The Emperor’s New Cloak: Marxism, “A Rights-based Approach”, and Patnaik

December 22, 2010

By Ravi Kant

Section 1

Recently, Professor Prabhat Patnaik, well known ‘Marxist academic’ and leading theoretician of parliamentary left in India, has proposed a ‘novel’ political agenda for the socialist project. To quote his lucid words (A Left Approach to Development; EPW, July 2010) “Against the ‘means-based approach’ to development that the bourgeoisie projects, the left must project ‘a right-based approach’…the acquisition of rights on the part of the people…amounts therefore to winning crucial battles in the class war for the transcendence of capitalism”. He argues that a bourgeois society because of the spontaneity of capital can never recognise the welfare rights of workers although there could be ad-hoc provisions which can be revoked at any time. Thus, the primary task of the left involves demanding right to minimum living standard and implementing it wherever they get the state power through parliamentary politics. Patnaik envisages this as an integral part of subversion to capital and a substitute of ‘violent revolution’, which in the words of Marx ‘is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one’.

Prabhat Patnaik has developed his position over several articles in the past two years. Considering his influence over the parliamentary left doctrine, let us take a critical look at the parliamentary left politics in India through the prism of Patnaik’s theoretical arguments. We would ask whether it is a real breakthrough in Marxist approach or is it good old revisionism in its (not so) new incarnation. In section 2, I argue that welfare rights are not only common in many bourgeois countries but it is an integral part of a mature capitalist system. A capitalist system requires such state intervention to co-ordinate production and to curb its spontaneity. So the demand for welfare rights can be accommodated in a capitalist system as opposed to Patnaik’s assertion that the same gradually leads to subversion of capital. In the context of India we know that welfare rights are not uncommon such as employment guarantee act or minimum wage act. However these laws are regularly violated; Section 3 argues that semi-feudal production relation of India is responsible for this. Sections 4 and 5 evaluate ‘left approach to development’ as a party programme and ‘policy of peoples’ government’ respectively. I argue that Patnaik’s economic demands (which can justifiably be the starting point of a struggle) are not guided by political demands, thus confining the site of struggle within bourgeois legalities. He is silent if the struggle to achieve those rights would take us beyond bourgeois legalities, and if it does what would be our strategy. Section 6 argues that this silence is not a subjective mistake rather a reflection of changing class character of parliamentary left.

Section 2

“The bourgeois state…can never recognise the rights of the working people to such relief and welfare measures. This is because the bourgeois state can never interfere in the functioning of a capitalist economy to a point where it can negate forever its spontaneous tendencies.” – Patnaik; EPW, July 2010

Writing in 1880, Frederick Engels made the following observation in ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’; “Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, the kingdom of reason; henceforth superstition, injustice, privilege, oppression were to be superseded by eternal truth, eternal Right, equality based on Nature and the inalienable rights of man…We know today that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal Right found its realization in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law”. This is the very essence of ‘Right’ discourse, origin of which can be traced back to proponents of liberalism. For the early bourgeois thinkers ‘equal rights to everyone’ was a crucial weapon in their battle against divinely ordained, hereditary monarchy and in general against the landed nobility. But as soon as the battle against feudal system has been won, the same bourgeois, who became the new ruling class, reduced the notion of equal rights to that of right to private property (a classic illustration is John Locke’s ‘Two Treatises of Government’).

In early capitalism, which has not yet faced a major economic crisis, freedom of property ownership and limited government became the dominant ruling class ideology. But as capitalism matured and consequently suffered large scale crisis, the practical and philosophical position of the bourgeois adjusted itself to new circumstances. After ‘great depression’, Keynesianism replaced laissez-fare and liberalism found a new incarnation in Rawlsian philosophy. Government intervention became an integral part of capitalist system. Its primary objective was to organise production; to keep a check on the inherent anarchy of the capitalist system (Ellen Meiksins Wood, 2003). To ensure smooth labour supply, government had to take up certain responsibilities such as crisis management, providing skill training, providing unemployment benefit, providing medical facilities etc., which otherwise would not be provided by the capitalists. Indeed capitalists enjoyed the fruits of these interventions but Darwinian competition for survival prevented them from diverting surplus for such purposes. Naturally, the material condition of mature capitalism, necessity of state intervention; found space in the liberal philosophy of that epoch. Bourgeois thinkers such as John Rawls and Amartya Sen insisted on social contracts to go beyond the mandate of laissez-faire. According to Rawls (1971), not only does everyone have the right to property ownership, but also everyone has a right over certain ‘primary goods’. Thus, contrary to what Patnaik wants us to believe, not only government interference became compatible with the capitalist system, in fact it became a necessity.

Let us now judge the first part of Patnaik’s assertion, that is, a bourgeois state can never recognise the rights of workers to relief and welfare measurement. Even a cursory glance at the twentieth century history of matured capitalist nations would reject this fantastic statement outright. Nordic countries, fine examples of welfare states, have enshrined the universal right to education and work in their constitutions. For instance, Section 75 of constitution of Denmark guarantees right to work of all citizens. This section also entitles every unemployed citizen of public assistance. It says: “In order to advance the public welfare, efforts should be made to afford work to every able-bodied citizen on terms that will secure his existence. Any person unable to support himself or his dependants shall, where no other person is responsible for his or their maintenance, be entitled to receive public assistance….” Closer to home, we find similar provisions in Indian constitution as well – much hyped Right to Information or seldom respected minimum wage law are just two such examples.

Section 3

“The left position by contrast must make certain basic rights, for example rights to minimum bundles of commodities, services…as its premise and hence not confine itself to the boundaries of bourgeois society.”- Patnaik, EPW, July 2010

Patnaik’s argument, now, moves from obvious misrepresentation of history to the realm of fantasy. We are told that, since welfare rights are incompatible with capitalist system, the left must take it as the basic premise of their politics. Thus in a single stroke, our great scholar of Marxism, replaced class struggle as the basis of Marxist politics by struggles for universal welfare rights. We will come back to this crucial point in next section. Let us, here, restrict ourselves to another glaring flaw – Patnaik claims that politics of welfare rights is not confined by the logic of capitalist system. Nothing can be farther away from the truth.

A simple thought experiment is enough to counter this assertion. Suppose for a moment, that people have achieved some welfare rights – say, universal right to subsistence food bundle. Now, let us try to imagine its implication in practical terms. It is a well documented fact that food grain leakage to black-market is quite common in India. Rural, even urban population, who are eligible for subsidized food, often get only a portion of their allotted ration, while undistributed grain is sold illegally in open-markets by the PDS shops owners in connivance with bureaucracy and police. Universal right to subsistence food has absolutely no implication on this illegal racketeering as long as administrative structures remain intact. Similarly, in case of violation of rights, one has to rely on judiciary for redress. Unless these pillars of capitalism are not entirely uprooted and existing state machineries are substituted by dictatorship of proletariat, no right can be guaranteed to the working class. Thus a programme, which restricts itself to ensuring legal rights to welfare, essentially works within the boundaries of capitalism and depends entirely on the capitalist superstructure for its implementation.

The Fate of MG National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), vividly illustrates this point. Let us take a closer look at MGNREGA because, it clearly exposes the limitation of right based politics as opposed to class based politics. For those who are not familiar with MGNREGA, it provides legal right of hundred days of unskilled labour per annum to every family at minimum wage. As per law, the work should be available on demand, payments to be made regularly and public works to be planned at a panchayat level. It has been widely documented that entitlements of this act are routinely violated (for instance, Mahaprashasta 2009).

What has been observed across all states except for a few pockets where grassroot movements are strong is as follows. Works are planned and carried out by local contractors, state bureaucracy bank officials and landed elite. This cartel siphons off a huge portion of the allotted fund while labourers are paid less than the minimum wage. Often real labourers are not even registered and family members of local elites are shown as workers in forged documents. Work is hardly ever demanded, it is almost always doled out by local elites. Labourers are not even aware of legal provisions and in their perspective MGNREGA work is no different from other public works done through private contractors.

Fate of MGNREGA shows how a formal legal right can be usurped by semi-feudal elements. Patnaik’s failure to understand the semi-feudal nature of India leads him to his wrong conclusion that codifying legal right tantamount to a bourgeois democracy. As we will see later that it is not a subjective mistake rather an outcome of his revisionist politics.

Section 4

Of course, to say that proletarian political formations must always be part of the dialectics of subversion of the logic of capital is not to say that they must always and immediately be engaged in attempting a revolutionary overthrow of the system. – Patnaik, EPW, October 2009

The acquisition of right on the part of the people, including rights to minimum bundle of goods, services and security, amounts therefore to winning crucial battles in the class war for the transcendence of capitalism – Patnaik, EPW, July 2010

Clearly Patnaik identifies the right to subsistence bundle as the primary party programme. He rejects the possibility of engaging in attempts to overthrow the system because, according to him, this is not ‘always’ a task for left politics. As per his October 2009 article, doing so would be “naïve and ultra-left”. Instead a demand for right to subsistence bundle would ‘transcend’ the logic of capital because it is supposed to be in contradiction with the system (which in previous sections we have comprehensively rejected). Coming from a Marxist ideologue, this agenda is indeed quite strange, to say the least. The demand of proletarian movement is being restricted to that of minimum subsistence bundle (which may itself change with higher productivity) expecting that this would gradually lead to socialism. So, neither we prepare for an eventual overthrow of the system nor we take any steps towards it. Ambit of every struggle is thus limited to immediate economic demands adjustable within the legal structure of the capitalist system. As a consequence, party itself becomes an instrument for the containment of class consciousness, rather than becoming a vanguard for stubborn and steadfast class struggle. To quote Lenin from ‘What is to be done? Burning questions of our movement’ : “The worst sin we commit is that we degrade our political and organisational tasks to the level of the immediate, “palpable”, “concrete” interests of the everyday economic struggle…”

Patnaik also argues in a separate article (Pragoti, June 2009) that the existence of basic rights improve the bargaining position of workers vis-à-vis capitalists. This stiffens the resistance of the workers, transforming them from being objects to subjects. It is true that any political victory can stiffen the will of workers. But unless it is channelized in advanced struggles, in particular, in the final struggle to overthrow the system (until which all victories are partial and temporary), the transformative process itself gets stalled. Politics, which tries to contain revolutionary struggle essentially snatches away the agency from radical workers, consequently turn them back into objects and systematically kill their class consciousness. Left politics then simply become a part of the capitalist superstructure and it joins the rank of bourgeois parties.

The history of proletarian movements in developed countries can confirm our assertion. Due to economic crisis, and to some extent, due to class struggle, capitalists in developed countries were compelled to provide certain concessions and rights to the workers. However, instead of striving for the final push, working class became content with their relative affluence. In several countries of Europe, Social Democratic parties led the workers to successive economic struggles, eventually giving up all socialist pretence in favour of neo-liberalism after 1970. In India, the history of CPI and CPI(M) follow the same trajectory. Bernard D’Mello has succinctly made this point in his article in Monthly Review. Nov 2009, “The proletariat in the developed capitalist countries…was increasingly losing its quality as the source and carrier of revolutionary practice. The development of the working class, the advance of human capability — always at the very centre of the forces of production — was not perceived by the workers as being hindered by the relations of production; the latter was not discerned as intolerable by the workers as long as they were able to extract better terms from capital through their struggles (strikes, etc) within the confines of the system. Why should they then bear the risk of losing what they were gaining in the present when what they could gain by revolting against the system was highly uncertain and far away in the future?”

Section 5

“But what about left led state governments?… subversion to the logic of capitalism must mean checking whenever possible the operation of the immanent tendencies of capital and ‘insulating’ the basic classes…” – Patnaik; EPW, October 2009

Patnaik now lays down the agenda for parliamentary left, whenever and wherever they can come to power through electoral competition. According to him the state should protect basic classes from brutalities of capitalism. A fascinating conceptualization of the state emerges from our Marxist scholar. State ceases to be an organ of class rule (Lenin, The State and revolution) and instead it becomes an amorphous entity to maintain peaceful co-existence of exploiting and exploited classes. Natural conclusion of this theoretical understanding is abandonment of ‘dictatorship of proletariat’ in favour of ‘management of class conflict’, which CPI(M) led states governments (as well as social democratic parties worldwide) have dedicatedly pursued in last forty years. Parliamentary left did not dismantle the semi-feudal, semi-colonial production relation when they came to power in India but tried to extinguish the inherent class conflicts present within such system. As a result, comprise had to be struck with different exploiting classes and the party itself became an organ of erstwhile ruling classes. It should not surprise anyone that today CPI(M) invites imperial capital to West Bengal because it is not a departure from their theoretical understanding. Patnaik did not chalk out strategies to counter imperialism, because he understands that a bourgeois rule can not escape from the clutch of imperialism and a bourgeois theory (albeit with Marxist pretence) should wisely avoid any reference to it.

Let us now compare this with the economic policy of revolutionary left in their base areas: “In the beginning, primary cooperatives may come into existence to meet the needs of the people. The cooperatives should be formed on the basis resolving the problems of labour power, bullocks, fertilisers, seeds, and irrigation. The hegemony of the landless peasants, agricultural labourers and poor peasants should be established over all these cooperatives.”

The difference is self explanatory. While Patnaik envisages state as a mediating agency between labour and capital, revolutionaries conceptualise base areas as nascent socialist societies. Whereas in base areas primary tasks are to redistribute land, to form co-operatives and to build irrigation systems, small industries with national capital; parliamentary left led states, according to Patnaik, must implement welfare measures as far as possible within the central budget. This difference is stark but hardly surprising given the fact that parliamentary left never wanted to overthrow the system. Parliamentary left, without any revolutionary goal, was bound to lose their class character gradually and it was inevitable that they would become indistinguishable from bourgeois parties.

Section 6

To infer from the practical policies of the state governments which are an empirical matter, the theoretical positions of the party, is an inversion of reason. – Patnaik, Progoti, February 2008

Prabhat Patnaik, the most prominent ideologue of parliamentary left, accused the critics of CPI(M) of ‘inverting reasons’. Unfortunately, it is not the critics, but Patnaik himself, who is inverting reasons. The first inversion is embedded in his proposed agenda of right to welfare. Right to welfare is a philosophical stand which precipitated from economic crisis and from class struggle in matured capitalist countries. By reducing class struggle to such demand, and by claiming that this will lead to transcendence of capitalism, Patnaik is simply concocting a theory using Marxist terminologies which has no logical basis and is completely devoid of Marxist understandings.

However, one wonders why Patnaik came up with a “new theory of revolution” at this time? Has the production relation of India gone through a transformation in the recent past? Has any development of international significance occurred in last few years? Or could it be due to the fact that Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh have completely exposed CPI(M) and other parliamentary left in the past three years? Did parliamentary left need a justification when they claim that people are not yet ready for a violent overthrow of the system and then go ahead to barbarically crush movements by small farmers – agricultural labourers opposing land grab for imperial capital? Did their intellectuals need a cover-up when they remain silent or actively support use of army against landless tribals, who are exploited mercilessly by semi-feudal power channelised through state and party? The answer is obvious.

CPI(M) and its pole bearers can now thank Patnaik for faithfully delivering a new cloak to hide their class character.


1. Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta; Entitlements under NREGA violated’-interview with Jean Dreze, Frontline August 2009

2. Bernard D’Mello; What is Maoism? Monthly Review, Nov 2009

3. Ellen Meiksins Wood; The empire of capital, 2003

4. Frederick Engels; Socialism: Utopian and scientific, 1880

5. John Locke; Two treatises of Government, 1689

6. John Rawls; 1971, A Theory of Justice

7. John Rawls; 1971, A Theory of Justice

8. Prabhat Patnaik; A left approach to development, EPW, July 2010

9. Prabhat Patnaik; Socialism and welfarism, Pragoti (, June 2009

10. Prabhat Patnaik; The communists and the building of capitalism, Pragoti (, June 2009

11. Prabhat Patnaik; The crisis of the left, October 2009

12. Vladimir Lenin; What is to be done? Burning questions of our movement, 1902

13. Vladimir Lenin; The State and revolution, 1917

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