Vinod Mishra

"Retrieve the Revolutionary Core of Marxism"

Date : October, 1996
Transcription :CPI-ML(L)
HTML Markup : Salil Sen  for MIA, November 2007
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[Speech delivered at the concluding session of the Party School held in October 1996.]

The School is coming to an end. Though we do not decide Party policies in such schools, yet these discussions have an important role in the process of their formulation. In this respect, quite a few important questions have been raised and discussed here. In 1994 Party School I had expressed some ideas on the 'crisis of Marxism' and I would like to proceed with the same.

In nearly 150 years of its history, Marxism has passed through two or three periods of crisis when its very rationale has been questioned. Every time Marxism could overcome them and march ahead with a new vigour. Now, at the fag end of the 20th century, it has once again been pronounced dead. The crisis this time is indeed quite serious as it is accompanied by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the land of the first successful socialist revolution, the land of Lenin. The Soviet model came to be identified as the real embodiment of Marxism and hence its collapse naturally triggered off the old debates all over again. The Chinese model, which had claimed to be an alternative one, has lost much of its shine due to various reasons and the other remaining smaller socialist states hardly inspire any confidence.

Well, the first thing that should be kept in mind is that Marxism arose in the process of analysing the contradictions of capitalism and it provided the only comprehensive and profound critique of capitalism. Marxism, as the doctrine of class struggle, will surely lose its relevance in the classless society of communism, but till then it shall continue to remain the guiding ideology in transforming the capitalist world and experimenting with various possibilities of socialism. In a certain sense, the collapse of the Soviet Union indeed signifies end of a history, but every end at the same time symbolises a new beginning, and it is in this context that we have resolved to retrieve the revolutionary core of Marxism, and at the same time, to sharpen our tools for analysis, criticism and change.

In this School in particular, a lot of discussion has taken place on postmodernism. Postmodernism does not simply question the validity of Marxism or Socialism, rather it rejects the whole era of modernity, the era which began with the advent of modern classes of bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It rejects the entire age of Enlightenment and all the grand projects of emancipation of the mankind. It brands these projects as grand narratives which, in their bid to drive the society towards pre-ordained goals, only end up in establishing totalitarian political systems. Postmodernists also refuse to acknowledge any class or human solidarity cutting across the 'imagined communities' of race, gender, caste, ethnicity etc.

During the course of our discussions here we have also learnt about recent scientific theories. Some comrades might have found them quite difficult to comprehend. You may not go for all the details, yet as Marxists it is necessary to keep track of the latest in scientific theories. Quantum Mechanics says that the matter at sub-atomic level does not follow the laws of general mechanics and even the form of its existence at that level is quite puzzling. Determination of its various characteristics like position, momentum etc. is not only quite uncertain, it is also affected by the act of observation.

A certain philosophical interpretation of this scientific theory, quite popular in the West nowadays, questions the very basis of materialism, viz. the existence of matter or the objective world independent of the mind. Armed with the concept of 'virtual reality', the western world is witnessing a renewed interest in eastern mysticism where the objective world is described as Maya -- an illusion. In the European renaissance the authority of the Church was challenged and the march of science posed a serious threat to the so-called divine codes. When Europe emerged out of the Dark Ages and the Age of Enlightenment began, 2000-year-old Greek philosophy was retrieved. The dialectics of the Greek philosophers was enriched by Hegel, a great philosopher of modern times and was subsequently put on a materialist basis by Marx. The march of science has again inspired some people to dig into the philosophical roots of ancient days and, ironically, they have come out with eastern mysticism. In the School we have tried to unearth linkages between the neo-idealist offensive in philosophy and postmodernism in social sciences.

As some comrades have pointed out, it is true that 'new social movements', or speaking in more general terms, movements on sectional issues, existed well before the advent of postmodernism. Actually the importance of postmodernism lies in the fact that it has given a new meaning and a new basis to these movements. Postmodernism absolutises their autonomous growth. It does so because for postmodernism the very agenda of analysing capitalism as a system is absurd.

The First Crisis of Marxism

While dealing with the all-important question of 'crisis of Marxism' in the present phase, it won't be out of place to refer to the earlier phases of crisis. Here I would like to refer to the first crisis that Marxism was faced with in the late 19th and the early 20th century, the period that gave rise to the phenomenon of revisionism.

Capitalism faced an acute crisis at the fag end of the 19th century. The nature of the crisis was classical in the sense that all the parameters of the crisis were in excellent conformity with the Marxist visualisation. This period also witnessed the growth of the working class movement and of social democratic parties (as the communist parties were known in those days). In particular, in Germany, the Party grew rapidly.

As the crisis dragged on, capitalism gradually overcame it, but in the process, it radically transformed itself. Earlier it was free capitalism whose motto was free competition. This had resulted in the anarchy of production. Now capitalists entered into agreements with each other and cartels, trusts etc., which were at a rudimentary phase during Marx's lifetime became the overwhelming norm. Capitalism acquired a stability, workers' wages improved and parliamentary democracy flourished. The earlier enthusiasm among Marxists regarding the impending collapse of capitalism now gave way to despondency. Marxists, including Marx, have always behaved overoptimistically at every phase of capitalist crisis. This is very natural and has its own dynamic role in shaping history. But Marxism, as a rigorous scientific thought process, has only marked the historical tendency of social development from capitalism to socialism. Marxism, in contrast to other utopian theories of socialism or moral society, doesn't proceed from a grand project of subjectively conceived socialism and then attempt to transform a society to conform to that model.

On the contrary, for Marxism, capitalism moves towards socialism precisely due to the motion of its own contradictions and because these contradictions can finally be resolved only in socialism. Capitalism also produces objective conditions, viz. a concentrated form of large-scale production, the class of proletariat etc., for a changeover to socialism. This, however, doesn't mean that society by itself, spontaneously, without any conscious subjective effort, would pass over to socialism. Marx made the famous remark, "the point is to change the world".

After Marx died, Engels enjoyed immense authority and Bernstein and Kautsky, two German communists, were quite close to him. In his last writings, Engels made certain self-criticisms. In March 1895, only a few months before his death, Engels wrote, "History has proved us, and all those who thought like us, wrong. It has made it clear that the state of economic development on the continent at that time was not by a large measure ripe for the elimination of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution which since 1848, has seized the whole of the continent ... and has made Germany positively an industrial country of the first rank" ... "History has done even more; it has not only merely dispelled the erroneous notions we then held; it has also completely transformed the conditions under which the proletariat has to fight. The mode of struggle of 1848 is today obsolete in every respect, and this is a point which deserves closer examination on the present occasion."

According to Engels, given the scale of modern armies, the old tactics of street fighting, surprise attacks, etc. had become outdated. Quoting statistics from the gains of the German Party in parliamentary elections, he stressed upon making intelligent use of the universal suffrage. Engels concluded, "The irony of world history turns everything upside down. We the 'revolutionists', the 'overthrowers', we are thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and overthrow. The parties of order, as they call themselves, are perishing under the legal conditions created by themselves ... whereas we, under this legality, get firm muscles and rosy cheeks and look like life eternal."

Engels advocated a change in tactics, in the specific context of Europe and in a particular period of capitalist development there. Starting from the same premise, Bernstein, however, advocated the revision of the strategy itself and thus he is rightly called the father of revisionism.

Bernstein argued that contrary to Marx's prediction, concentration of production has progressed extremely slowly, and moreover, small-medium enterprises are not eliminated by large-scale production. Moreover, with the formation of cartels and trusts, capitalism has developed a system of self-regulation and thus averts any acute crisis. He further argued that society's polarisation into two extreme classes has not taken place, and not only has the middle strata not vanished, the number of capitalists, property owners and shareholders has only increased.

He felt that the political institutions of modern nations have become democratised, putting a check on the exploitative tendencies of capital and eroding the basis of class struggle. In countries where parliamentary democracy is dominant, the state can no longer be seen as the organ of class rule. Therefore, Bernstein argued that workers should no longer strive to seize power through revolution, rather should concentrate on reforming the state.

In 1895, in the introduction to The Class Struggles in France, Engels expected a rapid decline of capitalism by the end of the century and hoped that even the legality devised by the bourgeoisie for its power could be successfully used against it by the working class.

Just one year later in 1896, Bernstein questioned the final goal itself and confines himself to just 'day-to-day movement'. Marx, in Capital, had dealt with the phenomenon of joint stock companies and Engels recorded the phenomenon of cartels and trusts. Cartels were the confirmation of concentration of capital at a higher plane and proof of the 'bankruptcy' of free competition as the basic principle of capitalism. What Bernstein saw as decentralisation, self-regulation and democratisation of capital turned out to be monopolisation of the highest order, with the separation of 'ownership' and 'management' grew a whole class of parasitic bourgeoisie which thrived on speculation, an aggressive colonial policy and the rivalry among imperialist power blocs leading for the first time to the phenomenon of world war. Lenin dealt with all this in his Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Expropriation of small and medium capital too is a regular affair where big capital transforms them into ancillaries. It does thrive again in new fields and new production processes, where again in due course, big capital stretches its hand.

As far as parliamentary democracy is concerned, looking at it just as a fraud devised by the bourgeoisie to befool and entrap the working classes is too simplistic an idea. It is as foolish as assuming that religion was a conspiracy devised by priests to befool the masses. Parliament was not there in other periods of human society. This form of governance emerged only during capitalism and thus it is the specific form of the rule of the bourgeoisie. In feudalism, the exploitation took the form of extra-economic coercion and correspondingly the political superstructure sanctioned special privileges to the king and the feudal gentry. In capitalism, exploitation operates through and within the production process itself in the form of surplus value. The political superstructure of parliamentary democracy is quite compatible with ideal capitalism.

Marx wrote in The Class Struggles in France: "The comprehensive contradiction of this constitution[1], however, consists in the following: the classes whose social slavery the constitution is to perpetuate, proletariat, peasantry, petty bourgeoisie, it puts in possession of political power through universal suffrage. And from the class whose old social power it sanctions, the bourgeoisie, it withdraws the political guarantees of this power." This is the essential contradiction of the bourgeois constitutional state -- whereas everybody is brought into political life through universal suffrage, this sovereignty of people is only a formal one, the real interests continue to be dictated by the class antagonisms.

In contrast to revisionists who saw in the republic the resolution of the basic antagonism, Lenin argued that precisely because of the above-mentioned self-contradiction, it provides the best terrain for open class war.

So this is how the debate of Marxism proceeded against revisionism, and in the process, Marxism rejuvenated itself in the shape of Leninism.

On the Tactics of Revolutionary Opposition

Next, I would like to comment on certain questions that have come up in the discussion here. One comrade has opined that the tactics of revolutionary opposition is not suitable in the context of slow growth of the revolutionary movement. This tactics should rather be applied in the conditions of upsurge. I think there is a basic flaw in this argument. 'Opposition' is a parliamentary category and revolutionary opposition is the specific tactics that a revolutionary communist party adheres to in parliamentary struggles. In times of revolutionary upsurge, revolution itself and not the revolutionary opposition will be the immediate agenda before the Party. In other words, during revolutionary upheavals parliamentary struggles may become obsolete and quite possibly election boycott or even dispensing with the bourgeois parliament may become the Party's action slogan. Obviously, when there will be no parliamentary struggles or even no parliament, the category of opposition too, revolutionary or otherwise, shall cease to exist. This is quite easy to understand. It is only in the present conditions, when the parliamentary struggles acquire quite an important position in Party's tactics, does the question of revolutionary opposition arise and this determines Party's basic orientation in parliamentary struggles. There should be no confusion on this score. Its application, however, becomes quite a complex affair with growth in electoral support of the Party and its parliamentary strength.

Well, using parliament as a propaganda platform is a common refrain and there can be no dispute on that. In real life situations, however, you confront a whole range of practical problems. There comes up the question of seat adjustments and election alliances with what is called 'like-minded parties', another parliamentary term. Then there is the question of forming blocs within the parliament. Our representatives there have to take definite stands on specific issues and bills and participate in voting. We have to seek allies and also distinguish between various bourgeois formations. Should our representatives confine themselves to moving adjournment motions, rushing to the well of the house and staging walkouts? Or should they also engage in business-like discussions, move amendments, demand constitutional reforms and put forward alternative drafts in the form of private member's bills etc.? What would be their role as members of various parliamentary committees as well as the constituency-level planning and developmental bodies? All these things belong to the domain of reforms and the moot point is to perform all these roles within the ambit of revolutionary opposition. This is a million-dollar question on which hinges the whole future of the Party.

Is There a Parliamentary Path to Revolution?

The fundamental mistake that leads the communist parties to the royal road of parliamentary cretinism, popularly known as degeneration, is negating the essential bourgeois character of the parliament and forgetting that the given parliament is nothing but the political superstructure of the bourgeois society. If you consider the parliament just a fraud, an artificial creation of exploiters devised to befool the masses, you'll actually be fooling yourselves and no one else. It is so because such simplistic ideas will prevent you from studying and analysing the dynamic of the bourgeois society and thus devising specific slogans and tactics. You'll end up in dismissing and abusing the parliament in harshest of terms without, however, making any impact on its health. Such phrasemongerings are aptly called infantile disorder.

On the other hand, it is more serious a deviation if the parliament is considered a non-class or supra-class institution where the proletariat has just to enter, attain the majority and then wield it for the socialist transformation of the society. The parliament operates within the ambit of the bourgeois constitution and is attached in a thousand and one ways to the strings of capital. It is well-nigh impossible for the proletariat to attain a majority in the parliament, and we have seen through our experience how the whole election system is tilted in favour of strong power groups and moneybags and how tough it is for revolutionary Left to win a seat.

Still, this is not my main contention. For argument's sake, even if it is presumed (in certain exceptional situations let us grant this as a real possibility) that the proletariat can attain majority in the parliament, the question still remains as to whether the socio-economic enslavement of the proletariat can be done away with, or in other words, can the foundations of the bourgeois society be altered in any fundamental way. Marxism answers it in the negative. The best of communist governments with the noblest of intentions can only undertake certain reforms in the bourgeois system and nothing more than that. The proletariat cannot use the given, readymade state machinery to achieve its mission. The old state has to be smashed and new state machinery has to be created. This declaration as recorded in the Communist Manifesto, reiterated after the bitter lessons of Paris Commune and elaborated in Lenin's State and Revolution remains the cornerstone of the Marxist theory of state. Incidentally, even in a socialist society which operates on the principle of "from each according to his capacity, to each according to his work", the element of bourgeois right does persist and Lenin once even described the socialist state as bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie. Only with the principle of "from each according to his capacity, to each according to his need" can the bourgeois right be dispensed with altogether. But that means ushering in a communist society where the state itself withers away.

So the whole debate about parliamentary Vs. extra-parliamentary path of revolution is irrelevant simply because there doesn't exist any parliamentary path. Proletarian revolution essentially means dispensing with the bourgeois state including the parliament. Obviously therefore, there cannot exist a parliamentary road to revolution. It can only exist on the basis of the very rejection of the essence of revolution. The proletarian revolution creates a proletarian state along with its own representative assembly. This representative assembly shall bring to full play the democratic participation of broad masses in running the state affairs and combine within a single entity the legislative and executive functions of the state; in short, a new political superstructure that corresponds with the new society.

The whole communist tactics about parliament revolves around its utilisation to this or that extent and in the process creating conditions for its eventual negation in favour of a qualitatively different form of representative assembly.

Peaceful Vs. Violent Revolution

The question of peaceful or violent revolution has of course been discussed in Marxist tactics but this is a very different question and has nothing to do with the so-called debate of parliamentary Vs. non-parliamentary path. Peaceful revolution, an exceptional and the rarest of the rare possibilities has been given due thought in Marxist theory of revolution and in certain special circumstances of the balance of class forces. Marx talked of such a possibility in America when the standing army and bureaucracy had not taken shape there. Lenin envisaged such a possibility during the February Revolution. Such a possibility also arose in China after the successful conclusion of the anti-Japanese war and Mao advanced the proposal of ending the civil war and forming a coalition government with Chiang Kai Shek. None of these possibilities, however, materialised into actuality. Still, in the realm of theory, Marxism does not altogether reject this possibility.

Here it must be understood that a peaceful revolution is not synonymous with a parliamentary coup. This still entails dispensing with the bourgeois state lock, stock and barrel. If revolution would have succeeded peacefully in Russia in February, would its significance have been any less than the October Revolution? Moreover, the actualisation of this possibility, if at all that takes place, is crucially dependent upon the maximum state of preparedness of the proletariat including its armed might to take on the reactionary challenge. Devoid of this preparation peaceful revolution is a utopian dream that will only result in a more severe bloodbath of the proletariat as witnessed in Indonesia and Chile.

Therefore, when our Party programme talks of peaceful revolution as an exceptional possibility, it should neither be equated with 'parliamentary path', nor should it be interpreted as any slackening in the state of preparedness. In fact, the more a party is prepared to go all-out for the non-peaceful option, better can it utilise any possible situation of a peaceful changeover. Peaceful revolution is equivalent to the enemy surrendering without a fight and one can easily imagine how exceptional this would be, and at what level of our preparedness it can be possible.

Now some people first turn the exceptional possibility of peaceful revolution into a generalised one. And then equate peaceful revolution with the parliamentary path and spread the illusion that the proletariat by gaining parliamentary majority can alter the basic foundations of bourgeois society and usher in socialism. All this is rubbish and nothing but revisionism.


We face a whole barrage of criticism by so-called ML factions who accuse us of giving up almost all the original ML positions and moving towards what they call neo-neo-revisionism. They accuse us of revising the Party programme to the extent of making it almost the same as that of the CPI(M) and speculate that we are preparing to merge into the CPI(M). Some charge us of craving to join the Left Front for sharing its spoils and brand us as official Naxalites. They have been predicting all this for so many years now but how do things stand today? Neither have we joined the Left Front nor merged into the CPI(M). On the contrary, we have revived the Party at the national level, reestablished it as a major trend in the left movement and emerged as the principal rival to the CPI(M)'s hegemony in the left camp. And all this we have accomplished on the strength of powerful movements of rural poor in the countryside where we are facing the wrath of powerful feudal forces, their private armies, the police and the political establishment, right from the BJP to the CPI(M). In majority of the cases, this resistance struggle assumes militant and armed dimensions with the participation of broad masses. This is the essential spirit of Naxalbari and I reiterate that our Party, and our Party alone, is carrying it forward.

Anyway, with the changing times and changing context we have indeed made major revisions in our tactics. This is perfectly natural and rather the sign of a living organism. Every living body reacts to the changing environment and adapts itself accordingly to continue to live and grow. Only dead bodies don't react to the changing environment, or in other words, a living body that fails to adapt itself gradually becomes extinct.

I must insist that we have only revised certain of our slogans and tactics but our strategic perceptions remain the same. Naxalbari continues to remain our guiding spirit and whatever tactical changes we make, they are made within its revolutionary framework. We have made tactical changes in our Party line, first of all because objective conditions have made them imperative, and secondly, because they put us on a favourable terrain to expose the fallacy of CPI(M). For example, instead of rejecting the possibility of communists forming government at state levels in certain states, in certain cases, we have raised the debate to the level of two possible utilisations of such a government. One, to act as the centre of mobilisation of workers and peasants, of playing the role of revolutionary opposition vis-a-vis the central power and of precipitating the crisis of the bourgeois parliamentary system, and the other, of gradual absorption into the bourgeois-landlord system, the path of social-democracy of CPI(M). This debate on tactics at this juncture, when due to a long stint in power the LF government has lost much of its shine and is increasingly exposing its reactionary features, is of crucial importance in enforcing a new polarisation within left ranks.

Naxalbari had made the fundamental division between revolutionary and opportunist wings of Indian communist movement. No one can obliterate this fundamental division. But mere repetition of all this is not going to help us in any way and is likely to degenerate into abstract phrasemongering. Necessary tactical changes that our Party has made have helped us, after a long gap, to regain initiative against social democracy at the ground level.

The social-democratic practice of CPI(M) is heading towards a blind alley and its contradictions are increasingly coming to the fore. Take the recent case of serious division in the party leadership over the issue of joining the UF government, or the ongoing debates on the characterisation of UF, on the party's tactics of aligning with bourgeois parties, on the party's stagnation in the parliamentary arena and failure to advance in the Hindi belt, on tactics towards regional autonomy movements etc. All these point to the developing fissures in the party. All this demands raising to new levels the ongoing polemic between revolutionary and opportunist wings of the Indian communist movement and thus affecting a new polarisation among left ranks. Our Party is doing precisely that and tactical revisions have stood us in good stead on this score.

I don't say this is going to be an easy affair. Social democrats too make adaptations to ensure their unity and influence revolutionary ranks. The struggle that began from 1967 thus goes on and will assume newer and complicated forms and will also determine our relations with the CPI(M) [or sections within the CPI(M)] in the coming days. What shape this relationship will assume in practical terms is difficult to foretell but one thing is certain -- that CPI(M) and CPI(ML) shall continue to remain principal ideological adversaries in the Indian communist and left movement, each trying to outdo the other. This I think sums up our vision vis-a-vis social democracy.


1. The republican constitution produced by the French Constituent Assembly after the revolution of 1848.

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