An Interview on the Continuing Relevance of Marx

The following is an interview with PRADIP BAKSI, an independent Marx scholar based in Kolkata. He has translated and edited some of the notes and manuscripts of Karl Marx on mathematics and on the history of land relations in India. He has also written on Marx’s study of some of the natural sciences and technologies of his time. The interview was conducted by SANKAR RAY, a senior journalist based in Kolkata.

Sankar Ray [SR]: What are your views on the relevance of Marx for India today, in the context of the financial crisis continuing since 2008, a certain renewal of interest in Marx’s Capital and, of late in Piketty’s Capital for the 21st Century?

Pradip Baksi [PB]: Despite the echo of the title of Marx’s famous book in the title of Piketty’s bestseller, the latter is an exercise within one of the currently fashionable strands of Marx-innocent political economy. In contrast Marx’s Capital is a part of an unfinished and incomplete program of critique of political economy, proposing a continuous reconstruction of it as a science.

While marshalling a very large and interesting dataset on growing inequality within contemporary capitalism, Piketty proposes to make that inequality bearable through taxation within future capitalism, and thereby holds a brief for that very capitalism. Marx, it is true, left his critique of political economy incomplete and unfinished, but he never held any brief for capitalism.

The ongoing financial crisis has triggered some interest in these two books in some quarters. This financial crisis and this interest may or may not last long. I do not wish to speculate about that. The questions of relevance or otherwise of Marx for India, and for the rest of the world, however, are questions of a different order.

Marx opened his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy [1859] with the statement that he wished to examine the bourgeois economy in the following order: capital, landed property, wage-labour; the state, foreign trade, world market. In other words, his book titled the Capital was planned to tackle only one-sixth of that task. In 1990 the responsibility of editing and publication of the complete works of Marx/Engels – the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe [MEGA] – was ceded by the collapsing ruling communist parties of USSR and GDR, to the Internationale Marx-Engels Stiftung [http://socialhistory.org/en/projects/marx-engels-gesamtausgabe]. Subsequently it became clear that the Capital and the work preparatory to it remain incomplete in the 15 volumes [23 books] of MEGA II [http://mega.bbaw.de/struktur/abteilung_ii].

Since Marx’s death in 1883, the continuation of his research program for a critique of political economy was blocked and hampered by various truncated understandings of it and, by the filters imposed by the hegemonic Marxist, anti-Marxist/non-Marxist etc. ideological discourses internal to political economy as a discipline. In India the corresponding ignorance and confusion has been further compounded by our near total dependence on the Anglophone Marxist discourses. Perhaps, our only reader of all the volumes of MEGA II, Paresh Chattopadhyay, lives in Canada.

During the 20th century some historians of political economy have traced and are still tracing the roots of ancient and medieval political economic thought in Africa, the Americas, Russia, China, India, Persia and, Arabia. This process is purging the discipline of its earlier Western-Europe oriented bias about its past. This is happening in the context of the evolution of more plural views of world history and, of the various disciplines that have evolved within it. For India, the related important developments include: genetics-informed studies on the evolution and history of human populations in South Asia, archaeological studies of the processes of early urbanization in the Indus Valley Civilization, rediscovery and study of Kautilya’s Arthashastra, and relatively greater recognition of gender-, ethnos- and caste-based conflicts in our societies. Marx’s natural-, and social-historical notebooks, slated to be published as various volumes of MEGA IV [http://mega.bbaw.de/struktur/abteilung_iv], are of direct relevance for this desired reconstruction of the past of human civilization and political economy.

The task of continuing Marx’s critique of political economy first of all entails absorbing all the 15 volumes [23 books] of his unfinished book on capital, and then their extension in the light of the developments since his death. Further, there remains the task of tackling the other five domains, which he wished to but could not tackle comprehensively. Today this scientific research program stands informed by the developments in gender-, environment-, and Marx-studies.

Marx’s notes and excerpts on geology, chemistry, ethnology, agronomy, and comparative history of land relations, indicate the directions of his investigations in respect of landed property. The domain of wage-labour, briefly described in the Capital, Volume I, Chapters XIX-XXII, needs to be tackled in conjunction with investigations on its source and precondition, namely, of wageless-labour, including that of the women and children in the patriarchal families. Marx left a very brief draft plan for a work on the modern state [Marx/Engels, Collected Works, 4: 666]. His voluminous notes and excerpts on legal and juridical history of many countries, including those concerning the Dharmashastras and Shariati codes of India, are of direct relevance here. The directions of his study of foreign trade and world market are indicated in many places within his scientific and journalistic writings.

With all its social problems and conflicts, India is poised to become a large industrialized economy in the 21st century, perhaps next only to China. These two economies dominated much of the world trade from c. 3000 BCE to c.1800 CE. After a gap of about two hundred years these two economies are once again poised to re-emerge as major players in the world economy. Hence also the contemporary relevance of Marx’s program of critique of political economy for India and China, which is somewhat comparable to its earlier relevance for England, France, Germany, the USA, USSR, and Japan in the 19th-20th centuries.

Marx’s theoretical evolution took place absorbing the heritage of West-European Enlightenment, Romanticism, and their critique in Germany. These intellectual currents were nourished not only by a Renaissance of Greek and Latin classical learning, but also by the European exposure to ancient and medieval Asian learning and thought, through the epistolary activities of the Christian missionaries of various orders and, the publications of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, established at Calcutta in 1784. Detailed understanding of Marx’s investigations and, that of the nature and history of our world are of mutual and multi-track relevance for each other. As a part of it, India remains ever relevant for any comprehensive understanding of Marx’s works and, his works remain relevant for any critical understanding of the past, present, and future of India.

SR: Has the interest in the various forms of Marxism, like Leninism, declined somewhat in the recent years? If yes, then why?

PB: Yes, the large scale heightened interest in the ideologies like Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism that was observed in the political sphere, in various decades of the 19th and 20th centuries, in several parts of the world, has certainly declined in the 21st century; though they still retain some pockets of influence in some places. The reasons for this decline are many. First, these ideologies have failed to renew themselves in the light of the newer social tasks at hand. Compare the earlier decline of the Jaina, Bauddha, Bhakti, Sufi, Sahajiya, and Gandhian ideologies in India. However, that does not mean that they may never stage a comeback in some form in some place. Second, their historic failures in the lands of their origin, namely, in Germany, Russia, and China, are still fresh in public memory. Third, the social groups and generations that cherished these ideologies, namely, the dissident and impoverished gentry, intelligentsia, peasants, and workers of the 19th-20th centuries, are almost dead and gone. The embryonic dissidents among the emerging new elite and working people have different aspirations. They do not find their hopes and dreams for a better future mirrored in these ideologies of the past centuries. Fourth, backward-looking confessional, racist, and xenophobic ideologies have staged a vigorous comeback in the marketplace of ideas. Fifth, critiques of all ideologies have made considerable headway, not only in the scientific discourses, but also in the mass-media…

SR: Why are Marxists of today not enthusiastic about the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe [MEGA], edited and published by the Internationale Marx-Engels-Stiftung?

PB: In view of their track record in blocking, distorting, obfuscating, and truncating the legacy of Marx for over a century, should we expect the Marxists to be enthusiastic about the MEGA today? The Marxists are under the spell of their ideologies, which are various shades of false consciousness, woven around some distorted and truncated understanding of Marx’s words and texts. If they become enthusiastic about the MEGA, then they will eventually lose the justification for their own continued existence. Some from among them have individually become interested in the MEGA and, in the process ceased to remain Marxist.

SR: How are Marx’s works different from those of the Marxists? Why do you think that Marx’s works are still relevant in several directions, but not those of the Marxists?

PB: Marx’s works are of various kinds: journalistic, political writings, documents of the International Workingmen’s Association [1864-1876], notes, excerpts, drafts and more or less finished texts generated in the course of scientific investigations, letters…He was interested in law, history, philosophy, political economy, industrial technology, agriculture, geology, chemistry, physics, physiology, ethnology, mathematics, religion, literature, languages…, and in the conditions of Germany, France, England, Ireland, Scandinavia, Poland, Russia, the Balkans, Italy, Spain, the United States, Latin America, Algeria, India and China…of his time. Those works of Marx that open up paths for future investigations retain their relevance for the present and the future. He never propagated any ideology, not even that which was titled as Marxism, by others, after his surname. Marxisms on the other hand are, like nationalisms and religious ideologies, a set of false ideas and beliefs oriented on sectarian political mobilization of some people for the reasons of state. To attain that goal the Marxists attempted to turn the known texts of Marx into holy books, objects of worship beyond the pale of scientific investigations. However, I would not say that the works of the Marxists are totally irrelevant. In the history of human culture they retain their relevance as objects of present and future critique.

SR: In a text titled “A Partial and Partially Cyberdiscursive Bibliography Reflecting Karl Marx’s Encyclopedic Approach to the Study of History” you seem to have proposed a plan for studying Marx. Will you elaborate upon how you propose that Marx may be studied in the contexts of our time?

P B: This bibliography is available at:

[https://www.academia.edu/5512520/A_Partial_and_Partially_Cyberdiscursive_Bibliography_Reflecting_Karl_Marxs_Encyclopedic_Approach_to_the_Study_of_History].

It is an extension of a bibliography prepared by Hans-Peter Harstick in 1977, in the light of subsequent research and, updating of the inventory of Marx/Engels Papers at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam in 2003. Some of the source materials, which are now available online, have been provided with web links. This bibliography reflects the unfolding of Marx’s paths of investigations under the heads: History of Human Society; History of Rest of the Nature; and History of Human Thought. Within each head the problem cycles studied by Marx have been captured under the subject heads: General and Political History of the societies of various continents, their Legal and Constitutional Histories, History of Culture and Ethnology, Historical Geography, Political Science, Religion, Philosophy, Chemistry, Agriculture, Geology, Physiology, Industrial Technology, Physics, Languages, Grammars, Mathematics and, Critique of Political Economy.

Marx studied the various sciences and disciplines in the interests of human emancipation from all bondage and, for the emancipation of knowledge from the bondage of various ideologies of his time. In the course of his studies he critically developed the research programs of Aristotle, Leibniz, the French Encyclopaedists, Saint-Simon, Comte and others, in the light of the information that was available to him. Marx too needs to be studied with the same spirit of investigating everything critically in all necessary and possible interconnections, in the light of information provided by the technologies and sciences of our time.

SR: A Conference on “Marx’s Capital: An Unfinished and Unfinishable Project?” was organized in last October at Amsterdam

[http://socialhistory.org/en/events/conference-marxs-capital-unfinished-and-unfinishable-project].

Despite my best efforts I could not get our media interested in the event. What are the reasons behind such apathy? Any guesses?

PB: Many guesses. The mass-media of our societies are market-driven and, the market is managed by people with a certain maturity, education and orientation. The managers of mass-media follow their own perceptions about what the readers/spectators would like to/should get to read/view. So we have many variables here: societies, mass-media, market, managers, maturity, education, orientation, perceptions, would like to, should get to, and readers/spectators. Perhaps the story on the destiny of Marx’s Capital as a project did not ring any bell in any of their interfaces. Till date there is hardly any resonance in the World Wide Web either. Doesn’t it speak volumes about the contemporary levels of Marx-awareness or Marx-sensitivity on our planet? Doesn’t the Indian and global mass-media appear terribly synchronized and fine-tuned here?

SR: You have tried to highlight Marx’s contributions to the study of human ideas, society and, the rest of the nature through your translations of some of Marx’s writings. Is it possible to outline a contemporary approach in these areas along Marx’s lines?

PB: Human ideas, society, and the rest of the nature are planetary phenomena. Marx’s approach in these areas may be summarised in two sentences. One of these was his favourite maxim: Nihil humani a me alienum puto. It was inspired by a famous statement taken from the play Heauton Timorumenos [The Self-Tormentor] by Publius Terentius Afer [195/185-159 BCE]: “Homo sum, humani Nihil a me alienum puto” [I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human to be alien to me]. The other was his favourite motto: De omnibus dubitandum [Doubt everything!]. It is attributed to Rene Descartes [1596-1650], who in his turn may have been inspired by the critical thinking of Socrates [470/469-399 BCE]. It also reminds one of the title of Søren Kierkegaard’s book De omnibus dubitandum est, where he portrayed the existential consequences of assuming Cartesian doubt. It is of some interest to note here that Søren Kierkegaard [1813-1855] attended the 1841 Berlin lectures of Friedrich Schelling [1775-1854] together with Mikhail Bakunin, Alexander von Humboldt and, Friedrich Engels among others.

It is possible to approach the raging hurricanes of all the new technologies, the digital arts and humanities, the emerging computational physical, biological and social sciences, the waves of pluralism in mathematics in different cultures, the new horizons of the histories and philosophies of these disciplines, in short everything of our interesting time, with these two time-tested principles. Nothing human should be alien to us; and, we should examine everything critically.

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Pradip Baksi can be contacted at pradipbaksi@gmail.com

Sankar Ray can be contacted at sankar.ray@gmail.com

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