Reply to a Criticism of ‘Labour Movement in India as Reflected in the Indian Labour Book 1997’

C.N. Subramaniam

Comrade Moni Guha refers to an article published in Northstar Compass which he presumes to have been authored by Vijay Singh. The original article was published in RD in September 2000 (Vol. I, No. 2) under the title ‘Labour Movement in India as Reflected in the Indian Labour Year Book 1997’. It was authored not by Vijay Singh but by C.N. Subramaniam. Comrade Guha takes objections to some of the conclusions of the article and we would like to respond to them.

We are in complete agreement with Comrade Guha that ‘there is a qualitative difference between the industrial proletariat and the ‘labouring people’. Industrial proletariat are the products of the capitalist system... and its ‘natural grave diggers.’ Whereas the ‘labouring people’ may not necessarily be the products of capitalist relations – they may be the products of different pre-capitalist relations, which exist in spite of the dominating role of capitalist system.’ (‘Proletarian Path’, January-March 2001, p. 56) Indeed the difference is central to Marxist-Leninist social analysis and we see no need to revise it. In fact the article precisely tries to show that the ‘natural grave diggers’ of capitalism are today a very small segment of the ‘labouring people’ in India and as such may not be in a position to push a socialist agenda.

Far from arguing that the ‘overwhelming large segment of the labouring people should be objectively placed in the role of the vanguard of social change’ we are trying to make a different point.

Our line of argument is as follows:

1. In order to build socialism certain objective prerequisites are needed. Of these the ones relevant for the present discussion are as follows:

i. An advanced degree of socialization of production (production for distant consumers, by a large number of workers coming together);

ii. The overwhelming majority of the labouring population should be separated from the means of production and should be dependent upon selling their labour power to obtain subsistence – i.e. should be proletarians;

iii. A substantial section of the proletarian population should consist of industrial workers; and finally,

iv. A significant segment of the industrial proletariat should be concentrated in large factories.

2. The industrial proletariat (as Comrade Guha rightly points out when it emerges both as a class in and for itself) has to play the role of vanguard of revolutionary social change in the present historical context when the bourgeoisie has abandoned the path of radical social change. However whether that change can be a socialist one will depend upon the degree of socialization of production and the relative size of the industrial proletariat (vis à vis rest of the labouring population). In so far as the industrial proletariat has to carry with it the rest of the labouring people in the task of social change, it cannot pursue socialist goals till such time as the majority of the labouring people are objectively for socialism. If it does so it will push its potential allies into the lap of the capitalists and be isolated and defeated.

3. The data presented by the Indian Labour Year Book 1997 (with its limitations as pointed out by us) indicate that:

i. 40% of the labouring population is engaged in petty production as peasants;

ii. 60% of the labouring population consists of proletarians;

iii. Industrial workers constitute only 11% of the proletarians (or less than 7% of the labouring population);

iv. Only about a fifth of the industrial workers work in medium and large sized factories.

4. We have sought to point out that given the numerical weakness of the industrial proletariat and the low degree of concentration of workers in factories the task that can be accomplished immediately is the democratisation of the society, freeing it of the vestiges of semi-feudal relations and colonialism. This will pave the way for the transition to socialist tasks and also help to consolidate the leadership of the most progressive section of the society over the rest of the labouring people. This is also necessitated by the fact that nearly 40% of the labouring people continue to be wedded to small property. This segment is indeed is heavily exploited by industrial and finance capital and it is itself a differentiated category; but it still holds on and hopes to hold on to small plots of land. This segment will rally behind the working class in the democratic movement but is unlikely to support a socialist transformation immediately. Any premature attempt at the latter would throw it into the arms of capital.

5. As Marxists we need to look critically into the data and examine if these conclusions can indeed be sustained by the official statistics and to what extent these statistics provide a true picture and if the conclusions need to be revised marginally or substantially. We have pointed out clearly that there are several problems with the data and we cannot draw firm conclusions from them. We hope to benefit from the incisive analysis of Comrade Guha in this respect.

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