— Dipankar Bhattacharya
We are commemorating the bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birth. At a time when the Sangh brigade has unleashed a virulent assault on democracy and is trying to forcibly impose the Sangh’s ideology on the entire country and society, the Marx Bicentenary gives us a great opportunity to widely disseminate and discuss Marx’s revolutionary ideas and wage a powerful battle for democracy, liberty and equality.
The fascists know the power of Marx. All through the twentieth century whenever and wherever fascists raised their ugly heads in the world, the followers of Marx fought them tooth and nail and consigned them to the dustbins of history. Hitler, their role model from German history, was vanquished in the Second World War by the Red Army of the Soviet Union. It was not just a military victory, but above all it was a great ideological victory which inspired and empowered the forces of freedom, democracy and equality across the world. Today when we resist the fascists in power in India, we have a great friend, philosopher and guide in Marx.
Indeed, Marx was a great friend and well wisher of India in his own lifetime. The Sangh brigade thinks they can keep us away from Marx by just saying that he was a foreigner. True, he was a German and never visited India. But from the 1850s till he breathed his last in 1883, he was based in London, the capital of the British colonialists who were plundering and suppressing India. Sitting in London, Marx was unravelling the mystery of capital and encouraging the working classes of all countries to fight against the exploitation of capital. India did not yet have much of a modern working class, but anti-colonial stirrings have begun and Marx followed them keenly with great hope.
The British colonialists wanted to camouflage their colonial rule as a great mission of civilisation. They sought to project their expedition in India as a great exercise in development and empowerment. Marx systematically challenged this false narrative and exposed the true nature of the colonial rule in India. As early as in July 1853, two years before the great Santhal revolt and four years before the historic 1857 upsurge, Marx was dreaming of the end of British colonial rule, either through a proletarian revolution in Britain or through Indians growing powerful enough to throw off the yoke of colonialism. That in a way is the first political vision of India’s independence, nearly a century before the colonial occupation actually ended.
While exposing the British hypocrisy of waxing eloquent about democracy at home and presiding over brutal police states in the colonies, Marx was no admirer of the pre-British Indian system either. Not for him was the myth of self-sufficient village communities, he knew enough about caste and social slavery in India to describe the Indian social system as nothing short of Oriental despotism. Indian thinkers like Phule have also used strong words like ‘Gulamgiri’ or slavery to describe the internal social condition of colonial India. A true account of India’s freedom movement must give equal focus on both India’s quest for freedom from the colonial rulers and also for an end to what Marx called Oriental despotism or what Phule called slavery.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, apologists of capitalism all over the world had triumphantly declared that they had now buried Marx for good. But as the 21st century dawned and capitalism found itself caught in one of its worst ever crises, Marx was again back with a bang. Every time capitalism hits a new crisis, the managers of capitalism also turn to Marx to comprehend the crisis. The collapse of the Soviet Union was of course a major setback for the communist camp at the end of the 20th century, but it has freed Marx and Marxism from the straitjacket of the Soviet model and forced communists across the world to confront the post-Soviet world, and now we have an emerging post-Soviet generation of Marxists who are not weighed down by the Soviet collapse.
In his lifetime Marx was not exclusively identified with any single model. With his closest comrade-in-arms Friedrich Engels, he wrote the Communist Manifesto in February 1848 anticipating a wave of progressive revolutions in Europe that would be a step forward from the French Revolution of 1789 that had given the world the clarion call of liberty, equality and fraternity. But in real life, 1848 turned out to be a reverse turning point for Europe where bourgeois regimes consolidated themselves by restricting the scope for working class advances. It was not till 1871 Paris Commune that Europe could get a glimpse of a working class uprising, and even that uprising did not last for more than seventy days even as it contributed immensely to the concretising of the socialist vision. Marx’s mission of bringing together the working class movements of his time under the banner of the International Workingmen’s Association, recognised as the First International in world history, could not survive the setback and tactical debates that ensued in the wake of the Paris Commune. This shows us that the ideas of Marx never really became popular on the basis of so-called big models of applied success, rather they continued to spread defying setbacks and repression because they reflected the felt need and shared urgency for social change, for a society beyond the crisis and chaos and brutalities of capitalism.
Marx continues to resonate even after two hundred years of birth because he was a philosopher and champion of change. All through his life he remained true to his declaration: philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, but the point is to change it. And he stuck to the method he had enunciated even before he wrote the Communist Manifesto: ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of facing up to its own consequences and withstanding the repression unleashed by inimical regimes. He never bothered about creating a detailed blueprint or plan of a society based on equality and emancipation, the details were left to be worked out by future generations. What was important for Marx was to fight for change here and now, with whatever materials and conditions handed down by history. Change for him is the only constant in nature and social life, and this change is a continuous process. Continuous, but not linear; for life always passes through a zigzag course, and keeps negotiating ups and downs. So there is no perfect context or minimum threshold for change in Marx, Marxism inspires and empowers us to fight for change in any situation.
Marx laid bare the mystery of capital for us, capital that was created by the human society in the course of its development and which now tries to set the terms for everything that human beings do. We are taught to treat capital as a key factor or component of production alongside land or natural resources and human labour. But unlike natural resources or living labour, there is nothing natural about capital. Marx takes us to the process of formation or accumulation of capital, exposes the cruelty and violence, loot and plunder, slavery and dehumanisation that are integral to the process that Marx calls the primitive accumulation of capital and which we continue to witness in various ongoing forms of dispossession of the people across the world especially in countries and regions that lag behind in the race of capital-dictated development. In Marx’s memorable words, if money comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.
We are schooled to believe that capital lies at the root of development, at the centre of modern human civilisation; that production and employment follow from capital. Marx tells us that if anything is central to capital, it is profit. This is the only motive for which capital exists and Marx approvingly quoted a trade union leader of his time to show how with increasing profit margin, capital exposes its true colours: A certain 10 percent will ensure its employment anywhere; 20 percent certain will produce eagerness; 50 percent positive audacity; 100 percent will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 percent, and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged. The forms of capital have changed, its speed has now become electronic, it now truly considers the whole world its stage and brooks no border or barrier. The American inventor Thomas Alva Edison had famously said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Paraphrasing him today we can say the business of capital is one percent production and ninety-nine percent speculation. When subjected to production capital extracts surplus value from labour power, and away from the trouble of actual production it goes on creating bubbles through speculation that burst periodically plunging the increasingly globalised economy in ever deeper and wider crises.
Marx tells us that it is not money or machine that constitutes the essence of capital, the essence of capital lies in that social power whereby those who own capital need not work and those who are deprived of capital are compelled to sell their labour power, whether manual or intellectual, to eke out a living. This rule of capital is enforced by the state. But just as capital is a social construct so is the state. And it is possible to imagine and attain a society that will transcend capital and also the state where society will be an association of free producers or a community of freely associated individuals, an association where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. This was communism in Marx’s vision where each will contribute according to his or her capacity and get according to his or her needs.
Marx inspires us to imagine and fight for a society beyond capital and capitalism. To help us understand this, let us think of a quick analogy of an agrarian society where the economy is dominated by agricultural production. What do we need for agriculture? We need cultivable land, we need agricultural implements and inputs, we need techniques of farming and of course we need labour, whether put in by the peasant himself or by hired agricultural labourers. But do we at all need a landlord owning hundreds of acres of land? Today the answer is an obvious no when landlordism has been legally abolished and we know that the abolition of landlordism has actually contributed to the growth of agriculture. If a landlord has thus been rendered superfluous in the context of the agrarian economy, do we really need a capitalist, a private owner of capital, for a modern economy based on industrial production, wide-ranging services and specialised knowledge? The answer should again be NO. We need factories and workplaces, we need machines and techniques, we need workers working in close coordination with each other, we need scientists and engineers and inspectors checking the quality of production and even various ways of organising and managing the work and the workers. What we do not need is an individual owning and inheriting a business empire which is actually a parasitical role that has come to dominate every necessary aspect and component of the production process and the entire economy. Match socialisation of labour with socialisation of appropriation and ownership and capitalism is shaken to its roots.
The journey from the dehumanising rule of capital to this reign of fullest human freedom is marked by small and big changes, by small steps and big leaps, reforms and revolutions. And this is the context in which Marx talks about class struggle, the key dynamic of his revolutionary theory and practice. Class struggle as such dates back to the emergence of class-divided society and class rule, and Marx claims no credit for discovering it, his historic contribution lies in linking the dynamic of class struggle to the destination of communism.
Obviously Marx is talking of class struggle not in the limited context of two antagonistic classes battling it out over some immediate and specific interest. That is often the first step of class struggle, and the worker usually takes and learns this first step quite instinctively as trade unions take shape amidst the constant guerrilla conflict between labour and capital. Marx is talking of class struggle as a weapon of social transformation. He acquaints us with the secret of class rule and through class struggle he seeks to challenge and overthrow the existing class rule in its entirety. Talking of class rule we usually talk about the two pillars – capital and the state. The concentration of capital in a few hands and hence the ever growing inequality in capitalist societies are facts that are widely recognised. The Occupy Wall Street movement articulated it as the battle of the excluded 99 percent against the power and privilege of the top one percent. In Britain the Corbyn campaign expressed it through the slogan ‘for the many, not the few’. When the state opens fire on unarmed people demanding closure of a polluting plant for the sake of breathable air and potable water, the character of the state as the organ of the rule of the dominant class becomes crystal clear.
But if we read Marx a bit carefully we find him drawing our attention to a third pillar – the domain of ideas. In every epoch, the ideas of the ruling classes are the ruling ideas, says Marx. In other words, the ruling classes constantly legitimise their rule in the realm of ideas. Chomsky calls it the manufacture of consent. To challenge and overthrow the rule of the dominant class, the battle therefore has to be waged on all fronts – against economic control, political control as well as ideological control. Many people who think Marx is inapplicable in India because of the domination of caste and religion in India actually miss this very crucial ideological dimension of class struggle.
What are the dominant ideas in India? We can easily see most of the dominant ideas in India are heavily tilted against change and social mobility. We are constantly told that everything is pre-ordained by fate, that you need not worry about what you get in life, for you are ordained to get the right thing in the right amount at the right moment. We are told that whatever we are getting now is because of our karma in previous births, and the rewards for good things we do now will accrue to us in our future births. We are encouraged to go on working without bothering about the result or reward. We are told that the common Hindu’s station in life is determined at his birth through his caste, that caste is a divinely ordained institution that must not be transgressed. Women are told in every possible way that they are inferior to men and that their job is to serve men all through their lives within the strict frontiers of community, caste and family, their silence and sacrifice are glorified while every attempt to seek their rights as free individuals are prohibited and punished. The Manusmriti is of course the cruellest possible codification of these regressive ideas, this and other texts of Brahminism constitute the ideological fountainhead of misogyny, untouchability and social slavery in India.
Any Marxist theory and practice of class struggle in India therefore must entail a vigorous struggle against all the dominant and well entrenched ideas that justify the status quo and inhibit any kind of social change and mobility. Looked at this way there is really no Chinese wall between caste and class. No matter whether Marx had heard about Phule or vice versa, the fact that Phule wrote about social slavery in India in terms of both caste and gender way back in 1873 constitutes a major contribution to class struggle in the realm of ideology. It does not matter how much Ambedkar eventually agreed with Marx, his clarion call of annihilation of caste in 1936 articulated what must be recognised and grasped as a key thrust of class struggle in India. Indeed when Ambedkar tells us that caste is not about division of labour but division of labourers, he actually calls for unity and assertion of labourers as a class on an anti-caste basis. Annihilation of caste is one of the most essential and radical steps for class polarisation in India. Indeed, Communist Manifesto visualised the rise of the proletariat, the lowest stratum of the society, as ‘the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air’. Caste hierarchy and patriarchy are key markers of the ‘official society’ in India and the proletariat can only rise by delivering decisive blows to the entire edifice of this official society.
In Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels had entrusted the working class with the task of winning the battle of democracy and declaring itself the nation. This is the key significance of the working class emerging as the leading or ruling class in a class-divided society. Today in India, we are faced with not just a routine kind of class rule of capital, what we are confronting is nothing short of a fascist regime that combines the most unabashed kind of crony capitalism and subservience to imperialism with aggressive majoritarianism and the worst forms of caste and gender violence and oppression. While the Constitution of India is being daily subverted and shelved, the rule of lynch mobs, often openly protected and patronised by the state and the ruling party, has emerged as the order of the day in place of the rule of law that is supposed to be the basic foundation of every bourgeois republic. The most regressive ideas and trends in Indian history, that remained largely marginalised during the anti-colonial struggle, seem to have staged a parliamentary coup, using electoral victories as a licence to reshape the state and regiment the society on most regressive lines. A holistic understanding of Marx is extremely important in foiling this fascist design by unleashing the broadest unity and boldest resistance of the Indian people.