Human beings, or rather, their dominant economic-industrial systems have started to change the earth in major ways, leading many observers and thinkers to accept that we are into the new age of “Anthropocene” – a new chapter in the ongoing “Holocene”, or a time when human society is the most dominant influence on what happens on the earth’s surface and even in the water of the Oceans. Over the last four and half decades, the world community of nations were forced to repeatedly take stock of the deteriorating state of the Earth’s natural systems, often called the eco-system(s). Starting from the 1972 Stockholm conference, this ‘environmental’ concern has taken on some importance even as a global political action agenda, from being a “mere environmental issue”. Twenty years later, one of the biggest gatherings of world leaders on issues related to progress of the human race without endangering its future survival (and that of the rest the so called first Earth Summit, was held in 1992, and the increasingly critical nature of the multiple degradations were recognized. This recognition gave rise to a slew of “global compacts”, mainly the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
The Earth Summit was also soon after the global capitalist euphoria of the successful dismantling of the Soviet Union, or as claimed – realization of ‘the end of history’. After another decade, the world again gathered at Johannesburg in 2002, to take stock of how far we have travelled on that road, but the assessment was rather disappointing. The Johannesburg summit came at a time when even the ‘practitioners of the alternative’ succumbed to the ‘shock & awe’ of the western capitalist juggernaut. From now on, no more social-cultural experiments or alternatives need be attempted by humanity ! From now on, the western model of privatized, corporatized ‘liberal democracy’ will deliver all the results, for everyone ! Another decade was about to pass, but the 1992 Earth Summit’s reasonably worked out Agenda 21, even the half-hearted Millennium Development Goals – all seemed to be getting lost in the din of unbridled market capitalism and the panacea offered by liberalization-privatization-globalization.
The human-planet has changed considerably since that first Earth Summit in 1992, and in not so hidden corners of the world – distress and anger at the killing exploitations and mind boggling disparities have grown to become a perceived threat the established world order. It was not only the “environment” that was gasping for breath. The economically and socially poorer sections of humanity also were getting the hard end of the stick in ever increasing manner. The gains of improved labour conditions in industries were being neutralized – often reversed – by increasingly exploitative “out-sourcing” accompanied by informalization of labour, and by the law-bending increase of “special Economic Zones” in many developing countries. The world has changed somewhat again, and in not so hidden corners of the world – distress and anger at the killing-exploitations and mind boggling disparities have grown to become a perceived threat to the established world order. After the 2007-08 economic meltdown, millions of people even in the developed world are now questioning many of these magic mantras. The unquestioning acceptance of the private corporations, and their intentions and abilities to deliver capitalistic growth oriented ‘development’, is no longer wide-spread. No one could possibly have foreseen the spread of the Occupy movement in the heartland of capitalism, though the real picture & driving force of the so-called ‘Arab spring’ is not yet clear. The shining attraction of the Euro-zone has faded considerably. And the accelerated exploitation and marginalization of large sections of humanity – the indigenous, the disadvantaged women & children, the poor of the world, has given birth to innumerable resistance movements across the world, to some extent obliterating the North-South divide for the short-charged people. Unlike at any point of time in the past, the survival of deprived people is seen by the global society, as intricately connected to the survival of the earth’s eco-systems. This has also brought into focus the age-old understanding in indigenous societies – that of Rights & Needs of Mother Earth, into global recognition.
As the world accepts today, the capacities of the vital systems of the earth are now critically endangered by human production-consumption-waste generation activities in this endless-growth oriented consumerist world. The water cycle in many parts of the world are stressed to provide sufficient fresh water as we are consuming and polluting at a rate much higher than the natural regeneration rate, the carbon cycle is unable to absorb even 40% of all anthropogenic (human origin) carbon dioxide emissions to keep the climate stable, the rate of extinction of biological species has gone up nearly 100 times the natural background species extinction rate – threatening global biodiversity which is vital for our survival. The phosphorus and Nitrogen cycles are near breaking points. That most vital life-nurturer - the Oceans are getting dangerously acidic and polluted….. The Nine Planetary boundaries (figure below) are at different stages of disintegration, all because the high consumption human societies won’t limit either their resource consumption or the resulting pollution of air, water and soil. Only in the case of Stratospheric Ozone Depletion, we seem to have taken strong enough action (through the implementation of the Montreal Protocol, by phasing out Ozone Depleting Substances) to stop the degradation and start the slow process of recovery of the life-shielding ‘ozone layer’.
F1 :Planetary boundaries being pushed to the limits – Stockholm Resilience Centre.
The composite index of Ecological Footprint (originating from the work of William Rees and his research student Mathis Wackernagel, in 1990-1994) – meaning how much area on the earth, land wilderness and ocean - we as human society need to provide for all our current ‘resource’ consumption and to recycle all our wastes, has been calculated to be over 1.7 times the entire area of the Earth, including Oceans (calculated by The Global Footprint Network)! That means, we are consuming not only more than what the entire earth generates every year, but also eating up those ecological support systems which functions as these regenerators, roughly like spending from the bank fixed deposits rather than from the interest (only in this case, the ‘bank’ is mother earth, and many of us will die if her life-support erodes significantly). There was a study done last year (2015) which showed that by August 2014, we humans had consumed the entire primary provisions and regeneration done by the entire earth for the full year of 2014, and for the rest of the four months – the Earth was being literally eaten away by us. This scale of consumption and waste generation by only one species, us the Homo sapiens, is clearly not sustainable by any means. And there are numerous other life forms (over 1.9 million other known species, and possibly another 6-8 million still unknown) that also depend and have a right to these resources generated by mother Earth, and are now greatly stressed as a result of our overconsumption and waste-borne pollution.
Water :Even amongst the human species, there are hugely discriminatory deprivations and stresses. We all agree that fresh water is one of the most essential life support need, and yet – well over 300 crore people (out of the 720 crore global population) are water stressed for a fair part of the year. Recent research shows that over 50 crore people live in areas where the annual renewable water availability is less than half the water they consume. The figure below (from greenfieldgeography.wikispaces.com)clearly shows that a large part of the world’s people live in either water stressed or water scarce areas, and most of these are in the poorer ‘southern’ countries. And even where there water is available, many poorer people are/ will be facing water stress because of commodification and privatization of water and their inability to pay the ‘price’ that the market demands (economic scarcity).
F2 : Well over three-fourths of world population will be water stressed by 2025.
Clean Air : None of us can live without enough oxygen-rich clean air, yet the global industrial production system is dumping so much toxic pollutants in our common atmosphere that an estimated 55 lakh people died of air pollution in 2013 (Global Burden of Diseases study), and about 10 times that number suffering health problems due to polluted air.
F 3 : Air pollution impacts a huge no of people
Food is the most vital energy source for all life, and yet, nearly 100 crore people in the world sleep hungry every night, slowly wasting away their capacities to work, to create a better world. These include many small farmers who produce the food in the first place ! Right levels of nutrition during childhood is a key for human development, and yet nearly 45% of Indian children under the age of six are malnourished, a percentage figure higher than desperately poor sub-Saharan Africa !The map below (from risk analysis firm Maplecroft) shows again that it is mostly people in the poorer countries who face the highest food security risks.
F 4 : People of poorer countries faces by far the highest food security risks.
Unsustainable and Unequal Ecological Footprint : In trying to analyse the root causes of these massive problems creating an unsustainable world, many western scholars and institutions, even many in the developing world – have pointed to the rising population as a primary driver. While there is a relation between more people and more demands of resources and more waste generation, it is not a linear relation, and population (no of people) is not the primary contributor to this unsustainable consumption and pollution, it is the Lifestyle consumption of the rich which is to blame. Take Ecological Footprint (EFP) as the all encompassing index – the 31 crore Americans (310 million US residents) have a collective EFP of about 254 crore Global Hectares (GHa - the standard measure of EFP), while the 127 crore Indians together had an EFP of about 125 crore global hectares, or half of a country with one-fourth the people ! In other words, an average American consumes vital resources, pollutes and destroys nature roughly at the rate of eight (8) times an average Indian. While an average American had 8 GHa of EFP, the equitable global availability was about 1.8 GHa per person. Clearly it is not the ‘blame-it-for-everything’ population, but consumptive lifestyle of the rich that is at fault. Even in a ‘clean country’ like Canada, the average resident has an EFP seven times of an average Indian.
Land :Talking about land, land based agriculture is still the mainstay of a majority of rural people in poorer countries, with the world rural population still at 46%, and south-Asia having 67% of its people living in villages. For about 65% of south-Asian people, farming is the primary livelihood source, but the availability of arable land (in hectares per person) has gone down sharply over the last 55 years, and is projected to decrease even further (graph below from FAO 2009)– showing their increasing marginalization compared to better off urban people. This become more acute when we consider that in the richer OECD countries, less than 20% of the population lives in villages, with less than half that depending on agriculture for livelihoods. This decline is not only for a population increase, but also because of large scale farm land grab in the name of mining, industrialisation, dams, urbanization etc. Even in India, agricultural income has sharply declined from over 25% of national GDP in early 1990s to about 14% now, while the number of people dependent on agricultural livelihoods is about 56%.
F 5 : Agricultural land availability sharply declines in per person term.
If we think of water, while an average American consumes over 1620 cubic meters of this life giving ‘resource’, countries like Syria, Sudan, Somalia and several others in Africa faces huge conflicts largely due to lack of water, at less than 600-800 Cubic meters per person per year (the UN defines water scarcity at below 1000 CuM/yr per capita). Again it is not the population figure, but the lifestyle consumption which is driving the water unsustainability. Since 1950, the world population doubled, but the water use more than tripled, largely due to lifestyle consumption.
Energy : If we look at the primary driver of world economy and the largest source of world pollution, energy – and look at the past century (1901-2000), the population increased by a little less than four (4) times, while the energy consumption increased by over 22 times (with its attendant pollution) ! Energy extraction, conversion, transmission and use have a dual impact – it is both an essential enabler for basic human development – putting the deprived at a disadvantage, while having large adverse impacts on both ecology and society. As the figure below shows, the hugely skewed energy consumption figures in favour of the rich countries is putting the poorer communities to face both sharp ends of this sword – deprivation and pollution.
F6 :Per person energy consumption/availability between countries vary over 50 times !
Life-style :If we consider life-style food consumption patterns, the large meat consumption of US and Latin American (also African) people (in per capita per year basis), at 70-90 Kgs, cause a huge strain on water resources on countries rearing those meat-providing animals, as one-Kilogram of chicken needs over 3500 Kgs of water in comparison to about 1000 Kgs for one Kg of wheat, and roughly 500-700 Kg water for one Kg of vegetable. For Beef, the requirement is anywhere between 11000 to 13000 Kgs per Kg of meat ! And with increasing wealth, meat consumption is increasing in countries like India too. Lifestyles again to blame.and if we are at all serious about sustaining the earth’s life support systems for our future generations, we must drastically reduce the global consumption and waste generation, with a measure of equitable access to earth’s resources ensured.
Livelihoods :This high-consumption, earth-destroying lifestyles are also causing another huge unsustainability, that of destroying low-impact, sustainable livelihoods that a majority of developing country people practiced for decades and centuries. About 56% of India’s 127 crore people are still dependent on farming livelihoods, with about 60% of these based on rain-fed agriculture. More frequent climate change induced stresses (increasing because of consumption led greenhouse gas emissions) and global-warming driven hydro-meteorological disasters (like increasingly frequent droughts and floods) are causing huge losses to many of these farmers, often leading to large scale farmer suicides. There are about 1.1 crore coastal fisher people in India, with a reasonably well off and least-polluting economic activity, which also provides a large source of protein to many. The ever-increasing demand/ consumption for/of electricity is leading to large no of coastal coal power plants being established in India, and their massive toxic discharges have turned many fish-rich coastal belts into low-life watery deserts, rendering once thriving livelihoods of these fisher people into highly uncertain income generating option. Another classic example of how high consumption lifestyles are destroying thriving, sustainable livelihoods.
Climate Change &Disasters : This is an overarching issue, with its impacts felt in many areas of human enterprise. There are two kinds of major direct impacts of the global-warming driven climate change –a) extreme events like tropical cyclones, extreme rainfall events, massive droughts, polar ice-shelf breakups, heavy flooding etc, and b) slow onset events like loss of crop production due to higher prevailing temperature, reduction of water resources as less precipitation becomes common, forests becoming less productive due to temperature-humidity regime, increase of pests etc. The first category has received some media and public attention due to the immediately visible sufferings of large number of people, but the second category of impacts might be more damaging in the long run.
There is third category on adverse impacts, indirect ones – that of the damages caused by the false solutions to tackle climate change floated by global businesses and often supported by governments. The massive displacements and loss of farm lands, forests, homes etc. due to dams have recently been justified by claiming that hydro-electricity is a “low-carbon clean energy”, which is not true. Nuclear power is being pushed again with the same logic of “low-carbon energy”. Indigenous and traditional forest dwellers rights are being encroached upon /curtailed in the name of protecting and enhancing forests as carbon sinks. Millions of hectares of forests – where many communities were living for generations, have been cleared for commercial plantations to produce ethanol and bio-diesel, as “green-fuels”.
Climate Change is such a large and interconnected area, that it will need a separate paper just to introduce all the essential elements, so that will have to wait for another occasion (interested readers can also refer to several books written or majorly contributed to by this author, including the – “Climate Change and India : Political Economy and Impacts”, published by Daanish Books with Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung). Here let me conclude by just giving an idea of how severe the problem of climate induced disasters are becoming. In the early seventies, roughly 1400 people in every 100,000 used to get affected by climate extreme events each year, By the year 2011, that figure has risen to around 3600, or an increase to over 250%. Not all “natural” disasters are climate change driven (like earthquakes are not), but a look at the graph from UN International Strategy for Disaster reduction (F7 below) clearly shows that the largest numbers and the fastest rising types of disasters are those that are called Hydro-Meteorological, and these are climate driven, like big floods and strong storms, with extreme temperature events (severe heat waves – like large parts of India is facing now in April 2016)) also showing significant rising trend.
F7 : Number of Climate Change driven hydro-meteorological disasters rising fast.
A study by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) released in Oct.2012, has reached this conclusion – “Over the past two years, 700 natural disasters were registered worldwide affecting more than 450 million (45 crore) people. Damages have risen from an estimated $20 billion (Rs.124000 crore) on average per year in the 1990s to about $100 billion (Rs.660000 crore – this is an amount roughly equalling 70% of the entire revenue collection by the Govt of India in 2013) per year during 2000–10. This upward trend is expected to continue as a result of the rising concentration of people living in areas more exposed to natural disasters, and climate change.”
Sustainable Developmentdebates : a very brief introduction : It is now crystal clear that if we are at all serious about sustaining the earth’s life support systems for our future generations, we must drastically reduce the global consumption and waste generation, with a measure of equitable access to earth’s resources ensured – not only amongst this single dominant species and in this generation, but ensuring inter-generational and inter-species equity. Facing and recognizing these massive degradations of the earth’s ecosystems and in the lives of its less advantaged people, the world community of governments were forced to look into the questions of sustainability and equity, and took some steps.
The global debate about sustainable development is many decades old but got into the political centre-stage only with the 1972 Stockholm conference on Environment and Development. The landmark report – “the Limits to Growth”, released in 1972 by the global think-tank ‘The Club of Rome’, raised important issues about the blind pursuit of economic growth and its effects on the sustainability of the earth’s life-support system itself. The debate progressed and became better defined through the establishment by the UN of the World Commission on Environment & Development in 1983, the publication in 1987 of the ‘Brundtland Report’ (‘Report of the World Commission on Environment andDevelopment: Our Common Future’) and then the paradigm-defining 1992 Earth Summit in Rio-de-janeiro, where the ‘Agenda 21’ was adopted, focussing on preserving the environment while pursuing development. The Brundtland Report simply defines sustainable development as the capacity to fulfil today’s needs without damaging the capacity of the earth to serve the needs of future generations. This is just a macro expansion, without examining the intricacies and complexities of the earth’s ecosystems, but points to a desirable direction of “development”.
In the year 2000, the UN adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals, of which only Goal-7 (‘Ensure Environmental Sustainability’) talks explicitly about ecological sustainabilityvis-à-vis ‘development’, that too in somewhat vague terms. One important contribution of some of these global exercises is the firm inclusion of the concept that without a universally inclusive access-to-resources approach, recognizing the hugely increasing inequities and trying to address these, there can be no sustainable development.Another realization - that highly degraded natural ecosystems - with specially climate change are leading to increasing damages due to rapidly rising disasters, compounded by the rise of vulnerable places and vulnerable populations - forced the adoption of a disaster reduction framework, called the Hyogo Frameworkfor Action (HFA) in the year 2005.It is very sad that the shoddy implementation of all of these failed to either reduce the vulnerabilities or the damages, leading to both the environment getting more stressed and the lower half of global poor getting worse off.
Two decades after the first Earth Summit, in the Rio+20 second Earth Summit in 2012, facing increasing impacts of global ecological destruction and increasingly damaging climate change, the UN members realized that there can be no development without ensuring all round health of the earth’s eco-systems, and finalized the globally accepted (by the member governments of the UN) report titled “The Future We Want”. Here it was explicitly recognized that the prevailing (primarily economic) development goals should and could be tailored to an environmentally and socially sustainable development pathway. This is reflected in the key statement in the ‘The Future We Want’ document – “We recognize that the development of goals could also be useful for pursuing focused and coherent action on sustainable development”.Finally on the 25thof September 2015 – 43 years after the Stockholm conference that started the global debate - the United Nations General Assembly adopted the seventeen (17) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in its final document titled – “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. Unfortunately (but perhaps as expected) for the world’s poor and the marginalized, the designs of these are centred on the same capitalistic, extractive, exploitative production oriented economic growth.
The adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the UN was preceded by the adoption, in March 2015, of another important element of sustainable development - a new global disaster reduction frame work, called the Sendai Framework, with the knowledge that without a strong Disaster Risk and Loss Reduction mechanism, many of the economic development gains are being destroyed by increasing disasters. The third major component for moving towards a sustainable development paradigm, a global treaty on limiting damaging global warming and climate change, was reached in December 2015, though with very serious questions about its adequacy or actionable elements, and is already being rejected by progressive sections of humanity. So, the challenge remains almost undiminished, and an informed, shared & connected global people’s action seems to be the only solution.
“…turn in any direction you like, caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster.”
– B. R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste
“To be radical is to grasp things by the root.”
No two words in modern history might have had as menacing a consequence to the future of a country as caste and class. They have not only divided the working class movements into two camps, viz., movements believing in class struggle and movements believing in anti-caste struggle, but each backed by the ideological obsession of their protagonists and their historical trajectories pushed them onto the path of divergence and in course weakened both of them to the extent that today they find themselves struggling for relevance. Castes have been the life-world of people in the Indian subcontinent for more than two millennia and largely acknowledged to be the unique feature of its majority of people called Hindus although they never remained confined to them and infected the other religious communities that came into being since medieval times. It did face threats from counter-ideological streams such as shramans (later best represented by Buddhism) and political threats by the outsider invaders coming in from north but managed to outlast all of them. Contrary to a commonplace notion, Buddhism despite its ideological hegemony over the subcontinent for about a millennium could not disturb this life-world. Most of the outside invaders either left or settled mixing up with the local population leaving this life-world undisturbed in its essence. The medieval period saw emergence of Islamic society in India presenting an alternate civilizational prospect to the lower castes and it posed a significant threat to this life-world to the extent a large section of them escaped the thralldom of Brahmanism and embraced Islam. However, even this threat remained short-lived and soon even this new society got infected with caste virus. The new religion of Sikhism ostensibly professing equality of all humans by assimilating noble precepts of both Hinduism and Islam, also could not guard off the caste virus from infecting its society. Later, when Christianity came in, similarly attracting the lower castes in huge numbers as Islam did, the minority of upper castes who embraced it, castized it. Castes thus remained a pervasive reality of the India since antiquity to this day.
The life-world implied all its inhabitants internalized its principles and ethos. The people behaved as they were expected to by the caste code. It was only during the colonial rule that anti-caste consciousness germinated in the lower castes. The opportunities for economic progress, the new institutional mode of governance and the advent of capitalism under its shelter, catalysed it. Barring stray pockets in the world that reflected caste-like characteristics and African continent which had dominance of tribalism, classes characterized rest of the world. They came into prominence, however, with the spread of capitalism, which in its idealized form, divided the society into two interdependent but antagonistic classes, viz., proletariat and bourgeoisie. They particularly assumed prominence with the theories of Marxism that saw struggles between these two classes reaching their zenith where they would usher into a revolutionary change to socialism and thence, communism.
In this note I intend discussing the meaning of caste and class to elucidate the mistake committed by both the movements, dalit as well as communist, in dealing with them. While presenting my analysis of the situation of these movements, I try to sketch out a strategy for them to converge over a reasonable timeframe.
Definitional Aspects: Varna and Jati
Simply put, caste is a defining feature of the Indian society. Etymologically, the English word “caste” derives from the Spanish and Portuguese casta, with its roots in Latin castus. It meant “race, lineage, or breed”. When the Portuguese arrived in India in 1498 and encountered thousands of in-marrying hereditary Indian social groups they called them “castas”, which became “castes” in English in 1613. The Indian name for castes is Jati or Jat. While the Europeans did not know anything like jati, their conception of caste subsumed racial connotations and tended to confuse with the varna division of the society, which still prevails significantly among the western scholars.
There is much confusion even in the scholarly literature between jati, and varna [They are used interchangeably by most scholars. For instance, Stuart Corbridge, John Harriss, Craig Jeffrey, India Today: Economy, Politics and Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2013; Also see Bharat Jhunjhunwala, Varna Vyavastha: Governance through Caste System, Rawat Publications, New Delhi, p. 183; Binod, C.Agrawal, Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Complex Societies, Ethnographic & Folk Culture Society, Lucknow, 1982, p.44; N. K., Dutt, Origin and Growth of Castes in India, Vol. I, The Book Co. Ltd., Calcutta, 1931, p. 4.], which together constitute basis for the caste system. It is largely agreed that varnas were brought into India by the conquering tribes of Aryas during the dark period of history. If the lineage of Aryans is traced to the Iranian society, Avesta mentions only three classes of people based on economic functions in society [See, Mukhtar Ahmed, Ancient Pakistan: An Archaeological History, Vol. V, Foursome Group, Reidsville, 2014, p.149.] sans hierarchy, evolved into four (Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Shudra) varna System (Chaturvarna) by the end of Rigvedic period with a notion of hierarchy and then led to designate the excluded ones as the avarnas (non-varna) or pancham (fifth) varna,.Thus, varnas were finite and with definitive hierarchy. Castes (jatis), in contrast, are countless and (because of it) with fluid notion of hierarchy. [The rough estimate of castes runs into thousands but no one for sure can vouch for those numbers. Louis Dumont deals with this question but leaves it unanswered because of its infeasibility. See Louis Dumont, Homo Hierrachicus, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1970, p. 33]. Varna is the vedic classification of the four ranked occupational order, whereas caste refers to ranked hereditary, endogamous and occupational groups separated from each other by the ideas of purity and pollution. Classically, varnas defined the borders of Hinduism, whereas jatis were local within the borders of ethnolinguistic regions. The varnas may be taken as theoretical, a framework, whereas castes (jatis) are real and concrete. Besides, Brahman and the shudra within the original chaturvarna and avarna dalits in its extended form, which bracket overall Hindu social order, all other varnas are rarely found everywhere, but castes are found all over. As a result, the mapping of castes with intermediate varnas remains hazy and not accepted by many castes. Many castes reject legitimacy of the varna hierarchy and/or the places assigned to them by others. In the Brahmanical strongholds of south India itself the intermediate varnas hardly exist. Where they exist, they do so with local variations. Even historically, the village roost was not necessarily ruled by any Brahman caste; when it was, one could find wealth and power rather than its ritual status being instrumental in its placement. Many Brahmans did not enjoy any such reputation. Second, even their explanation for the advent of varnashram dharma also is unconvincing as it does not explain why it only survived in India and not elsewhere.
Historicity of Castes
The discourse on caste customarily starts curiously with the origin of caste, as though castes were the same as they originated. Many scholars have proffered theories of the origin of castes which in sum are no better than a blind man’s description of an elephant. Whether they are plausible or not, from the perspective of their annihilation, they do not serve any purpose. One of the motivations behind knowing the origin of caste is to possibly strike at its root in order to eradicate it. Probably Dr Ambedkar adopts it when in Annihilation of Caste; he attributes its origin to the Dharmashastras of Hinduism and therefore infers that unless they were dynamited, the caste system would not be annihilated.
The theories of the origin of castes may be broadly classified into as many as ten classes based on their thrust: (i) traditional or Indological theory, (ii) racial theory, (iii) political theory, (iv) religious theory, (v) occupational theory, (vi) racial/functional theory, (vii) guild theory, (viii) mana theory, and (ix) evolution or multi-factor theory. According to the traditional or Indological theory, the caste system is of divine origin. It is based on the allegorical explanation in Purushsukta in Rig Veda for the origin of four varnas being parts of the cosmic being purusha or the supreme creator (God)., Castes were born later as a result of different types of marriages between varnas in ancient India. Although of little intellectual value, it underlies the popular belief in castes. The Racial Theory propounded by Sir Herbert Risely held that caste system was due to racial differences between migrant Aryas and Anaryas (native people). G. S. Ghurye (1932) appear to support this theory. The political theory held that caste system was the result of political conspiracy of the Brahmans to secure control over the functions of the society. This theory was originally propounded by a French scholar Abbe Dubais and found tacit support in many scholars like Denzil Ibbetson and also S.G. Ghurye. The religious theory was advocated by Hocart and Senart. Hocart postulated that castes were a hierarchy of ritual offices centered on a king (or a local lord) having as their purpose the performance of the royal ritual for the benefit of the entire community. The king, as the representative of the god and religion, allotted positions to different functional groups. Senart tried to explain the caste system on the basis of prohibitions regarding sacramental food. Occupational/Functional theory, originally propounded by Nesfield, held that occupation were the main base of the caste system. The notion of hierarchy of castes stemmed basically from the superiority or inferiority of occupations. The Racial/ Functional theory put forth by Slater combines both the racial and functional origins, postulating that the caste system was created to safeguard the professional and occupational secrets of different races. The Aryan invasions intensified and developed the existing structure making occupations hereditary and marriages only within the same occupation groups, sanctified later by ritual practices and religious ceremonies. The Guild theory put forth by Denzil Ibbeston, holds that castes are the modified forms of guilds and the caste system was the product of three forces, (i) tribes, (ii) guilds, and (iii) religion. The guilds evolved into castes imitating the endogamy of the prestigious class of priests. The mana theory based on the views of J.H. Hutton accords the caste system pre-Aryan origin and suggests that the primitive belief in ‘mana’ among tribes accounted for the origin of the caste system. Mana was associated with magical and harmful powers and hence the ancient tribes evolved elaborate taboos or restrictions to protect themselves from other tribes’ mana. Lastly, the Evolutionary or Multifactor theory propounded by sociologists held that a complex phenomenon of the caste system could not be explained by a single factor and rather was a result of many factors such as beliefs in racial superiority, geographical isolation. metaphysical concepts, belief in mana, desire to maintain racial purity of blood and manipulation by Brahmans.
As could be seen, none of these theories, save for the last one, which does not claim a specific factor and hence is flexible enough to accommodate any of the above or entirely new one within its fold, are explaining the origin of the caste system. They rather explain the varna system and take for granted that caste system is born out of the varna system.
Ambedkar on Caste
In relation to castes, Babasaheb Ambedkar assumes extraordinary importance because of his life-long struggle, both in the realm of theory as well as practice. His seminal paper, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development, which Ambedkar presented as a student, at an Anthropology Seminar taught by Dr. A. A. Goldenweizer in Columbia University on 9 May 1916, dealt with some of these views and also those of Dr. Ketkar and dismissed them as Petitio Principii of formal logic.. It was here that he observed, “A caste is an enclosed class”.
He disagreed with Senart that the “idea of pollution” was a peculiarity of caste as it was “a particular case of the general belief in purity”. As per him, the idea of pollution could be ignored without affecting the working of castes. It was attached to the institution of caste only because of the priestly caste which enjoyed the highest rank. To Nesfield’s theory highlighting absence of messing with outside the caste, Ambedkar would say that it was mistaking the effect for the cause. Caste being a self-enclosed unit, it naturally limits social intercourse, including messing. He did not find Risley’s views deserving even a comment. He rather included Ketkar who had defined caste in its relation to a system of castes, and had focused his attention only on those characteristics which were absolutely necessary for the existence of a caste within a system. Ambedkar however, critiqued Ketkar for taking “prohibition of intermarriage and membership by autogeny” as the two characteristics of caste and argued that they were but two aspects of one and the same thing. If intermarriage is prohibited, the membership of those born within the group also shall be automatically limited.
Ambedkar argues that the Hindu society like other societies was essentially a class system, in which individuals, when qualified, could change their class. However, at some time in history, the priestly class socially detached itself from the rest of the people and through a closed-door policy became a caste by itself. The other varnas, which were subject to the law of social division of labour, developed sub-division with social mobility of the class system. However, as he argued, they too lost the open-door character of the class system and have become self-enclosed units called castes. He explained their becoming castes saying “Some closed the door: Others found it closed against them.” He proffered a psychological explanation for the former saying that since the Brahmans or priestly class, occupied the highest position in the social hierarchy of the Hindu society, the other classes simply imitated them by adopting endogamy. Over the years, endogamy became a fashion since it originated from the priestly class, who were venerated and idolized in the scriptures. Endogamy was thus practiced by all the classes, which ultimately resulted into the rigid formation of castes. The custom of endogamy superimposed on exogamy, which prevailed in all ancient tribes, became the creation of castes. He points out that without the practice of endogamy, the caste system cannot survive. Along with endogamy, Brahmans followed the custom of sati and enforced widowhood which later spread to other castes. The mainstream sociology never acknowledged this analysis of Ambedkar, although it predated the thesis by G. S. Ghurye, celebrated as the first sociological treatise on caste by a decade and anticipated many of the ideas of the later scholars.
Ambedkar developed his theory of untouchability on the basis of ‘broken men’ (broken from their tribes during the tribal wars), who, since they were Buddhists, and did not respect Brahmans were made untouchables. He wrote, “...the Broken Men were Buddhists. As such they did not revere the Brahmins, did not employ them as their priests and regarded them as impure. The Brahmin on the other hand disliked the Broken Men because they were Buddhists and preached against them contempt and hatred with the result that the Broken Men came to be regarded as Untouchables”. They were made untouchables because they continued eating beef when the Gupta Kings made cow killing a criminal offence and beef eating a sin in the 4th century AD. This theorization that attributed untouchability to the struggle for supremacy between Buddhism and Brahmanism helped him to endow the dalits with Buddhist past.
Ambedkar’s theorization of untouchability is as problematic as his analysis of castes was insightful. It is pivoted on ‘broken men’ being Buddhist, which, as candidly admitted by Ambedkar does not have any evidential support. He just concludes it saying “No evidence is ... necessary when the majority of Hindus were Buddhists. We may take it that they were.”
While the ideological contrivance surely plays a role in sustaining a social order, it cannot create it. The fact that varna-like systems of stratification existed in most ancient societies and they were not ordained by any religious ideology, purely ideological explanation for the origin of the caste system becomes problematic. Social systems come into being because the material conditions demand them. The ideological superstructure develops later to preserve them. A section of society that benefits from the system develops vested interests and wants to preserve it through an ideological apparatus. The pervasiveness of the caste system over the vast subcontinental space and its becoming a ‘life-world’ of people is surely attributable to the spread of ideology but the origin of the caste system needs to be searched elsewhere.
The material factors that gave rise to the caste system can perhaps be located in the uniquely rich natural endowment of the Indian subcontinent for the biotic mode of production extant in ancient times. In terms of plentiful flat, fertile land; rivers and water bodies; abundant and all time sunshine, and congenial climate, Indian subcontinent may scarcely have parallel on the planet in its richness for agriculture. These factors might be seen to be the key to unfathom the mystery of the unique system of stratification in the form of the caste system. When nomadic tribes began settling for agriculture, they necessarily underwent change in their social structure everywhere confirming to their material conditions. For instance, the places where lands were hostile and not so fertile; water sources were scanty and seasons were erratic; and sunshine had a narrow window of a few months, as for instance in England, it gave rise to a system of serfdom. In order to cultivate vast tracts of lands within a small time-window necessitated huge army of serfs to work and a lord to control them. In contrast, Indian tribes did not have to undergo such a structural transformation and had settled down with their tribal identities intact. These tribal identities were rather castes, albeit sans hierarchy or any stigma.
The notion of hierarchy and stigma (purity and pollution) were rather superimposed by the post-Rigvedic varna system. Thus, contrary to the proposition of the traditional ideological theory, it is not the varnas that came first and they evolved into castes, but quite the opposite. The castes in the form of tribal identities with some amount of magico-religious development, natural to agricultural communities, already existed in India, which were later overlain by the varna system brought in by the vanquishing Aryan tribes. With the growth of surplus production, it needed an intricate ideological contrivance, appealable to agricultural society as it purported to solve their myriad knowledge problems about natural events on which agriculture depended. The priestly class of Brahmans assumed the role of a mediator between people and gods, and slowly became ‘gods on earth’ themselves to establish their hegemony. They propounded a theory of karma to justify the present order and fortify their own supremacist position. While it made people to accept their caste statuses as their destinies according to their past karma, it also motivated them to adhere to the caste dharma in order to be born into better caste in the next birth. Besides this self propellant, there was a cobweb of rules as in Manusmriti that prescribed their behavior and punishments for any deviation from the prescribed code. This entire superstructure would stabilize making castes as the life-world of people.
It may be noted that the Manusmriti-like rules with harsh punishments provided for violation of caste code must have occasioned clearly to thwart the tendencies towards violation of the caste code. One may attribute it to the ideological influence of Buddhism when it began spreading among masses. In order to fortify the brahmanic structure of the society, such regidfied code might have been occasioned. But during the period of Buddhist hegemony, there appears no evidence that Buddhism actively engaged to fight the caste division in the society. It may be that while people followed Buddhism, the life-world of caste also survived. Buddhism, after it got royal support, lost its missionary zeal and became vihar centric engaged in production of intricate philosophies. People did adore Buddhism and its monks but the practice of castes also continued as a cultural drag. If the Buddhist tenets had crystallized into the cultural practice of people, it would be difficult to imagine complete erasure of it all over the subcontinent.
There were many upheavals in Indian history but this life-world adjusted itself to any disturbance. After the resurgence of Brahmanism under the leadership of Shankara in eighth century, it got strengthened further. It received numerous jolts during the medieval times through the stabilization of Muslim rule, emergence of Bhakti movement, emergence of Sikhism, etc., all of them ideologically oriented against castes, but it managed to adjust itself to the emerging circumstances.
Catalytic Role of the Colonial Rule
However, it received its severest jolt during the colonial period. The advent of western liberal institutions of governance, English education and capitalist enterprises proved hugely beneficial to the lower classes. Many of them ran after the opportunities created in new urban centers and made significant economic progress. Even before these changes began to befall, the advent of Britishers opened up opportunities for the lower castes to get into their employ and later into army. The latter proved especially significant because it not only gave them an opportunity to wield weapons, which were forbidden to them, but also win wars. It proved great moral booster in decimating the self image of inferiority solidified through centuries’ Brahmanic culture and realizing their martial prowess. The compulsory education in military service further reinforced it. All these changes created a class of relatively educated and economically well off Dalits, who became the harbinger of the Dalit movement. The work of Christian missionaries among them pushed the upper castes into taking up reforms in the Hindu society. The colonial rule variously impacted various sections of the Indian society including their life-world of castes.
From the dawn of the twentieth century, in process of responding to the various mass agitations (militant youth uprising in Bengal in response of partition and other parts), the British strategized to devolve power to Indian elites, albeit along the communal lines, so as to keep it in their control. The communal basis of sharing political power between two major divisions, Hindus and Muslims represented by the Congress and the Muslim League respectively, inevitably brought the question of where dalits and tribals belonged. On the eve of the Morley-Minto reforms in 1909 the Muslim League objected to the Congress’ taking them for granted as Hindus. It seeded the political space for the dalits in future to claim their separate identity and use it to bargain for their rights. The descent of Ambedkar, endowed with high academic accomplishments, as the dalit leader greatly accelerated this process. His main contributions have been in catapulting the caste question into the political arena, winning the dalits certain special rights such as reservations, theorizations of their struggles, and providing vision of emancipation.
The most significant measure that is entirely attributable to him is the scheme of reservations. Ambedkar won the dalits reservations with separate electorates in the Round Table Confernces during 1931-32 in contention with Gandhi. He was, however, blackmailed into giving up separate electorates by Gandhi with his fast unto death. The Poona Pact that symbolized the new agreement contained the principles of preferential recruitment of dalits in public services and other necessary things from the viewpoint of their uptliftment. In course, reservations in political representation, educational institutions and in public services (in 1943 when Ambedkar was a member in the Viceroy’s Executive Council) were established. The main justification of this ‘affirmative action’ was the exclusion suffered by the dalits in the Hindu society. They were accepted by the colonial rulers as an exceptional policy in favour of the exceptional people and were also largely reconciled by the populace. The significant development that happened for instituting these policies was the creation of a schedule that included all the untouchable people, imparting them a new administrative/political identity as scheduled castes. There was no back reference to the Hindu religious texts or customs necessary in future, thereby rendering the castes as such redundant.
When the reins of power came into the hands of the native upper caste-class elites, then represented by the Congress Party, they resorted to their Brahmanic cunning lain over the learning from colonial masters. The constituent assembly set up in accordance with the cabinet mission plan with the representatives elected by the provisional assemblies formed through the elections in July-August 1946 had to deal with the aspirations of masses, built up by the Congress during the freedom struggle. Way back in in 1928, under the Nehru committee, the Congress had resolved to undo untouchability. Later, in 1936, the Congress had decided to have a socialist system inspired by the constitution of Soviet Russia. Behind this mass façade, the Congress at its core remained the representative of the interests of the incipient bourgeoisie like Kuomintang in China during the same period. After gaining power, while it tried to keep up this façade, in reality it began surreptitiously but systematically pushing for the development in the interests of the capitalists as could be seen from its clandestine adoption of Bombay Plan (An investment plan prepared by the eight big capitalists during January 1944 for a period of 15 years in the post-colonial India, with the objective of doubling the GDP and trebling the per capita income) while rejecting it in public. In the context of castes, the constituent assembly took a decision to outlaw untouchability with much fanfare and amidst the slogan ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai’. It was indeed a victory to strategist Gandhi as he best represented all the upper caste reformers who wanted to abolish untouchability but variously defended castes. Untouchability, however, was a mere aspect of caste; it could not go away if the castes existed. There was a clear opportunity for the new ruling classes to outlaw caste itself. With castes gone, untouchability would automatically vanish. As could be experienced, nothing happened with the untouchability law as survey after surveys, right from the 1950s to just the present day (NCAER report) reveal.
Castes were not abolished ostensibly for giving reservations to the dalits. While theoretically, it may be conceded that the constituent assembly could do away reservations for the dalits that came through colonial times, none little versed with politics would dare say so. The constituent assembly expectedly adopted the 1936 schedule and continued with the reservations to the dalits but not without a mischief. It created another schedule for the tribals and extended the ditto provisions to them as were given to the scheduled castes. In doing this, it skillfully projected reservations as the only measure of social justice. Notwithstanding the fact that the tribals also were excluded like dalits, albeit not stigmatized socially, and therefore deserved reservations like dalits, the natural solution could have been to expand the existing schedule to include the tribals. By so doing the stigma associated with the schedule for the Dalits could have been diluted as the tribals did not have castes. It would have greatly aided the objective of eradicating untouchability if it honestly meant it. But it was not to be. There were many other problems too in creating this schedule. Foremost, there was no indisputable criterion like untouchability to identify tribals. Many a well-off caste managed to get them included into the schedule and deprived the real tribals of its intended benefits. It is an empirical fact that the entire benefit of the ‘scheduled tribes’ is bagged by these fake ‘tribes’ keeping the real tribals high and dry to take up guns. The ruling classes haven’t even stopped at that. They would create a vague provision that the state would identify the ‘backward classes’ (read castes) so as to extend similar provisions in future. They were to seed the reservations for the so called Backward classes but in reality was meant to construct a can of caste-worms the lid of which could be opened at an opportune time in future. As we see, the Prime Minister, V.P. Singh opened the lid in 1990 and unleashed the caste worms all over, castizing the country as never before.
The entire schema about castes being kept alive comes out clear when we see similar scheming around religion, the other weapon to divide people. The constitution scrupulously avoided the term secular that could create a separating wall between religion and politics with an alibi to have space for the state to carry out religion-related reforms. The only reform, seen with hindsight, that one could imagine was in the form of passing the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 in the wake of the burning of Roop Kanwar on her husband’s pyre. It is important to understand these matters to uncover the real strategies of the rulers in devising multiple layers of fortifications over castes.
Notwithstanding huge scholarly interest in caste in recent years, there is huge intellectual inertia in understanding them. Castes today are not the classical castes representing graded inequality. Actually, castes today are reduced to their primordial kink in continuum: dalit versus non-dalits. With the advent of capitalism the ritual aspects of castes have been fast weakening in direct proportion to the degree of interface the castes had with the capitalist system. The traditional ritual differences would come in the way of building supply chain relationships, thereby tending to increase transaction costs. Moreover, the rational base of capitalism also acted against the ritualistic systems. Therefore, the castes in urban areas that entered the sphere of capitalist relations began gradually dropping the ritualistic aspects of castes. It happened with the dwija castes. There is no necessity in caste context that all people belonging to a caste or caste group have such an interface. It may typically happen to a few families but the entire caste would emulate them as the leading elements of caste. When during the first decades of independence, the ruling classes carried out Land Reforms and brought in the capitalist strategy of Green Revolutions, in the name of giving land to the tillers and boosting agricultural productivity, respectively, but in reality to create a class of rich farmers in rural India that would stay as an ally of the center, the phenomenon extended to the shudra castes.
With the capitalist relations entering the country side, the bandwagon of the shudra castes also got hitched to the dwija castes. As for the dalits, these developments proved utterly detrimental. The traditional jajmani relations of interdependence collapsed under the onslaught of capitalist relations, reducing the dalits to be the rural proletariat, utterly dependent on the farm wages by the rich farmers. The latter wielding the baton of Brahmanism from the erstwhile upper caste landlords, who fled to the greener pastures in the urban areas, proved far more atrocious than the ones before because of the backing of overwhelming numbers of their castemen and their lack of cultural sophistication. The conflict over farm wages between the dalit labourers and the shudra farmers began to manifest through the familiar faultlines of castes creating a new genre of caste atrocities. Kilvenmeni, a village in old Tanjavur district classically inaugurated this new phenomenon. On 25 December 1968, the landlords along with their army attacked the agitating dalits and burnt 44 of them (mainly their women and children) alive. The saga of these atrocities continues unabated and unacknowledged by our bankrupt scholarship as characterizing changes in castes!
On the one hand, the majority of dalits in rural area (they are predominantly a rural people) suffered dual prospect of marginalization and repression by the new ‘Barhmans’ and on the other, they were seen as the undeserving beneficiaries of the state largesse. Their cultural awakening due largely to the Ambedkarite movement reinforced this perception. There is a widespread grudge against dalits in rural population. The politicians keep on announcing a plethora of schemes and keeping the fire alive. These schemes, if at all, benefit a typical minority of better off dalits but are propagandized in the name of entire people. As a matter of fact, reservations, as they have been formulated, benefitted only the relatively better-off dalits and thereafter kept on benefitting only them, increasingly excluding the needy ones. They have rather acted against the interests of majority of dalits. If one took an objective stock of this policy, the people it benefitted in terms of economic uplift may be less than 10 percent. However, the brunt of reservations is borne by the rest 90 percent of dalits in rural areas who can never dream of availing them. As I explained the mechanism of caste atrocities in my books , Khairlanji and Persistence of Castes, the pervasive grudge against dalits acts as fuel, which with the presence of systemic impunity (oxygen) can easily precipitate into a gory caste atrocity with a minor spark (source of ignition) explained with an analogy if fire triangle.
Dalits today are the sole prop of castes which cannot be afforded by the ruling classes to die. They may allow a section of them to be capitalist (as they indeed are promoting so called Dalit Capitalism) so as to neutralize potential resistance of dalits to their social Darwinist neoliberal policies but will not permit the same logic of capitalist relations to permeate the dalit masses. This feat is achieved through the instrument of reservations that preserves their dalithood. Interestingly, the bunch that flaunts their ‘coming of age’ as job givers and not job seekers also are sustained by reservations. The state that never listened to even the agonizing cries of dalit masses has picked up whispers of this bunch and promptly reserved a 4 percent of the SME quota for them. Tomorrow, the cost of this development also shall be borne by ordinary dalit masses.
Reservations as the Bane
Reservations have been used dexterously by the ruling classes in decimating dalit, which was a quasi class category Ambedkar conceived. Reservations as stated before benefitted a relatively tiny section of better-off dalits, who invariably belong to the most populous dalit castes anywhere. There is a material reason for it. The most populous dalit castes, because of their ‘excess' population could not be absorbed within a village system with any specific caste vocation. As a result, they have reflected most enterprising tendency in grabbing opportunities in history. As they did not have any stake in the village system, they were the first ones to go out. It follows that they were the ones who came to constitute the dalit movement. By the same logic, they grabbed better share of reservation when they came in. Over the years, this was gradually grudged by the other castes among dalits which could not stand in competition with them. The politicians rushed to cash in on this grudge. They could easily incite the next populous dalit castes to demand their due share of reservation as per their population. As a matter of fact (as I showed in many of my analyses) even among the most populous dalit castes, all people have not benefitted equally. When caste is taken as a unit, the most populous caste appears to have grabbed most of the reservation. In terms of family, (which I had proposed to be a viable unit as it is family—an immediate family—that really benefits if a member gets reservation benefits) my hunch is that the situation across the castes may be the same. But reservation has never been subject to amy such objective analysis. Today, this categorization demand, which had started in Andhra Pradesh in 1995 by the Madigas there (through their Madiga Reservation Porata Samiti) has spread all other states, making Ambedkar’s dalits as the most casteist community.
Reservations have distorted the entire politics in the country. They have been taken for granted as benefit by dalits, who never counted costs paid for it. Indeed, dalits have paid huge costs – psychological costs of killing one’s self esteem right in the childhood, living with social stigma for the entire life; depoliticization of the advanced elements of dalits (as they land up in the public services where politics is banned), questionably benefiting a few but definitely costing the majority, incurring the grudge of the entire society, and distortion and marginalization of the fundamental obligation of the state in terms of providing basic inputs like health care, education, jobs, land, etc. to the population, to recount the broad ones. Reservation-like policy could only be valid if the state has fulfilled its minimal obligations towards all. There have been numerous such deficiencies with reservation policy as it is designed and operated. I have been writing about them over many years (you may refer “On Reservations” in Mainstream, easily accessible on the net) but without much reception.
The concept of reservation was a product of representation strategy of Ambedkar. He thought that if dalit representatives reach legislative bodies, they would take care of political interests of dalit masses. Likewise, he expected dalits, endowed with higher education, to occupy important positions in bureaucracy to create a protective cover over the dalit masses from the bureaucratic bias and possibly help them. He experienced the folly of this strategy in his own life time insofar as he could never win an election in independence India. He painfully realized that the political reservations had turned out to be more beneficial to the ruling classes than to the dalits. It only produced the ‘stooges’ to use Kanshiram’s language. It is a proof enough that the political reservations which were meant only for initial ten years get automatically renewed before their expiry, without anybody especially asking for them. Ambedkar had similar experience even with reservations in public employment. He found that the beneficiaries of them were engrossed with their own promotion and betterment of their families. It was this realization that he vented off in a public meeting in Agra in 1953 saying that the educated people had cheated him.
While reservations are grudged by the non-dalit masses, this grudge is accentuated by treating them as holy cow by politicians. As far as they could be attributed to Ambedkar, with his iconization and glorification, as it has been happening in recent years, they killed many birds with a single stone. They wooed dalits by titillating their identitarian pride and correspondingly intensifed the grudge in non-dalit population. This may be roughly correlated with the increasing atrocity numbers. Politicians of all hues, including the parliamentary left (they essentially follow the same grammar as any ruling class party for winning the electoral race in the first-past-the-post type of elections) and even the revolutionary left. The latter is certainly surprising and one would wish to imagine that it is just because of the understanding deficit on their part. But unfortunately one cannot ignore the aspect of wooing dalits even among them. More unfortunate in their case is the ideological laziness that accepts any reservation as progressive and pro-poor. As reservations have become a ‘holy cow’ for politicians, for dalits, they are an irrational emotional issue. For instance, I have been telling them that the public employment had reached its peak in 1997 and since then it has been consistently declining declining. Over the first decade (i.e. up to 2007), there was a decline of over 1.7 million jobs over a base of 19.7 million. It clearly indicates that reservations in net terms had come to an end right in 1997 itself. Paradoxically, only after this decline set in, the clamour for reservations virtually by all castes, has reached its zenith. Dalits, anyway, would not like to listen to it as many of them engaged in pseudo-activism would find themselves jobless.
It is therefore that once I said that the day dalits come out and declare that they do not want reservation, that day will be the beginning of the Indian revolution.
Class Analysis and Castes
The ‘class-caste’ duality came into being with the communists coming on to the scene. They typically belonged to upper caste educated middle class youth dreaming of a revolution in India inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. They were fed on the secondary sources of literature which was smuggled into the country. As such there was neither an adequate understanding of the philosophical framework of Marxism, much less the nuanced understanding of its formulations. What guided their actions was the youthful romanticism about revolution. They jumped on to organize the workers in the urban industrial centers with stereotypical understanding that they were the proletariat who had nothing to lose but their chains. The environmental problem of castes that excluded almost half the population did not bother them. They convinced themselves that it was a superstructural matter drawing support from a metaphorical dictum of Marx, blissfully ignorant about the follow up on it that made both Marx and Engels to regret it. The dictum informed them that once the material (read economic) structure is revolutionized, the superstructure would ‘automatically’ confirm to it. Truly speaking it reflected a Brahmanic attitude of taking the word as sacred, a ved vakya syndrome. The words that reached them, they followed literally. The Brahmanic inertia in realizing the misery of the lower castes also played a role. And Brahmanic arrogance about their own ‘knowledge and wisdom’ added fuel to fire. The birth of idiocy was thus nevitable.
While castes are not a class they were not entirely different either. Ambedkar’s understanding that they were the enclosed classes was far superior compared to theirs. The simple thing to understand was that if castes were the life-word of people, how they could be excluded in the possible class analysis. It was gravest error to think that they were mere religious-cultural matter that belonged to superstructure. Unfortunately, even Ambedkar in his enthusiasm to prove them wrong came to support them when he argued in his celebrated text of Annihilation of Caste that religious revolutions always preceded political revolutions. Even when they (communists) confronted castes in practice, they shied away from correcting themselves and preferred to keep away from the monster. The case in point is the Girni Kamgar Union under their leadership (SA Dange, one of the stalwarts of communist movement was the secretary of the union) which did not take any note of exclusion of the dalit workers from the better paying jobs in weaving section of the mill and the blatant practice of untouchability in keeping separate pitchers for drinking water for dalits. Even when Ambedkar challenged them over the issue, it was not corrected. The communists, informed by their understanding that the caste issue was a superstructural matter, not only kept themselves away but also ridiculed Ambedkar for belabouring a non-issue. The other factor beneath their behavior was the fear of displeasing the non-dalit workers who were in larger number, reflecting the embryonic attitude that would that would dominate their politics when they entered parliamentary system..
What could have been done?
Class is a pivotal category in Marxism but Marx or Engels did not give its precise definition as for many such terms in their writings. The basic theme was that there could not be possible definition of such categories or constructs lest they should be inapplicable to some other social systems that they were not familiar with. It is not to say that they left any ambiguity about what they meant. In various historical contexts they discussed classes which make it clear that classes were to be conceived in concrete social conditions obtaining in a space and time. Marxist-Leninists hold that a person’s social class is determined not by the amount of his wealth, but by the source of his income as determined by his relation to labour and to the means of production. Lenin, who had to translate Marxism into practice to bring about revolution in Russia necessarily had to define class as follows:
“Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated by law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and their mode of acquiring it”. (Vladimir I. Lenin: 'A Great Beginning: Heroism of the Workers in the Rear: 'Communist Subbotniks' in: Collected Works, Volume 29; Moscow; 1965; p. 421).
To Marxist-Leninists, therefore, the class to which a person belongs is determined by objective reality, not by someone’s opinion. What was the objective reality of India then? If one goes by the above definition, one would necessarily come closer to consider castes themselves as classes. Are dalits, for instance, not differing from non-dalits ‘by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated by law—law of Manu (?)) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and their mode of acquiring it’? This perhaps is the sense in which Ambedkar said that the castes were the enclosed classes. But there is obvious difficulty in considering dalits as class because the law which made them different from non-dalits also could apply to the castes within them. While class potentially brings people together, caste tends to divide them by seeking hierarchy. Therefore they do not become a class. Moreover, the classes are to be conceived in relation to the dominant mode of production wherein the caste would lose their salience. Therefore, class analysis in the caste society should necessarily subsume castes. For example, proletariat would include most of the shudras and dalits but they would not be automatically a class until the caste contradiction between them is not eradicated. Therefore, the process of class consolidation should embed the anti-caste struggles. If this had been done in the 1920s, the need for the separate dalit movement itself could have been eliminated. It would have given real fillip to the anti-caste struggle accomplishing the annihilation of caste. It may sound exaggeration today, but this approach would have made Indian revolution a reality much before China.
What Can Be Done Now?
As discussed, both movements—dalit as well as communist—have their share of wrongs committed during the last centuries. The wrongs by the communists, however, certainly outweigh those of the dalits. Dalit movement confronted a unique issue and was juggling with theorizing and strategizing its struggle. It was thus an original exercise in which errors were natural. But the communists had a grand theory of Marxism to guide and the task was just to apply it in the concrete condition of Indian society. The errors therefore were expected to be minimal. But looking back, they were not even errors; they were blunders. The blunder related to ignoring the almost one-fifth of the population that could be the organic proletariat. The dictum of the dalit movement (given by Ambedkar) was not incorrect when he said that whatever path one traversed in India, one necessarily crossed the path of castes. The communists of all hues today have reluctantly come to terms that castes are a part of structure as well as superstructure, and hence deserved attention of the revolutionists; they just reflect a tailist tendency. Why can’t they discard the useless metaphor of structure-superstructure that has done more harm than good to the communist movement right since its birth?
Dalit movement, today equally dilapidated, failed to provide any solution to dalits. Contrary to the slogan of ‘annihilation of caste’ the dalits are out to strengthen castes and have already descended to the sub-caste levels. Ambedkar’s vision of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity is in shatters today. The political democracy that he imagined was established by the constitution itself is in question. It is only a notion of ‘one man, one vote, one value’ that is not even valid in rituals of elections. The economic and social democracies have been the chimera. He had famously warned that if they were not achieved soonest, the victims would blast off the structure of political democracy. Even this warning of him failed to materialize. Indian democracy neither flourished nor perished and has only limped along with its burden of contradictions. Ambedkar’s other solution such as conversion to Buddhism also yielded questionable result. The greatest contra-evidence is that castes are kicking as never before, untouchability is intact, and the condition of dalits, measured in terms of relative distance between them and others, is perhaps worse than when they kicked off the dalit movement. Then they had a hope, today they do not have any.
In such a hopeless situation, how does one look at castes? There should be no doubt that without annihilation of castes, there is no radical future for India. It should also be clear that annihilation of castes is impossible to accomplish only by dalits hampering upon castes. Unless masses of broad people realize the fact that their radical emancipation is not possible without eradication of castes, it would stay as distant goal. Annihilation of castes in this sense is an integral part of the Indian revolution. Those who tend to consider and contrast caste against class must understand that caste is a poisonous category unlike any other. Its fundamental property is seeking hierarchy. Therefore, it knows only to split; split ad infinitum like amoeba. It is incapable of uniting. It should therefore be clear that no radical movement can be articulated on the basis of castes. Even for annihilation of castes, class is inevitable. The caste question is an integral part of the class question and they cannot and should not be spoken in dual terms.
Necessarily, it demands coming together of the communist and dalit movements. In the current situation it may sound like a wishful thinking. But unfortunately there is no option than working for it. Since, the communists had blundered more; they must take an initiative in this regard. Apart from their failure to understand and analyse Indian society, the Brahmanical arrogance and superiority complex of the early communists had played a big role in alienating the dalit movement. The divide between them has gone deep enough and there developed vested interests in deepening it further (many educated Dalits vehemently treating communists as enemy number one), there are even opportunities emerging out of the intensifying crisis of living. The prerequisite in availing of these opportunities however is reestablishing dialogue with the dalit movement. This may only be done if the communists honestly admit their mistakes demonstrate their new understanding of the caste situation. While this may be necessary for moving closer to the dalits, it is in no way sufficient to get them into struggle.
The communists need to discard their dogma and rethink their theories and practice in light of the fast changing world. While the core of their theory still holds good, many a derivatives need critical examination. All this need to lead to a viable strategy in face of fascized and militarized states. Unless they convince dalits or for that matter any people that they can win them a better world, their project may be a non-starter.
Firstly, I have to consider the metaphysical element in the prediction of proletarian class as emancipatory, capable of emancipating the world from capitalist exploitation and cruelties. The usual arguments in favor of such a prediction are not clear causes or clear proofs that will lead to select the industrial working class as emancipatory. What are the main arguments that usually arise in favor of selecting working class, as the class for emancipation? It is a class that is completely free from all the feudal relations of the middle ages. It is a class that emerged along with scientific and technological revolutions. The industrial working class is the one that interferes with the most modern machines and technology. It is the class capable of self transformation with the most rapid and advanced changes that taking place in the field of science and technology. Thus, it is the most advanced class, working in the most advanced system of production by interfering with the most advanced tools of production. Again, it is the class that constantly interferes with the civil society and scientific knowledge. The proletarian class is historically progressive in character and is capable of full motion. It was the historically progressive nature of the working class that leads Marx to suggest it as the emancipatory class capable of liberating the whole humanity from the exploiting system of capitalism. All these arguments are true. But, none of it is capable of explaining and circumventing the metaphysical elements within the prediction. Under such circumstances, the prediction remains the one just like the Jesus as the emancipator of the world, as suggested by Christianity. The elements of religiosity and the very deterministic and essentialist nature of the prediction are against the true spirits of Marxism.
The prediction of emancipatory working class presupposed an essential nature. It is the basic illusion of the metaphysical thought that shown here. It is unaware of the historicity of the being. Historicity is against all essentialist notions. Whether Marx was not aware of the metaphysical element in the suggestion, is an important question to be addressed. For Marx, that suggestion was the one to be evaluated by history, not an absolute suggestion to be implemented at all places, for all time. Marx was against reductionist single line essentialist approach, as could be seen in many of his writings. The lesson from Paris Commune is an example. After the failure of Paris Commune, Marx was not sticking on his earlier positions. This attitude could be seen in the reply letter to Vera Zasulich also. For Vera, then a Narodhnik, wants to know about the future of Russia. Whether Russia, then an underdeveloped country, would suffer all the atrocities of capitalism before going into socialist stage. To answer this question Marx abandoned the single line five phase theory from primitive communism to socialism. Later, Jenny wrote that Marx considered the question arose by Vera as a serious one. He was aware of the role played by history, which is not static, a continuously changing one. Marx was well aware of essentialist notions and was against it. But, in the concept of emancipatory class, it is the contemporary historical situations that made more visible the essential nature of Marxist prediction. The trend of contemporary thought to keep away from essentialism also helps in revealing the essential nature in the concept of dictatorship of working class. The Marxist thought has been a persistent effort to distance itself from essentialism. Call of the day is to elaborate it. The assertion in the concept of historicity shows the pure human nature of truth. The world is entirely a social construction of human beings which is not grounded of any metaphysical necessities, neither to God, nor to essential laws of history, nor to essential emancipatory agent. The greatest contribution of Marxist theory is that it illuminates the fundamental tendencies in the development of capitalism and the antagonisms it generates. But the contemporary trends were not foreseen by Marx. It is our duty to extend it in a variety of directions with a true Marxian spirit.
It was in the Second International (also known as Yellow International) absolute tendencies were emerged in the Communist movement. There were severe attempts to create an order within Marxist concepts. The essential laws of society in the development from primitive communism to capitalism, approach to base and superstructure, scientificity... were put forward as primary concepts while political struggles were expelled as a secondary concept. It was at this juncture; the essentialist tendencies and pragmatic approaches of those who knew about tomorrow’s situations very well, get inaugurated. Political struggles get reduced to mere problems related to superstructure. The importance of Lenin’s theoretical interfere could be seen in this regard. Lenin’s words on the primacy of political struggle are very important in our discussion. Lenin overcame the approach that sees production relations as the only factor that determines the state of a social system. The great proletarian leader took strong positions against the absolutist approaches of the Second International. The Marxist vision of working class revolution that takes place at the highest stage of capitalism was now gets replaced by possibilities of proletarian revolutions that break the weaker imperialist links of world capitalist system. Lenin walked in a different path against absolutist tendencies. The concept of history that moves with an essential purpose towards a predetermined point was abandoned. Now, in the observations of Lenin, revolution is not the one that takes place at a predetermined point. By seeing capitalism as the chain of imperialism, Lenin affirms the connections between colonialism and capitalism.
If the class contradictions and the relations between different social sections are not the result of production relations or economic relations, if it is over-determined by the linkages between each country and the global capitalist system, it cannot be said that there are fundamental principles that will tend to solve these problems. We are reaching a point that will see the primacy of politics in all fields. Lenin’s position could be well differentiated from the approach of Mensheviks, as he recognized the primacy and importance of political struggles. When Lenin says about the concrete analysis of concrete situations, he focuses mainly on the political relations between classes. The analysis and understanding of political relations lead to political struggles. It was these positions that recognized the importance of political struggles that gave Lenin sufficient strength to say about the path of revolution in colonial countries, through the colonial thesis. Although the working class was seen as the leadership of revolution, even after putting forward the concept of People’s democratic revolution, it was the Leninist position that helps in the formation of united front in the period of anti Fascist struggle and in forming a new approach that lead Mao to see the farmers and other exploited sections of the society as the moving force of Chinese revolution.
Even though Lenin’s positions were important, it had its own severe limitations. It was ambiguous. Although it states about the primacy of political struggles, that idea had not been included in the theoretical project of Marxism. Now, Leninism reduced as a theory of revolution and failed to become a theory of society. Lenin failed to emphasize on the fact that there is no essence of social system other than political relations between different classes. The approach of seeing working class as the selected one for emancipation was not discarded. Because of the limitations of the positions of the Comintern, economic determinism established upper hand on several occasions. By the time of Stalinism, through a mechanical materialistic approach, Marxism was established as a system of eternal truths. It was Stalinism that led Marxism to a static state. Stalinism transforms Marxism in to a religion. The positions of Stalinism still appeared under the banner of Marxism, in disguise. Now, the duty of all real Marxists is to emancipate and protect Marxism from the Stalinist static state.
The limitations of Comintern were well revealed in the years of struggle against Fascism, in the period of Stalin itself. It was the period of united front formed against Fascism. The resolution of Dimitrov, presented at the seventh Comintern congress, on the role of communist party in growing struggles against Fascism for democratic rights, created certain suspicions. It sees the formation of united front against fascism, only at a tactical level. The united front formed for struggles against Fascism was not a front of class mass organizations. People from all the fields of activity united in this front against Fascism. This shows that there are tendencies within Classical Marxism that moves to the abandonment of essentialism and new political logics started to replace it. If this process could not go further, it was largely due to political conditions that repressed all intellectual creativity. It was an occasion which clearly establishes that the political categories to be addressed by the communist movement are not only class based organizations. We have to address multifaceted social contradictions that arose in the society under the leadership of several social sections. The Comintern failed to recognize it. It was Antonio Gramsci who upholds this line of thought.
Antonio Gramsci’s thought was a continuation and a break, at the same time, of Leninism. Lenin’s insight of history, that sees its motion not in simple logic, could be seen in Gramsci. But, contrary to Lenin, Gramsci sees the primacy of political struggles not only in the moments of revolution, but he created a theory that states the primacy of political struggles that correlates all social situations unambiguously. But he kept the concept of a selected class for the emancipation of humanity. To secure political hegemony, the Communist Party should withdraw all narrow economic interests and visions by securing intellectual and cultural hegemony. For this, it should make combines and alliances with different social sections of the society. Gramsci called it as a historical friendship. Such an upper structure is necessary for keeping and breaking the bonds and linkages with the base. Gramsci says that, to overcome the static cultural states created by religion in the society, Marxism should be able to serve the spiritual needs of people. Gramsci sees over and above the establishment of political power by Communist Party.
If we are able to recognize the metaphysical elements in the theorization of an emancipatory class and also aware of the present concrete situations, it will led as to withdraw the concept of proletarian dictatorship. Now, the communist movement should be changed into a great friendship of different social categories. Communist Party should transform into a friendship and uniting force that mutually collects the independent workings of different social groups that having their own independent motion. This unity is not the one that is to be conceptually formed, but the one to be constructed through mutual understandings and working in the society. The different social organizations are not the well known frontal organizations or the class mass organizations. The different social groups will undertake the works in their own specialized fields. Here, the social working in the field of women, dalits, environment...is not an appendix of working in the economic field. But, these social groups are not those ones that involved in their identity only. They are not negligent about their social positions or commitment to society. Communist party is a friendship of all those social groups capable of independent motion.
But, the determination of the Party not to fall into economic reductionism is not a way to avoid the imperialist system of exploitation or the relative importance of economic situations. Social contradictions are not of absolute nature, we can see inherent uncertainties in it. We have to see the importance of class contradictions in the society; the exploitation unleashed by the capitalist system and the very important fact that the capitalism is not capable of circumventing the contradictions between capital and working force. But, along with this, we should always remember the fact that there are moments in history at which the reproduction relations, caste problem or environmental problems are more important than production relations. There are many points of antagonism between capitalism and various sections of the population and this means that we will have a variety of anti-capitalist struggles. The essentialist approach that Capitalist expansion will essentially lead to socialism must be abandoned. On the contrary, our experiences have already been clearly showed that the capitalist expansion is now leading to environmental degradation and to the deterioration of earth and the civilization. Like any other field, that of economic relations is also a field of political struggles. But it is impossible to explain the motion in economic field using simple, essentialist laws. Communist Party should interfere in all fields along with the field of economic relations and should acquire intellectual and cultural hegemony in the civil society. Capturing the state power is not the only aim of the communist party. Civil society is its main working centre. As Gramsci pointed out, the main duty of the communist party is to reduce and shorten the political sphere that contain state power, the oppressive tools like police, court...and to enhance the growth of self reliant common sphere in the civil society. The reduction of political sphere may lead to the possibility of withering away of state power. We are locating socialism in a wider field of democratic revolution that founded on the plurality of social agents and their struggles. The field of social conflicts extended, not reduced to a privileged class. This indicates that democratic struggles have no final point of arrival, there will always be contradictions, and there will always be history. Fukuyama’s concept of end of history abandoned, here.
Mythologized history combined with the anti-Muslim attitude and upper caste prejudices constitute the ideology of the characteristically aggrandising Hindu nationalism. The Brahmin and other landed upper castes believe that their status and power had suffered under the Muslim rulers who plundered temples, killed the Hindu kings, led their queens to the pyre and destroyed the glorious Hindu civilisation of great sages. This ideology, nurtured by them as the basis of Hindu nationalism, had come up steadily as ‘backdoor nationalism’ from the days of the Freedom Struggle to the present (Bipan Chandra, 2008). Since majority of the educated upper caste Hindus of postcolonial India were influenced by the Nehruvian, socialist, secular, rationalist, inclusive nationalism of modernity, there were lesser opportunities for the orthodox and casteist communal Hindu groups to carry forward their ideological agenda beyond a point.
Nevertheless, these groups, relatively insignificant, sustained themselves through distorted history, religious intolerance and communal riots. They acquired greater following and state power under the aegis of the political economy of the onset of capitalist globalisation in the late 1980s when the IMF, World Bank and WTO had begun to impose neo-liberalism heavily. Subsequently the entailing widespread corruption and the nasty tradeoff in the regional party-politics, which grew rampant under the Congress gave the Hindu communalists a chance again to wield state power towards the end of 1990s. Now the Hindutva groups are again in power ending the grossly corrupt crony capitalist reign of the Congress, and many of the new generation upper caste youth with communal and caste sentiments kindled under grievances against the national policy of educational and employment reservations for the subaltern castes and women, are dallying with temptations around the power. Whenever, the Hindu communal groups wielded the state power, communalisation of history by the RSS had become a national programme of top priority.
Hindu communalists who include several scientists, technologists, Sanskrit scholars, archaeologists, historians and others even today sincerely believe in the glorious past of India distinct for the rare systems of knowledge generated and spiritually endowed by great sages of supernatural or extra sensory powers. The rare legacy of this glorious Hindu civilisation is firmly believed to have been singled down to destruction by the Mohammedan invasion earlier and to vitiation of its cultural heritage by the British conquest and Christianisation later. In recent times several non-resident Indian academics moved by factoids have taken on mythologizing the country’s past as part of their de-colonisation enterprise. Many rich immigrants with lot of finance capital are running huge research projects for retrieving Hindu Civilization out of the Mohammedan ruination and the colonial vitiation.
There are two types, the old and new, among the Hindutva enthusiasts. Arguments of the old Hindu communalists are widely known for their straightforward antagonism towards the Mohammedans. Different from the orthodox scholars of bizarre notions about the country’s past Hindu culture, the neo-Hindutva type are modern and hence pseudo-scientific in their explanations of the bizarre. They argue that the non-Western cultures, particularly the south Asian, which differ from the characterisation prevalent in the West whose cultural identity is founded on the Christian religion, necessitate an analysis of the ‘how’ of the construction of religions and cultural differences in India. They feel the need for a thorough re-doing of the intellectual and social history of South Asia, in order to demonstrate as to how it was shaped without having a hegemonic explanatory account of the Cosmos decisive, becomes obligatory. This is indeed a good idea, but why are they not doing it? Ultimately both the types serve the same purpose of communalisation of the people by mythologizing and mystifying their past.
The Neo-Hindutva scholars do not have the linguistic competency to do their project, for most of them are academics not initiated in Sanskrit or historiography. Many are technologists and industrialists. They debunk history and historians’ craft as what the colonised uncritically accepted from the West and passed on to their progenies who could only perpetuate Eurocentrism. According to the neo-Hindutva enthusiasts what Indians need is their cultural past that Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata and Purāṇa-s contain, i.e., the past ‘as existed or exists in reality for the natives of India’ (S.N. Balagangadhara, 2005 & 2012). The institutions like the varṇa, jāti, sati, and stridhana are allegedly constructs by historians of Western consciousness, who distort the Hindu past as the way Western people experienced Indian culture, which they argue, speaks ‘more about the Western civilisation than the native Indian civilisation.’ The neo-Hindutva enthusiasts say that the true history of India is what the epics and Purana-s contain, access to which is being denied to the people due to the European and Marxist misrepresentations of the country’s sacred texts like Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata besides the traditional chronicles like the Purāṇa-s. Alas ! It appears that jāti, sati and all kinds of other institutions of Hinduism, exposed by historians and social scientists atrocious, are in his presumption integral to intrinsic human values of Indian culture (R.Gurukkal, 2014). Compared to the ways and means of the orthodox scholars who had believed in what they preached, the strategies of neo-Hindutva scholars are pretentiously academic and sophisticated in their mythologizing of the Indian past. They hardly believe in what they seek to academically argue out. Not trained in historiography and least acquainted with the traditional texts unlike the orthodox scholars, ultimately they go by mythological accounts and factoids, but very cleverly.
Unable to take up the real academic challenge behind their grand project, the neo-Hindutva scholars end up with argumentation without any substance. They should have acquired scholarship to comprehend the contextual relationship between the past texts and the nature of their historical, cultural consciousness. A detailed treatment of the embedded tradition represented by the fragmentary narratives from the Vedas, the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana is necessary, for which they have no technical competence. It requires analysis of the emerging past consciousness as exemplified by genealogies in the making of a historical tradition in the Purana-s. Then one has to ascertain the historical sense in the texts, alternative histories as exemplified by the Buddhist tradition and the externalization of the historical tradition as exemplified by biographies like the Harshacarita and the Rāmacarita. Uninitiated in historical methodology and unable to access the original texts, they escape from substantiating the thesis through a demonstration of how ancient Indian intellectual formation and cultural context are distinct.
Romila Thapar is the only scholar who has done a deeper analysis of all this, but the neo-Hindutva academics have not cared for reading her study of the historical consciousness and its expressions reflected in the texts of early northern India (R.Thapar, 2013). Instead they seem to recommend the Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata and Purāṇa-s as true history, despite their being composed over a long period of time by multiple authors. They do not know that there are multiple versions of Rāmāyaṇa belonging to disparate periods. There is the Buddhist version called Daśaratha Jātaka and the Jain version called Paumachariyam. These versions contradict the Valmiki version of Rāmāyaṇa. Which version is to be treated as genuine history? Similarly Mahābhārata took several centuries to evolve itself into its present state. Its earliest form was Jaya consisting of some twelve thousand couplets. The next form namely, Vijaya was an expanded version. Then it became Bhārata and finally Mahābhārata. Which form is to be considered the true version of history – a part or the whole?
How do we determine the date of events in the multiple forms ? Purāṇa-s are many and of widely separated periods between second century and eighteenth century. There are a few Purāṇa-s belonging even to recent times. How do we decide the date and sequence of events in these multiple Purāṇa-s? Which of the Purāṇa-s is to be treated as history? These are not problems for the Hindutva enthusiasts, for they do not know such details of these texts that they equate to history. If a knowledgeable historian points out such problems and speak about the plurality of textual versions and their widely separated periods the Hindutva scholars would accuse the person of being Western or Marxist. That the Buddhist Daśaratha Jātaka and the Jain Paumachariyam contradict the Valmiki Rāmāyaṇa or that certain parts of the Mahābhārata seen in Jātaka-s contradict with the Brahmanical version, is not just a Western misinterpretation or Marxist erasing of continuity and originality of India’s past (R.Thapar, 2013). So do the contradictions appearing in the inscriptional texts. Similarly the fact that we cannot pinpoint any one of the Purāṇa-s as authentic is not the fallout of the Leftist conspiracy. Accessing of history beyond such texts through inter-textual analysis is a universally accepted procedure in the case of literary sources. It is evident from the efforts even by Sanskrit scholars and text based historians to support mythologizing history that they are ignorant of the scientific techniques of analysing texts. Least bothered about the text in terms of its variants, they do not require methods to confirm the historicity, and imply that both historicity and history are irrelevant to them. Hardly do they seem to feel the need to think about the audience, the purpose and the patronage of the text in the past at the different stages of its composition.
Instead of methodologically updating themselves, the neo-Hindutva scholars re-assert the need for retrieving the Indians from their colonial consciousness by decolonising them with postcolonial theoretical insights. Their concern is more about rejuvenating postcolonial ways of representing the West rather than how one could evolve an alternative understanding of the East. How a comparative science of cultures can be conceived of has been their main question because for them a culture is the way a particular social group generates a process of learning to learn (meta- learning). They maintain that meta-learning dominates and crystallize to structure its way of going about understanding the world (R.Gurukkal, 2014). By way of self-justification for being evasive about the task all by themselves, they say that their allocated job (providential ?) is only preparing the ground for building up a huge mansion of alternative social sciences, which is not a job, that a few books or one generation of scholars can accomplish. Their project of mobilising a big team across continents and organizing a big consortium of European and Indian Universities for re-thinking Asian culture is part of this groundwork. Nonetheless, shouldn’t their disciples be shown a sample output of the so called radical mode of re-thinking that they have been preaching?
There is nothing strikingly fresh about the decolonising perspective with which the neoHindutva academics are obsessed. Like colonisation, decolonisation also came from the West. Michel Foucault tried to do its archaeology and genealogy of the knowledge production and its organisation and classification, which was the major source for Edward Said’s discursive processes of how the West went to terms with the East by constituting the latter its opposite. Dismissing such studies replete with jargons, the neo-Hindutva academics express the central problems of modern India studies and potential direction for the socialscientific study of the Indian culture, their central concern. Debunking history and social sciences as mere theological reflection, what is this social scientific study that they propose? They are entrapped in Hussurlian double bind with an antithesis of the West formulated in European positivist ideography, just as post-structuralists sought the language of structuralism to capsize it. On the one side stressing the need for an alternative understanding of the Western culture and blaming it a reflection of Protestant theology, yearning for a social scientific study on the other, is a trap. It is a pity that the radical decolonising agents have not only to try and construct knowledge against the West in the western positivist empirical methodology and articulate it in the knowledge-language of the West but also as construed by the West. This would mean that colonial consciousness is the political unconscious of their writings. Why blame other Indians allegedly promoting the same old colonial ideas and lacking original framework, when the neo-Hindutva scholars themselves have no framework of comprehension other than the colonial. They say exactly as the coloniser accused long ago that the ‘native Indian’ knows no Indian view of India. What is this so called Indian view of India ? That is what the neo-Hindutva scholars see articulated in the epics and Purāṇa-s. They think that these texts help us formulate alternative definitions of culture, colonialism, secularism, and orientalism.
There is a striking self-contradiction in the arguments of neo-Hindutva scholars. They argue that their mythologizing of India’s past is scientific. In fact, according to them it is science itself. Interestingly, the main defect of the Western way of understanding the world, according to the neo-Hindutva philosopher is that it is unscientific! (S.N. Balagangadhara, 2012). Is not Newton’s Principia scientific? Though it was called Natural Philosophy during his times, we know that in 19th century when the term science began to be applied exclusively to the type of knowledge that Principia embodied.
The neo-Hindutva philosopher would call it unscientific because of a reflection of the Christian theology in it. Least reflexive about the historical constitution of science, the philosopher goes self-contradictory in his celebration and promotion of pseudo-science as science. The neo-Hindutva philosopher is a victim of internalising the Western cognitive mode, logical structure, constitutional texture and communicative strategy of knowledge in science final. Not only the West and the colonised, but all including himself (now in the state of ‘enlightenment’) are subsumed by it.1 How this Hindutva mission to make the ‘alternative science of culture’ scientific goes well with the equation of Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata to history or celebrating of jāti (not caste), sati and all kinds of other institutions of Hinduism as integral to intrinsic human values of Indian culture, is the problem. This is a self-contradictory position of equating science with epics. Is this way the colonised getting out of the historically given influence of colonial consciousness? Several historians and social scientists, allegedly of ‘colonial consciousness,’ are at least aware of the epistemic injustice involved in the imposition of science as the only universally valid truth. This would mean that it was the so called ‘colonial consciousness’ that empowered them to discover the imperialist substratum of science.
The neo-Hindutva philosopher should try and understand how historians of India have sought to wrench themselves away from the shackles of colonial historiography. They know that the current definition of what constitutes history is based on European understanding of its own past, which has been considerably enlarged in recent times, with the enlightenment emphasizing the notion of progress, and Marx and Weber seeking fundamental laws governing historical forms. Although not altogether free of Western presumptions, Indian historiography had a course of development through Nationalist reactions against the imperial views. Indian historians of modern times have shown a sense of history in conformity with how history is defined in modern times. In the sense that the history of every age has been representation of contemporary consciousness, they had asked much before this neoHindutva philosopher’s articulation of the thesis of ‘colonial consciousness,’ as to how come that the colonial European sense of history, which was contemporary consciousness too, could set the universal normative (R.Gurukkal, 2014). Are we justified in judging the historicity of early writing in the light of the criteria of what we define as history, which are impermanent too ? Just because the various texts of the past do not match the contemporary genre called history, can we, succumbing to the Western prejudice, continue to deny the existence of past consciousness, with the implicit presumption that there is no historical sense other than the contemporary sense of history ? Since historical consciousness has been taking different forms from time to time how could any particular form be superior? Could we insist that the status of history in a past text to be what one would construe today? 1 [On 7 July 2014, he declared himself ‘enlightened,’ a clear indication of the creation of a charismatic aura for constituting his following with the status of a cult.]
The neo-Hindutva philosophers should study forms, features, structure, constitution and dynamic of traditional Indian knowledge in the perspective of historical epistemology. It, then would really enlighten them about the fact that ‘every society sees its past in a particular way, which it may refer to as history or not, but which is relevant to understanding that society’(R.Thapar, 2013). There is no epistemological discontinuity between the Indian and the Western in several fields of knowledge like astronomy, mathematics and linguistics. Epistemological principles such as rationality, objectivity, verifiability, proof and notion of truth in the enterprise of knowledge production made no difference between the East and West. Epistemological properties like premises, inferential logic, nature of evidence, and concept of truth about traditional Indian knowledge, with a view to understanding the historical trajectory of the advancement of knowledge, the historical development of knowledge in traditional India, in terms of epistemic concepts like objectivity, rationality, methodology, and fundamental concepts that organize knowledge systems of different historical periods. It was hard work, sustained engagement, genuine curiosity and critical inquiry as in the case of the intellectual anywhere in the world, which enabled early Indian scholars to generate deeper knowledge. Why mystify them as sages of supernatural powers and extrasensory perception when some of them at least make their methodology explicit?
Several Hindutva archaeologists and historians tacitly over-defensive of the BJP rule criticise the rational historians and social scientists engaged in resisting the move towards mythologizing and mystifying the country’s unpleasant social truth about the past as well as the present. They are branded as Leftists and Marxists hypocritically claiming scientific outlook and moral high ground to cry-wolf the issue of spreading false consciousness among people through distorted history. The Hindutva lobby accuse them of dominating historical bodies like the Indian Council of Historical Research, the Indian History Congress etc., turning them into arenas of political and financial manipulation, imposing the blinkered view of history on the discipline, deliberately sidelining, discriminating, ostracizing and depriving the critics of professional opportunities since the 1970s (R.Gurukkal, 2016). One would immediately feel like asking what prevented them from rectifying all this when they were in power during 1998-2004. Anyway, such trifling remarks in frustration deserve no reply, but those with academic criticisms, ostensible though, have to be answered, for they try and debunk critical scholarship in historiography.
One thing that the assailants make clear through accusations is their hostility to the Leftists in general and Marxists in particular. But they seem to be failing to identify their enemies, for they think any historian critical of the BJP Government could be either a Marxist or a Leftist. It appears from the allegations that any historian of rational approach distinguishing history from myths and factoids is their enemy too. Their main irritant to them in rational historiography is its critical explanatory method free of narrow sentiments and pride. A widely accepted fact that distinguishes rational history from the sentimental is its intellectual depth and theoretical preoccupation. A fact of wide acceptance about history is its inseparability from theory that enables a historian to make the invisible, visible and the inaudible, audible. Theory is indispensable for a historian to sensibly piece together, manage the bewilderingly complex old time data and draw critical insights into them. It is widely known that historical materialism is the only comprehensive theory available for interpreting the past social processes, relations and structures. How can historians afford to be abstaining from theory and remaining ignorant of historical materialism? Nevertheless, for both communalists and liberalists who are largely idealists of low level analytical sensibility, Marxism is a blinkered view, biased and reductionist. Accusing the other of bias is largely due to the ignorance about the biased self. Reductionism is not the theory’s problem but that of the approach, for in serious Marxist historiography one sees interpretations, strikingly differing from one another. Where is the question of blinkered view in a framework of comprehension that allows hypothetico-deductive investigation? What the Hindutva historians’ prejudice denotes is distaste for theory, the secret of sustained obsolescence from which their ignorant criticisms emanate.
Their academic criticisms against the ‘Left’ historians are in the form of allegations such as the reductionist approach to history, erasure of India’s knowledge systems, denial of the continuity and originality of India’s Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh culture, refusal to acknowledge the well-documented the brutality of many Muslim rulers, neglect of tribal histories, biased use of sources, neglect of scientific data from palaeo-environmental to genetic studies, absence of professional ethics, pernicious imposition of legislated history, and promotion of contempt for cultural heritage. The allegation that the Marxist historiography is tainted by ‘a reductionist approach viewing the evolution of Indian society almost entirely through the prism of the caste system, emphasizing its mechanisms of exclusion while neglecting those of integration without which Indian society would have disintegrated long ago,’ exposes ignorance about Marx’s theory of social change, in which ‘class’ has precedence over ‘caste.’ Marxist historiography stresses on the function of caste as part of the fetters of productive relations, and systematically unveils the secret of integration. It does not neglect at all the role that caste played in enduring the contradictory structure of the Indian society by containing class struggle. It is surprising that they take pride about caste without which the Indian society ‘would have disintegrated long ago’ (R.Gurukkal, 2016)
Who has erased India’s knowledge systems – those Leftists/Marxists who tried to show that serious knowledge systems of traditional India had adhered to epistemic principles such as rationality, objectivity, verifiability, and notion of truth in their production or those philologists who tried to mystify the origins of knowledge system by assigning them to extrasensory abilities and super-natural powers of sages ? It is in the writings of the former, not exhaustively though, that we see critical inquiries unravelling the logical procedures behind the knowledge systems of early India (D. Chattopadhyaya, 1977, 1986, 1991, 1996). What the accusers consider as erasure is the academic exercise in humanising the past knowledge systems by looking for the epistemic universals behind their production and on the basis of which characterising some of them axiomatic and some others scientific due to insistence of proof.
The allegation of the Leftist ‘denial of the continuityThe allegation of the Leftist ‘denial of the continuity and originality of India’s Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh culture, ignoring the work of generations of Indian and Western Indologists’ is based on methodological ignorance. What they mean by ‘continuity and originality’ has to be examined against the source texts concerned and the methodological devices for using them for historical understanding. It is in total ignorance of all this they accuse the Leftists of the denial of the continuity and originality of India’s Hindu-BuddhistJain-Sikh culture, and ignoring the work of generations of Indian and Western Indologists.’ Allegations about the biased use of sources and promotion of contempt for cultural heritage actually stem from this basic methodological obsolescence. In fact, who stops them from historicising the Hindu identity, rationality, progressiveness and legitimacy scientifically? Instead of making an idealistic call from the pulpit for ‘an unbiased and rigorous new historiography of India,’ why are they not going ahead with their long-cherished project of re-writing India’s past. Why cry about the Leftists’ neglect of advanced Indological researches in the last few decades, rather than taking on them all by themselves? If the socalled archaeologists have developed alternative perspectives after considerable research, the scholarly world would have accepted them. Why blame the Leftists to have sidelined them rather than looking into what failed them in securing scholarly recognition?
The Marxist and Leftist historians are alleged to have refused to accept the welldocumented brutality of many Muslim rulers, empirical studies exposing their wartime plunders and religious attacks. Indeed such predatory campaigns were brutal and the historians, who sought to expose the hollowness of communal interpretations, had to be in a historiographical struggle for the cause of secularism. This was not to hush up the events of brutality but to unveil the actual historical context for checking the historiographically contingent communalism that unleashes acts of vengeance upon the present day population that has nothing to do with the past events. The neo-Hindutva historians accuse the Marxist historians to have neglected the tribal history. We owe the relative neglect of tribal histories to various factors including the lack of data and promotion of methodological sophistication for writing the history of the people without history (B. Misztal, 2003; E.Wolf, 2010). I do not think that the Leftists can be singled down as responsible for it in any way, for the major part of the work already done goes not to the credit of Hindutva scholars (K.S. Singh, 1985; B.B. Chaudhurri & A. Bandopadhyay, 2004; and Sanal Mohan, 2015). Anyhow, has anyone among the accusers studied ‘India’s tribal communities and their rich belief systems and heritage? Who has studied the tribal cultures to enable the sweeping generalization that they have many things in common with the Hindu religion? Let us not talk about the neglect of scientific data, since the serious readership know how regional archaeo-metallurgical studies are labeled as Indian with nothing Indian about. It is explicit why the casteist and communal historians are interested in genetic studies today.
All that is discussed so far, which underscores methodological preoccupation, exposes the Hindutva historians’ total lack of professional ethics. It is largely due to their ignorance in social scientific methodology that they tend to denigrate those who use it for writing early Indian history, because it questions the Hindu communal distortion. They seem to be unaware of the process of the existing knowledge undergoing improvement or even replacement by new knowledge that is increasingly analytical, self-reflexive and critical. In fact, a high degree of reflexivity is inevitable for those indulging in the study of early Indian history. It is essential for them to be preoccupied in methodology, without which their knowledge base goes obsolete and criticisms become exhibits of ignorance.
Purpose of Mythologising
The primary goal of mythologizing the past is the cultural preparation the people into an uncritical public. People exposed to rational knowledge are normally inspired by the deeper dimension of it that has a radical critical stance based on the fire of social justice. Ethical postulates are integral to deeper knowledge that is inherently subversive and critical, for it unveils the hidden unjust practices in human affairs and social processes (B. Latour and C. Poter, 2004; P. Freire, 2005). In the process of acquisition of rational knowledge one experiences this subversive dynamic and develops critical consciousness. Critical consciousness, the most vital attribute of quality learning, may vary between the liberal pragmatic and the radical critical theoretical type (M. Horton, 2003, S.D. Brookfield, 2005). Of all critical stances, critical theory based criticism ranks foremost, for it is raised right against the dominant socio-economic and politico-cultural power that the state embodies. People with this radical level of critical consciousness are emboldened to speak truth to power.
Our education is divested of its critical quality by historically contingent social structural devices which thinkers have theorised differently. What the dominant economy (Technocapitalism popularly called knowledge economy) needs is a well disciplined, workaholic and apolitical youth trained in various skills. Whatever education that produces this robotic youth is quality education or innovative education to it. As a result, critical consciousness is almost alien to our pedagogy at all levels. One is supposed to be acquiring critical consciousness in the process of higher education; but it hardly happens today. Even the critical attitude of a liberal pragmatic kind, which spontaneously comes up in any educated citizen of democratic values, passions and ethical postulates, is uncommon today.
In the capitalist world the critical dimension of knowledge is not easily available to all because of its being incessantly diffused and strategically distracted. Knowledge production is an alienated and highly encumbered activity, inevitably under the systemic control of capitalism. There is a strong, built-in system for depoliticizing the students through the process of acquisition of knowledge. Spread of the myth that knowledge is invariably neutral is the basic strategy. Delinking of knowledge with social reality is another strategy. Yet another strategy is the conversion of knowledge itself as part of the rhetoric and ideology of capitalism. They draw blank about the social use or consequences of it. They become neutral, self-centred, apolitical and least perturbed by social consequences if any. Subsequently they constitute the larger public of conformity, totally bereft of critical thinking.
Karl Marx called the process as ideological control of the emerging critical impulses. Michel Foucault named the phenomenon as discursive control and Pierre Bourdieu identified it as habitus. In neo-Marxist social theory this process is known as autopoiesis (N. Luhmann, 1990; I. Livingston, 2006). It operates in myriads of ways through the entire people, relations, institutions, practices, ideas and spaces. Knowledge is a very crucial object of autopoietic control and hence its production as well as transmission would not escape the influence of autopoiesis. Naturally education, one of the most powerful social institutions, is inevitably a major channel of operation for autopoietic power. Its main function is containment of antithetical elements in the capitalist socio-economic system involving dehumanising processes and relations, which could otherwise cause upsurges. Autopoietic strategies of containment would act as a safety valve averting systemic overturns.
Nevertheless, it is a significant need of capitalism to transform the general public without any exposure to higher education into an apolitical and uncritical mass. It is mainly for this purpose that the corporate houses make an alliance with the Hindu communalists aspiring to be de facto actors in the aggrandising national state power. The Hindutva middleclass lobby is desirous of a fascist state for aggressively accomplishing a Hindu nation of communal exclusiveness and casteist orthodoxy. Techno-capitalist corporate houses want a crony capitalist state for juridico-political protection and financial patronage through diversion of public revenue as well as natural resources for expanding their enterprises. This alliance between the state and its middleclass actors is a natural development in advanced capitalism.
A state sponsored mythologizing and communalising of the country’s history by debunking rational, secular historiography has to be viewed against the background of the alliance between the Hindutva aspirants of de facto state power and corporate capitalists. Both the groups at the outset need to turn the general public into an uncritical mass. Substitution of rational history with mythological accounts can prevent the rise of critical consciousness in the people. Mythical accounts of the past can trigger antiquarian interests and develop blind sentiments and devotion to the idea of Hindu nationalism. Mythology is enough for them for it keeps people emotionally encumbered. Explanatory historical accounts providing insights into the problems of the present empowering the poor people are not only the unwanted but also the impermissible for them. While the mythologised past full of semidivine heroes excites people’s pride, the rational historical accounts educate them about the past misery due to relations of exploitation, institutions of oppression and structures of domination. One engenders a politically disengaging uncritical mass of people, while the other promotes the formation of a political people craving for emancipation.
Both the Hindu as well as Muslim communalists are ideologically in the same track of ungrounded history, for distorted history is the only ideological means of self justification for them (Bipan Chandra, 2008). Their mutual exclusionism is based on the single question, who should rule India. Communalists of all types distort and glorify an imagined past and disregard the people’s everyday life of the present. It is the veneration of the nation as an abstract semi-divine notion rather than the realisation of a concrete territorial nation inclusiveness assured of the citizens’ peaceful co-existence and collective welfare, which matters to the Hindutva ideologues. It turns the people susceptible to deadly sentiments of caste and religion, and degenerates nationalism into false consciousness. An immediate manifestation of it is social intolerance of the de facto type, the clearest symptom of advanced fascist cultural preparation. This is how the inevitable ontological convergence of communal essentialism and revivalism on the politics of fascism happens (P. Bourdieu, 1991).
Impairment of democracy, the inevitable consequence of capitalist development, has been progressing in the country for the last two decades, and slowly turning the democratic state into functional autocracy as a system of the corporates driven bureaucracy–political heads combine. The process is accelerated under Techno-capitalism run by corporate houses, heavily dependent on the transaction of new knowledge in science and technology, for enhanced accumulation through trading in intellectual property rights and patents (A. Feenberg, 1991; M. Perelmal, 2004). It has given rise to ‘corporatocracy,’ a new type of governance that enmeshes and destroys democracy (L. Suarez-Villa, 2012). In India corporates have succeeded in intensifying their state control under the dominance of the BJP that mobilises people’s acceptance of functional autocracy through the rhetoric of national development and communal cultural preparations by penetrating into all bodies of educational policy-making in general and historical research in particular.
Attempts at a slow process of legislating fascism have been set in during the previous government under the mask of neo-liberal structural adjustments. Bringing the whole higher education under a single regulator by replacing democratic bodies was tried througthe NHE&R Bill (2011) first and now through NHA Bill 2015. The high level environment committee headed by TSR Subrahmanian, a retired bureaucrat gave its Report (2014) recommending the scrapping of all Pollution Control Acts, Wildlife and Forest Conservation Acts for making diversion of land and natural resources for corporate industrial establishments. Fortunately both the houses of the Parliament disallowed the Bill. Now the same Bill is back again as ESA Amendments Notification (2015). TSR Subrahmanian is heading the drafting committee of the New Education Policy 2016 with three other retired bureaucrats and one name-sake academic. These Bills designed by bureaucrats under the direction of corporates, repeatedly pushed forward to the houses of the Parliament indicate sustained moves towards legislating functional autocracy. They are symptomatic of the measured death of democracy.
The Hindutva academicians’ specific interest in the policy making institutions of educational and cultural affairs is making the agenda explicit. Pick the children for ideological social preparation aiming the making of the youth into an assortment of uncritical and apathetic individuals is the strategy. This explains why the Hindutva lobby is eager to quell the dissent of even the liberal pragmatic kind through repressive measures like branding the dissidents as terrorists and traitors. There are attempts at erasing the cultural signatures of other religions through certain apparently legitimate substitutes as exemplified by the case of the governmental imposition of the observance of ‘the good governance day’ on the Christmas Day. Asking through Government Orders the Navodaya Vidyalayas, Schools under the Central Board of Secondary Education, the Central Universities, Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management to the celebration the birth anniversaries of Atal Behari Vajpayee and Madan Mohan Malaviya is an example of disguised communalisation. Bringing in changes in the schemes and contents of education for nurturing communal divisiveness and hatred among the people of one religion against the other has been in progress. Mythologising the public consciousness will go on in various ways and means under unstinted state support, because it is a crucial need of the political economy to silence the oppressed and exploited.
1. Balagangadhara, S.N. The Heathen in His Blindness: Asia, the West, and the Dynamic of Religion (Revised edition, New Delhi, Manohar, 2005
2. Balagangadhara, S.N. Reconceptualising India Studies, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012.
3. Bourdieu, Pierre. The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991, pp. 3-4
4. Chandra, Bipan. Communalism in Modern India, Har Anand Publishers, Delhi, 2008.
5. Chattopadhyaya, D. History of Science and Technology in Ancient India, Vol.1: The Beginnings (1986) Calcutta: Firma KLM; Vol.2. Formation of the Theoretical Fundamentals of Natural Science 1991, Vol.3. Astronomy, Science and Society, 1996
6. Chattopadhyaya, D. Science and Society in Ancient India, K.P. Bagchi and Company, Calcutta, 1977.
7. Chaudhuri, B.B. & A. Bandopadhyay, (eds.) Tribes, Forest and Social formation in Indian History. Manohar, New Delhi, 2004.
8. Feenberg, A., Critical Theory of Technology, Oxford University Press, New York, 1991
9. Graff, R.G., Reiskin E.D., White, A.L., Bidwell, K., Snapshots of Environmental Cost Accounting: A Report. US EPA Environmental Accounting Project, New York, 1998
10. Gurukkal, R. “A Blindness about India,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. XLIX No.49, December 6, 2014, pp.12-15
1. The Communist forces the world over are observing the centenary of the October Revolution for a year starting from the 7th November, 2016 to 7th November next year for carrying forward the world proletarian socialist revolution by drawing lessons from it. The international Coordination of Revolutionary Parties and Organizations (ICOR) has also called for observing it internationally. These programs are being organized when the International Communist Movement (ICM) is passing through a critical period. It is generally accepted among the Marxist-Leninist forces that the communist movement started facing these severe challenges and setbacks from the time of the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 when it embraced revisionist positions abandoning the socialist path utilizing subjective attacks on Stalin as a pretext. When the ICM and the Communist movement in different countries started confronting this crisis, the imperialist camp and its lackeys further intensified the counter revolutionary offensive against the revolutionary movement as a whole, which they had started from the time when the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848 as the platform of the Communist League. Marx and Engels had written in its beginning:“A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of Communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered in to a holy alliance to exorcise this specter”. When the ICM was facing crises and setbacks, especially after the disintegration of Soviet Union in 1991, these forces of the old world joined hands to ‘exorcise’ the Communist movement for ever in a more frenzied form, by screaming “end of history” and “socialism is dead”.
2. But with the beginning of this millennium, the situation has started changing though slowly. As imperialism in its neo colonial phase, and its lackeys have launched neo liberal policies to perpetuate their hegemony and plunder the world people and the natural resources in new, more barbarous forms, the major contradictions at international level became more intensified and numerous people’s movements started coming up against them in large number of countries. In short, once again the objective situation is becoming increasingly favorable for a new offensive by the revolutionary forces. This is the time when throwing away despondency, the communist forces have to start moving forward once again. The centenary celebrations of the October Revolution provide an excellent opportunity for taking stock of the past experiences and to prepare themselves to move forward throwing away old garbage and daring to seize the new opportunities. The Communist movement can take significant steps forward only by recognizing the setbacks suffered, finding the reasons for them, making concrete analysis of the present situation, and by developing its theoretical orientation and practice according to present realities, taking lessons from the positive and negative aspects of the past experiences.
3. It is in this context the importance of the Resolution on Launching Theoretical Offensive for Communist Resurgence adopted by the Tenth Congress of the CPI (ML) Red Star in 2015 should be viewed. It says: “What does such an offensive entail? (a) we have to undertake a thorough study and analysis to identify the causes of the collapse of the erstwhile socialist countries, especially Soviet Union and China; (b) we have to launch a vigorous ideological campaign to establish across society the superiority of communism over the present ruling system as well as against various alien tends; (c) we have to develop Marxism- Leninism on the basis of a concrete analysis of the concrete situation....” In the concluding paragraph it states: “...We must boldly seize the real questions before the people in today’s situation and must scientifically search out the solutions. We must unsparingly lay bare our own history, the history of the communists in India and all over the world...” It is based on this orientation we are trying to analyze the experience of the October Revolution and of the socialist construction in Soviet Union.
4. Nobody can obliterate the fact that it was the degeneration of the CPSU to capitalist path that led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union later. It was followed by the deviation of other socialist countries including China also to capitalist path. The Communist Parties of erstwhile socialist countries and the parties formed during the Comintern period in other countries degenerated to social democratic path or disintegrated. Though Marxist-Leninist parties or groups were formed in a large number of countries during the 1960s in the course of the struggle against Soviet revisionism, they soon came under left deviation and faced disintegration to numerous groups. While many of them have deviated to rightist positions, some are still persisting in the anarchist path. Not daring to confront the new realities and to develop their program and path accordingly, most of the other groups are facing liquidation. These developments have enormously helped the imperialist forces and their lackeys to launch an anti-communist offensive confusing large sections of people. This is a fact to be recognized and have to overcome.
5. While going through the history of the October Revolution in Tsarist Russia it can be seen that it was an arduous task to establish the revolutionary line there. While trying to do this, Lenin attacked the revisionists for completely neglecting the importance of ideological struggle. Exposing the counter-revolutionary character of this outlook, he said:”Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea should be insisted upon too strongly at a time like this when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity...At this point, we wish to state only that the role of the vanguard fighter can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the most advanced theory” (What is to be done?)
6. While analyzing the theoretical struggle led by Lenin to establish the line and practice of October Revolution, first of all it should be recognized that this first successful revolution by the working class to capture political power and to establish a socialist state making a rupture from the imperialist camp itself took place at the culmination of the theoretical and practical struggles taking place in Europe and North America against the capitalist system from the time of its emergence. As the class struggle intensified between the working class and all oppressed sections on the one hand and the capitalist system on the other, utopian and anarchist tendencies had emerged weakening the efforts to develop the theory and practice of revolution in the new situation. It was in the course of this struggle Marxism emerged and the Communist Manifesto was put forward providing the basic orientation of the struggle to overthrow the capitalist system and to lead world proletarian socialist revolution forward. Following it a series of proletarian struggles broke out in West European countries, especially in the advanced capitalist countries, challenging the capitalist system. These reached a peak with the working class in Paris capturing power and establishing the Paris Commune in 1871.
7. Before that the French Revolution had established the ideological motifs of the modern capitalist societies through its famous slogan: “liberty, equality, fraternity” and laid the foundation for secularism and democracy based on universal suffrage. Advancing from them, the Paris Commune provided a path forward through its revolutionary practice. Evaluating the lessons of the Paris Commune, Marx wrote:“The direct antithesis to the empire was the Commune. The cry of the “social republic” with which the February Revolution was ushered in by the Paris proletariat did but express a vague aspiration after a republic that was not only to supersede the monarchical form of class rule, but class rule itself. The Commune was the positive form of that republic”. Though the Commune was soon suppressed brutally by the combined forces of the capitalist states, it had given a new fillip to the working class movement.
8. At the same time the capitalist system itself was undergoing vast changes with the emergence and domination of finance capital transforming capitalism to its monopolistic era, to the era of imperialism. The imperialist powers soon succeeded in dividing the world among them territorially under colonial system, subjecting the colonies, semi-colonies and dependent countries to various forms of ruthless exploitation. While this colonial loot helped them to tide over the cycle of crises the capitalist system was facing and to weaken the class struggle in their own countries by bribing a section of the proletarian leaders, the labor aristocracy, at the same time it led to intensification of the inter-imperialist contradictions for re-division of the world. It was soon creating the possibilities for the outbreak of the First World War (FWW).
9. When the Second International (SI), which was formed reorganizing the First International after the experience of the Paris Commune, discussed these new developments, there were different interpretations of them among the social democratic parties who were its constituents. Many of them including the leaders of the German party which was playing a leading role in it refused to see the transformation of capitalist system to its moribund form, imperialism, as a more reactionary one. Still in the Basle Congress they had agreed that if the FWW breaks out, instead of supporting the imperialist bourgeoisie of their own countries they should try to turn the World War in to a civil war led by the proletariat to capture political power. But as the War broke out in 1914, most of them including the leaders of the German party went against it. Preaching theories like ultra imperialism they joined the war efforts of the ruling classes of their own countries. This degeneration of the theoretical and practical positions of these parties led to the liquidation of the SI in effect. These parties degenerated to reformist positions. Social democracy itself became a pronoun for renegacy. Many sections of the RSDLP of Tsarist Russia also had degenerated to this reformist position abandoning the path of class struggle.
10. It was in this critical phase Lenin put forward a scientific analysis of the imperialist system in his famous work, Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, as a more barbarous stage of capitalist system and pointed out that the centre of revolution has shifted from the developed capitalist countries to the ‘weak links of imperialist system’ including Russia and to the countries under colonial domination. Defeating the reformist and anarchist positions, he made a concrete analysis of the conditions in the Tsarist Russia explaining the imminent possibility of proletarian revolution in the country. Based on this understanding he developed its theoretical basis, program and path, and successfully led October Revolution to victory in 1917, leading to the founding of the first proletarian state, Soviet Union, uniting all nationalities, which were subjugated under Tsarist Russia, based on the right of self-determination including the right to secede. Consistently teaching the Bolsheviks, or the majority in the RSDLP, to turn the imperialist WW in to a civil war uniting the working class, the peasantry and the army men who were returning from the war fronts, uniting all sections of the Bolsheviks under a common banner in spite of differences on tactical line, Lenin led the revolution to victory. The workers’ state withdrew from the WW and proceeded to build a socialist society. These were momentous developments, breaking Soviet Union away from the imperialist world system.
11. Soon after the founding of Soviet Union, frightened by it the warring imperialist forces ended the War. They entered in to a truce and united to launch a ferocious attack on the proletarian state, imposing total economic sanctions against it. They supported the counter revolutionaries in the country to sabotage it from within also. Mobilizing the working class and all revolutionary masses, the Bolsheviks succeeded in defeating these all round attacks and to launch the socialist construction. Upholding the spirit of proletarian internationalism, the international communist movement was reorganized by replacing the liquidated SI with the Third International or Communist International (CI) which was popularly known as Comintern. Under the leadership of Lenin it put forward the strategic line of the world proletarian socialist revolution which included the two streams of revolution: the people’s democratic revolution in the countries under colonial domination and socialist revolution in the imperialist countries. The salvos of October Revolution thus created conditions for the formation of Communist parties in large number of countries, very soon challenging the imperialist system and its lackeys everywhere. These were historic developments.
12. The newly born socialist state confiscated the properties of the capitalist and landlord classes, brought the industries under the leadership of workers’ soviets, implemented revolutionary land reforms based on the principle of ‘land to the tillers’ and took up the challenge of socialist construction mobilizing the masses in spite of the economic blockade of the imperialist forces and the backwardness of the economy of the pre-revolutionary Russia. It was a great task, which very soon advanced towards fulfilling the basic requirements including food, clothing, housing, healthcare, education and employment for all. Along with this, significant victories were achieved in carrying forward the task of modernizing and developing the industry and agriculture, transforming SU in to a modern nation. As a result, by 1930s when the whole imperialist camp was facing Great Depression and severe economic and political crisis, it did not affect the planned economy of the SU. While these great achievements were being realized through socialist construction, the Comintern extended full support to the national liberation movements in the Asian, African, Latin American countries.
13. When the Second World War (SWW) broke out, once again for the re-division of the world among the imperialist forces, evaluating it as an inter imperialist war, the SU kept away from it. But when the German Nazi forces attacked SU, the Soviet people succeeded in waging a historic resistance struggle and in defeating the fascist forces decisively. All these achievements inspired the world people, and the post SWW years show the emergence of a powerful socialist camp with national liberation movements developing in all the continents. By 1950s the world situation had turned so revolutionary that it looked like the socialist forces may overtake and defeat the imperialist forces once for all. These were momentous contributions of the October Revolution and the ICM should uphold these achievements and take lessons from these while observing the centenary of this great revolution.
14. But while upholding all these great contributions of the October Revolution which led to the spread of Marxism all over the world, the proletarian revolutions reverberating in all the continents leading to one third of the world population living in socialist countries, national liberation movements emerging and strengthening in a number of countries and powerful communist parties leading in a large number of countries like Indonesia, India etc by the beginning of 1950s, today the situation is drastically different. The capitalist roaders who had started gaining strength in SU and other former socialist countries, later led to their disintegration or degeneration to capitalist path. The national liberation movements went astray and almost all the countries formerly under colonial domination are reduced to neo-colonially dependent countries. Under the influence of right or left deviations including the formerly strong communist parties, the communist parties in almost all countries have disintegrated and divided in to many groups with no country having a powerful communist party strong enough to lead the present people’s upsurges with revolutionary orientation. Alien thoughts and reactionary, communal, caste, racist ideologies spread from imperialist headquarters and by reactionary think-tanks have become so powerful that the Communist ideology is under severe attack with many more counter-revolutionary deviations emerging from within the existing communist organizations themselves. So when we are celebrating the centenary of the October Revolution it is necessary to evaluate the history of the ICM with the perspective of finding out the reasons for the severe setbacks suffered by the once powerful movement. Such an evaluation should not to influenced by subjectivism or taken up to find fault with any individual, but to overcome them and to help the development of the Marxist theory and practice according to present conditions.
15. How to evaluate Soviet Developments: The October Revolution had frightened the imperialist powers so much that as already pointed out they hastened to arrive at a temporary truce and pooled their forces for a military encirclement and aggression against the nascent state. In this they could involve the defeated enemy class forces inside Russia also. As the revolutionary Soviet forces succeeded in defeating this attack, the imperialist camp imposed economic blockade to suffocate and destroy the socialist state. The formation of the Comintern was seen as a further threat and vehemently attacked by the imperialists. If this was the situation from 1919 onwards, the first half of the 1920s, especially the years after Lenin’s illness, saw a further intensification of these attacks. So, the challenge before the post- Lenin leadership was how to face this economic and military encirclement along with the ideological political attack by the enemy camp and to carry forward the revolutionary offensive initiated by Lenin.
16. In spite of the great contributions of the Soviet experience as pointed out above, the severe setbacks suffered by the socialist experience in Soviet Union openly from the time of the 20th Congress of the CPSU, set backs suffered by the ICM and by the anti-imperialist movement as a whole call for an evaluation of the pursuit of socialist construction, the approach towards the ICM and world revolution, and the waging of the ideological struggle both inside the Soviet Union and at international level. A serious discussion on the development paradigm pursued in the erstwhile socialist countries and whether they were basically different from the imperialist development perspective also needs scrutiny. The experience of the erstwhile socialist countries show that attempts to compete for surpassing the economic targets of the imperialist countries were increasingly visible among them. Similarly the question of developing the concept of dictatorship of the proletariat to reflect a more advanced form than the bourgeois democracy practiced in the capitalist countries was also a great challenge before these former socialist countries. How far it could be achieved and did the weakness in this field also led to the setbacks also call for a serious evaluation. This analysis also should extend to how much emphasis was given to super structural changes in the SU compared to the changes being made in the economic base. Already all these questions are taken up repeatedly, especially after the disintegration of the SU by many forces. More in depth studies are required so that they can help the future activities of the communist parties.
17. An evaluation of the Soviet experience shows that during the post- Lenin years the importance of the Soviets started to dwindle or they were not approached in the way Lenin did. As the Five Year Plans and collectivization of agriculture started, instead of experimenting how they can be carried forward through the Soviets, the influence of centralization increased in the name of improving efficiency, rather than increasing people’s participation. The Five Year Plan targets started getting decided with a view to overtake production figures of imperialist countries. Various studies have pointed out that probably the Stakhnovite movement of 1935 was almost the last effort to unleash people’s initiative in socialist construction. As the threat of fascist attack increased, and later when the attack did take place, in spite of calling for people’s initiative, the one sided emphasis on centralization went on increasing. Naturally, these developments led to bureaucratic tendencies gaining strength in all fields and the Soviets started disappearing in practice. Of course the loss of large number of experienced comrades, first during the resistance to imperialist aggression during 1919 to 1922 and later during the anti-fascist war, also should be taken in to consideration while evaluating the capitalist tendencies which were sneaking in at various levels.
18. From the lessons of Paris Commune Marx had pointed out that the process of developing democracy after the capture of political power by the proletariat and other oppressed classes cannot be seen in abstract. It is integrally linked to destroying the “the standing army and the police.” and the bureaucratic structure of the state and creating basically new ones in their place.. As the Commune did not last long it could not give any lessons on organizing production under it. But, in his studies about capital and how the capitalist system works, Marx had pointed out that the proletarians have to overthrow everything the bourgeoisie consider sacrosanct and to create new models in all fields. The Commune initiated this process. That is why he upheld it as the fore runner for the future. For him the proletarians after seizing power have to build revolutionary alternatives to what the capitalist system has created. That is why Lenin, based on the lessons of the Commune, proceeded to develop the Soviets, which had emerged in the course of revolutionary struggles in Russia, as the new form of the state. To ensure class line the proletarian state had to develop the trade unions according to new conditions and ensuring their role as a class in running the state. When the Soviets started increasingly disappearing in the name of various practical problems which were continuously coming up, as the role of the organised working class and other sections of the masses in running the state and wielding power went on decreasing, in spite of all socialist assertions the role of the bureaucratic sections in all fields went on increasing.
19. Evaluating the post-SWW world situation in the Problems of Socialism in the SU which was published in 1952 it is stated: the disintegration of the single, all embracing world market must be regarded as the most important economic sequel of the SWW and of its economic consequences.....the sphere of exploitation of the world’s resources by the major capitalist countries will not expand, but contract; that their opportunities for sale in the world will deteriorate, and that their industries will be operating more and more below capacity. That, in fact, is what is meant by the deepening of the general crisis of the world capitalist system”. Yes, it was a fact that a number of countries had broken away from the imperialist system and to that extent the imperialist control on their market had weakened or lost. But the imperialists were quick to make urgent moves including the adoption of the GATT agreement besides formation of the IMF and World Bank so that the damage done by the advance of the socialist camp could be restricted. Similarly through the neo colonial policies the imperialist camp very soon recuperated the losses to a great extent. It is the failure to make correct study of the post-War imperialist moves that led to such evaluations which did lot of damage to the development of the Communist movement challenging the neo-colonial offensive by the US led imperialist camp.
20. Again, it stated: “some comrades hold that, owing to the development of new international conditions since the SWW, wars between capitalist countries have ceased to be inevitable”. Stalin went onto explain why wars are inevitable so long as the imperialist system exists. While this assertion is in general correct, the transformation of the colonial policies to neo colonization had led to inter imperialist contradictions taking newer forms. The imperialists had abandoned by and large the territorial division of the world among themselves. In this situation, the possibilityfor inter-imperialist wars like the first and second world wars had receded. It is once again the failure to recognize these changes in the imperialist policies which led to mechanical interpretations of the new world situation.
21. In A Critique of Soviet Economy, Mao wrote: On the question of heavy industry, light industry and agriculture, the SU did not lay enough emphasis on the latter two and had losses as a result. In addition they did not do a good job of combining the immediate and the long term interests of the people. In the main they walked on one leg...Only technology was emphasized. Nothing but technology, no technical cadre, no politics, no masses. This too is walking on one leg...It mentions economics only, not politics. “It from first to last says nothing about the superstructure. It is not concerned with the people, it considers things, not people. Does the kind of supply system for consumer goods help spur economic development or not? It should have touched on this at the least. Is it better to have commodity production or is it better not to? Every one has to study this”. While dealing with the crucial question of developments in the economic base and superstructure on the one hand, and between the economic problems of Soviet Union and the attempts by the imperialist camp led by US imperialism to transform the imperialist plunder from colonial to neo colonial forms on the other are not dealt with. Or as the Soviets writings during the post-war years reveal, even while the imperialist system led by US imperialism was moving ahead fast with the transformation of its colonial forms of plunder to neocolonial forms, there was almost a total lack of understanding about it within the Soviet leadership. As a result the study of the economic problems of the Soviet Union were dealt in isolation, without taking in to consideration the momentous developments taking place around the world. Later in the article Ten major Relationships, also, while dealing with the problems faced by the socialist transition in China, Mao had pointed out the one sided emphasis given to industry in general and heavy industry in particular in the SU as one of its weaknesses. That in spite of these observations in China also these obstacles could not be overcome call for the importance that has to be given to such questions in the course of developing a socialist alternative to the capitalist system.
22. Proletarian internationalism: Lenin waged uncompromising struggle against the mechanical understanding put forward by Trotsky through his concept of ‘permanent revolution’ that without revolutions taking place at global level or in a number of imperialist countries it is futile and erroneous to go for socialist construction in a backward country like Soviet Union. Rejecting this view, Lenin, while emphasizing the primary importance to be given for world revolution, called for pursuing socialist construction in Soviet Union as a part of it. For him SU was only a base area for world revolution. Primary importance was given to waging uncompromising struggle for advancing world revolution. The fundamental task was to advance world revolution without which the survival of these socialist countries itself was impossible. It calls for serious evaluation whether after Lenin the priorities had started changing or not. Whether the importance to be given to interests of the world revolution was increasingly minimized and importance of socialist construction in SU was increasing given priority call for serious evaluation. In1938 in the 18th Congress of the CPSU, it was announced that the Soviet society no longer contained antagonistic hostile classes and that the exploiting classes have been eliminated. All those who raised different views were treated as enemies of socialism. The trials against them went on reducing the democratic space within the Party and the society as a whole. It led to growth of bureaucratic tendencies on the one hand and to lack of discussion on the theoretical questions to be taken up and debated on cardinal questions like the way the imperialist camp was moving and how the ICM should face the challenge including the problems of socialist construction in SU on the other.
23. Lenin envisaged Comintern as an international organization with the national parties as its contingents with a clear perspective of intensifying efforts for world revolution. As the international character of production was increasing under imperialist system, Lenin saw the international character of revolution also correspondingly increasing. But later whether the significance of Comintern as the cause of world revolution went on diminishing, whether many of the directives given by Comintern went against the concrete reality and interests of revolution in other countries etc call for serious discussion. Whether such directives led to conflicts of interests or to some parties taking erroneous positions with regard to the revolutionary struggle in their own countries calls for study. Because of the immense prestige the SU and CPSU had among other parties no open criticism took place at that time. Later it led to the erroneous conclusion by many parties that any international organization shall be like Comintern! As a result, even the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943 even without convening a meeting of its Executive Committee did not create any adverse reaction. Besides these developments have led to large number of existing organizations which call themselves as communist taking the stand that any effort to rebuild the Communist International will be harmful!
24. Failure to recognize the neo colonial offensive of imperialist camp: In continuation to the Atlantic Charter put forward in 1941, in 1944, the US imperialism which was coming to the leadership of the post-War imperialist camp had convened the Bretten Woods Conference of imperialist powers and think tanks. It put forward the Bretten Woods Agreement that launched the neo colonial tools like the IMF, World Bank and the United Nations Organization (UN). The nuking of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, formation of military alliances including NATO, imposing Zionist Israel over the Palestine land as the US out post in West Asia, the aggression against Korea, world wide attacks against national liberation movements and along with these the launching of so-called welfare state concepts based on Keynesian economic policies etc were part of this neo colonial offensive. The ICM failed to recognize the seriousness of this US led offensive by the imperialist powers. The international situation was evaluated in such a way that the imperialist camp was weakening and that was why it was engaged in war mongering. According to this evaluation, building peace movement against US war efforts was given top priority, instead of taking initiative to organize a revolutionary front against these US led imperialist moves.
25. As a result of these weaknesses, the SU became member of World Bank and UN. It recognized Israel. Even when it was not allowed to become member of the IMF, it could not understand how the imperialist camp was plotting to pursue its hegemonic ambitions in the post SWW conditions. The extension of the War time understanding with the imperialists to basically different post War situation led to harmful results. Such moves led to many of the West and South European parties first getting frustrated in their revolutionary efforts and then getting illusions about working with the rightist and social democratic parties, ultimately degenerating to revisionist positions.
26. The so-called ‘de colonization’ which meant transfer of power to the comprador classes in the colonial countries was part of the global neo colonial offensive to confront the challenge posed by the powerful socialist camp. The neo colonial offensive they launched was more pernicious and sinister than their colonial policies. The aggressive nature of the imperialist camp had only increased with their neo colonial offensive. At a time, when the US led forces were employing economic, technological, political and military offensive to confuse, ideologically disarm and militarily destroy the national liberation movements led by the Communist Parties or anti-imperialist nationalist forces, the pacifist approach taken by the ICM, in spite of the big leaps it could make by this time, ideologically and politically weakened the movement.
27. The basic reason for all these weaknesses was that the socialist forces could not develop the study of imperialism by Lenin made in 1910s according to the concrete conditions emerging during the post-SWW years. As a result, it could not put forward a theoretical analysis of the changes taking place in the strategy and tactics of the imperialist system using neo colonial methods, and could not develop its own strategy and tactics to confront it. It was in such a situation, the Soviet leadership failed to wage an in depth ideological struggle against the reformist positions advocated and pursued under the leadership of Tito in Yugoslavia which had degenerated to capitalist path almost openly. Even when the imperialists had succeeded in weaning away one of the countries were the people’s power was established, the Socialist camp could do nothing more than expelling it from the newly formed Cominform. What happened in the case of Yugoslavian leadership was a forerunner of what happened later in the SU and the other East European countries. The bureaucratic forces with capitalist orientation had already started dominating the party, the army and the state apparatus at all levels. They were waiting for Stalin’s death to peacefully usurp power and speed up the transformation of SU in to a bureaucratic state capitalist dictatorship.
28. The documents from the former Soviet archives that have come out after the disintegration of SU prove that by the early 1950s the bureaucratic forces had become so powerful that they isolated Stalin in his last days and soon after his death physically eliminated or removed from positions of power all those who were advocating the socialist path. After consolidating their position under the leadership of Krushchov, in the 20th Congress of the CPSU they violently attacked Stalin and came out with the revisionist positions that as “radical changes” had taken place after October Revolution Lenin’s teachings have become invalid and “peaceful transition’ to socialism is possible. This stand was further developed as “peaceful co-existence with and peaceful competition with imperialism, and peaceful transition to socialism” as the General Line of the ICM. Though it was strongly attacked by the CPC and a number of communist parties in the 1957 and 1960 international meetings of the communist parties, in its 22nd Congress in 1961 the capitalist roaders took more steps towards the transition of Soviet Union in to a social imperialist country (socialism in words by imperialism in action) and attacked the CPC like parties who did not follow their line viciously. While vast majority of the communist parties mechanically followed the Soviet revisionist line, the CPC, PLA of Albania like parties opposed it and the Great Debate followed in which the Marxist Leninists led by the CPC openly rejected the Soviet revisionist line. As pointed out by the CPC, instead of exposing and fighting against the neo-colonization speeded up by the US led imperialist camp, Soviets and the parties following them soon became apologists of neo-colonialism. As Krushchov was replaced by Brezhnov in 1964, the transition to social imperialism was speeded up, SU transformed from apologists of neocolonialism to executioners of neocolonial policies, colluding and contending with US imperialism for world hegemony. The Soviet state was transformed in to bureaucratic state capitalist dictatorship.
29. As the contention with US led imperialist camp intensified, though it could expand its neocolonial hold in many countries, the Soviet economy was facing increasing crisis. In the 1980s the sending of the military to Afghanistan and open fight with the Islamic jihadists fully supported by the US started draining the economy very fast, intensifying its crisis. With Gorbachov taking over in 1987, though the military was withdrawn from Afghanistan and the Glassnost-Perestroika line was put forward in the name of ‘opening up the economy and society’, the crisis only deepened further. In 1991 with the backing of US led imperialist powers Yeltsin could organize a coup, take over power, disintegrate SU and transform Russia in to an open capitalist power. The ICM has to take immense lessons from this counter revolution which was started in Yugoslavia in 1948 and repeated in the East European countries and later in China.
30. As SU and its contributions for socialist transformation against the capitalist system had inspired two generations all over the world, its disintegration and collapse, with the statues of Lenin getting pulled don by hooligans in Moscow streets created tremendous frustration among the masses. Imperilist camp did everything possible to intensify this frustration through wild propaganda about ‘end of history’ and ‘end of socialism’. This situation would not have become so serious if the Marxist-Leninist camp could wage an intensive ideological struggle against the degeneration taking place in SU and East European countries at least from the time of the 20th Congress of the CPSU in a more decisive and dialectical form.
31. But most of the communist parties formed during the Comintern period and which had great influence in many countries mechanically followed the Soviet revisionist line till its disintegration in 1991. Their remnants in different countries are still not prepared to rectify these mistakes. As far as the Trotskyist Fourth Internationalists were concerned, instead of putting forward any critical analysis of the degeneration taking place in SU they were continuing their mad attacks on Stalin whom they targeted as the main enemy. On the other hand, the so-called Stalinist school diametrically opposed to Trotsky mechanically asserted that everything was perfect till Stalin was alive and they even attacked Mao for his critical evaluation of some aspects of the socialist construction during Stalin’s period. But they had no explanations for the setbacks and had nothing to contribute towards the future program and path of revolution. Various trends emerging mainly in Europe like the Euro-Communist school or post- modernist schools also only added to the confusion.
32. Contrary to all these and struggling against them, the most developed position was taken by the CPC led by Mao who waged a Great Debate against Soviet revisionism and in continuation to the stand it had taken in the 1957 and 1960 international conferences of the communist parties put forward A Proposal Concerning the General Line of the ICM in 1963. It inspired the Marxist-Leninist forces who had started waging a theoretical struggle against the Soviet revisionist line in different countries. While a strong section in the CPC was trying to emulate the Soviet revisionist path, it waged uncompromisingly struggle against it and succeeded to remove these capitalist roaders from positions of power and to launch the proletarian cultural revolution as a form of class struggle within the socialist countries. But as left sectarian line got strengthened in the CPC by the time of its Ninth Congress in 1969, which soon opened the way for the emergence of a centrist line eventually leading to the domination of the capitalist roaders, this significant ideological political offensive also got weakened and disintegrated. The Marxist-Leninist parties and groups emerging in large number of countries fighting against Soviet revisionism and upholding the General Line document of the CPC also faced disintegration as they mechanically followed whatever was coming from the CPC as correct without trying to develop their own program and path based on the analysis of the newly emerging international and national situation. Amidst all these, in spite of the severe setbacks and disintegration suffered by the communist revolutionary forces who tried to pursue the line “China’s Path is Our Path” by early 1970s, the Maoists are still pursuing this line in more anarchist form contributing to the division and confusion among the communist forces in their own way. The emergence, development and disintegration of all these various schools and deviations from the camp of the communists were immensely utilized by the imperialists and their lackeys to intensify the attacks on the communist movement.
33. It is a fact that the setbacks suffered by the ICM during the last six decades compared to the great heights it had reached by 1950s have created extensive frustration and deviations among the communist forces and the masses of the people, especially the youth and students, the new generation. It is also a fact that in spite of recognizing this, most of the schools and tendencies including the various sections from the social democrats on one extreme to the anarchists on the other extreme are engaged in eulogizing their own deviations from the Marxist teachings and are in a self-satisfied delusion. These forces still refuse to recognize that during these decades the imperialist system has transformed its colonial forms of plunder and oppression to neo-colonial forms; it is imposing its hegemony in more sinister forms through finance capital which has become increasingly speculative, market forces, technological advances, armed interventions and hegemony of reactionary culture. They also refuse to recognize that it is the failure to analyze these changes and to develop the program and path of revolution according to the changed times that had led to the severe repeated setbacks suffered by the communist movement,
34. While observing the centenary of the October Revolution it is the task of the Marxist-Leninist forces to evaluate the basic reasons for this great setback and to develop the revolutionary theory and practice taking lessons from this objective evaluation and according to the changes that have taken place in the concrete situation from the time Lenin put forward his study on Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, The Central Committee of CPI(ML) Red Star has called for observing the centenary of October Revolution starting from the this year’s October Revolution Day on the basis of the efforts it has made from 1970s to make concrete analysis of the changes that have taken place during the post-SWW decades and to develop the theory and practice of the communist movement accordingly. Let us make these centenary programs as steps to further deepen and develop these efforts.
The direct and immediate object of the revolution in Russia was a bourgeois-democratic one, namely, to destroy the survivals of medievalism and sweep them away completely, to purge Russia of this barbarism, of this shame, and to remove this immense obstacle to all culture and progress in our country.
And we can justifiably pride ourselves on having carried out that purge with greater determination and much more rapidly, boldly and successfully, and, from the point of view of its effect on the masses, much more widely and deeply, than the great French Revolution over one hundred and twenty-five years ago.
Both the anarchists and the petty-bourgeois democrats (i.e., the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries, who are the Russian counterparts of that international social type) have talked and are still talking an incredible lot of nonsense about the relation between the bourgeois-democratic revolution and the socialist (that is, proletarian) revolution. The last four years have proved to the hilt that our interpretation of Marxism on this point, and our estimate of the experience of former revolutions were correct. We have consummated the bourgeois-democratic revolution as nobody had done before. We are advancing towards the socialist revolution consciously, firmly and unswervingly, knowing that it is not separated from the bourgeois-democratic revolution by a Chinese Wall, and knowing too that (in the last analysis) struggle alone will determine how far we shall advance, what part of this immense and lofty task we shall accomplish, and to what extent we shall succeed in consolidating our victories. Time will show. But we see even now that a tremendous amount -- tremendous for this ruined, exhausted and backward country -- has already been done towards the socialist transformation of society.
Let us, however, finish what we have to say about the bourgeois-democratic content of our revolution. Marxists must understand what that means. To explain, let us take a few striking examples. The bourgeois-democratic content of the revolution means that the social relations (system, institutions) of the country are purged of medievalism, serfdom, feudalism.
What were the chief manifestations, survivals, remnants of serfdom in Russia up to 1917? The monarchy, the system of social estates, landed proprietorship and land tenure, the status of women, religion, and national oppression. Take any one of these Augean stables, which, incidentally, were left largely un-cleansed by all the more advanced states when they accomplished their bourgeois-democratic revolutions one hundred and twenty-five, two hundred and fifty and more years ago (1649 in England); take any of these Augean stables, and you will see that we have cleansed them thoroughly. In a matter of ten weeks, from October 25 (November 7), 1917 to January 5, 1918, when the Constituent Assembly was dissolved, we accomplished a thousand times more in this respect than was accomplished by the bourgeois democrats and liberals (the Cadets) and by the petty-bourgeois democrats (the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries) during the eight months they were in power.
Those poltroons, gas-bags, vainglorious Narcissuses and petty Hamlets brandished their wooden swords -- but did not even destroy the monarchy! We cleansed out all that monarchist muck as nobody had ever done before. We left not a stone, not a brick of that ancient edifice, the social-estate system even the most advanced countries, such as Britain, France and Germany, have not completely eliminated the survivals of that system to this day!), standing. We tore out the deep-seated roots of the social-estate system, namely, the remnants of feudalism and serfdom in the system of landownership, to the last. "One may argue" (there are plenty of quill-drivers, Cadets, Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries abroad to indulge in such arguments) as to what "in the long run" will be the outcome of the agrarian reform effected by the Great October Revolution. We have no desire at the moment to waste time on such controversies, for we are deciding this, as well as the mass of accompanying controversies, by struggle. But the fact cannot be denied that the petty-bourgeois democrats "compromised" with the landowners, the custodians of the traditions of serfdom, for eight months, while we completely swept the landowners and all their traditions from Russian soil in a few weeks.
Take religion, or the denial of rights to women, or the oppression and inequality of the non-Russian nationalities. These are all problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. The vulgar petty-bourgeois democrats talked about them for eight months. In not a single one of the most advanced countries in the world have these questions been completely settled on bourgeois-democratic lines. In our country they have been settled completely by the legislation of the October Revolution. We have fought and are fighting religion in earnest. We have granted all the non-Russian nationalities their own republics or autonomous regions. We in Russia no longer have the base, mean and infamous denial of rights to women or inequality of the sexes, that disgusting survival of feudalism and medievalism, which is being renovated by the avaricious bourgeoisie and the dull-witted and frightened petty bourgeoisie in every other country in the world without exception.
All this goes to make up the content of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. A hundred and fifty and two hundred and fifty years ago the progressive leaders of that revolution (or of those revolutions, if we consider each national variety of the one general type) promised to rid mankind of medieval privileges, of sex inequality, of state privileges for one religion or another (or "religious ideas ", "the church" in general), and of national inequality. They promised, but did not keep their promises. They could not keep them, for they were hindered by their "respect" -- for the "sacred right of private property". Our proletarian revolution was not afflicted with this accursed "respect" for this thrice-accursed medievalism and for the "sacred right of private property".
But in order to consolidate the achievements of the bourgeois-democratic revolution for the peoples of Russia, we were obliged to go farther; and we did go farther. We solved the problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in passing, as a "by-product" of our main and genuinely proletarian -revolutionary, socialist activities. We have always said that reforms are a by-product of the revolutionary class struggle. We said -- and proved it by deeds -- that bourgeois-democratic reforms are a by-product of the proletarian, i.e., of the socialist revolution. Incidentally, the Kautskys, Hilferdings, Martovs, Chernovs, Hillquits, Longuets, MacDonalds, Turatis and other heroes of "Two and-a-Half" Marxism were incapable of understanding this relation between the bourgeois-democratic and the proletarian-socialist revolutions. The first develops into the second. The second, in passing, solves the problems of the first. The second consolidates the work of the first. Struggle, and struggle alone, decides how far the second succeeds in outgrowing the first.
The Soviet system is one of the most vivid proofs, or manifestations, of how the one revolution develops into the other. The Soviet system provides the maximum of democracy for the workers and peasants; at the same time, it marks a break with bourgeois democracy and the rise of a new, epoch-making type of democracy, namely, proletarian democracy, or the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Let the curs and swine of the moribund bourgeoisie and of the petty-bourgeois democrats who trail behind them heap imprecations, abuse and derision upon our heads for our reverses and mistakes in the work of building up our Soviet system. We do not forget for a moment that we have committed and are committing numerous mistakes and are suffering numerous reverses. How can reverses and mistakes be avoided in a matter so new in the history of the world as the building of an unprecedented type of state edifice! We shall work steadfastly to set our reverses and mistakes right and to improve our practical application of Soviet principles, which is still very, very far from being perfect. But we have a right to be and are proud that to us has fallen the good fortune to begin the building of a Soviet state, and thereby to usher in a new era in world history, the era of the rule of a new class, a class which is oppressed in every capitalist country, but which everywhere is marching forward towards a new life, towards victory over the bourgeoisie, towards the dictatorship of the proletariat, towards the emancipation of mankind from the yoke of capital and from imperialist wars.
The question of imperialist wars, of the international policy of finance capital which now dominates the whole world, a policy that must inevitably engender new imperialist wars, that must inevitably cause an extreme intensification of national oppression, pillage, brigandry and the strangulation of weak, backward and small nationalities by a handful of "advanced" powers -- that question has been the keystone of all policy in all the countries of the globe since 1914. It is a question of life and death for millions upon millions of people. It is a question of whether 20,000,000 people (as compared with the 10,000,000 who were killed in the war of 1914-18 and in the supplementary "minor" wars that are still going on) are to be slaughtered in the next imperialist war, which the bourgeoisie are preparing, and which is growing out of capitalism before our very eyes. It is a question of whether in that future war, which is inevitable (if capitalism continues to exist), 60,000,000 people are to be maimed (compared with the 30,000,000 maimed in 1914-18). In this question, too, our October Revolution marked the beginning of a new era in world history. The lackeys of the bourgeoisie and its yes-men -- the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, and the petty-bourgeois, allegedly "socialist", democrats all over the world -- derided our slogan "convert the imperialist war into a civil war". But that slogan proved to be the truth -- it was the only truth, unpleasant, blunt, naked and brutal, but nevertheless the truth, as against the host of most refined jingoist and pacifist lies. Those lies are being dispelled. The Brest peace has been exposed. And with every passing day the significance and consequences of a peace that is even worse than the Brest peace -- the peace of Versailles -- are being more relentlessly exposed. And the millions who are thinking about the causes of the recent war and of the approaching future war are more and more clearly realising the grim and inexorable truth that it is impossible to escape imperialist war, and imperialist peace (if the old orthography were still in use, I would have written the word mir in two ways, to give it both its meanings) which inevitably engenders imperialist war, that it is impossible to escape that inferno, except by a Bolshevik struggle and a Bolshevik revolution.
Let the bourgeoisie and the pacifists, the generals and the petty bourgeoisie, the capitalists and the philistines, the pious Christians and the knights of the Second and the Two-and-a-Half Internationals vent their fury against that revolution. No torrents of abuse, calumnies and lies can enable them to conceal the historic fact that for the first time in hundreds and thousands of years the slaves have replied to a war between slave-owners by openly proclaiming the slogan: "Convert this war between slave-owners for the division of their loot into a war of the slaves of all nations against the slave-owners of all nations."
For the first time in hundreds and thousands of years that slogan has grown from a vague and helpless waiting into a clear and definite political programme, into an effective struggle waged by millions of oppressed people under the leadership of the proletariat; it has grown into the first victory of the proletariat, the first victory in the struggle to abolish war and to unite the workers of all countries against the united bourgeoisie of different nations, against the bourgeoisie that makes peace and war at the expense of the slaves of capital, the wage-workers, the peasants, the working people.
This first victory is not yet the final victory, and it was achieved by our October Revolution at the price of incredible difficulties and hardships, at the price of unprecedented suffering, accompanied by a series of serious reverses and mistakes on our part. How could a single backward people be expected to frustrate the imperialist wars of the most powerful and most developed countries of the world without sustaining reverses and without committing mistakes! We are not afraid to admit our mistakes and shall examine them dispassionately in order to learn how to correct them. But the fact remains that for the first time in hundreds and thousands of years the promise "to reply" to war between the slave-owners by a revolution of the slaves directed against all the slave-owners has been completely fulfilled -- and is being fulfilled despite all difficulties.
We have made the start. When, at what date and time, and the proletarians of which nation will complete this process is not important. The important thing is that the ice has been broken; the road is open, the way has been shown.
Gentlemen, capitalists of all countries, keep up your hypocritical pretence of "defending the fatherland" -- the Japanese fatherland against the American, the American against the Japanese, the French against the British, and so forth! Gentlemen, knights of the Second and Two-and a-Half Internationals, pacifist petty bourgeoisie and philistines of the entire world, go on "evading" the question of how to combat imperialist wars by issuing new "Basle Manifestos" (on the model of the Basle Manifesto of 1912). The first Bolshevik revolution has wrested the first hundred million people of this earth from the clutches of imperialist war and the imperialist world. Subsequent revolutions will deliver the rest of mankind from such wars and from such a world.
Our last, but most important and most difficult task, the one we have done least about, is economic development, the laying of economic foundations for the new, socialist edifice on the site of the demolished feudal edifice and the semi-demolished capitalist edifice. It is in this most important and most difficult task that we have sustained the greatest number of reverses and have made most mistakes. How could anyone expect that a task so new to the world could be begun without reverses and without mistakes! But we have begun it. We shall continue it. At this very moment we are, by our New Economic Policy, correcting a number of our mistakes. We are learning how to continue erecting the socialist edifice in a small-peasant country without committing such mistakes.
The difficulties are immense. But we are accustomed to grappling with immense difficulties. Not for nothing do our enemies call us "stone-hard" and exponents of a "firm line policy". But we have also learned, at least to some extent, another art that is essential in revolution, namely, flexibility, the ability to effect swift and sudden changes of tactics if changes in objective conditions demand them, and to choose another path for the achievement of our goal if the former path proves to be inexpedient or impossible at the given moment.
Borne along on the crest of the wave of enthusiasm, rousing first the political enthusiasm and then the military enthusiasm of the people, we expected to accomplish economic tasks just as great as the political and military tasks we had accomplished by relying directly on this enthusiasm. We expected -- or perhaps it would be truer to say that we presumed without having given it adequate consideration -- to be able to organise the state production and the state distribution of products on communist lines in a small-peasant country directly as ordered by the proletarian state. Experience has proved that we were wrong. It appears that a number of transitional stages were necessary -- state capitalism and socialism -- in order to prepare -- to prepare by many years of effort -- for the transition to communism. Not directly relying on enthusiasm, but aided by the enthusiasm engendered by the great revolution, and on the basis of personal interest, personal incentive and business principles, we must first set to work in this small peasant country to build solid gangways to socialism by way of state capitalism. Otherwise we shall never get to communism, we shall never bring scores of millions of people to communism. That is what experience, the objective course of the development of the revolution, has taught us.
And we, who during these three or four years have learned a little to make abrupt changes of front (when abrupt changes of front are needed), have begun zealously, attentively and sedulously (although still not zealously, attentively and sedulously enough) to learn to make a new change of front, namely, the New Economic Policy. The proletarian state must become a cautious, assiduous and shrewd "businessman", a punctilious wholesale merchant -- otherwise it will never succeed in putting this small-peasant country economically on its feet. Under existing conditions, living as we are side by side with the capitalist (for the time being capitalist) West, there is no other way of progressing to communism. A wholesale merchant seems to be an economic type as remote from communism as heaven from earth. But that is one of the contradictions which, in actual life, lead from a small-peasant economy via state capitalism to socialism. Personal incentive will step up production; we must increase production first and foremost and at all costs. Wholesale trade economically unites millions of small peasants: it gives them a personal incentive, links them up and leads them to the next step, namely, to various forms of association and alliance in the process of production itself. We have already started the necessary changes in our economic policy and already have some successes to our credit; true, they are small and partial, but nonetheless they are successes. In this new field of "tuition" we are already finishing our preparatory class. By persistent and assiduous study, by making practical experience the test of every step we take, by not fearing to alter over and over again what we have already begun, by correcting our mistakes and most carefully analysing their significance, we shall pass to the higher classes. We shall go through the whole "course", although the present state of world economics and world politics has made that course much longer and much more difficult than we would have liked. No matter at what cost, no matter how severe the hardships of the transition period may be -- despite disaster, famine and ruin -- we shall not flinch; we shall triumphantly carry our cause to its goal. [October 14, 1921).
The Marxist Leninist - Theoritical Journal of CPI (ML) Red Star
Cheif Editor : Com K N Ramachandran
Editorial Board : Comrades K N Ramachandran, Sanjay Singhvi, P J James, R Manasayya, Alik Chakraborty
Contact: CPI(ML) Red Star, C-141, Sainik Nagar, New Delhi - 110059
One of the lasting contributions of the Frankfurt School of social theorists, represented especially by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment, was the development of a philosophical critique of the domination of nature. Critical theorists associated with the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt were deeply influenced by the early writings of Karl Marx. Yet their critique of the Enlightenment exploitation of nature was eventually extended to a critique of Marx himself as an Enlightenment figure, especially in relation to his mature work in Capital. This position was expressed most notably in the work of Horkheimer and Adorno’s student, Alfred Schmidt, author of The Concept of Nature in Marx. Due largely to Schmidt’s book, the notion of Marx’s anti-ecological perspective became deeply rooted in Western Marxism. Such criticisms were also closely related to questions raised regarding Frederick Engels’s Dialectics of Nature, which was said to have improperly extended dialectical analysis beyond the human-social realm. First-stage eco-socialists such as Ted Benton and André Gorz added to these charges, contending that Marx and Engels had gone overboard in their alleged rejection of Malthusian natural limits.
So all-encompassing was the critique of the “dialectic of the Enlightenment” within the main line of the Frankfurt School, and within what came to be known as “Western Marxism” (defined largely by its rejection of the dialectics of nature associated with Engels and Soviet Marxism), that it led to the estrangement of thinkers in this tradition not only from the later Marx, but also from natural science—and hence nature itself. Consequently, when the ecological movement emerged in the 1960s and ’70s, Western Marxism, with its abstract, philosophical notion of the domination of nature, was ill-equipped to analyze the changing and increasingly perilous forms of material interaction between humanity and nature. Making matters worse, some Marxian theorists — such as Neil Smith and Noel Castree — responded by inverting the Frankfurt School critique of the domination of nature with the more affirmative notion of “the production of nature,” which conceived nature and its processes as entirely subsumed within social production.
Matters changed, however, with the rise in the late 1990s of a second-stage ecosocialism that returned to Marx’s materialist-ecological approach, and particularly to his concept of “social metabolism,” while also reincorporating elements of Engels’s ecological thought. This development represented a sharp break with the earlier Frankfurt School-influenced approach to the question of Marx and nature. Surveying this history, we will examine the debates on Marxian ecology that have emerged within the left, while pointing to the possibility of a wider synthesis, rooted in Marx’s concepts of the “universal metabolism of nature,” the “social metabolism,” and the metabolic “rift.”
Criticisms of Marx’s Concept of Nature
PAUL BURKETT described Schmidt’s The Concept of Nature in Marx in 1997 as “perhaps the most influential study ever written on Marx’s view of nature.” The book appeared in Germany in 1962, the same year as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, often seen as the starting point of the modern environmental movement. The Concept of Nature in Marx began as Schmidt’s dissertation in philosophy, written between 1957 and 1960 under the supervision of Horkheimer and Adorno, and was “impregnated with the influence of ‘critical theory.’” It thus antedated the modern environmental movement both historically and philosophically. Yet Schmidt’s work, carrying the imprimatur of the Frankfurt School, would come to shape the attitudes of many New Left theorists towards Marx in the context of the burgeoning environmental movement of the 1960s–1980s. As Marxian geographer Neil Smith put it in 1984, Schmidt’s book was considered the “definitive study” of nature in Marx.
The Concept of Nature in Marx was deeply affected by the broader Weberian pessimism of the Frankfurt School, which viewed the “domination of nature” as an intrinsic characteristic of modernity or “the dialectic of the Enlightenment.” Under Enlightenment civilization, Horkheimer and Adorno declared, “either men will tear each other to pieces or they will take all the flora and fauna of the earth with them; and if the earth is then still young enough, the whole thing will have to be started again at a much lower stage.” Although Schmidt brought a number of important, positive contributions to the understanding of nature in Marx, it was his more pessimistic conclusions about the mature Marx, in the spirit of Horkheimer and Adorno, that proved most influential. Rejecting the outlooks of “utopian” Marxist theorists such as Bertolt Brecht and Ernst Bloch who, based on the early Marx, sought a “reconciliation” between humanity and nature through socialism, Schmidt concluded,
The mature Marx withdrew from the [utopian] theses expounded in his early writings. In later life he no longer wrote of a “resurrection” of the whole of nature. The new society is to benefit man alone, and there is no doubt that this is to be at the expense of external nature. Nature is to be mastered with gigantic technological aids, and the smallest possible expenditure of time and labor. It is to serve all men as the material substratum for all conceivable consumption goods.
When Marx and Engels complain about the unholy plundering of nature, they are not concerned with nature itself but with considerations of economic utility.... The exploitation of nature will not cease in the future, but man’s encroachments into nature will be rationalized, so that their remoter consequences will remain capable of control. In this way, nature will be robbed step by step of the possibility of revenging itself on men for their victories over it.
The last phrase was a reference to Engels, whose views on the need for human beings to control their social relation to nature under socialism in order to prevent ecological crises (which he referred to metaphorically as the “revenge” of nature) Schmidt interpreted as a case for the extreme “rationalization” and external control of nature. There was no real room in Engels, any more than in Marx, Schmidt insisted, for anything but a one-sided, conqueror’s approach to nature—despite Engels’s criticisms of precisely this perspective. Engels was reinterpreted as representing a crude, one-sided domination of nature outlook, with the implication that such views could be foisted on Marx himself. In the end, classical historical materialism was reduced to a reified, mechanistic worldview, which advocated a narrow instrumentalism, geared to unrestrained productivism, as the only possible forward course for humanity. The mature Marx, in the Frankfurt School interpretation, thus led inexorably to the same Weberian iron cage with respect to the instrumentalist rationalization of nature as did both capitalism and Soviet Marxism.
Close readers of Schmidt’s work were no doubt puzzled by the contradictions in his reading of Marx. For Schmidt could not have arrived at these conclusions, in an otherwise sophisticated philosophical reading of Marx’s theory of nature, without turning the early Marx against the later Marx, Marx against Engels, Marx against Brecht and Bloch, and even, as we shall see, the mature Marx against the mature Marx. Brilliant as Schmidt’s analysis was, it was colored by a double polemic: first, against those who sought to apply the broad anthropological, humanistic, and ecologically utopian perspectives of the early Marx to the later Marx; and second, against all those, associated with a more classical historical materialism, who suggested that a more sustainable path of development could be achieved under socialism.
Schmidt’s study was further compromised by a threefold failure to comprehend the depths of Marx’s critique. First, Schmidt’s deterministic notion of technology and industrialization under capitalism, and the automatic carrying over of this into socialism, obscured the full significance of Marx’s historically specific critique of the capitalist value form, in which value, emanating from labor alone, was in contradiction to wealth, deriving from both nature and labor. For Marx, the goal was not a society aimed at endless quantitative expansion (exchange value) but at the fulfillment of qualitative needs (use value). Second, Schmidt saw Marx’s emphasis on the metabolism of nature and society as a broad philosophical “metaphor,” a form of speculative metaphysics. It was not treated as a scientific category, related to actual material exchanges and systemic (thermodynamic) processes — though he recognized that element in Marx. Third, Schmidt attributed to Marx a conception of external nature as consisting of unchanging, invariant laws — that is, a passive, dualistic, and rigidly positivist conception of nature, in which even evolutionary development within nature (outside humanity) conformed to narrowly delineated, fixed processes. Nature, outside of human nature and human society, was in this vision both passive and mechanical.
Although Schmidt briefly discussed a more dialectical concept of nature in Marx, ultimately Marx was interpreted as adhering in his mature phase to a mechanistic-positivistic scientific view. “The attitude of the mature Marx,” Schmidt wrote, “has in it nothing of the exuberance and unlimited optimism to be found in the idea of the future society prescribed in the Paris Manuscripts. It should rather be called skeptical. Men cannot in the last resort be emancipated from the necessities imposed by nature.” Hence, Marx was transformed into a forerunner of the skepticism, world-weariness, and dualistic division between natural science and social science, and between non-human nature and society, that characterized Schmidt’s own mentors, Horkheimer and Adorno. Indeed, Adorno went so far as to declare that Marx “underwrote something as arch-bourgeois as the program of an absolute control of nature.”
Adhering to a neo-Kantian epistemological outlook with respect to nature and society, Horkheimer and Adorno, along with Schmidt, rejected both the Hegelian idealist philosophy of nature and the Marxian materialist dialectics of nature (associated especially with Engels), while simultaneously rejecting the early Marx’s “unlimited optimism” toward the reconciliation of naturalism and humanism. The dialectic, in the Frankfurt School view, was applicable only to the reflexive realm of society and human history. Natural science, insofar as it was directed at the external, objective world apart from human beings, was depicted as inherently positivistic and separate from the human sciences. Hence, the early Frankfurt School thinkers were themselves for the most part caught in the contradictions of what they called the “dialectic of Enlightenment,” falling prey to a larger epistemological dualism between nature and society from which there was no exit. This did not prevent them from simultaneously developing a negative philosophical critique of the Enlightenment domination of nature; but it was one that had no meaningful relation to praxis. Here their views were closest to Max Weber’s well-known critical pessimism with respect to the Enlightenment.18 As in Weber’s tragic vision, the “iron cage” of formal rationality offered no visible escape, pointing inexorably to the disenchantment and domination of nature, against which one could only offer empty protests.
For Horkheimer, the “decay of civilization” in modern times arises from the fact that “men cannot utilize their power over nature for the rational organization of the earth” — a problem that he attributed to the formal rationalization common to both capitalism and socialism, and endemic to the modern human relation to the environment. The decay of civilization was associated with the reactionary rise of new repressive tendencies such as fascism, in which “raw nature,” in “revolt against reason,” represented animality, primitiveness, and crude Darwinism. “Whenever man deliberately makes nature his principle,” Horkheimer wrote, “he regresses to primitive usages.... Animals...do not reason.... In summary, we are the heirs, for better or worse, of the Enlightenment and technological progress.” A vain attempt to escape this trap could only lead to a world of barbarism. It followed that Marx’s notion of liberation was inevitably forced to accede to the Enlightenment vision of implacable technological progress as the determining force in history. In this sense, Horkheimer was quite distant from his Frankfurt School colleague Herbert Marcuse, who saw more room for struggle against the repressive use of technology and for the development of a non-alienated human-ecological metabolism.
Schmidt recognized the abstract possibility of a more revolutionary-critical interpretation of Marx’s view of nature. Yet he dismissed this reading, not so much in terms of Marx’s own analysis, but rather those of mid-twentieth century critical theory, represented by Horkheimer and Adorno. “We should ask,” he wrote, “whether the future society [socialism] will not be a mammoth machine, whether the prophesy of Dialektik der Aufklärung [Dialectic of Enlightenment] that ‘human society will be a massive racket in nature’ will not be fulfilled rather than the young Marx’s dream of a humanization of nature, which would at the same time include the naturalization of man.” The utopian young Marx, in his view, was refuted by the realist mature Marx, who succumbed to the technocratic rationality of the Enlightenment. As a result, Marxism offered no way out of the “massive racket in nature.”
Schmidt’s account of Marx’s concept of nature, with all of its inconsistencies and convolutions, positing one contradiction after another in Marx’s own analysis, reduced historical materialism in the end to a repressive Enlightenment vision — one that reinforced and served to justify Frankfurt School skepticism, pessimism, and worldly alienation. Such views were in many ways a product of the divisions within Marxism that began in the 1930s and deepened after 1956. Western Marxism, as a distinct, largely philosophical, tradition, tended to see classical Marxism — particularly Engels but also extending to Marx himself — as falling prey to positivism.
Commenting on this tendency, William Leiss, a former student of Marcuse, observed in The Domination of Nature that “Alfred Schmidt’s excellent book...attempts (unsuccessfully) to present Marxism as an extreme form of Saint-Simonianism” — i.e., reflecting an inherently techno-industrial relation to the conquest of nature. Likewise, for Neil Smith, Schmidt depicted the socialist relation to nature as conceived by Marx as “pretty much like capitalism except worse: the domination of nature.” In Burkett’s more critical judgment, Schmidt’s analysis of The Concept of Nature in Marx ended up “in a quagmire of environmental despair.”
Despite these limitations, Schmidt, in what can be considered the most original and profound part of his work, centered his argument on Marx’s now famous concept of social and ecological “metabolism.” Here, he wrote, “Marx introduced a completely new understanding of man’s relation to nature.” The metabolism category, as employed by Marx in relation to the labor process, made it possible to “speak meaningfully of a ‘dialectic of nature.’” The notion of social metabolism thus pointed to what Marx himself had called the possibility of a “higher synthesis” in the human-nature relation.
Nevertheless, Marx’s metabolism argument was ultimately marginalized in the later parts of Schmidt’s analysis. Schmidt suggested that Marx’s notion of metabolism as a dialectical mediation between nature and society through labor and production involved recourse to a form of metaphysical speculation—one that constituted a negative, non-historical ontology. He erroneously attributed Marx’s use of the metabolism concept primarily to the influence of the crudely mechanistic scientific materialist Jacob Moleschott—rather than Roland Daniels and Justus von Liebig, the two thinkers Marx drew on most directly. Schmidt saw it as both pre-bourgeois, in the backward-looking sense of a utopian, almost mystical attempt to resurrect a past unity, and mechanistic, leading him to dismiss what he previously described as a meaningful dialectic of nature.
Ultimately failing to comprehend the full complexity and range of possibility opened up by Marx’s concept of social metabolism—an approach that was at once philosophical, political-economic, and physiological—Schmidt rejected it as a metaphysical, metaphorical, and mechanical category, reflecting a “peculiarly unhistorical dialectic of the process of metabolism,” a “rigid cyclical form of nature” that was “anterior to man.” Recognizing that Marx had introduced a materialist dialectic that connected nature and society, human production/reproduction and the natural-material conditions of existence, Schmidt nonetheless pulled back, wishing to avoid the question of a dialectic of nature. He thus limited the dialectic to an abstracted social realm.
This general outlook on Marx’s concept of nature was carried forward and reinforced in various ways in the first-stage ecosocialism that arose in 1970s and ’80s. Early ecosocialist thinkers, following Schmidt, criticized Marx and Marxism for allegedly downplaying natural limits to economic growth, and thus ecological constraints. They therefore eclectically promoted “the greening of Marxism” by grafting onto Marx’s analysis neo-Malthusian notions of environmental constraints, together with purely ethical views of the nature-humanity interrelationship associated with deep ecology and “ecologism.” Although they constituted an important self-critique on the part of left theorists, these arguments generally avoided any close scrutiny of the foundations of historical materialism, particularly where issues of natural science were involved.
“The revival of Marxism in the 1960s and 1970s” took for granted, in the critical assessment of historian Eric Hobsbawm, “the nonapplicability of Marx’s thought (as distinct from that of Engels, which was regarded as separable and different) to the field of the natural sciences.” The new Marxism of this period, as distinct from earlier periods of historical materialism, “left the natural sciences totally to one side.” Marx’s comprehensive analysis of the natural conditions underlying production and the capitalist economy was generally elided in studies of his work, or dismissed as uninteresting and inessential — even in early ecosocialist accounts.
The Western left concluded that an ecological outlook occupied at best only a marginal place in Marx’s historical materialism, and was largely discarded in his later economic works. Expressing what was then the general view within Western Marxism, Perry Anderson wrote in 1983 that “problems of the interaction of the human species with its terrestrial environment [were] essentially absent from classical Marxism.” This claim, however, nullified not only Engels’s voluminous discussions of the relation of human beings to their natural-physical environment, but also the extensive discussions of natural-material relations and natural science — and within these, ecological concerns — by Marx himself.
For an important first-stage ecosocialist like Benton, Marx had gone overboard in his critique of Malthus, to the point of exhibiting a “reluctance to recognize ‘nature-imposed limits’ to human development” altogether. Malthus, meanwhile, was himself to be critically reappropriated in the process of the “greening of Marxism.” Gorz declared that socialism as a movement was “on its last legs,” hobbled by its narrow productivism, inherited from classical Marxism, and by its lack of a “reflexive modernist” view of nature-society relations.40 Likewise, Marxian economist James O’Connor, editor of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, declared that “Marx hinted at, but did not develop, the idea that there may exist a contradiction of capitalism that leads to an ‘ecological’ theory of crisis and social transformation.” Alain Lipietz, writing in Capitalism Nature Socialism, went even further, declaring that Marx underestimated “the irreducible character...of ecological constraints” and adopted “the Biblico-Christian ideology of the conquest of nature.”
Such first-stage ecosocialist thinkers commonly attributed the alleged ecological blind spots in Marx’s political economy to intrinsic flaws in the labor theory of value. Since “all value was derived from labor power,” environmental sociologist Michael Redclift wrote, “it was impossible [for Marx] to conceive of a ‘natural’ limit to the material productive forces of society.” Yet what Redclift and others failed to notice was that it was this very one-sidedness of the value form in capitalism that lay at the center of Marx’s critique, associated with the contradiction between wealth (derived from natural-material use values) and value or exchange value (which left out nature altogether). For Marx, once it was recognized that nature — consituting, together with labor, one of the two sources of all wealth — was not included in the capitalist value calculus, but was treated as a “free gift...to capital,” it was impossible not to recognize both the existence of natural limits and capital’s destructive tendency to override them, in its unending drive to accumulation.
First-stage ecosocialists therefore erroneously perceived Marx’s critique of capitalism as, at best, neutral with respect to ecological issues, and, at worst, anti-ecological — even if the early Marx had alluded to the possibility of a unity of naturalism and humanism. Yet socialism itself, in the view of these thinkers, remained essential, chiefly for its critique of labor exploitation. Early ecosocialist thinkers thus grafted Green concepts onto historical-materialist analysis, creating a hybrid, Centaur-like construct. In the case of Benton, perhaps the most articulate spokesperson for first-stage ecosocialism, elements of Marx’s critique of political economy, such as his political hostility to “Malthusian ‘natural limits’ arguments”; the priority given to value theory; his neglect of ecological processes; and his alleged “Prometheanism,” or extreme productivism, all “obstructed the development of historical materialism as an explanatory theory of ecological crisis.” These presumed shortcomings of Marxism required an “interdisciplinary collaboration between a revised historical materialism and ecology.”
Yet as commendable as such a program appeared on the surface, without a thoroughgoing exploration and reconstruction of Marx’s own analysis of the nature-society dialectic, the hoped-for higher synthesis could only end up as an eclectic mishmash in which the critical power of the historical-materialist tradition would be lost. More important, the criticisms of Marx within first-stage ecosocialist theory were often distorted, not only in their understanding of Marx’s own ecological conceptions, but in the adoption of views (e.g., Malthusianism) that were antagonistic to a fully developed Marxian ecology.
The Production of Nature: A New Human Exemptionalism
OTHER left theorists took an entirely different tack, distant from both the Frankfurt School and first-stage ecosocialism. Geographer Neil Smith embraced the basic structure of Schmidt’s interpretation of Marx, but sought to stand it on its head, contending that Schmidt had himself advanced a “quintessentially bourgeois conception of nature out of his reading of Marx.” If Schmidt’s Concept of Nature in Marx had argued that the mature Marx was caught in the technological determinism and extreme productivism that characterized the dialectic of Enlightenment, Smith offered a far more positive reading, depicting Marx’s view as one of the “production of nature,” or the constant reinvention and transformation of nature through production. As Smith’s follower Noel Castree acknowledged, Smith sought to solve the problem with a one-way causality from production to nature, leading to a “hyper-constructionist” outlook. Nature was reduced to a passive concept. Smith’s production of nature analysis, Castree noted, “looked more at how capitalism produces nature and less at how produced nature affects capitalism.” For Smith, in Castree’s words, “nature becomes internal to capitalism.” This kind of anthropomorphic monism subsumed nature almost completely within society, in an effort to solve the problem of “dualism,” which Smith and Castree charged characterized nearly all other views of the environmental problem.
Hence, in Smith’s inverted Frankfurt School perspective on the domination of nature, nature as a whole was envisioned in almost Baconian terms as increasingly produced by human beings for their own ends. It was possible, he argued, to speak of “the real subsumption of nature” in its entirety within human production. The late twentieth century, he proclaimed, marked the infiltration of society into the last “remnant[s] of a recognizably external nature.” Indeed, there was no longer any meaningful nature anywhere apart from human beings: “Nature is nothing if it is not social.” “The production of nature,” in Smith’s words, was “capitalized ‘all the way down.’” From this perspective, the historical production of nature represented “the unity of nature toward which capitalism drives.” In this ever-increasing, capitalist-generated unity, “first nature” (i.e., nature at its most elemental) was “produced from within and as a part of second nature” (i.e., nature as transformed by society). Smith effectively dismissed any recognition of “external nature” as a dynamic, evolutionary force outside and beyond, and often interacting with, humanity itself, as “dualism,” “fetishism of nature,” and “nature washing.” Natural science was itself to be faulted for focusing on “so-called laws of nature” outside society.
“Given Marx’s own treatment of nature,” Smith went so far as to argue, “it may not be unreasonable to see in his vision also a certain version of the conceptual dualism of nature.” Marx himself was therefore partly to blame for the rise of “left apocalypticism,” which Smith identified with contemporary environmentalism with its dualistic outlook.
Castree followed the same line as Smith, emerging as a major proponent of the production of nature approach, though in a slightly more nuanced form. Castree stated that “Marx did not himself provide a systematic account of nature. This task was left to Alfred Schmidt.” The brilliance of Schmidt’s analysis, for Castree, was reflected in the fact that he detected a “fundamental flaw” in Marx. Although “Marx apparently envisioned a harmonious balance of nature and society” in his “anticipatory-utopian vision,” this pointed to “a subtext of a will to power: that is, an affection for technology in the service of human well-being which could unintentionally turn into the domination of nature, and ironically (after Adorno and Hokheimer) into the domination of humans themselves.” Following Smith, Castree leveled the accusation of “dualism” at almost all Marxist analysts of nature-society relations, from classical Marxism to the present—hardly sparing Marx himself, whose saving grace, in Castree’s view, was that he had inspired Smith’s unifying conception of the “production of nature.” In this view, the production of nature perspective eliminated the dualism arising from the separateness of nature by subsuming nature in society. Yet most contemporary ecosocialists, Castree suggested, had failed to incorporate this advance of Smith, and had “reintroduced nature’s putative separateness” in their treatments of Marx.
Production of nature analysis, Smith and Castree declared, had gone beyond classical Marxism, in that it rejected altogether the idea of “external nature,” which had infected even Engels’s Dialectics of Nature. “As Smith correctly observes,” Castree pronounced, “nature separate from society has no meaning.” A developed Marxian approach in this realm rejected the notions of “universal” and “external” nature, since such conceptions inevitably led to the crudities of naturalism and dualism. On this basis, Smith and Castree discarded entirely Marx’s vision of a materialist, open dialectic in which human beings and society form a part of nature, and exist within it, in a complex, mediated, co-evolutionary relationship.
The production of nature argument was itself rooted in a binary conception that pitted dualism against monism. In this view, which lacked the concept of dialectical mediation, in order to escape dualism, one was forced to choose between either a “monistic doctrine of universal nature,” or, at the opposite extreme, a monistic doctrine of the production of nature by society (sometimes given an added nuance by reference to “co-production,” and to a double or hyphenated reality). The production of nature school itself chose the latter: a monist, hyper-social constructivism, such that nature and natural conditions were entirely subordinated to human production. This in essence is the view that environmental sociologists criticize as human exemptionalism — the anthropocentric notion that human beings are largely exempt from natural laws, or can imperialistically transform them as they wish.
The logical result was Smith’s critique of environmental apocalypticism, directed at the environmental movement. Writing in 2015 about the political consequences of Smith’s production of nature analysis, Castree noted that “certain strands of environmental and body-politics operative outside universities are now [like Smith himself] dispensing with ‘nature’ as an ontological referent.” Here he cited the book Break Through by leading ecological modernists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. “In a generic sense,” Castree declared, “this mirrors Smith’s insistence that we need new terms of radical political discourse.”
Ironically, Castree failed to note that Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s analysis represented exactly the opposite: new terms of reactionary political discourse. The Breakthrough Institute, which Shellenberger and Nordhaus head, is the principal ideological think tank in the United States dedicated to the single-minded promotion of capitalist ecological modernization. As self-designated “post-environmentalists,” thinkers associated with the Breatkthrough Institute see technological innovation and market mechanisms as the solution to all environmental problems, and as entirely compatible with unlimited economic growth and capital accumulation. They are thus sharp critics of radical ecology and of environmentalism in general.
Marx, Metabolism, and the Metabolic Rift
TO ESCAPE such one-sided views — whether idealist or mechanistic, monist or dualist — which have dominated much left analysis of the nature-society relation since Schmidt, it is necessary to turn to Marx’s ecology itself, in which the materialist conception of history and the materialist conception of nature formed a dialectical unity. By excavating the ecological foundations of classical historical materialism, second-stage ecosocialist theorists since the late 1990s have moved well beyond earlier misconceptions, creating the basis for a wider ecological synthesis. Here the analysis has pivoted on the dialectical approach implicit in Marx’s triadic scheme of “the universal metabolism of nature,” the “social metabolism,” and the metabolic rift.
Although, as in Marx’s analysis, it still makes sense abstractly to differentiate nature and natural processes from the labor and production process, there is no longer any pure nature untouched by human society; nor is there any pure realm of society free from the dire natural-material consequences of human actions. In the Anthropocene epoch, it is therefore all the more necessary to explore the complex, dialectical natural-social interconnections between the Earth system as a whole and capitalism as a system of alienated social metabolic reproduction within that Earth system. Today the drive to capital accumulation is disrupting the planetary metabolism at cumulatively higher levels, threatening irreversible, catastrophic impacts for countless species, including our own. It is in the theorization of this ecological and social dialectic, and in the development of a meaningful praxis to address it, that Marx’s analysis has proven indispensable.
Second-stage ecosocialism sought to return to Marx and earthly questions. The aim was to draw on the ecological foundations of classical historical materialism to develop a more unified socio-ecological critique. British Marxist sociologist Peter Dickens was among those who took initial steps to open up such an analysis. In his 1992 book Society and Nature: Towards a Green Social Theory, he focused on Marx’s early writings, such as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, insisting that this work provides key insights into how the organization, processes, and relations of the capitalist system alienated humanity from nature. He proposed that people’s understanding of nature tends to be shaped by their lived experiences within a society dominated by commodity production. Although some of the baggage of first-stage ecosocialism, such as an assumption that Marx in his mature works largely ignored natural limits and promoted an extreme productivism, still remained, Dickens’s work nonetheless represented a turning point. He was critical of simply grafting deep-ecology positions onto a revised Marxism. He insisted on the need to extend Marx’s method, which included both a historical-materialist and dialectical assessment of the relationship between society and nature. From a critical-realist orientation, he explained that larger emergent properties and boundaries within the biophysical world must be recognized, and that the capitalist system was “overloading these self-regulating ecosystems and stretching them to a point at which they [could] no longer cope.”
Second-stage ecosocialist scholarship called into question the tendency to pit the young Marx against the mature Marx, Marx against Engels, and natural science against social science. Paul Burkett explained that elemental ecological ideas ran throughout Marx’s work, even though the language in which he expressed them changed. Marx had moved over the course of his studies from highly “abstract” to “more consistently historical and social-relational” concepts. Burkett also pointed out that Marx and Engels were both committed to a “materialist and social-scientific approach to nature,” which served as the basis for extending and developing their analysis, creating opportunities for complementary work between the social and natural sciences. In other words, they insisted upon employing both a materialist conception of history and a materialist conception of nature as necessary counterparts.
Their efforts to analyze the interactions and transformations in the dialectical nature-society relationship was greatly enhanced by Marx’s use of metabolic analysis. Here Marx’s critique of political economy merged with his assessment of ecological relations, illuminating the interpenetration of nature and society, as well as the scale and processes through which these interactions had historically developed. Marx embedded socioeconomic systems in ecology and explicitly studied the interchange of matter and energy between the larger environment and society. Ecological economist Marina Fischer-Kowalski has proposed that social-metabolic analysis, arising out of Marx’s work, can illuminate the coupling of human and natural systems, because it “cut[s] across the ‘great divide’ between the natural sciences...and the social sciences.”69 The engagement and development of Marx’s triadic scheme—metabolism of nature, social metabolism, and metabolic rift—helped solidify the second stage of ecosocialist analyses and served as the springboard for the third stage, with the result that this methodology is now widely used to address many of today’s most pressing ecological challenges.
In developing his metabolic analysis, Marx drew on a long scientific and intellectual history. In the early nineteenth century, physiologists introduced the concept of metabolism to examine the biochemical processes between a cell and its surroundings, as well as the interactions and exchanges between an organism and the biophysical world. The physician and communist Roland Daniels, who was Marx’s friend and comrade, extended the use of metabolism to whole complexes of organisms, foreshadowing its application in ecosystem analysis. Although Daniels’s work was not published for more than a century, due to his untimely death in his mid-thirties (he contracted pneumonia while in prison during the Cologne communist trials), the broad idea he represented would, through the investigations of other thinkers, become the basis for examining higher levels of organization and interdependency, including the interchange of matter and energy, between human societies and the larger environment. The German chemist Justus von Liebig helped generalize the concept of metabolism, using it to study the exchange of nutrients between Earth and humans. He explained that soil required specific nutrients — such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — to produce vegetation. As plants grew, they absorbed soil nutrients. To maintain soil fertility, these nutrients had to be recycled back to the land.
Marx, who closely followed scientific debates and discoveries, incorporated the concept of metabolism into his critique of political economy, explaining that he employed the word to denote “the ‘natural’ process of production as the material exchange [Stoffwechesel] between man and nature.” He recognized that humans are dependent on nature and “can create nothing without” it. For “the earth itself is a universal instrument...for it provides the worker with the ground beneath his feet and a ‘field of employment’ for his own particular process.” As a result, there is a necessary “metabolic interaction” between humans and the earth. Labor serves as “a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.” The labor process, including exchanges with ecological systems, is influenced by the dominant economic systems and social institutions, defining what Marx saw as the social metabolism.
The complex, nuanced ecological worldview in Marx’s formulation is evident in his conception of both the “universal metabolism of nature” and the social metabolism. The “universal metabolism of nature” stood for the broader biophysical world. Specific cycles and processes constitute and help regenerate ecological conditions. Human society exists within the earthly metabolism, continually interacting with its external natural environment in the production of goods, services, and needs. As a result, the social metabolism operates within the larger universal metabolism. Under capitalist commodity production, this relationship takes on such an alienated form that it generates ecological crises, manifesting as a “rift” in the metabolism between society and nature (or disjunctures within both the social metabolism and the wider universal metabolism). This demands the “restoration” of these necessary conditions. “The natural boundary” to human production, as Lukács, following Marx, stated, “can only retreat, it can never fully disappear.”
Marx avoided subordinating nature to society, or vice versa, allowing him to elude “the pitfalls of both absolute idealism and mechanistic science.” His metabolic analysis recognizes that humans and the rest of nature are in constant interaction, resulting in reciprocal influences, consequences, and dependencies. These processes emerge within a relational, thermodynamic, whole, the universal metabolism of nature.
Humans transform nature through production. However, “they do not do so just as they please; rather they do so under conditions inherited from the past (of both natural and social history), remaining dependent on the underlying dynamics of life and material existence.” Each mode of production generates a distinct social metabolic order that influences the interchange and interpenetration of society and ecological systems. The social metabolic order of capital, for example, is expressed as a unique historical system of socio-ecological relations developed within a capitalist mode of social organization. Human social systems exchange with, work within, and draw on ecological systems in the process of producing and maintaining life and sociocultural conditions.
Yet within the social metabolic order of capital, this process materializes in a manner unlike other previous socio-ecological systems. The practical activities of life are shaped by the expansion and accumulation of capital. Marxian economist Paul Sweezy explained that in their “pursuit of profit...capitalists are driven to accumulate ever more capital, and this becomes both their subjective goal and the motor force of the entire economic system.” The compulsion to accumulate leads to continuous cycles of creative destruction (and destructive creation), as novel productive and distributive methods are developed and exploitable resources expanded to power industry and manufacture commodities. The needs of capital are imposed on nature, increasing the demands placed on ecological systems and the production of wastes.
To illustrate such social-metabolic analysis, it is useful to consider how Marx, drawing on the work of chemists and agronomists, analyzed the transformations associated with capitalist agricultural production. He explained that soil “fertility is not so natural a quality as might be thought, it is closely bound up with the social relations of the time.” In many precapitalist societies, farm animals were directly utilized in agricultural production. They were fed grains from the farm, and their nutrient-rich manure was reincorporated into the soil as fertilizer. People who lived in the countryside primarily consumed food and fiber from nearby farms. Their waste was likewise integrated into the nutrient cycle, helping maintain soil fertility.
This particular metabolic interchange was transformed in large part by the enclosure movement, the rise of the new industrial systems, and social relations associated with capitalist development. A wider, more alienated division between town and country emerged, as food and fiber from farms were increasingly shipped to distant markets, which transferred the nutrients from one location to another. The nutrients in food were squandered, and treated as mere waste accumulated as pollution within cities and rivers. Liebig, in his Letters on Modern Agriculture, argued that these emerging social conditions contributed to the disruption of the soil nutrient cycle. In the introduction to the 1862 edition of his Organic Agriculture in its Application to Chemistry and Physiology (better known as Agriculural Chemistry), he described the modern intensive farming practices of Britain as a system of “robbery” that exhausted the nutrients within the soil. In Capital, Marx similarly suggested that new agricultural practices, including the application of industrial power, increased the scale of operations, transforming and intensifying the social metabolism while exacerbating the depletion of the soil nutrients.
As a result, large-scale capitalist agriculture, Marx argued, progressively “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth.” Along with the various mechanisms used to intensify production and increase profits, it created a metabolic “rift” in the soil nutrient cycle, “robbing the soil” and “ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility.” As it violated the universal metabolism associated with the soil nutrient cycle (also conceived as a law of restitution), the rift undermined soil fertility and the conditions that supported human society. These nutrients from the consumption of food and fiber in the urban centers of the capitalist world were lost to the soil, and were turned into mere waste polluting the cities.
Reflecting on the industrialization of farming, Marx lamented that “agriculture no longer finds the natural conditions of its own production within itself, naturally, arisen, spontaneous, and ready to hand, but these exist as an independent industry separate from it — and, with this separateness the whole complex set of interconnections in which this industry exists is drawn into the sphere of the conditions of agricultural production.” In his discussion of “The Genesis of Capitalist Ground Rent” in volume three of Capital, he explained that the drive to capital accumulation “reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country.”
In the nineteenth century, the rift in the soil nutrient cycle posed a significant environmental problem for European agriculture and societies. Numerous attempts were made to find affordable means of enriching the soil. Bones were ground up and spread across fields, and massive quantities of guano and nitrates were imported from Peru and Chile to Britain and other regions of the global North to sustain agricultural production. The social relations associated with this metabolic rift expanded from the local to the national and international levels, as the bounty of the countryside and distant lands was transferred to urban centers of the global North. Just prior to the First World War, the process for producing nitrates by fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere was developed, allowing for the large-scale production of artificial nitrogen fertilizer. Nevertheless, the failure to recycle nutrients still contributes to the ongoing depletion of soil by intensive agricultural practices. As a result, the metabolic rift in the soil nutrient cycle remains a persistent problem of the modern social metabolic order.
Dickens’s 2004 book Society and Nature: Changing Our Environment, Changing Ourselves highlighted the important advances of the second stage of ecosocialism, especially the centrality of a historical-materialist conception of both nature and society, the nature-society dialectic, and metabolic analysis. He engaged a broad range of Marx’s works, exploring the depth of Marx’s ecology. He considered how distinct modes of production involved different demands and interactions with the larger environment, and explained — based on earlier research into “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift” — that “the notion of an ecological rift, one separating humanity and nature and violating the principles of ecological sustainability, continues to be helpful for understanding today’s social and environmental risks.” Importantly, Dickens showed how to extend this analysis to contemporary environmental problems, especially those associated with cities. He proposed that “three metabolic problems” plague modern cities, namely “the provision of an adequate water supply, the effective disposal of sewage and the control of air pollution.” These problems highlight how “humanity’s metabolism with nature [is] not being ultimately destroyed but [is] being overloaded in the context of a particular kind of social and spatial organization.”
Marxist metabolic research continues to thrive. In many ways, as the late Del Weston argued in The Political Economy of Global Warming, the “metabolic rift is at the crux of Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism, denoting the disjuncture between social systems and the rest of nature.” It has been employed to analyze metabolic relations and ecological rifts in contemporary agricultural, climatic, oceanic, hydraulic, and forest systems.96 Other theorists have used the concept of the metabolic rift, and Marx’s ecological materialism in general, to develop a “Marxist ecofeminism” that explores the relation between rifts in nature and in gender relations.
Much of this work examines how the social metabolism of capitalism as a global system has created specific environmental problems in the modern era by transgressing the universal metabolism of nature. The intensification of the social metabolism demands more energy and raw materials, generating an array of ecological contradictions and rifts. Other analysts consider how, as capitalism confronts environmental problems or obstacles — such as a shortage or exhaustion of particular natural resources — it pursues a series of shifts and technological fixes to maintain its expansion. In this way, environmental problems are addressed by incorporating new resources into the production process, changing the location of production, or developing new technologies to increase efficiency. Yet far from mending ecological rifts, such shifts often simply create new cumulative problems, generating additional disruptions on a larger scale. It is clear that the required “metabolic restoration” necessitates an ecological and social revolution to overturn the social metabolic order of capital — aimed at the creation of a higher society in which the associated producers rationally regulate the social metabolism in accord with the requirements of the universal metabolism of nature, while allowing for the fulfillment of their own human needs.
Marx and Nature in the Anthropocene: Toward a Critical Synthesis
HORKHEIMER and Adorno wrote the Dialectic of Enlightenment during the Second World War while in exile in the United States. They intended it as an account of the extreme domination of nature and domination of humanity that characterized all of the warring countries, all of which were in various ways heirs of the Enlightenment. It was followed several years later by Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason, which argued that through fascism in Europe and social Darwinism in the United States, the domination of nature had provoked a “revolt of nature,” which was being harnessed in reactionary ways to reinforce the domination of both nature and society. For Horkheimer, “whenever nature is exalted as a supreme principle and becomes the weapon of thought against thinking, against civilization, thought manifests a kind of hypocrisy, and so develops an uneasy conscience.... Indeed, the Nazi regime as a revolt of nature became a lie the moment it became conscious of itself as a revolt. The lackey of the very mechanized civilization [capitalism] that it professed to reject, it took over the inherently repressive measures of the latter.”
Social Darwinism emerged, Horkheimer argued, as “the main growth of the Enlightenment,” and thus represented a repressive force harnessed to a naturalistic revolt against machine civilization, creating an even greater repression. The result, he wrote, was a huge Faustian tragedy. “The history of man’s efforts to subjugate nature,” he explained, “is also the history of man’s subjection of man.” Yet, he insisted, there was no going back: “We are the heirs, for better or worse, of the Enlightenment and technological progress. To oppose these by regressing to more primitive stages does not alleviate the permanent crisis they have brought about. On the contrary, such expedients lead from historically reasonable to utterly barbaric forms of social domination.” Projecting a highly abstract, idealist philosophical argument, he concluded that “the sole way of assisting nature is to unshackle its seeming opposite, independent thought.”
It was in this context, as indicated above, that Schmidt wrote The Concept of Nature in Marx. As in Horkheimer and Adorno’s work, Schmidt treated the dialectic of the Enlightenment as a form of the domination of nature, from which there was virtually no escape. Schmidt insisted that Marx, like Hegel, saw the labor process as the mere “outsmarting and duping of nature.” Even when Marx pointed, according to Schmidt, to nature as a “co-producer” with labor, it was in the context of the promotion of narrow human ends. The needs of external nature were entirely “foreign” to Marx’s whole outlook. Bloch’s humane Marxian “philosophy of hope” was thus in reality a hopeless utopian quest, which turned into an empty “apocalyptic vision.”
Smith accepted the main formulations of Schmidt’s analysis, while inverting the Frankfurt School critique, and promoting the “production of nature” as the Marxian ideal — a view that Smith acknowledged could not be found in Marx himself. Here the problem of the domination of nature simply disappeared before the unceasing expansion of the human production of nature. He thus dismissed the environmental movement’s growing resistance to this unsustainable economic exploitation of nature as “left apocalypticism,” condemning such so-called “apocalypticism” even more absolutely than Schmidt had in his criticism of Bloch’s “apocalyptic vision.” Nature, in Smith’s view, was increasingly without any reality at all, outside of its production by human beings.
It is here, however, that we discover, by way of contrast to the social monism of the production of nature thesis, the liberatory potential that still lingered in the work of the more adamantly socialist-humanist thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School. For in their concern with the domination of nature alongside the domination of humanity, the more critical and praxis-oriented representatives of the Frankfurt School never ceased to notice the contradictions of capitalism and the possibility of transcending contemporary reality. At the very inception of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, in 1932, Erich Fromm, in his seminal paper “The Method and Function of an Analytic Social Philosophy,” pointed to Marx’s notion of the labor process as a metabolic relation, an integrated dialectic of nature and society. Here he underscored the significance of Bukharin’s 1925 book Historical Materialism, often dismissed for its mechanistic materialism, for its insight into this aspect of Marx’s analysis.
Georg Lukács, writing only a few years after History and Class Consciousness (in his Tailism manuscript of 1925–26) — though this reflected in part his break with Western Marxism — argued that a meaningful dialectics of nature in Marx was embodied in his theory of the labor process as the metabolic relation between humanity and nature. What is more, the fact that “human life is based on the metabolism with nature” meant, for Lukács, that “certain truths which we acquire in the process of carrying out this metabolism have a general validity.”
Marcuse, the most directly ecological of the early Frankfurt School thinkers (though this was mainly manifested in his later writings), declared: “History is also grounded in nature. And Marxist theory has the least justification to ignore the metabolism between the human being and nature, and to denounce the insistence on this natural soil of society as a regressive ideological conception.”
In Marcuse’s more hopeful, dissenting Frankfurt School vision, rooted in Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, it was possible to conceive of an ecologically based liberation movement. “What is happening,” he wrote in Counter-Revolution and Revolt, “is the discovery (or rather rediscovery) of nature as an ally in the struggle against the exploitative societies in which the violation of nature aggravates the violation of man. The discovering of the liberating forces of nature and their vital role in the construction of a free society becomes a new force in social change.”
Dickens likewise drew inspiration from Marx’s early writings, emphasizing in his early Society and Nature: Towards a Green Social Theory that a sociology of ecological liberation could be developed on the basis of the work of the young Marx. In his later book, Society and Nature: Changing Our Environment, Changing Ourselves, Dickens criticized Horkheimer and Adorno’s “fearsome anti-Enlightenment critique” as sheer “pessimism.” Instead, Dickens argued for a more positive, ecological-revolutionary vision, rooted in Marx’s theory of metabolic rift. “Marx’s early [naturalist-humanist] background,” he observed,
led him to undertake no less than an analysis of what would now be called “environmental sustainability.” In particular, he developed the idea of a “rift” in the metabolic relation between humanity and nature, one seen as an emergent feature of capitalist society.... The notion of an ecological rift, one separating humanity and nature and violating the principles of ecological sustainability, continues to be helpful for understanding today’s social and environmental risks.
The goal ultimately needed to be the creation of a sustainable and egalitarian society, able to “mend the ‘metabolic rift’ between nature and society.”
Still, not all on the left would agree with second-stage ecosocialists in this respect; nor with the need to focus on the question of the ecological rift or domination of nature engendered by capitalist society. According to Smith, writing in the 2007 Socialist Register, the Frankfurt School — referring mainly to Horkheimer, Adorno, and Schmidt — always dualistically conceived the “domination of nature” as “an inevitable condition of the human metabolism with nature.” Similarly, “ecological essentialists [his term for radical ecologists generally] recognize a parallel attempt at domination, but they see it not as inevitable but as a destructive social choice.” In sharp contrast, Smith’s own “production-of-nature thesis” rejected both of these so-called dualistic views: “The domination-of-nature thesis [encompassing both perspectives] is a cul-de-sac...the only political alternatives are an anti-social (literally) politics of nature or else resignation to a kinder, gentler domination.” For Smith, “The externality and universality of nature...are not to be taken as ontological givens. The ideology of external-cum-universal nature harks back to a supposedly edenic, pre-human, or supra-human world.”
Indeed, Smith, in the name of combatting dualism, went so far as to dismiss the entire ecological struggle to mitigate climate change, writing: “In the end, the attempt to distinguish social [i.e., anthropogenic] vis-à-vis natural contributions to climate change is not only a fool’s debate but a fool’s philosophy: it leaves sacrosanct the chasm between nature and society—nature in one corner, society in the other—which is precisely the shibboleth of modern western thought that the ‘production of nature’ thesis sought to corrode. One does not have to be a ‘global warming denier’...to be a skeptic concerning the way that a global public is being stampeded into accepting wave upon wave of technical economic, and social change, framed as necessary for immediate planetary survival.” On this basis, he condemned what he called “the apocalyptic tone of imminent environmental doom,” associated with much of science and the environmental movement.
By inverting the Frankfurt School’s critical domination of nature thesis, and turning that into an uncritical production of nature notion (a kind of anthropomorphic social monism), Smith, Castree, and other like-minded thinkers effectively de-naturalize social theory to an extreme, imposing ecological blinders. What is excluded is a more developed, dialectical perspective, pointing to the alienation of nature under capitalism.
In contrast, the enduring value of Marx’s ecological materialism, incorporating such critical concepts as the universal metabolism of nature, the social metabolism, and the metabolic rift, is that it points in a co-evolutionary and co-revolutionary direction — highlighting the need for a new order of social metabolic reproduction rooted in substantive equality. Here social and natural necessity, natural science and social science, humanity and the earth become one human-mediated totality, in a wider universal struggle—one pointing to a revolutionary dialectic of humanity and the earth in which the necessary outcome is a world of sustainable human development. It is this higher synthesis of the various Marxian ecological and social critiques — building on the foundations of historical materialism — that we are most in need of today.
(John Bellamy Foster is the editor of Monthly Review and a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. His most recent book, coauthored with Paul Burkett, is Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique (Brill, 2016). Brett Clark is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah and the author, with Stefano B. Longo and Rebecca Clausen, of The Tragedy of the Commodity (Rutgers University Press, 2015).