Marxist Scholars: Paresh Chattopadhyay

The list of contemporary academics producing scholarship on Marx worth reading is, sadly, a short one. Paresh Chattopadhyay, however, has a secure place on it. Chattopadhyay, a faculty member of the Department of Sociology of the University of Montreal, has made an interesting intellectual journey from close association with the thought of Charles Bettelheim, a French theorist and sympathizer of Maoism, and the economists Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff of Monthly Review, to a position of independent and critical Marxian scholarship, characterized by a deep (and multi-lingual) familiarity with Marx’s texts.

Chattopadhyay is the author of The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience, a comprehensive study of the class nature of the U.S.S.R. in which he defines Soviet socialism as fundamentally indistinguishable from capitalism.

Chattapadhyay publishes in Historical Materialism and contributes regularly to Economic and Political Weekly, a lively and interesting social sciences and current affairs journal edited in Mumbai, India.

His most recent article, “On ‘What Is Maoism?’: Some Comments” (May 29, 2010) is a substantive critique of a paper by Bernard D’Mello, a sympathizer of Maoism. The article takes up points of Marx, Lenin (of whom Chattpadhyay is highly critical), Stalin, and Mao.

Below is an excerpt from the discussion of Marx on the material position of the worker under capitalism. As is usual with Chattopadhyay, his critique is much more interesting that its object, so the paper by D’Mello is not really important here. I have left the spelling as it appears in the original.

***

Our author [D’Mello] seems to accept the popular idea of Marx as a partisan of the thesis of continuous immiserisation of the working class. True, in Engels’ book in question [Condition of the Working Class in England] the idea of the workers earning just the minimum necessary for survival is there and for a time Marx shared this idea, but he rejected it in Capital (Engels no longer subscribed to it). Marx had a much richer position on the question. First of all, in the chapter on the “buying and selling of labour power” in Capital I, Marx noted that contrary to the case of other commodities there enters into the determination of the value of labour power “a historical and moral element”. Quite naturally, in a system where the “machine employs the workers, workers do not employ the machine” (Marx’s paraphrase of Ricardo), workers’ economic situation was indissolubly associated with the accumulation of capital. “Accumulation is the independent variable, wages are the dependent variable”, as Marx wrote in the chapter on the “general law of capitalist accumulation”. Here, he noted:

Under more favourable conditions of accumulation a larger part of the workers’ own surplus product, always increasing and continually transformed into additional capital, comes back to them in the shape of means of payment, so that they can extend the circle of their enjoyment; they can make some additions to their consumption fund of clothes, furniture, etc, and can lay by small reserve-fund of money.

Then Marx added:

A rise in the price of labour, as a consequence of accumulation of capital, only means, in fact that the length and weight of the golden chain the wage-worker has already forged himself, allow of a relaxation of the tension of it.

A point not much discussed is that the system of wage labour itself—which comprises manual and intellectual labour under capital —Marx saw as dehumanising the individual, however elevated the remu- neration is. Drawing on his earlier discussion (1844-46, 1857-58) Marx wrote in his very first notebook of 1861-63 “poverty signifies nothing but the fact that individual’s labour power is the only commodity which s/he  can dispose of ”    (Marx-Engels Complete Works in English (MEGA) II/3.1:36).

This Marx calls “absolute poverty of the worker”. In his 1863-65 posthumously published text, Results of the Immediate Process of Production, Marx elaborates:

The world of wealth develops as an alienating world dominating the worker and in the same proportion grows her (his) subjective poverty. Fullness on one side corresponds to the emptiness on the other side and they march together (MEGA II/4.1:127; emphasis in original).

Therefore, when Marx spoke about socialist revolution at a particular stage of social development he had this “material dependence” of the worker (as he calls it in his 1857-58 manuscript) in mind irrespective of the level of remuneration and the accompanying material advantages of capital’s “wage slaves”.

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One thought on “Marxist Scholars: Paresh Chattopadhyay

  1. I agree. He is one of the most important marxist writers around. His book on the Soviet Union is a work of astonishing intelligence and insight.

    I don’t agree with everything he writes but, by gosh, PC makes you think.

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