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Archive for November, 2015

On the same page:Ambedkar and Periyar-ILANGOVAN RAJASEKARAN

Posted by admin On November - 21 - 2015 Comments Off on On the same page:Ambedkar and Periyar-ILANGOVAN RAJASEKARAN


At a time when the Sangh Parivar attempts to co-opt Ambedkar and certain Dalit voices cast doubts about the contribution of Periyar to the emancipation of Dalits, it is vital to point out the many commonalities between the two reformers. They will continue to be relevant as long as caste oppression exists in Hinduism.By ILANGOVAN RAJASEKARAN
COULD a relatively innocuous episode in an educational institution trigger a national-level debate, bring to the fore the sociopolitical fault lines of a country and lead to the polarisation of opinion? That is what the controversy over the derecognition of a study circle at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras did (“Derecognising dissent”, Frontline, June 26, 2015).

In fact, the name of the group, Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC), itself contained, in the perception of a few, the seeds of a controversy. Named as it was after two icons of India’s movement for social reform and awakening, Dr B.R. Ambedkar and E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, the study circle’s derecognition by the IIT Madras management was seen by the adherents of the social philosophies of the two leaders and Marxists as one more manifestation of the intolerance of the forces of Hindutva, which are strongly entrenched in power at the Centre now.

Ambedkar and Periyar were at the forefront of social movements that challenged the deeply entrenched caste system, traced its origins to Hinduism which laid the theoretical foundations of the system, and saw the emancipation of the socially oppressed in abolishing the religion itself. The protests, online and on-field, against the lifting of the ban on the APSC triggered debates over the theories and the legacies of Ambedkar and Periyar on sites ranging from the streets to television studios.
The debates took place primarily between the followers of Ambedkar and Periyar on one side and Hindutva “theoreticians” on the other. Interestingly, Hindutva theoreticians, who are out to appropriate a sanitised legacy of Ambedkar, found strange bedfellows in a section of Dalit intellectuals, who, of late, have been questioning Periyar’s credentials as a crusader for the socially oppressed, accusing him of having a bias in favour of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and against Dalits.

Hindutva theoreticians argue that Ambedkar and Periyar can not be considered equals and put on the same footing as far as social reform is concerned. And they have for company a section of Dalit leaders and writers. They invoke the name of Dr Ambedkar freely but fail to realise that he had no issues with the social reform movement in Tamil Nadu extending the struggle to Dalits as well.

Hindutva elements, which have been on a relentless mission to appropriate the legacy of Ambedkar, resurrected some clichéd arguments against Periyar, saying that he was a pro-OBC leader who worked against the interests of Dalits. The idea was to win over Dalits to their side by driving a wedge between them and the OBCs. Unfortunately, some neo-Dalit intellectuals and fringe Tamil nationalist groups, which have been critical of Periyar and his reforms and view with suspicion any activism other than their own, seem to be playing into the hands of these elements.

Periyar and Ambedkar undoubtedly had many commonalities on the social front, and a few differences which were not big enough to cast them as polar opposites as some Hindutva “ideologues” seek to do. A discerning reader who sifts through their writings and speeches cannot miss the similarities between their approaches. Both campaigned stridently against Hinduism, which, according to them, sanctioned and ideologically justified the pernicious caste system. Ambedkar, a Mahar from Indore, embraced Buddhism, exasperated over his community’s continued exclusion from the social structure; Periyar, an OBC, remained in the Hindu fold “to exercise my moral right to criticise it”, in his words.

“No force on earth can appropriate Periyar,” said K. Veeramani, leader of the Dravidar Kazhagam (D.K.), founded by Periyar. “Their [Hindutva forces] ulterior motive is to divide and rule; to set OBCs against the Scheduled Castes [S.Cs]. They divide people according to Manu Dharma,” he said. They seek to portray Ambedkar and Periyar as ideological rivals by picking up a few stray statements uttered on different occasions by the two great leaders and interpreting them in such a way as to suit their rabid casteist view of Indian society.
Academics point out that any attempt to portray them as rivals will only help the Hindutva agenda, which seeks to homogenise culture and deny India’s plurality. “In Tamil Nadu, these reactionary forces occupied the anti-APSC platform to launch a smear campaign against Periyar,” said Veeramani. “And a few Tamil Dalit writers have inadvertently fallen prey to it, which does not augur well for any reformist movement.” These writers have developed a kind of contempt for Periyar because of a misplaced understanding of the social reform movement that arose in this part of the country, he said.

The Sangh Parivar has all along projected Ambedkar as a nationalist and, contrary to historical facts, as a Hindu. It claims that Buddhism, which he embraced just before his demise, is a sect within Hinduism. It could not make a similar claim about Periyar because he headed an apolitical movement, the Dravidar Kazhagam. “Periyarism can never be appropriated by any force that is inimical to social equality,” reiterated Veeramani. The Parivar, he said, is manipulating a few malleable Dalit groups to sully the social reformer’s image.

Anand Teltumbde, a noted writer and activist, said: “Having tasted the meat of political power, it [the Sangh Parivar] realised it could not ignore Ambedkar. It planned to saffronise him, picking up some of his stray statements sans context and mixing them with its Goebbelsian lies.”

A commonality of purpose, in terms of their ideologies, evolved between Periyar and Ambedkar in 1929 when the middle and the oppressed classes were apprehensive about the benefits of freedom from British rule. V. Arasu, scholar and former professor in the Department of Tamil Language and Literature, University of Madras, said: “They thought that freedom might benefit only a few powerful caste Hindus.” The two leaders, in fact, viewed India’s political freedom from an anti-caste perspective. Both Periyar and Ambedkar were convincingly united in their battle against caste oppression. Ambedkar raised the issue of casteism in the Round Table Conferences, both in 1930 and in 1931, which resulted in separate constituencies for the Depressed Classes. “Today’s Hindutva groups attempt to camouflage this. It was Ambedkar who categorically underscored that Hinduism promoted casteism, which Periyar endorsed spontaneously,” Arasu pointed out.
Theory and propaganda

If Ambedkar was the quintessential social theorist, Periyar was a revolutionary propagandist. Ambedkar was a London-educated barrister-at-law, a powerful speaker, parliamentarian, constitutional expert and, above all, the best-known mass leader of the downtrodden after the great social thinker and worker Jyotirao Phule. His scholarship evoked awe. His speeches and interventions on the floor of the Constituent Assembly were manifestations of his extraordinary scholarship. Professor Valerian Rodrigues, editor of The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar, said that Ambedkar’s writings reflected “the depth and the range of his life’s work, intellectual incisiveness and his realistic assessment of the social and political issues that he sought to address”.

Narendra Jadhave points out in Ambedkar Speaks that Ambedkar’s speeches not only reflected his keen intellect and wide-ranging scholarship but were also indicative of the strategic stance he adopted from time to time. Dr Ambedkar, writes Jadhave, was not simply a Dalit leader or only a leader of the oppressed people of India. “Dr Ambedkar’s nationalism was not confined to the transfer of political power to Indians. It was focussed on the much broader notion of sustainable national reconstruction, that is, building a Democratic Republic through the creation of social equality and cultural integration in the age-old caste-ridden, inherently unjust and discriminating society,” he writes.

Though he was deeply committed to the cause of emancipation of Untouchables, he never compromised on the national interest. In comparison, Periyar’s works and interpretations were forthright and down to earth. Arasu said that Periyar did not function within a system. “But Ambedkar sometimes operated within it. Though Periyar criticised him for acts such as the signing of the Pune Pact on the insistence of Gandhi, they remained friends, bounded by ideologies and principles,” writes Jadhave.

The Periyar scholar V. Anaimuthu, in his article “Periyar and Ambedkar”, states that Periyar hotly contested Gandhi’s claim at the Second Round Table Conference held in England in September 1931 that he represented the Congress, which demanded “Purna Swaraj”, as well as Harijans. “He [Periyar] even silenced Gandhi who opposed separate representation and separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes,” writes Anaimuthu.

Many Dalit activists are of the view that Gandhi indulged in deceit to prevent Ambedkar from emerging as the only Dalit leader in the country. In fact, from his writings, one could discern the uneasy equation that Ambedkar had with Gandhi. The writer and activist Pieter Friedrich, who is also Adviser to the Organisation for Minorities of India, while addressing a meeting organised by the Begampura Educational and Cultural Society of Sacramento, United States, recently, drew attention to Ambedkar’s assessment of Gandhi: Ambedkar had, in 1955, said that he knew Gandhi better than anyone, because he “opened his real fangs to me”.
But Ambedkar still chose to remain humane. The journalist Janak Singh, in his book Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: The Messiah of the Downtrodden, records: “He [Ambedkar] had to make a choice between two different alternatives. There was before him the duty, which he owed as a part of common humanity, to save Gandhi from sure death. There was before him the problem of saving for the Untouchables the political rights, which the [British] Prime Minister had given then. He responded to the call of humanity, saved the life of Gandhi by agreeing to alter the Communal Award in a manner satisfactory to Gandhi.”

But Periyar was firmly set in the limited space he created through the Self-Respect Movement for his struggle against Hinduism. He was a Congressman who sold khadi products, carrying them on his head, and, at the same time, urged the party to shun caste-based discrimination. But, the Cheranmadevi incident highly disturbed him. (At Cheranmadevi near Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, the Congress ran a national training school as an alternative to British-controlled schools, known as Gurukulam, which was managed by V.V.S. Iyer, a Brahmin. The school practised discrimination against non-Brahmin students. Periyar and his supporters in the Congress vehemently opposed this practice.)

When Periyar met Gandhi in Bangalore in November 1925, he wanted the Congress to fight for the eradication of the caste system and stressed the need for communal reservation. But neither the Congress nor Gandhi took his demands seriously. When Periyar found Gandhi to be unrelenting in his support for Hinduism and the caste structure, and his concept of Swaraj, he distanced himself from both Gandhi and the Congress.

Well aware of the constraints he faced politically as a regional leader, Periyar never equated himself with Ambedkar and openly declared, at the Depressed Classes Conference held in Mayavaram (now Mayiladuthurai), that he accepted Ambedkar as his leader and as the national leader of the oppressed (reported in Viduthalai (July 10, 1947), the mouthpiece of Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement). “I strongly believe that Ambedkar alone can eradicate atrocities against the Panchamars. Ambedkar should be your leader,” he told the Dalits at the conference.

Periyar did not nurse any political ambition and his involvement in politics was half-hearted. He preferred “a friendly government” that would implement his social reform measures with legal sanction. Both Ambedkar and Periyar were Congressmen and nationalists. Both were anti-Hindu but were born Hindu. Both strove for a classless society but were well aware that that would remain a dream. But that did not deter them from pursuing their objective of making the socially disadvantaged realise the evils of the structures that divided society on the basis of caste.
Leaders in their contexts

Periyar and Ambedkar need to be critically studied in the context of the period they lived in and the then prevailing socio-economic-cultural-political environment. Both were prolific writers and good orators. Periyar’s writings and speeches in Tamil over his five-decade-long social reform efforts and Ambedkar’s scholarly contributions on the annihilation of caste stand testimony to their commitment to social emancipation. “They are to be studied and researched not in isolated pockets of time to suit one’s convenience,” said A. Marx, activist-cum-writer.

But the central theme of their movements for what Jadhave calls a “civilised society” of “liberty, equality, fraternity” cannot be missed. Ambedkar burnt “Manusmriti” on December 25, 1927, at Mahad (Maharashtra), which Periyar followed immediately in the south. However, when Ambedkar asked him to renounce Hinduism and convert to Buddhism when the two leaders met in Rangoon (Yangon) on December 5, 1954, Periyar politely refused, saying that by converting to another faith he would lose his moral right to criticise Hinduism. “Being a Hindu, I gain the right to criticise Hinduism,” was his considered view.

Ambedkar insisted on the need for leadership to emerge from among the oppressed. “Inequality is deeply entrenched in Hinduism. Social structure alone in a democracy would decide governance. The powerful seize power. It has been a well-established structure. Unless the Hindu religion is destroyed, equality will never be possible in India. [Until then] any elections will never ensure a government of the people and for the people,” he says in one of his articles.

Periyar never hesitated to endorse Ambedkar’s views. He said in an editorial in Viduthalai, on March 27, 1969, that the Gandhian concept of democracy was being used to preserve the caste structure and the pride intact. The majority of the people, he said, would suffer under such a democracy. “Can the freedom of a country ensure human emancipation?” he asked. Both advocated social freedom preceding political freedom, which both the Congress and Gandhi were fighting for.

“To be precise, both Ambedkar and Periyar are the two eyes and the two arms of the B.Cs, S.Cs and S.Ts [Scheduled Tribes] in India as far as reservation in education and employment is concerned. Hence, let us uphold Ambedkarism and Periyarism in the right perspective,” says Anaimuthu, in one of his writings on Periyar. “They are the two sides of a coin,” said K. Veeramani.
While denouncing Hinduism, Periyar said that the Self-Respect Movement, which was started with the “five principles of anti-religion, anti-God, anti-Gandhi, anti-Congress and anti-Brahminism”, had sought to ensure education to non-Brahmins. Here, he did not distinguish between non-Brahmin Hindus and Dalits. “We are languishing in a pit. We have to come up. We remain divided as fourth and fifth and Untouchables. This should change. For good governance, a Constitution is required and not a Shudhra or a Brahmin. We need a human being [to rule],” he said.

On religion

The supposed ideological and political differences between Ambedkar and Periyar, as claimed by a few, were flimsy. Periyar resolutely opposed the very concept of religion, whereas Ambedkar did not repudiate it, though he decried Hinduism’s caste structure. “In this context Periyar was much more pragmatic than Ambedkar,” Arasu said.

In his undelivered speech “Annihilation of Caste”, Ambedkar points out: “I am so convinced of the necessity of religion. But what I suggested is a religion based on the tenets of liberty, equality and fraternity.” He suggested a cardinal reform for Hinduism, a religion of rules: “There should be one and only one standard book of Hindu religion, acceptable to all Hindus and recognised by all Hindus.” He was attempting to humanise a religion that is based on the “sacred and authoritative” texts of the Vedas, the Shastras and the Puranas. He wanted that it “must by law cease to be so, and preaching any doctrine, religion or social… contained in them should be penalised”. He took Periyar’s views here, wanting to abolish the priesthood, or at least ensuring that it ceased to be a hereditary one. “Every person who professes to be a Hindu must be eligible for being a priest,” he said.

He was highly critical of the prevalence of the priest system in Hinduism. “The priestly class among Hindus is subject neither to law nor to morality. It is a pest divinity seems to have let loose on the masses for their mental and moral degradation. The priestly class must be brought under control by some such legislation as I have outlined.” He said that it would certainly help kill Brahminism and “will also help to kill caste, which is nothing but Brahminism incarnate”.

“The non-Brahmins and Untouchables have till now feared this intellectually corrupt and arrogant mentality of Brahmins and have meekly behaved according to their wishes. If both these communities [non-Brahmins and Untouchables] join hands and strive for self-progress then they would soon get independence from the slavery of upper caste people,” said Ambedkar in one of his speeches in Marathi at a Mahar Conference in May 1926. Periyar advocated the same.
Periyar’s constant target was temples, where, he unwaveringly believed, Brahminism strove to retain Varnashrama Dharma. In his journal Kudiarasu, dated October 27, 1929, he wrote: “I insist that those who are called Untouchables should enter temples not for seeking atonement, but to eradicate the caste differences. Temples are being used to keep the caste structure intact.” Here, he was desperate to make Dalits understand that temple entry was not for worshipping but to break the shackles of the slavery they had suffered for generations.

True, he did make a few sharp remarks against Dalits, as he also did against other caste groups, which prompted some to call him anti-Dalit. But it was out of sheer frustration that Dalits were not willing to shed their inhibitions to join the mainstream. While throwing open a well meant exclusively for “Adi Dravidars”, at Siravayal village near Karaikkudi in Tamil Nadu on April 6, 1926, under the “Gandhiji Plan”, he told the Adi Dravidars that he would never endorse the practice of a separate well for them.

“Having a separate well for Adi Dravidars is the most spiteful act,” he told the gathering and called on them (Dalits) to change the way they had been conditioned to think that they were untouchables. He pointed out that those who did not have self-respect could never be brought up in the social ladder. “All are human beings,” he said. “As you are eating beef, it is being exploited to keep you as untouchables. Those who eat beef are rulers of the world. I will never ask you to discard beef-eating,” he said.

But both Ambedkar and Periyar were united in criticising the Hindutva ideology. At the National Backward Classes People’s Conference held in Kanpur on December 29, 1944, Periyar, who was one of the speakers, claimed that as long as one believed in Hinduism, the Shastras and the Vedas, people would remain oppressed and backward. “We cannot have equal rights,” he declared.

Many find fault with the concept of Dravidianism that Periyar espoused. His basic argument was that when one denounced Hinduism, one was rendered casteless and hence became an irreligious and casteless person, or Dravidian. “We declared ourselves as Dravidians and not Hindus in our Dravidar Kazhagam Conference at Tiruvarur in 1940,” he noted in one of his writings.

Periyar reacted thus in Viduthalai (July 8, 1947) to accusations that the D.K. did not work for the uplift of the downtrodden: “The main objective of the Dravidian movement is to erase the differences between the upper castes and the lower castes and Shudras and Panchamars and to usher in social equality. I oppose the division within ourselves as Dravidans and Adi Dravidans. We are Dravidans.” Veeramani said Periyar openly declared himself a Shudra and a Dravidan.

He even asked the S.Cs to abandon Hinduism and embrace Islam, which, he claimed, professes social equality. Ambedkar, too, in his earlier speeches, asked the Panchamars, Dalits, to embrace Islam. His conversion to Buddhism was a later development born of his social and theological evolution and has to be studied in a different perspective.
Unity of Shudras and Untouchables

Ambedkar followed Periyar’s line of realising a major non-Brahmin bloc comprising caste Hindus, Dalits and women. In one of his writings, he expressed the wish that Shudras unite with the Depressed Classes to fight against Brahminism. “Why the movements of Untouchables were not victorious? Did they not have friendly parties?” he asked. Questions that are pertinent even today for leaders of Dalits and OBCs to debate and discuss.

Manu’s Hindu Law, Ambedkar pointed out, prescribed that Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas should not live in a country where Shudras ruled. Hence, he said, there was a justifiable reason for Shudras, Denotified Classes and Depressed Classes to remain united. “In fact, attempts were made to unite the three groups to break the Brahmin hegemony. Even the communists tried, but failed. Brahmins use them [Shudras] as soldiers to attack Untouchables. They have been isolated. This is another impediment in eradicating Untouchability. The Varna system has the fullest social sanction for the Hindu society,” he said in his essay “Who were the Shudras?” (Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Writings and Speeches (BAWS), 15 Volumes, published by the Department of Education, Government of Maharashtra).

Ambedkar further said: “There is a class of Hindus who are known as orthodox and who will not admit that there is anything wrong with the Hindu social system. To talk of reforming it is to them rank blasphemy.” In “Origin of Untouchability”, he said that a strange social phenomenon was “concealed” by quoting the 1910 Census, in which the Census Commissioner separated the different classes of Hindus into: 1) those who are 100 per cent Hindus and 2) those who are not. Among those who were not 100 per cent Hindus, he continued, were castes and tribes which denied the supremacy of Brahmins, the Vedas, Mantras, Hindu gods, and ate beef and caused pollution by touch. They divided the Untouchables from the Hindus. The Census Commissioner’s enquiries further showed that “Brahmins shunned Untouchables”. “They did not bring to light the fact that the Untouchables also shunned Brahmins,” claimed Ambedkar.

He quoted extensively from Abbe Dubois’ book Hindu Manners and Customs, 1928, which said: “Even to this day, a Pariah is not allowed to pass Brahmins’ street in a village though nobody can prevent his approaching or passing by a Brahmin’s house in towns. The Paraiahs on their part will under no circumstances allow a Brahmin to pass through their Paracherries (collection of Paraiah huts) as they firmly believe it will lead to their ruin.”

To strengthen this “reverse untouchability” theory, Ambedkar quoted the Tanjore Gazette of 1906. “Mr Hemingway, the editor of the Gazette of Tanjore District, Madras, says: ‘Three castes (Parayan and Pallan and Chakkiliyan of Tanjore District) strongly object to the entrance of a Brahmin into their quarters believing that harm will result to them therefrom.’”
Ambedkar gives an explanation for this strange phenomenon. “The explanation, of course, will fit in with the situation as it stood at the start, i.e., when the Untouchables were not untouchables, but were only ‘Broken Men’. What is the basis of this antipathy? It can be explained on one hypothesis. It is that Broken Men were Buddhists, Brahmins hate. They became Untouchables when the majority of Hindus were Buddhists,” he surmised.

At a meeting in Madras on September 23, 1944, Ambedkar explained the reasons for the failure of the non-Brahmin movement. “The major reason is that they [non-Brahmins] never bothered about the poor in villages, who are 90 per cent non-Brahmins. The non-Brahmin party [in Tamil Nadu] did not worry about the agricultural labourers. Hence Congress easily came to power. This change had deeply pained me,” he said.

“Caste has a divine basis. You must therefore destroy the sacredness and divinity with which caste has become invested,” he said in “Annihilation of Caste”. “Without the annihilation of the caste system, there is no real freedom,” said the sociologist Gail Omvedt. It was for this that both Periyar and Ambedkar fought all their life.

Ties with Communists

Periyar’s primary grouse against the communists of his time was that they never thought of taking up issues of caste-based discrimination and Brahminism. “They should have taken up the issues of caste structure and Brahminical capitalism,” he said while addressing workers at the inaugural function of the Southern Railway Workers Union at Ponmalai (Golden Rock) in Tiruchi on September 10, 1952.

His observations have come true today. The Left has to rework its class strategy to that of caste to keep the working-class cadres, the majority of them from the socially disadvantaged groups, from getting poached by Dalit outfits. “I have spread communist ideology. I am not an enemy of communism, which is a good philosophy,” Periyar said and dispelled the doubts of those who viewed him as anti-communist.

He had a close friendship with the communist leader M. Singaravelar, who introduced him to Marxian principles. He became a staunch socialist after his visit to the Soviet Union and even propagated the need for communism, which he thought was the panacea for all the social evils in Hindu society. The veteran leader P. Jeevanandam was with him.

But later, at a particular historical juncture when he came under attack from the British government and when he saw the rise of the Congress as the rise of Brahmins, he changed his radical tack to a reformist mode. He was critical of “today’s communists”, for compromising on their ideology. But when communists were hunted down during the Congress regime, he boldly resisted and criticised the act in a series of articles and editorials. In the first general elections, held in 1952, the D.K., in fact, supported Communist Party of India candidates.
Ambedkar dealt with communists in a refined manner and made pointed references to the class struggles in which communists played a crucial reforming role. In his speech at the Mahar Conference in Bombay on May 31, 1936, on the question of class conflict, Ambedkar said: “This is a question of excesses committed by one class on the other; of injustice done by one class to the other. This class conflict is a conflict concerning social status.”

Independence and the Muslim question

For holding such views and working for the uplift of the lower classes, Periyar was even labelled anti-Indian. His meeting with Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Ambedkar prior to Independence (on January 8, 1940) would explain how immature and unfounded the charge was.

Both Periyar and Ambedkar believed that real freedom could be achieved only when social emancipation was realised. Both wanted a free and casteless Indian state and not one based on the Gandhian principle of Swaraj, which they thought was meant only for the elite and upper-class people. Jinnah, Ambedkar and Periyar worked for a non-Congress and non-Hindu government and separate statehoods for Muslims, Mahars and Dravidians, once the British left Indian shores.

Speaking in January 2001 on the topic “The Historic Meeting of Ambedkar, Jinnah and Periyar” at the 21st session of the South Indian History Congress held in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, the academic K.V. Ramakrishna Rao claimed that Jinnah had asked Muslims to observe December 22 (Friday), 1939, as a “Day of Deliverance” to mark the cessation of Congress governments even as the Congress was popularising the idea of Swaraj. (The British government allowed provincial elections in India in 1936-37 under the Government of India Act, 1935. The Indian National Congress gained power in eight of the 11 provinces for which elections were held. The Congress Ministries resigned subsequently in protest against Viceroy Lord Linlithgow’s declaration that India would take part in the Second World War. Jinnah was pleased with the resignations and called for Indian Muslims to celebrate December 22, 1939, as a “Day of Deliverance” from the Congress: “I wish the Musalmans all over India to observe Friday 22 December as the ‘Day of Deliverance’ and thanksgiving as a mark of relief that the Congress regime has at last ceased to function.”)

Ramakrishna Rao pointed out that Periyar extended his support to Jinnah by calling upon all Dravidians to celebrate the occasion “on a grand scale… to rid the country of the menace of the Congress”. But Jinnah alone succeeded in his agenda with the birth of Pakistan. Ambedkar and Periyar were disappointed. Ambedkar even sounded disillusioned. He, writing in Marathi, pointed out that “the benefits of the Muslim fraternity [are] confined to those within that corporation [and] for those outside there is nothing but contempt and enmity”.
In his book Pakistan and Partition of India, published in 1940, Ambedkar elaborated on Jinnah and the subsequent creation of Pakistan. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) claim that Ambedkar was anti-Muslim is a gross misrepresentation and far from the truth, which Ambedkarites feel is “a perverted” attempt to distort history. Ambedkar did criticise Muslims, not out of religious bigotry but out of sheer frustration that a leader of the stature of Jinnah did not support his cause for a separate statehood for the oppressed.

Periyar’s ambition for a separate “Dravidasthan” also remained unfulfilled. But Jinnah wrote to Periyar in 1944, saying that “if the people of your province really desire ‘Dravidasthan’, then it is for them to assert themselves…. I can only speak for Muslim India.” Subsequently, Periyar chose to restrict his role to that of a social reformer, while Ambedkar continued in politics in the belief that political power would empower the Mahars.

Periyar’s friendship with Ambedkar never faltered at any time. Through his writings in Viduthalai and his speeches on public platforms, he warned Ambedkar about Gandhi’s intentions and even sent him a telegram before the signing of the Poona Pact, saying that Gandhi did not want to see his dream of a Hindu “Ram Raj” disintegrate because of caste issues. “The rights of crores of the oppressed are more vital than the life of one person, Gandhi,” he said in his telegram (Viduthalai, April 21, 1985).

Chroniclers have recorded that both social reformers were critical of Gandhi and the Congress for keeping the Untouchables as untouchables. Ambedkar found the Congress to be a big middle-class Hindu party where disadvantaged groups such as the Mahars had no place. Periyar found the Congress to be a Brahminical dispensation that rarely allowed space for non-Brahmins.

Teltumbde, in his article “Deconstructing Ambedkar” in Economic & Political Weekly, points out that at one point, in sheer frustration, Ambedkar disowned the Constitution saying that “he was used as a ‘hack’” [by the Congress] and that the Constitution was of no use to anyone and that he would be the first person to burn it. In fact, on September 2, 1953, Ambedkar said: “I was holding the pen but it was moved by Brahmins.”

His election to the Constituent Assembly was at the behest of Gandhi, who also was instrumental in making him the chairperson of the drafting committee, which had four upper-caste members. “What could Ambedkar do?” asked Veeramani. But Ambedkar saw in it an opportunity to end the exclusion of disadvantaged groups and women from mainstream society.

He attempted to safeguard their rights in the Constitution and in the Hindu Code Bill. But he had to resign when the Nehru government, under pressure from majoritarian forces, diluted the Bill by splitting it into too many fragmented pieces of law and excluding the provisions that Ambedkar had included which could have made sweeping social renaissance possible in the “religion-soaked country”, as Veeramani called it, thus defeating its very purpose.
Dalit intellectuals’ charge

A few of today’s Dalit activists allege that what the RSS is doing to Ambedkar is what Periyar did to Dalits some five decades ago—appropriating their struggles to erase Dalit identity and establish a Dravidian distinctiveness in Tamil Nadu. Though they reluctantly acknowledge Periyar’s role as a social reformer, they consciously confine him to Brahmin-baiting.

In the Tamil book Saathi Indru (Caste Today), a group of writers argue that the non-Brahmin movement which Periyar led strengthened the powerful intermediary non-Brahmin bloc, thus excluding Dalits and religious minorities, and had the sole aim of snatching power from Brahmins. They note further that these non-Brahmin groups, posing as the oppressed by blaming the Brahmins for untouchability, however, themselves practised untouchability, thus clearly demarcating what Ambedkar called “the line between the Touchables and Untouchables”.

A few also refer to both Periyar and Ambedkar as “two icons with totally opposite views” when both shared common views on many important social, cultural and religious issues. The indisputable fact is that they remained supporters of each other’s movements which unfolded in regions that were geographically and culturally different.

Ambedkar had a very high opinion of Periyar. His biographer Dhananjay Keer, in his book Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission, published in 1962, quotes Ambedkar as saying:

“The most outstanding event of the year concerning the struggle of the Depressed Classes was the satyagraha, or passive resistance, sponsored by Ramaswami Naicker, a non-Brahmin, at Vaikom in the Travancore state for vindicating the rights of Untouchables to use a certain road to which they were forbidden entry. Its moral pressure and the spirit of righteous assertion had a tremendous effect, and the orthodox Hindus, for a while, regained their civic sense and sanity and the road was thrown open to Untouchables.

“Another incident that took place at around the time of the Vaikom Satyagraha shook both sensible upper-class people and self-respecting Untouchables. In March 1926, an Untouchable by name Murugesan entered a Hindu temple in Madras despite a ban on Untouchables. He was discovered, arrested and convicted on the charge of defiling the Hindu temple.” Dhananjay Keer says that Ambedkar was watching these developments closely. He referred to the Vaikom struggle a few months later very touchingly in one of his writings on the eve of the Mahad satyagraha.

Ambedkar referred to Periyar and to other reformists indirectly as the “fifth class of Hindus”. The fifth class, he said, “are those who are rationalists and who regard social reform as of primary importance”, even more important than the Gandhian concept of “Swaraj”. In “Annihilation of Caste”, he says: “Political tyranny is nothing when compared to social tyranny and a reformer who defies society is a much more courageous man than a politician who defies government.”
Some Dalit intellectuals argue that Periyar was not the only one who took up the fight against discrimination and point out that many Dalit leaders and intellectuals fought for the rights of Untouchables well before Periyar did. One of the earliest such dissenting voices is D. Ravikumar, a leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK, earlier called Dalit Panthers) and a Dalit writer.

His argument that Periyar supported OBC majoritarinism sparked an intense debate sometime back. The IITM’s APSC issue reopened such arguments. Ravikumar claimed that even before the arrival of Periyar, many Tamil Dalit leaders had mobilised the disadvantaged politically. Among them were Iyothee Thassa Pandithar (1845-1914), who fought for the economic and spiritual emancipation of Dalits through advocating Buddhism; Rettamalai Srinivasan (1860-1945), who attended the Round Table Conferences with Ambedkar; and M.C. Rajah (1883-1947) (the last two being Periyar’s contemporaries); and a few more.

Ravikumar, however, clarified that he did not talk against Periyar’s social engineering. “I raised certain issues concerning religious majoritarinism in Dravidian politics, especially after the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [DMK] aligned itself with the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 1999 elections. The relevance of Periyar’s Dravidian ideology in this context needed to be assessed,” he said. The moot question, he said, was how a Dravidian party that had its moorings in anti-Brahminical rhetoric could align itself with a Hindu majoritarian force. “It also cannot be denied that Periyar supported OBC majoritarinism, excluding Dalits and minorities, which Ambedkar terms as ‘communal majoritarinism’,” Ravikumar pointed out.

A. Marx believes that such diversions are unnecessary and will only weaken the Dalit movement, which in turn would embolden the “fascist forces” that have almost succeeded in their attempts to “saffronise” Ambedkar. Many Dalit leaders, including M.C. Rajah, were members of the Justice Party, though they, like many others including those from the OBCs, later left the Periyar movement for various reasons. Periyar did not force anyone to stay or pass any critical comments against those who left the D.K. Periyar was open to criticism. He wrote in Pagutharivu (a Tamil weekly published by the D.K.) in 1935: “You have every right to refute my view. But I have the right to put out my view.” He further clarified his position on the issue: “The Dravidar Kazhagam, I assure you, till its last breath will strive hard to destroy the degraded castes such as Pallan and Parayan and uplift them. I have never said that the Untouchables should not join the [Depressed Classes] Federation. You can have the good tidings that come with it. Whether the oppressed join Dravidar Kazhagam or not, the comrades of the Depressed Classes can have the right to enjoy the fruits of its [D.K.’s] labour” (Viduthalai, July 8, 1947).
Periyar also never claimed in his writings and speeches that he would support one particular social group or caste. For him there was just one block of caste groups, all Shudras, positioned below the Brahmins in the caste hierarchy. “The problem with today’s Dalit intellectuals is that they attempt to see Periyar through the prism of their preconceived notions. We need to be aware that only clones of the D.K. enjoy political power in the State today. They have moved far away from Periyar’s professed philosophy of social equality and hence should not be confused with the D.K. of Periyar. Their failure to uplift the oppressed and eradicate caste discrimination should not be attributed to Periyar,” said A. Marx.

“Periyar does not have a significant vote bank while Ambedkar has. Hence the fascist elements falsely propagate that both Ambedkar and Periyar are two different identities. This will never succeed in Tamil Nadu. Rather, it will strengthen the bonds among their followers,” said Arasu. But both Ambedkar and Periyar will continue to have relevance as long as caste contradictions exist within Hinduism.

Ending Blowback Terrorism-JEFFREY D. SACHS

Posted by admin On November - 21 - 2015 Comments Off on Ending Blowback Terrorism-JEFFREY D. SACHS


NEW YORK – Terrorist attacks on civilians, whether the downing over Sinai of a Russian aircraft killing 224 civilian passengers, the horrific Paris massacre claiming 129 innocent lives, or the tragic bombing in Ankara that killed 102 peace activists, are crimes against humanity. Their perpetrators – in this case, the Islamic State (ISIS) – must be stopped. Success will require a clear understanding of the roots of this ruthless network of jihadists.
Painful as it is to admit, the West, especially the United States, bears significant responsibility for creating the conditions in which ISIS has flourished. Only a change in US and European foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East can reduce the risk of further terrorism.
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The recent attacks should be understood as “blowback terrorism”: a dreadful unintended result of repeated US and European covert and overt military actions throughout the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Central Asia that aimed to overthrow governments and install regimes compliant with Western interests. These operations have not only destabilized the targeted regions, causing great suffering; they have also put populations in the US, the European Union, Russia, and the Middle East at significant risk of terror.
The public has never really been told the true history of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, or the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Starting in 1979, the CIA mobilized, recruited, trained, and armed Sunni young men to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The CIA recruited widely from Muslim populations (including in Europe) to form the Mujahideen, a multinational Sunni fighting force mobilized to oust the Soviet infidel from Afghanistan.
Bin Laden, from a wealthy Saudi family, was brought in to help lead and co-finance the operation. This was typical of CIA operations: relying on improvised funding through a wealthy Saudi family and proceeds from local smuggling and the narcotics trade.
By promoting the core vision of a jihad to defend the lands of Islam (Dar al-Islam) from outsiders, the CIA produced a hardened fighting force of thousands of young men displaced from their homes and stoked for battle. It is this initial fighting force – and the ideology that motivated it – that today still forms the basis of the Sunni jihadist insurgencies, including ISIS. While the jihadists’ original target was the Soviet Union, today the “infidel” includes the US, Europe (notably France and the United Kingdom), and Russia.
At the end of the 1980s, with the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, some elements of the Mujahideen morphed into Al Qaeda, Arabic for “the base,” which referred to the military facilities and training grounds in Afghanistan built for the Mujahideen by bin Laden and the CIA. After the Soviet withdrawal, the term Al Qaeda shifted meaning from the specific military base to the organizational base of jihadist activities.
Blowback against the US began in 1990 with the first Gulf War, when the US created and expanded its military bases in the Dar al-Islam, most notably in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s founding and holiest sites. This expanded US military presence was anathema to the core jihadist ideology that the CIA had done so much to foster.
America’s unprovoked war on Iraq in 2003 unleashed the demons. Not only was the war itself launched on the basis of CIA lies; it also aimed to create a Shia-led regime subservient to the US and anathema to the Sunni jihadists and the many more Sunni Iraqis who were ready to take up arms. More recently, the US, France, and the UK toppled Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, and the US worked with the Egyptian generals who ousted the elected Muslim Brotherhood government. In Syria, following President Bashar al-Assad’s violent suppression of peaceful public protests in 2011, the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other regional allies helped to foment a military insurgency that has pushed the country into a downward spiral of chaos and violence.
Such operations have failed – repeatedly and frequently disastrously – to produce legitimate governments or even rudimentary stability. On the contrary, by upending established, albeit authoritarian, governments in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and destabilizing Sudan and other parts of Africa deemed hostile to the West, they have done much to fuel chaos, bloodshed, and civil war. It is this turmoil that has enabled ISIS to capture and defend territory in Syria, Iraq, and parts of North Africa.
Three steps are needed to defeat ISIS and other violent jihadists. First, US President Barack Obama should pull the plug on CIA covert operations. The use of the CIA as a secret army of destabilization has a long, tragic history of failure, all hidden from public view under the agency’s cloak of secrecy. Ending CIA-caused mayhem would go far to staunch the instability, violence, and anti-Western hatred that fuels today’s terrorism.
Second, the US, Russia, and the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council should immediately stop their infighting and establish a framework for Syrian peace. They have a shared and urgent stake in confronting ISIS; all are victims of the terror. Moreover, military action against ISIS can succeed only with the legitimacy and backing of the UN Security Council.
The UN framework should include an immediate end to the insurgency against Assad that the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have pursued; a Syrian cease-fire; a UN-mandated military force to confront ISIS; and a political transition in Syria dictated not by the US, but by a UN consensus to support a non-violent political reconstruction.
Finally, the long-term solution to regional instability lies in sustainable development. The entire Middle East is beset not only by wars but also by deepening development failures: intensifying fresh water stress, desertification, high youth unemployment, poor educational systems, and other serious blockages.
More wars – especially CIA-backed, Western-led wars – will solve nothing. By contrast, a surge of investment in education, health, renewable energy, agriculture, and infrastructure, financed both from within the region and globally, is the real key to building a more stable future for the Middle East and the world.
—Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health Policy and Management, and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals. His books include The End of Poverty

After the Paris Attacks: The Open Society and Its Enemies-

Posted by admin On November - 21 - 2015 Comments Off on After the Paris Attacks: The Open Society and Its Enemies-


Europe has to choose. The murder of 129 people during six separate terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 is forcing governments across Europe to consider how to deal with the so-called Islamic State.

At stake is how to strike a balance between the open society and the defense of citizens. It will require steady nerves from all European governments not to bow to populist, Euroskeptic, and anti-Muslim movements that wish to batten down the hatches. This is precisely what the followers of the anti-Western Islamic State want.
Judy Dempsey

More from this author…
Media Call: Europe’s Response After the Paris Attacks
The Lure of Returning to Business as Usual With Russia
Judy Asks: Can Europe Defeat the Islamic State?
It will also require a major rethink of Europe’s reliance on soft-power tools, which have little use without being underpinned by hard power.
France knows all about hard power. It joined the United States in bombing Islamic State sites in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State retaliated by taking its war against the West to the streets of Paris. French President François Hollande, who described the attacks as “an act of war,” did not hesitate on November 15 to order heavy air strikes against Islamic State positions in Syria.

But other European Union countries, notably Germany, will shy away from joining the military coalition, even though they despise the Islamic State and everything it stands for. These countries fear the repercussions on their own citizens. But why should France bear the brunt?

Many European countries are not convinced that bombing is the solution. They see what the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the NATO missions in Afghanistan and Libya brought in their wake. There was no consideration for the day after the operations ended, just as there isn’t today.

France had also become heavily engaged in the Sahel in a bid to stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism from reaching the shores of Europe. Having garnered so little—if any—support from other EU countries, Paris is paying the price for that effort too.

And when Russia began its own cynical military campaign in Syria to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by targeting the opposition and not primarily Islamic State targets, the militant group brought down a Russian civilian airliner over Sinai on October 31. All 224 people on board were killed.

European governments also have to admit that their non-engagement policy in Syria has failed. For over four years, the United States and Europe have watched the descent of Syria into a living hell as Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, pounded an opposition that became fragmented and created a vacuum exploited by the Islamic State.

If intervention in Iraq and Libya didn’t work, then non-intervention in Syria didn’t work either. Both policies had the effect of breeding homegrown Islamic State terrorist cells in several European countries. That is Europe’s biggest threat today: the threat from within.

Scapegoats for the Paris attacks are now being sought. Conservative politicians in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government who never liked her open-door policy toward the refugees fleeing the wars in Syria and Iraq are trying to link the terrorist attacks in Paris to the refugee crisis. Merkel is standing firm.

Poland’s new right-wing government is shamefully using the attacks in Paris to implicitly blame refugees for the attacks. Warsaw has now found an excuse not to accept refugees.

But perhaps Poland and other EU countries opposed to protecting refugees need to be reminded that these people are fleeing the very violence and horror that was thrust on French citizens and others on November 13. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, was right to tell these governments not to equate refugees with murderers.

Nevertheless, populist and anti-Muslim parties that oppose immigration are poised to make hay out of the tragedies in Paris. The reflex will be to throw up walls inside Europe and on the EU’s external borders. The reflex will be to clamp down on freedoms and values.

Yes, it is the overriding duty of governments to protect their citizens. But if that means using fear, revenge, and weaker democratic accountability that would lead to witch hunts against refugees and Muslim communities, then the struggle against Islamic State, which wants to destroy what the West stands for, will be lost.

Seventy years ago, Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper wrote his monumental The Open Society and Its Enemies. It is a powerful analysis of the forces that abet totalitarianism and fascism. It is also a powerful defense of Western liberal democracies, which by their very nature are open.

This is the crossroads Europe has reached: Will Europe bow to the enemy from within by disowning its open society, or will it defend what the West represents—values and institutions based on the tolerance and freedoms needed to keep European societies open?

The West can prevail. European governments and the EU can take many measures to protect their citizens, borders, and critical infrastructure. There is scope for much greater sharing of intelligence. But because these terrorist cells are homegrown, these measures alone are not sufficient.

After the Paris attacks, Muslim and Jewish civil society movements in the French capital were highly critical of the government’s policy of eradicating these cells. Whether or not these movements consist of an alienated sector of the Muslim community that finds succor in the Islamic State’s mission to destroy the West, governments have to find a way to reach out to them.

That entails working from the bottom up, not the reverse, according to these civil society organizations. It means having an education system that offers young people a perspective. It means introducing a policy of integration that gives this second or third generation of immigrants a sense of identity. It means putting in place a sustained, systematic, long-term policy of integration—something that Merkel understands.

The West has defeated totalitarianism before. The open society must again prove its resilience and unity in dealing with this new version of totalitarianism. The alternative is too shocking to contemplate.
—Judy Dempsey


Syria’s Other Foreign Fighters: Iran’s Afghan and Pakistani Mercenaries-Ari Heistein ,James West

Posted by admin On November - 21 - 2015 Comments Off on Syria’s Other Foreign Fighters: Iran’s Afghan and Pakistani Mercenaries-Ari Heistein ,James West


While much has been said about the dangers of Sunni foreign fighters returning home, the return home of the far more numerous Afghan and Pakistani Shia foreign fighters has received noticeably less attention. A major reason for the disparity is that most accounts of the Afghan and Pakistani troops fighting under the Hezbollah flag in Syria mistakenly tend to minimize their ideological motivations. However, the Shia foreign fighter phenomenon could have serious ramifications for South Asia, because it serves as a pretense under which Tehran trains and indoctrinates militant Shia populations.

The liwa’ fatimiyun (Fatimiyun Brigade) is composed exclusively of Afghans and fights under the auspices of Hezbollah Afghanistan. According to an Iranian news source, the number of Afghans fighting for the Assad regime is between 10,000 and 20,000 [5], while other news sources put the number of Afghans at between 10,000 and 12,000 [6]. There is no doubt that Afghans have paid a heavy price in the fighting, as 700 Afghans [5] are thought to have been killed in action around Aleppo and Deraa alone. Many of those tracking the number of funerals [7] for Afghans fighting in Syria came up with numbers closer to the regime’s official narrative of 100 dead, because the bodies of Afghan fighters are often not recoverable and simply left to rot if they lie in rebel-held territory.

Though the number of Pakistanis fighting in Syria under the Hezbollah flag is impossible to gauge accurately, one thing is clear: it is rising. The Pakistanis were originally integrated with other units and now serve in their own distinct unit known as liwa’ zaynabiyun (Zaynabiyun Brigade). Thus far, there have been at least twenty funerals [7] for Pakistani fighters in Syria, but there are no real estimates regarding Pakistani fatalities in Syria, and the actual number of those killed in action could be much greater the number of funerals documented.

When compared with other groups, the Shia foreign fighters have an unquestionable numerical significance. Whether taking the larger or smaller estimates, the Shia contingents from Afghanistan and Pakistan are significantly larger than the group of 4,700 Westerners fighting for ISIS [8].

It is widely accepted that compensation, not ideology, brings the Shia fighters to Syria. This perception is based on anecdotal evidence, as well as the idea that Afghans’ lot in Iran and Afghanistan is a tough one and the soldiers in this conflict receive relatively high salaries. Iran targets these vulnerable young men, unable to obtain work permits or establish legal residency in Iran, and incentivizes them with various forms of compensation to fight in Syria. If they refuse, they are sometimes threatened with deportation.

One regional expert quoted in The National [9] noted: “Some are coerced to fight, others promised residency papers for their family, and a small salary. It demonstrates Iran’s exploitation of Afghan Shiite refugees.” Yet that same article described an individual who joined the fight to protect the Shia pilgrimage site of Sayyida Zaynab, quoting the recruit as saying “the Islamic State is a common enemy of Iran and Afghanistan… this is a holy war,” before going on to conclude that the foreign fighters were “mercenaries.” Similarly, The Wall Street Journal’s report [10] on Afghans fighting in Syria in 2014 looked mostly at the material benefits provided to Afghan fighters in Syria. Though the article did briefly mention the sectarian rhetoric Iranians used to appeal to and recruit Afghans, it quickly moved on to quoting Professor Nader Hashemi as saying that Iran is “purchasing mercenaries to do the fighting for them.” These articles demonstrate both that otherworldly concerns are important factors in motivating Shia groups to fight in Syria and that experts seem to be glossing over that fact.

In contrast, the fixation on ISIS’ ideological appeal rather than the financial incentives of fighting with the jihadist group indicates a clear inconsistency. ISIS offers Syrians a salary that is at least four times [11] what other rebel militias can pay in war-torn Syria, yet few people refer to its fighters as mercenaries.

The alliance between the Assad regime and Shia foreign fighters is built upon a convergence of Alawite political interests and Shia religious convictions in defeating Sunni rebel groups. As one Alawite Syria expert [12] explained, the Assads have so hollowed out the religious elements of Alawite identity that the group’s defining characteristic has become ruling Syria, and its mobilization behind the regime is largely to defend its own privilege. Meanwhile, the Shia foreign fighters’ support for the Assad regime is based on a religious mandate to fight radical Sunni rebel groups that threaten Shia holy sites.

The threat to Shia shrines and mosques originates in one of the major doctrinal flashpoints between salafi-jihadi Sunnis and Shia Muslims: the controversy regarding the Muslim principle of tawhid, the unity of God. While Shia Muslims believe that Muhammad’s family and their descendants (including the twelve Imams) had an elevated status and that it is permissible to pray at their graves, radical Sunnis believe this to be shirk, or a heresy of associating or equating others with God. Therefore, the salafi-jihadis see the Shia and their places of worship as justified targets of jihad and the obligation to “enjoin right and forbid wrong [13].”

In the past, Shia communities beyond the Arab Middle East have mobilized in response to threats to pilgrimage sites in the Arab world. For example, The International Business Times reported that 30,000 Indian Shia [14] had filled out visa request forms to fight in Iraq and defend the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala when it looked like ISIS might be approaching. While the Indian government prevented its citizens from going in order to avoid being entangled in the Syrian conflict, this incident points to potential ideological motivations for Shia Muslims fighting in Syria and Iraq. In this context, it is hard to understand why commentators have so boldly written off Shia concerns that groups like ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra will take Damascus and destroy the pilgrimage site known as the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab, where Muhammad’s granddaughter is buried.

One could argue that since most of these recruits are from refugee camps in Iran [15], they will not serve Iranian interests in South Asia and many will simply return to Iran. After all, aren’t some even fighting in Syria because of Iran’s promises that upon return their families will be granted residency permits?

However, this argument is laid to rest by thorough scrutiny of Iranian recruitment tactics. Although it is scarcely mentioned in media reports on this issue, the Iranians are conducting recruitment inside Afghanistan and Pakistan. One German journalist chatted with Shia volunteers for Assad in Kabul [16] while Shia leaders [17] in Afghanistan noted that “the recruitment drive is co-ordinated by the Iranian embassy in the Afghan capital. It provides visas to ‘hundreds’ of Shia men each month willing to fight in Syria.” Similarly, residents of Pakistan are recruited to join the fight in Syria through Urdu-language websites [18]. Thus, while some Shia recruits are undoubtedly rallied from the dismal refugee camps in Iran, at least hundreds—if not thousands—have left Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight in Syria under Iranian direction. Presumably, those recruited from Afghanistan and Pakistan will be returning to their home countries after serving in Syria.

Furthermore, the Iranians have already indicated a desire to extend their influence in South Asia through infrastructure projects [19] and establishing branches of Hezbollah in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran hopes to ensure its own security and undermine U.S. interests with its meddling in Afghanistan. As the U.S. troop drawdown continues, training and indoctrinating a strike force similar to Lebanese Hezbollah in Afghanistan could allow Iran to expand its influence and fill the power vacuum in the midst of a deteriorating security situation.

Iran also has motive for fueling sectarian-based activity in Pakistan. Much like Syria and Yemen, Pakistan is a fault-line for the Saudi-Iranian competition for hegemony in the Muslim world and it is entirely plausible that this rivalry could bleed into Pakistan once more, recreating the dramatic escalation of sectarian violence the country experienced in the late 1980s. Therefore, Iran’s interests would be well served by the cultivation of a readily deployable proxy group under the control of the IRGC and based in Pakistan.

As the number of Shia foreign fighters in Syria from Afghanistan and Pakistan continues to rise, the potential ramifications for the Muslim world become even more severe. When these battle-hardened foreign fighters return home after being trained and indoctrinated by Iran and having built a network of likeminded people, it is no stretch to believe that they could serve as transnational networks to advance longstanding Iranian ambitions in South Asia.

Ari Heistein is a research associate for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. James West is a research associate for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Zyzzzzzy [20]​

The Struggle for India’s Future (Part Three of Three Part Series)-Paul Le Blanc 

Posted by admin On November - 21 - 2015 Comments Off on The Struggle for India’s Future (Part Three of Three Part Series)-Paul Le Blanc 


Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya addresses a mass rally.
In two previous contributions on India, I have explored the history of its development, including the great revolution which resulted in its independence, and also the nature and problems of capitalist development in that country more or less up to the present time. What is presented here is necessarily more fragmentary and tentative, and should be seen more as notes than as any kind of complete report or finished analysis.

The complex realities of the Indian Left have been touched on in more than one capable and knowledgeable account.[1]  Here I shall restrict myself, for the most part, to conveying explanations from good comrades on the scene, and to describing several things that I was able to see for myself on a half-month speaking tour in June 2015.

Radical Socialist

The group Radical Socialist (RS) was primarily responsible for my visit to India, which allowed me to meet many new friends (and a few old ones), to give presentations on Leninism (still a very popular topic, it seems, among many Indian activists), and to participate in multiple conversations and discussions.  The initial explanations of the Indian Left came from several of these comrades, so I should first give a sense of the group that they belong to – which may be the smallest of those I encountered.

Radical Socialist is the relatively new incarnation of an earlier group that had been committed to the revolutionary Marxist politics – initially representing an effort to establish what was envisioned as a Leninist-Trotskyist party that would assume mass proportions. This effort collapsed, forcing comrades to re-think their project.  RS now sees itself as helping create preconditions that would allow for the future crystallization of a revolutionary party.  This would involve activists from a number of existing left groups (including RS), as well as activists not yet members of any revolutionary group.  Joint work where possible, combined with substantial educational efforts, and practical political struggles (in trade unions and social movements) are seen as furthering this goal.

The membership of RS is small – in Calcutta and West Bengal, in Gujarat, in Delhi, perhaps fifty altogether.   RS comrades have worked as organizers, advisors, and technical aides in unions numbering in the tens of thousands, and because of good, consistent work and a complete lack of sectarianism, have generated great trust, resulting considerable political influence.  This is especially the case among workers laboring in the extensive tea gardens.  RS is also seen as a positive, trustworthy force among Marxist intellectuals and among a diverse number of groups on India’s Left.

RS comrades have played a central role in the creation and development of the Society for Marxist Studies (SMS), which provides a Marxist perspective on various issues having to do with theory and practice, with a target audience of activists and serious young scholars who position themselves within the broad Marxist tradition.  Central figures in the SMS include prominent Marxist academics (such as Achin Vanaik and Vivek Chibber) and seasoned practical activists.

Having no affiliation to any specific party or group, with a reputation for being completely open and non-sectarian, the SMS has been able to operate the Marxist School in Dehra Dun, over the past three years, which draws approximately 30 students for several days, each year, coming from different political streams spread across India – to develop themselves and also to develop contact and comradeship with others. Other commitments forced me to arrive at the School two days late.  During my initial session, when I penciled a note – “who are they?” – regarding the 30-some participants, a comrade responded: “1) students/youth referred by political parties, 2) retired people interested in Marxism, 3) Marxist-Leninists/Stalinists/Maoists exploring for a party.”  There was certainly an age and political diversity here, as well as a good number of articulate women, a significant degree of sophistication and openness.

One of the more argumentative, though also down-to-earth participants, with opinions worth listening to, was a cadre from the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.  There were several young activists from New Socialist Initiative group – which I am told has a following especially among university-age youth – which puts out a popular magazine called Critique (in Hindi and English).  The issue I purchased has information on struggles in various parts of India, but also in the United States, Mexico, and China; its articles deal with anti-racism, gay rights, women’s rights, public art, environmental issues, and the class struggle.  One of the older participants was a seasoned and very thoughtful left-wing journalist.  Another was a gentle man, with beard and hair the color of snow and a voice that became powerful when he recited a revolutionary poem for us.  He made a point of coming up to me, sitting down, and describing to me, face-to-face, the educational work that he does among impoverished young boys in his rural area – systematically, for free: taking them seriously, helping them prepare for examinations, also helping them learn various skills, and to understand the world from the standpoint of scientific socialism.  Also impressing me most favorably were couple of outstanding young RS comrades, plus other young participants (including U.S.-Indian students, one involved with a very substantial journal on South Asia called Himāl).

RS comrades explained the contours of the Indian Left roughly along the following lines.

The Communist Party of India (CPI), crystallizing in the 1920s, very much under the sway of the Stalin regime in the USSR.  It played a central role in Indian politics during the colonial period and in the post-colonial period, a keystone of the labor movement, and exercising a decisive electoral role in certain areas.  Its incredible Stalinist sectarianism in the late 1920s and early 1930s was reversed by the Popular Front orientation in the later 1930s, and it gained significant influence (although it got into the habit of “looking over its shoulder” to stay aligned with the bourgeois nationalists of Congress).  Its influence was largely shattered when (under the domination of Stalinist pro-war policies) it absolutely opposed the immensely popular “Quit India” struggle initiated in 1942 by Gandhi and Congress.  Its consequent reputation as being “pro-British” was partially reversed after 1945, when it played a militant role in workers’ and peasants’ movements in the final stage of the independence struggle, and then in the early post-independence period.  Elections it won in two states, West Bengal and Kerala, were overturned by “emergency measures” of the Congress government.  Communist governments were eventually be allowed to take office in the two states after making it clear there would be no efforts to move popular struggles into collision and “final conflict” with capitalism.

Under the impact of the growing Sino-Soviet split, as well as military border disputes between India and China, there was, in 1964, a split in the CPI, giving rise to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI (M).  A key factor was non-ideological – growing tensions between the CPI “old guard” and newer levels of cadres associated with the mass organizations, trade unions, and parliamentary bloc. The CPI (M), in turn, underwent a split in 1967 when members more closely aligned with Maoism and the Chinese Communist Party broke away to establish the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).  Nonetheless, the CPI (M) has become the largest party on the Indian Left.  It has profound influence in the trade unions, has significant representation in parliament, often controls the governments of two states – West Bengal in the Northeast and Kerala in the Southwest.  It enjoys considerable influence in India’s intellectual life.

RS comrades, and many others on the Indian Left, emphasize that both the old CPI and the newer CPI (M) long ago ceased to revolutionary forces – utterly compromised not only by residual Stalinism but even more by a thoroughgoing reformism, interpreting “political relevance” as involving far-reaching compromises with the forces of the capitalist status quo.

The Indian Maoists had largely been engaged in armed struggle against the Indian government.  Its militants are often referred to as Naxalites (referring to an area in West Bengal where they had strength).  The insurgency was repressed in the early 1970s, and the new CPI (Marxist-Leninist) soon shattered into innumerable mutually hostile factions, most of them fairly small.  Out of the fragmented milieu, however, there emerged the substantial Communist Party of India (Maoist), formed 2004, still dedicated waging “people’s war.”

Among the remaining fragments of the CPI (Marxist-Leninist), one of the most substantial is the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, the name referring to the party’s newspaper.  It is focused on building mass worker and peasant struggles within the framework of legality, well to the left of the CPI and CPI (Marxist).  This orientation corresponds to that of most of the Marxist-Leninist fragments – so that all of them are commonly referred to as the “Marxist-Leninists.”  This is in contrast to those in CPI (Maoist), engaged in armed struggle, which are (because they put Maoist into their group’s name) commonly tagged “the Maoists.”  The Maoists are seen by most others on the left as irrelevant to real struggles of the workers and oppressed. Nonetheless, in terms of official “national internal threat” to Indian state, “Terrorism” and “Maoism” top the list.  Every policing, investigating, military, intelligence, surveillance or combat institution of the Indian state, whether in the central government or at province level, has an anti-Maoist unit headed by the most senior bureaucrats and technocrats.

The CPI (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation has a base consisting of several thousand workers and peasants, particularly in the province of Bihar in the east.  In the rest of the country it is more marginal, although it has built up a significant student following (for example, the dominant influence in the Student Union at Jawaharlal Nehru University).  Several other M-L groups have greater trade union or parliamentary strength, but are dogmatic, sectarian, less assertive, and fast declining. CPI (M-L) Liberation is seen by RS comrades as more open and dynamic, and also tending to work effectively and well with others.  Another, CPI (M-L) Red Flag was also mentioned for its somewhat positive qualities.

The relative strength of different segments of the Indian Left runs roughly as follows. CPI (Marxist) is larger than the CPI, but the latter has retained a larger trade union base.  Both are among the top six political parties in the country (based on parliamentary strength) and constitute a definite and long-standing political force.  The CPI (Maoist) is impossible to count, given its underground nature, but has claimed control of significant swathes of rural territory. Then there is the myriad of Marxist-Leninist groups, and then some small independent Marxist entities (including RS).

RS comrades feel that the best hope of drawing together cadres capable of building the hoped-for revolutionary party of the future can be found within the healthier elements in Marxist-Leninist milieu, within which there is a considerable amount of questioning, openness, and rethinking.  In practical struggles against exploitation, oppression, corruption, etc., and also in Marxist educational efforts, there seem to be growing opportunities for joint work with such elements.

The logic of the RS comrades’ approach seemed vindicated not only by what I saw at the Dehra Dun Marxist School.  It was also evident from the public meeting they organized in Kolkata (Calcutta).  This included a diverse number of elements from the Indian Left – from the sophisticated Marxist scholar Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, to the aging working-class militants of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (with a history going back to the 1930s) in whose spacious meeting hall we met, to the younger militants of RS and of groups associated with the M-L tradition.

What I Didn’t See in Guwahati . . . and What I Did

Guwahati is located in the state of Assam in the country’s far northeast corner, near Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma), and Tibet.  As this geographical information suggests, Assam has an unusual ethnic and cultural diversity, distant from the Indian mainstream, with many not buying into the notion of Indian citizenship.

As befits the crossroads qualities of a port city and transportation center, Guwahati embedded in rural Assam constitutes “uneven and combined development” par excellence.  We see tribal-communal characteristics, combining hunting and gathering with subsistence agriculture, and capitalist agriculture in the form of tea plantations, as well as cement and plywood production, plus portions of the state-owned oil industry.  According to one knowledgeable participant-observer, classes are still in a process of development in this fluid context, with the bourgeoisie tending to come from outside, and much of the would-be working class also going outside, in search of industrial jobs in other Indian regions.  And then, of course, there is Guahati University, founded in 1948 and bringing a dramatically different element into the mix.  Guwahati – one of the fastest growing cities in India, growing from 200,000 in 1971 to more than 1.6 million today – dramatizes the explosively complex realities.

Such a context has generated innumerable and sometimes violent protests of various types, but within recent years one of the most focused elements at the protests has been a charismatic and very energetic figure named Akhil Gogoi.  He began as a student activist, veered close to a current in Maoist-oriented Marxist-Leninist movement, then pulled away to mobilize mass struggles for social and economic justice through the creation of a mass left-wing peasant organization, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS).  Now in his mid-30s, Gogoi was recipient of the 2007 Shanmugam Manjunath Integrity Award for his relentless fight against corruption, and the 2010 Right to Information (RTI) Award by Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF).

Gogoi has earned not only awards but seemingly never-ending harassment from the authorities because of his activities. In addition to the anti-corruption struggle and his wide-ranging defense of human rights, he has been involved in building peasant cooperatives, and building a state-wide movement against construction of big dams in this ecologically sensitive region.  When authorities sought to discredit him by accusing him of ties with the CPI (Maoist), Gogoi responded: “I am a Marxist and I do believe in social transformation.  But I am not a Maoist. They don’t believe in mass activities. We at KMSS are trying to organize the masses for radical change.”[2]

I had planned to attend a protest rally that Gogoi and his comrades were organizing against corruption (also on the anniversary of violent police repression of a 2011 demonstration).  It was anticipated that there would be as many as 20,000 in attendance.  But it was not to be.  Gogoi and one of the other key organizers were arrested, the rally was banned, and yet a massive illegal protest took place anyway.  After a moment of uncertainty, it was wisely decided that my foreign status required that I be kept far from the scene.  Afterward there were word-of-mouth accounts of clashes between the authorities and the protestors, with pictures of government vehicles in flames creeping into the news media that seemed largely silent on these developments.  Several days later, Gogoi and his comrade were released – yet three days after my departure from India there were further protests, violently attacked by the police, and Gogoi was yet again in jail. [3]

Unable, while there, to connect with Gogoi and the KMSS, I was able to give a presentation, “Globalization and Struggles for Liberation: Marxist and Historical Perspectives,” at a Guahati University student/faculty meeting. The talk began with an outline of Marxism, defining capitalism and socialism, and the strategic pathway Marx sketched from one to the other.  Describing Rosa Luxemburg’s discussion of the destructiveness of the capital accumulation process, I then touched on the disagreement she had with Lenin on the national question.  While Luxemburg, as an internationalist, was inclined to reject nationalism across the board, Lenin championed struggles of the oppressed nationalities, and in doing this he linked struggles for democratic rights with struggles for socialism.  Drawing from the history of the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s, I noted that Martin Luther King and other socialists sought to link democratic struggles for racial justice with economic struggles to improve the quality of life of all working people.  They fought for an end to unemployment and poverty, in part with a proposal for a “Freedom Budget for All Americans,” designed to unite black and white workers in a common struggle.[4]  Pointing to growing global inequality today, I spoke of the need to learn from the past to struggle for a better future.  This means reaching out to involve more and more people in mass protests, developing programs and parties that would link effective struggles for improvements today (reforms) with struggles for a socialist democracy (revolution).  It seemed to me that this might have a resonance in India, especially in Assam, as well as in the United States. The talk was followed by an animated discussion.

Comrades at Bangalore

Located in the southwest, Bangalore is an incredibly dynamic, relatively prosperous and modern city, embedded (as is true for Indian cities in general) within a sizeable rural area – in this case the state of Karnataka.  A two-day conference (June 24-25) was organized around presentations I was to give on Leninism and revolutionary strategy. The most prominent sponsor appears to have been Sinchana Prakashan.  This is associated with a new group which has utilized the name Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP).  It represents a split in the state of Karnataka, from CPI (Maoist).  Centrally involved in running the conference were two outstanding comrades – a man and woman who seemed to me in their forties or fifties – each with a sharp intelligence and gentle manner, highly capable organizers.

Upon arrival, I was overwhelmed by the sense of being embraced in a place where I belonged.  It was like being among family – dedicated revolutionaries, a mix of aging militants and younger militants, joined together to wrestle with vital questions. Yet the main talks to be given at this two-day gathering would be presented by a self-identified Trotskyist, and these were veteran Maoists, for whom Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism has been an essential text.  The comrades were drawn to Mao and Stalin because they saw these two (along with Marx, Engels, and Lenin) as symbols of genuine communism.  Their beliefs were reflected in the vibrant songs they sang.  One was written by written by Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-1984), a well-known Indian-Pakistani poet and Marxist:

who sweat and toil,
we demand our share of wealth earned by our sweat!
not a mere piece of land, not a country, we demand the whole world!

oceans of pearls are here
and mountains of diamonds all this wealth is ours
we demand this entire treasure house..
we who sweat and toil…..

“This particular poem, is sung by revolutionary and progressive groups all over India,” one of the singers later wrote to me. “It is translated into almost all Indian languages. It has always been a source of inspiration for all types of activists.”  Another song said these things:

this life is burning like the torch of a runner.
the sky is also burning-always red
one light got extinguished, another lit up from the second a third and more…
all the steps are marching towards the goal and the moon is strolling in the garden of the clouds!

those who are running in this run of life,
those who tell after standing on death
life is longing for revolution!
Questions after questions are rising and demanding answers for each,
questions are rising, but there is the question of time
whether or not there is time to settle this account
life is longing for revolution!

that is why there is blood
that is why there is hope!

this life is burning like the torch of a runner.
the sky is also burning- always red

There were about 30 participants.  Perhaps related to the particular strength in India’s south of matrilineal traditions, the participation of women was substantial, vocal, and strong.  This was particularly illustrated by the diminutive and vibrant woman I mentioned earlier, whose central role in the conference was animated with a spirit of warmth, inclusiveness, and wonderful humor.  Two quite active participants in the conference happened to be RCP leaders Sirimane Nagaraj (a former postal worker with graying hair and beard, who prefers to be called by his last name) and Noor Zilfikar (a former student activist, with thick jet black hair and mustache, whose revolutionary name was Sridhar). Both have just emerged from the underground, and it is worth lingering over them before moving on.

Revolutionary Leaders

Leaders in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), Nagaraj and Noor made headlines when they openly broke and then emerged from the underground.  Aljazeera’s website announced “India Maoist Group Gives Up Violence” while India’s prestigious daily The Hindu used a quote from Nagaraj as a headline – “I Will Fight for the Oppressed Classes,” elaborating that “ex-naxalite, who surrendered to the police recently, said he . . . will fight democratically for the betterment of the oppressed and suppressed classes.”  The local daily, The Deccan Herald, headlined: “After 10 years in hiding, 2 Maoists surrender: Receive grand welcome in Chikkamagaluru” (the place they turned themselves in), and concluded: “Sirimane Nagaraj’s wife Hemalatha Shenoy and daughter Mallige, along with relatives and friends, were eagerly waiting . . . since morning. After meeting and shaking hands with members of the social movements, Nagaraj gave his wife and daughter a tight embrace. Though no relative of Noor Zulfikar had come, his college-mates and associates were present in large numbers.”  The same paper, four days later, headlined the account of a press conference with “Only Socialism Can Offer Best Democracy: Sirimane Nagaraj.”[5]

Not long after, Noor and Nagaraj filmed a lengthy on-line video interview, allowing them to expand upon their experience and their views.[6]  As the interviewer noted, these were not simple party cadres but high-ranking figures, giving weight to their words.

“The aspiration that an egalitarian society should oust the ruling exploitative system, which inspired us then, is even stronger and has sunk deeper in our minds,” Nagaraj emphasized.  While speaking of the CPI (Maoist) as an entity “that had nurtured us, that had given us vigor and strength for so long,” he commented that “by 2006 we were faced with a question of whether to be true to the party or to the masses.”  In that year they began to build, with other like-minded comrades, the Revolutionary Communist Party.

According to Noor, the first round of inner-party struggle began in 1993, the second in 2003, and the third in 2006.  “I feel the scope of our struggle and the level of our understanding have grown at every stage.”  An initial concern was “the style of work of the leadership,” which seemed too rigid, out of touch with on-the-ground realities.  “The main aspect of the struggle was that we were not building the movement around the needs of the masses, rather we were building the movement to our whim.  The senior leadership felt we should announce a people’s war and launch an armed struggle.”  The Karnataka leadership argued that, instead, “a broad mass movement should be built on the innumerable problems bothering the masses.  That is the need of the hour. Armed struggle is not today’s need.”  By 2006 this had broadened into questions about “India’s Maoist movement as such and not simply at a state (Karnataka) level.  In several other states . . . an attempt to advance the armed struggle was made, but they all faced setbacks.”

The primary problem, Noor argued, was that “the Maoist movement had failed in understanding Indian society.  It has not been able to present a program that suited the realities of this country, to find an appropriate path of struggle.”  Instead of grounding the program “on the objective realities” and “an analysis of the concerned society,” the central leaders embraced “the Chinese path, with a few amendments, of course, but basically the party is following the Chinese model.”  The result included “all these unnecessary sacrifices that were made due to the dogmatic path adopted by the Maoist party without understanding the objective conditions here,” which took the lives of slain revolutionaries away from the revolutionary movement.  “Because all such martyrs were genuine, courageous revolutionaries, they had the potential to contribute much more to the movement, and the fact that all their abilities and commitment went to waste is certainly a big loss.”  He added that “the Maoist leadership should certainly bear responsibility for this,” although the problem was not some form of duplicity but rather “their dogmatic belief that this was the only path to the revolution.”

When the question was posed as to whether Maoism is still relevant, Nagaraj responded: “Maoism is the developed form of Marxism.  It is Marxism-Leninism-Maoism as we say.  Marxism as such cannot become irrelevant, because it shows what the fundamental reason for exploitation in society is and how to eradicate it.  It is left to us to adapt it in our respective countries, our respective societies.”  Noor elaborated on this.  “Making any ideology relevant or irrelevant is in the hands of the people leading the movements,” he argued.  “All pro-people ideologies are always relevant,” and here he made reference to non-Marxists as well (including Buddha and Jesus).  “They become irrelevant when we set out to implement them in a mechanical way, leaving their principles aside and insisting that the details pertaining to a particular period and context apply, as they were written, to the present period, and should be adhered to and implemented verbatim.”  He concluded: “any ideology that does not grow with time becomes irrelevant. . . . If we fail to develop Marx-Lenin-Mao’s teachings to suit our country and time, it becomes irrelevant.”  An aspect of such growth is to draw upon traditions, thinkers and experiences specific to one’s own country, and to combined these with the insights one finds in Marx or Lenin or Mao.  “The Maoist party has failed this, time and again.”

Nagaraj addressed the question of their “returning to democratic” methods, insightfully linking the goals and the strategic orientation of the revolutionary movement:

We are really the staunchest proponents of democracy.  We are fighting to establish genuine democracy in society.  Our view is that communism embodies the highest form of democracy. . . . What is being trumpeted here as democracy is not real democracy at all.   Amdedkar [an prominent Dalit, or “untouchable,” intellectual in the radical wing of the Independence movement] himself has said, way back in 1951, that a democracy that does not involve economic and social equality is not real democracy.  We are coming into the democratic mainstream with the firm conviction that genuine democracy can be brought about through people’s movements. . . . The masses have got some measure of democratic rights as a result of their struggles, over generations and centuries, putting forward democratic aspirations. . . . The rulers are compelled to allow these democratic rights and facilities to the people.  Yet they keep trying to restrict these, while people keep striving to save them and expand them.  Our aim is to further expand what democratic opportunities and space people have by strengthening and bringing together these struggles and movements.

Noor added (again citing Amdedkar)[7] that the twin pillars of democracy are freedom and equality, that in the absence of either genuine democracy will be impossible.

Mutual Influence, Not Mutual Ostracism

RCP members whom I got to know, including these two leaders, strike me as truly admirable and highly principled revolutionaries.  Also involved was the Indian Institute of Marxist Studies, managed by CPI (M-L) Liberation. A third group is CONCERN, a campus-based student organization (within which various left supporters are active) in Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science.  Present as well were comrades from New Socialist Initiative, circulating a 45-page manifesto.  The pamphlet’s preface caught much of the spirit I found at this gathering, also permeating other discussions I heard and participated in while in India:

The world is a very different place than it was a century ago or even half a century ago.  Revolutionary left has to prepare for this altogether new condition and forge a suitable strategy and a new language.  Lessons and strategies of the previous century, important as they are, will no longer suffice. . . . A revolutionary movement must proceed from actually existing conditions of the present and it must proceed towards building a future that resonates with the claims and the desires of the working people.  The Manifesto is an attempt to address this issue and confront this challenge.  We appeal to you to consider it, criticize it, and improve it. . . .[8]

On the first day I presented a talk on “The Democratic Methodology of Leninism,” followed by a slide-show presentation on revolutionary organization.  On the second day there was a substantial and more advanced slideshow presentation (broken into two parts) “The United Front and the People’s Front: Understanding Them in Historical Context.”  There was time for lengthy discussions on each day.

Some anticipated participants didn’t come because I was known to be a Trotskyist. The discussions were incredibly rich, with questions sometimes sharp and comments sometimes critical, related to issues of Trotsky and Stalin, and also on the degeneration of the Soviet Union, on the place of Maoism and the Chinese Revolution in the issues under discussion, etc.  In my presentations I did not ignore differences between Trotsky and Stalin, but I did not emphasize them – focusing instead on differences between Lenin, the Bolsheviks and the early Comintern on one hand and, on the other hand, what came to be Communist policies and perspectives under Stalin. And there was excellent and searching discussion on a number of matters.  But Stalin/Trotsky was a perhaps unavoidable focal-point in many questions and challenges.

In responding, I said that Stalin, whatever his personal limitations, began as a dedicated and capable Bolshevik comrade who later took wrong paths (socialism in one country, the modernizing but brutal “revolution from above,” extreme authoritarianism).  I emphasized that he was transformed by circumstances and terrible pressures – especially the economic backwardness of Russia and the failure of revolutions that would have rescued revolutionary Russia.  Such circumstances yielded a bureaucratic dictatorship. Without quoting from Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed, I employed its analysis to describe the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Drawing from the useful analyses of Pierre Rousset, among other sources[9] (including my knowledge of some of Mao’s writings on people’s war, the bloc of four classes, etc.), I argued that the Chinese Communists led by Mao were dedicated revolutionaries regardless of their formal alignment with Stalin.  Despite giving lip-service to reformist People’s Front formulations (which after 1935 was a requirement for remaining in the world Communist movement), they actually followed a different path.  This was based on the horrific experience of 1927, when they were slaughtered by their pro-capitalist Nationalist allies, and the very obvious, ongoing desire of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek to destroy them.  They never compromised the hegemony of the Chinese Communist Party in any alliance with bourgeois-nationalist forces, and they maintained a powerful peasant base that was never fully subordinated to capitalist interests – which prevented the Chinese Communists from being slaughtered and, instead, resulted in their victory.

There was genuine interest in what I had to say, and an open approach, with serious give-and-take and a spirit of mutual influence rather than mutual ostracism.  In his concluding remarks, the strong and gentle man who was one of the key organizers of the conference said of those who stayed away that “they were the losers.”  Noting that many were startled when I referred to Stalin as a comrade, he added that “we too should see Trotsky as a comrade.”

Concluding Note

“No existing political force can be the nucleus around which a left alternative will be built,” Achin Vanaik has reflected in a recent essay.  “This can only come about through a recomposition and realignment of existing forces, which will inevitably involve splits and fusions as well as accretions from unexpected sources.”  This is a truth that has seemed quite obvious to me in regard to the United States since I wrote Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (which forced me to wrestle with the lessons of how Russian revolutionaries actually accomplished what they accomplished).

My recent experience in India lends plausibility to the validity of Vanaik’s prescription for his own country.  The very next point he makes in his essay stands as a profound challenge to revolutionaries in India as well as the United States: “What this implies is that it is not loyalty to an organization but to a program embodying principled radical positions that is important: the program makes the organization, rather than the other way around.”[10]

What is the program, the strategy, that can get us – not rhetorically, but actually – from the “here” of capitalism to the “there” of a socialist future?  As the theory of uneven and combined development might be expected to indicate, the comrades (in all their variety) within a relatively “backward” but incredibly dynamic India may be closer to answering that question than are we who live in the most advanced capitalist power on the planet.  Of course, nothing is guaranteed, and there is much work to be done.

[1] Among the more useful sources I have come upon are: K. Damodaran, “The Tragedy of Indian Communism,” The Stalinist Legacy, ed. by Tariq Ali (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), 345-373; Harkishan Singh Surjeet, March of the Communist Movement in India: An Introduction to the Documents of the History of the Communist Movement in India (Calcutta: National Book Agency, 1998); Achin Vanaik, “Agencies of Change,” The Painful Transition: Bourgeois Democracy in India (London: Verso, 1990), 177-233; Kunal Chattopadhyay and Soma Marik, “Elections and the Left in India,” International Socialist Review #65, July 2009, http://isreview.org/issue/66/elections-and-left-india (accessed 16/07/2015); Keya Bag, “Red Bengal’s Rise and Fall,” New Left Review #70, July-August 2011, 69-98;  Arundhati Roy, “Walking with the Comrades: Report from Maoist Base Areas in India’s DK Forest,” Outlook Magazine, March 19, 2010; reprinted by Kasama Project, https://mikeely.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/arundhati_roy_walking_with_the_comrades_kasama.pdf; Kunal Chattopadhyay, “The Path of Naxalbari, An Appraisal,” Radical Socialist, 20 September 2010, file:///Users/Paul/Desktop/Indian%20Left/The%20Path%20of%20Naxalbari%20-… (accessed 16/07/2015); Tithi Bhattachrya, “Maoism in the Global South,” International Socialist Review #97, January 2013, http://isreview.org/issue/87/maoism-global-south (accessed 17/07/2015); Thomas Crowley, “The Many Faces of the Indian Left,” Jacobin, May 12, 2014, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/05/the-many-faces-of-the-indian-left/ (accessed 16/07/2015); Prasenjit Bose, “The Indian Left at a Time of Crisis,” Democratic Governance and Politics of the Left in South Asia, ed. by Subhoranjan Dasgupt (Delhi: Aakar Boos, 2015), 104-120.; Achin Vanaik, “Subcontinental Strategies,” New Left Review 70, July-August 2011, 114-201.
[2] “Who is Akhil Gogoi?” India Today, July 7, 2012, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/rti-activist-akhil-gogoi-kmss-team-anna-menber/1/204170.html; “RTI Activist Akhil Gogoi, Arrested in Guwahati,” NDTV, June 24, 2011, http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/rti-activist-akhil-gogoi-arrested-in-guwahati-459445; Nilim Dutta, “Was Akhil Gogoi really responsible for the violence and mayhem in Guwahati June 22?” Chanakya’s Neeti, 25 June 2011, https://chanakyasneeti.wordpress.com/2011/06/25/was-akhil-gogoi-really-r… “Akhil Gogoi,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akhil_Gogoi.
[3] http://thenortheasttoday.com/assam-kmss-ultimatum-to-assam-government/; http://thenortheasttoday.com/police-high-handedness-in-guwahati-women-protesters-allegedly-molested/
[4] Paul Le Blanc and Michael Yates, A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).
[5] N. Bhanutej, “India Maoist group gives up violence: breakaway Revolutionary Communist Party says violence is outdated and there is also lot to learn from Gandhian ideology,” Al Jazeera, 20 December 2013,
http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/12/india-maoist-group-gives-up-violence-2013122065252926752.html; “After 10 years hiding 2 Maoists surrender,” Deccan Herald, 9 December 2014, http://www.deccanherald.com/content/446540/after-10-yrs-hiding-2.html; “I will fight for the oppressed classes,” The Hindu, 13 December 2014; http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/i-will-fight-for-the-oppressed-classes/article6686623.ece; “Only Socialism Can Offer Best Democracy: Sirimane Nagaraj,” Deccan Herald, 13 December 2014, http://www.deccanherald.com/content/447310/only-socialism-can-offer-democracy.html (all accessed 17/07/2015).
[6] “An Interview with Noor Zulfikar and Sirimane Nagarj,” Daily Motion, 01/01/2015, http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2dtrj4_an-interview-with-noor-zulfikar-and-sirimane-nagaraj_news (accessed 17/07/2015).
[7] “B.R. Ambedkar,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B._R._Ambedkar (accessed 17/07/2015).  Also see B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste (London: Verso, 2014), which includes and informative introduction by Arundhati Roy.
[8] New Socialist Initiative, A World for the Workers! A Future for the World! (Delhi: Progressive Publishers, 2013), 3-4.
[9] Pierre Rousset, The Chinese Revolution: I. The Second Chinese Revolution and the Shaping of the Maoist Outlook (Amsterdam: International Institute for Research and Education, 1987) http://www.iire.org/images/stories/notebooks/proussetnr2englishfinal.pdf (accessed 17/07/2015); Pierre Rousset, The Chinese Revolution: II. Maoist Project Tested in the Struggle for Power (Amsterdam: International Institute for Research and Education, 1987) http://www.iire.org/images/stories/notebooks/pierre%20rousset%20nr3engli… (accessed 17/07/2015); Pierre Rousset, “People’s Republic of China at 60: 1925-1949 – Origins of the Chinese Revolution,” Links, http://links.org.au/node/1268 (accessed 17/07/2015); Pierre Rousset, “People’s Republic of China at 60: 1949-1969: Maoism and Popular Power,” Links, http://links.org.au/node/1269 (accessed 17/07/2015).  See also: Benjamin I. Schwartz, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao (New York: Harper and Row, 1967); Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China (New York: Grove Press, 1994); Nym Wales (Helen Foster Snow), Inside Red China (New York:
DaCapo Press, 1979); The Political Thought of Mao Tse-tung, ed. by Stuart R. Schram (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969); James Pinckney Harrison, The Long March to Power: A History of the Chinese Communist Party, 1921-72 (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972).
[10] Vanaik, “Subcontinental Strategies,” 113.

How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism-Kerem Nişancıoğlu and Alexander Anievas

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How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism
Pluto Press, London, 2015. 386pp., £24.99 pb

Reviewed by Tony Mckenna
Tony Mckenna

Tony’s work appears in The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, The United Nations, New Statesman, The Progressive, New Internationalist, New Humanist, Ceasefire Magazine, Monthly Review, Science and Society, Critique, Rethinking Marxism, Socialism and Democracy and International Critical Thought. His book on Art, Literature and Culture is out from Macmillan now.


19 October 2015

One of the most intriguing areas of Marxist scholarship centres around the ‘transition debate’: that is, the controversy surrounding the way capitalist relations developed out of the old world, and the processes by which they achieved ascendency. The debate spans from Marx’s own fragmented observations – which suggest that capitalist relations were cultivated first in Northern Italy, only to be prematurely stifled – to the development of Political Marxism a century later, which tended to be more emphatic and Anglo-centric in tone (especially among its later followers), emphasising the role and significance of the English countryside in the 14th century. Coeval with the geographic question, was the way capitalist social relations developed ontologically, so to speak: Were they – in the old Marxist parlance – incubated in the womb and contradictions of the old (feudal) order – or was the set of relations of the feudal-agricultural world increasingly corrupted and ‘capitalised’ by the rise of trade, external markets, and the corroding imperatives of exchange value? The latter debate was, of course, famously hashed out in the pages of the journal Science and Society, by Sweezy, Dobb and others way back in the 1950s.

But wherever you stand on these issues one thing seems clear, that is – the ‘transition debate’ has been conducted, in the main, on firmly European ground.  Other issues have been referenced: the role of the Atlantic slave trade on the processes of European primitive accumulation, for example, is heavily underscored in Marx’s Capital and has recently received detailed treatment by Robin Blackburn among others, but the attempt to provide a totalising analysis, which seeks the complex web of interactions between older modes of production and capitalist trends on a world scale; an analysis which is designed to demonstrate just how heavily the emergence of modern capitalism was dependent on the interactions between older empires, newer powers – and the subsumption of a variety of forms of labour which came to provide, so to say – capital’s amniotic fluid: such an analysis has yet to reach fruition.  Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancıoğlu’s How the West Came to Rule is an exciting and engaging effort precisely because it goes a good way toward providing this type of account.  Specifically, it utilizes the Trotskyist analytical method of uneven and combined development as a means to unpick some of the deadlocks the more localised accounts of the transition problem have yielded.

In this book the authors first provide a summary of the history of the transition debate, paying particular attention to the eurocentrism (or later Anglo-centrism) of political Marxism and the tendency toward ahistoricity which is built into World-System Theory. Other chapters involve a consideration of the Mongolian Empire and the way in which it facilitated a trade network from the more developed East to the European backwaters, and how the effects of the plague it also helped transmit would significantly alter the value of peasant labour – undermining the balance of class forces in feudal Europe – and leavening the way for spots of capitalist development thereby.   The authors go on to consider the Ottoman-Habsburg rivalry of the ‘long sixteenth century’, and the manner in which it provided a breathing space for the development of those countries on the European periphery whose economic trajectories were already developing in a capitalist direction – like England and the Northern Netherlands.

The ‘discovery’ and colonisation of the Americas (itself partially a result of the Ottoman ascent and its seizure of Constantinople in 1453) – is given detailed consideration, in terms of both the subjugation of African slaves on an international level, and the decimations of the indigenous populations which took place in both North America and Latin America; alongside the hybrid social systems which pertained in the aftermath, and the way their economic activity fed back into shaping the political landscape of the European nations.  Likewise the relationship between the European nations and their counterparts in the East is examined in depth; specifically the way the Dutch were able to subsume South Asian regions like Singapore and Indonesia in a world market which was directed by the Dutch Republic, and which provided a vital impetus for the further development of capitalism in the United Provinces – and also the way British capital was able to subordinate the Indian market to itself in and through the imperial conquest of the remnants of the Mughal Empire.  In addition, the book provides an examination of the concept of bourgeois revolution, focusing in particular on the English, Dutch and French variants.

There are many high spots in the analysis. The account of the class relations and the historical development of the Ottoman Empire is clear but also profound.  The authors demonstrate persuasively how its tributary mode of production entailed all sorts of advancements on the feudal empires it was pulled into contact with on its western flank.  The extraction of the surplus product of peasant labour was achieved through ‘the preponderance of taxation as a mechanism … regulated by regional and central agents of the Ottoman state’ (99).  This had several consequences, not least of which was that the power of the upper classes based on the land was substantially weaker than that of its western feudal counterparts, for its access to the surplus product was directly mediated by the central state, ‘almost all land was formerly owned by the Sultan, while military fiefs – timars – were predominantly nonhereditary, changeable, and regularly rotated’ (99).  The power of a landed ‘nobility’ could not congeal in the way it might in feudal terms, and thus the Ottoman tributary system was essentially more stable, less prone to fragmentation in the way the more parcellized, competing elements of ruling class feudal power were.

But it was precisely its advanced character which, at a certain point, placed the Ottoman state at a distinct disadvantage with regard to its feudal opposition.   From within the fragmented polities of feudal power, forms of private property could be more effectively cultivated.  A class of merchants were allowed to develop whose commercial activities attained a relative independence from the centralised state – in contrast to the Ottomans where the ‘subordination of merchants to the tributary state was also evident geopolitically’ (105). The Ottoman state, according to the logic of its own mode of production, had to capture and tightly regulate the tributaries by which the surpluses flowed from the exploited subaltern territories.   Such acts of conquest and taxation were facilitated by complex ‘mechanisms of social reproduction’ (103), which included a highly centralised army and bureaucracy that operated by ‘controlling coin circulation, production and prices’ (105).  Market relations were not unheard of, but they were severely regulated and even stifled – ‘anti luxury laws were deployed to confiscate merchant fortunes’ (105).

The suppression of the market had far-reaching consequences in the way in which the Ottomans waged war; the funds were often extracted from the peasantry directly and en masse, whereas feudal lords were more liable to bolster intensive, concentrated forms of direct exploitation with loan agreements with wealthy merchants or international banking houses, and thus the logic of a market economy, of exchange value, could more fundamentally penetrate the means of social reproduction.  Finally, because the means of exploitation were ‘dispersed across the nobility’ (104) in the feudal case, the peasant tended to have little legal recourse against the lord who was directly exploiting him, a lord who could often set the legal limits of that exploitation. In a centralised bureaucratic state this was less so, the peasants had greater access to their own surplus product, and this often meant they were less rebellious then their western European counterparts; the contours of class struggle, therefore, were somewhat less pronounced.   This would prove significant, of course, in light of the peasant rebellions which broke out throughout the 14th century in particular, and were part and parcel of the way peasant labour was able to detach itself from its feudal premise.

The authors’ analysis of the ‘encomienda’ – the legally enshrined framework of exploitation which arose in the aftermath of the colonisation of Latin America – is likewise highly impressive.   They articulate the way in which the Spanish preserved many of the productive relations which had characterised the pre-Colombian world.  In Mexico, for instance, the tributary form of the Aztec Empire was largely maintained – a form “in which the direct producers retained access to the means of production and formal vestiges of kin-based, ‘communal’ social relations persisted, while indigenous elites extracted surpluses from these producers through ‘extra economic’ means”(130).  Rather than impose its own style of Iberian feudalism, the Spanish crown granted parcels of land – or encomiendas – to those conquistadores whom it favoured, and the latter were then allowed to extract a tax in terms of goods, money or labour services from the Amerindian inhabitants who fell under the remit of the given territory.  The granting of an encomienda did not confer on the trustee any property rights (which still accrued to the crown) and its period of use was merely temporary.  Just like under the Ottomans, the central state (the Spanish Crown) could rotate its imperial functionaries, and thereby curtail their power.  The encomienda, then, was the product of an uneven and combined development – which arose from the combination of the old tributary forms with the nature of Spanish colonialism – specifically the tension between the colonists and the crown, as the latter sought to limit the power of the former.  Amerindian Slavery too was abolished in Latin America, precisely because the danger of private property accrued through the ownership of persons could well bolster the power of the colonists at the expense of the crown.

Following Marx, the authors note how the plundering of the Americas was key to capitalist development in England in the run up to the industrial revolution.  As Marx noted, capital invested in the colonies allows for a profit rate which ‘is generally higher there on account of the lower degree of development, and so too is the exploitation of labour through the use of slaves and coolies, etc… there is no reason why the higher rates of profit … should not enter into the equalization of the general rate of profit’ (Cited 163).  Consequently the higher rate of exploitation which more backward forms of labour offered in the colonies could be refracted back into the colonial heartland and thereby counteract the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, while also providing an outlet by which a surplus population who had fallen through the gaps during the centuries of long, interminable and painful processes of primitive accumulation could be absorbed. In other words, the colonies were the key by which the limits of England’s domestic agrarian capitalism were to be transcended, and the breakthrough to industrial capitalism was to be secured.

The analysis of the Dutch Republic and its developing empire unfolds along similar lines.  Again, the use of the theory of uneven and combined development is integral to the account.  The Dutch mode of exploitation already revealed a significantly capitalist character in and through the creation of the ‘joint stock company’ (VOC), which, through its internalisation of protection costs, could become the pivot around which ‘the logics of territorialism and capitalism were united’ (223).  The VOC created a link between the investors and managers at home and the political decision-making process which sustained the empire and the logic of its imperialism abroad.  The form of exploitation which Dutch imperialism adopted more and more tended toward ‘going beyond activity in the circulation process and intervening directly in production, assuming both ownership and control of the direct production process’ (242).

The authors cite the example of a silk-reeling centre in Bengal which ‘initially employed over 3000 reelers before being reconstructed in 1715 to accommodate over 4,00 workers … while also providing them with equipment, working space and raw materials’ (242).  These techniques and methods deployed at the level of production – across the constellation of Dutch interests, which dotted the East Indies during the period –  were combined and fused with the indigenous forms of labour which they encountered there – ‘a multiplicity of uneven forms – advances, debt peonage, corvées, plantations and wage labour’ (243).  Such a fusion guaranteed the Dutch something of an integrated monopoly based on the control of the production of goods, and thereby allowed for the broader regulation of a world market where cheap production and labour costs could be exploited to the hilt.  At the same time, this also provided the means by which the domestic economy of the Netherlands – which was now based primarily on wage-labour, but suffered from a deficit of labourers – could be augmented by the surfeit of cheap labour abroad, and thus overall wages could fall.  All of this helped Dutch capitalism to pass the threshold of its own local limits.

How the West Came to Rule is an excellent, inventive and fascinating piece of scholarship; it is all the more remarkable because it is able to condense a complex of vast and contrary trends, in and through the lens of uneven and combined development, and to demonstrate how they intersect at the point of capital development.  It achieves this, for the most part, with clarity and conviction.  There are, however, occasional weak spots in the analysis.   The chapter on ‘pure theory’ – on uneven and combined development – at times lurches into the abstruse, clunky, Althusserian-type language which is so often considered a mark of distinction and profundity in academia today, and it indulges a certain relativism with regards to the objective economic categories of ‘backward’ and ‘advanced’. So, for example, we are informed that ‘a social formation such as the Habsburg or Ottoman Empire during the 16th century might be considered more “advanced” than, say, the emerging capitalist societies of the United Provinces or England’ (56).  Perhaps more significantly – although the authors have a very strong case in terms of rehabilitating the role of non-western European nations, territories and older labour practises in the development of capitalism – it is a case they are sometimes liable to overstate.  In my view, they overestimate the productive capacity of plantation slavery, and this leads them to misconstrue its relation to the ontological nature of capitalism.

For instance, they argue that ‘capitalism utilises exploitation and oppression – beyond the formally free exchange of labour power for wages … The violence that inheres in forms of exploitation such as slavery … is not external to capitalism, but constitutive of its very ontology’(278). This is highly problematic.  Developed capitalism and generalised wage-labour is antithetical to slavery – for in the long term, wage labour is always going to be more productive. In the processes of primitive accumulation, when the capitalist economy as a whole is still fragmented and disparate, and its level of productive technique still relatively immature, the immediacies of naked exploitation that the slave system offers can be key to pulling it (developed capitalism) into being.  But once the capitalist economy is established, it is compelled to abolish slavery; the methods of violence which underpin capitalist exploitation consequently lose the immediate ‘extra-economic’ essence which is characteristic of the slave mode of production. (I suppose one might make an exception for those cases of capitalism in acute crisis – Nazi militarism for instance – which actually revived and integrated slavery into its mode of production.)

Nevertheless, How the West Came to Rule is an exemplary scholarly achievement, providing a powerful riposte to Political Marxism, and an important step forward in a vital debate.

Capitalism and Its Alternatives-Chris Rogers

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Capitalism and Its Alternatives
Zed Books, London, 2014. 176pp., £14.99 / $24.95 pb

Reviewed by Liam Conway
Liam Conway

Liam Conway is a recent Graduate from Manchester Metropolitan University where he completed undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Politics and European Philosophy. He is currently researching the reception of the New Reading of Marx (Neue Marx-Lektüre) in the Anglophone world.


Capitalism and its Alternatives is a dense and detailed interpretation of differing theories of capitalism and possible alternatives. Rogers, drawing upon the Open Marxist tradition highlights varying understandings of capitalism and provides solid analysis, alongside biting critiques. The central argument of the book is that capitalism has an intrinsic tendency towards crisis that makes an alternative to the system both desirable and justifiable (4). The interrelation between these two points serve as the benchmark for much of the material, most arguments and analysis presented come back to justifying this central insight.

The book is structured into four chapters with a lengthy introduction and conclusion. Chapter One focuses on four different theories of capitalism and is presented through the ideas of a proponent of each school of thought. Chapter Two analyses the crisis prone nature of capitalism and the responses to it. Chapters Three and Four move the focus to alternatives and provide in depth analysis of a number of anti-capitalist perspectives. The conclusion builds upon Rogers’s central point about the need for an understanding of capitalism as a crisis prone system that inevitably brings about opposition to it. However, the form this opposition takes is of great importance and Rogers is keen to stress the merits of an anti-capitalism informed by the work of John Holloway.

The approach in Chapter One is quite novel. Rather than a lengthy exposition of the whole edifice of capitalism, Rogers utilises four figures as a platform to display core ideas of capitalism. There are sections on Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Von Hayek. These ‘Four Faces of Capitalism’ as Rogers’s terms them help him characterise much of the theoretical underpinnings of capitalism. This approach works well because it allows Rogers to provide a theoretical and empirical analysis of capitalism, which shows the evolution of our understanding of ‘commercial society’ or ‘generalised commodity production’. It also helps expand upon the analysis of Chapter Two on crisis, as each thinker to a certain degree engages with the idea of trying somehow to solve and explain the problems of capitalism. This is especially true of Keynes and Hayek whose theories were borne out of a need to try to avert crisis in the future by conceiving of ideal notions of how capitalism should function. There are discussions relating to Keynes’ work in response to the Great Depression and Hayek’s response to the collapse of the Bretton Woods system.

The use of Smith and Marx is somewhat different: both presented a fundamental theorisation of capitalism but neither were concerned particularly with a practical response to capitalist crisis. Smith’s political economy was one that set about criticising mercantilism and trying to explain the emerging market systems of the 17th and 18th centuries (19-20). Marx was far more concerned with critiquing Smith’s political economy and demonstrating that capitalism relied upon a fundamental exploitation of the working classes (27). It is the critical insight of Marx’s work that Roger’s draws upon in his analysis throughout the book.

The focus in Chapter Two is to incorporate the ideas of capitalist functionality discussed in Chapter One with a specific focus on crisis. The three crises discussed are the Great Depression, the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system and the 2007-8 recession. Rogers contemplates the ideas of the thinkers (excluding Marx) in relation to these crises, and highlights that each of them fails to provide an adequate long-term response to crisis, and that in trying to respond to one crisis, they inadvertently plant the seeds of the next one. This is because, as Rogers notes, none can account for ‘the inherent tendency towards crisis in capitalism, which stems from capital’s simultaneous dependence on the reproduction and the destruction of living labour’ (72). Rogers point reflects the Marxist critique of much liberal economic theory and its preoccupation with functionality rather than causation. He presents the Marxist interpretation of crisis as one that is far more concerned with demonstrating the systemic contradictions that exist within capitalism, particularly those related to the antagonistic relationship between capital and labour and the fundamental problem this poses for accumulation (74-5).

Chapter Two provides the most rewarding read of the four chapters. The formal focus on historical crisis is detailed and well made. However, it is when Rogers engages in critique that he comes into his own, providing details on the reasons behind each crisis which he does not over-complicate. His fundamental point is to reiterate the contradictory nature of the social relations upon which capitalist accumulation rests. The focus on the dynamic between capital and labour serves to highlight why liberal thinkers like those discussed above are unable to account for a stable variant of capitalism; they remain fundamentally embedded in a naturalistic interpretation of this relationship, one that seems unable to account for its contradictory nature. Hence their responses deal with capital in an idealised fashion that assumes that a certain tweaking of the system can account for the problems caused.

Moving on from capitalism per se, Rogers begins discussing alternative forms of capitalism in Chapter Three. This begins with an account of libertarianism drawing on the work of Hayek and Robert Nozick. He then presents analyses of cooperativsm, specifically the ideas of Robert Owen, and then socialist forms of society, mainly focusing on social democracy of the 20th century. In each case Rogers presents a for and against style of engagement, first of all noting the core tenets of each idea and then providing a critical interrogation of its ideals and how it has fared practically.

Of particular interest is the section on socialism. It provides a useful counterbalance to the often utilised ideals of the post war consensus, namely that nationalisation was a wholly socialist ideal at the time. Drawing on the work of Simon Clarke, Rogers notes that nationalisation in the aftermath of the Second World War can be attributed as much to the necessity of trying to maintain a competitive economy and trying to slow down the decline of British heavy industry (106). The socialisation of industries in times of crisis can thus be viewed as a practical consideration of any government no matter what its ideals, the overriding consideration being to preserve a certain level of economic stability.

The final chapter discusses the various ways that capitalism can and has been resisted (114). Rogers’s draws upon Open Marxist interpretations of the state to reiterate that the state cannot be seen as an autonomous arena of society but rather as the product of the social relationships that give rise to it and make it up – as such it must be viewed as a capitalist state (114). This insight helps shape the nature of Rogers’s criticisms of other anti-capitalisms and establishes his own as one that is sharply focused on the state and the social relations that govern in and through it. The state cannot be harnessed or ignored, it must be countered through an opposition to the relations that constitute it. This argument reflects the work of John Holloway whose ideas regarding resisting the notion of power form Rogers own variant of anti-capitalism (141). Alongside this there is good analysis of many of the Communist movements of the 20th century alongside the theories that made up their ideological outlook.

This chapter and the conclusion provide a good examination of the problems and issues of anti-capitalism. Rogers’s arguments are persuasive and it is refreshing to see a book that does not simply conflate all anti-capitalist struggles and movements under the umbrella of the official communist movements of the 20th century. Whether one agrees with the Holloway variant of anti-capitalism or not, it is one that has been inspired by the diverse trends of modern struggles.

A point that could have been discussed at greater length is the problems that many of the modern networks have encountered, namely that like their predecessors in the 20th century they have continually been co-opted into the mainstream political discourse: I think here principally about movements such as Occupy and Indignados. Why is it that movements that have sought to follow a style of resistance similar to that which Rogers favours, have been so easily co-opted into parliamentary routes to power that have proven so ineffective in the past? There is no denying the question of organisation is vital, yet it has not proven itself a successful counterweight to the allures of power that imbued many movements of the past.

Leaving this minor quibble to one side, this book is a rewarding read. The strengths are no doubt the focus on the importance of social relations, a focus that helps clarify and explain the inherent crisis tendency of capitalism and how an alternative could be realised. This is the central aspect of Roger’s analysis, namely the need to understand the social relationships that govern our everyday existence. Whether it is going to work, shopping or going on holiday we are engaging in the continued reproduction of a certain set of relationships. It is this continued act that allows capitalism to persist as a system. Any alternative to it must take into consideration the need not only to abolish this relationship but also to present a viable alternative. Such a task remains at present wholly implausible, yet the strength of this book is that it highlights the ever continuing tendency of capitalist crisis. Consequently there is no doubt that the struggles that capitalism gives rise to will continue to create opportunities for dialogues and for the development of ideas for presenting and realising an alternative.

India’s Sacred Cows and Unholy Politics-SHASHI THAROOR

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NEW DELHI – The headlines out of India in recent weeks have often made sickening reading. Startlingly, the central protagonist in most of these stories is that most peaceable and innocent of animals, the cow.
A Muslim man was beaten to death by a mob in a small town an hour from New Delhi in response to rumors that he had slaughtered and eaten a cow, sacred to Hindus. Another man died after being attacked by villagers who believed he was involved in cattle smuggling. And a trucker was killed in Udhampur, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, over rumors that he had been involved in cow killings. Three deaths in just three weeks.
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Public officials, too, are getting in on the action. After the chief minister of Karnataka, a member of the opposition Congress party, recently declared that he would eat beef, a politician from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) threatened to behead him if he follows through.
Likewise, 20 policemen stormed the canteen of the Kerala state government’s outpost in Delhi, because it advertised a “beef fry” on its menu. Kashmiri legislator Engineer Abdul Rashid had his face smeared with black paint for throwing a “beef party.” And the chief minister of BJP-ruled Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar, declared that Muslims living in India would have to give up eating beef.
To be sure, there have been plenty of other repellent stories of intolerance that have nothing to do with cows. Two children from the impoverished Dalit community recently burned to death in their own home, in an arson attack by upper-caste goons. A prominent public intellectual had his face blackened with ink for organizing a book release for a former Pakistani foreign minister in Mumbai. And Hindu zealots stormed a Cricket Control Board meeting to disrupt discussion of a possible India-Pakistan cricket series (which now seems unlikely to take place).
But none of these incidents has acquired the toxicity of the assaults on those deemed insufficiently respectful of the holy cow. Indeed, a signal illiberal achievement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP regime has been the revival of the cow as an instrument of political warfare. And the recent spate of attacks reveals a serious problem with the country’s trajectory under Modi.
Of course, the cow has long had a place in Indian politics: the country’s constitution includes a provision explicitly urging a gradual movement toward full prohibition of cow slaughter – a ban that has already been implemented in most states.
For most of India’s existence, however, the default approach has essentially been “live and let live” – make your own choice about beef, and let others do the same. I am a vegetarian myself, but I have never considered it my business what others eat. Where beef was legally available, it was consumed not just by Muslims and other minorities, but also by many poorer Hindus, who could not afford other kinds of meat.
But that response was possible only so long as relatively liberal or moderate officials (including an earlier BJP-led coalition government) were in power. The Modi government does not fit that description. Instead, it is full of leaders who seem more concerned with what goes into other people’s mouths than what comes out of their own.
Modi’s government has given voice to a peculiar kind of Hindu chauvinism, one that embraces activist assertion of a narrowly constructed version of the faith. It cannot be described as “fundamentalism,” for Hinduism is a religion singularly devoid of fundamentals: it lacks a single sacred book, a single version of divinity, and even the equivalent of a Sabbath day. In fact, Hindus who eat beef can, like those who abjure it, find support for their beliefs in the religion’s ancient texts and scripture.
Rather, what Modi’s government has fostered is a form of subjective intolerance, with supporters, emboldened by the BJP’s absolute majority, imposing their particular view of what India should be, regardless of whom it hurts. The state of Maharashtra’s recent beef ban – which threatens the livelihoods of a million Muslim butchers and truckers – would not have been imposed by any previous state government or supported by any previous administration in New Delhi.
Such bans are not really about beef, but about freedom. Indians have generally felt free to be themselves, within their dynamic and diverse society. It is that freedom that the BJP’s representatives and followers are challenging today.
The good news is that a backlash has already emerged. Nearly 40 distinguished authors and poets have returned their prestigious Sahitya Akademi (Literary Academy) awards to protest the silence of the academy and other government bodies following the killing of three intellectuals by suspected Hindu hardliners. A top scientist has now followed suit, returning his Padma Bhushan, the government’s third-highest honor. As these gestures highlight the explosion of Hindu chauvinism, support for Modi has begun to erode.
When Modi came to power, foreign observers lauded him as just the kind of decisive, business-minded economic reformer that India needed in order to fulfill its massive potential. During the election campaign, he seemed to recognize that achieving good economic results was more important than the politics of religious identity for which his party had been notorious.
To the dismay of many, Modi has underperformed economically, while the zealots have run amok, hijacking his development agenda. And his silence in the face of it all confirms what many in India had feared: his economic sloganeering was merely a ploy to secure power. Now that power is becoming a tool of the unsavory agenda pursued by the Hindu chauvinists who enabled his rise.
As a result, divisive politics is now overwhelming constructive economic policymaking. Unfortunately for India, this is likely to continue until the cows come home.
—-Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently an MP for the Indian National Congress and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs

RISE: Scotland’s Left Alliance-

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One year on from the historic Scottish independence referendum politics here are utterly changed.

The long dominant Labour Party, which opted to campaign against independence — alongside the Conservatives, loathed by the big majority of Scots voters, and the now virtually demolished Liberal Democrats in the Better Together alliance — reaped the whirlwind at the UK general election in May.

Labour lost 40 seats, to be left with just one MP, and the Liberals lost ten, also returning just one — undoubtedly a verdict on having joined the detested Tories, whose sole MP barely hung on to his seat, in a UK coalition.

The huge winners were the surging Scottish National Party and its new post referendum leader Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister in the devolved Scottish government.

The SNP went from 6 MPs in the last parliament to 56 now, winning over 50% of the popular vote, and now utterly dominates Scottish political life, with polls predicting that the party will win 75 seats in next year’s 129-seat Holyrood parliament elections.

For Labour the writing was on the wall almost as soon as the referendum ended.

Within days of last year’s No vote in the referendum the membership of the pro-independence Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialist Party mushroomed as Yes voters joined.  But is was the SNP that saw its membership really rocket from around 20,000 to 80,000 in a matter of weeks.

Nicola Sturgeon embarked on a series of public events culminating in a mass rally in Glasgow attended by a massive 13,000 people, which had the atmosphere of a victory rally, revealing the ‘No’ referendum result to be a pyrrhic victory for the unionist parties.

What is now clear is the hopes of the Westminster establishment that a No vote would quell any idea of an insurgent Scotland breaking with neo-liberalism and austerity have been completely dashed.

What has happened is that the mass citizens’ movement which pushed the character of last year’s Yes campaign well to the left has not, as anticipated, been cowed by the defeat but has stayed on and diversified how it campaigns for independence.

Large numbers have opted to join the SNP and campaign for it as the most viable way of not just seeking independence but of articulating a vision of a social democratic Scotland increasingly at odds with the dominant austerity consensus at Westminster.

Indeed during the general election the SNP pitched an anti-austerity message to voters which, presented UK-wide by Sturgeon in TV debates, gained wide support not just in Scotland but among English voters and made her the most talked-about and popular figure in the campaign.

This approach of appealing to Scotland’s left-of-centre political consensus has the twin advantages of putting a clear distance between the SNP and the British austerity policy of the Tories and occupying what was for decades Labour’s traditional heartland territory.

The political consequences of this have been most dramatically felt by Labour.  Last year industrial heartlands of the party in Glasgow and Dundee voted Yes and in May the SNP swept away all Labour MPs in both cities and across Scotland.

Even the Kirkcaldy seat of former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown (birthplace of economist Adam Smith) fell to the SNP, Brown having retired from the contest.

Many questions are posed by the new politics of Scotland forged over the past year, but one fact stands out above all others.  Scots voters now view politics through a Scottish prism with the braying “clashes” in the House of Commons in London increasingly regarded as irrelevant.

It is this reality that has sealed the fate of Labour in Scotland.  The party has been in long-term decline for decades as it grappled to reconcile the right-wing New Labour project of the Blair and Brown years which courted voters in largely Southern English target seats with a politics unpopular in Scotland.

Despite its dominant position in Scotland it was unable to protect jobs and communities from the Thatcher attacks and then was seen to adopt Tory pro-market policies under Blair.

Then, the impact of the 2008 crash largely discredited Brown’s windy rhetoric to well-fed City bankers of having abolished “boom and bust” economics — always a tough sell in Scotland — as the speculative bubble burst and the bills came in.

However, the final coffin nail was Labour’s cross-class collaboration with the deeply unpopular Tory and Liberal coalition parties in the Better Together campaign to keep Scotland in the failing UK state rather than opting for independence.

It was not just the alliance itself that enraged thousands of Scots but the way the entire panoply of the British state and its related institutions, such as the BBC, civil service, big business — even the president of the United States — were brought into action to discredit the Yes case in what unionist strategists themselves dubbed “Project Fear.”  So biased did the BBC coverage become that it sparked protest demonstrations outside its Glasgow offices.

The machinations of “Project Fear” peaked with a flying visit to Edinburgh by Chancellor George Osborne in which he baldly stated that an independent Scotland would not be allowed to use the £ sterling.  It was clearly a bluff but backed by the combined hegemonic forces of the British state it made an impact.  Indeed it has since emerged that despite the much hyped “neutrality” of the Westminster civil service Osborne’s treasury had a full-time unit working against the Yes case.

In all this Labour — once known as the “People’s Party” — stood exposed as playing a key role in keeping Scotland under the control of a Westminster setup entirely at the service of the bankers and speculators who are now inflicting such damage on the working people Labour once spoke for.

Of course, there is now much talk of a Labour rebirth, given the left-wing challenge from Jeremy Corbyn now leading the Labour Party with a set of left-wing policies such a renationalising energy and railways, scrapping Trident and so on.

Surely such an offer would appeal in Scotland even more than the rest of the UK?

Superficially this view has much purchase but in reality it faces some formidable obstacles — most importantly the simple fact that the SNP has, over the last fifteen years, almost totally occupied the political territory on which a left-moving Corbyn-led party would stand.

Why would the 50% of Scottish voters now backing the social democratic politics of the SNP be attracted to the yet-to-be-made offer from a divided Labour whose new leader will face as much opposition from the right wing of his own party as from the Tories?  Add to this the hard reality of the politics of Scottish Labour, and the scale of the challenge it faces in retaking its lost ground becomes clear.

Scottish Labour branches largely backed Corbyn rival Yvette Cooper as did their solitary MP and Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale.  Their programme is well to the right of Corbyn with support for Trident, marketisation and an austerity policy.

Even more crucial, polling shows that Scottish voters are unlikely to change from SNP to Labour as result of a Corbyn victory and the remaining Labour voter — around 24% of the electorate — largely back the right-wing politics of Scottish Labour.

This means that at present the SNP is seen by many, including large numbers of pro-independence socialists, as the only game in town even if they are as described by one commentator as “Neo Liberals with a heart.”

The evidence for the SNP’s “Neo Liberalism with a Heart” is plentiful.  The SNP opposes Trident based on the Clyde but supports Scottish membership of NATO.  It opposes austerity on paper but imposes large-scale cuts in local councils and has just adopted Tory demands to introduce testing in schools.  It supports House of Lords abolition but backs the monarchy.  The list goes on.

In this context, the pro-independence left not convinced by the SNP and alienated by Labour’s — left-led or not — anti-independence stance have begun to organise to make a challenge at next year’s Scottish Parliament polls.

Inspired both by the pro-independence mass politics of the referendum and the examples of Syriza and Podemos among others they have formed RISE: Scotland’s Left Alliance.  RISE stands for Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism.

Its components include a range of campaigning bodies, non-party socialists based around the Scottish Left Project and the Scottish Socialist Party.  Much of its impetus is based on the referendum tactics of the mass Radical Independence Campaign, which took the independence demand beyond a narrow constitutional issue and into economic and social policy.

This approach drew in thousands to mass conferences debating the left case for independence and linked the democratic question to its ability to put Scotland on the road to real socialist change and environmental sustainability.  It saw a path-breaking social media campaign to break the information monopoly of the mainstream unionist media which made a major impact.  But most importantly it had activists of different radical and socialist viewpoints organising events such as mass canvassing in working-class housing estates, which played a key role in leading solidly working-class cities like Glasgow and Dundee to vote Yes.

RISE is an alliance of long-term pro-independence socialists, campaigners fighting on a wide range of issues including land reformers, and many who came to the pro-independence radicalism during last year’s campaign.

Scotland’s parliament is elected on a two-vote system.  The first 73 are elected on a first-past-the-post basis and these are likely to be overwhelmingly won by the SNP.  The remaining 56 are elected on regional lists by a proportional system based on votes cast for a party.

It is in this second vote that RISE will concentrate its efforts and aims to try and win MSPs to form a pro-independence left opposition in the Holyrood parliament.  The initial signs are promising after the RISE launch in Glasgow at the end of August: local branches known as “circles” are forming across Scotland and the formation of RISE has generated considerable favourable comment.

Undoubtedly gaining a foothold in Holyrood will be challenging and one important obstacle is the fact that at this point both RISE and the left-leaning Scottish Greens are competing for the same votes.  However, the energy and drive of RISE activists, emboldened by support for independence reaching a majority in the most recent polls, may yet overcome such obstacles and make real the slogan “Another Scotland Is Possible.”

Ken Ferguson is Editor of Scottish Socialist Voice.

“Why Socialism?” Revisited: Reflections Inspired by Albert Einstein-Chris Gilbert

Posted by admin On November - 13 - 2015 Comments Off on “Why Socialism?” Revisited: Reflections Inspired by Albert Einstein-Chris Gilbert


Why should one seek socialism?  It is common to adduce that socialism would be more just and fair than capitalism, but that does not fully resolve the issue, since people are not always motivated by social justice.  Moreover motivation — especially for undertakings that are difficult and risky, such as changing a whole society! — is in fact a complicated affair.  Not only are motivations not necessarily rational, but there is also the troubling question of how durable they are in time and whether the individual’s motive, while it lasts, will coincide with that of others long enough to coalesce into a viable socialist project.

It should be pointed out that, as long as socialism was seen to be a necessary consequence of an inexorable historical development, there was no need to ask, “Why socialism?”  In the period following Karl Marx’s death up through the first part of the last century, socialism was often understood to be so inevitable that it could be viewed as not especially desirable for humanity but nevertheless inescapably on its way (basically the stance of the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter1).

Perhaps this is the real importance of Albert Einstein’s rightly esteemed article “Why Socialism?”2  Over and above the specific contents of Einstein’s reflections (for example, his interesting claim that a planned socialist economy is the only way to overcome capitalism’s crippling of individuals) this brief text of 1949 forms a historical watershed because, by its very approach, the physicist’s writing recognizes that socialism is not inevitable and has to be wanted.  That is to say, Einstein’s text implicitly recognizes that socialism needs to be actively sought after.

Albert Einstein’s take on this question was surely influenced by the general crisis of 1914 to 1945, which profoundly shook the faith in inexorable progress and the belief in universal schemes of history.  The lessons of that crisis still mark our present moment: historical determinism, outside of the academic cloisters of analytic Marxism,3 has very few adherents today.  Additionally, the era of neoliberalism and global chaos that began around 1970 and continues to the present has been no less efficient than the earlier crisis in destroying our confidence in necessary progress.  For these reasons, the question of why socialism –why one should want and struggle for socialism — remains as pressing for us as it was at the time of Einstein’s writing.

A “Red” Thread in Marx

Karl Marx himself may have been inclined to sidestep the question of why socialism (what motivations one has to work for a socialist society).  This is in part because his work was born in an effort to respond scientifically to the pipedreams of the Utopian socialists and in part because, influenced by the widespread determinism of his moment, Marx often assumes that the mere accumulation of labor struggles and the numeric growth of the proletariat are enough to ensure a revolutionary subject.4  That being said, there is nevertheless a string of literary clues in Marx’s oeuvre that point to the crucial, “existential” question of the motivations for socialism: the reasons for doing the revolution.

Marx has two related figures for the communist revolution that both allude to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the “spectre” that opens the Communist Manifesto and the “old mole” that appears in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.  These Shakespearean references are both derived from Act I of Hamlet, in which the ghost of the protagonist’s father visits Elsinore castle.  When the ghost of the murdered king is above ground he is a spectre — he is called an “apparition,” “spirit,” or “ghost” –butwhen he is below the stage boards and insists that Hamlet swear revenge the ghost figures as a “mole.”  “Well said, old mole!, canst work in the earth so fast?  A worthy pioneer!” Hamlet remarks when the now-underground ghost asks him to swear.

Hamlet is a play that is often taken to be constitutive of modern consciousness.  It tells the story of the title character’s struggle to restore a lost order that has been usurped by his uncle Claudius, who has murdered the old king, Hamlet’s father.  Like the somewhat later Shakespearean invention of the ambitious Macbeth, Claudius is a character who, because he has taken destiny into his own hands and is a “self-made man,” may be compared to a bourgeois.  Thus, in this play which dates from the dawn of European capitalism, the protagonist struggles against the self-made “bourgeois” class and his inspiration comes from a figure that is old: a parental figure.  It is an old mole or forgotten spectre — a voice from the past.5

What to make of this Shakespearean voice from the past that Marx appropriated not once but on various occasions?6  Moreover, why do so many Marxist texts, even today, employ the figures of the spectre and the mole to refer to the promise of socialism — with the former foretelling the possible advent of socialism and the latter standing for a revolutionary force that erupts irresistibly in the present?  The best explanation is that the use of these Shakespearean tropes by the founder of scientific socialism and more importantly their persistence in the Marxist tradition implies that we still think that the call to socialism comes from the past, rather than from an abstract future or an abstract need for progress.

It is worth pointing out that this way of interpreting the reasons for the socialist revolution is not new.  In fact, it is a central theme in the romantic-influenced work of Walter Benjamin.  Benjamin states somewhat cryptically in his Theses on the Concept of History (1940) that the revolution will be done not for envy of the future but rather for a happiness that is essentially preterit: the revolution is to redeem present and past lives.  In line with this need to redeem the past, Benjamin refers to the “weak messianic power” in present generations because past generations have a claim on them.  Like Hamlet, Benjamin recognizes that this claim of the past on the present is “not to be settled lightly.”7

Something “Old”: the Use-Value

Whatever the important role assigned to the past and its ghostly messengers in these texts by Marx, Benjamin, and Shakespeare, we can certainly accept that the idea that the past provides the key impulse for socialism is profoundly counter-intuitive.  Why, in modernity, would the motive for, or call to, socialism come from an earlier time?  Why, if socialism is to be constructed in the future, is not the call instead figured as coming from the future?  In fact, the answer to these questions has much to do with the very construction of capitalist modernity and, most specifically, its phantasmagoric quality.

In the much-studied section of Capital entitled “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret,” Marx shows how the commodity world, with its fetishized value-form, is essentially fantastic: in a word, it is futuristic.  This “sensual supersensual” realm that Marx refers to in this section of Capital prefigures the world of today’s shopping malls and their incessantly novel presentation of new products; it is the world that excludes death by ironically assuming the rigor mortis of the commodity’s hard, shiny surfaces.  Because the commodity world is so modern and futuristic, any rupture with it must come from a subterranean voice or metaphorical space that contrasts with the futuristic alienation of capitalism by virtue of its “old” or “unheimlich” character.8

This metaphorical space, comparable in some way to the spectral existence of Hamlet’s father, is that of the use-value in capitalist modernity.  As a suppressed facet of the commodity, the use-value is often thought of in art, philosophy, and even politics as belonging to a sort of lost paradise.9  For example, in Baudelaire’s poetry and in the somewhat later painting of Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse, these artists’ desire to reencounter ur-values and ur-pleasures is projected onto an exotic or more primitive land of “lux, calme et volupté.”  In philosophy, just as liberal thinkers appeal to states of nature and original positions to decide fundamental questions of social justice — pushing transhistorical value into an imagined, primordial space — so Martin Heidegger also finds himself appealing to archaic peasant contexts to evoke a more authentic lifeworld of utility that is in some way prior to capitalism’s pseudo-concretions.10

In the political sphere, the urge to recover lost values and common ideals — values from the past that haunt the present — is seen very clearly in the Basque abertzale struggle that is carried out in the name of an indigenous European people dwelling on both sides of the Pyrenees.  This project is essentially socialist despite its being cast as a recovery and redemption of what once existed.  Another similar example is the Bolivarian socialist project which, because of its continental dimension, depends on reviving a primordial Latin American nation that lies buried under the balkanized, capitalist modernity of the continent.11  In both struggles, which are among today’s most vibrant efforts to overcome capitalism and construct a new, socialist world, the project rests on redeeming what lies “behind” and “before” capitalism’s fetishized pseudo-concretions.

Socialism as an Obligation

That the call for socialism must come from the past is also confirmed by the way we commonly use the terms and concepts.  That is to say, most people on the revolutionary left think and speak as if socialism were not merely an option but rather an obligation, and you cannot have an obligation to the future, except figuratively.  A good, revolutionary attitude toward the future might be preparedness and hope, or “optimism of the spirit” (Gramsci’s famous slogan notwithstanding).  By contrast, the motive for the socialist struggle is more akin to the keeping of a promise.  It is a promise made to the past and to past generations.

How should we conceive the people from the past to whom we are obliged or bound in this way?  One can easily imagine a long list of our ancestors — as José Martí characteristically did in a discourse from 1893 — with still unrealized or unfinished projects.  Martí refers to the Paraguayan rebel José de Antequera and indigenous leader Tupac Amaru as well as to José Antonio Galán and Juan Francisco Berbeo, the latter two being Colombian comuneros.12  Our referents for past struggles would surely differ today and depend on our specific contexts.  However, the key point is that if we reach back, like Martí, to past generations, it is because we are conceiving humanity as a project.

Conducting a rapid review of this latter idea, we can see that, if barely glimpsed in Renaissance humanism, the project of humanity finally coalesces in the Eighteenth century as a normative ideal.  It underpins, for example, both the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the scheme of “perpetual peace” that Immanuel Kant thought could be a result of expanding adherence to liberalism.13  In the next century, Simón Bolívar and Martí himself are credited principally with having fought for a Latin American patria or homeland, but their struggles were always informed by the ambition of a human patria — hence the idea of humanity and a human project still persists as the substrate or condition of the national project.  In the twentieth century, the project of humanity barely stays afloat in that century’s roiled waters of global war, propaganda, and genocide, but it survived in at least the ideology of real socialism, underpinning both its final struggle and pacific coexistence modalities.  It also persisted as the horizon of many anti-racist and anti-colonial struggles.

In relation to these earlier periods and their conceiving humanity as a project worthy of struggle, our generation has certainly taken an enormous step back that expresses a drastic loss of ambition and commitment.14  As a rule we have neither taken up their struggles nor have we held onto the human ideal that gave them horizon and scope.  This is a tremendous loss, even if our forgetting and shirking is usually unconscious — the result of ignorance.  Today, then, there exist two options for our generation.  Either we persist in this “fallen” state or we recover these earlier projects, listening to the past and the legacies of struggle that it has bequeathed to us.  To do that we need to recover the visionof humanity as something other than a collection of scattered individuals, and begin again to see it as a project with a long trajectory of struggle and sacrifice.

Of course, it is important to make clear that as far as the key struggles in our past are concerned — even those that were not explicitly socialist, such as the projects of Bolívar, Martí, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — the only way to keep their projects alive today and give them a coherent basis is socialism.  In our time and given the way history has developed, socialism alone could make possible a pacific, non-racist, and fair society.  This of course needs to be argued.  Yet the case has been made with powerful arguments, such as those presented in Albert Einstein’s essay, that show that a capitalist economy necessarily leads to chaos, job insecurity, and diverse forms of injustice.  The conclusion then is that one is either a traitor to the past and its legacies, or one elects to struggle and take up the project that is the continuation of these earlier efforts: the project of socialism.

A Cultural Turn for the Better

This way of seeing things is illustrated by an important change that occurred in cultural production before the last turn of century.  Up through the mid-1970s there was a powerful, even predominant tendency in writing and film, mostly expressed in science fiction, to imagine a new and always more advanced future.  This is what was conveyed, often with a degree of skepticism, in the science-fiction tradition that reaches from Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.  Yet in the mid-seventies this future-oriented stance in works of the imagination became increasingly impossible, and science fiction did a surprising thing: it turned its gaze to the past.

The key film is Star Wars which rolled onto screens in 1977 with the memorable opening text: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”  This surprising science-fiction film declared itself to be happening in the past, and it had a clear debt to romanticism because of the presence of knights, princesses, and sorcerers.  Though it was certainly mediocre in almost all senses,the original Star Wars film marked a turning point.  It initiated a nostalgic current that continues to be dominant in much of mass culture, as is shown by the success of such recent productions as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.

This turning-toward-the-past that took place in film and television in the 1970s could be (and has been) interpreted as simply negative.  That is, we could read Star Wars as merely a sign of capitalist culture’s degeneration and its increasing lack of ideas (as the film’s miserable acting and crude cinematic recyclings would seem to confirm).  Yet given the epochal nature of the cultural shift that took place at this time, we are forced to take seriously at least the temporal structure of Star Wars.  In fact, the film evidenced an essentially correct perception on the part of mainstream audiences that the progressivist myth has failed and that the faith in an automatically better future is now untenable and shabby.

This is indeed what Star Wars, along with the romantic science fiction that followed in its wake, stands for.  On the one hand, the initial science-fiction film directed by George Lucas recognized that there is no guarantee that humanity will progress toward a shining ideal, as did the nearly contemporary films Blade Runner (1982) and Brazil (1985) with their extravagantly dystopian settings.  On the other hand, Star Wars’ screenwriters and audiences understood that there is nothing binding in the progressivist vision of life: no commitment and therefore no adventure.

We need only go back a decade earlier to encounter a television series with a completely different character that coincided perfectly with the dominant, future-oriented tendency in science fiction.  That would be Star Trek, the popular series that initially ran from 1966 to 1969.  Though apparently similar in theme to Star Wars, this earlier science-fiction story had in fact an antithetical argument.  It embodied a progressivist cosmovision that — in neat parallel with the positivist ideals of the Second International — simply predicted a new, better society as a necessary product of a guaranteed historical development.  Among other civilizatory achievements presented as faits accomplis in Star Trek is an inter-planetary federation along the model of Kant’s international foedus pacificum.  In Star Trek, the Enlightenment is triumphing.

Walter Benjamin vs. James Kirk

By contrast, Lucas’s Star Wars operated in a totally different register and its message was in profound contradiction with Enlightenment thought.  A hodgepodge of borrowings from Westerns and medieval legends, the film’s otherwise weak story and pathetic dialogue was propped up by two powerful arguments: first, that you have to fight for change and, second, that there is a long-standing mission — a human project that reaches back to previous generations — which the current generation has abandoned.  The film said to its audiences, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father that Karl Marx had earlier adopted for the Communist Manifesto, that you can choose to take on this heroic mission (call it emancipation or socialism) or you can be a traitor to it. . .

This brings us back to Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Concept of History.  Many people of an academic bent have struggled with this difficult text, which turned out to be the writer’s last theoretical testament.  One of the more puzzling references in Benjamin’s Theses is his affirmation of the presence of a “weak messianic force” in the present generation (affirmation that we have touched upon briefly above).  Just before this peculiar phrase, the writer has mentioned the “echo of those who have been silenced” in the “voices to which we lend our ears today” and also has let drop the surprising idea of a “secret appointment between the generations of the past and that of our own.”

This section of Benjamin’s Theses is indeed enigmatic.  Why is the messianic force in present generations considered “weak”?  Moreover, what eccentric variant of materialist historiography is Benjamin proposing (since his text positions itself as a critical form of “historical materialism”)?  A full answer to these questions is beyond the scope of this essay.  Yet to grasp the essence of Benjamin’s thesis one need go no farther than the early scene in Star Wars, in which the protagonist encounters an aged, cloaked figure on the planet Tatooine who bears a message from the past.  This is Obi-Wan Kenobi, but in his place we can imagine Simón Bolívar, Martin Luther King, or even Karl Marx.  In this scene from Star Warswe have a dramatic representation of Benjamin’s “appointment” between past and present generations.  The earlier generation, represented by Obi-Wan, interpellates the present generation in an adventure.  He says: There is a difficult and old mission; you must learn about it and be loyal to it.

Mission, loyalty, adventure . . . perhaps these aspects of the human project are difficult to make convincing in anything but fiction and literature and sit uneasily in the context of theoretical essays.  Yet they are essential to socialism.  One must understand that the project of socialism — an aspiration both explicit and implicit in a great many previous generations — is not an option but an obligation.  The mission that we have inherited from the past of making socialism, if it is not to be betrayed, demands loyalty and bravery.  Does this seem overstated?  Only if capitalism’s gray-on-gray were to have finally seized hold of the human imagination would the claim seem exaggerated.  In fact, socialism and its project would be disappointing if it did not work — at least part of the time — in this heroic register.



1  Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (London and New York: Routledge, 1943/2003).

2  Albert Einstein, “Why Socialism?” Monthly Review (May 1949).

3  Gerard A. Cohen, La teoría de la historia de Karl Marx: una defensa (Madrid: Siglo XXI, 1986): 177-82.

4  Daniel Bensaïd, La política como arte estratégico (Madrid: Oveja Roja, 2013): 34.

5  The fatherly character of the ghost is doubly emphasized in the clever reading of Hamlet that Stephen Dedalus expounds in Episode 9 of James Joyce’s Ulysses.  Dedalus argues that Shakespeare, who had a son called “Hamnet,” played the role of the father’s ghost (the specter) in performances of the work.  It is interesting that Macbeth, a somewhat later play by Shakespeare, puts the story of the “bourgeois” usurper as the central one in the plot.

6  Cf. Karl Marx, “Speech at Anniversary of the ‘People’s Paper'” (1856).

7  Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” (1940).

8  Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny'” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917-1919): On Infantile Neurosis and Other Work (London: Hogarth, 1955): 217-256.

9  Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955): 18-19.  “And the past continues to claim the future: [the unconscious] generates the wish that the paradise be re-created on the basis of the achievements of civilization. . . .  Therecherche du temps perdu becomes the vehicle of future liberation.”

10  Martin Heidegger, “The Origins of the Work of Art” inBasic Writings (New York: HarperCollins, 2009): 143-212.  The term pseudo-concretion comes from Karel Kosik, Dialectics of the Concrete: A Study of Problems of Man and World (Dordrecht/Boston: D. Reidel, 1976).

11  This is the argument made by Jorge Abelardo Ramos in Historia de la Nación Latinamericana (Buenos Aires: Continente, 2012).

12  José Martí, ” Simón Bolívar” (Discurso en la velada de la Sociedad Literaria Hispanoamericana del 28 de octubre de 1893) in José Martí, Política de Nuestra America (La Habana: Fondo Cultural del ALBA, 2006): 145.

13  Immanuel Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006): 67-109.

14  This loss of commitment to the human project is what Einstein registers with his anecdote in “Why Socialism?” about the “intelligent and well-disposed man” who wonders why one should be concerned about humanity’s disappearance.

15  Benjamin, Ibid.  See the second thesis.

Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

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