[Interview by Kalpana Wilson of South Asia Solidarity Group taken in March 1994.]

Can you explain how you see the current so-called crisis of socialism which has followed the collapse of the Soviet Union ?

I essentially think that socialism itself is not a complete or stable system. Socialism is meant to be a transitory system, between capitalism and communism. So it is a very specific phenomenon. It does have certain features of communism — the society which is to be established — and it retains certain features of capitalism in the sense that what Marx calls ‘the principle of distribution’ remains essentially the same — to each according to his work. For example, in a socialist system, say there is a factory which is supposed to be representing ownership by people. A worker there, on the one hand, has the feeling that he is part of the people, so in a sense he is the owner of the factory as well. On the other hand, because he receives according to his work, he feels that he is a wage worker. So this duality operates in the worker’s consciousness.

As far as ownership is concerned, on the one hand, it is ownership by the whole people; on the other hand, this ownership is managed through state ownership, (because the state still exists in a socialist society) and exercised through officials appointed by the state. So the ownership aspect also has a duality and is liable to degenerate into bureaucracy. This duality of both workers and ownership is characteristic of the transitory society.

There is also the fact that we have been experimenting with socialism in backward countries, not advanced capitalist countries. Productive forces are backward and you cannot establish any higher system of ownership immediately. Different kinds of ownership exist: ownership by the whole people, ownership by the collective, small private enterprises ... only gradually can you move to another stage. Commodity relationships, money, all this not only continue but it has a role to play because capitalism has not exhausted itself. A lot of exchange is really commodity exchange, market exchange. For example, exchange between enterprises owned by the people and enterprises which are collectives — enterprises at different stages — is essentially commodity exchange. Because of this particularity of socialist society and especially of socialism in backward countries, socialism has both possibilities — it can advance towards communism or it can slide back towards capitalism.

Originally the conception had been that a socialist society will be established and after some time it will go over to communism. But later there were theoretical developments in Marxism, Lenin started saying that this transition will take a long time, and then in China Mao said that it’s still not settled whether capitalism or socialism will win, it may take hundreds of years. This change came about because of the particular conditions under which socialism had to be built. And formulations started appearing about the existence of class contradictions, class struggles in socialist society, whereas the original proponents of Marxism had envisaged socialism as a classless society. So I feel that Marx’s original thesis only gives a general outline, because his whole conception was based on the analysis of a capitalist society, and that too in abstraction, the perfect capitalist society. In concrete terms even a very highly developed capitalist society doesn’t conform to Marx’s ideal standards. So you can’t even say that the study of capitalism is complete because capitalism is still present and it has evolved very fast, it has not run its course. And more importantly, the study of socialism and the economic laws of socialism is still at a very primitive, primary stage.

Because of all this I believe that Marxism, for its retrieval now, requires what in popular terms I call a new Das Kapital. The time is ripe for that. The basics are there, they will continue to operate, but the study of capitalism remains incomplete. Even when Lenin studied monopoly capitalism, he too had the conception that this monopoly capitalism was the last stage of capitalism and it was moribund and would collapse. But you can see that monopoly capitalism has taken new forms and continues. So new studies are needed. Then there is the [need for a] study of the economic laws of socialism, with the experience of 75 years in Russia and later China ... so I feel Marxism needs a work comparable to Capital, particularly because all the experiments with building socialism are going on in the backward countries — in China, Vietnam and so on. If socialism as a transitory society has to continue for hundreds of years, that means you can't see commodities, money and markets just as a liability, and start taking steps to overcome them. Rather, even in a socialist society they may require development, they may require a particular utilisation for advancing the cause of socialism itself. It’s not something which has to be just dispensed with or a necessary evil which you have to go through. Planning is supposed to be a socialistic phenomenon and we saw that capitalist society used planning to check the anarchy of production with which capitalism is associated. So similarly, communists will have to think about how to utilise commodities, money and markets to build socialism in a positive way.

There is one more point that Marx made when he said that socialism was a transitory system: he said that proletarian dictatorship was an absolute necessity. So I feel that in case where proletarian dictatorship is weakened, the chance of that transitory system slipping back to capitalism is obvious. For example if we look at the Soviet Union we find that before its collapse, the economic model was more or less a traditional socialist one. All belonged to the state sector; privatisation and foreign capital were virtually absent. But they started losing proletarian dictatorship from Krushchev’s period itself, and from there we find that somewhere the gateway to capitalism was opened. In contrast I feel that Mao studied this danger of socialism going back to capitalism, the potential for reversal which the Russians denied was possible.

With the concept of Cultural Revolution — the Cultural Revolution was conceived not for tampering with the economic laws of socialism, not for bypassing backward productive forces and building some sort of advanced communist production relations — actually Mao wanted to strengthen proletarian dictatorship. And proletarian dictatorship is another name for broad people’s democracy of 90%. And this he tried to build through the Cultural Revolution: dictatorship over the few and democracy of 90%. And the Cultural Revolution had that emphasis — big character posters, mass enthusiasm etc. Socialist countries like Russia, East European countries...by proletarian dictatorship they understood just the dictatorship. The other part, that means democracy for 90%, this question of socialist democracy was not perceived as an integral part of proletarian dictatorship. So other forces took up the question of democracy. In China also, this question has always been there and Mao’s was the first attempt to generalise this democracy under socialism. Tiananmen again represented the desire for democracy, and I think every ten years, or five years or seven years, we are witnessing some big people’s movement, and if you don’t take it up from within a socialist framework it will be taken up within a bourgeois framework.

Anyway the Cultural Revolution was an experiment with that. It is true that certain petty bourgeois social forces emerged and the whole Cultural Revolution was derailed, and some people started tampering with the basic economic laws of socialism, trying to develop some sort of higher relations. The Party, which has to be the instrument of this, got disorganised. So it ended in failure. But my point is that it raised certain very important questions of socialist democracy. It did create a lot of enthusiasm among masses although it could not be organised properly and that was a problem.

At present in China they are carrying out economic experiments and keeping intact the Communist Party’s leadership — this is something I do appreciate and as an experiment it is worth watching and studying. But the other aspect, the desire for democracy, is also present. China will witness some sort of democratic movement once again. A country cannot just survive on economic statistics. And there I think the lessons of the Cultural Revolution will again be useful, for the sake of reference at least. So this is how I see this whole crisis of socialism or problems of socialism.