(Let us Study Sharmista’s Paper on Marxism and the Women’s Question; Help Building of AIRWO with Her Vision, Ensuring Rightful Role of Women in Party and in the Struggle for their Liberation!
Com. Sharmista is no more with us; but her contributions to the theoretical offensive to project a correct understanding of the Marxist contribution to the Women’s liberation, to develop this understanding , the organizational approach for it, and its practice according to the concrete conditions of today will be read, discussed and practiced for a long time to come, as a part of the class struggle. She has written many valuable articles on this question, in the AIRWO organ, as well as in many publications including the Red Star. When she was entrusted with the responsibility to write the paper on Marxism and the Women’s Question for the 2020 Central Party School, she told me: Comrade, this time I am going to write a paper keeping in mind our Resolution on Theoretical Offensive adopted by 10th Congress at Lucknow”. I said, ok go ahead. But as the dates of Party School was nearing, the paper was not received. After one or two reminders, she sent the paper with the a note “the second part has to be developed. But I shall explain in the School”.
In the School for CC members and selected comrades from different states, she said, “I will not speak about what I have written in the paper. But to show how mechanical, and often patriarchic was the communist movement towards women’s liberation, I will explain certain incidents”. Like the revisionists everywhere, in India also the CPI leadership was spreading the argument that, since the private property is the root cause of women’s slavery, once it is ended by the revolution, the women’s liberation also will take place. It was the same argument put forward when the question was raised why the party is not taking up struggle for caste annihilation, struggle against Brahmanical Manuvadi concepts, struggle against feudal and imperialist cultural values etc also along with, and as part of the class struggle from the pre-revolutionary phase itself. So, class struggle was, in effect, reduced to economism.
She sighted many examples of what happened to those who opposed this reformist approach. Many were eased out of leadership. Contrary to what was explained by Lenin to Clara Zetkin, though in name the ‘front organization’ concept was opposed, all mass organizations, including women’s, was not better than that. No serious efforts were made to politicize and bring women forward and to leadership, instead if they came forward they were put down. The communist party leadership always remained male dominated. In India, so far no women were elevated to become even a state secretary of the party, or as chief minister by the CPI or CPI(M). One interesting, but horrific incident she explained was what happened to the hundreds of women who had left their patriarchal families and joined the Great Telengana Struggle. Large number of women, influenced by the communist propaganda had become volunteers and squad members. In spite of forceful migration of Hyderabad state with Indian Union and dispatch of Indian army to suppress the Telengana struggle, it was continuing by spreading to new areas and adopting new tactics. But, when the CPI leadership approached Nehru government which was playing all tactics to politically disarm and destroy the revolutionary sections in the CPI, in order to get recognition for contesting the 1952 elections and to get the restrictions on the party removed, it cleverly demanded the withdrawal of the Telengana Struggle and dissolution of all secret party fractions active in many armed forces units. When the leadership surrendered, and accepted these demands, thousands of party members were court martialled and thrown out of the armed forces. In Telengana, the women who had joined the party had nowhere to go for continuing to their communist work as the movement was withdrawn; most of them had to return to their old patriarchal prisons! There was not even a serious discussion on this matter in the CPI. These women and fighters were told to wait for revolution, which it had really abandoned even before the ‘peaceful transition to socialism through parliamentary struggle’ of Krushchov was put forward by Krushchov in the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956! Was it just a mistake of only these parties, CPI, and then CPI and CPI(M) after 1964, who have degenerated to social democratic positions? The condition of the CR organizations which came up after the disintegration of CPI(ML) and other such groupings by 1972 were not different, or worse in the case of CPI(Maoist), and CLI groups which fervently argue for front organizations with the only task of supporting the armed struggle led by the ‘party which should be always underground’! The understanding of those who have mass organizations, either they are micro groups without any democratic organizational set ups, or pursue the same style of revisionist, reformist parties with regard to class/mass organizations.
It is in this context, the importance of the paper of com. Sharmista written for the Party School, given below should be seen. Mind it, it is not a AIRWO paper, but a paper written to educate the party on this question by a PB member of the party! Whenever I asked her to complete it, so that it can be published, she was asking for some more time. Then she became incapable of any such work from the beginning of April. Now our beloved comrade Sharmista has left us yesterday. Today when her body was taken from SSKN Hospital to Academy of Fine Arts for all fraternal organizations, comrades and friends to pay their tributes, a very large number of all of them came to show their love, affection and respect to her; then in a procession her body was taken back to SSKN Hospital in a procession, with the comrades singing the International, and raising slogans in her memory. Her body was handed over to the Hospital to help the students in their research work.
Though she was not well, she attended the PB meeting on 10th June and participated in the discussion on some issues also; especially when we discussed about two days’ online PB meeting in July for preliminary discussions on updating the present Party documents, followed by 4-5 days actual PB meeting in August to update and develop them in the 12th Party Congress, preparations for which we have already started. When one comrade raised the question of linking it with the proposals in the Resolution on Theoretical Offensive, she enthusiastically supported it. Then I reminded her promise to come up with concrete proposals based on the paper she has presented in the Party School, with a smile she said. Now, we have to carry forward to take up this task also.
So, we think it will be a tribute to her to publish this paper online today itself. Red Salute to you beloved Sharmista, You Will be Always with Us, Inspiring Us! - KN Ramachandran)
Marxism and the Women’s Question
Marx and Engels located the origin of women’s oppression in the rise of class society. Engels wrote The Origin of Family, Private Property and State in 1884 - a year after Marx's death. He used Marx's Ethnological Notebooks as well as his own notes as the basis of the text. The notebooks contained Marx's notes on Ancient Society by Lewis Henry Morgan. The Origin is a short book which dwells on Morgan's findings and puts forward an argument about the nature of "primitive" society, the rise of commodity production and, with it, the emergence of classes and the state. Engels contended that, for the vast majority of human existence, some 2,000,000 years (or 2 million years if we include other human-like species), people lived in small communities that were relatively egalitarian, did not contain systematic oppression by one group or another, and to whom concepts such as property and wealth would have had no meaning.
Humans had not yet learned how to cultivate plants or rear animals. These hunter-gatherer societies could sustain only a relatively small population which had to move on when resources became scarce. Sharing and communal living were the best way to ensure the survival of the group. There would have been a division of labour between men and women, but this did not mean the domination of one group by the other - each person would make the decisions about the activities they were involved in.
Rather than living in family units of two parents and their children, or an extended patriarchal family centering round the male elder, people lived in communal systems of kinship - children would be the responsibility of everyone.
The old kinship systems were centered on mothers because it was only possible to identify the line of descent through the mother. In such a setup only mothers would know with certainty who their children were and thus build up a network of blood relationships around that knowledge, giving every member of the group a line of descent and a role. The "household" was communal, and the fruits of women's and men's labour were shared among families. There was no separation between what we would now know as ‘housework’ and all other work - there was no public/private divide.
The new male-dominated family broke up this intricate, communal system by placing the family as the key economic unit of society, the means through which wealth would be owned and passed on. Rather than the woman being an equally important economic actor in society, she and her children became dependent upon the individual man in the family.
This change took place with development of production relations and growing people's ability to produce more than they immediately needed to consume. The development of agriculture and the domestication of animals meant goods could be produced for trade - commodities could be exchanged for other things or, eventually, money. More specialised tools became crucial to production, and thus very valuable property. Men tended to be the ones responsible for animal rearing and increasingly for agriculture - so they owned the tools and made the economic decisions, gradually increasing their importance in relation to women.
For the first time women's ability to give birth became a burden. This was partly because settled communities with greater productive capacity could sustain larger populations - in fact needed more labourers to work in the fields - and so women would tend to spend more time pregnant or with young children. But the main source of women's oppression was the separation of the family from the communal clan. Women's labour in the home became a private service under conditions of subjugation. This was the "world historic defeat of the female sex" that Engels wrote about:
"The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became a slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. This degraded position of women...has gradually been palliated and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in milder form, in no sense has it been abolished."
As Marx noted, "The modern family contains in germ not only slavery but also serfdom, since from the beginning it is related to agricultural services. It contains in miniature all the contradictions which later extend throughout society and its state."
This defeat of mother right was a profound change in human relations caused, not by some latent desire in men to dominate women, but by the needs of commodity production and the way it developed. The monogamous family was "the first form of the family to be based...on economic conditions - on the victory of private property over...communal property". Along with domestic slavery came slave labour and the beginning of systematic exploitation. Once communal property was undermined this was inevitable - private property for some always means no property for others. Engels writes that this process "opens the period that has lasted until today in which every step forward is also a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others."
Engels built upon Morgan’s theory in The Origin to develop, as the title implies, a theory of how the rise of class society led to both the rise of the state, which represents the interests of the ruling class in the day-to-day class struggle, and the rise of the family, as the means by which the first ruling classes possessed and passed on private wealth. He developed a historical analysis which located the source of women’s oppression. In so doing, he provided a strategy for ending that oppression. It is no exaggeration to say that Engels’ work has defined the terms of debate around ‘the origin’ of women’s oppression for the last 100 years. Most writers on the subject of women’s oppression have set out either to support or reject Marxist theory as laid out by Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Until the women’s movement of the late 1960s began to challenge male chauvinism, sexist assumptions provided the basis for broad generalizations. Claude Levi-Strauss, a leading anthropologist within the structuralist school, went so far as to argue that "human society...is primarily a masculine society." He argued that the "exchange of women" is a "practically universal" feature of human society, in which men obtain women from other men – from fathers, brothers and other male relatives. Moreover, he asserted that "the deep polygamous tendency, which exists among all men, always makes the number of available women seem insufficient." Therefore, "the most desirable women must form a minority." Because of this, "the demand for women is an actual fact, or to all intents and purposes, always in a state of disequilibrium and tension." According to Levi-Strauss, then, women have been the passive victims of men’s sexual aggression since the beginning of human society.
On the other hand, in its purest form, much of feminist theory rests upon more imaginations than facts. There is wide ranging supposition like men dominate women because they hold women in contempt for their ability to bear children–or because they are jealous of women’s ability to bear children. Men oppress women because long ago women formed a powerful matriarchy which was overthrown–or because men have always been a tyrannical patriarchy. Gerda Lerner argues in her book, The Creation of Patriarchy, "Feminists, beginning with Simone de Beauvoir… [have explained women’s oppression] as caused by either male biology or male psychology." She goes on to describe a sampling of feminist theories, all of which border on the outlandish: Thus, Susan Brownmiller sees man’s ability to rape women leading to their propensity to rape women and shows how this has led to male dominance over women and to male supremacy. Elizabeth Fisher ingeniously argued that the domestication of animals…led men to the idea of raping women. She claimed that the brutalization and violence connected with animal domestication led to men’s sexual dominance and institutionalized aggression. More recently, Mary O’Brien built an elaborate explanation of the ‘origin’ of male dominance on men’s psychological need to compensate for their inability to bear children through the construction of institutions of dominance and, like Fisher, dated this "discovery" in the period of the discovery of animal domestication.
In his introduction to the first edition of The Origin, Engels explains materialism as follows: “According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life. This, again, is of a twofold character: on the one side, the production of the means of existence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species.”
Before class society, the idea of a strictly monogamous pairing of males and females with their offspring – the modern, ‘monogamous‘ family – was unknown to human society. Inequality was also unknown. For more than 2 million years, humans lived in groups made up of people who were mostly related by blood, in conditions of relative equality. This understanding is an important part of Marxist theory.
Human evolution has taken place over a very long time–a period of millions of years. The earliest human ancestors (Homo habilus) probably appeared some 2 million or more years ago, while anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) did not appear until 200,000 to 100,000 years ago. The earliest forms of agriculture did not begin until 10,000 years ago, and it is only over the last thousand years that human society has experienced much more rapid technological development.25 For most of human history, it would have been impossible to accumulate wealth – nor was there much motivation to do so. For one thing, there would have been no place to store it. People lived first in nomadic bands – hunter-gatherer societies – sustaining themselves by some combination of gathering berries, roots and other vegetable growth, and hunting or fishing. In most such societies, there would have been no point in working more than the several hours per day it takes to produce what is necessary for subsistence. But even among the first societies to advance to horticulture, it wasn’t really possible to produce much more than what was to be immediately consumed by members of the band.
With the onset of more advanced agricultural production–through the use of the plow and/or advanced methods of irrigation –and the beginnings of settled communities. In some societies, human beings were able to extract more than the means of subsistence from the environment. This led to the first accumulation of surplus, or wealth. As Engels stated in The Origin: "Above all, we now meet the first iron plowshare drawn by cattle, which made large-scale agriculture, the cultivation of fields, possible and thus created a practically unrestricted food supply in comparison with previous conditions." This was a turning point for human society, for it meant that, over time, production for use could be replaced by production for exchange and eventually for profit, leading to the rise of the first class societies some 6,000 years ago.
The crux of Engels’ theory of women’s oppression rests on the relationship between the sexual division of labor and the mode of production, which underwent a fundamental transformation with the onset of class society. In hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies, there was a sexual division of labor–rigidly defined sets of responsibilities for women and men. But both sexes were allowed a high degree of autonomy in performing those tasks. Moreover–and this is an element which has been learned since Engels’ time–women not only provided much of the food for the band in hunter-gatherer societies, but also, in many cases, they provided most of the food. So women in pre-class societies were able to combine motherhood and productive labor–in fact, there was no strict demarcation between the reproductive and productive spheres. Women, in many cases, could carry small children with them while they gathered or planted, or leave the children behind with other adults for a few hours at a time. Likewise, many goods could be produced in the household. Because women were central to production in these pre-class societies, systematic inequality between the sexes was nonexistent, and elder women in particular enjoyed relatively high status.
All of that changed with the development of private property. According to the sexual division of labor, men tended to take charge of heavier agricultural jobs, like plowing, since it was more difficult for pregnant or nursing women and might endanger small children to be carried along. Moreover, since men traditionally took care of big-game hunting (though not exclusively), again, it made sense for them to oversee the domestication of cattle. Engels argued that the domestication of cattle preceded the use of the plow in agriculture, although it is now accepted that these two processes developed at the same time. But this does not diminish the validity of his explanation as to why control over cattle fell to men.
As production shifted away from the household, the role of reproduction changed substantially. The shift toward agricultural production sharply increased the productivity of labor. This, in turn, increased the demand for labor–the greater the number of field workers, the higher the surplus. Thus, unlike hunter-gatherer societies, which sought to limit the number of offspring, agricultural societies sought to maximize women’s reproductive potential, so the family would have more children to help out in the fields. Therefore, at the same time that men were playing an increasingly exclusive role in production, women were required to play a much more central role in reproduction.
The rigid sexual division of labor remained the same, but production shifted away from the household. The family no longer served anything but a reproductive function – as such, it became an economic unit of consumption. In the family, men as owners of the means of production and controlling the major share of production, came to be owners of the produce too, and the woman and children of the family became dependent on the man for their share of the produce. This also enabled the men to hold the woman in relative subjugation. Women became trapped within their individual families, as the reproducers of society–cut off from production. These changes took place first among the property-owning families, the first ruling class. But eventually, the monogamous family became an economic unit of society as a whole.
It is important to understand that these changes did not take place overnight, but over a period of thousands of years. Moreover, greed was not responsible, in the first instance, for the unequal distribution of wealth. Nor was male chauvinism the reason why power fell into the hands of (some) men, while the status of women fell dramatically. There is no evidence (nor any reason to assume) that women were coerced into this role by men. For property-owning families, a larger surplus would have been in the interest of all household members. Engels said of the first male "property owners" of domesticated cattle, "What is certain is that we must not think of him as a property owner in the modern sense of the word." He owned his cattle in the same sense that he owned the other tools required to obtain food and other necessities. But "the family did not multiply so rapidly as the cattle." Agricultural output also increased sharply–some of which needed to be stored to feed the community in case of a poor harvest, and some of which could be traded for other goods.
Obviously, every society across the globe did not experience an identical succession of changes in the mode of production. Chris Harman writes, "[T]he exact route from hunter-gathering through horticulture and agriculture to civilization did vary considerably from one society to another." But, “[t]he divergent forms under which class society emerged must not make us forget the enormous similarities from society to society.” Everywhere there was, in the beginning, primitive communism. Everywhere, once settled agricultural societies were formed, some lineages, lineage elders or "big men" could begin to gain prestige through their role in undertaking the redistribution of the little surplus that existed in the interests of the group as a whole. Everywhere, as the surplus grew, this small section of society came to control a greater share of the social wealth, putting it in a position where it could begin to crystallize out into a social class.
What is indisputable is that the onset of class society brought with it a universal shift toward patri-lineage–and, more importantly, the role of men as "heads" of their households. Engels was undoubtedly correct–with more supporting evidence today than when he was writing–that the rise of the modern family brought with it a degradation of women which was unknown in pre-class societies. Engels argued, “The overthrow of mother right was the world historic defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. . . . In order to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore the paternity of his children, she is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his rights.”
That the rise of the family was a consequence–and not a cause, as some argue–of the rise of classes is central to Engels’ argument.
Engels argued that the rise of class society brought with it rising inequality – between the rulers and the ruled, and between men and women. At first the surplus was shared with the entire clan – so wealth was not accumulated by any one individual or groups of individuals. But gradually, as settled communities grew in size and became more complex social organizations, and, most importantly, as the surplus grew, the distribution of wealth became unequal – and a small number of men rose above the rest of the population in wealth and power.
Engels didn't claim that there was a straightforward, one-way relationship between the development of the productive forces and the social relations - there is always a battle. But everything doesn't influence everything equally: "It is not that the economic situation is cause, solely active, while everything else [political, philosophical, religious, etc, development] is only passive effect. There is rather interaction on the basis of economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself."
Engels’ analysis is straightforward–it may need further development, but its essence is there, plain to see. The sexual division of labor which existed in pre-class societies, when production for use was the dominant mode of production, carried no implication of gender inequality. Women were able to combine their reproductive and productive roles, so both sexes were able to perform productive labor. But with the rise of class society, when production for exchange began to dominate, the sexual division of labor helped to erode equality between the sexes. Production and trade increasingly occurred away from the household, so that the household became a sphere primarily for reproduction. As Coontz and Henderson argue, The increasing need for redistribution (both within local groups and between them) and the political tasks this creates have consequences for sex roles in that these political roles are often filled by males, even in matrilineal/matrilocal societies. Presumably this flows from the division of labor that associates males with long-distance activities, external affairs, and products requiring group-wide distribution, while females are more occupied with daily productive tasks from which they cannot be absented.
Hence, the beginnings of a "public" versus a "private" sphere, with women increasingly trapped in the household in property-owning families. The rise of the family itself explains women’s subordinate role within it. For the first time in human history, women’s ability to give birth kept them from playing a significant part in production.
For Engels, there was a "historic defeat" because something fundamental changed in the economic base of society. We developed ways to produce a surplus, not by nature's bounty but by our own labour. If, as Engels argues, oppression arose alongside class society then is he saying that, once we get rid of class society, oppression will automatically disappear?
A fair reading of The Origin with an open mind makes it clear that the treatise contains no such assumption. No oppression can ever automatically disappear. On the contrary, an uncompromising fight against all forms of gender oppression serves to erode the base on which such oppression stands and paves the way for the uprooting of the base. For instance, the struggles against various aspects of women’s oppression like domestic violence and sexual violence sharpen and intensify the struggle against class. “The first condition for the liberation of women”, argued Engels, “is to bring the whole of the female sex back into public industry”. We have seen over the past few decades how structural changes in capitalism have led to a significant increase in the participation of women in the workforce in many countries worldwide. While this has undoubtedly had a positive effect on the ideas and aspirations of women themselves, as well as influencing social attitudes more broadly, women’s economic, social and personal autonomy are limited by the needs of capitalism. Engels went on to explain that “this in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family’s attribute of being the economic unit of society”. The family as an institution and women’s role within it, have clearly undergone significant changes since Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Nevertheless, it retains an economic and ideological relevance for 21st century capitalism which is suffering from a systemic crisis and is riven with contradictions: a system which exploits women as low-cost labour in the workplace while defining their existence by their role in the monogamous family.
Capitalist ideology concerning women’s role and status in society has also evolved since the late 19th century, but the ideas and values of a system based on commodity production for profit and inequalities of wealth and power rest on, combine with, and perpetuate the residue of outmoded ideas of male authority and supremacy which have their roots in earlier class societies. As a consequence, women continue to experience violence, sexual abuse and restrictions on their sexuality and reproductive rights, while facing sexism, discrimination, gender stereotyping and double standards.
For Engels the basis for resolving the problems which women face in society entails “the transfer of the means of production into common ownership”. In this way, “the monogamous family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into social industry. The care and education of children becomes a public affair; society looks after all children alike…” In a socialist society, personal relations will be freed from the economic and social constraints which continue to limit them even today. The basis for true liberation will be laid. Close to 150 years after they were first written, Engels’s words regarding the ending of women’s oppression maintain all their force.
Part – 2
In the present day the women’s organization needs to be broad-based, encompassing the aspirations of all struggling women and gender rights movements, and attempting to bring together all resistances to patriarchy under one umbrella. However, since patriarchy today is nurtured and sustained by imperialism, and in every challenge to patriarchy the world order of imperialism is also challenged to some extent or the other, the general nature of the women’s organization will be anti-imperialist.
In our country, with the fascistic onslaught intensifying, there is need for the women’s organization to be particularly strong in order to combat state-sponsored patriarchal challenges. For that the women’s organization needs to break out of the stereotypical mould of being an appendage to a Party and develop independent organizing and agitating abilities. In our country it is the custom of political parties, ranging from right, centre to left, to have women’s wings as women’s organizations. The CPIM has one, the Congress has another and so does the BJP. Even struggling left organizations like the Liberation and others have their women’s wings which go by the name of women’s organizations. However, just as it is uncommon for these ‘women’s organisations’ to ever go against any position adopted by the Party they are associated with, so also it is rare for them to take up independent positions and struggles.
The primary objective of a women’s organization is women’s liberation, and this can be neither achieved nor struggled for by women who aren’t independent themselves. But it is most often seen that far from being an independent organization with distinctive positions on all questions pertaining to the unceasing attacks on women, the tendency is to tail the Party. Thus the independent assertion of women through their own organization remains a far cry.
The relationship between the Communist Party and women’s organization should necessarily be dialectical, independent of each other and yet each hammering away at class-divided society with a view to replace it with a new order. As struggling trade unions set their own agendas of struggle, but the Party remains a bulwark of support all throughout and helps the trade union to view the long-term goals without positing itself as a Grand Patriarch in relationship to the union, so also the women’s organization should at all times set its own agenda of propaganda and struggle, aided by the Party but never dictated by it or constrained by it.
The Communist Party has a great role to play in the educating and organizing of women. The exclusion of women from all important spaces has become a habit that must be consciously fought. Very often it is convenient not to have a woman or two in a meeting or gathering of a couple of dozen men, especially because including women would necessitate making separate logistical arrangements for them. But we are so used to viewing all space as ‘male space’ that the very idea of organizing a space for women appears downright troublesome. Very often women’s voices are ignored simply because the total unfamiliarity with the female voice makes it difficult for the Party to understand what is being tried to be conveyed. This is also obvious from the total invisibilisation of women not just in formal academia but also the history of the communist movement, both in India as well as abroad. History text books in Indian schools teach a wide range of modern, international historical events ranging from the French Revolution to the Paris Commune and the American War of Independence, the Emancipation of Slaves in the US, Emancipation of Serfs in Russia to the Boer War, and of course the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution and the two World Wars and chunks of the post World War scenario, the United Nations, Israel-Palestine, Cold War, et al. However, one chapter of history that is summarily and deliberately glossed over in all history books – left, right and centre – without exception, is the history of the International Women’s Suffrage Movement and its somewhat less-than-triumphant victory. Although this movement, dealing as it did with the question of citizenship rights for half the population of the globe, had a prolonged, fierce and chequered history, pitting citizens against citizens even as women and men united against governments on a fairest possible demand, and had an international character, it is one movement about which most of us know very little. Neither academic textbooks, nor progressive history books which tell us about the uninterrupted fight of the people of the world for democracy and rights, usually have chapters dedicated to the International Women’s Suffrage Movement, and while Abraham Lincoln remains a greatly famous name not merely for his leadership role in the Civil War but more so as the champion of the emancipation of the African Americans from slavery, the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement are forgotten names relegated to the pages of something that goes by the dubious distinction of ‘feminist literature’. Now take a look at the history of the International Communist Movement. Except for Rosa Luxembourg and Clara Zetkin and a handful others, the women leaders are inexplicably missing. Not that they weren’t there. Not that the ICM was largely a male-only movement. But tomes on the ICM will give you a different idea.
This invisibilisation of women has acquired such a degree of normalcy that it isn’t generally considered a part of what is broadly termed as oppression of women. This picture of violent inequality – where women are intruding ‘others’ in a world of men, for men and by men – however, remains a constant, be it in history or the living present. So the visibilisation of women’s struggles and their role in history remains an important duty of the Communist Party.
The most important challenges before the women’s movement today are the tendency to shy away from forming broad-based women’s organizations and the inclination to limit the organization by the position of the Party. AIRWO is an exception to this general rule. It is not an appendage of CPI(ML) Red Star, or any other Party for that matter. It calls itself revolutionary because it believes in the revolutionary reorganization of society for the achievement of the complete emancipation of women. But that is not to say that it is an organization for only women revolutionaries. It is an organization which aims at bringing together the ranks of women, all struggles of, by and for women, and all the liberatory aspirations of women into one united, yet diverse, platform committed to the uprooting of patriarchy.
Today Indian economy is confronting the worst contraction on record. Officially also, it is acknowledged as historic down-turn in 70 years. It is a fact that COVID-19 came when imperialism has been still reeling under the impact and repercussions of the 2008 global crisis. Now the pandemic has driven the world economy to a state of crumbling, the dimensions of which are surpassing that of the Great Depression of 1929-33.For instance, based on October 2020 database, IMF estimates a 4.4% contraction in world output in 2020. Except China which is expected to mark a growth rate of 1.9%, all leading countries will contract or represent minus growth- US(-4.3%), Japan(-5.3%), Euro Area(-8.3%) and UK(-9.8%). On the other hand, while the average growth rate of the so called “developing countries” is predicted to contract by -3%, that of India will be a staggering -10.3%.
According to Swiss bank UBS, by the dawn of 2020 itself, half of world’s net wealth belonged to the top 1% of the superrich; and top 10% of the population held 85% of total global wealth. Conversely, 90% of the people have only 15% of world’s wealth (and top 30% holding 97% of the total wealth). During the pandemic, world’s billionaires whose number rose from 2158 in 2017 to 2189 by mid-2020 increased their wealth by 27.5% during April-July 2020, to a record high of $10.2 trillion.
Its global consequences as manifested in surging poverty and unemployment are horrific. While IMF predicts a fall of an additional 90 million people in to extreme deprivation in 2020, ILO calculates an unemployment/underemployment of up to 2 billion people (58% of the world’s total labour force of 3.46 billion in 2019) in 2020 itself. According to the World Food Program, on an average, around 9 million people are dying annually from famine and hunger-related causes. Now, on account of the pandemic, this figure may skyrocket as there will now be 1.5 to 2.0 billion famine-vulnerable people, many of whom may die.
Indian Economy Facing The Worst-Ever Contraction
However, the present collapse of the Indian economy, as noted in the beginning, is quite unparalleled and the worst on record. Both International agencies and official Indian sources have acknowledged this. In continuation of a 24% contraction or negative growth for the first quarter of 2020, the IMF, in its latest World Economic Outlook, predicts a 10.3% contraction for the entire financial year ending March 2021, revising its earlier prediction of a 4.5% decline. This additional 5.8 percentage-point downgrade of Indian GDP is the worst in the world. Strikingly, IMF’s outlook for India is worse than RBI’s prediction of a 9.5% decline in GDP in the current fiscal year. A comparison of the sector-wise official statistics pertaining to the first quarter of the previous year (2019-20) with that of the current year, gives a more concrete picture. For instance, except agriculture, forestry and fishing (that shows a growth of 3.4% in the first quarter of 2020-21 compared to 3.0% growth in 2019-20), all other sectors are steadily contracting. Thus, 2020-21 quarter one contraction for mining and quarrying was -23.3% (4.7% in 2019-20), for manufacturing, it was -39.3% (3% in 2019-20), electricity, gas, water supply and other utility services -7% (8.8% in 2019-20), -50.3% (5.2% in 2019-20), trade, hotels, transport, communication, broadcasting services -47% (3.5% in 2019-20), financial, real estate and professional services -5.3% (6.0% in 2019-20), and public administration, defence and other services -10.3% (7.7% in 2019-20).
As such, according to independent analysts, the crisis is more deep-rooted and worse outcomes are in store. For instance, India’s former Chief Economic Advisor and World Bank Chief Economist Kaushik Basu have predicted the economy to shrink by around 12% in the current year. According to Arun Kumar, another well-known economist, India’s GDP decline in the current year will be around 50% and not 24% as officially claimed. This is because of the devastation of India’s unorganised/informal sector that provides 94% of total employment and yields 45% of total output produced in the country. Contradicting CMIE data, Arun Kumar also puts the actual unemployment figure at 20 crore. According to him, unless appropriately managed through policy interventions, the official optimistic projections for 2021 will remain as wishful thinking.
The massive decline of around 24% in India’s GDP, as officially estimated, in 2020 April-June quarter makes the size of GDP almost the same in size as that in the same quarter in 2015. Hence it can be said that the GDP level has leaped back by 5-6 years, more or less equal to the same level when Modi came to power. As a result, the past half-a-decade under Modinomics may be characterised as lost years for India. A comparison between Bangladesh, India’s neighbour would be more illuminating in this regard. According to IMF data, on an average, India’s per capita GDP has been 24 percent higher than that of Bangladesh during the last 5 years. But by mid-2020, India’s per capita GDP in nominal US dollar terms was $1876.53 (Rs. 1.25 lakh approximately) compared to $1887.97 for Bangladesh.
Consequently, in the 2020 Global Hunger Index prepared jointly by World Hunger Aid and Concern Worldwide, India’s rank slipped to 94 (among 107 countries) from 55 (among 76) in 2014. Most of the South Asian countries — Sri Lanka (64), Nepal (73), Bangladesh (75), Myanmar (78) and Pakistan (88) — are better off than India in this regard. As its manifestation, with 17.5% of world population, India is home to 22% of world’s most poor and hungry people. As a direct outcome of this destitution, with 37.4% of the underweight children, India has the distinction of having number one position in the world in this regard too. In the same vein, in the case of other indices such as Inequality Index (where India’s position is 129 among 157 countries), Happiness Index (144 among 156), Environment Performance Index (167 among 180), and so on, India’s deterioration continues unabated. With 18 million slaves (out of 46 million worldwide) almost entirely from the lowest rung of the caste system, India under Modi regime occupies number one position in Global Slavery Index too.
At the same time, amidst a 24% GDP contraction during the first quarter of 2020-21, as estimated by Forbes, within one year Ambani has his wealth increased by 73% from$3730 crore to $8870 crore, that of Adani by 61% reaching $2520 crore, and in that order for many billionaires such that the total wealth of the first 10 Indian billionaires rose to $51750 crore (approximately Rs. 38 lakh crore) during the same period. In general, as Oxfam has estimated, today around three-fourth of the additional income or wealth generated in India is gobbled up by the upper 1% of the super-rich (close to 60 percent of the country’s total wealth is in the hands of upper 10 percent of the population). If we exclude the 75% of the income appropriated by the upper 1%, then the per capita income of the 99% will be a paltry portion of the officially estimated Rs. 1.25 lakh. And if we exclude the organised sector and take the unorganised and informal sectors where 95% of the Indian workforce are depending for their sustenance (for which no detailed official data is there), then the situation will be too gruesome. It may be more horrific than what Arjun Sengupta, the then Planning Commission member had estimated a decade back—that 83% of Indians subsist on just Rs. 20 a day!
Analysis Of The Situation
The cause for this situation is now generally attributed to India’s lockdown which is acknowledged as the most coercive, the most stringent and most prolonged in the world, on account of its deadly restrictions on social and economic life. For instance, a study on the government responses to COVID-19 by the Oxford University, after comparing the pandemic-induced lockdowns that put the economy in a frozen state on account of disruptions in both movement of the people and supply chains in various countries, has attributed the highest “Stringency Index” of 100 to Modi government followed by Italy (with a Stringency Index of 95.2), Spain (90.5), Germany (81), US (66.76) and Japan (45). Revealingly, while all other countries resorted to lockdowns when the number of infections reached around 100000, the strictest lockdown in India was superimposed when the total infections were just around 5000 in the third week of March 2020. While putting the entire economy in a frozen state leading to a devastation especially of the informal sectors that provide sustenance for vast majority of the toiling masses, in the absence of any worthwhile intervention for containing the pandemic, the lockdown that lasted for almost 2 months utterly failed to get the pandemic under control, with the number of corona-virus cases crossing 7.6 million (by the beginning of the 3rd week of October, while these lines are written), second only to the US.
COVID-19, The Immediate Cause Only
The government and corporate media in India now firmly claim that the economic collapse with all its manifestations is caused by the corona virus pandemic. This is also endorsed by IMF when its chief economist Gita Gopinath referred to the “great lockdown” of India. But this forms only a partial explanation and not in accord with concrete facts. On the other hand, a closer analysis reveals that the elements of the present crisis and the consequent irreversible economic downturn got a new turn since the advent of Modi in 2014. In fact, COVID-19 is only the spark and not the root cause triggering the present crisis.
That is, while the post-meltdown crisis has been a continuing process at the global level, India’s economic collapse under Modi regime, though connected with many external factors, is to be understood as different in many respects. For, as highlighted by several international and Indian studies including that done by the Economic Research Department of SBI , the Indian economy was ‘relatively immune’ from the global meltdown of 2008 and the country’s GDP had been growing at 7-8 % on an average up to 2014-15. This also prompted neoliberal centres to characterise India as “the best-performing economy” in the world during the years immediately following 2008 meltdown.
Thus, in retrospect, it can be seen that the ongoing economic collapse of India has been inseparably linked up with the complete transformation of the Indian state as a “facilitator” of corporatisation and the consequent far-right shift in economic policies under Modi regime. For instance, without any qualm, immediately after coming to power, the first step that Modi did was the abolition of the more than six-and-a-half decade-old Planning Commission, the last remnant of state-led development, and its replacement by a corporate-bureaucratic think-tank called NITI Aayog and entrusting the task of policymaking with it without even consulting the parliament. To transform the State as corporate-investor-friendly, and to rapidly improve India’s indices pertaining to “ease of doing business” and “global competitiveness” as laid down by Bretton Woods twin (and, of course, fully in tandem with the far-right economic philosophy of RSS that guides the Modi regime), what followed was a pan-Indian extension of the ultra-rightist Gujarat model that uninterruptedly flourished under Modi’s chief ministership. Mimicking China’s export-led growth, the flagship “Make in India” initiative was announced in September 2014 with the declared aim of transforming India into world’s manufacturing hub, creation of an additional 100 million jobs in the manufacturing sector and raising the proportion of manufacturing from 16 percent to 25 percent of GDP by 2022. However, what happened is the opposite and today this proportion has further fallen down to around 13 percent. The foreign capital that rushed in taking advantage of liberal tax, labour and environmental regulations under the cover of “Make in India” mainly went into money-spinning speculative activities, as capital that flowed in was least interested in employment-oriented production. Consequently, “Make in India” transformed India into a dustbin corporate-speculative capital on the one hand, and a dumping ground for capital and consumer goods from imperialist sources ranging from US to China.
Modi’s 2016 Demonetisation superimposed on the people in the guise of a surgical strike against black money was an ingenious move to whiten the black money with the most corrupt corporate black money holders on the one hand, and suck out whatever left in the arteries of common people by denying them cash which is the life-blood of the informal sectors and essential for people’s daily transactions, leading to a further concentration of wealth with the corporate-financial elite closely connected with the ruling regime. In the process, the whole economy remained in a paralysed state. This was followed by GST that deprived the states of their Federal right of resource mobilisation and shifted the tax burden on the shoulders of common people and on the unorganised sectors.
Though Modi came to power in 2014 claiming to generate an additional 2 crore jobs every year, according to independent estimates, by the beginning of 2020, i.e., on the eve of the pandemic, the country had lost around 14 crore jobs since 2014. And India today experiences the worst unemployment in recorded history. Almost 50 percent of the people is still clinging to agriculture for their sustenance though the contribution of agriculture to GDP is only around 15 percent as of now. Modi’s input-output pricing policies pertaining to agriculture and its forcible integration with world market coupled corporatisation policies have pauperised the peasantry. Over the years, corporatisation of agriculture had displaced large sections from agriculture altogether.
Though concentration of income and wealth under Modi is of unprecedented proportions, only 1.5 crore Indians are effective direct tax payers (including corporate and personal income taxes) and in spite of extreme concentration of wealth and inequality, Indian corporate tax rate at 15 percent is the lowest in the world. The direct tax-GDP ratio in India is stagnating at around 5.5 percent which also is the lowest in the world. If the upper 10 percent of the wealthy sections are brought under the tax net, together with 30 percent corporate tax prevailing when Modi came to power (during the 1970s, the highest rate was up to 90 percent), the direct tax-GDP ratio could have easily been raised to 20 percent.
To compensate for this biggest loss in direct tax revenue arising from tax rate reduction, along with the increase in indirect tax burden on the people through GST, Modi has been resorting to the biggest-ever loot of the broad masses by sky-rocketing prices of petroleum products (mainly through raising taxes and cesses on petrol, diesel, cooking gas, etc.), and by this alone during 2014-20 the regime has amassed an additional amount worth Rs. 17.5 lakh crore compared to the UPA regime. Ironically, the average world crude oil price (India imports around 80 percent of its crude oil requirements) during the entire Modi regime has been around one-third of what it was during the previous UPA rule, and following declining global demand in the context of COVID-19, global price is now hovering around one-fourth of what it had been a decade ago. Meanwhile, declining government revenue from direct and indirect taxes(the latter mainly on account of loss in people’s purchasing power) coupled with corruption (though Modi came to power on an anti-corruption plank and with the promise of bringing back Indian black money from foreign tax havens and putting Rs. 15 lakh in to the account of each Indian citizen, under him India became a “flourishing example of crony capitalism” and the most corrupt country in Asia) and loss to exchequer in manifold ways, etc., are resulting in an unprecedented growth in India’s debt-GDP ratio to around 85 percent during the Modi period. To cap it all, an unprecedented loot of public wealth through disinvestment of PSUs and plunder of public sector banks through the creation of NPAs by corporates are flourishing without any let up.
The anti-people nature of this government is self-evident in its reluctance to distribute at least a portion of the huge stock of food grains among the starving millions including the migrant workers who were condemned to bear the brunt of the coercive lockdown. In spite of Modi regime’s anti-farmer policies including the latest pro-corporate central agricultural legislations, India is ranked second in food and agricultural production. As such, the total food grains stock (rice plus wheat) with FCI has topped 100 million tons by mid-2020. On account of grave storage challenges, millions of tons of this grain stock are prone to decay, and the government could have effectively and quickly liquidate the heavy burden of storage by immediately distributing this among the needy, vulnerable and destitute sections through a free-grain scheme. But true to its fascist character, except certain window-dressing (eg, the announcement to distribute 5 kg wheat/rice for 3 months among the poor as part of Aatmanirbhar), the government least interested to distribute the food grains among the tens of millions of poor including the migrant workers.
To be precise, prior to COVID-19, the neoliberal-corporatisation policies pursued by Modi government have been driving the country to an economic contraction of unprecedented proportions. Now the pandemic is again used as an opportunity by the corporate-saffron fascist regime for stimulating the corporates by its far-right agenda more aggressively. For instance, the recently announced so called “Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan” is another cover for an unprecedented “stimulus package” for those whom Modi regime characterises as “wealth creators” (a synonym for most corrupt corporate looters). Aatmanirbhar Bharat is a vulgar imitation of the earlier prognosis of “Make in India” (of late, “Make in India” is replaced by the new catchword “Assemble in India for the World” in accordance with the “Global Value Chains” hypothesis recently put forward by World Bank)and what envisaged now is the outright sell-out of remaining key and strategic sectors including mining, transport, defence, banks and insurance, space exploration, power distribution, health research, and entire frontier technologies to foreign and Indian corporates. No doubt, such “supply-side” interventions belong to the same genre of pro-corporate stimulus packages pursued elsewhere by neoliberal centres. Revealingly, out of the Rs. 21 lakh crore Aatmanirbhar package, what addressed to the vast majority of toiling and oppressed masses is only around Rs.2 lakh core or just one percent of the country’s GDP, the remaining straightway going to corporate coffers.
On Understanding the Present Economic Collapse
Obviously, for fascists, crises are new opportunities, and the corporate-saffron fascist Modi regime is no exception to this rule. Using COVID-19 as a cover, Modi.2 is now engaged in an aggressive wealth transfer to corporate looters on the one hand, and imposition of heavy burdens on the backs of common people on the other. Of course, as can be seen, there has been a constant economic downturn under Modi-1 and Modi-2, and the GDP contraction cannot be only due to the pandemic or the severest lockdown. Ironically, as we pointed out earlier, corporate wealth accumulation is flourishing without any let up even as the economy and all its components are going down—private consumption expenditure contracted-26.7%, exports-20%, construction-50%, investment and services (including trade, hotels, communication, transport and broadcast)-47% respectively and so on in the context of the pandemic. In the ultimate analysis, all these variables could be seen directly and indirectly linked up with gross value addition, production, employment and earnings ofthe people. Therefore, it is important to understand this irreversible declining trend under Modi regime with respect to the logic of corporatisation (“wealth creation” as the govt. officially puts it) vigorously pursued by it.
From its very inception, Modi government’s concentrated effort has been to create an ‘investor-friendly” atmosphere for the corporate speculators. In the guise of unleashing the “animal spirit” of the most corrupt corporate giants, unprecedented tax give-aways and exemptions along with steep reduction in corporate tax rates have become regular feature of all budgets and extra-budgetary measures since 2014. Now at 15 percent, Indian corporate tax rate is the lowest in the world. Corporate companies are exempted from paying Dividend Distribution Tax (DDT), audit exemption for adapting to cashless transactions up to Rs. 5 crore, amendment in Indian Company’s Act for abolishing penal steps against those violating it including non-adherence to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and so on. Even profit-making PSUs are disinvested at throwaway prices to be gobbled up big corporate companies. Leading corporates were allowed to build-up huge non-performing assets (NPAs) with public sector banks that pushed the banking system to crisis. Elimination of all restrictions to the free entry and exit of foreign corporate capital and similar other steps were also initiated in a systematic manner.
But this unparalleled wealth transfer to corporates in the guise of boosting production and employment has, instead of positively contributing anything to employment-oriented production, rather led to horrific proportion of wealth accumulation by both foreign and domestic corporate giants who diverted a major component of this wealth to terribly destructive speculation and money-spinning activities. Even banks, financial institutions and mutual funds have become reluctant to deploy the immense funds at their disposal for productive investment. Still under the so called ‘expert’ advice from neoliberal centres, red carpet has been continuously laid down for attracting foreign capital. And the economic situation which was bad in the pre-Covid situation has become worse, or as is conceived by many, the economy which was already in the ICU is now put on the ventilator. Thus, Modi government’s wholehearted embrace of the logic of corporate capital-i.e., if left free capital today invariably goes to the most profitable avenues- has pushed Indian economy in to a vicious corporatisation-stagnation trap. Its ultimate outcome is the explosive growth of the most corrupt and parasitic corporate class sucking out wealth from the real economy through manifold ways while remaining at the sphere of speculation.
Lenin in his theory of imperialism had already explained much on the character of fictitious or speculative capital –an aspect briefly noted by Marx too in Capital. Today under neoliberal imperialism, speculative capital that develops exclusively in the financial sphere by sucking out value from the real economy without any real link with material production has become the dominant form of capital. And this is the essence of economic contraction and crisis today. India today is in the firm grip of a vicious circle—i.e., lack of investment in employment-oriented productive investment leads to lack of jobs resulting in lack of income and purchasing power for the masses, which in turn leads to lack of demand for goods and services and market contraction that lead to lower or lack of profit from the productive sphere which again pulls back investment in spite of repeated corporate “stimulus packages” by the government. As this vicious circle of contraction/stagnation strengthens, Modi government which rolls itself back from all investments, in tune with neoliberal diktats, is coercively superimposing heavier and heavier burdens on the shoulders of the people. All avenues at the disposal of corporate-saffron fascism are deployed not only against workers and all oppressed including dalits, adivasis, minorities, women and even children, but also on political opponents and dissenters. Obviously, there is no shortcut, and the only option is a political alternative capable of resisting and defeating this horrific situation.
On Immediate Options and Political Alternative
Obviously, from the perspective of Marxist political economy, the alternative to this corporate-fascist offensive is to break the logic of neo-liberalism itself, which calls for an appropriate broad-based, nationwide people’s movement led by revolutionary forces capable of imparting death blows to corporate capital. The immediate requirements or slogans for initiating such a process are there in the Draft of the Common Minimum program for building the Anti-Fascist Front already proposed by CPI (ML) Red Star (see, “ Appeal to All Revolutionary Left Organisations”, Red Star, August 2020). The specific economic demands (items 3-8) mentioned in it, for instance, if urgently implemented, will ensure more purchasing power in people’s hands and will provide a boost to productive economic activities. Though reactionary sections of corporate capital may still keep aloof from investment, it will definitely prompt sustainable agriculture, encourage medium and small industries to actively come forward to boost production and employment, which can break the vicious circle of economic stagnation.
Together with this “demand push” (as against “supply side”) initiatives, demands for reintroducing progressive corporate taxation, wealth and inheritance tax, abolition of regressive indirect taxation including the neoliberal GST that puts disproportionate burden on the people, introduction of redistributive wage and universal social and security and gender-specific policies, ensuring quality public services including water, health and education, total elimination of burden of unpaid work especially by women, guaranteeing elder care as well as child care, ensuring minimum wage sufficient enough for adequate standard of living, regulating ratios between lowest and highest wages and earnings, price support programs for peasants, reasonable restrictions on financial dealings and ban on speculation, capital flight, illicit financial flows, etc., anti-monopoly and anti-corruption policies, strengthening public sector and reversal of disinvestment and denationalisation policies and so on can appropriately be incorporated in to the minimum program. This shall form the stepping stone towards a sustainable political-economic alternative capable of resisting and overcoming the hegemony of corporate capital.
(Party School Paper for 2020)