“De Omnibus Dubitandum” (To Doubt Everything)

Marxism after Marx

Bernard D’Mello

Marx’s watchword: “… ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of
conflict with the powers that be.”

Marxism is a body of social, economic, and political thought with a historical perspective, grounded in a philosophy that is dialectical and materialist, derived from the writings of Marx and Engels. At the centre of these writings is a critique of capital and capitalism in their unfolding contradictions, in their becoming, in their working, and in where and what they are likely leading to. In the works of Marx and Engels, Marxism brought together German philosophy, French socialism, English political economy, and later, Russian revolutionary populism. From these elements, Marx and Engels were continually fashioning a whole which they applied in understanding and interpreting the world as it was developing in the nineteenth century. All along, the purpose of this understanding and interpretation was to lay the basis for revolutionary change.

The two required considering and critiquing the most advanced thinking in the social and natural sciences in sharpening the means of understanding and interpreting the world, with their science of society, historical materialism, and practising their means of changing the world, proletarian revolution. In 1848, in the Communist Manifesto, their worldview of change and the progressive change that was possible and was needed to be brought about, socialism/communism, derived from their then, always open and developing, science of society, was expressed and given a political-programmatic basis. In their way of thinking, no definition or blueprint of socialism/communism could be provided; but it was clear to them that socialism/communism would be a negation of capitalism whose positive identity would emerge during the revolutionary struggle, in which the proletariat would in the process of changing society, remake itself too.

For Marx and Engels, the proletariat, whose living and working conditions “represent(ed) the focal point of all inhuman conditions in modern society,” was seen as the link between understanding the world and changing it, and this was theoretically and empirically elaborated upon and deepened in Capital and also formed the basis of their work in the First International and as advisers to socialist parties and movements up to the time of Engels’ death in 1895. But in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the proletariat in the developed capitalist countries was able to make sufficient gains by struggle within the framework of the capitalist system, which seemed to have pre-empted the emergence of a revolutionary consciousness. Unfortunately, Marx and Engels, although they had sensed this, they did not stress this fact enough in their writings or in their interactions with the socialist parties and movements they were advising. The proletariat in the developed capitalist countries was consenting to or was coming to an unwritten accord with the rule of the capitalist class.

In such a situation, the Second International, founded in 1889, with Karl Kautsky as one of its leading intellectual lights, only paid lip service to the Marxist way of changing the world, proletarian revolution. In 1914 the Second International revealed its true colours, with most of the national sections of it supporting their own respective national bourgeoisies and capitalist states in the World War. The revolutionary potential of the Marxist movements in the developed capitalist countries turned out to be a myth. Lenin, of course, denounced the Second International’s leaders as betrayers of the world proletariat, representing an upper crust of it, a small “aristocracy of labour.”

In the aftermath of the World War and the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks took the initiative to form a Third International, with the new communist parties, like the KPD in Germany, which were expected to make revolutions in their countries and come to the rescue of the besieged Russian Revolution. But these parties failed to gain the support of the majority of their working classes. Later, they were even unable to stop the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, and none could make a revolution. Ever since, the proletariats of the developed capitalist countries have not been the agents of revolutionary change. The social democratic parties, which attracted much greater numbers of workers than their rival communist parties, turned “Marxism” into a reformist project, emptying it of its revolutionary essence.

And, in the Soviet Union, “Marxism-Leninism” was turned into an official state ideology to legitimise the political power of the ruling strata that was metamorphosing into a ruling class. And, erroneously, in Marx’s name, a large section of “Marxists” generalised the history development of capitalism in the developed capitalist countries based on what they had learned of it from the Communist Manifesto and Capital and applied it to the rest of the world. This historical development process was viewed mechanically in terms of a sequence of stages, going from the past into the future – feudalism, bourgeois revolution, industrial development, class polarisation (the bourgeoisie against the proletariat), proletarian revolution, and socialism.

These Marxists seemed unable to use Marx’s method to theorise capital and capitalism as they had become, the latter, a dominant global social formation with a centre and a periphery (and a semi-periphery). The centre, with capitalism there turning monopolistic (oligopolistic), and with its superior political, economic, and military power, had subordinated the periphery and the semi-periphery, sucking out part of their wealth. A semi-peripheral country, like pre-revolutionary Russia, was both a victim of imperialism and a sub-imperialist power, subordinating other nations in its neighbourhood. The periphery was and has been subjected to the “development of (capitalist) underdevelopment,” manifested in the impoverishment of its workers, peasants, and other petty-commodity producers of goods and services and massive unemployment and underemployment. The structural causes of such underdevelopment have been the comparative profitability of economic alternatives in the periphery and semi-periphery being determined by the world capitalist law of value; expatriation of the profits of foreign capital in various forms and transfers of value intrinsic to unequal exchange; capitalist growth structured by the consumption demand of the privileged classes and external demand; and ground rent constituting a significant proportion of the net product of agriculture.

In the periphery and the semi-periphery of the world capitalist system, given the relative proportions of workers, peasants, and petty-commodity producers—“masses of dehumanized humanity”—and the structures and institutions of the peripheral/semi-peripheral underdeveloped capitalist social order integrated within the global capitalist social formation, Marxists needed to reinterpret the world. To do this, they had to first critique the old understanding and interpretation of it. In this they proved to be utterly lacking, of course, with notable exceptions, like Rudolf Hilferding, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, György Lukács, Gramsci, Walter Benjamin, Mao, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, …, and later, scholars and intellectuals like Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, C L R James, Harry Magdoff, Ernest Mandel, Hal Draper, E P Thompson, D D Kosambi, Eric Hobsbawm, Samir Amin, István Mészáros, Teodor Shanin,…

A big handicap for potential Marxist intellectuals from the peripheral and semi-peripheral underdeveloped capitalist countries has been the condescension, the arrogance, the self-centeredness, and the intellectual snobbery of some Marxist intellectuals from the centre of the world capitalist system, and there has been an elite counterpart of such Marxist intellectuals in the underdeveloped capitalist countries. The intellectual dominance/hegemony of the centre over the periphery exists here too. Such an intellectual-political culture existed in the Comintern too, as I have alluded to earlier in this essay.

Mao’s own awareness and handling of it may be cited. For the sake of the Chinese Revolution, he could not have stopped working with Stalin, the Stalinist Soviet Union, and the Comintern, but he ensured the political and organisational autonomy of the CCP leadership. In the CCP, there were the so-called internationalists, educated in the Soviet Union in Marxist theory, supporters of Moscow’s attempts to dictate CCP policy. Mao effectively handled these “imperial emissaries” by emphasising empirical investigation in the process of theorisation.

Importantly, Mao saw through the arid theory and Stalinist dogma of the internationalists, and faced them on their own ground, theory, with his own theory in On Practice (1937) and On Contradiction (1937), and “Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership” (1943). And one cannot forget the remarkable text, “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War” (1936), based on what he had learned from practice, and from Zhu De who conducted the operations, during the Second Civil War (1927–36). As also, “On Protracted War” (1938), protracted people’s war by which a small revolutionary party and army can begin to fight back a powerful state apparatus. The keystone was a people’s army built on a political base with the support and backing of the masses. The peasant question and self-reliance were extremely important.

In 1965, Lin Biao put together in summary form what the Chinese revolution involved, this in an article entitled, “Long Live the Victory of the People’s War!” There was a “new democratic” stage and a “socialist” stage of the revolution, with transition to the latter after taking political power. Dr Jal confuses the Maoist conception of “new democratic revolution” with “bourgeois revolution.” Both bring together very similar class coalitions: proletariat, peasantry, petty bourgeoisie, and national bourgeoisie, but precisely there the similarity ends. The “bourgeois revolution” is led by the bourgeoisie and, if successful, leads to the consolidation of capitalism. The “new democratic revolution” is led by a worker-peasant alliance and, if successful, leads to national liberation (i.e., liberation of the country from imperialist intervention and control) and the breakup of semi-feudalism, clearing the way for an immediately following socialist revolution. Thus “new democratic revolution” does suggest a revolution by stages, but it is also part of an uninterrupted revolution. The “new democratic revolution” is a necessary preparation for the “socialist revolution,” even as the latter is the inevitable sequel to the former.

Politically, the leadership must unite as large a proportion of the population as possible, and militarily, people’s war requires building base areas in the rural areas, putting together a highly politically conscious people’s army, employing guerrilla tactics, and when the relation of forces is favourable, moving over to mobile warfare, and then winning over the cites. One can well imagine how difficult a task all this is in the world today. Even after five decades, India’s Maoists have not been able to set up a single base area, and they are still stuck in the phase of strategic defence.
But, of course, this writer doesn’t not have a deep understanding of strategy, tactics, organisation, and logistics, or, indeed, the value of Mao’s military doctrines in today’s technological context of non-international armed struggle. Strategising people’s war in the Chinese mould in contemporary India might however have been a huge mistake. Recall that Mao adapted what he learned from Marxism, and particularly from Lenin’s Marxism to the realities of China’s history and present as history, and China’s potentialities. “Learn truth from practice” was his message. Revolutionaries in India need to take a hard re-look into India—its history and present as history, and its potentialities. They have faced huge setbacks and defeats in the past and might suffer massive reversals and debacles in the future.

Yes, by the end of the nineteenth century, the revolutionary potential in the capitalist system moved from the centre to the periphery and semi-periphery of capitalism as a dominant global social formation. But the revolutionary leaderships of the twentieth century, principally in Russia and China, after the deaths of their respective leading lights, Lenin and Mao, respectively, transformed themselves into ruling elites situating themselves above the masses, and rationalized and justified their rule in the name of Marxism, and thereby discredited Marxism not only in the eyes of the masses of their own countries but across the peoples of the world.

But all this does not mean that Lenin’s Marxism and/or Mao’s Marxism needs to be discarded from the body of Marxist thought. Far from it. As Samir Amin has argued, Mao’s Marxism has put forward “a different conception of the movement toward socialism in world capitalism’s peripheries, not by breaking with the heritage of Leninism but by going beyond it.” To understand Mao’s Marxism, with all its strengths and weaknesses, requires one to take account of his implicit understanding of the internationalism of the Paris Commune (March-May 1871), and the Russian Revolution (1917–21), and his comprehension of Chinese history, especially from the time of the first Opium War (1839–1842), and the Taiping Revolt (1850–1864) onwards, his emphasis on the Chinese people’s unwavering resistance to the imperialism inherent in capitalism’s expansion.

Marx saw the possibility of a revolution in Russia that might be able to advance a novel path to socialism, based on the resistance of peasant communities, plebian-democratic collectivist in the Russian mir (rural commune), if these peasants were to free themselves from the clutches of the czarist state, the landed nobility, local merchants, and usurers, and the devastating effects of the capitalist world market. Like Marx taking an ethical stance in the struggle of community property against private ownership of land, imagining a post-revolutionary preservation of the mir traditions of community and solidarity in the Russian commune with the introduction of modern technology, so Mao formulated a strategy of uninterrupted revolution with the worker-peasant alliance intact, and democratisation based on the “mass line” in the transition to socialism.

Given the perverse and destructive effects of imperialism and imperialism’s unleashing of counterrevolution, Mao expected that the socialist road would be full of peril, very long, and strewn with unexpected traps. (My references for the couple of paragraphs above are Paul M Sweezy, “Marxism and Revolution 100 Years after Marx,” Monthly Review, 34:10, March 1983, pp. 1–11; Teodor Shanin (ed), Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and the ‘Peripheries of Capitalism’, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983; Teodor Shanin, The Roots of Otherness: Russia’s Turn of the Century, Vol. 1, Russia as a Developing Society, Vol. 2, Russia 1905–1907: Revolution as a Moment of Truth, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986; Samir Amin, “Popular Movements Toward Socialism: Their Unity and Diversity,” Monthly Review, 66:2, June 2014, pp. 1–32.)

But he remained optimistic about the spread of revolutionary culture that “prepares the ground ideologically before [a subsequent phase of] the revolution comes,” as he put it in 1939 in “Recruit Large Number of Intellectuals” (Selected Works, Vol. II). Gramsci too wrote, also in the interwar period, about the communist party developing its own “organic intellectuals,” and thereby creating an alternative hegemonic “moral and intellectual leadership” to that of the “ruling bloc.” I cannot get into detail over here on Gramsci’s and Mao’s Marxist analysis of the ideological superstructure in their respective countries, but for both Gramsci and Mao, the ideological hold of the bourgeoisie had to be broken. In China this included overcoming the predominance of capitalist-imperialist culture and Confucian culture. In India, the equivalents would be capitalist-imperialist culture and Brahminical-casteist culture.

As far as the alternative proletarian culture was concerned, in China during the liberation period, with low working-class membership in the CCP, sections of the peasantry were designated “semi-proletarian,” and members were constantly exhorted to inculcate the “proletarian spirit.” The latter was a designation of a set of virtues – iron discipline, hard work, self-abnegation, sacrifice for the sake of the collective, and so on –that were needed to be inculcated and then imparted to the masses through various means, literature, poetry, theatre, etc by the mass organisations. But with “bourgeois culture” proving irresistible, failure to overcome the ideological hegemony of the capitalist roaders, ultra-leftist wrecking, and coercion in handling “non-antagonistic contradictions” during, for instance, the Hundred Flowers campaign and the Cultural Revolution, and right-wing obstruction, it was very difficult for those trying to advance China along the socialist road (they also made many mistakes) to make any significant headway.

Frankly, this writer would rather continue to rely on the works of China Studies scholars like Stuart Schram and Benjamin Schwartz, and Marxist intellectuals like William Hinton and Samir Amin, who passionately studied and reflected over developments in China and Mao’s role, than the ignorant assertions of Slavoj Zizek. The latter designates Mao as “the Marxist Lord of Misrule” (2006), relying on texts such as Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story (2005), which depict Mao as a Machiavellian, callous, inhumane, and power-hungry demon. Such texts choose to overlook what Mao’s bodyguards, nurses, and others, like Chen Boda and Wang Li, who worked with him have had to say, because the latter accounts have been very different, depicting Mao in a more positive light.

It is quite evident that Zizek had not bothered to read what eminent China Studies scholars like Stuart Schram and Benjamin Schwartz had written about Mao, the Marxist, and Mao, the philosopher. Zizek does not understand that imperialism is inherent in capitalism’s expansion; he does not understand what Mao meant by “politics in command”; nor had he understood of what Lenin meant when he designated some “Marxists” as “economists.” He critiques Mao for not being able to appreciate Hegel’s notion of “negation of the negation.” It is true that Mao did not think that a synthesis would persist for long, but did that make him incapable of reconciliation, even in matters involving “non-antagonistic contradictions”? He wrongly brackets Mao with ultra-left wrecking.

It is very essential to read the brilliant book Beyond Capital: Towards a Theory of Transition (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995) of the Hungarian Marxist philosopher István Mészáros (1930–2017) wherein he arrives at, what he insists are, the necessary conditions of the transition to socialism. Going beyond capital means “going beyond capital as such and not merely beyond capitalism” (p. xxi), for the transformation to socialism involves overcoming the power of capital.

Mészáros argues that even as the capitalists were expropriated in the Soviet Union and other post-revolutionary societies, the power of capital was not overcome. He views capitalism as no more than one way of reproducing capital, the latter, primarily a system, centred on accumulation, a system with its economic components and with its principal control functions in the state. The Soviet Union was not capitalist, not even state capitalist, but the Soviet system was dominated by the power of capital. The hierarchical division of labour and the vertical command structure of capital remained intact,with a postcapitalist, politically enforced extraction of surplus labour. Capital as a metabolic system, with the structural subordination of labour to capital, remained. The social metabolism of the capital system is organic, and therefore capable of its own reproduction if the command structure of the state remains in place. The capital system embodies the logic of capital, based fundamentally on the alienation of labour.

Every part of this system supports and reinforces the other parts, with the parts, “second order mediations”—the nuclear family, alienated labour/production, the mystification of money, commodity fetishism, repressive nationalisms and state formations, capital’s cultural apparatus, the uncontrollable world market(pp. 108-109)—reciprocally sustaining each other and reinforcing the whole. Socialist transformation can come about “in the course of extricating humankind from [this] … perilous structural framework of the capital system” (p. 493) and creating an entirely new, self-reinforcing social metabolic order dedicated to substantive equality and ecological sustainability and concerning the whole of humanity. A genuine socialist transition requires going beyond capital as a mode of social metabolic control, radically overcoming the hierarchical structural subordination of labour.

Based on the “painful historical evidence” of post-revolutionary societies, Mészáros states that the “disconcerting truth of the matter is that the capital system [succeeded] in imposing itself on partial emancipatory efforts(my emphasis) … through the structural interconnectedness of its constituent parts” (p.109)As a theory of the transition to socialism after a social revolution, Mészáros’ capital system framework that specifies the necessary preconditions for the success of post-revolutionary societies embarking on the socialist road, would indicate false starts in all the attempted transitions to socialism of the twentieth century, including Maoist China. For, in Mészáros’ understanding, the persistence of any of the “second order mediations” would be enough to regenerate the whole, the capital system, to result in degeneration of the socialist project. It would be interesting to look at the Chinese case in Mészáros’ capital system framework to gain a better under-standing of what went wrong.

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Vol. 54, No. 14-17, Oct 3 - 30, 2021