- Sanjay Kumar
Note: This is the text of a presentation made at the NSI Delhi chapter's winter study camp held in Samalkha, Haryana in December, 2011
I assume everybody here is interested in Marxism because NSI unequivocally espouses the political legacy of Marx. Some of us here are inquisitive about Marxism, they would have heard or read about it; some praise, lot of criticism and ridicule, but have not yet made up their mind about the beast. On the other hand, some of us here may unabashedly declare themselves to be Marxists. If that is not to be taken as a mere label, it implies that they place their personal histories in a definite ideological, social scientific and political tradition. The majority may lie in-between, understanding and agreeing with some Marxist ideas, but then also being also aware of and appreciative of other ideas which do not fit neatly into a clear Marxist schema. I hope what I am going to say will prove useful to everybody here, particularly to the in-between majority.
Let me state in the beginning my take on Marxism. I think Marxism as a body of theoretical ideas and political practices marks an important milestone in the history of humanity. It raises fundamental questions about the world around us, and the place of humanity in it. It provides strong arguments to reject some answers. It gives revealing insights into the nature of human society. Some of the answers it leads to are path-breaking. It provides a world-view which is open (but not chaotic, random, multiple), questioning and critical (but not speculative), and engages with reality with the aim of transforming it (but is not pragmatic). I find Marxist world view liberatory, not because the way it helps in liberation from specific bondages, but what it tells us about the stakes involved in struggles for liberation.
However, I also believe Marxism is passing through a critical phase. Many of the answers it provided appear dated or plain wrong in the light of developments after its origins (internal developments of non-economic factors, for example). Many of its ideological fixations appear misplaced (with progress and development); many of its political practices so wrong that a time has come for its votaries to accept that their opponents have done better than them on some points (internal democracy and popular legitimacy). It is in the nature of Marxist project that it can easily slide into arrogance. One can be easily led to believe that it has the correct answer to every conceivable question; that it has solved the riddle of human history; that its solution is the only solution, or that its political project is the only genuine project for human liberation. Fifty-sixty years ago, there could be some basis, of propagandist nature, to believe in any one the above. At present I believe any such claim is plain stupidity. However, the more important point is that such ‘absolutist temptations’ are not incidental. They can not to be easily discarded. The basic nature, ambition and promise of the Marxist project generate them. For example, if Marxism starts with a realist ontology, then it can not rest satisfied with the assertion that its answer to the nature of reality is only one of the possible answers. Like sciences, an epistemic unitarity is built into a realist ontology. On the plank of social political struggles Marxism can not claim that it is concerned only with some struggles (say working class struggles) and would provide only external support to other struggles (as some movements or NGOs can say). This follows from the unitary conception of society integral to Marxism. If the Marxist proclamation of changing the world is taken seriously, and if it is believed that change comes only through conflict, and the latter is ubiquitous given the nature of our unequal societies, then it is necessary to take a stand on every social issue under contest. Marxism has a stake in every struggle. There is no possibility for it of being an external observer (as some academics can claim) or supporter, or a fence-sitter during any conflict; and this means Marxism has to evaluate and pass judgment on all struggles. ‘Absolutist temptations’ can’t be wished away, nor are their only cures good heart and/or manners. We can only hope to be at guard against them. The requirement is to be on guard all the time, and that is a big challenge.
Coming back to the main point, Marxism is passing through a critical period. That is why its basics need to be dug up, re-understood and re-fashioned for current times. That is the statement of the challenge at hand.
After having given an argument to establish the importance of what we are aiming to do here, let me lay bare how I plan to go about doing it. My approach will be elementary and discriminating. I will start with elementary and general notions and then successively approach specificity of Marxist ideas. To arrive at Marxist ideas, we will differentiate and compare them with other ideas in the same realm. Some of the concepts used may appear too elementary. My effort will be to look at them in the current social and political context, and we shall find that conceptual simplicity often masks a complex reality.
Reason vs Faith (separating Marxism from ideologies like religion, fascism, racism, casteism)
As a programme of investigation, ideology and politics, Marxism espouses reason. That’s said easily.
Doubt everything (Decartes) (Marx’s motto, 1865 Confessions game)
Assertions like the above are easy to make, their exhortations appeal because of their moral import. However, all of these do not give hint to actual problems. Why are faith based belief systems like religion so pervasive in human history? If the ability to reason, and the ability to have faith are merely two different human potentialities, then under what different conditions the two flourish? Can they flourish under mutually consistent conditions, or they exclude each other? Is reason merely a key to solving problems (instrumental rationality), or does it imply a basic shift from faith based subjectivity, affecting all parts of human consciousness? Hence the following, we are familiar with faith based morality, do we know enough about reason based morality? We are familiar with religion as the paramount example of a faith based belief system. Are there are other non-rational belief systems, which now may be more important? (Remember Hindutva is essentially a nationalist project, that uses religion to exclude and oppress, but its core is not religious.) What about individual desire based consumerism?
If we look at Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right, which contains his famous assertion ‘religion is the opium of the masses’, then it is clear that his project is very different from merely asserting that religious faith is wrong. He wants to understand conditions under which something like the religion becomes a necessity for people. Hence, if Marxism stands in the camp of reason, it has to confront the reality of non rational belief systems being so important? And here, Marxist understanding is different from what can be called Modernism. For the project of modernization religion and traditional belief systems are a sign of ‘backwardness’. They result from ignorance, which it is believed humans will readily get freedom from once the light of reason appears. Post modernism confronts the reality of modern societies with modernist claims and concludes that there are no singular paths to freedom, knowledge, or meaningful human agency. Rather, it declares modernity a camouflaged tyranny, and accuses Marxism of the same. Marxism realizes that ideologies like Nehruvianism akin to modernism correctly see that non-rational belief systems are a big stumbling block to be overcome for any society trying to be equitable. However, it also sees modernist ideologies as specific state projects having a clear class-basis. Hence it sees the failure of Nehruvian modernism to rid India of traditional belief systems as connected to the class compromise it enacted with feudal land owning classes; result of a passive revolution of sorts.
Marxism sees non-rational belief systems as integral to ideological hegemony through which oppressive and exploitative social systems generate consent of the oppressed and the exploited. They are not conspiracies which only need to be revealed to be made ineffective, but are requirements of oppressive and exploitative social systems. Here we see another distinguishing feature of Marxism. Ideologies like religion are integral to the subjectivity of the religious, hence their human agency has an inevitable religious character. In many cases, for instance Bhakti movement in India, or Reformation in Europe, or Liberation Theology in Latin America, even protest against existing social conditions come out in religious form. But religion itself, in social-scientific terms, is an objective complement of particular types of dominant social structures.
As much as faith is a complement of certain social practices, so is reason. According to Marxism there is no transcendental reason, the Reason, above and separate from human practice. Reason is a part of human practice, stamped by societies in which such practices unfold, and hence, a naturalistic understanding of reason, reducing it to a mere natural faculty, is problematic. In our society we encounter reason (rather types of rational practices) in constitution making, courts of law, parliamentary debates, public and academic discourses, and scientific-technical practices. Can we say that the reason realized in these practices of the existing bourgeois society has an essential bourgeois element? According to Marxism the answer is both yes and no, in different ways.
Marxism recognizes rationality in human practices that transform nature for desired ends, i.e in technology of any sort. Techniques of hunting, gathering, and agriculture, to computer software and hardware have a rational core. In practicing humans though the rational part may not often be separately realized. For instance a primitive hunter may think and feel that a successful hunt is both due to technique and ritual prayers. Marxism also recognizes that open social systems like markets which are uncertain as far as individual transactions are concerned, are more prone to evolution of rational regulatory practices than customary relations that are fixed and appear as given to humans. Similarly any public sphere, which is open and large so that individuated and personalized characterizations are impossible, will have to have rational organizing principles to be sustainable at all. Markets and public sphere are social arrangements that require abstracted realities (not material but social-conceptual) like exchange value and citizens, and rational systems of organizing emerge on those abstract bases.
Marxism though is not satisfied with just registering rational practices as such, it asks some specific further questions. Is a particular practice self-reflexive, that is, is the practice itself open to its own rational analysis? An important starting point for self reflexivity in sciences is empirical comparison with objective reality, i.e. whether the reality matches with assumptions and conclusions of a rational analysis. Before the advent of modern science, techniques of production were rarely self reflexive. The calculating and profit maximiser, the Homo Economicus ideal of bourgeois economic ideology is also bereft of self-reflexivity. On the other hand the organizational practices of capitalist manufacturing units, regulatory and policy frameworks of bourgeois states, and certain strains of bourgeois economic theory are self reflexive to an extent. Similarly, the liberal theory on basic rights too is reflexive. It has evolved from rights based solely on property, to de-jure universal rights, to the capabilities approach of Amartaya Sen. Yet it has a blind spot in methodological individualism beyond which it can not proceed unless it leaves behind fundamental liberal premises. Individuals, persons, citizens, as separately identifiable human beings, remain its starting point. The process of their association in public sphere is taken to be essentially and principally equitable, and their ‘maximum good’ is its end. What if such individuals do not exist prior to the network of social relations? And, their identifiable personality is stamped by these relations, which happen to be unequal! Rationality of bourgeois state institutions and economy perceives itself in naturalist terms as realizations of a natural and essential process. It does not recognize itself as the product of an historical and social process.
In distinction from hitherto existing rational practices, Marxist rational practices aim to be self-reflexive in historic and social terms. A technique is judged not only on the basis of efficiency, that is done under bourgeois production too, but also on the basis of its effects on social relations, on humans using it, and now with earth’s biosphere under threat, on the environment. The rationality of market exchange is judged not on the basis of how it benefits individuals as owners, consumers or workers, but what it does to social classes and what impact it has on social dymanic (poverty amid abundance, crises).
Before we round up this topic, one final question. Why is rationality so central to Marxism, and what determines its own characteristic rationality? The reason and answer, I think lies in the Eleventh Thesis: ‘the point is to change the world’. Marxism is disdainful of the speculative rationality of theological variety, of Upanishadic discourses on the nature of Brahman, or of economists trying mathematical models of stock and financial markets. According to Marxist epistemology, rationality emerges along with practices that attempt to transform a given reality; the reality could be externally given, as for techniques of production, or a product of human intellectual tradition, as for scientific theoretical practices. Rationality is a means to understand a structured reality. It empowers human beings to intervene in this reality. Hence, rationality is also an avenue to human agency. Marxism has a very specific humanist core. It is motivated by a distinctive conception of humans, not as being the measure of their own selves, and everything else (Renaissance humanism of this type is anti-feudal, but is also childishly narcissistic), or of Hegelian realizations of some ideal principles. The humanity of humans according to Marxism lies in their being engaged in transformative practices (which necessarily involve rationality); rest is all bondage and self delusion. What kind of morality such humans will fashion for themselves? Answer to this question is little explored.
Phenomenal and Structured reality (separating Marxism from empiricism, liberalism and social structuralism)
Our sense perceptions give disjointed snap shots. Pretty soon we begin to notice relatively stable patterns behind sense perceptions from which we build our awareness of the world, as an objective reality, around and beyond us. Structures of the world manifest themselves in relatively stable relationships between elements of the reality. Humans often remain unaware of structures in which they are embedded. Humans were using language before grammarians tried to codify extant grammatical structures and linguists discovered word and sentence structures common to many languages. Before feminist theoreticians explained patriarchy, humans were transforming themselves into gendered men and women without realizing it. Marxism believes that the aim of any worthwhile theoretical labour is to uncover structures of the reality around us. This can be called a ‘realist’ understanding of sciences. One does not need to be a Marxist to have a realist understanding of physical sciences. A realist understanding of social sciences is an entirely different matter.
What is the nature of social reality around us? Is it merely a conglomeration of conscious, self driven and determined human individuals who may or may not be bound up in relationships with others? Or, are there social structures independent of individual humans that make them mothers, fathers, men, women, workers, capitalists, untouchables and twice-born dwijas? Caricaturing the two distinguished social scientists, a yes to the first question can be called Weberian, to the second Durkhiemian. There are dangers in both positions for any liberatory project.
In political ideology, liberalism is closest to the Weberian position. Liberalism may declare, and liberal humans may find themselves to be morally autonomous, but are human beings really autonomous from social structures, most of which may be oppressive, making different humans powerful and powerless (men and women, dwijas and untouchables, capitalists and workers)? Liberal position may not cause any harm to an oppressing individual, but what about the oppressed who is hegemonised. An oppressed may rebel within the liberal framework; that in fact will be an instance of her/his moral autonomy (mere belief in liberalism does not make one morally autonomous). However, the character of rebellion and its programme of liberation changes dramatically as soon as it is realized that what oppresses is not just individual oppressors but a social structure. Liberalism can take this essential first step when it challenges non-liberal social structures. It fails however on two counts while fighting against such social structures. First, the non-liberal structures are considered ‘un-natural’ (Rousseau: ‘man is born free but is found in chains everywhere’, American Declaration of Independence: ‘God has created all men equal and free’), not understood as socially and historically generated. This misunderstanding underestimates the social strength of these structures. Second, liberalism fails to recognize that humans fighting against non-liberal structures are often divided and have different interests based on their positions in structures of the existing society. These differences may not be discussed ‘away’ in discourses of public opinion and smoothed out within a category like ‘We the people’. When liberalism gets implicated in bourgeois state structures, via constitutionalism and certain legal and political practices, then it itself becomes a hegemonic structure which, like religion, constrains humans and makes them blind to social realities. Liberalism can not help humans fight against its own hegemony.
The Durkhemian position underscores the objectivity of social structures and may correctly explain the ‘force’, or ‘inertia’, of an existing society. However, if human beings are nothing more than bearers of positions assigned to them by social structures, then they might well forget about fighting against oppressive structures. Hence, Durkhemian understanding of society has a very conservative, and status-quoist consequence. Fascism, ethno-nationalism, religious fundamentalism are some of the ideologies that show elements of Durkhemian position.
Fetishism occurs when social relations are masked by asocial and ahistorical, naturalized and self contained thing-like entities. The morally autonomous individual of liberalism is a fetish. Social objects are reified when they are considered in isolation from human agency. Durkhiemian societism reifies social structures. Marxism attempts an alternative to both. The aim is declared at many places. In the III Thesis in Feurbach: ‘the materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that educator himself needs educating. Hence, this doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, of which one is superior to society (in Robert Owen, for example).’ In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by them, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’
While Marxism recognizes the objectivity of social structures, it also recognizes the necessity of human agency for these structures by two key observations. One, social structures are reproduced by the medium of human agents in their everyday lives. Without appropriate human activity these structures will collapse. That is why acts of even negative rebellion in everyday life are so threatening to social structures. Second, these structures are not smoothly functioning perpetuum mobile machines. Rather, they exist in a social dynamics, which is conflictual (conflict between its different parts, between different structures) and crises ridden. Human agency, its ability to recognize, understand and solve ‘problems’, its ‘ideal’ life, the world of ideas, commitments, and prejudices, its ability for self motivated action aimed for goals in future, its mercurial contingency, and propensity for novelty, comes into its own precisely at moments of such crises and sites of conflict. They are moments of revolutionary breakthroughs. Far from being structurally over- determined by different causal chains leading to the same outcome, revolutionary moments have uncertain outcomes, in which human agency plays a crucial determining role.
Recognition of social structure clarifies these dichotomies:
a) Voluntarism vs Mass Action: Voluntarism asks for participation of humans ‘as they are’, according to their convenience and interests. Mass action is an organized practice. It asks participants to transform themselves and work under an organizing discipline. The latter has the danger of degenerating so that the organizing core becomes a structured authority, when Party begins to claim priority over Class, or as Brecht quipped, when ‘Party decides to elect a new People’. History shows that this has happened. However, it also shows, and with many more instances, that structures in society are not changed without organized social force. The choice is between force organized by a privileged minority, with structures of ideological hegemony and state power working in its favour, or the force of ordinary people as an organized mass.
Voluntarism can range from ‘celebrities’ endorsing charities to small group terrorism. At its core it is a self absorbed social action of the privileged that finds its rationale in the privation of others. Mass action is a self organized mobilization that comes into play when people at large find existing social structures impossible to live with, and hence when struggle against them becomes a necessary part of their life. Gandhian Satyagrah, in its essentials, (not necessarily in its practice by Gandhi) is a mass action. It is premised on the moral as an ontological category, and imagines a moral world as real as the physical world. It is very conscious of the moral transformation of its participants. The trouble of course is that if there is no separate moral world whose dynamics can transform oppressors, then the insistence on the moral rights of oppressors ends up yielding to their power. All Gandhian Satyagrahas ended up in compromise, rather than the reformulation of society on a new moral foundation.
b) Reform vs Revolution: Reform speaks for the adjustment of, and to, existing social structures. Revolution calls for dismantling the existing and forming new social structures. Reform and revolution are often thought about in exclusive either-or relationship. In reality, combinations of the two are more common. Passive revolution is a specific combination of the two under which the economic structure of the society, control over productive resources, production relations etc. is transformed, but the political and ideological structures are reformed minimally only to the extent required by the changed economic structure.
c) Populism vs Democracy: Marxism has no illusion about any essentially liberatory character of the social category called ‘people’. Fascism has often ridden on widespread popular support. The largest popular movement in the recent history of India was for the destruction of the Babri Mosque. Marxism stands for the rights of all underprivileged, including the poor. But every pro-poor stance is not Marxist. Marxism calls for the revolutionary mass action by the underprivileged, which separates it from other pro-poor programmes. Specifically, it does not consider all the poor necessarily as agents of desired social change. In India, marginalized adivasis and pauperized small peasantry are among the most poor. But Marxism may not consider them as the core support base of revolutionary transformation in India. Depending upon the social structure and history, different social ‘classes’ (more on them momentarily) have different social agency.
Hierarchy of Social Structures (Separating Marxism from idealism and pluralism, its dialectical materialism)
Think of society at large, not of specific sites within it. Society has structures: technological, economic, cultural, political, ideological, communitarian, legal, moral. It is complex because these structures are multiply related by different types of cause-effect relationships. No society is a random juxtaposition of structures. Every society has a history. That is obvious. But, what about the nature of inter-actions between different social structures! Can these be arbitrarily different, there being as many types of interactions as there are societies; politico-cultural structure dominating in feudalism, economic in capitalism. Or, does the relationship between structures change from moment to moment in a given society: political becoming dominant at the time of elections, popular cultural at the time of agitations like the one for Ram Mandir? A pluralist perspective answers in the affirmative to all these questions. The opposite ‘Monist’ perspective considers not only one structure to be dominant in all societies for all moments, but also considers other structures to be mere manifestations or aspects of this one structure. Everybody, both its proponents and opponents, agrees that Marxism privileges the ‘material’ in society. But great confusion persists about what can be ‘material’ in the world of humans, whose defining characteristic is consciousness, and about the way this material structure is privileged over others.
The material of human society, according to Marxism, is not the biological animal like necessities of humans. Humans share not only their biology with some animals, but also their instincts like those for self preservation, sex, protection of their young ones, etc. Marxism is emphatic that none of these are the ‘material’ of human society. Many bourgeois thinkers consider the economy of a society as understood by them as the ‘material base’ privileged by Marxism. This too is incorrect. It reflects more of the domination of economic interest within bourgeois life, rather than Marxist materialism.
Materialism in Marxism should be approached from two directions. One philosophical, from a materialist world view which gives priority to matter over consciousness. The other approach is empirical, from actual observations of human societies. For Marxist materialism to be consistent, the two approaches should complement each other.
Materialism is an age-old philosophical position. According to it the world accessible to our sense perceptions is the only basis of correct knowledge. This world has an objectivity which is independent of the human awareness of it. If there is a conflict between what we think or feel, and what our sense perceptions tell us, then sense perceptions should be given priority. I may feel, or suppose, that there is a world of spirits with which some special humans can communicate, that these spirits can be propitiated so that no misfortune falls on me. However, if there is no sense perception, or indirect proof of such spirits then these spirits are creations of my mind, rather than being actually out there. Materialism implies objectivism (properties of the known object are independent of the knowing subject), and realism (what we know from sense perceptions, or their rational analyses is really out there). Besides these it also makes a claim about the nature of reality. All reality is made up of matter. There is no conscious immaterial reality; no God, gods, or ghosts. This much was asserted even by the old materialism, which was based upon simple observations of the world, without the knowledge gained by modern sciences. The ‘dialectical’ character of the contemporary Marxist materialism resides in the recognition that the non-material domains of the world, i.e. life, consciousness, and society, are specific relational properties of matter in specific contexts. A human brain is nothing but a very complex network of cells, which themselves, are networks of molecules. Our conscious and unconscious ideas, imaginations, memories, feelings, persistence of self amid ceaseless flow of our consciousness, all of these are specific states of our brain. A lot of the reality is relational, networked reality. A human body, including brain, and a human, that is a human consciousness, is not just so many atoms and molecules of so many types. It is these atoms and molecules in very specific relationships with each other. In fact what persists as a human body over time, are precisely these structural relationships. For example, atoms and molecules in a body enter and leave, no atom remains in a human body for more than a few months. Hence the study of life, the study of structural relationships of cells with other cells, of organs with other organs in a body, and of a body with its environment, can not be reduced to a study of just atoms and molecules. Attempts by some scientists to understand life as just a playground of a master molecule (the DNA), completely miss the significance of life as a networked reality. Every part of this network has a bearing on all other parts. There is a center, but this is a center only as long as it is bound up in relationships with other, non-central parts.
The other aspect of the dialectical in Marxist materialism is its understanding of change. Opponents of materialism have long claimed matter to be inert and assumed any change as due to an active agency believed akin to the consciousness. This is a simple minded extension of humans’ immediate experience, in which they find themselves to be responsible for bringing changes in their environment. Materialists of ancient times had responded by taking motion to be an essential property of matter. However, before modern sciences the dymanics of the physical, biological, and ecological worlds and human consciousness were little understood, and ancient materialists’ assumption, though not without reason, was as speculative as their opponents’. Now, in every arena sciences have studied change has been explained on the basis of internal properties of the constituents and relationships between them, rather than due to any external conscious agency.
In the Hegelian understanding of change, adapted by Marx, the change is assumed emerging from internal contradictions. Communist Manifesto’s revolutionary call gained weight by the ringing assertion that class struggle is the motor of history. Since then, social contradictions and their resolution via transformative struggle is the key concept around which Marxist revolutionary politics has tried to understand the desired social change.
Contradiction is a fairly flexible concept, and it must be admitted that it has been used this way many times in Marxist theory. Complex systems like the Earth’s climate, distribution of species in an environment, or a society, have states of stable reproduction in which despite tremendous motion at the local level, over all the system reproduces itself in nearly the same configuration. Then, there are also conditions of rapid change, when the system is unable to reproduce itself. These ‘tip-off’ conditions can be considered crises situations for the system. These crises can be understood as the result of a number of, not necessarily only two, opposing tendencies. In that sense specifically they can be thought of as resulting from internal contradictions of the system. The Marxist understanding of a revolutionary situation is precisely of this type. However, it is obvious that many other changes in societies occur through multiplicity of relationship types, with internal contradiction being only one among many. Non-revolutionary changes are often results of adaptation, that is, solving a new problem by rearranging resources at hand. Capitalism in the past thirty years has transformed more due to market competition, opportunities opened by the historic defeat of social democracy, and new technologies that facilitate globalization of manufacturing and finance, rather than the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie.
After these preliminary remarks, the specificity of a materialist understanding of society can be presented in a number of observations, propositions and conclusions. An elementary conclusion, which follows from the objectivity of social world, and hence, is implied by the old materialism too, is the following. There are domains of social life built upon feelings, images, and ideas humans have of their society; domains of culture, art, ideology. What these say about society can not be taken at face value. For centuries kings and their subjects believed that the former had a divine right to rule. That is a plain misconception. A healthy skepticism of what the culture and ideology in any society say about that society is minimum any materialism has to claim.
A society is a set of structured relations, among humans, and between humans in society and the material world outside. Humans interact with the material world to reproduce themselves, and also to reproduce new humans. The physical means of humans’ relationships with the nature around them, are what Marx and Engels call ‘forces of production’. These forces should be understood not only in terms of physical entities, the tools and the machines, but as relationships activated by motivated human action, that is, activated by human labour. Hence, the knowledge of machines and tools is also a part of ‘forces of production’. The use of forces of production occurs under a set of relationships among members of the society. Some of these like the division and pooling of labour, are effectively forces of production. Then there are other relationships which are distinctly social in nature, which come into play because production takes place in a society, rather than among a group of humans who have only incidentally gotten together. These relationships are the domain of human social agency, power and control. How, when, and what gets produced, and who has control over products of labour, are determined through these relationships. Networks of exchange, markets, rules of ownership, i.e. property, management, and family are examples of such relationships. These are relations of production. The forces and relations of production together are considered the material aspect of society in Marxist theory. Their well determined, specific combinations which are structurally well adapted are conceptually understood as modes of production. Classes are materially determined reproducible divisions among humans in a mode of production. Class in Marxism is both an analytical and empirical category. Analytically, classes are determined by their location in a mode of production. Empirically they emerge as identifiable groups with distinctive, and often conflicting, economic, political and social interests. An actually existing group of humans will have other ethnic, cultural and gender based characters derived from its history as well. Here we already see that the conception of the ‘material’ in society is a sophisticated notion. The material in a society is not just the set of physical tools, resources and machines, but also non-material knowledge and association used during labour, and relationships among humans.
Marxism so far has often laid emphasis over those forces and relations of production which are manifestly social in nature, partially because from a political perspective these often are points of open social conflict in un-equal societies. This however is no justification for neglecting from an analysis of society those forces and relations of production which are not manifestly social. For instance, production of food till it is ready to be consumed is a long process. A part of it occurs in during grain production and processing. The other part, cooking, takes place in the restrictive domestic domain of family. Cooking is as much a part of the ‘material’ domain of a society as is agriculture. Some social material practices are so much entangled with other non-material practices, that they are rarely recognized as material. Aspects of sexuality related to birth and birth control that determine production of new humans are clearly material. But then, so many of social customs, taboos, sanctions, emotional well being (and frustration), conscious and unconscious behavior of individuals, popular entertainment, art and aesthetics come together with sexuality that it is rarely recognized as having a social-material aspect too. Birth control technologies may end up having as much long term effect on human society as agriculture or industry.
Marxism is un-equivocal in asserting the primacy of the ‘material base’ in any society. This assertion takes a number of forms, some non-problematic, some ambiguous, and others highly original and explanatory. The idea of primacy can take different kinds of causal contents. The first is foundational. At many places Marx and Engels consider the material, as discussed above, to be the base of society’s political, legal, cultural and ideological superstructure. The structural foundational character of the material can best be understood with the example of a bridge. Piers of a bridge can be considered its foundation because they sustain the bridge, without them the bridge will collapse. However, without the ‘superstructure’ of the bridge surface, the bridge is not a bridge; piers are useless pillars standing in air. Without the political, legal, cultural and ideological superstructure there can not be any human society. A successful bridge design is a well articulated combination of piers and bridge surface, while piers support the surface, the surface in turn also provides a rigid support to separate piers, so that with the surface piers are more stable against disturbances than any one of them separately would have been. In a similar manner society’s superstructure gives reverse support to the material base, so that a well adapted superstructure is essential for the operation and reproduction of the base. The material base determines the superstructure in the sense of providing a set of constraints, it does not determine it uniquely.
The bridge analogy however, can not be stretched too far. A bridge’s piers are also prior to the bridge deck in time. Deck is laid after pillars are ready. In human society material base and superstructure emerge simultaneously. All human actions including labour have a symbolic dimension which is largely ideological. Cave humans were simultaneously hunting and painting the world of their hunt, and for them the two were not separate. It is not the case that all correct knowledge emerges only in association, or in response to demands of production. Stars and planets were being observed much more accurately thousands of years ago, than required for agricultural calendar. Even now astronomy has no relationship to any production process. Newtonian physics, without which industrial revolution is impossible to imagine, predated the latter by more than a century. Second, a bridge is a static structure. It is expected to persist through temporary perturbations. In fact the only change a bridge undergoes is its destruction. Society is dynamic, in flow. It has to be understood not as a resultant of static forces, but as a continuously evolving result of flows.
A plausible counter to Marxist understanding not always confronted by its votaries goes like this. Granted that a bridge is a good illustration of structural-foundational causality, and if the material base constrains the superstructure, so does the latter constrain the former, and also if there is no time-wise priority of the material base (in fact there are many cases in which changes in the superstructure have occurred before corresponding developments in the base), then why should we consider only the material as the foundation? What reasons are there for not considering the reverse with the ideological, or the political dimension being the foundation, and the material being the superstructure? More precisely, in what manner is the reciprocity between the material and the non-material in society asymmetric, so that the material can unambiguously be declared primary?
One answer is very elementary and straight. Humans can not subsist on their ideas, they need to provide for their material necessities for a sustained set of ideas to be possible in the first place. Similarly, a society can not exist without its material structure providing necessary resources for the society to exist. To a person convinced of materialism, the above answer is obvious. For convincing a skeptic, more sophisticated answers are needed. Remember, materialism starts its journey with a very basic observation that where as human beliefs about a state of affairs are many times contingent and arbitrary, the knowledge we get by engaging with the world outside is more definitive and reliable. It is the objectivity of the world outside which gives its knowledge the definitive character. The so called material of the society is similarly more objective. And we notice that where as there are not too many variations on the material aspect of human societies, techniques of production are not too many, and so happen to be social organizations of these techniques. The associated legal, ideological, and political domains however, show many variations. The capital (the most important material relationship of most of the societies at present) seems to be able to thrive in diverse political, legal and ideological environments (liberal, liberal democratic, statist, colonial, quasi –feudal, fascist, etc). Logically, what is more probable? An assertion that depending upon given historical conditions, capital gets associated with different political, legal ideological structures, and modifies them according to its needs, besides of course creating its own set of specific legal, political and ideological structures. Or, the opposite argument that diverse non material structures in different historical times and countries produce the same material structure. The form of the arrow of primacy in the first argument is from one to many, in the second argument it is from many to one. Now, it is one of the first conclusions of analysis of causal relationships that one cause can lead to many effects depending on other factors. If it is observed that many causes lead to the same effect, then it immediately alerts us that there is one common factor in all the apparent causes, and that one factor is in fact the real cause.
According to Marxism, the primacy of the material in society in the final analysis is not established by logic alone, but more important, it is empirical and follows from a rational scientific analysis of society. For a society in relatively stable phase of reproduction, when both the material and non-material aspects appear in well articulated, mutually reinforcing relationships, the primacy of the material is not immediately obvious. However, the structural primacy manifests itself most clearly in moments of change and emergence. We will discuss two examples. There is a famous argument by Max Weber which links the success of capitalism in Western Europe with the so called Protestant ethic. As is well known, the Reformation in Central and Northern European countries arose against the corruption of Papacy and its interference in the internal political affairs of these countries. Protestantism in religious practice eschewed feudal ostentations of the Church. In theology it imagined an unmediated relationship between the God and the believer, so that an ordinary artisan devoted to his work was as spiritual as a padre. In public morals it propagated frugality, simplicity, and an ethic that propagated disciplined hard work against indulgence and leisure. Weber’s argument was that this sort of ethic was the harbinger of the later spirit of capitalism that entails rational attitude in economic matters, in the sense that immediate gain is forsaken for latter profit. Capitalism with its industry and trade emerged where and when there were large enough communities of men imbued by such an ethic. This admittedly simple rendering of Weber’s argument is directly opposite of a materialist understanding of the emergence of capitalism. Marx in the first volume of Capital sees capitalism emerging with the dissociation of producers from means of production, i.e with the widespread existence of ‘free labour’, and subsumption of such workers under owners of means of production. Definite social-legal processes like the enclosure movement in England, outlawing of vagabondage and poor houses forced the dispossessed peasantry to swell the ranks of urban property-less who were ready to work for a wage. There has been a long standing debate within the Marxist camp on the origin of capitalism, whether it can be said to emerge only when capitalist production relations become dominant in industry and agriculture, or alternately, extension and deepening of trade networks and consequent dissolution of ‘natural economy’ can be the beginnings of capitalism. In essence, both formulations are materialist, as they relate the origin of capitalism to production and its distribution in a society. Now, which of the two positions, Weber’s or Marx’s, have greater explanatory potential, and explain not just the incidental juxtaposition of different aspects of a particular society at a particular time, but is capable of explaining the phenomenon in more diverse settings. Capitalism emerged not only in Protestant England, but also in Roman Catholic France. It emerged much later in Germany, the home of Reformation. Subsequent history has shown capitalism succeeding not only in other countries of Europe, but also in Shinto Japan, a ‘Communist’ China, and a Hindu India. There is no denying the fact that certain cultural practices are more in tune with capitalism. For instance we see that in a large and diverse country like India, among the all pre-capitalist propertied communities only some are able to turn themselves into successful capitalists, and community dependent ethics are definitely playing a role here. The point is that there is nothing special about such ethics. Once capitalism as a material force is present, its associated ‘spirit’ also spreads, riding on its material success.
The second example we discuss to explicate a materialist understanding is the Hindu caste system. As is well known, it is a system of social hierarchy and division which justifies itself through Brahminical notions of ritual purity and pollution. Hierarchical division is a common feature of many societies, what is unique to caste system is its rigidity and degree of separation. Consequently, Hindu society does not appear to be a community, but rather a conglomeration of jati communities which are separated by strict rules of endogamy (marriage within the jati) and social intercourse inter dining. There are sociologists like Louis Dumont according to whom the hierarchy and divisions in the caste system have no correlation with political and economic power. He considers the idea of ritual purity and pollution as the origin and basic principle of caste system. For Dumont, caste system is the best example of one of the possible fundamental principles to organize a society, the principle of hierarchy. Critics of Dumont claim that he has elevated Brahmanical ideas about caste system to its sole organizing principle, and disregarded opposition to these ideas from other castes. Since he notices nothing else in caste, except the principle of pollution, he fails to record the hereditary division of labour and unequal access to resources. Among Marxist scholars, Marx has noted how the hereditary division of labour, and the payment in kind by the village peasant communities to artisans led to a natural, i,e, non-monetised economy. Irfan Habib has noted how this would have allowed greater surplus to be extracted from a village. Kosambi sees the caste system emerging with the fusion of tribal elements into an agrarian social formation as distinct communities. This fusion did not destroy tribal customs and sense of community completely. The word jati is used in Buddhist literature for both tribe and caste. Strict endogamy is a tribal practice; it continues as an operational principle of separation within the caste system. On the other hand, Brahmnical rituals permitted tribal chiefs to separate themselves from the tribe and ascend to higher caste status. With land grantee Brahmans as its spear-head, the caste system was a means of enforcing ‘feudalism from above’ in many parts of the country in the early medieval India. Characteristic hatred and violence towards outcastes was a manifestation of class violence as erstwhile hunting and gathering groupings were amalgamated as landless slaves of village peasant communities. The emergence of modern market has destroyed hereditary division of labour, but rituals and endogamy, i.e. the cultural aspects of caste system persist. Hence, we see that where as Dumont sees caste as a purely ideological principle used to form a hierarchical society, Marxists have tried to understand its varied characteristics with reference to historical processes and its relationship with the relations of production. The superiority of a materialist approach arises from its ability to uncover more varied and larger networks of relations in which caste system is tied.
The materialist understanding of Marxism is not meant only for explaining. It also is a guide to concrete action. It clearly indicates what needs to be done for changing the society in desired direction. For instance, if the most violent manifestation of caste system, the oppression of dalit castes in villages needs to be eradicated, then the first step should be removing their landlessness. Laws against dalit atrocities, though necessary, are insufficient from a materialist perspective. If we notice that the most generalized and advanced form of private property under capitalism is related to exploitation of workers, then an exploitation free society can be built only on the basis of socialization of means of production. This was Marx’s argument in his tract Poverty of Philosophy against Proudhon’s ‘Utopian Socialist’ idea that exploitation can be removed by just exchanging products of equal labour equally. Marx showed that this in fact happens in capitalism because the labour power of a worker is bought by a capitalist in a fair exchange at its true value. The capitalist does not underpay the worker, he is able to get more value out of the worker due to his monopoly over means of production. Hence, unless social conditions are created so that there is no monopoly of propertied over means of production, that is unless there is no private property in the means of production, the capitalist form of exploitation will persist. Hence the socialization of means of production became the first principle of ‘Scientific Socialism’. However, a grave error was made when it was thought that nationalization of means of production under a revolutionary workers’ state is the same as socialization of means of production. The history of twentieth century socialist projects shows that state property, though distinct from private property, also generates class divisions because of control of holders of state power over the means of production.
What were the objective material reasons, and mistakes of subjective human agency, for the failure of twentieth century socialism? A materialist analysis of this failure, though essential for the socialist project for this century, is much beyond a mere visit to basics of Marxism.