Break the cycle
Rising global inequity bears out the continued relevance of Marx?s analysis of capitalism, writes Sitaram Yechury.india Updated: Jan 25, 2007 01:20 IST
On the eve of Republic Day, it is customary for us to not only greet each other but to also project a vision for the future. In recent years, however, official projections have often been (unofficially) accompanied by a denunciation of the Left. They are seen as being the roadblocks of the neo-liberal reform process that alone, presumably, can lead to India’s prosperity. In the process, declarations are made that Marxism is outdated and that Marxists in India are inconsistent. Economics, we are told, needs to be ‘de-politicised’ and ideological considerations should not come in the way of implementing reforms. Let us examine some of these issues.
Karl Marx, declared by the BBC as the thinker of the just-concluded second millennium, CE, remarked that the difference between a bee and even the worst architect is that the architect erects a structure in the mind before translating it into reality.
Human civilisation has taken a considerable time to attain the stage of the architect. However, having got there, the contours of human evolution are determined by a continuous clash of ideas in all spheres of endeavour. The philosophical divide between materialism and idealism is often erroneously portrayed as matter versus mind. It is, in fact, a battle between the mind or consciousness as the highest form of matter and consciousness independent of the human body and, in that sense, cosmic in nature. While advances in modern science, from astrophysics to micro-genetic engineering (the latest being the path-breaking studies by Vilyanur Ramachandran, a neuro-scientist of Indian origin, on the functioning of the brain), reconfirm the former, the battle between sets of ideas, or ideology, continues to shape advances in all fields of human endeavour. The answer to Descartes’ famous postulate, “I think, therefore, I am”, is increasingly being confirmed as, “I am, therefore, I think”.
Ideology represents the structure of ideas that seeks to influence the course of human development. Hence, any talk of ‘de-ideologisation’ or ‘de-politicisation’ is nothing but a mask to suppress opposition to a particular set of policies. In the specific context, this means the effort to suppress all opposition to the neo-liberal economic reform policies under capitalist globalisation. However, assuming that the goal of humanity is to seek emancipation from all forms of bondage, the abiding relevance of Marxism lies in the realisation of this quest.
Marxism is unique in that it can be transcended only when its agenda is realised. This is because its understanding of capitalism is alone thorough enough for it to comprehend the historical possibilities that lie beyond it. Hence, Marxism will be rendered superfluous only when capitalism, the object of its analysis, is itself superceded.
Put another way, the uniqueness of Marxism lies in the fact that all so-called ‘theoretical advances’, which supposedly render it obsolete, actually represent throwbacks to still earlier theories superceded by it. Alternatively, these are exaggerations of some particular aspects inherent in Marxism but dressed in a new garb. ‘Post-modernist’ or ‘post-Marxist’ theories, which, at their best, emphasise a moral-ethical stance on social issues, represent pre-Marxist notions of social reformism, egalitarianism or progressive interventionism. On the other hand, certain reformist theories like Keynesianism, based on insights into the functioning of the capitalist economy, actually unknowingly recall insights already contained in Marx.
Marx was not unique on account of some subjective qualities that made him superior to other thinkers. What was remarkable was his approach to the analysis of capitalism and the unearthing of certain tendencies that he said were ‘immanent’ in capitalist social relations. The capitalist system functions in a manner that is not merely independent of the will and consciousness of its participants. Indeed, it makes the participants, the capitalists themselves as much as the workers, victims of ‘alienation’, and mere personifications of the elements through which its inherent logic works itself out. Marx had referred to the capitalist as “capital personified”. You cannot, therefore, have a ‘kind capitalist’, a ‘humane capitalist’ or a ‘decent capitalist’. Marxism discovered that, unlike all previous modes of production, the basic feature of capitalism is that it is propelled by its immanent tendencies, which cannot be altered by the volition of its individual participants. Once Marxism has discovered this basic feature of capitalism, there can be no further scope for another discovery of the same feature.
Pre-Marxian writers like Adam Smith and Ricardo had also seen capitalism as a system driven by objective laws independent of human will and consciousness. But they had envisaged this as the end of history (another example of how the modern perception of Fukuyama [end of ideology/history] and others is a throwback to a pre-Marxian idea). They characterised capitalism as a self-actuating order that was on the whole benign and historically durable notwithstanding a tendency for falling rates of profit (which could be kept in check). But Marx saw this universally alienating system as producing increasing wealth at one pole and increasing misery at another in a manner that made its supercession historically necessary and possible.
The alarmingly widening inequalities (like the growing hiatus between ‘shining’ and ‘suffering’ India) at the global level has once again been reconfirmed. A recent study released by the United Nation’s university — Wider — in December 2006 shows extreme inequality in the world as a whole, both across countries and within countries. In 2000, the richest 1 per cent owned 40 per cent of global assets; and the richest 10 per cent accounted for 85 per cent of world assets. In contrast, the bottom half of the world owned barely 1 per cent of global wealth. The Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality between zero and one) was an extraordinarily high 0.892.
A struggle against this accentuation of misery is absolutely essential. Since this misery is linked to the immanent tendencies of contemporary capitalism, this struggle cannot but set for itself, as a conscious objective, the transcendence of capitalism. The precise manner of such transcendence — the stages through which it may come about, the link between the struggles in different countries — cannot be answered speculatively but require theoretical resolution on the basis of concrete praxis (as the CPI(M) is seeking in the present Indian conjuncture). But the necessity of such transcendence is indubitable for anyone who is concerned with human freedom.
If the struggle for emancipation of mankind from its current predicament is not undertaken via a conscious effort to transcend capitalism through praxis based on a Marxist approach, then it is quite likely that the accentuating misery of the masses may find expression in all sorts of destructive and futile forms like terrorism, religious extremism and ethnic and other forms of fundamentalism. The denouement towards which we move can be a revolutionary one that would recreate our social structure in a manner that people become free to realise their potential. Or it can lead to an endless cycle of senseless, purposeless violence which succeeds only in compounding people’s misery.
Marxism, apart from anything else, is our only hope against this second denouement. Naively, some may think that history has come to an end already. But immense battles are shaping up and in these, it is important for us to choose the side of reason and humanity.
Sitaram Yechury is Rajya Sabha MP and member, CPI(M) Politburo