WORKERS AND CONSUMERS - The Indian left?s intellectual baggage

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By André Béteille The author is chairman, Indian Council for Social Science Research
  • Published 14.03.06

From the analytical point of view, workers and consumers are separate categories, although in real life the same person is often both a worker and a consumer. Not only are workers and consumers separate categories analytically, but there can be a conflict of interest between them even when the same person is both worker and consumer. The proponents of certain political ideologies refuse to face the implications of this commonplace of economic and social life which comes to the surface every time public utilities on which millions of consumers depend are brought to a halt by industrial action.

One does not have to be a social theorist to recognize that a person may have to cope with conflicting demands as a worker and a consumer. The ordinary Indian woman goes through life being a daughter and a wife, and during much of her adult life she has to be both. Which woman can honestly say that she has never suffered from the strain of having to reconcile the demands made on her as daughter and as wife, or as wife and as mother?

We may ask in a similar vein about the obligations of state and society to the worker and the consumer. Those who follow the tradition of Marx and Lenin assign primacy to the needs and interests of the working class over those of all other sections of society, including consumers. The logic of the class struggle and industrial action is that the short-term interests of the individual as a consumer should be subordinated to his long-term interests as a worker. The primacy of the working class is a part of the political canon to which parties of the left have subscribed for over a hundred years.

The interests of consumers are not identical with those of workers in the real world, and they can be made to converge only by a verbal sleight of hand. While all workers are consumers, not all consumers are workers. Of course, it depends in part on how we define our terms. In the 19th century, the term ?worker? was confined largely to manual workers employed in industry. In the advanced industrial societies of North America and western Europe, attempts to extend the category of workers to include clerks, teachers, engineers, doctors and lawyers never carried much conviction. Even under the erstwhile Soviet regime, the ?intelligentsia? were treated separately from the workers although few would deny that their members also worked and created value.

No matter how far we stretch the category of worker, it will be fanciful to include in it a child of five preparing to enter elementary school or an old man of 75 retired from service. Yet it is undeniable that children, the aged and the infirm have needs that society must take into account even when they are in conflict with the real or perceived needs specific to workers as a social class.

The peculiar importance assigned to the working class is the legacy of a social and economic theory in which production is regarded as inherently more important than consumption. This theory, which was formulated by Marx in the second half of the 19th century, appeared highly plausible in the conditions under which it emerged. Those conditions changed substantially, but in the meantime the theory was made into a dogma by Lenin and his followers. Already in the Twenties, J.M. Keynes was describing the work in which the theory was formulated as ?an obsolete economic text-book?. Today the inherent deficiencies of the theory are evident to all except the believers.

Despite its inherent flaws, the theory extended its hold through its adoption by political parties that became dominant in many countries in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. Many intellectuals across the world were attracted to it not only for its theoretical appeal but also because it appeared to be the driving force behind a successful and promising political movement. In that sense, it owes its success as much to Lenin as to Marx, and it cannot be too strongly emphasized that Lenin?s intellectual horizons were considerably more confined than those of Marx, and the horizons of most of Lenin?s followers more confined than his. It was in the nature of things for the theory to become frozen into a dogma wherever parties owing their inspiration to Lenin became ascendant.

The obsession with production at the expense of consumption led the economy into the path of decline and ultimate disaster in Lenin?s own country, the home of the Bolshevik Revolution. The price paid by the Soviet system for its neglect of the needs and interests of its citizens as consumers and its suppression of individual initiative and enterprise has become clear and manifest. The price might not have been as high if the theory had been more flexible and not treated as sacrosanct by the state and the party. It is precisely here that the Chinese leadership proved superior to the Soviet. With the passing of Mao, it adopted an increasingly pragmatic attitude towards the needs and interests of the consumer while continuing to pay lip service to the dogmas of Marx and Lenin.

In India, we are stuck with communist parties that have shown no capacity to move out of the grooves marked out by Marx and Lenin. The Communist Party of China has moved ahead while its counterparts in India have remained caught in a time warp. There are various reasons why left intellectuals and left parties in this country have failed to keep pace with changes in economy and society. Unlike the Communist Party of China, the Indian parties have not had to take responsibility for the governance of a large, complex and changing socio-economic reality; and unlike the Chinese, they have refused to learn from the mistakes made by Lenin?s party in the USSR.

In India, the attitude to strikes and work-stoppages of the left parties is dictated by the fact that they are hostages to the trade unions. These trade unions promote the interests of manual workers and white-collar employees in the organized sector who comprise a relatively small part of the Indian population, smaller by far than the consumers of the goods and services for whose production and provision they are responsible.

It will be idle to expect the trade unions to moderate the demands of the workers whose interests it is their aim to protect and promote. The left parties can hardly act in a responsible way when there are so many of them, each jealous of the other one?s support. But beyond the pursuit of self-interest by the unions and the parties dependent on their support, there is a deeper problem of being tied hand and foot to an outdated and obsolete intellectual framework that is unable to respond to changes in economy and society. Unless we free ourselves from an intellectual framework in which production and the industrial worker are given primacy over everything else, we cannot move forward along with the other countries of the world, including China. In India, the political insecurity of the left parties has prevented them from discarding the obsolete elements they have carried in their intellectual baggage from the days of the Soviet ascendancy.