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A global vision

Print edition : Apr 04, 1998 T+T-

What is remarkable about the vision of EMS is not only its appeal, which arises because of its essential correctness, but also its quality of being fresh and forward-looking.

LIKE many of his youthful contemporaries, E.M.S. Namboodiripad was drawn towards socialism by the experience of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The fact that even as the capitalist world was reeling under the impact of massive unemployment and unutilised resources, the Soviet Union, untouched by the crisis, was taking gigantic strides towards developing its productive forces, opened his mind to the stark contrast between the two systems. It won him to the socialist cause; it also left him with two of his abiding intellectual interests: planning and social laws.

EMS' interest in planning was enthusiastic in the extreme. He wrote a book Indian Planning in Crisis (Chintha 1974) which was in fact his presentation to a conference of the Indian School of Social Sciences held in Bombay that year. In more recent times when very few people took much notice of the national Plan documents, EMS was a notable exception, and could put one in an embarrassing situation by engaging one in a discussion of the latest essay of the Planning Commission. Linked to this was his interest in social formations and the laws governing them, on which again he wrote extensively. Notable in this connection is his paper presented at another Indian School of Social Sciences seminar on "Lenin and Imperialism" held in Delhi in 1981. The proceedings of the seminar are published as Lenin and Imperialism (edited by this writer, Orient Longman, Delhi, 1986).

The two Marxist ideas, namely that capitalism is a system governed by spontaneous economic laws which are objective and independent of human will, which manifest themselves inter alia in periodic crises, and whose operation can only be somewhat modified through intervention but never nullified without undermining the system's functioning, and that, by contrast, socialism is a system which allows conscious intervention through a plan, must have appealed to him greatly in the midst of the Depression. But the intervention and planning that socialism provides the scope for, do not mean that "anything goes". They have to be "correct", have also got to follow certain laws. In overcoming the spontaneity of capitalism, socialism too has to follow certain rules, or laws, of intervention.

It follows that both capitalism and socialism are law-governed systems, but there is a fundamental difference in the nature of the laws governing the two systems: the laws of capitalism are an ensemble of spontaneous tendencies; the laws of socialism are essentially rules of action.

This basic idea underlay EMS' thinking all his life. It enabled him not only to recognise the fact of social and economic crisis in the socialist countries, but even to explain it, pithily and brilliantly, within his socialist theoretical perspective: the crisis in capitalism is because of the operation of its laws, the crisis in socialism is because of the violation of its laws. When the laws regarding correct relationship between the Party and the State, or regarding inner-Party democracy, are violated, socialism runs into crisis, even though in principle it is crisis-free. The purpose of conscious praxis in a socialist society, of which planning is a part, should be to ensure that these laws are not violated systematically.

An interesting off-shoot of this idea of EMS needs to be noted. Since the Communist parties, even in bourgeois societies, represent in a sense the early embryonic stage of the socialist praxis, they too have to follow certain laws of intervention, not only in their organisation and overall functioning, but also in the kind of planning which they undertake in the regions administered by them within the constraints of a bourgeois society. It is this perception which prompted EMS (at the International Conference on Kerala Studies organised under his leadership) to be somewhat critical of the "Kerala Model" which the whole world was lauding, on the grounds that there was an imbalance underlying it: the development of the productive forces had lagged behind; this had to be rectified.

Capitalism and socialism have their own laws. But what happens when they co-exist? This is the question which EMS is concerned with in his paper at the "Lenin and Imperialism" seminar, after having given, explicitly or implicitly, the perspective on social laws and crises outlined above.

Clearly, the socialist forces have to resist the operation of capitalism's spontaneous tendencies, for the sake of their own survival, by following correct strategy and tactics. The thwarting of such operation disrupts capitalism; the thwarting in some sphere aggravates capitalism's contradiction in some other sphere. It follows then that such resistance can be successful, and that it is simultaneously a part of the process of struggle for the transcendence of capitalism. The specific context in which EMS discussed this issue related to imperialism.

After arguing that the contradictions of the imperialist era highlighted by Lenin have been further intensified since his writing, that inter-imperialist contradictions are no less fierce than they were at his time, and that there is the overarching contradiction between the imperialist world and the socialist world, EMS asks the question whether these contradictions would propel the world towards yet another global war. Lenin had argued that war was inherent in imperialism. Is another global war then inevitable?

"The answer is by no means simple" since there are two contradictory tendencies: on the one hand there is "the powerful military-industrial complex propped up by multinational firms having their grip on the entire capitalist world and seeking to use the armaments industry for making maximum profits", whose operations promote the prospects of war, and on the other hand there is the growing camp of peace, consisting of the socialist countries, the newly-liberated countries of the Third World, and the working class movement, together with the anti-monopoly, anti-war element in other sections of society, in the advanced capitalist countries. A "running battle" between these two trends is the main feature of the political situation and forms the background against which the contradictions noted by Lenin are operating.

Lenin's call "Transform the imperialist war into civil war", cannot be applied in that form in the contemporary context. What is necessary is an integration of the activities of the "forces of proletarian and national revolution" with those of others who are trying to prevent the imperialist war from breaking out. "Though the final and complete elimination of war requires the end of the imperialist system, the outbreak of a new world war is no more inevitable." In fact, the social revolution in particular countries is "inseparably connected with the global struggle against the most aggressive ruling circles of imperialist countries".

Having thus underscored the need for socialist intervention for thwarting the tendency of capitalism to perpetrate war, EMS turns to the question of why socialist praxis may go wrong. Given the complexity of this praxis, two kinds of difficulties may come in the way of correct strategy and tactics: first, unity with the bourgeoisie in the Third World countries against imperialism and its warmongering has to be combined with a struggle against the anti-people policies of this very same bourgeoisie, and an underestimation of either task can lead to distorted praxis. The possibility of such distortion is strengthened by the second difficulty, namely, the fact that the foreign policy interests of the socialist countries have to be combined with the basic commitment to proletarian internationalism.

The incorrect handling of these difficulties can give rise to Right Opportunist or Left Sectarian errors. To underplay the struggle against domestic bourgeois governments because of their opposition to imperialism is the hallmark of Right Opportunism which also derives sustenance from the support of ruling Communist Parties to such bourgeois governments as part of their foreign policy. On the other hand, to run down the anti-imperialist role of the domestic bourgeois governments amounts to underestimating imperialism and the need for a struggle against its warmongering, which constitutes a Left Sectarian error. This error too, in a situation where the fight against Right Opportunism in the world Communist movement has already given rise to the opposite extreme of Left Sectarianism among another section of ruling Communists, derives support from the latter and gets strengthened. EMS refers to the Indian experience and underscores the need for a correct praxis avoiding both types of distortion.

EMS' analysis, covering the entire expanse from Marx's notion of laws to the crisis of socialism, unifying his discussion of Lenin's theory of imperialism with his perception of the divisions in the Indian Communist movement, affirming his basic commitment to the Leninist perspective even while clearly delineating the changes since Lenin's days, is in the best traditions of Communist literature. Today, of course, the specific context is different. One is naturally tempted to ask: if EMS were writing another article of the same breadth today, how would he have brought his analysis up to date? One can only speculate on the basis of some brief offerings he left behind (for example, Frontline, April 3, 1998).

The distortions that led to the overthrow of socialism in Eastern Europe were such that their rectification would have to take the form a "rebirth"; there is no going back to what existed before 1991. Marx, Engels and Lenin had visualised a slow and protracted development of working class state power based on the solid alliance of all exploited and oppressed classes and strata under the leadership of the working class. This dictatorship is to be directed against a small stratum of the former ruling classes. In short, the alliance underlying state power has to be broad-based and inclusive. Correspondingly, the target of this alliance has to be a narrow stratum; it follows that private property, other than monopoly private property, has a place in "reformed Communism". The distortions of erstwhile Communism then consisted in the fact that the dictatorship of the proletariat it sought to establish was too exclusive, too sweeping in its attack on all forms of private property, and too narrowly-based in terms of social support to survive being transformed into a dictatorship of the party which in the course of time turned into the "cult of personality".

Implicit in this conception is the possibility of a multiplicity of forms in which the working people would use state power, that is, a multiplicity of "models". And such a process of "rebirth" of Communism would simultaneously be a process of putting imperialism once again on the defensive.

What is remarkable about this construction of EMS' vision is not only its appeal which arises because of its essential correctness, but above all its quality of being fresh and forward-looking, free both of despondency and of any desire to put the clock back. There can be no greater testimony to the strength of EMS' intellect.

Prabhat Patnaik is Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.