Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 46

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

Since 1990 I have also visited Vietnam a few times. Vietnamese economic reform (called doi moi) started in the mid-1980’s. On my first visit I found Hanoi to be more like a small quiet town in India, with a lot of poverty (and some begging in the streets, but not many visibly malnourished children), while Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City was somewhat better-off, and more raucous and colorful. One lecture I gave in Vietnam was titled “ The Rocky Road to Reform” where I spelled out the challenges of economic transition from a state-dominated economy; after my lecture a Vietnamese academic came to me and said, “Our roads are all full of potholes, so we are used to the ‘rocky road’ of challenges”!

One of the most knowledgeable people in Vietnam on issues of economic reform I met in Hanoi was Le Dang Doanh, who was an adviser to the General Secretary of the Communist Party, and later President of the Central Institute of Economic Management, a premier government think-tank on economic policy (I actually sought him out at the suggestion of my journalist friend, Nayan Chanda, who used to be with the Far Eastern Economic Review).

On my subsequent visits I found out how fast Vietnam was changing. In Hanoi, where I saw mostly bicycles before, it is now practically impossible to cross the road with the unending streams of motor cycles and cars (they’ll not stop for you, you have to take your chance). The Vietnamese economy is now a veritable dynamo of activity in Asia. It started with agricultural exports (like rice and maritime products) but soon followed China, a historical adversary, in the well-worn path of export-oriented labor-intensive industrialization with foreign investment and learning of foreign technology, combined, of course, with a deplorable level of political repression.

During the Vietnam War days I used to see the walls in Kolkata streets plastered with slogans like “My nam (Bengali word for name), your nam, is Vietnam”. In one grand gesture of symbolic protest the street where the American consulate in Kolkata was located was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh Street, so they had to use that street address in their stationery. But real achievements are more difficult than symbolic ones. In recent years I have told my Bengali leftist friends that Vietnam’s population is roughly the size of West Bengal’s, it was poorer in 1977 (when the left government started its 34 years of continuous rule in Bengal—the longest rule of a democratically elected communist party government anywhere in the world), but is now far better-off, more advanced both in (largely capitalist) industrialization and in public health and education.

My interest in the political economy of comparative-systemic issues and a generally appreciative but ever-questioning approach to Marxian themes, which has persisted ever since my college days, gravitated me to a high-powered but informal Europe-US-based inter-disciplinary group of leftist social theorists, which I was invited to join in 1982. This group was started by three prominent left intellectuals: Jerry Cohen, the Canadian-born philosopher in England; Jon Elster a Norwegian political theorist and philosopher (now at Columbia University); and John Roemer, an American mathematical economist (now at Yale). Their purpose was to study large historical and systemic questions raised by Marx and his followers, but apply rigorous analytical methods to study those questions, and if the age-old Marxist answers were found lacking by this analysis, as they often did, to jettison them for more sustainable answers. The informal name for this group was the study group for ‘non-bullshit Marxism’ (i.e. Marxism without any dogmatic or obscurantist fog), but the formal name was the September Group, as it met usually in September initially in Europe (Paris, London, Oxford) but in more recent years mainly in New York.

Jerry Cohen grew up in a Jewish-Communist family of factory workers in Montreal. From 1985 to 2008 (the year before his death) he held the prestigious Chichele Professorship of Social and Political Theory at Oxford (Chichele was the founder of All Souls College in the 1430’s). Jerry was one of the most colorful personalities I have met in my whole life. His super-sharp intellect as a philosopher was combined with gregarious warmth, compassion, curiosity and the stand-up comedian’s performative skills and irreverent wit. In the evenings of our meetings and even sometimes during coffee breaks in the meetings he’d give us memorable performances in skits (sometimes involving great figures of history like, Marx, Thomas Jefferson or Gandhi, or his teacher Isiah Berlin), mimicry and songs. I understand his valedictory lecture at Oxford in 2008 included a series of imitations or parodies of many famous philosophers. I read somewhere that the German philosopher Nietzsche in one of his letters referred to himself as a satyr, a clown, and said, “the most profound spirit should also be the most frivolous”; Jerry’s clownishness sometimes reminded me of that.

He loved spicy Indian food and was chummy with many of the workers and managers of Indian restaurants in Oxford. When he first visited India he wrote a diary which he gave me to read –every time he had a meal in India, someone’d invariably and annoyingly tell him “I hope the food was not too spicy”; he thought to himself that the vindaloo that his friends in the Indian restaurants in Oxford cooked up for him was much spicier. He was fascinated by long South Indian names which he’d come across in his regular reading of Indian magazines; he’d memorize them and next time he met me, he’d give me tests like where is Thiruvanathapuram?

Jon Elster is Robert K. Merton Professor of Social Sciences at Columbia University and also honorary professor at Collège de France in Paris. I have found Jon’s erudite command over the whole range of social sciences—political science, economics, history, constitutional jurisprudence, philosophy and psychology— really amazing. There was a period in the 1980’s and 1990’s when he wrote almost one book a year on different weighty issues in the social sciences.

His tome on Making Sense of Marx was a landmark in a meticulous dissection of Marxist ideas particularly from the point of view of what is called methodological individualism (a term originally coined by Joseph Schumpeter, following the ideas of his teacher Max Weber, to indicate a method giving primacy to explaining social phenomena through individual intentionality and individual action-interaction), so that in understanding class struggle a collectivity like a social ‘class’ may not be taken as acting by itself except through individuals in the class. This keeps us wary of various problems of collective action which Marxists used to glaze over. (Even if you do not believe in methodological individualism, you have to take seriously the relationship between individual choice and the social process in understanding the underlying mechanisms of social dynamics).

The book also points out that Marxists are often mired in a kind of ‘functionalist’ fallacy (a crude analogy will be with a detective trying to solve a murder mystery by just looking for who benefits from the murder, the possible motive, without checking into the means or how the murder could have been actually carried out). So it is not enough to point out that something happens in a capitalist society because it serves the interests of capitalists. Many ideas in the Marxist tradition did not thus survive Elster’s dissection, and some reviewers said that his book is more appropriately titled as ‘making minced meat of Marx’. Some people called this kind of analysis ‘rational-choice Marxism’, but intentionality in individual action need not be always rational. In fact Elster himself had been moving away from the presumption of rationality in individual behavior. On Marxism Elster now calls himself ‘a faded Marxist’.

The third founder-member of the September group is John Roemer, Professor of Political Science and Economics at Yale University. John started as a mathematician, then moved to do his doctorate in Economics at Berkeley (interrupted for some years by his Vietnam War protest activities). Using general-equilibrium theory he reformulated much of the Marxist economic system (giving up things like labor theory of value and keeping his focus on the inequality of ownership of assets under capitalism as the key source of injustice). Later he provided probably the neatest formulation of the idea of inequality of opportunity, allowing compensation to people with bad luck in the birth lottery, but holding them responsible for their bad choices (like indulging in drugs or in laziness). The World Bank has now adopted his approach in evaluating inequality of opportunity. In more recent years he has been bravely recasting economic models in terms of cooperative behavior based on the moral principle first proposed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1785, that you should act a certain way only if you’re willing to have everyone else act the same way too (thus you should not litter, unless you are willing everyone else to litter too).

Apart from these three founder-members, the September group in the first decade or so included the Marxist sociologist Erik Ohlin Wright , the historian Robert Brenner, the political scientist Adam Przeworski, the political philosopher Philippe van Parijs, the economist Samuel Bowles, the philosopher Hillel Steiner, political theorist, Robert van der Veen, and myself. (Among these people, van Parijs was from Belgium, Cohen and Steiner from England, van der Veen from the Netherlands, Elster and Przeworski regularly commuted between US and Europe, the others were resident in US). In 1986 Roemer edited an anthology titled Analytical Marxism where many of us contributed chapters.

In the 1990’s Elster and Przeworski left the group, but others like philosophers Joshua Cohen, Debra Satz and Seana Shiffrin, legal scholar Amy Kapczynski, political philosopher Harry Brighouse, and, economists Suresh Naidu (one of my best ex-students in Berkeley) and Roberto Veneziani, and others joined at different times. The untimely death of Jerry Cohen in 2009 and Erik Wright in 2019 dealt big blows to the group as these two were in some sense the most dynamic members. Nevertheless the group has kept on meeting almost regularly for nearly four decades, intensively but congenially discussing one another’s recent research, and also making an effort to infuse some new blood in its membership in recent years.

Even though the group has been interested in the important questions raised by Marx, the political views of the individual members have been quite diverse, and also changing over time. While the internal political debates have been energetic, I have never seen any lack of warmth or camaraderie. Once in a meeting in London I remember the group seriously discussing if there should be any political-ideological criterion for membership in the group, and in the end deciding that coherent constructive dialog on a set of important issues was more important than adherence to a particular set of political positions.

I have noticed over the years a gradual process of evolution of the views of some of the initially Marx-preoccupied members toward what can only be called a general belief in democratic egalitarianism. Since Marxists take pride in the ‘scientific’ nature of their analysis, there was a general feeling that they should abide by what Alfred Whitehead, the British mathematician and philosopher of science, said on the progress of science: “A science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost”.

Jerry Cohen’s grappling with and reflecting on the above-mentioned evolution in an essay in the last decade of his life is quite touching: he quotes from The Great Gatsby its last line—“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”– and says, “I have remained attached to the normative teachings of my childhood, and, in particular, to a belief in equality….A powerful current bears me back to it ceaselessly, no matter where I otherwise try to row”. He adds: “Raised as a Marxist my intellectual work has been an attempt to reckon with that inheritance, to throw out what should not be kept and to keep what must not be lost.”