rather address social contradictions as related to caste, community and gender i.e., those relating to social liberation movements, not directly counterpoised against the State but against one or the other dominant section in society. He had approved my book review, saying it required only some editorial corrections. But unexpectedly, I had to get into a heated argument with a prominent mass leader of the Maoist movement, specifically on the political line of this review. He was very angry and became very personal in his criticism because he felt that I was being too generous towards the NGOs in spite of recognising the neo-colonial agenda many of them were promoting. After this argument, I lost my confidence and did not send the article for publication anywhere. But I could not help wondering how much divergence of views can be there within the same political movement, among those with the same ideological persuasion.

Probably, Tariq Ali was right in pointing out in a recent book review in New Left Review (2010, Nov.-Dec.) that it was something tragic that happened to Communist Parties across the world that they became established mass-based parties in the 1930s and ‘40s during the high tide of Stalinism. The organisational methods they adopted, influenced as they were by Stalinism, stifled dissent and suppressed debate. Probably, this explains how the Communist movements the world over moved away from the early Bolshevik tradition of vibrant debates within the party and in the Indian case, from the vibrant intellectual tradition that characterised Bhagat Singh and his comrades.

It is worth recalling an exchange of views in late 1990s between Prof. Rao and a trade union activist working in the industrial areas in and around Delhi. This comrade-activist had left CPI-ML (Red Flag) in Kerala and joined the stream of Andhra Naxalites. He had left the Red Flag group specifically on the question of this group giving up the policy of armed struggle. Prof. Rao asked him what were the differences which led him to leave Red Flag. He listened to him very carefully and at the end of it, he asked quite emphatically, ‘Is your line a political line or a military line?’ Probably, what he meant was that the political line needs to have primacy over the military line. This is a question worth repeating over and over again today in the context of a neo-liberal State on the one hand, hell-bent on wiping out the Maoists, who are branded as ‘the greatest internal security threat’ and the Maoists on the other, confining their resistance mainly to the military realm rather than on primarily engaging in mass mobilisation around their political line, focusing on the question of people-oriented development. Maoists could be better off if they had primary focus on the political line involving mass movement wherever possible since the State has much less legitimacy in this respect although it is immensely more powerful militarily.

It is ironical that one has to speak about bureaucracy within the Maoist movement because it is a far cry from the Mao’s own ideas of party as a contradiction and party developing through contradictions. But whenever I did talk to Prof. Rao about the problem of bureaucracy within the movement, he was kind enough to tell me not to get discouraged since there are many sincere persons in the movement who are quite self-critical about the movement. He pointed out how (late) Shyam, one of the Central Committee members of CPI-ML (People’s War) was such an honest person who during the peace talks, was willing to accept criticisms about mistakes committed by the movement.

It is not to be missed out that from within the stream of radical politics, Prof. Rao had also come under criticism for not focusing sufficiently on the ‘semi-colonial’ which was gaining increasing ascendency over the ‘semi-feudal’ under ‘liberalisation’. But he seemed to have been more concerned about how one is related to the other. It was not easy to brush aside his argument about a process of ‘re-feudalisation’ in culture and institutions, including the State with the increasing incursions of capital. We could also justify his position from an entirely different angle: Even if the ‘semi-colonial’ or imperialism is considered as the principal contradiction, the struggle for fixed productive assets/natural resources – land, forest and water resources – could constitute the principal task of social transformation in a crisis-ridden and highly unpredictable world order of today.

There would have been times when the movement imposed blinders upon his process of thinking even as it must have enabled him other ways. Although there are those both within and outside the Maoist movement who would like to appropriate Prof. Rao as an uncritical loyalist of the movement, I would like to remember him as someone who belonged to the stream of critical thinking within the movement – an early Bolshevik legacy in the international communist movement and also a legacy left behind by Bhagat Singh in India.

These reminiscences are based on the author’s experience of having worked in the mass front of the Maoist movement. It has also drawn on some of the ideas of G. Haragopal, Vara Vara Rao, Venugopal Rao, Dandapani Mohanty and Rona Wilson during the condolence meeting at JNU, New Delhi on 18 June 2011. The author can be contacted at:

Financialization, Household Credit and Economic Slowdown in the U.S.

Deepankar Basu

Between 1948 and 1973, real GDP for the U.S. (measured in 2005 chained dollars) economy grew at a compound annual average rate of about 3:98 percent per annum; between 1973 and 2010, the corresponding growth rate was only 2:72 per cent per annum. While the 25 year period of high growth after the Second World War has, with some justification, earned the epithet of the “Golden Age” of capitalism, the period of relative stagnation since the mid-1970s has been characterized by heterodox economists as a neoliberal capitalist regime (Dum´enil and L´evy, 2004, 2011; Harvey, 2005; Kotz, 2009).

Three characteristics of neoliberal capitalism have attracted lot of scholarly attention. First is the marked trend towards growing financialization of the economy, by which is meant a growing weight of financial activities in the aggregate economy. Figure 1 presents some well-known evidence, for the period 1961-2010, in support of this claim. The top left panel plots the share of value added that is contributed by the FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) sector in the value added by the total private sector of the U.S. economy: between 1961 and 2008, the contribution of the FIRE sector increased steadily from about 16 per cent to roughly 25 percent. The top right panel gives the share of financial sector profit in total domestic profit income in the U.S. economy, which shows a steady increase since the early 1970s (interrupted briefly in the early 1980s). It is only during the financial crisis in 2007-2008 that this share declined for a brief period; it is noteworthy that the share started a rapid ascent in 2009, and has recovered much of its loss since then. The two figures in the bottom panel provide evidence, for the period 1988-2009, of the growing size of the stock market: both stock market capitalization and total value traded, as a proportion of nominal GDP, has trended up since the late 1980s, providing clear evidence of the growth of financial relative to real activity.

The second notable characteristic of the neoliberal regime has been the veritable explosion of the flow of credit (and the build-up of the stock of debt) in the economy. One important dimension of the growth of credit has been the unprecedented increase in the credit flowing to (working class) households. Figure 2 presents evidence in support of both these claims by plotting the time series of outstanding debt (measured as total credit market liabilities) of three crucial sector of the U.S. economy: the nonfinancial business sector, the household sector, and financial business sector. While the business sectors display an increasing trend since the early 1960s (along with large fluctuations at business cycle frequencies), the household sector debt starts a secular rise since the early 1980s (with almost no business cycle fluctuations), and the financial business sector also displays a secular rise till the onset of the Great Recession. The last chart in Figure 2 plots the time series of the ratio of outstanding household debt and outstanding debt of the nonfinancial business sector. The ratio shows a clear upward trend since the mid-1970s, with household debt increasing from about 85 percent of nonfinancial business debt in the mid-1970s to about 140 percent just prior to the start of the Great Recession.

The third important characteristic of neoliberal capitalism has been stagnation of real wages for the bulk of the working class. In the face of rising productivity, this has entailed a massive redistribution of income away from working class households, leading to widening income and wealth inequality. Figure 3 presents evidence in support of this claim. The top panel plots an index of productivity (measured real output per hour) in the total nonfarm business sector of the U.S. economy. There is an increasing trend in productivity over time, with a marked acceleration in growth since the mid-1990s. This is in sharp contrast to the evolution of real wages of production and nonsupervisory workers plotted in the bottom panel, who comprise about 80 percent of the U.S. workforce. The hourly real wage has barely increased between the early 1970s and the late 2000s; the weekly real wage has in fact declined during this period.

The main question that this paper wishes to explore is the possible connections between the slowdown in economic growth on the one hand and the three characteristics of neoliberal capitalism on the other? Heterodox economists have been interested in this question for at least the last three decades, and the main contribution of this paper is to extend that literature by presenting a theoretical model to address this question. Building on and extending Foley (1982, 1986a), this paper develops a discrete-time Marxian circuit of capital model to analyze the link between financialization, nonproduction credit and economic growth. It is demonstrated that increasing financialization and the growth of household credit (a component of nonproduction credit) can reduce the growth rate of a capitalist economy. Hence, this paper offers a novel explanation, rooted in a Marxian circuit of capital macroeconomic analysis, for the slowdown of the U.S. economy during the neoliberal era.

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Cyrus Bina’s “Oil: A Time Machine”

On the question of alternatives

Werner Bonefeld
A Talk to the London Anarchist Bookfair, October 2010


I want to start with a quotation from a Socialist Workers Party poster that I saw on the way to the Anarchist Bookfair. It said: ‘Fight Back the Wrecking Tory Cuts’. There is no doubt that the cuts have to be rejected and will be opposed; society will try to protect itself from misery. ‘Fight Back the Wrecking Tory Cuts’ says something disarmingly obvious, and yet there is more to it than it seems. What does ‘fight back the cuts’ entail as a positive demand? It says no to cuts, and thus demands a capitalism not of cuts but of redistribution from capital to labour; it demands a capitalism that creates jobs not for capitalist profit but for gainful and purposeful employment, its premise is a capitalism that supports conditions not of exploitation but of well-being, and it projects a capitalism that offers fair wages ostensibly for a fair days work, grants equality of conditions, etc. What a wonderful capitalism that would be! One is reminded of Marx judgment when dealing with the socialist demand for a state that renders capital profitable without ostensibly exploiting the workers: poor dogs they want to treat you as humans!

This idea of a capitalism without cuts, a benevolent capitalism in short, is of course as old as capitalism itself. In our time, this idea is connected with the so-called global financial capitalism that came to the fore in the 1970s. At that time, Bill Warren, for example, argued that all that needed to be done was to change the balance of power, of class power, to achieve, as it were, a socialist hegemony within capitalism – a strangely comforting idea, which presupposes that the hegemony of capital within capitalism is contingent upon the balance of class forces and thus changeable – ostensibly in favour of a socialist capitalism achieved by socialist majorities in parliament making capitalism socialist through law and parliamentary decisions. What an easy thing socialism is! All one has to do is vote for the right party, shift the balance of forces in favour of socialism, and enact the right laws. With the left enjoying hegemony, the state becomes a means to govern over capital, or as Warren saw it, to make money work, not for profit but for jobs, for wages, for welfare. This argument makes it seem as if money only dissociated itself from productive engagement because of a certain change in the balance of class forces. And the crisis of accumulation that began in the late 1960s – what do we make of this?

In the 1980s Austin Mitchell demanded the same thing in his book Market Socialism. He says ‘we need a state who will make money its servant, so that it is put to work for growth and jobs, rather than the selfish purposes of the merchants of greed.’ Later this became a demand of the anti-globalisation movement, from economists such as Joseph Stiglitz to proponents of the Tobin Tax, from journalists such as Naomi Klein, who wanted no logo, to political economists such as Leo Panitch who wanted the state to de-commodify social relations by putting money to work on behalf of workers within protected national economies – protected from the world market.

In the last 20 years ‘fighting back finance capitalism’ was a rallying cry for those who declared to make money create jobs, conditions, employment, that is, to create – in other words – the capitalism of jobs, of employment, of conditions.

Within the critical Marxist tradition, this sort of position is associated with the social-democratic conception of the state. This conception focuses on the way in which social wealth is distributed. It has little to say about the production of that wealth, other than that the labourer should receive fair wages for a fair days work. The perspective does not take into account the way in which we as a society organize our social reproduction; the question of the economic form of our exchange with nature is seen as a matter of benevolent state intervention.

This separation between production and distribution presupposes something that is not taken into account: distribution presupposes production. Distribution presupposes a well-functioning, growing economy, that is, capitalist accumulation. So the social-democratic position, which I outlined earlier with Panitch, Bill Warren and others, including the SWP, in fact translates working-class demands – for conditions, for wages, for security, in some cases for life – into the demand for rapid capitalist accumulation, as the economic basis for job creation.

Let’s talk about the working-class, this class of ”hands’ that does the work. Does the critique of class society entail an affirmative conception of class, which says that the working class deserves a better deal – employment, wages, condition. Is class really an affirmative category? Or is it a critical category of a false society – a class society in which wealth is produced by a ‘class of hands’ that have nothing but their labour-power to sell? To be a productive labourer is not a piece of luck, it is a great misfortune. The critique of class does not find its resolution in a better paid and better employed working class. It finds its resolution only in a classless society.

Class analysis is not some sort of flag-waving on behalf of the working-class. Such analysis is premised on the perpetuation of the worker as seller of labour power, which is the very condition of the existence of capitalist social relations. Affirmative conceptions of class, however well-meaning and benevolent in their intentions, presuppose the working-class as a productive factor of production that deserves a better, a new deal.

As I stated right at the start, it is obviously the case that the more the working class gets the better. For it is the working class that produces the wealth of nations. It is the class that works. Yet; what is a fair wage?

In volume three of Capital Marx says something like this: ‘price of labour is just like a yellow logarithm’. Political economy in other words is indeed a very scholarly dispute about how the booty of labour may be divided, or distributed. Who gets what? Who bears the cuts? Who produces capitalist wealth, and what are the social presuppositions and consequences of the capitalist organization of the social relations of production, an organization that without fail accumulates great wealth for the class that hires workers to do the work.


I want to step back a bit to 1993, just after the deep recession of the early 1990s and the second of the two European currency crises. It was on 24 December 1993 that the Financial Times announced that globalisation – a term which hardly had any currency up until then – is the best wealth-creating system ever invented by mankind. And it said, unfortunately two thirds of the world’s population gained little or no substantial advantage from rapid economic growth.

In the developed world the lowest quarter of income earners had witnessed a trickle up rather than a trickle down. So since the mid 1970s, and Warren picks up on this, we have a system where money, the incarnation of wealth, is invested – incestuously as it were – into itself, opening a huge gap, a dissociation between an ever receding though in absolute terms growing productive base. This created something akin to an upside down pyramid where a great and ever increasing mortgage, an ever greater and ever increasing claim on future surplus value accumulated – mortgaging the future exploitation of labour. This mortgage tends to become fictitious at some point when investor confidence disappears – when, in other words, the exploitation of labour in the present does not keep up with the promise of future extraction of value.

It is against this background that Martin Wolf argued in 2001 ‘what is needed is honest and organised coercive force’. He said that in relationship to the developing world. And Martin Wolf is right – from his perspective. In order to guarantee debt, in order to guarantee money, coercion is the means to render austerity effective. Or as Soros said in 2003: ‘Terrorism provided not only the ideal legitimisation but also the ideal enemy for the unfettered coercive protection of a debt ridden free market society’, because, he says, ‘it is invisible and never disappears’.

So the premise of a politics of austerity is in fact the ongoing accumulation of humans on the pyramid of capitalist accumulation. Its blind eagerness for plunder requires organised coercive force in order to sustain this huge mortgage, this huge promise of future exploitation, here in the present.

Martin Wolf’s demand for the strong state does not belie neo-liberalism, which is wrongly caricatured as endorsing the weak and ineffectual state. Neo-liberalism does not demand weakness from the state. ‘Laissez faire’, said the late Sir Alan Peacock, formerly a Professor of Economics, ‘is no answer to riots’.

‘Law’, says Carl Schmitt, the legal philosopher of Nazism, ‘does not apply to chaos.’ For law to apply order must exist. Law presupposes order. Order is not the consequence of law. Law is effective only on the basis of order. And that is as Hayek put it in the Road to Serfdom: ‘Laissez faire is a highly ambiguous and misleading description of the principles on which a liberal policy is based.’ ‘The neo-liberal state’, he says, ‘is a planner too, it is a planner for competition’. Market freedom in other words requires the market police, that is the state, for its protection and maintenance.

Capitalist social relations, Schmitt claims, are protected by an enlightened state, and in times of crisis a more or less authoritarian direction becomes unavoidable. Chaos and disorder create the state of emergency which call for the establishment of a strong, market facilitating, order making state. The state is the political form of the force of law – of law making violence.

For the neo-liberals, disorder has nothing to do with markets. It is to do with what they perceive as irrational social action. That is, they see the democratisation or politicisation of social labour relations as a means of disorder, it undermines markets and renders state ungovernable. The state however, argue the neo-liberal authors, has to govern to maintain order, and with it, the rule of law, the relations of exchange, the law of contract. Free markets function on the basis of order; and order, they argue, entails an ordered society; and an ordered society is not a society that is politicised, but one which is in fact governed – by the democracy of demand and supply, which only the strong state is able to facilitate, maintain, and protect.


What is the alternative?

I think the difficulty of conceiving of human self-emancipation has to do with the very idea of human emancipation. This idea is distinct from the pursuit of profit, the seizure of the state, the pursuit and preservation of political power, economic value and economic resource. It follows a completely different idea of human development – and it is this, which makes it so very difficult to conceive, especially in a time of ‘cuts’. One cannot think, it seems, about anything else but ‘cuts, cuts, cuts’. Our language, which a few years ago spoke of the Paris Commune, the Zapatistas, Council Communism, and the project of self-emancipation that these terms summoned, has been replaced by the language of cuts, and fight back, and bonuses, and unfairness, etc.. And then suddenly, imperceptibly it seems, this idea of human emancipation -in opposition to a life compelled to be lived for the benefit of somebody’s profit, a life akin to an economic resource, – gives way to the very reality that it seeks to change and from which it cannot get away – a reality of government cuts and of opposition against cuts. Government governs those who oppose it. Human emancipation is however not a derivative of capitalist society – it is its alternative, yet, as such an alternative it is premised on what it seeks to transcend. The SWP poster, with which I started, focuses this premise as an all-embracing reality – cuts or no cuts, that is the question.

What is the alternative? Let us ask the question of capitalism differently, not as a question of cuts but as a question of labour-time. How much labour time was needed in 2010 to produce the same amount of commodities as was produced 1990? 50 percent? 30 percent? 20 per cent? Whatever the percentage might be, what is certain is that labour time has not decreased. It has increased. What is certain, too, is that despite this increase in wealth, the dependent masses are subjected to a politics of austerity as if famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence. What a calamity: In the midst of ‘austerity’, this rational means to perpetuate an irrational mode of production, in which the reduction of the hours of labour needed for the production of the means of subsistence appears in reality as a crisis of finance, money and cash, the struggle over the appropriation of additional atoms of labour time pursues as if the reduction of the life-time of the worker to labour time is the resolution to the crisis of debt, finance, and cash flow. Indeed it is. Time is money. And if time really is money, than man is nothing – except a time’s carcass.

And here, in this calamity, there is hope. The hope is that the struggle against cuts, is also a struggle for something.

What does the fight against cuts entail? It is a struggle against the reduction of life time to labour time. The fight against cuts is in fact a fight for a life. For the dependent masses, wages and welfare benefits are the means with which to obtain the means of subsistence. The fight against the cuts is a fight for the provision of the means of subsistence. And that is, it is a conflict between antagonistic interests, one determining that time is money, the other demanding the means of subsistence. This demand, as I argued at the start, might well express itself uncritically as a demand for a politics of jobs and wages, affirming the need for rapid accumulation as the means of job-creation. It might not. It might in fact politicize the social labour relations, leading to the question why the development of the productive forces at the disposal of society have become too powerful for this society, bringing financial disorder and requiring austerity to maintain it. Such politicisation, if indeed it is to come about, might well express, in its own words, Jacques Roux’s dictum that

“freedom is a hollow delusion for as long as one class of humans can starve another with impunity. Equality is a hollow delusion for as long as the rich exercise the right to decide over the life and death of others.”

Editorial Note: The talk develops some insights from the Communist Manifesto, and is loosely based on the following publications by Bonefeld:

  • ‘Anti-Globalization and the Question of Socialism’, Critique: Journal of Socialist Thought, no. 38, 2006, pp. 39-59.
  • ‘Free Economy and the Strong State’, Capital and Class, vol. 34 no. 1, 2010, pp. 15-24.
  • ‘Global Capital, National State, and the International’, Critique: Journal of Socialist Thought, no. 44, 2008, pp. 63-72.
  • ‘History and Human Emancipation’, Critique: Journal of Socialist Thought, vol. 38, no. 1, 2010, pp. 61-73. A version of the article was initially published in Radical Notes.

A Conference on Rural Labourers in Neo-liberal India, Bhubaneswar (18-19 December 2010)

A second call for papers for

A Conference on
Rural Labourers in Neo-liberal India

18-19 December 2010

XIMB (Xavier Institute of Management – Bhubaneswar), Orissa, India

Supported by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada
and XIMB, Bhubaneswar, Orissa

Neoliberalism has affected India’s rural areas and the agrarian sector particularly harshly. Not only are peasants being dispossessed of their rights to land, water and forests, and of their meager entitlements from the state. But also rural labourers are being subjected to ruthless levels of exploitation on the farms and in agro-industrial units where they produce commodities for the rich domestic elite and for export to rich (and imperialist) countries. While the story of dispossession of peasants has (rightly) attracted much attention in recent times, what has often been neglected is the issue of the production of commodities, the associated process of exploitation, and therefore, the life of the labourers.

Without land or other forms of property and with dwindling welfare benefits from the neoliberal state, rural labourers find themselves in a precarious situation and form a major part of the ‘Republic of Hunger ’. They work as long as they live, and they live as long as they work. Many are footloose labourers constantly in search of work. In many places, employers even take away labourers’ freedom to sell their labour power, in order to cheapen the only commodity they possess and to discipline them. This is the case with bonded and child labourers. As well employers make use of gender and caste/tribality to lower wages of low-caste, women and tribal labourers and to pit one group of labourers against another. These social distinctions are no less used by political parties of the rich property-owning classes to divide and disarm the rural working class electorate. But at the same time, rural labourers (and poor peasants), in spite of them being geographically scattered, are engaged in an ‘uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight’ against exploitation and oppression.

The topic of rural labour in imperialized, poorer countries such as India indeed cries out for serious critical scrutiny. This must place rural labour (including semi-proletarian labour) at the center of our attention in terms of primitive accumulation which produces it and the capitalist accumulation process which exploits it, and in terms of its democratically organized struggles against capital and the neo-liberal state.

Papers are invited which speak to one or more aspects of the situation described above in the specific context of India . Specific topics of interest include:

1. ‘Primitive accumulation’ in relation to labour
2. Rural migrant labourers (working in villages and/or in urban areas)
3. Labour process in export-oriented agricultural production sites
4. Labourers in floriculture and aquaculture
5. Contract farming and rural labour
6. Rural reserve army of labour and neo-liberal accumulation
7. Technological change, rural labour and politics of production
8. Ruralization of capital in the age of ‘new’ imperialism and its effect on labour
9. Environment (e.g. climate change issues, including heat wave) and rural labour
10. Life and livelihood of the unemployed in the villages
11. Poverty/hunger of rural labour households
12. Credit relations (formal and informal) and rural labourers
13. Female labourers, neoliberal state and neoliberal capital
14. Capital and dalit/adivasi labour
15. Rural labouring bodies in pain: capital’s corporeal effect on labour
16. Reduction in state welfare provision and its impact on labourers
17. Government rural wage-employment generation programmes (e.g. NREGS)
18. Development NGOs and rural labour
19. Representation of rural labour in media and popular culture
20. Struggles of rural labourers and poor peasants against capital, landowners, and neo-liberal state
21. Rural labourers in progressive art and media

The original deadline for the submission of abstracts has passed. Though 5th December remains our deadline for receipt of the completed-papers from the authors whose abstracts have been accepted, some slots are now available with us for considering directly-submitted completed-papers from those that did not submit abstracts or whose abstracts did not get accepted; the deadline for these is 15th November.

E-mail (for inquiries):
Tel: +91-94370-75075

The Ironies of Indian Maoism

Jairus Banaji, International Socialism

Cyrus Bina on “Globalization, Value Theory and Crisis”

Cyrus Bina