Kosambi Circle meeting 6 notes

14 March 2020

2000 – 2230

Meeting notes


This was the sixth meeting of the KRAC done online via zoom, 28 people attended. Since a lot of material was discussed and some people wanted a second meeting the very next day, it continued on the 15th with 14 people turning up. Miliband's book Marxism and Politics was discussed and the topic of political theory of Marxism was discussed.


First the last meeting was quickly discussed and summarised. It was a good context because we were situating the theory of politics of Marxism which Miliband is trying to build in his book and relating it to our larger March discussion on electoralism and its limitations. One major limitation of Rosa's book (or for that matter Lenin) is the sheer optimism in how things would work out after the revolution, and no optimism not in the sense that class conflict with end, both Rosa and Lenin are utterly wary of counterrevolutionary forces, need to carry out the revolution for other social relations and resolving a series of contradictions etc etc, no what they are optimistic about is the political structure of the worker's state and it being better than the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie we live in, and it is this almost idealist dismissal of “the party question” or the “political theoritic question” that Miliband really criticises and attempts to fill in.


So the central question of the book being discussed is “what is/are the politics of Marxism?”

This is important because Rosa, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci etc have not managed to write about the politics of Marxism, which is surprising because of the sheer range of stuff they have written about. They have dissected everything from political economy, to philosophy, to unrelated stuff like the sciences but not much about the actual process of conquest, preservation, and maintenance of political power aside from tactical stuff. For example there is very little material on what should be done once a DoTP is achieved in different material conditions. The Bolsheviks, Miliband points out, once they were in power did realise the enormity of what faced them and did try to formulate some politics, but it is wanting.

What does Miliband mean by 'politics'?


He is talking about politics in the mainstream sense: the conquest of political power. But the Marxist view contends, rightly so, that the conquest of economic power is bound up with the conquest of political power, and this unfortunately leads to a tendency of 'economism' among a certain kind of Marxist political thinker who reduces all social relations to the development of the economy. While people like Rosa and Lenin (and even Marx and Engels) had identified this problem, it persisted then and persists now.


Marx contends (and his contribution to modern politics) is the understanding that there is no such thing as 'the state' separate from society. The state is the class of people who represent the capitalist class. The state has a monopoly on violence in order to enforce the will of the capitalist class. Miliband agrees with the basic Marxist view re: the class character of the state. He acknowledges that the state has a fundamental relationship with (1) the class and (2) the ideology that is dominant. This book is not questioning the premise of Marxism and it is very obvious the Miliband is a Marxist, what he argues is that the politics of Marxism is unclear. Miliband's important point here is that this vagueness on details also indicates that the link between Marx and his ideological successors (Lenin, Rosa, Gramsci etc) is not as obvious as they would like you to think, especially Marxist-Leninists are therefore highly contentious. Only Gramsci in his prison notes gives an indication of some kind of political theory, and Trotsky because of his historical positioning writes a bit about how existing socialist movements went (of course these are coloured due to his own complicated relationship with the soviet union). The complicated questions of politics and state building (for example Bakunin's questions to Marx on how exactly this Marxist state would maintain socialist democracy) are not addressed. What the party should do in the revolution, whether there should be one party or many parties, what should the party do after the revolution, etc. Engels's passage on the “withering away of the state” for example is hardly an answer. Similarly, the necessary authoritarianism of the revolution which Engels is talking about does not necessarily translate into the single party state of the Bolsheviks etc. Miliband argues that the characteristics of the Marxist corpus (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Rosa, Trotsky, Gramsci) are themselves quite contradictory. We can't just paper over he fragmentary nature of these writings and pretend they don't exist. Miliband also questions the use of philosophy to (attempt to) sideline all political question, this obsession with dialectical materialism as if it would solve these problems. He points out that the historical materialism of Marx was different from soviet state ideology and is not meant to be such a complete framework.

He points out the dearth of evolution of political theory in the socialist state. In many decades in the soviet union there was not a single meaningful critique of Lenin for example. In a lack of development of political theory there has been rather a race for “authenticity” with future ideologues trying their best to attach themselves to this great or that. Miliband says that while there were a lot of bad ideas floating around in the West at least after a point this obsession with the greats and not questioning them stopped. Here it was discussed that Mao was even more prescriptive and that ideological branch is essentially series of tactics.

Miliband goes deep into why economism needs to be eschewed and why we do need a separate focus on political theory as Marxists. He goes into the “base” and “superstructure” model Marxists use. Miliband is also arguing against utopianism of the “state will wither away in socialism” kind of thinking. At this point we also discussed a lot of Miliband's own politics and the factions within the Labour party in UK that time, and how after Miliband's era the party lurched rightwards, till it downright abandoned the social democratic project under Blair, only recently has it started to revive that internal politics.


In Chapter 2 of the book Miliband gives an excellent summary of Marxist foundations and what makes it different from, say, liberal politics. It is not unique to Marxism that there is a study of society as conflict or crises. Liberals think that conflicts can only be reasoned away through goodwill and mutual resolution among the aggrieved parties. But Marxists, like Miliband don't agree. In Marxism, it's not like there are some issues to be worked out between groups of people but that there are fundamental and irreconcilable differences between classes, classes formed due to the there are relationships to the means of productions with groups of people which is situated on expropriation of the labour of most people by a few. Not all citizens are equal. Politics stem from who owns what, so politics stems from who owns what. At this point we discussed how this related to the so called 'human-nature' debate a lot of us have faced while debating various kinds of liberal, that is the false notion that “being greedy is in human nature, so you can never have socialism” etc. Miliband also points out that Marxism does not fail to recognize race, ethnic, gender conflict or any other conflict. Its just that it situated any and all conflicts to the class nature of society at that point because that is the way to understand, materially, which class is dominant via the hold on resources and which isn't and thus relate it to these other oppressions. Thus to a Marxist, any and all oppressions can only be solved when there the problem of expropriation is solved, when class society is done with. Miliband is saying that Marx et al realize that the problems of superstructure are important, and perhaps there has been less work done on them than is due.


Miliband goes into details of what these classes are, what exactly is the “working class” and the “proletariat”. He first makes the case that the proletariat is both more than the traditional industrial working class because anyone who is waged is a worker and a lot of the non industrial waged workers are also oppressed in many forms, but also he doesn't include anyone who is waged and analyses them separately, after all there are a lot of people who are waged who have significant power in society (Miliband uses the term “scale of regard”) and their wages allow them a certain degree of comfort (the middle and upper echelons of waged workers). The question is how to get these workers to support their brethren was discussed, and the concept of “labour aristocracy” (well paid workers in the imperial core which Lenin theorised) was also discussed at this point. It was also discussed that whether we in the reading circle are primarily this category.


Miliband distinguishes this category of the middle/upper workers from the “executive class”, workers who not just are paid well but for all intents and purposes have the same class interest as capitalists as they mange and profit from the well being of the capitalist structure, like managers. But also other waged folk whose interests are the same as the same of the owners, including certain intellectuals etc.


Miliband also distinguishes all these kind of waged workers from the petty bourgeoisie which are not workers but small workshop owners, shopkeepers, anyone who owns their means of production and are in danger of being rendered into the working class by being out-competed with big capital.


Miliband also goes into how the classes in conflict in the third world are often different from these ones, including the revolutionary classes, and politically that requires a different analysis. We discussed whether these countries are capitalist or feudal. In this context the Miliband–Poulantzas debate was discussed which went into what a capitalist state is where Miliband had taken an instrumentalist position (policymakers share class interests with capitalists in capitalist state, so observe the social origin of the rulers) and Poulantzas a structural position (institutions of the state, not necessarily the elite only, serve capitalism in general in a capitalist state, the social origin of the elite/party is not the point, look at which class's interest the state is furthering)


As mentioned before some of these points were revisited on a short meeting on 15th. Especially Miliband's critique of the lack of political development in Marxist Leninist states. The question of how do we ensure that the socialist revolution is protected and advanced while ensuring the cause of democracy even within the revolution? Luxemburg argued that socialism is more likely to give you democracy, but capitalism would be happy to do away with democracy. But that does not mean again as Miliband had argued that this doesn't need to be worked at from the get go. The reading circle examined what Miliband calls the unfounded optimism of revolutionaries of the questions of the state being worked out once the revolution is won, why these questions of in what ways a socialist state would run need to be part of any platform.


The notion that the proletariat has false consciousness is something that Miliband goes into in certain depth and he is reluctant to be reductive about it, because he acknowledges the historical lesson that again there was too much optimism that the working class will figure out its class interest. He says working class is not stupid and they have their own class interests in mind, so calling it false consciousness just revels the dearth of political strategy of socialists. What is needed the socialist party actually needs to make a better case for socialism to the masses.


It was also discussed (in line with developments since Miliband's debte) that in the modern capitalist state, the parts of the state that are making people the ideal capitalist subject has very little direct state control. It's almost like the state has franchised its capitalist ideology. Capitalist ideology then reproduces itself without any intervention or guidance from the state. So this is not just all about the capitalist state, there is a hydra-headed capitalist apparatus that needs to be countered on many fronts. The ways that capitalism reproduces its ideology also changes over time.