Retrieve the Revolutionary Core of Marxism...

(This is the first part of Comrade Vinod Mishra's speech delivered at the Central Party School in October this year. The second installment will be carried in our next issue.)

The School is coming to an end. Though you do not decide party policies in such schools, yet the discussions here have an important bearing in their formulation. In that respect quite a few important questions have been raised and discussed here. In 1994 Party School I had expressed some ideas on the `crisis of Marxism' and I would like to proceed with the same.

In its nearly 150 years of history, Marxism has passed through two or three periods of crisis when its very rationale has been questioned. Every time Marxism could overcome them and march ahead with a new vigour. Now at the fag end of the 20th century it has once again been pronounced dead. Crisis this time is indeed quite serious as it is accompanied by the collapse of Soviet Union, the land of the first successful socialist revolution, the land of Lenin. Soviet model came to be identified as the real embodiment of Marxism and hence its collapse naturally triggered off the old debates all over again. Chinese model which had claimed to be an alternative one has lost much of its shine due to various reasons and the other remaining smaller socialist states hardly inspire any confidence.

Well, the first thing that should be kept in mind is that Marxism arose in the process of analysing the contradictions of capitalism and it provided the only comprehensive and profound critique of capitalism. Marxism, as the doctrine of class struggle, will surely lose its relevance in the classless society of communism, but till then it shall continue to remain the guiding ideology in transforming the capitalist world and experimenting with various possibilities of socialism. In a certain sense the collapse of Soviet Union indeed signifies the end of an history but every end at the same time symbolises a new beginning, and it is in this context that we have resolved to retrieve the revolutionary core of Marxism and at the same time to sharpen our tools for analysis, criticism and change.

In this School, in particular, a lot of discussion took place on postmodernism. Postmodernism does not simply question the validity of Marxism or Socialism, rather it rejects the whole era of modernity, the era which began with the advent of modern classes of bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It rejects the entire age of Enlightenment and all the grand projects of emancipation of the mankind. It brands these projects as grand narratives which in their bid to drive the society towards pre-ordained goals only end up in establishing totalitarian political systems. Postmodernists also refuse to acknowledge any class or human solidarity cutting across the 'imagined communities' of race, gender, caste, ethnicity etc.

During the course of our discussions here we have also learnt about recent scientific theories. Some comrades might have found them quite difficult to comprehend. You may not go for all the details, yet as Marxists it is necessary to keep track of the latest in scientific theories. Quantum Mechanics says that the matter at sub-atomic level does not follow the laws of general mechanics and even the form of its existence at that level is quite puzzling. Determination of its various characteristics like position, momentum etc. is not only quite uncertain, it is also affected by the act of observation.

A certain philosophical interpretation of this scientific theory, quite popular in the West nowadays, questions the very basis of materialism viz. the existence of matter or the objective world independent of the mind. Armed with the concept of 'virtual reality', the western world is witnessing a renewed interest in Eastern mysticism where the objective world is described as Maya, an illusion. In European renaissance the authority of the Church was challenged and the march of science posed a serious threat to the so-called divine codes. When Europe emerged out of the dark ages and the age of Enlightenment began, 2000-year-old Greek philosophy was retrieved. Dialectics of the Greek philosophers was enriched by Hegel, the great philosopher of modern times and was subsequently put on a materialist basis by Marx. The march of science has again inspired some people to dig philosophical roots in ancient days and ironically they have come out with Eastern mysticism. In the School we have tried to unearth linkages between the neo-idealist offensive in philosophy and postmodernism in social sciences.

As some comrades have pointed out, it is true that 'new social movements', or speaking in more general terms movements on sectional issues, existed well before the advent of postmodernism. Actually the importance of postmodernism lies in the fact that it has given a new meaning and a new basis to these movements. Postmodernism absolutises their autonomous growth. It does so because for postmodernism the very agenda for analysing capitalism as a system is absurd.

The Classical Crisis of Marxism

While dealing with the all important question of 'crisis of Marxism' in the present phase, it won't be out of place to refer to the earlier phases of crisis. Here I would like to refer to the first crisis that Marxism was faced with in late 19th and early 20th century, the period which gave rise to the phenomenon of revisionism.

Capitalism faced an acute crisis at the fag end of 19th century. The nature of crisis was classical in the sense that all the parameters of crisis were in excellent conformity with the Marxist visualisation. This period also witnessed the growth of working class movement and of social democratic parties (as the communist parties were known in those days). In particular, in Germany, the party grew rapidly.

As the crisis dragged on, gradually capitalism overcame it but in the process it radically transformed itself. Earlier it was free capitalism whose motto was free competition. This had resulted in the anarchy of production. Now capitalists entered into agreements with each other and cartels, trusts etc., which were at a rudimentary phase during Marx's lifetime became the overwhelming norm. Capitalism acquired a stability, workers' wages improved and parliamentary democracy flourished. The earlier enthusiasm among Marxists regarding the impending collapse of capitalism now gave way to despondency. Marxists, including Marx, have always behaved overoptimistically at every phase of capitalist crisis. This is very natural and has its own dynamic role in shaping history. But Marxism, as a rigorous scientific thought process, has only marked the historical tendency of social development from capitalism to socialism. Marxism, in contrast to other utopian theories of socialism or moral societies, doesn't proceed from any grand project of subjectively conceived socialism and then trying to reshape the society, any society for that matter, to that model.

On the contrary, for Marxism, capitalism moves towards socialism precisely due to the motion of its own contradictions and because these contradictions can finally be resolved only in socialism. Capitalism also produces objective conditions viz. concentrated form of large-scale production, the class of proletariat etc., for changeover to socialism. This, however, doesn't mean that society by itself, spontaneously, without any conscious subjective effort, will pass over to socialism. Marx made the famous remark, "the point is to change the world".

After Marx died, Engels enjoyed immense authority and Bernstein and Kautsky, two German communists, were quite close to him. In his last writings, Engels made certain self-criticisms. In March 1895, only a few months before his death, Engels wrote, "History has proved us, and all those who thought like us, wrong. It has made it clear that the state of economic development on the continent at that time was not by a large measure ripe for the elimination of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution which since 1848, has seized the whole of the continent ... and has made Germany positively an industrial country of the first rank"...."History has done even more; it has not only merely dispelled the erroneous notions we then held; it has also completely transformed the conditions under which the proletariat has to fight. The mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete in every respect, and this is a point which deserves closer examination on the present occasion."

According to Engels, given the scale of modern armies, the old tactics of street fighting, surprise attacks, etc. had become outdated. Quoting statistics from the gains of the German party in parliamentary elections, he stressed upon making intelligent use of the universal suffrage. Engels concluded, "The irony of world history turns everything upside down. We the `revolutionists', the `overthrowers', we are thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and overthrow. The parties of order, as they call themselves, are perishing under the legal conditions created by themselves..... whereas we, under this legality, get firm muscles and rosy cheeks and look like life eternal."

Engels advocated a change in tactics, in the specific context of Europe and in a particular period of capitalist development there. Starting from the same premise, Bernstein, however, advocated the revision of the strategy itself and thus he is rightly called the father of revisionism.

Bernstein argued that contrary to Marx's prediction, concentration of production has progressed extremely slowly and moreover small-medium enterprises are not eliminated by large-scale production. Moreover, with the formation of cartels and trusts, capitalism has developed a system of self-regulation and thus averts any acute crisis. He further argued that society's polarisation into two extreme classes has not taken place, and not only the middle strata has not vanished, the number of capitalists, property owners and shareholders has only increased.

He felt that the political institutions of modern nations have become demoralised, putting a check on the exploitative tendencies of capital and eroding the basis of class struggle. In countries where parliamentary democracy is dominant, the state can no longer be seen as the organ of class rule. Therefore, Bernstein argued that workers should no longer strive to seize power through revolution, rather should concentrate on reforming the state.

In 1895, in the introduction to The Class Struggles in France, Engels expected a rapid decline of capitalism by the end of the century and hoped that even the legality devised by bourgeoisie for its power could be successfully used against it by the working class.

Just one year later in 1896, Bernstein questions the final goal itself and confines himself to just 'day-to-day movement'. Marx, in Capital, had dealt with the phenomenon of joint stock companies and Engels recorded the phenomenon of cartels and trusts. Cartels were the confirmation of concentration of capital at a higher plane and proof of the 'bankruptcy' of free competition as the basic principle of capitalism. What Bernstein saw as decentralisation, self-regulation and democratisation of capital turned out to be monopolisation of the highest order, with the separation of 'ownership' and 'management' grew a whole class of parasitic bourgeoisie which thrived on speculation, an aggressive colonial policy and the rivalry among imperialist power blocs leading for the first time to the phenomenon of world war. Lenin dealt with all this in his Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Expropriation of small and medium capital too is a regular affair where big capital transforms them into ancillaries. It does thrive again in new fields and new production processes where again in due course, big capital stretches its hand.

As far as parliamentary democracy is concerned, looking at it just as a fraud devised by the bourgeoisie to befool and entrap the working classes is too simplistic an idea. It is as foolish as assuming that religion was a conspiracy devised by priests to befool the masses. Parliament was not there in other periods of human society. This form of governance emerged only during capitalism and thus it is the specific form of the rule of the bourgeoisie. In feudalism, the exploitation took the form of extra-economic coercion and correspondingly the political superstructure sanctioned special privileges to the king and the feudal gentry. In capitalism, exploitation operates through and within the production process itself in the form of surplus value. The political superstructure of parliamentary democracy is quite compatible with ideal capitalism.

Marx wrote in The Class Struggles in France: "The comprehensive contradiction of this constitution, however, consists in the following: the classes whose social slavery the constitution is to perpetuate, proletariat, peasantry, petty bourgeoisie, it puts in possession of political power through universal suffrage. And from the class whose old social power it sanctions, the bourgeoisie, it withdraws the political guarantees of this power." This is the essential contradiction of the bourgeois constitutional state - whereas everybody is brought into political life through universal suffrage, this sovereignty of people is only a formal one, the real interests continue to be dictated by the class antagonisms.

In contrast to revisionists who saw in republic the resolution of basic antagonism, Lenin argued that precisely because of the above-mentioned self-contradiction, it provides the best terrain for open class war.

So this is how the debate of Marxism proceeded against revisionism and in the process Marxism rejuvenated itself in the shape of Leninism.

(To be continued)