On the question of class mentality and politics

Considering the casual drafting of my last post, a comrade from Odisha, Satyabrata has rightly demanded a clarification. With his due permission I am quoting from his letter:

The difference between what you have called “existential mentality of any normal individual worker with or without a regular employment.” and the “peasant/petty bourgeois mentality of the left leadership and intellectuals that does not allow them to see such a simple fact” is not clear, since individual thinking capacities of the left leadership and intellectuals can also be seen in the same lines as the workers. That being the case, we would have a workers movement as ‘desired.’

When I say “existential mentality”, it is representative of a worker’s individual material need to reproduce labour – as himself and his family. One can reasonably ask what happens to double freedom that capitalism bestows on labour once a worker becomes propertied. But what does this freedom do? It creates an ever growing mass of surplus population from and to which workers are drawn and expelled. But this reserve must be sustained. In the West and other classical capitalist economies, this is generally accomplished by providing doles and other anti-poverty measures by the State. However, in the late capitalist economies where there is an excess of surplus “freed” population, the chattel must graze on its own. Effectively, the postmodern slaves are triply free – they are free to fend for themselves when nobody seeks their labour. Whether as genuinely unemployed, i.e., as floating surplus, or as petty commodity producer, i.e., as latent surplus, or, even as beggars, looters, shirkers and vagabonds, i.e., as lumpen proletarians, they must survive.

When we talk about the petty bourgeois/peasant mentality, it too represents survivalism – but of small and dwindling capital in the competitive race of capital accumulation. It seeks to overcome its pettiness against all other big and small capitalist interests. Therefore petty-bourgeois interests are difficult to combine, but when they do get represented, they feed the most reactionary politico-ideological position in bourgeois polity – that of anti-capitalist capitalism.

The leftist politics in India has emerged as united frontism – of combining petty bourgeois interests with the existential needs of the individuated sections of the working class. This unity results into a nationalist, anti-monopoly (now anti-corporate) politics. The working class consciousness acquired in the operation of capital-labour conflicts is effectively fragmented, class experience becomes sectional and is reduced to individuated narratives of victimisation and powerlessness, and workers are made one with the ideal of bourgeois political economy – of an average (petty) bourgeois citizen.

It is interesting to note that in Marx’ writings there is generally an anti-representationist conception of the working class, the only class capable of self-emancipation, and therefore of emancipating the humanity. On the other hand, the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry are “sacks of potatoes”, “incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name”‘ but whose “political influence…finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.”

Rabid statism and the bloody internecine competition to acquire the throne of the True Representative are the hallmarks of Bonapartism, be it of left or right varieties. They must reduce all the classes to a mere mass “formed by the simple addition of homonymous magnitude.” Of course, they can’t accomplish this in reality, and definitely not permanently, but it is possible to attain this at least in their own imagination, i.e., ideologically. In the imagination of the Left too, even the working class as a mass “cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above.” The Leninist leftists have forgotten even Lenin’s time to time recognition of continuous anti-statism as the constant of proletarian politics and revolution, even when in a particular context state power is thrust over the revolutionaries as a historical necessity.

Repeasantisation? Not at all!

Earlier, when a migrant came to a metro, earned money as a labourer, went back to his village and bought land there, he was assumed to be a pauperised peasant with a nostalgic urge. Some took him to be insufficiently proletarianised, not fully attuned to the urban life, and also living in illusions – fighting his present to remain in the past. I always had my doubts. My experience of working with many such migrants, both in Delhi and Odisha, shows that this tendency of investing back is actually an existential mentality of any normal individual worker with or without a regular employment. It is a way to invest their savings smartly. For precarious labourers, it is a way of surviving or reproducing themselves and their families in the absence of social security and regular employment.

It is the peasant/petty bourgeois mentality of the left leadership and intellectuals that does not allow them to see such a simple fact. However, I will refrain from saying that they are under any illusion. It is their class outlook that really determines the conclusions that they make.

Class Struggle, Development and Revolutionary Politics

1. What happened in China? Isn’t it capitalism that is being nurtured by the ‘Maoist’ party in China?

The course of development is determined by class struggle (at least the Chinese communists were emphatic about it, when they said that this class struggle goes on in their own ranks as well). The Chinese economy where it stands today too is not a result of any linear development; without deliberating on contradictions of the development process that revolutionary movements trigger, we generally tend to impute successes/failures of the revolutions or movements to the subjective choices of the leadership – their goodness and badness.

2. What is happening in Nepal? The Nepali Maoists are quite vocal about their aim to nurture capitalism in their country.

Even in the case of Nepal, we should try to understand the Maoists, by grounding their politics in the wider political economic processes which limit their ‘dream’ of an uninterrupted revolution, of ‘bypassing capitalism’. Their problem is at least partly our patriotism – like the anti-patriotic Zimmerwald Conference we should first of all decry and call for the defeat of the Indian state and capitalists who virtually hold half of the Nepali economy to ransom; then only can we see a proper anti-capitalist revolution emerging in landlocked Nepal. We should just go through news reports of the past five years, how threats from Indian capital and state (which Indians, including the leftists, generally understand as an expression of big brotherliness, rather than that of imperialism, because we ignore the economic basis of India-Nepal relationship) have regulated the Maoists’ radical initiatives.

3. What is the development strategy of the Maoists in India? Don’t they profess to compensate for lack of capitalism?

About our Maoists, I believe, our so-called movement people are waiting for their failure to be the proof of their wrong ideology, strategy, tactics or even ignorance about the development process. But that is not the way for the revolutionaries – they have to understand every struggle caught up in the particularisation of class struggle in various localities, first by affirming it to be part of the same movement. What will be the development strategy ultimately is determined by the articulation between various local (particular) struggles, and the class hegemony that directs that articulation.

4. How have non-Marxist socialists in India faired on this count?

The socialist movement (here I include many communist organisations too) in India today – because of their populist political base and vision (‘populism’ in a definite theoretical sense) is caught up in the cartesian binaries of big vs small, agriculture vs industry, village vs city, india vs bharat etc etc, in which the hierarchised composition – internal differentiation – of the preferred half (the ‘small’ or the agrarian community etc) are simply wished away, ultimately for the benefit of the well-to-do within this ‘small’/agrarian community (in practical terms increasing their bargaining power). (A parallel example in the urban areas could be the trade unionists protecting sectional interests or labour aristocracies by not taking account of labour segmentation). We have seen how socialists in rural areas have been reactive to any talk of class differentiation, and independent labour mobilisation, since they tend to divide, not unite the rural community.

5. But don’t you think every movement has to have a central focus that can broaden its base? A peasant movement will be homogeneous in this regard.

I think within the peasant movement, even before Independence, there were a few socialists who were quite clear about the complexity of the peasant question – how differentiation within peasantry determined the trajectory of even seemingly “homogenized” peasant struggles: to name some of them, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati (see his “Maharudra ka Mahatandav”) and Indulal Yagnik/Dinkar Mehta (in Gujarat) who understood the task of re-envisaging the rural struggles around rural labourers (which include those sections of the “landed” peasantry who simply reproduce their labour-power by engaging in farming). For a historical review of this aspect please read Jan Breman’s “Labour Bondage in West India”. The recent overstress on peasant homogeneity is phenomenon which is related with a definite rise of the kulak lobby (I am using this term in a purely objective sense).

6. At least the socialists have a clear vision about alternative development.

Yes, the socialists have a clearer vision about development alternatives, but much of that has to do with their dualistic conceptualisation; they can remain happy with utopian anti-capitalism, by choosing one pole in the binary. The problem with communists is that they try to develop a labour standpoint – and labour-capital relationship does not constitute a cartesian contradiction, they are opposites in a dialectical contradiction – “capital is labour”/”labour is capital”, as Braverman said, “working class is the animate part of capital”. The development strategy is constituted through this continuous contradiction, through a generalisation or a political systematisation of the alternatives emerging in the daily experiences of the working class. The question here is to go beyond capitalism, to overcome capital as accumulated labour dominating the living labour – to overcome the subsumption/ alienation/ accumulation of various forms of labour by capital (capitalism expands not just by wiping away the “vestigial” forms of production and exploitation, but also by resignifying them). We cannot have a predetermined development strategy in this struggle, except that which will sharpen the class struggle.

7. But class struggle between capital and labour too leaves aside many other conflicts.

Not exactly. The issue before us perhaps is to understand how ‘other’ struggles (struggle between classes, not just labor and capital but other classes also; struggle within classes; struggles against the State, caste and gender struggles) are related to capital-labour conflicts. Why cannot they be seen as particularisations of capital-labour conflict? Labour does not mean just wage labour. Labour-capital relationship resignify the whole stratification of the society, even castes and gender are posed as specifications of that relationship:

a) Ambedkar can be helpful in understanding the caste system in this regard, when he talked about caste as not just a division of labour, but a division of labourers. In this framework, anti-casteism becomes a working class struggle to create unity among labourers.

b) An Italian-American activist-scholar, Silvia Federici has succinctly put:
“If it is true that in capitalist society sexual identity became the carrier of specific work-functions, then gender should not be considered a purely cultural reality, but should be treated as a specification of class relations…In capitalist society “femininity” has been constituted as a work-function, masking the production of the work force under the cover of a biological destiny. If this is true then “women’s” history is “class history”.

8. So are you against community level struggles, as communities are generally composed of diverse class interests?

A “Community” is not simply an aggregation of horizontal interests; it arises out of an articulation (which includes hidden and open conflicts) between various levels of interests. Its critical edge is determined by the nature of interests that dominate that articulation. We are not even hostile towards the idea of rural community, but the point is to see how it is internally constituted, and which class interest dominates it.

(I thank comrades, interacting with whom I wrote much of the text.)