K Murali (Ajith) and K.P Sethunath in conversation. (Part 5)

Marxism and the environmental question

Q. Just like the caste question, the environmental issue is yet another thing that questions the very validity of Marxism. It is said that the development perspective of Marxism is not different from that of capitalism. The criticism is that both of them put forward a concept of unbridled growth. What is your opinion?

K.M: This is certainly an important question for Marxism to resolve. During Marx and Engels’ time, they had put forward some very fundamental views on environmental questions and on the relationship between humankind and nature. For eg., there is something Engels had pointed out – Man thinks he is the master of nature and with this understanding he brings about changes in nature. But, ultimately, by delivering a sharp blow, nature teaches him that the truth is something else and it itself is the master. Similarly, Marx has spoken about the metabolic relation between humankind and nature. He has pointed out how capitalism destroys the productivity of land. There are a lot of fundamental observations like this, but it is also a fact that these insights of Marxism later got excluded from the central issues of the communist movement, of the communist project, the construction of socialism. They were not, of course, totally excluded, but they were also not developed further with the same importance. Later, one sees a certain comeback of these topics in the experiences of China under Mao’s leadership. They were not, of course, approached as issues of the environment but rather as that of ending the differences between agriculture and industry, between cities and the countryside. And it is from these sort of basic fundamental issues, issues pointed out by Marx, that Mao tried to develop an alternative view on the socialist economy. This is also related to the critique of the Soviet experiences. And as part of that, the concept of local self-reliance, of utilizing waste products in an effective manner, concepts about organic agriculture, all of this came up in China during that period. As I pointed out earlier, they were not advanced as part of a new awareness on the environmental question, but were arrived at from a different angle. Some new understandings/ideas about a decentralised economy were also advanced. This can be seen in the commune concept. One sees the interlinking of agriculture and industry, and similarly that of the city and the rural, in it. In some of the industrial models highlighted during that period, it was pointed out how an oil mining area was also retained as agricultural land. So this certainly was a beginning. It contains a lot of things from which we can go forward. But at the same time it is also necessary to examine why it was not sustained as a central task, despite Marxism having fundamental insights in this matter. This is certainly a question that remains to be resolved. I will mention some things that struck me while thinking over this, of course more study is required. What I noted is the issue of the socialisation brought about by capitalism in the field of production. Whether within a country or at the global level or at the sites of production itself, i.e, in the factories, this socialisation was a step forward as far as society was concerned when compared to the disparate and unconnected relations that used to exist during the feudal period. It has played a major role in the development of the working class. Such socialization is still continuing and still developing. It was said that the change that will take place is one where, taking this socialisation as a basis, the exploiters are finally eliminated and society takes it over. But when things are put forward in these terms, a question comes up: can we accept the socialisation that had come up in the capitalist period as such? I believe that that is exactly where the problem lies. For example, in Soviet Russia, the Taylorist methods developed in America were accepted as a model in the efforts made to build up a new economy under Lenin and others’ leadership. That method addressed the task of how production can be developed maximum. The socialisation that developed during the capitalist period would certainly be one in which its profit motive is inherent. Therefore it would be one in which alienation and other problems are contained. Therefore the basic question whether it can be used as such comes up. In the light of the Paris Commune experiences, it was learned that the old state cannot be taken over by the proletariat and run. It was understood that it had to be smashed and a new one had to be established. Marx arrived at this new understanding through this experience. Similarly, I think that the necessity of smashing the old socialisation, the necessity of fundamentally transforming it, and developing a new one, is a task coming up before us. Certain indications of this can be seen in Mao’s ‘Critique of Soviet Economics’. When it speaks about production relations inside the factory, between the management and the workers, it is putting forward something different from what was accepted till that period. The management are communist party members, the factory is public property, and the state is that of the proletariat. So then why should there be contradictions here? But that was not how Mao approached the question. He began to examine the question by accepting that there are contradictions there. Unless those contradictions are resolved, real social ownership would not be achieved. What would be existing would only be formal social ownership. What I’m saying is that Mao gives us a direction we can take up while examining this question. In the present period, in the light of development of science and technology, we could possibly conceive of economies which are at the same time decentralised and also interlinked. This is of course not the same as what Gandhi and all said of retaining what existed earlier, neither is it a question of considering the small as beautiful. Rather in an interrelated manner, both decentralised and interconnected. Developing a concept of an economy having this characteristic is what I think needs to be done.

Q. The indications being given by tech are that production set ups at a very local level are quite possible. There are a number of Marxists, like John Bellamy Foster, who insist that a Communist project that ignores the environment is impossible. They have abandoned all such concepts like unbridled or unlimited development of the productive forces. Our bio-resources are finite. They also question concepts where material abundance of consumption is presented as development. Particularly, the understanding that development means arriving at par with Western industrial models is what is questioned. Such fundamental issues are coming up in countries like India too. So what type of socialisation would be possible?

K.M: In my opinion, a model of socialisation where you have decentralised production and at the same time interconnections is possible. The Commune model of China is an example. It was a decentralized entity as well as a power center and a production, consumption, social, center too. Such new types of social organisation are possible.

Q. Isn’t this what Gandhi meant by ‘gram swaraj’?

K.M: To speak about the specific features of Gandhi’s ‘gram swaraj’ concept, first, he glorified the villages that used to exist here. This is an approach which hides or refuses to accept its backwardness, its anti-human character. Secondly, when Gandhi was writing this, there was an approach of thinking that technology and industrialisation themselves are the problem. Actually the fact is that society is able to arrive at this understanding today precisely because of this industrialisation and technological development. True there were people who wrote about environmental issues back then as well, but the understanding we have of this issue today was absent then – scientific knowledge had not developed to that extent, it was not possible to achieve the understanding we have today. I want to point out that as far as human development is concerned, the very nature of human beings is that of seeking out the new. That is a human characteristic and that is how human society has developed. The point is not that of controlling this. Today when we carry out something, we should be doing it with an environmental concern, of the impact it will probably create. And that will bring about a change in how we do it. When we say unlimited development, what sort of development is meant by that? Serving whom? Such fundamental questions come up. For example, when Mao was criticising the theory of productive forces, he was criticising the understanding of the capitalist roaders that the task or target should be that of developing the productive forces somehow or the other. He was insisting that the changes brought about in productive relations and the superstructure are decisive. Because we are trying to develop a new society and what is decisive is that new values corresponding to it are also created. It is not sufficient that production is somehow increased. There used to be a famous Chinese slogan, ‘While the rockets are going up, the Red Flag is falling down’. That is not what is needed, both should go up in tandem. What was meant by Red Flag is the new values necessary for the new society. Technology is also necessary and we also need the new values. Today in that new value system, we should include environmental awareness.

Q. There is an unevenness caused by global capitalism. One cannot compare the living standards and conditions in third world countries with that existing in the industrially advanced West. Therefore world leaders quite often present development as an attraction before the people. The Modi fascist government is also presenting such aspirations before the people and, to a great extent, it has an impact, particularly among the middle classes.

K.M: Not just the middle classes, it is also impacting the basic masses. Can’t we approach this question on the basis of social awareness. Washing machines, fridges, etc. reduce the drudgery of housework beyond doubt. Is it necessary for every family to have one? Can’t this be something maintained collectively? There are so many such possibilities. There is no need to exclude technology altogether. What are the changes possible within it? It is quite possible to achieve new advances in the best manner, even while greatly reducing the use of electricity and such inputs.

Q. If we examine the history of environmental movements in India, there is something which stands out. There is a trend which argues that one must seek out a path specific to India different from that of the Western paradigm. This is seen in post-modern trends also. The noblisation of Gandhi is part of that. It is said Gandhi grasped the soul of India while Nehru was caught up in Western models. It can also be characterised as some sort of nativism. In Kumarappa’s books, for example, he says we can avoid the crisis we see in Western capitalism or we can avoid its fallout. How do you understand this?

K.M: I have read Kumarappa’s book and felt that it is very superficial. The examples given by the book, you can see the superficiality. The approach he takes is that of imposing certain concepts he has without considering social reality. We certainly had a lot of specific things that had been developed here, but the question is the extent to which they will be useful today. Certainly they should be made useful. But there is also the fact that a social system called capitalism has emerged at the world level, an industrial revolution has taken place, and that has brought about a lot of changes, including electricity. All of this is reality. It would be foolish to reject all of this just because it is Western. I think that we should follow what Mao said, ‘make foreign things serve national needs’ and ‘make the old serve the new’. For example, in Rayalaseema (Andhra Pradesh), there was an irrigation method that existed in the olden days. At the top of the hills, they used to make small tanks arranging stones and collecting rainwater. This would flow down naturally through gravity. Along the canals they would carry out paddy agriculture, and further away other crops that require less water, and then groundnuts. So through this mixed agriculture method, they used the water to the maximum extent. Whatever remains would get collected at the bottom, where it would remain for some time. The moisture in surrounding areas would be utilised for paddy cultivation. There were similar methods in Bihar and Bengal, relying on ponds. If all these can be revived, that would be good – a development in accordance to our modern necessities. What happens is that solutions imposed by the World Bank etc. are seen as the solutions. What was their necessity? Develop coastal Andhra as a paddy production centre. They insisted that all water should be diverted to that area. The World Bank insisted that the sole river flowing in Rayalaseema, the Pennar river, was not to be used there. The logic? Some calculations which had no relations to real life. It was a comparison between the dry mass produced while using a million litre of water for paddy with that produced by groundnut farming, demonstrating that the former was lesser than the latter. But the people there did not live by eating groundnuts, but rather rice. This never came up in the World Bank’s considerations. All they were interested in was the water-dry mass ratio. So all the traditional methods were destroyed, the region was converted into a groundnut production area and it soon became a drought area. So some of these traditional methods are certainly revivable and usable. Our pokkali agriculture is another example, or the kaippad in the north. We should certainly use traditional methods. But if somebody says that this is the only way forward, that would be nonsense.

Q. The matter of socialisation, which was mentioned earlier, comes up here. That is, there is also the matter of the exploitation that existed in relation to the traditional forms of agriculture.

K.M: Yes.

Q. So then there is the question of how exactly it should be revived.

K.M: That is something that has to be examined in relation to the new social system. There is a direction given by Mao, ‘the old should serve the new’, ‘the foreign should serve the national needs’. That should give guidance. The old should not be brought back in a way that recreates the old caste relations and all that.

continued in Part 6

Youtube link to the interview:

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