I recently had a debate with a renowned Marxist scholar about socialism and socialist revolution. His name is Prof. Paresh Chattopadhyay – Indian by birth, teaches political economy at the University of Montreal, Canada. He may not be so well known among political activists; but among Marxist scholars, he is very well known and very highly respected as an authority on the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin etc. The debate has appeared in Frontier, a weekly political journal published (in print and online) from Kolkata, India. I want to make the three texts – two by Chattopadhyay and one by me – available to the readers of this blog:
(1) Chattopadhyay published a short critical comment on an article, the content of which was an adulatory appreciation of the contribution of Che Guevara to socialist revolution. Chattopadhyay opined that Cuban socialism of Che and Fidel Castro was not Marxian socialism.Here is the link.
(2) I criticized Chattopadhyay for not telling us what revolutionaries like Lenin, Mao and Che should and could have done other than what they did in the absence in their respective countries of an industrial proletariat that formed the majority of the population. I also expressed doubt about the validity of Marxian socialism in the 21st century. Here is the link.
(3) Chattopadhyay responded to my criticism. Here is the link.
Below I am reproducing only the second and the third text.
What is to be done?
PC’s Critique of ‘Socialism’
Paresh Chattopadhyay (PC) is right in almost all points [Frontier, August 3-9, 2014]. The question that must now be asked is: Does it make any sense at all to still try to create socialist society that Marx and Engels had envisioned? I do not know whether PC has somewhere written on this question. If not, then it is essential that he does. For it is too simple to criticize every socialist of the 20th century—from Lenin to Mao and Che Guevara—without saying what they should and could have done to build a socialist society that would have gotten Marx's approval, whom they all regarded as their Guru—something other or more than what they did in order to create a socialist society. Also, PC's awe-inspiring scholarship is of little use unless he presents his conclusion as to the question "what is to be done today".
I think Marx's vision of revolution and socialism was flawed from the very beginning. But it was and it still is too difficult for Lenin and all socialists up until today to say that openly. The monumental analytical and theoretical work of Marx and Engels had achieved such a overwhelming intellectual hegemony among the radical and anti-capitalist educated people that hardly anybody dared to do so. And those few who did dare to criticize Marxist theory, even mildly, was denounced as traitor, deviationist, reformist, revisionist etc. etc. And they never had a chance to get a fair hearing. That is the normal effect of hegemony.
But today it is easier to realize and say without being persecuted or denounced that Marx and Engels had erred on several questions:
(1) The most important of them is the agency question. The great majority of workers did not and still do not have the ability to understand, let alone analyze, the complex ways in which the world functions and the direction in which it is moving (there are of course some exceptions). The majority of them has been and still are totally worn down in the process of earning money to feed themselves and their family. That has been and is the reality. It has therefore always been nonsensical, untruthful and only fashionable to assert that the revolution will happen under the leadership of the proletariat. The leadership necessarily had to come from the educated revolutionary middle class, from people like Lenin, Mao, and Guevara, and they had to be the vanguard.
In the 19th century, maybe, the proletariat formed the majority of the population in England, Germany, and France. But not in Russia (not to speak of China or India). But, in Russia, there were people like Lenin; and in the early 20th century, in China there were people like Mao. Should they have sat back and waited until the industrial proletariat became the majority? If Marx and Engels had lived longer, would they have advised Lenin and Mao to sit back and wait?
(2) Marx and Engels could not have known in their days what we know since after their death, particularly what we know today. That is why they also erred in thinking that the proletariat will be farther revolutionized through their growing impoverishment. The opposite happened in history.
(3) They had little knowledge of human nature. They erred in thinking that the proletariat had no fatherland. The First World War proved them thoroughly wrong. The colonialists and imperialists of Europe and America enabled their own proletariats to enjoy a share in the plunder of the colonies, which they gladly did.
(4) In the 19th century, Marx and Engels, and in the greater part of the 20th century Lenin, Mao, Guevara and all rank and file socialists were justified in believing in eternal development of science and technology, and hence in eternal development of productive forces. We know today that there are limits to growth, limits to the development of science, technology and productive forces. We cannot blame the masters and their followers for not knowing what we know today. But we must severely criticize the die-hard Marxists of our times for still stubbornly refusing to see these limits.
To sum up, the analysis of reality and the vision of socialism we have received from Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, Guevara etc. have largely become obsolete. But since capitalism will definitely ruin the whole world unless overcome, some newly conceived socialism must become the goal of all radical people's movements of today. This new socialism—which should be called the scientific socialism of the 21st century (the Marxian socialism being the Utopian)—must be based on the knowledge and understanding of the world that we have acquired since the publication of the book Limits to Growth (1972). This knowledge and understanding is a call for a paradigm shift in our thinking and activity.
As for revolution, I would like to quote Walter Benjamin. He wrote:
"Marx says revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is entirely different. Revolutions are perhaps the attempt of humanity travelling in a train to pull the emergency brake."
If it was not true when Benjamin wrote this, it is true roday. In the same sense, another German author, Carl Amery, wrote, in the general sense: Political activists have till now tried to change the world in various ways. The point however is to preserve it.
What is to be done? Our task is to preserve the biosphere and change the world.
On Saral Sarkar’s Socialism
We feel greatly honoured that such an eminent individual as Saral Sarkar (SS for short) living far away from India has taken notice of my humble work on socialism appearing in a Kolkata weekly. In the following lines we try to deal with what we consider as the most important points of his important contribution.
First a summary account of what he says. In his view we have criticized every socialist of the twentieth century – most prominently, Lenin,Mao and Che (LMC for short) – for building socialism without the approval of Karl Marx. SS faults us for not saying what else they should have done. We are asked to show what is to be done to-day.
Marx’s vision was flawed from the start, he continues, but LMC were inhibited to declare it openly. Those who differed –the revisionists- had never a chance to do that. Now is the chance to show the errors of Marx.
What errors are these? These are: (1) workers lack the ability to understand and analyse how the world functions. They are too worn down by their effort to earn money and and support their families. It has been always “nonsensical, untruthful, and only fashionable” to assert that revolution will happen under the leadership of the proletariat. The leadership has to come from the educated revolutionary middleclass, people like LMC forming the vanguard. In the backward countries like Russia and China should Lenin and Mao have waited till the workers get the majority?
(2)Mistaken in believing that the proletariat will be further revolutionized through growing impoverishment. The opposite has
(3) Marx had little knowledge of human nature. The colonialists and imperialists enabled the proletariat a share in the plunder.
(4) Finally he does not spare LMC also, who are faulted for believing in eternal development of science and technology, and productive forces. But there are limits to growth. Due to the then ignorance, these revolutionaries could be exonerated, but not their die-hard Marxist followers. Now is the time for a new socialism, the true scientific socialism - not utopian à la Marx-Engels. This will preserve the biosphere in a desirable way.
We may now be allowed to intervene. In SS’s narrative there are at least two factual problems. First, it is not true that nobody among people like LMC dared to express opposition to the “flawed vision” of Marx. Lenin while declaring that a socialist revolution could begin in a backward land, also said that this idea was outside the vision of Marx and Engels, which in effect meant that their vision was too narrow to envisage the total historical perspective of socialist revolution, (and hence “flawed”).
The second concerns Marx’s perspective of proletarian revolution being propelled by workers’ increasing impoverishment according to the author. This is the thesis of so-called “absolute impoverishment “ of the workers under capitalism ascribed to Marx. Now, it is undeniable that Marx for a brief period had the tendency to adhere to this idea.The origin of this idea, however, goes back to Engels in his earliest writings on the English workers, as Engels himself wrote many years later. In those early writings on the workers’ situation Engels maintained that workers’ wage, as the exchange value of their labour(power), translated into the absolutely necessary subsistence for the life and reproduction of their labour. Marx, coming later to his study of political economy, followed Engels in this regard. Lassalle took it over and formulated what is called the “iron law of wages”. But this idea of absolute impoverishment had a very short existence in Marx. By the time he started his more mature works, culminating in CAPITAL, it vanished altogether. Already in his 1847 lectures to the German workers, Marx observes that in a period of rapid accumulation of capital wages may rise, though capital’s profit rises more rapidly. Capitalists will “allow the working class to take a portion of the increasing capitalist wealth, and remain content with forging for itself the golden chain by which the bourgeoisie drags it in its train”. In CAPITAL vol.1, in the chapter on ‘buying and selling of labour power’ he declares that “labour power contains, from the point of view of value, a moral and historical element, which differentiates it from other commodities”.
Leaving this aspect of impoverishment of the workers, this poverty has another and more profound meaning in Marx, ignored by most of Marx’s readers. In his 1857-58 notebooks Marx holds “living labour as the complete denudation of all objectivity, bare, purely subjective existence, labour as absolute poverty, poverty not as shortage, but as complete exclusion from objective wealth”.(This reminds one of an image which Rabindranath had created in one of his musical compositions which with some modification could be stated thus: seated in front of a vast sea of nectar these labourers are allowed to drink only poison). In other words, wage/salaried labour excluded from the means of production is as such in absolute poverty . In his very first 1861-63 manuscript Marx calls wage/salaried labourers (manual or mental) “pauper”, whatever the level of remuneration. The very fact that you have to sell your only ‘property’ labour power in order to survive, is sufficient to qualify you as absolutely poor, a pauper..Very aptly Marx cites Shakespear in his master work:” you take my life when you take the means whereby I live”. This aspect of wage or salaried labour, this wage slavery escapes the notice of most of us. This is a part of mind set imbibed through the capitalist relations. As an illustration, we bring in the justly famous humanist, the economist Amartya Sen, a rare bird in the profession. Sen justly considers market relation, that is, commodity production playing a liberating role in a conservative society such as India. But wage labour as a specific form of slavery does not appear in his otherwise valuable work on human freedom.Like most of us he seems to accept it as normal. In ancient Greece, even Aristotle, generally considered to be the greatest thinker of European antiquity, thought human slavery as normal. He called slave an animated tool. Indeed, as the young Marx and Engels wrote, “the ideas of each epoch are the ideas of the ruling class”.
Now it is clear that SS at least implicitly considers the correctness of the revolutionary undertakings of LMC for building socialism and Marx wrong. As regards the prototype of these endeavours, the October revolution followed by the establishment of Russian socialism in a backward land, his views, he should be glad to know,were initially shared by some of the most informed minds of the last century- E. H. Carr, I. Deutscher and P. M. Sweezy all of whom pronounced Lenin right , and Marx wrong in his prognostication of socialist revolution taking place only in a situation where certain objective and subjective conditions exist , and those conditions can exist only in advanced capitalist lands. (We return to those conditions in a moment). Then what happened in fact is well known. The evaporation of the house that Lenin built, followed by those who followed him, showed at least one thing: a clear refutation of his position. Marx remains to be tested.
It is clear, here we have two very different notions of socialism, LMC’s and Marx’s, with an unbridgeable gap in between. The first type is a system imposed on the society at large by a hierarchically formed vanguard who claims to know the real interest of the rest of society, mainly the labouring people, better than the affected. The very basis of the second type is exactly the opposite. It is the self emancipation of the labouring people : “Emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” , so Marx (1864). If the working class is incapable of fulfilling this task,so much the worse. “The working class is either revolutionary or it is nothing” so Marx in a letter to a friend(1865). Equally, there is irreconcilable difference between the very meaning of socialism held by the first group and that held by Marx and Engels. Socialism of the first group signifies and has shown in practice a society ruled by a strong state with standing army and bureaucracy, headed by a single party with central planning, with no individual (private) property in the means of production, but with commodity production and wage labour intact. Because of the continuing production based on wage/salaried labour,(which automatically implies the existence of commodity production) this society as a matter of fact is a form of state capitalism. And politically, in spite of big talks by Lenin about following the Paris Commune model of free election and recall of all officials, the very opposite has turned out to be the case. In these single party strictly controlled societies there is no really free election , not to speak of recall, and no dissenting political view is tolerated. The opposite is the case with the second meaning of socialism. In this meaning socialism or communism (no distinction in Marx and Engels)signifies,in terms of the new society after capital(ism), a society of free individuals or an association of free and equal individuals with collective ownership of means of production along with the disappearance of all the instruments of exploitation and repression such as state, commodity, wage/salaried labour.
A socialist revolution does not come about by any body’s order, or desire of a Lenin, or even Marx’s. A social revolution like the great French Revolution of 1789-93, which is epochal and not something momentary, requires over a long period, a certain maturity of the social conditions preparing the ground. In Marx’s classic statement, too dismissively abandoned by instant revolutionaries, no social formation ever disappears before having exhausted all the possibilities of development of its productive forces, and new , higher relations of production do not appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. In their absence all attempts at social revolution will be Don Quixotism. It would be like trying to ripen a green jackfruit by repeatedly boxing it. In the absence of such conditions any attempt to change society could only be undertaken by a determined group of ‘professional revolutionaries’ as the self-anointed ‘vanguard’, independently of the will of the society’s great majority, a kind of Blanqui-ism. And indeed all the so-called socialist revolutions of the last century,highly approved by SS, have been minority revolutions. Towards the end of his life, Engels summed up the past revolutionary experiences: “ All revolutions up till now were minority revolutions. Even when the majority took part , it did so – wittingly or unwittingly – only in the service of a minority; but because of this, or simply because of the passive, unresisting attitude of the majority , this minority acquired the appearance of being the representative of the whole society.” Here we are speaking exclusively of socialist revolution followed by socialism since SS’s discourse is on these subjects.
As regards the point raised by SS that workers lack the ability to understand and analyse how the world functions, and that they are too worn down by their effort to earn money and support their families, we can only say that a social revolution is not an every day event.A revolution cannot be summoned at will.Revolutions arise spontaneously in moments of crisis, when the situation becomes unbearable, and the same worn down ordinary people become revolutionaries. Trotsky in his great “History of the Russian Revolution” vividly describes the spontaneous beginning of the Russian Revolution in February 1917,initiated not by any party or leader, but by the most downtrodden and oppressed section of the proletariat of Petrograd – the women textile workers.
As a matter of fact twentieth century socialism is a great myth. There has been no socialist revolution and no socialism in an emancipatory sense. Those lands were just not ready at all for the rise of such a society. They were ready only for bourgeois revolution destroying all the pre-capitalist relations along with freeing themselves from colonialism and imperialism, and thus preparing for the advent of a totally new society.The Russian Revolution was the last bourgeois revolution in Europe.
Regarding SS’s hasty dismissal of Marx, let us cite the following lines from an eminent Dutch scholar Mark Blaug:”Marx has been reassessed ,revised, refuted and buried a thousand times but he refuses to be relegated to intellectual history .For better or worse , his ideas have become part of the climate of opinion within which we all think”.
However, Marx is not indispensable for a social revolution. Marx or no Marx, social revolutions have taken place and will take place springing from the very soil of a society divided into antagonistic classes. How many revolutionaries knew even the name of Marx in the Paris Commune, ditto for the uprising of the millions of labouring people in February, 1917 in Russia?
Sep 07 2014