Thinking/Writing Theoretically about Society

Raju J Das

Changing society presupposes studying it. And, studying society (critically) is not an easy task, although some people may believe that this is an ‘amateurish act’. Studying society is difficult for many reasons, some of which I have briefly discussed in a previous article (‘Why must social science be critical and why must doing social science be difficult?’).

Representing ideas about the world

A study of any aspect of society requires a scholar to critically engage with the existing ideas about that aspect of society. This work is often called a ‘literature review’ or goes in the name of ‘writing theory’. Many younger scholars resist doing it; they want to jump to the field and see what is out there. They also get some encouragement from their professors to do this: that is to jump to the field without prior theoretical preparation. They forget that without concepts one will know nothing by just seeing and hearing, and that developing concepts requires hard intellectual labour, including a critical engagement with existing ideas.

When one reviews the existing literature about a topic, one addresses three questions:

  1. what does the literature say? (this constitutes the review of the literature in a narrow sense);
  2. what is wrong with what the existing literature says? (this will constitute one’s critique: it can be epistemological, ontological and methodological plus theoretical, e.g. political-economic, and empirical); and
  3. how must the topic be (re)examined, including what new questions need to be asked and how these questions must be addressed such that one’s work will be better than the existing literature in certain respects? (here one provides an alternative framework for understanding a given topic).
    These three points are elaborated below.

In terms of 1 (review of the literature in the narrow sense): one needs to think about what the literature says about the following, among other issues:

a)      what the object of analysis is, and how it is different from other things (in other words, how does the existing literature conceptualize the object of analysis?)

b)      why the object of analysis (e.g. non-farm employment; contract farming; food insecurity, GM crops; child labour; strikes in Gurgaon; corruption; class differentiation; state repression; portrayal of violence in Bollywood movies; poverty; rape in Delhi; SEZ, etc.) exists/happens/changes/develops, and

c)      what are its effects (what are the effects of poverty or of non-farm employment or of contract farming on other aspects of society?).

Why is a thorough familiarity with the existing literature necessary? The answer is the social character of knowledge production, the idea that we always build on others’ shoulders. Knowledge production is a social activity. One should know what has been said about a topic so that one does not say exactly what has already been said. One also learns something from what has been said and seeks to go beyond the existing literature. The more we know, the more we do not know. The more we know about the existing literature, the more we find out that there are areas that are still worth exploring (and in new ways).

One could use the three broad categories (a, b, and above) around which to organize the existing views in the literature. Or one can keep these categories in mind and invent other categories around which one may discuss the literature. One may use both these strategies. Often the difficulty is: how will one identify common issues? These are the issues which usually come up again and again, the issues which several scholars emphasize, if differently. In the identification of issues, one’s own tacit/implicit/semi-developed theory (or pre-existing ideas), of course, plays a role.

In doing a thorough literature review on a topic, one should read as much as one can on the topic and on some of the topics that are very closely related to the topic at hand. As just mentioned, one may group the different things one reads about a topic and identify 3-5 issues around which the existing literature can be discussed. Identification/analysis of major issues is one. Their  presentation is different. Discussing the literature author-wise is, in most cases, not that interesting. An author-wise discussion often leads to repetition. However, when a given issue is being discussed, one may turn to an author-wise discussion of the separate aspects of the issue. Let us say that one is writing about poverty and that one has identified three broad aspects of this topic (e.g. how poverty is caused by agrarian differentiation; how it is caused by pro-ruling class government policies, and how poverty has an impact on electoral politics). In this case, one may conduct an author-wise discussion while discussing each aspect of poverty as long as authors’ views are different one from another.

The act of thinking and presenting critique:

In terms of the critique part of theoretical thinking and writing: in ‘Why must social science be critical’, I pose a list of questions. That list does not exhaust all the questions one can ask of the existing literature, but using these may be a small starting point.

Critique is an important productive activity in the sphere of intellectual production. This is in two senses: critique itself produces ideas (criticisms), and these ideas create a space for further production of ideas, both conceptual and empirical.

Criticisms are, at least, of five types. Criticisms are philosophical (ontological and epistemological) and methodological (concerning, for example, the method of collection of information). In making philosophical criticisms, one seeks to undermine the philosophical assumptions which underlie the specific substantive assertions being made in the existing literature. Marxist critics wanting to launch philosophical criticisms can accuse a piece of work as being: idealistic/social-constructionist (reducing what exists to what is thought to exist), empiristic/a-theoretical; relativistic (i.e. failing to assign causal primacy to certain processes); a-historical (considering what is historically specific as universal), a spatial (being blind to the fact that attributes of an object may exhibit spatial unevenness); un-dialectical (this can be in many ways including in terms of the laws of dialectics and theory of relations), and so on.

Criticisms are theoretical (theoretical in the substantive-scientific sense). Theoretical criticisms, above all else, raise the issue of causality. A person says that K causes T. A critic says: does K necessarily cause T?; why must K cause T?; what is the logic of the assertion that K causes T? Here refuting the logic one uses one’s power of theory in political economy (e.g. content of Marx’s discussion in Capital), state theory (see Lenin’s State and Revolution), etc.

Criticisms are also empirical. A person says that y happens in place z, but a critic says that y happens in place p, and provides evidence to this effect. Empirical criticisms are usually weaker, epistemologically speaking. One may say that the state acts in the ruling class interests because ruling class people directly control the state, sitting in the parliaments and controlling the commissions of enquiry. In response, a critic may say that in such and such case, the parliament is not dominated by people belonging to the ruling class and yet the state, more or less, serves the interest of the ruling class.

Then criticisms are practical/political. A Marxist can be critical of reformist political implication of a given assertion. Commenting on the mainstream research, Bertell Ollman says:  ‘the age-old link between knowledge and action has been severed, so that scholars can deny all responsibility for their wares while taking pride in knowing more and more about less and less’ (in his Dance of the Dialectic). One has to be a little careful in making political criticisms though. On the one hand, given an intellectual assertion (e.g., x causes y), more than one political conclusion (i.e. an assertion about what is to be done) can be made. In other words, our view of what happens and why it happens does not entirely determine our view of what can be done. On the other hand, in practice, I have often seen that reformist political conclusions can be traced to certain kinds of faulty theoretical assertions (e.g., those who rubbish the labour theory of value or think about  class as merely income inequality or a matter of attitude tend to be reformists). In practice, also, it is very difficult to separate intellectual criticisms from political criticisms, whether or not the latter are made. Usually, non-Marxists hide their political/normative views and claim that their knowledge-claims are politically neutral when in fact they are not. Marxists are often more candid about their political views. For a Marxist (I am not saying revolutionary Marxist, for the word ‘revolutionary’ is redundant here, and you will just see why): class relations, and most importantly capitalist class relations, are the most fundamental cause of the most fundamental problems of the humanity and therefore the abolition of the class system through independent political mobilization of proletarians and semi-proletarians against the class system and its supporting political-ideological mechanisms (e.g., state) is the most fundamental solution to the problems of the humanity. One sees that one’s theory of class is immediately intellectual and political.

Note that often substantive criticisms – theoretical and empirical criticisms – are the only type of criticisms that are made but these are informed by philosophical and political criticisms. One does not criticize everything one is reading. In developing a critique, one presents a selected number of major criticisms, which may include sub-criticisms (part of a major criticism). Note also that one must try to avoid making the mistakes which one accuses one’s opponents of.

The labour of theorizing?

Often a scholar can stop at the criticisms, and in the light of these criticisms, may carry on her/his own empirical investigation (Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia is almost an example of this). Some make an attempt to offer an alternative theoretical framework, which will inform one’s own empirical study. In the latter case, the framework informing her/his own original research is explicit. In the former case, it is implicit.

One can see that doing conceptual work, including literature review in the narrow sense (in the sense of saying who has said what about a topic) is not easy. Doing conceptual work involves not just reading and thinking but dialectically organizing one’s thinking.

Let us now return to the whole act, the act of theoretical thinking. One way of organizing the theoretical thinking, including the discussion of the existing literature may be as follows:

Issue 1 Issue 2 Issue 3
X group of writers[1]

X1 X2 X3
Y group of writers who are critical of X group


Y1 Y2 Y3
The author’s critical assessment of the Y group (agreement and


V1 V2 V3
The author’s own views laid out
in the form of an alternative
A1 A2 A3


The above framework suggests that one has at least ‘12 bits of knowledge’, 12 categories of views. This would make one’s conceptual work very thorough, critical and synthetic. An advantage of doing this is that one cannot be accused of painting everything with the same brush because one has split the existing literature into two parts: a thesis and an anti-thesis, which lays the foundation for one’s own critical synthesis (I know this way of saying things is a little clichéd). Following this method, one produces a differentiated view of the existing knowledge, and one tries to create a new way of looking at the things.

Now, what does offering an alternative theoretical framework consist of? It is about theorizing. It is about saying three things:

  1. what an object is?[2]
  2. what are the necessary and contingent conditions for its existence?;
  3. what are its necessary and contingent effects?; and how do conditions and effects reciprocally impact each other?

Here an understanding of the dialectical theory of the multiple relations that exist in the world will be useful (e.g. relations in the world are substantive and formal, relations are necessary and contingent; relations are of similarity vs difference; relations are of contradiction, and so on).

In wanting to offer an alternative way of knowing an object one is offering an alternative way of conceptualizing the object (e.g., what does X mean, socially, subconsciously, emotionally, etc.[3] and how is it different from other objects), and one is offering an alternative way of explaining the object?

How do we explain an object, an event E? One way is to think that: certain structures of relations (S) which give rise to certain mechanisms (M1, M2, etc.), which under certain contingent conditions (C1, C2), will cause an event (E). This is based on critical realist philosophy as popularized by Andrew Collier, Andrew Sayer and others. One’s theory must include all the four elements: structures of relations; mechanisms; contingent conditions, and effects/consequences.

For example, capitalist social relations will cause mechanisms of technological change to exist which in turn will cause low wages, under conditions of strict control over migration and other relevant government policies.

Whether these empirical conditions exist and how effective they are and whether their effectivity varies over space and so on, this is an empirical question which can only be ascertained through a concrete study.

Whether the power of the mechanisms being posited in theory is activated/counteracted is also empirical. We are just saying, given such and such things, x and y will happen. If people are dispossessed of their means of production, they are going to have to work for a wage, other things constant. If a person is working for a wage, one is going to be subjected to domination and exploitation in the work-place. But there is no guarantee that this will happen to a given person or a group of persons: they have to find wage-work in the first place.

One has to think about the entire society of which a given object of analysis (e.g. poverty or non-farm employment or contract farming) is a part. The society is constituted by social relations of class (as well as other relations). These relations give rise to certain other things (mechanisms and processes). One’s object of analysis is connected to, and are rooted in, these.

As mentioned, one begins theorizing by conceptualizing and re-conceptualizing an object in the world, whose image is reflected in our mind, which is interpreted in our mind. An object can exist at different levels, in more or less abstract forms. Consider technology (as used in farming) as an object of analysis. Here are the different levels at which technology can exist (or can be seen as existing):

Productive force of which technology is an example; Technology; capitalist technology; technology used in capitalist agriculture or agrarian capitalism; biological technology in capitalist agriculture; and genetically modified seeds as an example of the latter.

In theorizing, at each level (ideally at each level), technology has to be seen in terms of its necessary and contingent preconditions/causes and necessary and contingent its effects, and in terms of their reciprocal relations (relations between effects and conditions). In theorizing one has to bear in mind the relation between what is technology and other aspects of society.

There are many other aspects of theorizing. It is not possible to write an algorithm for how to theorize. But what is certain is that, theorizing requires familiarity with: philosophy including ontological and epistemological views as well as views about human nature; and general theory of society or social theory (relation between individual and society; view of how a society changes vis changes in contradictory relations between its productive forces and class relations and via struggle; relations between the economic and the non-economic within a system in which the economic has a certain primacy, and so on). One also needs familiarity with more specific theories, theories of the most important ‘parts’/’aspects’ of society (see Plekhanov’s Fundamental Problems of Marxism as well asMarx’s famous Preface to A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy): political economy and class theory, state theory, theory of culture and meaning, and theory of the relation between society and environment/space. One still needs even more specific theory, given stratification of the reality, given that the reality happens and exists at different levels of generality: theory of technology or theory of agrarian change as a part of the theory of political economy, or theory of state bureaucracy as a part of the state theory.

To develop theoretical knowledge, knowledge about necessity in the world, knowledge about how the world really works, one needs to bathe in practice. All Marxists, including Marx (see the Theses on Feuerbach) and Mao (see his On Practice) stress the relation between knowledge and practice. ‘The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question’, says Marx. Mao, whose other views on society and revolution I do not endorse, however, says something that is interesting. This is about the practical character of knowledge. Our social practice, on which our knowledge depends,

‘is not confined to activity in production, but takes many other forms – class struggle, political life, scientific and artistic pursuits; in short, as a social being, man participates in all spheres of the practical life of society. Thus man, in varying degrees, comes to know the different relations between man and man, not only through his material life but also through his political and cultural life (both of which are intimately bound up with material life). Of these other types of social practice, class struggle in particular, in all its various forms, exerts a profound influence on the development of man’s knowledge. In class society everyone lives as a member of a particular class, and every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with the brand of a class.

Scholars must observe the act of production, including production of ideas (how are ideas produced in the universities and how this is influenced by generalized commodity production and need for order). Then there is the issue of political practice. Marx’s and Engels and Lenin’s, Trotsky’s and Luxemburg’s and others’ practical engagement with the world – their involvement in class struggle from the standpoint of proletarians and semi-proletarians – was a source of their theoretical – and not just theoretical – knowledge, which continues to evolve as new developments in the world are constantly reinterpreted and as one’s views at a point in time prove to be less effective than originally thought. It is also the case that over a period of time, one’s actual degree of practical engagement and its form will vary. Sometimes, it may take the form of the creation of ideas to help a developing movement. Just the revolutionary intent, the act of breathing and dreaming revolution, the intent which is rooted in and in turn informs one’s intellectual views of the world, becomes a form of practical activity. This is just as: radical ideas become a material force when they grip the minds of the masses, as Marx asserted. At other times, one’s political practice may be less ‘speculative’.

One also needs to be familiar with empirical trends, with what is going on in the world at different scales, in different areas and in different time-periods, including via government and NGOs reports, social media, online radical and mainstream magazines, newspapers, etc. One needs to find out, for example: is inequality rising or falling; is farming going out of business and to what extent, and how does it vary from place to place, and so on. One’s theoretical ideas must be constantly rubbed against empirical developments which exist independently of one’s contemplation of these developments by a researcher as against ideas produced by other researchers.

Let us turn to Marx’s intellectual practice for a moment. He spent an enormous amount of time reading and writing about Adam Smith, Ricardo, Feuerbach, and so on. See his long footnotes in Capital or discussion in Theories of Surplus Value or his review of Proudhon. He read these scholars, appreciated what was positive and developed his criticisms of these scholars. These criticisms along with his more ‘practical work’ – which included not just his political engagement of different forms but also his deep familiarity with government reports, work of history, etc. – fed into his own alternative way of understanding the society, both at more concrete and more abstract levels.

Like Marx or Lenin, one combines all these different inputs (philosophy, theory at different levels, political practice, and empirical knowledge) in a critical and empirically sensitive way, and one begins the journey of theory-making, without which the project of remaking the world in a revolutionary way is an impossible task.

But ‘Every beginning is difficult’, Marx says. Thinking theoretically and critically is difficult at the beginning, in the middle and in the end! However, Marx hopes that although ‘There is no royal road to science’, it is the case that ‘those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.’

The certainty of the joy of theoretical thinking which produces an ‘artistic whole’ and the inevitability of the ‘fatiguing climb’ are dialectically connected.


Raju J Das teaches at York University, Toronto.



Here one says what a group of writers is saying about the different aspects of a given topic represented as Issue 1, 2, 3, etc.

Here one re-conceptualizes an object; one asks: what does the scope of the concept which refers to an object cover? And one changes the boundary/scope of the concept depending on the situation at hand; this is what reconceptualization is.

Note here that the concept, what it refers to, and the word which is used to refer to the concept are different.

Why must social science be critical, and why must doing social science be difficult?

Raju J Das

Now-a-days, we hear the word ‘critical’ everywhere. It is there even in business schools: there is indeed such a thing as critical business or management studies. Conscious (=conscientious) capitalism, capitalism with a humane face, is presumably born out of such things as critical business studies. If business schools can be critical, can others be far behind? There is critical sociology. There is critical human geography? There is critical anthropology, and so on. Not to be critical almost means stupidity.

What does ‘critical’ really mean? It means being critical of the world, i.e. its social relations and inequalities. It means critical of ideas about the world, the ideas that sustain those inequalities and the ideas that do not conform to (conceptually-laden) empirical evidence. If one says that the place of women is in the kitchen or that people have a natural tendency to be only selfish and to buy and sell for a profit, there is clearly something here to be critical of, because these false ideas have an influence on people’s actual behavior. One must be critical because one cannot assume that what exists = what can exist. Uncritical work, as Alex Callinicos has said, equates what can exist with what does exist, and thus becomes status quo-ist. We must be critical because as Marx says, what appears to be true may not be true, so we need to dig underneath the surface appearances which represent inadequately partial truth and we must be critical of ideas which reflect the surface appearances.

Marx said that one should be ruthlessly critical of everything that exists, of the existing order, ruthless in that one will not be scared of the results of one’s research, nor of the powerful people.

Intellectually speaking, one can become critical of existing ideas about society by asking a series of questions of a piece of work. For example:

  1. Does a piece of work merely describe an event/process or does it explain it as necessarily caused by specific processes?
  2. Does a piece of work give more powers to things/processes than they can possibly bear/have?
  3. Does a piece of work naturalize a phenomenon by treating it as universal when it is in fact historically and geographically specific?
  4. Does a piece of work stress the cultural/ideational at the expense of the material/economic?
  5. Does a piece of work distinguish between necessary causes/conditions from contingent causes/conditions for something to happen?
  6. Does a piece of work treat an event/process as a mass of contingencies or does it treat it as a manifestation/expression/effect of a more general process?
  7. Does a piece of work conceptualize/treat/ analyze an event/process in terms of its necessary conditions and necessary effects (which may change over time)?
  8. Does a piece of work stress harmony and stability at the expense of tension and contradiction?
  9. Does a piece of work ignore connections between things and how their connections form a system which influence the parts or does it stress the difference and disconnection between things at the expense of the connections and similarities?
  10. Does a piece of work stress the individual thoughts and actions as being more important than structural conditions of individual actions/thoughts?

But what is the practical point of being critical? What happens if a professorial colleague makes criticisms of another colleague? One could say that by making (polite) criticisms of the existing ideas of scholars, we can change their viewpoints.  Many people hold the idea that: there are interstices of capitalism which can be used in the interest of ordinary people, and that is a way of fighting against the system and that, more particularly, things such as co-ops, labour unions, NGOs, identity politics, and social-democratic type parties can be used to significantly mitigate or eradicate humanity’s problems. Now: one can critique this idea hoping that the person in question will change her/his existing idea into a more radical idea, and that this will have an impact on radical social change in the world itself.

But this assumption is, more or less, wrong, for the idea underlying the assumption is that radical social change depends on merely change of ideas and that the change of ideas of the professoriate is crucial to radical social change (=transcendence of global capitalism and installment of global economic and political democracy = socialism).

My several years in academia now tell me that it is very difficult to radically change the ideas of colleagues (and most students), although one tries! It is very difficult to make them understand that, for example, the global capitalist class relation is at the root of major social-ecological problems in different localities and in the world at large, and it must therefore be gotten rid of.

A few of these individuals may change their ideas. However, the academic stratum as such will not. As the ideological representative of the petty bourgeois and bourgeois forces, this stratum cannot relinquish its job of defending and protecting the sanctity of private property and capitalist private property. The places the academia occupies within the bourgeois ideological system define their class-role. This or that capitalist can support the cause of socialism by changing her/his side. Engels did. But the capitalist class as a whole cannot commit mass suicide. This applies to the professoriate as well. Consciously or not, they stick to their roles. Their being critical stops at the door of capitalism. At best, they may be critical of the time- and place-specific excesses of the system, of its anti-democratic nature, but not the system as such. They are critical of e-m-c (everything minus capitalism). Besides, for a large part of the professorate (the movers and shakers of the academic world, who are also often the gatekeepers of knowledge), the ideas are material because they have gripped the minds of the professoriate masses: that is, they have invested in their ideas and have made a career out of their existing ideas (e.g. professor X says that ‘labourers – and not just businesses – have an agency in making changes happen in society’ and has a large following with which come many material-cultural benefits), so why will they so easily change their ideas?

And, even if one is able to change their views, the fate of radical social change does not critically depend on what views are held by professors, although their views are not entirely immaterial. The reason is that: they are not the revolutionary class. Only the working class is that class, given proper ideological and political preparation. This is the class which must sell its ability to work for some compensation and which has very little power to decide the conditions of work and how regularly it will be employed. This class produces the source of profit, rent and interest and this class can stop its production. Genuine Marxists critique the capitalist world and ideas about capitalism which the academia holds, from the standpoint of the material suffering and political power of this class, which is an international class. A more correct understanding of society than it has is in line with its class-instinct, its material life situation, both what it is and what it can be.

The main – rather ultimate – practical reason why Marxists should be critical of existing ideas is to contribute to the raising of consciousness of this class, and not the raising of consciousness of professors. The working class (I am including the semi-proletarians in this category) is constantly being ‘deceived’: its thinking is characterized by partial truths and sometimes complete falsehood. This is a most important reason – apart from blatant coercion – why capitalism still continues. The working class takes capitalism as a natural form in which life has to be lived. This class does suffer from false consciousness, bourgeois consciousness. This is why the working class remains politically weak and the capitalist class, strong.

False consciousness is constantly being produced. It is produced for many reasons. These have got to do with two aspects of one mechanism: ‘control’. It is produced because the objective reality of the capitalist society creates falsehood (as Marx indicates in chapter 1 of Capital vol 1). Let us call it the Capital 1 Model. Because of the absence of direct control by working-subjects, over the way in which useful things are produced, because people are having to exchange the things they need for what they have, because they are having to enter market relations to satisfy their need for food and other things, they therefore think that these things by nature have a price tag, that we must always buy the things that are produced for profit in order to satisfy their need. Every person needs food. That is a universal and natural fact. But that food has to be produced capitalistically, by agribusiness or capitalist farmers, is not natural. People think it is. This idea of naturalizing something that is not natural needs critique.

False consciousness is also produced because of the presence of control of the ruling class over the working subjects’ ideas (as Marx explains in German Ideology). Let us call it the German Ideology Model. The ruling class, directly or indirectly, through the state or through civil society agencies (which are the darling of ex-Marxists dressed up as post-Marxists), controls the ideas of ordinary people and makes them believe that, for example, austerity is good, user-fees increase the quality of service, and so on. That this mechanism of control does not always work is a different matter. It is a different matter that coercion is often used to put people in their place, if after having correctly understood the reality they take action to remedy it. Force was used against even mildly anti-capitalist Wall Street occupiers in New York.

False consciousness is also produced because all kinds of petty bourgeois forces and their academic spokespersons come up with strategies which bind the working class with the bourgeois and petty bourgeois forces (e.g. join bourgeois trade unions; vote for social-democratic and even liberal type parties). The working class thinks that following these forces will bring lasting benefits. Let us call this the Lenin model (which insists on the independent political mobilization of the working class).

Because false consciousness is constantly created, there is a need for critiquing the ways in which this is created, who furthers its creation, and who disseminates it. The professors, even when they espouse some critical thought, are, at best, speaking the language of the petty bourgeoisie and left factions of the bourgeoisie (e.g. the enlightened elite who can think about the long-term and are willing to make short-term or localized and reversible sacrifices). The petty bourgeoisie has some hatred for capitalism because large producers crush them but they do not like the property-less workers either. Ideas do not hang in the air. Ideas are ultimately, if not immediately, ideas of classes and class-fractions. Critique of ideas is ultimately a critique of class and class-fractional interests therefore. Since the academia have a class-role to play – defend capitalist property with or without some reforms—their ideas reflect that function and therefore the interests of the class which they defend.

When one critiques the ideas of the academia, one really critiques the class interests they defend. Since their role is to defend these interests, whether by choice or not (and usually a combination of choice and coercion), any amount of criticism of their ideas is not going to bear much fruit. Therefore, the aim of criticism is not to change these people. The aim should be to clarify to the working class the true nature of the society and of the forces that stop the society from being changed. The point is to remove the layers of misconception from the working class which reflect bourgeois and petty bourgeois (including union bureaucracy) interests, which are ideologically produced by the academia, and which are disseminated through media (new and old), and through family, friends, and sometimes even by professors themselves. Consider the professors selling micro-credit, co-ops, ethical trade, unions, democratic revolution, or even ‘socialism in one country’, as solutions to problems of the humanity; and some of them also win prizes and grant money for knowledge mobilization and community engagements. A genuine critique of the ideas held by the academia will therefore be – can only be – from the standpoint of the interests of the proletarians. Capitalism is critiqued by many people. A proletarian critique is a different critique. It is a ‘critique of everything that exists’ type that Marx had advocated. By critiquing the ideas of the academia, genuine Marxists create conditions for the self-realization of the working class as a class, the realization of its own power and of what needs to be changed and how.

If what is said above is true and to the extent that this is true, this has implications not only for what topic one researches but how one researches it. The implication is quite precisely this: research has to be difficult labor. This is so because research has to be critical. It has to be critical for the reasons discussed at the outset (namely: it must uncover things which are not easily seen or felt; it has to be critical of various forms of exploitation and inequality, which are causes of many events/processes we observe, and so on). And, to critique – the labour of critique – is not easy – this is indicated by the 10 questions earlier provided as a sample of questions one must ask in order to be critical.

There is another reason, which is related to what is just said, why research must be difficult. Consider the following five statements.

  1. We research existing conditions (generally speaking).
  2. Existing conditions are present because forces to fight these conditions are absent.
  3. These forces are absent because it is not easy for these forces (e.g. revolutionary leadership; revolutionary ideas, etc.) to be present.
  4. So: our research presupposes difficult conditions, the difficulty of conditions. Difficulty can be thought of as an ontological condition: x wants to be but x cannot be, because of barriers to x’s existence. The current conditions exist because the future conditions cannot exist. Researching the presence of the current conditions is indirectly researching the absence of the future conditions (= the opposite of the current conditions), the absence which is caused by difficult factors.
  5. Therefore: research must be difficult. Dialectics demands this.

The vast majority of the global population, the working men, women and children, live in conditions of barbarism, the barbarism, which is described by the massive un- and under-employment, peasant dispossession, food insecurity, ecological devastation, constant threat of war, aggression and violence, and so on.  If transcending the present conditions of barbarism is a difficult affair, if intellectual and political preparation for this transcendence is a difficult affair, then researching the current conditions need to be – must be – a difficult affair. After all ideas more or less reflect the conditions which ideas purport to describe. Research must ask: why are the current conditions present? What forces support these conditions? What forces are undermining – and can completely undermine – the current conditions? Clearly, the cause of the current conditions and of their reproduction has deep roots. Ideas have to help us grasp the matter (=barbarism) by its roots. And when these ideas catch the imagination of the masses, then these ideas act like a piece of iron. Ideas do indeed matter, if we want to replace barbarism with civilization and sanity. But the ideas, not of any group or class, but of the class which potentially has the power to transcend the present barbaric condition.

Raju J Das teaches at York University, Toronto.

Academia as a site of class struggle

Raju J Das

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raju J Das teaches at York University, Toronto.

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

Discussion and Reading Team of Socialists (DARTS)

On Commodity Fetishism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please send your suggestions to

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

Raju J Das

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Industrialisation and forms of struggle: Or, should industrialisation be opposed?

Raju J Das

Industrialisation is understood narrowly in the sense of manufacturing and broadly in the sense of the application of modern science and technology to the transformation of raw materials from nature. It is necessary for national development, as the economist Gavin Kitching and others argued decades ago. Industrialisation adds value to unprocessed goods extracted from nature and thus increases society’s income. Often owners of land – peasants – do not earn more – or do not earn much more — than those who work in industry as wage labourers. Industrialisation makes possible the production of a vast range of goods, which are directly used by people: clothes, materials required to build houses, traditional and western medicines, consumer durables, cultural items such as books and music instruments; the different types food that go through the manufacturing process, and so on. And, industry indeed produces the means of production necessary in both farming and industry itself. Industrialisation holds out the possibility of ending want and material suffering. It provides employment to the increasing population, including through forward and backward linkages. It makes it possible to reap scale economies and specialisation in ways not possible in agriculture. In part because of the above, industrialisation increases labour productivity, one of the fundamental indicators of progress, prosperity, and economic development in the society at large. Industrialisation breaks the mutual isolation of producers: this happens as they now work in great numbers in large cities and towns. Their geographical concentration will potentially allow them to fight for justice and equality in society, both on their behalf and on behalf of other oppressed groups. Industrialisation, connected as it is to science, promotes a culture of rational thinking and can potentially undermine the basis for superstitious and obscurantist ideas and practices. Given these and many other advantages of industrialisation, the Left – at least the Marxist left — cannot be opposed to industrialisation (although sections of the postmodern/populist Left are, as industrialisation is seen by them as a sign/carrier of modernity that supposedly destroys an authentic pre-modern culture). The question is: what form of industrialisation should the Left endorse in theory and practice? What happens when, for example, a proposed SEZ (special economic zone) displaces thousands of peasants? Should industrialisation be endorsed under this situation?

To answer this question, one may start with agriculture. Land is the most important means of production in agriculture, at least at the current stage when farming is relatively less capital-intensive. Fertility of land is a product of natural forces as well as human investments. It is normally the case that human investments in land to raise land fertility happen closer to existing centres of population and commerce than away from these. Fertile tracts of land therefore are generally located closer to existing centres of population and commerce. Now, owners of industry need also land. But their need for land is different. They need to locate their factories on: land is not used as an input in the way it is used in farming. And in a market economy, they need land in a specific location: industry tends to be located closer to existing centres of population and commerce for the reason that greater profits are made possible by greater geographical accessibility. Therefore, the fight over industrialisation often becomes a fight between owners of industry and owners of land (including peasants). This fight is over not just an absolute piece of land but over its location.

To be able to understand the on-going struggles over industrialisation, we have to carefully distinguish between industrialisation per se which is necessary in all modern societies from its various historically specific forms, and we need to also distinguish between various forms of struggle over industrialisation.
There is a strong logic to locating industry on the land which is not currently cultivated or irregularly cultivated, in relatively less accessible locations and away from the locations of fertile land on which peasants are currently dependent on or which may soon be used. Why? Firstly, as mentioned above, industry does not need fertile land as an input. Location of a factory on or close to a fertile land destroys natural fertility of soil which is almost impossible to manufacture in industry. It is indeed a great social cost to use a fertile land for industrialisation which does not need it. Secondly, forcing the industry to locate in these areas (e.g. relatively less accessible areas, away from fertile land) will result in the development of new means of transportation and communication (which will also create jobs). Industrialisation in these less accessible locations will also give an impetus to agriculture. It is unfortunate that when industries could be located in more remote locations on land that is relatively less fertile, they are being located on currently cultivated fertile land. This must be fought against. This is one form of struggle over industrialisation.

If, however, a fertile land currently being cultivated must absolutely be used for an SEZ — and whether this must be the case should be democratically decided and not decided by business — several conditions must be laid out. The value of the land as a compensation to the family must be determined in relation to what the value of the land would be after the industries have come up. Under no circumstances must the living standards of the families losing the land and the families losing access to employment on that land (farm labourers, tenants) be allowed to be worse than what they were before the change in the use of the land. Indeed, because industrialisation will make possible greater production of wealth and because this is possible only by displacing the people who currently occupy the land and depend on its use, it must be an absolute precondition of displacement that their material and cultural needs (adequate food, clothes, shelter, education, health care, etc.) are satisfied (including by giving employment to at least a single person from every affected family with a living wage in the industry) and that environmental sustainability of the place and nearby-places is maintained. Investment must be made in the lives of the people who are affected before the investment is made in the SEZ itself. This will not happen automatically. This requires democratically mobilised struggle. This is the second form of struggle over industrialisation.

Peasants as peasants have been involved in heroic battles over dispossession from their land – in Bengal, in northern Orissa, in Maharashtra, and so many other places. This is not the decisive battle against the industrialist class (domestic or foreign), however. The decisive battle against it cannot be, and will not be, fought by peasants as property owners against dispossession, although local and temporary success is possible. The battle against unjust dispossession can only be successfully fought by urban workers in an alliance with peasants and rural workers. Note also that the issue of peasants being separated from land is not a single separable visible act of a group of industrialists, backed by the state. Given, for example, the high costs of farm inputs which come from the industry and given the decreasing prices of farm products from which industry benefits, millions are going into debt, and to clear their debt, peasants are selling their land. Many are leasing their land to better-off farmers, including those who enter into contract with industrialists, domestic and foreign, to produce farm products for industrial processing. There is therefore a potential site of struggle against this insidious form of dispossession from land. The industrialists who set up an SEZ by displacing peasants from land and the industrialists who benefit from high prices of goods sold to peasants which contribute to their economic unviability and separation from land are both members of the same family. The fight against high prices of industrial goods used by peasants is therefore an important part of the fight for a particular form of industrialisation, one that would seek to remove the differences between peasants and industry and the relations of oppression between them.

There is still another form of struggle over industrialisation. Peasants turned into the proletariat in the SEZs, in newly industrialising areas – whether located on fertile land, displacing peasants or in remote locations — will and must fight against the monied class, initially for better wages and working conditions. One may respond by saying that the SEZ framework of industrialisation does not allow for the working class organisation. But then who said that the SEZ must be a necessary form of industrialisation? Or if it does, who said that an SEZ – understood as an industrial cluster — must be one where workers are to be alienated from their democratic right to organise? If business has the right to make money, then surely, and in the interest of democracy, workers have the right to organise to demand a decent life? This is the fourth form of struggle over industrialisation, the struggle that connects workers of different industrial clusters and cities politically and that demands that industrialisation must be of a particular form such that those who do the work must be fully able to meet their social and cultural needs. An SEZ, an industrial project is not based on a one-time act of separating people from their land and livelihood. Much rather, the particular form of industrialisation that is in question is based on a continuous separation: separation of people from the product of their labour, from their blood and sweat. It represents endless money-making at one pole and limitless misery at another. This form of industrialisation does not just produce things that are of potential use. It reproduces an invisible relation of separation of masses from their lives, a relation between them and those who control their lives at work (and outside). So because separation of people from their land creates a ground for the second form of separation, the struggle against the former must be connected to the struggle over the latter, and can only be fully successful if it is connected that way.

Protecting the peasants does not necessarily mean protecting the peasant property. If industrialisation can better the conditions of peasants (i.e. outside of farming), perhaps ‘sacrificing’ their property to make room for industrialisation can be favourably considered. Everyone must be provided with an opportunity to live a life with dignity. Whether it is in industry or farming should, ordinarily, be beside the matter. But there is an ‘if’, as in ‘If industrialisation can better conditions of life of peasants…’. Industrialisation, whether led by state-capital or private capital has not done much for millions of peasants. And it won’t unless it is a site of contestation.

The current struggles around SEZs and displacement appear to be a little narrow. They are often too defensive. The message of these struggles seems to be: ‘don’t take away our land, leave us alone (to our misery)’. The struggle against displacement should be a part of larger family of struggles, i.e. struggles over industrialisation as such. This is because the objects of struggle are objectively inter-connected. The fight against SEZs must be a fight against a particular existing form of industrialisation which leads to double dispossession: political acts of dispossession or primitive accumulation and dispossession through market mechanisms (rising prices of industrial goods leading to debt). A part of the fight should also be within SEZs (and other industrialised areas). Seen in another way, the fight against SEZs and displacement is a fight for a certain form of industrialisation, which, in turn, is a fight for (deepening) democracy and for the satisfaction of social, cultural and ecological needs of those who are displaced to make room for industries, those who lose land because of rising prices of industrial goods, and those who work inside the industrial areas.

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

What kind of education for what kind of society?

Raju J Das

It seems that in India many good students, after completing their 10th grade, are spending most of their time in private coaching classes and attending colleges/universities only for the practicals. This they do to prepare themselves for entrance exams for engineering and medical seats. Even if they do attend colleges/universities full-time, their main aim is to sit for these entrance exams. Several questions come to one’s mind in this context.

1. How can someone learn theory from one set of ‘teachers’ in coaching classes, and learn about the practical matter (lab work) from certified college/university teachers?

2. What is all this craze about getting into medical and engineering colleges? What does a student who goes to these places almost straight after higher secondary (or what is called high school diploma in North America) really know about society and nature? His/her time is mainly spent on a limited goal: being able to answer expected questions in entrance exams aimed at screening students? Much of the time is perhaps spent on memorizing a lot of information without an opportunity to critically assess and assimilate this. Isn’t there something to be said for a well-rounded post-high school university education before one goes for specializations?

3. Is it not the case that many of the so-called medical and engineering colleges may be ill-equipped to teach the relevant subjects? Parents pay a huge amount of money for a seat for their children. And a lot of people – investors – of course make a lot of money out of this business.

4. What is the outcome of this system? In a country of a billion plus, how many doctors do we produce who actually invent new ways of curing illness, as opposed to writing prescriptions on the basis of knowledge produced mainly in the western countries? Similarly, how many thousands of engineers do we manufacture who produce knowledge about new ways of making things? More importantly, how many scientists – in biological or natural sciences – do we produce who produce new ways of understanding nature and body? Is this craze for professional-technical education promoting an overall scientific culture, a culture that encourages people to be rational and find empirically verifiable reasons for events around them?

5. Under the British system, we were producing clerks. Now, are we not producing a different kind of ‘clerks’ or assistants – sophisticated semi-coolies, tech coolies and the like out of the population that goes into so-called professional institutions? It is interesting that what many of our engineers do (e.g., reading/processing credit card statements transmitted from the West – that is, keeping records), they do not really need sophisticated engineering skills acquired from colleges? Or, is it that the kind of education they receive makes them suitable for only this kind of semi-skilled, techno-coolie jobs, and nothing better?

6. Why is it that a vast majority of good students want to be either an engineer or a doctor? Arguably, the aim of education, real education, is self-development (changing ourselves, our ways of thinking) and social development, i.e. contributing to society and towards a reproduction of natural systems that are sustainable (I am not denying that education, in the current form of society, helps one get a job so one can pay one’s bills). Now, is being an engineer or a doctor (and in the ways in which people become engineers and doctors) necessarily the main way of achieving real education?

7. I do not deny the importance of forces of technology and medicine at all, but are the major problems of human society the ones which can be solved through the actions of engineers and doctors who mainly keep on recycling old knowledge? What about a human rights or labour lawyer who fights for the rights of our peasants, workers, poorer people, and so on? What about a professor who aims at changing the collective self-consciousness of a society, who aims at making us rethink the directions in which a society is moving? What about a professional who can organize and manage the cooperatives of poor women or workers’ coops? What about a scientist who finds out new ways in which nature works, and new and sustainable ways in which nature can be suitably ‘modified’ in the interest of the humanity? What about someone who can organize poor masses in new ways to independently fight for their rights and change the fundamental nature and goal of our society, nationally and internationally? What about artists and story tellers who can feel the pulse of a society and represent it in beautiful ways for us to enjoy and learn from? What about the role of socially conscious journalists who consistently and courageously lay bare (quasi-)criminal conduct and corruption of our economic and political elites? And so on?

8. What is the implication of a society over-emphasizing so-called professional education? Is it not true that in part because of the sort of financial as well as ideological-political emphasis on technical-professional education that we see, other kinds of education (including in basic sciences; social sciences) are neglected, and that to the extent that many students go for this latter kind of education, they go there, perhaps, just to pass time, to remain a part of the army of unemployed and under-employed in a manner which can be seen by society as a little meaningful and dignified?

9. The moot question is: why is this kind of education being promoted? We must understand the nature of the forces (read: commercial and state-bureaucratic interests) that drive the kind of education (rush for engineering and medical seats, and the argument can be extended to other ‘professions’ such as business management) which we want to give our children, which we want to promote. In more direct ways: to what extent is our obsession with the so-called professional education driven by the fact that investors make money by selling professional education as a commodity and by the fact that this kind of education is making India (and other similar countries) a cheap low-wage platform of global capitalism, both for its own business people and international business? To what extent are our bureaucrats and politicians benefiting from this business directly because they also invest in this? And how does the state benefit from this kind of education system, a system which reproduces a cheap skilled labour force through the system of private profit-making such that the state no longer has to provide affordable education? To what extent is the kind of technical-professional education-for-profit we are promoting creating a compradore educated elite, which acts as a conduit through which the country (the nation of workers and poor peasants) is subordinated to international business and imperialist states?

10. Therefore, and ironically, is it not the case that: the kind of mind-numbing education we are promoting is stopping us – or discouraging us – from asking this kind of questions that challenge the nature of education and therefore the nature of society we live in?

Raju J Das teaches at York University, Toronto.

Imperialism and the endless war: Military attack on Libya

Raju Das

The military assault on Libya which has just started is another bloody, western imperialist war of aggression against a poor country, a former colony.

Apparently western governments want to protect Libya’s civilians. It is as if other governments are not killing civilians in the region. How hypocritical.

The war is more about the control over oil and stopping the rebellion of workers and younger people in the region from being more radical and anti-systemic.

The war is about a regime change: to create a new regime that will be more deferential to oil companies and western imperialist states than the current one.

Also: what better way to divert attention from western governments’ attack on the political and economic rights of their own people, thousands of whom languish in jails, than to start another war?

The governments launching the assault on Libya have been saying that they do not have money for education and health care, etc., but how are they finding the money to support a war now. Liars.

It is being said that the international community has launched the war. What international community? Security Council members, China, Russia, Germany, Brazil and India, all abstained on the vote on the UN resolution on the war engineered by America and its European followers (the second-tier imperialists of the world). The decision to attack Libya does not represent the opinion of millions of citizens of the world.

Peoples of the imperialized countries must understand that this war, like the wars before in the recent past, just signifies the fact that imperialists can destroy any country they like in their own political and economic interests.

Real national liberation from imperialist forces including the imperialist companies and institutions is the new national question and is a most important aspect of the democratic revolution that the working class in alliance with the peasants and other democratic forces, in every peripheral country and in the world as a whole, must address as a part of its fight for a world beyond capitalism.

As long as there is imperialism, this endless war syndrome will not go away. It has to be made to go away through massive anti-imperialist and anti-war democratic mobilization led by the working class.

Prof Raju Das teaches at York University. He has worked immensely on the political economy of Rural India and South Asia.

Communalism, Business Houses, Citizenship and GUJURATE

Raju J Das

The reason for the power of saffron politics is only partly political. India’s business class is not unconnected to this. The power of saffron politics also raises troubling questions about the sense of citizenship.

Some commentators focus on the political factors behind the success of the saffron electoral-machine. One argument has been that Congress has played a ‘soft’ hindutva (for example, by giving tickets to some disgruntled members of hindutva forces as in Gujarat). Others say that Congress’ secularism has not cut much ice with the voters who fall for the communal propaganda. There is some truth in the political interpretations of electoral success of communal politics. What is neglected in these discussions – both on TV and in newspapers – is often what tends to be neglected in many discussions of India’s polity as such: the role of business. What is the possible connection between the business houses and communal politics? Are the business houses – the so-called corporate citizens – a secular force? This issue needs to be more thoroughly investigated. I can only indicate a few things.

At the national level and in the States, the business class, by ushering in the neoliberal regime, has cleared the ground for a specific kind of electoral politics. This is one which is not oriented towards development: here development is seen in the sense of development for/of the poor, a process which is not primarily based on the idea that development of the poor can happen only when the business class prospers, by the so-called trickle-down mechanism. By forcing all political parties to take the free-market approach, by forcing them to pursue neo-liberalism, India’s business class (in solidarity with its brothers/sisters in the advanced world) have contributed to the erasure of any substantive difference between them. In terms of economic policies there is practically little difference between Congress and BJP. Even, the Left parties are not further behind in terms of following neo-liberal policies. When economic policies stop being the differentiators of political parties, when all parties pursue more or less similar pro-business policies, they choose cheap identity politics to divide the electorate and win elections: hindutva, regionalism, linguistic identity, caste-ism, etc. By making jobs scarce, by making it difficult for ordinary toiling masses to earn a decent livelihood, neoliberalism creates the usual kind of jealousy and spirit of nasty competition among labouring people, which take religious (and other) form. The rise of the religious right in the last 15 years or so and the rise of corporate power under neoliberalism are not isolated from one another. Let’s now come to Gujarat more specifically, which combines religious politics and neoliberalism.

Modi & co. has used the veneer, the appearance, of a specific style of ‘development’ and has resorted tohindutva to sell his communalism agenda and to benefit his business-class mentors. The veneer of development is about, among other things, bijlisadak and pani. It is also about attracting industries and creating some jobs. It is about creating what can be called Guju-rate (the Gujurat-style rate of economic growth). Behind all this lies the fact that business houses remain attracted to Gujarat and invest there with huge subsidies from the government which increase their profit and competitive position vis a vis businesses located elsewhere. They have poured in millions of rupees in the last five years. They like Gujarat’s resources which are happily made available by its governing regime. They like Gujarat’s labour, made quiet by the decisive and strong regime – it is for nothing that Modi is seen as the CEO of Gujurat – a regime that boasts of the lowest person-days lost in labour conflict among all the States. The good business climate of Gujarat making Guju-rate possible is created by Modi’s ‘determined’ and ‘strong’ character. The business houses enjoy a cosy relation with the regime. And this happens, despite the fact that the regime is widely seen as one that was complicit in the 2002 carnage of a given section of Indian citizens on religious grounds. The idea of so-called corporate social responsibility does not worry the business houses at all. Their business is the business of doing business. If business requires doing business with a regime that is communal and fascistic, so be it. It does not matter. To the extent that the business houses have been heavily investing in the State in their own interest which the regime boasts of – whether this ‘development’ helps the rural and urban poor in any significant and economically and ecologically sustainable manner is another matter (just look at social-human indicators of development in this State) – and to the extent that the ‘development’ veneer as well as communal propaganda in the electoral campaign have helped the regime return to power, the business houses cannot be seen as unconnected to the political success of the regime.

In addition to this material ‘support’ – one must also know where Modi got the money to fight elections, who funded Modi’s communal agenda – there is also an ideological support for the man and his regime which came from business houses. Ratan Tata has said: Modi will not have to attract people to Gujarat, it will be stupid if you are not here. Anil Ambani was all praise for his Modi Bhai, whose various achievements he counts including the Narmada (as if all the fight against the Narmada by India’s civil society by Medha Patkar and others was non-sense). It is this sort of business-inspired ideological support for Modi – that is indeed used during electoral campaign – that has propped up Modi in ‘popular’ imagination. This requires a detailed analysis.

If the business forces are really for a country free from communalism, have they ever seriously considered an investment strike – at least a threat of it? A slight indication of the trouble of class politics in a State (look at what happened in West Bengal earlier) makes the business class look elsewhere. But communal politics? It can survive with it much better than class politics perhaps. In part because communal politics helps the business class divide any possible opposition to itself from the workers’ side, and because communal politics produces the sort of rightwing decisiveness that obliterates any possibility of anti-business opposition, business houses tend to enjoy a comradely relation with the communal regime.

Communalism thrives on a specific irrational politics of rejection: the idea that a person will reject his/her fellow citizens who are different from him/her in terms of religion. India’s business houses  – like global business houses that enjoyed doing business with South Africa’s erstwhile apartheid regime – do not mind doing business with a communal regime. How will the same business houses respond if the consumers start rejecting their products – a Reliance mobile or  a Tata car, for example – because they are associated with a regime which spreads hate and the politics of rejection of the religious other?

This then leads me to my second point. This is about us as ordinary citizens. What does the success of communal politics (including Modi’s electoral win) say about us as citizens? What does it say about our democracy and the institutions of the state that are supposed to protect the secular fabric of the constitution? How can a person kill someone next to her just because she may have different religious views? How can one believe in the lie created by a few people that one is worse off because of his/her religion? What has happened to our education system – indeed our whole ideological apparatus – that is no longer able to encourage citizens of different religious identities to live in peace? What is it that makes citizens believe Modi-type character when he treats every criticism of him as a criticism of an entire region/province (e.g. Gujarat)? What is it that makes one feel proud to be a citizen of a country when her fellow citizens are treated as second class citizens? What has happened to our sense of citizenship? The quality of one’s citizenship depends on how one’s fellow citizens are treated. If they are treated (and killed and tortured) as second class citizens by a state of whose citizen one is, then does one’s citizenship not stand devalued? And what can we say about the entire set of state apparatuses, including the judiciary, that has allowed the gradual process of capture of parts of the state and civil society by communal forces, the forces that live by spreading the idea of violence on religious grounds?

Let’s not be obsessed with explaining the rise of these communal forces by the failure of the Congress, the premier party of Indian business houses. Both are elements of a system, and both of them have to be explained by the dynamics of the political-economy system as such. The rise of the communal power is not merely an electoral rise. Therefore, to fight against them is not to be merely an electoral fight. The fact that the communal forces have carved out a space within our polity as such, within the state itself, and within civil society, has to be explained. In this explanation, the silent role of the business houses and changing ideological nature of the sense of our citizenship must be understood, and the business houses must be made to reconsider how they deal with communal regimes. They must be asked to take side: are they on the side of communal forces or secular forces?

Raju J Das is an Associate Professor at York University, Toronto, Canada.