The Ferocious Face of Class War – Rekindling the Revolutionary Imagination


Pyramid of Capitalist System, 1911 image from Industrial Worker (paperof Industrial Workers of the World)

Face of Class War in Contemporary India

It is time again to state one thing absolutely clearly. ‘Class struggle’ or ‘class warfare’ were not invented by Karl Marx, for he and his predecessors merely identified and named the beast. It is something that the rich and the powerful always did and continue to do as we speak. Look at the way the Indian lumpenbourgeoisie has bared its fangs, even as the country is reeling under the deadly impact of COVID 19; look at the way it is sharpening its knives, waiting for its opportunity to make a kill – and you will know what class war is all about. Look at them and it will be crystal clear that it is not the hapless migrant worker and the poor – or the peasant who silently commits suicide – who  indulge in this thing called class war, but they who prey on the weak and the dispossessed. They are once again preparing to make good their losses by yoking in workers as slaves, not allowing them to travel safely back to their homes, keeping them hostage to lumpencapital and ready with  their plans to make them work for 12 hours a day. There isn’t even a pretense – barring an Azim Premji here or an Asian Paints there – of recognizing workers as partners or stakeholders in business.

In a sense, ‘lumpencapitalism’ and the ‘lumpenbourgeoisie’ are the general form of Indian capital, pioneered by Dhirubhai Ambani and his Reliance Industries (interested readers can  read The Polyester Prince by Hamish McDonald) and its arrival with Gautam Adani whose recent rise to front ranks is generally understood to be linked to his closeness to the present regime. And in between, we have conglomerates like Sahara India, whose ‘primitive accumulation’ is alleged to have come almost entirely through chit fund theft.

It is important to remember that so vicious and oppressive has been the situation that over the 2000s, it led to eruptions of some militant, if desperate, struggles by workers in the National Capital Region – particularly the automobile industry. These struggles, we had noted in July 2012 after the tragic events in the Manesar plant of Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, were not aberrations in an otherwise happy story of growth. In that context, I had underlined the specificity of this particular form of Indian capital that I am calling the lumpenbourgeoisie:

‘Violations of law and indulgence on what is known in labour law as ‘unfair labour practices’ is rampant in 21st century India. Especially in the neighbourhood of its Capital where the most disgusting and vulgar display of new wealth of a lumpen-bourgeoisie is the most evident. A word about this lumpen-bourgeoisie. Andre Gunder Frank once used this term for a middle-cum-capitalist class that was apparently inauthentically capitalist, unlike say the European capitalists who were of course, modern and with some kind of respect for the rule of law. I personally do not believe that capital anywhere in the world has become capital without being immersed in violence. Nonetheless Frank’s description of the lumpen bourgeois is important for us in one respect – this section of the middle class-turning-capitalist (through real estate, through labour frauds like non-payment, plain theft of the public exchequer through political nexuses as for instance in the mining sector or CWG games) is fundamentally criminal in its dealings with others. Their relationship to people whose labour they steal on a regular basis – from domestic helps to factory employees – is among other things, also a marker of their deeply caste-structured contempt for labour… In more recent times, the term “lumpen political-economic power” has been used by some intellectuals in the context of Latin America in the 1990s, where again the reference is to a criminality that is in some sense outside the law. I use the term here to refer to a certain criminality that is internal to the law and the political structure: the lumpen bourgeosie in 21st century India is a parasitic class that inhabits state institutions, makes use of them, feeds off them and ‘accumulates’. In a sense, there is a fair bit of the lumpen element of labour theft at the heart of all all our corporate enterprises – with very few exceptions. That most private corporations actually violate the law in this regard with complete impunity was stated in the immediate aftermath of the Graziano Trasmissioni incident, by the then labour minister [Oscar Fernandes] for which of course, he was wildly attacked by the corporate media.’

Class Warfare is Not Only Against Labour

It might appear from the discussion above that ‘class struggle’ is a war between two classes – as if the rest can stay away from it. If it only concerns the working class, why should we bother, smug middle class people might ask – as they usually do in India. It is necessary to underline that class war is not always between two classes but is often one class’s declaration of war against the rest of society – against anything that stands in the way of its predatory greed for profit. And it will stop at nothing, from destroying the environment, poisoning the air and water (that you middle class people too breathe) to wiping of your life’s savings (the workers do not have any) from banks over which they have control thanks to the representatives that you supposedly elect to safeguard your interests.

Top American investor and business tycoon, Warren Buffet once told lawyer and writer Ben Stein 2006, in the context of the politics of taxation, that ‘there’s class warfare alright, but its my class, the rich class, that’s making the war…’ He reiterated this with even greater vigour in a TV interview in 2011:

 Actually, there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won. We’re the ones that have gotten our tax rates reduced dramatically.

If you look at the 400 highest taxpayers in the United States in 1992, the first year for figures, they averaged about $40 million of [income] per person. In the most recent year, they were $227 million per person — five for one. During that period, their taxes went down from 29 percent to 21 percent of income. So, if there’s class warfare, the rich class has won. [All emphasis orginal]

Award winning Americn journalist, Bill Moyers, in a 2013 lecture went much further, invoking Plutarch:

‘The historian Plutarch warned us long ago of what happens when there is no brake on the power of great wealth to subvert the electorate. He wrote: “The abuse of buying and selling votes crept in and money began to play an important part in determining elections. Later on, this process of corruption spread to the law courts and to the army, and finally, when the sword became enslaved by the power of gold, the Republican was subjected to the rule of emperors.”…

We do not have emperors yet… but we have a House of Representatives controlled by the far right of the political spectrum that is now nourished by streams of “dark money” unleashed by the gift bestowed on the rich by Citizens United.’

Increasingly, it is being realized today that all these regimes that call themselves ‘democracies’ are in fact plutocracies or electoral oligarchies. An empirical study done by Profs Martin Gilen and Benjamin I. Page came to this conclusion about decision-making in the USA but there is no reason to suppose that countries India are any different – that they are NOT democracies.

In case we have forgotten our own recent history and the notorious l’affaire Radia Tapes, it may be useful to remember that it was not simply about a compromised media but actually how power functions and how specific ministries are allocated in keeping with the demands of top industrialists. It is only by getting ‘your own man (or woman)’ appointed as minister for apparently marginal ministries like say Forests and Environment that rampant lumpencapital goes about its work. You need to clear forests, you need environmental clearance for new environmentally destructive projects, you need to loot the common resources like natural gas – and all these require pliant (or compliant) ministers. Even though these tapes concern the period of the Congress-led UPA government and Mukesh Ambani claims that ‘Congress to apni dukan hai‘ (the Congress is our shop), this is not an aberration but the mode through which power in this plutocracy called India functions. Let us remember that what made it possible for the BJP, backed by the same corporates,  to come to power was the popular anger against the UPA government. For the plutocracy to function, that’s all that is necessary: when people are fed up with one party or formation, prop up the other so that your rule continues in perpetuity.

Thus the loot of nationalized banks and of all public enterprises and resources continues today – in fact taken to new heights by the present regime. The selling off of all public and common resources to private parties proceeds now at a frenetic pace never seen before. And if tomorrow, the regime were to face a surge of popular anger, we will perhaps have another regime change without anything else changing at all.

And that is why it is necessary to recognize that there is just no way even a fair electoral change of regimes is going to lead to any transformation as far as the ruling bloc is concerned. That is why it is necessary to rekindle the revolutionary imagination and to stop playing the game on the terms set for it by the parliamentary-electoral oligarchy.

Equality and the Question of Property

The most significant contribution of the ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’ idea (and here I include anarchism) was its egalitarian impulse, its argument and ethical claim for equality. It is true that the idea of equality was enunciated much earlier than socialism was born and was emblazoned on the banner of the French Revolution. But for socialism, it was not the idea of formal equality (Equality before God or Equality before Law) that was important but that of substantive Equality that became tangible only through its understanding of property.  That was socialism’s crucial move – of linking Equality with the critique of Property. Even more than Marx, it was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who made that ’emperor’s new clothes’ kind of claim: All Property is Robbery! The Hegelian Marx reduced this process of open robbery to the working of an immanent Law of History, necessary in some way to the progress of humankind. The ‘Late Marx’, of course, was well on the way to revising this understanding and observed that what was threatening the life of the Russian commune was ‘neither historical inevitability nor a theory’ but ‘state oppression, and exploitation by capitalist intruders whom the state has made powerful at the peasants’ expense.’ [Second draft of ‘Reply to Vera Zasulich’. Those interested can follow this entire phase of Marx’s intellectual engagement in Teodor Shanin (ed), Late Marx and the Russian Road].

It is however, Proudhon who pronounced this great ‘revolution in human ideas’ that no longer saw ‘property’ and ‘robbery’ as anti-thetical to each other but as the former arising out the latter.

No one anywhere in the  world was born as owner of the land and all that came with it. Ownership was actually the consequence of conquests and taking control of territory throughout human history.

In India, it is well known that the ideas of communism and Marxism were attacked, right through the early decades of the twentieth century in India, for ‘being foreign’ and ‘not of this soil’. These attacks continued till well into the early post-independence decades. In the years that people of my generation were growing up, we would hear popular jokes, where ‘communist’ was rendered as ‘qaum-nasht’ (those who destroy the nation/ community) and ‘comrade’ were said to be those – ‘jo quam ki rade marte hain‘ (once again, those who deplete/ destroy the  nation). Why exactly were communists seen to be such dangerous creatures? What was the meaning of this ‘foreignness’? The answer stares you in the face when you read the tracts of those times: Communists only talk of class struggle and violence, whereas we, in India, have always sought harmony co-existence. That they want to violently take away everyone’s property and impose equality, was seen as contrary to the indigenous pursuit of harmony! RSS ideologues went a step further and Golwalkar, in fact, said that the foreign notion of equality is problematic because it is crass and this-worldly. Our notion apparently divine, is graspable only at the level of Brahman, not at the level of the indiviidual atman! Here is the man himself:

‘It is in this sense, i.e. the same spirit being immanent in all, that all men are equal. Equality is applicable only on the plane of the Supreme Spirit. But on the physical plane the same Spirit manifests itself in a wondrous variety of diversities and disparities.’ (Bunch of Thoughts, Vikrama Prakashan, Bangalore: 18, emphasis added)

Never did the opponents of communism think violence against the powerless and the oppressed was objectionable or destructive of the quam, regardless of whether the oppressed were Dalits or, as in the present moment, destitute migrant workers. Because that is tradition, that is the modality in which Brahman manifests itself in this world. To try to change it in the name of an earthly equality is precisely what was wrong with the ‘foreign idea of communism’! One can see the perversity of this mode of argument even today, when those who fight the Hindu Right’s communalism are accused of ‘disturbing peace and harmony’ among communities. As has been repeated ad nauseam by scholars like Ashis Nandy, the RSS was never averse to aping the colonial masters: foreignness, I submit, was an issue only as far as it became the way of asserting opposition to the idea of equality. How can you say that you are opposed to equality without sounding like someone on the verge of losing privileges? By talking of ‘foreignness’ you can feign perpetual victimhood and oppose the demand for equality. That was RSS’ ground for opposition to the Indian Constitution – that it was out of tune with our ‘Tradition’.

Today, the deafening silence of the upholders of tradition – those who piously throw ‘harmony’ and ‘co-existence’ at ‘the Left’ all the time – is all pervasive now as the current attacks on labour are being put in place. Indeed, they are being spearheaded by the upholders of tradition, by people like Yogi Adityanath.

Here we are talking of the idea of equality – not the specific form that twentieth century socialism adopted, which was a system oriented to the provision of some basic necessities (which need not imply equality in spirit) at the cost of democratic liberties. It also did not help that the idea of ‘property’ was often not clarified enough, while its opponents managed to succeed in convincing even relatively unprivileged people that communists wanted to confiscate even their personal belongings in order to make people equal.

Neoliberalism and the Attack on Equality

With the collapse of twentieth century state socialism and the worldwide victory of neoliberalism, the idea of equality came under severe attack but strangely, there was no normative-ethical content to that attack. The argument, if at all there was any, was pragmatic – that state socialist experience had shown that it does not work. The market alone works as it conforms to the natural proclivities of human beings, including their acquisitive instincts on the one hand, and their natural inequality on the other. Apparently, so we were told, inequality was the driving force and that alone pushed human beings to hard work and creation of more wealth, which eventually would ‘trickle down’ to everyone. The situation in the 1990s was such that Marxists had completely lost all confidence and at least, in India, gradually made their peace with neoliberalism – meet neoliberalism half-way as J. Devika put it recently.  That situation has continued through to the present, as a consequence, questions of equality have been quietly packed and put away. Capital is the new deity that has to be propitiated at all costs – that has been the mindset for these last three decades.

It is of fundamental importance today that we assert that normative-ethical questions of equality and justice cannot be subordinated to pragmatic concerns. Just as we don’t argue that because we can’t do away with domestic violence or that patriarchy is ‘natural’, therefore let us incorporate patriarchy into our vision of the future, so can we not argue that class divisions be accepted. If in ensuring an end to domestic violence, the family breaks up, we can have to face that consequence. Likewise, simply because large sections of savarna Hindus do not accept Dalits as their equals, we can’t say – ‘let us make peace with untouchability.’ By the same logic, it is necessary to assert the fundamental principle of equality and then ask what kind of an economy would make that possible rather than the other way round.

Finally, as we conclude, a few words on the idea of ‘rekindling the revolutionary imagination’. ‘Rekindling’ must not be seen as recovering something lost, for that ‘something’ was the product of a specific time and space. Moreover, it is neither possible nor desirable to ‘revive’ the dead spirit of twentieth century socialism and the specific forms bequeathed by it. That will not enbale us to  confront today’s challenges. The real challenge is to liberate our thought from that disastrous idea that the emergence of private property was the necessary pre-requisite of Progress and that capitalism is a necessary ‘stage’ of History. Simply because that it how it empirically happened does not mean that we assign the necessity of a scientific Law to the development of either private property or capitalism. For once that is done, not only does it not make sense to oppose it, it also makes no sense trying to reverse it. After all, that was what led communists everywhere to dedicate themselves to ‘building capitalism’ even after the revolution; that was also what led to the tragic developments in Singur and Nandigram in our own recent history.

Rekindling the revolutionary imagination demands a relentless struggle for the demand for equality. We do not yet know what political forms the struggles of the future will take, but we do need to break out, once and for all, from the prisonhouse of pragmatism in this regard.

We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s