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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 18 New Delhi April 20, 2019

K.M. Mani: Champion of the Toiling Class

Tuesday 23 April 2019


by Joseph Abraham

K.M Mani, Kerala’s longest serving MLA and Finance Minister, was laid to rest on Thursday (April 15, 2019). With his demise, the remarkable public life of a much-venerated mass leader came to an end. Mani was no run-of-the-mill politician. A master strategist, shrewd tactician, grassroots leader and the ultimate factionalist of one of India’s most enduring regional parties—the Kerala Congress—he leaves a unique political legacy lasting 54 years.

Following the unexpected demise of Mani at a private hospital in Kochi, tributes poured in from all quarters. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former PM Manmohan Singh, Congress President Rahul Gandhi led the nation in paying their tributes to the departed leader. While much of the condolences were on expected lines, it was indeed surprising, if not outrightly shocking, to note that there was no recollection of Mani’s unique contribution to a long lost tradition in Indian politics—Political Theory.

Unlike the Communist Parties and the broader Sangh Parivar, which take pains in articulating a theoretical position, with at-least some degree of regularity and self-avowed precision, the art of political theory is a lost one in contemporary India. The machinations of real-world politics, exigencies of electoral winnability, public apathy to the political class have in all respects contributed to the poverty of theory in the Indian political discourse. It is in this regard that K.M. Mani stood out as a leader with a difference. Mani articulated with clarity and sufficient depth what he called the Toiling Class Theory. This idea was rooted in the strong Socialist traditions and its uniqueness to the socio-economic landscape of Central Tranvancore that formed the ideological backbone of his undisputed political hold among the rubber farmers and workers in Kottayam and its environs.

The Toiling Class Theory was the result of a combination of astute political observation and a strong theoretical understanding of Marxism. It reached its conclusion that was appreciated in the political circles of Kerala, especially to its credit, the CPI-M, that was among Mani’s strongest opponents. It is this kind of theory that all politically conscious individuals could lend their ear to and approach without preconceived notions, irrespective of whether they were convinced by its reasoning and final conclusion. It also negates the criticism levelled against Mani that he ran a political outfit devoid of ideology or philosophy and one that was based solely on personal ambition and political convenience.

Mani’s Toiling Class Theory was based on four premises—Firstly, society was divided into economic classes. This division was the result of historical forces at play and regulated human relations. This premise, as evident, is drawn from Marx. 

Secondly, the division of society into classes was not limited to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat alone, but included a third class, which did not conventionally fit into either of the two paradigms. This group included the small and marginal farmers, artisans, traders, teachers, shopkeepers who survive not merely on labour power alone but marginal ownership of the fourth factor of production—entrepreneurship and tradeable skills. The ever-expanding middle class and the rise of a technically literate citizenry employing technology for sustenance, disproves the conventional two-category classification.

This toiling class, conveniently categorised as petit bourgeois in Marxist terminology, is wrongly believed to be lacking in revolutionary vigour and class-consciousness; but, on the contrary, it will be the vanguard revolutionary class leading society to what Mani terms as People’s Socialism. The classical Marxist vilification of this group, according to Mani is incorrect, as it ignores the exploitation faced by this group at the hands of monopoly capitalism and its significant contribution to the national income in generating capital through hard toil.

Thirdly, the concept of a struggle between classes in conventional Marxism is misleading as it ignores the mutual co-operative harmony that exists between people of the toiling class in their day-to-day economic relations despite the continuous onslaught by monopoly capitalism. Thus, class co-operation or collaboration will be the basis of a move towards People’s Socialism.

Fourthly,People’s Socialism will involve neither the dictatorship of the proletariat nor the withering of the state but its realisation will be through Constitutional Democracy by the collaborative efforts of the toiling class. In other words, meaningful socialism is to be achieved within the framework of collaborative democracy alone through a co-ordinated fight against the forces of monopoly capitalism.

Mani was sure that such an articulation would be branded as reactionary by die-hard purists, but stuck to his point that only a planned economic framework that recognises the exploitation of the toiling classes and liberation through mutual co-operation would lead to People’s Socialism. Class war has no role in such a transformation. This worldview merges the best in the democratic and socialist traditions, articulates a new way forward for the Indian people, and is perhaps, K.M. Mani’s most enduring legacy to the people of his State.

Dr Joseph Abraham, an officer of the IES Indian Economic Service, retired as the Principal Adviser, Department of Agrioculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India.

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