‘Marxisms in the 21st Century’ – What do Bihar Elections Have to do With It?



In the  course of the Bihar election campaign of behalf of his party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Mahagathbandhan (the  grand alliance), the chief  ministerial face of the alliance Tejashwi Yadav has been indicating a significant shift of focus. ‘That was the era [his father Laloo Yadav’s] of social justice; this is the time of economic justice and the youth today want jobs’. Clearly this shift comes against the backdrop of the massive loss of jobs and livelihoods over the past six years since this government came to power. The lockdown was only the most inhuman culmination the the process of destruction of livelihoods that began with demonetization, followed by the ill-thought out Goods and Services Tax (GST).

This shift of focus is of importance for two reasons. The first reason is obviously economic and underlines the need to put back on the rails, lakhs and lakhs of lives derailed over the years. The second, no less significant, is the political reason – for it pushes the discourse away from the highly divisive and communal home turf of the BJP and the RSS. However, it should be noted at the very outset that merely asking for or providing for jobs will not get economic justice, which will at some level, have to confront the question of redistribution – and redistrbution means nothing if it fails to move beyond preoccupations with income to a redistribution of what Marxists call the ‘means of production’. Indeed, if past experience – and the ongoing upper-caste counter-revolution in UP – is any guide, social justice is likely to remain an empty slogan unless it breaks the economic power of the landed interests in the countryside.

Marxisms in the 21st Century

This is where the connection between the Bihar elections and the idea of plural Marxisms in the twenty-first century lies. I borrow this fabulous expression from a book that was published some years ago (2013) in South Africa under a series called ‘Democratic Marxism’. Edited by old friends Vishwas Satgar and Michelle Williams, the interesting thing about this volume is that it puts together a wide range of essays and reflections from an African perspective as well. Though it is not possible to discuss the different essays in this volume here – and it is not the purpose of this brief post – I do want to underline a few things that are perhaps important from our current point of view. Two over-riding concerns that come across in the essays that look back at the experience of twentieth century socialism are those of democracy and industrialization/ modernization.

What strikes me as of critical importance while reading these contributions is that in a country like ours, these are no longer questions that belong to a deferred future. Left-wing formations and communist parties have had to participate in and form governments at the state level right from the time of the first communist ministry under EMS Namboodiripad’s chief ministership in 1957. That is a long time for a proper distillation of that experience to be undertaken but woefully, we have no real political-movement memory to go by, no serious studies. In the intervening years, Left parties have also had to participate in different degrees in central governments – but they have always displayed a mortal fear of handling power as was dramatically illustrated in the 1996 ‘historic blunder’. This time round, the united Left (CPI, CPI-M and CPI-ML) are part of the Mahagathbandhan and it is certainly within the realm of possibility that it may be voted into power. How the CPI-ML (Liberation) resolves its doctrinal issues remains to be seen.

My purpose here is not to discuss those questions of participation/ non-participation. Rather, I want to underline one simple fact. Today, we are no longer in the situation where debates on ‘socialism’ or the ‘transition to socialism’ are a matter of some distant post-revolution future – for in the perspective of democratic socialist transformations, these have a direct bearing on what Left governments or governments with significant Left components will do or must do. What they do today has a direct bearing on what happens tomorrow – and communists or socialists need to liberate themselves from the mindset that all they can do is build capitalism, neoliberal style, till they can ‘make revolution’.

My reasons for raising this issue is also that the Mahagathbandhan is likely to raise – and going by the turnout in their rallies, they have raised – the hopes of people, at least in the matter of creating hundreds of thusands of jobs. How exactly the alliance will proceed on this all important issue is the key question. The stock answer to this question of employment usually is: industrialization. And industrialization means inviting Capital to invest, which means dancing to its tune – land acquisition, dispossession and all that we are now only too familiar with. We are already familiar with the result of that , as it has appeared in our recent history.

One often comes across the argument that this was because some Left parties surrendered to neoliberalism – which is certainly not incorrect but it is only a very partial view of things. We know now that the war on the peasantry and the whole business of ‘depeasantization’ or ‘deagrarianization’ is an inevitable outcome of modern development in any form. The experience of Soviet socialist industrialization too has not been any different – and there too the ‘Preobrazhensky thesis’ of ‘primitive socialist accumulation’ was actually put into operation by Stalin during the industrialization drive. I have written about it elsewhere and will not go into that story here. There is now no dearth of academic literature in this regard.

But what struck me in the volume referred to above was the essay, ‘Retrospect: Seven Theses about Africa’s Marxist Regimes’ by Daryl Glaser. Glaser actually distinguishes between two moments and two kinds of regimes: the earlier ‘African socialist’ regimes of the likes of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Julius Neyrere in Tanzania and Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria, followed by the more avowedly Marxist regimes that came to power after prolonged armed struggles. The latter included regimes formed by successful armed strggles like the FRELIMO (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique), ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union), SWAPO (South West African People’s Orgnization in Namibia). And despite ideological differences, all of them ‘vigorously promoted programmes of industrialization’: ‘(T)he African socialist regimes were, like their Marxist successors, prone to authoritarianism and resorted to coercion of the peasantry.’ (170) The alliance with or dependence of the peasantry during the armed struggle made no difference whatsoever to how the regimes behaved:

‘It is also striking how little the experience of liberated zones did to entrench post-independence democratic practice or to cement a lastingly sympathetic relationship between Marxist governments and the peasants they had earlier depended upon. FRELIMO for example, discarded participatory priorities and pro-peasant orientation of its guerilla-war days to set up, post-1975, a centralized pro-industrial regime willing to employ coercion against its rural subjects.’ (174, emphasis added)

Glaser adds, tellingly

‘It is not that the peasants were pro-capitalist: they did not, for the most part, want a free market in land and opposed attempts by the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) in Ethiopia and FRELIMO in Mozambique to introduce one in the 1990s; they mostly welcomed redistribution of land from state holdings and big landowners.’ (185)

Clearly, says Glaser, socialist governments were convinced that in imposng modernization, history was on their side. Aren’t we are all so familiar with this argument here in India? The underlying assumption is that they socialists/ communists represent ‘the onward march of history’, which is linear, unidirectional and irreversible.

There is little doubt now, however, that this is a sure recipe for disaster – quite aside from the fact that it depends on nothing but the ‘capital-penis-envy’ of the postcolonial state and political elites to ‘have it too’!  Before concluding then, I want to draw attention to an article by Vishwas Satgar that we recently re-published on Kafila, where he talks about ‘democratic eco-socialism’ and refers, albeit in passing, to ‘re-agrarianization’ of the world:

A crucial democratic systemic reform that will have to be further globalized from the periphery is the “re-agrarianization” of the world through food sovereignty and agro-ecology. Initiated by La Via Campesina over two decades ago, every community, village, town and city across the planet will have to embrace such a democratic eco-socialist alternative.

That there are Marxists in today’s world who have eschewed the linear unidirectional idea of historical Progress and are willing to think of ‘re-agrarianization’ of the world, moving from the ‘peripheries’ to the ‘centre’ so to speak, is certainly a heartening sign. The fact that the ‘real movement’ that challenges Capital today is raising an entirely different set of questions, and from perspectives radically different from those of capital and industrialization, is a sign of changing times. Marxists and socialists in Latin America have already shown serious signs of rethinking (though perhaps still not adequately enough), and have developed strong connections with the international peasants’ movement, La Via Campesina. The call by La Via Campesina to move towards food sovereignty through peasant agro-ecology indicates new directions that focus not just on dealing with hunger in an abstract way but by ordinary people gaining control over their own lives.

To conclude then, this post certainly has no ‘advice’ for the Mahagathandhan, nor does it intend to make any concrete proposals. The larger point about industrialization is nevertheless worth thinking about seriously, especially in a country that is preponderantly a country of peasant agricuture and informal self-employment. Industrialization and the modern economy (including 20th century socialism) are premised on the elimination of this vast sector and its replacement by large-scale industry. There is an urgent need to think about livelihoods beyond just ’employment’ – via industrialization, which is certainly not the panacea that it has been made out to be.

The sooner we address these issues the better it will be for the renewal of the socialist project itself.

One thought on “‘Marxisms in the 21st Century’ – What do Bihar Elections Have to do With It?”

  1. you have rightly identified two crucial issue democratization and industrialization. However, i would like to call attention to a minor though important issue. you have under estimated the role of re-distributive measures. Radical measures of redistribution of income along with democratization and justice per se would, in due course, lead to redistribution of means of production too as inequality in distribution of means of production is substantially borne out of unequal distribution of income.


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