Paresh Chattopadhyay (1927–2023): Singleness of Purpose

Paresh Chattopadhyay

The eminent Marxian socialist scholar and critic of Lenin’s Marxism, Paresh Chattopadhyay (PC) passed away on January 14, 2023, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He was emeritus professor of political economy in the department of sociology at the University of Quebec, Montreal. With a mastery of Marx in the original and an admirable presentation of Marx’s thought, PC made his readers think and reflect over what he wrote.

As a young scholar and a State Doctorate in Economic Sciences (1964), University of Paris, a major influence was the French Marxian economist and historian, Charles Bettelheim (1913–2006), with whom PC had a close association over a long period. Undoubtedly, PC was influenced and inspired by Bettelheim’s magnum opus, Class Struggles in the USSR, First Period: 1917-1923 (1974), Class Struggles in the USSR, Second Period: 1923-1930 (1977), Class Struggles in the USSR, Third Period: 1930–1941, Part One: The Dominated (1994), and Class Struggles in the USSR, Third Period: 1930–1941, Part Two: The Dominators (1996), especially the first two volumes. But, with a critical, independent bent of mind, he disagreed with Bettelheim’s observations made in a 1985 mimeograph in French that Marxian concepts were insufficient in analysing the Soviet economy because of the “new forms of capitalist relations” in Soviet type societies. PC closely followed the Bettelheim–Sweezy (the latter, Paul M. Sweezy, 1910–2004) debate in the pages of the independent Marxist socialist magazine, Monthly Review.

By the 1980s, looking at Soviet history in the light of what Marx understood as socialism, and using Marxian categories to comprehend what had gone wrong, became PC’s singleness of purpose as a Marxian socialist scholar. Based largely on a stream of his published research papers between 1981 and 1993, PC published his first major work analysing the Soviet economy within a Marxian theoretical framework, using Marx’s method and categories – The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience: Essay in the Critique of Political Economy (1994).

In this book, capital as social total capital was conceived as a social relation of production and as the private property of a class, with the enlarged reproduction of the exploited wage labourers separated from the conditions of production. The accumulation of capital was the independent variable and the employment of labour the dependent variable. The Soviet economy, under the control of the “completely autonomized Party-State,” was spurred by the desperate attempt to catch up and surpass the advanced capitalist economies, mainly by quantitative expansion of production, lacking as it was in its capacity to revolutionise the methods of production. But such a mode of accumulation of capital reached its limit of absolute overaccumulation of capital, i.e., not being able to match the productivity increases in Western capitalism, leading to a fall in the rate of profit and difficulty in increasing the total surplus value/total profit, which formed the basis of the regime’s collapse. Like Bettelheim, PC characterises the Soviet economy as state capitalist, but comes to this conclusion with the help of Marx’s method of critique of political economy and capitalism, and Marx’s theoretical categories.

PC confronts both the idea that the Soviet economy was socialist, and alternatively, that the post-revolutionary society was neither capitalist nor socialist. The main proponent of this thesis was Paul Sweezy. PC’s refutation of Sweezy’s thesis didn’t quite convince me, but over here, I will leave the matter with a set of four questions: Doesn’t the logic of capitalist accumulation unfold from the mutual interaction of competing units of capital, on the one hand, and the class struggle between capitalists and workers, on the other, with the capitalists acting to maximise their profits and use them to expand their capitals? Doesn’t a capitalist state react to the unfolding of the laws of value and capital accumulation? Wasn’t it the case that in the post-revolutionary societies, the utilisation of the surplus product was not governed by the laws of value and capitalist capital accumulation, but instead became the central focus of the political process and political struggles? Wasn’t it a fact that, unlike capitalism, these societies did not have an autonomous economic foundation? [These questions arise from a close reading of Paul M. Sweezy’s Post-Revolutionary Society (1980)].

As to Marxian socialism, conceived originally by Marx as “a society of free and associated producers without state, commodity production, and wage labour” (PC), Soviet society completely lacked that human emancipatory character. The Party-State exercised its dictatorship over the proletariat, the producers having been transformed into wage labourers. For PC, the wage-labour relationship is deemed to be necessary and sufficient for the existence of capital and capitalism.

With his singleness of purpose, a series of three books followed – Marx’s Associated Mode of Production: A Critique of Marxism (2016), Socialism and Commodity Production: Essay in Marx Revival (2018), and Socialism in Marx’s Capital: Towards a De-alienated World (2021). After all, as PC himself put it in 2016: “Marx’s liberating idea of a noble and humane society as the real alternative to the nightmare that capitalism has led to is more relevant than ever before.” Marx’s Associated Mode of Production is, again, about how Marx envisaged the process of human emancipation as freedom, but tragically, the way in which those who considered themselves his disciples read and interpreted his texts as their guide to action stood Marx on his head.

For Marx and Engels, proletarian revolution was meant to be the work of the “immense majority in the interest of the immense majority,” wherein the proletariat, leading itself, was to first gain political power, then “expropriate the expropriators” by degrees, and assume the position of the ruling class, followed uninterruptedly by the “revolutionary transformation period.” Only at the end of this period, with the “disappearance of the capitalist class and with it the proletariat and the class rule altogether,” the revolution reaches its goal, inaugurating the Association of Free and Equal Individuals, this, a society “with no private ownership in the means of production and communication, no wage/salary system, no commodity-money relation and no state.”

But, PC argued, Marx’s disciples turned this libertarian conception of socialism into a Party-State affair – rule by a Communist party, not controlled by workers, with the means of production owned by the state, but “retaining the wage/salary system and commodity production.” PC argues that despite Lenin’s “original libertarian position,” close to Marx and Engels, in his State and Revolution, Lenin interpreted Marx wrongly on a few counts. Lenin mixed up socialism (calling it the first stage of communist society) with the period of revolutionary transformation when there is the need for a “dictatorship of the proletariat. “In Lenin’s understanding, as interpreted by PC, in a socialist society, there will be a state with controlled, disciplined, wage/salaried employees. PC calls this the “anti-Marx position of Lenin”.

The book, however, includes chapters on Marx’s 1844 Parisian manuscripts with its central theme of alienation and beyond alienation, Marx’s original exploration of political economy in 1844–1847; a Marxian portrait of post-capitalist society; the dialectic of labour in the critique of political economy; how Marx looked at women’s labour under capitalism (here PC also takes on feminists convinced of Marx’s “patriarchal bias”); Marx on the “global reach of capital” (“capital’s globalising tendency as its central characteristic”); crisis theory in Marx’s 1860s economic manuscripts; “market socialism” as a theoretical configuration; whether capitalist development is “a necessary precondition for the passage to the new society”; and Marx’s 1875 critical “marginal notes,” showing that Marx’s socialism was not even tried in “twentieth-century socialism.” PC uses the first fruits of the latest version of the MEGA (the Marx/Engels Gesamtausgabe) project, dedicated to publishing the complete manuscripts of Marx and Engels, which, he writes, is “free from any partisan political-ideological control. “Overall, the book shows that Marx’s (and Engels’s) ideas had been deliberately misinterpreted by those who “came to power under the banner of Marx, calling themselves communists,” this to “justify their own pursuit of political power.”

In Socialism and Commodity Production: Essay in Marx Revival (PC 2018), PC also takes on the anti-Stalin left, including “some of the most knowledgeable and open-minded Western scholars, such as (E. H.) Carr, (Issac) Deutscher, and (Paul) Sweezy, (who) came to believe that Lenin rather than Marx was right in holding that proletarian revolution could occur first, not in advanced countries, but in countries which were comparatively backward. “But, of course, the Party-State figures yet again. Marx posited that political parties, whose origins he traced to class antagonisms, would disappear with the transition to a classless society. And, the state, he considered as “an apparatus of coercion and repression,” which would have no reason to exist in a socialist society. And, bureaucracy, which he traced to the separation of state and civil society, he discerned as “a particular self-contained society within the state.” This whole superstructure of capitalist society is to be destroyed in the process of the proletariat gaining power.

In the new society, according to Marx, “there will no longer be government or state power distinct from society itself. ”PC stresses Marx’s anti-state position. The dictatorship of the proletariat in the political transition period, which will represent “the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority,” must be “the least repressive form of state.” Following the second Five Year Plan (1933–37), the rulers of the Soviet Union proclaimed the victory of socialism at the end of the period of proletarian dictatorship, but what was singularly absent was “the emancipation of the working classes” as understood in Marx’s sense. Readers of the book, Socialism and Commodity Production, however, will benefit from PC’s elegant exposition of commodity production; commodity production and socialism in Marx’s followers; socialist accounting; anarchist collectivism; guild socialism; market socialism; and the “problematic” of the non-capitalist road to socialism.

PC’s last book, Socialism in Marx’s Capital: Towards a De-alienated World (2021), makes a case for going beyond Marx’s critique of the Gotha Programme, by bringing in Capital and related work regarding political economy—the 1857–58 manuscripts, the Grundrisse, the 1959 Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and the 1881 last manuscript for volume two of Capital—into the discussion of socialism in Marx’s works. In Capital as a critique of the “bourgeois science” of political economy and of capitalism, Marx considered capitalism as a transitional society, which by its own organism, from its internal contradictions, generates the advent of socialism envisioned as an association of free and equal individuals.

PC reminds his readers that in his Afterword to the second German edition of Capital, Volume I, Marx wrote: “In so far as this critique represents a class it can only represent that class whose historical mission/profession [Beruf] is to revolutionise the capitalist mode of production and, finally to abolish classes.” For capital, in Marx’s understanding, as PC reminds readers, is a specific social relation of production represented in stock, means of production, accumulated labour, and so on, at a particular phase of human history.

The chapters on “Socialism and Emancipation” and “The New Society: Towards a De-alienated World,” whether one agrees with PC’s arguments/interpretations or not, are masterpieces in Marxian exposition. For instance, in PC explaining what Marx meant by “free individuals” in a “free society” in his conception of socialism—“individuals who are neither personally dependent as in different forms of slavery and serfdom, system[s] of caste and race servitude, and patriarchy, [and] not materially dependent as in capitalism,” this in a free society where there is “collective ownership of the means of production, and with no classes, no state and no pillars of oppression, exploitation, and alienation.” Or again, in PC’s exposition of Marx’s discerning of three broad stages in the evolution of the human society—one, wherein there is “subjective or personal dependence, “two, wherein there is “personal independence but objective or material dependence, “and three, in socialism as conceived by Marx, where there would be “free individuality with neither personal nor objective dependence. “The “appropriation of the ‘means of labour’ by the collective body of the freely associated individuals,” Marx expected, would take humanity towards a ‘reunion,’ which, once established, would complete the long transition from the society of “alienated, fragmented individuals” to one of de-alienated, “freely associated individuals.”

This writer, however, thinks that PC should have also stressed on the open-endedness of Marx’s materialist conception of history. Shouldn’t Marx’s principal hypotheses be carefully re-examined in the light of subsequent evidence, as a few Marxists have admirably done? Isn’t there a need to reconstruct and extend his critique of capital and capitalism, and political economy, in the light of subsequent developments, as a few Marxists have commendably done?

How then should I put the work of the Marxian socialist scholar, Paresh Chattopadhyay, over the last thirty years, the period following the failure of Marxism in the short twentieth century to achieve the goals set by Marx and Engels—the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist democracy—in perspective?

With the near dissolution of the intellectual and political environments in which Marxist intellectuals and Marxian scholars had been rooted, people have all been through challenging times. The wave of anti-Marxism; the seclusion, the solitude, and the isolation; fellow Marxian scholars/Marxist activists losing the force of their convictions, abandoning their Marxian/Marxist ways, and even (some) embracing post-modernism. And an ongoing “Marxist” disparaging of Marxian scholars critical of Lenin’s Marxism as anti-Marxist. Worse still, little evidence worldwide of proletarian internationalism; and even worse, a lot of evidence of workers, weighed down by bourgeois propaganda, under the sway of semi-fascist nationalism and other degrading passions.

That Paresh da, amid all of this, stuck to his singleness of purpose – admirably presenting Marx’s thought based on a close reading of Marx’s original works, in German, French, and English; looking at Soviet history in the light of what Marx understood as socialism; and using Marxian categories to comprehend what had gone wrong. [But, over the last three years, PC suffered from COVID, double pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, etc. But he didn’t give up the struggle, though over last year as his physical condition got worse, he began to lose his grip over many things. The odds of survival began to thin, even as his Jamaican caregivers lovingly looked after him till the very end. Here I am paraphrasing Rana Bose who cared for Pareshda like family.]

PC’s four books, mentioned above (PC 1994; 2016; 2018; and 2021), read with an open mind, can provide useful insights and lessons to Marxist activists worldwide in the struggle for socialism. Perhaps if he had avoided political invective, he could have reached a wider readership of Marxists. In Kolkata, besides the tiny Calcutta Marx Circle, and particularly Sankar Ray, PC’s works do not seem to have had much influence. How one wishes that Marxists adopt a spirit of cooperation in their debates, like Bettelheim and Sweezy did in the pages of Monthly Review, for then, such debates could lead to a synthesis of the views of the participants on the central issues.

At the time PC’s great work, The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience (1994) came out, so did the Hungarian Marxist philosopher István Mészáros’ (1930–2017) magnum opus, Beyond Capital: Towards a Theory of Transition (1995), with, among other things, a deep analysis of the failures of “real socialism.” And Mészáros too followed this up with books that went over this theme, for instance, in The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time (2008). For Mészáros, the Soviet Union was not capitalist, not even state capitalist, but the Soviet system was dominated by the power of capital (which had picked up the threads without capitalism) and the “capital system.” Going beyond capital means “going beyond capital as such and not merely beyond capitalism,” for the transformation to socialism involves not only eradicating capitalism, but, with it, the social organic “capital system,” and implanting another, a socialist organic system, capable of taking deep roots alongside the withering away of the state. How one wished for a debate between PC and Mészáros, in a spirit of cooperation, with the possibility of a synthesis on the central issue, but this was not to be.

In truth PC’s political invective and, at times, gratuitous anti-Lenin polemics, put off a number of Marxist intellectuals. Albeit the opposite was also the case—Marxian scholarly work critical of Lenin was dubbed anti-Marxism. For one thing PC should have kept in mind that Lenin is respected and admired by Marxists because, in 1914, he and Rosa Luxemburg denounced the Second International’s betrayal of international working-class solidarity. Moreover, the two were basically on the same page as revolutionaries—they both believed that revolutionary consciousness could be built mainly through revolutionary actions, and that revolutionaries should closely follow the trend of important developments so that they don’t have to be dragged along upon being found napping. The differences between Luxemburg and Lenin on communist organisational questions stemmed from the fact that Germany after the repeal of the anti-socialist laws was bourgeois democratic, whereas Russia was bourgeois autocratic.

PC’s critique of Lenin’s Marxism doesn’t appreciate the fact that in the period, 1917–23, Lenin was trying to preserve a long-term socialist perspective even as the weight of circumstances and conditions on the ground were obliging him to take the revolution towards realising realistic objectives. After all, didn’t the long-term trend of the capitalist “development of underdevelopment” on a world scale (continuing in the present), force revolutionaries in semi-peripheral/peripheral countries like Russia, China, Cuba, etc., who could not remain unmoved at their people’s plight, to take their people along in embarking on a long road to socialism, beginning on the basis of poverty? It is unfair to dismiss this as “Don Quixotism,” as PC does. Many of the industrial workers were half worker, half peasant, but Lenin and his comrades did all they could to raise the consciousness of the toiling classes for overthrowing capitalism.

And, it must be remembered, in a revolution, the lines across the proverbial barricade ultimately coalesce into two sharply polarised ones—in matters of life-and-death, “those who are not with us are against us.” Unfortunately, the “liberal”–socialist parties ended up in the counter-revolutionary camp. They did not seem to have learned any lessons from the fact that the Kadet Party had supported Kornilov’s aborted coup in August 1917.

This writer, however, broadly agrees with PC’s main thesis. In the Marxian conception of revolution, the revolutionary period came to be divided into three sub-periods, capitalism in the process of being overthrown, the transitional period—the time span of the transition to a classless society—during which there would be the need for a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and the initial period of socialism. There was an awareness that even after the first sub-period, the counterrevolution, invariably backed by imperialism, would have to be combatted and vanquished, lacking which, there would be a likelihood of failure, defeat, or betrayal.

However, in every case, after the first sub-period of the revolution, a tightly organised revolutionary party under non-proletarian elite leadership had come to power, expropriated the bourgeoisie and the landowners, and more or less centralised all the instruments of production in the hands of the state. That state was, however, not that of the proletariat (and the semi-proletarian poor peasantry) organised as the ruling class. The societies in the second sub-period of the revolution, therefore, could not be properly called, in the original Marxist meaning of the phrase, societies in transition to socialism. And, needless to say, the state was never in a process of withering away, made worse by the never-ending imperialist threat. The initial period of socialism never came. An autocratic elite—in command of the vanguard party, the technocracy, and the state bureaucracy—metamorphosed into a ruling class and, with the passage of time (in Russia, after 74 years), in a great leap backward, even restored capitalism. In the main, Professor Paresh Chattopadhyay is right (although this writer does not agree with his state capitalist thesis and his assessment of Lenin).

Paresh Chattopadhyay had a singleness of purpose. He made it his mission, as a Marxian socialist scholar and intellectual, to contribute to an understanding and clarification of what Marx and Engels, as revolutionists, considered necessary for the world’s proletariat to liberate itself and all the world’s oppressed, exploited, and dominated—the overthrow of capital and capitalism along with the state institutions capitalism had brought into being. And, for this project, Paresh Chattopadhyay underlined what should not be done, and what should never have been done.

Frontier
Vol 55, No. 34, Feb 19 – 25, 2023

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