On the Labour Politics of ‘Immediate Effectiveness’

Interestingly, recent years have seen a tremendous increase in activism on pure workers’ issues. In fact, there is an euphoric gearing up towards unionism among NGOs and independent social activists. However, they continue to rail against the essentialism of the working class and politics associated with it, which in their perception excludes the politics of recognition of multiple identities. Their own justification with regard to this apparent self-contradiction is obviously that they are committed towards the cause of the vulnerable sections of the society, and there are workers who can be counted among these and hence their concern. I think this is a fair and valid self-assessment to the extent that politics over vulnerability cannot but view working class as a collection of workers hierarchised according to the degrees of vulnerability and privileges. Of course, segmentation within the working class is multidimensional, and interestingly, the assessment of vulnerability and privileges is subjective to what one wants to do with segments. Hence, what we find in this new unionism, if that is what they would like to dub their endeavours in order to differentiate themselves from more centralistic trade unionism linked with political parties, is a blatant confirmation of what unions have been reduced to in the phase of neoliberalism.


Centralised trade unions graduated as negotiating agencies under labour aristocracy in the age of Keynesianism and big government, justifying segmentation within the working class by simply avoiding it or at the most calling it a division of labour (not division of labourers). Their political tenor represented divisions and subdivisions within the hegemonic politics – right, left and centre. It was through them that labour politics was abstracted from the acts of labourers themselves, and the bureaucracy that emerged in this alienation reproduced ideologically the homogenised abstraction of labour, that capital undertakes for accumulation, in the labour movement – a mere, however, essential component in the process of capitalist accumulation. These unions negotiated from this position of abstracted essentiality, and sought to strengthen the caste-divided working class, a win-win situation for everyone, proportional advancement of all. The pyramidal industrial structure that defined Fordism was replicated in the union structure to facilitate negotiation and corporate integration. In this manner, the corporatist compromise that secured “trade union integration in the economy,” (Panitch 1977: 4) could sustain capitalism’s post-World War II golden age. It was this compromise that structured the public welfare system.

With the crisis in the 1960s-70s, a new industrial regime emerged on the basis of the geographical and technological advancement of capitalism (the emergence of newly industrialised countries and a revolution in electronics and information technology). It was characterised by lean production, financialisation and neoliberalism. It made the vertical and horizontal integration that constituted the industrial pyramid redundant. The centralised corporate structure of trade unions came into crisis with the proliferation of a flattened industrial hierarchy based on networking – outsourcing and offshoring. These trade unions had abstracted themselves from the specificities of segments while arranging them in a neat compartmentalised hierarchy. In the age of dispersed Fordism or post-Fordism, the specificities carved their own identity, segments as separate productive units negotiated – conflicted and compromised – daily to reaffirm the structural integration of spatially dispersed production through inter-and-intra-industrial exchange, which could now never be taken for granted.

Segments found themselves further segmented and in direct conflict with one another – we see discourses of formal/informal, organised/unorganised, individual contracts, contract/casual/permanent on rise that stressed on dualities, multiplicities and divisions everywhere, and these divisions found life of their own. The segments are further perpetuated and ossified through the legal mechanism and discourse. The changes that took place in the labour regime found their way in laws, where separate legal structures for specific groups of workers became the focus, akin to the initial phase of capitalism. Law always lags behind the actual changes, whose legitimacy law seeks. New initiatives in trade unions are products of these times and these discourses. Unions, new or old, continue to be agencies of negotiation for legal and institutional adjustments between groups of labourers and state – they straightjacket the acts of labourers in the form of demands formulated in the language that the latter understands. But the kind of recognition and redistribution these old and new unions help realise are apparently opposite.

New initiatives that emerged in the 1970s, at that time, represented a crisis of industrial unionism of the old type. We see the latter’s inability to cope with the technological changes and their redefinition of the workplace, and much celebrated “employee unionism” was more effective in this regard. But there was another aspect of the crisis – which could be understood through the emergence of the figure of the mass worker, the unskilled immigrant workforce that represented the generalisation of capital-relations throughout the society, that related every productive, distributive and reproductive domain to capital. Identitarian assertions and politics become most vigorous only when the sameness of all identities becomes most stark. Similarly, segmented labour struggles become most intense when segmentation itself is in crisis. De-skilling, same skilling and structural semblance of diverse work-processes across society have created a crisis for segmentation leading to a precarisation of workers throughout the social division of labour. This precarity has increased competition on identitarianised lines, with workers themselves trying to preserve and rationalise the logic of segmentation at the social and political levels. The NGOisation of unions and social unionism that have become fashionable terminologies in recent years are in fact articulation of this identitarianism in the labour movement. The talk of unity and alliance building in this age is of course unlike the old call for unity which represented colour blindness in the old labour movement. But it is exactly its opposite – a systemic blindness, it doesn’t see the underlying system in the discursive horizontalisation of hierarchy and its cacophony.


Scholars and activists have rightly pointed out the prime importance of articulations of the question of recognition in the centre of most of the struggles in recent years. If we see a hegemony of struggles framed in terms of the issues of distribution in the era of embedded liberalism and Fordism, it is not at all false to assert that the struggles under neoliberalism, including those concerned with distributive claims, mostly emerge as struggles for recognition. The proliferation of vocalised segments diminishes the possibility of universalist struggles, but it divides, subdivides and hence universalises evermore intensively the struggle for competitive recognition, which is frequently packaged as intersubjective negotiation, defining “the moral grammar of social conflicts”. However, in the transition from the moral to the legal grammar, all kinds of recognition issues necessarily get morphed into issues of redistribution. Hence, any dichotomisation of redistribution and recognition is actually false, but equally false is any monistic prioritisation of one of these immediate categories. These exercises are scholastic obfuscation of the task of critiquing and exposing the “spirit” or system that defines and binds moral to the legal, recognition to redistribution.

It is the distributive effects of the present system that overwhelms the vision of all varieties of unionism, even if they are articulated in the language of recognition. To the extent that their approach does not touch the systemic structure, where essence and appearance must be discriminated, however, internally-related, they tend to depoliticise the critique that could emerge from various movements and struggles. It is not that those who profess to uphold the notion of class politics are untouched by this approach. Those who prioritise class, but only as a more inclusive social identity or even meta-identity, too are mired in the same identitarianist sociological pigeon-holing that displays an inability to understand the meaning of class-as-process and class analysis. In other words, most of the time it is their adherence to redistributionism that reduces the richer structural and processual notion of class to a vulnerable identity competing with other identities to share the distributive pie. Thus, in appearance at least civil society eclecticism and intersectionalism seem much more inclusive, advanced and free of vanguardism than traditional classism that understands the working class as have-nots and as having “nothing to lose but chains” in a literal sense. While the former tends to base on the relativity of sectional claims in their own relative expressions, the latter focuses on the absoluteness of the proletarian identity in which it subsumes all sectional claims. But both understand social conflicts under capitalism in a redistributionist framework – as struggles over endowments and entitlements. Therefore, they fundamentally form one single horde of the left which helps maintain the political balance in the system, by reproducing in the labour movement the fetishistic divide between politics and economics that capitalism perpetuates generally. Redistributionism and new Chartism that have shaped both old and new forms of labour politics transcend everyday “economic” confrontation between labour and capital by the discourses of grievance and demand.

The distinction between affirmative and transformative redistribution that Nancy Fraser makes is definitely useful in order to describe the distinctive features of so-called new unionism and social unionism that claim to work at the intersection of recognition and redistribution, where segmental claims averaging themselves in negotiation becomes the ground for new social movements. Affirmative redistribution is achieved through two kinds of income transfers, “social insurance programmes” subsidising “the costs of social reproduction for the stably employed” and “public assistance programmes provide means-tested, ‘targeted’ aid to the ‘reserve army’ of the unemployed and underemployed.” Fraser (1997:25) rightly points out:

“Far from abolishing class differentiation per se, these affirmative remedies support it and shape it. Their general effect is to shift attention from the class division between workers and capitalists to the division between employed and nonemployed fractions of the working class. Public assistance programs ‘target’ the poor, not only for aid but for hostility. Such remedies, to be sure, provide needed material aid. But they also create strongly cathected, antagonistic group differentiations.”

To this we must add that in a society like India where we already have various levels of social differentiations inherited through history, affirmative redistribution tends to incorporate them to internally structure the “reserve army” and the working class in general, creating levels of segmented consciousness unknown to the western societies. On the other hand, transformative redistribution, Fraser claims, is revolutionary if properly adjusted with the questions of recognition.

“Transformative remedies typically combine universalist social-welfare programs, steeply progressive taxation, macroeconomic policies aimed at creating full employment, a large nonmarket public sector, significant public and/or collective ownership, and democratic decision making about basic socioeconomic priorities. They try to assure access to employment for all, while also tending to delink basic consumption shares from employment. Hence, their tendency is to undermine class differentiation. Transformative remedies reduce social inequality without, however, creating stigmatized classes of vulnerable people perceived as beneficiaries of special largesse. They tend therefore to promote reciprocity and solidarity in the relations of recognition.” (25-26)

If we don’t assign too much value to the epithet “transformative”, this is a correct characterisation of the policy measures that the old left and the marginalised non-neoliberalist labour organisations propose. For Fraser, these remedies are associated with the struggles for socialism, and that is why they are transformative. We know in this regard Fraser is not alone. Without indulging in the tempting exercise of defining socialism, we would limit ourselves to say that these remedies remind us of the Keynesian faith too. These remedies do constitute a policy perspective that definitely questions market fundamentalism and neoliberalism, but history confirms it is not at all anti-capitalist. And we have seen the revival of this perspective once again with the crises in this century, however, in a very diluted fashion.


In India, there has been a continuous attempt since the late 1970s to attack or “reform” labour laws to free the labour market, to empower companies so that they are able to take advantage of abundant supply in the labour market. But simultaneously, there has been a trend to legislate labour laws, especially after the 1990s, that target special segments of the workforce – “the poorest of the poor”. However, these laws do not touch industrial relations in which these segments engage, except in circumstances where those “industries” themselves are stigma or hindrance to capital mobility, such as, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. Otherwise, these laws concentrate mainly on providing remedies and relief to cushion the existence of specific segments of workers in the labour market. It is not accidental that even the government prefers to pose these laws as welfare laws rather than industrial laws. Prominent among these laws are the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 and the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008 along with other supporting laws and rules that provide relevant infrastructure for their implementation.

As indicated earlier, legal changes are basically stabilisation, systematisation and institutionalisation of the circumstantial changes that have already taken place. So the laws mentioned above definitely provide hitherto unavailable reliefs for specific segments of workers, but the nature and mode of these reliefs are based on the already institutionalised consensus and are grounded in the larger structural framework of neoliberalism. This consensus does not include just those who openly support neoliberalism, and those who politically compete to mobilise and structure social anxieties that the structural changes unleashed. It includes those who vocalise their politics of labour and recognition from the margins of the protective regime that was being toppled, who voice the diversity that the elite but homogenous protectionist and developmentalist paradigm excluded. But more interestingly, the consensus includes those too who defend the old regime. As they seek to guard themselves against the taunt of being privileged and aristocratic, they pose the issues of systemic inequality and differential endowments. In order to present protection as a necessary socio-legal principle, they type segments according to relative degrees of precariousness and their wont of protection. Even radicals, who still sustain their romance for transformation, line up themselves in the spectacular competition of mobilising anxieties, are employed to measure the depth of social vulnerability and its perniciousness. Guy Debord rightly describes such a situation in his classic, Society of the Spectacle (1967):

“By rushing into sordid reformist compromises or pseudo-revolutionary col­lective actions, those driven by an abstract desire for imme­diate effectiveness are in reality obeying the ruling laws of thought, adopting a perspective that can see nothing but the latest news. In this way delirium reappears in the camp that claims to be opposing it.”

Redistributionism by itself cannot provide a transformative programme that goes beyond capitalism, but it can definitely help transform capitalism, provided capitalism itself requires such transformation. Redistributive claims can also sharpen the labour-capital conflict, but only if they do not depoliticise the economy of conflict by limiting and instrumentalising it within the logic of state formation and policy-making which is essentially the institutionalisation of the fetishistic separation between politics and economy that happens in capitalism. They must not reproduce this separation.

Affirmative redistributionism is admittedly an extension of the neoliberal project seeking to individuate and designate segments, thus making them incapable of asking any systemic question. In other words, it openly seeks to depoliticise economy and sustains this separation. On the other hand, so-called transformative redistributionism professes to invert this relationship, by recognising the deficiencies of market and hence, the need for intervention. But here too the fetish of separation is admitted and therefore, the logic of state formation is not exposed, how it is itself grounded in capital relations.

The labour politics that dominated during the phase of embedded liberalism and Fordism sought to abstract itself from the concreteness of labour-capital relations. Thus, it built a phantom figure of the worker and negotiated its place within the system. In the phase of neoliberalism and dispersed Fordism, labour-capital relations exploded in open, and the phantom evaporated. What was exposed was heterogeneous forms of relations, and the politics of labour that emerged negotiated from the ground of separation – with the state and also with other segments. The sense of the system of which they were internal was lost, and the only sense that prevailed was distance from the system – which was experienced only in terms of the pain of social exclusion and the gain of inclusion. Moishe Postone (2009) succinctly summarises:

“In an earlier global transition of capitalism, Marxists frequently opposed general rational planning to the anarchic irrationality of the market. Instead of necessarily pointing beyond capitalism, however, such critiques frequently helped legitimate a subsequent state-centric capitalism. Similarly, the contemporary hypostatization of difference, heterogeneity, and hybridity, doesn’t necessarily point beyond capitalism, but can serve to veil and legitimate a new global form that combines decentralization and heterogeneity of production and consumption with increasing centralization of control and underlying homogeneity.”


The politics of workers’ inquiry is to explode the myth of separation. It demonstrates the internal relationships between abstract and concrete labour, between politics and economy. It exposes how these relations have a fetish-character that generates fetishism of separation. It demonstrates how various specific expressions within the labour movement are manifestations of and intrinsic to this separation and do not and cannot comprehend and question the very ground of their generation. Various organisational and political forms are unable to think in-against-and-beyond capital relations. The redistributionist framework which we discussed earlier informs these forms which forces them to comprehend and tinker only with the symptoms of the system.

On the other hand, workers’ inquiry as political practice is both affirmative and negative. it regrounds what exists in the flux of becoming. What exists becomes relevant and irrelevant at the same time. Historicising of political forms that are expressions of workers’ self-organisation and activism – this is what workers’ inquiry does. It registers the changing contours of class struggle through self-reflections of various segments of workers. And here the importance of objectivity comes, as these subjective expressions must be objectively handled, not celebrated nor denigrated. It is important to measure the heat of class relations, which these expressions reflect. Workers’ inquiry critiques the material process of abstraction not from the margins of the system, but from its very core by mapping its coordinates in the daily work-processes. The political forms of understanding and activity that constitute workers’ inquiry are really the “old moles” that destroy while they master the laying out of the system – their critiques do not form spectacles, as they “know how to wait.”



Guy Debord (1967 trans. Ken Knab), Society of the Spectacle, Rebel Press.

Nancy Fraser (1997) Justice Interruptus, Routledge.

Axel Honneth (1995) The Struggle for Recognition, MIT Press.

Leo Panitch (1976) Social Democracy and Industrial Militancy, Cambridge University Press.

Moishe Postone (2009) History and Heteronomy, University of Tokyo Centre of Philosophy.


Proletarian class determination: epistemology or ontology?

“Class determination of knowledge means that we do not know whether determination actually takes place in reality as the proletariat depicts it, since this class only knows reality through that facet of the prism corresponding to its collocation in the social structure. In a sense, therefore, the proletariat imposes its view of reality upon this latter so that determination is first of all an epistemological concept rather than an ontological one. This, however, calls for neither idealism nor absolute relativism since, from the point of view of the proletariat, its view does come from (is determined by) concrete reality and has inherent in itself the possibility of knowing reality correctly, as shown by verification. In short, the point of view of the proletariat is that each class secretes its own knowledge (class determined relativism of knowledge) and that within this view only the proletariat has the possibility of gaining a correct knowledge of all (and not only some) aspects of reality because of this class’s position in the societal labour process (class determined supersession of knowledge’s relativism).

“We do not claim that the proletariat depicts real processes as they take place in reality (reflection). But we do claim that this class’s view has the objectively determined possibility of being correct, to find a ‘match’ with the reality it depicts. It is in this sense that determination can be referred to as an epistemological calling into existence. And, it is in this sense that our view differs from the ‘reflection’ theory and can be called non-reflective realism: knowledge is not determined simply by material transformation, but by this transformation immersed in specific social contexts, that is, by the real concrete.”
–Guglielmo Carchedi, ‘Problems in Class Analysis: Production, knowledge, and the function of capital

To be read, in my view, as a crucial theoretical explication of Lenin’s axiom of truth being partisan, and Marx’s Eleventh thesis on Feurbach. Particularly the latter, on account of it being much abused as a shibboleth by vulgar ‘Marxian’-pragmatists. Justice can be done to Marx’s privileging of changing the world over interpreting it only if one grasps this affirmation of world-change rigorously in terms of Marx and Engels’ concept of “the real movement” and Marx’s conception of “practical materialism” that he derives through his critique of Feurbach’s “contemplative materialism” in The German Ideology and Theses on Feurbach. Thus Marx’s critique of interpretation, which is basically a critique of materialism articulated in contemplative terms, is not only a rejection of the primacy of contemplation but is also, by the same token, a severe criticism of decisionist pragmatism, which is contemplation reconstituted at the practical level of abstraction. Clearly, Marx’s privileging of world-change over world-interpretation is a dialectical critique of contemplation by having the modality of contemplation brush itself against its own grain. A theoretical, and philosophical, move that does not abandon knowledge and epistemology but radically alters their conception and status. And in this regard, Althusser’s explication of “overdetermination” and “epistemological void” (in ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’) and his conception of “limit-form” (in ‘Marxism is Not a Historicism’), together with Badiou’s concepts of “metaontology” (in Being and Event) and “politics-as-its-own-thought” (in Metapolitics) are also indispensable.

Academia as a production system

Courtesy: Eugene C. Bell, “A College of Business Administration as a Production System,” ACAD MANAGE J June 1, 1974 17:2 306-317

academic table

Is the banking sector in India robust enough?

Throughout the difficult times of the ongoing economic crisis, Indian policy makers were talking about the robust banking sector that sustained the economy. Pranab Mukherjee when he was the Finance Minister used to boast about “a robust banking sector working under an efficient regulatory framework”, which other economies affected by the crisis didn’t have. But the scene doesn’t seem to be so good with “Rising bad debt hit[ting] PSU banks’ health”, on the one hand and financial sharks calling for trade in debts, on the other…

The Times of India reports today:

For several quarters analysts and bankers have warned about the deteriorating financial health of state-run banks. But policymakers have maintained that the worst was over, and that things would improve as the economy gathers steam. Drastic measures to nurse the banks to sound health are rarely talked about and the preference is for short-term steps to paper over the wounds.

“Indian banks are unlikely to reduce their problem loan ratios in 2015-16 but the new non-performing loans will probably decline,” Moody’s Investors Service said, based on findings of a poll.

For the banking sector as a whole the NPA situation is as bad as it was more than a decade ago when some radical steps – from one-time settlement to setting up asset reconstruction companies – were initiated. The global economic boom and the rapid growth in India too helped banks clean up their books. The economic slowdown and the failure of several projects to take off have once again hurt the asset quality in banks. The problem is more acute in public sector banks as they had to lend to companies and restructure loans after the 2008 financial crisis when the private sector virtually walked out of the market.

The rising levels of NPAs and capital constraints, along with low demand for loans, have forced these lenders to be very selecting in lending, something that may not augur very well for overall economic growth. “Public sector banks are facing multiple challenges. They have asset quality issues, require huge amount of capital and there are management issues. The huge recapitalization requirement has led to risk aversion and they are not growing their balance sheet significantly. Going forward we expect them to lose business because of this,” said an analyst at a leading brokerage.

Although bankers would tell you that they don’t have to deal with calls from the finance ministry any longer, the pressure of lending to various target groups and pushing government schemes is enormous. And, they have limited operational freedom. For instance, in April, HDFC Bank sold its loans of Rs 550 crore extended to Essar Steel at a 40% discount, something that an executive at a state-run bank can’t even think about. “The moment we do something there will be a CBI enquiry or a vigilance case,” said a banker.

Lilliputian Leninism: A Progeric Disorder

About a year back, we had written an editorial for Radical Notes about workers’ struggle in Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant. And other videos and commentaries were posted too, which critically analysed the dominant perception among pro-worker forces regarding the pre-and-post July 18 struggle of Maruti workers. A comrade associated with Bigul Mazdoor Dasta came heavily against our position, and wrote a 7500-word essay to rebut the dangerous anti-“Leninist” strand that seemed to emerge from our position. To demonstrate the need to combat “new philosophers”, he found anarcho-virus, that we were carrying, in other organisations and groups too, so presumably he saw some kind of ‘anarchist’/’libertarian’ consolidation (alas!) happening in India. The urgency of the polemic is furthermore emphasised by the conclusion that he makes:

All the energies of the revolutionary intelligentsia today must be directed towards building … a revolutionary party. Lest, the moment of Socialism will pass, the “new philosophers” will continue to remain prisoners of their seductive philosophical ruminations, and our punishment will be fascism.

What is most interesting about this piece is the ability of the author to spend so many words to assert one single point – that the “new philosophers” in their fling with Maruti workers are rejecting the role of the vanguard (and thus, Leninism), and how could they? And he is forcing his readers to refer to wikipedia back and forth, to know the influence of real devils behind such rejection – Rosa Luxemburg, Tronti, Negri, Holloway, Castoriadis, Operaismo, Autonome, Johnson-Forrest Tendency… Oh, I forgot to add, Paul Mattick and Pannekoek. Tch…I missed two more, Badiou and Zizek. This new trend that he finds is “a childish mixture” of all these and has eventually congealed into “one single tendency of anti-party revolutionism”. For the convenience of his readers (and to demonstrate that The Vanguard is already aware of all of them), he has put them in bold black letters. We are really grateful to him for providing us a reading list that will help us in understanding and articulating our own position well.


Well, comrade, we don’t reject the vanguards (anyway, do we really need to do that, and more importantly, who are we to do that?), we are simply saying that they must cease to behave like competing Lilliputians – daring to bind and pull the working class in spite of their own progressively constipated constitution, and doing all sorts of gymnastics to draw its attention towards them.

Gulliver and Lilliput Warriors Gulliver and Lilliput Warriors

In your passion to exorcise the devils, you have forgotten that Lenin had spells and counter-spells too, depending on his immediate polemical and rhetorical needs. Some of these devils have understood that aspect of Lenin better than the Lilliputian Leninists. Let me start with an example that uses the words that you abhor:

“…it is a fact that the spontaneous awakening of the masses of the workers … has been taking place with astonishing rapidity during the past few years. The “material elements” of the movement have grown enormously…, but the conscious leaders … lag behind this growth.” (Lenin, “A talk with Defenders of Economism”, 1901, emphases added)

That great and very creative exponent of Leninism, whom we all admire, too has something for a devilish use. He has time and again warned against the Leninist tendency of making the party-form and vanguardism into “an immutable fetish”.

“For it is of the essence of history always to create the new, which cannot be forecast by any infallible theory. It is through struggle that the new element must be recognized and consciously brought to light from its first embryonic appearance. In no sense is it the party’s role to impose any kind of abstract, cleverly devised tactics upon the masses. On the contrary, it must continuously learn from their struggle and their conduct of it. But it must remain active while it learns, preparing the next revolutionary undertaking. It must unite the spontaneous discoveries of the masses, which originate in their correct class instincts, with the totality of the revolutionary struggle, and bring them to consciousness. In Marx’s words, it must explain their own actions to the masses, so as not only to preserve the continuity of the proletariat’s revolutionary experiences, but also consciously and actively to contribute to their further development. The party organization must adapt itself to become an instrument both of this totality and of the actions which result from it. If it fails to do this it will sabotage developments which it has not understood and therefore not mastered. Therefore, all dogmatism in theory and all sclerosis in organization are disastrous for the party. For as Lenin said: ‘Every new form of struggle which brings new perils and sacrifices inevitably “disorganizes” an organization ill-prepared for the new form of struggle. It is the party’s task to pursue its necessary path openly and consciously – above all in relation to itself – so that it may transform itself before the danger of disorganization becomes acute, and by this transformation promote the transformation and advance of the masses.’” (Lukacs, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought, 1924)

We are simply pleading, nothing more and nothing less, that workers can and do discover something new through their class instincts, in both political and organisational terms. For both Lenin and Lukacs, more urgent was the “party’s” task of recognising the new, bringing it to light and preparing itself for “new perils and sacrifices”, so that it catches up with and does not “lag behind” the growth of the “material elements of the movement.”


We do understand Lenin’s conjunctural compulsion to use Kautsky’s quote in What is to be done? about the relevance of bourgeois intellectuals to point out that workers need to educate themselves, to understand capitalism and capitalist strategies, to understand their own potentiality, and not just react to their immediate experience (in fact, grasping the richness of this experience requires a science). But we are suspicious of the use of Kautsky’s quote by Lilliputian leftists to defend their own bourgeois outsidedness and the practice of sermonising the proletarians – reducing their experience to subalternity and confusing this revolutionary class to another sack of potatoes aggregated externally and waiting for deliverance. In fact, Lenin’s footnote to Kautsky’s quote transforms the recognition of the “outside” into the Brechtian process of distanciation whereby the revolutionary class can comprehend the capitalist totality and critique its everyday life that would help it in designing its self-activities beyond the evolutionary guerrilla battles – and in the process create its own theoreticians – Weitlings and Proudhons. As Lukacs says, “‘from the outside’, that is, theoretically” – that’s all.

Lenin makes himself furthermore clear, when he says (in the footnote that the Vanguard seemed to have memorised, without understanding its real import):

it is necessary that the workers do not confine themselves to the artificially restricted limits of “literature for workers” but that they learn to an increasing degree to master general literature. It would be even truer to say “are not confined”, instead of “do not confine themselves”, because the workers themselves wish to read and do read all that is written for the intelligentsia, and only a few (bad) intellectuals believe that it is enough “for workers” to be told a few things about factory conditions and to have repeated to them over and over again what has long been known.” (emphasis added)

Yes, we are stressing exactly the same – instead of going on telling the workers that they “do not confine themselves” (and since we are your “outside”, we will tell you what to do), we have been telling our vanguards that the workers “are not confined”, and they must not dare to confine them to their consciousness-raising sermons and “cleverly designed tactics”.


The other related charge that our vanguard makes on us is that of celebrating spontaneity. We do agree with him that celebrating spontaneity is really bad, but we must add, denigrating it is worse. Celebration is bad because it reduces spontaneity to pristine purity and subalternity, making it incomprehensible, aborting the pregnant possibilities and squeezing away the radical political vigour inherent in it– its anti-systemic contentiousness. But its denigration is fascistic – since it takes away the agency of the working class and puts it in the hands of a few “comedians of the vanguard party”, as CLR James used to characterise his erstwhile Trotskyist comrades. In fact, celebration and denigration go together in fascism – it is like a bandar-madari game – the instinct of the monkeys and the duce‘s manipulation.

The issue for us is to understand spontaneity and its richness, its potentialities. They are, in the words of (y)our Lenin, the “material elements”. However, there is no pure spontaneity. In fact, as Gramsci would say, such spontaneity “does not exist in history”, and the difference between the spontaneous and the conscious “is a ‘quantitative’ difference of degree, not one of quality.” The recognition of spontaneity helps us in understanding the movement – its historical necessity. This recognition shields us against its disparagement as a cooked-up venture and against the charge of voluntarism, and establishes the matter-of-factness of the revolutionism of the working class.


Lenin very aptly described word-chasing “comedians” in his own party (60-70% of the Bolsheviks).

“Comedians! They chase words, without thinking about how devilishly complicated and subtle life is, producing entirely new forms, which we only partly “catch on” to. People for the most part (99 per cent of the bourgeoisie, 98 per cent of the liquidators, about 60–70 per cent of the Bolsheviks) don’t know how to think, they only learn words by heart. They’ve learnt the word “underground”. Firmly. They can repeat it. They know it by heart. But how to change its forms in a new situation, how to learn and think anew for this purpose, this we do not understand.” (Lenin to Inessa Armand, 1913)

The same has happened with “vanguard”, “party”, “outside”, “spontaneity” etc., whose particular meanings or forms were removed from the contextual and conceptual matrices in which Lenin used them, and were then essentialised. Our neo-“Bolsheviks” have learnt them firmly, and keep on repeating them, without understanding that these words or concepts are pregnant with meanings or forms which could help in developing a language of revolutionary praxis in the changing dynamics of class struggle. They have reduced Leninism to a language which is a mere routinised expression of their organisational existentialism. It has become a vehicle to justify their own bureaucratic congealment – existential outsidedness, voluntarist symbolism and competitive sectarian stinginess.

However, Marx has already given us a mechanism to measure the worth of Lilliputian acrobatic contests vis-a-vis “the real workers’ movement”.

“The development of the system of Socialist sects and that of the real workers’ movement always stand in inverse ratio to each other. So long as the sects are (historically) justified, the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historic movement. As soon as it has attained this maturity all sects are essentially reactionary. Nevertheless what history has shown everywhere was repeated within the International. The antiquated makes an attempt to re-establish and maintain itself within the newly achieved form.” (Marx to Friedrich Bolte in New York, 1871)

Our “vanguards” should do some reality check, whether they are already in Marx’s list of “the antiquated”. It might be that they suffer from premature senility or some variety of progeria – hence, when they compare themselves with others, they find the world full of childishness and infantile disorder.    

Notes on the Organisational Question

This note was prepared for a workshop of workers’ organisations in Orissa (June 26 – 28, 2013)

1. Meaning of संगठन or organisation. When we talk about workers’ organisation what does it mean? It essentially means workers coming together against capital. But this togetherness is always in making, in the everydayness of workers’ lives. This संगठन or organisation can only be recognised, and strengthened or weakened, they can’t be formed in the sense that our Lilliputian vanguards generally mean – as if they are “mighty to save” and workers are waiting for deliverance by their hands.

2. When we take labour-capital relationship as forming the basis of the present socio-economic formation, it is essential to understand that this relationship is nothing but conflictual, where the victory of capital signifies the continuation of this asymmetric relationship, while the victory of labour or proletarians would signify the collapse of this relationship – and thus the negation of the class system itself. Once we understand this, we can easily comprehend the permanence of this conflict under capitalism – absolute is its existence, relative is its rhythm. The success and failure of the two ‘parties’ depend on which party is more organised – united and able to comprehend and check the designs of the other. However, in the case of workers, unity must not be understood as any aggregation of demands and interests (एकता ), as neo-Chartists envisage, rather it should be seen as how much different sections of the class relate with one another in their self-activities and in their struggle against capital (तारतम्यता/तालमेल).

3. Hence, the inversion of the politico-organisational formula that is traditionally posed.

a) Classically, issues/agenda <=> organisation => struggle; under this framework issues are recognised and posed, organisations are developed to suit the agenda and then struggles are waged. It is the model based on the manufacturing of organisations as apparatuses to organise and wage struggles. Even when self-activity is recognised in this framework, as spontaneity etc, the task highlighted is to (counter)hegemonise it so that it links with the agenda of the organisation;

b) The perspective that we defend is – Struggle…Organisation… Issues/agenda; here struggle itself is an organisation, whose “agenda” is evident in its very nature – a continuation or end of the class system. Here, the short-term agenda (Marx’s “guerrilla fights”) is to intensify the struggle or conflict.

Under a), a delivery system has to be developed – demands are what workers/people help in constructing, and an efficient organisation is that which is able to read, aggregate and average those demands and negotiate for them.

Under a) the elements of the chain are discrete, and it finishes with the struggle. Then a new segment starts. The continuity of organisation only shows that an apparatus or a machine has been objectified and is flexible – then garbage in and garbage out. Of course, this machine has to be maintained, oiled and put to use. On the other hand, an inseparation of the organisation and struggle, and its perpetuity under b) liberates the organisational question from formalism, grounds it in the dynamic of the conflict itself. Forms are formed and dissolved in the struggle itself.

4. Under b) the role of organisers is not diminished, but becomes crucial. Their integration in class struggle and organisation allocates them the role of net-workers – connectors between the diverse locations of class struggle – the role of the messenger. Of course, they are refused the role of a herdsman. A ‘Leninist’ lesson in this regard is crucial – they must become Jambavanta (जाम्बवंत) to Hanuman (हनुमान), but if they try to drag him by the tail – their Swarna-Lankas (स्वर्ण लंका) will be reduced to ashes.

Greenpeace and Finance Capital’s change of heart

Greenpeace finds the financial sector particularly (among the “for-profit sectors”) very sensitive to its concerns. And they pat themselves for gathering in insurance companies and banks to support their cause. In fact, it all depends on how you talk to these people – these moneywallahs. Mind your language, they will come with you:

“Greenpeace framed discussions about global climate change as a hard-headed matter of risk management rather than only as a soft-hearted matter of protecting fragile ecospheres. With this approach it succeeded in attracting the banking and insurance industry to participate in the negotiations….”

“As Paul Hohnen argues in his case study, Greenpeace was able to achieve a coup in international climate change negotiations by engaging private insurance companies and motivating them to speak out.”

“By bringing in the insurance industry, Greenpeace was able to tip the balance of power within the negotiations by exploiting intrasectoral differences between the fossil fuels industry and the insurance industry.”

For details, browse the following:


“Guerrilla engagements on cultural questions”

Whatever EP Thompson says in the inaugural issue of NLR in his response to Alasdair MacIntyre’s “reproof to the New Left” is quite fair, especially:

1. Any serious engagement in cultural or political life should not dissipate, but generate, socialist energy. Because:

2. We do not have one “basic antagonism” at the place of work, and a series of remoter, more muffled antagonisms in the social or ideological “superstructure”, which are in some way less “real”. We have a class-divided society, in which conflicts of interest, and conflicts between capitalist and socialist ideas, values, and institutions take place all along the line. They take place in the health service and in the common room, and even—on rare occasions—on the television screen or in Parliament, as well as on the shop floor.

However, if we understand “basic” (as essent-ial) in a logical sense then the danger of which MacIntyre talks about lingers prominently even today (perhaps more prominently, with overproduction in the virtual free market of ideas) as in the 1950s-60s:

“The danger is that one will fight a series of guerrilla engagements on cultural questions which will dissipate socialist energy and lead nowhere. What one hopes is that opening up these questions will lead one to see the basic antagonism in our society at the point of production.”

India’s overseas investments – some facts and meaning

This is a draft report that I submitted to an organisation early last year on the need to develop a labour perspective on India’s rising overseas investment in other developing economies. The report mainly analyses investments in Africa (esp Kenya and Sudan). It’s nothing great, but at least it grasps the urgency of developing such a perspective. It urges us to move beyond postcolonial anxiety and complexes in our understanding of India’s political economic location in global capitalism. At least, people in our neighbourhood and in economies far off, where Indian intervention has reached and increased, are beginning to understand the myth of third world homogeneity. See our interview with a prominent Bangladeshi Marxist, Anu Muhammad.

Download the report

For my earlier take on the issue,
Bush’s Passage to India: Why Does India Carry His Water? (Counterpunch, Feb 2006)

Marx, Ambedkar and Indian villages

I used to wonder whether there can be a common explanation for one of the varieties of post-Independence Indian Socialists’ discomfort towards both Marx and Ambedkar (obviously to be politically correct, they have to keep mum on the latter, diverting all their anger towards Marx). I think there is one commonality between them that seem to disturb our champions of village democracy and rural communitarianism – Marx’s and Ambedkar’s powerful indictment of the Indian village system.

While Marx can easily be accused of orientalism for saying the following:

“we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies… We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman [Hanuman], the monkey, and Sabhala, the cow.”

What accusation can be hurled upon Ambedkar, a sufferer himself?

“It is said that the new Constitution should have been drafted on the ancient Hindu model of a State and that instead of incorporating Western theories the new Constitution should have been raised and built upon village Panchayats and District Panchayats. There are others who have taken a more extreme view. They do not want any Central or Provincial Governments. They just want India to contain so many village Governments.

“I hold that these village republics have been the ruination of India. I am therefore surprised that those who condemn Provincialism and communalism should come forward as champions of the village. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism? I am glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.”