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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 30

Some Notes on Rethinking Marxism for the Future of Socialism in India

Wednesday 16 July 2008, by Sobhanlal Datta Gupta


CPI leader and former Union Agriculture Minister Chaturanan Mishra, in his article “Need to Redefine Socialism after the Collapse of the Soviet Union” (Mainstream, Annual 2007), called for a discussion on the subject. D.G. Bokare, D.P. Sen and K.G. Somasekharan Nair participated in the discussion with contributions in March 22, 2008 and May 10, 2008 issues of this journal. The following is another contribution.

This note is in response to the self-critical analysis of the communist movement in India, initiated by Chaturanan Mishra in Mainstream (December 25, 2007) under the caption “Need to Redefine Socialism after the Collapse of the Soviet Union”, followed up by contributions by others in subsequent issues. I will not be surprised if it irks my friends belonging to the mainstream Left, since my observations question some of the very basic tenets underlying the mainstream understanding of Marxism, which is prevalent in India today, preserved and cherished for decades. The communist movement has reached a dead end in India, marked by an insuperable contradiction. On one level as an electoral factor the Communists occupy a key position in Indian politics today, as manifest particularly in their capacity to contain, at least to some extent, and very rightly so, the policies of the present government vis-à-vis the masses. The bitter truth, however, is that this strength is derived from the electoral position of the Communists, primarily the CPI-M, in Parliament, the overwhelming majority of whom are from West Bengal. In other words, they are a controlling factor but certainly not a representative force. On another level, as a political force they have come a cropper; the spaces traditionally owned by the poorest of the poor, which should normally be the constituencies of the Communists, have been over the years taken over by the non-Communists throughout the country and in some pockets by the much maligned Maoists, with whom the mainstream Communists are on almost non-negotiable terms.

This is a unique situation marked by a queer mismatch of electoral gains and political losses of the Communists in India. Its consequence has been the access of the Communists to institutions of governmental power but a simultaneous weakening of the concern for ideology. Pragmatism and tactical considerations have triumphed over questions of principles and strategy in politics, strengthening the impression that for the Communists politics is no longer a vision, not an emancipatory project but something too mundane and instrumentalist. This has been most starkly evident in the Left Front Government’s showcasing of the model of development in West Bengal and the way attempts are being made to defend and universalise it without any critical reflections. That the Nandigram happenings (the original police firing and the recapture) of 2007 have left an indelible scar on the Left, that it has created a major division within the Left intelligentsia and that the very credibility of the Communists is now under cloud seems not to worry much the leadership of the CPI-M, the key player in the Nandigram episode.

The two standard arguments being dished out are: one, the organisational lapses of the Communists to hold high the model of development in West Bengal and their consequent failure to convince the rural masses accordingly; second, the alleged conspiracy hatched by the Trinamul Congress, BJP and US imperialism together with the media offensive against the Left Front Government. As I am writing these lines, the results of the recently held panchayat polls in West Bengal are coming out, which blast these nonsensical propositions. That the Left has suffered losses quite heavily at the grassroot level of Panchayat Samiti and Gram Sabha is ominous and deeply significant, raising very fundamental questions concerning the mind set of the Communists.

Further, it is an incontestable fact that among the Communists a serous soul-searching is going on ever since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. A feeling of scepticism, frustration and despondency has gripped many of the finest minds in the country who still have unflinching faith in Marxism but find it impossible to toe the line of the mainstream Communist Parties. It is high time, therefore, in the interest of the communist movement itself, to usher in a deep introspection and to address certain fundamental questions which have plagued the rather mechanical understanding of Marxism in India. An attempt has been made to outline them below in the form of a number of propositions.

1. The relative autonomy and importance of the superstructure, covering the spheres of politics, ideology and culture, has not been either appreciated or recognised in the praxis of the Communists, the underlying theoretical reason being that the base-superstructure relation has continued to be viewed in the reductionist/derivative framework, which considers the economic factor as decisive and primary. Consequently, all struggles and conflicts have been viewed in the mirror of a simplified notion of class struggle, its arena being defined predominantly in economic terms. Consequently, the Communists have been very able organisers in mobilising struggles centring around the burning economic issues that plague the country, all other struggles being subjected to it. This has led to the marginalisation of the category “social” too in the mainstream Marxist analysis of Indian society, social being considered virtually as synonymous with economic, as found in the frequent use of the term “socio-economic”, the social being regarded as a kind of appendage to the principal economic category, namely, class. The failure on the part of the Communists to appreciate the caste factor, the marginalised social strata, the ethnic problems, the gender question and the environmental concerns is to be explained in this light. Consequently, the Communists have been caught unaware by the new social movements launched in these sectors over which they have very little hold although the movements and struggles being conducted in these somewhat autonomous spaces could very well constitute the agenda of the Communists. Thus, the sudden emergence of such tall figures as Shankar Guha Neogi or Binayak Sen or Medha Patkar at times seems to totally eclipse the organisational prowess of any Communist Party.

2. It is not enough to describe this mindset as simply economism, stemming from a deterministic/positivist understanding of Marxism. The roots have to be traced at a deeper level, raising a very basic question concerning the popular understanding of Marxism as a science, a science of history, etc. Although it was started by Kautsky, ironically it was in the Soviet Union that Marxism came to be considered as a science virtually in a positivist sense, giving birth to a kind of mechanical determinism. This was codified in the manualised version of Marxism in at least three authentic texts, namely, Bukharin’s Theory of Historical Materialism: A Manual of Marxist Sociology, followed by Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism and later A Short History of the CPSU(B— all products of the twenties and thirties. The impact of these texts was crucial in the moulding of the mindset of generations of Communists throughout the world. First, the Soviet model was universalised and any other alternative understanding, questioning the claims of Soviet socialism, was considered “unscientific”, anti-marxist and, therefore, unacceptable. Second, it gave birth to a kind of unilinear understanding of socialism, which legitimised suppression of the voice of plurality and difference, preparing the ground for Stalinism to take off. Third, this simplified understanding of Marxism as a science, while defending the notion of scientific objectivity, occluded the importance of subject and subjectivity and thereby the autonomy of the subject, spelling disaster for the flowering of socialist democracy.

3. In the intellectual history of Marxism the predominance of the notion of unilinearity has facilitated the derivative mode of explanation in terms of a somewhat oversimplified notion of class, notwithstanding the fact that Marx himself left no definition of the concept of class, leaving it unfinished and incomplete in Chapter 52 of Volume III of Capital. This probably needs a more complex philosophical explanation. It has been customary in Marxism to consider the mind-matter relation as dichotomous, resulting in the explanation of everything materialistically, giving birth to determinism, which, interestingly, is a kind of reverse Hegelianism. Just as in Hegel, who abolished the problem of philosophical dualism in Kant, we come across a negation of the notion of autonomy (one key element in Kant), which is replaced by the notion of unilinearity of the Absolute, resulting in a kind of determinism, in Marx it is Class which virtually replaces the Absolute. This has led to the highlighting of the base (the economy), neglect of the autonomy of superstructure, facilitated by the fact that, after all, the overwhelming concern of Marx’s writings was anatomy of capitalism as an economic system. It is, therefore, not surprising that among the Marxists neither Marx’s Grundrisse nor Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks has gained popularity. In fact, all these raise a fundamental question: is it not high time that one should revisit Kant and attempt to establish some complex links with Marx? The underlying reason is that socialism has failed miserably to address the issue of freedom and its associates, namely, autonomy, plurality and difference, and Kant provides interesting clues in this regard which Marxists would find useful to appropriate without resorting to bourgeois liberalism.

4. It is, therefore, imperative that in the Communist Party’s understanding of Marxism the manualised, unilinear, deterministic version, which has been dished out for decades, needs immediate replacement. Its disastrous fall-out was examined in the most self-critical way by Maurice Cornforth in Communism and Philosophy shortly before his death. In India the task is extremely difficult but not impossible, since we do not lack intellectual resources necessary for the rejuvenation of Marxism. Quite often, while attempting to diagnose the shortcomings of the Communists, it is now being argued by the leadership of the CPI-M in particular, especially in the context of the setback of the Left in the panchayat polls in West Bengal, that it is arrogance, display of power and organisational failure to convince the rural masses of the efficacy of the developmental model, which are some of the explanatory factors. The problem is that this arrogance, this feeling that there is nothing wrong with the development model per se that is being projected, the inability to become self-critical, as manifest in the attitude of intolerance towards others, the perception that anyone who differs with the development model is necessarily an enemy of the Left—all grow out of the flawed philosophical position outlined above. What needs to be added is that Stalinism is the direct consequence of this understanding, an outlook that leads inevitably to political blindness that, however, is self-inflicting.

5. What, then, are the palliatives if Marxism as practised by the Communist Parties has to be reworked? I am making some tentative suggestions.

(a) Although in mainstream Marxism discussion of superstructure is somewhat sketchy and scanty, subsequent contributions by Gramsci, Lukacs and others, broadly associated with what is commonly known as Western Marxism, have to be recognised, studied and taught to the cadres.

(b) While one major focus of this discussion should be culture (Caudwell, Raymond Williams, Eagleton et al), the other should be politics, very specifically the state. The Gramscian distinction between hegemony and domination, the Althusserian differentiation between repressive and ideological state apparatuses, the idea that the modern bourgeois state does not rule simply by force but also by securing the consent of the governed (Gramsci) and that the state apparatus, even after the socialist revolution outlives state power (Althusser) need to be projected.

(c) One central weakness of Marxism has been its understanding of ethics as simply a derivative of the production system, giving birth to an instrumentalist perception of ethics. In today’s situation the justification of communist morality cannot be explained in this reductionist perspective. Here, again, Kant becomes deeply relevant.

(d) The attitude of skipping debates concerning the past history of international communism on the plea that these are now irrelevant or that they are very sensitive issues which might uncork a can of worms must be resisted. The time has come for cool and dispassionate introspection in regard to the past and it has to be admitted that in many cases in the name of liquidation of class enemies of socialism, what has actually happened is silencing of the voices of an alternative vision of socialism and democracy. It is this rigid and closed attitude towards the history of international communism that prevents the leadership of the Communist Parties even today not to pay any attention to the contributions of stalwarts like Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky or Nikolai Bukharin. It is all the more necessary now for the reason that new revelations and new historical evidences increasingly confirm that these silenced figures in one way or other were victims of the Stalinist infamy. Their only crime was that they thought and acted differently.

(e) It is absolutely useless to think in terms of CPI-CPI-M unity, unless they are ready to change their present conservative mindset vis-à-vis Marxism. What is much more necessary is to open up dialogue with all those revolutionary forces, parties and groups which are fighting for the landless, the underprivileged, the dispossessed. Instead of going for an alliance with the so-called “third front”, what the Communist Parties should aim at is building up a solid block of the revolutionary Left, if they wish to stop their own political marginalisation. This requires openness, flexibility and tolerance. The recent experience of Nepal has shown how the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist has been pathetically cut to size by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, confirming once again that political opportunism, despite revolutionary rhetoric, cannot stop political isolation and self-destruction.

The author, who was the Surendra Nath Banerjee Professor of Political Science, University of Calcutta, has currently retired. He can be contacted at e-mail : dattagupta_s@rediffmail.com

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