K Murali (Ajith) and K.P Sethunath in conversation. (Part 4)
The Socialist Societies
Q. I’m not trying to reduce the positive gains which have been achieved due to the socialist revolution, but mistakes have taken place which overshadow these aspects. These mistakes cannot be rejected or set aside easily. One could even say that these societies failed because of these mistakes. One could say these are the challenges facing any communist society in the future
K.M: Yes, they cannot be reduced in their gravity, we must learn from them and seek out methods of overcoming them. But I don’t think that those mistakes were such that they overshadow the positive aspects. Because what they tried to do was create a new type of society which has never before existed in the world. Therefore we must certainly take that into consideration. We must also take into consideration the historical limitations. The first experience of Russia, or the developments in China, for example. An objective analysis in valuation would only be possible when the gains and the losses are understood and analysed from a historical perspective. And when that is done, the gains easily outweigh the errors. They have certainly succeeded in creating a new value system, something never seen in the world. They have proved that things earlier considered as impossible are quite possible. That is why I say that the gains stand out. Secondly, I do not agree that the mistakes made there were responsible for their being overthrown. There has been a very specific issue of the seizure of power. The seizure of power by the new capitalist forces who grew up in that society was itself the most decisive thing that brought about a qualitative change. The change from Mao to Deng Xiaoping in China was not something about weaknesses. Rather it was a seizure of power by the new capitalist class that emerged in Chinese society.Therefore the change that took place after that, the shift from the central slogan of ‘serving the people’ to ‘there is nothing bad in making money’ (put forward by Deng), this is a change from one value system to the capitalist value system. It is incompatible with socialism. Beyond internal weakness, what is decisive is this seizure of power
Q. Isn’t this seizure of power itself something that has emerged from internal weakness?
K.M: No, not weakness, but an inevitability. Because, when the old exploiting classes are eliminated, as Marx and others have pointed out, bourgeois right does not cease to exist in society. They give rise to a new capitalist class which becomes the basis within socialism for a new capitalism. This is something that was pointed out as a new understanding. Therefore this is something that has emerged from the transition to socialism itself. It is not a weakness. Rather it is something that will be there along with it. Recognising this and taking up the struggle against it was an awareness achieved by the communist movement during Mao’s period. During Lenin’s or Stalin’s period, the communist movement did not have this awareness. Therefore all of these attempts were understood as sabotage carried out by the reactionary forces of the country under the instigation of imperialism. Quite opposite to this, during the period of the Cultural Revolution, the title of an important ideological essay was ‘How is it that those who were revolutionaries in the new democratic revolution stage have become counter-revolutionaries in the socialist revolution stage?’ The same people who then played a role in the revolution have changed to a counter- revolutionary role today, why is that? This essay attempts to analyse the material basis of this transition taking up the issue of bourgeois right. Which is why I say this is not a matter of weakness, but something that inevitably comes up. Then, so far as the matter of the political right to express yourself and all that is concerned, there are a lot of new things that emerged during the Cultural Revolution. The right of people to express their opinion, the right to strike as a constitutional right, were accepted in a socialist country for the first time.The reasoning till then was that the state is that of the proletariat, and therefore there was no necessity for the proletarian class to carry out struggle against institutions of its own. Contrary to this, the understanding that there is a contradiction between the management and workers and the narrow interests of the management could become anti-worker, was achieved during Mao’s period. That was the basis on which the right to strike was incorporated after the Cultural Revolution. The right to openly criticise and so on, several novel democratic rights, these were certainly a success. This naturally brings up the question of whether it was complete, or whether it fulfilled all the necessities, or was that enough? No, we certainly have to go beyond that. But we must always remember that, compared to the societies before it, this society is a period of transition. Socialism is not the ultimate aim, rather this is a period of transition. And during the transition period, on the one hand, the state is a necessity, on the other it has to head towards a situation where the state becomes unnecessary. If this contradiction is to be handled, there has to be an understanding of how this orientation will be maintained by the proletariat. This particular task will come up there. This is true of all states, of all ruling classes, it is an essential question. For example, in a capitalist society, it is through the permanent bureaucracy, army, judiciary and such institutions that the bourgeois class ensures the continuity of its class interests. Political parties may change through elections, one or the other may be in government, but continuity is ensured by these institutions. These institutions cannot be relied upon in a socialist society. They are institutions that are alienated from the masses. Then what can one rely upon? That is where the issue of the party comes up. This is how the understanding comes of the party’s control or monopoly of power. But that itself raises new questions. Because once that comes, then the changes that take place in the party, the monopolist nature it acquires, or the bureaucracy that grows within the party as a result of this, the situation where it gets alienated from the masses, all these were important topics during the Cultural Revolution. A lot of changes were brought about in that period, but at the same time it couldn’t be abandoned altogether, and remained as a challenge. What I would like to stress is that there is no point in blaming that there was no democracy there, or this and that wasn’t there, while ignoring this material reality. These are issues that come up as a result of this change, so both they and the resolution must be seen in that way. This is what is to be done in the new context. The duty before us is to take up things from where it has ended and forge ahead.
Q. These types of internal contradictions of the communist project can come up in the construction of socialism in the future also. There is an argument that this reflects the philosophical inadequacy of Marxism, and in that sense, Marxism itself has become obsolete. Though these arguments have come up in Europe in the 1970’s itself, they came up in Keralam after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90’s. In Keralam’s context, this argument found acceptability as postmodernism. As a result of the upsurge of these postmodern ideas, Marxism has been thoroughly pushed to the back-foot. How do you look at this situation with your understanding of Maoism?
K.M: The setback that took place in the socialist societies, and its reasons were analyzed by Mao on the basis of the basic positions of Marxism itself. These are not problems of the philosophical inadequacy of Marxism. In an interim period, mechanical thinking did indeed influence/dominate Marxism. A linear way of understanding things was predominant. Mao was able to rupture from that and develop a new orientation. And that is why there was a development of ideology from Marxism-Leninism to Maoism. That is why we say there has been an advance. Therefore Mao was able to analyze the problems of the Soviet economy on the basis of this new Marxist philosophical understanding, on the basis of which he could give leadership to new experiments, new advances, in China. In a certain sense, he was also perhaps able to go back to the issues raised by Marx and Engels in the early period which had been back peddled. The question of eliminating the difference between the countryside and the cities, or between physical and mental labor, and so on. All of these were focused on as central issues. They were defined once again as central tasks of the social revolution. Of course, we see mention of all these in Lenin and Stalin, but they were not given as much importance. There was also an understanding in this period that it was not sufficient to develop productive forces in any manner, but continuous changes have to be brought about in the production relations, the superstructure. The Cultural Revolution, for example, why was it characterised as such? If one looks at the books that have appeared dealing with the GPCR, particularly the one written by Dongping Han, he points out that it was trying to tackle a cultural consciousness, a mental setup, of being slavish towards those in power. Challenging it and attempting to smash it was the central task of the GPCR, a cultural change. A matter of smashing the mentality of bowing before power, or subjecting oneself to it.
Q. You mean, a culture of accepting power in an unquestioning manner?
K.M: Yes, the need to smash that. The power is for the people, and therefore they should have the right to question it and control it. Another point he mentions is how Mao’s works, his quotations and all that, started to play the role of an undeclared constitution. A situation emerged where officials and others in positions began to be examined in that light. Mao taught that you must serve the people, but what are you doing; Mao said like this, but what are you doing and so on. So these changes have come precisely on the basis of Marxist political philosophy. It was not by keeping it aside, or overcoming its limitations, rather it emerged by developing it. But of course that is not to say that there are no issues at the philosophical level at all. There are many answers to be found. New developments and awareness are necessary in accordance with the new times, in such matters like the concept of party and all that. Regarding postmodernism as a philosophical approach, firstly one must note that it is not a unified thing. It is a terminology representing a broad collection of thinking. One of the things I have felt in this regard is that if we take a close look at its sources, we see that it is coming up in relation to the struggle against mechanism itself, the mechanical understanding that was dominant in Marxism. It’s sources are related to the criticisms which came up against this. Structuralism, post structuralism, Althusser, there is an interrelated development. One can see that so far as Europe is concerned, many of the proponents or theoreticians of postmodernism are on the Left, take part in movements against the state, in issues related to immigrants and immigrant workers. They stand for protecting them and directly participate energetically in some of the struggles. Quite unlike the postmodernists we see here. Theirs is of an opposite nature. It is a justification to withdraw from anti-state struggles, struggles in support of the masses. A convenient way of avoiding all this. There it was quite different. The reason why it was different over there is because I think postmodernism challenges and shakes up many of our concepts and views. In a certain sense, it creates a space for looking at things from a different angle. And precisely that is what has attracted not only intellectuals, but also youth from the petty bourgeois sections. Its quality of destabilising accepted positions. Such destabilising, in my view, is good. New awareness and developments have emerged from this destabilisation at the philosophical level. In my opinion, Marxism is capable of incorporating these destabilisations, if not the views and positions they put forward. Rather, by addressing these destabilisations, Marxism would be able to reexamine its own positions. For example, the question of class, or the party. I have tried to examine these questions in the recent period. This sort of an enquiry is coming from various angles. Some articles of Alain Badiou that I have read indicate that he has now changed a little from his earlier positions. In an earlier period he had arrived at a position that the party itself is the problem. In his article criticising Sarkozy, he argued that the old type of party, or the communist party, has become irrelevant now. In a recent essay, he raises the necessity of a new type of party. Such enquiries are now taking place from different angles, how can the communist project be made a success/reality? This probing is something that has to be continued.
The Commmunist Party
Q. In one of your writings I have seen you point out how the communist party is not the final word on all knowledge. It is not the party which has to carry out everything. This approach is something different from the understanding of the communist party we had till now; the party as the ultimate answer to everything, the completeness of all knowledge.
K.M: Firstly, I’d like to point out that I’m not the first person to put this idea forward. It has come up from among Maoist circles quite earlier. There is a thinking that the communist party or Marxism is the last word of everything, that anything and everything can be explained by it. Yes, it is true, one can understand everything in the light of Marxism, but it cannot replace them. For example, the laws of physics have to be understood in terms of the science of physics and established as such. It is not something we can answer with Marxism. Marxist dialectics can certainly play its role in analysing the laws of physics and explain its conceptual positions. It can give a direction to this. Many scientists have done this. This issue, that the communist party is not something that should be doing everything, emerges from the basic positions of the communist movement itself. How did Marx, for example, develop his ideas? He did it by studying the various theoretical positions that were existing then, critically examining and synthesising from them. He never said all of this was said by me for the first time. But he identified the contradictions in them, and in order to overcome that he supplied certain ideas. Marx and Engels came to know of Morgan’s and others new understanding after the theoretical positions of Marxism had been developed. And they accepted that, they never said that Marxism has given the explanation of Darwin’s evolution theory. Rather, what they said is that Darwin’s evolution theory confirms what we have said, it is an affirmation, or that Morgan’s anthropological findings confirm Marxist dialectical approach. In the Communist International, we have the words ‘we don’t want saviours from above’. The communist party can never become a saviour. It’s duty is to make the people conscious, to be their guide, to function as the vanguard of the revolution. We must also keep in mind that all sections of the oppressed masses were made aware of their rights as human beings mainly through the activities of the communist parties. That is an irrefutable truth. Whether you look at Keralam or elsewhere, we can see that as a fact.
Q. Do you mean to say that a party assists or helps in bringing forward that sort of a political agency?
K.M: I’m not saying it is done only by the communist party, but the main role was that of the communist party. Whether India, Europe, America, or other third world countries, this is a fact. The role that the communist party played in building up the trade union movement in America is incontrovertible, unchallengeable. There are a lot of stories, historical records of the types of oppression they suffered to achieve this. But that is not today’s world. Through one’s own experiences, the changes that have taken place in the world, different sections of the people are quite aware of their own situation, the oppression they are suffering, of exploitation. It need not necessarily be a perfect understanding, but there is an awareness. Some of my basic needs are being denied and I’m a person who is being oppressed, whether as a women, dalit, adivasi, or as religious minority. All these social sections are having this specific understanding of how their rights are being denied. All of this awareness is now existing in society and this is a good thing. The communists no longer have the task of going and making different sections of the people aware of the oppression they suffer. But then, the communists do have some duties in this regard. Because today, all of these forces are limiting themselves to their own issues and struggles. It is necessary to make them conscious that their issues cannot be resolved in that manner. It is necessary to make them conscious of the state, of political power and the central role of the ruling classes, and thereby attract them into the overall revolutionary struggle. Here too, there is a specific issue. Agitation on a specific issue, for eg. a struggle against a mining quarry, a good chunk of participants would not have any interest in politics. Most probably they would not be interested in MLM politics at all. They would be understanding their struggle as an apolitical one. But what is their struggle doing in effect? What is the effect of that anti-quarry struggle in society? One effect is that it is preventing these anti-human, anti-people, anti-nature attacks. On the other hand, a new consciousness is created in society through the struggle. Whether or not they may be desiring this individually, subjectively, in effect they are becoming participants in creating a new democratic consciousness in society. They are participating in that, and that is something that a communist party should welcome.
Caste annihilation or reform
Q. While discussing the situation in Keralam and India, something that has to be repeated again and again is caste. So far as an individual suffering caste oppression is concerned, whether man or women, the issue is that of a specific type of oppression. They resist on that basis. If that situation changes, their approach to that struggle will also change. They now have this feeling that nobody needs to be our saviours, we will deal with these issues on our own. What will be the role of communist parties in this situation?
K.M: This matter of resolution, not relief but resolution, of eliminating caste altogether, that is something that is impossible so long as the state and the ruling classes exist. If this is to be really resolved, they have to inevitably come to the path of revolution. That is to be pointed out. It is not that the communist party will come as a saviour in their struggle, but rather, to point out to them that they will have to take up the path of revolution. It is something they will have to take up today or tomorrow. For example, here in Keralam, when the adivasis took up struggles under Janu’s leadership, some leftist circles had an approach of characterising that as a struggle organised by NGO organisations. But that was not our position. What we saw was that after a very long time an oppressed section of Keralam has come to the path of struggle, under her leadership, on a very basic necessity, on the question of land and are standing firm on that. That was decisive. Not the question of what the individuals leading them had in mind or have in mind. Definitely, it brought back attention to the most basic land question existing here, and gave a new impulse to the issue. That is how the issue has to be approached. In those days we carried out a lot of propaganda in support of their struggle. This was not done under their invitation. We never tried to take up or replace that struggle. On our part, we got involved in other activities related to that issue. But there was the question of how we should approach and understand that struggle. This is what I’m trying to point out.
Q. There is a criticism that this approach is repeating that old communist understanding that all the issues will be resolved after revolution.
K.M: That is what I pointed out, what do you mean by resolution? Is it a relief? Then that is possible before revolution. Reform is possible. If it is a matter of resolution, then no. Is it possible to end caste through such agitations? No. If we are to annihilate caste, not be satisfied with adjustments or reforms, then the social system has to be totally changed. That is something possible only through a revolutionary process. The people’s war in Nepal, for example, during the period of its strong advance, there was a big change in the caste relations of that country.
Q. Yes, But now it is being said that all of it has come back.
K.M: Sure, that will happen. Because that path was abandoned and they turned to parliamentary politics, abandoning people’s war. That is how the setback happened. There is a dynamic created by war. This dynamic prepares the way for caste annihilation. This did not come up on its own. There were conscious ideological interventions and moves taken up in order to ensure that. There are also activities that have to be continued through the cultural revolution. I’m not arguing that all of this is something that will take place spontaneously, on its own. But decisive change takes place there. The direction of caste annihilation was clearly seen after the 1990s. When I went there and talked to dalit comrades in that party they were clearly expressing that. The new position, the new acceptances they are getting in society and their new interactions with people of other castes, and the changes that took place because of this, they were clear. That did not continue and got drained away slowly, with the old situation coming back.
continued in Part 5…
Youtube link to the interview: