Spot the difference between the two quotations below.
“The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilised ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.” – [Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848. Emphasis added]
“Hence, the historical movement which changes the producers into wage-workers, appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds, and this side alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But, on the other hand, these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.” – [Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, Chapter 26, ‘The Secret of Primitive Accumulation’. 1867. All emphasis added]
Look closely at both, and if you have any doubts, you can return to the original texts from which these two passages have been extracted – the Communist Manifesto, by the youthful Marx and Engels, published in 1848 and Capital, Volume I, published in 1867. If the Communist Manifesto almost celebrates the ‘fact’ that capitalism has “rescued a considerable part of the population [i.e. the peasant] from the idiocy of rural life”, what does the text of Capital say? It underlines that precisely these people who had been thus ‘rescued’, “became sellers of themselves after they had been robbed of all their means of production“.
And if we take a step outside their context and read these lines in the context of contemporary India – from Singur and Nandigram to the ongoing saga of the epic farmers’ struggle – it is not difficult to see why the text of Capital insists that the history of their expropriation is written in “letters of blood and fire.” The big difference is that while literally millions perished in the storm of capitalist industrialization in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and simply disappeared into history; today, the peasants, farmers and indigenous people – all the so-called ‘pre-capitalist’ populations – are fighting back. There were no institutions of democracy, no language of struggle back then; it was the sheer exercise of naked power by the rising bourgeoisie that enforced the expropriation of agrarian and artisanal communities.
Indeed, it is interesting that while the Manifesto simply exhibits no conception of this untold violence that accompanies the rise of capitalism, Capital discusses it in great detail – and with great passion and anger. Let us look at another quote from the next chapter (Chapter 27, the The empirical case-study here is that of England):
“We have seen how the forcible usurpation of this, generally accompanied by the turning of arable [that is, cultivated by peasants] into pasture land [cleared for sheep-rearing for production of wool by capitalists], begins at the end of the 15th and extends into the 16th century. But, at that time, the process was carried on by means of individual acts of violence against which legislation, for a hundred and fifty years, fought in vain. The advance made by the 18th century shows itself in this, that the law itself becomes now the instrument of the theft of the people’s land…”
This is a point that needs to be emphasized: what started off in the 15th and 16th centuries as expropriation through individual acts of violence became a state project in the 18th century. The “law itself became the instrument of the theft of people’s land.” So much so that by the 19th century, Marx goes on to say, even the memory that there was ever any connection between the agricultural labourer and communal property “had vanished”.
A gap of almost twenty years separates the writing and publication of the two texts. And these two decades are actually decades of intense study, research and thinking, in the run up to the writing of Capital. Are we surprised then, that the hugely celebratory rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto that only saw one aspect of the rise of capitalism and the bourgeoisie, gives way to a more measured appraisal?
There is, of course, something else as well that one needs to keep in mind when reading the two texts: they belong to different genres, the former being a manifesto, a political call to action; whereas the latter is a research-based theoretical text. But this genre difference alone does not explain why the Manifesto is so celebratory of capitalism, given that there are some really potent, theoretically-laden formulations in it as well. We can leave that speculation for another occasion but a question still remains:
Why did this vision of the Manifesto, rather than the understandings of Capital become entrenched as the orthodoxy? Or did it?
The Late Marx and the Philosophy of History
One of the points at which the seriously problematic aspects of the Manifesto continue to be at work in Marx’s mature works like Capital, is in the philosophy of history. Let us look at this formulation from the Manifesto that continues to be the lynch-pin of much of Marxist practice in India even today:
“The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.“
Now, if we were to assume that the wheels of History can only and must only move forward – because history is a straight line – then clearly the struggles of the farmers today, not to speak of the adivasis of Niyamgiri or Bastar or Narmada, or for that matter, the struggles of the peasants of Singur and Nandigram, must all be seen as reactionary. Let us be as clear about this as Marx and Engels are: they aren’t simply conservative because they want to save themselves from extinction; they are reactionary because they want to turn back the wheels of history.
What happens by the time Marx is writing Capital is that he comes to recognize the immense violence of the process of the arising of capital, but by calling it ‘primitive accumulation’, he accomplishes two things at one stroke. One, by calling it ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ (the term primitive was borrowed by him) he places this violence in the prehistory of capitalism. Two, in his desire to produce a ‘science’ of society, he accords everything that happens – including ‘primitive accumulation’ – the status of a historical necessity. It is no longer his claim that this is how things happened in England but that this is how it happens, in accordance with certain determinate laws of history. The difference is simply that he will not call such movements reactionary. His quest for justice in the face of this problem of dispossession and expropriation of larges masses of population, as a consequence of laws of history now takes a poetic form – but not before he has produced a ‘scientific’ theory for it.
Pardon this long quote but it is best to read him in his own words:
“As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom, as soon as the labourers are turned into proletarians, their means of labour into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialisation of labour and further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many labourers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralisation of capital…Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production…Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”
Thus the resolution is now located in the future – the communist future when the expropriators are finally expropriated.
It is this confident claim about the “immanent laws of history” that is put into question very soon after the publication of Volume I of Capital by an anonymous Russian critic, who saw in its narrative a narrow engagement with European history alone. Already by the time the French edition was published in 1872, therefore, Marx introduced significant caveats in different places. One of these was in the chapter on ‘primitive accumulation’ quoted above. He now dropped the suggestion of universal immanent historical laws and said the following:
“but the basis of this whole development is the expropriation of cultivators. So far, it has been carried out in a radical manner only in England: therefore this country will necessarily play the leading role in out sketch. But all the countries of Western Europe are going through the same development.” [Emphasis added]
No longer was the suggestion there that England was “the classic form” of what were essentially universal developments. The fact that he made these changes was directly linked to the course he would adopt over the next eleven years of his life, till his death in 1883.
We know by now, the long story of Marx’s intellectual engagement with the societies of the East – his deep study of Russia and the Russian peasant communes but also his very serious study of the Indian social formation and his attempts to think through the Asiatic mode of production. I have written about it earlier on Kafila and will not repeat that long story here but interested readers might want to read Teodor Shanin’s Late Marx and the Russian Road and the more recent Marx at the Margins by Kevin Anderson (though I do not quite subscribe to his apologetic defense of Marx).
Marx’s attempt to engage with the societies of the East and his reappraisal of the inevitability of capitalist development in his Letter/s to Vera Zasulich and in the 1882 Preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, led him to consider seriously the possibility of the Russian peasant commune becoming the basis of a ‘communist revolution’. That is to say, he left us some possible hints of the direction in which he was thinking, where the celebratory rhetoric of the Manifesto, of the bourgeoisie being a revolutionary force, was giving way to a different imagination. In this imagination, the revolts of the farmers and artisans against capital would no longer be considered reactionary. Present here in this imagination was also the possibility that there was no single universal history but multiple trajectories.
The problem of course, is that these small shifts do not amount to an entirely different philosophy of history. The seductions of the “dialectic of productive forces and production relations”, of the poetry of production relations changing from conditions of development of the productive forces to fetters, leading to revolution – are too great. They give you too many simple formulas and a false confidence that you are the chosen agents of History. They absolve you of the responsibility to think.
But here is Marx’s challenge to the inheritors of his legacy: to think through the whole gamut of problems that his later reflections raise and to reconstruct Marxist philosophy in the only way possible – by going beyond him, by taking the baton from his willing hands. For someone who believed that ‘social being determines consciousness” and showed that he was ever open to re-examining his own conclusions, he would be only too happy.