Hallo old friend and comrade SRP, warm greetings.
For your information some points. Today Hindu carries an interview of your general secretary Yechury that cpim will have no truck with communal forces. In Kerala you say Muslim League is communal. But you have relationship with INL and SDPI. Though you may not accept understanding with RSS as it's leaders claim. In TN League is a prominent part of DMK led front. In Assam Congress led front in which you are also there, Muslim organisations have good presence. In Bengal you have alliance with newly formed Indian secular front which is outrightly communal. During Bhangar movement CPI-M top leaders also had supported it as it was the only struggle which challenged TMC. In last Lok Sabha elections we had supported your candidature Bikash Ranjan Bhatacharya for jadavpur seat as he had helped us with court cases. Only there, your candidate got deposit back. Then your Bengal leaders had openly said that in assembly election they will support Red Star candidate in Bhangar. But what you are doing now? Supporting the ISF candidate who is campaigning only communally against Red Star candidate. Don't you think that when you claim to profess big things, at least you should practice it also.
Dear Comrades! Today we are commemorating Comrade Engels at a critical juncture. The world, the entire humanity, is now entered in what is called the anthropocene epoch. That means the planet’s ecosystem is in an unsustainable situation and commemoration of Engels and his great works assumes paramount significance in this context. We know that as co-author of Marx, Engels had published many works jointly with Marx. However, in pursuance of the relevance of our present discussion, let me confine to the importance of Engels as the leading Marxist theoretician and pioneer in applying dialectical materialism not only to political economy and history but even to nature, science and society.
There is an oft-repeated allegation that Marxism’s concern was only with economy and not environment and ecology and that it was oblivious of the destructive impact of capital accumulation on nature. As such, postmodernists, post-Marxists and even neo-Marxists together with liberals and NGO theorists are working overtime to put the stamp of technological optimism, materialistic determinism, etc. on Marxism. But this is a baseless allegation. From the very beginning, the concern of both Marx and Engels was not only on the exploitation of workers but also on the plunder of nature by capital. For instance, in Capital Volume I, Marx has clearly pointed out how the two sources of human existence, i.e., labour and nature (soil) are made unsustainable or destroyed by the onslaught of capital.
In fact, Engels in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England published in 1845 had taken up this issue in a detailed manner. In this classic work, Engels while explaining capital‘s brutal exploitation of workers under the factory system, had brilliantly explained the horrendous environmental and epidemiological conditions imposed by Industrial Revolution. Engels in his book has beautifully explained how capital accumulation is associated with periodic epidemics, toxic contamination, pollution, and all around devastation of the working class including poor nutrition and high mortality rate arising from high levels of environmental and ecological destruction as capitalism advanced. That is, the idea of Engels that capitalism has always been connected with ecological destruction and plunder of nature was not casual but inalienable to Marxism from the very beginning. And Engels could be seen carrying forward this perception in his 1878 book Anti-Duhring too.
Of course, after the death of Marx in 1883, Engels had to edit and complete Capital Vol. II and Capital Vol. III (respectively published in 1885 and 1894) along with organising and publishing the uncompleted notes of Marx as Theories of Surplus Value also known as the Fourth Volume of Capital. Engels had to take up this huge task while performing his critical role as the foremost authority, theoretician and propagandist of Marxism including his task of organising the working class till his death in 1895.
Therefore, Engels did not get enough time to concentrate on the book Dialectics of Nature which he started to write in 1872. Even though he worked on it for 10 years, that is up to 1882, it remained an unfinished work, and after the death of Marx, Engels had little time to concentrate on it. Hence before his death, Engels entrusted the manuscripts of Dialectics of Nature to Bernstein who was not interested in publishing it. However, in 1924, Bernstein handed it over to Einstein who could grasp the importance of the book. As suggested by Einstein, it was Riazanov who first brought out a rudimentary form in 1927 and a final form appeared in 1935, and ultimately, the full fledged edition of Dialectics of Nature with JBS Haldane’s Preface was published in 1939. According to Haldane, who admired Engels‘ application of dialectics to physical and natural sciences, had Engles’ method of thinking which no environmentalist at that time could even think been known earlier, the transformation of ideas in science would have been smoother and beneficial both for scientists and activists.
Of course, mechanical materialists and positivists have alleged that Engels in Dialectics of Nature had emphasised on materialist conception of nature instead of history and have criticised Engels for, what they said, not taking dialectical materialism in the proper perspective. Such a criticism is far-fetched since, as Haldane pointed out, while exposing the destructive dimensions of unhindered encroachment on nature, in Dialectics of Nature Engels himself had highlighted the interrelationship among science, nature, society and development from a dialectical-historical perspective. For, drawing lessons of the so called development ranging from ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece and Asia Minor and Middle Ages to Colonialism, Engels vividly explained how human intrusion in to nature and destruction of forests that reached its zenith in the irreparable damages to tropical forests in Africa and Asia had destroyed the very basis of human existence. Underlying in this analysis is a dialectical link between oppression and exploitation on the one hand and destruction of nature on the other. Of particular relevance in this context is Engels’ reference to the so called primitive accumulation that Marx explained in Capital and the environmental degradation associated with it.
Though Dialectics of Nature was published after Lenin, the Marxist perspective on development that called for a harmony with nature had been there in Lenin’s agenda from the very beginning. As a reflection of this approach, vast tracts of protected land called Zapovedniks were kept forever wild as acknowledge-ment of environmental protection, and Lenin himself signed this into a law in 1921 to put the same on legal footing. This trend continued such that even when Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, it had 330000 square kilometres of Zapovedniks. And in the industrialisation debate of the 1920s, though this perspective on ecology was there, a one-side emphasis on development and theme of Catching up with the West slowly got prominence followed by the entry of American experts and Fordist methods of factory organisation in to Soviet Union in the 1930s. After the 1970s, the so called modernistic conceptualisation that development is an absolute principle got official acceptance in China too.
As such, by the 1970s when the collapse of welfare capitalism coupled with mounting environmental problems pushed imperialism into a an irreversible global crisis, even official agencies like the UN and a whole set of NGOs were forced to come forward putting forward certain reformist propositions for the environmental question along with neoliberal prescriptions. However, on account of the ideological political setbacks suffered by the International Communist Movement, in spite of the Marxist contributions of Engels in this regard, the Left could not take up the required task in the proper perspective. On the other hand, together with unhindered financial speculation which is the major form of neoliberal accumulation, unhindered plunder of nature also became a major avenue of super-profit by corporate capital. And with the turn of the 21st century, as I have mentioned in the beginning, this has now driven humankind to an ecological catastrophe quite characteristic of an anthropocene epoch which is manifested in the frequent emergence of zoonotic viruses, the latest being COVID-19.
In this critical situation, it is indeed heart-warming that Engels works pertaining to science, nature and society are getting more attention from both Marxists and different sections of well-meaning people the world over. The ecological consequences of capital accumulation under colonialism that Engels unravelled especially in Dialectics of Nature under colonialism in the 19th century have grown further and become horrific now. Thus together with the commodification of labour, neoliberal corporatisation has now accomplished a commodification of nature too. Therefore, in conformity with the positions already laid down by Marx and Engels, the working class and oppressed people today have to strive for a de-commodification of both labour and nature.
Under today‘s profit-led development paradigm, the sustenance of humankind is at stake on account of the onslaught of capital both on labour and on nature. It is from this perspective that CPI (ML) Red Star in its Party Program has incorporated the contradiction between capital and nature and ranged it along with the other major contradictions including that between capital and labour. Therefore, along with the resolution of the other major contradictions, resolving the contradiction between capital and nature has also become the task of communist revolutionaries and the International Communist Movement as a whole. With these words, let me conclude, comrades.
Thank you. Revolutionary Greetings to All.
(Presentation by Comrade PJ James)
Understanding the way in which contemporary capitalism—which Samir Amin insightfully characterized as the era of generalized monopolies—organizes productive forces is crucial to grasping both the forms of domination defining imperialism today and the profound metamorphoses that monopoly capital has undergone during the last three decades.
The concept of general intellect, put forward by Karl Marx, is a useful starting point for the exploration of the organization of productive forces. Let us take the example of one of the most “advanced” innovation systems today: Silicon Valley’s Imperial System. Our analysis seeks not only to reveal the profound contradictions of capitalist modernity, but also to highlight the significant transmutation that today’s monopoly capital is undergoing. Far from acting as a driving force for the development of social productive forces, it has become a parasitic entity with an essentially rentier and speculative function. Underlying this is an institutional framework that favors the private appropriation and the concentration of the products of general intellect.
Capital, General Intellect, and the Development of Productive Forces
Capitalism is characterized by the separation of the direct producers from their means of production and subsistence. This separation broke violently into the embryonic phase of capitalist development with the process that Marx referred to as “so-called primitive accumulation” (more correctly translated as “so-called primary accumulation”). It is not just a foundational process, external or alien to the dynamics of capitalism, but one that reproduces itself over time and is accentuated through new and increasingly sophisticated mechanisms with the advent of neoliberal policies, so much so that David Harvey proposed the category “accumulation by dispossession” in his book The New Imperialism to refer to this incessant phenomenon.
Importantly, the primal separation of the direct producer that Marx describes in chapters 14 and 15 of the first volume of Capital is only formal. In the early stages of industrial capitalism, even if the direct producers did not own the means of production—which they considered foreign property and an external force of domination—they maintained some control over their working tools in the production process. Thus, the separation was not wholly complete until the appearance of large-scale industry in the second half of the twentieth century, which radically changed the situation. The production of machines by machines—that is, the use of an integrated machinery system, as a totality of mechanical processes distributed in different phases moved by a common motor—gave way to a complete separation between workers and their tools. This brought the optimal conditions for a second and deeper dispossession, relegating labor to a subordinated role in the production process and converting the worker into an appendage of a machine. It is worth mentioning, however, that the use of this metaphor by Marx does not mean that the direct producer is unable to eventually contribute to the attainment of an improvement or a technological innovation. There are several historical examples that account for this possibility.
Nevertheless, in terms of the theory of value, there is a general movement toward the predominance of dead labor, objectified in the machine, over living labor—in other words, the prevalence of relative surplus value in the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. The emergence of machinery and large-scale industry meant that capital managed to create its own technical mode of production as the foundation of what Marx conceives in the unpublished sixth chapter of Capital, volume 1, as the real subsumption of labor under capital; in other words, the “specific capitalist mode of production.” As Marx wrote, “the historical significance of capitalist production first emerges here in striking fashion (and specifically), precisely through the transformation of the direct production process itself, and the development of the social productive powers of labour.”
This process originated during the second half of the First Industrial Revolution and deepened during the Second Industrial Revolution (1870–1914), where science and technology appear as engines of production, forcing development as the so-called first globalization was occurring. Since then, the growth of capital has been directly associated with the development of production forces and the consequent expansion of surplus value, mainly in the form of relative surplus value. At the same time, this is marked by the continuous increase in the organic composition of capital (the relation between capital invested in the means of production and that invested in the labor force), where “the scale of production is not determined according to given needs but rather the reverse: the number of products is determined by the constantly increasing scale of production, which is prescribed by the mode of production itself.” This inherent contradiction in the specifically capitalist mode of production is related, in turn, to (1) the trend of concentration and centralization of capital that accompanies accumulation dynamics and (2) the concomitant tendency toward absolute impoverishment of the working class, in what Marx conceives as the general law of capitalist accumulation:
The greater the social wealth, the functioning capital, the extent and energy of its growth, and, therefore, also the absolute mass of the proletariat and the productiveness of its labor, the greater is the industrial reserve army. The same causes which develop the expansive power of capital also develop the labor power at its disposal. The relative mass of the industrial reserve army increases, therefore, with the potential energy of wealth. But the greater this reserve army in proportion to the active labor army, the greater is the mass of a consolidated surplus population, whose misery is in inverse proportion to its torment of labor. Finally, the greater the growth of the misery within the working class and the industrial reserve army, the greater the official pauperism.
The trend toward the complete separation of the worker from the means of production is consolidated into what Victor Figueroa described as follows:
The factory offers us the image of a production center that does not demand workers’ awareness or knowledge of the production process.… As if the factory, being itself the result of the productive application of knowledge, demanded for the knowledge to be developed outside and, therefore, independently to the workers it houses, where immediate labor is presumably a mere executor of the progress forged separately by science.
In Labor and Monopoly Capital, Harry Braverman described this fissure as an essential part of the scientific and technological revolution that detached the subjective and objective content of the labor process.
The unity of thought and action, conception and execution, hand and mind, which capitalism threatened from its beginning, is now attacked by a systemic dissolution employing all the resources of science and various engineering disciplines based upon it. The subjective factor of the labor process is removed to a place among its inanimate objective factors. To the materials and instruments of production are added a “labor force,” another “factor of production,” and the process is henceforth carried on by management as the sole subjective element.… This displacement of labor as the subjective element of the process, and its subordination as an objective element in a productive process now conducted by management, is an ideal realized by capital.
In the face of these circumstances, derived from the technical and social division of labor inherent to the specifically capitalist mode of production, it is worth asking ourselves: In what way does capital, beyond the immediate work that is deployed in the factory, organize the development of the productive forces? What kinds of workers, universities, and research centers participate in this process? What is the role of the state and other institutions? What role do accumulated social knowledge, basic and applied science play? What types of intangible and tangible products are generated? What are the mechanisms and mediations involved in the transformation of scientific and technological work to productive forces? What kind of profit enters the scene and how does it affect the dynamics of social surplus value distribution, concentration, and centralization of capital?
Although Marx does not explicitly address this issue in Capital except in marginal footnotes, in the Grundrisse’s “Fragment on Machines,” he coined the category of general intellect and made some considerations, in the form of notes, that provide important clues to help us understand the subject.
Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and have been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real-life process.
From this, we can infer that fixed capital, or constant capital, is condensed into past material and immaterial labor (dead labor). Consequently, accumulated social knowledge is objectified in the means of production and becomes an immediate force of production. In other words, general intellect is a collective and social intelligence created by accumulated knowledge and techniques. This radical transformation of the workforce and the incorporation of science, communication and language within the productive forces has redefined the entire phenomenology of labor and the entire global horizon of production. General intellect means that the general form of human intelligence becomes a productive force in the sphere of global social labor and capitalist valorization. The power of science and technology are put to work.… With the concept of general intellect, Marx refers to science and consciousness in general, that is, the knowledge on which social productivity depends.
With the advent of the capitalist mode of production, a new and particularly significant division was created between what could be called immediate labor and scientific-technological labor. While the former unfolds in the factory, the latter is carried out separately and under different, although complementary, forms of organization, with both converging in the critical function for capitalist development: the increase of surplus value. If immediate labor is actually subsumed by capital, scientific and technological labor can only be, at best, formally subsumed, becoming what Figueroa calls a workshop of technological progress to distinguish it from the way immediate labor in the factory is organized. However, the way general intellect is structured, in its quest to accelerate the development of productive forces, acquires increasingly sophisticated and complex modalities, as in the paradigmatic case of the Silicon Valley Imperial Innovation System.
The growing importance of immaterial work in the production process does not imply a “crisis” of the law of value, as suggested by Antonio Negri. Rather, it implies that an increasing proportion of the social surplus value and the social surplus fund captured by capital and the state is redistributed toward activities aimed at promoting the development of productive forces. In other words, immediate labor and scientific-technological labor interweave dialectically to broaden the scope of capital valorization through the deepening of exploitation. In this sense, under the prism of the theory of value, the general intellect contributes to increasing the organic composition of capital with a powerful leitmotif: the appropriation of extraordinary profits, that is, profits greater than the average profit, commonly conceived as technological rents. In this aspect, the Ecuadorian-Mexican philosopher Bolívar Echeverría specifies that there are two poles of monopoly property to which the group of capitalist owners must acknowledge rights in the process of determining the average profit. Based on the most productive resources and provisions of nature, land ownership defends its traditional right to convert the global fund of extraordinary profit into payment for that domain, in other words, into ground rent. The only property that is capable of challenging this right throughout modern history and has indefinitely imposed its own, is the more or less lasting domain over a technical innovation of means of production. This property forces the conversion of an increasing part of extraordinary profit into a payment for its dominion, in other words, into a “technological rent.”
It is worth noting that Echeverría brackets the notion of technological rent, associating it with ground rent—or surplus associated with the ownership of a monopolizable good that does not derive from incorporated labor during the production process. Under the new forms of general intellect organization, monopoly capital appropriates profit through the acquisition of patents, without implying investments in the promotion and development of the productive forces, behaving in this sense as a rentier agent.
Unlike immediate labor, the subordination of scientific and technological labor to capital is extremely complex, especially because the value that the scientific and technological labor force incorporates into the production process is not immediately objectified; it is the product and result of social knowledge expressed in the market once new commodities, new production processes, and new ways of organizing and increasing labor productivity are concretized. Pablo Míguez refers to this phenomenon not as “a simple subordination to capital, but an independent relation to labor time imposed by capital, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish working time from production time or leisure time.”
From the theory of value perspective, the process of valorization of scientific and technological labor is materialized in the production and circulation sphere, but in the distribution sphere of valorized capital, that social surplus value, mediated by intellectual property, is issued in the form of a rent. In this sense, it is important to emphasize the fundamental role held by states in the distribution of social surplus to promote basic and applied science, supporting public and private universities, as well as research centers. The state also contributes to creating institutions and policies that allow for the private appropriation of rent to come out of the general intellect. These institutions become crucial to the dynamics of accumulation and uneven development characterizing contemporary capitalism and imperialism.
The transformation of the general intellect into an immediate productive force, materialized in new commodities and new ways of organizing the labor process, requires the mediation of patents and a patenting system. In the capitalist mode of production, the creation of intellectual property through patents or patenting systems acquires a strategic importance in relation to the control and orientation of productive forces. This becomes a key element both for the private appropriation of products that emanate from the general intellect, and for the organization of innovation systems. In this sense, national and international patent legislations constitute a mechanism that enables the privatization and commodification of common goods, hindering potentially beneficial innovations for society.
For example, The legal mechanisms for the private appropriation of scientific-technological labor, with the patent as a nodal part in the restructuring of innovation systems, becomes a basic piece for the withholding of extraordinary profits made possible through global corporate regulation in tune with the imperial State policies.… Hence, international law functions as a core piece of private control of scientific-technological labor through a series of intellectual property and international trade regulatory agreements.
Following this idea, Míguez argues that, in the context of contemporary capitalism, “intellectual property is reinforced as it is the only mechanism that allows for the private appropriation of increasingly social knowledge in its incessant quest to valorize capital.”
The development of the productive forces in contemporary capitalism—and the course followed by the general intellect—cannot be understood separately from the contemporary domination of monopoly capital. This hegemonic fraction of capital—ubiquitous in contemporary capitalism—finds its raison d’être in the appropriation of extraordinary profits and technological rents through monopoly prices, among other processes. According to Marx, monopoly appropriation of profit through prices refers to prices that rise above the cost of production and the average profit together, enabling monopoly capital to appropriate a relatively greater portion of social surplus value than the one that would correspond to conditions of free competition.
Another fundamental feature of monopoly capital, as a sine qua non condition for obtaining profits, is its need to maintain lasting advantages over other possible participants in a particular branch or branches where it operates. Such advantages can be natural or artificial, depending on the combination of forms of surplus profit, which, in turn, configure particular monopolistic practices. One of these forms is related to capitalism’s revolutionary development of productive forces, as envisioned by Marx: technological change. In this regard, Joseph A. Schumpeter—far from intending to identify his vision of technological change with that proposed by Marx in Capital—sets forth the existence of a positive relationship between innovation and monopoly power, arguing that competition through innovation or “creative destruction” is the most effective means of acquiring advantages over potential competitors. Furthermore, Schumpeter argues that innovation is both a means of achieving monopoly profit and a method of maintaining it.
It should be noted, however, that in the Marxist conception, there is no mechanical or direct identification of technological change with a positive vision of progress. On the contrary, being governed by the law of value and the necessity of capital to broaden accumulation, technological change does not escape the contradictions of capitalist modernity, which, as Echeverría emphasizes, “leads itself, structurally, by the way in which the process of reproduction of social wealth is organized…to the destruction of the social subject and the destruction of nature where this social subject affirms itself.”
The appropriation of extraordinary monopoly profits produced by means of intellectual property is accompanied in contemporary capitalism by a profound restructuring of this hegemonic fraction of capital, through a process of hyper-monopolization, where three additional forms of profit appropriation stand out:
- The formation of monopoly capital global networks, commonly known as global value chains, through the geographic expansion of corporate power by transferring parts of production, commercial, and financial service to peripheral countries in search of cheap labor. Basically, it is a new nomadism in the global production system based on the enormous wage differentials that persist between the Global North and the Global South (the global labor arbitrage). This restructuring strategy has deeply modified the global geography of production to the degree that just over 70 percent of industrial employment is currently located in peripheral or emerging economies.
- The predominance of financial capital over other factions of capital. In the absence of profitable investments in the productive sphere due to the over-accumulation crisis triggered in the late 1970s, capital began moving toward financial speculation, creating strong distortions in the sphere of social surplus value distribution through the financialization of the capitalist class, which has led to an explosion of fictitious capital—financial assets without a counterpart in material production.
- The proliferation of extractivism by monopolizing and controlling land and subsoil by monopoly capital. In addition to accentuating the dynamics of accumulation by dispossession, the growing global demand for natural resources and energy has led to an unprecedented privatization of biodiversity, natural resources, and communal goods benefiting mega-mining and agribusiness. This implies the appropriation of huge extraordinary profits in the form of ground rent (unproduced surplus value) that translates into greater ecosystem depredation, pollution, famine, and disease with severe environmental implications, including global warming and worsening extreme climatic events that jeopardize the symbiosis between human society and nature.
The predominance and metamorphosis of monopoly capital under the neoliberal aegis has brought about far-reaching transformations in the organization of production and the labor process. These transformations are integral to the global capitalist system’s geography, leading to a fall of the welfare state, an increase in social inequalities, and the emergence of a new international division of labor, where the labor force becomes the main export commodity. This, in turn, gives way to new and extreme forms of unequal exchange and transfer of surplus from the periphery to the core economies of the system. In this context, the irruption of the technoscience revolution has generated new ways of promoting scientific and technological creativity, of organizing the general intellect on a global scale and of appropriating its products.
(Monthly Review, March 2021)
A Lesser-Known event from the annals of the Indian revolutionary movement is the “invitation” that was sent to Bhagat Singh by the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. This invite could not reach Singh, so historians can only speculate on what might have happened if it had been received and accepted. There is no doubt that had it all gone as planned, it had the potential to change the course of our freedom struggle.
The person who connected Bhagat Singh and Stalin was Shaukat Usmani, one of the founding members of the emigre Communist Party of India established in Tashkent in 1920. Usmani was sent to India by MN Roy to establish contact with the Indian nationalists. He came in contact with the revolutionaries through Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi, the famous editor of the Hindi daily, Pratap, which was published from Kanpur in 1920s.
Bhagat Singh worked as a sub-editor at Pratap. He even reviewed Usmani’s political-cum-travel memoir, Peshawar to Moscow: Leaves from An Indian Muhajireen’s Diary, for the newspaper. Even though Usmani was associated with the communist movement, he maintained active contact with the armed revolutionaries and updated the Comintern about their activities.
In 1928, when Usmani was about to leave for the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, he invited Bhagat Singh and his close associate, Bejoy Kumar Sinha, to come with him to the Soviet Union. Usmani wrote about this incident, “Now I don’t exactly remember when I first met Sardar Bhagat Singh. Either I met him in Lahore or in Kanpur…At that time [the Hindustan Republican Association] HRA was being transformed into HSRA [Hindustan Socialist Republican Association] and it was decided that the new organisation would work in cooperation with the Communist International…I was informed that before they drop armed actions by individuals they would organise some important actions which were already in their list… I told Bejoy Babu (Bejoy Kumar Sinha), ‘Come on, let’s go to Moscow.’ Personally, I believed that Bhagat Singh and Bejoy Sinha’s presence in Moscow would have meant active armed assistance from the Soviet Union.”
Along with Singh, Bejoy Kumar Sinha was in charge of international relations of the HSRA. He confirms this invitation by Usmani in his book, New Man in the Soviet Union. He writes, “Shaukat Usmani, who as representative of the Communist Party of India, was about to leave for Moscow to take part in the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, asked me and my associates to come along with him to the Soviet Union as representatives of the revolutionary movement. I discussed his invitation with Bhagat Singh and we decided that it was not the right time. We decided that we will go to Moscow once we had executed our plans.”
That Usmani had invited Bhagat Singh and Sinha to visit the Soviet Union as representatives of the HSRA is also confirmed by a stalwart of the Indian communist movement, Muzzafar Ahmad. In his autobiography, Myself and the Communist Party of India, Ahmad mentions Usmani and Sinha’s meeting. He also says that Sinha gave Usmani Rs. 200 to undertake the proposed journey, while Usmani assured him of financial help from the Soviet Union.
Usmani next went to the Soviet Union in 1928, where he was included in the Presidium of the historic Sixth Congress of the Communist International. This conference began on 17 July 1928 and ended on 1 September 1928. Interestingly, it noted the activities of the HRA while discussing the colonial question. It recognised the rise of the HRA as a response to the failure of bourgeois parties such as the Indian National Congress, which began as a radical petty-bourgeoisie party but as the struggle proceeded, it became the party of the bourgeois reformists.
The Comintern observed, “…movements such as…Gandhism in India…were originally radical petty-bourgeois ideological movements which, however, as a result of their service to the big bourgeoisie, became converted into a bourgeois nationalist-reformist movement. After this, in India…there was again founded a radical wing from among the different petty-bourgeois groups (e.g. the Republican Party…) which stands for a more or less consistent national-revolutionary point of view.”
Unfortunately, as soon as Usmani returned from Moscow, he was arrested in the Meerut Conspiracy Case which began in March 1929. Meanwhile, Bhagat Singh and his comrades had assassinated John Saunders in December 1928 and were on the run. After the Meerut Conspiracy Case began, Bhagat Singh and BK Dutt, on behalf of the HSRA exploded two bombs in the Central Assembly to protest the anti-worker Public Safety and Trade Dispute Bills, and courted arrest.
Remarkably, before the decision to throw bombs in the Central Assembly, HSRA leaders held the view that Bhagat Singh should be sent to the Soviet Union since he was already an absconder in the Lahore Conspiracy Case. It was decided that some other revolutionary would throw the bomb. However, on the insistence of Sukhdev, Bhagat Singh was selected for the task as it was agreed that he could present the party’s point of view before the court and in the press in the best possible way. HSRA members were not aware that Usmani was carrying a message for them from the Soviet Union. Due to his arrest, even the latter was unable to communicate Stalin’s message for Bhagat Singh and the HSRA.
Later, Usmani, in an article in the Hindi journal Nai Zameen, published from New Delhi, wrote that before he was leaving for India, Stalin asked him to convince Bhagat Singh to come to Soviet Union. According to Usmani, Stalin’s words were, “Ask Bhagat Singh to come to Moscow.”
Now the question arises, how did Stalin come to know about Bhagat Singh?
According to Virender Sindhu, niece and biographer of Bhagat Singh, Stalin and the Comintern might have learnt of Bhagat Singh through two Ghadarite revolutionaries, Baba Santokh Singh and Baba Gurmukh Singh, who were working closely with the Communist movement in Punjab. They had even tried to recruit Bhagat Singh to their Kirti group.
However, the interest shown by Stalin in Bhagat Singh and the Indian revolutionary movement might also have been the result of the thesis adopted by the Sixth Congress on the strategy and tactics of the national liberation movements in colonies such as India and China. The Communist International was already aware of the Hindustan Republican Association and considered it as a petit bourgeoisie-led national revolutionary organisation, in contrast to the national-reformists led by the Congress.
The Sixth Congress adopted a very sectarian position on tactics and strategy of anti-imperialist struggle in colonies. This Congress proposed that Communist Parties in colonised countries “should from the very beginning demarcate themselves in the most clear-cut fashion, both politically and organisationally, from all the petty-bourgeois groups and parties”.
However, with respect to the national-revolutionary parties led by the petty-bourgeoisie, the Sixth Congress said that a temporary union or cooperation with them was possible “provided that [the national revolutionary movements was a] genuine revolutionary movement, that it genuinely struggles against the ruling power and that its representatives do not put obstacles in the way of the communists educating and organising in a revolutionary sense the peasants and wide masses of the exploited”.
As Usmani knew about the transition of the HRA into the HSRA and their decision to work for the goals of socialism, it is quite possible that he appraised the executive committee of Communist International on Bhagat Singh and his plans to reorganise the HRA, which might have sparked the interest of Stalin in Singh.
After the arrests of Bhagat Singh and Sinha in the Lahore Conspiracy Case, HSRA decided to send veteran Ghadar Party leader Prithvi Singh Azad to the Soviet Union for ideological and military training but Azad could not go there immediately. So, HSRA chose Surendra Pandey and Yashpal (the future Hindi novelist) in his place. However, the sudden death of its commander-in-chief Chandrashekhar Azad in February 1931 foiled the party’s plans.
Yashpal was also arrested in a few months and eventually Pandey was also put behind bars. After his release, Pandey tried to revive the HSRA in Kanpur and worked in close coordination with the communists. From the courtroom, Bhagat Singh and his comrades also sent a telegram to the Communist International expressing their respect and solidarity on the death anniversary of Lenin on 21 January 1930.
Even though the HSRA members tried to go to the Soviet Union, the journey eluded them. It was only after the withdrawal of the British from India that Bejoy Kumar Sinha was able to make a trip to the Soviet Union.
(www.newsclick.in, 22nd March, Prabal Saran Agarwal and Harshvardhan are PhD scholars at JNU. The views expressed are personal.)
(Note: Throughout this article, we have preserved Bhagat Singh’s use of the word ‘untouchable’ in his writings, which reflected contemporary usage. His use of the word, and its contextual use in this article, should be read as ‘so-called untouchables’. Similarly, the phrase ‘lower strata’ should be read as ‘so-called lower strata’, ‘upper caste’ as ‘so-called upper caste’, etc.)
The influence of socialist and Marxist thought on the writings of Bhagat Singh has been well documented, discussed and debated. However, his thoughts, as well as that of the broader revolutionary movement, on the questions of caste and untouchability have not been paid much attention in academic as well as activist circles.
Apart from his popular article – ‘Problem of Untouchability’, published in the June 1928 issue of Kirti -there are a few other articles and essays as well where Bhagat Singh criticised caste and related aspects. And even though all his writings are in the form of pamphlets or newspaper reports and appear as running commentary, we can delineate the line of reasoning which informs his criticism of caste and untouchability.
It is one thing to criticise caste-based discrimination and atrocities from an abstract concept of ‘equality’, and completely another to criticise caste as a form of institutionalised discrimination whose legitimacy is derived from the religious doctrines of Hinduism. While the former can take place without criticising Hinduism in radical terms, (e.g. Vivekananda, Gandhi, Savarkar etc.) the latter has to take into consideration the roots of the caste system in Hindu religious principles and philosophy (e.g. Phule and Ambedkar). Bhagat Singh’s criticism of caste and untouchability is firmly anchored in the latter approach.
Religious Basis of Caste/Untouchability
Bhagat Singh understood caste and the practice of untouchability and its associated binary of purity-pollution as an integral part of Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma). The belief that an untouchable’s touch can pollute and destroy the ‘dharma’ of an upper-caste is criticised by Bhagat Singh at several places. ‘The Problem of Untouchability’ begins with questions like: “Would the contact with an untouchable mean defilement of an upper-caste? Would the gods in the temples, not get angry by the entry of untouchables there? Would the drinking water of a well not get polluted if the untouchables drew their water from the same well?”
At another place critiquing the purity-pollution binary, he writes: “…if a low-caste boy garlands people like the Pandit or the Maulvi, they have a bath with their clothes on and refuse to grant the ‘janeyu’, the sacred thread, to the untouchables…”
These practices, according to Bhagat Singh were legitimised by Sanatana Dharma, which “is in favour of discrimination of touchable-untouchable”. At the centre of Bhagat Singh’s criticism of caste is the Brahmanical theory of karma, which postulates that people are assigned caste or Varna according to the merit of their previous birth. In the ‘Problem of Untouchability’, Bhagat Singh attacked karmic theodicy as the ideological edifice built to counter the resentment emerging from the discriminations of the caste system. He writes: Historically speaking, when our Aryan ancestors nurtured these practices of discrimination towards these strata [untouchables] of society, shunning all human contact with them by labelling them as menials, and assigning all the degrading jobs to them, they also, naturally started worrying about a revolt against this system. [They floated the philosophy of re-birth]. All this is the result of your past sins; what can be done about it? Bear it silently! and with such kinds of sleeping pills, were they able to buy peace for quite some time.
He reiterates this point again in his 1930 pamphlet, Why I am an Atheist, where he says: “…well, you Hindus, you say all the present sufferers belong to the class of sinners of the previous births. Good. You say the present oppressors were saintly people in their previous births, hence they enjoy power. Let me admit that your ancestors were very shrewd people; they tried to find out theories strong enough to hammer down all the efforts of reason and disbelief”.
In the same essay he goes on to criticise the Varna system which fixed the task of every Varna and also earmarked strict punishment for those who violated the rules. Criticising one of the most severe forms of punishment reserved for the untouchables if they even heard the Vedas or other “sacred” scriptures, Bhagat Singh says that these rules and laws related with the Varna system ‘are the inventions of the privileged ones’ to ‘justify their usurped power, riches and superiority’.
According to Bhagat Singh, the lower strata of the Hindu society was deliberately kept away from education by the “the haughty and egotist Brahmins”, who made learning a criminal act for them.
Consequences of the Caste System
According to Bhagat Singh, the institution of caste and the practice of untouchability had two negative impacts upon Indian society. Calling the practice of untouchability ‘a grossly cruel conduct’, he pointed out that it “amounted to the negation of core human values” and therefore adversely affected the “self-esteem and self-reliance” of those who were condemned as untouchables. Here Bhagat acknowledged the psychological as well as mental toll resulting from caste-based discrimination.
The second side-effect of untouchability/caste was its promotion of contempt for labour, especially physical labour. This, according to him, had negatively impacted the historical economic development of Indian society. Underlining this particular consequence, he writes: “…In broader social perspective, untouchability had a pernicious side-effect; people in general got used to hating the jobs which were otherwise vital for life. We treated the weavers who provided us cloth as untouchable. In UP water carriers were also considered untouchables. All this caused tremendous damage to our progress by undermining the dignity of labour, especially manual labour”.
The caste system, according to Bhagat Singh, was a system to extract free and cheap labour from the most under-privileged communities. Celebrating the strike of the sanitation workers of Jamshedpur, Bhagat Singh in his article ‘Satyagraha and Strike’ (1928) writes: “…the ‘scavengers are on strike and entire city is in a mess…we do not allow these brothers who serve us the maximum to come close to us, cast them off calling ‘bhangi! bhangi! and take advantage of their poverty, and make them work for very low wages, and even without wages! They can bring the people, especially in the cities to their knees in just a couple of days. Their awakening is a happy development”.
Commenting upon the historical contribution of untouchables in progression of Indian society, he called them the “real sustainers of life….the real working class.the pillars of the nations and its core strength”.
Critique of Upper-Caste-Led Social Reform Movements
Bhagat Singh was very sceptical about various reform movements that were supposedly fighting to do away with the menace of caste and untouchability. The upper-caste led social reform movements, according to him, resulted not from any genuine concern for the untouchables, but were a reaction to the introduction of communal representation or separate electorates by the proposed Minto-Morley reforms of 1909. The communal award, as it came to be known, threatened the dominant position of upper-caste Hindus vis-à-vis Muslims and Sikhs, as the number of seats in the legislature was to be fixed in accordance with the size of the respective communities.
Since untouchables were being targeted by Muslim, Christian and Sikh missionaries with the promise of equality is social life, the upper-caste Hindus who previously did not consider untouchables as part of the Hindu fold, felt threatened in the numbers game of the electoral arena. This threat, according to Bhagat Singh, had “shaken Hindus from their complacency in the matter” and even “orthodox Brahmins [too have] started giving the matter another thought” along with some self-proclaimed reformers, as they tried to remove the menace of untouchability.
But these reform movements led by upper-caste reformers were not serious and reeked of hypocrisy. To substantiate his argument, Bhagat Singh cited an incident from Patna where social reformers had gathered to discuss the problem of untouchability. When questions emerged about the eligibility of untouchables to wear sacred thread or reading the Vedas/Shastras, a number of social reformers lost their temper and protested against the move.
Criticising Madan Mohan Malviya, who undertook campaigns to remove untouchability, Bhagat Singh further writes: “a reputed social reformer like PanditMalviyaji, known for his soft corner for untouchables, first agrees to be publicly garlanded by a sweeper, but then considers himself to be polluted till he bathes and washes those clothes. How ironical!”
Similarly, in another essay titled ‘Religion and our Freedom Struggle’, published in the May 1928 issue of Kirti, he writes: “…people also say that we must reform these ills [of untouchability]. Very good! Swami Dayananda abolished untouchability but he could not go beyond the four varnas. Discrimination still remained!”
Bhagat Singh was not only against the practice of untouchability, but against the entire caste system as evident from the above quote as he reprimands Swami Dayananda. In the same essay, he says that only way to do away with these problems was to oppose the Santana Dharma, which favours the discrimination of touchable-untouchable.
Advocacy of Separate Electorate
Bhagat Singh approached the question of separate electorates in a very positive light. According to him, the proposed communal reward was a step towards a) strengthening the untouchables as a political group and b) it would help to weaken the caste structure. He writes: “In the context of our advance towards national liberation, the problem of communal representation may not have been beneficial in any other manner, but at least it means that Hindus/Muslims/Sikhs are all striving hard to maximise their own respective quota of seats by attracting the maximum number of untouchables to their own respective folds…all three are trying to outdo each other, resulting in widespread disturbances…this turmoil is certainly helping us to move towards the weakening of the hold of untouchability”
Bhagat Singh was also in complete favour of the untouchables organising on their own a distinct identity. He writes: “ultimately the problem cannot be satisfactorily solved unless and until untouchables communities themselves unite and organise….we regard their recent uniting based on their distinct identity…as a move in the right direction…we plead that they (the untouchables) must persist in pressing for their own distinct representation in legislatures in proportion to their numerical strength…without your own efforts, you shall not be able to move ahead”.
But Bhagat Singh was also of the view that the problem of caste or untouchability could not be solved only within the legislative framework. He asks a very relevant and practical question: “can a legislature, where a lot of hue and cry is raised even over a bill to ban child marriages on the grounds that it shall be a threat to their religion, dare to bring the untouchables on their level as their own?”
In his view, those belonging to the privileged upper class/caste would always try their utmost to “keep on oppressing those below them”. So, he was of the view that bureaucratic/legislative-led “gradualism and reformism shall not be of use” and only way out was to “start a revolution from a social agitation and grind up…for political and economic revolution”.
Fighting Caste and Untouchability in Practice
It is a well-known fact that just before his execution Bhagat Singh “wished for roti cooked by ‘Bebe’ (mother), which was how Bogha, a Dalit prisoner in jail, was addressed”. This was not merely a symbolic act, but formed part of a broader praxis of Bhagat Singh’s politics. The Naujawan Bharat Sabha (NBS) which was formed by Bhagat Singh and his comrades in 1926, used to organise social dinners to which people of all castes and creeds were invited and where they served each other, thereby attacking the notion of purity and pollution associated with commensality.
Bhagat Singh was also of the view that the so-called upper-caste should collectively apologise to the “untouchables” for the wrongs they had done in the past. He also believed that no ritual ceremony or acts of purification was required to consider the untouchables as equal human beings. In, the ‘Problem of Untouchability’, he writes: “…present is the moment of its atonement…In this regard strategy adopted by Naujwan Bharat Sabha and the Youth conference is, most apt – to seek forgiveness from those brethren, whom we have been calling untouchables by treating them as our fellow beings, without making them go through conversion ceremonies of Sikhism, Islam or Hinduism, by accepting food/water from their hands”.
In his article ‘Religion and our Freedom Struggle’, Bhagat Singh says that the “meaning of our freedom is not only to liberate ourselves from the clutches of the English but also complete independence, when all people live together harmoniously, liberated from mental slavery”. Here the term “mental slavery” is related to the hold of religion as well as the practice of untouchability in society, as he writes that cooperation and unity against the British is possible “by leaving aside our narrow-mindedness…by changing partisan food habits and removing the words touchable-untouchable by their roots”.
Further, in the historic meeting held at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi in 1928, where the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) was transformed into Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) and socialism was adopted as its official ideology and goal, another historic decision was taken in regards to caste and religion. It was decided that the revolutionaries would discard all symbols of religion and caste (emphasis added). Again, this decision to discard religious and caste symbols was not an impromptu decision taken by the Bhagat Singh and his contemporary revolutionaries.
Even before these historic decisions, the revolutionaries of the Hindustan Republican Association (HRA) like Rajendranath Lahiri, Manmath Nath Gupta, KeshavChakravarty and others (all sentenced under the Kakori Conspiracy case) had thrown away their sacred thread, the “janeyu”. As I wrote in an earlier article with Ankur Goswami: “That the HRA revolutionaries used to break Brahminical socio-religious conventions is also confirmed by Gupta in his autobiography They Lived Dangerously. Gupta writes, “We used to take beef in defiance of the whole society. This does not mean that all our members were of this view.” Even though the ‘old’ members did not support the eating of beef, they did not impose their beliefs among the ‘young’ members who were experimenting with revolutionary ideals in every aspect of life. According to Gupta, the ‘old’ members tried to dissuade the ‘young’ revolutionaries, not by citing ‘religious codes’ but through debates and discussions over the merits of eating non-vegetarian food.”
Bhagat Singh’s criticism of caste and untouchability is not merely a class- or economic-based criticism or criticisms based on an abstract idea of equality. Instead, he attacks the very foundation of caste and untouchability by attacking the philosophical, religious and spiritual rationale of caste system as enshrined in Brahmanical religious scriptures.
Further, Bhagat Singh also understood caste also as an ideological system which functioned to justify and legitimise the prevailing economic inequality. This was an extension of his criticism of religion, which according to him was a tool for manipulation. Clearly, his views of caste and religion, as far as their ideological function is concerned, were clearly inspired from the Marxist framework. He did not limit himself to an economic understanding of caste, but also acknowledged its cultural and psychological impact.
Bhagat Singh understood caste in a comprehensive manner, and his solution too was of comprehensive nature. He did not create the binary of cultural-economic or political-cultural or economic-political while commenting on caste. Caste, at once was a social, cultural, economic and political issue and the only way to deal with it was by taking all these seemingly disparate spheres as a whole.
As in the end of his article on untouchability, Bhagat Singh exhorted the untouchables to “raise the banner of revolt” and “challenge the existing order of society” with the famous quote from the Communist Manifesto: “Workers unite – you have nothing to lose but your chains”, but added an important addendum that, “you are the real working class”. He was of the firm view that only a working class revolution with ‘untouchables’ at its axis could free India from both capitalist and caste exploitation.
(The Wire, 23rd March 2021)
At a time when we are highlighting the significance of Naxalbari Uprising and the 52nd anniversary of CPI(ML) formation, exposing and denouncing the CPI and CPI(M) leaderships who had degenerated to the social democratic trend, highlighting shahid Bhagat Singh on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of his martyrdom along with Sukhdev and Rajguru, just as an icon of revolution is not sufficient. His writings on each and every aspect of Indian revolution on the basis of his own analysis of Indian society based on the Marxist-Leninist insight he could grasp after started reading the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, without any doubt makes him the greatest Marxist- Leninist in India who really understood what is the soul of Indian people and Indian revolution. His approach to the caste system, a “distinctive inhuman system in India society” takes him to the understanding of this barbarity and to identify it as one of the basic features Indian revolution should address.
In the end of his article on untouchability, Bhagat Singh exhorted the untouchables to “raise the banner of revolt” and “challenge the existing order of society” with the famous quote from the Communist Manifesto: “Workers unite – you have nothing to lose but your chains”! And here he added an important addendum that, “you are the real working class”. He was of the firm view that only a working class revolution with ‘untouchables’ at its axis could free India from both capitalist and caste exploitation. Remember he wrote these lines when already the RSS was formed in 1925 with the goal of turning India in to a Hindurashtra with Manusmriti as its Constitution, and when the so-called mainstream Communist Movement in India had refused to recognize the great relevance of caste annihilation to unite the working class and lead the class struggle forward, and failed to come out with a critic of this fascist organization which was effectively used by the British colonialists to foment the two-nation theory and eventually divide the country communally amidst the flood of blood of millions, fulfilling the imperialist conspiratorial plot to keep the sub-continent splintered and backward for their plunder till today.
Bhagat Singh’s writings reveal that while he was ridiculing the untouchability movements launched by the upper caste forces to dilute the caste contradiction, he was applauding the renaissance movement from among the down-trodden masses, in many regions, as coming out through the contributions of Phule-Savitri-Ambedkar, along with Ayyankali, Narayana Guru and Periyar from the South. When the mainstream communist movement was repeatedly failing to recognize the importance of establishing the leadership of the working class and its vanguard, the communist party in the national liberation movement, as Mao could successfully do in China, and as Comintern had pointed out, Bhagat Singh was crystal clear that only a working class revolution with ‘untouchables’ at its axis could free India from both capitalist and caste exploitation. He repeatedly exhorted that nothing substantial shall happen by replacing the white sahebs with the black Brahmanical leadership; what is required is an Inquilab, a great revolution which overthrows the vultures of the past and create a socialist India. And, he marched to the gallows with the clarion call: Inquilab Zindabad.
The article given below, prepared by com. Harshwardhan based on his research of Bhagat Singh’s articles gives how scientific he was in understanding the Indian society and the basic principles of Indian revolution. During these dangerous days, when RSS parivar has come to hegemonic positions in India, still when the social democratic CPI(M) is upheld as the mainstream communist party at the clever dictation of the Godi media by most of the so-called ‘left intellectuals’, even after it has become the ‘apologists of neo-fascism’ as we witness in W. Bengal now, working hard to pave the way for a RSS/BJP victory in the present elections there as it did in Tripura during last elections there, it is high time that we uphold Bhagat Singh as the greatest Marxist-Leninist of our country. Let us learn from him and develop our path of revolution by understanding and changing the present barbaric situation by learning from him. n