Some notes from my visit to Kozhikode
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
As everything natural has to come into being, man too has his act of origin--history—which however is for him a known history, and being as an act of origin, is a conscious self-transcending act of origin."
(Marx, Critique of Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole, EPM)
"Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessarily an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution. . .it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages, and become fitted to found society anew."
(Marx, German Ideology.)
Teekay, who was professor of English at Calicut university in Kerala, was more importantly one of the relentless critics of stultifying orthodoxy, including, most of all, with respect to India's Left parties and politics. Besides being erudite in Marxist theory well into its frontier extensions and amplifications upto his day.
Never one to compromise the integrity of his perceptions, he knew both the opprobrium of dogmatists, and the inside of an Indian jail.
He died at the age of 57, but left behind him a committed following, both among Kerala intellectuals and intelligentsia alike.
It was a great honour, thus, to be asked to deliver the first Teekay memorial lecture on the 21st of july, 2009 at Kozhikode on "the State of Left politics: Theory and Practice."
Given that this occasion followed upon the rather dismal electoral performance of India's parliamentary Left parties in the general elections of 2009, it seemed apposite to borrow some of Teekay's honesty to draw lessons that may even now be pressed into service.
Given also that depletions of Left politics in the "mainstream" of Indian collective life are detrimental not just to the career of these parties but to the life of the nation as a whole, Teekay would have agreed that the times call for a review that goes beyond the tactical here-and-now. Anyone who still feels a stake in the future praxis of India's parliamentary Left must square with them, risking, if one must, the title of "left-baiter" etc., And be equally receptive to criticisms that may issue therefrom.
It is with this sort of impersonal urgency in mind that I thought it advisable to record both what got said and remained merely insinuated for want of time.
E.H.Carr, responding to why things are as they are, was to suggest that inorder for the present to have been different—of communities, organized groups, larger histories—the antecedent causes that forged the present would also have had to be different ( What Is History).
Clearly, a perception that corresponds to Marx's reminder to us of our point(s) of "origin".
Were you to ask a current Indian Left leader why, for example, the right-wing BJP is unable or unwilling to be any different than it is, you would most likely be returned to its point of origin in India's pre and post-independence history, and quite rightly be invited to evaluate its class allegiances. For not without a detour into those histories might it be possible to understand why its constructions of nationalism, of citizenship and so forth came to be what they came to be.
It then seems that anyone interested in something more than the fortunes of India's Left parties in the strongholds of West Bengal and Kerala might do well to ask similar questions about the point of origin of the Left as an intervention into the ongoing anti-colonial "freedom movement."
Why should it be that a country where some 77% people spend half a dollar or less a day even in 2009, and which is rated at 134 on the United Nations Human Development Index even in 2009 should remain so inexplicably out of reach of a trans-Indian Left politics?
Well past the sixth decade of its existence as an independent nation-state, India is still a social and cultural space where, only a dozen or two miles from the capital city of Delhi, caste panchayats in the full presence and with the full approval of police personnel defy and overrule the edicts of the highest courts in the land, and issue community diktats decreeing the public "honour" killings of adult men and women who are seen to have transgressed the timeless principles of caste organization. And without the fear of any law-enforcement reprisal from the duly established State. Where self-appointed vigilante purveyors of "tradition" and "values" think nothing of bashing, molesting, even stripping women in public spaces if declared to be offending high-caste Hindu patriarchal "norms."
It is still a country where little children are buried upto their necks come eclipses—all in the belief that such burials remedy their deformities. Or sacrificed to gods for the cure of maladies or in promise of pecuniary gain. Where affluent sections of society use science to detect female foetuses and have the same duly aborted, since successful businesses requires cussed males only, and where daughters are sold off against a bushel of grain.
It is still a country where the waters of the holy Ganges, although provenly full of ecoli bacteria, are thought to bestow good fortune and nirvana. Where talismans and tantrics and sundry sadhus have clients among the most endowed, and where the state itself remains powerless to confront or dethrone forms of unreason which have come to be hallmarks of the Indian way of life and exotic sources of tourist wealth.
And it is still a country where such beliefs and hundreds of the same ilk are held not just by the ignorant masses but by English-using elites in a plethora of high places. All nestling in embrace with the fruits of modern science and the wonders of modern "development" without the least discomfiture.
From the outset of the first rumblings against colonial rule, (the Indian National Congress was estb in 1885), barring some brave souls, hopelessly outnumbered and out-manouevred, nothing was farther from the minds of most of the leaders of the "freedom movement" than to ground that movement also in any internal clean-up, incorporating the "muck of the ages" into mobilizing for a new, post-colonial nation.
Feudal practices and forms of relation between men and the means of production, men and men, men and women, men/women and gods/goddesses were not sought to be confronted and altered; these were simply incorporated into the anti-colonial movement as an enabling cultural back-up which lent uniqueness to the Indian case.
Hierarchies across the board, far from being demolished, came to sense that further enrichment awaited them in a post-colonial India. And they were not wrong. Even the dispossessed erstwhile scions of Princely states do not do so badly, be it in terms of their political fortunes or of the social deference accorded to them even now.
By the time Gandhi happened on the scene, religious mobilization had already become a feature of the anti-colonial impulse, as Tilak drafted the god, Ganesha, into a militant political purpose on behalf of the movement's high-caste vanguard.
By 1922 when Gandhi unleashed the non-cooperation movement, he had already declared himself a "Sanatan Hindu" and a believer in the "Varna Vyavastha" (the system of castes), and expressed his abhorrence for any politics that was bereft of the high morality of religion. The out of caste "untouchables" were denoted by him as "Harijans" (god's own people)—those for whom the lord hath ready a special table indeed. Blessed are the meek etc.,
Mixing all that with extraordinarily innovative symbologies, backed by personal example, some three years prior to the formal establishment of the Communist Party of India (1925) Gandhi had already both captured and shaped bulk of the popular Indian imagination, and "rescued" the future of India from the contrary impulses of the "terrorist" freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh.
Remember now that Gandhi wrote to the then viceroy to say that whereas he (Gandhi) did not contest the fact that Bhagat Singh and his two other comrades—Sukh Dev, and Rajguru—deserved the punishment they had got (for the killing of the officer, Saunders), namely, hanging, it was his view that greatness often resided in the strength not to exercise the powers vested in us, etc., And hanged they were, bringing to a close an alternative paradigm of freedom and national reconstruction.
On the other side of this hostile matrix of history— hostile to insertions of the politics of equity and reason—remember also that whereas the Communist Manifesto in myriad drafts and clandestine journeys reached many parts of Europe, little of it was heard of in the Indian colony.
Even in czarist Russia, an underground association of "subversives" came to be in Petersburg, inspiring even the likes of a Dostoevsky to be drawn in for a while. Indeed, wasn't he reprieved from death by firing squad just in the nick of time?
Although in India the 1857 revolt had brought the Hindu and Muslim feudal elements together, obliging all equally to denote Bahadur Shah Zaffar as the legitimate political authority of Hindustan, surely towards the end of the century the British and Hindu revivalists were succeeding in dubbing the revolt entirely a Muslim event.
Novelists like Bankim Chander Chatterjee were to float the view (in novels like Anand Math) that the real invaders had always been the Moghuls rather than the British.
Thus was India's future begun to be put into a framework of communal polarization.
While around 1902 Lenin and others were busy in exile working out the forging of a Communist vanguard party (What is to be done?), India witnessed sporadic and isolated attempts by armed revolutionaries to subvert British rule. Till the hanging of Bhagat Singh and the ascendance of Gandhi put a stop to all that.
Thus when Communism came to India, it came chiefly as an invocation from the newly formed Comintern after the conclusion of the Russian revolution. Remember also that whereas Lenin had been able to draft disgruntled Russian soldier peasantries returning from the first world war into forming the foot soldiers of the revolution, Indian soldiers who had fought on behalf of the allied powers had no such historical context or opportunity to do likewise.
The Comintern defined its objective thus:
to fight "by all available means, including armed force, for the
overthrow of the international bourgeoisie, and for the creation of
an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete
abolition of the state."
In point of fact, however, the Soviet party undertook to direct operations outside its national borders, issuing authoritative diktats about what "correct" lines newly floated Communist parties must now follow.
And those correct lines did not necessarily square with the stated objective of the Comintern.
Indian Communists, who, it must be recalled, remained under severe ban by the colonial authorities, and embroiled in one conspiracy case or the other (the two Peshawar conspiracy cases, the Cawnpore Bolshevik conspiracy case, the Meerut conspiracy case and so on), were told that the best course for them was to collaborate with the radical national bourgeoisie in their countries who where engaged in anti-colonial struggle (the United Front thesis, 11th thesis of the 2nd Congress of the Comintern). Even as an M.N. Roy, a delegate to the Comintern from the party in Mexico, had argued that the Comintern must lend support only to the Communists in the colonies.
Remarkably, at the Kanpur conclave (some 500 people in attendance) where the Communist Party of India was formally launched, one of the organizers named Satyabakhta had pleaded for a "national communism." He was promptly expelled. All that while the Soviet party, now under Stalin, was infact consolidating interests that contributed chiefly to its national and international hegemony. Remember also that despite the declaration in the Manifesto that the "proletariat has no country" it was the sad case that during the first world war, many socialist parties in Europe did infact end up siding with the "national" interest. Just as the events leading upto the second world war showed a similar tendency among working people to support the race idea over the class one under the relentless onslaught of Nazi propaganda.
Refutations, as it were, of the soundly reasoned internationalist argument that obliged new Marxist thinkers to examine factors other than class that impinged on the ways in which even alienated and expropriated victims of Capital might respond to historical events and contradictons.
Indeed, in a must-read book, Darker Nations: A Biography of the Third World, Vijay Prashad has recently shown how in the subsequent years the bulk of Soviet support in the newly liberated countries was to go not to the Communist parties but to the "liberatory" bourgeoisies in these countries.
When in 1927, the Koumintang in China turned against the Communists, a new diktat was unleashed by the Comintern. There was now a question mark on all alliances with national bourgeois elements, and Indian Communists were directed to expose and combat "national reformist leaders", oppose the reformism of the Indian National Congress, and oppose Gandhian pacifism (6th Congress of the Comintern).
It also denounced the Workers and Peasant's Parties, directing the communists to dump the same. As they left, these grass roots possibilities also collapsed.
In 1934, some radical elements within the Indian National Congress formed the Congress Socialist Party, while remaining members of the Indian National Congress—a turn of events opposed by some Congress leaders such as Vallabhai Patel.
Result: another twist in the line; the Comintern floated the "popular front" thesis; Indian communists were now expected to alter their relation with the INC and join the CSP.
Through the years between 1934 and 1942, the CSP constituted an unlikely conglomeration of Fabian socialists, Anushilan Marxists with roots among the "revolutionary terrorist" factions), Marxists loyal to the Comintern line, Gandhian pacifists and so on.
Although at its inaugural session in 1934, flags of the Congress party fluttered next to portraits of Karl Marx, and "comrade" was adopted as the common greeting, the internal contradictions were far too real for the synthesis to last.
At the Tripuri session of the Congress (1939), Subash Bose walked out of the Congress to form the Forward Bloc, and, soon, the Anushilan Marxists parted company to float the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP).
This new collaboration between Indian communists and the socialists within the Congress reached a peak towards 1937. But only in Kerala did the Communists obtain decisive majority within the CSP.
Courage was in evidence at the Ramgarh session of the CSP (1940); the CPI, calling for a "proletarian path," suggested a general strike, no tax, no rent policies, and preparation for armed struggle.
Promptly, the National Executive of the CSP expelled all communists from it.
When the CPI was legalized in 1942, it immediately ran into the opprobrium of opposing Gandhi's Quit India call—a turn of decision from whose consequences Indian communists continue to suffer in the popular imagination.
Which is not to say with emphasis that it was the communists who had consistently formed the most credible vanguard in the Congress-led anti-colonial movement. Indeed, episodes of the heroisms of individuals and secret groups here are too numerous to recount.
On the eve of Independence, a Paris Commune was attempted in Telengana in the then Madras province, ruled by the Nizam. And it suffered the same fate as that other Commune. The then general secretary of the CPI was dethroned for having pursued too "revolutionary" a line.
All of that led to the embracing of the parliamentary/electoral route in 1952. Despite these chequered histories, it remains a tribute to the exertions of the Indian communists that in the general elections of 1957 they came second only to the INC, and indeed were the first communists in world history to be voted to power in Kerala.
The point, however, is that from the first (1925, with Stalin and Gandhi ascendant in Russia and India), Indian communists rarely ever were either allowed or allowed themselves the breathing space to work out lines of action from the soil, as it were, against the press of two adversaries—the diktats of the Comintern (Gramsci and the Italian communists had similar difficulties), and the political/cultural consolidation of a Gandhi/Congress-led anti-colonial movement.
Inevitably from hindsight, it would seem that two great opportunities of forging a credible and ideologically lasting mass base were lost.
One, instead of tying up with the CSP, the failure to link the communist movement with the Ambedkarite critique of the dominant culture. An option that had the promise of marrying class struggle to powerful cultural impulses against forms of ideological and social domination, which, while they lasted (and indeed still last), frustrated any straightforward successes of orthodox class struggle;
And, two, after Gandhi, to take the politics of the Left to that overwhelmingly vast mass of Indians who had been astutely marginalized by the Gandhi/Congress-led freedom movement, namely, agricultural workers, poor peasants, unorganized urban poor—those that to this day constitute the bulk of the 77% who subsist on less than half a dollar a day. Although it may be argued that those that were poor peasants then are abysmally indigent farmers today.
Sadly, it cannot be said that the official Communist parties have any great hold among these sections even today. An all-important fact, one would venture to think.
Indian organized communism instead inserted itself among the miniscule organized proletariat, students, teachers, lawyers, bank employees and such like—sections that after all can only be characterized as petty bourgeois at bottom. Sections who may indeed be radicalized from time to time on specific issues, but whose class allegiance rarely allows, qualitatively, any considerable transformation in the nature either of the "muck of the ages." or of the political economy.
It must also be acknowledged that Indian communism till recently has failed in another crucial task, namely of engaging critically with that plethora of subjectivities in India which make the forging of class politics such an uphill task. Indian communism did not think it necessary to work out its own Frankfurt school.
Is it not the case that till recently Indian communist ideologues simply refused to acknowledge that such things as social identities of diverse description could also be the proper subject of communist analysis? I recall an interaction with a lower-level sartrap who, in a moment of rare honesty and courage, admitted to me how often workers of the party union, even as they go out in marches under the communist flag, quietly go and vote for their caste brethren come hustings time.
The same about the peculiar oppressions specific to women; how, after all, can any exclusively class analysis explain why between a husband and wife team of workers at a construction site, the woman should be paid differential wages, why the baby should be her burden even as she lifts the brick and mortar, or why, after work, the husband should spread out on the cot while the wife sits on her haunches blowing the coal that cooks the roti, or should receive chastisement, even physical violence, should the roti turn out over or under cooked?
Same about the perceptions widely prevalent among ethnicities that find themselves at the receiving end of majorities who tend to ascribe authenticity only to themselves. The Gorkhas and the Santhals in the state of West Bengal may be cases in point. Even as the Muslim farmers of West Midnapore have their own grievances about the Urdu language, etc., Is it thinkable that the old confusion about "nationalities" (whether India is a nation comprising many identities, or whether each identity constitutes a "nation") remains ideologically unresolved? Or that Indian official communism has gone too much over to the other side, impatient that social and ethnic diversity should so often stymie the "nationalist" project?
Not to speak of India's Dalits to whom class struggle must first take the shape and form of elevating them to some status of "human" equality.
That some of these considerations have now been under the Left analytic scanner, leading also to forms of struggle freed from doctrinaire persuasions is thus a welcome happening.
There has we think also been another area of scant review, namely the reading and propagation of the central perceptions of Marxism itself, in contradistinction to the smug and centralized habits of Stalinist party structures. Especially, the inadequate consideration given to Marx intense attention to the specific features of history in diverse geo-political spaces, and his lifelong work to understand the historical possibilities of those specificities, so that appropriate lines of practice are forged to effect heterogenous scales of transformation.
Sadly, over some three decades or more of interaction, it has been a debilitating experience to find among party cadres, even among students and teachers, the readiness to substitute party programmes for ideological training, and the contingent "correct line" for Marxist analysis.
All of that made decisively counter-productive by scant effort to move from being cerebrally de-classe, if that, to liking to be emotionally one with the "toiling masses."
Not for a long while have I seen an Indian communist leader whose most radiant experience is to be among the downtrodden, or who truly believes a dialogy of listening/learning is possible with the lowest of the low. In this context, it remains a tragic fact that lessons that could have been learnt from the Gandhian movement were loftily discarded by the Communist movement in India. Not to speak of the failure to match even the grassroots work of some of India's most dedicated and credible NGOs, or to forge strategies of collaboration with them.
It seems also the case that long years of exercising state power in just two or three states have bred a form of complacency which makes it psychologically secondary for official Indian communism to do much more. Or to recognize that any and all of its critique of the dominant class politics is weakened by being obliged to suffer the contradictions of sharing state power (we recall how upset the Chinese were when Namboodripad formed the ministry in Kerala), and, simultaneously, the failure to forge any consequential resistance to the victims of dominant class politics. The failure especially to build Left organization and do Left mass work in India's Hindi heartland must be seen as a severe limitation.
The official Left looks to enhancing its clout within parliament so that its hegemony might increase, but is unable to forge a base that may make such ambition a reality. It desires to enrich democracy, but practices centralism of the doctrinaire kind that robs its cadres of all initiative and, despite the elaborate skein of the fleshing of lines, leaves effectively only a top-rung in charge of dictating policy for each falange of three years. Practicing social democracy, it makes doctrinaire blunders that hand over its social-democratic successes to other secular parties, chiefly the Congress, and, as in Lalgarh, it leaves grass roots mass needs and politics for the armed Left-extremes to plough. It opposes global Capitalism but finds itself compromising with capitalist developmental priorities in its own areas of governance, risking mass alienation. The recent events in Nandigram being a costly example.
No wonder then that the official Left is seen today so embroiled in tech-savvy ventures, small-time seminar conclaves among the like-minded, unable to turn out even a few hundreds on to the streets except in the bastions of West Bengal and Kerala. Bastions equally under siege.
Worst of all, there seems little evidence that major strategic considerations, both in ideological and organizational praxis, are seen as anything more than mere tactical mistakes, rectifiable by the next "correct line."
Returning to the two indices cited at the outset—India even now being 134 on the Human Development Index, and 77% Indians subsisting on less than half a dollar a day, is it idle to expect that a grand council of all segments of the Indian Left is attempted? One aimed at mounting a concerted and credible all-India resistance to right-wing policies and reactionary cultural emphases.
That instead of being riven by internal wars of hegemony, all segments rise to the stature of the people who need them?
That, over some years of dedicated immersion, even if invisible to the corporate media, a mobilization of those 77% is realized, and, as a result, even if the state is not overthrown, that 77% is empowered in a gathering Bolivarian revolution that marginalizes the endowed minorities who rule India repeatedly without the majority mandate of "we the people"?
That party functionaries are dislodged from being the bureaucratic cell-structures they are at present, or, variously, from remaining embroiled in sporadic armed extremism which holds sway not as much through open mass allegiance as out of fear of the gun, and turned into foot soldiers of a democratic revolution?
Not doing all that, what future may the Left envisage for itself or for the "toiling masses" it so agonises about from the precincts of party offices?
[Badri Raina's talk was organized by the Secular Collective and the Bankmen's Club]
[Badri Raina's talk was organized by the Secular Collective and the Bankmen's Club]