Marx@200 – Neither the beginning, nor the end

Marx and Marxism remain to be the eternal hope of oppressed classes the world over!  Marx’s theories evoke extreme reflections, from pure and uncritical love at one end, to equally uncritical hatred at another end, with mixed reactions from various other shades of thinking.  It’s quite natural of any thinker who stands for revolutionary changes.  Marx, for me, stands for the state of human thought process at a particular stage in its history, a necessary and compelling intervention at a particular point of time, in the milieu of a particular factual matrix.  He interrupted the discourse of ideas, and introduced a permanent wedge in the idealistic-contemplative philosophies, and it was a powerful disjuncture! He created an inevitable presence in all the future intellectual discourse and peoples’ actions.  A compelling presence in all the later human discourse as‘pre-Marx’ and ‘post-Marx’ diction and usage!

But he is neither the beginning, nor the end of a process. Several of his predecessors, the so called ridiculed ‘utopian socialists’ such as Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen et al, and even the so called liberal or capitalist theoreticians such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, David Ricardolaid a road for understanding the idea of ‘value’ of a ‘produce’.  In this process, we can’t even ignore the great contribution of anarchist, like Bakunin and others. Marx can definitely be credited with a very serious effort on his part to steer through the way from the fog of mere idealistic pretensions, by attempting to introduce forcefully certain scientific methods of his time in social studies. He didn’t, by any stretch of imagination, abruptly emerge beyond context, and beyond time-space matrix. But his disciples have created a mystique image of him in their anxiety to universalize him for all times, and for all contexts.  In fact, such process of universalizing Marx, and for that matter any human being, is unscientific, and anti-Marxian.

Maybe, he is one of the greatest visionaries this world had ever produced, and a great mind which had trodden some hitherto un-trodden paths. Maybe, he can be further considered as one who had re-erected the upended project of philosophy on its feet.  He may also be credited with the greatness of introducing the rigor of scientific methods in social sciences in general, and political economy in particular, and as the one who offered course correction to the dream project of many of his predecessors of realizing an egalitarian society.  But all this he could achieve is not out of any vacuum, but on the basis of the received wisdom of his time.  His dedication to research is unparalleled.  His efforts to understand the ‘value’ of a produce in terms of the labour-time invested into it, is also radical.  But his concepts on the accumulation of surplus value on the side of the capitalist only as a result of exploitation of labour or labour-time, as a factum within a system, may not satisfy the further enquiry.  As Rammanohar Lohia, one of the greatest contributors to the Indian thought of socialism, pointed out in his essay, “Economics after Marx”, the development of capitalist societies need also to be understood as a construction on the blood and sweat of colonial workers.  The surplus of capitalist, in a capitalist system, is not the result of pure internal, inter-systemic exploitation of labour time by the capitalist.  Such construction is one of the reasons for the absence any revolutionary action, or if any, only brief in time, on the part of the working class of advanced capitalist societies.  A reading of U.S trade union history explains this abundantly.  With some exceptions, the trade union histories of many developed countries vouchsafe for it.

When a generation recollects it’s past, assesses the contribution of a great thought of earlier periods, the memories can’t be restricted to just writing an elegy.   By eulogizing Marx, by positioning him and his thought as transcendental, by elevating his theories beyond questioning, by ridiculing the questions that continue to haunt the human mind about the correctness of some of his propositions, by quoting him out of context for every challenge that had come in the way of later human endeavour does not do good even to Marx.  If, in our enthusiasm to be called as a better Marxist, project him as impeccable-eternal truth for all situations and for all times, for all regions and for all momentous challenges, universal and transcendental, by projecting him as ‘supreme being’ and thus deifying, we may temporarily secure some young and uninitiated minds to our side.  But, then, we are rendering the greatest harm to the further development of socialist thought.  We have also to see more and more Arthur Koestlers, Louis Fischers writing different elegies – The God that Failed?

We can’t fail to see that the systems established by, and in the name of Marx, in Russia, East Europe, and China have turned out to be the centres for violation of all human rights.  My intellect can’t be satiated by terming the rights as bourgeoisie rights.  The fall of empire after empire during 1980s and 1990s is still fresh in my memory.  As the young man growing through those days, while reading Marxism on one side, and “The God That Failed” on the other side, the unfolding events have shaken my faith in all theories.  Blaming capitalist propaganda or conspiracy for its fall appeared to me unconvincingly bad then, and now.  There must be internally something within the main text that had caused the degradation.  The element of violence, the roots of undemocratic approaches, the ideas of secrecy, the intellectual impetuosity, the condemnation of all opponents – is within, and not without.  The external environment might have contributed to quicken the process, but it can’t be accorded the status of primacy.  Some Marxists argue that there is nothing wrong in the basic theory, but incorrectness crept in Marxist praxis because of its later practitioners.  But this also doesn’t quench my intellectual thirst.  This is one of the oldest explanations given by every religion – “My basic texts – the Books, are always correct, and for any defect in its translation into action the blame is attributable to its interpreters and practitioners.”

Marx@200 does not only offer an opportunity to praise Marx, but also for deep reflections on its inadequacies and failures, its limits and extent.  It is the time to reflect upon as to why it could not convince many countries and regions.  Marx also cannot escape from his responsibility, for all that was realized in his name, and in the name of those who claim to have understood him better than the other lesser mortals.  The suffocating citizens of the erstwhile USSR, the German Wall, the cries of Poland workers for bread and butter, the Tiananmen Square etc., all ring through my memories.  These are inescapable parts of the Marxist history of action, a fact which cannot be ignored or brushed aside lightly as mere aberration.    The sources for these atrocious deviations are not just external.

Another question that troubled me always has been – do we have answers for all the momentous challenges that came in the way of human advancement in Marx writings?  Post-Marx economies, the two World Wars, the developing and underdeveloped nations and regions, the anti-colonial struggles of India, Africa etc., the post-modernism, the consumer-oriented economic order, the globalization, the environmental degradation out of developmental models of both the capitalists and the communists, the big industries, the unbridled exploitation of nature for satisfying the human greed, the advances of science culminating in the atom bomb, the researches into biotechnologies, the advent of information technology, the artificial intelligence (AI), the robots, the loss of working hands etc., challenge the very human existence on earth.  But Marxists try to quote one or the other sentence from Marx to answer every challenge – a typical method followed by all priests of all world religions!

In my humble endeavors I found some solutions in Gandhi or in Nehru or in M.N. Roy or in Lohia or in Ambedkar.  There are some remedies in Buddha or Jesus or in Hinduism, or in Islam.   There are some explanations in the simple life of a tribal living in harmony with the nature or in the Asiatic or African lives of yester years.   I have, of late, found more answers in Gandhi.Man’s quest doesn’t end with satisfying economic needs, or social equality.  The dream of spiritual realization is not an abandoned project by human beings, despite of Marx’s powerful intervention or even that of many positive sciences.  The need of internal peace continues to haunt the human beings even after he or she reaches the peaks of materialist achievements.  No one’s single thought is a final statement on human affairs.   The ‘Gurus’ are the victims of their own disciples.  They are preventing the gurus from realizing their follies by constructing fortified structures around them.    Marx needs to be rescued from Marxists in order to be placed in a historical context, and I hope with all sincerity at my command that it doesn’t in any way reduce his greatness.  By appreciating inadequacies of a thought it grows further.  Marx had examined the conditions of working class at a particular stage of human history, made some great insights into the problem of value of a produce, and the accumulation of ‘surplus value’, and anticipated in his own dialectical-materialistic historical process an intensification of class antagonisms, consolidation of classes into the Capitalist and the Proletariat, and the eventful revolutionary change in ordering the society under the vanguard of the socially advanced class – the Proletariat, which would end all the class contradictions.  In the skillful and creative hands of Lenin and Mao, it saw its realization.  But that is not the end of the history and the last man.  Even the fall of communist States all over the world is not the end of history.   It is neither the beginning nor the end; it is a continuum, where the wheel of history is imposing its inexorable laws, where the human nature accepts the challenges of history from time to time, irrespective of victories and defeats.  The human endeavor for more equal, and more and more egalitarian social order is a relentless and ongoing process, and the solutions demand more and more innovative thinking and action from many, and more.  We have to locate Marx in this process as one of the important stages of our collective thought, neither as the beginning, nor as the end statement or an epilogue or a curtain call.

Dr. A. Raghu Kumar


Dr. A. Raghu Kumar

If God held all truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hand the persistent striving for truth … and should say, ‘Chose!’,  I should humbly bow before his left hand and say, ‘Father, give me striving.  For pure truth is for thee alone.”  – Gotthold Lessing

While Otto Von Bismarck, the conservative Prussian statesman said: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best”, Albert Einstein, the world’s acclaimed physicist said: “Politics is more difficult than physics”.  The one denies the absolute truth in politics, and the other finds the difficulty of finding even relative truth in politics.  Politics is pursued in the real and living world, not in a sober and silent laboratory, though sometimes the real and living world also can function as an experimental field by some social scientists.  However for many, both intellectuals and the commoners, the idea that truth can be pursued or perceived in politics is a big enigma.  Before Gandhi politics was always considered more as maneuvers with ethics at the end of the spectrum.  Gandhi took politics to high moral firmament.  Post-Gandhi, no Gandhian ever endeavored to continue the experiment for search of truth in politics, in the rigor of Gandhi.  The exigencies and expediencies do not permit a practicing politician for such endeavors.  Many, even among those who claim to be following Gandhi, find ‘means’ labyrinthine and hope to revert back to means, after attaining the ends.  Many idealists failed in this process of choice between means and ends ending up in abdicating the very idealism which inspired them into action.  The great ideal of ‘communism’ or ‘socialism’ stands as the bizarre historical experience in the dilemma of means and ends.  On the occasion of the 150th year celebration of Gandhi’s birth, it is a worth exercise to look unto the truth as conceived by Gandhi, and his means of ascertaining truth.

Gandhi, a saint or politician?In ‘Young India’ 12 May 1920 Gandhi replied to such a question: The accusation was: “Mr. Gandhi has the reputation of a saint but it seems that the politician in him often dominates his decision. …”In his reply Gandhi wrote:“… Now I think that the word ‘saint’ should be ruled out of present life.  It is too sacred a word to be lightly applied to anybody, much less to one like myself who claims only to be a humble searcher after truth, knows his limitations, makes mistakes, never hesitates to admit them when he makes them, and frankly confesses that he, like a scientist, is making experiments about some of ‘the external verities’ of life, but cannot even claim to be a scientist because he can show no tangible proof of scientific accuracy in his methods or such tangible results of his experiments as modern science demands.  … the politician in me has never dominated a single decision of mine, and if I seem to take part in politics, it is only because politics encircle us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries. …

            … I have been experimenting with myself and my friends by introducing religion into politics.  Let me explain what I mean by religion.  It is not the Hindu religion, which I certainly prize above all other religions, but the religion which transcends Hinduism, which changes one’s very nature, which binds one indissolubly to the truth within and which, ever purifies.  It is the permanent element in human nature which counts no cost too great in order to find full expression and which leaves the soul utterly restless until it has found itself, known its maker and appreciated the true correspondence between the maker and itself.”[1]

Elsewhere Gandhi said: “The whole gamut of man’s activities today constitutes an indivisible whole.  You cannot divide life, social, economic, political and purely religious, into watertight compartments.  I don’t know of any religion apart from human activity.  It provides moral basis of all other activities, which they would otherwise lack, reducing life to a maze of sound and fury signifying nothing.”[2]  What is good and moral for one department of life must be so to the rest.There cannot be one individual truth, and another collective truth,one private truth and another public truth. The above expressions of Gandhi reflect his understanding on the issues of inter-relationship between religion and politics, and the necessity of reconciling the two areas.  The West in its approach to the modern State has introduced a clear wedge between politics and religion, the King and the Church, through an idea of ‘secularism’.  Though the idea of governance on the basis of secularism, and politics as ‘pure politics’ distanced the State from the issues of religion, ethics and morals, the governments of the West cannot be said to be irreligious, and the statecraft in the West is frequently visited by religious invocations on occasions.  In the Eastern countries religious appeals are always all pervading.  It’s in this background we need to further examine Gandhi’s ideas on politics and religion in terms of his basic postulation – ‘truth’.

            Anthony J. Parel examines Gandhi’s philosophy as an idea of reconstitution of the four aims of life-Purusharthas i.e., dharma (ethics and religion) artha (wealth and power), kama (Pleasure) and moksha (liberation from samsara, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth).  ‘Purusharthas’ are one of the foundational concepts of Hindu religion and constitute means of human striving directed towards ‘overcoming fate and karma’ and ‘any of the four canonically recognized aims of the life.’[3]“He (Gandhi) belongs to the group of forward-looking thinkers who want to explore new ways in which the theory of the Purusharthas might be made to work.”[4]Though the religion had been the basic foundation of entire Gandhi’s philosophy, his idea of religion is qualitatively different from conventions and traditions, and his concept of the State is quite modern.  He had whole heartedly embraced the modern idea of nation, albeit a non-violent nation.  In this respect, as in some others, he was definitely modern.[5]But his modernity is an alternate to the known meaning of modernity.  As David Hardiman in his seminal work “Gandhi in his time and ours” argues the difficulty flows from the term ‘modernity’ itself.[6]

In Hind Swaraj (1909) Gandhi attacked the common view that progress of a civilization could be judged in terms of the sophistication of machines, technology and weapons, and the standards of material comfort enjoyed by a society.  Such yardsticks ignored issues of morality and religious ethics.[7]In later years, Gandhi accepted that in practical terms it was not possible to totally deny many attributes of modern civilization such as railways, hospitals, law courts, industries and forms of government such as Parliament.  He said in 1926: ‘there is much we can profitably assimilate from the West. … My resistance to Western civilization is really a resistance to its indiscriminate and thoughtless imitation based on the assumption that Asiatics are fit only to copy everything that comes from the West.[8]The charge that Gandhi was anachronic was questioned by Parel, when he specifically draws out attention to the Guajarati word Praja invoked by Gandhi for nation, in his Hind Swaraj.  In contrast to religious and ethnic nationalism of the type put forth by Muhammad Ali Jinnahof Indian Muslim League in his ‘two nation theory’, or by M. S. Golwalkar of RSS in ‘We or Our Nationhood Defined’ and ‘Bunch of Thoughts’, Gandhi’s was a ‘civic nationalism’[9]  i.e., a political community animated by the principles of civic nationalism.While Jinnah uses the religion for division, and the Golwalkar uses the same to fortify his idea of ‘akhandbharat’, a kind of forced unity.   Gandhi argued that India was not a nation but a civilization.  He argued: “I have never heard it said that there are as many nations as there are religions on earth.  If there are, it would follow that a man changes his nationality when he changes his faith.  Thus (according to this logic), the English, Egyptians, Americans, Japanese etc., are not nations, but Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Buddhists are different nations no matter where born.  I am afraid, the logic (on which the argument is being defended) is very weak in maintaining that nations are or should be divided according to their religions.”[10]           Thus Gandhi was not anachronic and in fact more progressive and inclusive but with different language not familiar to the Western mind.  Hind Swaraj can be considered as the first comprehensive political statement of Gandhi. 

            “To understand Gandhi’s activity,” says Romain Rolland[11]  “it should be realized that his doctrine is like a huge edifice composed of two different floors or grades.  Below is the solid groundwork, the basic foundation of religion.  On this vast and unshakable foundation is based the political and social campaign.”  He continues to say: “In other words, Gandhi is religious by nature, and his doctrine is essentially religious.  He is a political leader by necessity, because other leaders disappear, and the force of circumstances obliges him to pilot the ship through storm and give practical expression to his doctrine.”[12]

            Gandhi described his utopia as ‘enlightened anarchy’ contends VinitHaksar.[13] Sir C. Sankaran Nair (1857-1934) President of the Indian National Congress for 1897 and member of Viceroy’s Executive accused Gandhi of being an anarchist in his book “Gandhi and Anarchy” (1922).There is one frequently quoted statement of Gandhi according to which State “represents violence in a concentrated and organized form”[14] which is used to fortify the idea that Gandhi was in fact an anarchist.  RaghavanIyer also saw a conflict in Gandhi’s demands of truth and non-violence and that of the State.[15]Bikhu Parekh holds that Gandhi was unhappy with not just the modern State, but the State as such’.[16]But Parel differs with this ideaand says:  ‘The State according to Gandhi is an institution necessary for the realization of the values of artha.’[17]The fact is that he did defend the State, the constitutional State, a “parliamentary swaraj” and his State “will be centralized enough to provide for internal order and external security, and coercive enough to meet all its constitutional obligations.”[18]What he rejected in Hind Swaraj and elsewhere is only the absolutist and aggressive model of the State, and the modern notion of “national interest” as the supreme rule of state conduct.  However, he recognizes the ethical supremacyand the primacy of the moral law (dharma) over the State law.

            Means and Ends:   If liberation is the end, it can have only liberating means.  Since his days in South Africa he was in search of a method or technique of resistance which would suit his path of truth.  The technique must be in consonance with the fundamental moral principles which guide our other parts of life.  In his philosophy, life is an integral act, and we cannot have one truth and one method for individual liberation and a different truth and method for social liberation.  His approach was variously called as passive resistance, civil disobedience, non-co-operation etc.  But Gandhi was not convinced of any expression, and he ultimately had chosen the word ‘satyagraha’ which means the pursuit of truth and steadfastness therein.The idea of Gandhi’s Satyagraha is ‘a method in startling opposition to that of our European revolutionaries’, saidRomain Rolland.[19]The Western mind is trained to think of social change only in terms of conflict or contradiction of class interests and force to resolve the conflict, and the idea of appealing to the good conscience of the opponent, though sufficiently Christian, in practice of politics it was rarely invoked. 

            ‘Means’or ‘the principle of purity of means’ is the essence of Gandhi’s social action.  He holds that ends and means are convertible terms.  Ends are only the end results of the means used.  If the latter deviate from the moral law, the end, whatever its outward appearance, will not be the one desired and worked for.  If a person is responsible for the ends he keeps before himself, he is equally responsible for the means he uses.“They say means are after all means.  I would say means are after all everything.”[20]Gandhi’s truth is integral, highly experimental and ever evolving, not static and defined forever.  From his childhood till his death his life was a series of experiments in realization of that truth, sometimes rescinding his own earlier idea of truth.  In his initial days Gandhi believed that God is Truth. But he had to change his mind for he later found that Truth was God.  In other words the ‘Supreme Reality’ is Truth, not God.  Truth has to be discovered and established through Truth itself.  “SatyamevaJayate” or “Truth alone Triumphs” is one of the oldest sayings in India.

However, Gandhi never claimed that he had, once and for all, discovered the ‘ultimate truth’ or ‘was seeking such a thing’. “The little fleeting glimpses, therefore, that I have been able to have of truth hardly convey an idea of the indescribable lustre of Truth, a million times more intense than that of the sun we daily see with our eyes.  In fact what I have caught is only the faintest glimmer of that mighty effulgence.”[21]PannalalDasgupta, the erstwhile leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party realized that Gandhi was indeed a revolutionary extraordinary.  While distinguishing scientific truth and Gandhi’s Truth Pannalal says[22]: “The scientific outlook precludes a subjective approach.  The vision of a poet or an artist is essentially subjective.  If we analyze the scientific temperament of Gandhiji by this standard, we will see how single-minded was his pursuit and practice of objectivity”.

Erikson says while dealing with the inconsistencies of Gandhi’s truth: “There is nothing more consistent in the views of Gandhi’s critics than the accusation of inconsistency: at one time he is accused of sounding like a socialist, and at another a dreamy conservative; or, again, a pacifist and a frantic militarist ; a nationalist, and a “communalist”; an anarchist and a devotee of tradition: a Western activist, and an Eastern mysticist; a total religionist and yet so liberal that could say he saw God even in the atheist’s atheism.”[23]   Even Judith Brown said: “Although Gandhi’s thinking had an inner coherence, it was not always consistent.  In his view, consistency was not a particular virtue, because he believed that he should primarily be a pilgrim, someone who was seeking truth, but who at no time would ever see the totality of truth.  He was therefore always intellectually and spiritually on the move, learning as he went along, expanding his understanding of truth and being prepared to leave behind visions of truth he came to feel were too narrow.”[24]

Gandhi’s ideas of truth, non-violence, his ideas of economics based on manageable machines, the idea of trusteeship etc., are considered as either impracticable or absolutely quixotic and utopian.  But, the problem is, Gandhi’s views are an organic whole, synthetic, integrating and reforming. “It is easy to find logical inconsistencies in synthetic thought,” said Kripalani,[25]  since, synthesis implies the union of opposites, that would always appear contradictory to formal logic.  Gandhi seeks to synthesis several dialectical opposites viz., the theory and the praxis, the ends and the means, the material and the spiritual, the individual and the collective etc.Gandhi poses several challenges before the present generation and mostly in our frontiers of political life. He places ethical and moral strands of the society more and above the political immediacies. He looks conservative in this area. He searches in the past and in tradition for some solutions.  Is there anything fundamentally wrong in looking towards a nation’s past for the solutions of the problems today?  Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, the British historian says[26]: “No one should ever feel ashamed of turning back to tradition.  Memory of what previous generations have learned is the foundation of all possible progress.  When traditions conflict, they need more care, not less: they should be keenly scrutinized, not casually discarded.” For many, Gandhi is part of our history and thus a tradition.  But a very rare and valuable alternative tradition that unifies the theory and practice by emphasizing truth which deserves revisiting again.

[1]RaghavanIyer, Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.I Clarendon Press.  Oxford, 1986 p.41-45

[2]J.B. Kriplani,Gandhi: His Life and Thought, © Publications Division, Govt. of India, 1970 (2005), P-353

[3]Anthony J Parel, (2006) Gandhi’s Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony, Cambridge University Press, p.3-5

[4]ibid, p.13

[5] ibid, p-31

[6]David Hardiman, Gandhi in his time and ours, Permanent Black © 2003, p-66

[7] Ibid, P-68

[8]Unity in variety, Young India, 11 August 1927, CWMG, 39:370

[9]Parel , op. cit., p.31

[10]Harijan,11 November, 1939, CWMG, 70:334-5

[11]Romain Rolland, Mahatma Gandhi, Publications Division, Govt. of India, New Delhi, Translation from the French by Catherine D. Groth, 1924:2004, p.15

[12]ibid, p.15

[13]VinitHaksar, Gandhi and Liberalism, Satyagraha and the conquest of Evil, South Asia Edn, Routhedge, Oxon & New York © 2018, p.224

[14]N.K. Bose, Selections from Gandhi, Navajivan, Ahmedabad, 1957, p.41

[15]RaghavanIyer, The Moral and Political thought of Mahatma Gandhi, The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, as considered byParel, op.cit., pp.64-65

[16]Parel , op.cit.,p.65

[17] ibid., p.52

[18] Ibid., p-52

[19]Romain Rolland, op.cit.,p-40

[20]J.B. Kriplani., op.cit., p-356

[21]M.K. Gandhi,  The Story of My Experiments with Truth – An Autobiography, NCBA (P) Ltd. London, p.523

[22]PannalalDasgupta, Revolutionary Gandhi, EarthcaseBooks, Kolkata, 2011 (2017) p.-9

[23]Erik H. Erikson, Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Non-violence, © 1969 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. p.396

[24]Judith M. Brown, Introduction Mahatma Gandhi – The Essential Writings, New Edition, OUP, © Editorial material and selection, 2008, p.ix

[25]J.B. Karipalani, Op.cit., p.323

[26]Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Truth – A History, © 1997, Bantam Press, London, p.223