The character of the Indian state – Choppam


The following explanation on the character of the Indian state was written around 2010, however we feel the basic principles laid out here are still valid. 

What kind of state is India, and why does it matter?

Why does it matter what kind of state India is?

For a workers movement in struggle, the character of the demands put forward is crucial. Transitional demands urging the movement forward need above all a clear objective towards which the transition is taking place. As well as a clear starting point from which the transition is departing.

The character of a state determines both the starting point and the objective of the transition. And this means it determines the priorities for revolutionary action. Are they historical (e.g. getting rid of feudalism), or national (e.g. emancipation from colonial rule)? In this case they are bourgeois democratic priorities. Are they rural (e.g. land reform)? This is a democratic priority directly challenging the landowning bourgeoisie. Or are they urban (e.g. working conditions, employment, etc)? In this case they are directly socialist.

The different priorities posit different potential alliances – sometimes cross-class when bourgeois democratic objectives are concerned. Sometimes firmly class-based where working class objectives are concerned.

To gain the confidence of the working class and win the leadership of the proletariat, revolutionary priorities need to be visible always and everywhere. And if they are off-target in any way, working class confidence will suffer.

The Indian state – alternative characterizations

India can be characterized in a number of different ways, with each alternative representing a point or node of development in an historical spectrum. Broadly speaking, the spectrum covers two stages. The first is national oppression – from colonial exploitation (the old imperialism) by way of national liberation to semi-colonial exploitation (the new imperialism). The second is class oppression – from the exploitation of the working class in a relatively autonomous bourgeois state to the exploitation of the working class on an international scale by an imperialist state. It is important to remember that imperialist oppression is qualitatively greater and more devastating for both dependent nations and dependent classes. The degree of exploitation and the repressive measures employed are more deadly and more far-reaching.

The main alternatives with respect to India are:

  • Transitional Post-Colonial: the main tasks here are both historical and national, and comprise the uprooting of social, political and economic strongholds of feudalism and colonialism.

  • Semi-Colonial: here finance, trade, manufacturing and services are predominantly in the hands of foreign capital in general ie at the mercy of imperialist states. Imperialist oppression in general has replaced the despotic oppression of a single colonial power. This alternative puts both national and social emancipation on the agenda, with national issues appearing more immediate to the masses.

  • Independent Bourgeois: here class oppression is the major determining characteristic. The national bourgeoisie and its state machinery are in control of the economy and the armed force needed to preserve this relative autonomy. Foreign capital is present but not able to dictate its own terms. Imperialist states are kept at bay. The major tasks are social, aiming at class emancipation. The exploitation and repression are those of advanced capitalism “at home”. The defensive attitude towards other bourgeois states adds an element of national sovereignty to the tasks, but this is subordinate to the interests of the working class and the democratic issue of national self-determination can be handled better by the working class than by the bourgeoisie.

  • Imperialist: this alternative combines the task of working class emancipation in the imperialist state with that of fighting to liberate the working classes of other countries subject to the exploitation and repression of the imperialist state – including where necessary the national emancipation of these countries.

The character of India in relation to these alternatives will emerge in the examination of important aspects of the Indian situation.

Historical aspects

There is an ancient imperial tradition in India including both home-grown and foreign systems. In an historical perspective the British arrived late and took over a lot of “pre-packaged” administrative, geographical and economic features from former empires. What they did achieve – apart from unprecedented levels of exploitation and death – was the unification of the subcontinent, the development of a native bourgeoisie and native strata of technical specialists, professionals and bureaucrats.

They also made sure they preserved and amplified features of the old Indian civilization that served their interests. Feudal relics were employed as “native princes” to ensure tribute without requiring expensive colonial intervention. The caste system was encouraged and utilized to stratify and split the population. Religious differences were exploited to divide and rule – most successfully to cripple and castrate the subcontinent on independence by making sure it split along religious lines – hindu vs muslim. (Although failure to handle religion correctly led to the potentially lethal threat to British rule posed by the Indian Mutiny.)

In all, the British took over all the developed features of former states that were to their benefit, while demoting the former rulers and making them into tools of British domination, along with relics of the past like feudalism, caste and religion.

And when they left they made sure that the new rulers of independent India were in a far weaker position than they need have been, bequeathing them a knot of highly toxic snakes that they were ill-fitted to handle, unravel and dispose of.

However, they also left behind a large and skilled cadre of political, administrative, professional and technical Indians, who were united in their hatred for British rule even while they were seduced by British culture (e.g. education and sport) and fractured into contradictory and self-destructive special interests.

Economic and class aspects

Although much of India remained static under a form of Oriental Despotism (in the sense developed by Marx in the Grundrisse), the former empires brought a dynamic element into the subcontinent in the great trading and manufacturing cities that the British weren’t slow to turn to their own advantage. The developing financial, mercantile and manufacturing bourgeoisies grew under colonialist rule and were very well placed to take independent India into an era of undisputed market-driven capitalist development. They were aided in this of course by the protective and fostering services of the independent bourgeois Indian state.

The question of whether the Indian bourgeoisie after liberation was independent or merely comprador is not hard to answer. Comprador bourgeoisies are spineless and obsequious in relation to their foreign masters, although they now and then vomit on their shoes. Neither the India state nor the Indian bourgeoisie taken as a whole have ever been spineless or obsequious towards the British or any other potential imperialist overlord. They have played imperialist states off against each other, and played these off against the Soviet Union. They have leveraged the strategic fears of the imperialists (the Soviet Union and China) to obtain nuclear weapons, and exploited the desire of the Soviet Union to neutralize imperialist influence in the subcontinent in order to widen their network of trading partners and suppliers of arms and technology, so as to lessen dependence on any single great power. No enslaved post-colonial state could manage this.

Perhaps the most important question in regard to the character of India looking at the bourgeoisie is “who owns what?” Can it be said that the Indian bourgeoisie owns the forces of production in India both in its own right and via the state? Considering the clout of huge groups like Tata and Reliance, and the thoroughly bourgeois character of the fundamental laws of land and property ownership, and of production and exchange, and the way state ownership and investment is subservient to the needs of the bourgeoisie rather than the nation as a productive entity (in a similar manner to state ownership and investment under the Welfare State in postwar Britain) – bearing all this in mind along with the decidedly subordinate (if still powerful) role of foreign capital in India, it can be argued that the Indian bourgeoisie owns and controls the forces of production in India. The alternatives are ownership and control by foreign capital, on the one hand, or ownership and control by the state (as in China, where the state owns the forces of production both in its own right and via the bourgeoisie), on the other. The first alternative is patently false, and the falsity of the second is clear enough if the investment and military priorities of the Indian state are taken into account. The very prominent role of the state in India is necessary to enable it to look after the interests of the bourgeois class as a whole, fostering and protecting domestic capital against competing foreign capitals.

The most important issue in regard to the working class and its position in India is connected with the overwhelming social pressure of the land question. On the one hand the huge rural population comprises a mass base with the potential for irresistible revolutionary mobilization. The countless masses of landless labourers are not merely class allies of the urban working class, but a colossal and integral force within the Indian working class in general. In addition to these millions of rural labourers owning nothing but their labour power, there are further millions of close and natural class allies of the working class, namely the poor peasants engaged in subsistence farming or compelled by debt or violence to produce crops for big farmers, powerful landowners, or agribusiness, rather than for their use and sale in their own interest.

The dynamics of the land question in India are the same as those in all countries where subsistence farming has been the main occupation for hundreds if not thousands of years. Marx describes the ravages of the invasion of the land by capitalism and the market in Capital, in chapters on the displacement of poor crofters in Scotland by sheep bred for profit and on the effects of increasingly brutal legislation in England from before the English Revolution aimed at driving poor farmers off the land along with their dependents farmhands.

This invasion had two effects that accelerated the growth both of the bourgeoisie and the working class. One was the take-over of most land by large market-driven farming operations, which transformed the landowners from a feudal class to a relatively autonomous branch of the bourgeoisie at the same time as it created a new stratum of the bourgeoisie in the shape of medium and large-scale farmers. The other was the forced migration of the rural poor into the cities. This process created the first great modern cities dominated by the manufacturing and commercial bourgeoisie and populated by a swelling mass of dispossessed and desperately poor proletarians, living in appalling conditions. The Manchester described by Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 is a typical city of this kind.

In India (and all other countries with the same dynamic) the invasion of the land by capital and the conquest of production by market forces began much later than in England, but surpassed the horrors of the English process many times over.

The bourgeois academic world euphemistically refers to this process, which accelerated enormously after World War 2, as “urbanization”. As if the location of the final destination was the most important thing. Once we call the process by its correct name, however – proletarianization – it is easy to see its fundamental importance in the development of modern bourgeois nations worldwide.

By appropriating the land to produce for profit, the bourgeoisie increases its own power and correspondingly weakens the rural population. Starvation drives the dispossessed rural population into overpopulated cities where they barely survive in filthy slums or in the streets, or in precarious employment in brutal conditions surrounded by desperate unemployed people competing ruthlessly for the few miserable jobs available.

India is perhaps the most terrifying example of this process. Untold millions of poverty-stricken rural “refugees” have fled and are fleeing the destruction of their livelihood by capital. These millions are urban proletarians and have no choice in the matter. But they are still rural laborers or peasants at heart. Which means that Indian cities are teeming with uprooted country people who Lenin (in similar circumstances in late 19th century Russia) called “peasant-workers”. The implications of this for the Indian revolution are huge.

The undeniable scope and social and political impact of these processes make nonsense of any attempt to claim that India today is in any real sense a feudal or caste-driven or colonial country.

The scale of these processes generating on the one hand great concentrations of bourgeois power and wealth and on the other great concentrations of proletarian impoverishment and powerlessness create a social situation in which class tensions are intolerable and visibly approaching breaking point. Rural resistance to these processes has already led to a state of civil war in large parts of India, for instance.

Political aspects

The fundamental political question is “who represses who, and for whose benefit?” The role of the bourgeois fraud Mahatma Gandhi gives a very clear answer to this for India. He inspired both the Congress Party in India, and the African National Congress in South Africa. The goal of both movements from the perspective of their leaders (Gandhi and Mandela) was national liberation with as little disturbance of the bourgeois character of the country as possible. In both cases the leaderships diverted and demobilized and disarmed the movements as much as they could without defeating the whole project of bourgeois national liberation. And of course both these executioners of some of the most powerful revolutionary movements in the modern world are canonized as saints by bourgeois public opinion.

So after liberation the national bourgeoisie, with a great deal of help from imperialism, began repressing the working and poor masses through a state of its own creation. And they did this for their own benefit at the expense of the working class. Some of their new-found wealth was naturally siphoned off as tribute to the imperialists until the growth of the domestic bourgeoisie made this no longer necessary.

In class terms this means that repression in India is carried out by the Indian bourgeoisie against the urban and rural proletariat. Not by foreign capital, and not against the whole nation. It is class against class, with no elements of colonial or semi-colonial national oppression, and with no great bourgeois democratic tasks remaining to be fulfilled. A thoroughly modern class war in a relatively autonomous bourgeois state.

In fact, far from India being subject to foreign oppression, it is extending its power beyond internal exploitation to the exploitation of workers in other countries, with the presence of its capital in many parts of Asia and Africa.

As already mentioned, civil war has broken out between the rural proletariat along with the poor peasantry and the landowners, usurping capital, and the state, in large parts of India. The dynamics of this armed revolt are not fully understood by its leadership, as it does not have a correct class analysis of the causes or of the forces in conflict, which leads to false priorities including a debilitating rejection of the crucial role of the urban working class and the proletarian revolution in resolving questions of rural exploitation and repression. The central issue of expropriation is a good example of this strategic weakness. Who should expropriate the oppressors, and on what political basis, and at what level should the land taken over be owned and worked? The leaders of the rebellion have no satisfactory answers to these questions.

India’s geo-strategic position in an imperialist world

On the basis of what has been said so far, the character of the Indian state is beginning to emerge quite clearly. India’s geo-strategic position removes any remaining doubts. In an imperialist world, India is not owned or controlled by any other country – in fact, it is hardly even threatened in these respects, and if it was threatened it would be able to mobilize its largely home-equipped military and its nuclear weapons against the potential aggressor. And any potential aggressor would destroy itself if it attempted to invade India, or if it launched a nuclear attack.

So it is at the very least an autonomous bourgeois state, and one with considerably larger resources than most European imperialist states.

Looking at the strategic situation on a continental scale it becomes clear that India is a power in its own right in Asia. Its only conceivable competitors at this level for Asian-based domination in Asia are China and Russia. Because of the greater competition on a world scale represented by US and European and Japanese imperialisms taken together, these three countries are performing a strange dance for three — part minuet, and part war-dance. There is cooperation a-plenty, in trade, arms, resources and mutual support against the current imperialist superpowers. And there’s even a name for this community of interests (including Brazil, in a similar kind of position in Latin America) – the BRIC countries.

But in an imperialist world all countries are dragged into cut-throat competition willy-nilly, and this is as clear as day when it comes to the struggle between India and China for command of South Asia and South-East Asia. Billion-dollar trade agreements are made with countries like Burma to build and get favorable access to strategic positions on the rim of the Indian Ocean. China is so far winning this particular battle, but Burma is naturally playing the two big neighbors off against each other, so India has considerable presence, too. China is successfully keeping India out of South-East Asia in spite of India’s efforts to increase its presence and influence there, Whereas India is far ahead of China with its stakes in Afghanistan, in Central Asia and in Iran and the Persian Gulf states. Africa, on the western rim of the Indian Ocean is to some extent being divided up between India and China, where there isn’t sufficient great power imperialist presence to keep them out.

It goes without saying that Bangladesh is India’s economic and military hinterland, with few if any strings attached. It is obvious who is the domineering party in relation to Pakistan, even though Pakistan is hostile to India and fights bitterly to keep India at a distance. Among other things by selling itself as a base for US imperialist aggression in the region and obtaining nuclear weapons that it is politically and economically incompetent to control. However, Pakistan has been thrashed more than once in wars with India.

Russia is present in the Asian framework, but so far more as a looming cloud than an actual hurricane. But its interests in Central Asia are undeniable, and it has a border with China that practically bisects the Asian continent if you include Mongolia. Not only does it exert powerful pressure on Europe, but it is also closer to both Japan and the United States than China is.

The major strategic aspect of the three-way competition between India, China and (to a lesser extent) Russia, is that all these countries are attempting to expand their economic and military influence in Asia. Like pre-war Germany, they need Lebensraum – “room to breathe”. And like pre-war Germany, if they don’t get it then internal pressure will build up until the boiler explodes.

The most important factor keeping them tightly locked within their own borders is blindingly obvious when we move from an Asian perspective to a worldwide perspective. It is the domination of every corner of the world by the current great power imperialisms – every corner, that is, except where states of exceptional economic and military power are able to keep them out. So there is a terrible tension building up as current imperialisms keep India, China and Russia locked within their own borders, and these countries are developing their forces of production as much as they can, producing an equal and opposite pressure to keep these imperialist interests out.

There are close historical similarities between India, Russia and China today and Germany and Japan before World War 2. These two countries were also expanding their forces of production so powerfully that they were able not only to keep out world imperialism but challenge it directly in war. They fought the war to grab more of the world for themselves at the expense of the established imperialisms of the day.

At the moment India, Russia and China are only engaged in small-scale military aggression, so the main expression of their expansionist drive is economic.

For our characterization of the Indian state it is valuable to remember a crucial difference between it and Germany and Japan after World War 2. Defeated in war, both countries were nonetheless recognized by western imperialism to be absolutely necessary barriers to the pressure being exerted in the world economy by the workers’ states of the Soviet Union and (after 1949) China. To be as useful as possible as buffer states they had to be both encouraged to feel autonomous and to be discouraged from getting out of line from the point of view of US and European imperialism. Hence the effort put into reviving their national economies and national bourgeoisies while transforming both countries into military bases for trans-Atlantic imperialism – the Marshall Plan being one such effort.

In this way Germany, Japan (and South Korea, too) were deployed as relatively autonomous but very effective buffer states, containing both the Soviet Union and China. This was proof, if such was needed, of the growing primacy of political considerations over economic ones in the postwar world. The US fostered potentially powerful competitors for the greater strategic good of binding China and the Soviet Union.

The difference between this process and India’s situation is very simple. India was never fostered or revived by imperialism after defeat in war, or deployed by it as a subordinate and crippled buffer state. After throwing off the British yoke, India has been its own master and grown on its own terms. It is an autonomous bourgeois state with no built-in strategic fetters. It is only constrained by external pressure from the imperialist world, not internally crippled like Japan and Germany.

A final political-economic point that has to be made is the qualitative differences between the three states of India, Russia, and China. India is bourgeois from roots to crown, Russia is perhaps the ideal embodiment of State Capitalism – with the centralized state apparatus and economic structures inherited from the Soviet Union, while ownership is in the hands of fabulously rich capitalists. The state is based on domestic capital and supports the capitalists, as long as they don’t disagree with the state. In the first two decades of post-Soviet Russia the ousting of serious competition by foreign capital has more or less been completed, and “oligarchs” refusing to toe the state line have been deposed or driven into exile. And China is a workers state, on a non-capitalist socio-economic foundation, albeit an extremely deformed one.

The struggle for a greater share of the world’s wealth between these three states is practically a laboratory experiment in the relative strengths of three different state formations – 1) India, a purely bourgeois state, 2) Russia, state capitalist (capitalist but directed and to a large extent owned by a powerful but clearly bourgeois state), and 3) China, a non-capitalist state.

And the indisputable fact of this trial of strength, and the fear it induces in the current imperialist great powers, also indicates that not only are they autonomous and expanding against the interests of these powers, but that they are well on the way to becoming serious political and economic challengers or even equals to these powers. In other words (ignoring for the moment the special case of China as a deformed workers state) they are challenging for imperialist status, although they haven’t fully acquired it yet.

Revolutionary perspectives

First of all a negative point has to be made. There is no popular agitation in India demanding the expulsion of the IMF, or the repudiation of India’s foreign debt. These features of foreign imperialist domination are just not present in India.

The hottest struggle currently taking place concerns the land, as is to be expected. A large-scale armed revolt of poor peasants and the rural poor is in full swing and has been going on for years.

In the city regions a rising tide of strikes is taking place, some of them involving tens of thousands of workers, even if they are only regional – as in the recent strike of sugar factory workers in Maharashtra to get the back pay they have been owed for years. Others involving a few hundred workers show that a strategic strike can paralyze a big city – as was the case in the motormen’s strike in Bombay earlier this year.

The scope of the strikes is extending nation-wide with calls for and the organizing of general strikes.

These struggles are not for democratic demands. The rural struggles are not just for land reform parceling out the land of absentee or brutal landlords. They aim for expropriation of the land. And the strikes (naturally) are for workers demands such as pay, conditions, employment and access to health and education regardless of personal wealth.

In fact democratic demands as such represent a reactionary line dragging the struggle back by decades.

There is no way a democratic state of workers and peasants would solve any of India’s biggest problems, and there is not even a ghost of a chance of such a state materializing, regardless of the number of banners or leaflets demanding it as the slogan for power. The national question has been transformed into an international question, not one of freeing India from a foreign yoke, but of freeing other countries from the Indian yoke. Questions of language, ethnicity and religion are still inflammatory, but they can be handled within the framework of the current state. A new, more democratic bourgeois state would not further the interests of oppressed groups more effectively than today’s state.

International questions such as war, infrastructural conflicts (a general strike of dock workers and/or other workers involved in international transport, for instance), etc, are purely a class question, involving class solidarity both at home and abroad. The question of war brings to the fore the special case of China as a deformed workers state in relation to the classic Indian bourgeois state. The Indian proletariat has no serious class choice open to it but to agitate for the defeat of its own bourgeoisie, which in this light it would be not at all misleading to call sub-imperialist. The Chinese proletariat, however, despite all the distortions of the state and the grotesque concessions made to foreign and even domestic capital, must defend its class state against foreign aggression. In both cases however, the rulers need to be thrown aside if a healthy proto-socialist workers state is to be set up.

Conclusions

The conclusions to be drawn from this analysis of the character of the Indian state have already been indicated in the main part of the text.

The solution to the all-important question of the land and how a revolutionary proletarian leadership should approach it is rooted in the character of the land reform being demanded both by urban and rural proletariats. As mentioned above, a “negative” perspective – the removal of oligarchic, absentee, brutal landlords and the parceling out of their land is completely inadequate. It opens the door to the growth of a new class of rich peasants who will gradually drive the poorer peasants off the land in a new iteration of the old process. This is a bourgeois democratic approach, and it is also fatal for the urban working class in that it doesn’t address for one second the question of who owns the real estate in the cities, and urban landlords are an invisible cancer eating away the productive forces of society. A “positive” approach is needed, calling for complete expropriation of the land, both in the countryside and in cities, and the control of its use by and for the benefit of those who use it for productive and socially useful labor.

The question of war – especially one involving China – must be tackled with a perspective of “the enemy is at home”. The sub-imperialist Indian bourgeoisie is an implacable enemy both of the Indian working class it exploits and uses as cannon fodder, and of the working class in countries it attacks.

The perspective needed to focus these demands into a coherent programme is that of the Permanent Revolution underpinning Bolshevik-Leninism, as it is laid out in the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International.

The fundamental issue here is that of the revolutionary leadership of the proletariat, which must have the formation of a revolutionary workers state as its overriding objective. In order to reach this objective, bourgeois democratic demands (such as national liberation, electoral rights, equality before the law etc) have to be realized in passing, as part of the struggle for revolutionary class-based demands. The demands raised in concrete struggle, in agitation among the masses, must be transitional in that they cover both the immediate demands being raised around the issue involved, and point forward to a more general solution to this and other similar issues for the benefit of the whole working class in a society run in the interests of the working class.

The mass leaderships of the labor movement and the left since the hijacking of the Soviet Union by the counter-revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy have shown themselves time and again to be mass misleaders of the working class and its class allies. Social Democracy is committed to capitalism and the bourgeois state. It is no longer even reformist. National democrats have often succeeded in liberating their countries from a colonial yoke, but have not been able to secure the country from imperialist exploitation and depredation. The only possible way of securing a country against imperialism is by expropriating the bourgeoisie – as the trajectory of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Cuba showed. And in fact the same was the case in China after the Red Army had driven the Kuomintang into exile (accompanied by the Soviet embassy!). Chavez in Venezuela is now at an historical crossroads of this kind.

Mass leaderships of the working class rooted in the success of an anti-capitalist revolution, but that usurped the revolution and pursued counter-revolutionary policies, ie Stalinism and Maoism, have led the class into an endless series of deadly and demoralizing defeats. And the non-Social Democratic, non-Stalinist left leaderships have been riven by the twin forces of opportunism and sectarianism.

It is necessary to evaluate the lessons of these failures of leadership and propose policies that lead to a healthy workers revolution rather than botching it or annihilating it.

And finally, one of the ways in which India’s revolutionary project could be botched up badly would be to raise as power demands the slogans of National Independence and a Constituent Assembly. If the working class and its allies are in a position to raise slogans this direct in agitation for taking over the state, they are in a position to raise slogans for their own class rather than these obsolete slogans of bourgeois democracy.

Class power demands in a state like India will have to call for power to the soviets and the expropriation of all capitalist property.

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