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In Defence of Leninism

Written against the background of the recent critiques of democratic centralism and the crisis of mainstream left politics, this paper argues for a defence of Leninism based on Marx's theory of the proletariat as "species being". By claiming that Lenin had internalised Hegelian dialectics as "the algebra of the revolution", the paper views Leninism as the sublation (Aufhebung) of centralism to mass politics, where organisation and the masses cease to exist as binary halves, but have been synthesised as "the union of free individuals". It encounters two terrains: (1) Marx's revolutionary humanism, and (2) dialectics that views concepts and ideas in the matrix of contradictions and conflicts and thus in permanent-revolutionary transitions. It consequently argues that Leninism has to be seen in the light of Lenin's encounters in the Philosophical Notebooks, rather than in a dogmatic and fetishised understanding of democratic centralism that began with the Stalinist counter-revolution.


In Defence of Leninism

Murzban Jal

Written against the background of the recent critiques of democratic centralism and the crisis of mainstream left politics, this paper argues for a defence of Leninism based on Marx’s theory of the proletariat as “species being”. By claiming that Lenin had internalised Hegelian dialectics as “the algebra of the revolution”, the paper views Leninism as the sublation (Aufhebung) of centralism to mass politics, where organisation and the masses cease to exist as binary halves, but have been synthesised as “the union of free individuals”. It encounters two terrains: (1) Marx’s revolutionary humanism, and (2) dialectics that views concepts and ideas in the matrix of contradictions and conflicts and thus in permanent-revolutionary transitions. It consequently argues that Leninism has to be seen in the light of Lenin’s encounters in the Philosophical Notebooks, rather than in a dogmatic and fetishised understanding of democratic centralism that began with the Stalinist counter-revolution.

Murzban Jal ( is with the Centre for Studies in Civilisations, New Delhi.

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That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves; that the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and mono polies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule.

– Karl Marx, General Rules of the International Working Men’s Association.

In all respects Russian imperialism is better for the world than Yankee imperialism and there is hardly a third chance.

– Karl Korsch, “To Bertolt Brecht”, 18 April 1947. But here we must realise that, in many cases, we are at the extreme borders of cruelty. And I hope it is not a mere play of words if I say that we also encounter the question of borders in general: social and terri

torial borders are privileged places where codified violence borders on cruelty…

– Étienne Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene.

The Centre and the Counterfeit

ne begins with a kind of irony and revolutionary cynicism in remembering Lenin with his own words: “none of the Marxists understood Marx!” (1980: 180). One then moves from the page of irony to history itself: to 1917 and the overthrow of the tsar and then Kerensky, the cessation of the I mperialist War and the ushering of Bread, Freedom and Peace. 1917 was what Herbert Marcuse once called the “radical act” (Marcuse 1969). The radical act can never be forgotten.

In April 1917, just after the tsar was swept away from power and few months before the October revolution, Lenin talked of a revolutionary seizure of power based on the initiative of the “people from below” (1977a: 34-35). “The source of power is not a law enacted by parliament”, so Lenin said, instead, one has the “direct rule of the people” (ibid). The Republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies is formed which abolishes the police, army and the bureaucracy (Lenin 1977b: 31). Lenin thus recognises two distinct forms of power: the bourgeois “centralised power” and the “direct initiative of the people from below” (1977a: 34).

In contrast to these historical facts and the historical reading of Lenin, it is not so much the factual Lenin that appears on the scene of history, but the conjured Lenin, the Lenin that S talin and the global reactionaries had continuously projected as the authentic Lenin. In these discourses of spurious Leninism, Lenin is supposed to have incorporated the politics of a rigid and elitist centralised organisation that was opposed to the masses. That Lenin was abstracted from concrete conditions and “hypostatised” as a sort of a fetish by both the Stalinists and the western imperialists has largely been forgotten. This forgetfulness of the concrete Lenin has led to the emergence of the ultra bureaucratic r egimes in “so-called socialist” countries.

There are four concrete sites in which we argue out our d efence of Leninism:

  • (1) The Karl Kautsky formulation of the relation between the intellectual and the masses that appears on two pages of Lenin’s magnum opus What Is To Be Done?;
  • (2) The almost conscious ignorance of the primacy of theory that Lenin had advocated, thus forgetting Lenin’s dictum: “ without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement”;
  • (3) The confusion between Leninism and Stalinism and post-Stalinist politics, and thus the consequent confusion between the Bolshevik revolution and the Stalinist counter-revolution; and
  • (4) The lack of mass line, the abandonment of internationalism and the forgetfulness of the thesis of permanent revolution.
  • Since we are restricting our essay on the Indian left with the problem raised by Javeed Alam followed by Prabhat Patnaik, Prabir Purkayastha and Ashok Mitra, with a rebuttal given by Prakash Karat, we will keep this Indian scene in mind. And since there is stagnation in the mainstream Indian Left movement with the political elite (mainly with the parliamentary leftists) largely a lienated from the people, it is almost inevitable that Lenin’s formulation of the revolutionary party comes into criticism. Now it is well known that there can be various responses to what roughly one can call “revolutionary Leninism”. One could be the Luxemburg line, or the Trotsky one, Anton Pannekoek, Raya D unayevskaya, the anarcho-syndicalists, the “socialists with h uman faces”, etc. We will keep these different lines in mind when we are arguing out a defence of Leninism.

    The first issue is of historical genealogy – one cannot reduce the problems of the Indian left to the Leninist concept of the revolutionary party. The problems, at least of authoritarianism, have their genesis in Stalinism (socialism in one country, bureaucratic dictatorship of the anti-Bolshevik elites and the theory of socialist commodity production). Second, one has to note the difference between “democratic centralism” (which has for Lenin meant the dialectical interaction between the party and the masses, where the party is sublated and superseded at a higher level of existence (aufgehoben), where the party becomes the masses and the masses become the party) and “bureaucratic centralism” (which appeared with the defeat of the European revolutions in the early 1920s and the triumph of the Soviet Thermidor led by Stalin, Bukharin and Zinoviev). One has thus to theorise in concrete history. Keeping these points in mind we note that there are two problems which contemporary left politics is heir to:

  • (1) the shoddy reading of What Is To Be Done? and elevating the then issue of centralism into a doctrinal world view devoid of h istorical and dialectical meaning, and (2) the Stalinist counterrevolution (not yet systematically theorised by the Indian left movement) which deliberately used Lenin’s terminology to the service of Soviet state capitalism. Two further problems emerged:
  • (1) that Karl Kautsky (remember he is along with Bernstein, the “father” of revisionism – it is he who introduces the binary: intellectuals/masses and the consequent problems of centralism) appears as Lenin, and (2) the Stalinist counter-revolution and the doctrine of state capitalism appear as the goal of left politics.
  • Theoretical Roots of Centralism

    In order to understand the theoretical roots of centralism one need not put the blame on Lenin, but primarily to go to Kautsky’s formulation of the two classes (the bourgeois intellectual and the masses) which Lenin uses in his What Is To Be Done?. It must be noted from the outset that this form of reasoning emerges in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and forms the corpus of un-dialectical thinking. According to this pre-dialectical formulation:

  • (1) “socialism and class struggle arise side by side and not one out of the other, each arises in different conditions”. (2) The proletariat is unable to create socialist consciousness by itself. It is the bourgeois intellectual who creates socialist consciousness.
  • (3) Socialist consciousness come “from without” (von aussen H ineingetragenes), it cannot arise spontaneously (urwüchsig) (Lenin 1978: 40). One could say that if one reads this formulation in abstraction, then the masses that make the revolution are a bsent from the picture of revolution.
  • It is also clear that this text of elite, ultra-centralism was n owhere near Marx’s understanding of the proletariat achieving revolutionary consciousness from the understanding of its own situation. We shall argue that it was also absent from Lenin’s formulation. As we insist Lenin’s idea of centralism was a concept in transition and sublation and was thus merely one point (besides a host of other counterpoints) in the dialectics of revolution. It is then we shall be able to understand the important distinction b etween the “authentic Leninist party” and the “Kautsky-Stalinist party” (Žižek 2000: 170). What we in the Indian left movement have inherited is less of Leninism and more of Kautsky-Stalinism. It is a great burden and a spectre of the past that continuously haunts us.

    Now, one knows that for Marx (contra Kautsky), the history of modern socialism is not a Märchen (to borrow a term from the Manifesto), a “nursery tale” (Marx 1975a: 35), constructed by bourgeois intellectuals. After all, as Marx once famously said, “the educator himself needs education” (Karl Marx 1975b: 28). And clearly as one has seen from the dominant history of “so-called s ocialism” (a more polite way of calling Stalinism), the educator is above all criticism and most certainly one who needs no education. The history of 20th century “so-called socialism” becomes the h istory of the dictatorships of the uneducated educators. At the core of this peculiar dictatorship stands the politics of democratic centralism. Let us thus have a look at this peculiar character.

    We begin the critique of democratic centralism inherited from the days of the Second International. One must note that for Marx and Engels centralism stood for authoritarianism and the destruction of the freedom of the individual (Marx 1975c: 182; E ngels 1975: 355-57). It also ought to be noted that for Marx’s C apital, centralisation is the culminating moment of capital a ccumulation and that this logic of monopoly capitalism is totally in variance with communism and mass democracy. And third one must note that the politics of fraternal equaliberty (equality, l iberty and fraternity are operationalised as dialectical unities) stands at the base of revolutionary Marxism. Last, and one will have to stress over and over again, that the socialist project ended by 1928 with the complete control of Stalin and his school of falsification and the destruction of Bolshevism with the murder of the

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    Old Bolsheviks in the late 1930s by the right Mensheviks led by Andrei Vyshinsky. One cannot in any way take the Stalinist model to be imitated anywhere. In the critique of centralism and the search for authentic communist democracy, one must note these points.

    We thus agree with Alam’s thesis that the concept of democratic centralism is not an inalienable concept of Marxism, just as the ideas of classless society and non-exploitative modes of production are the essential attributes of Marxism (Alam 2009). Yet it is also imperative to understand that this idea of centralism was not merely a contingent idea (one cannot wish it away), absolutely unnecessary to Marxism, but a theory that appears and disappears both at the same time. Two of Marx’s concepts will guide this politics of appearance and disappearance; dissolution (Auflösung) and sublation (Aufhebung). Democratic centralism then is dissolved and sublated – that it involves a “lifting up” in which both preservation and cancellation takes place where reality reaches a higher level of existence. The politics of Aufhebung involves this dialectic of preservation-cancellation where revolutionary discourses reach a distinct higher phase. Remove this d ialectical structure from Leninism and centralism collapses into a formal structure that is easily taken over by counter- revolutionary forces.

    Now it is imperative to understand that democratic centralism was also used by revolutionaries like Trotsky. One cannot impose a formal opposition: Lenin vs Trotsky, or Lenin vs Luxemburg, thus making the claim that Trotsky and Luxemburg (contra Lenin) were emancipated from the “dogma” of centralism. Consider Trotsky: “The inner regime of the Bolshevik Party was characterised by democratic centralism. The combination of these two concepts”, so Trotsky continued,

    democracy and centralism, is not in the least contradictory. The party took watchful care not only that its boundaries should be strictly defined, but also those who entered these boundaries should enjoy the actual right to define the direction of the party policy. Freedom of criticism and intellectual struggle was an irrevocable content of the party d emocracy (2006: 103).

    Also consider Luxemburg who argued way back in 1912 that the time had come “when the Party will need a leadership that is aggressive, pitiless and visionary” and not a party that has grown “shabbier and shabbier, more cowardly, more besotted with parliamentary cretinism” (1993: 149).

    But there is also a distinct critique of both Lenin and Trotsky from thinkers like Raya Dunayevskaya (1982) who postulated a theory of revolutionary organisation based more on the young Marx’s theory of alienation than on the politics of the vanguard party. In this critique of vanguardism the claim is that the Jacobin theory of revolution “from the above” was a theory borrowed more from the Kant repertoire, and has nothing to do with Marxist dialectics. It must also be noted that the followers of Dunayevskaya have r ecently started a Marxist Humanist International that is based on post-Leninist, post-Trotskyite politics of the vanguard party.

    And if one takes up Marx’s idea of the international revolution in ferment, from A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction and On the Jewish Question to Capital

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    one will note the absolute divergence between Marx’s formulation of the proletariat as the subject of history and that of the politics of mere centralism. But I would not stop with the critique of centralism as inherently authoritarian. Thus one does not merely say: smash centralism, but smash the state itself (Marx 1975d: 670). Remember Marx: the smashing of the state is the prelude for every communist revolution (ibid). Also remember what Marx called the tragedy of all previous revolutions: they perfected the state machinery, instead of smashing it (Marx 1975h: 169). We started with the critique of centralism, by claiming it to be a counterfeit. We have gone to the essence of Marx’s philosophy: remove all fetishes, thus remove the fetish of commodity production, but do not forget to remove the fetish of the state. Lenin’s irony rings out again – have the Marxists understood Marx?

    We are consequently reading Lenin in the storm and stress of the young revolutionary movement in Europe as well as the formation of a distinct revolutionary theory that would guide the proletarian movement away from revisionism led by Bernstein in Germany and the legal Marxists and the Menshiviks in Russia. This distinct move away from revisionism is not to succumb to the fetishism of capital accumulation and parliamentary democracy and to understand international revolution as the aesthetics of insurrection. Leninism is now understood as a necessary smashing of the state, not merely the bourgeois state, but the state as state. Communism, one must insist cannot borrow from the ideological bank of the bourgeoisie. One does not say: “The bourgeois state is bad, but the communist state is good. One says that there can be no communist state”. Marx’s “union (Verein) of free individuals” (1983: 83) replaces the state. Humanism r eplaces the reification and dehumanisation of class societies. And when Marxism appears as humanism and historicism one understands that “production by freely associated people” (ibid: 84) can take place only through the aesthetics of insurrection. This is what the aesthetics of insurrection looks like:

    The content of the revolution is the destruction of the instruments of power of the state and their dislodgement (Auflösung) with the aid of the power of the proletariat….The struggle ceases only when, as the end result of it, the state organisation is completely destroyed (Lenin 1977f: 342).

    It seems that one has gone a long way in understanding the Leninist critique of authoritarianism. Do not critique merely centralism, but critique the state itself. Centralism is merely one part of the state. But let us firstly understand that there is a problem in centralism, just as there is a problem of the state in post-Marx Marxism. After all, Luxemburg had pointed out long before S talin came onto the scene, that Lenin’s formulation was one of “pitiless centralism” and “conspiratorial centralism”, where the elites of the central committee will be the “only thinking element in the party”, whilst all other social classes “would be its executive limbs” (1961: 84, 85, 87). That this model of centralism is uncannily similar to the metaphor of the Hindu god in the Rg Veda, where the brahmins as the ideologists of Hindu centralism are located in the head of god, whilst all other castes are the limbs, ought not to be surprising at all. It also ought not to be surprising that in the Communist Parties in India, the brahmins have not left their seat of ideological hegemony. Even less surprising is the fact that revolution has not occurred in India. What is ironical is that what is absolutely alien to Marxism becomes a part of left practice. Bourgeois centralism, caste elitism, the lethargy of the elites, etc, are not merely parts of the left movement. They have become its essence. The masses are spontaneously communist. The party elites have become spontaneously bourgeois.

    And since the boundaries of capitalism (the bourgeoisie and the proletariat) are replicated in left politics (the central committee and the masses) one says following Étienne Balibar that one is living in the “extreme borders of cruelty”. Instead of abolishing these borders one recreates them. Why is this so? It is so because Marxism as the philosophy of dialectical and historical materialism has forgotten its very essence. It has forgotten to keep the masses at the core of its philosophy. One has to recall Louis A lthusser who argued that Marxism has to be understood as a “theoretical anti-humanism”. But what happens next is that “ theoretical anti-humanism” becomes “practical anti-humanism”. The unintended consequence has been the reification and distortion of political Marxism into a form of a-humanism (if not a p eculiar type of anti-humanism itself) where the party supposed to be the incarnation of historical “truth” becomes not so much undemocratic, but messianic. Messiahs as we well know have not left a legacy of democracy. In contrast to this messianic philosophy, it is necessary to see Lenin as the practitioner of what Mikhail Bakhtin called “dialogical discourse” determined by revolutionary praxis. 1917 emerges from this dialogical praxis. It then becomes the radical act. One has to reclaim this space of radicalism.

    Leninism and the Problem of Centralism

    It is keeping these points in mind that we turn to the thesis of Leninism and the problem of centralism. If we earlier talked of boundaries and borders between the political committees and the mere masses – an “air-tight partition” is what Luxemburg calls it (1961: 89) – then it must be noted that Lenin immediately talked of the transcendence of this gap, a gap created not by the communist movement, but by class societies. The unbridgeable abyss within the communist movement was the creation of S talinism that bathed the Bolsheviks in their own blood. One must note that this abyss in the era of the anti-Bolshevik counterrevolution would turn out to be the mimesis of the black hole of alienation that the young Marx had talked of in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, an estranged abyss that would collapse with the demise of the Stalinist dictatorships and then get born again with the Yeltsin-Putin dictatorships. So what is the logical and historical conclusion of centralism: that “the expropriators are expropriated” (Marx 1983: 715). Its end and death is inscribed in its very beginning.

    Our argument is historical, not dogmatic, nor scholastic. It is dialectical. It traces the contradictory lanes and by-lanes of h istory. Dialectical and historical-humanist materialism thus is the guiding methodology. Our argument will thus be in contradistinction with the legal Marxists, the liberals, the advocates of parliamentary socialism, the autonomists, etc. In fact, as we shall see, the Leninist dictum: to treat insurrection as art will be a logical outcome of the young Marx’s idea of communism as humanism and naturalism.

    The space that we inherit is contradictory. It is the American Marxist humanists who have repeatedly said, following Raya D unayevskaya, that Lenin in his penning of What Is To Be Done? had not yet read Hegel. Lenin’s own cynical irony – “none of the Marxists have understood Marx!” – hangs thus over his head. A fter all one must remember that in the dialectical understanding of history, the cunning character of history, what Hegel once called “the cunning of reason” (die List der Vernunft) is the governing factor, where the government of the cunning would destroy world revolutions.

    Keeping this in mind we turn back onto the problems of political stagnation in the left movement. I will insist that authoritarianism and non-democracy (Alam’s thesis) are based not so much on dogmatic clinging to old ideas, as much as it is with the abandonment of mass line and the attachment to two anti-Marxist fetishes: (1) the fetish of “socialist” commodity production, and

    (2) the fetish of the state where the borders between the party and the masses form the essence of the “left” fetish worshippers. That the caste factor is also the dictating factor and that the I ndian left has not taken caste as an essential factor of the Asiatic mode of production headed by the Oriental Despot ought not to be forgotten.

    It must be noted however that there are two points concretely bound together in this critique – that of democratic centralism as being: (1) a complex term with overdeterminate and multiple meanings, differently used by Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, and (2) the politics of democratic centralism being inherently contradictory and problematic, thus by its very nomenclature, making it merely democratic in words and authoritarian in deeds. This type of Faustian, almost schizophrenic dualism, e ntails a very destructive politics based on boundaries between the privileged members of the central committee and the mere masses. One must state that these boundaries lie at the heart of not only capitalism, but to all class societies. The tragedy is that one did not recognise that the bourgeois intellectual privileged first by Kautsky, then institutionalised by Stalin, was nothing but the return of not only Kantianism but primarily the return of the Platonic doctrine of the philosopher-kings. The philosopher-king (as the born-again Oriental Despot), who stands above all classes and class struggle itself, as we all know, would be Stalin. Stalin did not merely mummify the body of Lenin and keep it for public display. He mummified the politics of Leninism. It is here that one asks: “From where does this politics of boundaries (primarily a class-based problem that emerged best in the political philosophy of Plato) emerge in Marxism? How does Platonism disguise itself as Marxism? And how does one tear the mask of the philosopher Plato and see the face of the gravedigger of the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin himself?” But most importantly one asks: “How does one creatively understand Marxism in the twenty-first century without being burdened by the Stalinist counterrevolutionary past?”

    One very apparent answer is to point out that the politics of 20th century Marxism were being formulated in semi-feudal, monarchical Russia that was devoid of basic democratic norms, common to bourgeois democracies. But one can ask: “Are the conditions in India, not to forget Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, US,

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    etc, conducive to an ‘open’ leftist organisation where a natural evolution from capitalism to socialism is possible?” Or should one say that the Leninist organisation trained in underground work is essentially important for countries where the state has declared revolutionary politics the single biggest internal threat?

    Since we are highlighting the philosophical underpinnings of the thesis of democratic centralism, one must point out that the proletarian revolution is possible only if the rigours of the philosophical contours of Marxism are understood, especially the transition from Kant to Hegel. So what is so specific to Classical German Philosophy? It is humanism and dialectics. And what do we learn from dialectical humanism? We learn that the centre negates itself, not to create a periphery, but to create the mass that are in permanent revolt.

    As one knows (so often repeated by the founders of modern socialism), Classical German Philosophy has an heir: the modern-day proletariat. The dialectics of Hegel, Goethe and Feuerbach are realised as the international proletarian revolution. And those who are aware of the rigour of Classical German Philosophy, would recognise that there are two distinct terrains in it – that of the understanding (Verstand) and that of reason (Vernunft), that of capitalist alienation and the humanist transcendence of alienation, that of the centre and that of the masses, that of formal democracy and that of mass democracy and human freedom. Marx takes the side of the latter. Reason is intrinsically related to mass democracy, whilst the former as technological reason (the “reason” not to know, most certainly not to liberate, but to calculate and control) is incapable, as Lenin once put it, “of embracing the truth” (1980: 93). As we shall see, the politics of democratic centralism is located at this technological site of calculation and control that is totally blind to truth and human emancipation.

    Now what one needs to do is to concretise the new site that the young Marx continuously emphasised on: the site of “species b eing” (Gattungswesen). Species being is different from the sites of both civil society and the state. It is directly related to what Marx calls “human society” (1975b: 30). Concretisation of the politics of species being implies understanding humanity in fraternal solidarity that is in rebellion against class societies. In this rebellion, socialisation of the means of production, the abolishing of private property and the appropriation of humanity as humanity is understood as the culminating moment of this idea. The philosophy of species being is the Leninist “direct initiative of the people from below” (1977a: 34). Now what one has to understand is that humanity as species being critiques both the politics-in-command of “so-called socialism” as well as the entire political discourse of parliamentary democracy, not to forget the bourgeoisie’s favourite child: fascism. Politics-in-command, p arliamentary democracy and fascism stand at the calculating site of technological reason. All of them are devoid of humanity and reason.

    But then one insists that Marx was after all not merely against centralised authority (or authority of any kind). As we just said he was against the state itself. The state (as abstract universality and the epitome of human exploitation) is defined as an e strangement of social activity that realises itself as an “illusory community” divorced from real people and real human interests (Marx and Engels 1976: 51-54). It is illusory because “the modern

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    state itself disregards real humanity or satisfies the whole of humanity only in imagination” (ibid). There can be nothing called a “free state” or a “people’s state” (Marx 1975f: 326-27). Antihumanism is written on its banners.

    And if one states that the state is an anti-humanist illusion and weapon against the masses, one also states that it is one which now r esides in the misty world of the phantasmagoria, where h umanity has lost its human essence. One must read Lenin’s statement of liberalism as “sham” in this terrain of the anti-humanist phantasmagoria where the state as the counterfeit does its ghost march all over the world. Let us see why revolutionary Marxism has disdain for this sham. Let us also see why one does not accept, what Lukács once called, “English Parliamentarism as an alternative ideal”. We shall soon see that the sham character of liberalism lies in the fact that Monsieur Capital claims to be Madame L iberty and the counterfeit state claims to be the advocate of global liberty. We shall now have to state that liberalism is not merely sham, but also psychotic, just as the state in general is a sham and a counterfeit. Let us thus turn to the couch of psychoanalysis and examine Monsieur Liberal turned psychotic who marches with his deadly infantry with the flag of liberty placed on its bourgeois cannons.

    Liberalism as Phantasmagoria, the State as Sham

    We have already noted that there is a new site discovered by Marx – that of humanity that is free from commodity production, classes and the state. We have also noted that both the politics- incommand of so-called socialism and liberalism that have emerged from commodity production are wrong. Marx transcends this binary (politics-in-command/liberalism) to reach an entirely new terrain, the terrain of the union of free people.

    We shall have to explain that the solution to Stalinism is not liberalism – for as we shall show: liberalism is caught in the fetishism of commodity production and monopoly capitalism. Since Marx’s critique of political economy – the estranged economic base (of capital accumulation and the extraction of monopoly profits) determines the distorted and reified superstructure – is the explanation for liberalism, we shall go into this critique of m onopoly capitalism and see how behind liberalism stands monopoly capitalism. Liberalism is different from Marxist libertarianism. Liberalism is the philosophy of the “Free-trader Vulgaris” where Mr Moneybags in search for the world market sees an a pparent “free” world of the good European and North American nations as against the unfree worlds of Asia, South America and Africa. The earlier truth of liberalism was the First Imperialist War, just as the present truths of liberalism are Gaza, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan. Liberalism claims to present a world of liberty, equality and fraternity, but presents instead to the world its infantry, cavalry and artillery.

    There are two premises to understand liberalism as sham:

    (1) the geopolitics of the North Bloc imperialist nations (led by the USA) with its apparitions of the so-called “freedoms” [the liberal has forgotten the freedom of the Palestine people and the Zionist-racist occupation, the destruction of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc – one can here recall Lenin calling the liberals “civilised hyenas...whetting their teeth” on Asia (1977c: 19)] and the reality of the unhindered exploitation of global labour power and natural resources, and (2) the philosophical critique of the ontology of the commodity that concretely unravels the nature of the apparitions of liberal freedoms. Freedom, as we shall see, is a bstract freedom, just as equality and liberty are abstract in nature determined by abstract labour of the commodity principle. But one must point out that liberalism is not fascism. One should not fall in the old Stalinist error of equating Social Democracy with fascism (for Stalin it was worse than fascism). For abstract freedom is better than the communal-fascist pogroms of annihilation of entire populations. The most firm and solid ground for the critique of liberalism is not a politics of some contingent type but the philosophical critique of the ontology of the phantom commodity that Marx outlines in the very first pages of Capital. Thus one must note that one needs solid foundations for the Leninist critique of liberalism than to be obsessed with messianic and a narchist ideologies. Thus it must be noted that if liberalism is a sham, then the anti-liberal messiah is a bigger sham.

    One does agree with the concrete Leninist critique of liberalism. But we now reframe it as: liberalism is a fetish, to be precise a phantasmagoria; and the state is a sham. It must be noted that one is claiming it to be a sham (better still a fantasy), specifically from the activist Bolshevik point of view of the union of free p eople. It is true that one is confronted by different types of bourgeois states. One cannot collapse liberalism into fascism. Liberalism it is true is a great step ahead of the earlier feudal subjugation of human rights or the present totalitarian fascist military juntas. It is also true that within liberal regimes the working classes can struggle for their rights. There is no doubt about that. Liberalism can think, it can philosophise. Fascism cannot think, nor can it philosophise. But Marxism is not liberalism. It is libertarianism. Liberalism keeps its infantry and artillery with it. Libertarianism abolishes all infantries and artilleries. On its banners is inscribed its ode to liberty. Nothing not even the greatest counterrevolutionary crisis against Internationalism Communism can erase this inscription from its banners.

    And that is why it is imperative to imbibe the teachings of the European Enlightenment and not to substitute the philosophies of the European Renaissance with Stalinist messianism. Marxist humanism, after all, cannot be realised in the gulags. And that is why it is important to define Marxism as libertarianism. And it is this Marxist libertarianism that would attract millions and m illions of workers, peasants, poets and philosophers to the communist movement. And when these millions would enter the scene of history then the mask of the centralist would fall off to reveal the face of the Oriental Despot.

    But why do we say that liberalism is a shamanic fantasy? What is the philosophical motif for saying so? Why do we say that the “magical and necromantic commodity” (this is Marx’s term) d etermines (besitimmte) the entire political and ideological s uperstructure of capitalism? For this we shall turn to Capital where we see two distinct “free” worlds: the “free” world of capitalism and the free world of communism. In Capital when Marx is mentioning the constellation of the base and the superstructure determined in every resort by certain forms of illusions, he also says that he intends to find the causal mechanisms of being plagued by these fantasies. Here we note how capital flows are always accompanied by psychotic flows. For capitalism involves the loss of material reality – in the negation of use values and the positing of value and exchange value – (Marx 1983: 45) as its b asis, whilst psychosis involves a complete disconnect from reality (Freud 1993: 213-26). Both capitalism and psychosis have lost all track of human reality. Thus the liberal who promises liberty is like the Physiocrat who claims that rent grows from the soil.

    We thus learn that the inherent structure of capital flows is not only based on human alienation, but also a certain type of insanity. One thus turns to these foundations (capital-psychosis) by turning to the base of the commodity, what Marx calls the G emeinsame – literally the “common something” between commodities, or the essence of capitalism itself (1981: 51). And when Marx starts his archaeological exploration of capitalism, he finds that the commodity has a “magical” and “enigmatical character” (1983: 63), where one has “put out of sight” the concrete character of the social world (ibid: 46). Now Monsieur Capital who claims to be a liberal “changes its features, hair, and many other things besides” (ibid: 58), involves a necromantic type of transfiguration where he dissolves his bodily form and acquires a fictitious mental form. The spectre that Marx talks of – not the spectre of communism – but the spectre of capitalism is this Monsieur Capital who like the theologians, mystics and saints has lost his body and with the newly acquired mind is wandering all over the world for its daily prey. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde have become Dr Capital and Mr Liberty. At any time the good liberal doctor Jekyll will turn to the monster Hyde.

    And that is why one needs to talk of the essence of capitalism, the essence that Marx discovers in the opening pages of Capital. What one finds is that this essence of capitalism is “ghostly objectivity” (gespenstige Gegenständlichkeit) (1981: 52), or as the Aveling-Moore translation goes an “unsubstantial reality” (1983: 46). Capitalism has negated not only use values and concrete l abour. It has negated all humanity. We are plagued not merely by fantasies, but haunted by abstractions and ghosts. And for Marx the essential ghost of capitalism is liberalism with abstract labour as its essence and abstract rights as its appearance, where one stops at the factory gates, closes one’s eyes to global exploitation and departs into the paradise of “the innate rights of man” where “alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham” (Marx 1983: 172). After all, as everyone knows, bourgeois liberty is the liberty to choose one’s exploiter. And that is why one is claiming that one needs firm foundations in order to critique liberalism, this firm and rigorous ground being the critique of the commodity form itself.

    Liberal Democracy as ‘Sham’

    So what do we get? We get the essence of the capitalist mode of production comprising the abstract (“abstract labour” or “human labour in general”). We also get the essence of the bourgeois state as comprising the abstract (abstract rights). If thus bourgeois d emocracy talks of rights, it is rights in the abstract. Bourgeois society thus has abstract labour and abstract rights as its essence. Its conception of humanity is itself abstract, because it has a bstracted humanity from its discourse. That is why liberalism is

    january 1, 2011 vol xlvi no 1


    always accompanied by its infantry, artillery and cavalry. And that is why the liberals are not always shy to call on their fascist cousins when occasion demands. Liberalism shows off its statue of liberty. Marxism shows that liberty has been turned into a statue.

    Lenin’s statement of liberal democracy as “sham” is seen in this perspective. If abstract rights are inscribed in the constitution – as the rights of the citizen, for instance the discourse of “we the people” – what happens is the triumph of the logic of abstractions. The phantasmagoria thus triumphs leaving the class structure of capitalism permanently veiled. But if this form of political and l egal abstraction is victorious, then combined with it is the power of another abstraction: “the power of money” (Marx 1975g: 171). Politics has now become “the serf of financial power” (ibid).

    Like in commodity production, likewise in parliamentary politics, value exchange takes place between equivalents (exchange b etween two commodities at the level of economics, between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party at the level of politics) and unequivalents (unequal exchange between capital and wage labour at the level of economics, and between the political elites and the masses at the level of politics). This forms the core of the argument that liberalism is necessarily a “sham”. After all, equality in liberal democracy is necessarily the equality between commodity owners, which at the depth structure, is a relation of inequality (the ownership of capital and the ownership of labour power). Bourgeois equality is necessarily real inequality.

    That is why one claims that parliamentary democracy has (to borrow Žižek’s phrase) a “pathological imbalance” between rights and duties (1989: 21). This imbalance is seen in the perspective of the ontology of the commodity, where the masses become the “peculiar commodity” (to borrow Marx’s expression of labour power) that produces a political surplus through its own exploitation. Parliamentary democracy finds itself in an ironical situation. It is a surplus (following the logic of surplus value), an excess (Bataille) and a supplementation (Derrida). But behind this surplus is “unpaid labour” and the “lack” (economic underdevelopment) registered at the level of the masses.

    Parliamentary democracy is thus a signification of a “lack” ( almost mimicking a Freudian castration anxiety) where the masses, in their supposed inclusion, are actually excluded. Like Stalinism, liberalism too becomes a “source of totalitarianism and a dogmatic attachment to the official word”, for as said: “an excessive commitment to Good may itself become the greatest Evil” (ibid: 27).

    What then is the practical significance of this thesis? It implies that one cannot operate on the site handed down to us by capitalism. One cannot operate with the phantom commodity or the counterfeit state. One does not operate on the terrains of civil s ociety (the favourite hunting ground of the non-governmental organisations), nor the state (the temptations of not only the S talinists, but also the Trotskyites, as also advocates of the South American left). Instead one looks into human society and into the open space (Öffenlichkeit) of the international multitude. It is here that we find the real ground of class struggles as against the “sham”of the abstract phantasmagoria. It is at this site that we r elate the Leninist idea of liberalism as “sham” with Engels’ “false consciousness” and Lukács’ “reification of consciousness”.

    But there is a larger issue that needs to be grasped, namely that the politics of state power is to be avoided. What does this mean? Refrain from active politics? By no means! It means to n egate the politics of the state, for one understands the state as a “duplicate”, almost an opiate world of religion, a sort of an “ imaginary world” appearing as the “holy family” of class societies (Marx 1975b: 29). We call this process of duplication, a creation of a counterfeit. The state is thus a counterfeit, a psychoanalytic “doubling” where this duplicate-double-counterfeit appears as a substitute for real people. One relates this process with Freud’s analysis of the double that divides the self and creates a neurotic “recurrence of the same thing – the repetition of the same features...the same crimes....” (1985: 356). Yet Marx’s understanding of the state is a reverse psychoanalysis. For Freud the “double” is the father appearing as the tormenting criminal; for Marx’s under standing: the state is the criminal that appears as the father figure. The chief function of the state is to transform the pain of class societies into pleasure. That is why Marx insisted on the principle of the Aufhebung des Staates: transcend the state by transcending the horizons of class societies themselves (1964: 235).


    December 11, 2010
    Dissecting the Ayodhya Judgment – Anupam Gupta
    Secularism and the Indian Judiciary – P A Sebastian
    Idols in Law – Gautam Patel
    Issues of Faith – Kumkum Roy
    Was There a Temple under the Babri Masjid? Reading the Archaeological ‘Evidence’ – Supriya Varma, Jaya Menon
    For copies write to:
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    320-321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013. email:

    Economic & Political Weekly

    january 1, 2011 vol xlvi no 1

    1917 is the permanent sign of this transcendence. But then We are told by an upstart of Yankee imperialism (Francis Fukuthe law of history seems to be that alongside revolutionaries yama) that liberal democracy, as the miraculous end of history has march not only the masses, artists and philosophers, but been achieved. Since we have also been told by the Indian state that also the c ounter-revolutionaries, priests and fascists. Unfortu-the whole of India loves Yankee imperialism; we are somehow comnately an ex-priest claimed to be a man of the masses, a poet pelled to go back to the liberals. We go back to the beginnings of the and a philosopher. But when the mask slipped to show the 20th century. Besides the European liberals and the finance capitalreal face of the counter-revolutionary it was too late. Bolshe-ists, we see Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, besides millions of artvism was destroyed. But then another law of history is seen ists of the international revolution. We find thus that history repeats

    o perating, the law of historical repetitions. Stalin went and itself, not twice, but thrice: the first time as tragedy (1928), the sec-Yeltsin and Putin came. Politics-in-command went and liberal ond time as farce (1989) and the third time as joy.

    democracy came.


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    November 27, 2010

    Report of the 13th Finance Commission: Introduction and Overview – Pinaki Chakraborty Fiscal Consolidation and Inclusive Growth: The Finance Commission Approach – Mihir Rakshit The 13th Finance Commission’s Report: Conundrum in Conditionalities – M Govinda Rao Deficit Fundamentalism vs Fiscal Federalism:

    Implications of 13th Finance Commission’s Recommendations – Pinaki Chakraborty Vertical Sharing and Horizontal Distribution of Resources: The Equity and Efficiency Trade-off – D K Srivastava Goods and Services Tax: The 13th Finance Commission and the Way Forward – R Kavita Rao The 13th Finance Commission and Improving Fiscal Outcomes: An Assessment – Arindam Das-Gupta Recommendations Relating to Grants-in-Aid – Narayan Valluri The 13th Finance Commission and the Third Tier – M A Oommen

    For copies write to:

    Circulation Manager,

    Economic and Political Weekly,

    320-321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013. email:

    january 1, 2011 vol xlvi no 1

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