In Search of Alternative Socialism

Biswajit Roy

This has reference to Subhas Chandra Ganguly's 'experimental cum theoretical' note ["Marxism vs Science", Frontier, Vol 47, Nos 41 & 42, April 14-25, April 26-May 2, 2015]. It is not very cohesive or comprehensive. The multiple digressions, elaborate quotes and footnotes with highlights in different styles have made it difficult reading. But these shortcomings hardly dismiss its import, both theoretical and existential, for both the orthodox and open-minded Marxists those who care for changing the world around them and beyond.

The issues under discussion are not exactly new. Some WWI-era anti-positivist thinkers who are now being counted among post-modernist, postcolonial critics of Marxism had not only questioned its claims to scientific socialism but also challenged the reigning philosophy of science that called for the man's mastery over the nature (and by extension, over the men and women who are still part of nature, the colonial savages) as the precondition for the human progress. The horrors of two world wars have unsettled the long-held faith in the Enlightenment-era, specifically, Reformation-age Decartedian-Newtonian science that replaced the God and Church only to serve the colonizers and capital.

These critics pointed out that the science and technology propelled the Industrial revolution in Europe by facilitating primitive accumulation through ruthless colonization, exploitation and extermination of both nature and the people, more savagely in the colonies than in the metropolitan Europe. They questioned the axiomatic notions of infallibility, objectivity, rationality and universality of man's knowledge (to be precise, European white men) of the inherent laws of the physical universe as well as their extension to human societies, imbibed through the 'scientific method' and concomitant control over them which had remained unchallenged for centuries. They unmasked the imperialism of Western epistemology that extended the rule of the same method to all branches of natural and social studies and its systematic efforts to bury the archeology of old indigenous knowledge under the shifting sand of colonial modernity while cannibalizing parts of the ruins to suit the structure of new hegemonic edifice.

People have learnt a lot from the great philosophical clashes between Western positivists and idealists over the origin and dynamics of the earth and the universe, nature and human society, body and mind, idea and reality, human will and laws of History as well as their independence and interdependence. But the things felt, intuited as well as observed, experienced and experimented, though less written and more memorized and shared over generations through oral traditions by the Eastern believers and atheists, mystics or materialists on the same issues were either ignored or deliberately submerged under the categories of definitive and deterministic knowledge of scientific era. (For this writer, the East includes Africa, Latin America, Arab world, China and Greater Indian subcontinent). Except few concepts like zero, the budding Eastern science, its philosophy, and basic principles and methods were dismissed as metaphysics, alchemy or black magic.

The aggressive and arrogant West called Eastern ideas exotic, poetic, mystic, romantic, metaphysical, and feminine, evoking either wistful nostalgia for a lost world of innocence and misty magic. Or, it expressed disgust for the savage world of chaos, tribal rituals, age-old inertia and time warp. Both ways, it has to be dismissed as unscientific, primitive, irrational and unsuitable for the modernity, which is anchored to authoritarian and masculine science & technology. The latter has been looking for an orderly, schematized, submissive and governable world mirroring the empires, which thrive on violence on nature and all life forms including the rest of the Homo sapiens.

The Eastern idea of life's continuity and oneness of all beings and their relatedness to organic world is not the fulcrum of the Western evolutionary continuum, physical or intellectual. The post-Enlightenment Western humanism, despite its great traditions since French Revolution and American War of Independence, hardly included rest of the human species—the slaves and savages from Africa, the blacks and colored, the aborigines of the Americas, Australia and natives of Asia in the idea of humanity. Even Balkans and other East Europeans under Ottomans and Austro-Hungarian empires or petty principalities were not considered at par with the industrialized and colony-owning West. Women, even European women hardly found place in this imagination of the civilized humanity till the second half of the last century. Finally, the Western worldview despite its internal schisms became the worldview and its history became the History of all the peoples under the Sun.

Historical materialism, espoused by the founders of Marxism, differentiated between nature and human society and redeemed Hegelian dialectics from being a prisoner of a foggy World Spirit. They turned it into an analytical tool for understanding the historical changes through the socio-economic dynamics and the innate contradiction of every era. They radically changed the understanding of materialist history by highlighting the hitherto ignored import of technology and social productive systems down the ages. Their brilliant exposure of the so-called paradox; the unprecedented growth of commodity production and market mechanism while millions remain excluded because of lacking the buying capacity revealed the inherent contradiction of capitalism. Finally their focus on the revolutionary potential of the tension between the actual producers and the owners of means of production and the role of working class in changing the capitalist system brought the mute and meek millions of toilers on the centrestage of the history as the main agent of social change.

But the pattern of socio-economic changes in West Europe and corresponding revolutionary agency of bourgeoisie and working class that they had articulated became the laws of social changes for the entire humanity. The conceptual strains between the objective laws and subjective human actions/situation in their theories reflected their dilemma between determinism of self-propelled historic laws of socio-economic transitions and free human will or conscious efforts.

Marx and Engels yearned for a totalizing, unifying, universal theory of human progress to get rid of the general chaos, violent sectarianism, religious nationalism, petty wars, feudal repression and stagnation of pre-industrial Europe. Also they had humanitarian concerns for the continental wretched under the bourgeois rule, marked by ruthless greed, concentration of wealth and hypocrisy of the hype over equality, liberty and fraternity. To escape the tension between the nightmarish past and prevailing debauchery, they engaged their exemplary intellect in shaping a systematic, materialist, gradualist but linear trajectory of European history. It not only privileged the industrial society and advent of bourgeoisie over the ancien regimes but also extended it to the rest of the world in tune with the prevalent Eurocentric intellectual milieu. At the same time, their revolutionary impulses wanted to fast forward the momentum of the History to its 'inevitable' destination–communism–bypassing the complexities of societies and states near and far.

Therefore, despite their profound understanding of the predatory and inhuman nature of the capitalism, they not only hailed its advent as inevitable and progressive but also called for its universalization in all societies beyond the Western Europe. Critics feel that this world-view was greatly influenced by their zealous endorsement of the certitude-seeking, deterministic Newtonian science & technology as well as their longing to see the pauperized, exploited, overworked workers of Europe who had been living in utter miseries free from dire necessities of life. The founders of Marxism put their faith in the unprecedented abundance of human productive power under the machine age. It was partly responsible for their belief in eventual breakdown of the bourgeois control over the means of production and subsequent opening of the floodgate for mass production and need-based appropriation of the fruits of labour by the producers under the proletarian dictatorship. They did not foresee the consumerist society of the late bourgeois world or the social and environmental costs that it occurred.

Their criticism of capitalism was focused on the surplus value extracted and usurped from the factory workers in Europe as well as dispossession and destitution of artisan guilds in metropolitan Europe. But they virtually excused the destructions of producer communities across the oceans and imposition of colonial modernity, aided by science and evangelist Christianity, and nearly echoed the arrogance of civilizational superiority of the West in their anxiety to iron out the different identities by the capitalist steamroller. So, their revolutionary internationalism was limited to the European working class and not extended to the toilers in the colonies.

In their keenness to leapfrog, the duo condoned or overlooked the colonial extermination of whole races, societies, civilizations and wanton plunders in the Americas and Africa as an unstoppable march of the History, almost treating the non-Europeans as the collateral damage in today's war parlance. They neither knew the 'savages' on the other shores first hand. Nor, they considered the people of the colonies as the drivers of their own histories. For them too, these Orientals were mere cogs of the world History, which is essentially a superimposition of the West on rest of the humanity since Columbus.

Eager to augment the industrialization and bourgeois takeover of the European states and societies, they welcomed, justified or ignored big-nation suppressions of small nation aspirations, religion-induced peasant uprisings and other forced simplification of prevailing complexities over various non-class identities. They dismissed the latter as reactionary and impediments to the desired sharpening of the class war, as if they were breathlessly waiting for a veritable Armageddon between the bourgeoisie and revolutionary proletariat. So, they put the colonial genocides and plunder on the weighing machine of the History and prepared its balancesheet keeping in mind the cost-benefit ratio. That's how they found British plunderers in India in the role of the harbingers of progress. For them, the railroads, laid down for the colonial plunder of resources and facilitate troops and labour movement, shook off the ancient oriental inertia and connected India to the march of the History.

They found the definitive, positivist, infallible and Universalist science and technology as a great intellectual system and application tool to their desired end. It was indeed a momentous convergence between Marxist understanding of human societies and the guiding philosophy of the pre-quantum physics that rejected the principles of probabilities, transcendental, eternally fleeting or translucent nature of reality, multiplicity of truth, subjectivity in objectivity and denied existence of knowledge beyond its scientific method. That the dialectics in natural world, the contradiction between two opposite elements in one atom is pregnant with many possibilities was something not known to the mechanical science of those days. The arrogance and intolerance in their polemics with contemporary European revolutionaries and socialists was the product of deterministic science and historical reductionism of the Hegelian era than their personal narcissism.

The founders of Marxism would have availed the benefits of hindsight to revisit their understanding of trajectory of the History, science, colonial modernity, boons and banes of mass production and consumerism if they had witnessed the horrors of world wars, the advent of consumerist industrial societies and staggering social and environmental costs that the global south paid for centuries. But Marxists including  homegrown varieties that had survived the fall of Soviet Union and turning of China's socialism into an oxymoron, nevertheless, tried to justify the forcible land takeover for industrial development by using the same Marxist paradigms of stagist progress of history. The high priests of industrialization in Bengal argued citing historically progressive role of the bourgeoisie and need of engagement of self-proclaimed vanguards of the proletariat with them against reactionary peasants.

Many critics of various Marxist regimes since Bolshevik revolution blamed them for deviating from real or authentic Marxism. Some Marxists accused Lenin of distorting the original teachers. According to them, Marx stood for proletarian self-rule, a la Paris Commune, by the class for the class; and, not for a party dictatorship in its name. According to them, he did not believe in vanguardism and regimentation of Leninist party or state. For the rest, most bucks stop at Stalin's doorstep. But questions still remain whether Stalinist state has its roots in Marx's polemics with Anarchists or Syndicalists of his time who were opposed to any form of state as against Marx's advocacy of interim state under revolutionary workers in between Bourgeois rule and communism.

In Lenin and Stalin's time, Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci, more anchored to working class and far original revolutionaries than most of the contemporary defenders of the faith, respectively had highlighted the questions of public and private democracy in socialist state, role of free ideo-political contests, working class initiatives from the below as well as impact of non-economic factors including culture, religion, language and civil society institutions in consciousness and identity formations. Both of them and some other non-Bolshevik communists had rejected the slippery ideas of working-in-itself and working class-for-itself which was created to justify party dictatorship over the class and the state. Instead, they embraced the libertarian impulses of Marx of Paris Commune vintage.

Today, there are those who profess Rethinking Marxism and want to redeem Marx's forgotten or least understood philosophical finesse over the crude determinism or reductionism of German Ideology and Communist Manifesto as well as post-Bolshevik, specially, Stalinist statism and its horror. Others including eco-socialists are keen to find green concerns of Marx in his critiques of capitalism. There are others who highlight the lack of Marxist treatise on colonial questions and the problem of primitive accumulation or capital formation for the countries, which do not have colonies to fall back upon for industrialization. This problem had plagued Lenin, Bukharin, Stalin, Mao, Castro and Che in their times and many suspect the original obsession with heavy industrialization was responsible for 'excesses' of forced collectivization and peasant alienation and finally totalitarian regimes.

It's easy to blame forefathers for all the ills people have inherited. There are no readymade answers to all the questions that have festered in last one century of socialist revolutions and state formations. The critics of Marxism-Leninism ( and its version in Mao-Tse-Tung thought or Castro-Guevera), both communists and non-communists, have not been able to put forward comprehensive theory and practice of alternative ways to socialism. There may be many ways to socialism according to the different trajectories of society and state formations as well as alignments of social-political forces across the globe. New efforts and examples are stimulating; be it Bolivarian revolutions in Latin America or communitarian indigenous movements or the independent anti-capitalist mass mobilization; like Occupy Wall Street. But both kinds of examples have suffered reverses, stagnation and disintegration because of Western-American sieges and subversion as well as lack of political-organizational bulwarks like involvement of organized labour. It is true that Leninist parties and trade unions based on democratic centralism have degenerated into red aristocrats, control freaks and power-mongering appendages to ruling classes. Their hierarchy-based organizations have become suffocating for genuine workers' voices and instruments for power elites. But the shapeless, spontaneity-propelled, so-called horizontal organization of OWS style and their aversion to political power is not galvanizing the anti-capitalist forces either. For one thing revolution is not all about seizure of power by a minority political force, be it forcible or through polls. But the task of building organization of revolutionary mass action and truly representative organs of toilers' power at all levels that would control the reorganizing of economy and society cannot be ignored either. This makes difference between the advocates of alternative, non-totalitarian socialism or working class democracy that will eventually end the exploitation of nature and humanity and the flame-dousers employed by the global capital.

The generations of dogmatists or revolutionary ostriches who have refused to question the axioms or abused the doubters could not stop the probing minds. Let the iconoclasts ask the blasphemous questions. At the same time, they should also seek replies to unresolved questions of revolution and socialism, for that matter, all that germane to human quest for a better world.

Vol. 47, No. 47, May 31 - June 6, 2015