Friday, June 10, 2016

Musings on the Communist Manifesto - I



(invited article for Mulyayan)

Introduction 

In the year 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels came up with a pamphlet, which they named “The Communist Manifesto”. The document bases its arguments on the then existing inter-class struggle, between the two classes, namely the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. It is important to evaluate the relevance of this document in the 21st century with reference to the definition, struggle and the plan of action mentioned in this document, in the Indian context.

In the course of this discussion, I will refer to the softcopy of “The Communist Manifesto”, that I downloaded from Project Gutenberg, Sparknotes – where a commentary on the Communist Manifesto is hosted [1], and the general knowhow about the cultural tapestry of India, and economy.

In this article, I do a comparative analysis of Indian culture and habits vis-a-vis “The Communist Manifesto” (TCM) and then attempt to conclude on the fitness of “communism” in the Indian context. Therefore, the following section introduces the basic definitions, required for this discussion.

Definitions 

If one were to refer to Merriam-Webster, communism is defined as a form of governance, where the government owns the things that are used to make and ship products. Wikipedia says that the upper middle class (haute bourgeois), the medium middle class (moyenne bourgeois) and the lower middle class (petit bourgeois), all come together to construct the Bourgeoisie. Furthermore, the Oxford concise dictionary defines the proletariat to be the set of working class people. Also, it is commonly agreed that there is a continuous, back-and-forth migration between the petit bourgeois and the proletariat. According to the TCM, the bourgeoisie is the owner of the instruments of production.

In India, it is commonly seen that there are three main classes, with their own sets of social moralities – (1) the upper class, (2) the middle class and (3) the lower class. As per the communist definition, perhaps, the middle class is divided into HIG, MIG and LIG (Higher, middle and lower income groups).

Contrary to the communist  “agenda”, the struggle perceived by the communists is against the big guns like Adani’s and Ambani’s, inspite of the amount of employment generated by them for Indians.

The geographical and temporal context

TCM begins with the following words “A spectre is haunting Europe -- the spectre of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.” Therefore, it is very clear that TCM talks about a political strategy in a very Europoean context of the 19th century.

The proposed political angles 

To understand the political angle of TCM, it is necessary to read the following paragraphs:

“… that the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling as to win the battle of democracy.
The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.”

Thus, winning the battle of democracy as a first step implies that there must be a set of people who would be willing to run for the elections against the existing government. In the current scenario, it is well known that running for the elections costs a lot of money, and therefore for the labour class to gather that amount of money might be a utopia. So there must be an assumption in the TCM, that there would be patrons amongst the bourgeoisie to facilitate this.

Therefore, let us assume for sometime, that the fund is raised for the electoral expenses, and that the election is won by a majority – by the proletariat. As a consequence of the win, TCM proposes the following steps for improvisation of a system:

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.
10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c., &c.

Analysis of the points of action

Let us now analyse these points of action in the Indian context.
1. Abolition of all property in land and the application of all rents of land to public purposes: 
This means that the land is not the property of an individual or a ground of individuals. The land is the property of the Government. People living on a piece of land will pay revenue to the Government. Since land is government property, in a communist regime, the government will have the power to snatch the land, when and where necessary. The payment of any compensation will not be therefore necessary. In the current scenario, where many cities are being developed as SMART cities, land acquisition is being carried out. It is being observed that there are multiple lawsuits / cases pending in the courts, regarding “proper” compensation for the acquisition.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax:
I assume that progressive or graduated income tax means that professions at various levels exist. In that context, a “graduated” income tax is comprehensible. However, it is not clear why the income tax has to be labelled “heavy”. While there was a seemingly democratic will to run for elections, is it the intent of the communist to punish the ex-ruling class?

Let us for the sake of an example, consider the case of a Goldsmith. While selling jewellery he cheats the customer regarding the number of carats. How would that be recorded?

Since India is traditionally known to be an agricultural country, the farmer is exempt from paying the income tax, as provided by the Income Tax Act, 2013. In a communist regime, will the farmer be required pay a tax?

3. Abolition of the right to inheritance: 
The rights of inheritance in India are defined by the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, the Indian Succession Act, 1925 and the Quran, where successions is religiously discussed. I am not aware of the succession rules of other religions of India. Attempting to abolish or change these “religion-based” rights of inheritances would open up pandora’s boxes and speeches on uniform civil codes and personal laws.

It is also not clear in the context of TCM, that if the father has worked hard to earn his living and gather some property, who shouldn’t the wife, son or daughter be eligible to inherit the fruits of the hard work?

4. Confiscation of property of emigrants and rebels: 
While the word emigrant is clear, the communist manifesto does not define the word rebel, since one of the words preluding the points of action is democracy. So I go to the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary and find the meaning for the word rebel. And it says - “a person who opposes or fights against a government”  This implies, that there is no scope for a personal opinion in a communist government.

5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and exclusive monopoly:
In India there are nationalized banks, wherein RBI is the ombudsman. To some extent, these banks help in storing the money of the people. Since a communist regime talks about exclusive monopoly, it means that there is no space in the market for any other government or privatized bank. Given this scenario, and the techniques of modern computer warfare, (assuming that the bank would rely on computerized accounts, pass books and cheques), it would be perfectly possible for any outside agency or conspirator, to loot the tax-payer’s money from the bank’s coffers.

6. Centralization in terms of communication and means of transport: 
As on date, India is experiencing the democracy of the media and the communication channels. There are multiple news channels, and each with a different flavour. There are different communication networks in terms of mobile, postal, etc. People can chose which channel or media to use for updates, news, or entertainment. Given a communist regime, this variety will no more be available. This has a big loophole. A single, government controlled communication channel is susceptible to large scale snooping.  Therefore, if there were a pretty casual telephone conversation amongst two friends criticising the government, under point number 3, the assets of the two interlocutors may be confiscated by the government.

7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan: 
This point talks about the instruments of production owned by the state and therefore one may wonder, if there were a possibility of private ownerships, under this point of action. Since the proletariat aims to “wrest” all instruments of production, this is not a possibility. Therefore, I see a society where everybody is wearing the same kind of shirt, the same brand of shoes, the same pair of glasses, and if there were a factory producing hair dyes, it might be mandatory to wear the same dye for everyone, ignoring the fact whether one requires it or not. The cultivation of waste lands and improvement of soil quality are issues that need to be supported in an Indian context.

8. Equal liability of all to labour; creation of industrial armies; especially for agriculture: 
The merit of this point is the emphasis on agriculture. In the light of the food security act, passed by the Government of India, focusing on agriculture would be a huge boon for the people. If we juxtapose this point with point number 1, it would imply that the farmer will not possess the land, but would be working for the state. Most of what would be produced by the farmer would be taken away by a communist government and would be put in grain silos. This may open an opportunity for people in power to steal from the silo.

In India, one can choose to become an industrialist, a scientist, a manager, a white collar job office guy or a blue collar job labour person. The Indian constitution does not impose any restriction on the choice of profession. The choices are usually governed by the intellect and bent-of-mind of an individual. On the contrary, this point apparently implies that everybody could be “forced” to do a certain kind of work whether he likes it or not. Moreover, this opens a window for the existence of an authoritarian overseer for the errands to be run by people in the communist regime. In summary it can be said that this point ignores the fact that everyone cannot do everything.

9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country
This point implies that agriculture should be treated equally as any other production industry. The equable distribution of population over the country, in the current scenario, would mean that all parts of the country should have equal opportunities for employment. If we juxtapose this with point number 8, it is an addendum to ensure that everyone has equal liability of all to labour. However, this point ignores the fact that a uniform spatial distribution of all industries, may not be a feasible idea in a country like India. Also, as on date, agriculture and agricultural produce are likely to suffer from pollutants and therefore, if done in an unplanned fashion, the distinction between town and country can become a nightmare.

10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production. 
This point mentions “public” or government schools which would provide education. But does this mean that there is an opportunity for private education? Does this open a hidden window for elitist education?

Child labour is already a crime, and has been handled by the Child labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 [4]. However, I am personally aware of issues where children are working, and when concerned voices were raised, the parents of the children responded with two options – “Either our child works and brings in money, or he steals from people”. TCM does not provide and answer to this scenario. This might sound like a stupid justification for child labour, but this will continue to be a “worthy” argument, until the people of India make concerted efforts to facilitate the fundamental right to education, as provided in the Constitution of India.

It is also not clear, what TCM means by combining education with industrial production. With whatever experience I have, it might mean any of the following: (a) Educated students be presented as marketable products (this might have a hint of slavery), (b) students be provided vocational or industry oriented education; or (c) people learn while working in the industry. It is not clear from the manifesto about the fate of scientists, doctors, teachers, engineers, literary people etc., but if we juxtapose this with point number 2, it might be an indirect implication for their existence in a communist regime.

Relevance of communism in India

The last few lines of TCM, read as follows:
“The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation, and with a much more developed proletariat, than that of England was in the seventeenth, and of France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.”

It is mentioned earlier that TCM was written in the context of Europe, and therefore these few lines reaffirm my interpretation of the same. However, the following lines make us to raise our eyebrows:

“In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.”

In my interpretation of this sentence, this is what an academician would call “hand-waving”. It is a casually made loose comment for the rest of the non-European nations. Marx was probably focusing on America, but I think he forgot his geography in that while.

India is a nation with a 5000+ years cultural history and existence. Although attacked by vandals, many a times, unlike other countries, India has been able to retain its cultural and social fabric. It has been able to preserve its scriptures and moral values (to some extent). Therefore, a communist government turning the whole social and political order of things seems more than unlikely. Further, TCM is also not clear what would happen in situation of conflict. For example, Marx’s version of communism has talked about rebels (see earlier section) and methods of handling them. The manifesto does not make any provision for a coup attempt on the government. In fact, making a provision for the handling of “rebels” is similar to making provisions for apostacy in a certain religion.

Labour conditions in India 

India, has a share of its own class struggles: the educated vs otherwise, the “cultured” vs the otherwise, the “elite” vs the otherwise, the “north Indians” vs the “south Indians”, “brahmins vs non-brahmins”, “the higher castes vs the lower castes”, etc etc. Amongst these, the labour conditions, and its corresponding class struggles are the most startling. As mentioned earlier, there is an issue of social morality dividing the classes. When there is an interaction amongst members of various classes, people in the “socially” higher class tend to bully the people from the “lower class”. Bullying in the Indian society starts from taunts about cleanliness and education, but making sure that both aren’t available for the “lower classes”. Inspite of a very well-written constitution with provision of fundamental rights, there are only a countable few who would desire to have these right facilitated. Since this Oppresor vs Oppressed system is highly prevalent in India, even amongst the self proclaimed “holy” communists, (Yes, they do the same things in their personal lives), it cannot be said that the TCM has proposed a very ideal lifestyle.

Conclusion

In this article, we discussed some aspects of “The Communist Manifesto (TCM)” and the relevance of these aspects in the current Indian context. It is seen that TCM, contains a lot of words favouring the labour of a country. However, given the political angle of TCM, it is highly likely that a communist government can become totalitarian, a thief and also a hoarder. Thus, in my humble opinion supporting a set of communists in India will be equivalent to bearing a totalitarian government.

[1] http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/61
[2] http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/communist/section1.rhtml
[3] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/communism
[4] http://www.childlineindia.org.in/child-labour-prohibition-and-regulation-act-1986.htm

1 comment:

Arup Dasgupta said...

I would like to draw differences between communism, socialism and egalitarianism. I would consider Gandhi to be an egalitarian, and Nehru to be a socialist. To be egalitarian is a matter of personal choice. You do not disturb the existing social structure though you may choose not to follow its mores. Socialism on the other hand does bring about certain societal changes by law. Communism, as you have found out, is more rigid, abrasive and punitive.

I believe in India it is socialism that can work. There have been many thinkers who have spoken up against certain social practices like caste and called for religious tolerance. Barring the Naxals, Indian communists abjured violence and by joining the parliamentary system became more socialist than communist except for our Marxist friends who use violence as a way to put down opposition.

I do believe that communism as per the manifesto cannot take root in India for the above reasons.