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Lenin's argument

Print edition : Jun 01, 2012 T+T-

A useful text for those who take the agrarian situation in India seriously either for academic studies or for purposive intervention.

THE book under review is the second volume of writings of Karl Marx and his successors on the agrarian question. The contents of this volume are, however, largely from Lenin's works. It is not unusual for a writer to refer to the writings on Marx, Lenin and others in contemporary discussions on economics and politics, for their scholarly credentials have never been in doubt. But since this volume reproduces some of Lenin's writings on the agrarian question in Russia more than a century ago, it is quite legitimate to consider what their relevance to the contemporary Indian situation is.

A brief reference to the context in which these writings first appeared may be helpful. About half the volume consists of selections from Lenin's definitive work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1898). It discussed in some detail the role of agriculture in Russia's transition to capitalism, a theme that was being debated at that time, particularly by a group of scholars and activists, the Narodniks. They took the position that since the vast majority of those involved in agriculture in Russia at that time were peasants, it should be possible to move to a peasant-dominated socio-economic order, which would be different from the rapidly disappearing feudal order, without passing through capitalism. In other words, the Narodniks were, like Lenin and his associates, championing an economic system other than the status quo. Both sides were, thus, committed to change. Lenin's argument was that that was not enough. He insisted that those who were committed to change must have a detailed and clear understanding of the existing situation as also the path to be taken to move to another order. That position is valid even today, particularly for countries such as ours where, by all accounts, traditional agriculture is giving way; but it is not clear what shape it is taking and how it is to be directed. It is important to recall that if Lenin was critical of the Narodnik position, he was equally critical of some Marxists (whom he designated short-sighted Marxists and even caricature Marxists!) who, without proper understanding of the actual situation, simply quoted passages from earlier writings in support of their arguments. Such approaches are not uncommon even today.

This is not to say that earlier writings as such do not have any relevance in today's context. To give just one example, here is a passage from Rosa Luxemburg's classic work The Accumulation of Capital in which the author pointed out the significance of colonies for the growth of capitalism.

In one of the chapters of that book, included in the present volume, she said: It is an illusion to hope that capitalism will ever be content with the means of production which it can acquire by way of commodity exchange. The most important of these productive forces is of course the land, its hidden mineral treasure, and its meadows, wood and water. If capital were here to rely on the process of slow internal disintegration, it might take centuries. Hence derives the vital necessity for capitalism in its relation with colonial countries to appropriate the most important means of production (quoted on page 219 in the present volume).

Further, Each new colonial expansion is accompanied, as a matter of course, by a relentless battle of capital against the social and economic ties of the natives, who are also forcibly robbed of their means of production and labour power. Force is the only solution open to capital; the accumulation of capital, seen as a historical process, employs forces as a permanent weapon, not only at its genesis but further on down to the present day (page 220). How very true.

Utsa Patnaik, in her brief but helpful introduction to Volume II, says on the same theme: [T]here is an aggressive process of primitive accumulation by the domestic corporate sector often in collusion with foreign firms to take over peasant lands mainly for speculative purposes and to exploit mineral resources (page 28). The actors may have changed but the play remains the same. And so writings from the past are of direct relevance, too.

Lenin himself draws out the general issues arising from his polemics with the Narodniks (pages 80 to 92 in the volume under review). The Narodniks, points out Lenin, were dealing with agriculture in the aggregate or in terms of averages. But the problem of the peasants cannot be understood in terms of these categories for there are peasants and peasants. Some cultivate large plots; some small. Some use the services of the members of their families entirely; others depend on hired workers. Some use up their entire produce; others sell part of their produce in the market. Some rely on primitive tools; others go in for modern ones. Some depend solely on their own resources; others borrow or lend. Under such circumstances, the differentiation of the peasantry is crucial for analytical purposes. It is important to decide also what characteristics are to be used to appreciate the differentiation.

Understanding the differentiation is also crucial to giving meaning to the widely used expression the rural (or village) community, particularly because, as some people view it, there is a very cohesive sense of community inherent to rural areas; and there is a tendency to make policy recommendations on the basis of such imagined sense of community. Indeed, while from outside the rural scene may appear to be stable and static, it is in fact in a state of flux. External forces impact the rural situation and changes are taking place from within as well. For instance, a change from payment of wages in kind to money wages is of tremendous significance, though, viewed from outside, it may appear to be of little consequence as long as the imputed values of the two do not differ. Changes that come from outside, such as the construction of a road from a city to a village, will have differential impacts on different sections within the village.

A lesson that Lenin draws is that it is imperative to be specific, taking each situation in terms of the variety of its own features. These are questions of fact, questions that must be examined in terms of all the variety of interactions that particular facts give rise to. They cannot be, and should not be, viewed solely on the basis of theoretical reasoning, says Lenin.

And yet theory is important, too, to decide how facts are to be analysed and interpreted. Indeed, this was the crucial difference between the Narodniks and Lenin and his colleagues. Interestingly, the two sides were making use of the same database, data gathered by other scholars.

Says Utsa Patnaik in her Introduction: Most of the first part of The Development of Capitalism in Russia is reproduced here, for it is an outstanding example of how the theoretical perspective determines statistical analysis. Using the same data sources as the Populists [Narodniks] did, Lenin showed how their methods of analysis relying on averages obscured the actually existing class reality of an increasingly economically differentiated peasantry and himself used an alternative method to bring out this class reality (page 10). Patnaik also points out that in the Indian context, along with class differences, the reality of caste also should be taken into account to understand the grossly unequal access to land and resources in rural India.

This volume is meant mainly for those who take the agrarian situation in the country seriously either for academic studies or for purposive intervention. Gaining a clear understanding of the rapidly changing scene is the essence of the task.

Following the writings of Lenin or Rosa Luxemburg or Mao (two writings from Mao Zedong included here show that the pre-revolutionary agrarian situations in Russia and China were different) literally is not what is called for. And yet a careful study of their approach to the conditions they faced can be of great value.