Marxism-Leninism and the Bourgeois Judiciary

In February 1968, the High Court of Kerala held E.M.S. Namboodiripad in contempt for certain ‘offensive’ remarks about the judiciary he had made publicly on November 9, 1967. Soon after, EMS challenged his conviction in an appeal to the Supreme Court, which gave its decision on July 31, 1970. The apex court upheld the HC judgment, noting that ‘as regards sentence we think that it was hardly necessary to impose heavy sentence. The ends of justice in this case are amply served by exposing the appellant’s ignorance about the true teachings of Marx and Engels (behind whom he shelters) and by sentencing him to a nominal fine’.

While we in principle do not see intellectual debate as a zero-sum game, this article by EMS (written as a letter to the Editor, Kerala Law Times; also available in History, Society and Land Relations by LeftWord, 2010), is quite a piece of demolition of an opposing view, done with the poise and dignified sense of humour becoming a great leader. In the world of internet memes, one might like to think of it with EMS or Marx in shades and a cigar between their lips, and a caption below that reads ‘Thug Life’. We’ll let the reader decide if they agree with us:

Marxism-Leninism and the Bourgeois Judiciary

Your journal in its issue dated August 24, (1970 Kerala Law Times 588) has published the judgment of the Supreme Court in the case in which I figured as the applicant in an appeal against the conviction and sentence by the High Court of Kerala. While I do not intend to say anything about the confirmation of conviction by the Supreme Court and reduction of sentence from a fine of Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 50, I am prompted to write this letter only by way of explanation to that part of the judgment in which the Supreme Court purports to ‘expose’ my ‘error’ about the teachings of Marx and Engels.

Let me confess that, though I have devoted three-and-a-half decades to the study and assimilation of the teachings of Marx and Engels, I do not claim that I have studied all the writings of Marx and Engels. I am referring to this because the judges seem to ‘expose’ my ‘error’ on the basis of a claim that they have studied all the writings of Marx and Engels. The judgment says ‘in all the writings [of Marx and Engels] there is no direct attack on the judiciary selected as the target of people’s wrath’. I can only salute the courage of anyone who claims to have studied all the writings of Marx and Engels. May I also point out that all the writings of the founders of Marxism are yet to be made available in English. Is it claimed that the Hon’ble Chief Justice or the other judges have read all the writings in their original German? In any case, let me give a brief quotation from a celebrated work written by Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844:

At the root of all laws lies the idea that the proletariat is an enemy which must be defeated. This can be seen from the way in which the law is administered by the judges. This is particularly true of the Justices of the Peace—themselves members of the middle classes— and it is with these that the proletariat for the most part comes into contact. The Justices of the Peace have no hesitation in regarding the administration of the law as a means of keeping the working classes down. Let a prosperous member of the middle classes be summoned—or rather, politely ‘invited to appear’—before a magistrate. The court naturally expresses regret that he should have been troubled to appear at all. The magistrate does everything in his power to smooth the path of the accused. And if the charge against the rich man is conclusively proved then the magistrate, with profuse apologies, merely imposes a trifling fine. The rich man flings the money contemptuously on the table and takes himself off. But if some poor devil of a worker appears before a magistrate it is quite a different story. He has nearly always had to spend the previous night—with other prisoners—in the lock-up. The magistrate shouts at him and assumes from the first that he is guilty. His defence is contemptuously brushed aside with the remark: ‘We have heard that sort of excuse before’. Then he is fined and since he has not got enough money to pay the fine, he has to go to prison for a month (or even longer) and suffer on the treadmill. If nothing specific can be proved against the poor devil he can still be sent to the treadmill on the ground that he is ‘a rogue and a vagabond’[1]—the two nearly always go together. The prejudice of the Justices of the Peace—particularly in rural areas— against the working classes beggars description. Public opinion accepts this state of affairs and it is only the really scandalous cases of judicial prejudice that arouse any comment in the newspapers. Generally, the facts are reported without comment. And this is what one might expect. These ‘Dogberries’,[2] in fact interpret the law as it was always intended that it should be interpreted. And the Justices of the Peace are, of course, themselves members of the bourgeoisie and really believe that the interests of their own class are the true cornerstone of law and order.

Let me also respectfully point out that in the very judgment is quoted the following sentence from Engels:

The centralized state power, with its ubiquitous organs, standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy and judicature organs brought after the plan of systematic and hierarchic division of labour originates from the days of absolute monarchy, serving nascent middle-class society as mighty weapons in its struggle against feudalism.

Here is enough evidence to show that Engels did not make any distinction between the various ‘organs of centralized state power’ such as the standing army, police, bureaucracy, clergy and judicature.

I do not know whether it is the function of the Court to ‘expose’ the ‘errors’ committed by an accused before it with regard to the systems of political philosophy of which the teachings of Marx and Engels is an important one. To my mind, the function of the Court is to interpret and administer law as it is, and not to pronounce their verdict on the various systems of philosophy in which litigants repose their faith. It will be an extraordinary state of affairs if the judges are asked to become interpreters of systems of political philosophy. I would, on the other hand, submit that it is the function of the Courts to come to a decision on whether the particular act committed is, contrary to the law as it is, regardless of whether the person committed is loyal to his declared principles.

Coming to the present case, it was certainly the Court’s duty to examine whether my speeches and statements were against the law and to give a verdict on this specific legal question. I wonder whether the judges should be concerned with the question whether my claim to have been faithfully following the teachings of Marx and Engels is correct or not. I must be punished if I have acted against the law as the judges interpret it, even if my claim with regard to the teachings of Marx and Engels is correct. On the other hand, even if I am making a false claim, I cannot be punished if I have not transgressed the law as it is interpreted by the judges.

But since the highest judicial authority in the country has taken upon itself the task of trying to find out what the true teachings of Marx and Engels are and to ‘expose’ my ‘error’ with regard to them, may I crave the indulgence of your columns to point out that it is not me who is in ‘error about the true teachings of Marx and Engels’.

A good part of the judgment is devoted to an examination of my claim on this point and to ‘expose’ my ‘error’. With due respect to the erudition, wisdom and authority of the Hon’ble Court, I should say that the Court is far from right in its understanding of the matter. Discussing the Marxist-Leninist teachings on the State and its withering away, the judges say:

Marx, Engels and Lenin thought in terms of ‘withering away of the state’. Although Lenin thought that Engels’ doctrines were an adulteration of Marxism, he was not right. Marx himself believed in this. In his Poverty of Philosophy, Marx says:

‘… The working class, in the course of development, will substitute for the old bourgeois society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in bourgeois society’. Marx and Engels in the Manifesto had considered the true state to be ‘the proletariat organized as the ruling class’. It was the Kautskyistes (Dictatorship to the Proletariat), who, misunderstanding the doctrines of the proletariat needed a State which must wither away leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Anyone who is familiar with the classics of Marxism-Leninism would find that everything in the above passage is incorrect except the quotation from Marx and a clause in the penultimate sentence which says that Kautsky misunderstood the doctrines of Marx. On this last point again, let it be noted, the Court has itself misunderstood Marx and therefore the crux of Kautsky’s misunderstanding.


(1) Marx, Engels and Lenin did not consider the State as an external category. They have taken great pains to show that there was a period of human history when there was no state at all. Again, there will be a stage in the history of human society when there will be no state. In between these two phases, here exists a State which, however, is not the same for all time but changes its basic character from one to another. As has been lucidly explained by Lenin on the basis of the teachings of Marx and Engels, there is no State in general; the character of the State changes together with the character of the class society of which it is a product and guardian angel. The slave, the feudal and bourgeois societies have their respective class States. Every one of the States is an instrument of oppression forged by the slave-owing, feudal and bourgeois exploiting minorities to keep the exploited majorities in subjection. In class societies, like ours, dominated by the alliance of the feudal and bourgeois, exploiting minorities, the State is the engine of oppression forged by this alliance of exploiting classes.

(2) It was this teaching of Marx and Engels which was misunderstood and misinterpreted by Kautsky who propounded the theory that the proletariat can use the bourgeois State in order to overthrow capitalist rule and establish socialist society. Engels himself in his last days had an inkling of Kautsky’s mistakes on this point, but it was left to Lenin to demolish the anti-Marxian theory of Kautsky. Lenin pointed out that the fundamental error of Kautsky’s teachings, was that he abandoned the class essence of the bourgeois State and confused democracy for the bourgeoisie with democracy for the people. This incidentally is the very idea against which Marx and Engels in their days had to fight a lifelong battle.

(3) The bourgeois State, according to Marx, Engels and Lenin, is the last form of the class State in the sense of its being an engine of oppression in the hands of the exploiting minority used against the exploited majority. For, capitalist rule is overthrown by the proletariat which, in alliance with the peasantry and the mass of petty proprietors, smashes the bourgeois State machinery and establishes its own State. Two points should, however, be mentioned with regard to this State.

Firstly, it is no more an engine of oppression wielded by the exploiting minority against the exploited majority, since it is the formerly exploited majority that have established their supremacy. This, in fact, is the first time after the emergence of class-society when the majority has ceased to be exploited.

Secondly, it has still the attributes of a State, i.e. an engine of suppression. For, the overthrown exploiting minority is still powerful enough to think of staging a comeback. It is therefore necessary to forge the necessary weapons of suppression against such attempts at restoration. This therefore is called dictatorship of the proletariat. For, the state is headed by a class which, in alliance with the peasant and petty proprietor masses, established the widest possible democracy for the people, combined with that amount of restrictions on the rights of the formerly exploiting minority which is necessary to prevent restoration of class rule.

(4) It is after this transitional phase in human history, during which collectivization of all the means and instruments of production is completed, discriminations based on physical and intellectual labour as well as urban and rural life, men and women and so on, abolished, thus putting an end to all the remnants of class distinctions, that the State ‘withers away’.

The Hon’ble Judges who purport to ‘expose’ my ‘error about the true teachings of Marx and Engels’ do not seem to have understood that discussion of the State in general, and not the State in relation to the class which is wielding that engine of oppression, is alien to the true teachings of Marx and Engels. This is exactly the error committed by Karl Kautsky. The Hon’ble Judges have also in my humble opinion, fallen into this error. Hence the palpably erroneous statement made in the judgement that ‘according to Marx and Engels, the State withers away leading to the dictatorship of the proletariat’.

If such a patently erroneous proposition were made by an ordinary scribe in a newspaper or an ignorant politician one would have taken it lightly. Even if a judge were to make such a statement outside Court, one would take the same view. Here, however, is a judgment delivered by the Supreme Court of India, a judgment which enjoins me to see my ‘error’ about the teachings of Marxism. I hope it would be permissible for me to exclaim: ‘No, My Lords, I would rather keep my “error” than look at the teachings of Marx and Engels through your Lordships’ eyes.’

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[1] The words ‘a rogue and a vagabond’ are in English in the first German edition of 1845.

[2] ‘Dogberries’ is in English in the German edition of 1845.

Featured image source: Twitter.