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"Neoliberal" Leninism in India and its Class Character

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Pratyush Chandra

“Criticism – the most keen, ruthless and uncompromising criticism – should be directed, not against parliamentarianism or parliamentary activities, but against those leaders who are unable – and still more against those who are unwilling – to utilise parliamentary elections and the parliamentary rostrum in a revolutionary and communist manner. Only such criticism-combined, of course, with the dismissal of incapable leaders and their replacement by capable ones-will constitute useful and fruitful revolutionary work that will simultaneously train the “leaders” to be worthy of the working class and of all working people, and train the masses to be able properly to understand the political situation and the often very complicated and intricate tasks that spring from that situation.”
(V.I. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, Chapter 7)

1. Lenin and the CPIM’s Leninism

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPIM)-led Left Front government in its endeavour to industrialise West Bengal, admittedly within the larger neoliberal framework of the Indian state’s economic policies, is ready to scuttle every act of popular vigilance in the manner which Lenin would have called “bureaucratic harassment” of workers-peasants’ self-organisation. India’s official left position on neoliberal industrialisation and its potentiality to generate employment is very akin to what Lenin characterised “Narodism melted into Liberalism”, as the official left “gloss[es] over [the] contradictions [of industrialisation] and try to damp down the class struggle inherent in it.”(1)

In fact, the mass organisations of the official left in West Bengal have for a long time been the main bulwarks of the state government to pre-empt any systematic upsurge of the workers and peasants. They have become increasingly what can be called the ideological state apparatuses to drug the masses and keep them in line. And in this, Leninism has been reduced to an ideology, an apologia for the Left Front’s convergence with other mainstream forces on the neoliberal path, giving its “steps backwards” a scriptural validity and promoting an image that in fact this is the path towards revolution – all in the name of consolidation and creating objective conditions for revolution. For justifying their compromises locally in West Bengal, CPIM leaders have found handy innumerable quotations from Lenin, and sometimes from Marx too. Contradictory principles and doctrines can easily be derived from their statements, if read as scriptures and taken out of contexts. Hence, as a popular saying in India confirms, baabaa vaakyam pramaanam, which loosely means, you can prove anything on the basis of scriptures.

Of course, this can be a variety of Leninism, as there are varieties mushrooming like religious sects, but such was not Lenin. Lenin himself never treated Marx’s writings as scriptural for justifying his every tactical move. Furthermore, especially after the defeat of other European revolutions, on many occasions he was ready to acknowledge Russia’s “steps backwards”, even during the formulation and implementation of the New Economic Policy. His defence of the independence of working class organisation and power beyond state formation in his attack on Trotsky’s advocacy of the regimentation of trade unions was especially for countering the counter-revolutionary potential in the Russian state’s “steps backwards” by ever-stronger working class vigilance. Lenin had the guts to say, “We now have a state under which it is the business of the massively organised proletariat to protect itself, while we, for our part, must use these workers’ organisations to protect the workers from their state, and to get them to protect our state. Both forms of protection are achieved through the peculiar interweaving of our state measures and our agreeing or “coalescing” with our trade unions.”(2; emphasis mine)

Such was Lenin even as the leader of the Soviet State, unlike the CPIM-led Left Front’s leadership, which seeks to stabilise its rule in a tiny part of India, where, it admits, its government can have no sovereignty.

The CPIM’s energetic peasant leader Benoy Konar (who rails against Naxal conspiracy in every disturbance in West Bengal), a major stalwart in the present debate on repression and agitation in the state, says, “West Bengal is a federal state in a capitalist feudal country. What its government has done is just a miniscule step compared to what Lenin was forced to do, even after the revolution. If this is what upsets these “true” Marxists so much, we request them to stop living in their imaginations and step into the real world.”(3) This logic is very instructive, indeed. It is precisely the case – Lenin could afford to do what he was forced to do because the revolution had taken place. Also, the “steps backwards” were essentially for the sustainability of the state, without changing its basic character – workers-peasants state, taking the risk of further bureaucratisation and distortion, which he thought the independent assertion of the working class would weed out eventually. If Konar and his gurus are forcing themselves to do the same in a “capitalist feudal country”, then it is for whose sustainability – of the “capitalist feudal” state?

2. CPIM and its Self-Criticisms

Throughout its thirty years of continuous rule, the West Bengal government’s main concern has been to stabilise its local rule within the parameters set by India’s state formation, and the hegemonic political economic set-up in the country. It boasts of its successes, but at what cost? The exigencies of the parliamentarist integration reinforced the accommodation and consolidation of a “supra-class” ideology within the communist political habits imbibed during its appendage to the nationalist movement, throughout India in general, and West Bengal in particular. This explains a less radical approach towards land reforms in the region.(4) The CPI-CPIM’s role became limited to controlling and policing the radicalisation of its own mass base, as in the 1960s-70s, especially with regard to the Naxal movement. It is interesting to note today how every attempt to form an organisation of the rural proletarians and small peasantry, independent of the rich and middle peasant (who benefited from the movements on tenancy rights and against the Bargadari system) dominated Kisan Sabhas, is systematically repressed by Bengal’s state machinery and party.

When the CPIM capitulated to electoral politics resorting to tactical measures and strategic sloganeering, because of the so-called popular mandate in its parliamentarist pursuit, militancy became a thing to be repeated only in speeches and slogans as its practice can alienate few votes, precious votes. This is not to say that it was only a subjective transition or a matter of conscious choice, rather, it represented the latent politics of the party leadership’s class character. In fact, the only thing lacking was a conscious and consistent opposition within, despite the fact that the party was aware of this from the very beginning. In one of its early documents, it noted:

“The struggle against revisionism inside the Indian Communist movement will neither be fruitful nor effective unless the alien class orientation and work among the peasantry are completely discarded. No doubt, this is not an easy task, since it is deep-rooted and long-accumulated and also because the bulk of our leading kisan activists come from rich and middle peasant origin, rather than from agricultural labourers and poor peasants. Their class origin, social links and the long training given to them give a reformist ideological-political orientation which is alien to proletarian class point and prevent them from actively working among the agricultural labourers, poor and middle peasants with the zeal and crusading spirit demanded of Communists. Hence the need and urgency to rectify and remould the entire outlook and work of our Party in the kisan movement.”(5)

To this P. Sundarayya adds in 1973 (when he was the party’s general secretary), “the same old reformist deviation is still persisting in our understanding and practice”, which frequently leads to “the repudiation of the Party Programme formulations.” (6)

This was all before the concern for stabilising its rule and building social corporatism – “peace”, “harmony”, etc., in West Bengal became the party’s prime agenda. Today, the state government’s industrialisation and urbanisation policies express the needs of the neo-rich gentry, a considerable section of which is the class of absentee landowners, dominating the bureaucratic apparatuses and service sector, who legitimately want a share in India’s corporate development. When the Kolkata session of the All India Kisan Council held on January 5-6, 2007 asks “the state government to forge ahead on the path of industrialisation based on the success of land reforms and impressive agricultural growth” (7), it is simply expressing the interests of all those who have benefited the most from the success of limited agrarian reforms.

The party is aware that if they alienate these class forces, it will not be possible to remain in power in “a constitutional set-up that is not federal in nature” and which reproduces their ideological hegemony through various identitarian and legal relations influencing the voting pattern of the electorate. As the present party general secretary Prakash Karat, notes:

“It was clear then as now that the policies implemented by Left-led governments would always be circumscribed by the fact that State power vests with the centre while state governments have very limited powers and resources. This is the reality of a constitutional set-up that is not federal in nature. This understanding was further clarified when Left-led governments began to rule in the three states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura for longer periods of time. Within all the constraints and limitations of office, these governments have to take steps to fulfil their commitments to the people and offer relief to the working people. While there are urgent issues before Left-led governments, including those of protecting livelihoods in agriculture, creating jobs by means of industrial development, and improving the quality of people’s lives, alternative policies in certain spheres can be implemented only within the constraints imposed by the system.”(8)

If this is not the Third Way, the there-is-no-alternative (TINA) syndrome, then one wonders what it can be. Zizek defines the Third Way as “simply global capitalism with a human face, that is, an attempt to minimize the human costs of the global capitalist machinery, whose functioning is left undisturbed.”(9) It is an old disease that inflicts all social democratic parties, once they start talking about consolidation within the bourgeois framework. Compare:

“Let no one misunderstand us”; we don’t want “to relinquish our party and our programme but in our opinion we shall have enough to do for years to come if we concentrate our whole strength, our entire energies, on the attainment of certain immediate objectives which must in any case be won before there can be any thought of realising more ambitious aspirations.”

To this Marx and Engels answered back in 1879:

“The programme is not to be relinquished, but merely postponed – for some unspecified period. They accept it – not for themselves in their own lifetime but posthumously, as an heirloom for their children and their children’s children. Meanwhile they devote their “whole strength and energies” to all sorts of trifles, tinkering away at the capitalist social order so that at least something should appear to be done without at the same time alarming the bourgeoisie.”(10; emphasis original)

This is the state of a self-acclaimed “revolutionary” party caught up in an existential struggle – “tinkering away at the capitalist social order”! Why not, “the journey towards socialism would begin only after the accomplishment of the task of the bourgeoisie democratic revolution. If the bourgeois did not join the democratic revolution, it would be easier for the working class to establish its leadership in it which would help in the next stage of socialist revolution.”(11) So friends, nothing to worry about, on behalf of the working class, the CPIM is actually taking a time out for accomplishing the ‘democratic revolutionary’ tasks. If the working classes – rural and urban – are being forced to shut up, it is all for ensuring their leadership! So, “the programme is not to be relinquished, but merely postponed – for some unspecified period…”

The CPI(M)’s capitulation to an alien class-ideological orientation is stark in its continuous effort to de-radicalise the left trade union politics. Parallel to Sundarayya’s self-criticism, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya too has been time and again indulging in his own variety of self-criticism. His statements are very straight-forward, as he seldom minces words in his pandering to corporate interests. In one of his interviews to The Hindu (November 16, 2005), he says: “We did commit certain wrong things in the past. There were investors really afraid of trade unions here. But things have changed… I am in constant touch with our senior trade union leaders and keep telling them that it is now a different situation. …I tell [trade union leaders] they must behave. If you do not behave companies will close, you will lose your jobs.”(12)

The combination of subjective and objective factors determines the tenor of the official left politics everywhere in India today. So the repression of strikers at the Kanoria jute mill in 1993-94 and Singur/Nandigram incidents are not something unexpected. They are expressions of the Left Front’s stable rule in West Bengal for thirty years. These are the imperatives rising from the limitations, about which the Front and CPIM never tire to talk, and in which their existential politics is embedded. They do so, as there-is-no-alternative.

3. No “Doublespeak”, but the “Narodnik-like Bourgeois” speaks

Unsurprisingly, the CPIM’s present general secretary Prakash Karat whom some of us used to admire for his strong positions uncomfortable for the parliamentarian lobbies within the party has come out strongly in defence of the same parliamentarianism. His general secretaryship demands that. In India, the days are gone when within these communist parties, a general secretary used to be the voice of a particular programmatic tendency. The designation has been increasingly reduced to a ‘post’ in the permanent hierarchy, where the post-holder like a civil servant voices whichever tendency dominates in the party.

Prakash Karat accuses the ‘left opposition’ to the Left Front’s industrialisation policies of Narodism, which too is not very surprising. It is one of our standard abuses, along with ‘infantile disorder’, ‘revisionism’, etc… However, Karat in his defence really means it, when he says: “The CPIM will continue to refute the modern-day Narodniks who claim to champion the cause of the peasantry”, as he appends this with a note on the Narodniks.(13)

It seems Karat is ignorant – either he feigns it, or it is real – about Lenin’s analysis of Narodism. Lenin’s criticism of the Narodnik revolutionaries was mainly centred on their faulty understanding of Russian reality; unlike the Narodniks he saw a slow, but definite evolution of capitalism and capitalist market. He stressed strategising on the basis of this new reality. On the other hand, the Narodniks saw capitalism still simply as a possibility, and thus like true petty bourgeois revolutionaries dreamt of evading the ruthlessness of capitalist accumulation, while often lauding bourgeois freedom and democracy. Lenin in his diatribes obviously underlined the utopianism of this programme, but only on the basis of a critique of the political economy of capitalism in Russia. His fundamental stress was to describe the processes of capitalist accumulation, the ruthlessness of which was compounded by its impurity, its ‘incompleteness’. Definitely, an important component of Lenin’s programme was embedding the democratic struggle against feudal remnants in the unfolding of the socialist revolution:

“Thus the red banner of the class-conscious workers means, first, that we support with all our might the peasants’ struggle for full freedom and all the land; secondly, it means that we do not stop at this, but go on further. We are waging, besides the struggle for freedom and land, a fight for socialism. The fight for socialism is a fight against the rule of capital. It is being carried on first and foremost by the wage-workers, who are directly and wholly dependent on capital. As for the small farmers, some of them own capital themselves, and often themselves exploit workers. Hence not all small peasants join the ranks of fighters for socialism; only those do so who resolutely and consciously side with the workers against capital, with public property against private property.”(14; emphasis mine)

Lenin’s analysis of capitalism in agriculture showed a growing peasant differentiation. This led him to stress on the heterogeneity of proletarian attitude towards diverse peasant classes. He criticised the populism of the Narodniks and also the liberals who put forward a homogenised notion of “narod” (people). The same notion is found in the Indian official left’s attitude towards the peasantry and its assessment of the land reform efforts in the left-ruled states. When it calls upon consolidating the gains from land reforms achieved in a “capitalist feudal” society and pursuing industrialisation on their basis, it consistently evades the question of peasant differentiation. Such evasion is a reflection of the consolidation, within the left leadership, of the hegemonic interests that necessarily rose after the limited land reforms measures. As Sundarayya indicated, this lobby had already congealed within the CPIM and been affecting its work in the rural areas, much before it enjoyed the cosiness of the state power. Its consistent success in undermining the rise of the rural proletarians and their organisation in West Bengal is indicative of the strength of this lobby. When Benoy Konar and the All India Kisan Sabha speak for industrialisation based on the gains in agriculture, they speak on the behalf of the rising kulaks and upper middle class in West Bengal who would like to invest and profit on the peripheries and as local agencies of the neoliberal industrialisation – in real estate, in outsourcing and other businesses which are concomitant appendages to the neoliberal expansion.

While differentiating the agrarian programme of the Social Democrats (when the revolutionary Marxists still identified themselves with this name) from that of the liberals, Lenin criticised the latter’s “distraught Narodism” – “Narodism melting into Liberalism”, which represented the Narodnik-like bourgeoisie, and explained:

“Firstly, the Social-Democrats want to effect the abolition of the remnants of feudalism (which both programmes directly advance as the aim) by revolutionary means and with revolutionary determination, the liberals – by reformist means and half-heartedly. Secondly, the Social-Democrats stress that the system to be purged of the remnants of feudalism is a bourgeois system; they already now, in advance, expose all its contradictions, and strive immediately to extend and render more conscious the class struggle that is inherent in this new system and is already coming to the surface. The liberals ignore the bourgeois character of the system purged of feudalism, gloss over its contradictions and try to damp down the class struggle inherent in it.”(15; emphasis mine)

Here Lenin clearly states that “distraught Narodism” lies, firstly, in its reformist means, and secondly, in not recognising that the system is already a bourgeois system, hence the basic struggle is against the rule of capital. As Lenin indicated and as it is clear in the case of the CPIM in West Bengal, the ideology of “distraught Narodism” is an ideology of the class of Narodnik-like local bourgeoisie, which is necessarily Janus-headed. On the one hand, it feels insecure before its established competitors and their ‘bigness’, thus consistently calls upon the state to protect its interests. On the other, it is mortified when it feels the presence of its impoverished twin – the growing number of proletarians – as a result of capitalism in agriculture and also due to neoliberal “primitive accumulation”. Most dangerous is the faithlessness and weariness that this class of rural and urban proletarians displays towards the neoliberal euphoria – since it has already experienced more than 150 years of ups and downs of capitalist industrialisation, and its increasingly moribund nature. The Bengali political elites’ “doublespeak” vocalised by the CPIM is actually the reflection of the “Narodnik-like” character of the local bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, torn between the ecstatic possibility of their neoliberal integration, on the one hand, and the rising competition and class struggle, on the other. However, the ideology of homogeneous Bengali interests, along with the “communist” organisations and pretensions come handy in controlling these volatile segments, at least temporarily. It is interesting to note, how the CPIM leadership evades recognising the class character of “land reforms”, “impressive agricultural growth” and industrialisation as far as possible in its discourse, while overstressing their virtues. It is similar to the discursive habits of the Russian liberals – “distraught Narodniks”, which Lenin thus noted, while criticising “Mr L.”:

“Depicting the beneficent effect of the French Revolution on the French peasantry, Mr. L. speaks glowingly of the disappearance of famines and the improvement and progress of agriculture; but about the fact that this was bourgeois progress, based on the formation of a “stable” class of agricultural wage-labourers and on chronic pauperism of the mass of the lower strata of the peasantry, this Narodnik-like bourgeois, of course, says never a word.”(16)

4. Conclusion

When enthusiasm for neoliberal industrialisation is not well received, as a last resort in defence of the neoliberal policies in West Bengal, ‘vanguards’ like Prakash Karat and his associates have a ready apologia that “in a constitutional set-up that is not federal in nature”, the left government policies “would always be circumscribed by the fact that State power vests with the centre while state governments have very limited powers and resources.” (It does not matter that the CPIM’s other leader, Benoy Konar, talks of the same constraints by admitting West Bengal as “a federal state in a capitalist feudal country.”)

It is tempting to interpret this demand for more federalism in India as representative of “the demand made in certain circles that local self-governing institutions should also be given the autonomy to borrow and to negotiate investment projects with capitalists, including multinational banks and corporations”, as Prabhat Patnaik, a foremost Indian political economist, known for his allegiance to the CPIM and who has been lately appointed as Kerala’s State Planning Board Vice-Chairman, puts it. He continues, “this will further increase the mismatch in bargaining strength between the capitalists and the state organ engaged in negotiating with them, and will further intensify the competitive struggle among the aspirants for investment… This can have only one possible result which is to raise the scale of social ‘bribes’ for capitalists’ investment. This increase in the scale of social “bribes” is an important feature of neo-liberalism.”(17)

Particularly relevant in this regard are the CPIM leadership’s and the West Bengal government’s statements on Singur, in which they consistently fetishise the Left Front’s ability to win away the Tata project from a poorer state of Uttarakhand – an example of its competency in ‘social bribery’! Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya again and again with all his frankness defended his Singur sale to Tata – “We showed them various sites, but they settled for Singur. We could not say no to such a project, otherwise it would have gone to Uttarakhand.”(18)

This is symptomatic of the extent to which the official Indian left has re-trained itself in the competitive culture of neoliberal industrialisation. Of course, it does not have any parliamentary stake in Uttarakhand. Or does the party leadership want to entice the Uttarakhand people to choose CPIM, for its efficiency in negotiating or ‘bribing’ for neoliberal projects? It is obvious that in order to remain the sole contender of the nationalising and globalising interests of the West Bengal hegemonic classes, the CPIM leadership has been giving vent to Bengali parochialism of the local “Narodnik-like bourgeoisie”.


(1) V.I. Lenin, The Narodnik-Like Bourgeoisie and Distraught Narodism, 1903.

(2) V.I. Lenin, The Trade Unions. The Present Situation and Trotsky’s Mistakes, 1920.

(3) Benoy Konar, Left Front Govt And Bengal’s Industrialisation, People’s Democracy, October 08, 2006.

(4) See Dipankar Basu, Political Economy of ‘Middleness’: Behind Violence in Rural Bengal, Economic & Political Weekly, April 21, 2001.

(5) P Sundarayya, Central Committee Resolution on Certain Agrarian Issues and An Explanatory Note, CPIM Publications, 1973.

(6) Ibid.

(7) All India Kisan Council, Resolution: Unite To Fight And Defeat All Moves To Stop The Industrialisation Of West Bengal, People’s Democracy, January 14 2007.

(8) Prakash Karat, “Double-Speak” Charge: Maligning The CPI(M), People’s Democracy, January 28 2007.

(9) Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute, Verso, 2000, p.63.

(10) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Circular Letter to August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Wilhelm Bracke and Others, 1879.

(11) Benoy Konar, West Bengal: Rationale For Industrialisation, People’s Democracy, November 06, 2005.

(12) The Hindu November 16, 2005.

(13) See (8)

(14) V.I. Lenin, The Proletariat and the Peasantry, 1905.

(15) See (1)

(16) Ibid.

(17) Prabhat Patnaik, An Aspect of Neoliberalism, People’s Democracy, December 24, 2006.

(18) Frontline, Jan. 27-Feb. 09, 2007.


Written by Pratyush Chandra

February 20, 2007 at 12:24 am

Neoliberalism and Primitive Accumulation in India

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The need to go beyond capital

Pratyush Chandra & Dipankar Basu
Radical Notes

Recent events in Singur – a town which is less than 40 kms away from Kolkata (Calcutta), where the West Bengal government is struggling to acquire and sell 1000 acres of agricultural land to Tata Motors – indicate the extent to which capitalist-parliamentarianism can regiment a counter-hegemonic force once it agrees to play by the rules. At the least, it clearly shows that the Communist government, which boasts of being the longest-running democratically elected Marxist government in the world, is hopelessly caught in the neoliberal project. And Singur is not an isolated event. In the state of West Bengal alone, the process of state-led land grab and the resultant opposition is already gaining momentum in at least three different locations: (a) in Kharagpur, West Medinipur district, where vast tracts of multi-crop farmland is being taken over for yet another Tata vehicle factory; (b) in Nandigram, East Medinipur district, where a chemical industries hub is proposed to be set up by the Salim group on a 10,000-acre area; and (c) in North Bengal where a Videocon Special Economic Zone (SEZ) is proposed to come up in the near future.

Nor is this story limited to West Bengal. Throughout India, resources are being acquired for Special Economic Zones and numerous other industrial schemes meant to facilitate corporate capital expansion. Since laws permitting this acquisitions were passed an year ago, state governments have notified 267 SEZs, which will require more than a half million hectares of land. Of this, the state has already acquired 137,000 hectares for 67 SEZs while another 80 have `in principle’ been approved.(1) The Government has converted the erstwhile Export Processing Zones located at Kandla and Surat (Gujarat), Cochin (Kerala), Santa Cruz (Mumbai-Maharashtra), Falta (West Bengal), Madras (Tamil Nadu), Visakhapatnam (Andhra Pradesh) and Noida (Uttar Pradesh) into SEZs. In addition, 3 new Special Economic Zones that had been approved for establishment at Indore (Madhya Pradesh), Manikanchan (Salt Lake, Kolkata) and Jaipur have since commenced operations.

In this backdrop, the West Bengal government’s adamant attitude towards land acquisition, despite the popular unrest, shows that the Indian State and its agencies, irrespective of their ideological masks, are working relentlessly to provide the private sector with “an internationally competitive and hassle free environment”. In this note, we wish to conceptualise this political economic process, identifying its different facets and understanding their interlinkages. It is our contention that using the recently re-interpreted Marxist concept of “primitive accumulation” can provide crucial insights in this regard. We wish to demonstrate that current developments in India can be fruitfully understood by employing the notion of primitive accumulation, understood as a constitutive primitive of capitalism, the process which continuously creates and consolidates the capital-relation. Adopting this new perspective might also help in redefining the agenda of struggles and counter-hegemonic politics in the neoliberal context.

Primitive Accumulation: Two Interpretations

As is well known, Marx had brought up the concept of primitive accumulation to try to understand the historical origins of capitalism. It is generally accepted by economic historians that in pre-capitalist modes of production the primary producers (majority of whom were peasants) had ownership of the means of production, most crucial among them being land. If we agree that capitalism is distinguished from these other modes of production by the relationship of a class of propertyless labourers (who have nothing to sell but their labour power) and a class of propertied capitalists (the owners of the means of production) mediated through the market (2), then the following question naturally arises: how did we arrive at the class of propertyless labourers from a class of producers who had the ownership (or at least the right of usage) of the means of production? It is this historical question that Marx sought to answer with the concept of “primitive accumulation”.

In a sense, the answer is already contained in the question. Primitive accumulation is the process by which the producer is divorced from her/his means of production. Since, moreover, land is the primary means of production in pre-capitalist societies, the main focus of primitive accumulation was to separate peasants from the land. While the gradual penetration of market relations had a role to play in this, outright use of force was far more important, and in a sense the key. Only by evicting peasants from their lands and disrupting their livelihood could the development of markets in free labour and land be ensured; and only this could provide the firm basis for the emergence and consolidation of the capital-relation:

“The capital-relation presupposes a complete separation between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realization of their labor. As soon as capitalist production stands on its own feet, it not only maintains this separation, but reproduces it on a constantly extending scale. The process, therefore, which creates the capital-relation, can be nothing other than the process which divorces the worker from the ownership of the conditions of his own labor; it is a process which operates two transformations, whereby the social means of subsistence and production are turned into capital, and the immediate producers are turned into wage-laborers. So-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as ‘primitive’ because it forms the pre-history of capital, and of the mode of production corresponding to capital.”(3)

It is worth recalling that Marx studied the “enclosure movement” in Britain within this overall perspective. One crucial aspect of primitive accumulation should be noted immediately: it effects a redistribution and transfer of claims to already existing assets and resources, rather than creating any new assets. In this sense, it is an accumulation of intangible rights and not the accumulation of tangible assets or goods. This aspect of primitive accumulation is important for our purposes because the current frenzy of state-assisted acquisition of land and other resources in India is precisely a process whereby rights of access and usage of already existing resources are being redistributed and transferred.

The last decade has witnessed a resurgence of debate around attempts to re-interpret the concept of primitive accumulation.(4) This debate has indicated that there are two distinct but related interpretations of primitive accumulation, one which stresses the temporal aspect and the other which stresses the constitutive or originary aspect. For the first, more traditional, interpretation the primitiveness of primitive accumulation is understood in a purely temporal sense. Primitive accumulation is seen as the historical phase which created the preconditions for the development of capitalism by forcing the separation of workers and means of production. The second interpretation notes that there is both a temporal and a continuity argument in Marx’s account of primitive accumulation. For this interpretation, therefore, the primitiveness of “primitive accumulation” does not arise simply from its location in historical time, relevant only as the initial stage of capitalism; rather, it is the constitutive primitive of the capitalist system, a process that is essential for perpetuating its fundamental class structure – the separation between producers and means of production.

If primitive accumulation is constitutive, then it must arise as a continuous process within capitalism viewed as a global system. Expanded reproduction of the system requires reproduction of the capital-relation at every moment; separation of workers and means of production must be maintained continuously. In its day-to-day functioning, a mature capitalist economy enforces this separation through the market, i.e., by economic means; but at the boundaries (both internal and external), where capitalism encounters other modes of production, property and social relations attuned to those modes and also to the earlier stages of capitalism, other ways of subsistence, primitive accumulation comes into play. More often than not, direct use of force is necessary to effect the separation at the boundaries. And since capitalism, as a global system, continuously encounters other modes of production along with the simultaneity of diverse stages of capitalism in various localities, the constitutive role of primitive accumulation is always in demand. One can probably go so far as to assert that capital accumulation is the extension of primitive accumulation, enforced through the market. In fact, in Volume 3 of Capital, Marx himself calls the concentration and centralisation of capital, which occur during the course of market-induced capital accumulation, as “simply the divorce of the conditions of labour from the producers [which occurs through primitive accumulation] raised to a higher power”(5).

But this does not mean that the two are identical. In fact two differences are especially important to grasp for the development of our overall argument:

(a) “[W]hile accumulation relies primarily on “the silent compulsion of economic relations [which] sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker,” in the case of primitive accumulation the separation is imposed primarily through “[d]irect extra-economic force” (Marx 1867: 899-900), such as the state (Marx 1867: 900), particular sections of social classes (Marx 1867: 879), etc. We can say therefore that primitive accumulation for Marx is a social process instigated by some social actor (the state, particular social classes, etc.) aimed at the people who have some form of direct access to the means of production. This social process often takes the form of a strategy that aims to separate them from the means of production.”(6)

(b) “As opposed to accumulation proper, what may be called primitive accumulation… is the historical basis, instead of the historical result, of specifically capitalist production’ (Marx 1867: 775). While sharing the same principle – separation – the two concepts point at two different conditions of existence. The latter implies the ex novo production of the separation, while the former implies the reproduction – on a greater scale – of the same separation.”(7)

Keeping these differences are important because one comes to the rescue of the other when market processes falter. Since capital accumulation operates through the market, the services of primitive accumulation are required almost by definition when the market is in crisis. During crucial phases of capitalist crisis, primitive accumulation emerges to help transcend barriers to accumulation in two ways: (a) by facilitating the transition from the critically fated regime to a new regime of accumulation, and (b) by continuously negotiating the spatial expansion (both internal and external) of capitalism. During periods of transition and expansion, “new enclosures” are required for putting the normal course of capitalist reproduction back on track. Securing these enclosures through force and other “direct extra-economic means” is the function of primitive accumulation. This re-definition allows us to grasp the function of the State and its continuous politico-legal activism in every stage of capitalism.

The present neoliberal phase can probably be understood fruitfully from this perspective. Despite the talk of separating the political from the economic, which is a staple rhetoric of the current phase, it is the state as the instrument of politico-legal repression that facilitates neoliberal expansion. Firstly, the state intervenes with all its might to secure control over resources – both natural and human (“new enclosures”) – and secondly, to ensure the non-transgression of the political into the economic, which essentially signifies discounting the politics of labour and the dispossessed from affecting the political economy. David Harvey notes that, “The main substantive achievement of neoliberalization… has been to redistribute, rather than to generate, wealth and income”; the main mechanisms for achieving this is referred to by Harvey as “accumulation by dispossession”, by which he means,

“… the continuation and proliferation of accumulation practices which Marx had treated of as ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ during the rise of capitalism. These include the commodification and privatisation of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations…; conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights…; suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neo-colonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade (which continues particularly in the sex industry); and usury, the national debt and, most devastating of all, the use of the credit system as a radical means of accumulation by dispossession. The state, with its monopoly of violence and definitions of legality, plays a crucial role in both backing and promoting these processes.”(8)

Harvey identifies four main features of “accumulation by dispossession”: privatisation, commodification, financialization and the management-manipulation of assets, each feeding on the other, supported by the other and gaining strength from the other. The neoliberal resurgence since the mid-1970s can be understood as capital’s counter-revolutionary response to the crisis that enwrapped “embedded liberalism” internationally in the late-1960s, with “signs of a serious crisis of capital accumulation…everywhere apparent. Unemployment and inflation were both surging everywhere, ushering in a global phase of ‘stagflation’ that lasted throughout much of the 1970s.”(9)

The Politics of Primitive Accumulation in India

What is going on in India today can be understood by employing the concept of primitive accumulation (as understood in the second interpretation) in almost all of the above senses: separating primary producers from land; privatisation of the “public”, conversion of common property resources into marketable commodities, destroying non-market ways of living, etc. To our mind, each of the instances of “displacement” or state-led “land grab” are willy-nilly feeding into the overall process of primitive accumulation in India by divorcing primary producers from the land or restricting direct access to other common property resources like forest, lakes, river, etc. A question crops up immediately. Being a labour-surplus economy, does India need to generate additional labourers, which is an obvious result of primitive accumulation, before absorbing what is already available? Certainly not, if we think from the perspective of labour. But the answer changes if we see the whole process from the perspective of capital. Fresh entrants into the already burgeoning ranks of the proletariat will increase the relative surplus population – floating, latent and stagnant – depressing real wages and thereby increasing the rates of profits on each unit of invested capital. Moreover, one of the major features of the neoliberal regime of accumulation has been the incessant `informalisation’ of the labour process, and further growth of the relative surplus population makes late-capitalist countries like India finely attuned to this. As Jan Breman notes:

“Mobilization of casual labour, hired and fired according to the needs of the moment, and transported for the duration of the job to destinations far distant from the home village, is characteristic of the capitalist regime presently dominating in South Asia.”(10)

Separation of producers from their means of production and subsistence, especially land and other natural resources, also creates markets for these resources; and thus comes into being the various agencies that thrive through hucksterage in these markets. These intermediaries play the crucial role of facilitating and normalising the process of primitive accumulation. Examples abound: Trinamool Congress goons, grassroots-level CPI(M) leadership, local middle classes like school teachers, lawyers, and other similar forces in the Singur case; state-traders, local elites-supported Salwa Judum in Chhatisgarh.

The major target of land acquisition in India today is in areas where either peasant movements have achieved some partial success in dealing with capitalist exploitation and expropriation or areas largely inhabited by the indigenous population whose expropriation could not be increasingly intensified because of the welfarist tenor of the pre-liberalisation regime. West Bengal is the prime example of the former, where Left Front rule congealed due to its constituents’ involvement in the popular movements. Now, the movements’ institutionalisation and incorporation of the leadership into the state apparatus is facilitating the present-day resurgence of primitive accumulation. Examples of the second kind of area could be parts of Chhatisgrah, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh, which the corporate sector is eyeing for mining activities and for setting up steel plants.

As an instructive example, if nothing else, let us see how displacement in Singur will affect the various class forces on the ground. While the state apparatuses are trying to secure resources for corporate capital, sections of the local elite, including the well-off farmers led by the mainstream non-left political parties – like the Congress and Trinamool (TMC) – have joined the movement against land acquisition essentially to obtain various kinds of concessions, a higher price for giving up the land to the State and perhaps also for increasing the land price for their future real estate speculation around the upcoming industrial belt. For example, “a TMC leader and ex-pradhan of one of the gram panchayats was initially with the movement, but finally gave away his land. Many of the landed gentry, some of them absentee, who own bigger portions of land, depend on ‘kishans’ (i e, hired labours, bargadars, etc) for cultivation of their lands. They principally depend on business or service and have come forward to part with their land in lieu of cash.”(11) In case the government talks to the protesters and gives larger concessions, it is these sections that will benefit the most.

The people who are really the backbone of the movement in Singur are the landless working class and poor peasantry. According to a recent report, “many agricultural workers and marginal peasants will lose their land and livelihoods. Though the State Government has decided to compensate the landowners, no policy has been taken for the landless agricultural workers, unrecorded bargadars and other rural households who are indirectly dependent for their livelihood on land and agricultural activities.”(12) The region is also inhabited by the poor who “frequent the nearby town, being employed in factories, shops and small businesses. Some of the youth have migrated to cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, working there principally as goldsmiths or construction workers. There were several cases of reverse migration when people came back to their village after the closing down of the industries where they were working or finding it more profitable to work on the land than to work in petty industries or businesses, drawing a paltry sum in lieu of hard labour.”(13) For this population as also for the landless workers and marginal peasants, the Singur struggles are existential ones.

As an example of the second kind of land acquisition, we can turn our attention to Chhatisgarh. A report on recent developments in Chhatisgarh notes that, in India,

“[t]ribal lands are the most sought after resources now. Whether it is in Orissa or Chhattisgarh or Andhra Pradesh, if there is a patch of tribal land there is an attempt to acquire it. It is no geographical coincidence that tribal lands are forested, rich with mineral resources (80 per cent of India’s minerals and 70 per cent of forests are within tribal areas) and also the site of a sizeable slice of industrial growth. The tribal districts of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Maharashtra are the destination of us $85 billion of promised investments, mostly in steel and iron plants, and mining projects. Ironically, these lucrative resources are of no benefit to the local people: an estimate of 10 Naxal-affected states shows that they contribute 51.6 per cent of India’s GDP and have 58 per cent of the population. As with Chhatisgarh, all these states have a strong Naxal presence and are witness to movements against land acquisition. The state governments say these protests are Naxal-inspired. Local people say, however, that all they are trying to do is protect their land, forests and livelihood.”(14)

Here the State’s mode of facilitating primitive accumulation is by raising mercenaries, the Salwa Judum. This extra-legal use of force is supported by the traditional exploiters of the indigenous population – traders, usurers, civil servants and tribal neo-elites, who have functioned as intermediaries in the regime of commerce-based surplus extraction. On the one hand, absence of any recognised land rights of tribal communities, has allowed the State to use principles of terra nullius and eminent domain to expropriate them. On the other, these communities have continued to exist in defiance of all these legalities. However, with the recent intensification of efforts to secure resources for corporate profiteering, along with the continued presence of primitive extractive modes of exploitation, these communities have been left with no real choices but to arm themselves for securing their unrecognised rights. Hence,

“Most tribal people living in forests are officially ‘encroachers’. They live under the constant threat of being alienated from their land and livelihood. While the government completely failed to reach out to them, the Naxals succeeded in connecting to sections of the people. They spread to the state’s 11 districts (200 districts in the country). Unable to contain them, government supported the creation of a civilian militia – Salwa Judum”.(15)

Besides these widely discussed cases of recent land acquisition and displacement, there have been numerous conflicts around the rights over water resources over the years. In almost all such cases, the state has come forth as being hell bent upon the construction of big dams and other hydroelectric projects despite all evidence of the net negative marginal costs of these projects. During the past two decades, Narmada Bachao Andolan has been a prominent force constantly exposing the anti-people, anti-environment character of these projects. Even in the Himalayan region of Uttaranchal (site of the legendary Chipko Andolan), riverbeds and surrounding lands have been ‘enclosed’ for private capital to be used for power generation and lucrative tourism projects. In fact, recent politics in this region cannot be fully understood without understanding the conflicts around these enclosures. Closer to urban India has been the neoliberal systematisation of commercial and financial centres, the `clearing’ of slums, in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, which have naturally been the hotbed of the politics of and against “new enclosures”.

Understanding all these diverse processes in the framework of primitive accumulation has several strategic implications. Perhaps, most urgently, this can provide a unified framework to locate the numerous struggles going on in the country right from the `new’ social movements, like landless workers movements, Narmada Bachao Andolan and other local mobilisations of ‘development-victims’, to anti-privatisation movements of public sector workers, all the way to the revolutionary movements led by the Maoists. This unified framework can then possibly facilitate dialogue among these movements, something that is more than essential at this juncture if the movement of labour against capital is to be strengthened.

A Future Beyond Capital

Using this framework will also mean re-evaluating many of the theoretical positions that are currently in use. For example, it will be necessary to rethink the classical communist position that characterises the Indian state as semi-feudal and semi-colonial, and thereby sees the struggle of the peasantry as being directed primarily against feudal oppression. It is possible that the inherent limitations of this ideological framework disallow revolutionaries and other radicals to formulate effective strategies against the whole system, a system that preserves various vestigial forms to facilitate accumulation but is not defined by them. Thus, movements struggling against different forms of these vestiges are easily localised, regionalised, marginalized, dispersed, and even utilised in the intra-ruling class competition and conflicts. The state of the official Indian left is illustrative in this regard. It, too, stresses on the presence of “vestiges” and the insufficiency of development, but then turns around and justifies its accommodation in the neoliberal capitalist project as a fight against these vestiges!

Despite the apparent popularity of the new movements of Latin America among the official Left in India, their attachment to a schematic notion of national capitalist development retains all its strength. The devastating consequence, of course, is the deferral of the revolutionary moment till that development is attained; in reality, this amounts to postponing the revolutionary moment beyond the horizon of all concrete possibilities. Surely, this is not simply an ideological problem coming from a faulty understanding of the dynamics of capitalism or socialism. It is a consequence of the official left leadership’s accommodation in the capitalist-parliamentary framework, an accommodation moreover that forces them to participate in the competitive race for representation. In the pursuit of presenting itself as the legitimate representative of the “plurality of opinions”, which parliamentary politics poses against the notion of class struggle, the left reproduces this plurality within itself, along with its built-in hierarchy. With partial successes in this exercise, representatives of the opinions that count, i.e., the hegemonic class interests, solidify themselves within the party structures. And it is this congealment within the Left Front in West Bengal that leads the “communists” to vocalise neoliberal myths of neutral industrial development, dubbing every protest against its policies as anti-developmental, backward and manipulative. Parallels with the neoliberal demonisation of the transgression of the political into the economic can hardly be missed. Echoing well-heeled mandarins in Delhi, the Left Front government regularly uses the classic threat of capital flight to regiment all protesting voices.

Without comprehending the function of vestiges of earlier modes of production within capitalism or the role of earlier stages of the capitalist mode of production in sustaining capital accumulation, any fundamental challenge to the hegemonic forces in a late capitalist society like India cannot be formulated. It can hardly be denied that, “we suffer not only from the development of capitalist production, but also the incompleteness of that development. Alongside the modern evils, we are oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded modes of production, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif [The dead man clutches onto the living]!”(16)

We will have to recognise the fact that during the stage of imperialism, and more so in the present postcolonial situation, “a high level of capitalist development no longer require[s] the elimination of the traditional class of ‘small producers'” and other pre-capitalist ‘remnants’.(17) Even in a country like Japan, “in which capitalist society developed only at the so-called finance-capitalist stage of world capitalism, a high level of capitalist development has not been incompatible… with the survival of the traditional class of ‘small producers’.”(18)

Indian capitalism, like Japanese, came into being in the stage of imperialism, when finance capital and inter-imperialist rivalries were already subjugating the whole world. Moreover, development under direct colonialism foisted some unique features on to the general characteristics of “late capitalism”. During the colonial period, “self”-expansion of Indian capital beyond the physical horizons of India was implausible because this would have required an Indian State committed to these interests. Colonialism ruled this out almost axiomatically. However, there were other channels available. The simultaneous existence of various socio-economic formations at diverse levels of Indian society allowed some possibility of ‘internal’ colonialism and “enclosures”, thus, providing the basis for capitalist expansion. Even after Independence, Indian capital relies heavily on the ‘diversity’ (or unevenness) of Indian economy and society for primitive accumulation and expansion. Additionally, ‘semi-feudal’ conditions at various locations within the country provide a vast reserve army of labour. The important characteristic of this insecure and docile population is that they can be pulled out of their original locations and thrown into the growing labour market without disturbing the essential fabric of society. In other words, pre-capitalist forms of exploitation provide vast and near permanent pools of cheap labour, which competes with the urban proletariat, thereby bringing the latter under political and economic control. Moreover, this seems (19) to resolve the “agrarian problem” of Indian capitalism, by ‘externalising’ rural and underdeveloped India from the “core” industrial islands. Concentrating capitalist agricultural development in particular locations of India (for example in West and North-west India), Indian capitalism could afford to under-develop other locations so that they could serve as “external markets” and as reserves of “footloose labour”.

Because unevenness is the essential feature of capitalist development, any mode of regulation, including neoliberal globalisation, has to negotiate with diverse stages of societal development. Hence local reactions against this new wave of capitalist consolidation and accumulation are bound to be diverse. The revolutionary vision consists in coordinating these diverse forces for building a formidable challenge to capitalism. Even the struggles against vestigial forms, if they have to be decisive, need to be recognised as contesting capitalist relations that sustain them and are articulated through them. In the Indian context, they are all struggles against a stuttering capitalism, against the inherent brutalities of primitive accumulation. We will have to realize that the movements are not about “saving” tribals/indigenous populations or their way of lives; the movement is a movement of labour against capital. Tribals, poor peasants, marginal peasants, landless labourers, informal sector workers, all these sub-classes are fighting against the tyranny of capital, against being fed – with their labour and resources – into the capitalist machinery. Obviously, in this fight against capital, we cannot cling on to any nostalgia for a pristine past, rather our vision must be directed towards the future, a future built on the transcendence of capital, a socialist future rooted in a participatory economy and polity. Only then can the vast majority suffering in the margins of capitalism and toiling under vestigial relations, can make a concerted, decisive effort to end the tyranny of capital.

Notes & References

(1) Prem Shankar Jha, Compensation not enough, Daily News & Analysis (October 2, 2006)

(2) Marx refers to this as the capital-relation.

(3) Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, Penguin Books (1976 [1867]), pp. 874-75

(4) See the contributions in The Commoner No 2. (September, 2001)

(5) Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 3, Penguin Books (1981 [1894]), pp. 354

(6) Massimo De Angelis, “Marx and primitive accumulation: The continuous character of capital’s “enclosures”, The Commoner No 2 (September, 2001)

(7) Ibid. (Note: ex novo is used in the sense of `original’ or `from the scratch’).

(8) David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford (2005), pp. 159

(9) Ibid, pp. 12

(10) Jan Breman, Footloose Labour: Working in India’s Informal Economy, Cambridge University Press (1996), pp. 23

(11) Parthasarthi Banerjee, “Land Acquisition and Peasant Resistance at Singur”, Economic & Political Weekly (November 18, 2006)

(12) Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity, “Terror Cannot Suppress Them: People’s Resistance to Forced Land Acquisition In Singur”, (December 6, 2006)

(13) Parthasarthi Banerjee, op cit

(14) “Anti-Naxal operations a cover for exploiting tribal people”, Down to Earth Vol 15 No 11 (October 18, 2006)

(15) Ibid.

(16) Karl Marx, “Preface to the First Edition”, Capital Vol 1, Penguin (1976 [1867]), pp.91

(17) Kozo Uno, Principles of Political Economy, Harvester Press (1980 [1964]), p.xxvii.

(18) Ibid, pp. 125

(19) Japanese Marxist Kozo Uno stressed that capitalism is incapable of solving the agrarian question. “We can say that it became clear on a world scale that the ability to solve the agrarian question would entail the ability to construct a new society to replace capitalism, and we may regard the League of Nations as having been one such attempt. The solution to this problem, of course, means no more than the external expression of the internal contradictions of capitalism, and cannot occur unless the issue of class relations is solved. In this sense, the failure of the League of Nations was only to be expected.” (Quoted in Andrew E Barshay, The Social Sciences in Modern Japan: The Marxian and Modernist Traditions, University of California Press (2004), pp.128)

Written by Pratyush Chandra

February 8, 2007 at 12:16 am

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