Sunita Narain, Down to Earth (CSE)
As Indians break into 2021 with the fervent hope that it will be different from last year’s devastating pandemic, we have angry faces staring us down. Farmers — many thousands — have gathered peacefully at the doorsteps of the nation’s capital, demanding that the government repeal the recently formulated agriculture-related laws. There is a lot of noise on who is right and who is wrong. But this protest should challenge us to think — not as researchers or academics or even policy wonks, but as consumers of food that farmers grow.
The question we need to ask is why does the food that we consume need to be subsidised? Why are farmers, not just the ones camping in the bitter cold at the capital’s borders, but also the voiceless silent majority, demanding price support? Are they unproductive and lazy?
The fact is that across the world — even, and especially, in the rich world — agriculture is heavily funded by governments. Paris-based inter-governmental think-tank Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates support to this sector through what it calls producer support, as a percentage of gross farming receipts.
It finds that in rich countries like Japan, South Korea, Norway and Iceland, producer support ranged between 40 and 60 per cent of the gross farming receipt in 2019. In the United States it is roughly 12 per cent and in the European Union (EU) it is 20 per cent.
But in India, the producer support — what the government pays as a percentage of the farming receipt — is actually negative (-5 per cent). In other words, the farming sector, owned and managed by some of the poorest people in the world, subsidises what we eat.
But that’s not all. Rich countries are also innovating fast to support their farming sector in the time of growing climate change risks — the payment is not paid directly for production, but is conditional to the farming sector adopting practices that are more sustainable.
The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy will now be directed towards ecosystem services payment to farmers. So, more subsidy, but with new names. In this way, almost all large food-producing countries include subsidies as part of their social and environmental welfare measures.
The subsidy may be given through direct payments to farmers or through support pricing for certain crops, or through investment into key agricultural inputs like water, fertilisers and seeds.
It is in this world that farmers of the poorer world — including those from India’s rich states of Punjab and Haryana — have to compete.
First, they are disadvantaged because they do not get the financial support needed to make farming lucrative. Second, when their crops become costly due to either extreme weather or other reasons of scarcity, the government steps in to import cheaper food. Our farmers suffer at both ends.
It is for this reason that farmers are demanding a minimum support price (MSP) as an insurance against price volatility. At present, there is no doubt that the system is broken. While MSP is fixed for 22 crops, in reality, it is used only for a few crops — wheat and paddy, where the government has a procurement system.
It is this reason that the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh are up in arms, fearing that the system will be disbanded. They grow wheat and rice that is mostly procured by the government.
But for the remaining crops, MSP is an empty promise. As my colleague Richard Mahapatra has analysed in his recent article on the farm support, the market does not end up paying the price that is required to the farmers.
According to the government’s own data, almost 70 per cent of the market transactions for 10 select crops in 600 wholesale markets were at prices lower than MSP.
The key issue is what should be the price of food? The fact is that the cost of inputs is increasing — from seeds and water to labour. Then there is the fact that the risks are increasing because of extreme weather due to climate change. In this way, farmers need to be paid both for the increased cost of growing food and for the increased risk of loss of crops.
Indian farmers invest huge amounts of private capital into building infrastructure for their operations, unlike any private company or industry. They pay to build irrigation facilities — more than half of the irrigated land uses groundwater. Some 19 million wells and tube wells have been built with private capital.
Nobody pays for this — in fact, the computation of MSP is rigged against the farmer because the government needs to ensure that the cost of food is cheap for its procurement system and stays affordable. The worst fear of any government is food inflation, as consumers then fret and fume.
This is when government imports food to drive down prices — food from rich countries, where food growing is subsidised and against whom our farmers cannot compete. It is time we talked about the real cost of our food, about how to benefit farmers who grow our food. This is not a business we can afford to lose.
This is what the farmers at our doorstep want us to discuss. Let’s not let them down.
The farmers’ movement for the repeal of the three farm laws which affect them closely but have been rammed through without consulting them, has now entered its second month. It is of historic significance. It is not just about minimum support prices but also about the survival of the entire system of public procurement and distribution of foodgrains. Without ensuring the economic viability of foodgrains production in North India the grain basket of the country no continuity can be ensured for the public procurement and distribution system, which, despite its drawbacks, continues to provide a modicum of food security to vast numbers of our population.
Recreation of Colonial Times
Northern industrial countries, namely the United States, Canada and the European Union (EU), cannot produce the tropical and subtropical crops in high demand by their own consumers while they have mountains of surplus grain and dairy products, the only goods their single crop lands are capable of producing for climatic reasons. They must find export markets for these. For over two decades, they have put relentless pressure on developing countries to give up their own public procurement systems, insisting that they should buy their food grains from advanced countries, while diverting their foodcropproducing land to contract farming of export crops that these industrial countries want but cannot themselves produce.
In short, they want a recreation of the economic scenario of the colonial period. Dozens of developing countries, ranging from the Philippines in the mid-1990s to Botswana (Africa) a decade later, succumbed to this pressure. They paid the price when with rapid diversion of grain to ethanol production in the U.S. and the EU, world grain prices trebled in a matter of months from end2007. Thirty seven newly import dependent countries saw food riots, with urban populations being pushed into greater poverty. Food security for the developing world is far too important a matter to be left to the global market, but the relentless attack on their public stocking of grain for ensuring food security continues. India had barely managed to pull back from the brink a decade ago: procurement prices were raised substantially after virtually stagnating during the six years preceding the 2008 pricespike and grain output in Punjab grew again from nearstagnant levels as economic viability improved. But absorption of foodgrains did not improve as much owing to continued exclusion of many of the actually poor from ‘Below Poverty Line’ ration cards, while unemployment caused by the 2016 demonetisation followed by the 2020 pandemic has reduced aggregate demand by now to a historic low.
A Case of Unfair Trade
Our farmers have been exposed for no rhyme or reason to unfair trade, and to the volatility of global prices that has plunged them into unrepayable debt and distress — in one village in Punjab, there were as many as 59 widows of farmers forced into suicide. Trade with the North is unfair, because the advanced countries in the mid1990s, converted their own price support measures to massive subsidies given as direct cash transfers to their own farmers, transfers that in a blatantly self-serving manner they wrote into the Agreement on Agriculture as ‘not subject to reduction commitments’.
India along with other developing countries signed the Agreement with very little idea of the implications of the small print. For the U.S., the direct cash transfers it gives to its 2.02 million farmers, amounting to a huge half or more of its annual farm output value, uses up only 1% of its budget. For India, over 50% of the entire central government annual Budget would be required to give even a quarter of annual farm output value to our 120 million farmers, which is an economic impossibility and an administrative nightmare.
It’s About a Reasonable Price
The farmers have made it amply clear that they do not want petty cash handouts; all they want is a reasonable price for the vital crops they produce for the nation, so that they can cover costs and live at a modest standard. In Indian circumstances, the price support system is in fact the only feasible one. While depletion of groundwater in Punjab is a real problem, the solution lies in introducing improved agronomic practices such as the System of Rice Intensification which economises water, not in reducing rice production. One does not cut off one’s head because of a headache. It is precisely the support prices for crops that had been deliberately put by advanced countries under completely arbitrary and absurd computation rules in the Agreement on Agriculture.
The U.S. complained against India to the World Trade Organization in May 2018 that since the ‘reference price’ for calculating support was the 198688 average world price of a crop which they converted to rupees at the then prevailing ¹ 12.5 per dollar exchange rate, India’s support price per quintal for rice and wheat in 2013-14 should have been at the most 235 and 354, respectively! The actual support prices were 1,348 and 1,386, and the difference, over 1,000 per quintal, was then multiplied by the entire 201314 output of rice and wheat, and came to 77% and 67% of their output values (https://bit.ly/3mROANe).
This, the U.S. claimed, was support provided in gross violation of the permitted 10%! Two months ago the U.S. sent fresh questions to India. Every kind of dishonest and absurd rule had been put into the Agreement on Agriculture to shortchange gullible developing countries. Our farmers are among the lowest cost producers in the world, and the support prices in 2013-14 at the prevailing exchange rate of ¹ 60.5 per dollar were well below global prices, which mean that actual support was negative.
Current compression of global demand means that wheat and riceprices are at historic lows, advanced country farm subsidies are at historic highs and their desperation to dump their grain on our markets has intensified. While our protesting farmers have correctly identified domestic firms as potential beneficiaries of the new marketing laws that they oppose, foreign agribusiness corporations are as great a danger.
Farmers have already experienced contract farming with foreign agribusinesses in Punjab and Haryana. They say clearly that they do not wish to deal with powerful, faceless private corporations that renege on price and quantity contracts when it suits them. Despite all its inefficiency and payment delays, they prefer to sell to government agents at the stipulated minimum support prices. They are absolutely correct in thinking that deregulation of markets as mandated by the new laws, and the entry of business firms, which will be not only Indian but also foreign mean a severe undermining of the entire system of public procurement and minimum support prices.
The ‘Green Energy’ Push
There are many Indian intellectuals who argue that importing subsidized grain from the North will benefit poor consumers here. They forget that there is an increasingly powerful opinion advocating ‘green energy’ in advanced countries, pushing for even greater conversion of grain to ethanol; hence initial lowpriced grain imports, if permitted today, will not only destroy our farmers but will soon give way to a scenario of price spikes and to urban distress as experienced earlier by developing countries forced into import dependence. Anyone with a concern for our own hard working farmers and poverty-stricken consumers must support the farmers’ demands against the machinations of both local and global business elites.
Regional Comprehensive Economic Participation (RCEP), world’s largest Free Trade Agreement (FTA) ever,comprising 10 ASEAN countries and other 5 big players, namely, China, Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand formally came into existence Bangkok on November 15, 2020. It accounts for about one-third of world population, 30 percent of global GDP and 28 percent of world trade among them. The scope of further strengthening of regional value chains among RCEP members is comparatively large since 44 percent of their total trade is already intra-RCEP.
Till its disengagement from RCEP negotiations by the dawn of 2020 mainly on account of China factor,amidst widespread protests across India from farmers, lakhs of medium, small and petty producers and millions of informal workers, the Indian government was having an active role in RCEP negotiations and since his ascendance in 2014, Modi has his personal attention in the past 6 years of long drawn out intense bi-partisan talks with ASEAN, the precursor of RCEP. In fact, India’s signing of the final agreement was almost certain even during the 2019India visit of Chinese president Xi leading a 90-member delegation including Chinese foreign minister. Though the content of Modi-Xi talk was almost covered up and doled out to media as “informal talks”, external affairs ministry had characterised the interaction between two heads of states as “productive”, “pleasant conversation over a long dinner”, etc. Obviously, being the biggest economic power (on PPP basis)but still second to US in military prowess, and as the leading partner in RCEP, the fact that China would be the biggest gainer from this FTA was already recognised. Therefore, Xi’s arrival at Mamalapuram, near Chennai at that time was also interpreted as a tactical move to pressurise his Indian counterpart to bow to Chinese diktats, in continuation of the success on the part of US led Western imperialist bloc in using the Kashmir issue as a tool for blackmailing the Indian regime to pry open more avenues of plunder in India.
Modi was actively participating in the 6 years of long drawn out intense bi-partisan talks with in the grouping composed of 10 ASEAN, the precursor of RCEP. However, in the context of the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and consequent Sinophobic propaganda by US and the eruption of Sino-Indian border dispute in March, the Modi regime took a somersault and retracted from all further discussions pertaining to RCEP.
Of course, regional FTAs (such as ASEAN, NAFTA, MERCOSUR, EFTA, half-baked and aborted SAFTA, etc.) are to be evaluated as complimentary to neoliberal globalisation. Both WTO and the Bretton Woods institutions, the pillars of imperialist plunder today are propagating regional trade agreements among countries as effective tools towards global integration of distinct economies into bigger markets for capital flows as well as trade in consumer items with tariff and non-tariff barriers. According to WTO provisions regional trade agreements are “gateway” to internationalisation or globalisation of market and investment. RCEP encompassing South and East Asian countries is also in accordance with this neoliberal dictum. Generally, on account of closeness and proximity, RCEP-like FTAs will lead to full market access within the free trade area as far as members are concerned, and consequently will be more threatening, than even WTO, to those members who are lack comparative cost advantage.
Now Modi’s retraction from RCEP has given rise to many arguments for and against it. The main argument by those who criticise Modi regime for not joining RCEP is in terms of the usual logic always upheld by “free traders”. According to the standard liberal economic theory, free trade among countries increases the economic size of the free trade area as a whole, as it allows goods and services to be produced more efficiently and at the least cost. Free trade encourages productivity as production will move to those locations where natural resources, infrastructure, or skills and expertise are best suited to production. Greater competition and less red tape within the FTA will make goods and services available consumers at lower prices and ultimately, will result in increased GDP growth for the members of the FTA. So neoliberal experts and free trade theorists always argue in favour of a free trade area.
However, experience has been on the contrary. Traditional agriculture and informal/unorganised industries which cannot withstand competition from cheap products within the FTA will collapse altogether leading to unemployment and pauperisation of the broad masses of population. Cut throat competition will lead to a massive deindustrialisation wiping out the domestic industrial base in economically backward members of the FTA. It will prohibit governments in backward economies to protect domestic agriculture or industries with adequate price support programs. For instance, take the case of the 25 provisions finally adopted by the RCEP. These terms were in fact dictated by the two leading members, viz., China and Japan, of the union. The immediate effect of RCEP on India, which today faces the biggest-ever economic collapse on record, would be an immediate transformation of India as dumping ground for the almost all agricultural and industrial products from China and Japan which enjoy a clear-cut technological superiority over India.
In fact, as part of India’s erstwhile agreement with the ASEAN, cheap agricultural products have already been entering India with devastating impact on its farm sector. Now the RCEP which is an expanded version of ASEAN, on account of their higher productivity and comparative cost advantage will enable China and Japan also to dump their cheap industrial and agricultural goods in India.
Meanwhile, a section of the Indian ruling classes and their economic experts have interpreted Modi’s disengagement from RCEP as a historic blunder, as it has lost a golden opportunity of economic integration especially with the less developed ASEAN countries. According to them, the economic disadvantage arising from Chinese and Japanese goods flooding Indian market would have more than compensated by India’s growing market access to developing economies of the 10 ASEAN members of RCEP. They also argue that RCEP will result in enhanced technology transfer and inflows of FDI into India. According to them, turning away from RCEP, a grouping which is also in conformity with Article 24 of WTO, is autarchic, protectionist and isolationist and will make India uncompetitive and inefficient, thereby making India unable to reap the fruits of economic integration among countries.
Now let us examine these arguments in relation to concrete facts. Free trade arrangements are not new for India. Except China, India already has some form of bilateral free trade agreements with all constituents of RCEP such as ASEAN, Japan and South Korea, while discussions for free trade deals with New Zealand and Australia are in the final stage. While all such trade agreements have led to surge in India’s imports from these countries, there has been no perceptible growth in Indian exports to them, leading to a steady growth intrade deficit with them. Over the past years organisations of both farmers and medium and small scale industries as well as petty producers have been strongly opposing India aligning with ASEAN; but the Modi regime was not even willing to hear their genuine concerns. And, if India becomes a constituent of RCEP, then in view of the existing trend, its outcome will be a further intensification of this negative trend and further worsening of the country’s historic economic collapse. Obviously, it will be due to the superior position of China in RCEP. For instance, in spite of India having no free trade agreement with China, the latter has been India’s biggest trading partner. From a meagre $1.8 billion worth of trade in 2000, the trade volume between the two rose to almost $90 billion in 2018. In this, since India’s exports to China are worth only $14 billion, the deficit in India’s trade balance with China was $76 billion. According to preliminary estimates, in the event of India becoming a member of RCEP which shall inevitably be led by China, the former will be duty-bound to eliminate tariffs on around 80 percent of the imported Chinese goods either fully or partially, resulting in unforeseen consequences for the economy. That is, India’s adverse trade balance and harmful impact on its agricultural and industrial production arising from its erstwhile pact with ASEAN (for instance, India’s trade deficit with ASEAN was $24 billion in 2018, in spite of Modi regime’s aggressive export-push approach under the cover of self-reliant postures such as ‘Make in India’ and the latest ‘Atmanirbhar’) are bound to accentuate further in the event of India joining RCEP.
Obviously, the real reason behind Modi regime’s abrupt turning away from RCEP at the last moment, is geopolitical and not economic. On account of its extreme servility to imperialist capital and in the course of fulfilling the commitments to neoliberal market obligations, the Modi government has shown little consideration to the sustenance of millions of domestic produce or their genuine sentiments. In accordance with that, till last year, Modi was systematically propping up India’s close trade integration with China in continuation of what he did during his long tenure as chief minister of Gujarat. And in spite of the much trumpeted ‘Make in India’, it was under Modi that Indian market became flooded with cheap Chinese goods. For, during the first four years of Modi rule, bilateral trade between China and India rose by around 25 percent from almost $65 billion in mid-2014 to $ 90 billion in mid-2018, with trade balance highly unfavourable to India, as already noted. As a matter of fact, Modi’s participation in RCEP talks in which China has the key role till the end of 2019 was inseparable from India’s growing bilateral trade with China. Therefore, any reversal in this adverse trend in India’s trade with China would at least have a cushioning effect on India’s trade deficit and on the domestic economy. To that extent, India’s move away from RCEP is to be welcomed.
On the other hand, Modi’s sudden disengagement from the mega trade deal RCEP was not motivated by any economic consideration, and not at all based on the obvious economic logic behind it, but is purely dictated by geopolitical factors. For, unable to economically compete with China which already had acquired the technological capability to challenge the US, the latter, with its protectionist approach under Trump and with whom India has a strategic military cooperation, was compelling Modi regime to withdraw from the RCEP from the very beginning. Together with this sharpening inter-imperialist contradiction between US and China, it was the eruption of the border dispute with China that compelled Modi to have a U-turn on RCEP along with the imposition of many rounds of tariff and non-tariff barriers and other import controls on many Chinese products. Now this is done under the cover of ‘Atmanirbhar” in the place of the worn out ‘Make in India’ which had already ended up as ‘made in China’.
However, turning away from the China-led RCEP,in tune with RSS’ time-tested, historical allegiance to US imperialism, along with strengthening India’s position as a strategic junior partner of US in latter’s geo-political contradictions with China and by signing many military-to-military partnerships with Washington, Modi is laying red carpet for US finance capital’s biggest-ever plunder of India by resorting to a series of ‘investor-friendly’ measures such as aggressive liberalisation of labour, tax and environmental laws along with many digital deregulations as required by US MNCs. Now the outcome is like that of ‘jumping from the frying pan to the burning fire’, as involvement in a US-led military and economic arrangement is more vicious in degree compared with the RCEP grouping, which too led by another imperialist power.
Today, when world market is dwindling and negative growth trends are a ubiquitous phenomenon, India with its continental size and with a population of 137 crore richly endowed with immense natural and human resources, there is vast scope for pursuing an independent, self-reliant and self-expanding path of development pursuing friendly relations with other countries and peoples. What requires is an immediate overhauling of the existing foreign market-oriented neoliberal, pro-corporate model and the adoption of a pro-people, pro-nature, domestic-market oriented development strategy ensuring livelihood and sustenance of the vast majority of working and oppressed masses.
This article is a revised and extended version of a talk presented on July 12, 2020, to the concluding session (of the Main Forum) of the Seventh South-South Forum on Sustainability: Climate Change, Global Crises, and Community Regeneration. The Conference/Webinar was organized by Lau Kin Chi and Sit Tsui through Lingnan University in Hong Kong. Reproduced from the Monthly Review September issue, 2020 as a study material –Editorial Board
Any Serious Treatment of the renewal of socialism today must begin with capitalism’s creative destruction of the bases of all social existence. Since the late 1980s, the world has been engulfed in an epoch of catastrophe capitalism, defined as the accumulation of imminent catastrophe on every side due to the unintended consequences of “the juggernaut of capital.” Catastrophe capitalism in this sense is manifested today in the convergence of (1) the planetary ecological crisis, (2) the global epidemiological crisis, and (3) the unending world economic crisis. Added to this are the main features of today’s “empire of chaos,” including the extreme system of imperialist exploitation unleashed by global commodity chains; the demise of the relatively stable liberal-democratic state with the rise of neo-liberalism and neo-fascism; and the emergence of a new age of global hegemonic instability accompanied by increased dangers of unlimited war.
The climate crisis represents what the world scientific consensus refers to as a “no analogue” situation, such that if net carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion do not reach zero in the next few decades, it will threaten the very existence of industrial civilization and ultimately human survival. Nevertheless, the existential crisis is not limited to climate change, but extends to the crossing of other planetary boundaries that together define the global ecological rift in the Earth System as a safe place for humanity. These include: (1) ocean acidification; (2) species extinction (and loss of genetic diversity); (3) destruction of forest ecosystems; (4) loss of fresh water; (5) disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; (6) the rapid spread of toxic agents (including radio-nuclides); and (7) the uncontrolled proliferation of genetically modified organisms.
This rupturing of planetary boundaries is intrinsic to the system of capital accumulation that recognizes no insurmountable barriers to its unlimited, exponential quantitative advance. Hence, there is no exit from the current capitalist destruction of the overall social and natural conditions of existence that does not require exiting capitalism itself. What is essential is the creation of what István Mészáros in Beyond Capital called a new system of “social metabolic reproduction.” This points to socialism as the heir apparent to capitalism in the twenty-first century, but conceived in ways that critically challenge the theory and practice of socialism as it existed in the twentieth century.
The Polarization of the Class System
In the United States, key sectors of monopoly-finance capital have now succeeded in mobilizing elements of the primarily white lower-middle class in the form of a nationalist, racist, misogynist ideology. The result is a nascent neo-fascist political-class formation, capitalizing on the long history of structural racism arising out of the legacies of slavery, settler colonialism, and global militarism/imperialism. This burgeoning neo-fascism’s relation to the already existing neoliberal political formation is that of “enemy brothers” characterized by a fierce jockeying for power coupled with a common repression of the working class. It is these conditions that have formed the basis of the rise of the New York real-estate mogul and billionaire Donald Trump as the leader of the so-called radical right, leading to the imposition of right-wing policies and a new authoritarian capitalist regime. Even if the neoliberal faction of the ruling class wins out in the coming presidential election, ousting Trump and replacing him with Joe Biden, a neoliberal-neofascist alliance, reflecting the internal necessity of the capitalist class, will likely continue to form the basis of state power under monopoly-finance capital.
Appearing simultaneously with this new reactionary political formation in the United States is a resurgent movement for socialism, based in the working-class majority and dissident intellectuals. The demise of U.S. hegemony within the world economy, accelerated by the globalization of production, has undermined the former, imperial-based labour aristocracy among certain privileged sections of the working class, leading to a resurgence of socialism. Confronted with what Michael D. Yates has called “the Great Inequality,” the mass of the population in the United States, particularly youth, are faced with rapidly diminishing prospects, finding themselves in a state of uncertainty and often despair, marked by a dramatic increase in “deaths of despair.” They are increasingly alienated from a capitalist system that offers them no hope and are attracted to socialism as the only genuine alternative. Although the U.S. situation is unique, similar objective forces propelling a resurgence of socialist movements are occurring elsewhere in the system, primarily in the Global South, in an era of continuing economic stagnation, financialization, and universal ecological decline.
But if socialism is seemingly on the rise again in the context of the structural crisis of capital and increased class polarization, the question is: What kind of socialism? In what ways does socialism for the twenty-first century differ from socialism of the twentieth century? Much of what is being referred to as socialism in the United States and elsewhere is of the social-democratic variety, seeking an alliance with left-liberals and thus the existing order, in a vain attempt to make capitalism work better through the promotion of social regulation and social welfare in direct opposition to neo-liberalism, but at a time when neo-liberalism is itself giving way to neofascism. Such movements are bound to fail at the outset in the present historical context, inevitably betraying the hopes that they unleashed, since focused on mere electoral democracy. Fortunately, we are also seeing the growth today of a genuine socialism, evident in extra-electoral struggle, heightened mass action, and the call to go beyond the parameters of the present system so as to reconstitute society as whole.
The general unrest latent at the base of U.S. society was manifested in the uprisings in late May and June of this year, which took the form, practically unheard of in U.S. history since the U.S. Civil War, of massive solidarity protests with millions of people in the streets, and with the white working class, and white youth in particular, crossing the colour line en masse in response to the police lynching of George Floyd for no other crime than being a Black man. This event, coming in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic depression, led to the June days of rage in the United States.
But while the movement toward socialism, now taking hold even in the United States at the “barbaric heart” of the system, is gaining ground as a result of objective forces, it lacks an adequate subjective basis. A major obstacle in formulating strategic goals of socialism in the world today has to do with twentieth-century socialism’s abandonment of its own ideals as originally articulated in Karl Marx’s vision of communism. To understand this problem, it is necessary to go beyond recent left attempts to address the meaning of communism on a philosophical basis, a question that has led in the last decade to abstract treatments of The Communist Idea, The Communist Hypothesis, and The Communist Horizon by Alain Badiou and others. Rather, a more concrete historically based starting point is necessary, focusing directly on the two-phase theory of socialist/communist development that emerged out of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme and V.I. Lenin’s The State and Revolution. Paul M. Sweezy’s article “Communism as an Ideal,” published more than half a century ago in Monthly Review in October 1963, is now a classic text in this regard.
Marx’s Communism as the Socialist Ideal
In The Critique of the Gotha Programme—written in opposition to the economistic and labourist notions of the branch of German Social Democracy influenced by Ferdinand Lassalle—Marx designated two historical “phases” in the struggle to create a society of associated producers. The first phase was initiated by the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat,” reflecting the class-war experience of the Paris Commune and representing a period of workers’ democracy, but one that still carried the “defects” of capitalist class society. In this initial phase, not only would a break with capitalist private property take place, but also a break with the capitalist state as the political command structure of capitalism. As a measure of the limited nature of socialist transition in this stage, production and distribution would inevitably take the form of to each according to one’s labour, perpetuating conditions of inequality even while creating the conditions for their transcendence. In contrast, in the later phase, the principle governing society would shift to from each according to one’s ability, to each according to one’s need and the elimination of the wage system. Likewise, while the initial phase of socialism/communism would require the formation of a new political command structure in the revolutionary period, the goal in the higher phase was the withering away of the state as a separate apparatus standing above and in antagonistic relation to society, to be replaced with a form of political organization that Frederick Engels referred to as “community,” associated with a communally based form of production.
In the later, higher phase of the transition of socialism/communism, not only would property be collectively owned and controlled, but the constitutive cells of society would be reconstituted on a communal basis and production would be in the hands of the associated producers. In these conditions, Marx stated, “labour” will have become not a mere “means of life” but “itself…the prime necessity of life.” Production would be directed at use values rather than exchange values, in line with a society in which “the free development of each” would be “the condition for the free development of all.” The abolition of capitalist class society and the creation of a society of associated producers would lead to the end of class exploitation, along with the elimination of the divisions between mental and manual labour and between town and country. The monogamous, patriarchal family based on the domestic enslavement of women would also be surmounted. Fundamental to Marx’s picture of the higher phase of the society of associated producers was a new social metabolism of humanity and the earth. In his most general statement on the material conditions governing the new society, he wrote: “Freedom, in this sphere [the realm of natural necessity], can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism of nature in a rational way… accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy” in the process of promoting conditions of sustainable human development.
Writing in The State and Revolution and elsewhere, Lenin deftly captured Marx’s arguments on the lower and higher phases, depicting these as the first and second phases of communism. Lenin went on to emphasize what he called “the scientific distinction between socialism and communism,” whereby “what is usually called socialism was termed by Marx the ‘first,’ or lower phase of communist society,” whereas the term communism, meaning “complete communism,” was most appropriately used for the higher phase.23 Although Lenin closely aligned this distinction with Marx’s analysis, in later official Marxism this came to be rigidified in terms of two entirely separate stages, with the so-called communist stage so removed from the stage of socialism that it became utopianized, no longer seen as part of a continuous or ongoing struggle. Based on a wooden conception of the socialist stage and the intermediary principle of distribution to each according to one’s labour, Joseph Stalin carried out an ideological war against the ideal of real equality, which he characterized as a “reactionary, petty-bourgeois absurdity worthy of a primitive sect of ascetics but not of a socialist society organized on Marxist lines.” This same stance was to persist in the Soviet Union in one way or another all the way to Mikhail Gorbachev.
Hence, as explained by Michael Lebowitz in The Socialist Imperative, “rather than a continuous struggle to go beyond what Marx called the ‘defects’ inherited from capitalist society, the standard interpretation” of Marxism in the half-century from the late 1930s to the late ’80s “introduced a division of post-capitalist society into two distinct ‘stages,’” determined economistically by the level of development of the productive forces. Fundamental changes in social relations emphasized by Marx as the very essence of the socialist path were abandoned in the process of living with and adapting to the defects carried over from capitalist society. Instead, Marx had insisted on a project aimed at building the community of associated producers “from the outset” as part of an ongoing, if necessarily uneven, process of socialist construction.
This abandonment of the socialist ideal associated with Marx’s higher phase of communism was wrapped up in a complex way with changing material (and class) conditions and eventually the demise of Soviet-type societies, which tended to stagnate once they ceased to be revolutionary and even resurrected class forms, heralding their eventual collapse as the new class or nomenklatura abandoned the system. As Sweezy argued in 1971, “state ownership and planning are not enough to define a viable socialism, one immune to the threat of retrogression and capable of moving forward on the second leg of the movement to communism.” Something more was needed: the continuous struggle to create a society of equals.
For Marx, the movement toward a society of associated producers was the very essence of the socialist path embedded in “communist consciousness.” Yet, once socialism came to be defined in more restrictive, economistic terms, particularly in the Soviet Union from the late 1930s onward, in which substantial inequality was defended, post-revolutionary society lost the vital connection to the dual struggle for freedom and necessity, and hence became disconnected from the long-term goals of socialism from which it had formerly derived its meaning and coherence.
Based on this experience, it is evident that the only way to build socialism in the twenty-first century is to embrace precisely those aspects of the socialist/ communist ideal that allow a theory and practice radical enough to address the urgent needs of the present, while also not losing sight of the needs of the future. If the planetary ecological crisis has taught us anything, it is that what is required is a new social metabolism with the earth, a society of ecological sustainability and substantive equality. This can be seen in the extraordinary achievements of Cuban ecology, as recently shown by Mauricio Betancourt in “The Effect of Cuban Agro-ecology in Mitigating the Metabolic Rift” in Global Environmental Change. This conforms to what Georg Lukács called the necessary “double transformation” of human social relations and the human relations to nature. Such an emancipatory project must necessarily pass through various revolutionary phases, which cannot be predicted in advance. Yet, to be successful, a revolution must seek to make itself irreversible through the promotion of an organic system directed at genuine human needs, rooted in substantive equality and the rational regulation of the human social metabolism with nature.
Freedom as Necessity
Building on G.W.F. Hegel’s philosophy, Engels famously argued in Anti-Dühring that real freedom was grounded in the recognition of necessity. Revolutionary change was the point at which freedom and necessity met in concrete praxis. Although there was such a thing as blind necessity beyond human knowledge, once objective forces were grasped, necessity was no longer blind, but rather offered new paths for human action and freedom. Necessity and freedom fed on each other, requiring new periods of social change and historical transcendence. In illustrating this materialist dialectical principle, Lenin acutely observed, “we do not know the necessity of nature in the phenomena of the weather. But while we do not know this necessity, we do know that it exists.” We know the human relation to the weather and nature in general inevitably varies with the changing productive relations governing our actions.
Today, the knowledge of anthropogenic climate crisis and of extreme weather events is removing human beings from the realm of blind necessity and demanding that the world’s population engage in the ultimate struggle for freedom and survival against catastrophe capitalism. As Marx stated in the context of the severe metabolic rift imposed on Ireland as a result of British colonialism in the nineteenth century, the ecological crisis presents itself as a case of “ruin or revolution.” In the Anthropocene, the ecological rift resulting from the expansion of the capitalist economy now exists on a scale rivalling the biogeochemical cycles of the planet. However, knowledge of these objective developments also allows us to conceive the necessary revolution in the social metabolic reproduction of humanity and the earth. Viewed in this context, Marx’s crucial conception of a “community of associated producers” is not to be viewed as simply a far-off utopian conception or abstract ideal but as the very essence of the necessary human defense in the present and future, representing the insistent demand for a sustainable relation to the earth.
But where is the agent of revolutionary change? The answer is that we are seeing the emergence of the material preconditions of what can be called a global environmental proletariat. Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1845, was a description and analysis of working-class conditions in Manchester, shortly after the so-called Plug Plot Riots and at the height of radical Chartism. Engels depicted the working-class environment not simply in terms of factory conditions, but much more in terms of urban developments, housing, water supply, sanitation, food and nutrition, and child development. The focus was on the general epidemiological environment enforced by capitalism (what Engels called “social murder” and what Norman Bethune later called “the second sickness”) associated with widespread morbidity and mortality, particularly due to contagious disease. Marx, under the direct influence of Engels and as a result of his own social epidemiological studies twenty years later while writing Capital, was to see the metabolic rift as arising not only in relation to the degradation of the soil, but equally, as he put it, in terms of “periodical epidemics” induced by society itself.
What this tells us—and we could find many other illustrations, from the Russian and Chinese Revolutions to struggles in the Global South today—is that class struggle and revolutionary moments are the product of a coalescence of objective necessity and a demand for freedom emanating from material conditions that are not simply economic but also environmental in the broadest sense. Revolutionary situations are thus most likely to come about when a combination of economic and ecological conditions make social transformations necessary, and where social forces and relations are developed enough to make such changes possible. In this respect, looked at from a global standpoint today, the issue of the environmental proletariat overlaps with and is indistinguishable from the question of the ecological peasantry and the struggles of the Indigenous. Likewise, the struggle for environmental justice that now animates the environmental movement globally is in essence a working-class and peoples’ struggle.
The environmental proletariat in this sense can be seen as emerging as a force all over the world, as evident in the present period of ecological-epidemiological struggle in relation to COVID-19. Yet, the main locus of revolutionary ecological action in the immediate future remains the Global South, faced with the harsh reality of “imperialism in the Anthropocene.” As Samir Amin observed in Modern Imperialism, Monopoly Finance Capital, and Marx’s Law of Value, the triad of the United States, Europe, and Japan is already using the planet’s bio-capacity at four times the world average, pointing toward ecological oblivion. This unsustainable level of consumption of resources in the Global North is only possible because a good proportion of the bio-capacity of society in the South is taken up by and to the advantage of these centres [in the triad]. In other words, the current expansion of capitalism is destroying the planet and humanity. The expansion’s logical conclusion is either the actual genocide of the peoples of the South—as “overpopulation”—or, at the least, their confinement to ever-increasing poverty. An eco-fascist strand of thought is being developed which gives legitimacy to this kind of “final solution” to the problem.
New System of Social Metabolic Reproduction
A Revolutionary process of socialist construction aimed at building a new system of social reproduction in conformity with the demands of necessity and freedom cannot occur without an overall “orienting principle” and “measure of achievement” as part of a long-term strategy. It is here, following Mészáros, that the notion of substantive equality or a society of equals, also entailing substantive democracy, comes into play in today’s struggles. Such an approach not only stands opposed to capital at its barbaric heart but also opposes any ultimately futile endeavour to stop halfway in the transition to socialism. Immanuel Kant spelled out the dominant liberal view shortly after the French Revolution when he stated that “the general equality of men as subjects in a state coexists quite readily with the greatest inequality in degrees of the possessions men have.… Hence, the general equality of men coexists with great inequality of specific rights of which there may be many.” In this way, equality came to be merely formal, existing merely “on paper” as Engels pointed out, not only with respect to the labour contract between capitalist and worker but also in relation to the marriage contract between men and women. Such a society establishes, as Marx demonstrated, a “right of inequality, in its content, like every right.” The idea of substantive equality, consistent with Marx’s notion of communism, challenges all of this. It demands a change in the constitutive cells of society, which can no longer consist of possessive individualists, or individual capitals, reinforced by a hierarchical state, but must be based on the associated producers and a communal state. Genuine planning and genuine democracy can only start through the constitution of power from the bottom of society. It is only in this way that revolutions become irreversible.
It was the explicit recognition of the challenge and burden of twenty-first-century socialism in these terms that represented the extraordinary threat to the prevailing order constituted by the Venezuelan Revolution led by Hugo Chávez. The Bolivarian Republic challenged capitalism from within through the creation of communal power and popular protagonism, generating a notion of revolution as the creation of an organic society, or a new social metabolic order. Chávez, building on the analyses of Marx and Mészáros, mediated by Lebowitz, introduced the notion of “the elementary triangle of socialism,” or (1) social ownership, (2) social production organized by workers, and (3) satisfaction of communal needs. Underlying this was a struggle for substantive equality, abolishing the inequalities of the colour line and the gender line, the imperial line, and other lines of oppression, as the essential basis for eliminating the society of unequals.
In “Communism as an Ideal,” Sweezy emphasized the new forms of labour that would necessarily come into being in a society that used abundant human productivity more rationally. Many categories of work, he indicated, would “be eliminated altogether (e.g. coalmining and domestic service), and insofar as possible all jobs must become interesting and creative as only a few are today.” The reduction of the enormous waste and destruction inherent in capitalist production and consumption would open up space for the employment of disposable time in more creative ways.
In a society of equals—one in which everyone stands in the same relation to the means of production and has the same obligation to work and serve the common welfare—all “needs” that emphasize the superiority of the few and involve the subservience of the many will simply disappear and will be replaced by the needs of liberated human beings living together in mutual respect and cooperation.… Society and the human beings who compose it constitute a dialectical whole: neither can change without changing the other. And communism as an ideal comprises a new society and a new human being.
More than simply an ideal, such an organizing principle in which substantive equality and substantive democracy are foremost in the conception of socialism/communism is essential not only to create a socialist path to a better future but as a necessary defense of the global population confronted with the question of survival. Dystopian books and novels notwithstanding, it is impossible to imagine the level of environmental catastrophe that will face the world’s peoples, especially those at the bottom of the imperialist hierarchy, if capitalism’s creative destruction of the metabolism of humanity and the earth is not stopped mid–century.
According to a 2020 article on “The Future of the Human Climate Niche” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, based on existing trends, 3.5 billion people are projected to be living in unliveable heat outside the human climate niche by 2070, under conditions comparable to those of the Sahara desert. Even such projections fail to capture the enormous level of destruction that will fall on the majority of humanity under capitalist business as usual. The only answer is to leave the burning house and to build another now.
The International of Workers and Peoples
Although untold numbers of people are engaged in innumerable struggles against the capitalist juggernaut in their specific localities all around the world, struggles for substantive equality, including battles over race, gender, and class, depend on the fight against imperialism at the global level. Hence, there is a need for a new global organization of workers based on the model of Marx’s First International. Such an International for the twenty-first century cannot simply consist of a group of elite intellectuals from the North engaged in World Social Forum-like discussion activities or in the promotion of social-democratic regulatory reforms as in the so-called Socialist and Progressive Internationals. Rather, it needs to be constituted as a workers-based and peoples-based organization, rooted from the beginning in a strong South-South alliance so as to place the struggle against imperialism at the centre of the socialist revolt against capitalism, as contemplated by figures such as Chávez and Amin.
In 2011, just prior to his final illness, Chávez was preparing, following his next election, to launch what was to be called the New International (pointedly not a Fifth International) focusing on a South-South alliance and giving a global significance to socialism in the twenty-first century. This would have extended the Bolivarian Alliance for Peoples of Our America to a global level. This, however, never saw the light of day due to Chávez’s rapid decline and untimely death.
Meanwhile, a separate conception grew out of the efforts of Amin, working with the World Forum for Alternatives. Amin had long contemplated a Fifth International, an idea he was still presenting as late as May 2018. But in July 2018, only a month before his death, this had been transformed into what he called an Internationale of Workers and Peoples, explicitly recognizing that a pure worker-based International that did not take into account the situation of peoples was inadequate in confronting imperialism. This, he stated, would be an organization, not just a movement. It would be aimed at the alliance of all working peoples of the world and not only those qualified as representatives of the proletariat…including all wage earners of the services, peasants, farmers, and the peoples oppressed by modern capitalism. The construction must also be based on the recognition and respect of diversity, whether of parties, trade unions, or other popular organizations of struggle, guaranteeing their real independence.… In the absence of [such revolutionary] progress the world would continue to be ruled by chaos, barbarian practices, and the destruction of the earth
The creation of a New International cannot of course occur in a vacuum but needs to be articulated within and as a product of the building of unified mass organizations expanding at the grassroots level in conjunction with revolutionary movements and de-linkings from the capitalist system all over the world. It could not occur, in Amin’s view, without new initiatives from the Global South to create broad alliances, as in the initial organized struggles associated with the Third World movement launched at the Bandung Conference in 1955, and the struggle for a New International Economic Order.52 These three elements—grassroots movements, delinking, and cross-country/cross-continent alliances—are all crucial in his conception of the anti-imperialist struggle. Today this needs to be united with the global ecological movement.
Such a universal struggle against capitalism and imperialism, Amin insisted, must be characterized by audacity and more audacity, breaking with the coordinates of the system at every point, and finding its ideal path in the principle of from each according to one’s ability, to each according to one’s need, as the very definition of human community. Today we live in a time of the perfect coincidence of the struggles for freedom and necessity, leading to a renewed struggle for freedom as necessity. The choice before us is unavoidable: ruin or revolution.
Comrade Souren Bose was one of the leading comrades of the Naxalbari Uprising along with Charu Majumdar, Kanu Sanyal, Jangal Santhal, Khokan Majumdar and others from North Bengal. He joined CPI in 1940s, became part of CPI(M) when the party splitted in 1964, joined the inner party struggle against the neo-revisionist leadership, and after Naxalbari Uprising was active during the Coordination period, in the formation of CPI(ML) and in its First (8th ) Congress in 1970, in which he was elected as its PB member. As decided by the party he went to China in 1970, met leaders of the CPC including Chou Enlai, who made a scathing attack on the line practiced by CPI(ML), while upholding its formation as a historic step forward. He came back and handed over the written report of the conversation to com CM. But he was arrested soon and was in jail till 1980. On 17th August, 1997 he passed way at Mumbai where he had gone to attend a program of the CPI(ML) Red Flag (now Red Star), in the 4th All India Conference of which he was elected as its CRC member.
Though Janata Party came to power at centre in 1977, and soon CPI(M) led Left Front came to power in W. Bengal, com. Souren Bose like many other leaders of the CPI(ML) movement could come out from jail only in 1980. By that time the Naxalbari movement had splintered to many groups. Though their analysis of Indian situation, strategic line of democratic revolution and path of them were the same, they viewed each other with hostility because of sectarian influence. The atmosphere was suffocating, com. SB used to say. Because of this, large number of comrades from working class and peasantry who came out of jail got frustrated and became inactive. Though he had an idea of what was happening outside and since these divisions had their influence within the jails also, he had no idea to join any section without studying the situation. Though he later participated in the activities of some mass organizations linked to some groups, he did not become a member of any group. It was following a number of discussions with the comrades of the CPI(ML) Red Flag (now Red Star), from the beginning of 1994 and joint efforts to analyze the changes taking place in the country under neo-colonial situation after transfer of power as a part of preparing an agrarian program, he agreed with the general orientation of the organization and joined it by the end of 1995. It was when he was actively engaged in the re-organization of the movement, he left us, which was a great loss to the whole movement. In this issue we are re-producing the editorial and an article of com. KN on com. SB. Red Salute to com SB who remained a Bolshevik till his last day.
Compatriots, Friends and Comrades, our party, CPI (ML) Red Star from its proletarian internationalist positions, has repeatedly called for peaceful settlement of the border dispute between India and China and with other countries, which are leftovers from the colonial days through bi-lateral discussions with neighbourly spirit. But contrary to earlier reports, the border conflict has become more serious, with the air force of both sides also active in the region. Meanwhile there were reports that Indian Navy is asked to intervene if Chinese vessels are sighted in nearby seas. The Chinese spokespersons are repeatedly claiming that Galwan Valley belongs to them. India has repeatedly rejected it, and asks Chinese troops to withdraw from the disputed areas in the valley. The standoff started from the first week of May when Chinese troops were sighted there, according to Indian army. Then there were series of discussions up to corps commander level and it was told on 5th June that an agreement on de-escalation and disengagement is arrived at and it will be completed soon. On 12th June the Army chief said at Dehra Dun that disengagement is progressing well.
But on 16th June afternoon there were reports of death of two Indian jawans and an officer in the disputed area occupied by Chinese. By 9 pm the tally became one officer and 19 jawans, but all others of the battalion safe. Next day it was told 76 jawans were also injured, of them four seriously. Then we heard four officers and six jawans were handed over by the Chinese troops. There was absolutely no transparency even in such important questions. Meanwhile mud-slinging between BJP and Congress started on whether Indian area is under Chinese, and who surrendered to China more, which is still continuing in new forms. On 18th the external affairs minister of India told his Chinese counterpart that the Chinese troops had entered on the Indian side of Galwan Valley and tried to erect structures leading to the 15th clash.
But, in the 19th June all party meeting, after reports of defense and foreign ministers and queries raised by Congress and other parties, without answering any of the queries, surprising everybody present, PM Modi categorically stated that “nobody entered our territory and captured any post!” It was his conscious move to confuse the discussion without giving out facts. The Chinese side quoted Modi to justify their claim to Galwan Valley. On 20th, Indian side came out with an explanatory note rejecting Chinese claim and defending Modi’s statement saying “it was on the situation after the clash”. LAC has become very tense, with fears of new flare ups. Reports of tension in other hot spots also started coming out. On 22nd before going to Moscow, the defense minister Rajnath Singh issued a hawkish statement, if China acts, give fitting reply. Though their counterparts from China also were at Moscow, neither he, nor the foreign minister who attended the tripartite meeting with Chinese and Russian foreign ministers tried to take up the border question at political level.
After 23rd meeting of corps commanders, again reports came that consensus on disengagement is arrived at, but no time frame. On 25th diplomatic level discussion took place in which both sides agreed to implement the de-escalation. But latest reports from both sides show that the situation is becoming worse. Meanwhile, Phulwama style statements are issued by Modi that the blood of Bihari jawans will not go in vain, trying to incite Bihari pride to help him win the coming assembly elections there. As the satellite pictures of Chinese still occupying the post where the clash coming out, Modi is on the defensive! BJP is trying to overcome it by strengthening its “China Boycott” campaign, and digging deep in to Congress history to attack it.
As BJP as well as Congress are reducing the debate on the border question to who surrendered more to Chinese and mobilization of forces on both side increasing, there is a real danger of a flare up, with the RSS parivar organizing Boycott China campaign and provoking war mongering and jingoism.
This apprehension is strengthened as Modi govt has down-sized diplomatic relations with Pakistan. And Modi is not taking any steps to call for a foreign affairs’ minister level meeting, if necessary followed by a meeting between him and Chinese president Xi for a political solution to the Galwan issue. All the progressive forces should raise their voice, demanding a political solution through a Modi-Xi talk. The standoff should not be allowed to develop in to a border war, which will be against the people of India, as well of China who are suffering under the Covid19 crisis and economic recession. Mobilizing all progressive forces we should come out firmly against war mongering, which may lead to a border war