Workers and Peasants

Prabhat Patnaik

THE programme of the Bolsheviks in the early years of the twentieth century was founded upon the insight that, in countries coming late to capitalism, the bourgeoisie, instead of dealing those telling blows against feudal property that the classic bourgeois revolution in history, the French Revolution, had done, compromises with the landed interests. It does so because of its fear that in the new situation any attack on landed property could rebound into an attack on bourgeois property. Hence the task of liberating the peasantry from the feudal yoke falls not upon the bourgeoisie, as had been the case earlier, but upon the working class, which forms an alliance with the peasants to carry the democratic revolution to completion; having done so, however, the working class does not stop there, but proceeds towards socialism, though in this process its class alliance within the peasantry undergoes a change.

This profound insight, expressed in Lenin’s Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, underlay the Bolshevik agenda of striving towards a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of  workers and peasants, which was a precursor to our current concept of a people’s democratic dictatorship. Instead of an alliance of the working class with the liberal bourgeoisie, represented in Tsarist Russia by parties like the Cadets, which a section of the Social Democratic Party consisting of Martynov and others was advocating, Lenin’s idea was that the Social Democrats should work instead for the formation of a worker-peasant alliance. Such an alliance, far from restricting the scope of the democratic revolution, would, on the contrary, widen its sweep.

The worker-peasant alliance, a concept central to Marxism-Leninism when applied to the third world context, has thus been seen as being necessitated by the bourgeoisie’s political pusillanimity arising from its historical situation, its inability, in a world where socialism has come on the historical agenda and bourgeois property is already under threat, to carry through the task it had achieved earlier.

While this conception remains valid, and indeed the bourgeoisie’s tendency to compromise with landlordism in the new situation has been vindicated repeatedly by actual experience in the third world, including in our own country, an additional factor enters the picture under neo-liberalism. This relates to the fact that the economic fortunes of the workers and the peasants now get directly linked; i.e., there is a synchronous movement downwards in the economic fortunes of the workers and the peasants. The worker-peasant alliance becomes not only an instrument for achieving the political task of the working class in the context of the democratic revolution; it also becomes an essential instrument for improving the economic conditions of the working people as whole in the era of neo-liberalism.

The reason for this linking of the economic fortunes of the workers and the peasants is the following. Neo-liberalism unleashes a vigorous process of primitive accumulation of capital in the countryside, where the corporate-financial oligarchy and multinational corporations impinge on the traditional petty production sector, especially peasant agriculture, causing great distress to the peasants. This distress, whose manifestation in our country has taken the form of mass peasant suicides, of over three lakh persons in the last two decades, also forces the peasants to leave their land and migrate to towns and cities in search of employment. The acquisition of peasant land “for a song” by the big bourgeoisie, for all kinds of real estate projects, often camouflaged as “infrastructure” projects, has the same effect of driving peasants off their land.

The Census data in India clearly reveal this. Between the 1981 and 1991 Censuses, the number of cultivators (main workers) went up from 92 million to 110 million. But the number fell to 103 million in the 2001 Census and to 95.8 million in the 2011 Census. The decline in other words coincides precisely with the period of neo-liberalism; and between 1991 and 2011, the year of the latest Census, the decline in the number of cultivators comes to almost 15 million, which is a staggering number!

In the towns and cities however, the number of jobs being created, even when the GDP growth rate appears very high, is extremely paltry, not enough to absorb the natural rate of growth of the urban work-force itself, let alone those migrating from the villages. Between 2004-5 and 2009-10, two years when the National Sample Survey carried out large sample surveys and which span a period of high GDP growth, the annual rate of growth of “usual status” employment (i.e., of those who consider their “usual status” to be one of being employed), was a mere 0.8 percent. This was well below the natural rate of growth of the urban work-force itself, which could be not too far below the population growth rate of 1.5 percent.

The migrating peasants therefore only swell the reserve army of labour in the towns and cities, though this fact manifests itself not in a relative growth of open unemployment, but in a proliferation of part-time employment, casual employment, intermittent employment, and disguised unemployment (often camouflaged as “petty entrepreneurship”). Employment rationing in other words takes the form not of more persons being actually unemployed, but in each person, on average, being unemployed for a longer period of time.

But no matter what form it takes, the relative rise in the reserve army of labour has the effect lowering the average conditions of life of the urban workers as a whole. This is because no increase takes place in the wage rate, owing to the rise in the reserve army, while the reduced number of hours of work on average implies a lower average income for all urban workers.

The relative increase in the size of the reserve army also has the effect of weakening workers’ organisations. This would happen even if this relative increase took the form of larger open unemployment; but it happens even more markedly when it takes the form of growing casualisation, an increase in the proportion of temporary workers. Even the segment of the working class that has in the past been organised and unionised cannot escape its impact, because outsourcing of work and the casualisation of the labour-force begin also to characterise the sectors where strong unions have existed earlier.

The overall effect of the distress of the peasantry under neo-liberalism therefore is also to undermine the striking power and the living conditions of the urban workers. No doubt, there are additional ways, independent of the fact of distress migration from the countryside, in which neo-liberalism also brings about such an undermining of the workers’ conditions and organisational strength (such as for instance the privatisation of public sector units); but the distress of the peasantry, and hence of the agricultural labourers as well, compounds this tendency.

Because of this, the worker-peasant alliance emerges as the primary weapon in the struggle for overcoming neo-liberal capitalism. And since neo-liberalism underlies the current conjuncture that spawns the growth of the communal-authoritarian tendency, with the generous support of the corporate-financial oligarchy, the worker-peasant alliance also becomes the primary weapon for overcoming this conjuncture and hence for the ultimate defeat of the communal-authoritarian forces.

But while neo-liberalism strengthens the objective potential for the formation of an alliance of workers, peasants and agricultural labourers, the task of actually forming such an alliance has to be undertaken. Such an alliance in other words has to be transformed from an alliance-in-itself to an alliance-for-itself, to paraphrase Marx’s famous formulation on the proletariat. It has to be converted from an objective possibility to an agency that actually begins to intervene actively.

This complex process of transforming this alliance-in-itself into an alliance-for-itself has begun. The Mazdoor-Kisan rally to be held in Delhi on September 5, which follows the kisan march that had occurred in Maharashtra some months earlier, is a milestone in this process of transformation. Until now there have been separate rallies of workers, of peasants and of agricultural labourers. The September 5 rally is the first joint rally of the three classes, and though its immediate demands are for economic relief, it historic potential for fighting neo-liberalism and the communal-authoritarianism it spawns, is immense. Its significance becomes even greater when communal-authoritarianism is baring its fangs, with nation-wide arrests of civil rights activists on all kinds of arbitrary and trumped up charges, and with the brazen announcement that more arrests are going to follow.



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