When Marx came anew in Patna

Arvind Ghosh

An international conference on Karl Marx, held in Patna between 16-20 June under the title “International Conference Karl Marx – Life, Ideas, and Influence: A Critical Examination on the Bicentenary” had a reflex of what has been coined as ‘Marxian renaissance. It was organized by Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) in memory of Pijushendu Gupta and Radha Krisna Chaudhury who had jointly organized a national seminar in 1967 on the 150th birth anniversary of Karl Marx and the centenary of Das Capital at Begusarai, a small town in Bihar.

The concept notes of the conference, by ADRI, set the tune: “Marxism is not as alive today as it was during the two preceding centuries. But even now ideas of Karl Marx continue to engage intellect, imagination and conscience of human minds across the world from perspectives that are understandably very diverse. Thus, as we approach 2018, the bicentenary of the great scholar, it is certainly an apt moment not just to remember him, but to rethink and interrogate all that is sourced to him, both academically and in terms of political practice. The openness in the deliberations could encompass many strands - his life struggles along with his lifelong collaborator Frederick Engels, given the perspective of; enormous span of his writings covering economics, history, sociology, political theory, literature and other social issues; his political activities starting from, say, First International; or the continuation of his academic and political legacy by scholars and political leaders, “opening new frontiers of Marxism. With a futuristic perspective, it would also be interesting to speculate what would have been the international political scenario now had the USSR not imploded in 1991.”

The five-day conference on “Marx: Life. Ideas, Influence” in Patna June 16-20 was one of the most illuminating, enlightening and thought-provoking conferences ever organised in India, if any. It brought together over 50 scholars from India and around the world, and a series of thought-provoking presentations were made on the meaning of Marx’s work for today. Over 200 participants, from over a dozen countries—such as the U.S., Australia, Canada, England, Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, Italy, France, Germany, Finland to China, Mexico and Nepal, gave it a really international character.

The conference opened with a brilliant presentation by Lord Meghnad Desai—one of India’s foremost economists, now at the London School of Economics and author of Marx’s Revenge inter alia. Lord Desai reviewed the development of Marx’s thought from his earliest to latest writings, focusing special attention on a Marx’s struggle to understand a central feature of capitalism: wage labor. Unlike in feudalism or societies dominated by chattel slavery, wage labor is based on a free contract: one side, the worker, free agrees to sell his labor power to the other side, the capitalist, who owns the means of production. At issue is why does the worker freely enter into this contractual relation when only one side wins, the capitalist? How does it happen that a fundamental unequal social relation produces the presumption that modern society is founded on the basis of equality? Lord Desai noted that it took Marx 20 years to answer this question, which still haunts us today. Interestingly, Lord Desai, the conference chair is not a Marxist. The Marxian temper was manifest as it is not mandatory for one to be a Marxist to understand or even to endorse Marx’s thoughts and inferences.

Marcello Musto, associate professor of sociology, York University in Toronto (and a close associate of ADRI team) a very energetic, dynamic and theoretically erudite scholar, was the spirit behind the conference. He did a lot of groundwork (along with others) in making the conference a grand success. His latest book, Another Marx, was released almost symbiotically. He delivered the Rosa Luxemburg Memorial lecture where he made an insightful presentation on the late Marx (1872-83), when Marx turned his attention to the study of non-Western societies and indigenous peoples in works such as the Ethnological Notebooks. A vigorous discussion occurred afterward over why Marx engaged in these wide-ranging studies (mainly in the form of unpublished notes) instead of completing Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital. One view is that Marx was disappointed over the lack of reception of Volume One and despaired of completing his magnum opus. Another view, suggests, is that just as England served as the historical model for Volume One, the non-Western world (which at the time included Russia) was intended by Marx to serve as the historical model and empirical framework for Volumes 2 and 3—a project that was left uncompleted, given the mass of empirical material Marx needed to explore.

Craig Brandist, a Professor at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom and has close connections with India (his wife being a professor at Bombay) spoke on issues related to his book The Dimensions of Hegemony: Thinking About Language, Culture and Politics in Revolutionary Russia. It is a very well researched book based on the archives of Soviet Russia made available after the collapse of Soviet Union. The title of his lecture at the venue was “The origins of Marxist Oriental studies in the USSR and its Stalinist distortion" which was scholarly as well as refreshing in its interpretations.

One of the most interesting lectures was delivered by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of Columbia University, U.S. Although her talk was in a light vein hilarious at times, but she made quite a few provocative as well as profound observations, “We have to re-imagine Marxism to make it relevant today by thinking flexibly. We should not only interpret Marxian philosophy but also try to change it,” she poignantly. Although she did not elaborate as to what she meant by this, she reminded the audience that Marx and Engels said in the 1872 edition of the Communist Manifesto that it had “become outdated.” Actually, this is not what Marx and Engels wrote: They said, “The general principles laid down in the Manifesto are, on the whole, as correct today as ever.” What had become “in many respects” outdated, they said, were the list of immediate demands appended to the end of Section II of the Manifesto—bourgeois-democratic (not communist) demands that had largely already been incorporated into West European societies. Nevertheless, she made an important point in stating,”We can make Marxism relevant for us by developing ourselves into folks who not only know how to regulate capitalism but also to contain it.” To this it needs to be added that capitalism cannot really be contained or controlled; it needs to be destroyed!

A similar comment was made by Prof Peter Beilharz from Australia: “Marxism needs to be rethought, re-constructed and re-imagined to suit modern times.” He also made the very interesting observation—shared by several speakers as well as a number of commentators from the floor—that “the growing tendency to separate Marx from “Marxism” after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution is unnecessary and ought to be avoided.” While most of the speakers at the conference, tended to overstate the continuity between Marx’s ideas and later versions of Marxism in the USSR and Communist China, several others pointed out that post-Marx Marxism beginning with Lenin (and to some extent with Engels) did not fully share the emancipatory vision of Marx. For them, the prime task ought to be to separate Marx from “Marxism.”

Professor Dipankar Gupta in his Paul Sweezy memorial oration made a very controversial statement: “Marx in his Communist Manifesto did not favour the formation of political parties by communists; neither did he approve the formation of their own sectarian principles. This would disqualify all Communist parties. “This is an interesting claim that raises many questions, since Marx himself joined a Communist Party when the League of the Just agreed (at his insistence) to become the Communist League. And did it not have its own principles, spelled out in the Manifesto? Maybe, he wanted to question the notion of a “vanguard party” of professional revolutionaries, mooted by Lenin, but never set out by Marx whose vision is carried forward by a number of thinkers in the Marxist-Humanist tradition.

Kohei Saito’s (from Japan)’s brilliant presentation of Marx’s exploration of natural science from an ecological perspective in the last years of his life was revealing. According to Saito, “Marx was very much conscious of the danger of serious global disruption in the inter-dependent processes between ‘social metabolism’, that is production, circulation and consumption, and the natural world. Since capitalist production cannot fully take into account complex dimensions of the social and natural metabolism, it destroys nature, annihilates the possibilities of co-evolution of humans and nature and even threatens human civilization.”

Seongjin Jeong from the  Gyeongsang National University, Republic of Korea in his Rajani Palme Dutt Memorial Lecture. – scanned brilliantly the capitalist development in South Korea from 1970 to 2014 from a Marxian angle and formidably defended Marx’s theory of the decline in the rate of profit, citing statistical data of South Korean economy. Similarly, Shannon Brincat (from Australia) delivered the Shapurji Saklatvala Memorial Lecture on “Ancient Indian dialectics and Marx” where he asserted that dialectics is not a Western or Eurocentric construct but has deep roots in the religious and philosophical traditions of South Asia.

Robert Massari president of the International Che Guevara Foundation spoke passionately about the life and work of this important revolutionary in the Pablo Neruda memorial oration He revealed certain facts about Che Guevara that were unknown to many of us. We knew Che was never intoxicated with power but did not know that when he was the minister of industry in the Cuban government he visited factories and lived with workers to understand their problems. Also, we did not know that Che was a harsh critic of the New Economic Policy of the Soviet Union and that his book on the subject was kept secret till 2006.And most importantly unlike Lenin, Massari notes, “Che maintained that we cannot advocate violence against those who speak against us.”

Peter Hudis delivered the Herbert Marcuse Memorial Lecture on “The intimation of a Post-Capitalist Society in Marx’s Capital.” He opened his lecture with these words: “I hail from the U.S, a land that has sunk so deep into depravity as to separate children as young as two and three from their parents just because they seek a better life by crossing the Mexico-US border. I therefore dedicate these remarks to the children of the earth.” He was applauded by the audience even before he started to present his paper. The paper itself was quite impressive in that it provided a Marxist-Humanist understanding of the dialectical and humanist content of Marx’s critique of capitalist value production in Capital. Whereas most commentators on Marx have presumed that he had little or nothing to say about a post-capitalist society, Hudis argued, through a very dense reading of the text of parts of Capital and The Critique of the Gotha Program, that Marx had a distinct understanding of socialism and communism that is far more emancipatory than the views upheld by orthodox and established Marxists.

Dipak Gyawali, former minister of Nepal and a cultural theorist on water, delivered the Vladimir Lenin Memorial lecture in place of Samir Amin, well-known Marxist, based in Senegal, who could not make it to Patna He launched a scathing attack on the ruling Nepalese communists “Is Communist ruled Nepal Red, Pink or Blue?”, he questioned bluntly.  Insightful thought was heard from Shapan Adnan’s Leon Trotsky Memorial lecture focused on Marx’s concept of Primitive Accumulation and Chirashee Das Gupta on “Women’s Emancipation and Social Reproduction in the Russian, Chinese, and Cuban Revolutions.”

The M N Roy Memorial Lecture, scheduled to be delivered by Cherif Salif from Dakar, Senegal (but couldn’t turn up) was read by Jean Joseph Boillot who was the chair for this session. The theme was ‘Capitalism, Neo-liberalism and Development in Africa: The response of the African Union’. Riccardo Bellofiore, Professor, University of Bergamo, Italy, delivered the Maurice Dobb Memorial. The topic was s ‘Is There Life on Marx? The Critique of Political Economy as a Macro-Monetary Theory of capitalist Production’. Barbara Harriss White, Emeritus Professor, Oxford University, delivered the Otto Neurath Memorial Lecture titled ‘Science and Policy in the Era of Globalisation’. Both the orations were thought-provoking.

One of the best sessions was a panel discussion on “Marx Scholarship in the World Today,” thanks to lively discussions by Michael Brie from Germany, Saito from Japan, Peter Hudis from the U.S., Elvira Concheiro from Hispanic America, Paula Rauhala from Finland, Peter Beilharz from Australia, and Mikhail Yu Pavlov from Russia –all stressed the new Marx scholarship in their countries of origin since 2008 —a remarkable wealth of information Several people told me afterwards that they were surprised to find so much important Marx scholarship being done in the U.S. over the past decade. Peter Hudis discussed a dozen such recent works, including Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins and Heather Brown’s Marx on Women, Gender, and the Family—both of which showed that Marx had a much-more encompassing critique of capitalism than widely recognized. He took careful note of issues of race, gender, and nationalism in his published as well as unpublished works. The notion that Marx was an economic determinist solely interested in the class struggle becomes difficult to maintain in light of such recent critical scholarship.

On the issue of racism, a young delegate, Jared, an Afro-American, PhD candidate at Brown University (USA) made an articulate narration in suggesting application of Marxist theory of value in analyzing Martin Luther King’s call of “revolution of values” but was intensely apprehensive of getting a college or university job for being a black, in private conversation. Capitalism has theoretically abolished the birth qualification but in practice it very much prevails.

Most of us were enriched five-day long series of debates and discussions—often lasting 11 hours a day. It happened in Bihar, a state that witnessed several peasants struggles of historic importance as also Jaya Prakash Narayan-led movement against authoritarian aberrations of Indian parliamentary delegation.

An activist among workers in Nagpur and around, but not associated with any central trade union, reachable at

Jul 10, 2018

Arvind Ghosh

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