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Judging Marxism by Its Fruits

What Is Maoism and Other Essays edited and introduced by Bernard D'mello (Kolkata: Cornerstone Publication), 2010; pp 308, Rs 150.





of book under review; they would neces-

Judging Marxism by Its Fruits

sarily have to come from the practitioners themselves. Yet, while not providing answers the editor in the Introduction Kobad Ghandy itself, gives a hint of the direction of the

search. In the concluding lines of the hat Is Maoism and Other Essays, introduction, referring to the Communist

What Is Maoism and Other Essays edited and edited and introduced by Bernard introduced by Bernard D’mello (Kolkata: Cornerstone Manifesto and Marx’s thesis on Feuer

D’Mello, is a short text which brief-bach, D’mello recalls Marx’s continuous

Publication), 2010; pp 308, Rs 150.

ly and concisely traces the history of Marxist thought and its practice as it grew and developed from the mid- 19t h century to the end of the 20th century. Bernard’s introduction and lead article are in themselves a short and concise summar y of this history, with the focus on India. This is followed by other writings by giants of Marxist thought of the post second world war era. Though most of the articles have been published earlier the collection is an excellent text for those who seek a brief summary of communist revolutions from the time of the Paris Commune to the Cultural Revolution in China.

Of course, this book does not pretend to seek the causes for the debacle of the communist movements and societies worldwide as we view it in the 21st century. It attempts only to present the past in a nutshell. No doubt, every serious practitioner of change must search for answers for the present pathetic state of affairs; but even for this task, such a backgrounder provides the ideal raw material.

In 2008-09, at the peak of the economic crisis – the worst since the Great Depre ssion – there were reports of a renewed interest in Marxism, to understand the causes of the crisis. But this did not metamorphose into powerful communist movements (except probably in Greece). Though Marx’s insight into the functioning of capitalism is still the most scien tific, the failures of the alternative dampe n any enthusiasm amongst the present generation for a communist/ socialist resurgence. Even the social democracy which swept Europe has collapsed, though there is a slight resurgence in Latin America.

The millions who came out on the streets in Europe and America, the lakhs in revolt in the Arab countries, and the resis tance to the US in various poor countries – all bear little trace of communist presence. Most are spontaneous, and, in the Arab world, if at all they are organised, they are Islamic in nature. Such a situation is disturbing for those who are serious about change.

The answers to the situations cited above cannot be expected from the type refrain, “that which is not democratic cannot be socialist”.

This pointed conclusion and also the fact that the last chapter is devoted to “The Promise of Radical Demo cracy” indicates the direction of this search. The problem is that the concept of the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” and the question of demo cracy have been much vulgarised.

Democracy and the Individual

Any true democracy must start with the individual, particularly with the individuals in power. It will then get reflec ted in our relations with others – the family, the masses, in party functioning and in the government. Often, in structural aspects a delicate balance has to be maintained due to entrenched reactionaries – both internal and external – who seek to destabilise the embryonic new system. In this balancing act many restrictions may have to be placed on democracy but at the persona l level, for those in power, there should be no compromise in his/her democratic credentials.

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But this is easier said than done. To have such a democratic approach entails the death of all forms of ego, pride, arrogance, superiority, intolerance, manipulativeness, dishonesty, etc. On the other hand there must be a deep commitment to the values of modesty, simplicity, straightforwardness, honesty, etc. This certainly has been one of the serious problems, where often a Chanakya-style “shrewdness” is considered an asset rathe r than a liability.

Ironically, whether D’mello meant it to be so or not, the answer at the micro level, is provided if we intertwine the last lines of the Introduction with the first lines of the lead article. Anuradha Ghandy was not only all that D’mello mentions she was also the epitome of a leading personality with just such a democratic approach – a model of modesty, simplicity, straightforwardness and honesty. Leadership never went to her head. Unfortunately, the last chapter deals with democracy mostly in the structural sphere, while its essence lies within the individuals that make the structure. One may build the most beautiful looking house, but if the foundation is weak it will crumble like a pack of cards in the first storm.

The book primarily focuses on three aspects: first, the evolution and growth of Marxist thought, from Marx to Mao; second, experiments in socialist construction, with greater emphasis on China; and third, experiences in India and Nepal.

Evolution of Marxist Thought

In the Tihar jail recently I heard two Muslims arguing. Both were quoting verses from the Koran and Hadis to prove their point. I was reminded how we too often quote verbatim from the Marxist classics to prove a point. But, as D’mello, quoting Sweezy says “Marxism is above all a comprehensive world view...It is a guide to life and social practice, and in the long run, its validity can only be judged by its fruits”. Of course, by the end of the 20th century the fruits have turned sour, yet, its alternative in the existing system, has thrown up horrors reminiscent of the Middle Ages. Not only do excruciating poverty, disease and malnutrition stalk the earth, the gap between the rich and the poor has reached levels never seen before. So, while new factors will have to be considered (given its failures in practice), Marxism, as a science for understanding society has grown over time and this evolution is brought out chiefly in Bernard’s lead article.

The roots of this theory are brought out in Section II with three articles on Marxism by Paul Sweezy. The next two sections mostly deal with socialist construction and the debates that raged in that process.

In the lead article D’mello first summarises “What Is Marxism?” Here he explains that though Marx’s prediction of a workers’ revolution in Europe proved to be wrong, it was he who gave deep insights into the birth and functioning of capitalism. In the first article of Section II, “What Is Marxism”, written in 1986, Sweezy explains to a young girl the essence of Marxism and how to understand it in today’s world – not as a dogma, but as Marx if he were alive today, would understand it. While explaining the contributions of Marx, Sweezy objectively presents the limitations of the then working-class movements, and also those of the postrevolutionary societies. He pins his hopes on the revolutions in the third world and calls on all citizens in the US and the world to be in the dissident movements of whatever type.

In the next article Sweezy brings out the historical contribution of Das Kapital. He explains that Marx developed the theories of the great classical economist, David Ricardo. But he did not merely develop them, he made a leap from the ideas of the classical economists. He then goes on to explain capitalism’s development in both the developed and underdeveloped countries explaining Lenin’s concept of imperialism and Paul Baran’s historic contribution in his book Political Economy of Growth.

Finally, Sweezy’s article on the centenary of Marx’s death brings out the genius of Marx and Engels who wrote five major philosophical works while they were both in their 20s. In this article, Sweezy talks about the enormous changes in the proletariat in the past 100 years and also in the nature of capital. He speaks of three points to ponder over: first, the relation between the “cube” and the periphery and the inevitability of revolution breaking out in the third world rather than in the “centre”. Second, the real character of post-revolutionary societies. And third, that Marxism in the centre needs a rebirth.

Finally Sweezy also takes into account the big reversals. He says: The history of 20th century revolutions has uncovered a hitherto unsuspected Marxist anomaly, namely, the tendency of revolutionary leadership espousing Marxism to transform themselves into ruling elites... when the split occurs, we have the absurdity

of a ruling oligarchy rationalising and justifying its rule in the name of Marxism. Such a phenomenon needs serious

thought and without taking concrete and specific lessons all future revolutions can also be waylaid.

Experiments in Socialism

Sections III and IV basically deal with the issues that socialism has thrown up in the course of its existence. The former deals primarily with the Russian experience while the latter looks at the Chinese one.

D’mello sums up the essence of the two models when he says:

Mao accused Stalin of emphasising only the forces of production to the neglect of the relations of production and the superstructure…Mao argue d that elements of the superstructure are transformed only with a considerable lag; the old culture hangs on long after the material base of the economy is radically altered. But, if a conscious effort is made to change the elements of the superstructure this, in turn, affects the economic base (pp 41-42).

D’mello raises the question of the silenc e of the workers and peasants at the reversal of the revolutions in both these countries with the deaths of their respective leaders.

Section III is particularly weak. Today, with the fall of all socialist states, the intrigue that went on, around the time of Lenin’s death in the top echelons of the Bolshevik Party are of little significance. The emphasis of Braverman is more on the bureaucratic character of some individuals, rather than a structure that allowed for it. Besides, the views presented seem simplistic with little or no relevance today, and one cannot draw lessons from them.

The second article in Section III, by Milibrand is more relevant as it deals with the

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important question of democracy in the socialist period. It raises the issues of the extent to which peoples’ institutions like the Soviet of Workers and Soldiers’ Deputies exercised power and their relations with the all-powerful Bolshevik Party. But here too the articles focus more on what Lenin said in State and Revolution rather than what happened at the ground level. The ideal workers’ democracy in the Paris commune was unable to survive without the brutal massacre of the defeated reactionaries; on the other hand, the lack of power of the workers bodies in the Sovie t Union, probably was an important factor for a powerful bureaucracy entren ching itself in the party and government, resulting in its reversa l. This aspect of the Soviet Union needed a more in-depth discussion in Section III which unfortunately is missing in the book.

Chinese Experience

Section IV, on the other hand, deals effectively with the Chinese experience of building socialism. The first lengthy article by Gurley does a good job of looking at the evolution of Mao’s economic strategy before the revolution in 1949, and its implementation in their extensive base areas. It deals with all aspects of the issue – productive forces, various aspects of production relations, culture, wars, etc. The next article contrasts the two models of development – Soviet and Chinese. The Chinese learnt many lessons from the wrong policies of the Soviet Union.

This section deals with many of the novel concepts introduced by Mao in building socialism – like the two-line struggle, the Cultural Revolution, the socialist education movement, the communes – and through all these an attempt to blend the relationship of people’s power visa-a-vis the party authority. The tragedy was that, in spite of these efforts, the death of Mao saw a new bureaucracy taking power, with barely a whimper of protest from the party rank-and-file and the wor kers and peasants.

This section provides a good backgrounder to the problems of socialist construction in China and is useful for a s tudent of the subject.

The articles on the Maoist movements in India and Nepal are very brief, and, at best, are introductory. The interview with Baburam Bhattarai brings forward many concepts though it is to be seen how successful they will be in Nepal. Also, it is unclear what changes they have been able to bring about at the ground level. As far as India is concerned, though the Maoist movement has spread probably wider than the parliamentary communist parties, today, even after 40 years, it is mostly confined to the most backward forest areas of the country. There seems little presence in the rural plains, let alone the cities.

But both these movements have to be seen in the context of an excessively weak revolutionary movement worldwide. The upsurge of the 1960s and1970s, in both developing and developed countries, has all but collapsed. In those decades powerful revolutionary movements swept the entire Asia, Latin America and even Central America; and national liberation movements swept the entire continent of Africa. Most of these were either crushed or turned into establishment parties. Even Europe (and to a lesser extent the US) were swept by revolutionary movements. All these have died down and are mostly non-existent. Today what exists are a few pockets of struggle like in the Philippines, Turkey and maybe one or two other places. However, these too are struggling with their backs to the wall, without any real leap over the past few decades, thus raising many questions.

In spite of two decades of neo-liberal policies worldwide, which have increased impoverishment and increased the richpoor divide to levels never seen before – there is no real communist revival.

An added problem is that television and the internet culture have killed the habits of serious thinking and reading. Superficiality is widespread and that is again reflecte d in the newspapers, magazines and other reading material around us. There is a massive dichotomy between theory and practice – most practitioners work day-and-night without much tho ught or in-depth inquiry while the intellectuals concoct big theories without much study and research on their practical significance. The result is that practitioners despise the intellectuals, while the intellectuals evolve with their brahminicalstyle superiority over the run-of-the-mill.

This picture is seen not only in India, but all over the world.

So the mass movements in their millions result in continuous outbursts as emotional responses to the horrors of this system – but they take no form politically, theoretically or organisationally. They come and they go.

If the science of Marxism is to gain relevance worldwide once again, it needs to consider the following:

  • (1) It is now over half a century since Mao. Quite naturally there have been significant changes in the world in this period. Examples of this are financialisation of capital on a huge scale, the nature of the proletariat and the middle classes, etc. Any science – whether of nature or of society – always seeks to understand phenomenon as they exist with the changes seen in a historical context. So, first and foremost, these changes have to be understood, and their practice moulded accordingly.
  • (2) The collapse of not only all socialist societies but also of most communist movements in the course of just the past three decades, requires an in-depth analysis. That the present system is unable to deliver justice is clear. Yet, a new, and more just and humane model, must be viabl e and able to exist, to be acceptable to the youth of today.
  • (3) Third, and most importantly, a science of society cannot and must not ignore the personal factor – since society, first and foremost, comprises individuals befor e they are organised into classes and/or castes. Economic and other changes are incomplete, unless they bring freedom and happiness to the majority, and flowering of the human factor in every person. Mao emphasised this in all his writings and made great efforts in this direction. Unfortunately no answer has yet been evolved on how man can change from his present egocentric approach to one of modesty, simplicity and straightforwardness. Yet, the answer to this question is central to sustaining change towards justice, freedom and happiness.
  • This book can be a backgrounder even as far as these three aspects are concerned .

    Kobad Ghandy has written the books

    Globalisation: An Attack on India’s Sovereignty (2004) and Capitalism in Coma (2009) under the pen name Arvind.

    Economic & Political Weekly

    june 25, 2011 vol xlvi nos 26 & 27

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