Socialism is about people becoming the subjects of history

This is a transcript of the speech delivered by Prof. Prabhat Patnaik on July 7, 2012 at a colloquium in memory of Chinta Ravindran organised in Kozhikode by the Chinta Ravindran Foundation. The topic for the colloquium was Relevance of Gandhism & Marxism to our times. Apart from Prof. Patnaik, who was one of the keynote speakers, Prof. Akeel Bilgrami participated as a second keynote speaker and he elaborated on Gandhism.

This is transcribed from an audio recorded by Bodhi Commons from the venue. The audio is also attached. The sectioning and section titles are by the editors. The transcription is not fully verbatim.

Prabhat Patnaik - Chintha Ravi Memorial Lecture 2012 recorded by bodhicommons

I am extremely grateful that I have got an opportunity to speak at a seminar in memory of Com. Chinta Ravindran. Com. Chinta Ravindran was a person who was not only an outstanding thinker, creative individual, but also a person of great integrity. These are the qualities that endeared him to so many and these are the qualities that also underlay his contributions to the progressive, cultural and intellectual life in the state and these qualities also in a sense, underlie the progressive, intellectual and cultural life of Kerala which is a beacon for the country as a whole. It is also a pleasure on my part to be a part of this panel which has such distinguished persons including my very dear friend Akeel Bilgrami, interactions with whom have helped me over the last several years to refine, develop my own thinking. As you would have seen from his own presentation, these are extremely powerful ideas which anybody who is a Marxist must relate to.

Prof. Prabhat Patnaik at Chinta Ravindran colloquium venue. Image Credit: പ്രതീഷ് || pratheesh

In India, while there has been a lot of writing on Gandhi from the left starting from Com: EMS’s famous "The Mahatma and the ism", much of it relates to Gandhi as a political figure, Gandhi as a part of India's political history. There has been less discussion from the left on Gandhi's intellectual ideas - and of course the question which I would like to pose to myself is in today's context, firstly, why do I call myself a Marxist and secondly, as a Marxist, how do I relate to the ideas of Gandhi? I think these are very difficult questions. I would not of course be able to do justice to them in the time I have, or even in fact with more time, but nonetheless I shall pose them and try and provide some way of approaching these questions.

Danger of Over-simplifying Marxism

Marxism suffers from the fact - that like all deep philosophical systems - it necessarily has to be simplified in order to make it intelligible to a large number of people and in the process of simplification quite often, it is the simplified version that sticks and we do not really get a chance to go beyond it. Marxism has suffered this fate very clearly. If you read a textbook on Marxism, in that case, typically what we learn is that there are modes of production. A mode of production is an integrated complex of forces of production and relations of production. There is a tendency for the forces of production to develop - as they develop, they come into conflict with - contradiction with - the relations of production which then have to be ripped apart, torn asunder, in order to develop a new mode of production - a period of social conflict emerges in which the developing forces of production actually struggle in a sense with the extent relations of production - a struggle that gets carried out through the medium of class struggles. I think this way of interpreting - and we know that there are primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism - and of course as the forces of production develop under capitalism, they would come into conflict with relations of production underlying capitalism, it will rise to a process of struggle that will create socialism. So we think in terms of a succession of modes of production.

Marxism suffers from the fact - that like all deep philosophical systems - it necessarily has to be simplified in order to make it intelligible to a large number of people and in the process of simplification quite often, it is the simplified version that sticks and we do not really get a chance to go beyond it.

I think this way of looking at development of history has a number of underlying assumptions. The first assumption is that there is a kind of inevitability of historical change and therefore socialism is inevitable. It is not something that we consciously fight for, it is not something that we consciously strive to achieve on this earth. But in fact, it is something that will inevitably come about.

Second thing is [that] when we discuss productive forces, typical interpretation is in terms of material productive forces. Basically, it is the development of GDP, it is the development of labor productivity. These are the kinds of indices in terms of which we join the development of productive forces and of course, therefore we visualize that a time would come when these kinds of development would no longer be possible in the capitalism which would put a fetter.

The third implication is, as a result, socialism is seen essentially as a system that will work better from a productive point of view. This is something which was put forward in a very crude way, critiqued by Mao Tse-Tung. It was put forward in a very crude way by Alexi Kosygin, the Soviet Prime Minister of the time, who said, socialism is 7% growth rate, that capitalism cannot achieve this continuous 7% growth rate but socialism can. So, the notion of socialism becomes a productionist notion of socialism. And of course, the other implication of this, which is again quite important, is that we visualize a period when capitalism is progressive where it is allowing development of productive forces to take place and a period in which it becomes stagnant, does not allow the development of productive forces to take place and this latter period is in fact the period where revolutions are going to occur.

Socialism represents a break of history

Now, this reading of Marx is something, which even though is simple... sorry I shouldn’t say that…this reading of Marx also sees socialism as really on at par with all the previous forms of production - primitive communism, we moved to slavery, from slavery we moved to feudalism, from feudalism we moved to capitalism, from capitalism we shall move to socialism. It is actually not only a teleological reading of history but it is actually, if you like, typically, the inversion of Hegel. In other words if you are really thinking of an inversion of Hegel, this version of Marxism is an inversion of Hegel where history proceeds teleologically to an end and that end happens to be socialism. It is, in other words, a part of the continuum of history instead of representing a break of history which Marx actually emphasized.

Now, I believe this reading of history, this reading of Marxism and therefore the Marxist reading of history is something which is really at variance not only for what Marx himself wrote but also what Lenin talked about, Rosa Luxemborg and many of the others. In other words it is a very simplified reading of history, which in the process of simplification, actually in a sense, misses out certain absolutely crucial elements of Marxism. Let me begin from a quote from Marx from Poverty of Philosophy which I like very much and that quote says “Of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself. The organization of revolutionary elements as a class supposes the existence of all the productive forces which could be engendered in the bosom of the old society.” Here we have a notion of the development of productive forces that is not in material terms; that the highest level of the development of the productive forces under capitalism is the formation of a revolutionary proletariat.. and that formation of the revolutionary proletariat though of course there may be more propitious moments in which the proletariats functions advances, less propitious moments. But that formation of revolutionary proletariat is not contingent of having 7% growth rate, 5% growth rate, 3% growth rate.

... we have a notion of the development of productive forces that is not in material terms; that the highest level of the development of the productive forces under capitalism is the formation of a revolutionary proletariat.

This is something which again, if you look at Lenin’s writings - Lenin actually talks about imperialism being the eve of social revolution and he associates imperialism not with growth rates, not with the stagnation of material productive forces - couple of passing references to that - but he associates imperialism with the fact that imperialism is a period of wars, imperialism is a period in which the partitioning of the world has been completed. The only thing that is left to do, is repartitioning depending on the strengths of the valuable monopoly combines, and the repartitioning is something which cannot be done without wars. Therefore imperialism is a period which forces the proletariat to choose either between killing fellow workers across the trenches or turning the guns on their own internal system of monopoly exploitation from where the Bolshevik slogan of ‘Turning the imperialist war into a civil war’ comes from. Therefore the fact of the organisation of the revolutionary elements into a class is something that comes about not because of growth rates but because of the conjuncture that imperialism produces. Rosa Luxemburg had a slightly different reading of, I mean, had a somewhat different slogan. She was not talking about turning the imperialist war into a civil war, she was talking about an international working class movement for peace. But nonetheless, she said that imperialism had brought mankind to a situation where a choice lay between barbarism and socialism. Now that choice between barbarism and socialism is a choice reflecting a conjuncture, it has nothing to do with growth rates, nothing to do with material productive forces and so on.

It follows from this that the alternative reading of Marx is not that socialism is simply a continuum of history but socialism represents a break of history. A break of history [that] Marx called a transition from mankind's pre history to mankind’s history. And this break, if you like, look at another way, is a release from the trap of history. I must explain this more. The proletariat has a choice - choice between barbarism and socialism, choice between going on with the imperialist war and turning it into a civil war. The proletariat must choose and that choice is something which reflects its organisation as a revolutionary class.

Spontaneity of Capitalism

Now, I think in order to understand this second thing that Marx is really talking about, an enormous historical transition the like of which has not been experienced in human history, we really have to develop a concept which my friend Akeel does not like but I don’t know a better concept - which I hold the concept of spontaneity. I borrowed it from the Oscar Lange, the Polish economist. Now, he developed it in the context of capitalism. He said capitalism is not just an exploitative system. Capitalism is a spontaneous system in the sense that it is driven by its own immanent tendencies. That if capitalism has a crisis, it is not because anybody wanted it to have some sort of crisis. This crisis is not a conspiracy. The crisis is not an ill-intentioned action on the part of some people. It is part of the logic of the system.

If capitalism is a malleable system, which you could actually like plasticine, make into any form you like, then there would be no argument for socialism.

Of course, you have in capitalism state intervention but quite often, state intervention takes the form of hastening the movement of this immanent logic, like the destruction of petty production. But there may be, in exceptional circumstances, state intervention which actually instead of hastening the immanent logic, stands in the way of this immanent logic. I think one of the instances of such historical occurrence was immediately after the Second World War when you had social democratic governments coming to power in many European countries. You had an enormous spread of communism all over the world. Capitalism was rattled because of the communist challenge. In France, in Italy, the communist parties had emerged as really the most powerful political forces. And therefore capitalism in a sense compromised by having a kind of state intervention which gave rise to the welfare state. But the point is the moment you have such state intervention which, in a sense, modifies, restricts more than aids the immanent logic of the system, then it tends to make the system dysfunctional in novel ways, in new ways, like the emergence of stagflation. And when it becomes dysfunctional in these new ways then a choice arises - that either we actually violate the immanent logic of the system and keep as it were the dialectics of the subversion of the system going, in which case it will lead us to a transcending of capitalism by socialism or we become subservient to the dialectics of the immanent logic of the system in which case we start retreating from the kind of interventions which the state has made which is exactly what we have seen in many of the advanced capitalist countries.

Fundamentally, it follows that as far as capitalism is concerned, it is in fact driven by a kind of continuity. If capitalism is a malleable system, which you could actually like plasticine, make into any form you like, then there would be no argument for socialism. Because you could actually have a humane capitalism within which would be able to achieve a lot of the things socialism is supposed to achieve. But on the contrary, it is not possible because capitalism is driven by an immanent logic and it’s a spontaneous system.

Spontaneity of Human History

Marx of course, went much much further. It is not only capitalism that is a spontaneous system but in fact, it is the whole of human history till now which has been spontaneous. That men have made their history but they have made their history in a way where the outcome of their actions has not coincided with the intentions behind those actions. Therefore, history has had its own immanent logic in which, of course, the actors are people, they have acted to make their own history but have always been frustrated and this is why history has had a whole immanent logic of its own - a logic which we capture impersonally by talking about forces and relations of production is in fact something which really is mankind’s continuous attempts - that gets continuously frustrated - of making its own history and becoming subjects of history. That people have acted but even as they have acted, have acted in a manner the outcome of which is to keep them tracked as objects of history. And of course, this is true of capitalism and the point of socialism is that it is an arrangement which does not have immanent tendencies and because it does not have immanent tendencies, it actually allows the malleable shaping of the system by people through their collective intervention to create their own destiny, to kind of form their own destiny so that their intentions and their outcomes increasingly coincide.

Now of course, the question may arise that if socialism is seen not as an continuum of history but a break away from the track of history, the question may arise that why is it that suddenly at this particular moment we have the possibility of the transition to socialism, the possibility of mankind breaking out of the track of history. The standard answer which is given for this, is that capitalism is the first system in which the most energetic class also happens to be the the exploited class. If you look at feudalism, for instance, the serfs were the most exploited class but it was the bourgeoisie which was the energetic class. While under the capitalism, the proletariat was a not only the directly exploited class but also the energetic class.

But for me, one of the features of capitalism, is as Akeel was mentioning, that it destroys the old community. Capitalism as Marx saw in Europe is that it destroys the old community. You actually had people being thrown out. ...And while it destroys the old community. You actually had people being thrown out, enclosure movements, coming into the cities, crowding the cities and so on. And while it destroys the old community; at the same time by herding people into the factories where they come from diverse backgrounds, they are forced to fend for themselves - they form a new community in the struggle against capital. That in the struggle against capital, individuals come together through combinations for strikes to start with, but subsequently, this trade union consciousness is informed by theory and develops into class consciousness but underlying this is the formation of the a new community, the like of which has never been witnessed in human history because these are people [where] each individual who has come to the factory is consciously forming a community; they are not born into it unlike the peasant who is born into a village. They actually consciously form this community and it is this community that makes possible the transcendence of the track of history.

Of course, together with this, there is the additional factor which consists of the fact that the understanding of the track of the history, the understanding of the historical process, the theoretical breakthrough that Marxism that represents - here I should add that I do not see Marxism as a closed body of knowledge; that this is all there is to it. On the contrary, i see Marxism’s strength in the fact that it is capable of appropriating all developments in knowledge. In other words, we can have the Keynesian system, we can have a Copernican system. But the Marxian system is, by its nature, supposed to be one that can incorporate advances in human understanding in all kinds of areas. But it is not a closed system. It is not a ‘Marxian’ system that we in fact simply stick to what he wrote and that is, as it were, the light of knowledge or exhausts the light of knowledge.

So if you want the liberation from the spontaneity of capitalism and if you really want human emancipation then you have to transcend capitalism.

So there is a view that this theoretical breakthrough is what actually leads people conscious of the trap of history and since this consciousness is the first act in breaking out of it, it actually coincides in dying with it.. Many people see Marxism as representing the world view, as a kind of weltenshauung of the proletariat. But in a sense, I think, even Lenin wrote about it, once you see the theoretical development, then you have to think in terms of the coincidence rather than it being simply another world view like the bourgeois world view or the proletarian world view.

Now, I think once we see the fact of spontaneity in history, that is what I would use to kind of frame, if you like, the Gandhian ideas in the sense many of the questions which Gandhiji had raised are questions, the solutions to which cannot come within capitalism which is a system ridden by its own immanent logic, a spontaneous system. So if you want the liberation from the spontaneity of capitalism and if you really want human emancipation then you have to transcend capitalism to have an alternative system that is not driven by immanent logic of its own but where people politically as a new community can come together to intervene in the functioning, for instance, of the economy and thereby shape their own destiny.

Applying Marxism to Societies like India - The need for Worker-Peasant Alliance

Now when we think in terms of the application of Marxism to societies like ours, there are many propositions which have to specifically looked at. Marx talked about the fact that in europe for instance, there was a destruction of the old community. People were simply uprooted from the land and thrown into the streets. They congregated in towns and he saw capitalism absorbing them and creating the conditions for the formation of a new community. But in societies like ours where the prospects of employing large numbers of people into the factories, into the developing capitalist segment is slightly limited - it is well known that jobless growth - we have been having 7-8%, a very rapid rate of growth of capitalism... but if anything, negative growth rate in the number of people who belong to the active army of labour belonging to capitalism. So when you have that kind situation, then either you have the destruction of the old community giving rise to merely a swelling of the reserve army of labour or you have the alternative situation where people, even when they are squeezed in their old occupations, are nonetheless not moving out of it because there are no job prospects outside. In such a situation, the destruction of the old community is something which does not proceed in the way Marx had talked about.

As a matter of fact, I think even when you look at European history, it is not so much the absorption of the people uprooted from the old community within capitalism that provided, as it were, a solution to the social crisis generated by the people being uprooted but many of them migrated to the temperate regions - they migrated to the United States, Australia, New Zealand and so on. As a result you had relative social equilibrium in these countries. Those who were absorbed into capitalist factories then came together to form combinations into trade unions and subsequently imbued with class consciousness to form a new community.

So the point is that in societies like ours that does not happen. On the one hand, capitalism undermines petty production, but on the other hand, those who are distressed and dispossessed by this undermining are not getting absorbed as part of the active army of labor created by capitalism. In a situation like this, therefore, you have an intense increase in absolute misery which is something that we are witnessing in front of our eyes, and therefore it becomes a part of political task of the proletariat to defend the petty producers against this onslaught of capitalism an onslaught that merely pushes them greater and greater into absolute misery and that, of course this is the basis of the formation of the worker-peasant alliance in societies like ours.

On the one hand, capitalism undermines petty production, but on the other hand, those who are distressed and dispossessed by this undermining are not getting absorbed as part of the active army of labor created by capitalism.

Therefore the role of the proletariat, something Lenin had also talked about, the role of the proletariat today is not just to make a proletarian socialist revolution, the role of the proletariat is actually to defend petty production, to defend petty producers and to form, on that basis, a worker-peasant alliance which can then transcend capitalism.

You know, there was a time, that you know that Julius Martov, the Menshevik leader had asked the question to Lenin. He said that, “Look, the proletariat is a small force in our society. It is one thing we can protest, we can have strikes, you know it can play an effective oppositional role but how can it capture power, because how can a small force like the proletariat capture power in a society like Russia?” To which Lenin’s answer was - It is not the proletariat alone. It must be in alliance with the peasantry. The fact of the worker peasant alliance is something that not only comes on to the agenda but therefore brings onto the agenda a process of revolution where transcendence of capitalism is something which takes place through different stages of democratic revolution on to socialism.

Marxism is not a ‘Stage Theory’

I should actually draw a distinction here, before I proceed - between two things. From the understanding of Marxism which I have been trying to project, Marxism is not a stage theory. In other words, if the idea is the organization of the revolutionary elements of society into a force which is the ultimate culmination of development of bourgeois society in countries like ours and creating the conditions for socialism, then this has nothing to do with growth rates, nothing to do with stages and so on. If there was a progressive stage of capitalism and a reactionary stage of capitalism and, if following Lenin, we started saying that the reactionary stage of capitalism is the imperialist stage, then we should say, that since Lenin dated imperialism from the beginning of the century, then Marx and Engels who were dreaming about revolution in Britain, they are totally wrong, because then capitalism was in its progressive stage.

So I think, this whole stage theory that there is only a certain stage in which we have to refer to the revolution in the agenda, or that there is a stage in which revolution is not in the agenda... this stage theory makes no sense. In fact, it has been task of the the proletariat and of course the political formations allied to the proletariat to continuously strive for a development of consciousness, continuously strive in this effort to organize the revolutionary elements of society into a striking force. And this has to be distinguished from stages for revolution because, when they have so organized, then of course there are strategic alliances which may change. But on the other hand, talking in terms of stages of revolution is not the same as talking of stages of history.

Now, this of course, again has another very important implication. That implication has a bearing on Gandhi. There is a view that socialism requires a minimal level of development of the productive forces - that is that which allows some time for leisure and so on in order to carry out their creative pursuits - and therefore socialism requires a certain minimum level of development of the productive forces.

But that introduces a stage theory through the back door, because it means that upto a certain point, even under socialism, let us concentrate on production - only then can we think in terms of development of authentic socialism. That raises an important question - what is this minimum level of development of productive forces - there are no minimum levels of development of productive forces. As a matter of fact, it is something which itself is dependent on the kind of lifestyles that a socialist society is striving to achieve. A development of a consumerist society by no means an essential component of the creation of socialism. So that is introducing a stage theory through the backdoor.

In other words, intervention once as it were theory is brought to the proletariat, once as it were we understand the trap of history, once we make efforts to overcome the trap of history, then it is a process in which even after overcoming there are no stages. In fact there is a continuous development of a certain alternative form, to create a society in which there are no immanent tendencies, but in which people’s intervention plays a role to remove people from being objects of history to becoming subjects of history.

Three Problems before the Socialist Revolution

But of course as I said, in this the strategic alliances of the proletariat could change and worker-peasant alliance plays a very important role. But while worker-peasant alliance is what makes possible the kind of interventions which are required for transcending capitalism in societies like ours - because capitalism produces immense misery, immense absolute misery for vast numbers of people - it also creates very serious problems for the revolution. I’ll mention at least a few problems.

Socialism is not the perpetuation of petty production. You have a worker-peasant alliance in which you protect petty production against appropriation by capitalists. On the other hand, one does not thereby historically freeze petty production for ever. On the contrary, there are certain advantages and certain important reasons why we have to proceed beyond petty production, if anything, at least [because] developing a new kind of community requires overcoming the narrow mindedness of the attitudes of the petty producers who are trapped into the old community.

Therefore, one has to think in terms of not only defending petty production, but also transcending petty production, but not in capitalist ways. Not by destroying it, but by the collective effort, by the co-operative, a collective effort of petty producers themselves who come together in order to transcend their own lives, in order to transcend their own ways of organizing production. Now we know that it is not an easy task. That is basically where most of Bolshevik revolution and Chinese revolution has gotten into trouble historically - the transcendence from petty production to collective forms of production.

One has to think in terms of not only defending petty production, but also transcending petty production, but not in capitalist ways.

The second problem - suppose we successfully negotiate the problem of that transcendence. Nonetheless, we have the cultural remnants which stick to the old community. For example patriarchy and caste system. You have all kinds of attitudes which are part of the old community. Now just think of petty producers belonging to the old community. [Even if they] can transcend their petty production status to collectives or cooperatives without coercion, that doesn’t mean that they overcome all those cultural remnants in their mind. There is a very interesting defence of the Chinese cultural revolution that was put forward by Zhow En Lai in one of his writings. I would urge you to read - because it was very different from the standard defence of cultural revolution by many of the people associated with it. Zhow was convinced that cultural revolution is necessary in a society like ours with overwhelming number of peasants - to overcome superstition, to overcome, lets say female foeticide, to overcome all the things that are part of the old society. To do so without disrupting the alliance with the workers, is the second very important problem for the revolution to negotiate.

The third problem is that - even assuming patriarchy and caste and all these things are overcome - I think there it is very important that there has to be a release of the individual. Individualism is typically called bourgeois individualism. But the new community in the Marxist framework, is a community where individuals come together. If you are going to become the subjects of history, then there has to be a period in which the individual gets released from the trap of the old community. That is not bourgeois individualism. I believe there is no conflict between the individual and the new community within the Marxist framework.

In North India, people are not allowed to marry a spouse of their choice. I think only yesterday I saw in the papers that somebody was murdered because he decided to marry a girl of his choice. This deadweight of the old community on the freedom of the action of the individual is something which again has to be overcome. To do so without disrupting the worker peasant alliance in the context of an ongoing new revolution is not an easy task.

But of course negotiating these may not be easy. And of course it is also true that the fact that precisely makes possible the revolution in societies like ours - because of the intense misery to which capitalism is pushing vast numbers of petty producers - which makes therefore a transcendence of capitalism historically possible, at the same time contributes the problems in proceeding along the path of socialism because of the fact that the worker-peasant alliance is one which has to be defended, even while society is trying to destroy the remnants of the old community in terms of the caste system, in terms of patriarchy and so on and so forth.

People's Revolution

I see socialism not only as a great production, but as a great discussion - a society in which people are continuously discussing and thereby, through these discussions, coming to terms with the problems that face them and thereby acquiring the subject status which is ultimately what socialism is all about.

But of course, what is essential is not just that this should be a task only of a dedicated band of revolutionaries, or it should be a task only of experts that Akeel has already touched upon. Socialism if it means anything, means the subject role of the people. There has to be no substitution of the people by a small group of experts, because then what you have is a new form of alienation, a new form of objectification of the people. I believe when Lenin was talking about bringing theory to the proletariat - he was always interpreted - I would say misinterpreted - as saying he’s thinking in terms of the party as it were being superior to the people to whom it brings theory. That is a wrong reading. He is actually talking about empowering the people, by the party playing the role of bringing theory to the people. Of course theory is nobody’s monopoly. You can have multiplicity of political formations which is what Bolsheviks visualized - all of them trying to bring theory to the people, who would then discuss these theories and on the basis of that come to understand what their role is, and come to understand what their tasks are, and therefore come to create the subject role in history.

Bertolt Brecht once referred to socialism as the great production. He was not referring to some 7% growth rate, he was referring to the great liberation of the creative productive energies of the people. I see socialism not only as a great production, but as a great discussion - a society in which people are continuously discussing and thereby, through these discussions, coming to terms with the problems that face them and thereby acquiring the subject status which is ultimately what socialism is all about.

Thank you very much.