Classics with class perspective

Published : Aug 10, 2007 00:00 IST

The volume has careful selections from Karl Marx and some important Marxist theoreticians.

PROFESSOR Utsa Patnaik and the LeftWord publishers deserve appreciation for bringing out a selection of writings by Karl Marx, Karl Kautsky and V.I. Lenin on what has come to be known in Marxist discourse as the “Agrarian Question”. The publication is most timely, coming as it does when, amidst all the euphoria and cacophony relating to 9 per cent plus gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates, the deep crisis of the agrarian and rural economy is forcing the r uling establishment and the generally insensitive media to acknowledge its existence. Consider the fact that 15 plus years of neoliberal reform policies have seen a serious retrogression of the agrarian economy in India. The output of foodgrains has been practically stagnant for almost a decade now. Thousands of farmers across several States, caught in the crisis of commercial agriculture, have committed suicide.

The disconnect between a rural and agrarian economy in crisis, on the one hand, and an apparently booming service sector (followed at a little distance, in the last two years, by a relatively rapidly growing manufacturing sector), on the other, has never been starker. Not that the service sector is all of one kind: at the glittering end you have the information technology (IT) and IT-enabled Services (ITeS) and the financial and real estate segments, while the main body of the service sector continues to consist of a large number of low productivity activities. But slowly, the agrarian crisis is forcing itself upon the consciousness of those in power by simply refusing to go away. The selection of readings on the agrarian question from Marx, Kautsky and Lenin under review, as well as the excellent introduction provided by Utsa Patnaik, are exceedingly relevant in this context, especially if one wishes to go beyond lamenting the crisis to seek ways of overcoming it.

The editor promises us that “this selection comprises the first of what is intended to be a set of at least two volumes”, and with one’s appetite whetted by this volume, one hopes the promise will be kept. The selection of readings, is divided into three segments. The first two consist exclusively of Marx’s writings, while the last consists of extracts from an exceptionally important work on agrarian issues in the transition to capitalism, primarily in Europe of the 19th century, by a leader of the German working class movement, Karl Kautsky, as well as two essays by Lenin, one a review of Kautsky’s work and the other a defence of Kautsky’s views against those of some critics.

The selections from Marx are thematically divided into two sections. The first deals with the process of “primitive accumulation of capital”, which refers to the processes by which the preconditions for capitalist accumulation, namely the existence of a (numerous) class of propertyless labourers “free” to sell their labour power on the one hand, that is, the proletariat, and on the other, a class of persons who own the means of production in society and wish to employ the proletariat in production using these means with a view to making profits for themselves, that is, capitalists. The second set of selected writings from Marx relates to the theory of ground rent, a theme that Utsa Patnaik, in her Introduction to the readings, deals with at length and brilliantly in the context of the failure of contemporary mainstream economics to grapple with it. The last section of readings, from Kautsky and Lenin, deals with development of capitalist relations in agriculture, a question of contemporary relevance for developing countries such as India. It is often assumed by those who have not read Marx that his prose is difficult and invariably abstract. Any reader who goes through the selections from Marx brought together in this volume will be able to see immediately how wrong this assumption is. In the selections on primitive accumulation, mostly from Volume I of Capital, Marx dissects analytically, yet with a great deal of rich descriptive factual material mainly from the experience of England, the processes by which the modern class of “free” wage labourers was created in the transition to capitalism in Europe. This reads, even in the English translation, like poetry, even though matters of utmost gravity and theoretical depth are being dealt with. Consider the following passage from Volume I of Capital on the anecdotal version so favoured (and fairly successfully raised to the level of popular prejudice) by the well-to-do to exp lain the poverty and propertyless status of the mass of working people:

“In times long gone by, there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living…. Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly, although they have long ceased to work. Such insipid childishness is every day preached to us in the defence of property.”

As against this fairy tale in the service of the propertied classes, Marx provides a brilliant historical and theoretical account of the processes by means of which the modern working class on one pole and the modern capitalist class on the other came into existence. It is not possible in this brief review to bring out all the nuances of Marx’s argument, but let us again sample a bit of the far-from-prosaic prose of Marx on this:

“…the historical movement which changes the producers into wage-workers, appears, on the one hand, as their emancipation from serfdom and from the fetters of the guilds, and this side alone exists for our bourgeois historians. But, on the other hand, these new freedmen became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire. The industrial capitalists, these new potentates …have risen by means as vile as those by which the Roman freedman once on a time made himself the master of his patronus.”

Utsa Patnaik has chosen the passages from Marx carefully to ensure that the flow of Marx’s logic is not interrupted. In successive selections pertaining to primitive accumulation, Marx deals with: “…expropriation of the agricultural population from the land to facilitate capitalist agriculture and simultaneously create both a proletariat to work in capitalist enterprises, and a home market for capitalists on the ruin of rural domestic industry; bloody legislation against the expropriated to chisel and hammer them into a disciplined modern workforce to serve the needs of capitalist profit; the genesis of the capitalist farmer; and the creation of a home market for industrial capital.”

Sample this for the brutal methods employed by capital, fully using the state apparatus, to create the modern proletariat from the peasantry and the rural artisans dispossessed and thus transformed into vagabonds:

“…whipping and imprisonment for sturdy vagabonds. They are to be tied to the cart-tail and whipped until the blood streams from their bodies, then to swear on oath to go back to their birthplace or to where they have lived for the last three years and to ‘put themselves to labour’ (Henry VIII, 1530 CE).”

In a classic passage, Marx explains an important difference between capitalism once established and securely in place and the process of its establishment:

“The advance of capitalist production develops a working class, which by education, tradition, [and] habit looks upon the conditions of that mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature. The organisation of the capitalist process of production, once fully developed, breaks down all resistance. … The dull compulsion of economic relations completes the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist. Direct force, outside economic conditions, is of course still used, but only exceptionally…. It is otherwise during the historic genesis of capitalist production. The bourgeoisie, at its rise, wants and uses the power of the State to “regulate” wages, that is, to force them within the limits suitable for surplus value making, to lengthen the working day and to keep the labourer himself in the normal degree of dependence. This is an essential element of the so-called primitive accumulation.”

THEORY OF RENTThe second set of readings from Marx, on ground rent, provides an incisive critique of David Ricardo’s theory of rent. Marx rightly defends Adam Smith’s correct conception of rent being rooted in monopoly of land ownership. Adam Smith, who is often invoked misleadingly and quoted selectively by neoliberal economists, had of course a far more sophisticated understanding of capitalism than our liberalisers. He points out:

“As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce. The wood of the forest, the grass of the field, and all the natural fruits of the earth, (which) when land was in common, cost the labourer only the trouble of gathering them, come, even to him, with an additional price fixed on them.”

Marx’s passages are further illumined, and Utsa Patnaik in her Introduction brings out their contemporary relevance for economic analysis with great lucidity. She points out: “The concept of rent as arising from and being caused by property ownership is particularly important in developing countries like India where concentration of land ownership remains high.” She demonstrates the utter bankruptcy of much of modern mainstream economic analysis based on both Ricardo’s fallacious theory of rent and his fallacious theory of trade. She also makes the crucial point that even in the case of some scholars who are otherwise very perceptive, the lack of an awareness of the historical specificity of analytical categories leads to theoretical confusions, such as that of failing to distinguish between absolute ground rent entirely attributable to monopoly of landed property and the returns to either differential soil fertility or capitalist investment in agriculture. She reminds us that absolute ground rent constitutes a barrier to investment in agriculture, and stresses the relevance of redistributive land reforms, breaking land monopoly, for the resolution of the rural economic crisis in the long term.

The selections from Kautsky and Lenin on the development of capitalist relations in agriculture will be extremely useful in any study of agrarian change in the Third World. Of course, the crucial difference between the development of agrarian capitalism in the metropolitan world in the 18th and 19th centuries when it had the colonial world to plunder and exploit to the hilt, and that in the contemporary Third World, which continues to face neocolonial exploitation and attempts at recolonisation under the garb of globalisation, needs to be kept in mind. A thought that crossed this reviewer’s mind when reading the volume was that the Lenin-Kautsky selections could have come into the proposed next volume.

In sum, this collection of readings from Marx and some important Marxist theoreticians (who were both empirically grounded and partisan on the ground in terms of their commitment to working people) reminds us of the enormous importance of empirically grounded theory as well as of an analytical-historical class perspective. I would strongly recommend this volume to all aspiring scholars and activists concerned with the dynamics of contemporary development. Graduate students in economics would greatly benefit from reading the Editor’s Introduction carefully.

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