People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 05

February 02, 2014


The Indispensability of Marxism


Prabhat Patnaik


WE have been hearing of late remarks like “We do not believe in ‘Isms’” and “Divisions between the Left and the Right are things of the past”. Since these remarks emanate from quarters that supposedly strike a chord with the contemporary youth, they deserve to be taken seriously. Besides, they constitute part of an intellectual tradition that has been recently in vogue, which holds that all “grand narratives”, of which Marxism is a classic example, are passé.


Is it true that with the collapse of the Soviet Union which had launched the socialist project in practice, and hence marked the realisation of the “grand narrative” of Marxism, humanity has moved beyond the era of “grand narratives” altogether?


Answering this question by pointing to the pervasive presence of poverty, malnutrition and misery in our midst will not do. Several NGOs too are concerned with poverty and hunger and have devoted themselves to their eradication. So, why should the socialist project acquire relevance because of the sheer existence of these phenomena?


One could go further. Within capitalism itself in our own country, indeed within neo-liberal capitalism, we have seen the enactment of legislations guaranteeing rural employment and providing food security; and nobody can possibly argue that the MGNREGS has made no difference to rural labourers, or that the food security legislation would make no perceptible difference to the hungry. Then why can’t such measures be extended to other spheres, and implemented with greater honesty, even within the existing capitalist system, which can happen if “corruption” is eliminated through the efforts of “civil society” organisations and their off-shoot political outfits, making any project for transcending this system unnecessary?




The case for socialism, it should also be noted, rests not just on the claim that it is a better or a more desirable system than capitalism. It derives from the argument that there is no alternative to socialism if mankind is to have a future, if it is to survive in peace, dignity and freedom. Lenin had underscored this argument when he had said that the First World War, which formed the background to the Bolshevik Revolution, had given the proletarians in Europe the choice between killing fellow workers across the trenches and turning their guns against the system that forced them to do so. Rosa Luxemburg had underscored this argument when she had said pithily that the choice before mankind was between socialism and barbarism.


Marxism provides the theoretical basis for the argument that there is no alternative to socialism if mankind is to escape the fate of barbarism. This theory has to be judged on its scientific validity, and not by whether it happens to be fashionable at a particular time. In short, there is no escape from Marxism if it is valid. Since Marxism is above all an analysis of capitalism, if it is valid then its validity remains unimpaired as long as capitalism exists.


Putting it differently, there are certain theories which have the characteristic that they can become passe only when the projects that flow out of them have got realised. They can get transcended only by getting realised. They exhaust their life-span only when the conjuncture that gave rise to them ceases to exist, through the very  realisation of the agenda they generate for altering that conjuncture. Hence the real question relates to the validity of Marxism’s comprehension of capitalism. If it is valid, then as long as capitalism exists Marxism cannot get transcended.


The basic proposition advanced by Marxism is that the misery, the degradation, the poverty we observe around us is not despite capitalism, not the result of insensitivity or callousness on the part of the capitalists and the rich; it is produced by capitalism itself. This is not to say that poverty and misery did not exist earlier, in pre-capitalist societies; but capitalism imposes upon all these societies its own sui generis form of poverty and misery, characterised by insecurity, helplessness and individual alienation. And it does so even as it develops productive forces phenomenally.


A surplus is extracted by the capitalists not through physical coercion as under feudalism but through the indirect coercion of the market, where the existence of a “reserve army of labour” holds the fear of the “sack” hanging over the heads of the workers. Capitalism cannot do without a reserve army of labour, i.e., a mass of unemployed, semi-employed and under-employed workers, into whose ranks any employed worker who happens to become recalcitrant can be thrown at any time.


This reserve army itself is a repository of poverty, degradation and misery; in addition it helps to keep down the wages of the employed workers to a bare subsistence level. This means that the significant developments in labour productivity that come about under this system only raise the share of the surplus value in output, and generate large and growing income inequalities.


The reserve army, far from getting exhausted or shrinking relative to the population, is continuously replenished, apart from via the natural growth of the work-force, by dispossessed petty producers whose economy is destroyed by the encroachment of capitalism; by dispossessed small capitalists whom large capital is continuously in the process of eliminating (a part of “centralisation” of capital); and by workers thrown out of employment because of technological progress.


To be sure, if perchance the size of the reserve army comes down, then the pace of accumulation itself slackens, causing an “automatic” replenishment of the reserve army. But such occurrences are rare, especially in societies like ours (where the possibility of large scale emigration to the outside world hardly exists). On the contrary, the size of the reserve army, i.e., the mass of unemployed, semi-employed and under-employed workers, keeps rising relative to the population in societies like ours, reproducing on an expanding scale the relative magnitude of absolute poverty in total population.


All this is well-known and repeating it should be superfluous; but it becomes necessary because of the current fashion of closing one’s eyes to it. Economic historians have been at pains to point out that the roots of mass poverty in our country can be traced to the impact of colonialism in causing “deindustrialisation” among pre-capitalist producers and inflicting upon them a “drain” of resources. Poverty, caused by the extraction of surplus by feudal lords at low levels of productivity, existed before. But the substantial increase in its size, and the change in its nature, from one associated with low levels of development of productive forces within the old system, to one marked by insecurity arising from being chained to an impersonal market, were the peculiar results of capitalist colonialism.


While the days of colonialism are over, capitalism today reproduces within the country the same logic of destruction of petty production, the same expansion of the army of unemployed, semi-employed and under-employed mass, the same enchaining of the employed workers to a bare subsistence level even in the midst of significant increases in labour productivity, and hence the same increase in income inequalities, as had happened in the colonial period taking the metropolis and the colonies together. And it does so while super-imposing itself, and modifying for its own purposes, all the oppressive features of the pre-existing society, such as the caste-system, the exploitation of tribal people, and patriarchy. 




But, it may be argued, no matter what the spontaneous tendencies of capitalism, surely the State can intervene to ensure that the enormous development of the productive forces that capitalism brings about can be utilised at least in part for raising the standard of living of the people at large. This can happen of course, but only in the face of a strong movement of the people. The spontaneous tendencies of capitalism in unleashing growing inequality and distress can be restricted, and even partly reversed, as had happened in the post-war period, if there is strong popular resistance.


But, when this happens, capitalism also spontaneously attempts to circumvent this resistance through centralisation of capital, by getting organised into larger and larger blocs and hence going “global”, i.e., by enlarging the terrain over which it operates, so that it escapes the encirclement enforced by popular resistance. Hence, even retaining the level of “reforms” extracted from capitalism requires that popular resistance itself must keep expanding its scope.


There are thus no permanently achieved “reforms” under capitalism, if perchance some “reforms” are achieved. (Even such “reforms” are often achieved at the expense of other segments of the people, either at home or abroad). There is only a permanent class struggle, of “body against body” as Marx had put it, in which each combatant must keep raising the scope of its operation. The capitalists do so spontaneously; the proletariat must do so consciously.


This dialectic can only come to an end, and the achievements of the “reforms” put on a permanent basis (though they would get hugely surpassed) only when the system itself is transcended. “Reforms” in short can only be an episode in the dialectics of class struggle. They do not constitute permanent achievements, whose scope can be expanded gradually over time to build a humane society within the capitalist system.


This dream of building a humane society within capitalism is what had informed the weltanschaung of John Maynard Keynes and  the post-war European social democratic movement. The achievements it had made within the capitalist system are today being reversed before our very eyes. The inequality in income and wealth over the world as a whole, and even within the advanced countries (and India as well), is growing rapidly and has reached an unprecedented level. In India itself poverty and malnutrition today are comparable to those of the years just preceding the Second World War. The world economy remains submerged in a crisis unprecedented in its scale since the Great Depression of the 1930s. All these prima facie constitute a vindication of Marxism.


One can of course debate this proposition, but only by providing some alternative explanation for these phenomena. But merely to say in the midst of these phenomena that “All Isms are passé” displays a contempt for facts.


Such cavalier dismissals however are nothing new for Marxism. It has seen, and survived, numerous attempts to relegate it to the dustbin of history. As early as 1896, Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk, a renowned bourgeois economist from Austria, had written in his book Karl Marx and the Close of his System: “The Marxist system has no abiding future.” Ironically, the Bolshevik Revolution happened a mere twenty-one years after that!