Economy

Interview: Prabhat Patnaik on Contemporary Capitalism and the Shape It Takes in India

“My belief in socialism comes out of my belief in human beings.”

Prabhat Patnaik. Credit: Youtube

Prabhat Patnaik. Credit: Youtube

In an interview with The Wire, Prabhat Patnaik, renowned economist and emeritus professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, talks about the future of Left politics, the directions neoliberalism has taken and more.

Excerpts from the interview:

Eminent Marxist intellectuals like Samir Amin, John Smith and others hold the theoretical conclusion that contemporary capitalism has reached a stage of explosion. Their argument is that unlike the previous crisis, no malleable mechanism is available for capitalism to survive and sustain. Has capitalism reached a dead end?

Like capitalism reached an impasse in the inter-war period, it has now come to a dead end. There is no clear way available to capitalism to get out of the crisis it happens to be in. The fascism they are imposing, happening all over the world, will not help them to get out of the crisis. In 1930, fascism meant military preparation. Now, you are not going to have military preparations and what is more no fiscal deficit. You have globalised finance, which doesn’t like fiscal deficit and government spending. It would like the government to handover resources to the capitalist to induce investment and get out of the crisis. Now the governments have reduced interest rates to the lowest level, zero, everywhere. It has suddenly reached a dead end.

I would say the capitalism always requires some kind of exogenous support to keep its accumulation going. For a very long time, colonial relations provided the exogenous support. In the inter-war period, this disappeared and in the post-war period, you have the state providing the exogenous support. Financial capital does not like state intervention, it wants to directly stimulate investment to generate employment and growth. Now the state itself is confined to balancing the budget or having a 3% fiscal deficit. So the state does nothing. You have globalised finance and you have the nation state. So if the individual nation state doing anything against globalised finance, then finance will leave. Coordinated action on the part of nation states, which could challenge globalised finance to stimulate the world economy, is something which is not even talked about. So capitalism at the moment has run out of options. It is yet to become clear how it will come out of this. This provides a very good opportunity. It provides once more some kind of revolutionary possibilities.

That revolutionary possibility can come about and be realised only if there is commitment on the part of revolutionaries to support the petty producers, peasants etc. It is essential in countries like ours to strengthen the worker-peasant alliance. That goes against the other kind of thinking, which I believe is the real factor crippling the Left at this moment. This thinking says that the Left believes in modernity and modernity comes through the development of productive forces, and therefore the Left must develop productive forces and if this requires the taking away of peasants’ land, let us do so. That is what happened in West Bengal and it finished off the Indian Left for quite some time to come. There was a blow to the Left in West Bengal and West Bengal was the biggest state the Left had. So I believe that the idea of the development of productive forces being central, as something that should be done even if it entails the destruction of petty production, is something which I totally reject. I believe it is a suicidal theory as far as the Left is concerned.

People like you talk about delinking of countries like India from globalisation. But a number of Left intellectuals from the First World, like Slavoj Zizek, are fearful of such a delinking of Third World countries from globalisation. They think that such a delinking is a retreat from modernity and a return to pre-modernity and parochialism. Why should Third World countries be delinked from globalisation?

In a society like ours, linking with so-called modernity, which is neoliberal policies and globalisation, is responsible for the emergence of fascism. In other words, I do not see fascism as separate from neoliberalism. I see fascism as pro-communal liberalism. [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi is carrying out the neoliberal agenda far more actively than many have done before him. In a society like ours, we have a peculiar combination of globalisation on the one side and the most backward, obscurantist, reactionary, communal, fascist agenda on the other side.

These two are not separate. Globalisation is not fighting against it. On the contrary, globalisation is sustaining it. They sustain globalisation. They will do Hindu pujas and the rest of it, but will also push for globalisation. I think people like Zizek, who actually talk about globalisation as being the harbinger of modernity, are not looking at the comprehensive impact of globalisation on a society like ours. Modernity in a society like ours came with anti-colonial struggle, and the anti-colonial struggle was delinking from the British Empire. People like Zizek are not aware about the complexities of Third World societies.

There is a right-wing upsurge in many parts of the world. Samir Amin describes this as the return of fascism in contemporary capitalism. Is this the structural crisis of capitalism, that necessities such fascist emergence?

I see it as a revolt against globalisation. Globalisation has created an enormous amount of inequality everywhere in the world. There is stagnation or worsening in the conditions of workers. Joseph Stiglitz says that the real wage of American daily workers today (he said this in 2011) is lower than it was in 1968. Productivity increases everywhere so the surplus increases and inequality increases. Now the crisis has imposed itself on top of this. Therefore people from everywhere have become the victims of globalisation. When they become the victims of globalisation, they want a way out. Now the liberal bourgeoisie are not giving anything alternative. The Right does not actually have a way out but they say that we are going to do something differently. The only thing different to do is to to attack immigrants, to attack Muslims, to attack minorities and do on.

At the economic level, they may in fact prevent capitalists from investing in China and other such countries, which is called the ‘beggar-my-neighbour’ policy. So they do not really have an alternative but they did come and say the system has to be changed, and therefore they say they have some agenda and people turn to it. On the other hand, where there is a progressive agenda like Bernie Sanders’s for instance, people turn to that agenda also. So people want to get out of this globalisation. I see it as revolt against the globalisation which is being led at present by the Right. That is because the Left has not come up sufficiently to lead this revolt. I was talking earlier about the Left’s attitude, which is completely paralysed. In Europe, for instance, the Left is completely paralysed because they want the European Union. German finance dominates the European Union but nobody in the European Left talks about delinking. I think this notion of equating progress with globalisation implies the Left had somewhere missed out on people’s anger against it. The Right is capitalising on it. The Right does not have an agenda other than the fascist agenda of minority bashing and things of that kind, which is not going to get people out of the crisis in which they are. Employment does not get generated simply by minority bashing. So that is the case at the moment. I hope the Left makes a come back, because the crisis is not over.

Because of the ascendency of Hindutva politics in India, the progressive sections of the country fear that India is moving towards fascism. But the former general secretary of the CPI(M), Prakash Karat, writes that the present regime should not be called fascist. Instead he describes it as authoritarian. How would you define the nature of right-wing Hindutva politics?

You are not going to have exactly the kind of fascism you had in the 1930s. In other words, I am not saying that you will have concentration camps. Fascism doesn’t consist of one particular way, in which it manifested itself in the 1930s. Contemporary fascism would be quite different from what it was earlier and I think there are certain obvious features of that. One is that fascism is something which is also a movement. It actually uses mass movement mobilisation. Now I think this fascism came on the basis of the mobilisation on Babri Masjid. This fascism has its popular base. It is not like the Emergency, like an imposition from the top. But it actually has a popular basis. All these vigilante squads are typical of fascism. The second thing about fascism is that it is also supported by the corporates. So you have a combination of corporate support with fascist vigilant groups which are visible in India. It is against reason. It is against democracy. Every symptom of fascism is being satisfied by the ruling dispensation in India.

I would say that still we haven’t got a fascist state. Because if you have a fascist state then of course the fascist state would immediately prevent any criticism of it and it would become authoritarian. I think authoritarianism is growing but it is not yet a fascist state. So the way I would put it is that we have fascists in power pushing the state towards a fascist state as it would be in the current situation; not in the 1930s style. But still we don’t have a fascist state at the moment. But on the other hand, the fascism is growing. I would not say that a fascist state is impossible in contemporary India, nor would I say that these fellows are not making efforts to make India into a fascist state. I believe that it is very important to fight against them right now. I would call it communal fascism. Amartya Sen coined the term communal fascism, which I think has some appeal because it is a mixture of communalism and fascism. On the other hand, it is not only confined to communalism. It is against Dalits, it is against the rights of state governments. The GST, for instance, is an attack on the rights of state governments. Even the Congress supports it. It doesn’t mean that it is not an attack on state governments. So you have a centralisation that is taking place.

There emerges the need for political unity of secular forces against growing Hindutva politics. People like Irfan Habib have pointed towards such a unity. The success of the grand alliance in the Bihar assembly elections showed united resistance of secular forces. But an important left party like the CPI(M) abstained from this unity. Was that the right decision?

I believe it was the wrong policy. I believe it was wrong on the part of the Left. Why? Suppose I live in Bihar. Who would I have voted for? If it is the case that a committed Left member, committed Left activist votes for a non-Left combination, that means the Left made a mistake. If I feel that I can’t vote for the Left candidate and I must vote for the other candidate, then obviously my party is doing something which I don’t accept. I believe it is wrong. In fact it is very strange. In Bihar when the BJP was defeated, everybody on the Left was celebrating.

Irfan Habib wrote about this. He said it is completely wrong. I am not saying that simply. I see a connection between neoliberalism and fascism. I am not simply saying that just have an alliance with all other forces in the country. But it has to be an alliance which is based on a particular agenda. I think the Left has to take the initiative in bringing everybody into an alliance in which there is some agreed agenda. Of course you can’t say that do away with neoliberalism. But let’s say we freeze neoliberal reforms at the phase they are. We don’t want labour market flexibility; we don’t want all the other measures, financial sector liberalisation etc. All of which they are trying to do. We freeze reforms. But on the other hand, we try and provide certain specific advantages to the poor, specific benefits to the poor, transfers to the poor. I think in 2004-05, this is what has done. I think MGNREGA was made possible because of the insistence of the Left and I believe it is a major legislation. It was one of the most important legislations in post-independence India. Why don’t we agree on five or six legislations the government can do. And we freeze neoliberalism where it is. No more privatisation, no more labour market flexibility, trade unions have the complete right to strike and protest, and we mobilise resources in order to provide certain rights. You have to concretely negotiate it. I think what is required is not just all parties banding together. Bihar was like that. I am not holding that up as the model. You have to enthuse people to support an alternative. Therefore the alternative must have a clear programme. So I would rather suggest a programmatic unity of the widest sections of the population than of the political parties against the emerging fascist threat.

Electorally, the Left has registered significant losses all over the country. Bengal is an example. How could you explain such an electoral setback for the Left? What are the challenges before the communist movements in the country?

The most fundamental challenge before the communist movement everywhere in the world, particularly in India, is not to be hegemonised by neoliberalism. In theory, it is not. The whole Bengal thing was such a case. Let us not put the blame the communists. What is happening is that the middle class, from whom the intelligentsia is drawn, is a beneficiary of neoliberalism. And because the intelligentsia ultimately influences the communist movement, as it is a movement based on thought and reason, that beneficiary nature of the middle-class intelligentsia is transmitted to the communist movement. Suppose you are a communist leader. You have five friends. All those friends are middle-class intelligentsia. The revival of communism in India must start with giving up the hegemony of neoliberalism and therefore even accepting unpopularity in the middle-class intelligentsia circle for the sake of defending the peasantry and petty producers, fisherman and all the rest. That is where the Left constituency lies.

I think what happened in West Bengal is that to create jobs, they opted for industrialisation. Car factories don’t produce many jobs – they produce very few jobs. It was a middle-class demand. The middle-class demand was forcing them. The presumption was that the peasantry supports us anyway. Let us try getting the middle-class youth on our side by doing this industrialisation. But in the process, middle-class youth didn’t come and they lost support of the peasantry. It is very important for the revival of the Left not to get hegemonised by neoliberalism. Buddhadeb Battacharjee’s government was hegemonised and that is why when Pinarayi Vijayan appointed a lady from Harvard as an advisor, I was completely opposed to it. It is not because I have anything against her. If there is any suggestion that the Left is making concessions to neoliberalism, I would oppose that.

There are a number of different popular struggles going on in our country. In many of them, there is no presence of Left political forces. How would the Left engage with such struggles and social movements?

I think if there are struggles done by people other than the Left, you should not get worried. Of course people will struggle. But there is a big difference between the Left and all these struggles. The Left is the only force which has a political presence. That is why I am very upset about the Left in the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh elections doing things which marginalise it. Irom Sharmila, whom I have great respect for, got 70 votes. Can we imagine that Medha Patkar lost her deposit? Social movements do not have any political credibility among the people or any political support. The Left is the only movement which has both a social and a political presence. Consequently, I think all social movements, whether they like it or not, ultimately come to the Left asking can you raise this in parliament – even those who are opposed to the Left. For instance, when the MGNREGA demand was ongoing, a lot of people who were in the social sector came to the Left and said please raise it in parliament. They had a relationship. I think that relationship needs to be developed. Whether it joins the environmental movement or not, the Left has an enormous social presence among trade unions, the working class, the peasantry, youth and so on. And it has a political presence. I think the Left has to emerge as the champion of all movements, all pro-people movements, even though it is not leading. And they also need to recognise it.

How does Marxism address the caste question? How do you respond to the allegation that because of its class dogmatism, the communist movement and Left political praxis in the country failed to address caste and organise resistance again caste based exploitation?

Caste is an existing form of oppression in society. What we have is, as E.M.S. Namboodiripad put it, a ‘caste-based feudal system’. Capitalism is built upon a caste-based feudal system. And therefore, capitalism is carrying caste inequality forward as it existed in the earlier system. As far as the most oppressed castes are concerned, they are no better off, not in any fundamental sense, in the current society than they would have been earlier. They will continue to remain like this. Even if you have some Dalits who become prime ministers, presidents, professors, the bulks of Dalits, who are labourers, are actually getting squeezed under neoliberalism. The point is that while caste as a form of exploitation manifests itself, simply intervening at the level of caste is not enough. For the very simple reason that capitalism is spontaneous and this spontaneity generates, as Marx said, at one pole poverty and wealth at another pole, on the basis of a pre-existing social structure. Therefore, poverty at one pole necessarily would be the poverty of those who are most oppressed in the existing social structure. As that is the case, there is no question in my view of any liberation for the Dalits or any oppressed castes without overthrowing capitalism.

On the other hand, while that is a necessary condition, I am also aware of the fact that even in a socialist system, caste would not automatically disappear. You would have to make a conscious effort to overcome caste. Even in a socialist system, though you have full employment, somewhat ‘lower’ jobs would be left for the poor or the ‘lower’ castes. So that kind of a division would continue to exist. There is a division of mental and manual labor. That division won’t disappear the moment you are in socialism. Even within socialism, you do have to have a struggle against caste oppression. So I see socialism as a necessary but not a sufficient condition for overcoming caste oppression. I would actually define socialism or a socialist society in India as one where caste would disappear. It means that annihilation of caste is the barometer of socialism.

The communist movement in India is not a homogeneous thing. Bengal communism is quite different from Kerala communism. Kerala is one state in which the communist movement and the social emancipation movement went hand in hand, which is why communists are very powerful among the Ezhavas. In Bengal, that is not the case. There, it was much more a trade union thing, which of course made inroads into the peasantry later when it became powerful. The communist movement in Bengal never had a history of fighting for social emancipation.

On the other hand, a lot of later communist leaders in Kerala like Krishna Pillai and A.K. Gopalan began political life with the temple entry movement. So communism in Kerala grew out of social struggles. So the communist movements differ from one place to another. But it is certainly true as a general criticism that in large parts of India, the communist movement didn’t take the social emancipation agenda seriously enough. I would agree with that criticism. Bengal is one example of that. It is a fact that the entire top leadership is from an ‘upper’-caste background. It is true that the ‘upper’ castes got higher education, they develop theory, they develop consciousness, but the point is that the communist movement has to explicitly address itself to the task of overcoming it. And if they are in power for 30 years it is very important that they should have addressed this issue explicitly. But I don’t think it has done this sufficiently. So I would agree with that criticism that the communist movement hasn’t given enough sensitivity to the caste question.

In Kerala, the issue is different. There is great difference between North India and South India. In the south, the social emancipation movement began a long time ago. In a sense, the DK and DMK occupied the place in Tamil Nadu that the Left did in Kerala. Someone like Karunanidhi calls his son Stalin. There was a kind of Left thinking that was there then. But it was not thinking that proceeded with the usual Left line. But in large parts of North India, the social emancipation movement was not linked to the communist movement. It also began late. I think the social emancipation movement in the North India finished off the communist movement in North India. It took the form of identity-caste politics, especially intermediate caste politics, and later Dalit politics. The communists were squeezed out by that kind of identity politics. That is because they themselves didn’t do enough to participate in the social emancipation movement.

Different kinds of identity politics are very active in a democratic system like ours. One kind of Left approach towards identity politics is to dismiss it altogether. Another approach is discarding class politics altogether for identity politics. As a Marxist, how do you approach identity politics?

Identity politics is not one thing. The BJP’s is also identity politics, Hindutva politics. You have oppressed identity politics; identity politics of the oppressed Dalits. Identity politics of the bargaining kind is another. For instance, the Jats want reservation; Patels want the same. You also have the identity politics of a fascist kind. The BJP is trying to promote this. Identity politics is a general term.

I completely support the demands of the identity politics of the oppressed for reservation, for affirmative action, etc. On the other hand, while doing so I also know that identity Dalit politics is not the annihilation of caste. Caste is not going to disappear through Dalit identity politics. And identity politics is something which is perfectly compatible with capitalism. Given the spontaneity of capitalism, even the gains identity politics can make soon get lost. Take a simple example. We have the idea of reservation in the public sector. Now what you have is the privatisation of the public sector, in which reservation goes. So the gains identity politics might have made earlier is something which is disappearing. The same is true of OBC reservations. Identity politics of the oppressed, while I would support their demands, I know it is not the solution. Therefore I would say even though I support their demands, I would suggest that class politics must be brought in – fighting peasant struggles, trade unions, working class struggles, etc. Additionally, it is very important that there should be, for instance, a worker-peasant alliance, which the Left is trying to build up. It must aim at developing a notion of citizenship which is independent of identities by giving to everybody economic rights. For instance, if you have a universal right to employment; in that case the Patel agitation is no longer relevant. The Left should say yes to reservation. But the L eft should also say that we believe in a universal right to employment and if we come to power even within this society, not socialism, we are going to introduce a universal right to employment.

I think the Left has to break, go beyond identity politics. It has to put before everybody an alternative agenda, that agenda has to start up with the development of the concept of citizenship. Identity politics thrives because in a situation of crisis, people are fighting against one another. It is the ideal way of breaking class politics.

Marine Drive in Mumbai. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Marine Drive in Mumbai. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The pain of demonetisation still continues in different forms across the country. What would be the real motivation behind such an economic decision? It caused significant hardship to the people, why was there no large-scale resistance?

The pain of demonetisation is there even now. I saw in the Telegraph newspaper that the correspondent went to cover the by-elections in Dumka (Jharkhand). A tribal woman wants to repair her mud hut before rain comes. She has saved Rs 9,000, which she can’t access. The suffering of people is intense. Now anybody who says there is no suffering by pointing out that the BJP won the UP elections is completely wrong. It has no connection. You can win elections on the basis of many things. But the suffering of the people is there evidently to see.

Even today, in large parts of the country, there is a cash shortage. It’s not correct to say the situation is normal now. Unemployment has definitely increased. Everybody knows it. A lot of migrant labourers went back to their villages. They have seen a drop in their living standards. So demonetisation has been an attack on the poorest of the country. It has done nothing and it is not going to do anything about unearthing black money. The same government, with demonetisation, has brought a finance Bill saying companies’ donations to political parties can be any amount and doesn’t have to be revealed. Then what black money are they unearthing, what corruption are they fighting? So it is completely bogus. It is just an attack on people and all these things on fighting corruption are an eyewash.

Two questions arise. Why did it happen and second why is there not any revolt. Why did it happen? It is difficult to say. Because I believe these are fascist people. Unreason is an important part. And unreason takes the form of spectacular things. They just think it is a natural thing to do. And they are bringing the feeling of doing big things, impressing the people that they are doing something big. I can’t think of any other explanation. There is no rational explanation that I can think of. Their objective may not be actually doing away with black money. But just to impress people. In that they succeeded. So how can you say it is irrational? I mean by irrational an action which presumes irrationality on the part of other people. If I think that going 5,000 times around the Tirupati temple is going to get rid of black money and I do that. I know it is not going to get rid of black money but I know people are gullible enough to think that it is for the national good. In that I believe an action of unreason may be smart. But I am thinking other people are irrational. Then I am catering to irrationality.

Why has it not had effects? The point is that in this country, I think for a long time collective forms of struggle have just disappeared. You may have the identity-based struggles. But collective forms of struggle have disappeared for a long time. To my mind, the recent doctors’ strike was the first strike of that kind involving everybody of that profession after the railway strike of 1974. I am not talking about one-day/two-day strikes of trade unions. But prolonged strikes based on specific demands which involve a whole profession, which involves the country as a whole, have just disappeared. I think that is a contribution of neoliberalism. That is the one way neoliberalism contributes towards the emergence of fascism.

In the recent years, the Gujarat model of development has been propagated as the model that could be followed by every other state in the country. Earlier it was Kerala model of development that was renowned. You had worked as the vice chairman of Kerala state planning board. Is Kerala still a model?

Kerala had a specific trajectory of development. If you have larger expenditure by way of welfare expenditure, transfers to the poor, not only are you developing the human development index, you are also increasing purchasing power, you can have a higher rate of growth. I made a calculation between 2004-05 and 2011-12. The per capita growth rate of GDP of Kerala was the same as in Gujarat. But it was not by inviting multinational companies. Much of that period was the Left Democratic Front (LDF) regime period and V.S. Achuthanathan was chief minister. So it was not done by inviting multinationals, not getting people out of their land, nor depriving tribals of their rights.

It was actually done by once more reviving the health system, increasing expenditure on health. But I think the Kerala model faces a very significant challenge from neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is one which actually denies state resources. If a state is denied resources, naturally they would invite big business to come and set up plants. So neoliberalism necessarily entails a shift in the Centre-state relations in favour of the Centre. And the Centre is not going to give you money to spend on hospitals and education and so on. So the biggest threat to the Kerala model now is the increasing centralisation of resources. This is a part of the neoliberal trajectory. I think because of this, they would try to destroy the Kerala model of development. The challenge before the LDF is basically to what extent they can find ways of sustaining the Kerala model. From 2006-11, when Thomas Isaac was the finance minister, he found good ways of mobilising resources. Now even taxing powers are removed from state governments, with the GST.

Now the GST has replaced all other taxes in the country. The government circles claim that GST would result in a 2% increase in GDP growth of the country. But economists like Amartya Sen and you have expressed significant concerns over the new tax. What are the reservations you have regarding the GST?

The Indian constitution had erected a financial federal structure as a complement to the political federal structure. The constituent assembly had been aware that if the states were reduced to the status of mendicants approaching the Centre for resources, then that ipso facto would entail a subversion of the federal polity. Hence, it specified certain particular taxes to be levied by the states, as distinct from others that were left to the Centre. The Centre, however, adopted over the years various means, which we need not go into here, to ensure that the states remained starved of resources and had to depend upon its goodwill, i.e. that they were indeed, as far as possible, reduced to a mendicant status. The Goods and Services Tax regime takes this assault to an unprecedented height. It amounts to a formal abridgement of the constitutional rights of the states. This is clear, obvious, indisputable and not even denied by anybody. By substituting a GST for the sales tax which the constitution had explicitly assigned to the states, and which was the main source of states’ revenue (approximately 80%) and by providing that GST rates are to be decided only at the GST council where every state is just one member, together with the Centre, and therefore quite powerless to alter the rates it can charge, it is clearly taking away states’ powers.

The question relates to the basic structure of the constitution. Just as one cannot declare the country a “Hindu rashtra”, even if the Centre and all the state governments at a particular point of time unanimously agree that this should be done (for that would violate the basic structure of the constitution), likewise one cannot take away the states’ powers even if the Centre and all state governments at a particular point of time unanimously agree to institute a regime that does so.

The claim that a GST would contribute much to GDP growth is based on entirely spurious econometric exercises. The talk that GDP growth would go up by 2% or 3% is derived from theoretical models, all of which make assumptions that have no basis in facts. Tax reforms, in short, would not make an iota of difference to investment behaviour of capitalists which is governed primarily by the expected growth of the market, though capitalists argue otherwise in order to push for tax reforms which are advantageous for them, as the GST would be. The gains of such reforms are simply pocketed by them, without stimulating any larger investment and growth.

The case of the United States is instructive in this regard. The argument is often advanced that a uniform GST across states, even though there may be varying rates, is necessary for creating a national market. Interestingly, the US does not have any such uniform rate, but a plethora of them across states and commodities. It would be ironic to claim that the world’s most powerful capitalist country does not have a unified market! The reason why the US does not have a uniform rate like what the GST entails is because it values federalism greatly. Even the most powerful capitalist country of the world, in other words, is willing to place certain constitutional values like federalism, upon which it is founded, above capitalists’ preferences. There is no reason why India should not do the same.

This is the 100th year of the Russian revolution. What is the legacy and contribution of the Russian revolution and the Soviet state? Contrary to Marx’s prediction, a socialist revolution took place not in a capitalist country but in a backward feudal country like Russia. How did that happen?

At least four important contributions of the October revolution which are of global historic importance have to be recognised. Firstly, it was responsible for the defeat of fascism; everybody in the liberal democratic universe who attacked the Soviet Union conveniently forgot that the liberal democratic universe was saved from fascism by the Soviet Union. In fact, many people are raising this question that in today’s world, if there is fascism, what is going to save the world from fascism? The liberal democrat cannot take on fascism.

The Soviet Union played a crucial role in the defeat of fascism. The second contribution is that it actually set up the most gigantic welfare state the world has ever seen. We talk about welfare capitalism, but that is nothing compared to the welfare state the Soviet Union had created. The third thing is that it was the first time in modern human history that actually you had an economic system characterised not by unemployment, unutilised capacity and existing poverty. But it was characterised by complete full employment and labour scarcity, a different kind of economic system. It gives you a glimpse of what is possible. Fourth, the most important contribution is that it was responsible for decolonisation. I don’t just mean decolonisation in the sense of formal independence. I mean decolonisation in the authentic sense of Third World countries capturing their own natural resources which had been under the control of the colonial powers, of metropolitan companies associated with colonial powers. This happened everywhere. When Gamal Nazer nationalised the Suez Canal, there was an Anglo-French invasion and it was the Soviet Union which stopped this threat to Egypt.

It was happening in India. The oil companies were taking huge amounts of resources from India. They brought crude oil. When refineries were set up here, the government of India said that you are actually charging too high prices for crude oil. If we are importing from Soviet Union, we can get it at a lower price. They refused to do that. Then the Soviet Union started helping in the prospecting of oil in India. In fact it liberated India from the shackles which are imposed by the seven sisters in oil and a large number of metropolitan capitals in all kinds of other industry. The point is that building up the resource base of the country, building up heavy industries not just in our country but all over the world, is something made possible by the existence of the Soviet Union. Even the political liberation of many of these countries is obviously because of the existence of the Soviet Union. Churchill didn’t give independence to India. The point is that we must never forget the role of Soviet Union in bringing about decolonisation. I think these are enormous historic contributions.

Of course the Soviet Union could not develop a political structure because it became a one-party dictatorship, so it could not really last and they could not make the jump from a one-party dictatorship to a political structure appropriate to a socialist country. But on the other hand, the world conjuncture on which the Soviet Union has been created was namely an imminent world revolution. That changed after the Second World War. So, an imperialism which has been characterised by an inter-imperialist rivalry before is no longer characterised by inter-imperialist struggle. Instead, there was a kind of unity among them. So the whole situation had changed. And the Soviet Union could not adjust to these situations; neither ideologically nor in terms of institutions. So it has collapsed. But its historical contributions are just outstanding.

Was the Russia revolution a negation of classical Marxist theory?

It depends how you see classical Marxist debates. Whether by classical Marxist theory you mean literarily anything Marx wrote. I think there were even references in Marx about a worker-peasant alliance, but it is exactly true that it was an innovation. Marxism is not just kind of textbook or Bible or something. It is actually opening up a way of looking at the world and Marxism is also a development. For instance, Lenin talked about monopoly. Monopoly did not figure in Marx. So the world changed. In fact, the world changes in the way Marx analysed. Marx himself analysed the centralisation of capital. Marxism continuously develops. If it doesn’t develop, it becomes religion. It is a science, not a religion, because it develops.

Earlier, I was talking about the theory of imperialism. It was not there in Marx. So it is a development. The point is human thought can’t remain at the level it was in 1857. The Bolshevik revolution carried forward Marxist revolutionary dielectrics. So it is a carrying forward of Marxism.

While theoretically comprehending the crisis of capitalism, the famous German communist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg declared that there exist only two possibilities before the world: either socialism or barbarism. It seems that even after 100 years, those words are important in describing the predicament of present world. Do you subscribe to such a view?

I agree. But we have to interpret the ‘barbarism’. Barbarism is taking the form of a fascist takeover all over the world. And a fascist kind of takeover basically pushes us back by centuries, by at least one century in India. Because it would revive communalism, it would revive unreason, it would revive casteism, etc. Either we move forward or we actually move backward. That is the current situation. But the European Left, because of their belief in what I call productionism – development of productive forces – they are actually hegemonised by neoliberal thinking.

What is the alternative of the Left today anywhere in the world to globalisation? What is the reaction of the European Left to the fact that Left governments coming to power cannot deliver what it promised? On the contrary, it had to accept the draconian measure of austerity. The point is that it is as long as the Left remains within the same thinking as the hegemonic thinking in the current era of globalisation, it can never break out of it. The condition for the revival of Left is that they wake out of hegemonic thinking and defend the petty producers, peasants and the entire army of people. We talked about the Bolshevik revolution breaking away from the Marxian paradigm, that was Lenin’s contribution. He saw the revolutionary role of the peasantry. No Marxist has done that before and that produced the October revolution.

Do you see any possibility of a socialist revolution in the near future? Why you believe in socialism?

I think it will take time. Because it would require theoretical preparations, social preparations, it would sharpen the class struggle, it would require experiments, many of which will fail, so it takes time. But there is no doubt about it. I believe in mankind. Human beings are very intelligent beings. They certainly will be able to erect for themselves a social arrangement that actually promises and gives everybody freedom and liberation to ensure creativity. I think my belief in socialism basically comes out of a belief in human beings.

The Latin American model of socialism is hailed as 21st-century socialism. The Latin American model is described by a number of intellectuals as an example of a socialist transformation in a bourgeois democracy without any revolution or class struggle. How do you evaluate the socialist experiments in Latin American countries?

People fetishise revolutions, particularly young people and the ultra-Left. The argument is that unless we have armed struggle, revolution is impossible. Fundamentally, revolution is a social transformation. You attempt social transformation through class mobilisation, through class struggle. Democracy provides the best conditions for class struggle. Because it provides total freedom for the class mobilisation of workers, peasants and so on in a bourgeoisie society, not in a socialist society. Within a bourgeois society, democracy provides the best way of doing this. The advance of class struggles within a bourgeois democratic structure widens the democratic structure. This is prevented by the ruling class. So the armed conflict is imposed on the revolutionary class by the ruling class. In Latin America, there was a period when they tried to overthrow Hugo Chavez. They tried various things. Armed struggle may take the form of class struggle in such situations, where the ruling class tries various things. It is the situation where you can, for instance, frustrate the ruling classes and if so then you could see a march over them. What I mean is the scale of armed struggle may be very small. These are the questions of concrete ways in which the class struggle manifests itself. The form of class struggle depends on the situation. It would be a fetish to say ‘No no, we must start with armed struggle,’ as it would be to say ‘No, the democratic form is all that we need and we do not require armed struggle’.

In Latin America, the Left is in power in many countries. The stage Latin America reached was the stage of redistributions. They did not make any fundamental change in the nature of the production structure in order to push in a socialist direction. It was ‘redistributioinism’ rather than socialism. Basically, what happened is because of the world commodity booms, all Latin American commodity producers’, producers of oil, etc made enormous economic gains. In the old days, these were appropriated by the rich, corporate multinationals. Now it is used by the state for development measures. It was a very interesting thing. It was a wonderful thing. It was a great historical achievement. But at the same time, that in itself does not constitute socialism. Socialism would entail a change in the production relations. Now, before any such thing could happen, the commodity boom itself has collapsed. Since the commodity movement has collapsed, much of the Latin American Left is in deep trouble. Everywhere there is a threat to the Latin American Left. Because all these countries actually, one way or another, are dependent on world commodity movement which has now collapsed.

If a revolution breaks out, what kind of revolution it will be? A revolution lead by the proletariat or a revolution of the ‘multitude’?

When I talk about the proletarian revolution, I have in mind a revolution in which the proletariat leads the entire working people, peasants, petty producers, etc. Obviously it is not a world of petty production that you are going to build. The point is to defend them and then what you are going to do is to improve their condition and then reach the higher form of collective ownership and collective life – cooperatives, voluntarily cooperatives and collective forms. That is the long revolution. To talk in terms of multitude, the multitudes too have to do class struggle. Capitalism would not give up its power easily when the multitude struggles. I believe that capitalism is subject to certain spontaneous tendencies. Those tendencies would continue to exist as long as the capitalism exists.

If the will of the multitude (let’s proceed with the phrase multitude) is to prevail, then you have to overcome capitalism. When you overcome capitalism, what do you substitute in this space? That is number one. Number two, when you overcome capitalism then they will hit back. We were talking about armed struggle earlier. In that case you would have to have some ways of fighting it: having an ideological consciousness to fight it. That ideological consciousness does not reside in all petty producers. Look at the peasant society. But that people from different backgrounds come together in factories to work together gives that particular group of people, whom we call the workers, a certain potential consciousness which is higher than that of these scattered petty producers. Other groups may have some collective consciousness.

You can have the Yadavs being together. They are different from Dalits being together. But Yadavs and Dalits together in a common fight requires a mobilisation and consciousness beyond what they have historically experienced. So the point is that we may proceed with the function of multitude. Ultimately, we would have come up on the same kind of propositions which Marx made. Gyorgy Lukacs once said the characteristics of Marxism is that every supposed advance made beyond Marxism actually represents a fallback to ideas that precede Marxism. So his point is that you cannot go beyond Marxism without changing the society that produced Marxism, and when you try to do that, then you actually go back to something pre-Marxian. Capitalism has changed, capitalism has become different and Marxism is outdated. These arguments are absurd.

A number of liberal thinkers categorise Marxism as an obsolete theory. What is the relevance of Marxism in the contemporary world?

I think Marxism analyses the contemporary world in a way which nobody else did. Lenin had said the strength of Marxism lies in the fact that it is true. The point is that it is a genuine scientific discovery. By that I don’t mean all had Marx written 100 years ago. This way of looking at the world is the only way of looking at this world that is correct, and that can take us forward. When we go beyond this world, Marxism may not be relevant. In fact, Mao said 1,000 years from now people may not have heard of Marx. Because once we go beyond capitalism, new problems would arise, there will be a new mode of production and laws of motion would be different. In today’s world, there is no going beyond Marxism. As I quoted Gyorgy Lukacs earlier, every attempt to go beyond Marxism implies a fall back to pre-Marxism.

There are a number of debates on what constitutes the Chinese model of development. The Chinese economy has been called a model of market socialism by a number of economists. A number of liberal intellectuals attribute the economic success of China to the capitalist road it has chosen since 1978. Is China on the socialist track?

To my mind, market socialism is a contradiction in terms. In the sense that if you have a socialistic economy, the socialistic economy can use the market and should use the market. I am not in favour of its commanding economy where some ministry gives directives to enterprises on what and how much to produce. You have to use the market. There is a difference between using the market and commodity production. Let me give an example. A commodity-producing economy is actually fragmenting the different units of production. It fragments the working class. Each worker of an enterprise is engaging in producing a product that is competing with another worker, who is engaged in producing products in other enterprises. If it is the case, workers themselves get profits depending on which enterprise is successful. Then you are have a situation where workers are competing with one another. The whole point of socialism is to overcome the competition of workers against one another.

If the relationships between enterprises are mediated completely through the market, in that case, of course, it is the negation of socialism and what is more, any such economy in which you have relations being mediated entirely through the market is an economy that cannot function without unemployment, without a reserve army of labour, etc. If you have market socialism in that sense, like in a capital society, you have enterprises which are owned by capitalists and competing with each other in the market. In a socialist economy, you have enterprises, some of them are owned by capitalists, some of them are owned by the state, some of them are owned by workers’ cooperatives, competing against each other. In that case, we would actually reproduce many other features of capitalism that is not socialism.

So to my mind, market socialism is a contradiction in terms. Socialism must use the market. I believe socialism must be characterised by full employment. If socialism is characterised by full employment, then the question would arise why do people work? If I can get a wage, why should I work? So when I say socialism is characterised by full employment, what I mean is everybody has either a job or even if he/she doesn’t have a job, he/she gets a wage. Because it is society’s job to find employment for everybody, not individual jobs. So that being the case, why would people work? People would work precisely because in a socialist economy, the motivation for work is that I must realise myself through my work, through my being member of the community to which I belong, etc. So socialism therefore may use the market. Socialism is the building of an alternative society and that alternative society cannot be built if enterprises are simply related to one another through the market. That being the case, I think market socialism is a contradiction in terms. I think Yugoslavia was a classical example of market socialism.

In China, there are different features. I think China has a significant amount of state property and the state gives directives to the enterprises. So they are not fully autonomous, in that sense, to make profits as per as market conditions. Now on the other hand, the Chinese actually opened the economy to world trade at the time when the world economy was booming. Now the boom of the world economy has come to an end and the Chinese economy itself is now facing significant setbacks. I think in these new situations, what China does would determine the direction it goes. If China revives its domestic market, it can revive its domestic market by improving the condition of workers and peasants. In that case, China would once more move in the direction of progress. But if in this situation, China does not expand its domestic market but in fact tries to stimulate some bubble, in that case China would not have brought about reduction in inequality which has gone very rapidly. I think I would say in China is really depends on the direction in which it goes. We have to wait and see. But I agree the direction it is going recently is not a socialist direction, which does not mean that China has become a capitalist country. Mao Zedong used the term capitalist road. China is taking the wrong road. It may have high rates of growth, but on the other hand, significant inequality and so on. I don’t think it is the road to socialism.

We are living in a world where education is becoming increasingly commoditised and social science subjects are being bypassed as irrelevant. What are the impact and consequences of this phenomenon?

They have a critical role in society. Engineers are not going to criticise multinational corporations. The whole idea of contemporary capitalism, which is neoliberal globalised capitalism, is to destroy thought. One way of destroying thought is precisely through the commodification of education. It benefits them both ways. On the one hand it opens up profitable opportunities. On the other hand it destroys thought. If you destroy thought, no critiques are produced. No Left can be produced. No critical person can be produced. In such a case, even the criticism that occurs then would be the mindless criticism of terrorists. When people are desperate they take to arms. But it will be a fruitless effort because you are going to bring back a paradise of 2000 years ago or whatever. So it will be an irrational outburst, or anger rather than a rational attempt at constructing a new society or reforming the existing society. Capitalism is not a planned system. Terrorism is something which they are worried about. But they generate terrorism. I think the destruction of thought is one of the most important features of contemporary capitalism. We have to fight against it; everything has to be fought inch by inch.

A Theory of Imperialism written by Utsa Patnaik and you discuss how imperialism is still a relevant category in the age of globalisation. Is it really the case that imperialism has become obsolete Marxist terminology? Even Leftist thinkers like Antonio Negri talk not about imperialism but about empire. How do you analysis imperialism in the present historical context?

As we discussed in the book, the point is that imperialism is essential for capitalism, which is concentrated in the metropolitan areas. Look at the world; capitalism is concentrated in the metropolitan region. This metropolitan capital has to squeeze petty production and much of the petty production produces goods in areas located within the tropical region. So it has regional dimensions. The social dimension comes in the sense that metropolitan capitalism or capital accumulation needs to squeeze the petty producers, particularly the peasantry, and it also takes control of resources which are  available in the tropical region.

That fact that capitalism cannot do without squeezing petty producers which are located in a different region is what we call imperialism. Its necessity arrives not just in that it requires those goods but it requires those goods which are subject to increase supplying price, at prices which don’t entail continuous inflation and therefore threaten the value of money in the metropolitan region. So if you can continuously keep squeezing petty producers, you can take goods away without increasing supply price. In our view, it will be impossible for capitalism to survive if it does not accumulate. So it is essential for capitalism to squeeze the petty producers. There are people like Antonio Negri who talk about empire etc. The problem with them is that they do not have a theoretical understanding of capital accumulation. Now, if we look at it empirically you can say anything, you can talk about empire, you can talk about US imperialism and so on. But the moment you look at it theoretically, then capitalism requires a lot of goods which are available only at increasing supply prices.

It is true that you could have innovation whereby prices may not rise. For that it requires state investment. State investment is something which capitalism does not favour, particularly in Third World states, because it imposes fiscal discipline on the state and the state cannot tax the capitalist rich because that is something against their own interest. So they do not want active state intervention for land augmentation, etc. Capitalism has to impose a squeeze on the petty production economy. We call that imperialism. That is essential for the functioning of capitalism.

Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M. are independent journalists associated with the People’s Archive of Rural India.

  • Anjan Basu

    “My belief in socialism comes out of my belief in human beings”, wise words