Whatever happened to Historical Materialism?

Qui si convien lasciare ogni sospetto Ogni vilta convien che qui sia morta.

Here must all distrust be left; All cowardice must here be dead.

Historical Materialism

Historical Materialism’s Poster

        We see a timely retrieval of interest in historical materialism within the academy, if the Delhi HM Conference Programme (“New Cultures of the Left”, Convention Centre, JNU, 3–5 April 2013) is a marker of such resurgence, which indeed it is. This renewal germinates from the world wide movement of the workers and the dispossessed as late capitalist crisis sharpened. Occupy movements in Europe and North America, the Arab Spring, anti-capitalist and anti-land grab movements in India and recent workers’ movement in Manesar Plant of Maruti Suzuki, NCR Delhi (observing 7th day of fast unto death) which shake the barley by exhibiting this crisis. In this context specifically, we admit that we like to hear about Marxism-Leninism in classroom, but cautiously so. Here we are clearly distinguishing ourselves from all postcolonialist positions in the garb of revolutionary/radical theories, specifically from the disenchanted lot who have distanced themselves from this big conference. Any attempt to confine Marxism only within classroom and in the universe of hardcovers and paperbacks disappoints us because of our stake in Marxism, not a distance from it. This ‘new’ old culture of academicization and sanitization of Marxism is evident in the overwhelming eclecticism of the conference. Academicization of Marxism (much like Legal Marxism of 19th Century Russia) can imply two things: a pressure from below that compelled institutions to rigorously engage with it; or capitalism have found the efficient means to divest Marxism of all its radical revolutionary potential and even to serve its own purposes to produce social relations to legitimize itself as an edifice of toleration and accommodation; this also tames a potentially radical petty bourgeoisie and assigns armchairs in place of streets and cropfields.  What we can get at most from such conference? An objectified volume of reified/ ‘critical’ knowledge eventually would pile up in the chic book shops and in young minds. What kind of ‘critical’ engagement are we expecting here? Who are the people who are speaking and presenting here? Can a conglomeration of left opportunists with little commitment to social transformation and unified communist politics produce radical knowledge? The answers point to a gloomy space and elicit condemnation.

However, we are not against publication and dissemination of Marxist texts. We indulge in reasoned debate and discussion, but that, based only on proletarian revolutionary practices and vanguardist duties. The distinction between theory and practice is the menace against which Marx, Engels, Lenin, Gramsci and many others have fought fiercely all through their lives and still in the battle ground through their work. Over-emphasis on ‘practice’ leads us to a pseudo-Platonic world of ‘pure practice’, whereas doing only ‘theory’ or performing politics exclusively in grandly mounted conferences reduces Marxism to a mere heuristical device, an analytical tool; thus stripping it off from all its transformative potentials. The formation and organization of this conference do suggest the latter tendency to us. Marxism is a dialectical unity of theory and practice which brings forth revolutionary subjectivity, anything less is conservative, if not reactionary.

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      The unholy marriage between coffee shop radicalism and the uninspired pragmatism of the mainstream and co-opted leftist platforms (who make up for a sizeable presence in this conference) results in the nebulous content of the same. Although one or two  panelist from peoples movements are there but ultimately exquisite hair-splitting and gimmicks take the place of an interaction, even altercation between academy and political workers. The goal of any sincere conference on Historical Materialism is to address and involve those who actually do politics on the field.  The crisis of revolutionary praxis has to be dealt with by showing the dialectical unity between theory and practice of Marxism and revolutionary politics. Any attempt to divorce one from the other from either will further jeopardize the cause of emancipatory politics. Moreover, Marxism is not a theory amongst many theories that are bought and sold in the academic bazaars. Unlike other bourgeois philosophy its life blood lies in changing the world for real.


  A Sangathan Release

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6 thoughts on “Whatever happened to Historical Materialism?

  1. dhiraj on said:

    The essayist suspects the ‘praxis’ credential of participants and organisers of the HM conference 2013, Delhi. His suspicion germinates from the emphasis on inseparable link between theory and praxis in the marxian scheme of things. The HM conference presumably won’t disagree with his emphasis. Nonetheless, some participants may be suspect in the eyes of the essayist because of their either identity of ‘individual left’, ‘ideological/academic/armchair/coffee shop left’, reformist left or anarchist left. One feels pity on the essayist who could not prevent such a conference to happen! It is equally pity to see his failing to do what he could have done as a practicing ‘organic intellectual’! He could have seen this HM conference as an opportunity to enlighten and guide the so-called ‘coffee shop left’ by commenting on and questioning the analytical framework of papers and talks. After all, Lenin already suggested that a marxist revolutionary should be a teacher, guide and leader to the society. Isn’t it? His failure or refusal to undertake this painstaking effort once again invites my pity, for he keeps himself distanced from the sympathetic audience. He forgets the fact that Lenin wrote the thesis of ‘infantile disorder’ against the anarchist only after the revolution (1919-23).
    When the essayist appreciates a space available to the so-called ‘coffee shop left’ for undertaking intellectual/academic discussion over HM, he would rightfully obligate the participant to deliver to the commoners against the regime of oppression and exploitation.

    • SANGATHAN on said:

      In Response to Dhiraj’s Comment.
      1. The pamphlet is not product of ‘any individual essayist’; it is a release of an organization called ‘Sangathan’. (Please scroll till the end of the Pamphlet).
      2. We are curious to know the view of the author regarding HM conference; its politics which we have criticized.

      These are two preconditions that have to be fulfilled to even start responding to Dhiraj. Still at the behest of it we will like to say a few words. One of the main points of criticism is that though in words organizers of HM conference will not deny the inseparable link between theory and practice, but in practice they are doing precisely this. Moreover, if one go through the eclecticism that is reflected in organizing body and panel (NGO, secular, civil liberty activist) one can see conglomeration various kind of non-Marxist tendencies there.

      The author (Dhiraj) has called into question the credential of ‘an individual essayist’; in turn Sangathan can pose the same question to the author regarding his credentials of commenting on our post. But we are not (as we think we should not) indulging ourselves such individual bashing. We strongly condemn such manner of criticism. If he has to engage himself in dialogue he has to address to ‘Sangathan’, not to any imaginative ‘essayist’. This is a non-Marxist way of engagement.

      We sincerely like to know your (Dhiraj’s) take on the politics of HM conference and hope that the author will not deprive us.

  2. dhiraj on said:

    Its again a pity to see the ‘Sangathan’ finding a question mark on its credential in my comment! Rather, my comment brought to the fore one point what it intended to highlight in its tract and what would be its ‘unsought’ flipside. I hinted at that as a body of practicing organic intellectual the Sangathan would have treated the HM conference like any other such academic activity, which is done so in its own (political and ontological) capacity. Anyone’s attempt to academisation of HM (which is not a realm of only marxist, nor the marxism is a name of any esoteric club) will be successful only in an supportive political environment. The latter looks with a lot of expectation on the Sangathan. Irony is that some one engrossed in exalting one’s credential and denouncing imagined or real others’, its ensnared at one spot at the cost a few other pertinent matters. Unhappily, this tendency is politically known as seized mentality. The latter only atrophies its own strength. Isn’t it disappointing thing to see between comrades?
    Yes, one may like to bracket me among coffee shop left. I won’t quibble over it. My attempt is simple to exceed such a framing or destiny. I welcome critique to guide and lead me.
    I should congratulate the Sangathan to remind us what left academic and left scholar mean: the pursuit of a connected theory and praxis to bring a humane, advancing, liveable world. Accolade!

  3. SANGATHAN on said:

    we are as the author pointed rightly this time attacking academicization of Marxism. this conference is an academic exercise but with a difference, it is evaluative (of people’s movements and left parties) in mode, that is where the conceit lies. that is why we have reacted against it. yes, it is our task to see that this attempts should be curved and resisted publicly at the very outset.

    still some clarification is needed form the author,
    what does he mean of ‘imagined others’, pamphlet/ response to the commentator does nowhere talked about it. but we did talked about an essayist that has been imagined by the author. we are denouncing very much real others who are bullying left movements. what does he means by ontological capacities?

    moreover, why Dhiraj is aligning himself with coffee-shop intellectuals, we were not? he can do so, if he does then he will fall in the group of insincere intellectuals.

    Academicization of Marxism is a global phenomenon that has to be attacked in sustained manner, for that we need to build solidarity among comrades and create an alternative pedagogy. we hope that we will receive the cooperation of Dhiraj in this process.

    we uphold our view on HM conference with same vigour.

  4. Pingback: Photos of Historical Materialism Conference–JNU, Delhi, 3-5 April 2013 | Campus news, Delhi, photos...

  5. Anonymous on said:

    Historical Materialism, Delhi: Legal Marxism Redux

    The HM conference in New Delhi, India, is the arch-example of sanitising Marxism and academicising it. The purported promotion of the “new cultures of the left” is nothing but an attempt to sanitise Marxism of its dirty old history in India and elsewhere, and present it to the liberal conscience of western academic tourists in Marxism in the manner that suits their taste. Initially, it proposed to base itself on a virulently anti-communist group of postmodern journo-academics in India. The danger of de-legitimation (of course, who would like to lose their brand name and business) and to provide space to radical international tourists and NRIMs (Non-resident Indian Marxists) forced it to tone down such alignment. As a result, we have an eclectic assortment of non-serious social democrats, NGO-secular-civil liberty activists, poor academics and perpetually passive learners ready to line up to welcome international Historical Materialists.
    The recent vocalisation of an open dissociation with the Socialist Workers Party of Britain by the organisers of HM, Delhi, further reveals their desperation to satisfy and bridge liberal consensuses of the West and India. And the last straw in this regard was the withdrawal of their invitation to Alex Callinicos, perhaps the only Trotskyist in whom genuine Marxist activists in India find some ‘cultural’ affinity. This was obviously done to appease the disgruntled pocos, who were lately alienated from the organising committee. As they are on the lookout to find opportunity to vent their frustration of not having been included in this gala event, this was done to preclude any disturbance from their side.
    If Marxism or historical materialism is able today to find an important place in academia, it means two things – one, that the capitalist apparatuses have conceded to the pressures from below, and two, in this concession they have been able to sanitise it of its anti-systemic roots and have found tools that would help them in reproducing capitalist ideologies and social relations. The ideological Marxism that academia produces is a form of Marxism that is entrenched within the disciplinary divides that help capitalism to control and regulate knowledge production.


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