Swaraj India West Bengal President Sanjeeb Mukherjee’s article: A Guided Tour of Marx in India

Swaraj India West Bengal President Sanjeeb Mukherjee’s article: A Guided Tour of Marx in India

A Guided Tour of Marx in India

Karl Marx was the only concerned intellectual and philosopher of modern times who combined the best of the two greatest thinkers of human history, namely, Gautam Buddha and Aristotle. Like Buddha, Marx’s central concern was human suffering, oppression and exploitation, from which both sought emancipation through knowledge and understanding and care. Similarly, Marx had the most powerful analytical and rational mind, much like Aristotle. Marx shares the glory of Aristotle for influencing the way serious thinking is done and like Buddha he has deeply influenced people globally to fundamentally change their lives and societies and has given birth to an ideology and institutions who claim to protect and preach his doctrine. Though Marx did not step out of Europe his ideas, concerns and impact were truly global.

Though Marx was born two hundred years ago his influence reached India a little more than a century ago. In fact, his ideas first reached intellectuals through the work of the Bolshevik Party and the writings of Lenin and Marx’s closest friend and comrade Frederick Engels. Marx’s ideas were the greatest source of hope of a just future and it also showed the way to reach that goal. In this practical endeavour Engels and primarily Lenin were the chief guides. The great fight against feudalism, capitalism and imperialism was fought with the weapon of Marx’s philosophy. India, like the rest of the world was subjugated by these three forces and hence those who wanted to fight them found a way out in Marxism.

The Marxism that deeply influenced Indian politics and intellectuals was large mediated through some key writings of Engels and Lenin; the former’s essay Karl Marx and his speech at the graveside of Marx. Here Engels tried to codify Marx’s philosophy and give it a strong scientific basis. In fact, he describes his discoveries as falling within the annals of science and compares it with Darwin’s discovery of the law of development of organic nature. This led to the claim that Marx founded the law of development of human history. In other words, Marxism became like a natural science, much like the laws of physics discovered by Newton and others. Engels further claimed that the second major discovery of Marx was, again like natural sciences, was grounded in material reality. Marx explained society and its dynamics by its material basis in the production system and classes based on it. This economic base was the foundation which determined the character of the superstructure, that is, politics, culture and ideas etc. Finally, the motor of history was located in these economically grounded classes and their conflicting interests and hence inevitable struggles. Furthermore, capitalism is the final stage from where labour and hence the whole of society would be liberated by a revolution which, would end class rule and exploitation and would usher in socialism.

Lenin further codified Marxism and claimed that the latest discoveries of natural sciences provide a remarkable confirmation of Marx’s science of dialectical materialism, from which flowed historical materialism or the science of society. Given the centrality of class interests and struggles, classes with a vested interest in the present order would oppose or distort the science of Marxism and its universal truths. So according to Lenin, the key role of the communist party, besides leading the revolution was to defend the purity of Marx and his ideas against any attempts to revise, change, correct or improve it. The scientific truth of Marxism has to be defended much like any religious thinker and its central text. Using a religious metaphor, Lenin describes attempts at revising Marxism as sins. Marxism became a religious dogma, whose purity had to be defended and being the universal scientific truth it can be applied universally.

This was primarily the Marx which influenced our minds and politics in India. Not only was Marx turned into a god, but Lenin and later Stalin or Mao or Trotsky became the sole repositories and interpreters of this truth. In fact, this received version of Marx became canonised in the pamphlet Stalin wrote called Dialectical and Historical Materialism, which for generations became our primer for understanding and applying Marx. Hence the Marx which influenced and shaped the Indian left was mediated through the authority of Lenin and his avatars. Our only task was to apply this pure unadulterated truth to Indian conditions and in case of any doubt or dispute look upon the key defenders of Marx, namely Lenin and his epigones. In other words, we did not have to apply our minds, think or engage with Marxism. It became a ‘derivative discourse’, to use Partha Chatterjee’s phrase, used in a different context.

If we look at the trajectory of the communist movement in India we will find a long history of debates, differences and splits and all of them centring on the correct interpretation and application of Marxism. The most important aspect of these disputations is that they were debated and settled by reference to some authoritative figure or organisation entrusted with preserving the purity of Marx’s teaching. Initially it was Lenin and the CPSU or the Communist International and later Mao zwe Dong became the arbiter of all of our disputes. Our mind was reduced to that of a mere shadow, incapable of thinking independently. The three major splits in the communist party were caused and resolved by reference to these authorities; first the split in 1964 divided by the conflict between the then Peking and Moscow. The second split in 1969 was triggered by the demand that communists must follow Mao as the CPSU had become revisionist or even worse. It was followed by serial splits all around the correct political and ideological line enunciated by Mao.

Even among intellectuals not entirely under the tutelage of the communist party, the debates were derived from later Marxists and intellectuals considered authoritative like Gramsci, Lukacs or the Marxism now mediated by postmodern thinkers like Foucault and others. Given the closure of our minds by this received Marxism we have singularly failed to come up with imaginative and critical readings and developments of Marx. Having moved away from the confines of Lenin and Mao now we seek answers to all questions in the latest authority reigning in the west. It started with Gramsci and then moved on to Althusser and the entire genre of what is called western Marxism. Now we have found new signposts and mediators to guide our journey to understand and apply the doctrine of the greatest thinker of modern times. However, these intellectual and academic developments did not have any impact on communist parties or the movement.
In this guided tour of Marx’s rich thought we reduced his ideas to almost readymade formulas to be applied in our thinkingand political practice and all the while invoking a thorough going process of self-censorship lest we revise or distort the universal truths discovered by Marx. Consequently, we lost out on the extraordinary mind of one of the greatest thinkers of all ages. Marx was critically and creatively engaging with older thinkers to make sense of his time and like Buddha was seeking human emancipation from all forms of exploitation and oppression. He had an open mind, which was critical and poetic at the same time. There was an openness and boldness to experiment with new ways of thinking and perhaps that is why he said in exasperation, ‘Thank god, I’m not a Marxist.’ This openness enabled the mature Marx to think radically at variance with the received Marxism when he was asked for his views on the role of the peasant communes in Russia and their future by Vera Zasulitch. He went into deep thought and study and advocated the possibility for Russia and the peasant communes to bypass capitalism and lay the foundation for socialism. His mind was like an immensely rich mine which has to be explored, extracted and processed, with diamonds strewed all over. In India like in most other countries he has been treated and handed over as a polished and finished product.

However, outside the frame of official communist parties Marx is being re-read and explored by intellectuals and activists alike. Post modernism, post colonialism and feminism are three key areas where a new engagement with Marx is taking place with immense intellectual possibilities. Kalyan Sanyal and some members of the Subaltern Studies group are imaginatively reading Marx. Paresh Chattopadhyay is engaged in a serious quest to re-read Marx, often in the original German, to offer interesting and unorthodox interpretations. In the world of activism dalits and other new social movements are also engaging with Marx outside the tutelage of the communist parties and their gatekeepers. Even radical Christians, Buddhists and Gandhians are also finding intellectual and philosophical resources in Marx. In the orthodox communist tradition MN Roy was an exception. He debated with Lenin and offered new interpretations and thesis and later made a radical critique of Marxism and founded the Radical Humanist movement. Marxism has enslaved the minds of communists which can, perhaps, be freed by Marx himself!

State President of Swaraj India, West Bengal
Prof. Sanjeeb Mukherjee taught political science at University of Calcutta. He studied politics in Presidency College and a received a PhD in Philosophy from Jadavpur University.

The author’s views are personal.