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Theological Marxism

Murzban Jal (EPW, 24 September 2011) suppresses a whole lot of insights or questions on Marx, thereby reinforcing a theological attitude among those who are associated with the communist parties.


of transcendence of the State, etc), then

Theological Marxism

they ought to be doing the following things as advised by Marx in the above passage. First, try to identify with real struggles Arun K Patnaik of people. Second, never advise people to

Murzban Jal (EPW, 24 September 2011) suppresses a whole lot of insights or questions on Marx, thereby reinforcing a theological attitude among those who are associated with the communist parties.

Arun K Patnaik ( teaches political science at the University of Hyderabad.

Economic & Political Weekly

october 22, 2011

…nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: cease your struggles; they are foolish; we give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.

– K Marx (1844) in Collected Works, Vol 3 (Moscow: Progress Publishers), 1975, p 144.

s I read Murzban Jal’s paper “Leninism as Radical ‘Desireology’ ” (EPW, 24 September 2011), I am reminded of Hal Draper’s remarks on Marxists who usually forget that the standards of scrutiny they apply in judging liberalism and capitalism ought to be applied to Marx’s own ideas. Draper, being a Marxist himself, implies how Marxists offer a split methodological discourse and advises us instead to follow Paul Sweezy’s uniform methodological guideline. Sweezy argued that just as Marxism tries to distinguish between the essence and non-essence of liberal philosophies, so also non-Marxists may follow the same methodological criterion while dealing with Marx. By implication, what Sweezy recommends for non-Marxists must apply to Marxists while evaluating Marx’s own ideas. Marxism must not indulge in self-love and must not claim that Marx is always right. Marxism must subordinate itself to world history as well as specific history or what Lenin calls “the concrete analysis of the concrete situation”. Historical materialism today must move beyond Marx. That is indeed the spirit of the adjective: historical. Otherwise, it would not remain historical or materialistic as I shall show below.

If Murzban Jal or the communist parties were to identify themselves with the spirit of Marx’s method, not simply parrot his slogans or concepts (such as “the task, however, is to change the world” or theory

vol xlvI no 43

cease their struggles or call such struggles foolish just because they do not match with a pre-existing set of principles. Never ask struggles to “kneel down” before the communist in a doctrinaire way. Third, communists should not lay claim to any “true slogan of struggle”, for the real struggles of real people and their principles are true starting points for a Marxist. Fourth, the communist must not collapse into a romantic rebel but must carry out a criticism of popular struggles, if necessary. But any such criticism must not lead a communist to throw popular struggles overboard. However, communists followed the last principle rather than the first three principles of Marx. Communists are out to teach the world, without ever learning from it or identifying with its struggles. As a result, the world today refuses to learn from them.

Teach and Learn

Instead of asking communists to kneel down before the world, Jal asks them to bow down before Marx, whereas the poor Marx asks his comrades not to impose themselves on the world and moreover urged them to learn from it, while teaching the world. Jal offers us a critique of communists in terms of their theological belief in Marx: Marx is always right. His advice to our comrades is contrary to Marx’s own advice to his own comrades. Nowhere does Jal talk about the crisis of communism in terms of its refusal to identify with people’s struggles against capitalism in many forms and organisations other than those already identified by communists themselves. This is a more serious problem in communist circles: a doctrinaire attitude as Marx characterises it. The communists’ imposition of what they think is the “true slogan of struggle” on people’s struggles is a major problem not even identified by Jal’s philosophical sophistry. Similarly, he does not tell us that the communists ought to learn from people’s struggles rather than look up to Marx or Lenin.

Jal misses Marx’s methodological advice to his comrades that they must have a


dialectical relation with the world at any point of time and as a result of this, he falls for Marx’s slogans and principles and produces a theological reading. Jal does not advise comrades that they ought to discover the world’s own principles in people’s struggles rather than parrot Marx’s own discoveries in the 19th century. As Louis Althusser noted, there are many new movements like women’s movements and ecology movements in our times. We can add to the growing list: national movements, dalit movements, adivasi movements, anti-nuclear movements and antidisplacement movements. In the neoliberal era, such movements tend to grow. It necessarily involves the transcendence (affirmation, negation and overcoming) of Marx’s principles as outlined by him more than a century ago. Paul Sweezy’s advice to non-Marxists must be carried out by Marxists themselves with respect to Marx. So a question needs to be asked: What is the essence of Marx that needs to be distinguished from the non-essence from the point of view of present-day struggles? People’s struggles are the foci of Marx’s “new materialism” or what Engels calls historical materialism. This method needs to be applied to Marx’s critique of political economy. Without this procedure, any reading – pro-Marx or anti-Marx – would remain trapped within a Biblical spirit. A true communist must act like Marx rather than imitate him. He/she ought to identify, learn, never impose, and educate people’s struggles for a better world.

Marx’s ‘Deficits’

What constituent in Marx’s critique of political economy must be transcended in the 21st century? There are quite a lot of deficits in Marx. His theory of the state is very weak. This needs to be improved upon. His simplistic theory of withering away of institutions (including the family/state) cannot be rehashed as Jal proposes. Today, people’s struggles focus on the transformation of the state rather than its abrupt or gradual abolition (=withering away). The central feature of all movements is to reconstruct the nature of the state, expand its networks, promote autonomy of subaltern classes or communities, work for the expansion of their autonomy and so on which the neo-liberal state dreads to offer.

Withering away of the state is not even a daydream option as was, no doubt, the case in the 19th century. A rethinking of the old Marxian principles is necessary today.

Marx’s dualities in conceiving civil society need a relook. Sometimes, he confuses civil society with a general society. Sometimes, he flattens it with capitalist economy, a point well made by Gramsci in disagreement with Marx. His theory of property-based exploitation needs to be expanded to incorporate non-propertybased oppression/suppression as Foucault and Gramsci point out. His definition of class in terms of ownership of the means of production needs to be expanded to add “control over the distribution of the surplus” as Cem Somel (EPW, 24 September 2011) highlights. His simplistic conception of division of labour that we can do whatever we desire to do from morning to postdinner needs to be relooked at as pointed out by many Marx sympathisers. As stated by S Timpanaro, his conception of praxis as progressive, optimistic and transcendental needs to be re-examined. There could be room for pessimism in human nature. Certain painful material realities like death, natural disasters, animalist desires of human beings, etc, cannot be transcended. A socialist praxis must aim to engage with these aspects rather than wish them away or suppress them. By not recognising these aspects, Marx’s praxis retains idealistic residues. Therefore, there are limits to transcendental praxis. Similarly, Marx’s attitude towards human rights is slippery, even though he talks about “rights of humanity” as stated by Jal. It is not clear if such rights of humanity, in communist society, may arise against the state or civil society or nature. There is thus no theory of human rights possible in Marx, as the state, civil society and antagonism with nature wither away in the communist phase of history. Thus, a Marxist theory of human rights today is very opportunistic. Marxism does not believe in human rights and yet the human rights movement is a cover for Marxist expansionism, a point made by K Balagopal very forcefully.

Last but not the least, let us not forget Marx’s hostile/condescending attitudes towards all his contemporaries, like, for example, his view of J S Mill’s liberal socialism. While his attitude towards past

october 22, 2011

thinkers is dialectical (critical appreciation), he did not adopt such a position when he critiqued his contemporaries. Communists share the same attitude towards anything other than themselves, leading thus to a greater fragmentation of the communist movement once they notice a communist dissident. Communists display a very illiberal attitude towards inner party democracy or inter-party democracy. This has pushed them to an irrelevant corner of history. But this illiberalism is inherited from Marx and Lenin. If the communist movement has to be relevant today, it must rethink about all this and must remain open to a sympathetic critique rather than latch on to a “tailist” sympathiser who may only have a corrupting influence over the social movements.

A 21st Century Marx

We cannot give up Marx today nor can we own him fully. As we live in new times and new contexts, we need to transcend the limits set by him. We must pose the old questions raised by Marx’s “mode of production” perspective, new materialism, dialectical thinking, and so on; however, we must ask such questions in a new format. We may also discover new insights in his works about domestic labour as part social and part natural but an initial form of the division of labour. We may learn new insights from his penchant critique of capitalism for destroying nature and animal freedom, not just human freedom. Marxism-Leninism blinded us for a long time in the above matters. However, we must ask new questions too, those not raised by Marx. Also, we must not hesitate to overcome the illiberal barriers created by Marx for his failure to live up to the expectations of his own dialectical and materialist theory as discussed above. For, we acutely realise his deficits now in comparison with the 19th century context. As Marx said, every generation can only ask those questions that it can seek to solve. May be our generation is better placed to ask these questions today. I am afraid, by suppressing all these insights or questions on Marx offered by many Marxists or socialist sympathisers today, Jal reinforces a theological attitude among comrades, even though he is rightly critical of them for their parliamentary cretinism or adventurism.

vol xlvI no 43

Economic & Political Weekly

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