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A Marxist Critique of Raymond Williams

Posted by Taimur Rahman on October 29, 2008

One of the most influential ideas that came with the rise of modern art (dadaism in particular) is that one can be a complete novice in terms of skill or craft and yet be considered an artist simply by being able to convince others through the use of esoteric language. For instance, the urinal became a piece of art when it was taken from the toilet and put on display by Marsden Hartley in 1917. The Turner Prize committee even called it “the most influential work of modern art”. Homage was aptly paid to this piece of art when a performance artist named Pierre Pinoncelli urinated in it. Although Pinoncelli may not have meant any double meaning by his “performance”, my own view is that the Pinoncelli homage is truly what such art deserves.
It is much the same in the world of intellectual production. The most plain simple and straight forward concepts that do not depart in any way from everyday thinking dressed up in obscure, esoteric, abstract, and abstruse language can at once make it to the hall of fame within the bourgeois academy. This is because the bourgeois academy is recoiling from the science of Marxism, hence, any reversion to idealism that successfully takes on the garb of further development of thought is at once celebrated. This is the story of the rise of the so-called New Left as the alternative to Soviet or Stalinist Marxism. The Pinoncelli homage to the New Left was paid by post-modernism.
In internal discussion in the party the name of Raymond Williams was thrown about. Should we use Raymond William’s concepts of residual, dominant, and emergent to analyze Baloch nationalism? Is Raymond Williams’ analysis of nationalism more “refined” than the analysis of Lenin and Stalin? These questions were asked. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to respond to these legitimate queries and dealt with them in a summary fashion. However, upon further insistence, I have taken out some time to write this short response.
Raymond Williams’ essay “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” (New Left Review 1973) is considered ‘seminal’ within Cultural Studies. Hence, I will base this critique on this ‘seminal’ essay.
1) Distinction between “social being determines consciousness” and “base determines superstructure”
The first task that Williams undertakes is to introduce a distinction between the proposition that “social being determines consciousness” (SBDC) and “base determines superstructure” (BDS). He says that while SBDC is acceptable the BDS becomes “at times unacceptable” (see pg. 3).
The fact is that the BDS is a further elaboration by Karl Marx himself of what it means when he says that social being determines social consciousness. What is social being? Marx answers this question quite clearly. He says: “The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals [i.e. social being]. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature” (Marx, German Ideology). The words “physical organisation of these individuals” is nothing other than the concept of relations of production and “relation to the rest of nature” is nothing other than the concept of productive forces. In other words, the passage states that the first facts to be established by a materialist study of any given society are the productive forces (relation to nature) and productive relations (physical organization of individuals). The proposition that SBDC inevitably points to the necessity of establishing the nature of productive forces and relations of production.
To accept on the one hand, that SBDC (as Raymond Williams does) and refuse on the other the distinction between the base and the superstructure is absurd. Social being is the economic base and social consciousness is the superstructure. SBDC and BDS are premised on the distinction between the world of being/production and the world of consciousness/superstructure. In other words, SBDC and BDS are two ways of saying the same thing.
(later I will demonstrate that this absurdity is the result of a concession to liberalism).
2) Qualifications on the use of the concept of “determination”
(note: “determination” and “determines” are the same thing. “Determines” is a verb and “determination” is a noun made by Williams to describe this concept)
Williams says that the relationship of “determination” is inherited from idealists (pg.4). The implication is obvious (although Williams does not make it explicit). Since “determination” is inherited from idealists it is problematic for materialists. On such grounds one should also reject dialectics since the concept of dialectics was also inherited from idealist philosophy. As a matter of fact one should reject most concepts that we work with today because the vast majority of concepts were developed on the terrain of idealism. This is once again absurd.
Just because a concept that encapsulates a relationship is inherited from idealists does not imply that it is by definition unusable for materialists. Materialism does not reject the whole of idealism. It rejects only the view that thought is independent of matter.
3) The inversion of “determination”
Williams continues that since Marx rejected “abstract determining consciousness” (i.e. God determines the will of Man) and inverted idealism (example, thought is not independent of matter but matter is independent of thought; or God does not create man, man creates God), Marx also inverted the concept of “determination”. This is like saying that Marx did not believe in God because he rejected determination, or Marx was an atheist because he believed that one thing could not be determined by another.
Take Williams and put him in simple language and you will quickly realize that he is talking complete childish rubbish. Marx did not reject God because he rejected or inverted the concept of determination. Marx rejected God because he understood that matter was independent of thought (as Lenin painstakingly points out in Materialism and Empriocriticism).
For Williams Marx alleged “inversion” of determination (for which he furnishes no evidence because none actually exists) does not imply “predict” or “prefigures” but “setting limits” and “exterting pressures”.
Firstly, this is not the fabled inversion that we were promised by Williams. A dialectical inversion occurs when the cause and effect are reversed (God created man, man created god). This is merely ascribing a different connotation to the word determines.
Secondly, look up any dictionary and one discovers that the word “determine” contains all these connotation. Determine: “control, decide, regulate, direct, dictate, govern, affect, influence, mould”. In that very paragraph Williams reminds us about his knowledge of European languages. He could have used that knowledge to remind us that the word determine comes from the Latin word “determinare” that means “to limit or to fix”. He could have pointed out that the word literally means “de” (completely) “terminate” (end, limit, boundary). Williams says that when Marx used the term determines he implied by it “setting limits and exerting pressures” not “prefigured, predicted and controlled”. Clearly the meaning of the word “determines” includes all of the above.
(I feel it important to add that I do not consider Marx’s words to be divine that I would feel that need to interpret and reinterpret every word he uses. Marx revised his own views and used different terms at different points in his life. The object of this exercise is to point out that Marx’s use of the word “determines” is, quite simply, correct.)
Williams should have avoided the entire tale of inversions dialectical inversions of determinations that make a mockery out of Marxism. But then I suppose such intellectual gymnastics are necessary in order to meet the objective of peddling childish ideas as great developments of thought.
4) Economic Base as an Object
Raymond Williams continues with qualifications that have been placed on the relationship between base and superstructure (he briefly touches upon those qualifications made by Marx and Engels themselves as well as the concept of “mediation” and homologous structures”). Since his object is not these qualifications, there is not much point in spending much time on them. The real concept that he wants to look at is the economic base.
He argues that the economic base has been considered in terms of a “uniform” “static” “an object”. The finger is naturally pointed at Soviet Marxists, Stalinists, and others that belong to organized communist parties. Indeed, the charge is a very serious one. It is almost convincing until one realizes that the cardinal principle of every communist party is that under capitalism the productive relations and productive forces are are coming in increasing contradiction the inevitable result of which is socialism? How can communist parties be accused of technocratic determinism (a charge made by Williams) on the one hand and on the other be accused of considering productive forces as “static”.
This knotty problem is solved when we read what Williams means when he says that the economic base has been considered “static”. Here are Williams’ examples of how the base has been conceptualized as “uniform”, “static” and “an object”.
a) “The base is the real social existence of man.”
b) “The case is the real relations of production corresponding to a stage of the development of material productive forces.”
c) “The base is a mode of production at a particular stage of development.”
In the first statement, nowhere is it implied that the “real social existence” of humanity is uniform or static. Similarly, the “social existence” of humanity is not an object, it is a relationship (SOCIAL existence).
In the second statement the non-static nature of the base is implied in the fact that there are various stages of development. There cannot be stages of development in a static, uniform entity. Furthermore, the base is defined in terms of “real relationship” not in terms of an object.
The third statement also talks about stages and development and hence cannot be static or uniform. It cannot be an object because a “mode of production” is defined in terms of relations.
I ask the reader, how do the above statements in anyway imply that the economic base is uniform, static or an object? It seems that Raymond Williams considers statement that define the economic base in terms of “real social existence”, “productive forces and relations” or “mode of production” the equivalent of defining the base static, uniform and an object.
Williams goes on to state that the productive forces and relations are so “active (that is, non-static and non-uniform) that the “metaphorical notion of the base could possibly allow us to realize”.
Why can the metaphor of the economic base(-superstructure) not capture that the base is active? Williams doesn’t bother to explain. He thinks it is enough for him merely to state a proposition and the reader will bow down in awe of it. Clearly there is nothing inherent in a metaphor that prevents one from describing active entities (she ran like the wind, he changed like a chameleon, they blossomed like flowers).
Hitherto all new-left intellectuals (including Williams) criticized Marxist-Leninist for considering only the economic base as active (and the super-structure as passive), now it seems Williams has concluded that we also consider the base as passive. Moreover, the only evidence for this brave new hypothesis are the statements that the base is the “real social relations” at “particular stage of development”.
5 ) Productive Labour and Productive Forces
Such complete confusion can be expected from Raymond who demonstrates his “rare” grasp of Marxism economics when he confuses the entire discussion on un-productive labour in the Grundrisse.
Raymond incorrectly argues that according to Marx distributers of pianos are also productive worker. In fact, Marx makes it very clear that workers that contribute to the realization of surplus-value are un-productive because a productive worker is defined by political economy as a workers that produces new surplus value (here again Williams incorrectly argues that productive laborers within capitalism are those engaged in commodity production because (a) commodity production is not the same as capitalist production (b) the distinction between productive and un-productive is based on the production or realization of surplus value).
Raymond makes a laughing stock out of himself when he concludes from this discussion that “piano-maker is base, but pianist superstructure” (pg 6). Neither the worker nor the pianist are base or superstructure. Because as Raymond himself pointed earlier (but apparently he did not pay enough attention to what he was himself writing) the base and superstructure is not an object or a person. It is a relationship/activity.
The activity (not individuals) of producing, distributing or consuming (i.e. purchasing and playing the piano) within capitalism are all part of the economic base. The superstructure is the ideological justification for the manner in which pianos are produced, distributed, consumed.
Williams follows up this complete confusion with the assertion that “Within [Marx’s] analysis of [capitalism], he had to give the notion of ‘productive labour’ and ‘productive forces’ a specialized sense of primary work on materials in a form which produced commodities” (pg 6).
Firstly, capitalism is not the same as commodity production. As Marx elaborates in Capital, commodity production precedes capitalism. Capitalism only begins where labour-power becomes a commodity. Secondly Williams puts ‘productive labour’ and ‘productive forces’ interchangeably. But this is totally incorrect. Productive labour is that labour that produces surplus-value within a society based on wage-labour (i.e. capitalism). Hence, the distinction between productive and un-productive labour is only applicable to capitalism. Productive forces is a category that encapsulates all history (including the history of humanity before class society). Marx was under no obligation to define ‘productive forces’ in in terms of commodity production. That would imply that before commodity production there were no productive forces? Last, Marx did not make “primary work on materials” a central definition of capitalism. The work could be purely intellectual (although even that requires some material). For Marx capitalism began with wage-labour regardless of the particular form that this work takes (manual, primary, secondary, with or without materials, intellectual or anything else).
It is on this completely erroneous argument (an argument that no Marxist-Leninist has ever advanced, its author is only Williams himself) that Williams asserts that productive forces have been understood only in capitalist terms.
6) Redefinition of Economic Base
His redefinition of the economic base is on the basis that “the most important thing a worker ever produces is himself, himself in the fact of that kind of labour”. Hence, all activity that reproduces the worker in the work is part of the economic base according to Raymond Williams. From this Williams concludes (later) that all artistic activity (production of culture) should be considered part of the economic base. He asserts that since Marxist-Leninist have understood the economic base only in capitalist terms (by which Williams means commodities production) “vital productive social forces” (by which Williams means the production of culture) have been dismissed as “superstructural, and in that sense as merely secondary”.
Williams entire emphasis boils down to the fact the production of art should be included in the economic base because it is a “vital productive social force” during which the artists reproduces him/herself in the work.
Firstly, categorizing something in the superstructure does not make it secondary or worthy of being dismissed. Secondly and more importantly, the economic base superstructure distinction is an theoretical abstraction. The economic base are the REAL relations between people, and the superstructure are the CONCEPTIONS of those relations (social being and social consciousness).
The production and distribution of art involves, both, economic relations between people and conceptions of those relations. Hence, in accordance with this definition of base-superstructure, aspects of the production of art are in the economic base while aspects are in the superstructure. This is because even the production and distribution of ideas involves a certain economic process. In sum, the conceptions of art are part of the superstructure while the production and distribution of art occurs through real economic relations.
Art, however, is recognized in society not by the economics of its distribution but by the beauty of its conception. Hence, it is understandable if the impression is created that art has nothing to do with the economic base. But one look at the large capitalist concerns that control the world of art (whether music, painting, performance, or some other craft) will reveal that economic relations are very much part of the production and distribution of works of art.
Williams redefinition of the economic base would completely destroy any distinction between the real and the conceptual.
7) Totality, Intention and Hegemony
This distinction is exactly what Williams destroys when he substitutes in the place of base and superstructure the notion of “totality” and “intention”. Thus, according to Williams, “social intentions” determine the structure and organization of the totality (i.e. society).
This is not Marxism but pure liberalism. For it was Marx’s great discovery that social relations are formed as a result of the level of development of productive forces. Hence, men enter relations “independent of their will”. Marx says ” The social structure and the State are continually evolving out of the life-process of definite individuals, but of individuals, not as they may appear in their own or other people’s imagination, but as they really are; i.e. as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will.”
Furthermore, Marx points out that the fact that huamns enter into relations that accord to productive forces and are hence indpendent of their will leads to the creation of a “social power” that stands above the individuals and forms a power alien to them. Marx writes “The social power, i.e., the multiplied productive force, which arises through the co-operation of different individuals as it is determined by the division of labour, appears to these individuals, since their co-operation is not voluntary but has come about naturally, not as their own united power, but as an alien force existing outside them, of the origin and goal of which they are ignorant, which they thus cannot control, which on the contrary passes through a peculiar series of phases and stages independent of the will and the action of man, nay even being the prime governor of these.”
In simple words, Williams has created a theory in which society (totality) can be molded and remolded in accordance merely with “intentions” that are entirely independent of objective reality (i.e. the level of development of productive forces). This is precisely the illusion that Marx fought against.
Once he has separated social ideas from its link to the economic base, all that remains for him is to link this to the concept of hegemony and to argue that “oppositional” forces (not proletarian forces) need to break this hegemony to attain emancipation. How is this to be accomplished?
8) Tripartite Division of Culture: Residual, Dominant and Emergent.
Raymond Williams makes a tripartite division of culture into residual, dominant, and emergent. What do these three terms mean?
Residual is what is left of the culture of the society that existed before
Dominant is the culture that exists today
Emergent is the culture that may come about tomorrow.
(This is very similar to what Comrade Prachanda stated when he said made a tripartite division in politics between reactionary, status-quo, and progressive. Arguably because Prachanda’s division were not dressed in obscure language it was considered simplistic. But when Raymond William dresses up the same tripartite division for culture, he was considered “refined”. In fact, both this tripartite division (whether in politics or culture) is deeply simplistic. Fortunately for us Prachanda never meant for this tripartite division to be taken as anything other than a rule of thumb (i.e. a simplifying heuristic). It is otherwise with Raymond Williams and the crew of the Cultural Studies that quite literally worships at the alter of this tripartite division.)
But what is it about this tripartite division (in politics or culture) that is a retreat from Marxism? It is quite simply that the division between the past, present and future is arguably one of the oldest concept in human thinking. Greek thinkers developed the continuity and interconnection between them as early as Heraclitus of Ephesus who argued that inner strife and opposition were the cause of constant change. On an idealist terrain this tripartite dialectic reached its highest level of development in Hegel.
Marxism’s key advance was the fact that he linked this dialectic of change to the contradiction between the productive forces and relations of production (i.e. class struggle). It was Marx that argued that the contending ideas of every epoch in history(superstructure) were really the ideological expression of contradictions present within the economic base (i.e. productive forces and relations).
It precisely this advance that Raymond Williams militates against. Hence, this tripartite division has no link to the struggles of the working class. Anything from dadism to abstract art can be considered oppositional or emergent. Raymond Williams explicitly says “there are no relations between literature and society in that abstracted way” He explains this further by saying “if we are looking at the relationship between literature and society, we cannot either separate out this one practice from a formed body of other practices, nor when we have identified the particular practice can we give it a uniform, static, and ahistorical relation to some abstract social formation”. In other words, art and literature are connected to social practice but not to society or to social formations.
While paying lip service to the class struggle, the entire theory undercuts the notion of class struggle.
It far better to think of culture in class term within the form of national culture (the culture of particular classes within particular nations). That would then give us a far more complex picture of society and culture rather than a simplistic tripartite division. The contestations within culture would tell us about the contestation of classes in society. And we can think not in terms of three strands within culture but as many cultures as there are classes in a given society.
The political tripartite division is simplistic because it tells us nothing about the character of the forces under consideration, nor anything about their relationship to each other. It is far more accurate to call forces of change or reaction by their class names (bourgeois, proletariat, peasant, feudal, patriarchal and so on).
9) Capitalism is not Exhausting Human Creativity
Finally, Williams indirectly concludes that capitalist society and capitalist culture has not exhausted human energy (i.e. it is not leading to barbarism). He says “no mode of production, and therefore no dominant society or order of society, and therefore no dominant culture, in reality exhausts human practice, human energy, and human intention.” Hence, Williams conclusion is that human energy, creativity can continue to expand even on the basis of capitalism, feudalism, Asiatic society, slave society and so on (since no mode of production can exhaust human energy).
Now comrades we see that the main contours of Raymond Williams’ theory is nothing other than bourgeoisie liberalism that pays lip service to Marxism.
First, he makes a completely ridiculous distinction between Distinction between “social being determines consciousness” and “base determines superstructure”. Second, his attempt to quality or invert the concept of determination is fraught with contradictions and complete confusion. Third, he makes a caricature of Marxism-Leninism by stating that the economic base is static. Fourth, his understanding of Marxian economics is demonstrated by his inability to understand the difference between productive forces and productive labour. On this basis he reconstructs notions about the economic base that completely destroy the fundamental discoveries of historical materialism. In their stead, he substitutes common place liberal notions based on simplistic tripartite divisions. And concludes by indirectly stating that human energy and creativity is not being dampened by capitalism.
Now, I ask you, the refined views of Raymond Williams are the same refined views that we have heard from the bourgeoisie since its inception. It is only the bourgeoisie, therefore, that can consider these views to be more refined that the revolutionary theory of Marxism-Leninism.
Long Live Marxism-Leninism
Down with New-Left Liberalism

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Asiatic Capitalism and Agrarian Relations

Posted by Taimur Rahman on October 8, 2008

This work attempts to demonstrate that the colonial path of the capitalist transformation of India resulted in a fusing of the features of capitalism and the Asiatic mode of production to give rise to a social-formation that is best termed Asiatic capitalism.

At the heart of every mode of production is the mode of surplus extraction based on certain relations of production. Slavery, serfdom, and wage labour are all different relations of production that are that heart of slave society, feudalism and capitalism respectively. Similarly, the AMP is based on a variant of class exploitation where peasants are held in collective bondage by the ruling class organized as a state that extracts a tribute from village communities. In Pakistan, this labour relation was called muzara’at. Hence, muzara’at is the central labour relation of the AMP in South Asia.

To understand the emergence of Asiatic capitalism one has to briefly analyze how the AMP was transformed by British colonial rule. In 1764, the British East India Company consolidated their victory at the Battle of Buxar by defeating the Mogul emperor Shah Alam II. The Emperor granted the Company the right to collect land-revenue (called Diwani) in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. Thus, the Company began to feed off the surplus generated from the social foundation of the AMP in India. However, with a view to rationalizing and improving the efficiency of collecting land revenue, the British introduced the Permanent Settlement Act in 1793. Although this Act introduced private property in land, it did not fundamentally alter the labour relation of muzara’at. Now the muzara’as were obligated to pay land-revenue (tribute) not to the a representative of the state but to the private owner of the land. Previously the collective-slaves of the state, the muzara’as were
now the collective slaves of the zamindars that had acquired the status of landlord through the colonial regime. Even land that was owned by the colonial state, the system of wage-labour did not replace muzara’at. While private property took the place of Asiatic property in land, wage-labour did not come to replace muzara’at in agrarian relations.

Thus emerged a system of private property and commodity production on the economic foundation of muzara’at. In other words, the surplus produce is converted into a commodity but muzara’at remains more or less intact. Wage-labour mainly emerged in cities where small manufactories transformed into industry. As a result, whether in cities or in the countryside, all institutions of state and society remain stamped by customs that are linked to the AMP encapsulated by the caste system. It is a grave error to think that the caste system survives merely as an ideological vestige. On the contrary, the very economic foundations of contemporary society give rise to the continuing existence of caste as an organizing principle of agrarian relations.

These agrarian relations, private property in land and commodity production on the economic foundations muzara’at (without wage-labour), is what this study terms ‘Asiatic capitalism’. As long as agrarian relations remain constrained by the presence of muzara’at, there can never be economic dynamism or growth.

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“Broad Left” a new slogan for social-democracy

Posted by Taimur Rahman on October 8, 2008

During much of the twentieth century social-democracy was internationally defeated by Marxism-Leninism. Around the world the working class movement was dominated by communist parties. However, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the perceived defeat of Marxism-Leninism has once again offered social-democracy a new lease of life. Today we are witness to the periodic revamping of social-democracy as the “broad left” in order to resurrect their fortunes.

Marxists have identified social-democratic politics as the “bourgeois politics of the working class”. They have considered them agents of the bourgeoisie within the working class movement. Lenin declared that the struggle against imperialism was a sham if it was not combined with the struggle against opportunism within the working class (read social-democracy).

In Pakistan as well we see a revival of this social-democratic trend under a new name every few years. When I joined left wing politics there was the charcha about the National Workers Party. Three left-wing parties got together to form a new party. They said goodbye to Marxism-Leninism (although many continued to consider themselves as communists) and formed what they considered a “broad left” party.

Then the old professeran group got together and wanted to form a broad left debating forum that would eventually lead to a party. But they couldn’t agree on whether or not there was such a thing as imperialism. The result was the Awami Jamhoori Forum. I often wonder why they don’t join the NWP since their politics is scarcely any different.

Even more recently members of the communist party that had given up politics more than a decade ago decided that the time for broad left politics had come. They formed the Inqalabi Jamhoori Workers Committee and are working incessantly for a “broad left” party.

But what are the principles of this “broad left”? Each of them explain that a broad left party will not be a Marxist-Leninist party. But it will be a party that includes Marxists (or even mostly Marxists). It will only exclude anti-Marxists. In other words, it will include everyone that is centre or centre left but it will exclude right-wing people.

I once asked in a straight forward manner, will such a broad left party uphold the point of view that the emancipation of the working class requires the dictatorship of the proletariat (i.e. the class rule of the working class). I received the idiotic response that the broad left is opposed to all forms of dictatorship, whether of the proletariat, military or mullah. Now one really has to scratch one’s head and wonder where these so-called former communists have been living if they do not even understand the distinction between the concept of the dictatorship of a class and dictatorship of the bourgeois military.

Bourgeois democracy and military dictatorship are two different forms of the class rule of the bourgeoisie. As far as Marxism is concerned they are two different forms of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Similarly, the dictatorship of the working class (i.e. the class rule of the working class) can also assume different forms (ranging from the more democratic to more authoritarian).

Only those that are completely unversed in Marx’s use of the term dictatorship of the proletariat can confuse the concept with military dictatorship. One certainly does not expect those that have been members of the communist party for nearly their entire lives to make such idiotic statements. Such statements are normally the exclusive preserve of those that learn about Marxism from Time magazine or Reader’s Digest.

In sum, such a broad left party is opposed to Marxism. A working class party cannot be forged out of such confusion. It can only be forged in the ideological struggle against such confusion. Such a party would descend into complete chaos. The Marxist section would be working towards the building of an organization that is working towards the smashing of the current state. The other section would be opposed to any politics that aims at anything further than extracting concessions from the state.

Furthermore, given the stronger financial resources of the social-democrats and the support that they receive from the liberal sections of the bourgeoisie (with whom they are connected with a thousand different threads), the Marxist section of the party would not be able to dominate in such an organization. Hence, the dissolving of a Marxist party into this broad confusion would only lead to the liquidation of the Marxist vanguard.

This criticism of social-democratic politics is well-established among communists. But let us also turn to the situation in Pakistan. What are the options for a broad left organization? The National Workers Party, Labour Party, and Awami Tehreek are sitting inside the right-wing APDM. They are aligned with the most right-wing opponents of the democratic government. How can the CMKP form a broad left party with these organizations when we have a fundamental disagreement with their choice of friends and enemies. Can we form one party when they are sitting with the Jamaat e Islami and under the patronage of General Hameed Gul raising slogans against the democratic government, and we are opposing the APDM tooth and nail.

Furthermore, historically their attitude towards us has been one of hostility to the point that preferred to make an alliance with the openly pro-military (Sherpao) MKP than with the CMKP. In other words, they can sit with anyone, from the fundamentalists to the pro-military parties, but they don’t want to sit anywhere close to communists.

And what is most disturbing of all is that all of these alliances and mergers add no new forces to the left. These are the same faces that we have seen for the last two three decades. Few new people have been added to their ranks at all. In other words, all these efforts represent a reshuffling, a re-ordering of the same people but along social-democratic lines.

The CMKP is the only Marxist party that can claim to have actually broken new ground and influenced a new generation of activists. Quite frankly, this new generation of activists are completely uninspired by the defeatist social-democracy of the old left. When I walk out of their meetings I feel more depressed than when I go in. It isn’t the size of the meeting nor the age of its participants that leads to this feeling. It is the constance defeatism reiterated a thousand different ways that destroys all morale. How can one build an organization on the basis of such defeatism?

When we started our work, this defeatist left lambasted with the opinion that people will not follow a staunch Marxist party. But the last decade of struggle has revealed the exact opposite. Our ranks have grown with new young people. And the defeatist left has become liquidationist and even capitulated to the APDM in the hopes of a little lime-light.

Let us do away with the illusion of a social-democratic broad left. What we need in Pakistan is a Marxist-Leninist party. What we need in Pakistan is a Communist Party.

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What is Historical Materialism?

Posted by Taimur Rahman on August 6, 2008

[Comrades, while our struggle against military rule continues, we must combine our practicle efforts with theoretical study. I strongly believe that there can be no revolutionary struggle without revolutionary theory. In this short essay I have presented the central views about historical dialectical materialism. The essay also replies to the charges of economic reductionism and linearity of history. I hope that it proves useful for our theoretical study to inform out practicle politics. Dated: Nov 30, 2007]

What is Historical Materialism?

In the words of Lenin, Marxism continued and consummated the three most advanced ideological currents of the nineteenth century: German philosophy, English Political Economy, and French Socialism. The epistemological premises of Marxism developed through criticism of post-Hegelian German philosophy. The The Poverty of Philosophy and the German Ideology were among the first works that developed historical materialism as a new method of the study of history.

Marx and Engels divided hitherto existing philosophy along the epistemological lines of materialism and idealism. In his work Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of Classical German Philosophy Engels explains that the central premise of materialism is the philosophical concept of matter as an independent entity in relation to thought. In simple words, materialism is premised upon the objective existence of the world.

This assertion about the independent and objective existence of the world may strike the reader as positivism. There is no doubt that these premises have been challenged by religious and philosophical idealists, by certain natural-scientists, and more recently in social-studies by post-modernists. These challenges to materialism, whether traditional or modern, bear one line of reasoning in common; they deny the objective existence of the world.

With respect to these objections, Lenin’s philosophical work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism is a trenchant defense of materialism. He points out not only that objections against materialism inevitably lead to solipsism–the view that the self is all that can be known to exist. He also argues persuasively that copious natural scientific evidence demonstrating the existence of the Earth before the existence of humans is conclusive proof that matter exists independent of thought. Obviously, if the world existed before the existence of humans, matter cannot be a product of our thought. Further, natural scientific arguments, derived often from relativity or quantum mechanics, rest on confusing the philosophic concept of matter with the scientific concept of matter. The philosophic concept of matter makes no other claim except that matter exists independent of thought. The question about the nature of matter falls exclusively in the realm of the scientific concept of matter. Since, relativity or quantum mechanics do not disprove that the universe existed before the existence of humans, they do not disprove that matter exists independent of thought. Lenin concludes that materialism is entirely consistent with developments in modern natural science.

However, unlike the mechanical and rigid categories of nineteenth century natural science, Marx and Engels extracted the “rational kernel” from Hegel’s philosophy — namely dialectics — and combined it with materialism. At its most basic, dialectics is the simple concept that there is no finality in human thought or action. On the contrary, life is always in a process of birth and death, development and destruction, coming into being and passing away. In a word, the world should be understood as a complex of processes. These processes of life are not characterized by a rigid separation of binary opposites. On the contrary, these opposites interact and interpenetrate each other. At a certain stages in the development of these processes small quantitative changes result in qualitative changes. The entire movement of these complex of processes takes place in a continuous spiral that ascends from lower to higher forms (Engels, Dialectics of Nature). For instance, the search for the truth is itself a long historical never-ending process developing higher levels of knowledge without ever being able to reach the absolute truth. Similarly, human society is in a process of continuos evolution without a final or complete conclusion in an ideal or perfect state or society (Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy). The synthesis of materialism and Hegelian dialectics is the method of Marxism known as dialectical materialism.

It follows from these simple but forceful premises that the methodology of historical dialectical materialism is not based on any pre-conceived notions of human nature but on the concrete conditions of human existence. The first premise of human history, as Marx wrote in the German Ideology, is the existence of living human individuals. And since “mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.” the social organization for the production of these necessary means of life forms the foundations upon which are based social, political, cultural and ideological conceptions. The great discovery of historical materialism is, therefore, that the social, political, cultural and ideological conceptions of man can only be understood in connection with the economic foundations of a given society (Marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/death/burial.htm). Marx expressed these findings succinctly in the often-quoted Preface to a Critique of Political Economy.

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundations, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness (Marx, Preface).

In other words, all societies must produce the basics of life in order to live. In order to produce, humans enter into social relations of production that correspond to the level of development of productive forces. Productive forces and relations of production together constitute the mode of production. The mode of production is the economic base to which corresponds the ideological and political superstructure of a society. This process of a historically evolving social division of labour is, thus, the central notion of historical materialism. Thus, investigation of the social division of labour is the starting point of a materialist study of society.

Anthropological evidence suggests that early man lived in a primitive state, an animal state. The processes of social labour and their consequent impact on the development of the brain over hundreds of thousands of years led to the evolution of what we call today modern man. Till such time as the productivity of labour was not developed enough to produce a surplus over and above the basic needs of survival, humanity lived in a form of primitive communism characterized by an extremely low social division of labour. With the further development of the productive forces mankind was able to produce a surplus over and above the basic needs of survival. This gave rise to a phenomenon whereby certain sections of society began to live off the labour of other sections of society. This was the dawn of class-society.

Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it. Classes are groups of people one of which can appropriate the labour of another owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system of social economy (Lenin, http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/jun/28.htm).

This definition makes it very clear that the defining properties of a class are not subjective but are objective relations to the means of production. This definition of classes as an objective economic relation implies that classes may or may not be conscious of their interests. However, the degree of self-consciousness about their objective economic relationship to the means of production has no bearing upon their classification as a certain class. Along these lines, this study is not concerned at the outset with the subjective properties of classes but with establishing the various classes that objectively exist in Pakistan.

In sum, development of the social division of labour at a certain stage in history gave birth to distinctions in society based on the relationship to the means of production. This relationship of control over the means of production was eventually codified or expressed in cultural and juridical terms as ownership and property. In other words, property is the juridical expression of a class-based division of labour. The social division of labour is in the a process of constant evolution and the various forms of society can be discerned by the different forms of ownership. On this basis Marx broadly identified four forms of society.

…In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society.

Since the social, political, and cultural ideas of any society correspond to the economic mode of production, Marx argued that the dominating ideas were the ideas of the domination of that class. Ideology, therefore, is the conceptual expression of the real relationship of class-domination in society. Marx says:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the mental means of production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the idea expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.

Marx observed that at certain stages of history, productive forces and relations of production may come into conflict with each other. In other words, relations of production become a barrier for the further development of society. This may bring about an era of social revolution in which new classes take power and transform the relations of production and the corresponding superstructure. During such periods of social revolution, the forms of ownership and the entire ideology of society undergoes a complete transformation. In sum, the dialectical contradiction between productive forces and relations of production, that is expressed in the class-struggle, is the central dialectic that governs history. That is why Marx asserts that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class-struggle” (Marx, Communist Manifesto).

Marx carefully studied the workings of capitalist society and argued that the immanent contradictions in capitalist society were leading to a society that would end all class antagonisms. He argued that modern industry had laid the economic foundation for the final destruction of class-society. Modern industry had destroyed the economic necessity that compelled a certain portion of the population to a life of manuel drudgery. An economic situation that compelled the development of the few to be at the expense of the development of the many. Industry had made possible a society in which the development of one could be the basis for the development of all. That society was called communism. Marx argued that the creation of communist society would inaugurate the beginning of a new period in human history where man would no longer exploit man.

On the Charge of Economic Reductionism

Critics of Marx have argued that the model of economic base and superstructure is tantamount to economic reductionism. It is alleged that Marxism casts the superstructure in a purely passive role. However, there is plenty of evidence in the writings of Marx and Engels to demonstrate that this would be an incorrect interpretation of their argument. In particular the relationship between the base and superstructure is directly addressed by Engels

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree (Engels, Marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_09_21.htm).

Similarly, emphasizing the dialectical nature of the relationship between the base and the superstructure Engels writes,

What these gentlemen all lack is dialectic. They never see anything but here cause and there effect. That this is a hollow abstraction, that such metaphysical polar opposites only exist in the real world during crises, while the whole vast process proceeds in the form of interaction (though of very unequal forces, the economic movement being by far the strongest, most elemental and most decisive) and that here everything is relative and nothing is absolute–this they never begin to see. Hegel has never existed for them.
Marxists.org /archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_10_27.htm

In another letter Engels continues,

Hanging together with this too is the fatuous notion of the ideologists that because we deny an independent historical development to the various ideological spheres which play a part in history we also deny them any effect upon history. The basis of this is the common undialectical conception of cause and effect as rigidly opposite poles, the total disregarding of interaction; these gentlemen often almost deliberately forget that once an historic element has been brought into the world by other elements, ultimately by economic facts, it also reacts in its turn and may react on its environment and even on its own causes (Engels, Marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1893/letters/93_07_14.htm)

From these direct refutations it is clear that Marxism does not pose a one-sided or determinist relationship but a dialectical relationship between the base and the superstructure. The assertion that socio-political ideas are connected and correspond to the social division of labour does not in anyway imply that ideas play no role or merely a passive role in history.

By identifying social labour as the prerequisite of every society, the one practice that is common to all societies, historical materialism underscores that social labour alone can serve an objective bench mark for any kind of comparative analysis of society. An analysis of social labour can reveal what is common between different societies as well as what differentiates one society from the other. This objective bench mark makes it possible to pass from a mere description of ideas and events to a scientific explanation of these facts. That is why the analysis of social labour is the starting point of any materialist investigation of society.

Recurrence and regularity in social and economic relations in a given society is generalized as a social formation. In specific moment in the history of the social formation of a society there may be other modes of production besides the dominant mode of production. These subsidiary modes of production may either be remnants of the past or precursors to the future. In other words, whereas the analysis of a mode of production is the study of one complete economic system, the analysis of a social formation is the study of a specific society that may encompass more than one economic system/mode of production.

Historical Materialism: Critique of Unilinear Evolution

A pervasive view among a certain category of ‘Marxists’ is that historical materialism posits a universal historical scheme. They argue that all societies are destined to travel along the historical trajectory of ancient, feudal, capitalist and socialist modes of production. According to this view the main theoretical task, in relation to the study of non-European societies, is to delineate the historical periods in which each of these modes of production existed in the history of the specific society. In other words, the main task for such ‘unilinear evolutionists’ is to map non-European societies onto a universal historical schematic.

However, it is abundantly clear from the writings of Marx and Engels that they never upheld any such notion of a universal historical scheme. In fact, Marx explicitly rejected any attempt to, in his own words,

…metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of the marche generale [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man (marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/11/russia.htm).

Thus, rather than proceeding from a “general-historical philosophical theory” or a universal historical scheme to specific forms of society, the method of historical materialism, on the contrary, proceeds from the study of specific forms of society to understand the march of history. In fact, this study will also demonstrate that the manner in which the various forms of non-European societies have been subsumed into a European historical schematic is the reflex of colonial domination. In the words of Krader, “the superordination of the European categories corresponded to the superiority of the European artillery” (Krader ??, pg 113).

Let us for now turn to the phrase ‘uni-linear’ evolution. This phrase immediately suggests two qualities about history. First, that history only moves in one direction. Second, that it moves in that one direction direction in a straight line.

First, the notion that history only evolves in one direction is also not upheld by the writings of Marx and Engels. Engels wrote that just as natural science predicts a fairly certain end not only for the habitability of the Earth but even for its existence, similarly dialectical philosophy “recognizes that for the history of mankind, too, there is not only an ascending but also a descending branch” (Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach). Marx and Engels believed that humanity was still “a considerable distance from the turning-point at which the historical course of society becomes one of descent”. The reason why this line of possible historical descent does not feature prominently in their writings is quite simply because dialectical philosophy cannot be expected to write about something that has not yet come about. Nonetheless, it is clear that Marx and Engels were completely open, not only to an ascending evolution, but also to the inevitability of a descending evolution of history.

Second, the notion that historical evolution is linear is completely alien to Marx and Engels. Historical materialism upholds that history proceeds not in a straight line but in a dialectic. Engels observes “History moves often in leaps and bounds and in a zigzag line” (marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/appx2.htm). Clearly leaps and bounds and zigzags cannot be categorized as linear.

Some Marxist critics of ‘unilinear evolutionism’ propose that Marxism proposes a ‘multi-linear’ evolution of history. While this restatement certainly takes into account the reality that all societies do not follow a universal historical scheme, it still falls short of an understanding of history as a process of dialectical contradiction. In other words, multi-linearity continues to suggest that each societies evolve along a linear line of development. This notion, however, is quite clearly refuted by Marx and Engels themselves. They always upheld the possibility for each individual society, not only of historical ascend, but equally of historical descent and even destruction. For instance in the opening lines of the Communist Manifesto, they wrote that the class struggle may also lead to “the common ruin of the contending classes” (Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto).

In sum, both phrases, unilinear or multi-linear evolutionism, are totally misleading for the simple reason that historical materialism does not posit either a universal historical scheme nor a one-directional or purely linear development of society. To put it more succinctly, “The universal evolutionary development of mankind exists only as an abstraction; the particular evolutions are various and concrete.”


There has been a long debate in the social sciences between the relative merits of quantitative or a qualitative approach. Unlike natural science, social science deals with phenomenon that cannot be isolated in experimental conditions and studied quantitatively. Nonetheless, social sciences also attempted to increasingly adopt methodologies or ask questions that were quantitative in orientation. Naturally, this greatly limits the scope of social science since some of the most interesting questions concerning society elude a purely quantitative approach. A counter thrust towards qualitative methods in the last two decades pushed the pendulum back. In more recent times, most social scientists have accepted a combination of the quantitative and qualitative approach.

Historical materialism, however, has never regarded quantitative methods exclusively as scientific. Thus, one could say that Marxism has always argued for a combination of the quantitative and the qualitative. Capital, for instance, contains a host of material that is both quantitative and qualitative. In fact, the sole criterion of science, for historical materialism, is practice.

In his thesis on Feuerbach, considered to be the first breakthrough towards historical materialism, Marx wrote “The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question” (Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach). Similarly Engels says “The result of our action proves the conformity of our perceptions with the objective nature of the things perceived” (Engels, K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. II, Moscow, 1958, pp. 403, 101). In other words, life is the first and fundamental basis of knoweldge. In sum, the sole criterion of truth, according to Marxism, is whether or not a theory accords with reality. Marx and Engels never attempted to fit the facts of history to any historical schema, dialectical schema, or any other dogmatic apriori principle. The sole criterion of whether a theory was scientific, in their eyes, was whether or not it accorded with the facts of life.

Marx and Engels were also completely open to the imperfection and incompleteness of their notions. They were argued that no idea about the social life of humans could be completely confirmed or rejected. Therefore, it was correct to say that Marxism has an element of relativism in it. But Marx and Engels equally upheld the view that there were absolutes within the relatives. That in relation to other ideas, certain ideas could be refuted absolutely. For instance, in relation to the notion that thought exists independent of matter, materialism upholds that it is absolutely true that matter exists independent of thought. Thus, Marxism recognizes the relative nature of our knowledge, that knowledge is historically conditioned. Lenin writes “[Marxism] recognises the relativity of all our knowledge, not in the sense of denying objective truth, but in the sense that the limits of approximation of our knowledge to this truth are historically conditional.”

At the same time, Marxism cannot be reduced to relativism in knowledge because it upholds that humanity is in a never ending and infinite search towards the objective truth.

In conclusion, historical materialism is not a set of axiomatic conclusions about history but fundamentally a method. A method that accepts the objective existence of the world and regards conformity of ideas with life as the sole criterion of truth. A method that regards the pursuit of knowledge as a never ending journey. Historical materialism is not itself the objective truth. It is, rather, the only method through which one can search for the objective truth, coming closer and closer to it in an endless spiral without ever being able to achieve the absolute truth.

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