Interview of Prabhat Patnaik on Marxist Theory

Eminent Marxist thinker Prabhat Patnaik
reflects on some of the contemporary debates on Marxism in an interview with




SR: What according to your view are the distinguishing features of
Marxist theory vis-a vis other liberal schools of thought or critical theories?


PP: To me what is central
is Marx’s discovery that capitalism constitutes a “spontaneous” system which is
subject to immanent tendencies of its own independent of human will and
consciousness. The system of course works through the actions of individual
human beings, but these individuals lack authentic “agency”. They act in
particular ways because if they did not do so, then they would lose their place
within the system. Even the capitalists are engaged in a Darwinian struggle
among themselves and are coerced into accumulating capital. Marx in fact referred
to the capitalist as “capital personified” underscoring the fact that even the
capitalists lacked “agency”.


The “spontaneity” of the system does not get negated by a change in
the balance of class forces. What happens at the most in certain conjunctures is
a shift in the point of origin from where it begins to operate. The immediate
post-war period for instance was one such conjuncture in my view.


 Capitalism in short is not just
an anarchic system; it is not just an exploitative system; it is in addition a
“spontaneous” system, where every participant is unfree and alienated. Human
freedom therefore is impossible without transcending capitalism, not just in
the sense that nobody can be genuinely free if someone else is unfree, i.e. if
exploitation persists, but in the even stronger sense that everybody is unfree under capitalism, and hence nobody can be free
without transcending the system.


The quest for freedom is an essential characteristic of human beings. In this quest therefore there is no escape
from Marxism
. This quest moreover acquires particular urgency in the
contemporary epoch since capitalism rapidly commoditizes all aspects of life
and brings mankind to an impossible historical denouement which again is an expression of its immanent tendency. The choice before mankind therefore is
either to continue to suffer this denouement
at incalculable cost to itself, or to break out of it by making use of Marx’s



SR: Marxism is a theory of praxis. How do you reconcile the fact that
in the current conjuncture Marxism seems to be relevant as an alternative
theoretical construct but perhaps not as a predominant worldview for social


PP: Intellectual fashions
do not concern me. What Marxism “seems” to be to some people at a certain point
of time is not very relevant. What is relevant is whether its basic insight is
true. And to my mind the truth of it is even more evident today than earlier.
In fact there was a period after the second world war when capitalist economies
operated close to full employment, when decolonization was effected, when
“welfare state” measures were carried out under the aegis of social democracy
even within the capitalist economies. During that period it appeared that
capitalism was malleable enough to permit a change for the better even within
itself, that a transcendence of the system was unnecessary, and that the
“spontaneity” that Marx had talked about was not central to its functioning.
That however has turned out to be an illusion. Centralization of capital, an
immanent tendency under capitalism, has now brought us to a world of globalized
finance which imposes “neo-liberal policies” on all nation-States.


The term “neo-liberal” here is actually a misnomer. All States today
pursue policies that favour international finance capital for fear that failure
to do so would bring about capital flight and hence acute crisis. The State in
other words has become a promoter, exclusively, of the interests of finance
capital, unlike earlier when it appeared to
stand above classes (despite being a bourgeois State) and arbitrate between
them. Neo-liberalism has plunged the capitalist world into an acute crisis of
which there is no end in sight; it has caused large-scale unemployment
everywhere, and widened immensely the inequality between the working people of
the world taken as a group on the one side and the capitalists and financiers
of the world taken as a group on the other. The unfolding of this tragedy
vindicates the truth of Marxism that human freedom requires the transcendence
of capitalism. There can be no progressive social change without this
awareness. The social change we are seeing today, which appears to by-pass
Marxism is alas in the direction of fascism. It confirms rather than disproves
the truth of Marxism.



SR: What is living and dead in Marxist theory? Which are the frontiers
that need to be pushed further to get a better grasp of present day capitalism?


PP: I think that the use of
terms like “Marxism” and “Marxist theory” can be misleading. The point is not
to look at the views of one individual, Karl Marx, and see how much of it is
right and how much wrong. Marx is important because he gave us an approach, a
way of looking at our contemporary social reality that is in my view true. The
point is to use this approach to carry forward the analysis. In fact very
little has been done in this respect till now. And focusing on Marx the
individual detracts from the task of carrying forward the analysis; it pushes
one instead towards hagiography. We do not after all use the term Freudianism
to refer to psychoanalysis and Darwinianism to refer to the science of
evolution. Why then should we use the term Marxism to refer to a mode of scientific
analysis of society? In fact using the term is a way of ghettoizing the path-breaking
contributions of Marx and of all who have followed his lead in developing such a
scientific understanding of society.


Of course carrying forward this tradition of analysis which I consider
a scientific tradition, does not mean rejecting contributions from other points
of view. On the contrary it means using as building blocks every correct insight no matter what the weltanschauung of those who possess this insight. As Joan Robinson
once remarked, the fact that Michal Kalecki, coming from a Marxist tradition,
and J.M.Keynes, coming from a liberal tradition, could develop the same theory
of employment, testifies to the scientific worth of that theory. What “Marxist
theory” has to do is to use all
scientific advances
, no matter where they come from, to develop its
analysis of the totality that constitutes our society.


By the same token however there are many things in Marx and later
Marxists whose meaning and relevance are not clear, and one should not be
obliged to use them just because Marx had written about them. (An obvious
example for me, though others may disagree, is the falling tendency of the rate
of profit). In short the idea is to reconstruct
at every moment
our understanding of the totality, on the basis of the
approach outlined by Marx, to a point where theory “bursts into praxis” (to use
Lukacs’ phrase). What bit of Marx is to be used in this reconstruction and what
bit of Keynes or of other ideas, cannot be determined a priori.



SR: Dominance of finance in the current phase of capitalism has been a
critical point of departure in your analysis of ‘temporary truce’ between
imperialist forces? Is the world at present closer to Kautsky compared to what
Lenin conceived?


PP: No, not at all. Kautsky
was talking about a temporary truce between different finance capitals, each of
which was nation-based, nation-State-aided and had, whether
engaged in rivalry or in truce, a specific national
identity of its own, such as British finance capita; French finance capital
or German finance capital. The driving force behind the current process of
globalization however is international
finance capital­ which is not based on a particular nation or aided by a
particular nation-State.
This international finance capital does not want a
partition of the world among rival powers, for any such partition constitutes a
barrier to its movement. Thus the fact that there is free mobility of capital
and a muting of inter-imperialist rivalry is not because of any truce between
national finance capitals but because the lead actor itself is different today.
In short, today’s world has gone beyond not only Lenin but also Kautsky. The
conjuncture that gave rise to that whole debate between Lenin and Kautsky is a
thing of the past.



SR: The dominance of productive capital and finance capital had been
cyclical in the longer history of capitalism? Do you think that as capitalism
led by finance approaches a terminal crisis there are possibilities of cycles
that would be driven by productive capital?


PP: I am not sure I agree
with this cyclicality you mention. Production and finance have always been
enmeshed in modern capitalism, as Lenin had emphasized. Keynes too had talked
of the overwhelming importance of speculation, which was not after all the
prerogative of only a particular group, namely the financiers, in determining
the level of activity in a capitalist economy. Today, even more than before,
you cannot talk in terms of a separate entity called productive capital
different from finance capital and hold that the latter alone is engaged in
speculation. So, the “terminal crisis” that you mention is not one of finance
capital alone but of capitalism as a whole. Let me elaborate.


Capitalism, as Kalecki had emphasized, needs some exogenous stimulus
to achieve sustained growth through its cyclical fluctuations. Right until the
first world war, the colonial system, by which I mean both the colonies of
conquest and the colonies of settlement taken together, provided this stimulus.
The diffusion of capitalism to the colonies of settlement, owing to large-scale
migration of labour from Europe and the complementary movement of capital, kept
the level of aggregate demand strong and caused the long boom of the (long) nineteenth
century. The colonies of conquest like India converted the goods of the leading
capitalist power, Britain, into those demanded in the new world, i.e. changed
the form of British exports; and they also added their own surplus,
sucked out of them through “the drain of wealth” that the India nationalist
writers had talked about,  to swell these
capital exports. All this however came to an end with the first world war,
which is why the inter-war period saw a Great Depression.


The second exogenous stimulus was State spending that Keynes, already
in The Economic Consequences of the
had seen as the panacea for the problem of aggregate demand. This
took off in the post-war years. But this too came to an end with the process of
globalization of finance which imposes austerity on governments. Capitalism today therefore is without any
exogenous stimuli
: all it can fall back upon are occasional “bubbles” that
are transient. Contemporary capitalism in short has a fundamental problem; it
is mired in my view in a secular crisis. But this has nothing to do with the
distinction between “finance capital” and “productive capital”.



SR: Although you have talked about ‘accumulation through encroachment’
do you agree with Harvey that the focal point of resistance in today’s world
emerges in the realm of ‘accumulation through dispossession’ rather than that
in ‘spheres of expanded reproduction’?


PP: I had developed
independently a somewhat parallel distinction to Harvey’s, which I had called a
distinction between “accumulation through expansion” and “accumulation through
encroachment”. I prefer my own “accumulation through encroachment” to Harvey’s
“accumulation through dispossession” because it incorporates more explicitly
the phenomenon of private enrichment at
the expense of the State sector
, which is a very important phenomenon in
India, as underscored by the 2-G Spectrum scam and the coal-bloc-allocation
scam etc.


But I do not understand this point about resistance arising in the
realm of dispossession, as opposed to
the realm of expanded reproduction. To me
the basic concept is the “worker-peasant alliance”, which obviously must be
generalized to the “worker-petty-producer” alliance
. Neo-liberal
capitalism, with the State almost exclusively promoting the interests of the
corporate-financial elite, has unleashed a massive process of expropriation of
petty producers: peasants, fishermen, craftsmen, artisans etc. Historically,
the strength of capitalism has been to divide the workers from the peasants,
and to enlist the support of peasants and petty producers by putting into them
the fear that socialism would destroy all private property including petty
property. The squeeze on petty producers that capitalism actually exercised in
the metropolis was alleviated to an extent by the large-scale migration to the
new world mentioned earlier, which meant that the worker-peasant alliance could
not be formed in the metropolis. This in fact was the reason for the defeat of
the Paris Commune.


In societies like ours which have vast numbers of petty producers and
where such producers are facing massive attacks, making even simple
reproduction difficult for them, the scope opens up for the worker-peasant
alliance like never before. For this however the traditional Left approach to
petty producers has to be suitably altered. Protection of the petty production
sector, even though it represents a more “backward” sector of production
compared to capitalism, has to take priority; only after it is protected can
this sector be gradually transformed into collective and co-operative forms of
production organization. A kind of “productionism” which often characterizes
Marxism, where the development of the productive forces is prioritized, has to
be abandoned.


To be sure, the worker-peasant alliance has always been the core of
the Left agenda in countries like ours. But the theoretical perspective
informing it was that the working class would carry forward the democratic
revolution which the bourgeoisie, because of its alliance with the landlords, could not. The basis of the
worker-peasant alliance in other words was the protection of the peasantry from
landlordism. What is required in the
current conjuncture is protection of the peasantry from corporate capitalism, which is the task of the working class.



SR: If we accept the fact that the social contract between labour and
capital prevalent in the Keynesian-Fordist Golden Age of capitalism was
something exceptional then what according to your view is the radical
alternative to neoliberalism?


PP: There was in my view no
social contract between labour and capital. In fact social democracy thought that there could be such a
social contract which this was an illusion. In the immediate post-war years
when capitalism was faced with an unprecedented challenge to its dominance, it
yielded ground to the working class by accepting certain welfare state measures
and Keynesian demand management. With centralization of capital and the
emergence of globalized finance, which Keynes knew would make demand management
impossible (as was clear from his remark that “finance above all must be
national”), capital rolled back the gains of the working class. We have to see
post-war capitalism therefore in terms of different phases of class struggle
rather than a social contract that came unstuck.


Today while capital is globalized we have no globally-coordinated
working class movement. Since resistance cannot wait until such a
globally-coordinated working class movement has come into being, it must demand
a delinking of the economy from the vortex of globalized finance and globalized
commodity-flows, and the institution of employment-promoting and
welfare-promoting measures within such a delinked economy, as against the harsh
austerity measures being imposed by finance capital. The paralysis of much of
the Left all over the world, especially the European Left, arises because large
segments of it are averse to such delinking. They cannot withdraw from a
pan-Europeanism even if that involves subservience to the dictates of finance
capital. They see such withdrawal as a symptom of “nationalism” which for them
is a dirty word. One can sympathize with this position because of the two extraordinarily
bloody world wars that Europe has seen, which make European unity, even under
the aegis of finance capital, appear like a dream come true. But this
perception also explains the paralysis of the European Left. The same problem,
more or less, afflicts the Left everywhere.


But in societies like ours where such delinking constitutes the basis
for worker-peasant alliance, the Left cannot shy away from it; and indeed it has
not, which is why it continues to remain a significant force still. It has to
supplement its defence of the working people (i.e. workers and peasants) with a
demand for welfare measures to be instituted as universal rights.



SR: The notion of causal primacy of productive forces in mode of
production based analyses often gives rise to a mechanical understanding of
historical progress largely laden by technological and economic determinism.
What according to your view drives such deterministic interpretation of history
and how Marxism is different from such interpretations?


PP: I have problems with
the typical Marxist text-book presentation of history in terms of a set of
modes of production, the transition from one to the next arising because the
production relations become fetters upon the development of the productive
forces. This may provide a useful way of looking at history but what I find
problematical about it is that it makes the transition from capitalism to
socialism analogous to the transition from feudalism to capitalism and other
such previous transitions. I have at least four problems with this.


First, it makes socialism inevitable
which in my view it is not. It has to be consciously fought for and achieved.


Second, till now there has been a “spontaneity” in history, with the
struggle of the people to make their own history resulting always in the
achievement of something which was different from what they had intended.Thy
were in other words caught within a trap of history which they could not escape
from. Socialism, however, while transcending the “spontaneity” of capitalism
also transcends the trap of history. It is not just a transition from one mode
of production to another like all previous transitions: it marks the beginning
of a transition to human freedom. The text-book perspective misses this
essential element and hence the centrality of human freedom to the Marxist problematique.


Third, because of the unprecedented nature of this transition, a
theoretical understanding becomes crucial to it and theory has to be brought to
the working class from “outside”. The text-book understanding does not
adequately emphasize the need for theory on the basis of which alone a
revolutionary consciousness can be developed.


And fourthly, it suffers from what I have called “productionism”
earlier. If capitalism becomes obsolete only when productive forces can no
longer be developed within it, then we cannot think of a revolution until that
magical moment arrives when the development of the productive forces gets
thwarted. This in practice means waiting for ever, since such a moment can
never be identified. (This in fact was the trajectory that Eduard Bernstein had
taken). What is more, it even becomes possible to argue that revolutionaries
should hasten the development of productive forces under capitalism since that in
turn serves to hasten the day of the revolution. I have obvious problems with
all this.


On the other hand I would like to bring to your notice Marx’s famous
remark in The Poverty of Philosophy
that “The organization of the revolutionary elements as a class supposes the
existence of all the productive forces which could be engendered in the bosom
of the old society”. Marx’s position here in my view amounts to saying that the
formation of a revolutionary class that would transcend the mode of production is
the highest level of development of the productive forces within this mode of
production. It is this formation of a revolutionary class therefore which should
be the objective of the revolutionaries. This however is a perspective that the
text-book view obscures.



SR: Dictatorship of the proletariat had not been realized as the widest
possible democracy of the working people in erstwhile socialist countries. What
ensures a participatory socialism rather than a conducted totalitarianism?


PP: I think the term
“ensures” here is inapposite. Nothing can “ensure” that the dictatorship of the
proletariat would not degenerate into a dictatorship of a party. We are, let us
not forget, talking about the biggest project of humanity in its entire
history, and nobody would be foolhardy enough to guarantee that this project
would be completed smoothly. All that can be hoped for is that mankind would be
better prepared to bring this project to completion in future by drawing
lessons from the past.


Above all it is important to remember that the Bolshevik Revolution
did not intend to put in place a dictatorship of the Party, and it has never
been the vision of socialism. The fact that a Party dictatorship did come about
was because of a whole set of circumstances. And Lenin kept hoping that the
spread of the revolution would mitigate the rigours of such a dictatorship.
This however was not to be.


Any “closure”, any corralling of the revolution is invariably damaging
to it. Even when it does not actually spread elsewhere, it need not become a
“closed space”. The revolution’s becoming a “closed space” not open to new
ideas, not open to criticisms and experimentation, which may happen in certain
situations, is damaging. This is a lesson to be learned from the past.


Some argue that the basic idea of theory being brought to the workers
from “outside” contains within itself the seeds of a Party dictatorship. I
disagree with this. Indeed I would argue on the contrary that precisely because
scientific understanding emerges through open debate, the scientific
understanding of the working class requires that it be exposed to differing
points of view. The possibility that such exposure may result in a flourishing
of counter-revolutionary ideas, and hence in a victory of counter-revolution,
would be thwarted by what Lenin had called the “class instinct” of the workers;
such thwarting should be left to this class instinct rather than to control by
a single Party.


There is a further point we should remember. The institution of
parliamentary democracy based on universal adult suffrage simply did not exist
in Lenin’s time. It was introduced in Britain in 1928 when women got the vote,
and even then there were some residual property restrictions. It was introduced
in France after the war in 1945. The major socialist revolutions until now have
more or less predated the introduction of such democracy. But the socialist
revolutions of the future, occurring in a world where the bourgeois system
itself has introduced institutions of parliamentary democracy, no matter how enfeebled
they may be, are bound to be different from what they have been in the past.



SR: How do you perceive the world of resistance? It is far more multi-dimensional
and not essentially evolving on class lines as Marxists would like to see……Your


PP: There is a common
misconception that the Left should be concerned only with “class issues”. It is
a misconception because the Left’s concern is not just with a set of issues
that can be exclusively labeled as “class issues” but with bringing a class perspective to all issues. There is much talk
these days for instance of “identity politics”. This is a misnomer since what
is called “identity politics” covers in my view three very different and
totally dissimilar kinds of issues: one is “identity resistance politics” which
concerns the resistance of the oppressed segments like dalits, religious
minorities and women; the other is “identity bargaining politics” which is when
even privileged segments of the population demand “reservations”; and the third
is “identity fascist politics” which is when certain political formations,
financed by corporate capital, seek to appeal to one section of the people by
inciting them against another. The Left has to be concerned with all these
kinds of politics, fighting the last, allying itself with those engaged in the
first, and taking a discriminating position on the second; and at the same time
it has to put forward demands, such as for universal rights to employment,
food, healthcare, education and old-age pension and disability assistance that
would transcend the terrain where all these kinds of politics exist. So the
Left’s position is not just to sit with arms folded until people have got
interested in “class issues”, but to engage with all issues, here and now, from a class perspective,
to carry them forward in the direction of liberation. Its distinguishing characteristic in short relates to epistemology not
to a selectivity among issues.


Resistance is always “multi-dimensional”. The Bolshevik revolution
happened on the issue of war, which was not, on the face of it, a directly
class issue. In fact the working class movement all over Europe was hopelessly
divided on the subject. The opposition to
the war was made into a class issue
, was linked with class struggle and
made the basis for a socialist revolution. So, I do not see the Left project
being thwarted by the “lack of resistance” of the right kind. The resistance
that exists has to be made into the right kind.


Just to give one example. I do not see why the Left should not fight
for the abolition of the caste system
which very few people talk about these days, or for the elimination of dowry.
To some extent the Left is doing this, but it could be stepped up. Students and
youth associated with the Left for instance could take a pledge that they would
never accept dowry, or engage in any form of violence against women. The Left
has an enormous amount of work to do. To say that it has become “out of date”
or “obsolete” is absurd.



SR: The working class is often mystified by the ‘phantom of
objectivity’ and a large section of the middle class has become votaries of neo-liberalism.
How do you envisage the future of the Left in India?


PP: Significant sections of
the middle class in India have been beneficiaries of neo-liberalism. And
precisely for this reason those of the middle class who have been excluded till
now nurture illusions about it. With neo-liberalism in a crisis, I believe that
it is a matter of time before middle class disenchantment turns into anti-neo-liberal
radicalism, as it has done in Latin America.


There is however a danger here. In several countries at this moment,
such as Ukraine, Thailand, and Venezuela there are right-wing urban middle
class movements which are out to destroy democratic institutions. Many of them,
notably the one in Venezuela, are financed and supported by U.S. imperialism;
some of them are openly led by fascists like in Ukraine; some like in Thailand
are anti-peasant. And a lot of them use “corruption” as the peg on which they
hang heir right-wing ideologies. Neo-liberalism breeds “corruption”; but
“corruption” itself is made an excuse for strengthening neo-liberalism and
pushing the State in a fascist direction with support from the
corporate-financial elite and U.S. imperialism.


Something of this sort is happening in India as well. The crisis of
neo-liberalism is being used by corporate capital, allied to global finance and
having proximity to imperialism, to push the country in the direction of
fascism by propping up a man, who presided over the anti-Muslim pogrom in
Gujarat and who would do its bidding. And the main argument used against the ruling
liberal bourgeois Party is that it is “corrupt”, as if “corruption” has nothing
to do with neo-liberalism and with the corporate-financial elite itself. Middle
class youth in India too is taken in by this.


The Left has to struggle against all this. It has to critique the
“corruption” discourse. And instead of trying to appease the middle class youth,
wherever it is in office, by promoting an agenda of “development” which is
defined by the corporate-controlled media but has the effect of alienating
peasants and petty producers, it must make every effort to defend the latter
and forge the worker-peasant alliance.


There is a further point here. The Communist movement came into being
on the assumption that world revolution was on the immediate agenda. This assumption
of the imminence of world revolution no longer holds. Some of the
organizational rules and practices of the party that got established, whether
as being necessary for the revolution or as contingent developments whose
modification was postponed to a more suitable time, need therefore to be looked
at afresh. This relates in particular to those rules which have the potential
of promoting bureaucratic centralism within the Party. The main aim in short must
be to prevent the Communist movement from becoming “closed” and “ossified”.


I think that the Left in India is aware of these problems. I see great
prospects for it, above all because it is the most consistent democratic force
in the country.



(This interview was conducted
originally for T. V. Madhu Edited volume, Engaging Marx (Marx Vayanakal in Malayalam),
Kozhikode, Raspberry Publications, 2014)



2 thoughts on “Interview of Prabhat Patnaik on Marxist Theory”

  1. Thanks to Vikalp for this. It would have been more interesting to know Professor Patnaik's explanation about the present crisis of Indian left. May be some other time.

  2. The clarity and conviction of PP's views are striking….one interesting point he mentioned in the very beginning…'Capitalism in short is not just an anarchic system; it is not just an exploitative system; it is in addition a “spontaneous” system..' where even the "capitalists' are not 'free' ( in the larger metaphysical sense?? i suppose so) bcoz they are bound to cannibalize each other too…But what about the united rigor of the say,Cartels??? the very visible power of organized oligopolies in terms of their power to influence the larger policies of nations…? their power to preordain the destinies of millions on this planet…and the Planet itself???…haven't Capital n Capitaists demonstrated better reflexes in getting united in times of capital's crises in comparison with labor?? therefore the kind of metaphysical freedom that "Capitalists" lack under capitalism is different from that of the toiling masses n the petty producers/bourgeois etc. in a very fundamental way, i suppose. Becoz there is NO WAY one can sermonize say Mukesh Ambani into seeing his lack of "freedom" under the bewildering "spontaneity" of capitalism and convince him to join the ranks of the the millions for whom transcending Capitalism is a choice by default……I wld like to hear more on this point from PP….

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