A discussion on Partha Chatterjee’s article:

Does the Communist Manifesto Still Retain Its Relevance?

Arup Kumar Baisya

Marx and Working class 
The article, originally written in Bengali by Partha Chatterjee and translated by Anirban Biswas, published in Frontierweekly on 20-08-20 ended with a conclusive remark, “the Communist Manifesto was written indeed for participating in contemporary political controversies. If we seek to find some divine oracle in it, the fault is ours, not of its writers”. Every Marxist practitioner must agree with this observation because no revolutionary manifesto which does not need any revision based on praxis in the here and now can be written to remain valid for all time to come and if the formulations on political economy with a futuristic project is taken for granted as gospel truth, the entire edifice of Marxist Philosophy of praxis gets dismantled. But the way the author dealt with the class-question in the Manifesto in an East-West or Oriental-Occidental framework and denied the relevance of the universal character of the working class do not at all match with the reality of the ‘new world’ that necessitates a review of the Manifesto. The communist Manifesto needs to be renewed and revised in the backdrop of the core issue of capitalism in Marx’s time and twenty-first-century capitalism with its characteristic traits. It becomes prophetic when Marx’s prediction of the whole world to be ‘conjured out of the ground’ by capitalist expansion becomes a reality in the twenty-first-century world. But as the Marxist political economy is not a stage theory and Marxism is not a theory per se, rather a praxis and a process to unveil the reality, Marx’s prediction does not rule out the possibility for a section of the populace to be ‘conjured back into the origin again’. Marxist dialectics becomes operative in the praxis for a societal change with a futuristic project and as such, it is natural that Communist Manifesto would reflect upon the development of capitalism in Europe, the growing class antagonism, and the industrial working class who were considered as proletariat.

Marx dealt with the contribution of primitive accumulation and migration of excess labour evicted from rural agricultural land for the development of capitalism. But he did not consider it as a cause of the birth of capitalism, but as an effect or rather intricately intertwined with the development of capitalist social relation of production. The internal dynamics of capitalist relation which was let loose by the transformation of use-value into exchange value activated all other multifaceted processes to support the expansion of capitalism by killing the space with time.

When Marx said the ‘immediate aim’ of all proletarian parties was the ‘formation of the proletariat into a class’, he did not view the workers as individuals in their factory workplace added up to form a class, rather in the process of being a class through their struggle to be able to make ‘human history’ for a societal change. Capitalism gave birth to its countervailing force as workers, but the two combatants, the capital and labour, were not visualized as two distinct camps ready to fight each other in chessboard like pre-determined space. In his analysis of Capital, he dealt with the law of internal dynamics of the change of capital and its structure, but he did not extrapolate it to describe every possible of changes in the future because that would have been antithetical to the philosophy of dialectics.

Marx did not live to see the full-fledged transformation of capitalism into its imperialist stage, but it was inherent in his analysis of capitalism and its law of value and law of uneven development. Warwick Research Collective rightly diagnosed the conceptual error in late culturalism where the Western capitalism and its colonial East are mechanically segregated in different space-time, and the addition or incorporation of the oriental traits in the phenomenon of imperialism is advocated. I quote from the Warwick Research Collective in support of my claim of this conceptual error, “Said’s identification of the inextricability of ‘culture’ from imperialism – the integration and connections between the past and the present, between imperializer and imperialized, between culture and imperialism’ (1993:72) – strikes us as being of indispensable importance. But we need to register a major weakness in his understanding of the key concept of imperialism. ……. Banita Parry has pointed out, we can scarcely fail to remark on the fact that Said’s work on culture and imperialism ‘neglected that very analysis which has done most to explain modern colonialism and imperialism as integral to capitalism’s beginnings, expansion, and ultimate global entrenchment’ (Parry 2013: 17).” Marx’s idea of the rate of increase of organic composition of capital indicates that this constrains in capitalist development will result in the expansion of capitalism from the geographical space or capitalist core area with a high organic composition of capital to the geographical space with a low organic composition of capital or the areas of a pre-capitalist mode of production. Primitive accumulation supported the capitalist accumulation in the Western Metropolis and it does so till today, but capitalist expansion presumed a certain level of development in the eastern periphery because capital needs a working-class for its reproduction by completing both production and labour process. Imperialism is a process of accumulation of capital on a world scale under today’s capitalist monopoly or oligopoly. So the basic foundation of the communist Manifesto remains unscathed and relevant when Marx placed the industrial working class as proletariat and as the revolutionary class which can set the idea of “man makes history, but not in their own choosing” in the minds of the people for transcending capitalism through class-struggle. The industrial working class or proletariat was not an absolute and overwhelming numerical majority in any of the countries of the world and as such the conception of the revolutionary class was based on the premise of ideological leadership, the ideology which emerged and became dominant through class-struggle only. Transcendence of capitalism in today’s world which has been conjured out of the ground through capitalist expansion as predicted by Marx in the Communist Manifesto becomes more relevant today from a working-class perspective than in Marx’s time when Capital had much space to expand for the killing of space with time.

But going by the Marxist philosophy of praxis and the moment of history when the logic of dialectic comes into play, it needs to be ascertained structural changes of capitalism on a world scale both in the Western ‘center’ and Eastern ‘periphery’ to redefine the nature of working-class and its transformation as a revolutionary class through class-struggle. Capitalism can sustain only by ensuring the continuity of the process of extracting surplus value and accumulation of capital, the ex-colonial less developed countries can only ensure a high rate of exploitation or super-profit. Marx’s capital neither ruled out nor mentioned the capitalist structural change which caused the emergence of workers in the service sector as a predominant force as is evident in the twenty-first-century capitalism. But it was not possible for Marx to envisage the predominance of service workers due to the imbalance between the production in the department I and department II and the crisis due to the rise of the organic composition of capital as described by Marx. But this has happened within the framework of capitalist dynamics and mode of production. In India, going by all reliable assessment, the migrant workers who constitute almost one-third of the Indian population are service workers. These service workers do not gather part of their means of subsistence from rural agriculture, rather their extended families in the villages are dependent on their remittances, though this scenario has undergone some changes during pandemic and lockdown. These service workers were freed from their bondage with the land both due to the primitive accumulation and the change of social relation of production in agriculture to capitalism. Why these workers who sell their labour-power to capitalists along with the numerically small workers in large manufacturing industries, should not be considered as a new working class really subsumed to capital which is globalized in character and is placed within the domain of working-class universalism? In the preface to the English edition of Communist Manifesto 1888, Engels wrote, “The defeat of the Parisian insurrection of June 1848 – the first great battle between proletariat and bourgeoisie – drove again into the background, for a time, the social and political aspirations of European working class. Thenceforth, the struggle for supremacy was again, as it had been before the revolution of February, solely between different sections of the propertied class; the working class was reduced to a fight for political elbow-room, and to the position of extreme wing of the middle-class radicals.” This indicates that the transformation of individual workers as a revolutionary class through class struggle is possible in a moment of history which is not decided by their own choosing. Engels stated that the fundamental proposition of communist Manifesto belongs to Marx and he described that proposition as follows: “That in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which it is built, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been history of class struggle, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles.” The industrial working class which was considered as the proletariat in Marx’s time was bestowed with the quality of ideological leadership in the epochal sense to lead the emancipating society at large from all forms of exploitation and oppression. This fundamental proposition of the Communist Manifesto has not changed. What has changed from Marx’s time to today’s world is the structure of capital and labour. In this epochal sense, today’s unorganized working class has also the potential to transform itself into a revolutionary class through class struggle and cannot attain its emancipation from the exploiting capitalist ruling class without simultaneously emancipating society at large from all forms of exploitation and oppression. As stated in Communist manifesto, the communist party has no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole, not the individual members or a group of the working class. The interest of the communist party and the interest of the working class coincides at a historical moment of time, not on their own choosing. Partha Chatterjee cited the division of working-class on the nationalist line during nationalistic war as evidence of the failure of the universal character and international solidarity of the working class in a deterministic way and ahistorical manner. 

The Communist manifesto described the nationalist tendency of the working class and distinguished the communists from other working-class parties by the following characteristics:

(1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, communists point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 

(2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, communists always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The Manifesto has not ruled out the possibility of working-class putting priority of national interests over international solidarity in a certain stage of development of the class struggle. The national or for that matter identity question in the neo-colonies or capitalist west fundamentally rests on the law of uneven development of capitalism and differential exploitation of labour. Both are ingrained in capitalism. So, capitalism itself includes the other form of exploitation based on nationality and identity. Is the national or identity movement, which fundamentally opposes the exploitation of less developed regions and identity as well as super-exploitation of the labour of those less developed regions and identity, antithetical to the idea of international solidarity of working class? The answer is, both yes and no. When the bourgeois class fight against the nationality or identity oppression for their own class interest, the working-class movement becomes contingent on bourgeois ideological influence. The working class cannot emancipate itself for international solidarity so long as this contradiction is resolved either by the victory of the national/identity bourgeois in attaining the full control of the power or by a compromise deal with the imperialist power. When in this age of overwhelming dominance of monopoly capital, bourgeois class betrays the interest of nationality/identity to free themselves from the exploitation of capitalist power and the working class emancipates to take the leadership of movement against national or identity oppression, the stage arrives for the working class to be able to see themselves as a whole, as a class for international solidarity.

Based on the fundamental premise of the Communist Manifesto and the late observations of Marx, the Communist Manifest needs to be revised or updated to make it relevant in the present context. In the letters to Vera Zasulich, Marx opined that the Russian ‘Obshchina’ could directly go to the socialist phase bypassing the capitalist transformation provided the working class was transformed into the ruling class through revolution. Russian working class was numerically very weak during the revolution. The change of working-class structure, the participation of women’s labour, the climatic change, the role of peasantry and the global penetration of capital which created a world after its own image which was prominently confined to the European countries in Marx’s time, the massive financialization of capital, the level of automation in capitalist production and services -- all these factors must be dealt within the framework of capitalist uneven and combined development model to formulate the strategy of the communists so that their interests are not seen to be separate from the working class as a whole for international solidarity.

The dialectical portrayal of all these new characteristics mentioned above is not based on the application of a method, but rather a categorical critique and is dependent on the engagement with the substance of field knowledge to which the categories refer. For Marx, it was not the thought processes of individuals that are fundamental, but rather the social relations in which the individuals are embedded at any given time, as he pointed out in Grundrisse.              

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Aug 28, 2020

Arup Kumar Baisya

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