Category Archives: History

On Vivek Chibber’s Critique of Postcolonial and Subaltern Studies


Debating Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital

Only two months ago, Verso brought out the much-anticipated (by me, if no one else) book by NYU Marxian sociologist Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. Appropriately enough, the debate has commenced with Chibber’s interventions at the Historical Materialism Conferences in Delhi and New York – at the latter of which he debated Partha Chatterjee, a leader of the Subaltern Studies school which is his main target.

Chibber, previously known for his erudite intervention on the Nehruvian developmental model of the postcolonial Indian state[1], had earlier announced his intention of dismantling the dominance of postcolonial theory in his essay “The Decline of Class Analysis in South Asian Studies.”

This aim was nothing if not calculated to be highly provocative toward people working in South Asian studies, the study of the postcolonial world (Asia, Oceania, Africa, Latin America) in general, and the numerous social science and humanities disciplines which have felt the impact of the work of people like Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak.

It should be seen as doubly fortunate therefore that Chibber’s book has drawn interest from across the spectrum of the academic left, and specifically Marxists working both inside and outside academia. His book offers us an opportunity to broaden and internationalize our theory at the same time it gives us a chance to deepen our oft-maligned analysis of the varying development of the “East” vis-a-vis the “West,” a preoccupation of Marxist thought that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci and others have shared.

There are also, however, some dangers that should not be ignored. The arguments so far show far more abstraction than is appropriate. This was on display at HM, where Chatterjee’s response to Chibber’s charge of Orientalism was that Chibber wasn’t really a Marxist. I think these are the terms the debate is being drawn into, far and away from the concrete realities of South Asia in which postcolonial theory first arose.[2]

I will attempt to draw out some of the most relevant terms of debate in the following way. First, I will describe the socopolitical context of Subaltern Studies and its associated scholars as it emerged in the late 1970s. Secondly, I will describe the debate over the term “dominance without hegemony,” crucial to the Subalternist project, and put forth an alternative view from those of both Subaltern Studies and Chibber. Before concluding with some remarks about a proper Marxist foundation for the debate, I will try to describe what is most significant about the argument of particularism versus universalism.

The Historical Context

I feel the need to restate that it is easy to misunderstand Subaltern Studies if one does not have the background on the historical context they operate in. This is what is missing in much of the debate so far. A debate on abstracted values independent of context turns far too easily into another boring event of Marxists tilting at postmodernist (or postcolonial) windmills.

The journal Subaltern Studies began as a project by several left-wing Indian historians in the late 1970s. At this point, as Chibber underscores, its members (Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gyanendra Pandey, Gautam Bhadra and others) all considered themselves Marxists, influenced in particular by readings of Antonio Gramsci that had become popular in European academics.

The Subalternists’ project cannot be understood, as some have suggested, as merely a desire to transplant European “history from below” (particularly that of E.P. Thompson) into India. They were responding to specifically Indian events and Indian history. We can’t understand their project without therefore knowing a bit about postcolonial India.

In particular, the events that perplexed the Subalternists began in the late 1960s. After a two-decade period of relatively peaceful state-led development, things began to unravel. Poverty became a problem demanding the attention of the highest levels of government, and rural unrest exploded at a village called Naxalbari in West Bengal in in 1967, followed by a brief and violent period of Maoist (“Naxalite”) insurgency.

In 1974, Communist-led railway workers launched a national strike which paralyzed the country but went down to bitter defeat. Finally, PM Indira Gandhi (daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister) used constitutional measures to impose her rule on every Indian state, inaugurating a bloody personal dictatorship, in 1975. The period is called “the Emergency,” and forms the background of Rohinton Mistry’s well-known novel A Fine Balance.

Though a mass movement overthrew Gandhi’s dictatorship in 1977, she returned to power democratically just two years later. She was assassinated in 1985 after using brutal measures to suppress the Sikh nationalist Khalistan movement in the Punjab.

Concomitantly, Hindu communalism, sidelined since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Hindu fanatic Nathuram Godse, returned to prominence as a fascistic mass movement. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) broke the Indian National Congress’ single-party rule in [3]

This history suggested several things to the founders of Subaltern Studies:

First, they agreed that the Indian bourgeoisie, which was the force behind the independence movement and the post-independence Congress Party rule, was in a fundamentally different position than the Western bourgeoisie. Unlike their predecessors in Europe, they had not achieved hegemony over Indian society. This was made clear enough by the outbursts of resentment from below, including the peasant wars, worker insurgency, etc that characterized the crisis of Congress Party rule.

This posed larger questions about an Indian modernity as distinct from an English or Western modernity. Unlike in Europe, it seemed that the Indian bourgeoisie was forced to rule with sheer force rather than consent. Ranajit Guha, the editor of the early issues of Subaltern Studies, called this “dominance without hegemony.” Forces below the ruling class still chafed at its grip. Crucially, India’s independence, unlike the bourgeois revolutions in Europe, had failed to banish religion as a force of societal reaction – as shown by the rise of the BJP.

In its first decade at least, Subaltern Studies produced some startlingly original and prescient Marxist analysis of Indian colonial history. I would in particular direct readers to Pandey’s article “Rallying Round the Cow: Sectarian Strife in the Bhjopuri Region, 1888-1917” which remains an excellent and thoroughly documented class analysis of the origins of Hindu and Muslim communalism. Another article, Bhadra’s “Four Rebels of 1857” on the Mutiny wears its Marxist colors so proudly that the author chooses an epigraph from The Holy Family.[4]

Eventually, most of the Subalternists did by and large move away from Marxism and toward cultural interpretations of history which Chibber is correct to criticize. Their final conclusion was that the lower classes of India, peasant and worker alike, did not share in the “bourgeois consciousness” of their Western cousins. They were not dominated by an Enlightenment worldview, and resisted their ruling class in violent outbursts even as the traditional ties of religion and caste held sway. Chibber emphasizes this and makes it the main target of his criticisms.

I will take it up substantially later. For now I am more interested in the development of the school, especially their trajectories after determining the problem of “dominance without hegemony” on the subcontinent. I think without an understanding of this debate we fail entirely to understand the development of Subaltern Studies as a project, not to mention any of its quite substantial influence outside South Asian studies.

Dominance without Hegemony: A Third View

For Guha, the key to understanding the postcolonial Indian nation was that the Indian bourgeoisie had not achieved “hegemony.” What did he mean by this? 

Most basically: Guha relied on a certain view, very orthodox Marxist at the time, of the bourgeois revolutions in Europe. The revolutions in Holland, England and France had brought the bourgeoisie to power at the head of broad democratic coalitions including workers and peasants. To secure their leadership, the bourgeoisie had enacted land reforms and guaranteed democratic liberties to the subaltern classes. Their support in hand, they proceeded to conquer political power and destroyed the feudal order, founding the democratic republic with the consent of the governed subaltern classes.

In India, Guha saw a contrast to this “classic” model of the bourgeois revolution. The Indian bourgeoisie, he noted, should have replicated this pattern during their own revolution, the independence movement of 1921-1947. Instead, they compromised with the feudal landlord (zamindar) class, earning the distrust of the Indian peasantry. Thereafter they ruled without popular support – from the uprising of Naxalbari, to the rail strike and Emergency, the events with which Subaltern Studies was directly concerned.

The argument requires some detailed unpacking. As it revolves around a certain understanding of the idea of bourgeois revolution, I don’t think it is inappropriate to outline some of the more recent debates on this concept within Marxist theory.

First, we must understand the concept of hegemony in its original and distorted contexts (the latter being Guha’s understanding.) “Hegemony” during the seventies was widely equated in Marxist discourse with “consent of the governed,” and understood to originate in the thought of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Gramsci, it was thought, had differentiated two strategies for the working class conquest of political power in the following way. In the “East,” such as  Russia, the state was undeveloped and relied on coercion as opposed to consent. In such a situation, the proletariat could conquer power through an all-out assault (war of manoeuvre). Whereas in the developed West, where the ruling class ruled through consent, the proletariat was required to slog through the trenches of civil society that surrounded state power and thus acquire “hegemony” before the conquest of power.[5]

I’ll return to hegemony in a bit. I think it should be clear first that in his understanding, Guha was a fairly orthodox. In the Indian case, the idea that the bourgeois revolution was not complete related to the conceptions of the Stalinist CPI and later CPI(M) of the independence movement. The idea that the political landscape of India failed to match that of the developed West equated to the Stalinist notion of the bourgeois revolution being somehow “unfinished.”

In particular, incomplete land reform, the persistence of caste and “feudal” relations in the countryside meant the revolution was still to be completed. The fact that labor in the cities was not completely free and political parties were sometimes subject to restrictions on their liberty, as during the Emergency, meant that the democratic revolution, rather than the socialist one, was on the agenda.

The idea of a bourgeois revolution being “incomplete” based on some Platonic ideal (usually the Great French Revolution of 1789) can be said to have played a role in the Marxist thought of many countries outside India. Where East German historians sought to explain National Socialism as a partial product of the “unfinished” bourgeois revolution of the 1870s, English leftists in the 1960s sought to connect the decline of British world hegemony vis-a-vis America with the supposed failure of the English bourgeoisie to displace the aristocracy. Even most of the American left understood Jim Crow as a failure of the US bourgeois revolution, from which it was concluded that the bourgeois revolution was “incomplete.”[6]

The debate has advanced far enough these days as to make such conceptions seem a bit silly. As I see it, there are two main camps that one falls into on the question. 

Chibber aligns with the “political Marxist” school of Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood, accusing Guha of having a “liberal” or “Whig” theory of the bourgeois revolution, in which it is (falsely) claimed that the bourgeoisie granted political liberty and land reform to the subalterns. In fact, he argues, the English Civil War and French Revolution (neither of them, it is claimed, are “bourgeois revolutions” in the traditional sense) established “bourgeois oligarchies.” Political liberty is due to the constant struggles of the subaltern classes themselves. Therefore, in contrast to Guha who faults the Indian working class for not having a “bourgeois consciousness,” Chibber says that in the developed West, the working class played a key role in the development of the “bourgeois,” or liberal, political sphere.[7]

Chibber’s approach has the merits of drawing our attention to the role of the subaltern classes themselves in fighting for the achievement of democracy. This enables him to draw the, in my view, substantially correct conclusion that “what Guha sees as pathological,” i.e., the Indian bourgeoisie’s failure to confront the landed classes and resort to coercive methods of rule, “should instead be seen as normal in the construction of bourgeois political orders.”[8]

Chibber is able to develop this into an argument that takes on the idea key to the later Subalternist project that capital has “failed to universalize” in the global South, and the idea that Marxist categories such as abstract labor do not capture the diversity of capitalist and non-capitalist labor processes in India.

His arguments find support from the most sophisticated Marxist analyses of India and the rest of the world. In particular, we might turn to the work of Jairus Banaji, whose essay “Capitalist Domination and the Small Peasantry: The Deccan Districts in the late 19th Century” relies on Marx’s distinction between labor’s “real” subsumption to capital, and its “formal” subsumption in which capital has annexed the means of production as well as the formerly independent producer, but has not yet moved to “really revolutionize” the labor process.[9] This type of analysis perceives the capitalist essence of the productive relations, in the spirit of Marx, rather than expecting Indian society to match the highly abstracted picture provided in volume one of Capital.

The upshot, in so many words, is that capitalism does not need to do anything that the Subalternists were expecting it to do in India. As I pointed out, this is a confusion that comes directly out of Indian Stalinism. Capital can be perfectly happy with old forms of production and social relations. As Chibber points out, old divisions of laborers along the lines of religion, caste and language might be incredibly helpful to capital’s need to divide and control the working class.

I do not, however, share the Brenner/Wood conception of capitalism that Chibber deploys. I would in particular argue that the “consequentialist” view of bourgeois revolution, which Neil Davidson has been doing so much to develop, would explain the problems of India’s bourgeois revolution much better than the Brenner thesis. I have tried to develop this at length elsewhere.

Davidson’s view that the anticolonial and independence movements that follow the Second World War can best be thought of as bourgeois revolutions is particularly relevant. Deploying the analysis used in Alex Callinicos’ seminal article “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,”[10] he argues correctly that what unites the earlier revolutions in England and France with 20th-century independence movements is their “consequence” of creating an independent center for capitalist accumulation, whether this is carried out from above or below.

Davidson’s book is also key for bringing back into the debate the Gramscian notion of a “passive revolution,” itself connected to Gramsci’s development of the earlier Marxist concept of hegemony, which the Subalternists relied on a distorted version of.[11]

In my view Gramsci’s real views on hegemony are very helpful for conceptualizing India’s state-building project. Gramsci in fact argued that both consent and coercion were necessary in creating the hegemony of any ruling class: coercion used toward the antagonistic classes, and consent solicited from the allied classes. In his words:

the ‘normal’ exercise of hegemony on the now classical regime of the parliamentary régime is characterized by a combination of force and consent, which counterbalance each other, without force predominating exclusively over consent; rather, it appears to be based on the consent of the majority, expressed through the so-called organs of public opinion. 

Consent and coercion, therefore, form a dialectical unity in the operation of the state. As Peter Thomas writes, “in parliamentary regimes, coercion is the ultimate guarantee for consent, which in turn legitimates what could be described as a type of ‘coercion by consent.”[12]

To understand the economic and political development of the India after independence, we need to properly conceptualize how the independence movement produced a democratic state while ensuring state-capitalist development at the same time. In my view, Chibber’s reliance on the agency of subaltern classes alone in ensuring democratic liberty under capitalism in both Europe and India is not particularly convincing. Leaving aside the nonsensical conception of England and France’s revolutions as alternatively “non-bourgeois” or “non-capitalist,” he does not sufficiently address why India failed to develop into a “bourgeois oligarchy” like them.

This relates to something in his text which worries me. Though Chibber does not explicitly state it, I feel as though by drawing parallels so sharply between Indian history and the history of Western nations, he comes very close to endorsing a unilinear model of societal development, which is antithetical to the Marxist tradition.[13]

Gramsci’s original Marxist conception of the passive revolution as part of the broader revision of the concept of bourgeois revolution gives us the best tools to understand this process. We can use it to understand how Indian capital has incorporated middle-class elites as well as significant parts of the subaltern classes into a democratic developmentalist regime, without ever sacrificing its ability to use coercive methods, as in the Emergency, and today in Kashmir, the Northeast and in Operation Green Hunt. 

The Views and Influence of Subaltern Studies Today

What in particular of the culturalist assumptions of Subaltern studies? In the debate, Chatterjee attempted to deny he was a culturalist, but “outed” himself at the end of the debate by referring to the epidemic of farmer suicides in India as a phenomenon of specifically Indian culture.

It can sometimes be hard to understand, particularly to those outside of the academy, the unique power of the cultural turn, that is to say the idea that non-Western subaltern classes act politically based on primordial notions of communal over individual needs, in particular those of locale, caste and religion. Chibber subjects this concept to a fair and searching critique focusing on Chatterjee’s essays on peasant resistance in colonial Bengal and Chakrabarty’s Rethinking Working-Class History, a seminal Subalternist work disputing the Marxist notion of class consciousness among early-20th century millworkers in Calcutta.

Chatterjee, for instance, argues that we need a specifically “Indian” conception of peasant resistance over concepts inherited from the West. What is needed, he says, is “an Indian history of peasant struggles” that recognizes Indian peasants’ “consciousness [which] has its own paradigmatic form… in fact the very other” of Western “bourgeois consciousness.” When peasants engage in collective political action, therefore, they do so as a primordial community, in which solidarity is guaranteed through conceptions of “the necessary duty of groups bound together through kinship.”[14]

Remarkably, Chatterjee extends this thesis as far as the claim that Indian peasants are incapable of transcending these primordial solidarities even when it harms their struggles. As he describes the divergence of interests between poor peasants and kulaks (jotedars), he advances the idea that “the peasant-communal ideology” was inadequate in providing a “perceptual guide for the identification of friends and enemies.” Peasants, he writes, would only be capable of identifying exploiters internal to their communities if they had an “alternative ideological system,” namely that of “bourgeois consciousness.”

As I said, it’s hard to grasp the prevalence of this notion. It is likely the one thing (in America, at least) that undergraduates will take away from a class on postcolonial literature or theory. It seems elementary to many in academics that we cannot simply assume the subalterns of Asia, Oceania, Latin America and Africa have the “same interests” as Westerners. Community, religion, language, ethnicity/race and caste are everywhere said to dominate over the Western interests of the individual or socioeconomic class.

This follows from the logic of the “dominance without hegemony” thesis. The bourgeoisie in India has failed to achieve hegemony therefore Indian subalterns remain tied to traditional worldviews that are untouched by “bourgeois consciousness.”

It is an interesting argument, and one well worth our time to explore. As Chibber indicates, primordial worldviews influenced by religion, caste and other communities are not antithetical to capitalist development. But instead of drawing on the large amount of work done by Marxists on this point, he chooses to lay out a  mechanical apparatus of “interests” (class-based and personal) as distinct from “culture” (which he dismisses as a significant factor). This led into some perplexing detours on the subject of individual as opposed to collective interests, which led into further detours on the subject of universalism vs. particularism. I fail to see these as significant referents for any real debate.

I’m not sure I’m competent to debate this to a satisfying conclusion, but I think some basic orientations can be provided by the dialectical method. I think, personally, that our method can evade entirely the dilemmas of individual vs. collective interests, as well as universalism vs. particularism. Dialectics signifies that abstraction across the global political economy means nothing and falls apart without descending now and then into the concrete realities of one or another place- say, South Asia. And this is a region in which many traditional assumptions of Marxism have, to put it mildly, been thrown out of whack.[15]

What about the claim of Orientalism? In one of his sharpest formulations, Chibber writes

Chatterjee seems unaware that he is reviving a well-established Orientalist notion of the East as a culture in which actors are essentially other-oriented, lacking any notion of individuality, unmoved by their material interests. The West is the site of the bounded individual, while the East is the repository of Community. Chatterjee explicitly warns against assimilating an analysis of Indian peasants into a general theory of peasant action – Indians require their own theory, he asserts, because they do not think like other agents, especially those in the West. They need a theory of their own, sensitive to their particular psychology. All this has a drearily familiar ring to it, even if dressed in radical language, for it harks back directly to nineteenth-century colonial ideology, not to mention contemporary reifications of the unchanging East.[16]

This is an interesting statement, and I sympathize with what he is saying even if I don’t agree with it entirely. In particular, Chibber seems to elide a significant distinction between Orientalism, an ideology constructed as a justification for imperialism, and Subaltern studies, a project with decidedly radical origins and which saw itself as trying to advance a Marxist critique from below. 

Subaltern Studies certainly would not have attracted the attention it has if all it were doing was rehashing Orientalism. Its turn away from Marxism has been taken by many in the field as a license to revive racist and imperialist tropes. But in my view this has more to do with the in some ways neocolonial power dynamics in global academics.

In a world in which power structures inherently favor the global North as opposed to the South, it is likely that this dominance will be reflected either starkly, as in the discipline of economics, or softly, as in other humanities disciplines where postcolonial theory has taken off the most. Though Chibber correctly points out many Orientalists in the Northern academy took the chance provided by the cultural turn to transform themselves into “postcolonialists,” this should enable us to draw a critique of academics in Europe and America rather than India.[17]

Certainly, the Subalternists deserve blame for not distancing themselves from this process. But we fundamentally need to see their critique as “from below,” which is not the same thing as Orientalist “from above” work, even if some of their assumptions overlap. 

Chibber is certainly correct to criticize what has become a commonsense view: that the subalterns of the global South respond to communal ties of religion, caste (where applicable) and other primordial notions. We might say a couple things about this.

First, that not all those associated with Subaltern Studies believe this and it’s a strawman to paint them as if they do.

Second, that on the face of it, it’s blindingly obvious that traditional ties continue to have some hold over the minds of Southern subalterns. It’s a worthy path of investigation to question why this is so.

Third, the idea that motivation to political action by traditional ties is inconsistent with motivation by the more “modern” ties of class, nation and so on is baseless. Aside from Chatterjee and Chakrabarty at their most radical, none of the Subalternists has claimed that it is. Marxism tells us that modern struggles  (to use the most obvious example, struggles by the working class over pay, conditions, and even power) can be mediated through older notions of community involving religion, language, race, etc. There is a wealth of Marxist scholarship on this. Chibber does not seem to acknowledge it, referring only to how communal divisions can hurt class struggle by dividing workers, although it would seem to be a logical corollary.

Fourth (and I’ll expand on this in the next section), it is dangerous to counterpose precapitalist consciousness to capitalist consciousness for the reason that, quite simply, capitalist notions like the individual or the nation are just as irrational as the ones that preceded them. Marx and Engels’ entire critique of the Enlightenment from The Communist Manifesto onwards pivoted on the idea that the bourgeoisie had constructed a society as unjust, riven by conflict, and yes, as irrational as what came before.

In sum, then, we should be able to see a way out of the argument over whether the workers and peasants of the global South have “bourgeois consciousness” or not to an investigation of whether subalterns anywhere (or anyone anywhere) has “bourgeois consciousness” as it is typically understood. The persistence of racism in both the US and Europe would seem to make this case for us. On their own, the categories of individual and class community are insufficient for saying anything substantive about the mentality of the working classes anywhere, not just in the South.

What Kind of Enlightenment? And What Kind of Marxism?

I want to conclude with some brief notes on what I believe are the weaknesses of Chibber’s approach to Subaltern Studies and postcolonial theory. While his book has opened the salvo against culturalist approaches to the global South, we can hope that it will be the first of many which will broaden and deepen the lines of critique he has laid out.

Chibber’s Marxism as he shows it in the book can be interesting because it is a curious mélange of many different academic currents, from the “political Marxism” of Brenner and Wood, to the type of analytical Marxism endorsed by Erik Olin Wright. I don’t have much time for either conception, which in my view distorts Marxism and tends to gut its dialectical core in favor of being somehow more “rigorous.” But that is a debate for another time.

What concerns me more about Chibber’s approach than his analytical tendencies are certain approaches he seems to import tout court whenever it suits his analysis. In particular, Chibber adheres (“proudly,” in his words) to Rawlsian social-contract theory.[18] He also praises the modernization theorist Amartya Sen as an “eloquent and consistent defender of some core values”and comes in my view dangerously close to endorsing Guha’s deployment of rational-choice theory in his Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in India.[19]

In the book, Chibber is often at pains to say that he is not offering any specific Marxist alternative view of some subjects (or Enlightenment view, for that matter), that his criticisms are meant to show that these “rational categories of European thought” can be used to explain the politics and economics of the Global South, and that therefore they maintain their value. Presumably Chibber therefore deploys these concepts to make the most solid case possible that the Enlightenment tradition, as well as specifically the Marxist tradition, remains valuable as against the anti-rationalism of much of postcolonial theory. But is this a really worthwhile project?

Chibber is a bit coy about his own affiliations within Marxism.[20] But no matter. My concern is more that not all Enlightenment thought can or should be used in analysis. This is especially true of rational-choice theory, an apparatus which was imported fully-formed from Hayekian neoliberal economics into political science and sociology.

Leaving that aside, there is the problem of “rationality” in the debate. Chibber seems to regard the worst effect of postcolonial theory as that it has abjured the responsibility to be “rational.” 

Much of what we could say about this has already been covered in endless anti-postmodernist tracts. I don’t regard anti-rationality as a serious problem. It may be popular in some sectors of the academy, but, not to put to fine a point on it, reason works, and you can’t go many places without it. I just want to point out one thing – that Marxism does not have an unproblematic relationship with Enlightenment rationality, as Chibber comes close to suggesting at times.

It has often been ignored that Marx may have been the first to present a “subalternist” critique of enlightenment thought. His metaphor of commodity fetishism is a case in point. By connecting the bourgeois’ greed for gold with the African worship of “fetish” objects, he attacked the very bourgeois rationality he is so often employed in defending. What was more rational, Marx was asking, to worship something you can see and touch, or to worship the exchange value in gold, which is hidden and inaccessible to the senses? This does not just equate two forms of fetishism – Marx deliberately and provocatively argued that fetish worship was more rational than commodity worship, without for a moment romanticizing African society.[21]

To Chibber, an analytical Marxist, the argument of commodity fetishism may not hold much weight. But it remains part of the Romantic, even anti-Enlightenment, component of Marxism that has very often been ignored. 

As one perceptive critic has pointed out,[22] Marxism seeks to, in Hegelian terms, “sublate” the categories of Enlightenment thought: to identify their liberatory core and push them to their most radical conclusions, which means overcoming Enlightenment thought in the process. The proletarian worldview of Marxism is in fact the Enlightenment’s “very Other.”[23]

Whether eliding this distinction makes Chibber “not sufficiently Marxist” doesn’t really concern me. But I have to sympathize with claims that he is uncritically deploying the categories of Enlightenment thought which most deserve a thorough critique instead of rehabilitation.

After all, the promise of liberty made by the rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment was negated by the reality of capitalism, which meant exploitation and oppression of the world’s vast majority (most prominently the people of the Global South, who we are concerned with here) for the individual liberty and freedom to accumulate of a few. Critique of these conditions does not involve a revival of notions of individual freedom and choice, but an enlargement of the category into the concrete freedom and needs of all society.

Conclusion: Assessing the Debate Thus Far

If the debate between Marxists and subalternists/postcolonialists (as well as those who consider themselves to be both) is to go far, it has to provide the most concrete foundations possible for discussion.

This has not been the case thus far. The debate between Chibber and Chatterjee showed this, where each became for a moment the exponent of the abstract values of “universalism” and “particularism,” independent of the South Asian context in which they were arguing. Neither of them did themselves any favors in this exchange, which came off rather as a dialogue between the mutually deaf.

In particular: many from Chibber’s camp misunderstand the context of these debates. It isn’t Chibber’s fault; he tries as best he can to give the historical context of Subaltern Studies. But two chapters isn’t nearly enough. It also isn’t his supporters’ fault that they misunderstand the context of debates in South Asian history, it is rather a reflection of the miserable ultra-specialization academia enforces on us all. But we need to place the argument on a concrete footing if it is to go anywhere.

Observation largely confirms Chibber’s view that many of the assumptions inherent in postcolonial studies may be seen as a revival of Orientalism. But the cultural essentialism of Subaltern Studies even at its most extreme does not equate to Orientalism. Chibber and his followers can be faulted for failing to draw the distinction between the intentions of Subaltern Studies and its influence. Of course, Chatterjee and others involved in the project are themselves rapidly trying to distance themselves from it, particularly their own radical origins.

Chibber’s critique, therefore, comes dangerously close to letting Subaltern Studies off the hook when it is most in need of critique. Debates about individual or communal interests, or between provincialism and universalism have just this effect. In my view these are mainly false dichotomies.

Overall, I think this debate will be most beneficial if we can relate it back to the concrete realities in which Subaltern Studies arose, and even contrast it significantly with research about the United States, Europe, and other areas. First, however, we need to have a little humility towards South Asia studies. In that spirit, I hope what I have written can be appreciated as tentative rather than final in any sense.


1. Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialization in India (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006).

2. The debate off Facebook has produced the following interesting pieces: Chibber’s interview with Jonah Birch in Jacobin, Chris Taylor’s review for his blog “Of CLR James,” and Paul Heideman’s response to Taylor on Verso’s blog.

3. Chibber provides a balanced historiography in Chapters 2 and 3 of his book.

4. Gyan Pandey, “Rallying Round the Cow: Sectarian Strife in the Bhojpuri Region, c. 1888-1917” in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies II, 60-129 and Gautum Bhadra, “Four Rebels of 1857,” in Guha and Spivak (eds.), Selected Subaltern Studies: Essays from Five Volumes and a Glossary (London/New York: Oxford UP), 129-178. Chibber could not possibly be unaware of this quite substantial body of innovative Marxist historical work that characterized the early issues of the journal. His critique, unfortunately, only focuses on Guha’s editorial statements from the first several issues, after which he turns to Chatterjee and Chakrabarty’s work (published outside the journal) from the 1990s, after both had found academic appointments in the United States. This is unfortunate as it skips over practically the entire course of the school’s development.

5. Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), 160.

6. See Donny Gluckstein, The Nazis, Capitalism, and the Working Class (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), and E.P. Thompson, “The Peculiarities of the English.”

7. See Chapter 3, “Dominance without Hegemony: The Argument Assessed.” Though Chibber presents the Brenner thesis as the only legitimate Marxist conception of the capitalist transition, it most emphatically is not. Readers would do well to consult Neil Davidson’s How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), chapter 18, “Capitalist Social Property Relations” on “political Marxism” and how it differs from the classical Marxist tradition.

8. Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 90.

9. Jairus Banaji, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), 277-332.

10. Alex Callinicos, “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,” in International Socialism 2.43 (Summer 1989), 113-171.

11. Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? particularly Chapters 14, “Classical Marxism (3),” 19, “Consequentialism,” and 22, “Patterns of Consummation.”

12. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment, 160-63.I don’t invoke Gramsci here to accuse the Subalternists of being insufficiently Marxist, but because I feel that Gramsci’s real notions cleansed of distortion are very helpful in conceptualizing the history of the independence movement and postcolonial Indian state.

13. Chibber’s discussion of the post-feudal “bourgeois oligarchies” in Western nations begs the question whether the Emergency might have been just India following the same path as the developed West. We need the sharpest break with any such idea. This is one place where Chatterjee’s critique is on point: “Europe and America, the only true subjects of history, have thought out on our behalf not only the script of colonial enlightenment and exploitation, but also that of our anticolonial resistance and postcolonial misery.” The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993), 5.

14. Chatterjee, “The Nation and its Peasants,” in ibid, 158-172.

15. I hope I’m not taken as saying that Chibber’s work is worthless because he rejects the dialectic. I rather want to point out some ways in which the classical Hegelian-Marxist view of society as a differentiated but mediated totality can be helpful in giving us the tools to avoid some of the less worthwhile arguments.

16. Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 161.

17. Chibber, “The Decline of Class Analysis in South Asian Studies,” 376-78.

18. Chibber, Chatterjee and Weinstein, “Marxism and the Legacy of Subaltern Studies.”

19. Chibber, Postcolonial Theory, 205 and 163 fn. Sen is guilty of the same essentialism about Indian culture that Chibber has set about trying to correct. See The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (New York: Picador, 2006), which attempts to draw connections between the historical tolerance and liberality of the Mauraya and Mughal Empires to the maintence of India as a modern liberal democracy, as against the BJP’s religious fundamentalism.

20. Though he said in the debate with Chatterjee that he “didn’t care” if his conceptions of capitalism differed from Marx’s or those of the Marxist mainstream, he writes in the book that “[Subalternists’] Marxism is of a particular kind, and would scarcely be recognized by most contemporary Marxists” (Postcolonial Theory, 10). He can’t have it both ways.

21. David McNally draws this out at length in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 126-132.

22. Chris Taylor, “Not Even Marxist” (ref. above, note 2.)

23. At the current conjuncture it seems to me that we would do well to emphasize the anti-Enlightenment trend in Marxism. As we have seen, unproblematic paeans to Enlightenment thought can lead to some strange conclusions. The Platypus Affiliated Society, for instance, is in the process of tearing itself apart over the (thoroughly unsurprising) revelation that its leaders believe that racism in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “has a rational core.”

Works Cited

Banaji, Jairus (2010). Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation. Chicago: Haymarket.

Bhadra, Gautum (1988), “Four Rebels of 1857,” in R. Guha and G. Spivak (eds.), Selected Subaltern Studies: Essays from Five Volumes and a Glossary. London/New York: Oxford UP, 129-178.

Callinicos, Alex (1989), “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,” in International Socialism 2.43, 113-171.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000). Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal 1890-1940. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Chatterjee, Partha (1993). The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Chibber, Vivek (2006), “On the Decline of Class Analysis in South Asian Studies” in Critical Asian Studies 38.4, 357-387.

Chibber, Vivek (2013a). Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. London/New York: Verso.

Chibber, Vivek, Partha Chatterjee, and Barbara Weinstein (2013b), “Debate: Marxism and the Legacy of Subaltern Studies. Historical Materialism Conference, New York.

Davidson, Neil (2012). How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Chicago: Haymarket.

McNally, David (2012). Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket.

Pandey, Gyanendra (1983), “Rallying Round the Cow: Sectarian Strife in the Bhojpuri Region, c. 1888-1917” in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies II, 60-129.

Sen, Amartya (2006). The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity. New York: Picador.

Thomas, Peter (2010). The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism. Chicago: Haymarket.



Filed under Culture, History, Politics

The Marxist Analysis of the Second World War – A Contribution to the Discussion



The Second World War looms large in the consciousness of practically every nation. In most of the West, without exception it is regarded as the Platonic ideal of a “good war.” The military effort to defeat Germany, Italy and Japan in the 1940s is probably the ultimate Good Thing done by our people and our government, no matter where you live (at least if you live in the West). Had our boys not gone to war, so the saying goes, we would all be speaking German now, which stands in for the unimaginable destruction and violence that would have come along with the other side winning.

Even after over a decade of cultural programming in the U.S. to make us believe in Islam as the ultimate existential threat, which followed four decades of the same with Communism, neither of these has quite the same menace for us that Nazi Germany has. The fascinating evil of The Triumph of the Will, Operation Barbarossa, the gas chambers, and so on has if anything increased as more time separates us from them. In fact, a large part of the success of anticommunist and Islamophobic ideologies has been based on likening their target to the “totalitarianism” and “fanaticism” of which Nazism is the exemplar. Our collective cultural hangover from the war goes on and on with the effect of us being very often unable to make sense of it in a comprehensive way.

The position of the Marxist left in all of this cultural trauma and remembrance is somewhat ambiguous. Unlike almost all others, we are in a position to see clearly the real causes of the war: the defeat of the revolutionary wave following 1917, the rise of fascism as an extreme solution to the instability of capitalism in those years, the uneasy settlement between the major powers following the Versailles Treaty. Unlike liberals, we know Versailles was an inevitable outcome of an imperialist world system rather than the victors being mean to the vanquished. And no one but the revolutionary left can see the intimate connection between the end of the imperialist war and the revolutions of Russia, Germany and others – this is more often than not simply left out of the history books due to a lack of understanding by bourgeois historians.

Yet even on the segments of the left that are gifted with this clear sight about the causes of the war there is very often a complete failure to apply these insights. It is only with the space that decades of time allows us that we can take a fresh look at the causes of the war, the policy of Trotsky and his followers as the bearers of our revolutionary tradition during the war, and begin to make some tentative judgments on whether they were right or wrong.

Therefore, Donny Gluckstein’s recent book A People’s History of the Second World War (Pluto Press, 2012) should be regarded as a key contribution. I will say upfront I haven’t had the chance to read it. I have, however, listened to Gluckstein’s talk on his book from this year’s Historical Materialism Conference in London, and read reviews of it in various socialist publications. I want to respond both to Gluckstein’s argument and the critique of it by John Molyneux in the Irish Left Review.

Both Gluckstein and Molyneux should be given their due as preeminent socialist historians and activists of the British SWP. Gluckstein is the son of Tony Cliff, the longtime leader of the SWP, and is the author of The Western Soviets, The Paris Commune: A Revolutionary Democracy, and The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class. Molyneux is a prominent SWP writer and theoretician, now a member of its Irish sister organization. He is the author of What is the Real Marxist Tradition, Marxism and the Party, along with numerous articles and books of visual-arts critique.

The debate over Gluckstein’s book should be regarded as of key importance in establishing a coherent analysis of the wartime period. From the debates between Gluckstein and his reviewers, it is clear that such an analysis does not yet exist within our tradition. This essay is intended as a small contribution toward that understanding.

Imperialism versus the “People’s War”?

I will begin by trying to summarize what I have gleaned is Gluckstein’s argument. I disagree with it, but it is important and worth taking seriously. Briefly, he says that WW2 should be understood as two separate wars, running in parallel: the imperialist war and the people’s war. Both of these terms are drawn from Marxist discourse in the twentieth century. An imperialist war is a conflict between two imperialist powers or groups of powers; in these situations, revolutionaries should not pick a side rather but strive to create the conditions under which the war could transform into a revolutionary conflict between exploiters and exploited.

This analysis was developed in the wake of the Social Democracy’s collapse into patriotic blocs with the ruling class on the eve of the first great conflict of the type, the First World War. On the other hand, the people’s war was a term first brought into the left by Stalinists who argued not just the working class, but all classes (the “people”) of nations under attack by fascism had an objective interest in its defeat. In such a situation, therefore, the patriotic blocs that caused Communism’s break with the Second International were on the agenda again and even necessary; contrarily, pressing the demands of the working class was a block to the formation of these blocs, which objectively aided fascism.

Racist Dr. Seuss cartoon depicting the Japanese-American "fifth column."

Racist Dr. Seuss cartoon depicting the Japanese-American “fifth column.”

Gluckstein develops his own view of the “people’s war” that is separate from the Stalinist one. An example of unambiguous people’s war might be the guerrilla struggles in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland, Yugoslavia and Greece. Here, nationalist and Communist partisans with popular support waged successful national liberation struggles against the occupying German and Italian forces. These struggles were explicitly framed as such, and it is fair to say that most of the partisans and their supporters expected a socialist outcome rather than merely removing the fascists. Similar things can be said about the struggles to remove the Japanese in French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies.

An example of unambiguous imperialist war, on the other hand, might be the U.S. versus Japan in the Pacific; this was a conflict between two imperialist powers that had been started long before 1941, and was without question over the control of the Pacific Ocean and its resources. The war was conducted on both sides using the most brutal tactics and the most vile racist propaganda. Japan was not fascist,[1] and there was no sense of anything but an imperialist, top-down struggle to displace it from its holdings. Except by implication of its connection with the war in Europe, there was nothing of the popular, anti-fascist struggle that was seen there. This war, according to Gluckstein, includes the Pacific as well as the North African and Eastern European fronts.

The war in Western Europe, however, is best framed as a combination of both imperialist war and people’s war. While the British ruling class waged war against Germany to maintain its imperialist possessions rather than out of any genuine anti-fascist sentiment (indeed, Winston Churchill was on the hard right and an admirer of Mussolini), the same could not be said about British workers, whose leftwing and democratic inclinations impelled them to join the armed forces and fight an anti-fascist war. The same might be said of France, and later on, the United States.

The many battles, fronts and theaters in the war can be understood as part of the imperialist war, the people’s war, or a combination of both. Though the two wars ran in parallel to each other, says Gluckstein, there were major points of disruption when they came in conflict, thus exposing their fundamentally opposed natures.

An example of this is the 1944 uprising in Warsaw led by the Polish nationalist Home Army with Communist involvement. When the Germans had been pushed to the western side of the Vistula by Soviet forces, the uprising occurred to drive them from Warsaw before the Red Army could arrive. Soviet troops settled on the other side of the river. They refused to send supplies to aid the rebels and even refused to allow US and British planes refueling behind their lines if they should want to drop off their own supplies.[2] Gluckstein says this shows the two opposed wars coming into conflict with each other. An independent Poland was directly contrary to what Stalin sought, hence, he waited for the Nazis to crush them before moving in himself.

There are many other points of such conflict: the Allied invasion of Greece to subdue the Communist-led ELAS/EAM national liberation movement, the British defeat of nationalist rebels in the Dutch East Indies, and the rehabilitated Vichy forces doing the same to the Viet Minh in Indochina (Gluckstein 2012b).

John Molyneux in his review gives Gluckstein credit for addressing the imperialist character of the war, but has problems with his characterization of various struggles as a “people’s war.” He writes:

Gluckstein doesn’t succeed in giving a clear definition of what he means by People’s War. He himself acknowledges it is ‘problematic as an idea and might appear insufficiently rigorous’ [p.12] and he is not able to distinguish it satisfactorily from national war or class war – all wars have a class content and are, in some sense, manifestations of class struggle, and most national wars have a social dimension to them (certainly wars of national liberation do).

Second, his concept of ‘two distinct wars’ or ‘two parallel wars’ involves the notion of a single People’s War but it is not really plausible to describe the resistance struggles in Europe and the anti-imperialist struggles in Asia as part of a single war or the same war except in so far as they are aspects of the Second World War as a whole. Nor is it convincing to speak of distinct People’s War in Britain or the USA where no separate armed forces or fighting takes place, except in the very broadest sense of the people’s war that is waged throughout the history of class society. In other words he tries to stretch the term too far and ends up shoehorning struggles into it which don’t fit.

Third, Gluckstein refers on a number of occasions to the existence of ‘parallel wars’ but his own analysis shows that far from running in parallel these different struggles both intersect and, at times, sharply conflict with one another.

I think Molyneux is right where he questions the existence of a “people’s war” going on in the US and British armed forces. Whatever the intentions of American and British workers in these armies, they objectively served the interests of their rulers, which was to defeat the Axis for the sake of defending their imperial possessions or acquiring new ones. These soldiers went to war to defend democracy against fascism, but soldiers in countless wars have fought to preserve democracy and ended up objectively serving imperialism.[3] To try to understand the Western front as anything other than an inter-imperialist conflict is a concession to American or British patriotic sentiment. Of course, this viewpoint would have significant consequences for socialist strategy, which I’ll get to later.

Fundamentally, I think “people’s war” is an anti-Marxist concept. It assumes the fundamental unity of interests of classes in a nation, both proletariat and bourgeoisie. Marxism does not deal with “peoples,” but with social classes, and secondarily, nations. We can understand and speak to the dynamics of both class and national struggles, but not the struggles of whole “peoples,” especially on an international scale. Thus, it is an extension of Popular Front politics that cannot be adapted to fit within a framework based on class struggle.

Gluckstein proposes a “people’s war” which is separate from the imperialist war. In defense of this concept he writes, “The book freely admits it is ‘problematic as an idea’, pointing out its evanescent character and rapid dissolution as a movement after 1945. Maybe a different term can be found, and although it is true that the war from below lacked homogeneity, the concept of ‘people’s war’ captures the complexity of events” (Birchall and Gluckstein 2012).

As I wrote, however, this can only be defined through artificial separations and clubbing together of diverse conflicts. It makes little sense to club together the service of American and British workers in the imperialist armies in France, with the nationalist uprising in Poland. This has no explanatory value.

I also agree with Molyneux that Gluckstein’s proposal of “two parallel wars” is incoherent and, at a certain point, nonsensical. “There was such a thing as the Second World War, so its underlying character can and should be investigated. And the discovery of parallel wars within it shows, to use the language of dialectics, that the Second World War represented a ‘unity of opposites,’” Gluckstein writes. But as Molyneux says, a dialectical unity exists within a single whole, rather than two entirely separate, even if “parallel” wholes.

Two, Three, Many World Wars

Molyneux believes that the Second World War was one conflict, and it was an imperialist war. I question this very much. I think we call “World War Two” was not one war, but several wars that mutually impacted upon each other, if not in the terms Gluckstein suggests.

I’ll take the example of the war in the Pacific. This was a conflict that occurred independently of the war in Europe, as I said. But what many people do not realize is that it began long before the war in Europe, and therefore it had its own separate dynamic. The conquest of Manchuria and the rape of the rest of China, as well as other developments leading right up to Pearl Harbor are all part of a separate conflict that set Japanese imperialism against Anglo-American imperialism. It was not unaffected by the war in Europe, but these connections were based only on Germany’s alliance of convenience with Japan – their war aims did not significantly overlap. Well into the conflict, the American military brass spoke openly of “two wars,” one in Europe and one in the Pacific.

Defining the war in the Pacific as imperialist overall does not preclude the existence of national or class struggles within it – aspects of what Gluckstein calls the unitary “people’s war.” But these do not determine its overall character. Moreover, these national liberation struggles were fought on, and assisted by both sides. Whereas the Chinese people in their war against Japan found their objective allies in Britain and the United States, the Burmese and Indians in their national liberation struggle against Britain looked to Japan as their ally.

Probably Gluckstein’s most convincing case for parallel wars is the Eastern front. But even here, I do not understand why the war fought between partisans and Germany should not be understood as separate from the war fought between Germany and the Soviet Union. The fundamental conflict was between Soviet imperialism and German imperialism with its allies – which, once again, does not preclude the existence of national liberation struggles within the war, but these were part of the overall conflict and their outcome was determined by its result.[4]

The band of hostile brothers in a German commemorative print of the Munich Agreement.

Chamberlain and Daladier, Hitler and Mussolini – the band of hostile brothers in a German commemorative print on the occasion of the the Munich Agreement.

Ernest Mandel, the late theoretician of the Fourth International, has a formulation different from both, found in his article “Trotskyists and the Resistance in World War Two,” which Molyneux quotes favorably in his own analysis. Mandel says that we are dealing with no less than five separate wars:

  1. A worldwide conflict between Anglo-Franco-American imperialism and German, Italian, and Japanese imperialism.
  2. The national liberation struggle of China against Japan.
  3. The progressive self-defense of the Soviet Union, a workers’ state, against German imperialism.
  4. National liberation struggles by the people of India, Ceylon, Burma, Indochina and Indonesia, waged against British, French, Dutch or Japanese imperialism.
  5. The resistance in Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy and France against German and Italian occupation. (Mandel 1976)

I think Mandel’s formulation is incredibly problematic. He does not sufficiently justify why, if there was one war on a global scale, the other wars did not form component parts of the first. Moreover, the resistance in Poland ill matches the character of the Yugoslav and Greek resistance, and the anti-fascist and class struggles in Italy and France were completely different from both of them in substance. Of course, just like Molyneux and Gluckstein, I do not believe that the Soviet Union was a workers’ state, and therefore would say the war on the Eastern Front was an imperialist war.[5]

Before I lay out my own position, for convenience I will sum up the ones I have described so far. Gluckstein believes there were two wars, a people’s war and an imperialist war running side by side. It was revolutionary to participate in the first, but not the second. Molyneux in contrast believes there was only one war, an imperialist war, which nevertheless required working class participation. Mandel believes that there were five wars, of which one was imperialist and four were progressive, and therefore requiring revolutionary participation.

I believe that all of these formulations give ground to the idea of a Stalinist-type “people’s war,” even if this is contrary to their intentions. Gluckstein and Molyneux believe in the common interests of the working class in Britain and America with their rulers. Molyneux says this outright, while Gluckstein tries to square the circle by introducing the concept of parallel wars. Mandel matches them by asserting the progressive nature of the war in the East and the French resistance, ignoring the reactionary and imperialist aspects of both. Whatever the formulation, all of these propose common interests between workers and the Allied ruling classes in defeating fascism.

Gluckstein says there were two wars, Molyneux one, Mandel five. At the risk of complicating things beyond understanding, I propose that there were three:

  1. The war in Western Europe and North Africa between German and Italian imperialism on one side, and British, French and American imperialism on the other, including anti-fascist and class struggles in Italy and to a much lesser extent in France.[6] This began in September 1939 with the declaration of war by the Allies and ended in May 1945 with the surrender of Germany.
  2. The war on the Eastern European front between German imperialism and its allies against Soviet imperialism, including numerous national liberation struggles against both. This began in June 1941 with Operation Barbarossa and also ended in May 1945 with German surrender.
  3. The war in the Pacific between Japanese imperialism and Anglo-American imperialism, including numerous national liberation struggles, also against both. This war started in September 1931 with the Manchurian Incident, and concluded in June 1945 with Japanese surrender.

Whether they think there were one, two, or five different wars, the formulations of Molyneux, Gluckstein and Mandel all require us to lump together a variety of wars that are inter-imperialist and anti-fascist, national and class struggles. For Marxists all of these are completely different from each other in nature. On the other hand, my view of three separate but mutually interpenetrating imperialist wars allows us to see the common laws of motion in each.

First, the three conflicts were separate. The conflict in the Pacific began a full decade before Pearl Harbor, with the conquest of Manchuria. At this point the central dynamic was one of Japanese imperialism versus the Chinese national liberation struggle; ten years later this would shift to one of conflict between Japanese imperialism and Anglo-American imperialism. But as the Chinese national liberation struggle certainly did not end or shift dramatically in its character when America entered the war, these two phases of the war interpenetrate, forming a single dialectical unity.

The conflict in Eastern Europe, as well, was presaged by German expansion into Austria and Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union’s occupation of the Baltic states and invasion of Finland. This also includes, most famously, the partition of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. These cleared the deck for the central conflict between German and Soviet imperialisms.

Second, the three wars were mutually interpenetrating. Most practically, the invasion of Poland by Germany meant the beginning of war in the west. While they waged war in Europe, the leaders of Britain and France never had their colonial empires in Asia very far from their minds.[7] To defeat them in Asia, the Japanese required that they were pinned down in Europe by Germany. Similarly, the fate of the Soviet offensive in Eastern Europe depended greatly on the opening of the offensive in France.

Third, all of these conflicts were imperialist. The fundamental struggle was for the re-division of territory, colonies, and profits in each of them. The world working class had no objective interest in whether America or Japan won in the Pacific, nor – not to put too fine a point on it – whether the Soviet Union or Germany and its allies won on the Eastern Front.

This is very much in keeping with the revolutionary Marxist perspective of Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg in the First World War. Molyneux, along with many other sincere revolutionaries during and after the war, believes that fascism represented such an extreme danger to humanity that it was necessary for revolutionaries to intervene on the Allied side. But fundamentally, inter-imperialist conflicts tend to run on a continuum in terms of the barbarism, destruction and extermination they unleash.

Red Army and Wehrmacht fraternize at the victory parade in Brest-Litovsk after the partition of Poland.

Red Army and Wehrmacht fraternize at the victory parade in Brest-Litovsk after the partition of Poland.

To put it bluntly: what makes the Nazi war machine in Eastern Europe substantially different from its imperial predecessor in the same territory? And, in the same terms, what differentiates the holocausts perpetrated by British and French imperialism different from the Shoah, the only event we feel comfortable calling a holocaust today?[8]

As in all imperialist wars, each of these three conflicts opened the possibility of nations that are oppressed or colonized by one side freeing themselves in alliance with the other. National liberation struggles, at least according to the Marxist tradition, are equally progressive regardless of the context. It is just as progressive for India to free itself in alliance with Japan as it is for Indonesia to free itself in alliance with Britain.

Revolutionary Participation in an Imperialist War?

The bulk of Molyneux’s argument is his elaboration of revolutionary socialist tactics (or what they should have been, anyway) during the war. For the most part, his position is a restatement of the “proletarian military policy” which Trotsky urged his followers to adopt shortly before his death (Trotsky 1940a and b).[9] The essence of the strategy was that revolutionaries should join the armed forces and call on the working class in Allied nations to do so as well, but at the same time expose the imperialist aims of the ruling class and fight for the transformation of the military struggle against fascism to a working-class basis, which primarily meant the empowerment of trade unions as vehicles of military struggle. Molyneux writes:

… despite the fact, amply documented by Gluckstein, that the Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin governments and the ruling classes they represented (I do not accept the notion that Russia was still a workers’ state), fought the war for their own imperialist interests and not for democracy or anti-fascist principle, it was nevertheless in the interests of the working class internationally that Nazi Germany and its fascist allies were militarily defeated. To put the matter sharply and clearly I think that revolutionary socialists should not have been neutral on D-Day or at Stalingrad.

In support of this it should be noted that the position of neutrality or a ‘plague on both houses’ appears to have had no serious resonance with any of the working classes in any of the belligerent countries. Whereas in the First World War initial war fever steadily waned as the war developed and turned eventually into outright revolutionary opposition (in Russia and Germany), no such process occurred anywhere in the Second World War. On the contrary the large scale radicalization that took place did so as part of pursuing the war against the Axis.

Moreover working class instincts and inclinations were objectively correct in this. Neither they at the time, nor we with hindsight, can be indifferent to the consequences of Nazi/fascist victory. It would have been an utter catastrophe for all the workers of Europe and very possibly the world. Fascism destroyed all independent working class organization in Italy, Germany and Spain. Had Hitler and co. won they would done the same everywhere else. The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, 20 million or so Russians, up to 500,000 Roma, millions of Poles and so on. If they had won how many more would they have exterminated? It true, as we have seen, that Roosevelt, Churchill and co were not fighting an anti-fascist war in the sense that they were motivated by opposition to fascism but objectively, whatever their motives, they were fighting fascist regimes and it is a simple fact that the victory of the Allies resulted in the demolition of the fascist regimes and the restoration, at least in Western Europe, of bourgeois democracy (Molyneux 2012).[10]

I applaud this formulation for drawing out the issues at stake precisely and clearly. I believe, however, that his argument is based on an analysis that is limited to Western Europe, and a very mistaken analysis at that. It requires detailed unpacking, so I will take some time with it before analyzing the consequences of his position for socialist strategy.

First: bourgeois democracy was not restored in all of Western Europe. Franco’s rule was maintained in Spain, with which Britain and the United States made a separate peace. The victory of bourgeois “anti-fascism” in France and Germany meant the continuation of dictatorial rule and the atomization of the working class in Spain – and also, Portugal. I question the characterization of the Franco and Salazar regimes as fascist,[11] but the Iberian Peninsula remains a very significant exception to the assertion that bourgeois democracy was restored in the West.

Second: bourgeois democracy was reestablished in France, Italy and West Germany at the cost of derailing the progressive/revolutionary struggles by members of the resistance, partisans and antifas. It required the collaboration of the Stalinist CPs to impose an explicitly counter-revolutionary settlement on the working class. Even during the war, the aims of the continental working class were directly opposed to those of the Allied rulers.

Third: bourgeois democracy was certainly never established in Eastern Europe. Red Army occupation of these countries led to the imposition of an equally counter-revolutionary settlement, that of Stalinist state capitalism. Unless I am very mistaken, Molyneux would not see the imposition of Stalinism as “progressive” in any sense.

In other words, the imperialist victory against fascism meant the end of progressive struggles that had been waged on the margins of the wars in Eastern and Western Europe. A counter-revolutionary settlement was imposed on the whole continent. In Greece, just to point to the most extreme example, this meant an invasion by Britain to decapitate the radicalizing national liberation struggle.

Fourth: the outcome of limited bourgeois democracy in the West objectively meant the restoration of the empires of Britain, France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Whereas the Indian and Burmese freedom struggles had gained the edge over Britain during the war, decolonization in Indochina, the East Indies, Africa and the Middle East would take further wars lasting years or even decades.

Is this progressive?

Is this progressive?

Furthermore, I find that Molyneux’s account, like many of the war even on the left, is more or less in awe of fascism. No doubt, it represented a catastrophic setback to the working class of Italy and Germany, as well as the territories both occupied. But this was not a permanent defeat. One of the great merits of Gluckstein’s book on the Nazi regime is that it reminds us how hamstrung the German war effort was because of the state’s fear of the latent power of the working class. The invasion of Poland had been launched despite the fact that it would cause war in the West because of an slowdown in the German economy, which the regime feared would cause working-class unrest. During the war rationing could not be fully implemented, conscription could not be extended to requisite levels, and armaments factories did not even have two shifts until late in 1943. In other words, German society never reached a complete war mobilization because the Nazi regime feared a repeat of 1918 or 1923. When the hammer-blows of war began to rain down on Germany itself, workers were quick to rediscover their interests, especially in the form of the antifa battalions (Gluckstein 2011).

Going along with these points, the logic of Molyneux’s position might have some very disturbing humanitarian consequences. The Allies committed some of the most horrible crimes against humanity in the wartime period: the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What “objective interest” did the international proletariat have in the incineration of thousands of German and Japanese workers? No more interest, I would think, than they did in the Shoah.

“I think that revolutionary socialists should not have been neutral on D-Day or at Stalingrad,” says Molyneux. This is all very well. But what does a position in favor of the Allied forces in these battles mean – or rather, what would it have meant for the revolutionaries attempting to deal with them? Since fascism “destroyed all independent working class organization” in its home and threatened to do the same elsewhere, what concrete policy would revolutionaries follow to stop the threat? Would they join the army? Would they call on workers to stop strikes that harmed the war effort, like the Stalinists did?

I do not disagree with the truth of what Molyneux says: fascism meant the defeat of the working class as well as barbarism and extermination on a mass scale. In the face of this, I understand why many sincere revolutionaries believed that suspending the class struggle was what was required. But I respectfully disagree. Workers have no “objective interest” in the victory of their rulers in any imperialist conflict, and posing the question as one of extermination is, to my mind, something like moral blackmail.

One fact that Molyneux seems to ignore is that, during the course of the war, some revolutionary groups in the Allied nations did pursue an explicitly antiwar policy. I am thinking primarily of the American SWP, and the split from them led by Max Shachtman, the Workers’ Party. Both these groups won credibility by leading strikes against organized labor’s no-strike pledge, for which they were denounced by the Stalinists, and persecuted by the American state under the Smith Act.[12] What does Molyneux think of their efforts? Should they have desisted and joined the army?[13]

What frustrates me most of all about Molyneux’s argument, however, is the fundamentally Eurocentric terms he deals in. Though he refers at the beginning and end of his review to anti-colonial struggles in the context of the war, the substance of his analysis deals only with Europe. In what follows, I will try to correct this with the case of India, since it is the country I am most familiar with from my own studies, as well as the country in which these questions were posed most sharply.

Molyneux quotes Gluckstein’s summary favorably, so I will start from there:

On 3 September 1939 Indians woke to discover they were at war. London did not bother to ask for approval, unlike Dominions such as Canada or Australia. When Churchill told the Commons that ‘India has a great part to play in the world’s struggle for freedom’ that did not include independence for India’s 400 million, a population that exceeded the maximum number conquered by the Third Reich.

One consequence of the ‘struggle for freedom’ was the Bengal famine of 1943… It consumed between 1.5 and 3.5 million lives despite civil servants describing the previous harvest as ‘a good one’… This continued an appalling record – 12 major famines since colonization began. In the 1860s an Indian economist [Dadabhai Naoroji – B.C.] had discovered the basic cause: a sum greater than the sub-continent’s land value was drained off annually to support British occupation and profits…

The 1943 famine was directly connected to India’s involvement in the Second World War, because after it began eleven times the usual number of soldiers were maintained at the country’s expense.

Field Marshall Wavell… pointed out ‘the very different attitude towards feeding a starving population when there is starvation in Europe’. Churchill was unabashed… sending food amounted to ‘appeasement’ of the Congress Party. The official record notes that the Canadian PM had 100,000 tons of grain loaded on a ship bound for India but was ‘dissuaded by a strong personal appeal from Winston’ from sending it (Gluckstein 2012a).

The history of the war in India included not just suffering, but active and militant resistance. Initially, the Congress Party had wavered over whether India should support Britain’s war effort. Gandhi and Nehru both instinctively opposed fascism, but they did not budge from the position that Indians could not wage war for freedom when their own country was not free. Britain’s officials obstinately refused to meet their most basic requests: autonomy in administration and prosecution of the war effort, and a guarantee of independence immediately following the defeat of Germany and Japan. Thus was launched the Quit India agitation, a mass campaign of violent and nonviolent resistance involving millions of Indians at its height, which was brutally repressed by the British.

What does Molyneux think about all this? He says:

In the colonial countries it would have been necessary [for revolutionaries] to argue, in opposition to the Communist Parties, against any idea of deferring the struggle for independence. Clearly a risen and free India, and even more so a workers’ India, would have been a huge assistance to the struggle against Fascism and an infinitely harder country for Japan or Germany to subdue than an India still subjugated by Britain.

But whether “a risen and free India” would have been “a huge assistance in the struggle against fascism” and “infinitely harder” for Japan and Germany to defeat is really beside the point. This is sloganeering, not the concrete analysis of concrete conditions. Britain stood in the way of Indian independence, and this was part and parcel of its imperialist war against Germany and Japan.[14]

Bose reviews the Rani of Jhansi regiment, the all-female regiment of the INA.

Bose reviews the Rani of Jhansi regiment, the all-female regiment of the INA.

In this situation, why should the Indian people see Japan or Germany as their main enemies? They knew enough to decide this question for themselves: thousands of Indian prisoners of war in Southeast Asia joined Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, which fought to liberate India alongside the Japanese. Bose and the INA won enormous popular support within India even though they only breached its northeast corridor, when they were thrown back at Imphal in 1943.

What should have been the position of Indian revolutionaries? The Trotskyists, the few that there were in India, joined in the Quit India agitation. The more numerous Trotskyists in Ceylon led illegal strikes on plantations tasked with supplying food for the war effort. From what he wrote, Molyneux seems to think they were right. But I do not see how he squares this with his support for the British war effort as a whole, considering that he believes the war to have been one united conflict. If the international working class had a direct interest in defeating fascism, and if India stood to aid this effort, shouldn’t the Indians have done their utmost to aid Britain?

Molyneux is also hesitant in his analysis of the war’s impact on the neutral countries: “I do not think that in neutral countries such as Ireland or in South America, socialists should have called for joining in the War,” is the only remark he makes. But why not? If the world’s working class had an objective interest in defeating fascism, wasn’t it the responsibility of revolutionaries in Ireland and Latin America to make sure that they joined in the struggle? To limit ourselves to Ireland alone, the consequence of this position would have been a subordinate alliance with Britain while it occupied Irish territory in Ulster.

Conclusion: The Revolution that Wasn’t There

What, therefore, was the correct strategy for revolutionaries to take in World War II? Of course, it would depend on the place. In the imperialist countries, the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan, it meant very practically the continuation of class struggle and antiwar propaganda against the state. This, of course, required a great deal of bravery in extremely adverse conditions. Severe repression was meted out to those in the Allied nations who broke the no-strike pledges and agitated against the war, even if it did not match that of fascism in its sheer ferocity.

In times of war as well as peace, socialists have always found themselves in the ranks of national liberation forces, whose struggles we regard as objectively revolutionary. Revolutionaries in Eastern Europe could, and did, find themselves in the liberation struggles of Poland, Yugoslavia, and Greece against Germany, just as their counterparts in India and Ceylon struggled against British imperialism.

As these struggles moved in a radical direction, the specter of revolution was raised, just as it had been in World War I. By the end of the war, even Catholic partisans in Italy were speaking openly of the need to abolish capitalism. The people who had defeated Germany in Yugoslavia and Greece fought fascism from a left-wing stance, and expected socialism after the war. Similarly, the end of the war in the Pacific meant the defeat of Japan and the decline of Britain, and therefore the liberation of China, India, Burma, Indochina, the Philippines, and the East Indies from the imperialist yoke.

The First World War ended with the opening of a global war of the proletariat and oppressed peoples of the world against capitalism. The Second could have ended in the same way. This was, indeed, the outcome Trotsky had predicted before his death. It did not happen, because the forces of imperialism, which includes Stalinism, turned out to be stronger, more alert, and quicker on their feet than he had expected.

Needless to say, that the Stalinist and Social-Democratic leadership of workers in the Allied countries succeeded in enlisting them in the “people’s war” played a major part in forestalling the class struggle in the imperialist countries, whereas in the last war their struggles had broken out into revolution.

But this was a possible outcome, and it was the duty of revolutionaries at the time to do their best to bring it to fruition. In this respect, the record of Trotskyists in the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Eastern Europe, India, Ceylon and other places is unimpeachable. The ambiguities and contradictions in the formal Trotskyist position on the war allowed militants within that movement to emphasize the parts of it that best accorded with their revolutionary, class-struggle instincts. But the blueprint itself, however one warms it over and rephrases it, lost its value even before Trotsky wrote it down.

Nevertheless, his followers carried the roots of our tradition across the explosion of war, barbarism and extermination brought on world capitalism, in both its “democratic” and fascist forms. We owe them our homage – which most of all means a clear understanding of their motivations. And saying they fought the “people’s war,” in whatever way it is posed, is an insult to their memory.


[1] Japan during the war was a straight military dictatorship. There had never been a mass movement of the petty bourgeoisie to smash working class resistance. Indeed, the Japanese working class had never been ready to take power, as the German and Italian workers had. These countries are the home of fascism in its classic form – and I would argue, the only real fascist countries to date (see note 11 below). Factions within the Japanese military, particularly Kodoha (The Imperial Way) and Toseiha (Control) drew on different aspects of European fascist ideology, but both assumed top-down military rule and rejected any participation by civilians in the imperialist project.

[2] The arrival of the Red Army at the banks of the Vistula was the culmination of what was probably the speediest advance in military history, causing troops to far outrun their supply lines. Thus they were not in a position to militarily aid the uprising, though as Gluckstein points out it would have been possible to send supplies. Stalin was not interested in this because the Home Army’s success would place another barrier in the way of Soviet subjugation of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe.

[3] Taking the history of the United States alone, World War I, Korea, Vietnam, both Gulf wars, and Afghanistan all come to mind.

[4] Just as Yugoslavs and some Poles looked to the Soviet Union for aid in gaining their freedom from Germany, so Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Latvians fought alongside the Wehrmacht for their freedom from Russia. It goes without saying that nations never gained independence from Germany, and moreover the consequences of collaboration would lead many to participate in the Shoah. For any Marxist, this is one of the most thorny issues of the war and I don’t want to provide a final answer to it, just to point out that it is there and deserves much more thought.

[5] I view the Soviet Union as imperialist based on the oppression of nations internal to the USSR and its interventions in Finland, Poland and the Baltic states. Of course, this understanding is based on Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism, which I do not plan on debating here. Gabriel Kolko, the American left historian, tries to deal with the same issues as Gluckstein in his classic work The Politics of War, but his understanding of the Eastern Front, and particularly of Stalin’s actions in Greece, is hamstrung because he cannot see the USSR as imperialist.

[6] The anti-fascist struggle by the Italian partisans was much broader and more radical than that of the French resistance, despite the mythmaking attempts by Mandel in the article I quoted above. France did see anti-fascist and class struggles, but on a much lower scale than in Italy or the other occupied European countries. In his review of Gluckstein’s book, Ian Birchall, also of the SWP, discusses the reactionary character of the Resistance. Gaullists and Stalinists collaborated in a strictly patriotic struggle which lauded the killings of German working-class conscripts under the slogan “à chacun son boche” – everyone should kill a German. On the other hand, French Trotskyists consistently attempted to reach German enlisted men through a paper they produced, Arbeiter und Soldat, to which they received some positive response (Birchall and Gluckstein 2012).

[7] The war in the Pacific had a quite decisive impact on the Eastern European war as well. Japan’s rulers looked just as much toward Mongolia and Siberia as they did toward Pacific and Southeast Asia as parts of the future “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” While the Nomonhan Incident/Battle of Khalkhin Gol in 1939 (which ended with the humiliation of Japan by the Red Army) ended their expansion toward the north at the time, a decision to strike north and west again instead of south and east would have pinned down the Soviet Union on both sides. It was only because the non-agression treaty with Japan held that Red Army units deployed in Siberia could be moved west, which saved Moscow from the Wehrmacht in the winter of 1941.

[8] It’s possible to argue that German imperialism was worse because the number of bodies from the Shoah vastly outweighs the atrocities of Britain, France and the Soviet Union during the war years. But is the number of bodies a useful Marxist category? And what practical impact does this have on our strategy and theory? In addition, if you added them up, I would hazard a guess that the number of deaths resulting from British atrocities in South Asia alone in the ninety years from the Mutiny to independence compares to that of the Shoah – in which case, it is not a matter of the numbers but rather of the shorter amount of time in which Nazi Germany killed millions, and the unique methods it employed to do so. It could be said that for Germany, a late-developing power emerging from a very recent and catastrophic defeat in WW1, its imperialist crimes were compressed into a much shorter timeframe than that allowed to the older and more “civilized” imperialism of Britain.

Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt by Richard Gott (London/New York: Verso, 2012) is an excellent and valuable synthesis on the violence and barbarism that Britain unleashed worldwide in building and consolidating its empire (1747-1857 or so). As he writes, “… Britain’s imperial experience ranks more closely with Chingiz Khan or Attila the Hun than with those of Alexander the Great… the rulers of the British Empire will one day be perceived to rank with the dictators of the twentieth century as the authors of crimes against humanity on an infamous scale.”

[9] Molyneux starts from a similar position to Trotsky, but his argument does not entirely match. The “proletarian military policy” is gleaned from several sketches Trotsky composed very near the end of his life with the purpose of elaborating the Fourth International’s wartime strategy – the term itself is not that of Trotsky, but of James Cannon. The American SWP and the British WIL adopted it as their official line, but it was challenged by the French CQI and the American Workers’ Party, which still considered itself a part of the International (Prometheus 1989). It is doubtful how many Trotskyists adopted this strategy, and even when they did, it proved ambiguous and failed as a guide to concrete policies (see note 12 below).

[10] At the end of his review, Molyneux notes three conflicts which he believes provide precedents for his view of WW2: the Spanish Civil War, the American Civil War, and the German occupation of Paris during the Commune. Since a reply to this does not fit easily anywhere else, I will do it in this footnote.

Molyneux argues that Spanish revolutionaries in 1936-9 gave the Republic military support against fascism, while seeking to overthrow it from within. But first of all, this is not the same as the strategy he proposes in WW2 – nowhere does he mention British workers fighting fascism on the Continent at the same time they prepared to overthrow Churchill, and indeed, this would be a nonsensical position. But he is also ignoring a decisive shift in nature of the war as it wore on – from a mass antifascist uprising based on the working class that resulted in a situation of dual power, to a proxy conflict between Italy/Germany, supporting the Nationalists, and the Soviet Union, supporting the Republic. This shift of course was predicated on the extermination of the organs of workers’ power, the crushing of the revolutionary organizations, and the murder of many revolutionaries.

The German occupation of Paris in 1871 can be similarly disposed of. Molyneux argues here that the imperialist war between France and Prussia was turned by the establishment of the Commune into its opposite – a revolutionary war to abolish capitalism. I find this confusing. Did the Parisian workers ally with Thiers against Bismarck or vice-versa? No – the Commune was based on revolutionary opposition to both, with the hostility between the government of the Commune and Versailles ending in a war that marked the death of the revolution. Bismarck actually released a number of French prisoners of war to aid in the suppression of the Commune. The very institutions of the Third Republic were forged in combat with the Commune and collaboration with Prussia, just as the counterrevolutionary settlement after WW2 in Europe was imposed in opposition to the class, national and antifascist struggles in Greece, Italy and France.

Molyneux’s mention of the American Civil War in this context is actually very disappointing. The Civil War was not an inter-imperialist conflict. It was a revolutionary war to abolish slavery, in which the Northern bourgeoisie was a key protagonist – see my article on leftist views of the movie Lincoln. Molyneux should know that it was on this basis that Marx supported a cross-class alliance – because in 1861, this was both possible and necessary. The years 1939-45, as I have tried to summarize, tell a very different story.

[11] Franco had defeated the Spanish Republic in a conventional military conflict, and the fascist party in Spain – the National Falange led by José Antonio Primo de Rivera – was demobilized early on in the war. Later, they were told to merge with the Carlists, a traditionalist Catholic movement supporting the royal claims of the younger line of Bourbon pretenders to the throne, centered in Navarra. This was a bitter pill for the Falangists, who saw themselves as modernizers. I think Spain was a case in which the ruling class found it still possible to rule through the traditional institutions of the military and the Church, rather than having to resort to the battering ram of fascism. Of course, this was only possible thanks to heavy military support from fascist Italy and Germany. (For the record, I do not believe Romania, Hungary, etc were fascist either, based on a similar rationale).

[12] The WP split from the American SWP in 1939 over the defense of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state, a conflict immediately precipitated by the Soviet invasion of Finland. Of the existing Trotskyist groups, they were probably the ones to draw the sharpest line against any notion of a “people’s war” or “war to save democracy.” The January 1942 issue of their newspaper, Labor Action, ran the following slogan on its masthead: “The War to Save Democracy: End Jim Crow.”

Since before the split, Shachtman and his followers had defended the strategy of the Third Camp, independent of the Entente powers, the Axis, and the Soviet Union alike. While their erstwhile comrades in the SWP officially adopted the “proletarian military policy” (note 9, above) they rapidly broke with it in practice. A 1942 editorial in its magazine Fourth International by James Cannon said the following:

We considered the war upon the part of all the capitalist powers involved—Germany and France, Italy and Great Britain — as an imperialist war.

This characterization of the war was determined for us by the character of the state powers involved in it. They were all capitalist states in the epoch of imperialism; themselves imperialist—oppressing other nations or peoples—or satellites of imperialist powers. The extension of the war to the Pacific and the formal entry of the United States and Japan change nothing in this basic analysis.

While Cannon wrote that the defense of the Soviet Union, still a workers’ state, was progressive (as was the Chinese freedom struggle against Japan), he maintained that the military efforts of Britain and France were primarily intended “to maintain their lordship over the hundreds of millions of subject peoples in the British and French empires.” To defend this, he wrote, “means to defend their oppression of the masses of Africa and Asia, above all it means to defend the decaying capitalist social order” (Cannon 1942). These documents from New International, Labor Action, and Fourth International, are available online along with much more, thanks to the untiring work of Einde O’Callaghan.

[13] I do not mean to say that joining the army was not a legitimate decision, even for a revolutionary. Molyneux is right to argue that both in Britain and America, support for the war effort was consistently high. I think that revolutionaries could, at the time, make the decision to join the armed forces since this was where the working class was going – but without having any illusions in the war effort, and seeking opportunities to agitate against it from within. Duncan Hallas, much later a leader of the British SWP, had joined up, but after the war led a strike in the British Army in Egypt. Such actions led to the quick withdrawal of Britain from the colonial world. What Hallas did is very different from the scabbing that Stalinists openly engaged in during the war.

In the article I quote above in note 11, Cannon also did not call on revolutionaries to resist conscription: “The Trotskyists go with their generation into the armed forces. We abide by the decisions of the majority. But we retain our opinions and insist on our right to express them.”

[14] I have written elsewhere about the class character of the Indian freedom struggle. I will just say that a “worker’s India” was nowhere in the cards during the 1940s. Furthermore, in practical terms a free India would have actually served to hinder the struggle against the Axis. It is far more convenient to wage war with the existing army and state apparatus than to move to an entirely different system in the middle of struggle. I don’t think Molyneux would argue on these terms for the suspension of the freedom struggle, but it is hidden in the logic of his position.


Birchall, Ian, and Donny Gluckstein (2012). “Review and Response: A People’s History of the Second World War.”

Cannon, James (1942). “A Statement on the War,” in Fourth International 3.1, pp. 3-4.

Gluckstein, Donny (2011). The Nazis, Capitalism, and the Working Class. Chicago: Haymarket.

Gluckstein, Donny (2012a). A People’s History of the Second World War: Resistance versus Empire. London: Pluto.

Gluckstein, Donny (2012b). “War, Resistance and Revolution.” Lecture at the 2012 Historical Materialism Conference in London, UK, November 10th.

Mandel, Ernest (1976). “Trotskyists and the Resistance in World War Two.” Lecture transcript from the International Marxist Group Conference, London, UK.

Molyneux, John (2012). “Review: Donny Gluckstein, A People’s History of the Second World War,” in Irish Marxist Review 1.4, pp. 89-98.

Prometheus Research Library (1989). Documents on the ‘Proletarian Military Policy’ – Prometheus Research Series No. 2.

Trotsky, Leon (1940a). “How to Really Defend Democracy.” Fourth International 1.5, pp.126-127.

Trotsky, Leon (1940b). “Some Questions on American Problems.” Fourth International 1.5, pp. 132-135.


Filed under History, Politics

The Bourgeois Revolution in India, Part 2


In the last section of my essay on the bourgeois revolution in India, I gave some account of the early independence movement, and thereafter traced its development alongside that of Marxism. The early Comintern developed a blueprint for Communists attempting to strategize around nationalist demands in colonial situations, and this blueprint was developed with specific reference to the situation of India. I then suggested the different ways in which this blueprint was adopted by the Stalinist CPI from its founding in 1930 until independence, and by the 4th International led by Leon Trotsky.


Marxist Perspectives: The International Socialist Tradition (1963-present)

In this section, I want to attempt several different things. First, to continue with Cliff as he departed from orthodox Trotskyism, while at the same time preserving the insight of Trotsky for the current world situation. For our purposes, this discussion will be centered around a discussion of his brilliant article, “Deflected Permanent Revolution.”

At the same time, I will try to unite his insights with those of his comrades John Rees, writing on the democratic revolution and the socialist revolution, and Alex Callinicos, who is largely responsible for the most coherent Marxist viewpoint on bourgeois revolution. Finally, I will deal with Neil Davidson, whose book on bourgeois revolution is the most important book on the subject to date. I will attempt, based on the previous discussion, to explain what the contributions of Cliff, Rees, Callinicos and Davidson help us to understand about Indian independence, as well as what they do not.

“Deflected Permanent Revolution,” written in 1963 for International Socialism, is an outstanding contribution to postwar Marxism. Cliff, observing that Trotsky’s prediction of socialism or barbarism by war’s end had been invalidated, set out to reconstruct the theory of permanent revolution on this basis. Western capitalism had stabilized, as had Stalinism, regarded by Cliff and his few co-thinkers as a form of state capitalism.

Nevertheless, the world situation had changed substantially outside the spheres of the great powers. In China and Cuba, social revolutions had taken place that produced societies closely resembling that of the Stalinist USSR. Similarly, countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa and succeeded in separating themselves from imperialism through mass freedom movements – these produced state capitalism in some places, and mixed economies in others. Trotsky had clearly been wrong when he expected that the only way to overthrow imperialism was a socialist revolution led by the working class.

This is not a picture of Tony Cliff.

This is not a picture of Tony Cliff.

Why was Trotsky wrong? Cliff wrote that objective conditions in the colonial world that Trotsky could not have foreseen had blocked the development of working-class consciousness, the subjective condition for a socialist revolution. This had to do with colonial repression as much as the disorganization foisted on the labor movement by a semi-urban, semi-rural economy that imperialism had failed to develop beyond its own immediate profit interests.

Millions of workers in the developing world, wrote Cliff, only worked for a wage part of the year with the goal of gaining enough money to maintain subsistence in their rural homes, to which they returned as farmers. They still identified as peasants rather than workers, which blocked the development of a coherent trade-union movement as the precursor to class-consciousness.

Trade unions that did develop ran up against the obstacles of Stalinism and nationalism. Organizers did not rise organically from the workers, but came from the left-leaning nationalist and Stalinist groups outside the class. Workers became dependent on these organizers to solve their problems, rather than developing a sense of class solidarity that could be employed in struggles with the bosses. Here, Cliff is referring explicitly to the Indian case.

So the working class in these countries was incapable of putting an end to imperialism. However, the crisis of imperialism in its colonial and semi-colonial possessions made revolutionary change inevitable. Cliff proposed that in this situation, the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia could take revolutionary agency. The colonial intellectuals were the ones tasked with some of the running of their countries, but their advancement was blocked by imperialism, at which they felt resentful.

Being of high education, they simultaneously felt a deep connection to their colonized nation and contempt toward its lower classes, making them in their opinion the nation’s natural representatives. In a colonial crisis and with the support of mass movements of the peasantry, they could overthrow imperialism in their countries, but engineer systems that would contain further development within the limits set by capitalism. As such, the permanent revolution Trotsky had proposed was deflected in the absence of a revolutionary proletariat toward the establishment of state capitalism (Cliff 1963).

Though Cliff wrote of China and Cuba primarily, he intended his article as a sketch of developments broadly explaining all the successful anti-colonial movements – particularly, the Free Officers in Egypt and the Congress in India. In this respect, his thesis was certainly a step forward. Though Cliff is much maligned by orthodox Trotskyists, he was, I think, quite orthodox in his approach. He salvaged Trotsky’s permanent revolution in the only way possible. The only alternative would be to pretend that real independence for these countries had not taken place, a view many Trotskyists indeed took.

However, broad strokes only get us so far. There are similarities between China, Cuba, Egypt, and India that are summed up well by Cliff’s article, but also vast differences between them. The Stalinist intelligentsia leading a mass peasant insurgency to overthrow a corrupt landlord regime (China) is not the same as a relatively small band of left-nationalist guerrillas taking power in a deep crisis and with worker and peasant passivity (Cuba). Nor is a coup by young nationalist officers against a decrepit semicolonial state (Egypt) the same as a mass movement of workers and peasants with a stable middle-class leadership toppling the strongest colonial state the world has ever known (India).

Cliff regarded China and Cuba as “the classic, the purest, and most extreme cases” of deflected permanent revolution, while India, Egypt, Algeria and Ghana among others were “deviations from the norm.” This is understandable in the terms of classical Marxism, which presents the bourgeois revolutions similarly. The Great French Revolution of 1789 is “the classic, purest and most extreme case” of bourgeois revolution because of its rapid development beyond the limits of the old order based on a mass democratic upsurge.My objection to Cliff’s formulation is similar to an objection to those conceptions of traditional Marxism that have France as the exemplar of bourgeois revolution. If the aim is to cement the dominance of the anti-colonial intelligentsia and forestall a revolution from below, isn’t one path that accomplishes this just as effective as another? If the Indian middle class could accomplish this without establishing full state capitalism, then why should theirs be considered a “deviation” – certainly a huge deviation considering India’s size and importance in terms of the developments Cliff is dealing with.

One other objection: in 1947 Cliff had written, correctly, that the Congress was the representative of the Indian bourgeoisie. In “Deflected Permanent Revolution,” however, it is the intelligentsia, rather than the bourgeoisie, which leads the way in the anti-colonial revolutions. This should be seen as an attempt to rescue Trotsky’s idea that the bourgeoisie of colonized nations remained weak and vacillating, scared by resistance from below and compromising with imperialism wherever possible. The anti-colonial revolutions were pursued against, rather than with, the bourgeoisie.

In India, however, this was clearly not the case. There is a well-documented history of Indian capitalists supporting the Congress. Several leading industrialists became devotees of Gandhi. His statements that workers should seek moral purity rather than higher wages perfectly suited them. Gandhi could not have survived as a leader – or the Congress as an organization – without their generous support. Because of the peculiarities of the Indian transition to capitalism which Cliff perceived so acutely, the bourgeoisie had no reason to be afraid of a working-class and peasant insurgency a la Russia in 1917 (the major exception, of course, would be the Naval Mutiny of 1945). But the leadership of the Indian bourgeoisie in the freedom struggle is unaccounted for by Cliff. Further contributions in his tradition would, however, correct this oversight.

Very quickly, I want to consider one such contribution before I move on to what I believe is of more weight. John Rees’ article “From the Democratic Revolution to the Socialist Revolution” is a major reexamination of the Marxist concept of the relationship of democracy to socialism, and the telescoping of democratic and socialist demands, since Lenin and Trotsky a key assumption of Marxism.

Rees’ article covers revolutions over the entire modern era. His analysis of each of them is fascinating, but does not bear repetition here. The thrust of the piece is an attempt to understand revolutions that, while they overthrew undemocratic regimes, did not end in a socialist transformation, instead stopping short at bourgeois democracy. When Rees wrote the article in 1999, there were many examples of this near to hand: the Eastern European revolutions of 1989-92, the end of apartheid South Africa in 1993, and the Indonesian revolution of 1997. We might now add Venezuela in 2002 and ongoing, Bolivia in 2004, and the Arab revolutions of 2011 – though the outcome of these remains very much contested as I write.

What Rees proposes is a renovation of Marx’s concept of a political revolution versus a social revolution. While revolutionary socialists assert the link between democratic demands and socialist demands, such a link does not have to exist in practice. In a revolutionary ferment, sections of the bourgeoisie are perfectly capable of transforming the state to be more democratic in appearance at the same time they strive to maintain their economic dominance. In fact, doing the one assists in the other. Rees writes of Indonesia:

The elections, which there had been plans to delay, were called for June 1999… The People’s Democratic Party (PRD), the party furthest left on the Indonesian political spectrum, was legalised and allowed to stand in elections, although some of its leading figures remain behind bars…

But the regime did not just trust the outcome of the elections to pro-democratic sentiment. It has reshaped the armed forces, giving the police a separate structure it did not have before. It recruited hundreds of thousands of ‘civilian militia’, armed with shields and bamboo canes, and under military command. And it continued to spread religious and ethnic conflict through agents provocateurs. The aim is not to totally suppress the movement in the Suharto manner, but to keep it within the bounds of the election process and so destroy the possibility of a revolutionary alternative arising among the mass of the population, a fear common in ruling circles at the start of 1999…

The Indonesian bourgeoisie, including its liberal wing, is in an analogous position to the bourgeoisie that Marx described in 1848. It is even now ‘grumbling at those above, trembling at those below’… But the Indonesian liberal bourgeoisie is not in this condition because it is tied to an old feudal order by its late development, but because it is tied to an already developed capitalist state, which they want to reform but not to overthrow. They are also confronted by a working class of far greater size than that which so terrified the German bourgeoisie in 1848.

The Indonesian student movement and the left have been caught off guard by these developments… they expected the state to resist any such change and assumed that it would have to be fought for in a ‘proper’ democratic revolution.” (Rees 1999).

This is, in continuation of Cliff’s work, a further step away from orthodox Trotskyist assumptions. Revolutions invariably begin with democratic demands, but they will also end with them if revolutionaries are not prepared to create the link between democracy and socialism in practice. A social revolution can be deflected into a political revolution – and, as we see in the examples he lists as well as others like Portugal in 1973 and Iran in 1979, all of them have been in some way or another.

So far as I know, this is the only famous painting with the phrase "bourgeois revolution" in the title.

So far as I know, this is the only famous painting with the phrase “bourgeois revolution” in the title.

This can help us to understand Indian independence as well. Revolutionary movements like them begin with democratic demands, and in India, it began and ended with them. Trotsky forecast a struggle for independence on a socialist basis, but there was no inevitability about this, and indeed it did not emerge. In fact, the Congress took over and reformed the colonial state, rather than smashing it from below. Trotsky and his early followers had excluded this as a possibility. Indian independence was a political revolution – but as we will see, it resembled earlier social revolutions in its consequences.

The third contribution is the article “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism” by Alex Callinicos. Written for the summer 1989 issue of International Socialism commemorating the bicentennial of the Great French Revolution, Callinicos’ article is a major broadside against academic revisionism at the same time as it seeks to reestablish a coherent Marxist concept of bourgeois revolution.

The revolutions of England, France and so on, wrote revisionists, were heavily misinterpreted by Marxists. In the first place, the concept of a bourgeois revolution was incoherent. How could there be a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie directly leading – which we see in none of the classic cases? Furthermore, how could these revolutions establish capitalism when some of these countries were already mostly capitalist (England), failed in their transition (Holland) or did not reach their industrial takeoff until decades afterwards (France)? And how were they “democratic” as Marxists claimed if they took place at the expense of the vast majority?

Callinicos answers all these charges. In his view, the bourgeoisie does not necessarily have to “lead” a bourgeois revolution. The bourgeoisie is the main beneficiary. But even in the classic cases, many, if not most, capitalists stood aside or even sided with absolutism, as in England and France.

This is linked to another of the charges: Callinicos argues that there is nothing necessarily “democratic” about the bourgeois revolution, thus clearing up a major ambiguity in the Marxist tradition on the subject. The American Civil War, the Prussian unification of Germany, the Italian Risorgimento and the Meiji Restoration in Japan – all of these events were carried out from above.

Bourgeois revolutions, in essence, include any revolution that leads to the establishment of what Callinicos calls an “independent center of capital accumulation.” In the early days of the modern era, capitalism only had tenuous footholds in Western Europe. The Dutch Revolt, English Civil War, and French Revolution therefore, were key in the rise of capitalism as a world system. They overcame feudal obstacles that stood in the way of capitalist development.

Later revolutions would consolidate capitalism in a single country so could compete with previously established powers. The Meiji Restoration was launched in direct response to the threat of Western imperialism. It would establish capitalist relations, in the process transforming Japan into a power capable of competing with the West for colonies and profits. This implantation of capitalist relations by the state was another legitimate form of the bourgeois revolution (Callinicos 1989).

Capitalism by the 19th century was a worldwide system whose progress could not be reversed. But this did not end the era of bourgeois revolution. The bourgeoisie of colonized countries aspired to independent centers of accumulation just as their masters had accomplished for themselves hundreds of years previous. Here Callinicos returns to Cliff’s concept of the deflected permanent revolution. He notes the connection between these events and the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century – the revolutions in China and Cuba among others had cleared the countries of imperialist domination, so they could compete as full partners within the capitalist world system.

This “consequentialist” view of bourgeois revolution was taken up and developed substantially by Neil Davidson his recently published book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? This nearly 800-page tome, which remains lively and fertile throughout, cannot be summarized in this article; I can only give my strongest recommendation that everyone read it for themselves.

Of the connection between bourgeois revolutions and the “deflected permanent revolutions” explored by Callinicos, Davidson argues there is little reason not to consider these events as bourgeois revolutions themselves. Certainly, in cases like that of China in 1927 and Iran in 1979, the permanent revolution was deflected. Other countries, like India, however, did not have the same possibility of a political revolution transforming into a social revolution: there was no working-class revolutionary agent, and therefore, no permanent revolution to deflect (Davidson 2012).

Buy, read, and meditate on this book.

Buy, read, and meditate on this book.

What happened in countries like India, he suggests, is very much similar to the normal path of capitalist development taken earlier in Europe. In both of these, a bourgeoisie develops in the interstices of a system that blocks it from transforming itself into a ruling class. So a revolution is accomplished to remove those barriers, leading to either the bourgeoisie constituting itself as the ruling class or a new bourgeoisie forming out of the middle-class intelligentsia that led the revolution. In either case, the bourgeoisie becomes an independent player on the world stage.

But there is an important difference between bourgeois revolutions taking place before and after the establishment of capitalism worldwide. Before this point, revolutionaries were forced to overcome the barriers of feudalism through force, which explains to a certain extent the mass character of the revolutions in Holland, England, France, and perhaps the United States.

But after the worldwide transition to capitalism was on its way, its achievements were there to be adopted by feudal or tributary states, as happened in Japan. Or a state existing over already recognizably capitalist societies could be reformed from above to eliminate obstacles to their full development as independent players within the system, as happened in Canada. Capitalism had been introduced through the banners of mass, democratic social revolutions. But after the turning point, they could stop at being political revolutions, as capitalism as a social system was already well entrenched.

Davidson is correct to link anti-colonial revolutions with the previous bourgeois revolutions: both, as we have seen, took various paths, from above and from below. Some mobilized the masses to smash the previous state, while others accomplished their goals through a military effort followed by intensive reforms.

In this respect there is little to differentiate India, China, Cuba and Egypt in the twentieth century from France, the United States, Italy and Japan in the eighteenth and nineteenth. All of them were revolutions that established a new social order with the same goal: independent capitalist accumulation.

We can see the implications of this analysis for Indian independence pretty clearly. It was a bourgeois political revolution. The nascent Indian bourgeoisie replaced the British as the ruling class, and the state was reformed to make India an independent center of accumulation as well as to enshrine bourgeois democracy. But the process ended there.

Gandhi as a Bourgeois Revolutionary

The independence movement, therefore, succeeded in freeing India from Britain. India became a capitalist power in its own right, pursuing policies independent of both main power blocs.

Its course to modernity was, of course, punctuated by many fits and starts. In the Nehru era, a significant attempt was made to establish industry through import-substitution in a state capitalist model. This effort was successful up to a point, but failed to guarantee the ruling class sufficient profits and incentive to invest. After this, India was opened to the global market beginning in the 1980s (Chibber 2003). But regardless, an independent center of capital accumulation was established.

Today, India is a capitalist power of global significance. Not only did its economy boom after the transition away from state capitalism, but its bourgeoisie also became assertive and predatory on the international market. The largest steel company in the world today is an Indian company, acquired from British and other hostile European interests. Such has led to the slogan “India Shining,” put forward by the BJP government of 1998-2004.

At the political end, the Indian state is well on the way to becoming an imperialist power in its own right. It flexed its muscles by assisting Sri Lanka in ending the Tamil national liberation struggle, it maintains a protectorate over Bhutan and a cool hostility toward developments in Nepal, while it bolsters the Burmese junta against China. We can already see hints of a major realignment that will bring the United States and India closer together, leaving out its eternal rival, Pakistan. These things make little sense without an understanding of the victorious development of Indian capital after 1947.

To elucidate this process somewhat more, I will spend the last part of this article focusing on M.K. Gandhi, the eccentric, mystical and dictatorial commander of what I consider to be the bourgeois revolution in India. If a king is in essence a relationship between people, in which “the interests and prejudices of millions of people are refracted through his person,” (Trotsky 1971) then we should not hesitate to analyze a leader of such stature as Gandhi from a similar perspective. We may find out a lot about the social relations of India’s bourgeois revolution by analyzing him.

Unfortunately, Gandhi is very poorly understood by the left. This was true in his own time. Depending on the period, Stalinists either looked to him as a genuine representative of the nationalist and democratic demands of the Indian masses, or as a traitor who was bound up with British imperialism. Trotskyists as we have seen took the second line exclusively. One major historian of Indian socialism writes of him as a “British spy and saboteur of Indian interests” (Chowdhury 2007). In one respect it is refreshing to be reminded that Gandhi’s personality cult is not unchallenged in India. But such a view, I think, blocks real understanding of his role.


Yeah… I have no words.

The left in the United States, where I am based, has similarly spilled much ink over the years reviling Gandhi. This is understandable. While Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence was a formative influence on progressive struggles including the early black civil rights and anti-war movements in this country (Isserman 1993), in more recent times, his often-quoted line that we should “be the change we want to see in the world” has become a justification for passivity and identity politics. Any revolutionary organization can and should draw a sharp line between socialism and Gandhism.

One article from the International Socialist Review puts it like this:

Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence, whose moral force propelled several mass movements forward in their initial phases, repeatedly held back the struggles at key moments. As a result, privileged groups in the urban centers and countryside were able to detach the struggle for political independence from the struggle for radical social change–and thus thwarted Gandhi’s own goals of social justice. The British were gone, but the bureaucracy and police they built up still functioned with little change–and continued to repress workers’ and peasants’ uprisings. Gandhi’s will had been strong, but class forces proved stronger.

And Gandhi never promoted the class force–workers–that could have helped him in his final struggle to unite Hindus and Muslims. Only class struggle could have achieved what Gandhi’s purely moral mission attempted.

The movement didn’t have to turn out in such a mess. Potentially revolutionary situations existed in the periods 1919-22 and 1946-47, but no mass party with revolutionary goals had been forged to steer the movements to victory (Moradian and Whitehouse 2000).

This is a well-put, concise and fairly representative statement on Gandhi’s legacy from the left. I must not be misunderstood: it is incredibly important to reject neo-Gandhian politics. But such an attitude should not deter us from a real historical appreciation of the man’s role in Indian history. From this perspective, the article is completely unsatisfactory.

I will start from the terms of the article. Moradian and Whitehouse say that Gandhi’s philosophy “repeatedly held back the struggles at key moments.” He “never promoted” the working class as a force to unite Hindus and Muslims. Class forces “proved stronger” than his struggle for justice.

I find all this somewhat odd. Gandhi was not a revolutionary socialist. He was horrified by united working class action, whether against the British or Indian bosses. He did “hold back the struggle” – but what if there were reasons for holding back these struggles that had nothing to do with Gandhi’s moral philosophy, and everything to do with the objective needs of the independence movement?

He also never accomplished “social justice” – but what if that had not been his goal, or that of the larger movement? He did compromise with the British, but what if he had a legitimate interest in doing so from his perspective? What if he was not the representative of the Indian masses, as all accounts of his “betrayal” assume? What if, in other words, he was a bourgeois revolutionary?

Events like the famous Salt March give context to this. The Salt March and the agitations around it were an incredibly popular struggle in the history of the independence movement, probably the most popular since the early 1920s. With one demonstration, Gandhi managed to mobilize hundreds of thousands of Indians in anti-British action. At the same time, historians on the left have criticized the Salt March because it did not challenge British power directly or cut at Britain’s economic stranglehold.

This is precisely the case. But the Salt March was not intended to challenge British power directly. From the perspective of the nascent Indian ruling class, it was a complete success. It showed the British that the Congress was capable of mobilizing the masses, and that therefore they should take them seriously. They did so, and thereafter would ignore Gandhi’s demands only at their own peril – as when they obstinately refused to accept his most minor demands for autonomy in order to form an anti-fascist alliance with the Congress during World War II. Furthermore, the march did not threaten to radicalize or upset the order overly much, which was exactly what the bourgeoisie wanted. Consequently, Gandhi demobilized the movement. It was no longer necessary.

I will give a further example: Gandhi’s famous confrontation in 1932 with Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the acknowledged leader of the castes formerly known as “untouchables” – he called them Dalits (oppressed), which became a badge of honor. Ambedkar, who was concerned to increase the weight of his own community within Indian politics and the independence movement, had successfully agitated for the reservation of separate Dalit electorates.

Under the electoral system of the Raj, a certain amount of seats on the councils tasked with the running of the state was set aside for different minorities – Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, etc. The reserved seats were divided between joint electorates – in these contests, everyone eligible could vote – and closed electorates, in which only members of the community in question could vote.

Gandhi was horrified at this prospect. He announced a fast unto death, a frequently used tool in his political arsenal which, although it was effective when he did it, has become clichéd and performative in contemporary Indian politics. Ambedkar confronted by Gandhi’s moral blackmail agreed to the Poona Pact, which allowed for the reservation of “backward caste” seats but on the principle of joint electorates.

The roots of this argument may seem arcane. But everyone at the time understood what Gandhi had accomplished. The mass Dalit movement led by Ambedkar was a huge potential obstacle to national unity under Congress hegemony. Dalit representatives elected by Dalits would increase Ambedkar’s stake, thus giving more room for his people to contest national unity, which under Congress leadership meant upper-caste domination, discrimination and extreme poverty of the lower castes.


Gandhi with Bose.

A final example: in 1939, Subhash Chandra Bose was elected to be President of the INC, a position elected yearly but which held considerable authority. Bose, who had a background in the militant wing of Indian nationalism, sought to take advantage of the war situation to wage an immediate armed struggle for independence. India could win its independence in alliance with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Such plans were anathema to Gandhi. Not only did they go against his nonviolent convictions, but a militant struggle with the left-wing Bose as its leader could possibly undermine his own position within the Congress if the movement was perceived as successful. Gandhi held off Bose with complaints that Congress as an organization was not ready for an all-out militant struggle. Meanwhile, he worked behind Bose’s back to win over the members of the Working Committee, the body charged with day-to-day policy under the direction of the President. When Bose brought his plans to the committee again, no one supported him and he was forced to resign. Gandhi had marginalized a potential radical threat to his leadership.Understanding Gandhi as a bourgeois revolutionary makes these events more comprehensible. Gandhi wielded power expertly on behalf of the Indian bourgeoisie, which was hegemonic in the nationalist movement. He could mobilize the masses while ensuring for the most part they did not move beyond the narrow needs of this class. Furthermore, he could marginalize threats to bourgeois dominance within the Congress, and either demobilize or emasculate movement outside it which threatened to open the floor to the aspirations of the Indian masses, especially of the backwards castes.

These all make sense much more if we consider that his efforts were to establish Indian capitalism, rather than merely the morals of an eccentric. Indeed, Gandhi was recognized by all his contemporaries, whether friends or enemies, as an exceedingly clever politician in addition to being a brilliant strategist and organizer.

Two major objections might be made to the idea of Gandhi as a bourgeois revolutionary. I have tried to anticipate them. The first is that Gandhi himself did not see the future India as recognizably capitalist. What he imagined is well known – called Ram-raj (rule by the god Ram of the Indian epic, the Ramayana), it was a loosely connected country of traditional villages, with people in their traditional occupations and living self-sufficiently. Consequently a major regression of the productive forces was entailed. In the twentieth century, this was obviously a utopia.

But bourgeois revolutionaries have never, or almost never, articulated clearly the system they succeeded in establishing. It is very hard to mobilize the masses by promising they will be exploited even more viciously. Consequently, idealistic figures have typically led the most radical wing of the bourgeois revolution, with its ultimate goals in the end escaping them. Cromwell advocated the rule of the saints, Robespierre called for the rule of reason, and Gandhi wanted the rule of Ram. What they succeeded in getting was capitalist England, capitalist France, and capitalist India. Ideology is not important. What matters is whose interests they represent, and in the case of Gandhi, this was clearly the bourgeoisie.

Or in other words:

Bourgeois revolutions exist at the intersection between objective historical processes and conscious human agency. As ‘episodes of convulsive political transformation’ they involve forms of collective action, including the intervention of political organisations of various kinds. But bourgeois revolutions also arise from and contribute to ‘the increasing predominance of the capitalist mode of production’. As such, they tend to involve a gap between the intentions of the revolutionary actors and the objective consequences of their struggles (Callinicos 1989).

I would go further and argue that Indian independence as a bourgeois revolution matches more closely the rare cases in which the bourgeoisie themselves have taken on an objectively revolutionary role as a class (the American Civil War is one) than other bourgeois revolutions which have taken place entirely without bourgeois participation (German and Italian unification) or even against them (the Chinese Revolution of 1949).

A final objection might be made. The quote from the above ISR article regards Gandhi’s main failure as the partition of India, causing millions dead and untold suffering, which I think represents the typical left-wing view. If Gandhi was leading the bourgeois revolution, couldn’t it have been accomplished without so much death?

I would answer, again, that in the first place it was not about what Gandhi wanted. He courageously opposed Partition. But it goes deeper: Partition worked out just fine in terms of establishing India as a center of accumulation. Capitalism doesn’t care about suffering and death; we should know that well enough.

A few words about the history of Partition might be in order. It can be kind of hard even for area specialists to understand. What it reminds me of is nothing so much as a slow motion train wreck, albeit one with millions of people on the train, and the survivors being raped and butchered as they tried to get out.

The amazing thing is that even a few years before, there was no indication things would be this way. Throughout the 1940s, we get the Muslim League demanding a separate country for the Indian Muslims, but sitting down with the Congress at the negotiation table time and again.


Jinnah (center) with Ambedkar (right) and E.V. Ramaswamy, the Dravidian nationalist leader (second from right)

What Jinnah and his cohorts wanted were guarantees from the Congress that the majority Muslim provinces in the northwest of the country and in Bengal would have autonomy. This was understandable as the demand that their representatives, the Muslim League, would be able to stop anything they didn’t like coming out of the central government.

The revisionist account of Jinnah, which I believe is correct, is that for him Pakistan was in essence a bluff rather than a real demand. He believed the Congress would accept power sharing at the center rather than have a divided country. He was wrong. The Congress leadership was willing to spin off a few provinces in exchange for uncontested power at the center (Jalal 1994). We see this in the complete unreality of Jinnah’s pronouncements following independence: “You may go to your temples, you may go to your mosques…”

Furthermore, Partition was very much functional, perhaps even necessary, in terms of the successful development of capitalism in India. By 1947, a united India promised a perpetual balancing act between the Congress and the Muslim League. This could lead to communal violence and instability with every minor political crisis.

From the point of view of the Indian ruling class, a short and very bloody separation was preferable to long-term instability. In the longer term, the ruling class also stood to gain by being able to pose as the defender of the unitary Indian nation against the Pakistani “other,” which has surely done its part to forestall the development of caste, regional and class solidarities that might threaten to destabilize the accumulation of capital.

Therefore, we can clearly see Gandhi in the pantheon of bourgeois revolutionary leaders. This is not to say that he spoke for the entire national movement at every point. But the interests of the Indian bourgeoisie, which funded him, are refracted through his role. The bourgeoisie was hegemonic within the Congress, and Gandhi was their representative.

Those further left, like Bose, or the CPI for that matter, failed to successfully challenge Gandhi because they never acquired a social base which could break the hegemony of the bourgeoisie over the nationalist movement. It is doubtful that anyone could have succeeded at this given the course of Indian history under the Raj.

Gandhi played to the interests of the bourgeoisie at every point by advocating national unity, by systematically demobilizing potential threats from within the Congress and those posed by mass agitation outside it. He could lead the masses forward with a remarkable degree of confidence that they would not escape his control. At the end of his life, when the Indian capitalism he had opened the door for could actually be established, he was sidelined in favor of the more pragmatic Nehru. But he left an indelible stamp on the Indian bourgeois revolution, and thus on Indian capitalism itself.



The one face of India’s premier city…

Marxism has much to offer the study of Indian history. But previous perspectives of a vacillating or eternally conservative or comprador bourgeoisie, consistent with the assumptions of the revolutionary years of the Comintern and then Stalinism, fail to explain Indian independence in a useful manner. They cannot account for the existence of a confident, assertive bourgeois class that succeeded in establishing its own dominance. The contributions of Cliff, Rees, Callinicos and Davidson writing in the International Socialist tradition offer us the best theoretical framework to understand this history.

Outside of India, socialists should recognize the events leading up to 1947 as a bourgeois revolution, much in the same sense as the English, French and American revolutions. A perspective that shows the leaders of the Congress, especially Gandhi, as constantly holding back a revolutionary movement may satisfy the polemical needs of the time. But these should be united with more sophisticated historical knowledge.

This view of Indian independence dispels firmly any notion of “semi-colonial, semi-feudal” relations of production. India is a modern capitalist country that has experienced a bourgeois revolution, which, unlike many, was democratic in its impact. Chronic underdevelopment of the countryside, deep penetration by multinational corporations, and cooperation between the Indian state and imperialism are all products of a bourgeois ruling class that knows its own interests and is able to act on them.

India may shine for them, but right next to the skyscrapers of Mumbai are the darkened slums in which millions of people live hand to mouth through temporary work, or frequently do not live at all. India is by no means immune to the crises of the world capitalist system of which it is a fully integrated part.

Marxism, not caste liberation, feminism, environmentalism or Gandhism, is the essential fighting tool of Indian revolutionaries. Unfortunately, the hegemony of Stalinism and Maoism over the Indian left and workers’ movement has so far blocked the development of genuine Marxist trends. Both have ignored the pressing questions of caste and women’s liberation from a narrow class-reductionist perspective. Indian radicals have more than a little reason to be suspicious of Marxism because of this.

It is necessary to establish, against Stalinism, that India is a fully capitalist country. With the perspective of a completed bourgeois revolution, revolutionary Marxists in India can look to the contradictions of Indian capitalism, and orient toward those currently best prepared to be progressive forces. These include Dalits, tribal peoples, the oppressed nations of Kashmir and the northeast, Muslims, women and LGBT groups.


… and the other face.

As a modern country, while it operates by the same general laws of capitalist motion, India is a somewhat unique social formation. The ruling class since independence has become a master at exploiting divisions based on religion, language and caste, just to name the three most important. Unfortunately its management is so expert that development of a united Indian working class will be a long time coming. The very course of the development of capitalism, as we have seen, militates against this prospect.

Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs, including the extended strike by Maruti Suzuki workers in Haryana, and the one-day national general strike by twelve union federations in February of last year. Marxists must have the best appraisal of a country’s history, of the current period and the correct tactics to act on their knowledge. We should hope for the growth of a genuine revolutionary movement in capitalist India that can break the chains of both nationalism and Stalinism.

References for Part 2:

Callinicos, Alex (1989). “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,” International Socialism 2.43, pp. 113-171.

Chibber, Vivek (2003). Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialization in India. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP.

Chowdhury, Satyabrata (2007). Leftism in India: 1917-1947. Basingstroke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cliff, Tony (1963). “Deflected Permanent Revolution,” International Socialism 1.12

Davidson, Neil (2012). How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Chicago: Haymarket.

Isserman, Maurice (1993). If I Had a Hammer: The Decline of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois.

Jalal, Ayesha (1994). The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Moridian, Meneejeh, and David Whitehouse (2000). “Gandhi and the Politics of Non-Violence,” International Socialist Review 14.

Rees, John (1999). “From the Democratic Revolution to the Socialist Revolution,” International Socialism 2.83

Trotsky, Leon (1971). “What is National Socialism?,” pp. 522-533 in Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany. New York: Pathfinder.


Filed under History

What I thought about the movie “Lincoln”

Steven Spielburg and Tony Kushner’s film Lincoln seems to have drawn a lot of attention, especially on the American left. Unsurprisingly it has polarized us like no film since Avatar. I would argue the Civil War is still pretty poorly understood by most on the left, though all of us will know the catchphrases like “second American revolution,” etc.

There have been many reviews of Lincoln from a revolutionary socialist perspective, leaving completely aside the broader left. Some of them are: one, two, three, four. This is not one of them, because frankly there are too many. Some have been pretty good, others have been awful, and I don’t want to add another that will cause interminable pointless arguments on the Facebooks.

So instead, since I’ve decided all these reviews are mistaken in some respect on the basis of my probably somewhat decent knowledge of the Civil War era, I’ll post my thoughts in the form of bullet points about leftist misconceptions of the film and let you all correct yourselves based on them. You’re welcome.

1. “Lincoln represents Obama.”

This is the least serious left-wing attitude toward the movie. True, Kushner and Spielberg may have thrown out comments here or there to this effect. They may even believe it themselves. But are we seriously comparing the most revolutionary event in US history, the death of slavery, with the half-assed attempt at healthcare “reform” that didn’t really reform anything? We are supposed to be materialists, not establishment liberals like the creators.

And secondly, has no one heard of the intentional fallacy? Look it up if you haven’t.

2. “It shows that the only way you get things done is electoral politics.”

For anyone who saw the movie but doesn’t know the history very well, assume it is more or less as it is shown. It is in the midst of the war. Lincoln and his cabinet believe that the South may fall before abolition of slavery can be cemented as the war’s purpose. Which may or may not have been the case, but the important thing is that they believed it could happen. Lincoln was originally a moderate, but became firmly convinced abolition was both necessary and inevitable over the course of the war. So he made the decision to stall peace negotiations to achieve it.

We see in the movie how the fate of slavery hangs in a delicate balance between the efforts of Lincoln and the Radical Republicans, the Copperhead Democrats opposing them, the conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats somewhere in the middle, all of which could be swayed by public opinion which was in favor of abolition but not yet of racial equality. Do electoral politics matter? Well, yes. They decide whether slavery will survive or not.

Of course, they were not the only thing that did matter, and we are right to emphasize black self-emancipation, abolitionism before the war, etc. But Lincoln’s wheeling and dealing on Capitol Hill in January 1865, was what made the difference. I don’t see how anyone can play down its significance.

3. “It reinforced the notion radicals should compromise to get things done.”

Also ignorant of the history – even in the brief glimpse we get in the movie, which I would really have hoped people would pay attention to. Thaddeus Stevens, around whose character the argument revolves, might be my favorite figure of the era. He was a genuine revolutionary, an American Jacobin. He sought, as he said in the movie, to crush the slaveocracy through brutal repression, confiscate their property and turn it over so that their former slaves could establish themselves as prosperous freeholders. This was the real promise of Reconstruction, which was defeated.

But Stevens was also very much a pragmatist. He knew where and when to make strategic compromises, which could and did include obscuring his firebrand views on racial equality. This is not just true of what we saw in the movie. Stevens was the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which if not the most powerful position in Congress is one of the two or three – not to mention his national stature as a leader of the Republican Party. He never would have achieved these roles, especially in the conservative climate at the beginning of the war, if he had not been willing to compromise.

The important thing, as Tommy Lee Jones’ Stevens says, is that this gets results. “There are very few things I will not say to end slavery,” he says. The man worked all his life for racial equality. He is a hero. Don’t equate him with piddling left-liberals like Kucinich who come running when Obama calls.

4. “There aren’t any black people.”

I will not take on the dishonest account of one review which says that blacks are completely absent. The film starts with Lincoln being lectured on racial equality by a black soldier, for Chrissakes. I am willing to concede, as one much more intelligent commentator wrote, that there could have been a more active black presence in the film without getting in the way of the main storyline – Robert Lincoln running into an abolitionist meeting led by his father’s black servants in the White House was one example that sticks out in my mind.

But I think, overall, this argument misses the point. True, there were no black soldiers, freed slaves or ordinary black men or women who have a constant active role over the course of the movie. But there are also no ordinary white people who have such a role – and white people also played an active role in ending slavery.

Recognizing this is not to create racist and unhistorical assumptions about white people like Lincoln freeing the slaves out of their own kindness and strength of character. Because I think blacks do have a very strong presence in the film, not individually, but collectively. This is made most clear in the opening of the session which passes the 13th amendment. As the debate is about to commence, several dozen blacks, presumably important personalities invited as guests, enter the mezzanine to observe the proceedings.

I thought this was a brilliant scene. When the important white men decide whether or not to legally free millions of slaves, black people sit above them, as if in judgment. The elites will be held responsible for what they do.

5. “It was only about the political elite.”

Yes. It was. But this is not a criticism of the quality or accuracy of Lincoln. It is an assertion than Spielberg and Kushner should have made a different movie.

Abraham Lincoln was a fascinating individual. At the time and place a man like him was needed to accomplish a revolution, he stepped into the role. It made a huge difference that he was in charge at that time and that place. If he had been unseated by McClellan in the 1864 election, just to use the most blatant example, the latter would have almost certainly conceded Southern independence, perpetuating slavery for decades or centuries longer. Progressive struggles are not won merely through a large number of bodies and having history on their side. They need individuals to perceive their goals and to lead them forward or backward in the correct manner. Lincoln was one such person.

It is legitimate to question why this movie was made and not others – one about Frederick Douglass, for example, one about black self-emancipation seen from their point of view, or one about black soldiers (in fact, an excellent movie about black Union soldiers, Glory, has been made). Of course, the reason for this is racism, and we all know it. Hollywood is and will probably remain uncomfortable with overly bold assertions of black agency in the Civil War, and will prefer to deal with it through a liberal, great-man-theory-of-history lens. We should challenge this and call for excellent movies to be made about those stories.

But this was not what Lincoln was. It is a positive sign that the left is skeptical of art describing only the point of view of the elite. But, as I have tried to show, what elites do matters. The Civil War was a heroic effort at the top as well as the bottom.  It was the last time in history the American ruling class would play such a role. Lincoln was a hero as an individual who made an incredible difference. And this merits recognition.

In the current climate of historical revisionism about the Civil War, I find it amazing that Lincoln could be as progressive as it was. It did not show the South as equally heroic, did not carp about the struggle for “states’ rights,” did not weigh the aim of ending slavery against the suffering caused by war. We know all these notions are very prevalent in popular history, in common knowledge about the war, and in the fiction, drama and movies made about it. It would have been easy for Spielberg and Kushner to write a Lincoln along these lines.

But they didn’t. They showed Lincoln for the revolutionary he was. They showed the war as it was – a righteous and revolutionary struggle to eliminate the absolute evil of slavery from the country. And they did not apologize for this. And at a certain point, everything else is just detail.

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The Bourgeois Revolution in India (Part 1)


Jawaharlal Nehru giving the “Tryst with Destiny” speech at Indian independence.


Indian independence is a problem that has long perplexed Marxists of both activist and academic persuasions. This is most true in India itself, whose Marxism remains dominated by the vapid and economic determinist perspectives of Stalinism (the official CPI, its considerably larger splinter, the CPI (M), etc) or by Maoism (The CPI (Maoist), CPI (ML) – Liberation and other groups) both of which are theoretically at least well past their sell-by date.

The perspectives of Indian independence as an event can be summed up as two opposite narratives, both of which the original CPI held at one time or another. The left narrative, as I call it, is an outright denial of reality: there was a show of independence, but India is still not really independent, it is still dominated by imperialism and requires a democratic struggle to liberate it from the West and comprador bourgeoisie which are its agents. Such is the perspective of Indian Maoists: unfortunately, the “national bourgeoisie” which they seek to ally themselves with has set out to exterminate them.

The other, “right” narrative, may match historical reality a bit closer, but the implied strategy it proposes is no less disastrous. It might be summed up like this: the Congress Party, under Gandhi and Nehru, led a partially successful struggle for national independence, but it was undermined by continuing links with the West. What is required, just like in the left narrative, is also “real” independence, but this is to be achieved through gradual reform – once again allied with the national bourgeoisie in the form of the state and the Congress Party.

Outside of India, Marxist theorizations of 1947 can be almost as disappointing, and often, shamefully, they are put forward by anti-Stalinists. The original Trotskyist position that Gandhi and Nehru would inevitably “sell out” the freedom struggle should have been thrown to the wind when independence was achieved; unfortunately many Trotskyists chose to ignore reality by pointing to the Congress-led India’s continuing links to the West, or disregarded the matter altogether.

Surely this is more than a bit unfortunate. Indian independence was the beginning of the wave of decolonization after the Second World War and provided the template for many freedom struggles thereafter. A Marxist understanding of decolonization, which shapes the modern world, has to include an understanding of Indian independence.

Outside of Marxism, perspectives have been if anything more frustrating. Since the 1980s, that part of the English-speaking academy dealing with the Global South has turned toward “post-colonial” perspectives, which are characterized by cultural studies that often disregard completely the actual history of independence and partition, dissolving the category into endless explorations of memory, history-from-below, and so on. There is of course an anti-historical stance in all this that resonates with postmodernism, and that in focusing on matters of culture matches its predecessor in the field, orientalism (Chibber 2006 and 2013).

This essay is a beginning of an attempt to correct understandings of the social and economic significance of Indian independence. I majored in South Asian studies as an undergraduate, and wrote my thesis on the CPI and Indian independence from 1939-1945. Therefore I don’t feel the need to cite many sources of Indian history. The developments I describe should be familiar to people who know the history of Indian independence, although I will try to provide the context for people less familiar with it.

At the same time, I will attempt to trace the different Marxist understandings of the Indian anti-colonial movement under the hegemony of the Indian National Congress (INC) from the debates surrounding it within the early Comintern (the works of V.I. Lenin and the Indian revolutionary and theorist M.N. Roy being particularly important here), to the development of Comintern orthodoxy, and the rival view put forth by Trotsky and his followers in India and around the world.

Finally, I will try to offer some account of what I believe is the most fruitful work of Marxists developed in response to decolonization: that of the International Socialist (IS) tradition, including the successive contributions of Tony Cliff, John Rees, Alex Callinicos and finally Neil Davidson, all leaders and/or theoreticians of the British Socialist Workers’ Party, which – full disclosure – I find myself pretty closely aligned with.

Davidson, in my view, first drew out the implications of the previous writers that independence for the colonies in most respects were events that can be set aside the bourgeois revolutions of Holland, Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy, Japan and others that we see spanning the modern era from the 16th to perhaps the early 20th  centuries (Davidson 2012). I will try to take up his argument applying it specifically to the Indian case, perhaps the most significant of these “late” bourgeois revolutions.

Of course, this will involve a great deal of synthesis, which might get ponderous at some times. I ask for readers’ indulgence. If I am right, which is worth considering, this might be educational for us all.

The Indian Freedom Movement Before 1919

The original Marxist perspectives on the Indian freedom movement had little to do with academic understandings of the process. They were formulated as strategy in an era in which the revolutionary movement was on the rise worldwide, and was perceived to stand a chance of liberating the colonies, both by its followers and its enemies.

Crucially, the worldwide communist movement and the struggle for Indian independence arose as coherent movements around the same time. Therefore they would have a great impact on each other ideologically as well as practically. In any case, a few words about India before Communism are in order.

The British colonization, as Marx had predicted in many of his writings, successfully introduced capitalist relations of production. This is not the place for a discussion of whether India is capitalist or “semi-feudal, semi-colonial.” The Stalinist and Maoist views of this are mirror images of each other, which I tried to elucidate above. Anyone who agrees with this view is probably better off going back to the basics of Marxism on what exactly constitutes capitalism.

Another view that rejects Indian capitalism under the Raj, that of academics aligned with the “political Marxist” school of Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood, I will also not deal with, except to say that both Stalinists and political Marxists have a lot to explain about Indian economic development under the Raj, particularly the penetration of usury capital into the Indian countryside, a process of differentiation within the Indian peasantry which led to some constituting themselves as capitalists and others as waged workers for them, and of course rapid and unprecedented industrialization in the cities (Banaji 2011).

To return to Marx: he predicted that not only would Britain establish capitalism in India, but in the process that it would lay the seeds of its own downfall by endowing Indians with the capabilities to do this. The class of Indians, “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect,” which Macaulay had eagerly sought to create, would end up overthrowing the British by virtue of their own British education. Such was the sophisticated and dialectical nature of Marx’s writings on India – they were as far as could be from the academic perspective viewing him as a racist and Eurocentrist cheerleading for colonialism (Anderson 2010, Ahmad 1992 and Jani 2002).


The first session of the Indian National Congress, December 1885.

The Indian freedom movement, it could be called that, received most of its expression between the Mutiny of 1857 and the turn of the century in the form of the Indian National Congress. Founded by the Scottish humanist A.O. Hume, the Congress was originally conceived of as a debating society for Indian native colonial officials and intellectuals. Its political remit, such as it was, aimed at gradually helping the British to reform their rule, mostly as a way to improve opportunities and access for the native middle class intended to be its base.

The Congress’ base became upper levels of educated Hindus participating in the rule of India: colonial officials, lawyers and other professionals. At this stage, Indian Muslims did not take much part; the leaders of their community were suspicious of the dominance of the Hindu majority, and even, in the case of Syed Ahmed Khan, sought an alliance with the British to forestall it.

All this was blown open by events in Bengal after the turn of the century. In 1905, the British sought to partition Bengal into eastern and western provinces – supposedly for the purposes of administration, but at the time it was seen as a move that would divide Muslims, concentrated in the East, and Hindus, concentrated in the West, with negative effects for both communities. Bengal had been the vanguard of modernizing Indian intellectuals from its cultural revival in the late 19th century, and the novels of the colonial official Bankim Chandra Chatterjee already showed a strong proto-nationalist sentiment in that era.

The Congress had little to say or do about the partition of Bengal – its position was to work with the British to reform its governance. Home Rule or independence was scarcely mentioned or thought of by its members. In response, a very different strain of Indian nationalism arose as a split from the Congress. Led by radical Hindus such as Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gandhadar Tilak and Aurobindo Ghosh, the “extremists” as history calls them plotted heroic acts of terrorism against British rule, blowing up offices, seizing weaponry and the like. Their first attempt at Indian independence took the form of an abortive rising with the aid of Germany as Britain was distracted in Europe by the First World War.

It was probably inevitable that the Congress, which claimed the right to represent all of India, would have to change in response to this. The rise to leadership by M.K. Gandhi, a London-educated barrister who had risen to prominence in anti-discrimination campaigns of the Indian community in South Africa, would signal this shift. But more of that later.

Marxist Perspectives: The Early Comintern (1919-1927)

Indian independence was a problem that was crucial to the early Communist movement. Seeking an alliance of the workers and the oppressed peoples of the world to overthrow capitalism, the leaders of the Comintern could scarcely afford to ignore India, the crown jewel in the empire of Britain, simultaneously the greatest power in the world and the possessor of the most colonies. Debates on the perspectives of Indian independence would produce the most fruitful work of Marxism on the anti-colonial struggles since Marx himself.

The debate got going early. The two protagonists: V.I. Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Party and therefore the person with the most authority in the young Comintern, and M.N. Roy, a younger Indian communist recently won to Marxism from extremist Indian nationalism after a long exile from his home.

The debate that followed is too in-depth to be completely summarized, but we can have a few broad strokes. Lenin, referring to the position of the defunct Russian Empire as a “prisonhouse of nations,” pointed to what he saw as the objectively revolutionary nature of nationalist struggles in Finland and Poland. This was a position he had defended with success in the pre-1917 Bolshevik Party (Lenin 1914). Extrapolating this position, he argued that (1) anti-colonial struggles took the form of objectively revolutionary wars against capitalist imperialism, whatever progressive or reactionary content they had, and that therefore (2) it was imperative on Communists in colonized countries to support them as their most revolutionary wing.


M.N. Roy traveled from radical Indian nationalism, to ultra-leftism, to Right Oppositionism, to return to a strange form of nationalism he called “radical humanism.”

Roy took an opposing position. Drawing on his background as an Indian freedom fighter, he argued that it was unrealistic to seek in groups like the Congress a “nationalist bourgeoisie” or middle class. The Congress was not based on capitalist but rather feudal relations, and even the ascent of Gandhi as a major figure meant his party’s descent into religious obscurantism. The Indian proletariat, Roy concluded, was strong enough given the rapid development of capitalism in the country could take over and win the freedom struggle, in the process transforming it into a socialist revolution (Haithcox 1971).

The debate ended in a draw: though Lenin was the figure of greatest authority in the Comintern, Roy was able to speak from authority on Indian matters. Moreover, his position appealed to the impatient, ultra-revolutionary section of the Comintern which Lenin was in the process of breaking from. The final theses on national and colonial questions stated that Communists should seek to give support and lead the “revolutionary movements of liberation” within the colonial countries – giving Roy and his co-thinkers room to argue that forces like the Congress were not “revolutionary movements” (Overstreet and Windmiller 1959).

These two perspectives, with many variations, would dominate Communist thinking on the Congress and the nationalist movement it led until 1947, and, as I have explained, continue to be influential in historical discussions. History has been much kinder to Lenin than to Roy. Roy vastly overestimated the strength of the young Indian proletariat, still very much in formation as a class, and 1947 would disprove his conception that the Congress would not or could not lead a nationalist revolution and the subsequent capitalist development of India – by which point, Roy had abandoned communism for a weird form of nationalism. Lenin’s documents, on the other hand, continue to be an invaluable resource on the Comintern’s anti-colonial strategies and tactics.

Marxist Perspectives: Stalinist Orthodoxy (1930-1947)

The Communist Party of India (CPI) was not quick in its formation. Plagued by problems of organization and vast waves of repression launched by the British, the CPI after several false starts was born as a coherent group and member of the Comintern in 1930. This was the heyday of the ultra-leftist Third Period. The CPI’s line in this period was characterized by extreme sectarianism toward the national movement and an absolute refusal to participate in even the most massive agitations against British rule. It may be unfair to say that Indian communists proudly donned British suits in the midst of a mass boycott campaign against English clothes, as one polemical historian puts it (Masani 1954), but the allegation suggests at least that this is how they were perceived.

They were not entirely incorrect in seeing the Congress as bankrupt, at least from a perspective that expected a consistently revolutionary movement of national liberation. Gandhi’s abandonment of the mass movement in the wake of the violence in Chauri Chaura (1922) and his audience a decade later with the Viceroy, after which he suspended the popular salt agitation (1932) confirmed to them that the Congress would continually betray Indian aspirations to the British. It was a representative of the compromising Indian ruling class, pretending to lead mass movements for independence at the same time they sought to ingratiate themselves with the British.

At the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, which marked a complete reversal of the Third Period lines, the Indian comrades took center stage. They were sharply criticized by Wang Ming, a veteran of the Chinese CP, for ignoring the nationalist movement. Such behavior, Wang said, played directly into the hands of the right-wing leadership of the Congress – Gandhi and his followers. The CPI should enter the Congress as a leftist flank (Wang 1935). The publication of theses by Ben Bradley and Rajani Palme Dutt, leaders of the British CP, spelled out the approach they should take in detail – which was dutifully enacted (Chowdhury 2007).

The following period was the most fruitful up till then of the CPI. By ending their isolation, they were able to move among the ranks of thousands of Congressmen to whom they had previously cut themselves off. They formed an alliance with the Congress Socialist Party (CSP), a radicalizing group of Fabians, marxisant intellectuals and left-wing Gandhians. The alliance eventually led to them gaining several seats on the All-India Congress Committee, the governing body of the INC.

The Second World War marked the beginnings of rapid and bewildering shifts in CPI policy vis-à-vis the Congress, which I know from personal experience can get quite tiresome to recount. Broadly speaking, the questions were these: could the Congress under Gandhi’s leadership genuinely resist this British? And if not, could the Communists lead the genuine freedom struggle? These questions of course had inverse answers, and the line changed sharply depending on the CPI’s assessment of its own forces and influence, that of the Congress and its Gandhian leadership, and of course the situation of the war, especially the fortunes of the Soviet Union.


Quit India procession by Bangalore Congressmen.

From 1939-1941, the CPI sought to push the freedom struggle forward against Gandhi. From 1941-1945, they called on him to seek a genuine anti-fascist alliance with Britain, a period which associated the CPI forever with the idea (not unfounded) that they had openly scabbed on the independence movement. Finally, after the war they reverted to their previous Popular Front position, seeking to be the left wing of the national movement once again (Overstreet and Windmiller 1959, Druhe 1959 and particularly Gupta 2008)

To summarize: the history of the CPI in these years consists of rapid changes in line from the “right” viewpoint on Congress nationalism to the “left” viewpoint and back. These changes, broadly inspired by Comintern directives although not mechanically ordered in every case, would leave the CPI unprepared for dealing with the problems independence in 1947 confronted them with. These perspectives, though opposite in form, I propose were two sides of the same coin. Both assumed that the Congress under Gandhi would and could not lead a genuine freedom struggle against the British – and that it was the CPI’s job to try and take control of the movement and lead it to true liberation.

These assumptions were mistaken. The Congress under Gandhi had taken quite radical steps toward Indian independence. It was Gandhi’s leadership that transformed the Congress into a mass force capable of this. He led the masses against the British time and time again, and would, albeit reluctantly, lead them into the most radical struggle yet, the Quit India agitation of 1943. Of his many compromises with the British, Communists were correct to point them out. But they did not consider that perhaps these compromises reflected that Gandhi and the Congress leadership had their own particular interests, which were as different from the interests of British imperialism as they were from those of the Indian peasants and workers.

Marxist Perspectives: The Trotskyist Alternative (1930-1947)

Leon Trotsky, the second leader of the Comintern after Lenin until the mid-1920s, was deeply concerned with colonial questions as well. After 1925, the main breach in the Russian CP – and therefore in the Comintern – was carried on in the context of perspectives on the Chinese Revolution. Whereas Stalin and Bukharin argued for the Chinese CP to remain as the revolutionary wing of the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang (GMD), Trotsky correctly predicted the betrayal of the Communists by the GMD leading to their massacre and the abortion of the 1927 revolution. In a period in which not just independence, but working-class revolution in China was on offer, their position represented so far the greatest betrayal by the Stalinist faction, already establishing itself as a ruling class within the Soviet Union and hegemonic within the Comintern.

After the disaster in China, Trotsky was moved to reevaluate his theory of permanent revolution, of which he had been a consistent advocate for two decades. Permanent revolution had previously only been applied to Russia: as a result of the combined development of the Russian economy, the proletariat was capable of leading a socialist revolution with the support of the peasantry even before a full capitalist transformation had taken place.

In fact, it would be imperative on the proletariat to do so. The Russian bourgeoisie, coming into existence as the child of economic intervention by the Tsarist autocracy, would cling desperately to its epaulettes rather than lead a revolution against it. A mass insurrection required to overthrow the autocracy could destabilize the country and lead to a situation in which the proletariat, rather than the bourgeoisie, could seize power. The 1917 revolution confirmed Trotsky’s view in every respect.


Trotsky’s official portrait as commander of the Red Army. Needless to say he looks somewhat more formidable here than in his later years.

Now, however, Trotsky saw a similar pattern working itself out in China. Permanent revolution was confirmed there as it had been in Russia, but by negative inversion. Because the Stalinists had led them astray, the Chinese proletariat went down in a catastrophic defeat, maintaining the dominance of the increasingly corrupt and pro-imperialist GMD.

Trotsky’s passionate writings in The Third International After Lenin evaluate the debacle in China as well as provide fresh and crucial perspectives on all colonial situations. The colonial bourgeoisie, he suggested, would just like their Russian cousins be weak and vacillating. In the end they would always support imperialism against mass movements of workers and peasants that threatened to displace them (Trotsky 1996).

It is important here to correct a misconception that I had at one point. Trotsky’s proposal of the strategy of permanent revolution in the colonies did not entirely match the position of Roy in 1921. Roy’s arguments to the Comintern were based on ultra-revolutionary impatience and a misunderstanding of class forces in India. In contrast, Trotsky’s was based on the correct assessment that the Chinese proletariat had indeed stood ready to take power.

His later mistake was to assume the same was true of countries like India. Given the nature of the period, this was an understandable mistake, but one with major consequences. Though he allowed that countries like Kemalist Turkey and revolutionary Mexico – the main places of his exile – had shown revolutionary anti-imperialist movements that did not move beyond the bounds of capitalist accumulation, he believed that these were the exception. It was to be shown after his death that they were the norm (Davidson 2012).

Trotsky was the most articulate and authoritative spokesperson for authentic Marxism in the 1930s. His voice not only determined the policy of his small band of followers in the Fourth International, but also was a key influence on all trends of Communist opposition and radicalizing social democrats. His writings on China, Germany, and Spain remain treasure houses for Marxist theory and practice. Unfortunately, he wrote comparatively little on India, and what he did write does not match the value of his other writings of the period.

Interestingly, close to India was one of two centers of Trotskyism outside of the West in the 1930s and 40s. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in Ceylon was formed as a Communist Party in 1934, but in 1937 expelled its pro-Moscow wing and thereafter became firmly Trotskyist and probably the most significant Marxist force in South Asia at the time. During the war when they were forced to flee Ceylon for leading anti-British strikes on the tea plantations, most LSSP cadres went to India, where they founded the short-lived Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India, Ceylon and Burma (BLPI). Much of Trotsky’s information on India came from letters of these comrades.

The only significant piece Trotsky wrote on Indian affairs was his “Open Letter to the Workers of India,” published in 1939. In this short piece, Trotsky took a dim view of the CPI:  “The Comintern has completely renounced revolutionary struggle for India’s independence. It “demands” (on its hands and knees) the “granting” of “democratic liberties” to India by British imperialism.” Similarly, the Indian bourgeoisie was incapable of leading a genuine freedom movement:

The Indian bourgeoisie is incapable of leading a revolutionary struggle. They are closely bound up with and dependent upon British capitalism. They tremble for their own property. They stand in fear of the masses. They seek compromises with British imperialism no matter what the price and lull the Indian masses with hopes of reforms from above. The leader and prophet of this bourgeoisie is Gandhi. A fake leader and false prophet! Gandhi and his compeers have developed a theory that India’s position will constantly improve, that her liberties will continually be enlarged and that India will gradually become a Dominion on the road of peaceful reforms. Later on, perhaps even achieve full independence. (Trotsky 1939)

This notion, wrote Trotsky, was wrong because world capitalism stood on the precipice. Concessions to the Indian bourgeoisie could only be granted so long as capitalism, with Britain at the fore, marched forward. Now that it was in crisis, granting independence would not be thought of. Consequently there was a struggle for the permanent revolution. Though he agreed that any step the bourgeoisie took toward independence should “naturally” be supported, a fully revolutionary struggle was now on the agenda.

This perspective, tragically, was as wrong for India as it was for the rest of the world. Capitalism, having destroyed vast amounts of profits and labor in the war, showed it was capable of righting itself afterward. In India specifically, the working class Trotsky called on to lead a revolution remained in formation; it trailed behind the Congress or the reformism of the Stalinist CPI or the CSP. No workers’ revolution was on the agenda.

The end of the war presented revolutionaries with a new and entirely unprecedented situation around the world. It is not the place to go into it here, but the confusion Trotskyists showed toward world affairs was matched by their bewilderment at the event of Indian independence. While the BLPI was insignificant and did not manage to shape Indian events in any noticeable way, the Fourth International clung to the line laid down by Trotsky before his death. This was the source of a great many errors with theoretical and practical consequences.

The Palestinian Jewish Trotskyist Tony Cliff (Yigael Gluckstein) wrote an article in 1947 on the situation in India that, I think, is representative of the understanding of the events by the Fourth International as a whole. Writing for Workers International News, the newspaper of the International’s British section, Cliff expressed skepticism that Britain would really give up control of India. The Attlee government’s management of the Indian Constituent Assembly to include representatives from the princely states and communal electorates would postpone independence indefinitely. Though he acknowledged the Congress was being pushed toward independence from below, this was not, he claimed, in their own interest, which was to remain a junior partner of British imperialism.

Therefore, independence on their terms would be a “fake freedom.” The only way forward was to unite the industrial struggles of the proletariat with the agrarian ones of the peasantry. Cliff predicted that together, these would throw up Indian soviets, which could end the inter-communal religious conflict precipitated by the British. The revolutionary struggle, as Trotsky had written eight years earlier, was still the only way to win independence (Cliff 1947).

Cliff, therefore, accepted Trotsky’s viewpoint: not only was British imperialism incapable of granting independence or enacting any meaningful reforms, but the Indian bourgeoisie, represented by Gandhi and the Congress, was not interested in real independence, only seeking a better deal for itself within the same framework. Both of them were of course wrong, as wrong as their Stalinist opponents had been. Though it comes from a genuinely revolutionary perspective, mistakes made by Trotskyists about the situation in the world and India specifically reduced their line to one of Cominternism but without the Comintern.

If I have spent a great many words on the perspective of what was largely an insignificant force in India and worldwide, it is not merely to point out its mistakes but to explain the context out of which a more coherent Marxist understanding of Indian independence and the larger anti-colonial struggles would emerge. That understanding would be developed by Cliff and his followers in the International Socialist tradition. Until next time, then.

References for Part 1:

Ahmad, Aijaz (1992). “Marx on India – A Clarification.” In Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London/New York: Verso.

Anderson, Kevin (2010). Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Banaji, Jairus (2011). “Capitalist Domination and the Small Peasantry: The Deccan Districts in the Late Nineteenth Century,” pp. 277-322 in Banaji, Theory as History: Essays on Modes of Production and Exploitation. Chicago: Haymarket.

Chibber, Vivek (2006). “On the Decline of Class Analysis in South Asian Studies,” Critical Asian Studies 38.4, pp. 357-387.

Chibber, Vivek (2013). Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital. London/New York: Verso.

Chowdhury, Satyabrata (2007). Leftism in India: 1917-1947. Basingstroke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cliff, Tony (1947). “Conflict in India,” Workers International News 7.1, pp. 27-32.

Davidson, Neil (2012). How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Chicago: Haymarket.

Druhe, David (1959). Soviet Russia and Indian Communism. New York: Bookman Associates.

Gupta, D.N. (2008). Communism and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1939-1945. New Delhi: SAGE Publications.

Haithcox, John (1971). Communism and Nationalism in India: M.N. Roy and Comintern Policy, 1920-1939. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP.

Jani, Pranav (2002). “Karl Marx, Eurocentrism and the 1857 revolt in British India,” pp. 81-100 in Crystal Bartolovich and Neil Lazarus, eds., Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies. Cambridge/New York: University of Cambridge.

Lenin, V.I. (1914). “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” pp. 393-454 in Lenin, Collected Works vol. 20. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Overstreet, Gene D. and Marshall Windmiller (1959). Communism in India. Berkeley: University of California.

Trotsky, Leon (1939). “An Open Letter to the Workers of India,” New International 5.9 pp. 263-266.

Trotsky, Leon (1996). The Third International After Lenin. New York: Pathfinder.

Wang Ming (1935). The Revolutionary Movement in the Colonial Countries. London: Modern Books.


Filed under History

A Novel of Primitive Accumulation in the Soviet Union

The law locks up the hapless felon

Who steals the goose from off the common

But lets the greater felon loose

Who steals the common from the goose.

This traditional rhyme, with a couple additional like it, are the only documentation we have of the initial rise of capitalism from the point of view of its victims. I have written here and there about this subject before in relation to England, previously considered by Marxists as the site of the “ideal” transition to capitalism from feudalism. What I said before I will only spend a few words repeating. The rise of capitalism was predicated on the complete destruction of hitherto existing forms of production, indeed, the annihilation of the entire way of life of the vast majority.

What this involved was, basically, systematic death and destruction on a scale never heard of before. While the common lands mentioned in the poem above were “enclosed,” ensuring mass starvation that would leave wage labor as the only possible way the people could make their living, brigandage and vagrancy were stamped out by harsh laws leading to the execution of thousands. Millions of others were condemned to poor houses, where they worked for less than pennies. At the same time, a brutal campaign of terror in the form of “witch trials” took place which exterminated female folk doctors and herbalists, and with them the ancient knowledge of contraception and abortion which stood in the way of pushing the population up to create the class of immiserated wage laborers the new system required.

This was not a process that went without resistance on a mass scale to the unfolding of the capitalist system at every turn. Brian Manning in his magisterial study The English People and the English Revolution documents brilliantly the struggles of the peasantry against feudal exploitation which served as a complement to urban Puritan resistance in the English Civil War, and the Levellers and Diggers who sealed their death sentences by advocating a community that would benefit all as the most radical wing of that struggle. E.P. Thompson in his classic The Making of the English Working Class writes of how foreign the ways of the new capitalism were to its victims, and the brilliant religion-charged critiques that working class Methodists, and followers of more millenarian sects like that of Joanna Southcott formulated, along with the opening of the age of insurrection against capitalism in the heroic Luddite movement. David McNally in the Deutscher Prize-winning Monsters of the Market tells us how the formative English proletariat waged open war against the corpse economy, which was felt to be the most degrading aspect of the new system both spiritually and metaphysically.

Unfortunately, before the 19th century or so, when the system was already firmly established, we get very little documentation of what all this meant from the point of view of the working class- the people who, to use Mary Shelley’s metaphor, were dissected and put back together to fit the purposes of the new system, the most brutal forms of exploitation ever seen in the world. There are of course various reasons for this, most of all that these people were by and large illiterate, but along with it, that their masters tried their very hardest to stamp out any tradition of resistance- which, of course, they were only partially successful at.

Some of these same barriers would be at work in documenting the transition to capitalism in the case of one country which accomplished this hundreds of years later. We can recall only with the deepest sadness that the leader of this country stated openly that what Western European nations had accomplished over the course of hundreds of years, his country must make good in only five to ten years. The country was the Soviet Union, and its leader Josef Stalin.

I don’t want to spend much time rehashing the case for state capitalism – there is an excellent volume published by Haymarket Books, Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism, which provides the main arguments, alongside various works by Tony Cliff and Chris Harman. The rise of a state-planned capitalism capable of competing economically and militarily with the West entailed suffering on an even greater scale than it did in the West, since it had to be compressed so much.

Since the 1980s, the anticommunism of Robert Conquest and others who were the first to analyze these developments has fortunately been displaced by a revisionist school led by Shelia Fitzpatrick, J. Arch Getty and others who are more tempered in their pronouncements and more nuanced in documenting the transition from Leninism to Stalinism. This has made us better aware of what was entailed: not only a war against the Soviet peasantry by its own state in which hundreds of thousands died by malice (the “dekulakization” campaigns) or by neglect (the man-made famines in Ukraine and elsewhere), but the massacre of a whole generation of Bolsheviks who had led the revolution and were capable of leading another, along with thousands of Party members and minor state officials who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time (what is known as the Great Purges.)

Unlike in England, however, this brutal transition did not go entirely undocumented in the literature of those who were its victims. The Revolution of 1917, along with being the greatest event in human history, launched a massive outpouring of achievement in the arts, that took the Stalinist regime a long time to curtail. Millions of workers and peasants learned to read and write, and the deluge of memoir, fiction and poetry they produced in the years after 1917 had been supported and published with the direct assistance of the Soviet state. When the rule of the Soviets was undermined by its own bureaucracy, this did not go unnoticed by these writers. The publication of We by the Bolshevik engineer and writer Yevgeny Zamiatin, the suicide of the Soviet poet laureate Vladimir Mayakovsky, the anti-Stalin poems of Osip Mandelstam, and searing novels by Victor Serge are all parts of this tradition. All these writers, crucially, had been supporters of the revolution from the beginning, and some of them would lay down their lives in its service.

Another of them who has only recently come to the attention of the English-speaking world is Andrey Platonov. Before the revolution, Platonov had been a student whose intellectual pedigree varied from Greek philosophy to Orthodox mysticism, combined with a deep devotion to the eccentric Russian philosopher Nikolai Feodorov, who believed the development of science would lead to the physical resurrection of the dead and the colonization of planets beyond Earth.

After 1917, however, Platonov like many of his class were inspired to devote their lives to the benefit of the Soviet system, deeply believing it would lead to a society run by all and for all which could then accomplish advances in science, technology and art that could never have been imagined before. He retrained as an engineer, serving during the 1920s supervising the draining of swamps and digging of wells that would provide the basis for a society in which all could be prosperous and live happily. At the same time, he emerged as a leading figure in the Proletkult movement of writers who argued for privileging the experience of the working class in Soviet literature (somewhat to the chagrin of Leon Trotsky, who found the movement rather formalist and intellectually vapid.)

In 1928, after the struggles that chased Trotsky, Bukharin and their followers out of the Communist Party, the first Five Year Plan was launched by the Stalinist class which had taken control. It was what I described earlier: the beginning of initial accumulation which led to the Soviet Union establishing itself on an equal basis economically vis-a-vis the West. Understandably, many Bolsheviks who opposed Stalin were caught somewhat off guard by this. If the collectivization of agriculture and establishment of industry was the basis of socialism, as they had long argued, then wasn’t Stalin objectively building socialism? And wasn’t it their duty to stand with him if so?

Platonov had joined the Party in 1921, and there is no indication I know of that he was involved with the oppositions led by Trotsky, Bukharin, or any others. I suspect he followed the inclination of many Communists and Russian workers that the Plan was the road to socialism. Nevertheless, serving once again as an engineer tasked with implementing it, he would run up against its brutal realities. The product of this encounter was a novel called The Foundation Pit.

The Foundation Pit only runs 150 pages in its English edition. But don’t let it fool you – the text is so rife with sorrow and symbolism that I suspect most readers, which include me, will want to take their time with it. In fact this is my second time reading it, and it took me even longer than the first.

The novel centers on an unnamed town in the Russian countryside, whose workers and Party activists have been tasked with the construction of a giant building to house all its people in the future – a “House of Labor.” Starting out with a plan to dig a foundation for the building, they are caught in the tide of increasingly demanding pronouncements and instructions from the Party center requiring a bigger building each time. When finally Stalin gives his speech that activists have become “dizzy with success,” which condemned the overeager fulfillment of the Plan such as the ever-deepening pit, it has become a tomb containing the bones of not only the former bourgeois and kulaks, but sincere workers, party members, and most tragically, of the children who are expected to inherit the socialist future.

On its face, the construction of a House of Labor carries resonances with earlier Russian literature – but of a decidedly counterrevolutionary variety. The reference, which Platonov was certainly aware of, is to Dostoevsky. In Notes from Underground, the unnamed narrator whose monologues fill the slim volume fulminates against such projects. Tying together the Tower of Babel, the Crystal Palace constructed for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, and the building of the same name in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s parable/utopian novel What is to Be Done?, our “sick, despicable” narrator regards these “palaces” as a hateful symbol of the belief that human society can be perfected. In Dostoevsky’s view, human nature was cowardly, mean and despicable, and men would reject being perfect as Chernyshevsky wanted them to be just because they had the choice of rejecting it.

In modern times, the statements of Dostoevsky’s narrator have been taken as an early expression of anticommunism, despite the fact that he died decades before 1917, and that he intended the novel as a polemic against revolutionary populism of the Narodnya Volna group and liberal capitalist modernizers alike. The translators of my version of The Foundation Pit, Robert Chandler and Olga Meerson, take this view uncritically: “As Dostoevsky criticized the idealized Crystal Palace that appears in a dream to the heroine of Chernyshevsky’s novel, so Platonov criticizes the grandiose projects of his own time; like Dostoevsky, he compares them to the Tower of Babel” (Afterword, 160).

It never ceases to amaze me that academics will consistently ignore what is in plain sight. They do not seem to recall, just as a start, that Platonov was a Party member and dedicated Communist. Statements like these also leave by the wayside his background as the very man whose job it was to assist in the creation of “crystal palaces” – from where this novel emerges. Reading the novel makes it clear that Platonov disagrees not with the construction of socialism, which he dedicated years of his life to, but rather how he perceives it is being constructed. It seems inconceivable somehow to these scholars of literature that the symbols and language of Dostoevsky, along with those of Orthodoxy, Slavic folklore and even Stalinism, might be used to construct a critique of an entirely new and unanticipated society. In this sense, The Foundation Pit is a simultaneously hilarious and terrifying parable of Soviet primitive accumulation, mistaken by Platonov and others as a brutal, but successful, construction of socialism.

If there is any writer who compares favorably with Platonov in terms of subject matter and political critique, it is the Englishman George Orwell. I say this knowing that once I do, it may be hard for others to appreciate what makes Platonov distinct. But there is something about the tragic irony of The Foundation Pit as compared to Animal Farm. Though Orwell wrote it with the polemical intention of discrediting Russian “socialism,” one can detect the great sympathy he has for the Soviet working class in the character of Boxer, the workhorse whose constant admonition to himself is “I will work harder” for the construction of socialism, until he cripples himself and Napoleon, the stand-in for Stalin, cynically has him sold off for glue. In Orwell’s writing, you have the tragedy of the working class, in all its naivete and idealism, its laziness and heroism. We see a total incomprehension of “plans” and their “fulfillment,” which have no regard to the basic needs of human beings, in both writers – what Orwell represents in 1984 with the absurd yet historically accurate equation: “2 + 2 = 5.”

Similarly, Platonov never treads close to idealizing his subjects, as tragic as the narrative gets. The Soviet proletariat in The Foundation Pit does sincerely believe that what they do is to construct socialism – as so many other workers in market capitalist nations have been persuaded to sacrifice their interests to the glory of the nation. Despite this, they are not idiots or dupes of Stalin. They possess the memory of the revolution that they made a decade previous, however fleeting that may be, and on that basis they feel instinctively that they have been betrayed.

We see this in their rage against the technical specialists, party activists and district personnel. The Civil War veteran Zhachev insists on addressing the party activist as “you bourgeois,” and on using his pension to buy butter which he then uses to grease the wheels of his cart so to deny it to the upper echelons. Or in Safronov’s angry address to Prushevsky, the engineer (perhaps standing in for the author). We get a sense of the deep but impotent rage an atomized working class feels against its bosses in this novel.

Despite this, Platonov makes it clear that the days of the First Five Year Plan were not a joyride for the technical specialists like Prushevsky, or the Party activists (the one in the book remains anonymous) who were tasked with implementing the Stalinist line and enforcing discipline. Prushevsky constantly feels a deep despair to the point of suicide: “‘I’d better die,’ thought Prushevsky. ‘People make use of me, but no one is glad of me'” (21). Or of the party activist who is denounced for overfulfilling the plan as “gone rushing forward into the leftist quagmire of rightist opportunism… No one can disagree that such a comrade is a wrecker and saboteur of the Party, an objective enemy of the proletariat,” who does not resist his death at the hands of the vengeful workers he has pressed so hard to fulfill the plan in accordance with Party directives (136). With the words of several other characters, “I’m bored,” he merely takes his penance and stops breathing.

Platonov gets at the character of the most psychotic of the Stalinist campaigns, the anti-kulakization drive, in one of the later sections of the book. Having proclaimed the collective farm, at which point the peasants proceed to slaughter and feast on their own livestock, the hapless Communists seek high and low in the town for a citizen who can be called authentically proletarian who can identify and punish the kulaks. They succeed in finding the one hired laborer in the town – but it is a trained bear who works as an assistant to the blacksmith, who they then coax out to hunt kulaks with the dinner bell. “Just bang on the church bell so Misha knows it’s lunchtime. Otherwise he won’t budge – he’s a stickler for discipline!” (108). This tragicomic episode ends with the supposed kulaks being “liquidated” – the activist committee understands this to mean they should be put on a barge and sent down the river.

All of this is, of course, infused with cultural and religious symbolism. The bear, named Mikhail Ivanovich, is a common character in Slavic folktales, where he helps the peasants with their tasks and punishes those who mistreat him – such is a symbol Platonov uses to represent the innocence and fundamental humanity of the Russian proletariat, ironically in the being of an animal. And before the kulaks are “liquidated,” they perform the Orthodox rite of Lenten forgiveness with their neighbors. Platonov is perhaps the most perceptive observer of the traditions of the Russian people and their reactions to an alien system of state capitalism being imposed on them from above.

In the end, the superhuman efforts of all the characters, from Voshchev who desires a useful occupation, to the Party activist who wants to direct the masses of his district toward socialism, to Misha the huge and innocent bear, to the child Nastya who merely desires to live to see socialism, all find themselves poured metaphorically and literally into the giant hole that is the foundation pit. I cannot think of a better metaphor for alienation in modern life – hence the “absurdism” or “existentialism” that critics point to, without understanding the very historical basis of this type of literature. I find the book hard to recommend more highly.

Andrey Platonov, The Foundation Pit. New York: NYRB Classics, 2008. $14.95

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David McNally, Monsters of the Market

Monsters of the Market was sort of a vanity purchase for me. Unlike greater minds such as China Miéville, I was a Marxist long before I was won over to consider scifi and fantasy genres as legitimate literary expression, much less to consider, as Miéville says, that “The fantastic might be a mode peculiarly suited to and resonant with the forms of modernity.” A couple of years ago, I probably would have rolled my eyes in Lukácsian fashion at the idea that the study of monsters and that of political economy might go hand in hand.

And yet, here I am. I didn’t really have a reason why I should read McNally’s book except as sort of a diversion that could combine more academic political interests and my increasingly unorthodox literary tastes. It did not disappoint in either pursuit, and my only wish having finished it was that it might have been longer than just three (admittedly, three exquisite) studies of monsters from a Marxist perspective.

Chapter 1 is entitled “Dissecting the Laboring Body,” and contains fascinating studies of the art of capitalism’s rise from Shakespeare, to Rembrandt, Dickens and finally and centrally Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It probably could be expanded into a book of its own, and we can only hope that someday it might be. Documenting the brutal course of capitalist “primitive accumulation,” McNally shows in each case how emerging capitalist rationality constructed the body of the proletarian as something to be taken apart, dissected and put to the use of profit. The proletariat is, in this way, the central “monster” of capitalist modernity.

For me, nothing more clearly showed this than McNally’s thorough reading of Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp. Side-stepping Rembrandt’s use of light and shadow (what I was taught about the painting in my high school art history class), McNally recalls for us that the “anatomy” of a corpse was a key bit of political theater by and for the emergent bourgeoisie in both the Netherlands and England. “Public anatomy was bound up with disciplinary practices designed to alleviate bourgeois anxieties through the ritual exercise of class-power over the proletarian body” (29). In 1632, Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, chief anatomist of Amsterdam’s physician’s guild as well as a key civil leader in the city, dissected the body of a young man named Aris Kindt, who had been executed for the theft of a coat, and Rembrandt’s painting was commissioned in honor of this great public and social event. As with any anatomy, this event was followed by a torchlit parade through Amsterdam by the bourgeois leaders party to the event, who in this way reinforced their power over the Dutch Republic.

In Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson,” Dr. Tulp becomes capital personified, directing the movements of the proletarian body.

McNally writes that Rembrandt’s painting has a number of unique features that are not found in contemporary anatomy portraits (yes, there was a market niche for anatomy portraits). Not only does the light fall across Tulp and his fellow doctors, highlighting their individuality and cleverness, but the shadow obscures the face of the condemned man, robbing him of his individuality as he lies in a diagonal position, showing him defenseless as in similar poses of the crucified Christ and martyred saints. Most importantly, Tulp has commenced the anatomy with the corpse’s left arm, which would not have been the first part to be dissected:

Tulp grasps a forceps with which he manipulates the flexorum digitorum muscles of Kindt’s left hand. Indeed, Tulp can be seen pulling on these muscles, causing the corpse’s fingers to curl in imitation of his own. We have here… a portrayal of the paradigmatic relationship of capital to labor. The superintending will employs a tool with which it directs the movements of the laboring body… the movement of the pauper-body is being directed by a will external to it, a will whose control over the tools of production is the key to its command over the bodies of the poor. (33-34)

Command, expressed in the form of dissection, of the proletarian body by capitalism is a dialectic whose beginning is expressed by Rembrandt and whose end is written by Mary Shelley. In late 18th-century Britain, McNally writes, where it was common to execute proletarian men and women for theft as well as other minor crimes against capitalist property, it was a final act of religious and metaphysical humiliation against the condemned that their bodies would be dissected and anatomized for the uses of bourgeois science. Therefore the family and neighbors of the condemned would wage pitched battles at the gallows to save the corpses from those who sought to obtain them to sell to the anatomist. Even if successful  however, it was common for “resurrectionists” or grave-robbers to disinter them for sale.

One such man is Shelley’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein. “I became acquainted with the science if anatomy,” he says, “and spent days and days in vaults and charnel houses.” Assembling his creature by bits and pieces of random proletarian bodies, the creature is first dissected (separated from the land and communities), then reassembled as a terrifying collective entity – the monstrous, anonymous proletarian mob – a process that mirrors the creation of the English proletariat in the process of primitive accumulation. (As a side note, I would say that I found that reading E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class alongside McNally extremely helpful).

Bela Lugosi’s creature did not speak, but only grunted.

McNally’s reading of Frankenstein is too incisive to be summarized in a short review like this one. I just would note the process of “doubling” which Shelley engages in – the process by which the creature mirrors his creator, his desires and actions come to voice his claim to humanity, including love and respect of his fellow humans, against Frankenstein’s horror at his “inhuman” creation. Key to this, of course, is that the creature is given a human voice – a feature which was removed in early film adaptations of the novel such as that of Bela Lugosi, and consequently from all the creature’s numerous descendants, the zombies which populate Western horror film. This removes the most troubling feature of the creature to bourgeois society, the voice which enables him to tell Dr. Frankenstein: “You are my creator, but I am your master.”

If I have one complaint about this masterly study, it is not McNally’s rather ponderous insistence on documenting every instance in which a bourgeois ideologue like Locke, Burke or Mill refers to the insurgent masses as a “monster.” It is rather his somewhat bizarre adherence in the course of the study to the revisionist account of capitalism’s origins by “political Marxists” such as Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. Here is not, unfortunately for me, the place for a detailed refutation (readers would do well to take a look at the chapter on political Marxism in Neil Davidson’s wonderful book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?) In the course of his brilliant account of Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson,” for example, he takes a pages-long detour to inform us that the post-Revolt Dutch Republic was “a commercially prosperous, urbanised bourgeois republic [but] it had not undergone a fully-fledged capitalist transition” (35). In the first place, this is embarrassingly wrong, and secondly, no sooner does McNally establish the non-capitalist nature of the Dutch economy than he informs us that “Nevertheless, during its golden age, the Dutch republic was the site of a flourishing bourgeois culture,” leaving us wondering why he bothered telling us the Netherlands were non-capitalist in the first place.

Dealing with Chapter 1’s brilliance, regardless, left me somewhat unprepared to fully digest Chapter 2, in which McNally attempts, quite successfully in my view, to reestablish the notion of the monstrous as central to Marx’s view of capitalism. This is not merely the monstrous effects capitalism has on the bodies and minds of the proletariat, making capital a “vampire,” or dead labor bent on sucking the lifeblood out of the living, which McNally suggests have Capital take on the forms of a Gothic novel. In a passage from Vol. 1 which McNally tells us is often ignored (I don’t remember it, in any case) Marx says:

The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless, the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will –

Or, in other words, once a table becomes a commodity, it transcends the sensuous, becoming not an ordinary wooden table but a repository of “grotesque ideas” – a sum of money exchangeable in the process of capital accumulation. More than anything else I have read, this gets across the idea of the alienation of the laborer from the product she creates.

Is worshipping something like this really any more ridiculous than the commonplace Western worship of money as value?

Such, in so many words, also leads us toward the concept of commodity fetishism, something which I have also learned a lot about from McNally. Tracing the history of the “fetish,” the African objects invested with spiritual powers which European colonialists used to charge them as being “uncivilized,” McNally shows us how Marx reverses the charge of fetishism against the very European ruling class that invented it.  Marx says that capitalists fall on their knees before objects, just as the Africans do that they enslave. But it goes deeper. In their worship of a commodity (for example, the Spanish conquistadors’ worship of gold), they worship not the object, but the hidden value that is its second and dialectically opposed nature. “However much capitalist fetishism bows down before things, its true god is entirely immaterial” (206). And really, which is more rational, asks Marx – to worship things we can see and touch, or some invisible, super-sensuous quality contained in them?

And so, somehow, I have skipped over most of the middle of the book to come to McNally’s final study, “African Vampires in the Age of Globalization.” Here, McNally takes us on a whirlwind tour of the new vampire stories of Subsaharan African nations from Nigeria to Togo, Cameroon and Malawi. These tales are more bizarre and frightening than anything dreamt up in Western cinema. A rider on a motorcycle-taxi puts a helmet on, which transforms him into a monstrous ATM, spitting out banknotes from his mouth. People fall asleep to be mystically transported to an occult economy of plantations run by witches, on which they are forced to slave until they wake up exhausted and still have to return to their worldly occupation. Government leaders are implicated in a vast conspiracy in which they steal the blood and organs of ordinary people, exchanging them for food aid. These tales do not only form the material for an array of folktales, native theater productions, the novels of Ben Okri (which McNally reads brilliantly) and the “Nollywood” horror film industry in Lagos, they often are the basis for real rebellions of the oppressed against governments and corporations who are metaphorically draining African people of their blood.

McNally’s strength is to bring to our attention the various ways in which these new vampire stories, rather than being remnants of pre-capitalist superstition or imported from Western cinema, form an incisive critique of the plundering of the African continent by international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, in collaboration with post-colonial states, critiques which we are able to read correctly employing Walter Benjamin’s “dialectical optics.” Such is the modern zombie, which originated in Haiti and has found its home in Africa. Rather than the mindless, acquisitive consumer of Western horror movies, it is the body of the modern proletarian, enchanted with mental sleep and compelled to labor for the gain of people and things it does not understand.

Here, McNally is writing in the Marxist anthropological tradition of people such as Peter Worsley – who produced a brilliant materialist analysis of the “cargo cults” of the Pacific islands, The Trumpet Shall Sound, that I would highly encourage everyone to read. This tradition takes seriously the mystical and religious notions of the oppressed as the expressions of a concrete critique of their material conditions. It is my unhappy task, therefore, to anticipate a challenge from the postcolonial camp that I can just see academics salivating over, were they to read his book.

It might be put like this: that although McNally admirably is taking the traditions of non-Western people seriously, he ignores the fundamental differences between Subsaharan societies and those of the capitalist West – he assumes, in other words, that concepts like “capitalism,” “exploitation,” etc. are understood in the same ways by African peoples as they are in the West. Such, of course, is to assume a fundamental divide between Africa and the West that ignores the whole process of the creation of a world capitalist economy through colonialism. Seeing these African stories as something fundamentally incomprehensible to Western minds merely puts a plus sign where racists and imperialists put a minus sign. Moreover, it mirrors imperialist tropes in that the African peoples are not regarded as fully capable of understanding and criticizing the features of Western capitalist modernity.

The proletariat and the oppressed peoples of the world, writes McNally, are indeed “monstrous” – but it is a beautiful kind of monstrosity. “There is magic at work in liberation, then, that brings persons and things back to life and breaks the spell of zombieism.” “Rather than the detached ‘hands’ to which capital tries to reduce them, the world-proletariat needs to become a many-headed and many-handed monster, capable of of shaking the very planets and upending Jupiter’s throne… It is these magic hands that possess the power to slay the monsters of the market” (268-9).

David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012. $28

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