Untimely Explorations in a ‘Field’ Called ‘Marxism’

Zapatista (EZLN) ‘irregulars’ militia (male and female) who receive military training but are mobilized only in emergencies, Courtesy: Anya Briy and OpenDemocracy

I am interested in ‘Marxism’ as a field or a force-field in the sense in which we think of electromagnetic or gravitational fields, where objects and bodies impact on other bodies and objects, and have effects, without necessarily coming into contact.

Ever since the 2008 financial crisis and the beginning of the end of the neoliberal order, when sales of Marx’s writings, of Capital in particular, went up dramatically, there have been prognostications of the ‘return of Marx’. Indeed, there has also been an attempt, for a much longer time now, especially after the collapse of Soviet-bloc socialism, of a ‘return to Marx’. Both the millennial expectation of Marx’s Second Coming and that of a ‘return to’, display a distinct theological orientation –  insisting on a return to the pristine source, uncontaminated by the ‘deviations’ wrought by Leninist or Maoist-inspired practice in the underdeveloped regions of the world.

In contrast to both, my interest here is in the specific ‘field’ that was constituted by Marxism’s encounter with ‘underdevelopment’ or what has also been referred to as ‘uneven development’. I am interested in ‘Marxism’ as a field or a force-field in the sense in which we think of electromagnetic or gravitational fields, where objects and bodies impact on other bodies and objects and have effects, without necessarily coming into contact. Another difference with both the above-mentioned theological orientations is that it is not just ‘Marxism’ as an abstract and fully-formed doctrine or ideology that I am concerned with but ‘Marxism’ as it is ‘summoned and mobilized’ by anticolonial and radical elites within the colonized world/ global South. It is a Marxism that is also therefore, repurposed to suit the tasks of a different world – even though this dynamic turns out to be very complicated insofar as the ‘original’ Marxism continues to have effects that are not so easily wished away.

It is this field produced by Marxism’s relation with the precapitalist world that, in turn, becomes an arena of a whole series of ‘untimely’ encounters that range from slavery and racism to nationalism, from the artisanry and peasantry to common (communal) property – and indigenous populations at large. These encounters are ‘untimely’ in the sense that they underline the non-contemporaneity of different life-forms with Capital, which was Marxism’s primary reference point all along. For Marxism – ‘historical materialism’ in particular – these life-forms were irrevocably matters of the past (‘remnants’ and ‘survivals’) and it cheerfully looked forward to that world where they, once dispossessed and eliminated by Capital, would have taken rebirth as the modern proletariat.

The collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ in the beginning of the 1990s opened up a new world of such encounters. The Marxists who went to the Chiapas Mountains in Mexico ‘to organize the indigenous people’, ended up themselves taking birth as the Zapatistas, becoming part of an indigenous uprising. And even as the neoliberal order entrenched itself and working class struggles all but vacated the stage, we started seeing the emergence of organizations like La Via Campesina – the first and only international peasant organization. Militant peasants and indigenous people’s struggles in countries like India against displacement and dispossession also started acquiring another dimension – that of protecting their seeds and against agribusiness giants like Cargill and Monsanto. Ecological destruction and climate change became part of La Via Campesina’s uncompromising critique of neoliberalism. The coming decades were to see an accentuation of the peasants and indigenous people’s struggles, alongside the rise of a new Left in Latin America that would be closely linked to indigenous people’s struggles. 20th century Marxism was nowhere in the picture but the field was still Marxist in the sense suggested above. And it will continue to be as long as Capital and the struggles against it remain. This transformed landscape forms the background of and gives substance to a lot of new research that is slowly coming into view and will concern us in this column in coming months.

In order to demarcate this larger field of encounters, I will occasionally use the term ‘border Marxisms’ (suggested by Nivedita Menon). Obviously, it recalls the concept of ‘border-thinking’ proposed by Walter Mignolo which, as he argues, involves ‘dwelling in the border, not crossing borders’. I understand this idea of border not just in terms of territorial borders – or borders between the capitalist and non-capitalist world for that matter – but as an inescapable condition of the formerly colonized subject, given that she must inevitably inhabit both the epistemic world shaped by the modern West as well as the cultural-epistemic world of her own place. The expression ‘border Marxisms’ is also meant to underline the aspect of ‘dwelling in the border’ and thus explore the field beyond simple, though certainly not unimportant, distinctions between the ‘West’ and ‘East’ or the ‘colonizing’ and the ‘colonized’ worlds. In the way I look at it, the expression ‘border Marxisms’ does not simply refer to Eastern or Afro-Asian Marxisms but equally to the way in which the problem of time and temporal dislocation, of ‘uneven development’, ‘passive revolution’, ‘non-synchronous synchronicities’ and ‘transition’ appear in the works of figures of Western Marxism like Antonio Gramsci, Ernst Bloch and Louis Althusser (albeit in very different and even opposed frameworks). Important to bear in mind here is the fact that Gramsci was writing in the very time of the Bolshevik revolution and in the Leninist moment (ref: especially his article, ‘the revolution against Das Kapital’, for instance). Althusser too, revisits that moment when revolution comes to be defined by ‘overdetermination’ rather than contradictions at the economic level; but he also writes in the conjuncture of the Cultural Revolution in China and in engagement with Mao’s thought. In that sense, neither Gramsci nor Althusser are purely episodes in Western Marxist thought but constitute a part of our field.

In these explorations I intend to look at the question of Time and temporal disjunction/ dislocation as well as the larger question of the ‘philosophy of history’, namely ‘historical materialism’ (with its notions of linearity in the succession of modes of production, ‘stages’ and the underlying teleology) as it appears in the history of Marxism. Here the ‘Late Marx’ is himself an important reference point. Very interesting new work is now emerging that explores some of the themes discussed by Japanese scholar Haruki Wada and presented in English by Teodor Shanin in the early 1980s (Late Marx and the Russian Road) at greater length. Marx’s later rethinking regarding Russia and ‘Asiatic’ societies in general, which is quite suggestive, can potentially tie up with the new, twenty-first century strivings – and though it doesn’t really add up to an alternative or different philosophy of history, it does begin to pose the challenge of theorizing afresh.

One of the key concerns in the explorations that I want to undertake here in coming months – and which form part of my larger project – has to do precisely, with ‘historical materialism’ or the Marxist philosophy of history, as it is directly tied to the question of the peasantry/ indigenous people and agriculture. This because the question has been put on the agenda, not only by our contemporary experience but also from the experience of ‘building socialism’ throughout the twentieth century. The strong resistance of the peasantry, in the Marxist-ruled state of West Bengal, to forced dispossession for the purposes of industrialization in 2006-2009, actually brought the curtain down on 34 years of Left rule in the state. Indeed, many of the disasters of twentieth century socialism, starting with Stalin’s forced collectivization, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Pol Pot’s genocide – all have to do with this desire to rapidly industrialize, urbanize and become modern – though Mao’s is a much more complicated case in comparison.

If one keeps this troubled history in mind, there is no option for any new socialist project today (like ‘Socialism in the 21st Century’) but to recognize that such a possible ‘socialism’ cannot be an ‘after’ to capitalism. The evidence of a lot of actual historical research on the ‘transition to capitalism’ or ‘mode of production’ that is already with us suggests that there is neither any clear demarcation of a feudal mode of production or a capitalist mode that succeeds it, but the co-presence of many different ‘forms of exploitation’ (an expression that I am stealing from Jairus Banaji for purposes he may not like) with no immanent teleology. If state elites were not actually pushing in that direction, it is doubtful how much of a success capitalism itself might have had (given also that in many parts of the world it was the state that nurtured and produced a bourgeoisie).

It is simply disastrous, I want to suggest, to think of socialism as something that comes only after capitalism has all but destroyed the planet, commodified everything and made everything saleable. If the socialist idea has to be reinvented, it cannot any longer be seen as what comes after capitalism, either built on the edifice already erected by it, or socialists ‘completing’ capitalism’s tasks (like industrialization) before they get down to business. To conclude then, we need to recognize that at the heart of a reconstructed socialist project must lie the struggle for autonomy, that is, the struggle for control by people and communities over their own lives and resources. In a sense, this argument pushes in the direction of what many practices under the broad rubric of ‘Socialism in the 21st Century’, as well as many other forms of production (cooperatives, solidarity economy and so on) already seem to be undertaking in the here and now.


4 thoughts on “Untimely Explorations in a ‘Field’ Called ‘Marxism’”

  1. Such investigations may consider engagement with the histories of later Buddhisms in the lands of Southeast Asia, China and Tibet, early Christianities in Eurasia and, later Islams in al-Maghrib, -Mashriq, -Hind, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines..


  2. The claim for autonomy over resources and livelihood would suggest people have an idea over what constitutes political power, and power that would be on their own terms. It defies a marxism insisting that power must arise by addressing false consciousness within populations.

    Meeting people at their own level of struggle, rather than imagining the right conditions to take over the state, is key. When will socialism properly catch up with this understanding?


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