A Review of Alf Gunvald Nilsen’s “Dispossession and Resistance in India”

Bhumika Chauhan

Alf Gunvald Nilsen, Dispossession and Resistance in India: The River and the Rage, Routledge, 2010

The book seeks to explore the processes of dispossession and the accompanying resistance within the context of post-colonial India, and more specifically that located in and around the NarmadaValley. Nilsen hopes to build this understanding on the basis of a perspective on social movements and struggles that is very different from those conventionally applied in the social sciences, and by most who have studied the movement around the Narmada, i.e. the Narmada Bachao Andolan (henceforth, NBA).


Developed out of his doctoral thesis, Nilsen’s book offers a vast and critical survey of much that has been said about the NBA along with ample information on the course of the two main and most controversial projects, the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) and the Maheshwar Hydroelectric Project (MHP). Supplemented with his own field notes, Nilsen is able to provide a picture in which one does not see only the costs and benefits of the projects, but also the class nature of the distribution of these costs and benefits, or what he calls the distributional bias of the post-colonial development project. Nilsen’s attempt considerably helps place the NBA and similar movements within the new social movements of India as well as within neoliberal restructuring.


The main contribution of the book is perhaps the perspective it introduces into the social scientific discourse over social movements, particularly (and hopefully) into Indian social sciences. Nilsen rejects those perspectives that posit a social movement as a “fixed institutional entity” with a set of demands and means (p.4). Rather he looks at it as a collective action that gradually developed in “activist skills, practices, forms of consciousness and knowledge” (p.5). It is asserted that movements have internal processes of learning that are involved in initial mobilisation and further radicalisation. He also rejects the popular idea that social movements are organisations engaging in extra-parliamentary collective action within a more or less stable and given socio-economic background in favour of a broader and more dynamic view. For Nilsen:

“A social movement is the organisation of multiple forms of materially grounded and locally generated skilled activity around a rationality expressed and organized by (would-be) hegemonic actors, and against the hegemonic projects articulated by other such actors to change or maintain a dominant structure of entrenched needs and capacities and the social formation in which it inheres, in part or in whole.” (p.14)

It is asserted that sociality of praxis for the satisfaction of needs under the given level of capacity produces dynamic structures, which are reproduced over extended periods of time in accordance with extant relations of power between the “dominant and subaltern groups” within a social formation. Furthermore, praxis within this “structuration of need and capacities” (mode of production?) involves a constant contention between the dominant and subaltern social groups that embody the internal contradictions of the structures (classes?). These contentions may bring about changes in the dominant “structure of needs and capacities” and/or within the overarching social formation, therefore both groups are forever on the move, so to speak. This implies that social movements may happen from above or below. The author means to stress the fact that not only the subaltern groups but also the dominant groups engage in collective actions based on the dominant rationality to maintain or strengthen the dominant structure. It is the central argument of this book that the post-colonial development project and the ongoing accumulation by dispossession are part of a social movement from above, a result of collective action of the dominant social groups (p.13-14).

Significantly, the movement process is seen to start from the “common sense” of “concrete lifeworld in which people are situated”, the “particular as opposed to the universal” (p.193), and works outwards to the “good sense”, “local rationalities” and “militant particularisms” which transform the concrete lifeworld into a “locale or resistance”. The social movement project per se is said to emerge when a common ground is found between different militant particularisms through a “campaign”. This social movement project addresses the totality, the universal. Nilsen’s engagement then with the NBA starts from its constituent local mobilisations, their coming together and divergences, the formation of the NBA as a pan-state, anti-dam movement, its eventual questioning of the post-colonial development project. However, the project is not complete here (and here lies one of the key problems of the NBA according to Nilsen). Nilsen suggests that the few activists[1] who make the connection between the local conflicts and the universal structures that reproduce them – that is, they who have a political agenda against the totality – will have to convince others to come along. This can be accomplished only by grounding the social movement project again in militant particularism and local rationalities from whence it originated. This dialectic of the particular and universal that Nilsen tries to demonstrate in the, admittedly incomplete, trajectory of the NBA may provide some practical insights worth heeding.


An interesting, even brave, aspect of this work is its attempt to bring back concepts of class and class conflict in the analysis of the NBA, and other such movements in India. Nilsen takes note of the distributional bias of the SSP and MHP that constitutes accumulation by dispossession. It is precisely by situating this displacement within class relations that Nilsen demonstrates its nature as accumulation by dispossession and as a “social movement from above” (p.14). The distributional bias expresses a “dual transformation” where (a) property rights in water and electricity, as well as profitable investment opportunities are concentrated into the hands of regional, national and global propertied elite, and (b) the displacement of peasant producers from their land without adequate resettlement and rehabilitation generates pressures towards proletarianisation (p.20).

This thesis is substantiated in the case of SSP by first tracing the class formation of the agroindustrial capitalist patidar elites of south and central Gujarat, as well as the expropriation of the subsistence peasants (Bhil and Bhilal adivasis of Alirajpur) and petty commodity producers (caste Hindu peasants of Nimad) of Madhya Pradesh. While the former, after mobilising themselves to push the project (from Vallabhbhai Patel to the recent chief ministers of Gujarat have all had their support base in these patidars), accumulate the benefit of irrigation and electricity in the farms and factories, the latter are proletarianised and are expected to join the migrant labour force of south and central Gujarat.

In the case of the MHP, the petty commodity producers of Nimad bear the costs of the project, but the support for the project does not come from local elites but private corporations and national and transnational financial institutions that seek investment opportunities. The MHP, Nilsen argues, needs to be viewed in the context of the privatisation of the power sector and the liberalisation of the finance sector. The “structural inefficiencies” of the power sector led to the consensus on privatisation. But when S. Kumar, the private corporation took up the MHP, it had trouble acquiring foreign equity due to the resistance of the NBA. The solution came from the liberalising Indian finance institutions – LIC, SBI, IDBI, PFC, PNB and many others. Other than the MHP, it is a general trend that many transnational finance institutions are financing the restructuring of the power sector. Nilsen refers to David Harvey’s remarks about privatisation and about the management of fiscal crises, like the one that initiated the 1991 reform, being intimately linked to accumulation by dispossession as it creates opportunities both for devaluing public assets and for releasing them onto the market where capital may seize them.

Nilsen argues that the aforementioned distributional bias is not a glitch particular to big dams; it is part of India’s passive revolution (p.41). At Independence, capital was not singularly dominant, nor would universal suffrage allow forcible expropriation, and moreover, a counter-check was needed against the growing radicalisation and socialist tendencies. The Bombay Plan was to offer the solution: capitalist planning. Instead of a total assault, capitalist development was to, and did, progress gradually on the basis of the fragile coalition of “industrial bourgeoisie, the landed elites and rich farmers, and the politico-bureaucratic elites”.  And instead of forceful dispossession, developmental planning, with its big dams and the like, was instituted. The elite support for state intervention was strong, though only for state protection and not so much for regulation. This untenable position eventually led to the fiscal crisis of 1990s. Also, new business groups emerged to support the neoliberal reform that saw state controls as impediments to their growth. All in all, Nilsen argues following Harvey, that “Through the management and manipulation of a fiscal crisis, dominant proprietary classes have managed to push ahead reforms centered on privatisation, liberalisation and financialisation.” And with this accumulation by dispossession has also been facilitated.


The other way in which class enters his analysis is when Nilsen explores the “movement process” of resistance struggles. He asserts that subaltern groups experience constraints of their needs and capacities in their concrete, everyday lives. Collective experiences like in movements can combine and extend the individual “fragmented knowledges” to develop a better view of the underlying structures and relationships. Nilsen calls it a movement process when a social movement from below expands its collective oppositional action beyond specific, local, particular experience, scope and aim to a more “encompassing counter-hegemonic project” and a conception of a universal alternative to the social system (p.15).

In his study of the NBA, Nilsen exposes the appearance of homogeneity of the NBA as well as that of the local communities that constituted it, as is characteristic of all populist struggles. The discourses of the movement came to be hegemonised by the local elites, the rich farmers (p.161-8). Class, gender and caste, posed a challenge to the NBA mobilisation that the latter could not in the end surpass. “Oppositional populism”, Nilsen argues, has been responsible for obfuscating relations of oppression and exploitation within this and other such movements. For instance, the ‘farmer-worker’ organisation within the Nimad region that arose in response to the hike in electricity prices, were undeniably more for the farmer and less for the worker.

The stratified nature of seemingly homogenous identities and communities becomes evident, Nilsen notes, when we look at the various kinds of views of alternative development that emerge when one digs beneath surface discourses. Relatively marginalised groups within these communities are obviously unable to develop or express their position. The subaltern groups of women, dalits and landless labourers fail to expand their “fragmented knowledges” of the social structures. The cause, Nilsen points out, is firstly the “differential appropriation” of the discourse of resistance by the different groups, and secondly the “limited dissemination” of the discourse to the mass base of the movement.


Strangely, it is at this point, where Nilsen’s understanding of the internal segmentation of communities comes out most clearly, that we espy a possible problem in his argument. The solution that Nilsen proposes for the abovementioned issues of discourse dissemination and appropriation is the development of methods for collective and participatory learning, to “deepen processes of conscientization” (p.187). From his thorough analysis of the political economy of accumulation by dispossession, we now seem to have arrived at a vague statement that in this notion of “collective learning” once again ends up positing the “collective” that he just deconstructed. Evidently what he is suggesting is that such learning can allow the collective to overcome its internal divisions, so that it could begin its attack on totality. What Nilsen seems to have forgotten is precisely the materiality of this segmentation, that he brought out so well, and which is not suitably addressed by a concept like “collective learning”. What is this collective learning? Who learns? Do all segments of the collectivity learn from the same experiences, forgetting, one would assume all they have learnt from experiences that vary according to socio-economic positions?

When the traditional, the “orthodox” Marxist stresses the importance of a working class for-itself perspective, or the importance of the leading role that the working class must play in the attack on totality, the idea is to take cognisance of precisely this class-ified nature of experience, that subjectivises individuals and groups differently, in keeping with the unequal apportionment of value and power in society. To be clear, one is not saying that Nilsen ignores the social inequalities – that would contradict much of what was said in the preceding paragraphs – but only that he ignores the leading role that the downtrodden must necessarily play, owing precisely to their history of being downtrodden. While it is hard to miss the author’s clear attribution of post-colonial development project to the capitalist class, it is surprising to find that the working-class is completely absent from this narrative of resistance and change.

Another possible way of addressing the problems of addressing the limits of movements like NBA also emerges, though it never gets spelt out explicitly, from Nilsen’s own work. A movement against displacement can easily stagnate and take on a petty bourgeois character unless it generalises its proletarian moment and builds “alliances” with (in Nilsen’s terms) other movements that are articulating that same moment. Nilsen quotes an essay published in Radical Notes:

“Understanding all these diverse processes in the framework of primitive accumulation has several strategic implications. Perhaps, most urgently, this can provide a unified framework to locate the numerous struggles going on in the country…”(Chandra and Basu 2007 cited in p.201)

If we read beyond the segment he quotes, we could understand better what this “generalisation,” that could allow movements to transcend their own internal limits means:

“… right from the ‘new’ social movements, like landless workers movements, Narmada Bachao Andolan and other local mobilisations of ‘development-victims’, to anti-privatisation movements of public sector workers, all the way to the revolutionary movements led by the Maoists. This unified framework can then possibly facilitate dialogue among these movements, something that is more than essential at this juncture if the movement of labour against capital is to be strengthened.” (Chandra and Basu 2007)

Although an understanding of the contradiction between capital and labour is implicit in most of Nilsen’s analysis, in the end he either remains blind to, or sidesteps the implications of the centrality of this contradiction. In a famous review of Raymond Williams’s The Long Revolution, EP Thompson observed Williams’ unwillingness to use Marxian terms. He noted that though sometimes it is not entirely clear whether Williams is merely steering clear of using that language for the sake of wider intelligibility, or is he also trying to move in a non/anti-Marxist direction with his conclusions. The same can be said about Nilsen’s work. Though his analysis is usually spot on, the attempt to stay away from the register of a Marxian analysis has to be explained. Either he is out to, despite the validity (from a Marxian perspective) of his analysis, find non-Marxist answers to anti-Marxist questions, or his is an attempt to appease the vulgar anti-materialists who rule the academia today – a Gramsci like self-censoring to fool the fascist prison-guards.


[1] However, there is reason for concern about what it is that Nilsen means by “activist”. On several occasions he uses the term to refer to the external agents that provided a much needed perspective and impetus to the oppressed communities within the Narmada Valley. In fact, on most occasions, it seems Nilsen is addressing such external agents, and only on rare occasions does it seem possible that he might be referring to agents from the militant communities themselves as activists.

A Review of “The Socialist Alternative”

Ankit Sharma

Michael A Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development, Monthly Review Press & Aakar Books, 2010

This book is part of Michael Lebowitz’s larger project of demonstrating the ever-existing necessity of a socialist transformation as the revolutionary resolution of class struggle in capitalism. It builds a theoretical foundation for such revolutionary praxis in the specific objectivity of the 21st century. Lebowitz’s previous book, Build it Now, captured and described the specificities of socialist praxis and possibilities in the Bolivarian experience of Venezuela. The Socialist Alternative can be seen as building a coherent model of an alternative by gathering and arranging the elements that are found scattered in that experience.

Like the previous one, this book too is a result of Lebowitz’s rigorous and critical engagement with the ‘socialist’ experiences/experiments of the 20th century. The author clearly critiques the stagist and statist conception of socialism that was based on an ‘uncritical’ takeover of the State and the subservience of the self-activities of the labouring classes to the purpose of strengthening the State. It was this statism that defined the socialist praxes of the 20th century.

Lebowitz also critiques the dwarfish (yet important) experiments of cooperatives and the Yugoslavian practice of workers’ self-management – where, apparently, we find an inversion of the top-bottom approach, and also a kind of workers’ control. Yet this managerial structure failed to develop a “solidarian society” that countered the segmentation and competition among workers, as the logics of commodity production and profiteering continued at the base of those experiments.

The socialist alternative that Lebowitz posits is a process – it is “the path to Human Development” constituted through self-organisational and self-emancipatory practices of the working class. The democratic, participatory and protagonistic activities would reconstitute our everyday lives in this process. “Through revolutionary practice in our communities, our workplaces, and in all our social institutions, we produce ourselves as other than the impoverished and crippled human beings that capitalism produces.” (22) After all, “revolutionary practice” is nothing but “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of the human activity or self-change”, as Marx defined it in one of his theses on Feuerbach. Thus, even though ownership over the means of production still remains critical for building socialism, social solidarity and active participation of every human being based upon “the elementary triangle” of social property, social production and satisfaction of social needs are central to Lebowitz’s socialist imagination. It is this centrality of solidarian revolutionary practice that emancipates socialism from its relegation to statism and productivistic technocracy. This is the vision of the “good society”, which put simply is an association where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.


In Part I, The Socialist Triangle, Lebowitz begins with an analysis of the “wealth of people”, through which he arrives at the first side in the socialist triangle – the concept of social property. He locates the critical centrality of accumulated past labour (the accumulation of tools/instruments of labour and knowledge/skill) and the combination of labour in determining the level of productivity. The “free service of past labour” and the “free gift” of cooperation determine the social productive power. Further, it is the combination of labour that generates the social character of human labour, and thus constitutes even accumulated past labour as “social inheritance” or “social heritage”.

Class struggle in a sense is a contest over this social heritage – “to whom does it belong”? In fact, capitalism rests upon the alienation of social heritage, its mystification as capital and its institution as “an alien power opposed to [man], which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him” (Marx). This normalisation of expropriated social heritage and its mystification as capital is possible because of the wage-form of labour that defines capitalist production. Under this form a capitalist and worker seem to confront each other as equals and workers are projected as sellers of labour who are fully remunerated. Only when the sale of labour(-power) is differentiated from the expenditure of labour-power (labour) that we are able to understand the genesis of surplus value and thus, the nature of capitalist exploitation. Otherwise, in the mystified system, profits and productivity gains are contributed by capitalists and are results of capitalist investments, rather than the products of “the combination of living social labour and of past social labour.”

Social heritage can assert its full sociality only when this mystification is destroyed. Only when it comes under social ownership that it can serve humanity rather than individuals. Thus, is derived the first cornerstone of the elementary socialist triangle. However, the notion of social ownership, for Lebowitz, is not so given, rather it is grounded in the dynamic praxis of socialism – it implies a profound democracy from below that involves everybody in decision-making, who are affected by those decisions. Hence, it cannot be relegated to state ownership, as happened with the 20th century socialist ‘victories’ (or defeats). Also, limitation of ownership to decision-makers allows differential and privileged access to means of production on the basis of one’s location in the productive economy and thus perverts social ownership. Displacing capital by things does not destroy mystification – as its essential element, reification is still prevalent. What is important for socialism is to bring human beings to the centre of production and distribution, and to understand “the development of human capacity” as real wealth, the goal to which the “objective wealth” must become subservient. “This is the real wealth of people – rich human beings.”

Lebowitz differentiates the Marxist conception of human capacities from that of Human Development Reports, which are based on Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach. The understanding of human development in HDRs is circumscribed within a liberal framework that seeks to integrate people on the margins into the so-called mainstream – to make the capitalist system more inclusive. It seeks to remove barriers in the broadening of opportunities (capabilities in this framework are equivalent to opportunities). It certainly questions neoliberal market fetishism, but it empowers the state to complement the market.

In the Marxist framework, on the other hand, the relationship between human development and self-activity or practice, and thus simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity or self-change is central. “The Production of People” is the process of self-creation of man. From outside to inside the formal or direct production process, every labour process is a production of human capacity. This continuum is clearly visible when popular self-development is the goal. However, even when this goal is not preconceived, as in a bourgeois economy, where labour processes are abstracted from one another (as work from leisure, whereas in fact it is the latter that readies a worker for work), the struggle of workers against capital “transforms ‘circumstances and men,’ expanding their capabilities and making them fit to create a new world.”(51)

Of course, capitalism destroyed the barriers to human development that pre-capitalist societies posed and created the conditions for the development of the rich individuality. But capitalism in order to reproduce itself generates mystifications that cognitively impoverishes workers – “they distort the worker into a fragment of a man”, who is overwhelmed by the creative power of his own labour projected as an alien power, as the power of capital.

Lebowitz here shows how to read Capital to obtain Marx’s conception of socialism – “Read Capital with the purpose of identifying the inversions and distortions that produce truncated human beings in capitalism and we can get a sense of Marx’s idea of what is ‘peculiar to and characteristic of’ production in that ‘inverse situation,’ socialism.” Most importantly, we must not be trapped by capital’s definition of production, since it is here that alienation, distortions, mystifications and fetishism are generated. It is important to reestablish human beings as both the subject and object of production, where “specific use-values … are mere moment in a process of producing human beings, the real result of social production.”(59) It is social production in this sense that is identified as the second element of the socialist triangle. In this production process, the “systematic and hierarchic divisions of labour” that create caste-like segmentations do not have any place. And, “every aspect of production must be a site for the collective decision making and variety of activity that develops human capacities and builds solidarity among the particular associated producers.”(60) It is in this light, Lebowitz critiques the experiments in “real socialism” and foregrounds the Solidarian Society – a new social form based on “protagonism and conscious cooperation by producers”.

Capitalism is based on separation and not association – where “the community of human beings is at its core a relationship of separate property owners”(66) and human development is a result of the competition of self-interests in the market. While Marx considered the experience of cooperatives in the nineteenth century important, but he viewed them as new form still reproducing “all the defects of the existing system” – not going beyond profit-seeking and competition, beyond market and self-interest. The cooperatives must themselves cooperate and become the basis for a “harmonious system of associated labour” where “many different forms of labour-power” are expended “in full self-awareness as one single social labour force.” Lebowitz, rereading Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, finds the continuation of exchange relations (and thus of bourgeois right) as the chief defect of socialism. It is a defect related to the relation of distribution, which conserves inequality (on the basis of relative contributions or work). Each producer, like in capitalism, continues to be the “owners of the personal condition of production, of labour-power” and he has self-interest in maximising his income. The Yugoslav model that the chapter discusses illustrates the problems of the self-managed enterprises that “functioned in the market and were driven by one thing – self-interest. In every enterprise, the goal was to maximise income per member of the individual enterprise.”(74)

Lebowitz considers self-interest as “an infection in socialism”. It “undermines the development of socialism as an organic system”. If this infection is not fought against, it will infect “all sides of the socialist triangle”. Enterprises in order to be profit-maximisers will rely increasingly upon experts and expertise (as happened in the case of Yugoslavia), thus diluting workers management. Labour-power as property would perpetuate inequality leading to a break in solidarity. Resultant differential possession or differential development of capacities combined with self-interest would destroy the common ownership of the means of production. It is only by a conscious and continuous building of the solidarian society, thus fighting self-interest, that socialism as an organic system can emerge. In this new society, “man’s need has become a human need”, there is “communal activity and communal enjoyment”, and “the other person as a person has become for him a need – the extent to which he in his individual existence is at the same time a social being”. Further, “there is an exchange not of exchange values but of ‘activities, determined by communal needs and communal purposes’.”(79)


The second part of the book deals with “the becoming of socialism as an organic system.”(85) Lebowitz considers it important to differentiate between the Being and Becoming of an Organic System – historically viewed a social system grows out of the old system, whose traces persist as defects in the new system, while any system as an organic whole “produces its own premises and thus rests upon its own foundations.”(88) Hence, the three sides in the socialist triangle in their mutual interdependence found socialism as an organic, completed system. However, this organicity of a system is a product of the historical process of “[subordination of] all elements of society to itself and [creation of] the organs it still lack in order to rest upon its own foundations”.(92) Lebowitz brings out a lucid Marxist understanding of this historico-logical process with regard to the emergence of the capitalist system by a rereading of Capital from this angle. He concludes that a capitalist mode of regulation is needed for capitalism to stand on its own foundations. There is no universal mode of such regulation; its constitution is relative to geo-historical specificities. Similarly, in the process of the becoming of socialism a socialist mode of regulation is needed, which will reproduce socialist relations and subordinate all the elements (inherited from the past) to the needs of this reproduction.

In his elucidation of The Concept of a Socialist Transition, Lebowitz begins with a critique of the stagist conception of socialism/communism which distorts Marx’s understanding of socialism/communism as a single organic system in the process of becoming. Under this scheme, a defect inherited from the past that was to be subordinated in the process of becoming was transformed into the foundational principle of the stage of socialism. Human beings were continued to be seen as private owners of labour power, and a right of inequality based upon unequal work capacity was sanctified. Still entitlements were not based upon an individual’s “capacity as a member of society”. Thus, individual material self-interest remained the lever, instead of being considered as a defect that must be fought against and subordinated.

Lebowitz recognises that in the process of their confrontation with capital workers change their circumstances and themselves – they come to understand the limits of economic action and extend their solidarian praxis to subvert capitalist class power. Through their political or class movement they win the battle of democracy and begin to rupture the logic of capital – and thus the process of the becoming of socialism based on the logic of human development emerges. It begins with a “critical rupture in property rights”, with the expropriation of the capitalists by the state in the name of the associated producers. However, such expropriation cannot have socialistic orientation unless there is a transformation of the state itself – i.e., its transformation “from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it”. But such transformation is imaginable only when the associated producers become possessors of production and reproduction – these would be socialist relations of production. In a sense, there must be simultaneous sustained attack on class despotism, on the “systematic and hierarchic division of labour” at both levels – the workplace and the state. And thus in this struggle, will emerge a new socialist mode of production, subordinating “all elements of society to itself”, creating organs specific to it and developing productive forces that reflect new relations of production. But to realise this the midwifery of a socialist mode of regulation is needed. Lebowitz is unequivocal in asserting that this will not be a despotic hierarchical state, but “the political form for the social emancipation of workers”, which will assert workers’ protagonism, not substitute it. It will be “the power of decentralised, democratic, ‘self-working and self-governing communes’ – a state of the Paris Commune type.”(119) Lebowitz cautions that there is no linear irreversibility in this process of socialist transition”: – every step is contested – “the logic of the old system weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”:

“Two paths – one going back toward capitalism and one advancing toward socialism. We come, then, to Lenin’s famous question, ‘Who will win?’ There is nothing inevitable about the answer.”(123)

There is no universal path to socialism. Different paths confronting diverse contingencies are directed toward the common goal of the full development of human potential. Lebowitz once again attacks stagism that dismantles the socialist triangle into some sort of universal historical sequence, asserting that such perception does not understand the organic character of socialism – the interdependence of the three sides. Only the recognition of the simultaneity of these elements can help us confront capitalism, which too is an organic system – “To change a structure in which all relations coexist simultaneously and support one another, you have to do more than try to change a few element in that structure; you must stress at all times the hub of these relations – human beings as subjects and products of their own activity.” Lebowitz stresses the conception of revolution as a process – “a process of contested reproduction.”(129)

There is a continuous need to subordinate capitalist relations and create new socialist elements. For this, social force is required in the form of state power. Some concrete proposals, like taxing the surplus value, ensuring transparency, transforming the workday to incorporate time for education for worker management, reorganisation of production at the base involving workers and community assemblies etc are discussed in the book. These are required for facilitating socialist transition in the societies where “the battle of democracy has been fought but not yet won” and where despite workers governments “the balance of forces favors capital”. These seemingly reformist socialist conditionalities put capital on defensive, they constitute despotic inroads on capitalist rights. However, they must encourage class protagonism of the workers or revolutionary practice, or else they would be reduced to statism and eventually help in the re-consolidation of capitalist class power. Workers and neighbourhood councils that foster cooperation and solidarity can act as “the elemental cells of the new socialist state”, as forms of popular protagonism. But for them to stand as viable foundations for a socialist alternative, linkages between them – interconnections among workplaces, within and between communities must be drawn. And ultimately producers must connect directly with their counterparts, the final consumers – i.e., needs and their knowledge must be liberated from “the tyranny of exchange value.” This liberation will eventually lead to continuous expansion of the commons.

The last chapter, Developing a Socialist Mode of Regulation, deals with the conception of the mode of regulation that would facilitate the inroads the new socialist society would make into capitalist sociality by ensuring the reproduction of socialist relations by strictly subordinating the vestiges of the older system. For Lebowitz, this mode is, first, an ideological fight that exposes capitalist perversions, while stressing the cooperative and solidarian practices. Secondly, it involves the creation of institutions that facilitate these practices, like workers’ and community councils. And, thirdly, it means an emergence of a kind of dual state power – the old state despotically dealing with capital and facilitating its own demise, and the new state emerging from below on the basis of the new institutions of popular power and practice. These two states complement one another, yet remain contradictory; so there is a continuous danger of the old consolidating itself, unless the new state expands and develops its elements by normalising and institutionalising socialist accountancy and rationality that focus on human development and needs.

Lebowitz finally asserts that a socialist mode of regulation requires a political leadership and even “a party of a different type” in order “to mediate among the parts of the collective worker, provide the welcoming space for where popular movements can learn from each other and develop the unity necessary to defeat capital.” This party must facilitate (not supersede) the popular initiatives from below. It must be the propagator of revolutionary practice as “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of the human activity or self-change” – as the self-emancipation of the working class.

A Review of Henry Bernstein’s “Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change”

Bhumika Chauhan

Henry Bernstein, Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change, Fernwood Press & Kumarian Press, 2010

This book, written by Henry Bernstein, is the first in the Agrarian Change and Peasant Studies series published by ‘Initiatives in Critical Agrarian Studies’ (based at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands). Considering the size of the task it takes on in barely 125 pages – of providing an introduction to, an overview of, and a perspective on agrarian formations and transformations under capitalism – it would not have been possible, perhaps, for anybody else but Henry Bernstein to undertake it. His intimate and longstanding involvement in setting the agenda for the debates on the agrarian question allows him to paint the “big picture” of agrarian change in capitalism through generalisation and periodisation, yet remaining extremely sensitive to the specificities of its realisation in diverse spatial-temporal locations.

Marx derived the logic of capital and capitalist transformation by studying the industrial capitalism of northwest Europe – his account of agrarian change was also delimited by this concern. This leaves much space to be filled, as is one of Bernstein’s aims in this book, with an understanding of capitalism and agriculture before and since modern industrialisation. This is furthermore required in order to grasp the richness of Marx’s critique of political economy, and for its internal nurturing by exposing its conceptual and analytical tools to diverse empirical realities. As Bernstein himself states, the initial concerns of the book are “how capitalism developed in primarily agrarian societies before industrialization”, and “how agrarian change has been shaped by industrial capitalism once it was established and spread” (p.9). Of course, many have already made significant contributions in this direction. The importance of this slim volume lies in its attempt to consolidate them into a fairly coherent account of the complexity of agrarian change.

In attempts at understanding the development of capitalism, Bernstein distinguishes between two dominant approaches. The first focuses on understanding diverse national paths to agrarian capitalism. The classic case in this regard is of course the English path which Marx analysed – the crisis of feudalism in the 14th and 15th centuries leading to a change in class structure and the rise of the capitalist tenant farmer. In Prussia the feudal lords themselves became capitalist commodity producers and converted the peasants into wage labourers. In America, engagement in commodity relations led to the emergence of capitalist farming out of the independent small holding farmer, while in Japan and South Korea, the transition was a result of primitive accumulation for industrialisation through taxation of peasantry, without the development of agrarian capitalism (pp. 27-32).

The second perspective traces the “long march of commercial capitalism” since the 12th century towards agrarian capitalism. Bernstein finds elements of this perspective in the works of Giovanni Arrighi, Jairus Banaji and Jason Moore. They argue that if one were to look at international patterns of trade and finance it would be clear that capitalism was world-historic since its birth. In this line of thought, the English transition to agrarian capitalism occurred in the larger context of Dutch hegemony over world-capitalism, while England became hegemonic only after pioneering the Industrial Revolution. Rather disappointingly, this assertion which is apparently central to the theorisation of the development of capitalism is not sufficiently explained or substantiated.

However, despite lacking sufficient elaboration as far as the larger picture of the ‘long march’ is concerned, Bernstein’s exposition of the dynamics of labour and capital within commercial capitalism is nuanced and complex. The key classes in commercial capitalism, he writes, included aristocratic and colonial landlords who organised specialised commodity production, merchants who advanced credit and material to handicraftsmen and other producers of manufactured goods, capitalists in extractive sectors of mining and forestry, and financiers who funded this development. All of them were true capitalists according to Bernstein: they exploited labour for profit, invested to expand production, even through increased productivity, funded new sites for commodity production, and developed new markets for those commodities (p.33). Bernstein lays great stress on the fact that even before the emergence of industrial capital, and outside of the agrarian capital that developed in England, commercial capital in agriculture was already capitalist.

Commercial capitalism also utilised more flexible forms of labour than the ones Marx observed to be predominant in industrial capitalism. Bernstein endorses Banaji’s argument that capital is capable of exploiting labour in a variety of social arrangements and in varied historical circumstances, like in the form of slavery in specialised commodity production in plantations. The labourer may not be entirely dispossessed but loses the ability to reproduce himself outside commodity production. Here, Bernstein uses Robert Brenner’s concept of commodification of subsistence, which is shown to be central to the early trajectory of capitalism, along with the persistence of small farms, especially in the South.

Bernstein goes on to discuss the incorporation of the remaining world peasantry into the capitalist world through colonialism. The colonial state brought new agrarian production structures into the colonies: slave plantations in southern North America, haciendas in Latin America, zamindari and ryotwari in India, trade economies, labour reserves and concessionary companies in Africa. These did not only serve the budgets of the administration and the colonial state, but also led to “forced commercialization”. The peasants of the colonies were now the producers of cash crops for export, food crops for the domestic market as well as for export, and of labour power (workers, who also migrated from farms to plantations, railways construction etc.). The specialised industrial plantations of the nineteenth century experienced the classic type of capitalist commodity production although the majority of agricultural production in colonies witnessed petty commodity production. Undoubtedly, commodity production and commodification of subsistence had set in colonial peasantry in various forms and at various levels.

In this exploration of the relation between capitalism and colonialism, we encounter many debates surrounding colonialism, especially ones that centre on this question, and the connected one of how colonialism contributed to an incomplete capitalist transition in colonies. These discussions invariably keep coming to the issue of capitalist and pre-capitalist organisation of labour. Not all of the varied forms of labour regimes that colonialism instituted in the colonies – forced, semi-proletarian, family labour/petty commodity production and proletarianisation (p.54) – fit the classical model of capitalist production. Most of them were hybrids of ‘forced/unfree’ and ‘free’ wage labour. Those who understand the English path of transition to capitalism as the paradigm for this transition, think of all forms of labour except the ‘fully free’ one, to be ‘pre-capitalist’. Bernstein affirms Banaji’s contention that ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ labours are fluid and ambiguous in social reality, and like others who argue for the “long history of commercial capitalism”, identifies social relations characterising all regimes of labour, established in the South by European colonialism, as capitalist.

Bernstein’s account of agrarian change since the 1870s highlights the role played by upstream and downstream activities in agriculture; it is through such activities that capitalism has penetrated to the most independent of farms. Upstream activities concern the conditions of production such as the supply of inputs and instruments of labour. Downstream activities include marketing, distribution and processing of farm produce. The book shows how with industrialisation, these activities have risen to such great importance that even so-called self-sufficient farmers have come to depend on powerful agents like agri-input and agri-food capital. This dependence has made them ever more dependent on money income for the purchase of means of subsistence: what we have called commodification of subsistence.

With the rise of neoliberal globalisation in agriculture there is a further deepening of commodification. With substantial withdrawal of the State from agriculture (more in the South than the North), transnational agribusinesses have become major agents in organising and regulating conditions of production and consumption within the global food economy (p.81). Along with the commodification of subsistence, Bernstein notes, there has been a new wave of depeasantisation. Much like in other domains, neoliberalism in agriculture is propped upon “accumulation by dispossession,” or to put it in a more orthodox manner, primitive accumulation, which entails the divorcing of the farmer from the means to farm.

That capitalism is still dispossessing the peasantry forces us to take note of an interesting fact: that the dispossession of the peasantry has been a very slow process, that capitalism has for a very long time, allowed a large portion of the population some means of production (in this case, land). This persistence of peasants or the continuing survival of non-capitalist farms is of particular interest to Bernstein as are those movements that strive for their preservation and restoration, movements that neoliberalism has re-invigorated. The issue of the persistence of peasantry, significant for epistemological-methodological as well as political reasons, comes up frequently in the book but receives a detailed treatment in the last three chapters that deal directly with class dynamics in agriculture. It is a methodological issue insofar as the simplistic way of understanding small farmers that grasps class as a sociologically fixed category and makes use of crude binaries, prevalent in even Marxist circles, is undialectical, and is often guilty of shying away from engaging with concrete facts; it is political because only an accurate analysis of class dynamics makes visible the struggle that lies inside the apparently homogenous class of peasants.

Bernstein presents three sets of explanations for the slow pace of depeasantisation. One, peasants themselves have, in various ways and to varying degrees, resisted commodification, dispossession and proletarianisation. But Bernstein finds this explanation to be inadequate because it does not take into account the interests and power of capital; he points out that often indigenous peasants, of their own initiative, turn to commodity production, and eventually capitalist farming (p.97). Peasant response to commodification has not been one of simple acceptance or rejection. It is marked by a complicated process of negotiation. The second set of explanations is that farming consists of certain technical and social aspects that obstruct capitalist investment. Because of this, capital is more comfortable letting the farmer take all risks and burdens involved, preferring upstream to downstream businesses. This second explanation is closely related to the third.

The third set of explanations for peasants’ persistence is that they work to the benefit of capital. Bernstein argues that family farms are not merely to be seen as competing with or independent of capitalist corporations. Many of them are dependent on upstream or downstream corporations and banks via contracts or other arrangements. Following Kautsky, he explains that the peasantry persists, or rather, is allowed to exist by capital, only so long as it helps lower the cost of labour-power (p.94). That is to say, family-worked farms could produce cheaper food commodities and lower the cost of labour power, and hence wage. Furthermore, peasants and small farmers who sell a portion of their labour-power can make do with low wages, because a part of their reproduction is provided for by their farms.

In all such explanations, there is some notion that small farmers are exploited by capital. According to Bernstein there are several notions of exploitation by capital as far as family labour is concerned: “as labour force working with other people’s means of production or as self-exploiting in ways that represent indirect exploitation by capital or at least in ways that benefit capital” (p.101). For some, the agrarian populists particularly, the small-scale farm is to be treated as one class in relation to capital which exploits it. Such notions are further fuelled by the recent spree of peasant dispossession. However, Bernstein argues that the small-scale, family farms are themselves differentiating into classes with the increasing penetration of capital, and not all of them are at the losing end.

To explain this assertion, Bernstein explores the class dynamics of family farming. This requires us to first understand the process of commodification in family farming. He asserts that the tendency of capital towards generalised commodity production does not imply that “all elements of social existence are necessarily and comprehensively commodified. Rather it signifies the commodification of subsistence: that reproduction cannot take place outside commodity relations and the discipline they impose” (p.102; emphasis original). And as has been demonstrated already, commodification of subsistence is characteristic of small farmers. Small farmers are also (before further differentiation) petty commodity producers, and petty commodity production in capitalism combines the class “places” of capital, in the form of land, tools, seeds, fertilizers etc., and labour, in the form of families/households. There is then, in petty commodity production, a contradiction between these two class places, that is between the reproduction of capital and the reproduction of labour; money, on the one hand, has to be allocated for rent and replacement of other means of production, and on the other, for consumption.

This contradiction, Bernstein asserts, is the source of differentiation among small, ‘non-capitalist’ farmers. Rich peasants or emergent capitalist farmers expand themselves as capital and tend to employ wage labour. Those struggling to reproduce themselves as capital as well as labour are the poor farmers. The contradiction of the two class places in petty commodity production is most apparent in the poor farmers when they try to push down the scale of consumption of the family, the labour, in order to keep ownership of land, the capital. The middle farmers are those who can reproduce themselves as capital on the same scale of production, and as labour on the same scale of consumption. These relatively stable petty commodity producers are at the heart of agrarian populism and its notion of self-sufficient farmers. They are of special interest to Bernstein since even these seemingly self-sufficient farmers usually exploit wage labour.

After explaining the class position of small farmers, Bernstein goes on to explain how these farmers are integrated into capitalism even outside the farm. The emergent capitalist farmer invests in upstream and downstream businesses like crop trading and processing, rural retail trade, transport, advancing credit etc. Poor farmers, it has been seen, cannot survive without selling their labour power wherever possible. Even medium farmers engage in off-farm activities including labour migration. Such off-farm activity is necessary for many medium-farmer households if they are to avoid proletarianisation. The facts are that there are no self-sufficient family farms that neither hire nor sell wage labour, and that all three classes of farmers are engaged in the wider capitalist market. And these facts clearly go against the assertions of those who claim that (1) there are ‘non-capitalist’, self-sufficient ‘small family farm’, and (2) they need to be guarded against capitalist penetration. Bernstein effectively demonstrates that there is no self-sufficiency in family farms, and capital has already penetrated to the roots.

So, if one places the agricultural sector, as one should, within the larger context in which it is truly situated, that is, if one takes into account the determinations beyond farming and agriculture, then the diversity of class formations in the countryside of the global South (the very many in-betweens we encounter: semi-proletarians etc.) begins to become comprehensible. As such, Bernstein speaks of classes of labour: “[t]he social locations and identities the working poor inhabit, combine and move between make for ever more fluid boundaries and defy inherited assumptions of fixed and uniform notions of ‘worker,’ ‘famers,’ ‘petty trader,’ ‘urban,’ ‘rural,’ ’employed,’ and ‘self-employed'” (p.111). He also distinguishes between different “classes of capital” on the basis of different “interests and strategies of capital in particular activities and sectors like industry, finance or agriculture and on scales from local to regional, national and international” (p.112). By this logic, the corporate agribusinesses and the “rich peasants” are different, yet part of the same capitalist class.

In the final chapter, Bernstein arrives at the political aspects of class struggle. Class exploitation, he writes, is not experienced in any pure form, but is mediated through specific identities like “urban/rural dwellers, industrial workers/agricultural labourers, urban craftsmen and women peasants, men/women, mental/manual labour, young/old, black/white, regional, national and ethnic differences and so on” (Gibbon and Neocosmos 1985 cited on p.117). Differentiating between “struggle over class” and “struggle between classes” (p.117), Bernstein concludes that the former is a condition of the latter, that is, the struggles over class of the working poor are inflected and restricted by social divisions such as religion, caste, colour and gender. The struggle between classes can only be successful subsequent to the working class resolving the social divisions within. He asks us to appreciate the complexity of the experience of the circumstance of oppression.

Bernstein’s thrust in the book is on uncovering the class reality of the small-farmers, refuting positions that assert that a homogenous class of independent farmers exists, and exposing farmers’ movements that claim to represent all farmers but actually serve the interest of the rich peasants. While these are very relevant theoretical and political issues that need to be addressed, a greater attention could have been given to the task of providing a more thorough perspective on agriculture in general and its overall class structure. The book also lacks adequate empirical support for assertions regarding the contribution of off-farm activities to the household income of family-farmers. Furthermore, despite being so concerned with the South, there is not much said on the various positions articulated within the mode of production debate on Indian agriculture (excepting Banaji’s); another oversight for a book aiming to make new students of agrarian relations familiar with important works and debates. Additionally, a small issue with the style of the book is that its simplicity at times ends up giving a very simplistic sense of very complex processes and experiences to the unfamiliar reader.

However, for the not so unfamiliar reader, and for the activist, for people, that is, who are aware of the numerous compounded issues that the agrarian working class, and the working class in general, faces, Bernstein’s book provides a ‘big picture’. Instead of focusing on one or a few problems of the agrarian population, like so many works on agrarian change have already done, Bernstein attempts to create a broader perspective about capitalist transformation in agriculture.

Politically, the book makes several significant contributions, not perhaps in saying something very new, but certainly in reiterating some very important things. In focusing on the fact that capital may exploit labour in many ways, including, without completely divorcing it from the means of production, the book tells us, like a few have tried to in the past as well, that the working-class may be found in many locations. Bernstein understands class as a process, intersecting with other determinations like gender, age, caste, ethnicity etc. In recognising the fluid nature of identities in this world of complex experiences, denying the exclusivity of class and yet insisting on its universality, such an analysis can only bolster our understanding of working-class unity, and ways of its construction.

A Review of Victor Serge’s “Revolution in Danger”


Victor Serge, Revolution in Danger: Writings from Russia, 1919-1921 (Translated & edited by Ian Birchall), Haymarket Books, 2011

The pamphlets collected here were written during the Russian Civil War. They were read by Victor Serge’s anarchist comrades as justification for Bolshevik authoritarianism and excess, while his new comrades possibly saw in them an anarchist hangover and germs for future deviation.

Victor Serge has been known mainly for his anti-Stalinism. More recently, his novels have become an attraction for their description of contradictions, bureaucratisation and degeneration of the Russian Revolution. However, he is seldom recognised for the originality of his understanding of revolutionary tasks in general, and their realisation in the Russian scenario. Hopefully, this collection will be an impetus for critical inquiries into his ‘revolutionary theory’.

Specifically, if something survived in Victor Serge throughout his life, it was his commitment to libertarianism. He saw his road to Bolshevism as something borne out of this commitment, rather than as its dilution. Writings from his initial Bolshevik days which have been compiled in this book demonstrate two things. Firstly, they represent Serge’s struggle to explain his involvement in the Russian Revolution, during the turbulent days of the Civil War, to himself and to his anarchist comrades. Serge seeks to show how it entailed the furthering of the revolutionary libertarian cause, not its abandonment. And secondly, the texts provide an important insight into lesser known aspects, or tenets of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, which opponents conveniently forget, while supporters in their doctrinaire zeal to draw definite lessons, are incapable of tracing – uncomfortable with the multiplicity, and even contradictory political currents that constituted Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution. Of course, histories of anarchism never forget to show its active presence in the Russian Revolution, especially in initial months. In fact, individual libertarian groups found some representation in the Comintern in its initial days. But an inquiry into Victor Serge’s life and works would go further in tracing the libertarian current in the rebirth of Bolshevism during the Russian Revolution.

The first two pamphlets are reports of specific days in Petrograd in the year 1919. They are about the revolutionary defense of the city against the whites. The significance of Petrograd lay in the fact that its labouring population was in the front ranks of leadership of the Russian Revolution, and when the Provisional Government was dismantled, power came into the hands of the Petrograd Soviet. The Petrograd Soviet was the epitome of the revolutionary transition. Being “a front-line city”, “the city of the revolution”, Petrograd was “permanently in danger” – “The air you breathe there is more vibrant than elsewhere. You can feel the nervous tension and the awakening of a crowd living on permanent alert”. (65)

Like John Reed, Serge wrote these pamphlets in struggles and on the streets. He successfully located the politics of the times in the everydayness of city-life – political ideas and ideals are constituted and reconstituted in day to day happenings, thus shifting their significations radically. This has given the texts, as the translator and editor of the volume, Ian Birchall, rightly, notes, “the freshness of immediacy and, even more, the power of revolutionary enthusiasm… they convey a vivid sense of what it was actually like to experience the first years of the revolution.”(3) However, unlike Reed’s, these texts would be read much more in an ideological manner, as parallel to these narratives runs a continuous and intense self-inquiry into the role of these events in (re)defining the particular politico-ethical legacy, from which the author came. Thus, Serge’s pamphlets are definitely more than mere good or even radical journalism. Serge himself asserts in one of the pamphlets that “his observations and reflections are those of a Communist formed in the libertarian traditions of the Latin countries.” (60)

In fact, it is this legacy of activism that allows him to appreciate the immediate and the spontaneous in the revolution, even in its most difficult phase, when the planned unity of action and thought was considered the greatest virtue, and whose ossification ultimately constituted “the tragedy of a social revolution”. His continuous stress on the “this-time”-ness of “violence, authority and constraint” – of “Red terror”, “dirty jobs”, “sadness”, “draconian measures” dissolves the purported absoluteness and linearity of the revolutionary course in Russia. The Russian situation in Serge’s pamphlets becomes full of possibilities – interplay of necessities, dangers and hope. “Certain necessities of struggle, which it is always difficult to accept in the abstract, stand out clearly just as they followed logically from the events.”(17) After all, “Anarchy is not an ideal formula: it must be life and can be born only from action.”(51)

The grasp of the instantaneous leads him to appreciate the role of the Communist party – its efficiency in organising internal defence – “to mobilize cadres and members, something which was done within a few hours.”(74) He reflects,

“The party at this time is the only organization capable of inspiring, channeling and directing the energies which have just triumphed (and moreover let us note that it maintains its unique situation in dictatorial fashion), but it is nonetheless true that they exist outside it, that they constitute its strength only because it represents them knowingly, because it is, in short, only one of the means of the revolution, in some sense the most powerful lever of the proletariat.”(98, emphases mine)

As clear in this rethinking of the role of the party, Serge’s endeavour was essentially to grasp the revolutionary needs from below – how the situation was building up on the ground, and how specific organs and agencies were appropriated, modified or challenged to suit these needs. It was also an endeavour to explain how an anarchist like himself gravitated towards Bolshevism, despite his continued stress on anti-authoritarianism, direct action, morality and other libertarian motifs. In fact it is this continuity that made Serge capable of capturing those (anomalous) characteristics of the Russian Revolution, which others have generally neglected or could not take account of, usually due to various kinds of ideological baggage. With the examples of Anarchist revolutionaries who were active in the Russian revolution Serge pronounces the same virtue that gathered the Marxists, Blanquists and Anarchists in one fold during the Paris Commune of 1871 – “that in the face of the common enemy, the great revolutionary family – where there are so many enemy brothers – is one; and that at the most critical moments, class instinct wins out over ideological deviations and sectarian spirit. In these times of struggle, the most serious divergences of opinion become secondary; for the very life of the first socialist society is at stake.”(99)

The final pamphlet in this collection is not a narrative of events, but a reconceptualisation of Bolshevism and the lessons of the initial years of the Russian Revolution in a language which can speak to the libertarians. Serge, in 1921, already speaks of “the tragedy of a social revolution being contained within national frontiers… [which] is thus stifled and reduced to playing for time with the enemy within and without.”(118) However, he does not yet consider the situation completely hopeless and perhaps thinks that the mobilisation and integration of anarchists at this juncture will rescue the Russian Revolution from implosion, “elevating, ennobling and enlightening the spirit of the communism of the future”.(119)

Serge was never completely cut off from his Anarchist comrades. Many of them had already written obituaries of the Russian Revolution and wanted to have nothing to do with it, but a section represented by none other than Peter Kropotkin (greatly respected by Lenin) was more self-reflective. Kropotkin found the revolution advancing “in its own way, in the direction of the least resistance, without paying the least attention to our efforts…. That is why it is a revolution and not a peaceful progress, because it is destroying without regarding what it destroys and whither it goes. And we are powerless for the present to direct it into another channel, until such time as it will have played itself out… Then – inevitably will come a reaction.” Kropotkin found even the “governing party” to be powerless, “being carried along by the current which it helped to create but which is now already a thousand times stronger than the party itself”. The only task that he envisaged at that juncture was “to use our energy to lessen the fury and force of the oncoming reaction”, along with the task of gathering “together people who will be capable of undertaking constructive work in each and every party after the revolution has worn itself out.” (Kropotkin, 1920, emphases original)

In one of his letters written in 1920, Kropotkin asked Lenin, “Don’t your comrades realize that you, communists (despite the errors you have committed), are working for the future? And that therefore you must in no case stain your work by acts so close to primitive terror?…I believe that for the best of you, the future of communism is more precious than your own lives. And thoughts about this future must compel you to renounce such measures.”

It is not incidental that Serge’s pamphlet sought to confront exactly those questions that Kropotkin raised in his speeches and writing during the year 1920. Obviously, Serge knew quite well what irked the libertarians most, and it was nobody’s case to present the Russian Revolution and Bolshevism in any triumphalist manner. Hence, at the outset he accepts all the descriptions that Kropotkin and others painted of the Russian scenario as true. Serge speaks of people who “are fighting on the various front lines of Soviet Russia, those who are carrying out the humble, melancholy, dangerous—and sometimes immoral—tasks of the revolution”. He clearly states that it would be unfair to give all credit for the revolution to Bolsheviks – “Social Revolutionary propagandists and terrorists, whose courage was unstinting; anarchists and Mensheviks, whom no persecution could stop” must not be forgotten. It is they “who, before the time of Bolshevism, actually practiced revolution”.(124) Only on the eve of the Russian Revolution did the Bolsheviks come out of their “relative obscurity”, to emerge “as a movement to the left of socialism – which brought it closer to anarchism – inspired by the will to achieve the revolution immediately.”(126)

According to Serge, the Bolsheviks, by calling themselves communists, by declaring the incompatibility of the ideas of communism and the state, by rejecting bourgeois democracy and patriotism, by advocating the immediate expropriation of the possessing classes, by publicly recognising the need to use violence and the principle of terrorism, renounced the traditions of social democracy, and thus came closer to anarchism. Serge’s understanding of new Bolshevism is corroborated by the fact that the same Lenin who talked about the wide gulf between socialism and anarchism, rejecting any unity with anarchists in 1905 was “drawing a parallel between anarchism and Bolshevik views” and admitting that “the concept of anarchism was finally assuming concrete features” in 1918. Lenin further stresses, “When the masses were themselves taking up arms to start an unrelenting struggle against the exploiters, when a new people’s power was being applied that had nothing in common with parliamentary power, it was no longer the old state, outdated in its traditions and forms, that they had before them, but something new, something based on the creative power of the people. And while some anarchists spoke of the Soviets with fear because they were still influenced by obsolete views, the new, fresh trend in anarchism was definitely on the side of the Soviets, because it saw their vitality and their ability to win the sympathy of the working masses and arouse their creative energy.” (Lenin, 1918)

However, for Serge, the new Bolshevism could be understood only by a “new anarchism”, devoid of the “obsolete views” that Lenin spoke about, and which in Serge’s words, were “the notions of yesteryear”, a result of “an incapacity to distinguish words (the old words) and things”, “a sad lack of a sense of reality”. This new anarchism must accept “as a whole the set of conditions necessary for the social revolution: dictatorship of the proletariat, principle of soviets, revolutionary terror, defence of the revolution, strong organizations.” (133) So what remains of libertarianism? Its worth for Serge is precisely in the libertarian critique/struggle through actions and words against crystallisation or institutionalisation.

Serge remained very conscious of “the internal danger of the revolution” building up around the revolutionary government and the power, which is “by its very nature, conservative and hence reactionary.” The crystallisation of the workers’ state and of state communism had to be challenged vehemently. Only this would ensure a continuous movement towards “spontaneous order, to the free association of free workers, to anarchy”. Serge puts the revolutionary attitude towards the state in a typically Leninist style (almost paraphrasing what Lenin said while advocating the independence of trade unions and workers organisations against Trotsky’s proposals):

“Thus as far as the old question of state control, so often disputed between socialists and anarchists, is concerned, the experience of the social revolution in Russia leads us to a twofold conclusion: first of all the necessity of taking hold of the state, a powerful apparatus of coercion; and secondly the necessity of defending ourselves against it, of relentlessly working for its destruction, perhaps at the price of a long and laborious struggle.”(151)

Serge gives a very clear summary of the major problems of the Russian Revolution arising out of statism that were already visible during those early years, which in turn was symptomatic of the crystallisation of the workers’ state. He argued that this statist authoritarianism, taking the form of “the obsession with commanding, prescribing, decreeing, ordering and bullying… has been one of the major causes of the cruelties and of the mistakes of the Russian Revolution.” (157) One of the greatest problems that the revolution faced at that moment was the growing “subordination of the creative apparatus (industry) to the destructive and murderous apparatus (the state)” – this is how Serge characterised the nationalisation drive sans workers’ control (154). However, revolutionary successes, according to Serge, came hardly due to authority or the state – in fact, laws and coercion came across as impotent many a times. “The soviet state is not preserved by its apparatus of compulsion, but by its apparatus of agitation and propaganda, and above all because it is the most basic expression of proletarian interests.”(158)

For Serge, it is in the task of developing a committed critique (in Marx’s sense) of “these conditions” or of the dynamic reality of the revolution that the libertarians could play a major role, because they were equipped with an anarchist philosophy that “proposes a morality”, relatively insulating them from the temptation of power. Ian Birchall in his introduction does well to note that for Serge the concept of morality was a corrective to Second International Marxism and was to be found in his account of the revolutionary defence of Petrograd, as in the following passage:

“One day, when these things are discussed with a concern for justice and truth, when, in the society of the future that we shall ultimately build, where all the wounds of humanity will have been healed, then the revolution will be praised because it never, even in its most tragic days, lost the concern for art; it never neglected rhythms, fine gestures, beautiful voices full of pathos, dream-like settings, poems, anthems played on the organ, the sobbing notes of violins. Never. And I cannot help discovering in this obstinate quest for beauty, at every hour of the civil war, stoicism, strength and confidence. Doubtless it is because the Red city is suffering and fighting so that one day leisure and art shall be the property of all.”(30-31)

Serge’s writings are definitely historical documents that help us in confronting the problems of the Russian Revolution. They at least indicate that the Bolshevik successes did not reside just in the strength and wisdom of personalities, but in their reemergence as a movement that could help realise in the initial years, the spirit of revolution in its wholeness (which unavoidably includes radical contradictions). The Bolsheviks could recognise and unite the various levels of experience and consciousness of the Russian working masses – the various revolutionary traditions are, in fact, “in the last instance” nothing but representations of this diversity of the working class praxis. The cohesive richness of the initial revolutionary experience cannot be explained simply by calling Bolsheviks opportunists, as many libertarians have done, rather it was a realisation of what Serge calls the four-word essence of Bolshevism – “the will for revolution”, which definitely had a libertarian ring to it.


Kropotkin, P. “What is to be done?”, 23 November 1920 & “Letter to Lenin”, 21 December 1920. Reprinted in Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread & Other Writings (Ed. Marshall S. Shatz), Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Lenin, Third All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, January 10-18 (23-31), 1918.

A Review of “The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution”

Bhumika Chauhan

Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution, Haymarket Books, 2010.

Whenever the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system have developed into an overt crisis, the unevenness of capitalist development has acted as a sort of pressure-release mechanism. In our neoliberal times, the unevenness can be seen on many levels – from the formal labour-informal labour binary to the so called North-South divide. To maintain its rate of profit in the face of proletarian struggle (and/or the tendency of the rate of profit to fall), the capitalist class found, like always, new avenues to exploit. When the accumulation of absolute and relative surplus value became problematic, like it so often does, capitalism turned yet again to its so-called ‘originary moment’ – primitive accumulation. As such, primitive accumulation is still very much a part of our present. For instance, today in India, the capitalist system is turning to those pockets that it had kept in reserve (literally) for so long. In backward, agrarian and/or tribal regions, plans are in motion for the acquisition of resources.

A few centuries ago, when capitalism first took over Western Europe, the whole of India was one such pocket, which the British managed to tap. In coming ouLowy's bookt of colonialism, the bourgeois leadership of the Indian National Movement took the road to capitalism (albeit via a ‘maturing’ period, which we traditionally call the ‘mixed economy, in which the state systematically developed infrastructure that was handed over to private ownership in 1991). That very road has led us here: unevenness of capitalist development within the same country, and the colonisation of one part of the country by another.

Was there any other route that would have possibly evaded the destruction that the chosen path cannot seem to leave behind? Could India have leapfrogged over the ‘capitalist stage’? The various communist parties of India did not seem to think so at the time (most, if not all, do not even now). The ‘iron laws of history’ would not allow any form of a leap over capitalism, and into socialism. This was the view, in fact, of the entire Communist International and its participant parties since the death of Lenin, as we shall see below; and this, despite the success of the Socialist Revolution in Russia in 1917.

Half-a-century before a ‘free’ India took to capitalism, Leon Trotsky was contemplating questions about the possible roads out of feudalism for Russia. Marxist though he was, Trotsky’s conclusions defied what had become common sense in Marxist circles. This common sense believed in the objective necessity of capitalist development before socialism. Against this view, that history progresses through fixed, determined stages, Trotsky, and later Lenin, began to argue for the possibility that Russia might not have the same historical trajectory as the western capitalist countries for which Marx had produced the schema of feudalism-capitalism-socialism. In fact, according to Trotsky, the unevenness of capitalism was a pre-condition for a possible leap towards socialism for Russia.

It is one of the arguments of Michael Löwy’s book, that it was Trotsky’s and Lenin’s dialectical understanding of history, and the consequent direction it provided to the 1917 revolution, that the objective possibility was transformed into an actual socialist revolution. In demonstrating this, the book undertakes the very relevant and important theoretical task of evaluating Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution in the context of the situation in countries peripheral in the capitalist system. The essence of the argument is that the same unevenness that in times of crises helps capital recuperate is also potentially its grave. If escape routes become enemy camps capital would have nowhere to run.

It is this belief in the possibility of one uninterrupted, combined and permanent revolution from the pre-capitalist to the socialist stage that disappeared somewhere between Trotsky and Lenin, and Stalin. The ‘permanentist’ perspective of the Comintern under Lenin, for revolution in all backward countries, was also replaced by the ‘stagist’ ‘neo-Menshivism’ of Stalin. It was again asserted that capitalist development under bourgeois leadership was a necessity for all countries before a socialist revolution becomes possible. The Indian communist leaders too thought that they should give their complete support to the bourgeoisie in the anti-imperialist struggle. Undoubtedly, this would have had a weakening influence on the working class movement on the ground. And ever since Independence, the mainstream communist parties, as a consequence, have struggled and failed to move beyond social-democratic reformism. That has been on account of their inability, or unwillingness, to pose the question of democratisation, which in India doubtless continues to be the principal political question, as one of overcoming capitalism (see note-1).

Of course, there is no more any question of India or any other country skipping the capitalist stage and entering socialism; we are now completely immersed in it. The relevance of the theory of permanent revolution still holds because the capitalist world continues, as is its wont, to be uneven. Michael Löwy’s book may be considered a first step towards regrounding Trotsky’s theory in the present context.

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Löwy’s exposition of the theory of permanent revolution begins with Marx and Engels. The first chapter discusses their writings with the purpose of determining how much Trotsky really deviated from the essence of the perspective and method of Marx and Engels. In the process, Löwy also attacks those readings and critiques of Marx and Engels that attribute to them a mechanical economism and evolutionism. Löwy convincingly argues for the essentially ‘permanentist’ tenor (which increased with time) of Marx and Engels’ writings. Although many passages can be quoted, without distorting their meaning, that lend support to a stagist understanding of history, in the very same writings as well as others, Marx and Engels do shift towards permanentism.

The concept of permanent revolution appears in their writings mostly in the form of ideas and intuitions, not as a coherent theory. The most coherent statement of their view of permanent revolution is to be found in The Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. While condemning the alliance with the bourgeoisie, the Address champions the common action between the proletariat and the democratic parties of the petty-bourgeoisie. This alliance too must be made keeping in mind the larger aims of the proletariat: ‘to make the revolution permanent’. The Address already contained three themes that would become fundamental to Trotsky’s theory: ‘(1) the uninterrupted development of the revolution in a semi-feudal country, leading to the conquest of power by the working class; (2) the application by the proletariat in power of explicitly anti-capitalist and socialist measures; (3) the necessarily internationalist character of the revolutionary process and of the new socialist society, without classes or private property’ (15).

After demonstrating that the basic underpinnings of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution are in fact to be found in the writings of Marx and Engels, Löwy, in the next two chapters, explores how the theory was developed with the experience of ‘living revolutions’. While doing so, Löwy juxtaposes Trotsky’s perspective with that of his contemporaries (and also later commentators). This helps bring the stagist and permanentist perspectives in stark contrast as these influential thinkers embody one of the perspectives in their deliberations on the revolutions of their age; sometimes this binary emerges as different moments in the political thought of the same person. Löwy identifies Plekhanov, Kautsky and the Mensheviks, and later, Stalin and the Comintern leaders under his leadership (all in theory but not in practice) as giving voice to the stagist perspective. They believed that a semi-feudal and backward country like Russia must first witness a bourgeois revolution to be led by the bourgeois class itself, undergo capitalist development to its ‘exhaustion’, and then finally welcome socialism. It was to be an automatic, step-by-step process. The level of ‘maturity’ for socialism might vary slightly in each conception, but they all agreed that some capitalist development was essential.

Lenin and Luxemburg too had characterised the 1905 revolution as a bourgeois revolution with necessarily bourgeois tasks, again a stagist view of history. They did not, however, believe that the revolution would be led by the bourgeois class, but by the proletariat and the peasants. By 1917, both had begun to agree with Trotsky, that the revolution would be led by the proletariat, with support from the peasantry. More significantly for Löwy, since he puts great effort in countering what he calls Stalinist distortions of Leninism, Lenin had made a permanentist turn after his philosophical engagement with the dialectical method in 1914. Under his leadership (and Trotsky’s, who had joined the Bolsheviks in 1917), the Bolshevik Party led a revolution that let its logical development carry itself towards socialism, not in spite of Russia’s relative backwardness but because of it. To understand what this statement means is to understand the essence of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

Trotsky’s starting point, Löwy writes, was Labriola’s dialectical and anti-dogmatic Marxism. Labriola’s emphasis on totality and his appreciation of the essentially critical nature of Marxism are evident in Trotsky’s theories and the ease with which he could contradict Marxian orthodoxy. It is his grasp of the dialectical method that sets him apart from the somewhat static and mechanical evolutionism of Plekhanov and Kautsky.

Löwy presents five fundamental features of Trotsky’s method that form the basis of the theory of permanent revolution.

  1. Unity of opposites: Trotsky saw a dialectical unity between the ‘democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants’ and the ‘socialist dictatorship of the proletariat’. Consequently he criticised the early Bolsheviks for drawing rigid distinctions between the two, and also the Mensheviks for their even more stagist view.
  2. The viewpoint of totality: For Trotsky, the maturity of capitalism, and a country for revolution, was always to be assessed on an international level. When capitalism has bound the whole world in one mode of production, then class struggle too must become a world-process rather than be restricted by ‘national economic determinism’ (49).
  3. Anti-economism: Unlike Plekhanov’s unmediated reduction of all social contradictions to the economic infrastructure, Trotsky’s dialectics grasped the importance of the ‘subjective’, and rejected the notion that the revolution depended ‘automatically’ on a country’s technical development and resources.
  4. Historical method: Trotsky’s study of social formation was concerned with the possibilities of a revolution. His is an open historicism, not fatalistic like Plekhanov’s. That is, Trotsky saw historical development as a contradictory process where alternatives are posed at every moment. He saw ‘permanent revolution towards socialism as an objective possibility…whose outcome depended on innumerable subjective factors as well as unforeseeable events…’ (Italics original, 50). Success or failure was not inevitably assured by any one factor. Thus revolutionary praxis had a central place in Trotsky’s politico-theoretical system.
  5. Russian social formation: Most Russian Marxists tended to deny the specificities of Russia’s social formation in their fight against the Narodniks, and insisted on its similarity with Western European development. Trotsky, however, achieved ‘a dialectical synthesis of the particular and universal, of the specificity of the Russian social formation and of the general tendencies of capitalist development…[He] was able to simultaneously transcend-negate-preserve (Aufhebung) the contradiction between populism and Menshivism, and to develop a new perspective, which was both more concrete and less unilateral’ (italics original, 51).

Using the above methodological guidelines, Trotsky’s analysis of Russia and its class structure was quite different from that of the thinkers mentioned above, and so were his strategic conclusions. Parvus, a very important contributor to the development of Trotsky’s thought, had already (in 1904-5) realised the peculiarities of Russian social formation: that early Russian towns and cities were administrative-bureaucratic in function rather than economic, and hence the artisans and petty-bourgeoisie, the base of revolutionary democracy, were weaker than in Western Europe. With capitalist development in the nineteenth century, the factory concentrated the proletariat hugely within urban centers. Trotsky found the Russian bourgeois class to be small in number and mostly of foreign origin, and hence isolated from the people. Therefore, for him, the Russian bourgeoisie, small and weak, and more afraid of the armed proletariat than of the Cossacks, was not revolutionary and would betray the democratic revolution whenever it went beyond its control or against its interests. Compared to the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, the socio-political weight of the Russian proletariat was much more. Thus the proletariat was the only true revolutionary class. Hence, Trotsky proposed the following formula in 1905: ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry’.

This went against the Menshevik insistence on a bourgeois leadership and revolution, which was based in mechanical economism. It also goes against Lenin’s 1905 formula of the ‘democratic dictatorship’ of the proletariat and peasantry. Trotsky’s objection to this formula was that it might restrict the revolution to the level that the peasantry was comfortable with; it would have remained a bourgeois revolution (35). In Trotsky’s scheme the proletariat was to be decidedly hegemonic, that is, it would not stop short of supporting the workers’ interests in the town and the village. And this alliance, in his scheme, was decidedly transitory. Löwy writes that for Trotsky, the proletariat could count only on the passivity and ignorance of the peasantry to gain its support but that too only till the ‘rich peasants’ realised what the revolution was heading towards. When the proletariat state applies its uncompromisingly socialist policies, just as Trotsky believed it should, it would lose the support of the landed peasantry and a counter-revolution would be inevitable (55-56).

The solution to the problem, Trotsky believed, lay in the international working class movement: the Russian revolution must be extended to the rest of Europe if the proletarian state in Russia is to survive the loss of its allies. The fate of the socialist revolution in Russia was to be decided less by its economic backwardness than by the politics of national and international class struggle.

As has already been indicated, Trotsky did not differ from the Mensheviks and the early Bolsheviks only on the issue of the ‘class nature’ of the revolution; he also differed from most Marxist thinkers of the time over the issue of the ‘historical tasks’ of the revolution (54). Not only did he believe that the proletariat would lead the revolution, he also thought that the revolution could and should combine democratic and socialist tasks into one combined, uninterrupted, permanent revolution. Why? Because by logically extrapolating the dynamics of class struggle in a ‘revolutionary democratic dictatorship’ led by the proletariat, Trotsky concluded that the revolution could transcend bourgeois-democratic limits and take anti-capitalist and socialist measures. Trotsky pointed out that when the proletariat comes to power it would be compelled by the ‘very logic of its position’ to implement ‘collectivist’ measures, unless it were to betray its own class (something the pre-1917 Bolshevik policy would have done). For instance, in meeting even its ‘minimum democratic programme’, if the state supported workers’ strikes, it could lead to widespread lock-outs by the capitalists and the cessation of production. This would necessitate that the proletarian state take over the factories and organise production. Basically, ‘the political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with economic enslavement’ (Trotsky as quoted on p.54). Löwy, at several points in the text, highlights how the political is given its due weight vis-à-vis the economic in Trotsky’s dialectical model.

When 1917 came, Löwy writes, Trotsky’s 1905 predictions came true. The bourgeoisie and their Mensheviks supporters were incapable of completing the national-democratic revolution (see note-2) and satisfying the revolutionary democratic aspirations of the peasant masses. Only the proletarian victory was able to accomplish the crucial tasks of the democratic revolution and emancipate the peasantry from feudalism. Also, once in power the workers’ government of the Bolsheviks, now headed by Lenin and Trotsky, and unwilling to betray its class, could not restrict itself to democratic reform. It was forced by the dynamics of class struggle to undertake socialist measures. Without the dogmas of the Second International, the 1917 Revolution saw two distinct phases of an uninterrupted and combined revolution: ‘from its (unfinished) bourgeois democratic phase in February to its proletarian-socialist phase in October’. For Lenin, the second phase resolved the contradictions of the first phase. ‘With the support of the peasantry, the Soviets combined democratic tasks (the agrarian revolution) with socialist tasks (the expropriation of the bourgeoisie), opening a “non-capitalist road” for transition to socialism’ (63).

* * *

It is on these same lines that Lenin and the Comintern now attempted to frame a general policy for revolution in colonial, semi-colonial, dependent or backward countries: the national liberation movements of the ‘Orient’ must aim for the establishment of soviet-based workers’ and peasants’ power, towards socialism without capitalism. Thus, although specific tactics within each country, especially with respect to alliance with the bourgeoisie, remained controversial, the orientation of the Comintern leadership from 1919 to 1922 to revolutionary movements in the dependent world was in line with the theory of permanent revolution.

It can be seen in Löwy’s exposition how the change in the Comintern’s above orientation was the beginning of the generalization of the theory of permanent revolution to the dependent parts of the world. From 1925 onwards, with the Stalinist doctrine of ‘socialism in one country,’ and the adoption of the ‘four class bloc’ or ‘popular front’ policy for the colonial and semi-colonial world by the Comintern, and the experiences of their repercussions for the Second Chinese Revolution, Trotsky gained certain insights that gave the theory of permanent revolution in countries of peripheral capitalism a very strong dialectical foundation. These insights are scattered in Trotsky’s writings after 1928, The Permanent Revolution and The History of the Russian Revolution being the most important ones. Löwy takes us through a number of these writings, drawing out relevant details from each text to elaborate on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

The first thing to note is the similarity in the empirical situation of the dependent, colonial and semi-colonial countries with that of Russia and China: the indissoluble dependence of the national bourgeoisie on the imperialists and the landowners, the political weight of the proletariat disproportionate to its numerical strength, the impossibility of an autonomous political role of the peasantry. Also, the very existence of the USSR had its own implications for proletarian revolutionary aspirations and the bourgeois counter-revolutionary tendencies. Having realised these situational factors, Trotsky set out to extrapolate his theoretical understanding of the Russian Revolution to the countries of peripheral capitalism.

The most important historical-theoretical principle for a general theory of permanent revolution however was the law of uneven and combined development, which was fully elaborated in The History of the Russian Revolution (1930). The development of world history becomes qualitatively different once capitalism becomes a world-system. Looking at capitalism as a totality, one will realise that ‘although compelled to follow after the advanced countries, a backward country does not take things in the same order’; it tends to skip and leap over stages that the early capitalist countries went through. ‘The development of historically backward nations leads necessarily to a peculiar combination of different stages in the historic process’ (87). The very existence of unevenness, of advanced and backward countries (and the socio-economic linkages between them), creates a situation in which history progresses through sudden leaps and contradictory fusion.

From this universal law of unevenness derives another law – the law of combined development, a drawing together of the different stages of development. The appearance of modern industry alongside pre-capitalist or semi-capitalist rural conditions creates the objective possibility for the leading role of the proletariat at the head of the rebellious peasant masses. The unevenness of this development becomes the structural foundation for the combination of democratic and socialist tasks in a process of permanent revolution. The advanced capitalist countries solved certain common democratic tasks: abolition of autocracy, liquidation of feudal survivals in agrarian relations of production, establishment of parliamentary democracy based on universal suffrage, and national unification/liberation. Due to uneven development of capitalism, and the existence of imperialism, the democratic tasks of backward countries are similar but not the same. Yet they must be solved through a democratic revolution, or even a bourgeois-democratic revolution since these tasks are quite compatible with bourgeois society. This is not to say, however, that it will have to be led by the bourgeoisie, or that the revolution cannot transcend capitalism.

Uneven development means contradictory combinations of national and international, modern and traditional, ruling classes. Löwy gives the example of China, where at the bottom of the economy, the agrarian capitalists were ‘organically and unbreakably’ linked to feudalism, while at the top, capitalists were similarly linked to world finance. As such they could never have broken these links with landlords and imperialists because they were always more fearful of the proletariat. Hence, the national bourgeoisie could never fully accomplish its democratic tasks. The only condition on which Trotsky would have accepted any (short-term, for long-term alliances were out of the question) alliance with the bourgeoisie was to have no illusions that they would ‘lead a genuine struggle against imperialism and not obstruct the workers and peasants’ (Trotsky quoted on p.92).

In universalizing the theory of permanent revolution Trotsky stressed the role of the peasantry. They were important not only in the fight against feudal productive relations but, as the overwhelming majority in backward countries, they were central to the task of establishing democracy as well. Hence the proletariat had to ally with the peasants to complete the democratic phase of the revolution. Due to their heterogeneous and intermediate character the peasants could not play an independent political role, but had to choose between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The incapability of the former to solve the peasantry’s problems made it possible for the proletariat to acquire their support.

According to Löwy, Trotsky’s view of the peasantry contained ‘a very deep political truth’ but if understood in sociological terms, it was contradicted by the course of historical events in many dependent countries. There are instances when Trotsky commits the error of ‘sociologism’ in his understanding of the peasant (93-94). For example, he remained pessimistic about the revolutionary nature of the peasant movements in 1930 China. He also tried to deduce the political nature of the Red Army from its social nature. Since most of them were peasants, Trotsky did not think them to be true communists. Though at some moments he did perceive the anti-capitalist nature of peasant insurgency in China, in general Trotsky does seem to have believed that the peasantry could not acquire a communist consciousness before a proletarian revolution.

Löwy thinks this to be due to the classical Marxist attitude towards the peasantry as a ‘sack of potatoes’. He argues that Trotsky, like other western Marxists, generalised his assessment of European peasantry to the peasantry of dependent countries. Many of them possess very different structural features, such as ‘collectivist village traditions, massive uprootedness resulting from capitalist penetration, very high rates of demographic growth, proletarian or semi-proletarian status of rural laborers on the great plantations’ (96). Thus Trotsky was less perceptive of the specificity of the rural class structure of non-Western countries, and of the revolutionary capacity of their peasantry. Nevertheless, in one of his last works, he wrote:

‘The Narodniks saw in the workers and peasants simply “toilers” and the “exploited” who are equally interested in socialism. Marxists regarded the peasant as a petty bourgeois who is capable of becoming a socialist only to the extent to which he ceases materially and spiritually to be a peasant…It is, of course, possible to raise the question whether or not the classic Marxist view of the peasantry has been proven erroneous…Suffice it to state here that Marxism had never invested its estimate of the peasantry as a non-socialist class with as absolute and static character’ (Trotsky quoted on p.97).

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In the beginning of the fourth chapter, ‘Conclusions’, Löwy presents us with many cases of revolutions strangled due to the stagist and ‘four class bloc’ strategy of the Comintern. The hold that the Comintern and Marxist orthodoxy had on the communist leadership of many such movements, it is contended, restricted them to the bourgeois-democratic phase, and a moderate attitude towards and alliance with the bourgeois class made them vulnerable to coups and attacks. In Spain (1931-1937), Guatamala (1952-4), Chile (1938-47 and 1973), and most starkly in Indonesia (1965) the blind faith in the intentions of their allies, the refusal to arm the proletariat, and the refusal to follow the revolutionary path to its logical conclusion, despite mass support, led to many a bloody defeat.

Furthermore, Löwy adds to his (and Trotsky’s) attack on stagism the fact that no non-European, dependent, peripheral capitalist nation has been able to find stable solutions to national-democratic tasks (see note-2; consider India for instance). Agreeing with Ernest Mandel, Löwy points out that no dependent country has actually become ‘ripe’ for a purely socialist revolution through its process of development like the advanced capitalist countries have; they still have not been able to accomplish the democratic tasks which the advanced countries had completed decades ago. Also, the process of ‘semi-industrialisation’ in the Third World seems to be making it more dependent on imperialism rather than more autonomous. However, Löwy warns against underestimating the ability of bourgeois- and petty bourgeois-led revolutions to accomplish important reforms and establish stable states. To take for granted the instability of these regimes would be to commit the error of political fatalism. Knowing the capabilities of such regimes, the revolutionary, Löwy hopes, would be more determined to prevent their stabilisation, and to struggle for an alternative future.

On the other hand, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution has been proven correct by the revolutions in Russia, China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam and Cuba. While three of these were always under proletariat leadership, the Russian and Cuban revolutions started under bourgeois leadership but were soon taken over by the proletariat. All of them had a bourgeois-democratic moment but the democratic tasks in each of them were completed only in the socialist moment of the revolution. This edition of the book does not carry the details of these revolutions that would explain the process of the combined revolution. However, Löwy does discuss the Nicaraguan revolution of the 1960s.

Nicaragua saw a popular insurrection against dictatorship with mass peasant and worker participation. The leadership was largely petty bourgeois but through its struggle, it had developed an anti-imperialist and anti-autocratic programme. Due to the precedent set by the Cuban revolution, and direct support from Cuba, the Nicaraguan revolution developed along communist lines. According to Löwy, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSNL) took radical steps: it dissolved the old army and established its own army with soldiers from the guerilla army and the militia, it organised the masses into unions and other organisations, and it enforced its anti-capitalist policies. (Löwy had written this back in 1979. Since then the FSNL has weakened and it would be interesting to know how Löwy explains its trajectory now.)

Löwy, after establishing that Trotsky’s politics passes the test of history, moves on to his ‘sociology’ – his analysis of the roles of the social classes (and social categories). In discussing these – the national bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, intelligentsia, peasantry and the proletariat – Löwy clarifies some of the finer points Trotsky makes on the subject, and tries to make certain amendments in his perspective. It is here that Löwy’s (admittedly slight) departures from Trotsky, some of which we have already come across, become even more clear.

Löwy agrees with Trotsky about the usually moderate nature of the bourgeoisie. Most advanced democratic revolutions, it is asserted, were under petty bourgeois, not bourgeois, leadership. However, he does briefly note that Trotsky, at times, underestimated the indigenous bourgeoisie, especially in the case of India. With respect to the petty bourgeoisie, Löwy agrees with Trotsky that they must eventually choose between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. On the question of whether the petty bourgeoisie could play a significant role in the revolution, Löwy points out the leading role they played in many Third World countries, at times even going against capitalist interests. Though only for a limited time, petty bourgeois regimes, contrary to Trotsky’s belief, did manage to hold power and forge their own distinctive policies, which Löwy calls a sort of petty bourgeois Bonapartism.

Trotsky had, by and large, ignored the role of the petty bourgeois (and increasingly proletarianised) intelligentsia. Löwy believes the ideology of the petty bourgeois intelligentsia to be a sort of Jacobinism combining ‘plebian democracy and romantic moralism’, like in Rousseau. In peripheral countries, their radicalisation is stronger, compounded by imperialist penetrations, conciliatory position of the national bourgeoisie, and the success of socialist revolutions.

Adding to his disagreements with Trotsky on the question of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry in dependent country which have already been noted, Löwy goes on to highlight the greater uprootedness of the peasantry of the third world due to uneven development and imperialism, which leads to greater radicalisation. Most post-1917 revolutions had the peasants as their main social base. However, here he also complicates the term ‘peasantry’, which tends to conflate a broad and heterogeneous body. The rich or big peasants are usually neutral or hostile to communist revolutions. Borrowing from Hamza Alavi’s analysis of the Hunan struggle (and events in Russia, Cuba, Mexico, Vietnam and Algeria), Löwy argues that in the initial phase of the movement, the greater material security of the middle and small peasantry, allows them to attack the oppressors. Their complete dependence on their overlords holds back the poor peasant and the landless labourer until the struggle has already shaken the local authorities and the landlords. The presence of the Red Army in China, for instance, encouraged the poor and landless peasants to join the struggle. But once they joined, they proved more radical than the middle peasants. This external force that pushes the peasant to rebel and gain a socialist consciousness (even prior to a socialist revolution) still came from the urban intellectual and the proletarian communist vanguard. Without this the peasant struggle may have remained local and ineffective.

However, with increasing industrialisation in the dependent countries, Löwy expects the struggle to shift to the cities, with the working masses playing a more central role, like in the ‘classic’ October revolution. In 1917, the revolution was ‘directly’ proletariat, that is, the Bolshevik Party, was proletariat not only in ideology but also in social composition. In subsequent revolutions, the working class played a seminal part in the initial phases but was largely absent during the seizure of power. In China, Vietnam, Cuba and Yugoslavia, the peasantry was the main social support. To explain this absence, Löwy points to the heavy repression the working class encountered in the early phases of all these revolutions, and also the insistence of communist parties to ally with the bourgeois class. These revolutionary parties were indirectly proletarian, that is they were proletarian in their ideology.

* * *

The last chapter of the book is a 2010 interview of the author with Phil Gasper, which seeks to apply the logic of uneven and combined development and the theory of permanent revolution to the present context. Löwy points out that the capitalist system is still very much characterised by the centre and periphery distinction, and since this is so the theory of permanent revolution remains a topic of central importance. The essence of the theory, its dialectical approach to analysis and the uncompromising praxis that this entails, holds true even though the form of unevenness has changed. When Trotsky first formulated the theory in 1905, Russia had a modern urban industry and a backward rural area. Today we can find advanced and backward elements in both urban and rural regions, as well as among nations (what is figuratively called the North-South divide). This unevenness has given birth to many a movement for autonomy at all levels – local, regional and national. Though there are reactionary tendencies, there are also radical ones whose anti-imperialism has taken international proportions with several nations, in Latin America primarily, combining their efforts for autonomy.

Michael Löwy is quite optimistic about such developments, and also about the so-called global justice movement. Although acknowledging the definite liberal, moderate, and even Keynesian tendencies in the global justice movement, Löwy highlights the stated anti-capitalist goals of the World Social Forum. Although anti-capitalist does not necessarily mean socialist, let alone Marxist-socialist, Löwy enthusiastically claims that many of the participants do indeed hope to create socialism. For Löwy, the kind of international solidarity that is fostered by this movement is not one based on sympathy but more on convergences in the ‘common struggle against a common enemy, neoliberalism’.

The reason for his faith in the global justice movement and the WSF is that he sees it as a forum for combining anti-imperialist, agrarian, democratic and anti-capitalist struggles, none of which can succeed without the others by the logic of the law of uneven and combined development. Whether he is right in his expectations from the global justice movement or the WSF will need further study. However, even if they do not meet the potential that Löwy identifies in them, his general argument would still hold: ‘if movements for national liberation, or agrarian reform, or radical democratisation do not develop, in an “uninterrupted” process, into a socialist revolution, they will sooner or later be defeated’ (154). This is only a ‘conditional’ perspective. But with no Stalinism (read as: restrictions from within the workers’ party), the primary conditions that determine the trajectory of the international movement is the class structure of the participant local movements, an analysis of which is not offered in this book. Without class analysis, the arguments for the possibility that this ‘movement of movements’ could develop into something significant are somewhat hollow.

* * *

The entire length of the book, in delineating the features of Trotsky’s theory, argues for the possibility of permanent revolution in backward, dependent capitalist or non-capitalist nations. In this it primarily uses cases, like of Russia and China, which can no longer be called socialist or post-capitalist. But does the failure of permanent revolution here tell us that the theory is erroneous? It does not. The predictions or hypotheses derived from the theory are, true to its dialectical method, contingent on the political developments in the situation: whether the revolutionary ‘fervour’ can push its leadership (even despite themselves) into following the flow of the process towards an uninterrupted, combined revolution. That is, whether the leadership can see the logical development of a bourgeois-democratic revolution led by the proletarian vanguard into a socialist revolution. But for the various factors pressing on the Soviet leadership (the theoretical and practical Menshevism is the only factor Löwy discusses; there might be others given the spread of the same ideas among most of the Comintern leadership), Trotsky might have been proved right and we might have seen a socialist revolution radiating from Russia. It is characteristic of Trotsky’s dialectical approach to not impose determinist diktats on reality – the political trajectory of a revolution is always too complex and overdetermined for that.

This edition of the book is an abridged version of a much longer book originally published in 1981. What has been reproduced is Part One of the two-part book. Replacing the second part is the 2010 interview of the author that makes for a helpful supplement to the chapters that are republished, though perhaps not a substitute for the chapters that are not. Löwy explains in this interview that Part Two, which contained analyses of events in Russia, China, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Cuba on the basis of the theory presented in Part One, has become ‘outdated’. Although there still is considerable, albeit scattered, historical analysis in this edition, one cannot help but feel deprived (due, in part, no doubt to references, which were not edited out, to the unpublished chapters that make promises of more in-depth study to come). When historical events are discussed they do sufficiently concretise some of Löwy’s assertions. However, a more detailed study would have demonstrated what is meant, for instance, by the ‘dialectics of totality’ within uneven and combined development and its significance for revolutionary praxis. To better explain how the interests of the peasants are bound to the proletarian revolution, or how the interests of the workers of one nation are bound to those of workers of all nations, and most importantly, how these can be successfully translated into revolutionary praxis, an analysis of the class structure of societies under transformation in the past would have been invaluable.

A great deal of what Löwy has to say on the subject seems to imply that the demise of the Russian and the international working class movement was the result largely of Stalin’s ideological distortions, or at least of the failure of the communist leadership to see what Trotsky and Lenin saw. Would the working class movement have remained strong if it were not for Stalin and the Comintern’s fallacious understanding of history and socialism? The international communist leadership in its entirety might have been convinced that socialism could thrive in one country, while other nations must necessarily embrace capitalism first. But were there really no other factors that worked for the detriment of the working class movement, along with the definite suffocating repercussions of the leadership’s conservatism? The only way to be sure and accurate is to do a detailed class analysis of the conditions in which the proletarian struggle weakened in Russia and other countries where Löwy holds the Comintern leadership directly responsible. One wonders whether the historical analyses in the original edition would have been helpful in this respect as well.

An updated historical analysis would go a long way in not only strengthening the theory of permanent revolution, but also in understanding recent class dynamics, and formulating new revolutionary strategies. For instance, what contingencies created the situations that led to China’s capitalist turn in the ’70s, or even to Cuba’s recent economic ‘reforms’? Would it be right to suggest, as Löwy does for Russia, that the still predominantly stagist and economistic credo of the communist parties is the primary cause?

For us here in India, lessons from Trotsky take on significance in view of the hesitations, on various grounds, of the various communist parties to organise on the basis of proletarian hegemony. Some seem to believe that there is a need to stay with the bourgeoisie until capitalism exhausts itself, while others are still fighting semi-feudalism alongside the rich peasantry, both of them alienating the proletariat in the process. Much of what Löwy says about the inability of the bourgeoisie to fulfill the three national democratic tasks (see note-2) fits the Indian situation like a glove. There is social unrest and mass movements resulting from the failure of the capitalist economy and state on each of these counts. Löwy is also right about the ability of the bourgeoisie to create a more or less stable state despite these failures, if the revolutionary forces do not develop within these locations of unrest and push them towards an alternative.

This book is not only a very helpful introduction to Trotsky’s work but also an important step towards contemporizing the theory of permanent revolution. Löwy limits himself to applying Trotsky to international social (not necessarily socialist) movements. It is obvious that much is still needed. Löwy does not omit the moments of real or apparent contradictions in Trotsky’s work. Attempts to explain these contradictions are convincing on most occasions if not all (perhaps someone more familiar with Trotsky’s texts and his time would be a better judge). But the reader will undoubtedly realise that Löwy’s loyalties, like Trotsky’s, lie with explicating the possibilities of permanent revolution rather than with particular persons or texts.


(1) Capitalism, as an ever-expanding social totality, is constitutively contradictory and is thus, in essence, uneven. Such unevenness renders the deficit of democracy (a la primitive accumulation) as much a constitutive part of capitalism as the democracy of competition (a la normal accumulation through market-based economic means and mechanisms). The failure of most Indian communists to grasp this essence of capital is the key reason for their inability to realise that struggles against all forms and kinds of democratic deficit cannot any longer be struggles against feudalism and for the ushering in of capitalism. Instead, such struggles for democratisation must be re-envisaged as movements to unravel capitalism, as a total network of democratic and undemocratic space-times, to go beyond it towards socialism.

(2) A national-democratic revolution according to Trotsky comprises of the following tasks:

  1. The agrarian democratic revolution: the bold and definitive abolition of residues of slavery, feudalism and ‘Asiatic Despotism’; the liquidation of all pre-capitalist forms of exploitation (corvee, forced labour, etc.); and the expropriation of the great landowners and the distribution of the land to the peasantry.
  2. National liberation: the unification of the nation and its emancipation from imperialist domination, the creation of a unified national market, and its protection from cheaper foreign goods; the control of certain strategic national resources.
  3. Democracy: for Trotsky this included not only the establishment of democratic freedoms, a democratic republic and the end of military rule, but also the creation of the social and cultural conditions for popular participation in political life by the reduction of the working day to eight hours and through universal public education.” (89)

A Review of “Marx’s Capital: An Introductory Reader”

Pratyush Chandra

Prabhat Patnaik et al, Marx’s Capital: An Introductory Reader, LeftWord, 2011, pp 135, Price: Rs 200.

There is a tremendous renewal of interest in Marxism throughout the globe today, especially for the explanation of the economic crisis that has hit capitalism recently. It was quite natural that the only well-organised segment of India’s left intellectuals committed to theoretical endeavours in political economy sensed the need to popularise Marx’s Capital. Much to the discomfort of the radical/revolutionary left, the fact is that though this segment is broadly organised around the official, parliamentary Left, which is in a deep crisis of confidence today, its research and theorisations have more or less informed the practice and understanding of the whole of the Left that matters in India. This small book of roughly 135 pages, in my view, shows how much the mainstream Indian Left owes to Marx’s Capital.

This introductory reader claims to provide “some basic formulations” on Capital that are “stated explicitly”, but it is not just a “preliminary explication of Marx's Capitalconcepts”, rather it “has endeavoured to go into matters of advanced theory”. It contains seven essays – the first two are foundational, the next four essays “graduate from basic concepts to theoretical discussion and debates”, and the last essay is advanced. What is the function of an introductory reader for a theoretical work, if not to expose the readers to the basic conceptual structure or framework that characterises it? Of course, it need not shy away from taking strong positions on what the author(s) of the ‘reader’ think to be the deficiencies or inconsistencies in the structure. But we do expect them to present the basic formulations underlying the structure honestly and explicitly, giving us a glimpse of the rigorous conceptual edifice that these formulations imply.

The first essay by Venkatesh Athreya is rather motivational. Athreya narrates his personal experience with Capital – it changed his life. Being an engineer “with an inclination to analytical argumentation”, he was quick to figure out that Marx’s arguments in Capital are logical. As he read more, he found something else – “Capital read like poetry”. Then he enumerates what he found in Capital as “an engineering graduate trained in mathematical economics”. In fact, Athreya considers reading Capital to be “immensely, immeasurably, rewarding”. He goes on to tell us how people from diverse walks of life and interests can enjoyCapital in their own manner – those “who enjoy a historical account” should read the part on Primitive Accumulation, “Militants of the working class movement may find Parts III, IV and V… more immediately interesting than the rather abstract opening chapters”, “engineers and technologists will find absolutely fascinating Marx’s treatment in Chapters XII, XIII and XIV”, even environmentalists can see how “Marx anticipates some of the contemporary ecological concerns”. “Capital is thus not a daunting read”, but “a delightful read” and “eminently readable”.

In this jungle of adjectives and hyperboles, if one insists on locating a central insight (besides that Capital is “a great read”), I think it would be the author’s ‘something-for-everybody’ approach. Athreya explicitly propagates an eclectic reading of Capital when he states:

“There is no particular order in which the book has to be read, and each reader should decide, based on his or her prior preparation and inclination the sequence of reading.”

Apparently, this statement is harmless as the purpose is to motivate readers to take Capital in their hands. However, any serious Marxist knows the relative theoretical and practical consequences and implications of various orders in which Capital is read. These orders, in fact, reorder the conceptual framework inherent inCapital, leading to diverse schools within Marxism, and intra-Marxist debates. This is not a plea for any single reading of the text, as who can deny the fact that diverse ways of approaching the text can unearth various conceptual possibilities therein. But this relativism must not become an apologia for denying Marx his own original and consistent way of developing arguments and framework, his own way of approaching im-mediate reality through conceptualisations placed at various levels of abstraction. These levels cannot be reduced to a catalogue of concepts which you can pick, choose and use anywhere.

The next essay is Vijay Prashad’s ‘Writing Capital’, which provides us an interesting ‘biography of Marx’sCapital’. It shows how Marx’s personality, even his “coat” morphed into his writings. However, Prashad, otherwise an erudite and very careful writer, makes a crucial factual error about Marx’s own intellectual biography. He finds the difference between labour and labour-power already introduced in Marx’s 1849 work,Wage Labour and Capital. In reality, it was introduced by Engels in its pamphlet edition in 1891. Engels clearly writes in his introduction to the pamphlet:

“…this pamphlet is not as Marx wrote it in 1849, but approximately as Marx would have written it in 1891. Moreover, so many copies of the original text are in circulation, that these will suffice until I can publish it again unaltered in a complete edition of Marx’s works, to appear at some future time. My alterations centre about one point. According to the original reading, the worker sells his labour for wages, which he receives from the capitalist; according to the present text, he sells his labour-power.”(1)

In fact, Marx didn’t make this distinction even in his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that was published in 1859.

Let us now move on to the essays that graduate the readers “from basic concepts to theoretical discussion and debates”. It begins with Jayati Ghosh’s “Reading Capital in the Age of Finance”. The essay starts with defining capital. Ghosh touches upon the concept of “commodity fetishism”, where she confuses between the fetish-character of commodity relations and fetishism that ensues from those relations. This conflation feeds the reformist approach of “policy” Marxists who are lost in fighting specific fetishisms of particular juridical and accumulation regimes. She explains primitive accumulation, which she finds to be a continuing reality, but she is unable to locate it in the constitution of capital – in the fact that primitive accumulation is not just the historical presupposition, but also the constitutive presupposition of capital. Therefore, for Ghosh, as others in this introductory reader, primitive accumulation is always seen in terms of socio-geographical expansion of capitalism – capitalism meeting pre-capitalism. This notion of primitive accumulation is unable to explain the bourgeois endeavours to transcend the barriers in the accumulation process from within the critical framework of Marx’s Capital. This forces “economists” like Ghosh to borrow concepts from non-Marxist approaches without considering that these concepts do not have any organic foundation within Marxism, and can, therefore, be contradictory to its fundamentals.

The import of concepts and even methods in order to correct the “deficiencies” of Marx’s approach, without going into the abundance of debates within Marxism that these so-called “deficiencies” have generated is the hallmark of the whole essay. Noting the historical limitation of Marx’s understanding of financial markets, it calls for elaborating on Marx’s limited insights with the help of Kindleberger, Minsky and Kregel, none of whom were ever Marxists. There is no mention of rich debates on Money and Finance (especially after the publication of Suzanne de Brunhoff’s book) that have continuously engaged Marxists since the 1970s. Similarly, Ghosh seems to be unaware of the works of Marxist radicals like Harry Cleaver (who even engaged in the famous Mode-of-Production debate in EPW with Utsa Patnaik and others) and various Marxist-Feminists like Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James among others (most of them were part of the movement for “wages-for-housework” in the West) who greatly enriched the Marxist understanding of reproduction and reproductive labour, basing it on the labour theory of value and reproduction of labour-power.

R Ramakumar’s “Agriculture and Rural Society in Capital” at least concentrates on interpreting what Marx says. As expected, it starts with the concept of primitive accumulation and its relationship with the commodification of labour power. In his endnotes he criticises David Harvey for using primitive accumulation to understand expropriation in later stages of capitalism. This relegation of primitive accumulation to temporal prehistory is just another example of the reduction of Marxist conceptual architecture to an unmediated description of capitalism – an exercise which is rampant throughout the present collection. The author is not aware of the problems of the exclusively historicist reading of primitive accumulation – which is nothing but a Smithian reformulation of the concept which Marx himself criticised in the chapter on primitive accumulation, by comparing its reception in political economy with theological “original sin” – reducing the misfortunes of humanity to a distant mythical past.

Ramakumar summarises the various chapters in Capital on primitive accumulation and the agrarian transformation in England. He talks about variations in agrarian transformation from the English path in other geographical locations – about Prussian, American and ‘Asian’ paths. He describes Lenin as an enthusiast of the American path of capitalist development in agriculture – pinning Lenin’s criticism of the Prussian (landlord) path to the single point that “it retained elements of the feudal society”. However, as always, there is a problem in such appropriation of Marx’s and Marxists’ critique of political economy in a prescriptive mode – this sanitises them of their politics. It must be remembered that Lenin’s enthusiasm was not due to the Prussian path being less capitalistic, but because of the epoch of capitalism which Russia was in (i.e., “the epochpreceding the final consolidation of the national path of capitalism”), where the struggle between landlords and the peasantry over the path of agrarian development was very strong and the result of this fight was still open-ended.  The concrete “course of events, the facts and the history of 1905-07″, “the law of June 3, 1907, and by the composition and activity of the Third Duma, and—a detail—by November 20, 1909, and (what is especially important) by the government’s agrarian policy brought the agrarian question to the centre-stage as the “the national question of the final consolidation of bourgeois development in Russia”.  In such an epoch, struggle for the peasant (American) path to agrarian development would strengthen the arms of the working class, by bringing the peasantry under its leadership – by making the workers-peasants alliance possible. Lenin’s perception about the radical potentiality of these alternatives was clearly epochal, i.e., was not settled once for all – “In Germany the support by the workers of the desire of the “muzhik” to get for himself (i.e., for the muzhik) the land of the big landlords—the Junkers—is reactionary.” Lenin explicitly states: “a Marxist must not “vouch” for either of these ways, nor must he bind himself down to one of them only.”(2)

In India, Leninists have generally essentialised the agrarian question, without going into epochal analyses – whether a national path of capitalism has consolidated in India or not (whatever its specific character be that may or may not be akin to the ideal types). Growing impoverishment, inequalities and continuing stagnation in agriculture cannot themselves make the agrarian question “the national question”.

Ramakumar’s discussion of usury and absolute rent is useful but highly skewed when it comes to their pre-capitalist roots. The proper Marxist way of analysing these phenomena would be to show how capitalism exists and expands despite and through them. If financial liberalisation seems to encourage a networking of moneylenders “by providing them with incentives”, rather than their elimination, it evidences the specific epochal character of capitalist accumulation under neo-liberalism that could use the service of moneylenders to intensify accumulation and financialisation. Similarly, if Junker-style landlord capitalism preserves “a number of pre-capitalist elements”, that is not a sign of incompleteness of transition in itself. Nor is the coexistence of subsistence farming with capitalist cultivation and rent that squeezes wages and profits (of tenant farmers) necessarily pre-capitalist. They may define the spatio-temporal specificity of an empirical capitalism.

Most illuminating is Prasenjit Bose’s piece that makes mincemeat out of Marx’s dialectics and levels of abstraction. He really has constructed three stories. The first story of class exploitation confuses Hindu concepts of Maya and Brahman with the dialectic of appearance and essence, contingency and necessity:

“The starting point of the first story is that the realities of the world are not visible at its surface. More specifically, what is visible as the capitalist world around us is a veneer underneath which lies the actual apparatus that drives the system.”(78)

The second story of accumulation and crisis runs parallel to the first story. This notion of “parallel” rejects the concept of embeddedness and the law of internal dialectics that characterise Marx’s methodology and worldview. The third story is of course a (hi)story of capitalism, in which the “so-called primitive” accumulation is actually dumped to the prehistory of capitalism, but which nevertheless acts as the Newtonian primeval push behind capitalism.

Since there is no conception of mediations, the value theory is better glossed over as some thing unreal, valid only in some ideal free competitive capitalism, essential tendencies are reduced to symptoms – as crisis to a telltale underconsumptionism, surplus value to profits, and the whole conceptual rigour of Capital to another descriptive theory of poverty and income inequality.

But the real gems are Bose’s conception of “imperialist exploitation” and “labour reserves”. His Leninism makes Lenin stand on his head – the objects of imperialist exploitation have yet “to graduate from their present stage of imperialist exploitation to the stage of capitalist exploitation”. So much for “imperialism, the highest/latest stage of capitalism”. Further, imperialist exploitation creates labour reserves, which consist of people poorer than those in the US. They are “the unemployed, underemployed, informal wage workers and self-employed petty producers in the urban areas along with the peasants and landless agricultural workers in the rural areas”. Their presence keeps wages to the subsistence level. Also, the “category of ‘reserve labour’ is conceptually different from the ‘reserve army of labour’ in Capital, which basically implies the unemployed under capitalism.” Hence, the unemployed under capitalism is different from the unemployed under imperialism. In Bose’s extended framework, “a person can belong to ‘reserve labour’ even when she is informally employed”. All these characteristics of this novel conception are not available in Marx’s framework of reserve (floating, latent and stagnant)! Thence follow all sorts of novelties, for example the following:

“The diffusion of capitalist development in the poor countries has not led to a universalization of capitalist exploitation. It has rather created enclaves of capitalist exploitation, esconced within the overall landscape of imperialist exploitation.” (94)

This universalisation is not taking place because capitalism “ultimately remains a crisis-ridden system incapable of continued expanded reproduction. Periodic crises, which inevitably recur under capitalism, destroy capital and constrain its productive forces. This makes it systemically incapable of absorbing the ‘reserve labour’ by providing it with gainful employment.” (95)

This is indeed a novel conception of capitalist expansion, which obviously Marx didn’t have – capitalism expands only when everybody is provided “gainful employment”.

Prasenjit Bose has another (the fourth!) story about Capital to narrate – the political story. He has his own definition of the Marxist conception of revolution – “a revolution by the workers against monopoly capital.” InCapital, he finds, Marx envisaging a ‘pure’ proletarian revolution and that too in advanced countries, which obviously didn’t occur. What is possible is “a democratic revolution based on worker-peasant alliance against imperialism and monopoly capital” (characteristically the leadership of the working class is missing). In fact, now the classes comprising ‘reserve labour’ have come to the centre stage of political and revolutionary mobilisation – peasantry, rural labourers and “the unemployed, underemployed, informal wage workers and self-employed petty producers in urban areas”.

“It is on the bedrock of this revolutionary alliance between workers and ‘reserve labour’, against imperialism and the domestic ruling classes that the next tide of revolutionary transformations in this century has to be based.”(102)

T Jayaraman does well to bring out the contradictory implications of technological development and the historicity of technology, despite inheriting the overall ideological baggage that unites this priceless collection of essays. However, at no point does he demonstrate the ability to go beyond the linear conceptualisation of techno-development. Technology seems well and fine – harmless, the problem is under whose political command it is placed and who monopolises scientific and technical knowledge. There is no attempt to understand the constitution of technology itself as an arena of class struggle – how the direction of technological development too is class-determined.

Prabhat Patnaik’s contribution can definitely be called advanced, not just in comparison to other texts in this reader, but also at the level of arguments – it is a typical, yet distinctively neat ‘underconsumptionist’ presentation of the dark world of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism brings capitalism almost to a dead-end (and perhaps to an explosion too) – with real wages collapsing even in advanced economies, which are thus increasingly facing severe problems of realisation, with labour reserves bulging throughout the globe. Backward economies could escape the realisation problem (perhaps, for the time being) because of the relaxing of the export regime, yet workers there too should expect only precariousness as labour reserves could not be absorbed even by the opportunities created by capital immigration. As the rich in these economies have been emulating the lifestyles of the western rich, technology that is being used is more and more labour productive. Hence, even in these backward economies there is no depletion of reserves and increase in wages. Thus, at the aggregate level it seems accumulation is increasingly reaching its limits.

Patnaik builds his arguments from Marx’s observation that wage fluctuations are linked to variations in the size of the reserve army of labour. However, he improves upon it by inserting the notion of the “threshold level” of the labour reserve – real wages can be impacted upon only if the size of the reserve is brought below this level, while above that level, real wages will be stuck at the subsistence level and any productivity increase will fill the capitalists’ pockets. Prior to neoliberalism, real wages were increasing in the advanced economies because of the absence of any linkage between the real wages in these economies and the labour reserves in backward economies. But neoliberalism destroyed this segmentation.

Without going into a detailed discussion of the problems of underconsumptionism, we can enumerate a few of them that problematise the empirical basis of Patnaik’s arguments. Firstly, there is an overstatement of the significance of real wages in the constitution of effective demand. Even if we count the workers’ share in the national income, real wages are just one part of this share. There are other elements of the “variable capital”, but accounting them would imply not just empirical, but conceptual dislocation of underconsumptionism – workers’ compensation (viewed as variable capital) is part of capitalist investment which is not expended upon the output of their current activities, but of previous activities.(3) Secondly, even in the US (which has been the centre of the recent crisis) long-run productive investment has been growing faster than personal consumption (the fact which underconsumptionists consider impossible), so why should there be the problem of realization, as any demand gap could easily be taken care of by the former (4)?

However, much more interesting are the unique political implications of Patnaik’s analysis that he himself derives in his paper. Since globalisation or neoliberal integration of national economies has led to a generalisation of poverty, the only way through is by delinking the national economy from the global. He is among those few intellectuals claiming to uphold the legacy of Marxism and communism, who vocalise anti-internationalism in such a clear manner, as in this article. Prabhat Patnaik finds no place for the utopia of internationally coordinated struggles in his scheme of future. But he has enough utopian conviction to see the possibility of delinking the local economy from the global economy. He thinks that only this will improve the conditions of workers in any country – as workers cannot wait for a new World State. But why should they wait at all – even for a state that will realise the autarkic utopia? The Marxist plea for proletarian internationalism was not an apologia for the statist planning for social welfare (national or international), but a movemental vision based on the objective understanding of class struggle within capitalism leading the Marxists to envision the possibility of an eventual withering away of the state. Even at the height of the nationalist moments in their struggles, Marxist revolutionaries have tried to locate themselves in the international working class movement.

Despite objections to Patnaik’s analysis from Capital’s standpoint, one cannot deny its coherence and its being part of the legacy of a dominant stream within what has come to be known as Marxism. However, in an introductory reader for Capital, one at least expects him to provide an insight that relates the story to the analytical intricacies (and problems) in Capital – why is the production-for-consumption’s sake approach superior to Marx’s production-for-production’s sake approach in explaining capitalism? How is Marx’s understanding, that effective demand originates entirely with the capitalist class (as workers’ compensations too are investments, M-LP) defective? What are the problems of other explanations of crisis that find support in Capital (at least more than underconsumptionism)?

Such omissions are rampant throughout this reader. They demonstrate a refusal to engage with the logical structure of Capital and its theoretical-practical implications. Most importantly, there is a complete absence of any discussion of the labour theory of value, which is not just the foundation of the conceptual architecture inCapital, but is also what connects the concepts located at various levels of this architecture with one another and without which these concepts would be reduced to mere nomenclatures. In this reader, the concepts that Marx developed in Capital are used only for typological purposes, to name and describe apparent phenomena.

However, this introduction does show that Marxism is not “a set of religious beliefs or dogmas that claim to contain every truth about the world within its texts” – it has enough space for intellectual creativity. But religion has another aspect too – the dogmas or texts need not be followed; however they must be sworn upon, after which you can say or do whatever you like. This is what much of this volume has reduced Marxism to.


(1) Frederick Engels, “Introduction to Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital“, 1891.

(2) VI Lenin, “Letter to Skvortsov-Stepanov“, December 16 1909.

(3) Anwar Shaikh, “An Introduction to the History of Crisis Theories” in U.S. Capitalism in Crisis, U.R.P.E., New York, 1978.

(4) Andrew Kliman, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Underconsumptionist Statistics“, With Sober Senses, 2010.

A Review of “State Power and Democracy”

 Paresh Chandra  

Andrew Kolin, State Power and Democracy: Before and During the Presidency of George W. Bush, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

It is not hard to find texts that defy the lies of the state by presenting facts that contradict them. This method of ‘uncovering’ the status quo, which can be called Chomskyan (the political Chomsky, not the linguistic one), works by trying to shock its reader out of their ideological slumber. Unfortunately, the vast array of ugly facts that these texts bring out usually remains ungrounded in a unified, alternative perception of reality. The attempt is to falsify particular claims of the state, by producing facts to the contrary, without trying to understand the ‘deep structure’ that gives birth to this state of affairs. The reader, not drawn out into a critique of present-day life in its entirety, is able to go back to that life, as if what these books uncover is simply another aspect of reality that s/he need not be concerned with.

The first noticeable merit of Andrew Kolin’s book is that it is able to avoid this Chomskyan pitfall. The main thesis – that the American police state that came toAndrew Kolin's State Power and Democracy full bloom during the Bush regime was the culmination of a history of suppression of democracy – is buttressed by a very detailed account of steps that successive governments took in this direction. A diachronic account invariably suggests causal relations, and the writer in question does not feel the need to shy away from these suggestions. Kolin’s analysis shows that the move toward a police state was a possibility immanent within the American system, and if it did not become a solid, unquestioned presence till now, it was only because of successive people’s movements that broke its advance. The emergence of the ‘military-industrial complex’ during and after World War II on the one hand, and the institution of intelligence bodies like the FBI and CIA on the other, were major steps in the making of a police state. Kolin demonstrates how these bodies worked together, repeatedly sidelining the Congress, to hinder the rights of citizens and foreigners (inside and outside the American border). Even as they played a crucial role in militaristic/expansionistic drives, they also ensured that opposition within the borders of the nation, to the state’s foreign policy, is minimised.

The American state has managed to ensure a permanent state of emergency, declared or undeclared, within its borders. This emergency is based, customarily, on the fear of external threats (till a point communism and later on terrorism). The state of emergency implies that the President has unquestioned primacy over the Congress, that the Intelligence has a free hand, and that democratic rights of citizens are effectively and indefinitely suspended. Any person or organisation that dared to question foreign policy was arbitrarily connected to foreign threats (present or absent) and was hence liable to be prosecuted. Laws like the Patriot Act ensured that ‘suspicion’ was good enough ground to ‘neutralise’ a person.

From the beginning of the 20th century, and especially after WW-II, the US has been the single-most powerful imperialist entity in world politics. “Empires are incompatible with democracy, which has been seen throughout human history. To maintain and expand power, an empire must limit dissent, rolling back democracy; only mass democracy could challenge the authoritarian polices of the US government.” (131) To defend its power and policies the US has had to stay on an offensive not only in territories it has ‘conquered’, but also inside its own borders, where dissent has emerged time and again. Sometimes the combination of aggression abroad and defence within its borders has proved too much, and the outcome has often been visible. For instance, one practical implication of continuous war in Vietnam was that the state was not in a position to control, properly, rising discontent inside its borders. More generally, however, a logical continuum can be traced, on the one hand between the aggression that is perpetrated outside and inside the nation’s border, and on the other the resistance that it has to face on both ‘fronts’.

The foregrounding of this two-faced ‘continuum’ has been, to my mind, the single-most important achievement of Kolin’s book. He has been able to demonstrate, through an analysis of (sensational) realpolitik, as well as more prosaic politico-economic facts, that imperialist aggression, destruction of democracy inside the imperialist nation, resistance, both inside and abroad, and policy at large (both ‘pro-‘ and ‘anti-people’) are inextricable entwined. In a way then, this book is an allegory of politics in a world dominated by the capitalist mode of production.

This final point about policy, or more precisely, the part about ‘pro-people’ policy needs to be explained a bit more. Kolin shows that the meeting of demands raised by protestors does not necessarily (in fact, never) means a systemic improvement – cooption is the word. When the tendency toward militarisation becomes excessive, the chances of an implosion increase (this becomes visible, primarily in peoples’ discontent), and to ‘manage’ this state of affairs the state seems to give in to demands; everything suddenly becomes more democratic. But this improvement is always temporary, and in a way buys time for the capitalist state to reorganise itself for a fresh assault. Obama, for instance, seems to be buying time in precisely this manner – making cosmetic changes, making promises that he does not keep, and so on. The fact is, and this too Kolin brings out, that the state tries its best to destroy movements. When it fails to do that, it meets those demands that do not need a fundamental reorganisation of the social structure. ‘Affirmative action’ was one such demand, which allowed the state to control the furore of the Civil Rights Movement without hurting hegemonic interests too much.

This much said, two more bases are left to be covered, by this essay and by the book. All radical theorists invariably run into a persistent problem in the process of explicating the workings of the system. One does not want to overplay the aspect of agency, nor celebrate the ‘victories’ of movements, without appending a warning about the system’s ability to coopt struggles. If we do this, we risk the pitfall of reformism and the cause of revolutionary transformation may suffer. On the other hand, if we focus upon the system and its ‘largeness’, its ‘perfections’, its capacity to survive and rejuvenate itself, our work may have a pessimistic, anaesthetic effect on the reader, once again defeating our cause. And this is the problem that Kolin’s book runs into. The vast intricacies of the functioning of the state impart to it a sublimity that seems beyond comprehension; and what we cannot comprehend, we surely cannot fight. On top of this, the ability of this state (of affairs) to perpetuate itself by coopting all attempts to subvert it.

But this is where another aspect of the text becomes important: the periodically stated, if somewhat inadequately developed (within the text) centrality of ‘class’.

Usually, the text mentions class when it tries to distinguish between struggles whose demands are easier for the state to meet, because they do not question its foundations, and others, which do just that and are invariably forcefully suppressed. Admittedly the text does not explain why “class-based” struggles are somehow harder to coopt. The detour through political economy that this would entail would have done away with any possibility that may exist, of the reader being too overwhelmed with surface structures to grasp the deep structures that generate them.  I would argue that any attempt at ‘cognitive mapping’ (to use Fredric Jameson’s phrase), any attempt, in other words, to get a handle on the state-of-affairs will need to begin with an understanding of class struggle, understood not as a one-on-one battle between two groups, but as a struggle of tendencies that become visible to us in synchronic force-fields of identity assertions. Though, as has been said, the text does not elaborate upon the process of class struggle, it does manage to give the reader a sense that each synchronic fact that it describes is overdetermined by a complex underlying process that unites it to other such facts. In its detailed description of the pendulum-like movement of the state between greater and lesser democracy, and the relation of this movement to struggles of peoples, it is able to present an image of history as the complex dialectic between autonomy constituted in, as and by the momentary contingencies of a necessarily continuous critique and its equally inevitable and continuous structural determination.

A Review of “Finding Delhi: Loss and Renewal in a Mega City”

Ankit Sharma

Bharati Chaturvedi (ed.) Finding Delhi: Loss and Renewal in a Mega City, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2010

Delhi is often thought of as the culturally best endowed city in the country. It has had a rich heritage, from the Walled City of the Mughals (presently called Old Delhi) to the Lutyens’ capital of the British raj; now there are chains of multinational corporations working in the peripheral areas of the city, and the city has declared its “world-classiness”, reshaping its infrastructure to host the grand spectacle that was the Commonwealth Games. Hence, most writings on the city stick to celebrating the warm-heartedness of the “dilliwallas,” its ever increasing count of flyovers and shopping-malls. Weighed down by such images that flood the media Finding Delhi comes as a relief to its reader because it tries to engage with that part of Delhi that is left out in the sort of accounts mentioned above: the not too pretty underbelly of the Indian capital.  The book offers an account of the city culled out of the experiences of fourteen different writers, ranging from urban planners to informal-sector workers, concentrating on diverse urgent issues like public transport, women in the city, housing rights of the poor, problems faced by street vendors, and the situation of the homeless ahead of the Commonwealth Games. The writers try to represent the city from an unconventional angle, where they concentrate on the living conditions of the poor living in the city, and the damage done to their lives due to the infrastructural developments that have taken Delhi way “ahead” of cities like Mumbai and Kolkata. It can, in fact, be argued that the book aims to confront the middle class, whose India is “shining”, with this “other angle” in an attempt to make them to realize that the actual cost of this accelerated drive toward “development” is being paid by the poor, in the form of ever deteriorating living conditions; presumably the monologues of a waste collector, a domestic worker, a dhobi and a fruit vendor are included in book to fulfill this end.

The book is divided into three parts: “Cityscape”, “Challenges” and “Experiences”. The first part explores how lines of class and gender demarcate the urbanFinding Delhi space. It begins with an article by Amita Baviskar that looks into how the newly reconfigured urban space of Delhi excludes the poor. She takes the example of the Vishwavidyalaya metro station, where an adjacent plot of land was allegedly allotted for a mall, when it could have been used as a park, or to house the poor. She elaborates her point by citing the example of the jhuggi-jhopdis near Majnu Ka Tila that were demolished in order to provide land for a private apartment builder. Our own experiences over the last few years offer us enough examples to buttress this point; for instance one can look at the manner in which the poor were not only neglected, but even hidden behind hoardings and posters during the CWG fiasco. This article is followed by a historical/analytical essay on Delhi from pre-colonial to post-liberalization times by Lalit Batra. Batra explores the history of the Delhi poor, and argues that the exclusion that, for instance, Baviskar speaks about is nothing new, and is an integral part of how the administration functions. For the state, land is capital, to be used optimally, and slums do not allow this optimum use, as a High Court ruling on land squatting proves.

“Nobody should squat upon the land … [the] policy of relocation [is a] premium to unscrupulous elements in the society as on the one hand an honest citizen has to pay for a piece of land or flat and on the other hand on account of illegal occupation on the government land an encroacher is given premium by giving him a plot on the name of relocation … we direct the removal of jhuggis … “. (The High Court of Delhi, Case No. CWP 6160/2003)

The next article also works along similar lines, arguing that the work that the poor do is absolutely essential to the city’s functioning, though the rich do not acknowledge this. It describes the workers who work in scrap-yards where old, now-useless items are recycled; now with the government giving out tenders to private companies, to dispose of this scrap, the employment of these people is in danger.

The critique that these articles offer touch our “humane side” and force us to acknowledge that the poor are indeed hard done, and that something must be done for them, so as to ensure in Delhi, a perfect balance between “classiness” and humanity (presumably evidenced by improved life conditions of the poor); this is of course the balance wished for by all these writers. Herein, strangely, lies the problem with these critiques. The majority of these writers seem to call out to the middle-class to go beyond their “petty needs”, to feel for the condition of the poor and also that it is up to them to do “something” about it. They do not seem to understand that this compassion is itself premised upon the existence of these conditions. Capitalism creates inequality so that a small number of people can exploit and extract surplus value from a much larger number of poor people. The city, the ultimate symbol of modernity and of capitalism, is also the ultimate breeding ground for these social-relations. The editor of the present book claims that the main aim of the book is to provide a critique of the present developmental model adopted by the government; evidently the book offers not post-facto theorizations, but seeks to serve as a manifesto for concrete actions to be taken in the future, for the city’s benefit. Hence, the book has a special section called “Challenges”, in which authors highlight the issues which need to be addressed immediately. Sadly, though not surprisingly, this section of the book, that comes after the initial discussions of the pro-rich shaping of the city, moves straight to issues like cleaning of the Yamuna, and to the experience of a writer who spent an entire night roaming the streets of Delhi, looking after homeless people etc; despite the implicit insights provided by the earlier essays no mention is made of how capitalism and its state are responsible for these problems. Coming to think of it, even the earlier essays pose this question as one of reform; the incessant struggle between labor and capital that is reflected in the cityscape was un-mentioned and in essence it was argued that all problems could be solved if only the government were to look after the poor a little better. One writer, anxiously, even speaks of the possibility of the poor taking over Connaught Place, the India gate, and Gurgaon – what would happen then? The possibility of a revolution and a post-revolutionary state clearly make this writer uneasy. She is unable to appreciate the idea of a laborer controlling her/his labor – something which is common enough in NGO-type activism.

At present, in India, large companies (Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis etc) are monopolizing all industries, and are now making a move even into the informal sector. It’s common to come across supermarkets like Big Bazaar, Reliance Fresh, Big Apple etc, and clearly local fruit and vegetable sellers are unable to compete with them. The case of the waste-pickers is evidence of the same state affairs. However the book does not take the reader beyond this level of appearances; which is to say that it does not go into causes. The causes that underlie this state of affairs are too deep, too endemic to this system to be solved by human goodwill (the leitmotif of NGO-activism).

A couple of other articles, however, do seem to try go beyond the surface, and in that seem to be able to keep off turning these issues into questions of ethics and morality. For instance in an article titled “Delhi: Expanding Roads and Shrinking Democracy”, Rajinder Ravi tries to bring across to the reader the plight of workers who used to cycle everyday to their respective workplaces (anyone who travels from East to Central Delhi will be familiar with the sight of thousands of workers cycling to work through cycle-lanes). The changes that were brought in preparation of the Commonwealth Games destroyed the cycle lanes to expand roads. While to the “average” Delhiite (actually only the middle/upper class) the expansion of roads has come as a boon because they use cars and motorbikes to commute, for the lower class it has meant a move to the more expensive public transports of the city (not to mention the environmental cost involved in the move made from cycles to buses etc).

Similarly in “New Delhi Times: Creating a Myth for a City”, Somnath Batabyal, a former journalist takes on the ever so active torchbearer of our society – the “Media”. The writer presents to us quite an interesting take on the media and the type of work that they do. He shares with us two instances where media houses were campaigning actively, and were believed to be the face of the aam-janata, the “Campaign for Clean Air” in the 90’s and the recent anti-BRT campaign. The writer speaks of how media personalities work according to the interests of the middle class, for a city in which the poor have little for them. The media that had once campaigned for a clean, pollution free environment turns coat the moment this idea of a “clean environment” comes into conflict with the “shining India” of the middle class, and jumps into a drive against the BRT, a project which, if properly managed could help control pollution by limiting the use of private transportation. As is rightly pointed, a majority of the bourgeois environmentalists and journalists live around the corridor and use it to commute to their offices everyday. Due to the construction of separate lanes for buses and cars, these drivers have a hard time on the road; this did not go down well with these media persons and hence the anti-BRT media campaign.

The article mentioned above does try to look at least this one problem through the optics of class struggle; but because of the book’s attempt to present a “kaleidoscopic” view of perspectives coming from different ideological tendencies, its emphasis on solving the problems of the poor gets lost. Even the monologues from the informal sector workers get mixed up in this cacophony of perspectives and do not serve any purpose except giving an appearance of the editor’s “democratic” designs. Failing to connect apparent problems to the fundamental underpinnings of the system, such attempts fail to see how perspectives on these problems are also in some sense takes on the system. It is not enough to allow everybody to speak, since the interests of some, a priori are against the interests of the poor that they nonetheless may seem to defend. In the final analysis the sort of reformism that this attempt represents acts as a pressure release valve, to negate the possibility of genuinely transformative collective action. The book fails to rise above the philanthropy that is also called “social activism”, and in that fails to reach toward a useful plan of action. But to its credit, it does succeed in throwing a somewhat different light on the state of Delhi, in a situation where the state and its media are feeding us on a diet of neoliberal propaganda; for those used only to the “mainstream” it could offer a useful change.

A Review of “Social Movements I & II”

 Gilbert Sebastian  

T.K. Oommen (ed.) Social Movements I: Issues of Identity (pp.252+x, HB), & Social Movements II: Concerns of Equity and Security, (pp.352+xii, HB), Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010.

The volumes edited by T.K. Oommen constitute a sociological contribution to the study of social movements in India. The first volume deals with identitarian movements and the second, with movements for equity and security. For spatial constraints, we do not attempt a review and critique of individual articles but confine ourselves to the theoretical issues identified by the editor himself.


The first volume on identitarian movements has two sections. The first section on Religious and Caste Movements has contributions from Kenneth W. Jones on Socio-religious movements, Christophe Jaffrelot on ethno-religious mobilisation, Walter Fernandes on conversion movements, Vivek Kumar on Dalit mobilization and Shail Mayaram on the emergence of Tablighi Jamaat as a transnational relgious movement. The second section on Regional, Linguistic and Tribal Movements has contributions from Robert L. Hardgrave on the dravidian movement, Dipankar Gupta on the Shiv Sena movement, Sanjib Baruah on the Assam movement, Surajit Sinha on tribal movements and Frederick S. Downs on Christian conversion movements in northeast India. Apparently, the contribution by Vivek Kumar was previously unpublished.

Speaking of identitarian movements, Oommen mentions four processes, namely, homogenisation, pluralisation, traditionalisation and hybridisation at work leading to persistence, eclipse and mutation of identities (I: 40).

Introducing the section on regional, linguistic and tribal movements, interestingly, he mentions the three Great Traditions of India with civilisational differences – Aryan-Hindu-Sanskritic, Dravidian-Hindu-Tamil and Islamic-Urdu (I: 160). Ethnicity, religion and language come into play here.

Social Movements IThe second volume has three sections. The first section on Peasant and Labour Movements has contributions on Indian peasant uprisings by Kathleen Gough, Naxalbari movement by Partha Mukherji, Bhoodan movement by T.K. Oommen, new farmers’ movement in Maharashtra by D.N. Dhanagare, Indian labour movement by S.M. Pandey, trends in industrial relations in India during 1950-2000 by Debashish Bhattacherjee, labour activism by women in the unorganized sector by Supriya RoyChowdhury. The second section on Women and Students’ Movements has papers from Indu Agnihotri and Vina Mazumdar on women’s movement in India during 1970s-1990s, from Rajni Palriwala on anti-dowry movement in Delhi, from Martha Alter Chen on the Self-Employed Women’s Association, from Philip G. Altbach and also from T.K. Oommen on the Indian student movement. The third section on Ecological and Environmental Movements has papers from Vandana Shiva on ecology movements in India, from Ranjit Dwivedi on the role of environmental groups in the making of Protected Areas, and finally from T.K. Oommen on protests against developmental displacement. The contributions by Rajni Palriwala, Martha Alter Chen and the one by T.K. Oommen on movements against displacement are, apparently, unpublished elsewhere.

Introducing the second volume on issues of equity and security, Oommen makes a pertinent point that “equity rather than equality is the motive force behind contemporary social movements” (II: 39). He says that even “radical groups are not arguing for equality of rewards these days” but are only demanding “equality of opportunity” or going a step further and demanding “equality of condition” through ensuring “distributive justice” (II: 39). His understanding of “comprehensive security” including the military, political, economic, socio-cultural and environmental dimensions (II: 40) is, indeed, a welcome concept in these days of extreme paranoia.

In the introduction to the volumes by T.K. Oommen, the theoretical contributions of the “founding fathers” are discussed: Durkheimian structural differentiation, Weberian rationality and Marxian class analysis. He rightly argues that Marx’s “basic argument” on social movements “stood the test of time” except for his overemphasis on collective rationality and lack of emphasis on non-class collectivities (5-6).  In defining social movements, Oommen counts in all mobilisations with ideology and organisational framework, irrespective of goals (change or stability) or means (violent or non-violent) (11). He says that one of the aspects – ideology, organisation, leadership – acquires primacy at different phases of all movements (13). He says that the classification of “old” and “new” social movements is inadmissible in the Indian context (14, 38). His classification of movements based on the type of collectivity as biological (women, youth, etc.), primordial (caste, religious, linguistic, tribal, etc.) and civil (workers, peasants, students, environmental movements, etc.) is useful. A better term than “biological” (15-17) should have been used since apparently, these are primarily socially constituted categories. He distinguishes between the instrumental and symbolic goals of movements. Instrumental goals seek reallocation of wealth and power and symbolic goals seek redefinition of status and privilege. The term, “instrumental”, however, sounds rather pejorative. ‘Re-distributive’ could have been a more appropriate term.

Oommen considers mobilisation and institutionalisation as a dialectical process and does not oppose the latter. Questionably, he simply brushes aside the perspective that movements do often go through a life-cycle (25) and may even turn into vestiges of the past weighing down upon the present. He says, “[N]one of the four processes – repression, discreditation, co-optation and institutionalization – will herald the death-knell of a movement. Movements will survive if they have the required legitimacy and appropriate resources” (28). Apparently, he is not sufficiently critical of the processes like co-optation and institutionalisation.


Interestingly, right at the beginning of his introduction, Oommen briefly discusses how the disciplinary focuses – historical/political, psychological and sociological – in studying social movements, the object of inquiry, vary. Sociologists were late-comers into this field. Nevertheless, compartmentalisation of knowledge-fields as such could hamper the advancement of knowledge. Indeed, it is when history, sociology, economics and political studies are knit together in an interdisciplinary manner that we can have an enlightening study.

Oommen says, “There is no hierarchy of identities, but only contextuality of identities” (I: 40). One reason why Oommen has missed the punch is because the notion of primacy (not a hierarchy in an a priori sense) among social contradictions is missing. At any given point of social development, one or the other contradiction comes to the fore and assumes primacy and urgency over other contradictions which of course, are related to the former. Addressing this principal contradiction may lead to viewing social reality in an intersectional manner so that different kinds of oppressions can be interrelated. For instance, addressing the land question in contemporary India entails taking on the historically constituted property structure, addressing the interrelated issues of class, caste and gender.

Along with this, comes the question of the quality and extent of change. Oommen junks M S A Rao’s classification of movements as reformist, transformativeSocial Movements II and revolutionary, for shifting the defining criteria. But it would have been quite useful to retain this classification on the criterion of quality and extent of change. This would be clearer if one tries to substantively understand the social and political movements during their high point in the 20th century. We could classify them under four rubrics on grounds of the structural bases and the transformative agencies involved: (1) Class struggles; (2) Anti-colonial and national liberation movements; (3) Social liberation movements of women, Dalits, Adivasis, minorities, African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, etc., which are pitted against dominant sections within a society more than against a regressive State and global capitalism towards which they maintain a love-hate relationship; and (4) General democratic movements such as anti-globalisation movements, environmental movements, etc. The extent of social transformation achieved through radical class struggles and progressive national liberation movements are, apparently, of a qualitatively higher order than those achieved by social liberation movements and general democratic movements. This is because the former were able to take head on macro-structures of de-humanisation like State, semi-feudalism and global monopoly capitalism and therefore the consequences for the system were much more serious. The sociological classification of movements by Oommen looks more abstract than substantively historical. The latter approach would have entailed seeing the movements in a process of change or movement in time, assigning them importance according to their transformative potential.

On the Indian scenario, Oommen also makes a controversial remark: “[T]here was/is no archetype class movement in India; the equivalent of that was the anti-colonial movement (37).” Telangana, Tebhagha and Naxalbari movements and the class struggles led by the Naxalites/Maoists today, with a wide geographical spread, challenge this argument. That the Maoist movement interrelates class with other social categories such as nationality, caste and gender does not disqualify it from the status of a class-based movement. The anti-colonial movement had, most often, failed to address issues of class/social equity and as G. Haragopal says, bequeathed us the negative legacy of a false dichotomy between the ‘social’ and the ‘political’.

Oommen says that “the real threat to the state emanates from primordial collectivities”. The book “leaves out movements which are explicitly ‘political’ … such as anti-colonial or secessionist movements” (19; I: 160). This omission is serious if we consider the immense transformative potential of nationality movements. Considering the fact that Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958, the most draconian legislation in the country violating the very right to life in the narrow sense of the term, is operational in the intensely militarised frontier nationalities, the issue of the ongoing nationality movements merited treatment at least from a human rights angle.

Crucially, Oommen draws a distinction between “hegemonic” and “emancipatory” identitarian movements (I: 42). Anchoring this distinction in the contemporary rights discourse, we could, better term them as “privileges-based” and “rights-based” identitarian movements. The former are disempowering and the latter, empowering. Given this perspective, the Shiv Sena movement finding its place alongside the rights-based regional, linguistic and tribal movements is an anomaly in the book.

He argues that it is cumulative dominance and coercive equilibrium that becomes the context for social movements (I: 42). However, the cumulatively oppressed and coercively repressed may, often be too weak to initiate social/political movements on their own. Instead, it may be more useful to harp back on the Marxian notion of relative deprivation as the context for movements. Moreover, ‘humiliation’ rather than just exploitation may spur movements.

We could describe a movement as ‘an idea whose time has come’. There is, at times, a simultaneous upsurge of movements in an epoch of social transformation such as the colonial period in India. The making of an epoch of social transformation involves complex interactions of material conditions including the cultural context on the one hand with subjective forces on the other. Collective human agency may be held to be the crucial factor in this process.

Oommen notes the interesting difference between old class activism of the “union-mode” and the new community activism of the ‘campaign-mode’ (50). A separate section critically analysing the global civil society movements could have been usefully undertaken in the book.

If we agree with Manoranjan Mohanty that “rights are political affirmations in course of struggle” or movements, one cannot underestimate the importance of studies on social movements. Oommen needs to be commended for this collection of otherwise scattered across papers. Along with the volumes from Ghanashyam Shah, these volumes can be useful reference material on social movements in India. Oommen’s introduction to the volumes, “On the Analysis of Social Movements” carried in both volumes is a must-read for researchers on social and political movements in India. It is a valuable contribution to the typologies of movements, bringing up many subtle insights, besides sparking off little controversies.

Oommen rightly says that ongoing movements are rarely studied (II: 322) and [probably, for this reason,] what we have is more of a “sociology of movements” rather than a “sociology for movements” (II: 318). For all the crucial insights that they provide, regrettably, Oommen’s edited volumes, may qualify only as a “sociology of movements”.

Gilbert Sebastian is associated with Developing Countries Research Centre (DCRC), University of Delhi, New Delhi. He can be contacted at gilbertseb@gmail.com.

A Review of “Fascism: Theory and Practice”

Yasser Shams Khan

Dave Renton, Fascism: Theory and Practice, Aakar Books, Delhi, 2007 (Originally published by Pluto, London, 1999)

Dave Renton’s book on fascism is structured to serve two purposes: firstly to debunk the current intellectual wave of scholars like Griffin and Eatwell, who consider that “fascist studies” should concentrate on the ideological aspect of fascism and not the specific political contexts (as there were only two historical precedents); and secondly to provide an alternate approach from a Marxist perspective. Renton is also against any apolitical reading of fascism. He polemically emphasizes the imperative of historians to politically situate themselves against fascism while trying to understand it so as to prevent it from gaining prominence in the contemporary political circuit. It is within this purview that his book needs to be looked at.

Fascism is far from dead. The 1990s has seen a regeneration of fascist groups and parties in Europe in the form of the BUF (British Union of Fascists) in Britain, FN (Front National) in France, and the long lingering RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh), the ideological backbone of right parties in India. Dave Renton's FascismHowever many scholars debate whether such parties can be considered fascists, as according to them fascism is an ideology, with certain attributes based on their interpretation of Italian fascism particularly, which renders their definitions static and reductionist. In the words of Roger Griffin, Fascism is described as “palingenetic ultra-nationalism”. Although the four scholars Renton debunks offer varied definitions of fascism, yet they all adhere to Weber’s construction of an “ideal type”. Such transcendent attributes has allowed Griffin to separate fascism from Nazism albeit conceding that they have a common mythic core. Renton criticizes such scholars who lay undue emphasis on theory and neglect the practical, concrete example before them. He censures Zeev Sternhell for combining socialism and nationalism and creating a new ideology of ‘socialism without the proletariat’ which consequently became fascism. Renton exposes the flaw in such theories. These scholars have taken the fascist demagogues’ political pronouncements at face value. If a Mussolini or a Hitler was using anti-capitalist, socialistic rhetoric, does it mean that fascism is anti-capitalist and pro-socialist?

Renton’s preferred alternative approach provides a delineation of Marxist thoughts on fascism along with its ramifications. Left Marxists associate fascism with capitalism, claiming fascism to be nothing more than an extreme form of capitalist reactionary forces active in times of capitalist economy crises. However this does not explain the mass appeal of fascism as observed in practice. Fascism thrived as a mass movement more than an elitist movement. The Right Marxist consider fascism to be detached from capitalism as it had other bases of support particularly the lumpenproletariat and the petty bourgeoisie. The rhetoric of fascism appealed to these classes particularly during times of economic crises when unemployment was high. Official Marxist theories under the Comintern oscillated between these two approaches. However there were Marxists whose understanding of fascism did not come under the official purview of the Comintern and of Stalin. They were August Thalheimer, Ignazio Silone, Antonio Gramsci and Leon Trotsky. These Marxists synthesized the left and right Marxist theories adopting the dialectical method. According to Trotsky, perhaps the most prominent of the four dissident Marxists, fascism was a “reactionary mass movement”. Fascism is inherently contradictory. Through its rhetoric and charismatic personality of its leader it appeals to the classes which constitute the lumpenproletariat and the petty bourgeoisie. However, its actions, once in power, prove detrimental to the very class which acts as its support base. Fascism in power resulted in the defeat and suppression of the working class in the interest of capital. Fascism in practice was anti-democratic, anti-socialist, pro-capitalist. The dialectical approach to fascism is appropriate precisely for this reason: it manages to conceptually capture fascism in its very contradictoriness – as a mass movement with reactionary goals and interests.

The two historical precedents of fascism show that fascism rose in times of capitalist crisis, popular frustration and the inability of the working class to channel this frustration towards a viable anti-capitalist/socialist future. The working class leadership was marked by sectarianism and fragmentation, which stunted its ability to assess the gravity of the fascist threat and challenge it at its very inception.

Renton’s approach in this book is not just elucidatory, but polemical. He is writing against fascism, even as he is writing about it. As mentioned earlier, Renton’s imperative in writing about fascism is to provide a critique not only of reductive scholars of fascism but also of fascism itself, thus preventing it from attaining a political clout in contemporary politics. In his conclusion, he explicitly emphasizes Trotsky’s solution of a United Front of workers to combat fascism. In addition to this, mass protests against fascist violence and acts of racism also serve as preventive measures to beat back the numbers of fascist supporters. The ultimate revolutionary solution would be a systematic overhaul of the current capitalist society to one in which, as Renton conclusively states, “the potential of all humanity is fully realized and all forms of oppression are swept away”.

Dave Renton’s short book on fascism serves its polemical intent, however there are a few points of contention. Although Zeev Sternhell’s argument of affinities between fascism and leftist or Jacobin politics is dismissed, Renton does not seem keen to compare left and right totalitarianisms. Also Renton’s preference for the Marxist approach to understanding fascism is because it captures the contradictory nature of fascism itself, and Marxism being a holistic theory enables preventive measures to be taken against it. Nonetheless, as Chris Brooke notes in his review, Renton’s analysis of the historical development of fascism in Italy and Germany is unsatisfactory. Renton disregards the “constraints imposed by the patterns of historical development”. Brooke’s point is that certain aspects of Italian and German history, particularly after the unification, when rapid modernization was coupled with “the failure to consolidate a functioning parliamentary democracy” before the Great War, gave the impetus to Fascist parties to mobilize and gain popular support in these countries, unlike in countries like France or England. Brooke’s point is well taken as it throws light on more complex processes of historical necessity, and along with Renton’s treatment of the political processes completes the broad analysis of fascism.

Yasser Shams Khan is currently pursuing his Masters in English Literature from Delhi University.