April , 2019

People Aur Politics

A liberation zone for democratic rights, multiculturalism, international brotherhood and peace.

Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya addresses a mass rally. In two ...
e="af" src="http://troubledkashmir.com/kashmir/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/af.jpg" alt="" width="600" height="374" /> KABUL, Afghanistan
Leo Panitch and Greg Albo (eds), Socialist Register 2015: Transforming Classes (Merlin Press, 2014), £16.95 The ...
Religious wars make the task of hegemonic designs easier to implement, but are hardly ever ...
Many Iranians suggest that any military attack phone bookon their territory would rally ...
A review of Paul Le Blanc, Leon Trotsky (Reaktion Books, Critical Lives series, 2015), £11.99 Paul ...
Gramsci and Trotsky: Strategy for the Revolution in the West By Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maiello Argentina: ...
We have a cockeyed national debate on gun violence in which some motivated by political ...
Workers taking part in a two-day general strike in 2013 involving more than 100 million ...

Archive for January, 2017

Redeeming the revolution: A review of “October 1917 – Workers in Power”-Reviewed by Doug Enaa Greene

Posted by admin On January - 26 - 2017 Comments Off on Redeeming the revolution: A review of “October 1917 – Workers in Power”-Reviewed by Doug Enaa Greene


October 1917 – Workers in Power.
Paul Le Blanc, Ernest Mandel, David Mandel, François Vercammen, and contemporary texts by Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Leon Trotsky.
Edited by Fred Leplat and Alex de Jong
London: Merlin Press, the IIRE and Resistance Books, 2016. 256 pages

January 26, 2017 –– Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from International Viewpoint –– Nearly a century ago, the workers and peasants of Russia overthrew the Provisional Government and established the world’s first socialist republic. It was a seminal moment in human history. For the capitalists of the world, it was an event to be feared and they marshaled their forces to contain Bolshevism. For the workers of the world, the Russian Revolution was an inspiration to take the socialist road. Now, as we approach the Russian Revolution’s centenary, its influence appears buried beneath not only the onslaught of anticommunist propaganda, but from the salvos of Stalin’s counterrevolution which crushed so many hopes. Yet the world still needs the alternative which the Bolshevik Revolution represents – working class democracy, socialism, and internationalism. October 1917 – Workers in Power does a magnificent job with its scholarly, primary sources, bibliography, time-line and a glossary to help for those curious about socialism and seasoned activists to reassess and redeem the meaning of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The opening chapter by Paul Le Blanc provides a historiographical overview of the mountain of works on the Russian Revolution. Le Blanc discusses the different interpretations of the revolution from sympathizers such as John Reed and Leon Trotsky to hostile accounts like Richard Pipes and Orlando Figes and reivisionists such as Sheila Fitzpatrick and J. Arch Getty. Le Blanc is not an unthinking partisan of the Revolution, but carefully distinguishes between scholars who challenge the Cold War mythology of either the capitalist west or from the USSR who claim a basic continuity of Bolshevism from Lenin and Stalin. For those who want to immerse themselves in the vast literature on the Russian Revolution, Le Blanc’s essay contains not only a wonderful bibliography, but raises thoughtful questions on many issues ranging from nationalism, women’s oppression, political power and the nature of working class consciousness. It alone is worth the price of the book.

The heart of October 1917 is found in three essays by Ernest Mandel and David Mandel (no relation). Ernest Mandel was a longtime Trotskyist activist, historian and economist. Ernest Mandel’s “Coup d’etat or social revolution” tackles one of the most propagated myths of the Russian Revolution – that it was a coup led by an elitist group of ideological fanatics who instituted a totalitarian system from day one. Mandel’s account demolishes this myth by showing that the revolution did not interrupt a gradual modernization and democratization of Russia, but that the Tsarist Empire was unreformable and revolution offered the only way out. The other political groups, whether Mensheviks or Socialist-Revolutionaries were willing to compromise their vaunted democratic and socialist principles rather than see them through to the end, while the Bolsheviks championed and put those principles into practice. Mandel explains how the Bolshevik government expanded democracy for workers, granted land to peasants and put internationalism into action. However, Mandel is not blind to criticism of the revolution and details how the civil war brutalized society and led to the end of democracy in both the party and state (a process that Lenin and Trotsky contributed to). Mandel believes that in time 1917 will be rescued from those who see it as a destructive waste, and once again viewed as a liberating event capable of inspiring workers and radicals.

The two essays by David Mandel (a long time Soviet-studies scholar) explore the history of the Russian Revolution “from below.” In the first, “Economic power and factory committees in the Russian Revolution”, Mandel focuses on the factory committees and their demands for workers’ control in the capital of Petrograd during the turbulent days of the revolution. Mandel shows that the workers’ control movement was not utopian or anarchist, but dominated by the Bolsheviks, who understood the importance of both political power and coordinating production. Russian workers did not begin their struggles in 1917 demanding socialism, but wanted some form of control or supervision over production. However, the resistance by the bourgeoisie and the general breakdown of production caused the workers to move beyond simply demanding supervision to advocating nationalization and expropriation of the capitalists. Mandel shows the shifting attitudes of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party to these developments. The party recognized that Russia was not ripe for socialism and kept their own slogans of workers’ control necessarily vague. However, the economic crisis and capitalist resistance meant that demands for workers’ control coincided with the slogan of “all power to the soviets.” And more than any other party, it was the Bolsheviks who were able to provide a realistic alternative for the workers.

In the second essay, “The legitimacy of the October Revolution”, Mandel defends the legitimacy of the Russian Revolution as an anti-capitalist revolution with massive popular support. Mandel says that there was no meaningful democracy in Russia before October, since the ruling classes feared it and refused to satisfy the aspirations of the people. He praises the Bolsheviks for not only championing the demands of workers and peasants, but for daring to take power to transform society. True the revolution degenerated, but Mandel states this was due to the material conditions of an isolated revolution in a devastated country and not something written into the ideology of Bolshevism or socialism.

The remainder of the collection is rounded out with texts by first-hand participants and supporters of the Bolshevik Revolution such as Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg. These accounts show what the revolution meant to those who took part in it and what they believed it meant for the rest of the world – an end to exploitation and oppression. For me, the Trotsky’s 1932 lecture, “In Defense of October” is not only a concise explanation of the causes of the revolution, but a spirited defense of its achievements. Trotsky’s essay is an excellent introductory text on the Russian Revolution (and his masterpiece The History of the Russian Revolution) and worth revisiting just for its sheer literary brilliance.

The collection October 1917 manages to combine partisanship with objectivity and a critical spirit. For those who wonder what is the relevance of the Russian Revolution for the struggles ahead, this book will arm the spirit for further research and debate.
Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

All power to the factory councils?-John Rose

Posted by admin On January - 25 - 2017 Comments Off on All power to the factory councils?-John Rose


A contribution at the excellent 2016 Marxism Festival meeting on the German Revolution, referenced by Tony Phillips in his latest article in this journal,1 asked us to identify the real difference between us. Tony, in that same article, by allowing his imagination to run away with him, not only identified the difference very sharply but massively amplified it.

In 1923 not a single revolutionary socialist leader raised the slogan “All Power to the Factory Councils”: not Leon Trotsky or Grigori Zinoviev, the two Bolshevik leaders most committed to a “German October”, not Heinrich Brandler, the German workers’ leader they had persuaded to try and lead it, not even Ruth Fischer, Berlin’s notorious ultra-left leader. Chris Harman and Pierre Broué, the two writers that Tony and I have been over-dependent on in our exchanges, certainly never raised it. Yet Tony Phillips, nearly 100 years after the 1923 events, raises it!2

True, there was plenty of discussion about how the factory council led workers’ movement had the potential to be transformed into soviets. But the factory council movement itself in 1923 was never in a competing relation of dual power with the national government in the way the workers’ councils were in November and December 1918.

In any case, just how the factory council movement would make the transition was far from clear. Brandler told Isaac Deutscher, in the interview that Tony referenced, that the problem was exactly the transition from economic struggle to a struggle for power: “We did not know how to do this and we were unable to find out”.3

It is also essential to distinguish the two quite separate events in 1923 that are deemed to have had revolutionary potential, the “German October”, and the earlier factory council led general strike that toppled the Cuno government. Since the opening of previously sealed archives in the former Soviet Union and East Germany, three very important books from German historians have addressed the subject.4 And Marcel Bois, a socialist historian from Hamburg, Germany, has told me that there is a consensus among these authors that a “German October” simply wasn’t credible, although there is disagreement about earlier revolutionary possibilities.5 However, it is not difficult to see that a strategy for transition to workers’ councils or soviets did exist during the crisis that led to the collapse of the Cuno Government. Developing the demand for a workers’ government, earlier agreed by Lenin and the Comintern, as Tony acknowledges, would have expanded the base of the factory councils by “requisitioning the necessities of life under the control of workers’ organisations—‘control committees’…drawing in housewives’ groups challenging price rises and speculation” and implementing “an immediate minimum wage and, crucially, the lifting of the ban on the ‘proletarian hundreds’, armed detachments involving employed and unemployed workers”.6

Tony argues this was a fast developing revolutionary situation in which the Communist Party (the KPD) was hegemonic in the working class.7 This view throws some light on Brandler’s earlier remark. The KPD were accepted as the leaders of economic struggles, but was a working class majority ready to join them in a direct seizure of power, bypassing parliament? The Bolsheviks secured a majority in the soviets in Russia 1917 before risking this final step. There was simply no equivalent formation in Germany in 1923. This is why the demand for a workers’ government in combination with demands that would have massively expanded the base for rank and file workers’ power was the only realistic alternative.

Alas, the ruling class was able to ignore the demand. It sprinkled a few SPD ministers—reformist socialists—in the new government and conceded some demands over wages. The fragility of KPD hegemony was ruthlessly exposed.

John Rose is currently studying the roots of the failure of communism in the 20th century.


1 Phillips, 2016, p204.

2 Phillips, 2016, p202.

3 Deutscher, 1984, p138-9.

4 See Wenzel, 2003; Jentsch, 2005 and Bayerlein, 2003.

5 Marcel Bois is a contributor to a forthcoming book on the German Communist Party during the Weimar Republic, edited by Norman LaPorte and Ralf Hoffrogge, to be published in English by Lawrence and Wishart in February 2017.

6 Rose, 2016, p196; Harman, 1982, pp238-239.

7 Phillips, 2016, p202.


Bayerlein, Bernhard H (ed), 2003, Deutscher Oktober 1923: Ein Revolutionsplan und sein Scheitern [German October 1923: A Plan for Revolution and its Failure] (Aufbau-Verlag).

Deutscher, Isaac, 1984, “Dialogue with Heinrich Brandler”, in Marxism, Wars & Revolutions: Essays from Four Decades (Verso).

Harman, Chris, 1982, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1818-23 (Bookmarks).

Jentsch, Harald, 2005, Die KPD und der “Deutsche Oktober” 1923 [The KPD and the “German October” 1923] (Ingo Koch Verlag).

Phillips, Tony, 2016, “The Kapp Putsch and the German October: A Reply to John Rose”, International Socialism 152 (autumn), http://isj.org.uk/the-kapp-putsch-and-the-german-october/

Rose, John, 2016, “Revolutionary Workers’ Movements and Parliaments in Germany 1918-1923: a Reply to Tony Phillips”, International Socialism 150 (spring), http://isj.org.uk/revolutionary-workers-movements-and-parliaments-in-germany-1918-23-a-reply-to-tony-phillips/

Wenzel, Otto, 2003, 1923: Die gescheiterte Deutsche Oktoberrevolution [1923: The Failed German October Revolution] (Lit Verlag).
A contribution at the excellent 2016 Marxism Festival meeting on the German Revolution, referenced by Tony Phillips in his latest article in this journal,1 asked us to identify the real difference between us. Tony, in that same article, by allowing his imagination to run away with him, not only identified the difference very sharply but massively amplified it.

In 1923 not a single revolutionary socialist leader raised the slogan “All Power to the Factory Councils”: not Leon Trotsky or Grigori Zinoviev, the two Bolshevik leaders most committed to a “German October”, not Heinrich Brandler, the German workers’ leader they had persuaded to try and lead it, not even Ruth Fischer, Berlin’s notorious ultra-left leader. Chris Harman and Pierre Broué, the two writers that Tony and I have been over-dependent on in our exchanges, certainly never raised it. Yet Tony Phillips, nearly 100 years after the 1923 events, raises it!2

True, there was plenty of discussion about how the factory council led workers’ movement had the potential to be transformed into soviets. But the factory council movement itself in 1923 was never in a competing relation of dual power with the national government in the way the workers’ councils were in November and December 1918.

In any case, just how the factory council movement would make the transition was far from clear. Brandler told Isaac Deutscher, in the interview that Tony referenced, that the problem was exactly the transition from economic struggle to a struggle for power: “We did not know how to do this and we were unable to find out”.3

It is also essential to distinguish the two quite separate events in 1923 that are deemed to have had revolutionary potential, the “German October”, and the earlier factory council led general strike that toppled the Cuno government. Since the opening of previously sealed archives in the former Soviet Union and East Germany, three very important books from German historians have addressed the subject.4 And Marcel Bois, a socialist historian from Hamburg, Germany, has told me that there is a consensus among these authors that a “German October” simply wasn’t credible, although there is disagreement about earlier revolutionary possibilities.5 However, it is not difficult to see that a strategy for transition to workers’ councils or soviets did exist during the crisis that led to the collapse of the Cuno Government. Developing the demand for a workers’ government, earlier agreed by Lenin and the Comintern, as Tony acknowledges, would have expanded the base of the factory councils by “requisitioning the necessities of life under the control of workers’ organisations—‘control committees’…drawing in housewives’ groups challenging price rises and speculation” and implementing “an immediate minimum wage and, crucially, the lifting of the ban on the ‘proletarian hundreds’, armed detachments involving employed and unemployed workers”.6

Tony argues this was a fast developing revolutionary situation in which the Communist Party (the KPD) was hegemonic in the working class.7 This view throws some light on Brandler’s earlier remark. The KPD were accepted as the leaders of economic struggles, but was a working class majority ready to join them in a direct seizure of power, bypassing parliament? The Bolsheviks secured a majority in the soviets in Russia 1917 before risking this final step. There was simply no equivalent formation in Germany in 1923. This is why the demand for a workers’ government in combination with demands that would have massively expanded the base for rank and file workers’ power was the only realistic alternative.

Alas, the ruling class was able to ignore the demand. It sprinkled a few SPD ministers—reformist socialists—in the new government and conceded some demands over wages. The fragility of KPD hegemony was ruthlessly exposed.

John Rose is currently studying the roots of the failure of communism in the 20th century.


1 Phillips, 2016, p204.

2 Phillips, 2016, p202.

3 Deutscher, 1984, p138-9.

4 See Wenzel, 2003; Jentsch, 2005 and Bayerlein, 2003.

5 Marcel Bois is a contributor to a forthcoming book on the German Communist Party during the Weimar Republic, edited by Norman LaPorte and Ralf Hoffrogge, to be published in English by Lawrence and Wishart in February 2017.

6 Rose, 2016, p196; Harman, 1982, pp238-239.

7 Phillips, 2016, p202.


Bayerlein, Bernhard H (ed), 2003, Deutscher Oktober 1923: Ein Revolutionsplan und sein Scheitern [German October 1923: A Plan for Revolution and its Failure] (Aufbau-Verlag).

Deutscher, Isaac, 1984, “Dialogue with Heinrich Brandler”, in Marxism, Wars & Revolutions: Essays from Four Decades (Verso).

Harman, Chris, 1982, The Lost Revolution: Germany 1818-23 (Bookmarks).

Jentsch, Harald, 2005, Die KPD und der “Deutsche Oktober” 1923 [The KPD and the “German October” 1923] (Ingo Koch Verlag).

Phillips, Tony, 2016, “The Kapp Putsch and the German October: A Reply to John Rose”, International Socialism 152 (autumn), http://isj.org.uk/the-kapp-putsch-and-the-german-october/

Rose, John, 2016, “Revolutionary Workers’ Movements and Parliaments in Germany 1918-1923: a Reply to Tony Phillips”, International Socialism 150 (spring), http://isj.org.uk/revolutionary-workers-movements-and-parliaments-in-germany-1918-23-a-reply-to-tony-phillips/

Wenzel, Otto, 2003, 1923: Die gescheiterte Deutsche Oktoberrevolution [1923: The Failed German October Revolution] (Lit Verlag).
Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

1917: The View from the Streets #2 – ‘The Day of the People’s Wrath is Near’-

Posted by admin On January - 25 - 2017 Comments Off on 1917: The View from the Streets #2 – ‘The Day of the People’s Wrath is Near’-


Konstantin Yurenev, a leader of the Mezhrayonka,
a revolutionary current of Russian Social Democracy.
January 22, 2017 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal / John Riddell’s Marxist Essays and Commentary website – 100 years ago today, on January 22 (9) 1917, an estimated 150,000 workers in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) carried out a protest strike against the war and the tsarist autocracy, a foreshock of the Russian revolution that broke out six weeks later (see “Historian’s summary” below).

The following call for this action was circulated during the previous days by the Social Democratic Interdistrict Committee (Mezhraionka). January 22 (9) was the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 1905, when the tsarist government used military force to violently suppress a peaceful demonstration. (See “Note on Russian dates,” below).

The Interdistrict Committee members wanted to rally all Marxist Social Democrats to unite the factions of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, in order to present a united socialist front against the war, the autocracy, and liberal attempts to draw workers into a patriotic effort to support the war. During 1917 the Mezhrayonka fused with the Bolshevik current.

Translation and annotation by Barbara Allen.

Items #3 and #4 of this series will present the viewpoint of the other two major Social Democratic currents, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks.

Call to action by the Social Democratic Interdistrict Committee (Mezhraionka), January 1917
Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party.
Proletarians of all countries, unite!
Comrade workers! For the third time already, the anniversary of January 9, a day of great mourning, comes in the midst of a monstrous war, organized by the bourgeoisie and the nobles’ government. War continues in its third year. The government sends millions of working people to the fronts to die without glory on distant battlefields and in filthy trenches. They die from hunger and cold or in bloody engagement with their toiling brothers, who are as completely innocent as are they.

What is the cause for which workers of all countries brutally slaughter, blow up, and murder one another in endless battles? What are the goals for which half of the European male population is maimed, crippled, and destroyed? The newspaper hacks, lackeys of the bourgeoisie, answer us in a harmonious chorus that war is waged for law and justice and for brotherhood and equality of all peoples. For these goals, according to them, millions of people slaughter and torture one another and innocent human blood flows.

Comrades! They want to conceal the truth with a lie. It is simply appalling that false, traitorous words about law, morality, and justice have served throughout to conceal the murder of millions. Our ‘lords’, the nobles, bankers, and manufacturers, have always relied on lies while committing the vilest crimes. Their strength lies in deceit. Our ruling classes build their strength and their wealth on the ignorance and disunity of the people.

Only because of ignorance did our very brothers, dressed in military uniforms and cowed by military discipline, shoot at the insurrectionary proletariat and spill the blood of their defenseless fathers and mothers on the ill-omened square before the Winter Palace on January 9, 1905. With bayonets, whips, and bullets, the government suppressed the first Russian revolution in 1905 and 1906. ‘Don’t be stingy with cartridges,’ ordered Trepov. But whose bayonets and bullets wounded and killed our comrades? They were the bayonets and bullets of workers and peasants who lacked consciousness.

* * *

It was cheap for the government and the bourgeoisie to achieve victory over the great revolution of 1905. Only several thousand workers perished and several hundred soldiers were killed. These soldiers also were workers and peasants. Comrades, the entire autocratic government stays in power by keeping us split and by keeping the working class unorganized. But we’ve accumulated 12 years of experience. The bourgeoisie will not deceive us now! We will remember without fail that our close relatives and dear friends die on the front and their mothers and wives cry in the rear not for law and justice, but so that ‘the fatherland’s industry will prosper’, as they say in the ravings of the bourgeois newspapers.

Comrade soldiers! The bourgeoisie needs you to die in order to increase its profits. It needs you to die so that there would be more room for its cannibalism to expand! Russia is too small for them. Give them Constantinople, the Bosporus, and the Dardanelles. Such greedy appetites guide the bourgeoisie of all combatant countries. Now there are no defenders. Now they are all aggressors.

In order to weaken the resistance of the working class, the bourgeoisie of each country calls on it to be patriotic and to defend the fatherland. Indeed, we do defend the fatherland, but not from an external enemy. We defend it from an internal enemy, which is the tsarist autocracy. We defend it from a gang of bandits, who started a war. They are a band of murderers, who try to break the rebellious ranks of the proletariat with calls for patriotism. The goal of the bourgeoisie and its newspaper servants is to send the proletariat in the wrong direction.

* * *

There are traitors from our midst, the members of workers’ groups of the war industry committees, who forgot our class self-consciousness, when they called for unification with the bourgeoisie. Gradually but definitively, they lost their proletarian convictions. Lagging behind the bourgeoisie, they obediently repeat everything that profits it. To them we say “Hands off!”

At the beginning of the war, they spoke about civil peace.

Now the worker delegation under the Central War Industry Committee falsifies the voice of the working class. It calls upon the proletariat to carry out ‘mass political actions’ to help the bourgeoisie in its war of words with the government. But they forgot that the bourgeoisie, with Prince Lvov and Miliukov at its head, struggles not against the entire police regime but against individuals who are unable to organize a victorious war of conquest to secure Constantinople and the Straits for them. They forgot that the Miliukovs united with the Guchkovs to struggle against revolution and to renew the shattered trust in the bloody monarch.

No, comrades, we and they do not follow the same path. Any help we might give to the bourgeoisie in its squabble with the government only makes it easier for it to achieve its goals of conquest, which postpones the revolution and has a disastrous impact upon our own situation.

Only we, the workers, the peasantry, and the long-suffering army are strong; we can only depend upon ourselves. So comrades, let’s go forward bravely along the path of the proletariat’s class struggle. Let’s remember that our proletarian tasks are still not resolved. Those demands, which were inscribed upon our banners of January 9, 1905, are still alive. We will struggle for socialism and a new life together and not just once, but in mighty association with the entire international proletariat, which is a worldwide, harmonious family.

* * *

Right now our task is to create a powerful party organization. We Bolshevik and Menshevik Social Democrats call upon you comrades to create a single Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, so that a powerful proletariat could raise the army to revolt. By setting the strength of the proletariat and army against the nobility and the bureaucracy, the whole rotten police regime can be overthrown. On its ruins, a democratic republic can be created. Comrades, the day of the people’s wrath is near. This will be a day of revenge and a day for trial and punishment of the debauched government, which has committed violence upon the popular masses.

Right now, we’ll more resolutely close our ranks on January 9, the day of great sorrow and grief for the comrades whose lives were traitorously wasted in 1905. A steel chain of fraternal solidarity will more strongly bind us. Comrades, we’ll shout harmoniously and powerfully: Revenge upon the aggressor who sits upon the throne. Ruin to tsarist stooges and murderers of the people, who use the blood and sweat of the people’s labor to accumulate millions of fortunes for themselves. They feast during the plague time of the people’s distress. By murdering husbands and sons, they force wives and mothers to pay the bills for their gain.

Comrades, we call upon you to commemorate those who fell in 1905 with a one-day strike on 9 January. Forward, comrades! Arrange meetings and assemblies of protest against the war. Collect money for the victims of political repression and to fund the illegal press. On this day, the forces of the organized proletariat will pass under review. On this day, we should once more powerfully and unanimously shout:

Down with autocracy! Long live the revolution! Long live the Provisional Revolutionary Government! Down with war! Long live the Democratic Republic! Long live the international solidarity of the proletariat! Long live a united Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party!

Petersburg Interdistrict Committee
January 1917

Printed leaflet issued by the Petersburg Inter-district Committee prior to January 22 (O.S. January 9), 1917. Published in A.G. Shliapnikov, Semnadtsatyi god, volume 1, 1923, pp. 265-268. Translated by Barbara Allen.

The January 22 (9) action – a historian’s summary

“Elaborate plans for suppressing any major outbreaks were drawn up [by the government], and machine guns were positioned at strategic locations throughout the city. In an impressive display of working class solidarity more than 150,000 Petrograd workers went out on strike on January 9, the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

“Some of the factories shut down that day were struck for the first time since 1905, and, equally significant, soldiers watching demonstrating workers were observed tipping their hats and cheering as red banners bearing revolutionary slogans were carried by.” (Alexander Rabinowitch, Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968, pp. 24-25.) A note on Russian dates

The Julian calendar used by Russia in 1917 ran 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar that is in general use today. In the “View from the Streets” series, centennials are reckoned by the Gregorian calendar; dates are given with the Gregorian (“New Style”) date first, followed by the Julian date in parentheses.

Other leaflets in the “1917: The view from the streets” series • “Down with the war; long live the revolution!” (1 December 1916)

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Empowered Women can create a stronger, healthier Pakistan- DAWAR N. H. BUTT

Posted by admin On January - 16 - 2017 Comments Off on Empowered Women can create a stronger, healthier Pakistan- DAWAR N. H. BUTT

nmhAccording to UNDP, Pakistan ranks 146th out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI), at 0.537 as against the South Asia average of 0.588 and the global average of 0.702.

This fact alone should ring alarm bells for the Government.

Further expanding upon the argument that women are more likely to be “altruistic” in their family-related financial decisions, while educated women can cater better to family needs, we can thus hypothesize that empowering women will directly lead to an increase in Human Development indexes, as investment on children’s education, family health and equitable rationing of food leads to positive long-term outcomes. London School of Economics-based social economist Naila Kabeer assesses research work from several regions and writes, “Studies from a variety of different contexts suggest that women’s access to a range of valued resources, including education, employment, land, cash transfers, and credit, is associated with increased investments in family welfare, including children’s health and education.” This increased spending, under economically empowered women, could in effect lead to a higher literacy rate, lower infant mortality rate, higher female labor-force participation, increase political and social participation among women, and so on.


Must-reads from across Asia – directly to your inbox

It is very relevant to mention here that, according to the CIA World Fact Book, Pakistan ranks among the top 30 countries of the world (from a list of 225) with the highest infant mortality rate (i.e. average no. of deaths for every 1000 live births). While high infant mortality may primarily be due unavailability of working medical facilities in rural areas, a secondary cause is the lack of knowledge among rural women regarding childbirth or the financial autonomy needed to seek better health care outside villages.

As a result, Pakistan loses nearly 54 newborn children for every 1000 who live. It has been noted that much of these deaths would be prevented if proper care is given to the mother in the form of higher investment on maternal health during pregnancy; In India, as policy measures have been put in place to provide financial help to pregnant mothers and in some cases mandatory maternal leave, the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) has been brought down to 30, which was until the 1960s as high as Pakistan’s.

Another rather disturbing trend to note is that though the Female IMR is 50.6 as compared to 57 for Males — which illustrates the well-known resilience among female fetuses (and women, in general) against common diseases — but ratio-wise Men still form a higher percentage of the adult population. This trend suggests the occurrence of sex-wise abortions in preference of a Male child, as well as the likelihood of a girl child not receiving adequate medical attention as compared to boys, and hence the sex ratio for Males rises as we move along the age groups until the 60+ age demographic where the no. of men falls as women outlive them (again, as a result of being more resilient to disease); this is what is termed as the “Missing Women” phenomenon, which deprives the nation of countless brilliant women, who could have contributed positively to the economy and society, due to myopic societal norms such as female infanticide. In a sense, not only do women suffer in the labor-market, but they also suffer as young girls and even before being conceived.

The Need for a more inclusive approach

Unfortunately, no quick solution is available to counter such beliefs, and Kabeer notes that in traditional societies, we may have to depend on “Paternal altruism” to eventual defeat these attitudes. She writes, “ … with economic development, men were either more willing to surrender some rights to their wives to ensure their children were better educated or else their interests as husbands (wanting all the rights) began to conflict with their interests as fathers (wanting to protect their daughters against their future husbands).” While this paper does not seek to deny the benefits of economic growth for gender equality, there is considerable evidence available which suggests that this particular correlation is weak. Economic growth is seen as the increase in the overall GDP per capita; neither does it note the Region-wise increase (/decrease) in per capita nor the Gender-wise increase (/decrease).

This is certainly one of the reasons why economic growth under the Neoliberal model often amplifies economic inequality due to inequitable rises in financial power and its concentration in a few hands. In countries like Pakistan, where feudal traditions and patriarchal norms have seeped into institutions and policy-making, in the form property rights, inheritance laws and political power, the wealth generated by “economic growth” is almost always to the benefit of men, which will likely not lead to reducing the gender disparities, but at the same time gives a perception of “national growth.” In the long-run, this could prove to be among the roadblocks in achieving a stable and sustainable economy, and in creating a workforce which would be able to compete at the global level, reducing Pakistan’s worth and weight in the international system.

(This article continues on the discussion on Women Empowerment in Pakistan. The previous article illustrated that Pakistan is losing billions of dollars due to the gender disparities in its Labor Force.)


Dawar N. H. Butt
Dawar is currently involved with Youth organizations working for the Environment, Minority Rights, Gender Equality and Policy Reforms, in his home country, Pakistan. He is a Political and Social Policy Commentator, with an interest in Asian politics, history and culture.
Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Georgi Plekhanov and the roots of Soviet philosophy-Jason Devine

Posted by admin On January - 16 - 2017 Comments Off on Georgi Plekhanov and the roots of Soviet philosophy-Jason Devine


Marxism was born through a critical appropriation of Hegel’s method and a radical break with the philosophy of Young Hegelianism.[1] With this, Marx declared that philosophy was over. As he wrote to Ferdinand Lassalle in regards to the Hegelian dialectic, “This dialectic is, to be sure, the ultimate word in philosophy and hence there is all the more need to divest it of the mystical aura given it by Hegel.”[2] Even more explicitly, Engels wrote in an early introduction to his Anti-Dühring: “The Hegelian system was the last and consummate form of philosophy, in so far as the latter is presented as a special science superior to every other. All philosophy collapsed with this system.”[3] Hence, any attempts to revive philosophy i.e. a specific form of ideology, could only be a step backwards from the advance made by Marx and Engels, could only ever be a reactionary project. If carried out within Marxism it can only mean a reversion back to pre-Marxist times, to pre-scientific views in the study of society. Dialectical materialism as the philosophy of Marxism is exactly such a reactionary turn. In fact, dialectical materialism, the ruling philosophy in the USSR, a philosophy which, in whole or in part, countless Marxist-Leninist parties, groups, and sects claim adherence to today, was essentially the product of Georgi Plekhanov. However, Plekhanov’s philosophy of dialectical materialism was not and is not synonymous with Marx’s method, with scientific socialism. Rather, the former can be more correctly described as neo-Young Hegelian.

In essence, Plekhanov’s dialectical materialism was a combination of aspects of Hegel’s philosophy, Russian Hegelianism, German Young Hegelianism, and Darwinism all glossed over with a Marxist veneer. Despite this seeming dialectical heritage, Plekhanov’s basic method was a consistent reductionism and which flowed from his basic outlook: mechanical materialism. As I will show below, Plekhanov consistently engaged in various forms of determinism: geographical, biological, and technological. In his mechanical materialism, humanity, the subject, was actually the object and the environment, whether social or natural, the object, was the actual subject. Thus, he located the source of all social change not in the activity of humanity, but rather in some external factor which acted as a stimuli on humanity and impelled it forward. Humanity was seen as merely an empty vessel being filled and carried forward by the inevitable evolutionary stream of history. Thus, Plekhanov, in obliterating human agency, reproduced Hegel’s teleology.

All of Plekhanov’s socio-political analyses and his position on the tasks of socialists were the result of the above method and outlook. In his view “The Social-Democrat studies attentively laws and the course of historical development…The Social-Democrat swims with the current of history…The Social-Democrat derives support from evolution.”[4] Despite the reference to swimming “with the current of history,” on the surface it appears that Plekhanov was simply arguing that in order to intervene in history, a revolutionary needs to study history. There seems to be an emphasis precisely on agency here. However, as he argued more extensively elsewhere,

Engels dedicated his entire life to an extremely lofty aim: the emancipation of the proletariat. He also had his “ideal”, but he was not severed for ever from reality. His ideal was reality itself, but the reality of tomorrow, a reality which will be fulfilled, not because Engels was a man of an ideal, but because the properties of the present reality are such that out of it, by its own inner laws, there must develop that reality of tomorrow which we may call Engels’ ideal. Uneducated people may ask us: if the whole point consists in the properties of the reality, then what has Engels to do with it, why does he intervene with his ideals in the inevitable historical process? Cannot the matter do without him? From the objective standpoint the position of Engels appears as follows: in the process of the transition from one form to another, reality seized on him as on one of the necessary instruments of the impending revolution.[5]

Here there is no trace of human agency, of what Marx termed “revolutionary practice.”[6] Instead humans appear as the willing vessels of history, which is making its course towards a pre-ordained destination. It is no accident that here Plekhanov actually echoed Feuerbach and not Marx. In a November 1828 letter to Hegel, Feuerbach wrote:

For the philosophy which bears your name is, as acquaintance with history and philosophy itself teaches, not the affair of a school, but of humanity. At the very least the spirit of the latest philosophy claims, perforce tends, to burst the bounds of a single school, to become a general world-historical and public intuition. There resides in this spirit not only the germ of a higher literary activity, but also of a universal spirit expressing itself in actuality, the spirit, as it were, of a new period in world history. It is thus now a question, so to speak, of founding a Kingdom, the Kingdom of the Idea, of thought which contemplates itself in all that exists and is conscious of itself.[7]

Yet, what Feuerbach wrote was, in its turn, merely an echo of the argument Hegel made at the end of his Lectures on the History of Philosophy:

This long procession of spirits is formed by the individual pulses which beat in its life; they are the organism of our substance, an absolutely necessary progression, which expresses nothing less than the nature of spirit itself, and which lives in us all. We have to give ear to its urgency – when the mole that is within forces its way on – and we have to make it a reality. It is my desire that this history of Philosophy should contain for you a summons to grasp the spirit of the time, which is present in us by nature, and – each in his own place – consciously to bring it from its natural condition, i.e. from its lifeless seclusion, into the light of day.[8]

In comparing these arguments of Plekhanov, Feuerbach, and Hegel the terms can be changed but the structure is fundamentally the same: an external, alien force, the true subject, works through an object, humans, towards an inevitable end. For Hegel, it is the Absolute Mind/Spirit/God which works through humanity; for Feuerbach, it is the philosophy of Hegel which works through the Young Hegelians; and for Plekhanov, it is laws of history which works through the working class. What is common to all of these is that there is no focus on human activity.[9] Lawrence S. Stepelevich has noted about Feuerbach’s letter that,

To Feuerbach, Spirit, after ‘having worked for centuries upon its development and completion’, has finally revealed itself in Hegel’s philosophy. It is now the mission of Spirit, acting through its disciples – the Hegelians, particularly, the Young Hegelians – to rationalize the world. In theological terms, which always seem natural in a Young Hegelian context, the redemption of the world by incarnate reason is now at hand, and from Feuerbach on, this ‘apocalyptic tone, this sense of historical revolution, was the essential ingredient of Young Hegelian metaphysic’.[10]

It is exactly this “Young Hegelian metaphysic,” itself an altered Hegelian metaphysic, which Plekhanov reproduced in his dialectical materialism. The discussion and proof of this will take up the bulk of this work.

The Bolsheviks had a high estimation of Plekhanov’s philosophy and through them, the latter served as the foundation for the official philosophy of the early and later Soviet state. However, unlike other major Bolshevik leaders, Lenin did not have an uncritical attitude to Plekhanov’s philosophical views; indeed, his relationship to his mentor was far more complex. This is shown most explicitly in his Philosophical Notebooks. Yet this work was not published in Lenin’s lifetime. This occurred only in 1929-1930 and even then it took a number of decades before this work was published in various foreign languages.[11] There is, in fact, a sharp divergence between Lenin’s views of Plekhanov, as expressed in his Notebooks, and those expressed in public statements and writings. The fact that this bifurcation has been, and continues to be, largely ignored is a major reason for the uncritical acceptance of both dialectical materialism and the place of Plekhanov in the history of Marxism. Plekhanov has been famously referred to as “The Father of Russian Marxism.”[12] As I will show, he was never a Marxist, but rather a neo-Young Hegelian. Therefore, while he was the father of the Russian social-democrahttp both in theory and practice, belongs more truthfully to Lenin….

Continue reading full document here


After the Arab Spring-TALMIZ AHMAD

Posted by admin On January - 5 - 2017 Comments Off on After the Arab Spring-TALMIZ AHMAD


Author: Edited by Sujata Ashwarya and Mujib Alam
Publisher: KW Publishers, New Delhi, 2017
Pages: 322
Price: Rs.980

A well-timed effort at explaining why the dreams of the Arab Spring were crushed and why the West Asia and North Africa region is now experiencing such disorder and destruction. By TALMIZ AHMAD
SIX years after the Arab Spring first heralded the agitated demands for wide-ranging political reforms, the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region is convulsed in conflicts that have destroyed state order, strengthened vicious authoritarian regimes, unleashed the forces of sectarianism and jehad, placed major regional entities at the edge of war, and pulled in major powers which are shaping a new Cold War. These six years have seen the deaths of a few hundred thousand people, the displacement of millions, the destruction of historic cities, and extremist elements indulging in vile and violent acts not seen in a thousand years.

Contemporary West Asia is a well-timed effort at explaining why the dreams of the Arab Spring were crushed and why the region is now experiencing such disorder and destruction. The book has a useful overview, essays on the themes that are defining contemporary West Asian politics—Islamism, sectarianism and big power politics—and papers examining the situation in different countries, so that no WANA nation struggling with domestic and regional challenges is excluded from the discussion.

The Arab Spring was the most significant development in West Asia in a hundred years. In fact, during those heady days the Arab people attempted to overturn the legacy of the last century, which had institutionalised authoritarian rule under Western tutelage, mired the Arab people in military defeat and economic failure, and placed their polities on the wrong side of every issue that defines contemporary human achievement—participatory political systems, freedom, human rights, gender sensitivity and accommodation of minorities. The agitations for change demanded the removal of autocrats and the reform of the monarchies so that the Arabs would no longer be “exceptional” in the global firmament of human dignity.

While the uprisings touched almost every Arab country and led to the fall of at least four tyrants, the dissent was quickly and effectively quelled: Tunisia, where it all started, is the only country where the tyrant has been replaced by a transparent, accountable and accommodative order; everywhere else, authoritarian rule has been reinforced with even greater force as terrified regimes seek to strengthen themselves with occasionally cooptive but usually coercive policies to extinguish from the minds of their oppressed citizens all aspirations for change.
There are regional ramifications as well, since the fallout of the Arab Spring has given fresh resonance to old fault lines, so that mobilisations of support to redress strategic vulnerabilities are being done in ways that revive the sectarian divide and make it central to the shaping of contemporary competitions, which is further reinforced by the depredations of the jehadi militants that target the Shias with greater venom than they do regional state authorities. In fact, in several instances, the latter have made jehad their partner in their confrontations against regional enemies.

Challenges of modernism

In their introduction, the two erudite editors see the ongoing developments in West Asia as contentions between the pulls of tradition and modernity, which in the Arab context, also takes the shape of a conflict between group loyalties and individual aspirations. To complicate the scenario, West Asia has also experienced the failure of the “secular” framework in the domestic order, accompanied by repeated economic failures.

As in other traditional societies that experienced imperial subjugation, “modernity” in West Asia was generally viewed as the product of defeat at the hands of Western powers, and hence, its appeal was largely superficial and restricted to a small elite. In response to the crisis engendered by colonial domination, most Arabs fell back into their traditional moorings that, emerging from their own heritage, were believed to be more “authentic”. Several valiant reformers, such as Jamaluddin Afghani, Mohammed Abduh and Rashid Reda, did make efforts to reconcile the Islamic precepts of their people with the political precepts of a modern political order. But their projects failed in the face of the reality of colonial occupation and the submissive regimes the colonial masters put in place across WANA, and the West-dominated authoritarian regimes that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Arab tyrants camouflaged their rule with “secular” appeals to nationalism and pan-Arabism, but they made little impression on the Arab masses, who saw these as concepts embedded in foreign influence that were promoted by tyrants to win favour with their Western clients. Not surprisingly, the Arab people found far greater comfort in their traditional identities that prioritised their tribal and clan identities. The editors Sujata Ashwarya and Mujib Alam explain it thus: “Lack of democratic governance thwarted the development of civic culture: since the state and government were ‘not theirs’, the people invested precious little in incorporating ideas handed over to them by state authorities.”

They also accurately describe the resistance of Arabs to their regimes’ “modernisation” projects thus: “The model of progress offered by secular modernisers failed to ameliorate the poverty of the masses…. Beset with external and internal conflicts, secular regimes remained fastidiously authoritarian and refused to risk policy measures that could affect real developmental transformation.”
It is from this quagmire that political Islam emerged: it was the only opposition force against the Arab tyrants; it was also the only movement that worked among the poor and the disadvantaged, those excluded from the crony capitalism of their rulers. It is the “authentic” origin of this movement and its grass-roots organisation and record of service that propelled Islamist parties to power in the first flush of the Arab Spring and not just the religiosity of Arabs, as the editors contend. They have, however, succinctly set out the imperatives of the Arab reform agenda: freedom and constitutionalism in the political sphere, dismantling of crony capitalism in the economic area, and widespread social reform, particularly expansion of women’s participation in public spaces.

Sectarianism ascendant

The rest of the book looks at the sources of conflict in WANA and the situation in specific countries. The narrative is not reassuring. Sectarianism, which had never been a major divisive force in modern Arab politics, is now a central influence. In his essay, Fouad Kadhem, a researcher based in London, has provided an excellent historical and doctrinal account of this deep fissure in Islam, pointing out that in a Muslim kingdom, oppression of one sect or the other took place only when rulers with a narrow view of their faith were in power: this was true when the Shiite Safavids ruled Iran as also the policies the Ottomans followed in their empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.

However, he correctly emphasises that the Safavids stressed their Shia identity primarily to set the Persians apart from the Turks as part of their ongoing political competitions with the Ottomans. In fact, in the face of the depredations of the Wahhabi fanatics from Najd in the 18th and 19th centuries, Shia and Sunni ulema jointly urged the Ottoman ruler to confront this predatory force.

In the 20th century, sectarian identity was frequently superseded by a “secular” identity when Arab intellectuals and political activists joined nationalist or ideological groupings, such as the Baath or communist parties, even as Palestine brought all Arabs together in support of a shared national cause.

Much of this has now been swept away by the deliberate introduction by the United States of sectarian identity as the defining feature of the Iraqi political order after its 2003 invasion. Viewing Shia empowerment in Iraq as beneficial to Iran, Saudi Arabia has embarked on policies that directly confront Iranian “hegemony” in West Asia, shaping what Kadhem calls the “globalising of sectarianism”. In this context, the shared space between the two sects is disappearing, while the political divide between them is getting dominated by extremists on both sides who are competing “to dominate the political landscape in the war of images, words and actions”.
Contradicting this trend, the Shia movement in Lebanon, Hezbollah, has evolved from a hard doctrinaire and political protest movement to a political party seeking to play a prominent role in Lebanon’s contentious confessional politics. Starting with accepting full Iranian dominance, doctrinal and political, Hezbollah, as the Lebanese academic Joseph Alagha puts it, now “seems to shift within the parameters of pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism, while maintaining its Lebanese identity at the centre”. But the entry of Hezbollah into the Syrian conflict from May 2013 has changed the regional scenario: Hezbollah is now an integral part of the sectarian conflict being waged in Syria. More seriously, this has also brought the sectarian divide into Lebanon itself, with various jehadi groups in Syria carrying out terrorist acts in that fragile nation.

Iraq and Syria disintegrate

Sujata Ashwarya, in her essay, discusses the sectarian narrative in Iraq. She examines the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in response to the sectarian politics deliberately shaped by the U.S. during its occupation, but holds the policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as being primarily responsible for the rise of the “Islamic State”, or ISIS. She sees the present Prime Minister, Haidar al-Abadi, as a “conciliatory figure” who is seeking to shape a united and pluralistic Iraq that would accommodate both Sunnis and Kurds in the Shia-led political order. She correctly sees bridging the sectarian divide as a daunting challenge: government actions after Mosul has been “liberated” will tell us what the territorial and political shape of Iraq will be.

Syria figures prominently in the book: Shweta Desai looks at the origins and expansion of the insurgency in that country, while Sukalpa Chakrabarti examines the role of the big powers in the conflict. Shweta Desai notes how the interventions of regional powers in Syria transformed a domestic movement for reform into a conflictual situation that has jehadi forces at its centre, the Salafi militia backed by Saudi Arabia, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra and the ISIS. The conflict has wreaked havoc across Syria, with the number of dead creeping towards the half-million figure, with no sign of compromise from any side.

Sukalpa Chakrabarti explains the circumstances that have brought the U.S. and Russia as key players in the Syrian cauldron. She sees the U.S.’ role as a continuation of the Carter Doctrine of 1980 in terms of which the U.S. committed itself to using military force to ensure its control over the region’s oil resources and their free movement. Russia, on the other hand, rejects externally sponsored regime change through violent means and is therefore committed to safeguarding the Bashar al-Assad regime.
She also notes that while the Gulf Arab regimes and their Western allies continue to prioritise regime change in Damascus, it is Russia that is robustly fighting the ISIS. She refers to the U.S.-Russian diplomatic cooperation to end the conflict as “superficial”, but recognises that this is the only initiative that will ultimately bring peace to Syria. She calls for a “grand strategy” to pull all the contending parties together based on “partnerships” rather than “Cold War constructs”, but it is doubtful that anyone is listening.

Turkey in West Asia

Two Turkish scholars have provided good essays on their country’s role in West Asian affairs. The one by Alper Dede traces the history of the Islamist movement in Turkey, while the other, by Ismail Yaylaci, discusses “democracy” as a factor in Turkey’s engagement with Arab countries before and after the Arab Spring. Dede notes that Islamist parties faced serious difficulties in expanding their role and space in Turkey’s political order that was constitutionally secular, a commitment that through much of the 20th century was rigorously enforced by the armed forces, which would intervene forcefully whenever they thought that the secular order was being threatened by Islamist influences.

Still, Islamists overcame all odds to emerge triumphant in 2002, and then initiated their policy of “zero-problems neighbourhood policy” when they set up a series of positive engagements with the Arab countries of West Asia. It would have been interesting if Dede had explained the factors that led to the steady emasculation of the armed forces in Turkey, so that by 2002 they just could not prevent or dilute the democratic accession to power of the Freedom and Justice Party (AKP, in its Turkish acronym), with its Islamist vision and agenda.

The Arab Spring led to suggestions from some quarters, Turkish and Arab, that Turkey could be a “role model” for Arab dissidents pursuing reform, but they withered away as the Arab Spring was destroyed by Arab regimes. Later, the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan intervened in Arab affairs on a more doctrinaire basis, first, by backing the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and then distancing Turkey from the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi government after the coup. Second, more seriously, Erdogan backed the Islamist forces promoted by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to overthrow Assad. Thus, he allowed thousands of young people to enter Syria from Turkey, most of whom joined jehadi groups, including the ISIS.
Yaylaci’s paper begins with an apparent contradiction: he asserts that the AKP, in its dealings with West Asian countries, “always adopted a discourse of change in regional politics”, but in the next sentence says: “AKP’s discourse of transformation was gradual and evolutionary, which was in favour of leaving the existing autocratic regimes intact.” Yaylaci is at pains to clarify that, unlike the Western countries whose democracy projects were both instrumental and selective, that is, they were advocated selectively to subserve Western interests, Turkey supported “home-grown” democracy in West Asia: hence, it was such a strong supporter of the Arab Spring agitations, which its then Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu viewed as “standing on the right side of history”.

This vision collapsed quickly: Turkey under Erdogan has not only appeared increasingly authoritarian domestically in its dealings with dissident groups and the Kurds, and is now totally alienated from its earlier ideological partner, the Gulen movement. It is also embroiled militarily in both Iraq and Syria, seeking to stem the tide of the revanchist Kurds who are seeking their moment in history. Turkey has never been so far removed from the idealism of the AKP’s first days in power or more recently, the first weeks of the Arab Spring.

The prospect of reform

The three papers on the Gulf Arab countries, the Saudi political scenario and Yemen suffer from the curse of Indian academic publishing—the considerable time lag between the writing of the paper and its publication. Though no fault of the writers, developments in the last year and a half have rendered the papers out of date.

Priyamvada Sawant’s short essay on the implications of the Arab Spring for the Gulf Arab countries notes the agitations in Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and, more mutedly, in Saudi Arabia, but just does not do justice to this complex subject that now sees Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies engaged in conflict in Syria and Yemen and in confrontation with Iran, while coping with complex domestic political and economic challenges. Her conclusion is particularly weak: she regrets the influence of religion on government and society and advocates promotion of civil society organisations to promote democracy, but does not indicate how this is to be achieved in these traditional societies.
It is a matter of regret that compared with the substantial studies contained in this book, Gulshan Dietl’s six-page piece on Saudi Arabia is so unsatisfactory. First, it has some factual errors: the size of the Saudi royal family is at least 15,000, not 5,000-6,000; the children and grandchildren of King Abdulaziz number about 1,500, not 500. Again, her frequent references to the “Sudairies”, the seven sons of Princess Hessa bint Ahmad Al Sudairy, as a bloc, is outdated: Prince Ahmad was abruptly removed from his post as Defence Minister; Prince Abdul Rehman has been marginalised for a long time; from the next generation, Prince Khalid bin Sultan was removed as Deputy Defence Minister; while Prince Bandar bin Sultan was removed as National Security Adviser. More seriously, with so many important developments taking place in the kingdom and the significant role it is playing in the region, it is regrettable that the country has been given such casual treatment.

The essay on Yemen by Prasanta Pradhan, while also overtaken by rapidly moving events in that country, is good on the domestic and regional factors that have led to the bloody conflict that has overwhelmed that unfortunate nation. However, his presentation would have benefited from a deeper analysis of the Iranian role in Yemen, particularly the charge of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that Iran has actively backed the Houthi insurrection, largely based on their sectarian affiliation. And, while he has correctly noted the strong Saudi-Egypt agreement on the Yemen question, it would have completed the story more accurately if he had also noted that Egypt finally did not participate militarily in the Yemen conflict, but only provided some ships to maintain the naval blockade.

Amidst the sense of gloom and pessimism that pervades West Asia, Priya Singh believes that the “victory” of Egypt’s entrenched bureaucracy over the forces of political change is perhaps “temporary” and the compulsions of urgently needed economic reforms will strengthen the push for “comprehensive reforms in the state bureaucracy”. She points out that the Arab Spring in Egypt enabled large sections of the population to experience “however fleetingly, exceptional flashes of emancipation, of unrestrained episodes of self-awareness, self-determination and mutual ‘effervescence’”. This, she argues, has laid the basis for an “active citizenry” in Egypt, which will in time “challenge the capacity of the dictatorial state to govern”, though she warns that this might take a few decades.

This book is a valuable and timely reference source to understand the turbulence that characterises West Asia, where major states are engaged in proxy wars in which millions of people have been killed or displaced, a whole generation of Arabs in Syria, Iraq and Yemen has been reduced to penury, and forces of extremism and sectarianism hold sway across large swathes of the Arab landscape, often with state support.
At the root of this turmoil is the resistance of authoritarian rulers to demands for popular participation in state decision-making, for popular scrutiny of state accounts, and for the ability to hold rulers responsible for their actions and to replace them periodically on the basis of national consensus. This resistance to reform has made the Arab world the last bastion in the world of entrenched tyranny. The editors have done full justice to this complex, even convoluted, narrative.

Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat.

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Islamic fundamentalism, the Arab Spring, and the Left-Gilbert Achcar interviewed by Ashley Smith

Posted by admin On January - 5 - 2017 Comments Off on Islamic fundamentalism, the Arab Spring, and the Left-Gilbert Achcar interviewed by Ashley Smith

nmhGilbert Achcar is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. He is the author of numerous books including The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder; The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives; Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism (Haymarket, 2013); The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (University of California, 2013); and most recently Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (Stanford University Press, 2016). The ISR’s Ashley Smith interviewed him about one of the pressing questions raised by the Arab Spring—the Left’s understanding of, and approach to, Islamic Fundamentalism.

One of the key developments in the Middle East over the last three decades has been the rise of what commentators variously call political Islam, Islamism, and Islamic fundamentalism. Why do you argue that this political current is better called Islamic fundamentalism, and what are its characteristics?

The term one uses in calling the phenomenon is related, of course, to assessment and political judgment, each term having different implications. Take one term you just mentioned—political Islam. Why doesn’t anyone use this kind of designation for politically involved institutions and currents within Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism, such as referring to “political Christianity” for instance? Speaking of “political Islam” begs the question of defining what is “nonpolitical” Islam; in other words, when does Islam start to be “political” and when does it stop? Why would Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood be considered as “political Islam,” and not, say, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, which is a supremely political position? If you think of it seriously, you’ll find that this label doesn’t make much sense.

The other term people often use, which may seem more delineated, is “Islamism.” They use it to refer to political movements that regard Islam as their fundamental ideology and program, hence the “ism.” The term was originally intended by those who started using it—that was in France in the 1980s—as a way to avoid the term “Islamic fundamentalism,” which they argued was politically loaded. But in so doing—whatever their intention, although they were actually warned by some, like the Marxist scholar of Islamic studies, Maxime Rodinson—they disregarded the fact that it was a term that had been used to refer to Islam itself. If you look in dictionaries, you’ll find that Islamism was used as the equivalent of Islam at least up until a few decades ago.

Indeed, “Islamism” gets mixed with Islam as a religion in the minds of most people who hear the term. And because “Islamism” became almost synonymous with terrorism—again, regardless of the intentions of some of the term’s users—it led people to confuse terrorism and Islam per se. This is obviously quite dangerous, as it feeds into already widespread Islamophobic bigotry, all the more so, in that “Islamism” reduces the phenomenon to a preserve of Islam alone, of all religions.

It is for these reasons that I don’t use these two terms. I prefer the term “Islamic fundamentalism,” which has two advantages. The most important is that the notion of fundamentalism applies to all religions, and one can formulate a generic definition of this term that covers all religious fundamentalisms. They all have common features—above all, the fact of adhering to literal and dogmatic interpretations of religious scriptures and a political project of imposing such views on society through the state. Thus, the notion of fundamentalism is useful in emphasizing the distinction between Islamic fundamentalism and Islam as a religion, since people are used to making the same distinction between other religions and their brands of fundamentalism. No one confuses Protestant fundamentalism and Protestantism, for example. The users of “Islamism” often argue that the term “fundamentalism” belongs to the history of Protestantism; that’s actually an argument in favor of using it, in my view.

The second advantage of the term “Islamic fundamentalism” is that the notion of fundamentalism helps in fine-tuning the distinction between different currents and groups that give Islam a central place in their ideological identity. It is more restrictive than terms like “political Islam” or “Islamism” which tend to lump together in the same category very different movements. Take Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, for instance. It is usually included in the categories “political Islam” and “Islamism” along with the Iranian regime. This is a quite misleading error that the term “Islamic fundamentalism” avoids. The AKP is not a fundamentalist party; it does not advocate the implementation of Islamic religious law, the Sharia, in Turkey. It is rather a conservative, rightwing, Muslim party, similar to Christian conservative or rightwing parties in Europe, and it remains fundamentally so despite its recent authoritarian drift.

To be sure, the category “Islamic fundamentalism” itself remains quite encompassing, as are all ideological categories that cover a wide range of movements (think of Marxism or communism, for example). While the programmatic core of an “Islamic State” based on the Sharia is, to various degrees, common to all the groups subsumed under the category of “Islamic fundamentalism,” these groups pursue different strategies and tactics. Thus, there are “moderate” fundamentalists who have a gradualist strategy of achieving their program within society first, and in the state thereafter, while others resort to terrorism or state implementation by force as is the case with the so-called Islamic State known as ISIS. But they all have in common a dogmatic and reactionary fundamentalist project.

What are the roots of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East? How and why did it arise as a political force?

Islamic fundamentalism in the shape of an organized political movement belonging to the modern era was born in the late 1920s with the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This was indeed the first modern political organization to be based on an Islamic fundamentalist agenda. And that was also the time when the theorization of the Islamic state, the core Islamic fundamentalist doctrine, took its modern shape—in Egypt again. There were, of course, earlier brands of fundamentalism and various sorts of puritan sects in the history of Islam like in other monotheistic religions, but the Brotherhood pioneered a brand of Islamic fundamentalism that was adapted to contemporary society in the form of a political movement.

This brand emerged at the conjunction of a number of events. The first was the proclamation of the republic and the abolition of the caliphate in Turkey a few years after the end of World War II. Mustafa Kemal’s declaration of a secular republic in Turkey came as a shock for those who rejected the separation between Islam and government. This was contemporaneous of the foundation of the Saudi kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula, a state based on an Islamic fundamentalist premise, albeit one of an archaic-tribal character.

Second, Egypt was a country which was becoming ripe for revolution with the accumulation of explosive problems—social problems, terrible poverty in the countryside, a rotten monarchy, leaders despised or hated by the people, and British domination. The Egyptian Left was weak, however, and the workers’ movement had come under repression in the 1920s. So you had a conjunction of factors, which enabled the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism as a political movement capitalizing on popular discontent.

From a historical materialist perspective, Islamic fundamentalism is a striking illustration of what Marx and Engels identified in their Communist Manifesto as one of the ideological orientations among the traditional middle classes. A fraction of the traditional petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen, and the small and middle peasantry suffer from the crushing effects of capitalism, which develops at their expense turning a big section of them into proletariat, compelling them to shift from a status of small producers or merchants into one of wage earners obliged to sell their labor power in order to make their living.

A fraction of these petty propertied classes oppose capitalist development by wanting to “turn back the wheel of history” as Marx and Engels famously put it— an excellent formulation indeed, pointing to the reactionary character of these class fractions. And it applies in full to Islamic fundamentalism in the sense that this current stems from a revolt against the consequences of capitalist development, fostered by foreign domination, but does so from a reactionary perspective of going back to a mythical Islamic golden age of thirteen centuries ago. And that’s what all Islamic fundamentalist groups have in common, from the Muslim Brotherhood as a mass movement, at least in its original Egyptian mainstream, to terrorist groups of which the most extreme is the appalling ISIS. They all share a dedication to reinstate in some way the form of government and social rules that existed in early Islam. In the case of ISIS they believe they are doing so already with their so-called Islamic State.

What is the relationship of Islamic fundamentalism to imperialism? Is it in opposition to it or in collusion with it?

Both, I would actually say, and there’s no contradiction here. The troops of Islamic fundamentalism are people reacting to the consequences of capitalism as well as to imperialist domination and imperialist wars. But they are responding to them in a reactionary manner. Faced with capitalism and imperialism, they could either opt for a progressive struggle, aiming at replacing wild capitalism with a socially just egalitarian society, or believe that the solution is in reinstating a form of government that is completely inadequate to our time, and adhere therefore to a very reactionary perspective.

And since it is a reactionary response to the problems that we mentioned, it ended up historically being used by all sorts of reactionary forces, including imperialism itself. From the time it was founded, the Muslim Brotherhood built a close connection with what was and still is by far the most reactionary, antidemocratic and anti-women state on earth, the Saudi kingdom. They established this link because of the affinity between their own perspective and what is usually called Wahhabism, which is the ideology of the tribal force that founded the Saudi kingdom.

The Muslim Brotherhood worked in close alliance with the Saudi kingdom from its foundation until 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait leading to the first US war on Iraq. Up until then, the Brotherhood was a major ally of the Saudi kingdom and of the United States itself, the kingdom’s overlord. Both used them in the fight against left-wing nationalism, particularly against Nasser in Egypt (1952–70), but also against the Communist movement and the Soviet Union’s influence in Muslim-majority countries. This unholy alliance of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Islamic fundamentalist movements was reactionary through and through.

The Saudis broke with the Muslim Brotherhood because the latter didn’t follow the kingdom in supporting the 1991 US onslaught on Iraq. That was because, on the one hand, they found it quite difficult ideologically to condone a Western intervention against a Muslim country from the territory where Islam’s holy places are located. And, on the other hand, they had to take into consideration the fact that their constituencies were very much opposed to that aggression, as was the overwhelming majority of the public opinion in Arab countries.

So most regional branches of the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the US deployment and onslaught leading the Saudi kingdom to break with them. They therefore sought out and found another sponsor—the emirate of Qatar, which has been their chief sponsor ever since. After having been funded for decades by the Saudis, they are now funded by the emirate of Qatar. And Qatar, of course, is another very close ally of the United States in the region—a country hosting forward headquarters of the US military Central Command (CENTCOM) and the most important platform for US air wars from Afghanistan to Syria.

When the Muslim Brotherhood held power in Egypt during the presidency of their member Mohamed Morsi, they earned the praise of Washington. Their record is more than obvious. Other, more “radical,” brands of Islamic fundamentalism have also collaborated in the past with the United States. Al-Qaida’s story is well-known: how they originated in joining the US-Saudi-Pakistani-backed guerillas against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan before turning into violent foes of the United States and the Saudi royal family after 1990, for a reason similar to that which led to the Brotherhood’s break with the kingdom.

Has the class character of Islamic fundamentalism changed with the development of these state sponsors? Is it still the case that it is an expression of the petty bourgeoisie or has it become “bourgeoisified?”

First of all, Islamic fundamentalism is not restricted to one movement. It is a broad spectrum of forces and groups, as I emphasized, from the Muslim Brotherhood to jihadists to totalitarian fanatics like ISIS. Even if we restrict the discussion to the Muslim Brotherhood, we would need to keep in mind that it is a regional and global organization whose strategies and tactics vary from place to place. However, if we focus solely on Egypt, there has indeed been a clear “bourgeoisification” of the Egyptian Brotherhood.

After Nasser repressed them, many of their members and leaders ended up in exile in the Saudi kingdom. Several of them became businessmen there and profited from the oil boom of the 1970s. The connection with the Saudi state and Gulf capital played an important role in developing a layer of what the Turks call a “devout bourgeoisie” in Egypt—a section that played an increasingly important role inside the Brotherhood.

While this capitalist fraction grew considerably in importance within the Brotherhood, the bulk of its rank and file, its troops, remain recruited among the petty bourgeoisie and poorer layers of society. This should come as no surprise to anyone. Look at Donald Trump in the United States. He is the lightning rod of reactionary politics, but his followers are not exactly Microsoft shareholders. The capitalist right-wing, especially its most reactionary brands, always seek to gain a mass following among other classes, especially among resentful sections of the middle classes and proletariat.

This said, the change in the class composition of the Brotherhood’s leadership has not fundamentally altered its program. They were never anticapitalist to start with—beyond very general phrases on social equity that you hear even from the most conservative parties. Except for groups openly adhering to a crude social Darwinism, even the most conservative political parties mouth compassionate rhetoric. Remember George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” The same goes for the Brotherhood. They will talk about caring for the poor, in order to say that Islam provides the solution and Islamic charity will alleviate poverty. All of this fits neatly with a neoliberal perspective that supports privatization of social care and its delegation to private charities.

Unsurprisingly, when the Brotherhood came to power recently in Tunisia and Egypt, they continued the economic policies of the previous regimes. They adhered to IMF stipulations and did everything they could to please the capitalist class, including the old regime’s crony capitalists in both countries. Islamic fundamentalists did not oppose the neoliberal order that has wreaked havoc in the Middle East.

Why did Islamic fundamentalism become such a dominant political trend in the Middle East? This is surprising given the rich history of secular nationalism and Communist organization in the region.

This is a very important issue. An impressionistic view prevails today, as a result of the media’s continuous reports on various strains of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. This created the impression that religion, in general, and Islamic fundamentalism, in particular, has always dominated politics in the region. But that is definitely not true.

A country like Egypt, the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, provides a good illustration. The Brotherhood managed to grow there and achieve a spectacular advance in the 1940s building a force with hundreds of thousands of followers. One of the key reasons for its advance was the fact that the Left was quite weak and fragmented in that country.

This was in contrast to other countries in the region at that time, where left-leaning secular nationalists and Communists were quite strong, and the Brotherhood consequently much weaker. In Syria and Iraq, the secular nationalist Baath party was developing in rivalry with a mass Communist movement.

Things began to change in Egypt with the 1952 coup. Nasser and his group of middle-ranking military officers toppled the high brass of the army as well as the monarchy, and proclaimed the republic. They were a mixed bag politically. Over time, they kept shifting to the left, escalating nationalist and social reforms. They passed land reform, redistributing the property of large landowners. They also nationalized foreign properties, their most spectacular act being the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, which led to combined British, French, and Israeli aggression against Egypt. The nationalization of foreign assets was soon followed by extensive nationalization of Egyptian private assets and the proclamation of “socialism” in 1961.

The leftwing radicalization of these nationalists—with the towering figure of Nasser central to the process—made them tremendously popular, not only in Egypt but in the whole region and beyond in all of the Third World. That was because of their social reforms and their opposition to imperialism and Zionism, which echoed the aspirations of the masses. Early on, after a brief period of cooperation, they clashed with the Muslim Brotherhood and repressed them before embarking on their radicalizing course. From then on, the Brothers became the bitterest enemies of the nationalists. And the Saudis, in tandem with Washington, used them as a weapon against Nasser.

As a result of the radicalization and rising clout of Nasserism, the Brotherhood became completely marginalized in Egypt. They had been severely repressed, to be sure, but repression alone can never completely marginalize a movement that retains a strong mass appeal. The fact is that the Brothers lost their appeal. They had no solutions to offer to the real social problems of the masses, whereas the nationalists addressed these issues in part. In that period, most people in Egypt and the whole region came to view the Muslim Brothers as agents of the Saudis and the CIA.

The situation began to change at the end of the 1960s with the crisis of secular nationalism. The defining moment was Israel’s victory in 1967 over Nasserist Egypt and Baathist Syria. As in Egypt, the latter had undergone a leftwing nationalist radicalization led by a group that Assad—the father of the current butcher in Syria—would topple soon after. With the 1967 defeat, followed in 1970 by the crushing of the Palestinian guerillas in Jordan, Nasser’s death and the overthrow of the leftwing faction of the Baath, radical Arab nationalism suffered a massive setback, which opened a space for the Muslim Brotherhood’s comeback.

Nasser’s successor, Sadat, inaugurated a course of de-Nasserization in Egypt, reversing all the progressive policies of the Nasser era, whether agrarian, industrial, anti-imperialist or anti-Zionist. As he embarked on that regressive journey, he released the Muslim Brotherhood from jail and opened the door for its members in exile to return. That was because he needed them as allies in his reactionary enterprise in Egypt. They happily played that role, becoming the shock troops of Sadat’s ideological backlash in countering the Left. Sadat allowed them to rebuild their organization into a mass movement, provided that they did not challenge his rule. They maintained this relationship with Sadat’s successor, Mubarak.

However, in a context of a weak organized Left, whose most visible section was involved in a similarly ambiguous relation with the regime, the Brotherhood filled a vacuum, attracting disgruntled sections of the population. With funds brought by the new capitalists in their ranks and provided by their Saudi sponsor, they managed to grow spectacularly anew. But with their newfound power came ambitions of playing more of a political role than the regime would allow. This created tensions leading, at times, to their repression by the regime. But each time they were released from jail after relatively brief periods of detention. They never suffered as harsh a repression as they had under Nasser. Mubarak never attempted to crush them or fully ban their movement. They remained tolerated in order to be used by the regime, encountering temporary repression only when the regime thought that they overstepped their bounds.

Thus, they didn’t emerge out of the blue in 2011. They were a very important force in Egypt, including in the electoral arena. In 2005, they even managed to get 20 percent of the seats in parliament. Mubarak used this controlled surge as a warning to the George W. Bush administration, which was putting pressure on him for some degree of political liberalization. With no significant forces on the left or among liberals able to challenge the regime and to embody popular discontent, Islamic fundamentalism was pretty much in the best position to capture this potential.

But history shows that when there is a progressive current with some credibility, it can counter fundamentalism effectively. The weakness of the left is inversely related with the strength of Islamic fundamentalism. Between these two currents, it is a zero-sum game, unlike the relationship of the left to liberation theology in Latin American. There, liberation theology, which is a progressive interpretation of Christianity, is a major component of the left, with which it is involved in many places in the same organizations, as used to be the case in Brazil’s Workers Party (PT) in its radical heyday. In the Middle East, the Left faces Islamic fundamentalism as one of two main poles of reactionary politics, the regimes constituting the other pole.

Thus, the Arab uprising has been confronted since 2011 with two forces of counterrevolution—not a traditional binary opposition of revolution and counterrevolution, but a triangular configuration, with a revolutionary process facing two counterrevolutionary poles. The progressive forces, expressing the aspirations of the uprising, were instrumental in initiating and organizing it in the early stages. But they soon tumbled against the regimes, on the one hand, and the Islamic fundamentalist oppositions to the regimes on the other hand, both equally opposed to the aspirations of the revolutionary wave and, in some countries of the region, directly collaborating in thwarting its radicalization.

Egypt, again, provides a good illustration of the Brothers’ collaboration with the military in 2011, the first year of the uprising. This actually opened a space for the progressive camp. The 2012 presidential election saw the emergence of the progressive pole with the Nasserist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, managing to get—to the surprise of everybody—the largest vote in Cairo and Alexandria and one fifth of the vote nationally. He came quite close to the two leading candidates in the first round, the candidate of the military and that of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi.

Unfortunately, however, Sabahi fell into the trap of supporting the military coup against Morsi in 2013. Instead of carrying on opposing consistently both counterrevolutionary camps, he fell behind one of them: after allying with the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011, he allied with the military in 2013. It is only when he stood at equal distance from both in 2012 that he achieved a breakthrough. From this experience, the Left must learn a key lesson if it wants to become a credible force and lead a new uprising to victory. It must build an alternative both to the regime and to the Islamic fundamentalists. If it does not, and since politics like nature abhors a vacuum, the Muslim Brotherhood could make a comeback and rebuild itself as the main opposition to the regime, or worse, we could see the development anew of more violent brands of Islamic fundamentalism.

This seems to me worth developing some more. How should the Left position itself in relation to Islamic fundamentalist forces fighting imperialism or Zionism? For example, how should the Left approach Hamas and Hezbollah?

The Left has developed a rich tradition that we should draw on in approaching this question. This tradition consists in supporting just struggles against colonialism and imperialism, regardless of who is waging them, without turning this into uncritical support to those who are waging the struggles. For instance, when fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it made complete sense for any anti-imperialist to oppose the invasion, although Ethiopia was ruled by a regime that was extremely reactionary by any leftwing standard. Opposition to Italy’s invasion did not mean uncritical support to the Ethiopian emperor.

The same approach should be followed today. Hamas or Hezbollah have been indeed engaged in struggles against Israeli occupation and aggression. We support this struggle, regardless of who is waging it. But Hamas is not the only group fighting Israel; there are other groups on the Palestinian scene. So we need to determine within that range of anti-Zionist groups which are closer to our political perspective. And the same goes for Lebanon.

In both Palestine and Lebanon, the zero-sum game between the Left and these forces is a fact. Hamas managed to grow at the expense of the Palestinian Left. At the time of the first Palestinian intifada in 1988, the Left was the leading force in the 1967-occupied territories. But its groups regrettably ended up directly or indirectly condoning Yasser Arafat’s capitulation to the US and Israel. And this was disastrous for their political influence, opening a door to Hamas. Remember that Hamas was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Palestine, which until then had been actually favored by the Israeli occupation as an antidote to the PLO.

The same goes for Hezbollah in Lebanon. It emerged after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but it did not initiate the resistance to this invasion. It was actually the Communist Party and leftwing nationalist forces that did so, drawing on a tradition of struggle by these forces against repeated Israeli invasions of southern Lebanon. Hezbollah built itself at the expense of these forces—especially the Communist Party. The latter had a strong influence in Shia-majority regions in Lebanon and was therefore seen as a major competitor by Hezbollah—a sectarian Shia organization.

Hezbollah went so far as to assassinate prominent Shia figures of the Communist Party. Although it became the dominant force in a just fight—the struggle against the Israeli occupation—it is definitely not a progressive force. It achieved its status while repressing and squeezing out progressive forces that were waging that same struggle. It was nevertheless correct to support the Lebanese resistance, even though it became overwhelmingly dominated by Hezbollah. This is not the same as supporting Hezbollah in general, unconditionally, and uncritically.

Hezbollah’s domestic politics in Lebanon, whether economic, social, or cultural, are absolutely not progressive. The Party of God (Hezbollah in Arabic) accommodated itself very well with the neoliberal reconstruction of Lebanon. And one cannot also forget that it is closely dependent on the Iranian regime, which is anything but progressive. Now, if the US or Israel launched an attack on Iran, we would not hesitate in supporting that country. But this does not mean that we don’t regard the Iranian regime as a reactionary, repressive, capitalist regime, and therefore an enemy of the social cause for which we fight.

This is very important to grasp because, in recent years, Iran and Hezbollah have come to the rescue of the counterrevolutionary regime in Syria. They have supplied it with key shock troops that have joined its onslaught on the popular democratic movement. This shows their deeply reactionary character. For the Iranian regime, this was in direct continuity with its crackdown on the democratic movement in Iran in 2009.

How should the Left position itself vis-à-vis the Brotherhood in Egypt today? Some characterize it as a reformist force with which the Left can form united fronts. What do you think of that? And what’s your alternative to that approach?

Well, let me point to the attitudes of some sections of the Left in Egypt rather than prescribing a line from afar. There are sections of the Left that adhere to a position that I find correct, of opposing the military seizure of power and condemning the very brutal repression against the Muslim Brotherhood, without giving any political support to the latter.

Characterizing the Brotherhood as “reformist” is misleading, to say the least. Unqualified, such a label can imply that the Brotherhood is seen as similar to reformist wings of the workers’ movement, which would be a preposterous confusion. You could say, of course, that the Brotherhood is “reformist” (or “moderate”) in comparison to “radical” jihadists and terrorists such as al-Qaeda and Isis, but that would be within the spectrum of reactionary Islamic fundamentalist ideology.

It would be utterly wrong and misleading, however, to say that the Brotherhood is “reformist,” without any qualification, meaning that they are reformist in the same way as some nonrevolutionary progressive currents, whether of Stalinist, social democratic, or leftwing nationalist—currents that believe they can achieve socialism without dismantling the bourgeois state. The ultra-neoliberal Muslim Brotherhood is “reformist” only in implementing its Islamic fundamentalist program, not at all in some social-democratic sense. It is an utterly reactionary force in social politics. But this does not justify in the least supporting their repression at the hand of regimes that are as much reactionary as they are. The Left should always be the most consistent fighter for democratic freedoms.

What are the lessons you draw for the Left from the role of Islamic fundamentalist forces in the Arab Spring as a whole?

What I have said about Egypt can be extended to the whole Arab uprising. The Left must adopt a correct attitude of opposition to both counterrevolutionary poles represented by the regimes, on the one hand, and the Islamic fundamentalist forces, on the other, and strive to build a third pole, equally opposed to both in strategic perspective.

Of course, on a tactical ground, the Left may “strike together” with one against the other—the most dangerous of the day—provided it continues to “walk separately” with its own program, challenging both reactionary poles. Strategically, the Left should be waging its fight on both fronts. Instead of this approach, tragically, we have seen progressive forces align themselves with the Islamic fundamentalists against the regimes—as happened in the first stages of the uprising in many countries, or is still happening in the Syrian case—while other sections of the Left lined up with the existing regimes against the Islamic fundamentalists.

And whereas you may find among the first category in the region a few individuals mislabeling the Muslim Brotherhood as “reformist” (the truth is that this characterization is so odd that very few people can sustain it), most groups in the second category mislabel the Brotherhood as “fascist,” which is equally wrong. The analogy with fascism disregards major differences between the two currents and focuses only on some organizational features that are common to very different parties based on mass mobilization and indoctrination, including the Stalinist tradition. Unlike historical fascism, the Muslim Brotherhood did not emerge in imperialist countries in reaction to a workers’ movement challenging capitalism and in order to embody a harder version of imperialism.

So you have these two symmetrically opposed types of approaches. And then you find leftwing forces that have shifted from one to the other. For instance, the Egyptian Nasserist party led by Sabahi shifted from allying itself with the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011, to the point of joining their electoral coalition as a junior partner, into allying itself with the army in 2013, joining the chorus that sang the praise of Field-Marshal Sisi. This political pattern is disastrous for the building of a progressive alternative in the region. It is crucial for the progressives to assert a third revolutionary pole, equally opposed to both counterrevolutionary poles now dominating the scene, if they are, at some point, to embody again the aspirations that inspired the Arab Spring in 2011.

Short of that, we will see more of the ongoing disaster with a regional scene overwhelmed by the clash between the two counterrevolutionary poles. The best scenario in the short term is a coalition between the two reactionary poles, as happened in Tunisia where the local equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood entered into a governmental coalition with the old regime forces, or in Morocco where the king coopted the local equivalent into government. Washington and its European allies are very much pushing for this scenario almost everywhere in the region: reconciliation between the two counterrevolutionary poles makes full sense from their perspective, of course.

But such reconciliation would also be beneficial from a progressive perspective, because it would compel the progressive forces to oppose both counterrevolutionary poles and facilitate their emergence as the alternative to both of them. In any event, the future of the left in the Middle East hangs on getting this orientation right.

Special thanks to Robin Horne, Sarah Levy, and Andrea Hektor for transcription.

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Austerity, neoliberalism, and the Indian working class-Snehal Shingavi

Posted by admin On January - 5 - 2017 Comments Off on Austerity, neoliberalism, and the Indian working class-Snehal Shingavi

nmhIn recent years, the Indian economy has been the darling of pundits commenting on international economic outlooks. During the quarter from April to June of 2016, India recorded a 7.1 percent increase in GDP—down from 7.8 percent last year, but still impressive enough to be at the top of the world’s economies. Much of this has been attributed to the pro-business policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his willingness to push through a number of changes to the laws regulating the Indian economy. At the same time, India finds itself in the midst of a crisis.

First of all, almost no one believes the Indian government’s figures about growth. They are now based on market-price calculations rather than on production figures, which most analysts agree are widely inflated.1 Second, whatever growth there has been has depended almost entirely on state expenditures, up some 18 percent over last year. Third, actual production rates have ground to a halt: railway freight, one of the best indices of how much is being produced and traded in the country, declined 9 percent this year. Fourth, the Bombay Stock Exchange took a massive dive in August 2015, as foreign investors withdrew upwards of $2.5 billion from several funds.2 This crisis renewed calls for economic reforms, especially labor laws, which are seen as overly restrictive for businesses. Finally, the public banks, which control some 70 percent of the country’s investments, are known to sit on a glut of bad loans. The combination of these factors produces an unsustainable situation.

At the same time, there has been a debate on the left about where this growth has come from. Since an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the Indian workforce labors in the informal sector of the economy, it has led many to conclude that the driving engines of growth in India are not based on exploitation at the point of production but rather on extractive industries and financialization, or what in other contexts has been called accumulation by dispossession. While these critics have been quite right to focus on the egregious actions of the Indian state against tribal populations (who live on large mineral reserves), the creation of Special Economic Zones, and the privatization of state-owned industries, they have largely ignored the way that the majority of the economy still depends on the exploitation of labor. In fact, the only way to understand the history of neoliberalism in India and the current crisis that Indian capital faces is to understand the last forty years as a systematic attempt to reorganize the labor process to benefit Indian capital.

The decline of labor
The current crisis and the bourgeoisie’s solutions stem from the ways that neoliberalism was implemented in India. It was not merely policy changes and a liberalization of trade; the implementation of neoliberalism required the crushing of India’s once impressively powerful labor unions. In fact, it is only by comparing the unions now to the power of labor in an earlier incarnation that one can see just how far labor has been pushed back onto its heels. The years which ushered in neoliberalism were also the years when labor was handily defeated and defanged by ruling classes everywhere, which makes it difficult to accept the argument of some left analysts that the expansion of extractive industries is more important than a weaker union movement for the restoration of profit rates.

The years between 1974 and 1984 were probably the height of the combativity of the Indian working class, but this period also saw the first decisive victory for the capitalist class, a victory that it has held onto ever since. The global economic downturn of the early 1970s had ripple effects in the Indian economy. Stagnating wages, inflation, and unemployment all made the Indian working class desperate. Beginning with the strike wave of 1973, when there were more than 3,370 industrial disputes, continuing until 1984, when the Bombay textile strike was finally defeated, the Indian working class was able to demonstrate its extraordinary social power.

Nevertheless, the unions were defeated, primarily by the government of Indira Gandhi, but also by communalism and the politics of Hindu chauvinism (in the case of Maharashtra). Nor can the totally bankrupt strategies of the official left unions be overlooked as a contributor to the defeats. This period ushered in the process that we today call neoliberalism. In fact, without the systematic repression of labor and the rewriting of important labor laws in this period, capital would not have been able to massively restructure the economy. Indian capital relied on the state to implement martial law in the 1970s because it had such substantial class enemies and a much stronger labor force. Defanging most of the unions by law meant that the state could legally repress them, thus tipping the balance in capital’s favor.

The great railway strike
The nineteen-day long railway strike of 1974 brought the entire nation to a standstill as some 1.7 million workers downed tools in the largest industry-wide strike in the nation’s history. It was provoked by a decade of organizing inside the railway industry, in which rank-and-file workers demanded raises, job protections, and challenged horrific working conditions.

One of the legacies of colonialism was the interpretation that the railroad companies applied to worker’s “shifts.” “Historically,” writes one analysis of the strike, “many of the British-run rail networks had termed the work of the loco staff as ‘continuous,’ implying that workers would have to remain at work as long as the train ran on its trip, often for several days at a stretch especially on the goods trains. Independence did not change this. The spread of diesel engines and the consequent intensification of work in the Indian Railways since the 1960s created much resentment among the workers.”3

The railway workers were represented at the time by two unions: the pro-Congress National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR) and the Lohiaite socialist-inspired All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF). The two unions had already become thoroughly bureaucratized and bought off by the government by the mid-1960s, and saw their primary task as controlling the anger of railway workers rather than addressing their grievances. So when anger built up in the rank and file, they had to organize themselves, replace their union leaders, and set up independent unions. There were dozens of smaller unions up and down the country that had been engaging in local actions in the years leading up to 1974.

In February 1974, the unions organized the National Coordinating Committee for Railwaymen’s Struggle (NCRRS), which brought all of the unions, the political opposition, and the main trade union federations together in order to prepare for the strike. The government of India refused to budge, and was preparing for its own crackdown. On May 2, the government arrested the leader of the impending strike, George Fernandes, without any warning. In response, the workers immediately went out—not waiting until May 8 as planned. The entire nation was brought to a standstill as 1.7 million railway workers dropped their tools. In Bombay, electricity and transport workers as well as taxi drivers joined the protests. In Gaya, Bihar, striking workers and their families squatted on the tracks. More than 10,000 workers of the Integral Coach Factory in Perambur, Tamil Nadu, marched to the Southern Railway headquarters in Chennai to express their solidarity with the striking workers.

This display of solidarity, while important, was short of what was necessary to defeat the repression that was coming. What would have been needed was a full understanding of what the Indira Gandhi government represented, something the Communist Party of India did not possess. In fact, the CPI not only joined the government and supported martial law, it also instructed its affiliated unions not to strike. Two things ultimately broke this strike even before the state was able to use its full force: divisions in the working class about how and when to offer solidarity; and the Left’s confusion about whose side Indira Gandhi was on. The realpolitik of the various official left groups has always dominated their class solidarity instincts, and this has allowed the state and capital to divide the working class at key moments of struggle.

As glorious as the strike was, the government was prepared to be brutal and vicious. More than 50,000 workers were arrested, along with the top leadership of the strike. Another 17,000 workers were fired from their jobs. The railway colonies were practically under siege. For instance, in Mughalsarai in Uttar Pradesh, which has one of the biggest railway yards in the world, women were assaulted and even children were attacked. The Border Security Force (BSF), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), and the Provincial Armed Constabulary were deployed in the townships where railway workers lived. There were also instances of workers being forced by terror to work. Instances of train drivers being shackled in their cabins were reported at the height of the strike.4

It took the full force of the state to crush the strike—but it hadn’t defeated labor yet. Indira Gandhi’s imposition of the emergency laws in 1975 allowed her to make some important changes to the Indian constitution and remove several civil liberties, implement repressive censorship and security laws, as well as eliminate the right to strike, but still labor and other forces protested. It was, in fact, the movement of the left-wing activist Jayaprakash Narayan (also called the “Bihar movement”) that ultimately ended Indira Gandhi’s military rule.

Bombay textile strike
In this period of restructuring, the Bombay textile strike of 1982–84 was the last real gasp of a fighting labor movement in India. The restructuring of capital begun in the 1970s accelerated. Already the state was offering protections to smaller firms so that they could compete in the domestic markets (these laws were initially designed to protect handlooms), giving the smaller power loom workshops an advantage over the large industrial mills, which were not only taxed and regulated but also were required to recognize unions.

Labor laws in India before 1975 protected workers in workplaces with more than one hundred employees, allowing them to have access to unions and some kind of regulatory enforcement of their rights. But with the growth of power looms, the shift in the marketplace away from cotton to synthetic materials, the aging infrastructure of the industrial mills, and the bosses’ contempt of the unions, the owners sought to abandon the mills altogether and shift over to the smaller workshops. The Ambani family’s Reliance Industry made its seed money in making just this shift.5 When the unions struck in 1982, they were protesting working conditions, stagnating wages, and the lack of bonuses.

The textile mills had once been the strongholds of the Communist Party in Maharashtra, but they were replaced after independence by the Congress-Party affiliated Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh, which had sole bargaining power with the textile mills. The RMMS refused to challenge the bosses when wage increases tied to bonuses based on profits were denied. (Textile workers were paid about thirty rupees a month with a dearness allowance of another fifty rupees, while the official living wage was pegged at 165 rupees.) The rank and file was accordingly forced to organize around the state-backed union leadership.

This time, however, the strike faced two disadvantages. First, as capital was looking to get out of the mills anyway, the strike became the pretext for asking the state to intervene and solve the conflict for the capitalists. The state helped break the strike by providing legal cover for the mill owners as they transferred their assets out of the mills. Bosses were allowed to declare bankruptcy (often right after they had taken out loans from the banks), and in many instances were able to either purchase power loom workshops or buy back the mills and turn them into real estate.

Secondly, part of the way that the Communists had organized throughout the 1960s was to lead campaigns around Marathi nationalism, including the campaign for a separate state for Marathi speakers. Bal Thackeray, founder of the Shiv Sena, was centrally involved in the strike activities of 1982–84. When the strike failed, the Shiv Sena was able to scapegoat workers from other parts of India as responsible for the economic problems the workers faced.6 The real lesson from this strike was ignored by the unions: The state was not a reliable ally in the fight against capital. Not only did the state make it possible for big capital to escape with its assets intact, it also allowed the transfer of control of the industry to smaller firms without any of the regulatory oversight.

Political, not structural, defeats for labor
These two historic strikes were key defeats for the Indian working class, and arguably, the class has never really recovered from them (in much the same way that American labor has never really been the same since President Reagan fired the air-traffic controllers in the PATCO strike). But the reasons that they failed were political rather than structural.7 At each moment it would have been theoretically possible for the Communist parties in India to resist very differently than they did, and their refusal to lead the working class with slogans and the organization of solidarity allowed the class to be decimated. This historic defeat is what inaugurated the four main problems that the Indian working class faces today: draconian labor laws; right-wing Hindu and Marathi chauvinism; the over-reliance on the state to settle industrial disputes rather than preparing to fight until victory; and finally, the lack of any real solidarity between the more than ten major trade union federations. It is impossible to understand neoliberalism without understanding these political failures. And it is also important to understand these failures in order to counter those who diminish the importance of the working class by mistaking conjunctural realities for structural ones.

Labor reforms
To make matters worse, the current regime in charge of the Indian state is asking for even more from the Indian working class. Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power promising a massive overhaul of India’s regulatory regime, with labor laws in particular in his crosshairs. Modi’s “Make in India” plan hopes to bring foreign investment to India, but India’s labor laws are normally cited as the reason that manufacturers don’t want to come to India. At issue is Modi’s attempt to make it easier for employers to lay off their workers in order to pursue his plans to bring more manufacturing to India. The Industrial Disputes Act of 1947 requires employers to give two-months notice and seek government approval before laying-off a worker in any workplace that has more than one hundred workers. Modi wants to raise that limit to 300, thereby making it more attractive to invest in larger enterprises and less risky should they fail—currently, 85 percent of India’s businesses employ fifty people or less.

The biggest target that the Modi government has its eyes set on are the flimsy labor laws that offer the Indian working class the barest of protections. In addition to laws that protect workers at large workplaces from being laid off without government notice, Modi’s plans include decertification of unions, hiring and firing at will, and even going after some of workers’ basic rights to organize. In Rajasthan, for instance, the BJP government has just eliminated the protections that workers had under the Industrial Disputes Act (which protects workers from being laid off without compensation), the Contract Labor Act (which protects casual labor from being exploited), and the Factories Act (which governs workplace safety and regulation). The state of Madhya Pradesh followed suit not long after. Now there is talk of a large overhaul of all of the labor laws at the federal level, which would completely undercut the kinds of protections that unions have relied on in order to defend even the barest of gains. It is important to remember that a mere 7 percent of the Indian working class is unionized.

The rollback of workers’ rights represents the bourgeoisie’s solution to their crisis of profitability, as well as the ordinary operation of capitalism when it smells blood in the water. One reason these laws are necessary is because of the high cost of doing business in large factories, and the industrial classes want to move towards larger factories to compete internationally. Currently, manufacturing is dominated by the informal sector in India—84 percent of manufacturers rely on workplaces of fifty people or fewer.  Modi’s plans match the Organization of Employers recommendations to overhaul the labor laws:

India is perhaps the only country, where the requirement of strike notice, barring public utility service, is totally lacking. Therefore, Section 23 of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 [is to] be suitably amended to provide at least a compulsory three weeks strike notice. . . . To deter illegal strikes, it can be proposed to provide for 8 day’s deduction of wages for each day of illegal strikes.
Provision for recognizing a Bargaining Agent under the Trade Unions Act, 1926 may be introduced to strengthen the collective bargaining machinery. A union with 51 percent membership should be recognized as the Sole Bargaining Agent. In cases where no single union has 51 percent, the top 2–3 unions with more than 25 percent membership may come together to form Joint Bargaining Councils. A union with less than 25 percent membership should not have a right to challenge a collective agreement nor raise a collective dispute.
The number of outsiders in the Trade Union Executive should be restricted to a maximum of two persons as against 50 percent in the legislation and out of the two top positions of “President” and “General Secretary,” at least one post should be held by the internal employee.8
In part, the reason that the bourgeoisie is so interested in overhauling the labor laws in India is because they are the main weapons of the major trade union federations to settle disputes with management. As a result, almost all trade union activity in the major unions is geared towards electoral politics and forming coalitions with other parties rather than shop-floor organizing. Now that the BJP has won a handy majority, the emptiness of that strategy stands revealed, just as does the atrophying of labor’s muscles throughout India. While there are slight signs of hope in the new data on strike figures, even here there is weakness, because the balance sheet reflects the turnout of the massive symbolic one-day actions that the unions have called regularly since the National Democratic Alliance came to power and not sustained struggles to gain a share of profits.

Year Strikes Days Lost Lockouts Days Lost Total Lost
2000 426 11,960,000 345 16,800,800
2002 295 9,664,527 284 16,921,382
2003 255 3,205,950 297 27,049,961
2004 236 4,828,737 241 19,037,630
2005 227 10,800,686 229 18,864,313
2006 243 3,160,000 192 10,600,000
2007 210 15,055,713 179 12,111,039
2008         17,434,000
20099 167 8,075,046 178 9,547,009 13,365,000
2010 199   172   18,068,000
2011 179   191   14,483,013
2012 260   179   12,727,973
2013 178   20   3,654,361
2014 88   16   18,232,773
10 Source: “Industrial Disputes,” Labor Bureau, Government of India, at http://labourbureau.nic.in/idtab.htm.

The 2015 strike
The unions that have retained some combativity—auto, airlines, nursing, domestic labor—have continued to grow, but even so, the picture continues to look tough for labor. But on September 2, 2015, ten of the twelve major national trade union federations called a massive one-day strike in response to a breakdown in negotiations with the central government over economic reforms and minimum wages. Media estimates of participation in the strike were generally inflated, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that millions of workers participated. ASSOCHAM, the Indian chamber of commerce, estimated that the strike cost the economy $3.7 billion dollars.

The strike was felt most acutely in the transportation, banking, and mining industries. In states like West Bengal, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh, it massively disrupted everyday life as buses and taxis stopped running and banks were closed. The strongest attack against strikers was in West Bengal, where the ruling Trinamul Congress Party unleashed its cadres and the police. More than a 1,000 people were arrested and dozens were wounded. Television reports showed police officers dragging female activists through the streets. In the days leading up to the strike, the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Bannerjee, declared that she would use her power to stop any disruption to the economy.

The strike was the result of a breakdown in negotiations between the main trade union federations and the central government. The main issues related to differences over a new minimum wage (unions were asking for 15,000 rupees and the center countered with 6,330), universal social security, a reduction in layoffs, a halt to price rises in key consumer goods, and improved enforcement of labor laws. But there was also a push back against some of the new legislation that Modi was trying to implement. The unions objected to the disinvestment in public sector undertakings (PSUs), the unwillingness to recognize unions in a timely fashion, the introduction of foreign direct investment into railways and defense, and the lack of any limits to the contract system (casualization).

More serious threats
But the most serious threats came through amendments to India’s labor laws, many of which the unions rely on for basic protection for their workers, especially limits to how employers lay off their workers. These are all reforms that the capitalists in India have been clamoring for, citing them as the primary reasons that they are unwilling to invest in large enterprises in India. This is all the more worrisome given that Indians themselves have been willing to overlook the genocidal policies of their country’s current prime minister in exchange for 7–8 percent growth rates. In fact, India’s economic success has allowed its rulers to get away with murder—literally.

But had the analysts bothered to look below the surface, they might have seen just how unstable the Indian economy actually is. The economic data only tell part of the picture, not the least because the data are completely jerry-rigged. India’s growth rates this year miraculously jumped from 4 to 7 percent when the Central Statistics Office announced it would be recalculating how growth was to be measured—switching from GDP to gross value added.11 Simply lowering the poverty line similarly halved India’s poverty rate. The World Bank routinely assesses poverty as earning less than two dollars a day, but India now counts urban poverty as thirty-three rupees a day (fifty-five cents a day) and rural poverty as twenty-seven rupees (forty-five cents a day). This has remarkably reduced poverty in India from almost 50 percent to 30 percent without materially changing anything.

But the story gets even worse when you look at the rest of the official figures. These figures are just for people living in abject poverty in India. Slightly better are those that fall under the Empowerment Line, who earn 50 percent more than the abject poor or 75 cents a day. The number in this group rises to 56 percent, a whopping 680 million people. And if you look at what the World Bank considers to be vulnerable sections of the population—those who still have trouble meeting basic needs—you add another 413 million people to the mix. That’s close to one billion people living in dire straits. What that leaves are the two hundred million people that India considers to be middle class and the tiny section of the very rich.

This is not only a human crisis; investors have recently begun to withdraw from the Indian economy, citing the slow pace of labor reforms. Using other indicators than the manufactured GDP numbers, India’s economy looks troubling:

India’s cargo traffic—rail, air, and sea—is sluggish. Two-wheeler sales are decelerating. March’s factory-output figures showed the slowest growth in five months, though the seasonally adjusted HSBC India Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index indicated a nineteenth straight month of expansion in May. Exports fell in April for the fifth month in a row.12
There is a crisis in profitability in India, with returns on investment shrinking (see figures below). The preferred strategy over the last thirty years has been to try to make the working class pay to restore them, which accounts in many ways for the abysmal wage rates in India. Median household purchasing parity is under three dollars a day.13
This has resulted in a massive concentration of wealth at the very top with few productive outlets. In June, the Boston Consulting Group issued a report that the number of Indians with ultra-high net worth (UHNW) tripled in 2014. India went from 284 people with a net worth greater than $100 million in 2013, to 928 people in 2014. That puts India in fourth place behind the US (5,201), China (1,037), and the UK (1,019). India ranks third in the world in the number of billionaires.14
It’s something of a joke that the Indian ruling class has run out of ideas about selling the economy. It used to be that the ruling class tried to say that it cared about the poor, and its election slogans stressed “bread, clothing, housing,” (roti, kapda, makan), or “electricity, roads, water” (bijli, sadak, pani), but now they’ve given up even talking about the social problems that the poor face, and instead extoll the Indian economic miracle by referring to “India Shining” (Bharat Uday). They note that the good days (acche din) have come as India pursues manufacturing as part of Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” campaign. None of this, however, hides the current crisis of profitability, which is a direct result of the fact that the Indian ruling class pursued the same policies as the rest of the world when it faced a major economic crisis in the 1970s.

Neoliberal outcomes to the defeat of labor
After a period of robust, even astronomical growth beginning in the 1990s, and continuing on into the twenty-first century, the economy is once again facing serious problems. The right wing in India and the capitalist class have used these new glitches in the economy to argue for their standard solutions—the suite of neoliberal policies: restructuring the working class, especially reducing legal protections on unions and workers; more deregulation and informalization of production; a further reduction in the regulatory regime and the scope of its laws; an end to what little social welfare continues to exist; an expansion of state-sponsored infrastructure development, but a continuation of the privatization of state-owned industries; and a greater reliance on the state to force through development against those sections of the population that might otherwise resist displacement.

Two things have happened as a result of twenty years of pursuing neoliberal policies in India that are key if we want to understand the crisis that India will be facing in the coming years. First, the entirety of the growth that has been generated in India has been on the backs of the working class, whose wages are abysmally paltry. The main target here has been unions and the laws that favor them. This is not a strategy that can continue indefinitely, and not just because it results in the immiseration of the Indian working class, but also because we know that for many of the industries global competition requires economies of scale making large workplaces still important and potentially locations for organizing workers.

Second, even as the Indian ruling class has amassed a vast fortune, it has run out of productive places in which to invest its profits. India is facing a decline in its investment-to-GDP ratio, which measures how much capital is getting reinvested as a proportion of the total output of a country. India’s investment-to-GDP ratio has fallen to below 30 percent from a high of 40 percent a decade ago.15 Most of the growth that was generated in India over the last decade depended on these high investment rates, especially the purchasing of heavy machinery and the construction of infrastructure, all of which was important for India to recover from the problems it inherited from British colonial rule. This rapid decline in investment rates is normally talked about as a result of high interest rates; however, earlier this year the Reserve Bank of India lowered interest rates, but this hasn’t solved the problem.

The investment rate is important because it shows that capital cannot reinvest profitably. Instead, capitalists would rather save their money than put it back into the economy. In comparison, China’s investment-to-GDP ratio is 47 to 50 percent.

Accumulation by dispossession?
That there has been substantial real growth over the past twenty years cannot be disputed, but there has been a debate about how those gains have been achieved. According to David Harvey, capital accumulation can no longer happen through simple reproduction but has to happen instead through what he calls accumulation by dispossession: the use of state power to acquire land, dispossess the people who live on it, and then extract the resources underneath. 16  Harvey lists all of the ways that the commons are raided by the state for the benefit of freeing up areas that allow capital to expand. This, Harvey claims, is the way that capitalists have resolved the crisis of profitability. These land disputes have also been a focus of the left and are the scene of some of the most spectacular resistance by peasants.

There are problems with this view, the most important one being that it changes both the agent and the method by which this accumulation is challenged. If Harvey is right, accumulation by dispossession can only really be challenged through social movements, organized largely by the people affected by this dispossession, but lacking in many ways the economic power possessed by labor. Moreover, several critics have noted that Harvey’s definition of accumulation by dispossession is so capacious that it even includes surplus value extraction and, therefore, becomes less useful as a tool for explaining the shift in nodes of accumulation. In India there are additional problems. First, most of the land that has been acquired through state coercion has been gifted not to capitalists from the Global North, but to Indian and other Asian firms; accumulation in the Global North, then, cannot be used to explain accumulation in the Global South. Second, mining and the extractive industries account for 2 percent of GDP as of 2014, so we can’t say that there is a shift to extractive industries as the primary source of economic development in India. Third, most of the land that is acquired in this way is actually set aside for new real estate development—land for manufacturing and new commercial campuses—and not for extraction. Most of this land is used to bypass ailing infrastructure and to provide space for the expansion of the service sector (as in the Mahindra World City outside Jaipur), or in manufacturing (as in the Noida Special Export Processing Zone). And even here, much of the economic activity is the same that would happen in any city.

Fourth, the kind of industry that is developing in these zones relies on expanded accumulation for which the new labor rules are important—workplaces that deal in workforces of more than 300 people. Other analysts, like Kalyan Sanyal,17 use Harvey’s ideas to make radical claims that the informal sector—comprising a good chunk of the jobs of the working class—makes it impossible for workers to do anything but barely survive; claims that are belied by the rise of new slum entrepreneurs in places like Dharavi and Delhi. This should make us rethink whether it is the case that the primary struggles are no longer at the point of production. The All India Organization of Employers has produced another graph that makes the same point. If you start in 1980 and draw a line through to 2010, measuring the number of industrial disputes, there is a very clear pattern:


The fact remains that the gains in India’s growth have been concentrated at the very top. In 1971, total sales of the top twenty industrial houses in India accounted for about 61 percent of the net domestic product of the private organized sector; the corresponding figure for 1981 was 87 percent.19 To come to the situation in the early part of this century, note the continued dominance of what the business press regularly calls the “big four” of Indian business: the Tatas, the Birlas, the Ambanis and the Mittals. In key industries like energy, telecom, steel, automobiles, IT and retail, these four business houses either continue to dominate or are poised to do so in the near future.

Another measure of the concentration of Indian capital at the top can be seen from the following: In 2008, of the 500 surveyed companies, the top twenty private companies accounted for about 40 percent of the sales, 47 percent of after-tax profits, and 45 percent of market capitalization.20 This concentration of capital at the top also becomes a barrier to profitability. Michael Roberts has shown that profit rates in India are falling largely because so few firms are willing to invest in capital formation so long as the infrastructure in India is as terrible as it is. 21

Low capital investment means low productivity, which also means a severely falling rate of profit. The goal of the bourgeoisie currently is to get the state to shoulder the costs of infrastructure improvements, so it can get on with the business of investing and raising profitability again.

The fact that disciplining labor has been so important to the neoliberal project has not been accidental—it has been the primary way that accumulation has proceeded. But it is not enough to argue that labor is important economically. It also matters whether or not labor can fight back in serious and substantial enough ways to fundamentally alter the economic arrangement. Historically, there have been reasons to suspect that Indian labor unions, tied to large political parties, have been unwilling to act in decisive ways against big business.

Most of those who take labor seriously are cynical about large labor unions that are dominated by the official left (i.e. the Stalinists) as well as unions (the non-Stalinist trade union left) so tiny as to be unable to influence labor struggles in important ways. All of this is to say that getting a very good understanding of the nature of class and social struggle in the New India is a very difficult thing to do because of the ways that the working class has been defeated and the ways that the various strands of the left in India have responded to that working-class defeat.

Here’s how Craig Phelan characterizes the problem:

One reason why so little is known about Indian labor and trade unionism is its complexity and diversity. There is no coherent Indian industrial relations system; both the central and state governments have been prolific in passing labor laws. Rather than a single national trade union federation, there are no less than twelve, each of which in turn serves as the labor wing of an established political party. There are also a growing number of unaffiliated unions that, although usually lacking in resources, pursue their own agendas free from the domination of political parties. Indian trade unionism is deeply divided along ideological lines, and it is further divided by caste and community ties. By law, only seven workers are needed to form a union, and therefore an unhealthy level of union proliferation is reflected in the workplace, eroding collective bargaining strength, stifling worker militancy, and undermining any sense of working-class unity.22

Another example: by most estimates India’s informal and unorganized workforce is at about 85 to 90 percent of all workers, a massive 300 million workers. That means, that even when strikes do happen, they are limited to very small sections of the economy. The minimum wage, such as it is in India, guarantees workers in the official economy an average annual salary of around $700 a year, putting them at barely above the poverty line. For the rest of the economy, it is a one-sided class assault. This has meant that capital accumulation has proceeded virtually unabated; but does that mean the working class is increasingly irrelevant to the process of accumulation?

Ultimately the problem is not hopeless, as jobs have not shifted into the frictionless world of post-Fordist production. This is how Pranab Bardhan explains how labor was reorganized:

With the current decline of agriculture there has not been a commensurate increase in manufacturing particularly in labour-intensive industries; some of the successful cases of industries both in exports and domestic production are in capital- or skill-intensive activities (vehicles, car parts, machine tools, pharmaceuticals, etc.). The real expansion has been in the service sector, not just in business processing, software, communications and finance, but also in traditional services (like trade and transportation). The contribution of the service sector to GDP is now more than 55 percent (the major part of which, contrary to popular impression, is still in the traditional service sector). Even with the widest definition of all information technology-enabled services, they employ less than one-half of 1 percent of the total labor force.23

These facts are important because they dispel the claims that Harvey makes about where the new nodes of accumulation actually are.

Signs of hope?
For the last ten years, the Indian media has been going wild about the rising Indian middle class and its massive consumptive power as the exemplary symbol of India’s enormous economic growth rates. Much of this new Indian middle class works in the service industry, mostly private, though some are employed as civil servants. But the jewel in the crown of this new middle class has definitely been India’s much touted IT sector, even though it employees a tiny fraction of India’s workers. Still, the IT sector has been the coveted place for students to try and find jobs, so much so that it has skewed the priorities of the nation’s educational system and produced a glut in the IT job market.

But ever since 2008, with the global financial crisis, the IT sector has been facing a serious crisis. Earlier this year, India’s largest IT firm, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) announced that it would be issuing letters of termination. Rumors began to circulate that it would result in as many as 25,000 layoffs in Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad. Around the same time, Yahoo, IBM, and HP also announced that they would be laying off employees. Unions speculated that 35,000 people had already lost their jobs in the last two years for cost-cutting purposes. Until the beginning of this year, the laws that govern the IT sector had not been tested, nor was it clear that IT workers qualified as laborers protected under the Industrial Disputes Act.

The intervention of the major unions, the organization of rallies and protests, and the filing of petitions in the courts resulted finally in a ruling that IT workers were indeed workers, and that their layoffs were therefore illegal without proper legal notice. By February, the companies had all announced much smaller layoffs and the unions had revealed significant successes in organizing what was otherwise seen to be an unorganizable sector. Industry journals in the United States even began to worry that the growth of trade unions in Indian IT would put the entire model of outsourcing at risk and threaten their profits. Trade unions have continued to agitate since then for greater openness in hiring and firing in the entire IT sector. It should come as no surprise, then, that thousands of tech workers joined their fellow unionists during the most recent general strike.

These should be signs of hope for the left. They serve as a reminder that the power of capitalism to suppress working-class dissent is not total and that the working class continues to fight back. Even if the current trade union leadership has no real strategy for confronting capitalists in India, they are sometimes forced to bring their members out on strike and to fight in the streets where workers get a sense not only of their power, but who are their real allies.

The most recent mobilizations of labor in India have not been decisive, but they demonstrate both the unevenness of the gains of economic growth, as well as the real force that the working class is capable of mobilizing. What is revealed, most importantly, is that the Indian economic miracle has not been without its problems. There is no uniquely Indian fix to the problems inherent in capitalist accumulation; nor has the working class disappeared into complete inactivity. The recent massive general strikes reveal some of the strengths that labor has left, while the signs of new organizing offer some hope of renewed vibrancy as well.

“The elephant in the stats,” The Economist, April 9, 2016, http://economist.com/news/finance-and-ec….
“India stock market witnesses massive plunge,” The BRICS Post, 24 August 2015, http://thebricspost.com/india-stock-mark….
V. Sridhar, “Chronicle of a Strike,” Frontline, Volume 18, Issue 19, September 15–28, 2001.
See Nrisingha Chakrabarty, History of railway trade union movement (New Delhi: Centre of Indian Trade Unions, 1985); T.N. Siddhanta, The Railway General Strike (SI: AITUC, 1974); Stephen Sherlock, The Indian Railways Strike of 1974 (New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2001).
“Dhirubhai Ambani: Streaking up the ladder, ” India Today, October 9, 2013, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/dhiru….
The Shiv Sena was an Indian far-right regional political party whose ideology is based on pro-Marathi ideology and Hindu nationalism (Hindutva).
This is important because some, including Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam (see their Power and Contestation, India since 1989), conclude that labor has become irrelevant both to economic questions in India and to the social resistance to neoliberalism.
“Industrial Unrest: Past Trend & Lessons for the Future,” All India Organization of Employers, http://ficci.in/spdocument/20188/industr….
Source: “Industrial Disputes,” Labor Bureau, Government of India, http://labourbureau.nic.in/idtab.htm.
Statistics on 2009 labor disputes, Closures, Retrenchments, and Layoffs in India, Government of India, Ministry of Labor and Employment, http://labourbureau.nic.in/ID_2009_ALL9.pdf.
David Ashworth, “India Now Uses Gross Value Added to Calculate Economic Output,” Market Realist, 28 May 2015, http://marketrealist.com/2015/05/india-n….
Raymond Zhong and Gabriele Parussini, “Behind India’s World-Beating GDP Data, Central Bank Sees Weakness,” Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2015, http://wsj.com/articles/behind-indias-wo….
Eric Bellman, “India or China: Which Asian Giant Has More Inclusive Growth?”, http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2015/….
“No. of Indians with over $100 million hits 928,” Times of India, 17 June 2015, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/busin….
Rahul Anand and Volodymyr Tulin, “Disentangling India’s Investment Slowdown,” IMF Working Paper (WP/14/47), March 2014.
David Harvey, Limits of Capital (London: Verso Books, 2007).
Kalyan Sanyal, Rethinking Capitalist Development (New Delhi: Routledge India, 2014).
“Industrial Unrest: Past Trends & Lessons for Future,” All India Organization of Employers, 1, www.ficci.com/spdocument/20188/Industria… (1980–2010).
Pranab Bardhan, “Notes on the Political Economy of India’s Tortuous Transition,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 49 (December 5–11, 2009), 31.
The Economic Times, “Top Companies in India 2015,” http://economictimes.com/et500.
Michael Robert’s Blog, “India’s Modinomics,” https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2….
Craig Phelan, et. al., “Labor History Symposium: Workers, Unions, and Global Capitalism: Lessons from India,” Labor History 52:4, 535–562.
Pranab Bardhan, 31.

Running into the Chinese wall-Suhasini Haidar

Posted by admin On January - 5 - 2017 Comments Off on Running into the Chinese wall-Suhasini Haidar

nmhThe Masood Azhar case is a piece in the fragmenting jigsaw of global terror consensus

On December 30, China’s decision to veto India’s proposal to ban Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar at the UN capped a terrible year in bilateral ties. China’s economic corridor through Pakistan, India’s invitations to Uighur, Falun Gong and Tibetan activists, the expulsion of Chinese journalists from Mumbai, the Chinese block on Nuclear Suppliers Group membership for India, and the rumblings over the South China Sea all added to tensions between the two countries; the Chinese decision to put a permanent block on the Azhar proposal aggravated them further.

An open-and-shut case

China’s decision, to put it bluntly, was outrageous and ill-advised. In the past, Beijing blocked India’s proposals at the UN to designate Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin and Abdul Rehman Makki and Azam Cheema of the Lashkar-e-Taiba as terrorists, and blocked questions on how designated terrorists Hafiz Saeed and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi accessed funds in Pakistan despite UN sanctions. But Azhar’s case is different from all of these, for reasons that should be obvious.

Which other terrorist, for example, has actually been seen live across televisions worldwide, as Azhar was on December 31, 1999, being exchanged for hostages on the Kandahar tarmac after the hijack of IC-814? Which other terrorist has recorded in his own book (From Imprisonment to Freedom) details of the terror plot to hijack the plane, and of links to the Taliban officials who pushed Indian negotiators on the ground (including current National Security Adviser Ajit Doval) into effecting his release? And which other terrorist openly spoke of meeting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, travelling to Somalia to help recruit for al-Qaeda, and his loyalty to Taliban chief Mullah Omar, whom he described as his “beloved Amir-ul-Momineen”?

Despite all that evidence, it took two years and the 9/11 attacks for the JeM to be designated as a terror group by UNSC 1267 sanctions committee in 2001. It seems unbelievable that 15 years later, despite his complicity in everything from the Parliament attack to the Pathankot attack and everything in between, Azhar hasn’t yet been added to that list, largely due to China’s ignominious role.

It would be a mistake, however, if New Delhi sees China’s move purely in bilateral terms, and ignores the larger trend it represents: of a fragmenting global consensus on terrorism. The impact of this fragmentation can be seen at several levels now: at the UN, in the tussle between the U.S. and Russia, and for India, in regional ties.

Changing narrative

After the 9/11 attacks, the global consensus to fight the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and all allied groups was formed by the UNSC resolution on terrorism (UNSCR 1373) in 2001. Already, in 1999, the UN had set up an al-Qaeda/Taliban sanctions committee (UNSCR 1267) to impose strictures on anyone dealing with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. While the implementation of these resolutions has been questionable, there was little doubt that all member states essentially believed that the Taliban, al-Qaeda and their allies formed a common global enemy.

That narrative has since changed. In January 2010, at an international conference hosted by the U.K., the UN and the U.S. openly backed efforts to talk peace with the Taliban. In 2011, the UNSC made it simply the al-Qaeda sanctions committee, separating the Taliban committee so as to facilitate talks by delisting Taliban leaders being engaged. In December 2015, the UNSC made a further shift by renaming it “ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee” (UNSCR/2253). This renaming prompted Pakistan to ask recently, albeit mistakenly, how the banning of Azhar was even connected to the committee’s work.

Impact of U.S.-Russia ties

Apart from the UN, shifting U.S.-Russia ties have also made a great impact on the global terror consensus. In 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to speak to President George W. Bush, expressing full support for the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda, which would in turn help Russia with its Islamist threat as well. Not only that, Mr. Putin reversed Russian policy of decades, allowing the U.S. to set up bases across Central Asia and virtually take over Afghanistan’s security command.

That relationship no longer exists, and Russia is questioning the U.S. presence in its backyard again. “Russia won’t tolerate this,” Mr. Putin’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said in an interview this week, referring to the U.S.’s bases in Afghanistan as akin to having Russian bases in Mexico.

Russia’s other moves — a new closeness with China, and growing ties with Pakistan — are a third factor impacting global consensus. A trilateral meeting of the three countries last month in Moscow called for a “flexible approach” to remove some Taliban figures from the UN sanctions list as part of efforts to “foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement”. No doubt, the recent Taliban statement that it won’t target infrastructure projects in Afghanistan is significant, given China’s high-stakes ‘One Belt, One Road’ plan that runs through the region.

On the other side, the U.S. has been pushing for the removal of other groups in Afghanistan from sanctions, like the Hizb-e-Islami’s Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (a former Central Intelligence Agency-funded fighter), a move that Russia blocked at the UN.

Clearly, the global leaders are picking their teams. Ironically, neither side has yet pushed for the banning of the new Taliban chief, Haibatullah Akhundzada, a reminder of how far away we have come on that global consensus. Also lying in the dust is India’s decades-old proposal for a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.

Russia’s Pakistan engagement cannot be disconnected from India’s concerns either. It is significant that among the P5, the U.S., U.K. and France co-sponsored India’s resolution against Azhar, China vetoed it, but Russia, India’s traditional backer, did nothing at all. At the BRICS summit in October and the Heart of Asia conference in December, it was the Russia-China combine that kept India’s desire for tough statements on “cross-border terrorism” from Pakistan at bay, and it was the Russian envoy who told India not to use “multilateral forums for bilateral issues”.

Azhar’s ban is only a piece in a much larger jigsaw puzzle. The world is increasingly divided and the consensus on terror, that once helped India apply pressure on Pakistan, is now dividing along these fault lines. If India is to stick to its course, of securing its citizens and borders, the answer may lie in bridging ties with all nations involved, including some that now lie across this divide.

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

The critical communism of Antonio Labriola-Doug Enaa Greene

Posted by admin On January - 5 - 2017 Comments Off on The critical communism of Antonio Labriola-Doug Enaa Greene

nmhLinks International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from International Socialist Review with the author’s permission –– Antonio Labriola, if he is known today at all, is remembered as a minor Marxist theorist in the Second International, overshadowed by such well known figures as Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, or Eduard Bernstein. Sometimes Labriola will be mentioned as a formative influence on the Marxism of Antonio Gramsci and Leon Trotsky. Yet Labriola deserves to be known and studied based on his own merits. He provided a critique of Second International orthodox Marxism, arguing that it divorced theory and practice, engaged in sterile, dogmatic systematization, and held to an economically deterministic form of Marxism. Labriola revived Marxism as an open philosophy of praxis, that is, as a critical and revolutionary method. He did not take for granted the inevitability of historical progress, but argued that it was necessary for socialists to intervene actively in shaping it.

Antonio Labriola was born on July 2, 1843, the son of a schoolteacher, in Cassino, then part of the Papal states. In 1861, he enrolled at the University of Naples, working part time as a policeman to pay for his education. While a student, he studied philosophy under Bertrando Spaventa, a prominent Hegelian, who saw the new Italian state as the realization of the Hegelian ideal. Labriola followed his teacher by adopting Hegelianism, making him a rarity among Marxists of his generation in being immersed in classical German philosophy.

Following graduation, Labriola worked as a schoolteacher, and by the early 1870s, he took up journalism, where he espoused liberal and anticlerical views. In 1874, Labriola was appointed a professor at the University of Rome, a position he held for the remainder of his life. During the 1870s and 1880s, Labriola moved gradually to the left—as he increasingly viewed Italian unification to be incomplete and in need of a further democratic revolution. By 1890, he developed an interest in socialism, particularly the writings of Marx and Engels, eventually coming to accept the working class as the key agent to achieve revolutionary social change.

Remaining outside of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) after its foundation (discussed at length below), Labriola devoted himself principally to theoretical studies. He was one of the earliest socialists within the Second International to offer an internal critique of their systematization of Marxism that undermined its revolutionary essence. Labriola’s main theoretical works were In Memory of the “Communist Manifesto” (1895), On Historical Materialism (1896), and Socialism and Philosophy (1898). Labriola’s last work, From One Century to the Next (1900–01), published posthumously, saw him retreat from his earlier critical Marxism by arguing alongside orthodox theorists that socialist revolution was only possible after capitalism spread across the world, which led him to favor colonial expansion by Italy. Labriola died in Rome in 1904.

Revisionism and orthodoxy

During the era of the Second International, the emerging mass socialist parties adopted Marxism in order to explain the class struggle and serve as a guide to revolution and socialism. Many of the theoreticians of the International, whether Karl Kautsky or George Plekhanov, saw their task as systematizing and consolidating Marxism as a finished and coherent doctrine in order to challenge bourgeois sciences and disciplines, and to popularize it for party militants and the working class.[1] However, the success of the International ensured that when Marxism was popularized and adopted, it was often done at a very shallow level and was unable to effectively respond to bourgeois social sciences.

Furthermore, Second International Marxism was sterile in theory as well. Marxism was transformed from the theory and practice of proletarian revolution into a series of mechanical “scientific” laws that explained social development and viewed socialism as coming about “inevitably” due to the internal contradictions that doomed capitalism. Although orthodox Marxists such as Karl Kautsky, Jules Guesde, and Filippo Turati did argue for workers to engage in political struggle as opposed to passively awaiting change, in practice the only method they advocated was the “tried and true” method of parliamentary reforms.

Revisionists such as Eduard Bernstein challenged the orthodox canonization of Marxism by advocating that the socialist parties update their theories and renounce revolution as a goal, and instead become what they were in practice—parties of social reform. Many within the Second International such as Rosa Luxemburg, V. I. Lenin, Kautsky, and Plekhanov challenged Bernstein’s revisionism. Ultimately, the SPD voted down Bernstein’s revisionism in 1901 and 1903, and at the 1904 Congress of the International. However, these victories were hollow as the party continued with its reformist practices. As the SPD secretary Ignaz Auer, wrote to Bernstein in 1899, “My dear Ede, one does not formally make a decision to do the things you suggest, one doesn’t say such things, one simply does them.”[2] For them, Marxism provided an apocalyptic vision and a dogma used to mobilize the party faithful during election season and to raise funds for the organization. While orthodox Marxists such as Kautsky could explain the past and predict the future, their theory was of little use in the present. There was little conception of the role of self-emancipation of the working class or the role of politics. Kautsky wound up saying that the socialist party was “a revolutionary party, but it is not a party that makes revolutions.”[3]

In contrast to the deterministic and economistic orthodoxy, there were a host of revolutionaries in the Second International such as Lenin, Trotsky, Plekhanov, Luxemburg, and Gramsci who were antideterministic and held to the view that rather than collapsing on its own, capitalism would have to be consciously overthrown. What was needed was a revolutionary break with previous Marxist orthodoxy and revisionism.

Labriola and Italian socialism

Labriola devoted his time to, in the words of one historian, “bringing a true understanding of socialism to the Italians.”[4] Since unification in 1870, industrial capitalism developed quickly in Italy, centered on the northern cities of Turin, Milan, and Genoa.[5] Despite this great expansion of capitalism in the north in 1900, “nearly 40% of Italy’s active population were still engaged in agriculture, which provided almost 50% of the Gross National Product; by 1913 agriculture’s share of GNP had only fallen to 45%, in contrast to 27% from industry and 30% from services.”[6] Though Italian capitalism expanded rapidly, its development was uneven and, according to Second International orthodoxy, the country was not “ripe” for socialism.

In 1892, the Italian Socialist Party formed under the leadership of Filippo Turati from a fusion of various socialist groups from across Italy. The party was founded on the model of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), with “its emphasis on the need for organized political action through and under the leadership of the Party.”[7] The PSI’s dominate tendency “saw the struggle for socialism in evolutionary rather than revolutionary terms, and they believed that the class struggle should be fought through the institutions of the bourgeois state.”[8] In the face of state repression and waves of strikes, the PSI grew rapidly. From 1892 to 1900, it increased its parliamentary representation from six to thirty-two.[9] Despite an avowedly revolutionary or “maximalist” program, Turati advocated alliances with bourgeois liberals and radicals.

The PSI was steeped in a reformist practice and mindset, which the Italian ruling class recognized. Giovanni Giolitti, prime minister of Italy five times between 1892 and 1921, tried to integrate the PSI into the state through various social welfare plans and by introducing legislation that permitted the municipalization of local services, which local socialists took advantage of. However, in order to hold onto their municipal power, the PSI had to form alliances with other less radical groups. Despite its revolutionary rhetoric, reformist practice extended from the local to the parliamentary delegation, which were looking for mainstream acceptance and a place in government. Yet a significant current of revolutionaries, including Labriola, Bordiga, and Gramsci, challenged the reformist practice of the PSI. The jockeying between reformists and revolutionaries for control of the PSI would continue until 1921, when the revolutionaries finally left to form the Communist Party.

Labriola saw as key to his task of introducing Marxist theory into Italy, the assimilation of the German socialist model. As he said, “Today the signal of a new history comes from Germany!”[10] Shortly before the PSI was founded, Labriola expressed doubts; he saw its efforts as premature, due to Italian backwardness and the theoretical eclecticism of its program. When Turati abruptly changed course and accepted Labriola’s call for a disciplined socialist party guided by Marxism, Labriola saw this as an example of his opportunism: “The opportunists of the day before suddenly turned ‘Marxists, Germans, and logical lovers,’ abandoned their own program to that of their adversaries, and overnight they became founders of a socialist party by means of an amendment.”[11]

Labriola abstained from the foundation of the PSI, bluntly declaring, “I have nothing in common, either theoretically or practically, with those who in Italy declare themselves to be socialists.”[12] However, Labriola softened his opinion of the PSI in a letter to Engels, saying, “There is an embryo of something. . . . Maybe the suddenly risen small party and its program haphazardly voted on could nurture love of discipline and the decency of responsibility.”[13] Labriola hoped that a principled political party would be able to pose the correct political tasks as Italian capitalism developed. He understood that this was a long-term task: “The concept that the socialist party is a political party cannot be forced into the workers’ minds with a mandate. It is a matter of experience, tactics, education and instruction, and therefore, of time.”[14]

Less than three years later, in his essay In Memory of the “Communist Manifesto”, Labriola presented his view of what sort of workers’ party should exist. He rejected the view that social democracy was “an evident attenuation of the communist doctrine” of the Communist Manifesto.[15] Communism, for Labriola, was not the fight to eliminate this or that social evil, but an integral struggle to abolish wage labor.” Labriola warned that an authoritarian working class movement was immature and that, for social democracy, its democratic aspects were its mature features. “The Laboring masses,” he argued, “already knows . . . that the dictatorship of the proletariat, which shall have for its task the socialization of the means of production cannot be the work of . . . a few and that it must be, and that it will be, the work of the proletarians themselves when they have become in themselves and through long practice a political organization.”[16] If a socialist party was to be ready for the revolutionary tasks, then it needed to be guided by the right theory. Labriola’s Essays on the Materialistic Conception of History provided an outline of Marx and Engels’ methodology and a restatement of the dialectical view of history.

Labriola continued his reconstruction of historical materialism in Socialism and Philosophy, a series of letters he exchanged with the French syndicalist Georges Sorel. Sorel did not adhere to the determinism found within the Second International, which explained history and the behavior of people through their economic motives. Sorel took up the defense of Marxism against those he perceived as vulgarizers because, to him, the moral content was vital. He believed that Marxism needed to be renewed and saw in Labriola a kindred spirit. Sorel praised Labriola’s work on historical materialism as “indispensable for those who wish to understand proletarian ideas.”[17]

Sorel commended Labriola for breaking with the economic determinism of Marxism and stressing the importance of ethics.[18] As part of Sorel’s own revision of Marxism, he came to the conclusion that the labor “theory of value . . . no longer has any scientific usefulness and . . . gives rise to a great many misunderstandings.”[19] Labriola never contemplated his own writings being used to declare Marxist economics obsolete, so he broke relations with Sorel. In the preface to the French edition of Socialism and Philosophy, Labriola said, “What was I to do? Begin all over again? Write an anti-Sorel after I had written an avec-Sorel?”[20] Labriola was correct that Sorel’s arguments led away from Marxism. Sorel would later become famous for his work Reflections on Violence (1908) that rejected Marxism in favor of the “myth” of the general strike.

By the time Labriola died in 1904, he had grown increasingly pessimistic about the validity of Marxism. At the end of his life, he left few followers. However, Labriola’s efforts in Italy were unique in seeking to reconstruct the revolutionary essence and method of Marxism that would be continued later by Antonio Gramsci.


According to Labriola, the dialectic was key to the Marxist methodology and its revolutionary praxis, yet Labriola was unique among Italian socialists for upholding the Hegelian dialectic model. For Turati, philosophy and method could be bent to the political needs of the moment. Central to the revisionist objection to Marxism was a blistering assault on the dialectic, which led to revolutionary putsches. Eduard Bernstein declared, for example, “In Germany, Marx and Engels, working on the basis of the radical Hegelian dialectic, arrived at a doctrine very similar to Blanquism.”[21] For Bernstein, Blanquism was defined not just as coup d’états initiated by small conspiracies, but was the “the theory of the immeasurable creative power of revolutionary political force and its manifestation, revolutionary expropriation,” and could be found in the Communist Manifesto.[22] With such a broad definition of “Blanquism,” Bernstein could (and did) condemn any and all revolutionary actions as “Blanquist.”[23] Although Labriola was writing a few years before Bernstein, he saw a defence of the dialectic as upholding the revolutionary heart of Marxism.

However, what was the “dialectic”? Needless to say there is an on-going debate among Marxists (of many tendencies) as to what exactly the dialectic is and how essential it is to understanding the categories of historical materialism, political economy, classes, ideology, the state, hegemony, praxis, etc. At its best, dialectics has offered Marxists a creative method to accommodate complexity, motion, and change in their categories. All too often, though, dialectics has been reduced to a dogma or an empty platitude that can be used to justify anything.

It is outside the limits of this essay to declare a final verdict on the role of dialectics in Marxism. Rather, the purpose here is to demonstrate how Labriola understood dialectics as a critical revolutionary method. According to Labriola, dialectics is the “rhythmic movement of understanding which tries to reproduce the general outline of reality in the making.”[24] Defined by Engels, “dialectics . . . comprehends things and their representations, ideas in their essential connection, concatenation, motion, origin and ending.”[25] Labriola argued that one of the accomplishments of Marxism was that it was a realistic process as opposed to Hegelian idealism, “which regard actually existing things as mere reflexes, reproductions, imitations, illustrations, results, of so-called a priori thought, thought before the fact.”[26]

Marxism cast aside “the rhythmic movement of the idea itself (the spontaneous generation of thought!)” for “the rhythmic movements of real things adopted, a movement which ultimately produces thought.”[27] In other words, Marxism was concerned with material reality and “man as a social and historical being.”[28] As Labriola wrote:

History is the work of man in so far as man can create and improve his instruments of labor, and with these instruments can create an artificial environment whose complicated effects react later upon himself, and which by its present state and its successive modifications is the occasion and the condition of his development. There are, then, no reasons for carrying back that work of man, which is history to the simple struggle for existence. If this struggle modifies and improves the organs of animals, and if in given circumstances and methods it produces and develops new organs, it still does not produce that continuous, perfected and traditional movement which is the human processus.[29]

Thus the premise from which historical materialism begins is that of living people engaged socially in production to satisfy their needs. Humans are distinguished from animals in producing their own means of subsistence and therefore take an active role in producing their material existence. According to Marx and Engels,

This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.[30]

Throughout history, different modes of production have followed one another, such as slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. Labriola, however, did not believe that historical materialism was deterministic, or that the succession of different modes of production could be reduced to a Darwinian evolutionary law with “mythical, mystical or metaphorical form of fatalism.”[31] In fact, Labriola rejected the twin shoals that plagued orthodox Marxists of the Second International: conflating Marxism with Darwinism (Kautsky) and positivism (Turati).

Labriola recognized that there was a parallel between Darwin and Marx since neither offered a “vision of a great plan or of a design, but it is merely a method of research and of conception.”[32] Yet he rejected attempts to conflate the two doctrines; rather, Labriola argued that “history is the work of man” and therefore, radically open.[33] Positivism, as upheld by August Comte, extended natural scientific methods to those of society and history. This conception of the scientific method was evolutionary and empirical, believing that once phenomena are known, they could be controlled through various measures of reform. It is no accident that revisionists who believed in measures of piecemeal reform embraced positivism.

Labriola rejected positivism and deliberately wrote in a fragmentary manner as opposed to laying out an overarching worldview: “For twenty years I have detested systematic philosophy. This attitude of my mind made me not only more apt to accept Marxism.”[34] Labriola’s choice of terms—rejecting “science” in favor of “critical communism”—showed his distance from positivism. He rejected efforts to combine Marxism and positivism: “What a fine sight! Materialism – Positivism– Dialectics, a holy trinity!”[35] Instead, Labriola defended the Hegelian roots of Marxism and that humanity could produce itself through its own praxis.

While it is true that historical change does rest on the development of new techniques of production that give rise to new forms of distribution and inequalities, with their totality forming a new mode of production. Yet the “discovery of these instruments is at once the cause and the effect of these conditions and of those forms of the inner life to which, isolating them by psychological abstraction, we give the name of imagination, intellect, reason, thought, etc.”[36] In other words, humans have the unique ability to change themselves while altering their circumstances—something that distinguishes their behavior from that of animals, because we labor with consciousness and purpose: “Man has made his history not by a metaphorical evolution nor with a view of walking on a line of preconceived progress. He has made it by creating his own conditions, that is to say, by creating through his labor an artificial environment, by developing successively his technical aptitudes and by accumulating and transforming the products of his activity in this new environment.”[37]

Labriola’s recognition of the active role of human labor in history was missing in the orthodox Marxist accounts of his contemporaries.


For the revisionists of the Second International, the “march of history” was a slow development of the productive forces that would inevitably lead to socialism without breaks, leaps, or ruptures. Revisionist social democrats believed that their victory must result from the numerical growth of the working class and the steady increase of their political representatives in parliament. This belief in the ideology of progress led some revisionists, such as Eduard Bernstein, to defend colonial conquest. As he wrote, “To put it briefly, strongly as we criticise present civilization, we acknowledge its relative acquisitions, and make them a criterion of our sympathy. We will condemn and oppose certain methods of the subjugation of savage races, but not that savage races are at all subjugated and compelled to conform with the rules of higher civilization.”[38]

Even the standard bearer of Second International orthodox Marxism, Kautsky, grew increasingly fatalistic as time passed. He saw socialism as coming about inevitably due to the processes at work under capitalism. He wrote in The Road to Power, for example:

We know that our objectives can be attained only through a revolution, but at the same time we know that it is just as little in our power to make this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. . . . The proletariat is constantly growing in numbers and in moral and economic strength . . . so its victory and the defeat of capitalism are inevitable.[39]

Kautsky’s Marxism explicitly drew on evolution, Darwinism, and comparing Marx’s laws to those of nature. “They [Marx and Engels] started out from Hegel; I started out from Darwin. The latter occupied my thoughts earlier than Marx, the development of organisms earlier than that of the economy, the struggle for the existence of species and races earlier than the class struggle.”[40]

Despite his opposition to revisionism, Kautsky was operating on the same terrain as Bernstein. He did not understand the Hegelian dialectic that overcoming the contradictions of human society was by necessity dynamic, violent, and revolutionary. And while he did defend the necessity of human agency, in practice Kautsky’s Marxism represented a “religion of consolation.” Indeed, in The Road to Power he explicitly advocated the “democratic-proletarian” method of struggle, which he defined as the “so-called peaceful method of class struggle, which confines itself to the non-military means of parliamentarism, strikes, demonstrations, the press, and similar means of exerting pressure.”[41] In short, he explicitly ruled out violent social revolution.

Labriola recognized that there was a parallel between Darwin and Marx, since neither offered a “vision of a great plan or of a design, but . . . merely a method of research and of conception.”[42] Yet he rejected attempts to conflate the two doctrines, since Marxism does not need to “invoke anew the conception of a mythical, mystical or metaphorical form of fatalism.”[43] Marxism’s approach rejected evolutionary gradualism and the ideology of progress in favor of revolutionary leaps. Labriola viewed progress not as a straight line where humanity is on a steady upward march of civilization and enlightenment. Rather, progress was traversed with contradictions:

Progress has been and is, up to the present time, partial and one-sided. The minorities, which share in it, call this human progress; and the proud evolutionists call this human nature, which is developing. All this partial progress, which has thus far developed upon the oppression of man by man, has its foundation in the conditions of opposition, by which economic distinctions have engendered all the social distinctions; from the relative liberty of the few is born the servitude of the greater number, and law has been the protector of injustice. Progress, thus seen and clearly appreciated, appears to us as the moral and intellectual epitome of all human miseries and of all material inequalities.[44]

Labriola’s critique of orthodox Marxist ideologies of progress echoed those of the revolutionaries Louis-Auguste Blanqui and Walter Benjamin, who both saw the alleged progress of bourgeois civilization as founded upon the backs of the toiling and exploited masses. According to Benjamin, capitalist progress was not an unmitigated good, but a storm that not only brought with it great advances in technology, production, and medicine, but also the horrors of colonialism, fascism, and environmental devastation which threatened the human species. “There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.”[45] Instead of waiting for the “march of progress” to take its course, which could bring humanity to ruin, a revolution would break with progress by settling accounts with the past and completing “the work of emancipation in the name of generations of downtrodden to its conclusion” to finally abolish class society.[46]

For Blanqui, progress was not something to be celebrated, but to behold in all its horror. “All the atrocities of the victor,” he wrote, “its long series of crimes are coldly transformed into a regular, inescapable evolution, like that of nature . . . [Capital] sacrifices with neither pity nor scruple all the martyrs of thought or justice . . . It does not dare condemn them, it confines itself to concealing their names . . . and to simply erasing them from history.”[47]

Like Benjamin, Labriola saw history, as a series of brutal struggles between the oppressed and oppressors, and that labor, far from liberating humanity, “has been the means of oppressing the vast majority.” The great advancements of industry and productive technique have come through crushing the worker, turning work into mindless and debilitating toil, where workers are reduced to the status of animals in order to produce profit to enrich a very few. Labriola likened history to an inferno that might be presented as a sombre drama, entitled “The Tragedy of Labor.”[48] Rather than accept socialism as the final result flowing from the unfolding of historical laws, Labriola saw history as open, with different outcomes where “progress and retrogression are inherent in the conditions and the rhythm of social development.”[49]

For Labriola socialism was not the culmination of bourgeois civilization: a great chasm separated these two epochs. He stated, “There is such a decisive break that no ingenious device will be able to derive the one from the other as if by means of the magic of legislative provisions.”[50] In other words, socialism was a break with both bourgeois politics and its false concepts of progress.


One of the defects of orthodox Second International Marxism (but by no means limited to it) was its tendency towards economism and class reductionism. For social democracy, which utilized a crude form of the base-superstructure metaphor, politics and ideology were a simple reflection of the economic base. This meant that social democrats saw the growth of their political power and socialist consciousness naturally resulting from the numerical expansion of the proletariat and the intensification of capitalism’s economic contradictions. Thus, ideas and politics were directly determined by changes in the economic base. There was no understanding of the relative autonomy of the base and superstructure or their mutual and dialectical interaction. According to the tenets of orthodoxy, socialists knew the end result of capitalist crises—breakdown and collapse. The “laws of history” would bring them to power; therefore they saw no need to develop a specifically socialist theory of politics, conjunctural analysis, or to encourage revolutionary action. Labriola’s approach was unique among the Marxists of his generation in challenging both economic determinism and reductionism. Both Plekhanov and Trotsky praised his contribution to this debate.[51]

According to Labriola, Marxism was not to be understood primarily as an economic interpretation of history. Nor was it to be understood as simply the interaction of multiple factors, “on the one side the economic forms and categories, and on the other, for example, law, legislation, politics, customs” which are taken separately and reciprocally influence each other.[52] Labriola saw Marxism as “the organic conception of history.”[53] The organic conception of history (re) introduced totality—where seemingly separate parts of the whole relate to one another and form a whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts—back into Marxism.[54]  “Separating in theory the factors of an organism,” Labriola argued, “destroys them in so far as they are elements contributing to the unity of the whole.”[55] These factors cannot be separated from the whole, of which they form a part. Instead of a theory of multiple factors, historical materialism seeks to discover what “distinguishes and separates the elements to find again in them the objective necessity of their cooperation toward the total result.”[56] Thus Marxism, when looking at one factor, continually looks at its interrelations with other factors as part of a wider whole.

The result is that Marxism is not merely interested in changes in the mode of production or the contradictions of capitalism; “the totality of the unity of social life is the subject matter present to our minds.”[57] Labriola strongly criticized a strict focus on economics, which he claimed

dissolves in the course of one process, to reappear in as many morphological stages, in each of which it serves as a substructure for all the rest. Finally, it is not our method to extend the so-called economic factor isolated in an abstract fashion over all the rest, as our adversaries imagine, but it is, before everything else, to form an historic conception of economics and to explain the other changes by means of its changes. There lies our answer to all the criticisms, which come to us from all the domains of learned ignorance, not excepting the socialists who are insufficiently grounded and who are sentimental or hysterical.[58]

For Labriola, an economistic approach was foreign to Marxism (contrary to the reigning orthodoxy) and was actually more characteristic of the one-sided approach of a bourgeois viewpoint. The concept of totality, Labriola stressed, had to be understood in a flexible manner.

The underlying economic structure, which determines all the rest, is not a simple mechanism whence emerge, as immediate, automatic and mechanical effects, institutions, laws, customs, thoughts, sentiments, ideologies. From this substructure to all the rest, the process of derivation and of mediation is very complicated, often subtle, tortuous and not always legible.[59]

This meant that within the totality of social relations, a process of mediation is involved with connections between, for example, the base and superstructure, that are established by way of an intermediary, where something acts on something else. An example of mediation between humanity and nature would be labor or productive activity. A study of the mediated whole in all its relations is the “stage on which the events unfold, but if the narration is to have solidity, vividness and perspective there must be points of departure and ways of interpretation.”[60] For Labriola, a mediated totality in its movement is the method of Marxism, in contrast to reductionist efforts to dissolve complex relationships into isolated and fragmented factors.

However, in analyzing a social totality, it is important not to allow this process to become an inflexible and immobile system of categories. Warned Labriola: “In this consists the first origin of those abstractions, which little by little take away from the different parts of a given social complexus their quality of simple sides or aspects of a whole, and it is their ensuing generalization which little by little leads to the doctrine of factors.”[61]

Ossification, something that occurred commonly in bourgeois thought, saw things as fixed and natural, not as possessing movement and contradiction. And Labriola saw a similar process occurring in orthodox Marxism, which reduced historical materialism to a popularized economic determinism.

Labriola argued that factors of abstraction or reduction “arise in the mind as a sequence . . . of the immediate aspects of the apparent movement, and they have an equal value with that of all other empirical concepts.”[62] This one-sided mode of thought or bourgeois ideology will persist until something new comes along and is “eliminated by a new experience, or until [it is] absorbed by a conception more general, genetic, evolutionary or dialectic.”[63] What Labriola urged was the necessity of developing a revolutionary ideology to overcome bourgeois forms of thought and to perceive capitalism as a totality in motion.

The father of Russian Marxism, George Plekhanov, praised Labriola in his 1897 essay The Materialist Conception of History for his “refutation of the theory of factors . . . by a synthetic view of social life.”[64] Plekhanov welcomed Labriola’s critique of the theory of factors, noting that while factors are useful as abstractions, they have an inclination to become frozen categories:

Thanks to the process of abstraction, various sides of the social complex assume the form of separate categories, and the various manifestations and expressions of the activity of social man—morals, law, economic forms, etc.—are converted in our minds into separate forces which appear to give rise to and determine this activity and to be its ultimate causes.[65]

Leon Trotsky shared with Plekhanov an appreciation of Labriola’s view of history, which he considered to be a critical and dialectical approach to Marxism. Trotsky’s starting point as a Marxist built on Labriola’s method of a critical dialectic that restored totality to Marxism. “Marxism is above all a method of analysis—not analysis of texts, but analysis of social relations.”[66] Trotsky’s critical Marxism and rejection of economic determinism can be seen in his 1906 work, Results and Prospects where he first formulated the theory of permanent revolution and broke with those who argued that underdeveloped Russia was only ripe for a bourgeois revolution. “To imagine that the dictatorship of the proletariat is in some way automatically dependent on the technical development and resources of a country is a prejudice of ‘economic’ materialism simplified to absurdity. This point of view has nothing in common with Marxism.”[67] It is no accident that Trotsky’s conception of Marxism with the theory of permanent revolution, critical dialectical method, and anti-economism owed a great deal to his engagement with Antonio Labriola.

In stressing the importance of Marxist theory, Labriola recognized the role of the superstructure in effecting change at the base—when members of a class know in a practical way the conditions of their lives in a historical situation, they are able to intervene to change the situation. Yet how can experiences, ideas, and politics overcome the tendency of capitalism to reinforce our conception of things as eternal and fixed? It is to that question we now turn.

The class struggle

Overcoming the immediacy and narrow horizon of a bourgeois worldview required experience and a critical theory that emerged from within the totality itself. “The social organization,” Labriola wrote, “is as we already know, constantly unstable, although that does not seem evident to every one, except at the time when the instability enters upon that acute period which is called a revolution.”[68] The totality is not just mediated but is traversed with contradictions—such as those between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, between the forces and relations of production, and so on.

Labriola, in line with the mainstream of the Second International, understood that capitalism was not a harmonious system, but suffered from crises and instability. However, his view of capitalism differed remarkably from both orthodox and revisionist currents within the International. On the one hand, orthodox Marxists, as we have seen, saw capitalism collapsing under the weight of its contradictions, which occurred inevitably due to the force of iron “historical laws.” For the revisionists, capitalism was already overcoming its contradictions. The ruling class was capable of adopting various “means of adaptation” such as cartels, syndicates, trusts, systems of credit, improved communication, and transportation—all of which mitigated the possibility of severe crises by regulating and rationalizing production. Revisionists also viewed the state as open to democratization and social reform, thereby providing an alternative to revolution.

Labriola rejected both of these views. It was not capitalism, but the class struggle that was the force of progress: “It is the antagonisms which are the principal cause of progress.”[69] Capitalism was not to be opposed with the “higher” moral ideal of socialism (as Bernstein claimed), but rather stood itself condemned based on its very existence, which ensured misery for the many and profit for the few. As he said, “The real criticism of society is society, itself.”[70]  Labriola did not see capitalism collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions, but due to the class action of the proletariat. “The solution of the existing antitheses is the proletariat, which the proletarians themselves know or do not know.”[71]

Labriola saw the importance of Marxism, or “critical communism, to this struggle because of its understanding of history and class struggle.”[72] Indeed, Marxism was not just an objective science to study society, but was a tool that provided the proletariat with “strength enough to understand that these conditions can be changed and to discern what means can modify them and in what direction.”[73] In other words, Marxism was the theory and the practice of working-class revolution, which made it into “a weapon of war.”[74]

Labriola’s defense of Marxism as a revolutionary method anticipated the later efforts of Karl Korsch. Korsch’s 1923 work, Marxism and Philosophy, argued similarly to Labriola that for orthodox Marxists of the Second International, theory had ceased to be a guide for practice, but was viewed as “more and more as a set of purely scientific observations, without any immediate connection to the political or other practices of class struggle.”[75] Korsch said that orthodox Marxism was disconnected into “separate branches of knowledge that are isolated and autonomous, and with purely theoretical investigations that are scientifically objective in dissociation from revolutionary practice,” instead of being “a theory of social revolution, comprehended and practised as a living totality.”[76]

The philosophy of praxis

Marxism would overcome one-sided, bourgeois forms of thought, Labriola contended, with a new conception of history—by providing an understanding of the social totality of capitalism, its contradictions, laws of motion, and forms of mediation. By recognizing the proletarian class struggle as the driving force for surmounting these contradictions, communism ceased “to be a hope, an aspiration, a remembrance, a conjecture, and expedient, [and] found for the first time its adequate expression in the realization of its very necessity, that is to say, in the realization that it is the outcome and the solution of the struggles of existing classes.”[77] Communism, as Marxism declares, is not simply a moral idea but a material necessity.

If Marxism was a guide for the proletariat, then it cannot be a theory that is cut off from the class struggle or above the workers, but must be “the immanent philosophy of things about which people philosophize. The realistic process leads first from life to thought, not from thought to life.”[78] Historical materialism dissolves the division between subject and object, thought and being, theory and practice via the dialectic of praxis. Labriola’s conception of historical materialism, or what he calls the philosophy of practice, “takes account of man as a social and historical being. It gives the last blow to all forms of idealism which regard actually existing things as mere reflexes, reproductions, imitations, illustrations, results, of so-called a priori thought, thought before the fact.”[79]

For Labriola, then, historical materialism must be taken as a “three-fold theory,” namely:

As a philosophical method for the general understanding of life and the universe, as a critique of political economy reducible to certain laws only because it represents a certain historical phase, and as an interpretation of politics, above all of those political movements which are necessary and serviceable for the march of the working class toward socialism.[80]

Marxist theory is useless or, at best, a mere social science, unless it is joined with the practice of working-class struggle and revolution.

The reconstruction of Marxism

Antonio Gramsci, writing decades later on Marxist theory in a fascist prison, hailed Labriola’s effort for reinvigorating the entire Marxist project as “an independent and original philosophy, which contains in itself the elements of a further development, so as to become, from an interpretation of history, a general philosophy.”[81] Labriola’s undertaking resonated with Gramsci, who was also challenging orthodox canonizations and deformations of Marxism in his own era. Gramsci and Labriola (not to mention Georg Lukacs and V. I. Lenin) shared the common purpose of affirming the relationship of Marxist philosophy and politics.[82]

Gramsci’s effort at reforming Marxism would be tragically cut short, not only by his death in Mussolini’s prisons, but also because Soviet orthodoxy and the Italian Communist Party (that turned him into a harmless saint) saw a critical and revolutionary Marxism as a challenge to their own dogmatism and reformism. Labriola faced similar dilemmas to those of Gramsci. Orthodox Marxism was popularized and reduced to a series of rigid mechanical laws, which acted almost as a magical talisman permitting its users to understand history and predict the future:

Only the love of paradox inseparable from the zeal of the passionate popularizers of a new doctrine can have brought some to believe that to write history it was sufficient to put on record merely the economic moment (often still unknown and often unknowable), and thereupon to cast to the earth all the rest as a useless burden with which men had capriciously loaded themselves, as a superfluity, a mere trifle, or even, as it were, something not existent.[83]

At best, this deterministic Marxism might serve as a simplistic form of “common sense” for true believers and party cadre living in hope of the socialist millennium, but at worst it allows for “revolutionary” justification for increasingly revisionist practices and a disavowal of activism since history is supposedly “on our side.” For Labriola, this form of Marxism is completely unsuited as a revolutionary method.

Labriola saw the dangers within the socialist movement that resulted from “a scarcity of intellectual forces in our ranks, the more so as the genuine laborers, for obvious reasons, often protest against the speakers and writers of the party.”[84] This was something understandable during his era, since historical materialism was a new conception for looking at the world. Early efforts at comprehending Marxism, he noted, “merely repeat or ape the fundamental statements in a way that sometimes approaches the burlesque.”[85] Labriola himself complained that the writings of Marx and Engels were nearly impossible to find leading to the sad fate that Marxism was known only a by a select few: “The reading of all the writings of the founders of scientific socialism has so far been largely a privilege of the initiated!”[86] This naturally created a divide within the socialist parties between an intellectual leadership informed by deterministic Marxist theory and a mass of workers who understood that same theory through simplistic and banal popularizations.

It would take time for a new theory to be understood by militants in all its complexity. Indeed, initially it would only be learned by rote. Labriola saw this as a stage that socialists needed to overcome if Marxism was to become a philosophy of praxis. Marxism was not simply quotations from Marx and Engels, nor was it confined to them. Rather, Marxism was a “many-sided tendency and a complex theory” and revolutionaries seeking to critically “apply it to the practical questions of present-day politics must find special modes of orientation. Since this theory is in its very essence critical, it cannot be continued, applied, and improved, unless it criticises itself.”[87] Marxism, if it is to be revolutionary, that is to say Marxist, needed to be approached not in the spirit of Biblical verses, but as a critical method of both practice and analysis of that practice, in order to guide the working class to communism.

Many of the tendencies in socialism, which Labriola warned of—dogmatism, economic determinism, the divorce of theory from practice, and a belief in the inevitability of progress—have recurred throughout subsequent Marxist movements, always with detrimental effects. Labriola’s attempt at a reconstruction of Marxism to overcome these errors was largely ignored. Yet Labriola’s goal should be ours as well—to use Marxism as a critical and revolutionary method in order to guide the struggle of the working class.

For my friend and comrade, ISH.


[1] Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (New York: Verso, 1976), 6.

[2] J. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 101.

[3] Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power (Alameda: Center for Socialist History, 2007), 41.

[4] Richard Drake, Apostles and Agitators: Italy’s Marxist Revolutionary Tradition (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2003), 87.

[5] Dick Geary, ed., Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe Before 1914 (Providence: Berg Publishers, 1989), 210–11.

[6] Ibid., 207–08.

[7] Ibid., 188–09.

[8] Ibid., 188.

[9] Ibid., 190.

[10] Antonio Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy (St. Louis: Telos Press Ltd, 1980), 29.

[11] Quoted in Paul Piccone, Italian Marxism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 75.

[12] Ibid., 72.

[13] Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 34–35.

[14] Ibid., 35.

[15] Antonio Labriola, Essays on the Materialistic Conception of History (New York: Cosimo Books, 2005), 61.

[16] Ibid., 59.

[17] Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 182.

[18] Georges Sorel, “The Ethics of Socialism” in From Georges Sorel: Essays in Socialism and Philosophy, ed. John L. Stanley (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002), 106; Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 43–46.

[19] Quoted in Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology, 42.

[20] Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 173.

[21] Eduard Bernstein, The Preconditions of Socialism (New York: University of Cambridge, 1993), 37.

[22] Ibid., 38–39.

[23] Michael Lowy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (London: Verso, 1981), 16–17.

[24] Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 153.

[25] Frederick Engels, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/ch02.htm

[26] Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 95.

[27] Ibid., 94–95.

[28] Ibid., 95.

[29] Labriola, Essays on the Materialist Conception of History, 120.

[30] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “The German Ideology,” The Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm

[31] Labriola, Essays, 120–21.

[32] Ibid., 135.

[33] Ibid., 122.

[34] Labriola Socialism and Philosophy, 117–18.

[35] Ibid., 120; Russell Jacoby, Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 45–46.

[36] Labriola, Essays on the Materialist Concept of History, 121.

[37] Ibid., 77.

[38] Quoted in Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, ed., Discovering Imperialism: Social Democracy to World War I (Brill: Boston, 1912), 11.

[39] Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power, 41.

[40] Quoted in John Rees, The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition (New York: Routledge Books, 1998), 131. It should be noted, though, that there is disagreement among scholars as to the degree to which Kautsky’s Darwinism influenced his Marxism. See, for example, Richard Weikert, “Karl Kautsky: Apostle of Socialist Darwinism,” in Socialist Darwinism (University of Iowa, 1996 dissertation) ; available at https://www.csustan.edu/history/socialist-darwinism

[41] Road to Power, 42.

[42] Labriola, Essays, 135.

[43] Ibid., 120–21.

[44] Ibid., 139.

[45] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm

[46] Ibid. Also Michael Lowy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” (New York: Verso, 2005), 59–60.

[47] Quoted in Daniel Bensaïd and Michael Lowy, “Auguste Blanqui, heretical communist,” Radical Philosophy 185 (May/Jun 2014): 28.

[48] Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 127.

[49] Labriola, Essays, 236.

[50] Labriola Socialism and Philosophy, 24.

[51] Trotsky wrote: “It was in my cell that I read with delight two well-known essays by an old Italian Hegelian-Marxist, Antonio Labriola, which reached the prison in a French translation. Unlike most Latin writers, Labriola had mastered the materialist dialectics, if not in politics—in which he was helpless—at least in the philosophy of history. The brilliant dilettantism of his exposition actually concealed a very profound insight. He made short work, and in marvelous style, of the theory of multiple factors which were supposed to dwell on the Olympus of history and rule our fates from there.” My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931), 119. Plekhanov, in an 1891 essay “The Materialist Conception of History,” a piece devoted to examining Labriola’s thought, wrote, “Labriola firmly, and fairly consistently, adheres to the materialist conception of history.” https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1897/history/part1.htm

[52] Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., 26.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid., 85–86.

[58] Ibid., 86.

[59] Ibid., 152.

[60] Ibid., 145.

[61] Ibid., 145 and Rees, Algebra of Revolution, 260.

[62] Labriola, Essays, 145.

[63] Ibid.

[64] George Plekhanov, “The Materialist Conception of History,” Marxists Internet Archive https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1897/history/part1.htm ; An extended discussion on Labriola and Plekhanov can be found in Paul Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (New York: Manchester University Press, 2006), 59–65.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), 64.

[67] For more on Trotsky’s engagement with Labriola see Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at Autobiography (New York: Pathfinder Press, 2001), 167–198; Lowy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development, 46–47.

[68] Labriola, Essays, 152.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid., 169.

[71] Ibid., 170.

[72] Ibid., 26.

[73] Ibid., 27.

[74] Ibid., 26.

[75] Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 60.

[76] Ibid., 57, 60.

[77] Labriola, Essays, 16.

[78] Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 94.

[79] Ibid., 95.

[80] Ibid., 71.

[81] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 390.

[82] Peter D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Boston: Brill, 2009), 22–23.

[83] Labriola, Essays, 109.

[84] Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 65.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Ibid., 67.

[87] Ibid., 75.

Doug Enaa Greene Gramsci history Italy Labriola Lenin Rosa Luxemburg
Add new comment
Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Ahmed Shawki: Perspectives for the Left - Socialism 2013 Tsar To Lenin Tariq Ali & Oliver Stone "Untold History of the US" (May, 2013) Marx's Early Writings: Once More Unto the Breach: Video 2 of 2 Marx's Early Writings: Once More Unto the Breach: Video 1 of 2 Marxism & the Legacy of Subaltern Studies Tariq Ali: the crisis in Syria - questions and answers Scotland: Tariq Ali on independence;Dismantling the British State: Strategy, Tactics and Ideology Luxemburg, Lenin, Levi: Rethinking revolutionary history The power of the people Anti Stalin Left . How should socialists organise? Paul Le Blanc, Gilbert Achcar discuss Leninism, left unity, revolutionary parties Is religion good or evil? Michael Lebowitz: Primitive accumulation versus contested reproduction Adam Hanieh: A strategic overview of the struggles in the Middle East Relevance of Marxism Today The future of the Bolivarian Revolution after Hugo Chavez Enter the video embed code here. Remember to change the size to 310 x 250 in the embed code.

Recent Comments

There is something about me..

Recent Comments

Recent Posts