6 April 2018

Jairus Banaji: Towards a New Marxist Historiography

Interviewed by Félix Boggio Éwanjée-Épée and Frédéric Monferrand

Marx statue in the meadow

A French version of this interview was originally published at

  • When one takes a look at your published works, one notices a great variety of interests, from Value-Form Theory (“From the commodity to Capital: Hegel’s dialectic in Marx’sCapital”), to Critical Theories of Fascism (Fascism: Essays on Europe and India) and to Marxist historiography and historical theory(Theory as History). Should one consider this various interests as different interventions within heterogeneous fields of research or is there a continuity and systematicity to be found in your work ?


The continuity is simply that of Marxist theory itself. Historical materialism as Marx understood this was an integrated conception or field of research, not one divided into disciplines. It is impossible to think of capitalism, for example, in purely economic terms, in abstraction from the state; or to think of the state in abstraction from the cultures that inure large masses of people to passive acceptance (Sartre would say ‘serial acceptance’) of authority and all the values it presupposes and sustains. If Hitler was possible, that is because a milieu existed that allowed Hitler to emerge and to be successful (to become the ‘incarnation’ of a ‘people’ moulded by decades of subjection to nationalism, militarism, etc.) This conception of Marxist theory as an essentially integrated discipline, if we want to call it that, is what Sartre was trying to map out in Question de méthode. So I see my work as a unified intervention at very different levels, in rather different fields. To try and get some sense of where Indian capital was at, a colleague of mine who now runs a federation of independent unions here in India and I jointly conducted close to 200 interviews with people across the financial and industrial sectors (fund managers, auditors, company directors, analysts, etc.). But this intervention had to be framed in some way, and that framing was offered by  the unique circumstance that capitalists were being forced to discuss the way their businesses were run, their system of corporate governance. So we made this the focus but the study itself and the interviews were not confined just to that, we covered a wide range of topics including the way big businesses were controlled (the mechanisms used to structure promoter control of massive companies) and how threatened Indian capital felt by the influx of foreign firms into the market. 

  • In the introduction of Theory as History you draw a distinction between “relations of production” and “forms of exploitation”. Could you elaborate on this distinction and explain why the inability to distinguish between these concepts dooms Historical Materialism to formalism?


Relations of production are all the relations of a given mode of production, including those that belong to the sphere of competition (under capitalism), a subject Marx never got around to dealing with. Marx constructs Capital in layers, each approximating ‘actuality’ more closely by including determinations that were initially left out. Exploitation is the focus of volume one because Marx wants to show how capital in general arises in the first place, as a fetishised embodiment of labour and surplus-labour, a transmuted/objectified form of living labour. To conduct this demonstration Marx has to start with value, explain what money is, and then deal with the labour-process as a site for the production of value and surplus-value. To reduce the wealth of determinations that belong to ‘relations of production’ to this initial level of abstraction is like saying that Marx did not need to write the rest of Capital, he could just have stopped at Volume One. But had he done so, we would have no idea what he really meant by ‘capitalism’. Let me make a further point here. Marx (inevitably) identified capitalism with the modern capitalism that was rapidly developing in his day. But pre-modern capitalism has been widespread in many parts of the world from China under the Southern Sung to large sectors of the Muslim world, cf. Valensi’s brilliant case-study of shashiya production in Tunis in the 18th and 19th centuries, a dispersed and purely domestic industry but tightly organised and controlled by capital. (See Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 1969) Here is a prototype of the kind of capitalism that flourished in the urban economies of the middle ages and even in antiquity. Now as long we are clear that this isn’t modern capitalism in Marx’s well-defined sense, no particular confusion is caused by characterising economic relations of that sort as ‘capitalist’. Nor is the claim being made that these forms of production drove the rest of the economy. But what we now come away with is the perception that workers have been exploited by capitalists for much longer swathes of history than we usually imagine.         

  • In chapter 5 of Theory as History (“The fictions of Free Labour”), you argue that wage labor does not represent any “progress” when compared to slavery or serfdom, and you rely on Sartre’sCritique of Dialectical Reason. What does Sartre bring to a demystifying critique of wage-labor that, say, Marx’s critique of fetischism or Lukacs’ critique of reification don’t?


No, I certainly don’t argue that it doesn’t represent ‘progress’, whatever that means. I’m saying there (in the chapter you refer to) that it is no less coercive than earlier forms of domination of labour. The coercion works differently and is of course experienced differently, but what is being contested is the shallow way in which free/unfree labour is understood and used politically. In countries like India a very large mass of casual and contract workers, especially those in the countryside and from the Dalit community, are not in fact vastly different from slaves, but this doesn’t mean that they actually are slaves. The progress that wage-labour represents, at least in Marx’s mildly optimistic view, is that under modern industrial capitalism it is concentrated in large sites of production and production itself schools workers into becoming combative and aware of their collective solidarity and strength, their potential for opposition not just to capital but to capitalist society as a whole. Serge Mallet carried this vision of the working class over into his work but already by this stage (roughly 100 years after Marx wroteCapital)  he was forced to differentiate between different ‘types’ of working-classes and almost wrote off those sectors (in mass-production industries like automobiles) where the deskilled nature of work only allowed for temporary forms of solidarity that were easily broken because they had no basis in any wider and organic understanding of the company and how the company (this company…) fitted into society. This was already a major retreat from Marx’s conception in the 1860s because it confined revolutionary potential to one very specific sort of working class (workers in automated industries), partly influenced by Naville’s work on automation and Touraine’s evolutionist views of industry but also of course by the emerging conjunctures in France that eventually led to May 68, especially the huge investment that both major union federations made in training.   

  • In chapter 2 (“Modes of Production in a Materialist Conception of History”) and 4 (“Workers Before Capitalism”) of Theory as History you make two strong claims which are at odds with what you call “Vulgar Marxism”: you argue that the slave plantations in the U.S, far from embodying some relic of a so-called “slave mode of production” were essentially capitalist, so that the capitalist mode of production cannot be exclusively defined by wage-labor. In chapter 4, you indeed argue that wage labor was actually a widespread form of exploitation of labor in Ancient Rome and gave rise to specifically wage laborers demands and organization. What would according to you characterize the capitalist mode of production, then?


Capitalism is characterised by the drive to accumulate capital regardless of the specific form in which labour is dominated and surplus-labour extracted. To the individual capitalist it makes no difference whether the worker is free or unfree, works at home or in a factory, and so on. Those decisions are purely economic and technical; they relate to issues like costs of production, availability of labour, and whether a certain kind of worker (female, home-based) is more suitable for a certain kind of production. At this level (individual capital) even the construction of ‘skill’ is a highly subjective matter. However, from the standpoint of the total social capital the mobility of labour is obviously important because capitalists compete for workers and the market has to allow that process of competition to work efficiently.  Slavery in the modern world (Atlantic slavery) was a purely capitalist creation, but the kind of capitalism involved was chiefly what Marx calls merchant’s capital. The southern planters in the US were in any case heavily indebted to the northern financial institutions, just as Cuban slave plantations were inseparable from the Havana merchant houses and the US banks and brokers they were tied to.  

  • You recently focused on analyzing the financialization of capitalism. For this, you have looked at two distinctive theoretical sources: first of all, Marx’s writings about the Opium Wars and secondly, Sartre’s notion of seriality. What are the pros and novelty of these two approaches to analyze that contemporary phenomenon?


The lecture on the recent financial crisis was meant to rectify a disproportionate and exaggerated emphasis in recent Marxist writings on ‘productive’ capital as if this is a sort of ‘pure’ capitalism. It ties to re-establish the balance between finance and production. This is done partly by making fictitious capital a central category of analysis. By the time we come to Volume Three we realise that capitalism cannot function without credit, credit is its whole basis, as Marx tells us. Once this is conceded, we have to be able to integrate it into all further analysis, not ignore it! If credit is the basis of modern capitalist economies, then the financial markets are central to accumulation and we have to be able to understand how they work.  As for Sartre’s notion of serality, it seems to me to have a great deal of potential in terms of a richer Marxist theory of the state and of how capital exerts its domination over society as a whole. How today can we isolate capital from the state or the state from the media or the media from capital? As soon as these interdependencies are conceded, the whole analysis becomes more complex and we need new categories to structure it. Indeed, do we even have a Marxist theory of the modern capitalist state?  The two most powerful capitalist states in the world today (China and the US) emerged through radically different histories. That doesn’t stop them both from being specific materialities of capital. By specific I mean simply that domination is exercised in different ways, so that that connection between politics, ideology, culture and capital simply doesn’t reflect a single unifying template.  

  • Stressing as you do the variety of forms of exploitation and relations of production that capitalism can subsume and denying any historical validity to the classical model of the succession of modes of production (primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism), how does one theorize ruptures and qualitative leaps in history? In other words: how does one think about transition when on has given up any kind of  historicism? And what strategic conclusions can one draw from this multilinearization of Historical Materialism?


What is denied is any rigid succession of modes of production. Even within the more limited canvas of Europe’s history the ‘transition’ between the ancient world and the middle ages was far more complex than any simple succession of slavery by serfdom. There were whole centuries in the western parts of the former Roman empire when the rural labour force comprised workers who cannot be characterised either as slaves or as serfs but who were subject to new forms of domination that retained considerable coercion. To describe these as ‘transitional’ is to inject a heavy charge of teleology into our reading of history. Marx said as much in his famous reply to Mikhailovsky. And what about those sectors of the Near East and the Mediterranean that fell to the Muslim armies over the middle to late seventh centuries and (in Spain) early eighth century? Here the model for Marxist historians is offered by the way Manuel Acien Almansa rejected traditional characterisations and sought to rethink Islamic social formations in an entirely original way, influenced in part by the work of Guichard. The main casualty of much of this rethinking has been any simplistic idea of ‘feudalism’ as an all-embracing historical category with a universality almost as great as capitalism’s. Such is not the case and the fabric of history is much richer even from a strictly materialist standpoint that deals primarily with social and economic history. Of course there are ‘transitions’ but they are not necessarily governed by laws of the kind Marx analysed capitalism in terms of, and they certainly should not give a teleological framing to the way we understand history or historical materialism. To take an obvious example, how do we characterise the momentous changes that have transformed both the Soviet and the Chinese economies in the last few decades? If ‘transition’ is a fundamental category of analysis, what sort of transitions are we talking about in these instances? 

  • If you take into account a diversity of transition paths, what differentiates your approach from an Althusserian notion of “articulation of modes of productions” (a notion that you seem to reject)? And indeed, what about the Soviet Union and China, what kind of societies were they? Is the notion of State capitalism relevant in that case?


In emphasising the plurality of ‘transitions’ that characterises every historical totalisation (e.g. the emergence of capitalism which takes such different forms at different times and places), I am simply referring to trajectories that are irreducible to any set of ‘laws’. I certainly do not think that this has anything to do with ‘articulation’ in the structuralist sense. Althusser is much better on Ideological State Apparatuses than he is on ‘Modes of production’. On the latter he barely gets beyond uttering the sort of banalities (‘unity of productive forces and relations of production’) that were widespread in post-war Stalinist circles. It is astonishing that the most he can say about capitalist relations of production is that they are ‘simultaneously’ capitalist relations of exploitation. Althusser did not probe the sense of this expression (‘simultaneously’) any further! He clearly felt that to think in terms of ‘determinations’ of capital was to slide into an expressive totality and give too much away to the Hegelians. But when he says they are ‘simultaneously’ relations of exploitation, he is effectively allowing for the kind of very complex construction of capital that runs through all three volumes ofCapital. The main symptom of Althusser’s theoretical weakness at this point is that he says nothing about accumulation, fails to see capitalism in a dynamic way (as laws of accumulation and competition). This is ironic because when he goes on to deal with the state, he makes reproduction the central category. As I said, he is very good on the state and on state apparatuses and we have a lot to learn from these parts of his work.

As for the Soviet Union and China, I have always seen them as ‘state capitalist’ but done so by default. What I mean by that is that they were so manifestly not post-capitalist societies of any sort, least of all of a kind moving towards Communism (societies of ‘associated producers’) that one settled for state capitalism as the least apologetic description. But that characterisation, though true in some very rudimentary sense, is simply not enough. If the state is a single or combined capitalist, the capitalist is also a state. It is this second aspect that should prompt us to evolve political economies of the kind of capitalism that has emerged from so-called ‘failed’ revolutions. China is particularly complex but both Russia and China have had long histories of state domination. What seems to be happening worldwide today is the final catastrophic drive of capital to subsume the countryside, not just eliminate the peasantry (villages are rapidly disintegrating through most parts of the world, India is a good example of this) but transform the countryside itself into a ‘moment’ in the history of capital. In China this is taking a particularly striking form because the state is the main agency of capital in this assault, in what Pasolini called the ‘disappearance of the fireflies’. Jia Zhangke’s cinema (Still Life, A Touch of Sin, etc.) is an absolutely stunning exploration of this colossal movement of ‘primitive accumulation’, not least because he captures it in a semi-documentary style. You get a much better sense of what capitalism is like in China today, at the fag end of several decades of state accumulation and repression, than from any number of texts that simply reiterate the most rudimentary commonplaces of theory. We just do not have the categories to confront capitalism of this magnitude!           

  • What is the contribution of Western Marxism (Marcuse, Reich, Sartre) to the contemporary challenge of fascism?


Absolutely basic. The Left doesn’t have a coherent and powerful theory of fascism, let alone a means of combating it politically. Reich’s work drew attention to the synergies between authoritarianism and support for fascist movements, locating these at both psychological and cultural levels and viewing both of these as essentially inert structures (forms of what Sartre would go on to call the ‘practico-inert’).  In India today one can see why masses of deracinated male youth who have been completely ignored and unaddressed by the Left parties have gravitated in large numbers to the far right. The culture that grooms them is replete with the most violent and authoritarian ideas (caste, sexism, communalism) and forms of behaviour and with a massive dose of sexual repression that distorts the lives of the young, both male and female.  Sartre’s work gives us the means of analysing the modes of domination at work in the rise of fascism and its powerful grip over the ‘masses’. Mass domination is the basis of every fascist regime but Marxist theory has scarcely begun even to look at how this works and how it can be broken. 

  • What is the strategic role of theory today on the Left (in India and perhaps elsewhere in Europe)?


Theory is fundamental, it is indispensable, but it will not grow in a vacuum, it will only emerge and flower when a new political culture and movement emerges on the Left which gives it the conditions for its emancipation (from scholasticism, academic layering, dogmatic impoverishment, etc.) and further development. And a Left that does not take ideas seriously, does not steep itself in theory and broaden its conception of theory will likewise not be able to generate that kind of culture and revolutionary movement. So each moment depends on the other, and between them lies the whole problem of ‘strategy’. Having said this, let’s be clear that the Left cannot pull itself up by is bootstraps. The precondition for its own growth as a major political force in the world today lies in the emergence of new working classes or new layers of the working class that recover some sense of their own collective initiative and power and of what it means to be a class that can aspire to shape society. Capital has done its best to thwart the emergence of these conditions, having learnt quickly from the challenges of the post-war period (down to the late sixties) that the Malthusianism that Sartre decried in the case of France and the French bourgeoisie was in fact their best option even if it meant breaking up welfare states, repudiating social contracts, and atomising production to scales and degrees of dispersion where economies of scale were being given up. The working class Marx envisaged in Capital exists, alas, in a much less powerful and concentrated form today. The optimism that runs through the whole of theCommunist Manifesto is one where there is no room for this power of capital to intervene to shape production actively in its own interests to make sure it no longer confronts masses of workers concentrated in single sites of production. So if production remains central to the strategies of the Left, this is where we have to start. What forms will ‘trade’ unionism have to take ? How will be the mass of the unemployed become part of an organised movement ? And how can a real solidarity be constructed when the mass of wage-earners are so deeply fragmented and divided?