End of the road for Orlando Figes

It’s a pretty tragic end for Orlando Figes. I was quite impressed with his first major work on the Russian Revolution- A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, even though I later felt that his work was little more than a well narrated compendium of many extant works on the Russian Revolution. I do not agree  with his blanket statement that the Russian Revolution was a “people’s tragedy”. At that time, however,  in my own little, dilettantish manner I had ended the review of his book with these words:

… The brashness of his youth shows clearly in the rather eclectic treatment of the subject throughout the text. But the sheer volume of the information makes up for any slackness in analysis.

There cannot be any doubt that Figes’ book marks the start of a brilliant career for the author and is central to the debate that he has brought into sharp focus.

By owning up to writing negative reviews of the books of his rivals, of all places at the Amazon.com book reviews, I am afraid the brashness of his no-longer-youth (the review was written over a decade back), has brought his brilliant career to a grinding halt.

The Autumn after the Prague Spring

The Prague Spring was probably the last opportunity for bureaucratic ‘socialism’ to reform. To be fair to him, it is also true that Brezhnev hesitated to use any force against the ‘uprising from within’ when the Czeck Communist Party’s First Secretary Alexander Dubchek and his associates started moving towards ‘socialism with a human face’.

Jan Puhl revisits the survivors of the Prague Spring and concludes that the legacy of the year of when both the East and the West faced revolts was diametrically opposite. Brezhnev’s hesitation gave away finally to a decisive crushing of the Prague Spring, but it also spelled an eventual autumn for the Soviet brand of socialism. It was otherwise in the West.
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May Day

Paintings by Diego Rivera : From the cycle: Political Vision of the Mexican People (Court of Labor):

Tehuana Women. / Mujeres tehuanas
Exit from the Mine

The first May Day celebration in India was organised in Madras by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan on May 1, 1923. This was also the first time the red flag was used in India. The party leader Singaravelu Chettiar made arrangements to celebrate May Day in two places in 1923. One meeting was held at the beach opposite to the Madras High Court; the other meeting was held at the Triplicane beach. The Hindu newspaper, published from Madras reported:

“The Labour Kisan party has introduced May Day celebrations in Chennai. Comrade Singaravelar presided over the meeting. A resolution was passed stating that the government should declare May Day as a holiday. The president of the party explained the non-violent principles of the party. There was a request for financial aid. It was emphasized that workers of the world must unite to achieve independence. “(Wikepedia Source)

A Salute to Comrade Fidel

It is unusual for a ruling communist leader to voluntarily step down from an official post before his death.

Comrade Fidel Castro, the name by which he will now be writing his weekly newspaper column, and who stepped down on Tuesday as President of Cuba, is a certainly an exception.

But then Fidel was not really a communist to start with. It was only when he was hounded by the United States that he turned towards the Soviet Union, declaring his country socialist two years after the revolution. He ruled his country with a heavy hand and hounded out many detractors, which mar his record. From his point of view, as he has remarked in his resignation letter, he had to hold the reins of power to stand up to the United States. Given that the United States practically ruled South America by proxie via a set of military dictators and made numerous attempts at dislodging and assasinating Fidel, he probably has some reason to claim so.

The Bay of Pigs invasion sponsored by the United States during the nascent years of the revolution was not only courageously repelled by the revolutionary government, but also brought the world closest to a nuclear catastrophe. The United States has still not lifted the trade embargo for the last half a century and in fact continues to occupy a part of Cuba- the infamous Guantanamo.

He has given a justification of sorts for holding on to power even when seriously ill in his resignation letter:

It was an uncomfortable situation for me vis–vis an adversary which had done everything possible to get rid of me, and I felt reluctant to comply.

It is tough for any socialist to agree completely with the dictatorship of the Cuban Communist Party under Fidel.

It is still more difficult not to salute the last of the Cold Warriors.

To his credit, Fidel not only survived the years of isolation in South America between the 1960s and 1980s, but also continued to stand up to the United States, the center of world capitalism, after the Soviet Union collapsed and the later regimes in Russia refused the former status to Cuba. Its other potential allies, China and North Korea have little in common with Fidel’s socialist commitments. China is little more than a totalitarian neo- liberal state and North Korea a strange mix of feudalism and totalitarianism.

Another reason is that the Cuban Revolution was a home grown one, not an exported commodity as it was in much of East Europe where the Red Army ‘brought’ socialism in the course of the World War II. Its own attempts in exporting revolution via Che’s exploits were courageous but dilletante- ish and ended in failure, indeed in Che’s own brutal death. The Cuban state brought commendable literacy levels and a health system that compares with some of the best in the world, even better than in some developed countries. Under his leadership, the Non- Aligned Movement maintained a loud, even if sometimes boisterous, voice against neo- colonialism.

Fidel’s success, for that is what needs to be remembered today even while criticizing some of his actions, remains in the fact that he not only lived through the fall of the former Soviet Union but also to see the rise of left- wing governments in South America when most of his key Non Aligned Movement allies had ditched NAM to join as junior partners of the core capitalist countries under neo- liberal regimes, like in India. Fidel may be seen as a devil incarnate in the United States and especially among Cuban immigrants there, but he retains the image of a David standing up to the Goliath for many in rest of the world.

For many in India who watched the NAM summit in New Delhi in 1983, the bear hug he gave Mrs Indira Gandhi remains a powerful memory.

For anyone who has ever worn a patch of red in his heart, it is indeed a day to salute Comrade Fidel.

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Kosambi Festival of Ideas

Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi (1907- 1966) embodied the quintessential Indian Renaissance man that came into its own in the immediate years after independence.

He was a polyglot- an accomplished mathematician and a self- trained historian. He was well trained in Sanskrit and had a very good knowledge of Buddhism acquired from his father, a noted Buddhist scholar of his times. Educated in the United States, he returned to India not only to make contributions to mathematics but, above all, lay the basis of the current historiography of ancient India.

His orientation was firmly Marxist, and his works are a very good example of how the Marxist method can be used to give surprisingly innovative results. Many of his formulations have been proven incorrect by subsequent researches, but anyone reading his works even today cannot be but impressed not only by the wide scholarship and fascinating field work that he carried out, but also illuminating insights.

His deeply humanistic streak that still inspires many to read his works is best reflected in his own words.

“The subtle mystic philosophies, torturous religions, ornate literature, monuments teeming with intricate sculpture and delicate music of India all derive from the same historical process that produced the famished apathy of the villager, senseless opportunism and termite greed of the ‘cultured’ strata, sullen, uncoordinated discontent among the workers, general demoralization, misery, squalor and degrading superstition. The one is the result of the other, one is the expression of the other…it is necessary to understand that history is not a sequence of haphazard events but is made by human beings in the satisfaction of daily needs.”

The DD Kosambi Festivals of Ideas being celebrated in Goa right now was inaugurated by Vice President MH Ansari on 5th February. P Sainath delivered a lecture on the 6th and Romila Thapar, who can easily be considered his most deserving succesor (along possibly with RS Sharma), had a talk yesterday. The events are being covered at the DD Kosambi blog. A news video there covers the speeches of Vice President Ansari and Dr. Meera Kosambi, DD Kosambi’s sociologist daughter.
 
For anyone who at any time has bathed in that suffusing glow of enlightenment when reading any of Kosambi’s works, reading and watching (the video) of the tributes to him, would be both nostalgic and re- assuring.

(A short biographical note appears here, as well as some of his other writings.)

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Suharto- ‘Water will wear away the Stone’

Death, even of dreaded criminals like Suharto who died today, comes as a shock. It is also a reminder of events- in this case, the slaughter of at least a million Indonesians in the 1960s- mostly communists in a predominantly Muslim country. Outside the officially communist countries, Indonesia had the largest communist party in the world before Suharto brutally decimated it. (news report at npr)

Closer home, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr Modi- he brought ‘economic development’ and ‘stability’ to the country.

Here is a poem by the great Indonesian poet, WS Rendra written during the 1998 student demonstrations that brought down Suharto.

Because we have to eat roots
while grain piles up in your storeroom…
Because we live crowded together
and you have more space than you need…
Therefore we are not on the same side.Because we’re all creased and crumpled
and you’re immaculate…
Because we’re crowded and stifled
and you lock the door…
Therefore we are suspicious of you.

Because we’re abandoned in the street
and you own all the shelter…
Because we’re caught in floods
while you have parties on pleasure craft…
Therefore we do not like you.
Because we are silenced
and you never shut up…
Because we are threatened
and you impose your will by force…
therefore we say NO to you.

Because we are not allowed to choose
and you can do what you like…
Because we wear only sandals
and you use your rifles freely…
Because we have to be polite
and you have the prisons…
therefore NO and NO to you.

Because we are like a flowing river
and you are a stone without a heart
the water will wear away the stone.

Source

As to the barbaric political repression under the former general, Tariq Ali quotes the Indonesian writer Pripit Rochijat:

Usually the corpses were no longer recognisable as human. Headless. Stomachs torn open. The smell was unimaginable. To make sure they didn’t sink, the carcasses were deliberately tied to, or impaled upon, bamboo stakes. And the departure of the corpses from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age when bodies were stacked together on rafts over which the PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] banner grandly flew . . . Once the purge of Communist elements got under way, clients stopped coming for sexual satisfaction. The reason: most clients–and prostitutes–were too frightened, for, hanging up in front of the whorehouses, there were a lot of male Communist genitals–like bananas hung out for sale.’

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CPM and The New Class

Communist parties that come to power have a nasty history of developing a closed oligarchy. Milovan Djilas in 1957 had pointed to what he called ‘the new class‘- a ruling class that developed within the communist party. Trotsky before him had characterized the Stalinist Soviet state as a ‘degenerate workers’ or bureaucratic state much earlier.

Mercifully, in the absence of a socialist revolution the communists in India never came to a situation where they were able to capture state power, though neither were they a complete failure. The CPM’s three decade old hold on the state of West Bengal is the closest they have come to establishing a single party rule. Kerala and Tripura, the other two states where the CPM has been in power at the state level, have played a sun and shade game with them, keeping the states alternating between Congress and CPM led fronts.

A feature of the communist leaders in India, till recently, has been the presence of many of them who participated in India’s struggle for freedom, often within the umbrella that the pre- Independence Indian National Congress was- people like Jyoti Basu and Harkishen Singh Surjit, to cite just two examples. These have been replaced in the last few years by a ‘younger’ generation, though here one must keep in mind that an age when most people face retirement, for communists that is just a start to taking up the reins- I have Prakash Karat in mind here, as well as Buddhadev Bhattacharya. Lack of a historical association with grass roots struggles except perhaps college and university level student activism has created a leadership that may be more youthful in age, but has been nurtured on strong doses of a dogmatic Marxism and bureaucratic manipulations within the party, lacking the pragmatism and political sense of a Basu and Surjeet.

At the grass roots, there is a change too. Recently, former CPM Finance Minister Ashok Mitra has pointed out that over 70 percent of the party cadre in West Bengal has joined the party after 1991 and 90 percent after 1977- that is, after the CPM led Left Front came to power in the state. The communists’ record in giving due representation to Dalits and Muslims in the state is appalling.

Similarly, D. Bandyopadhyay, the former bureaucrat who played a crucial role in carrying out Operation Barga in the state, has pointed out in a recent article that West Bengal has one of the worst records in addressing rural poverty and in providing employment to agricultural workers. A survey of panchayats in the state that are responsible for implementing the National Rural Employment Scheme reveals that 93 percent of the representation in the Panchayats belongs to local landed interests, nevertheless spawned by the implementation of the land reforms. The CPM and the Left Front indeed need to be complimented on the implementation of the reforms, but these have also contributed to changing the class character of the CPM in the state- that is favourably inclined towards the upper and rich peasantry as Bandopadhyay points out.

In this context, the CPM’s attempt at attacking its own base by displacing agriculturalists may look contradictory, but given the history of communists elsewhere, is not really so. At one level, it is the relative autonomy of the leadership (‘the new class’), at another the arrogance which takes its support base for granted.

Communsits, whether during the forced collectivization in Soviet Union in the 1930s or during the Cultural Revolution in China, have done more to destroy fellow communists and their own people than any of their class enemies. Events in Nandigram indicate that CPM in West Bengal is intent on following in their footsteps. Mercifully, they have to operate in a much more democratic environment that the CPSU and the CPC ever had to, which interestingly may slow down their self- destruction.

In the context of the fall of the Soviet Union, Eric Hobsbawm remarked in his autobiography that communism, as we have known it, no longer exists. Just as the success of the communists in India was never as complete or as abrupt as in Russia and China, so too their demise may not be as abrupt or sudden. But the way things are going, it is certainly in a state of decline. Whether it will help to rejuvenate a new wave of peoples’ movement- in name whether communist or not, is yet uncertain.

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“Mr King, we are not going to shut up”

Quote of the day:
“Mr King, we are not going to shut up,” he said.

That is Chavez addressing King Carlos of Spain.

And this is what Chavez’s supporters have to say on the remark the king made to Chavez yesterday, asking Chavez to “shut up”:

“He’s insolent. He has to respect a sovereign leader. The king is just a monarch and Spain has been sacking the people of Latin America for the past 500 years.

“President Chavez has more right to say what he pleases than the king because he was elected by the Venezuelan people.

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90th Anniversary of the Revolution against Das Capital

The Bolshevik Revolution … is the revolution against Karl Marx’s Capital….events have overcome ideologies. Events have exploded the critical schema determining how the history of Russia would unfold according to the canons of historical materialism. The Bolsheviks reject Karl Marx, and their explicit actions and conquests bear witness that the canons of historical materialism are not so rigid as might have been and has been thought.

(Live Marxist) thought sees as the dominant factor in history, not raw economic facts, but man, men in societies, men in relation to one another, reaching agreements with one another, developing through these contacts (civilization) a collective, social will; men coming to understand economic facts, judging them and adapting them to their will until this becomes the driving force of the economy and moulds objective reality, which lives and moves and comes to resemble a current of volcanic lava that can be channelled wherever and in whatever way men’s will determines.

On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Great October Revolution, 17 leading academicians from Russia, among them Roy Medvedev and Mikhail Shatrov have issued an appeal reiterating the achievements of the Revolution and criticizing post- USSR attempts to whitewash that period of history.

In sum, the popular power of the initial years of the revolution degenerated into rule by the bureaucracy and its leader Stalin.  We consider the massive Stalinist repressions, along with the violation of the rights of the individual and of whole nationalities in the USSR, to have been a crime.  All this discredited the ideals of the revolution and of socialism.

While acknowledging these facts, we do not accept scholarly-sounding lies and stupefyingly one-sided propaganda with regard to the whole of Soviet history. This history was diverse; within it, democratic and bureaucratic tendencies engaged in conflict with and replaced one another.  Hence, the freedoms of the NEP years were replaced by Stalinist totalitarianism, which in turn gave way to the Khrushchev “thaw”.  Later, the Brezhnev authoritarianism was replaced by perestroika, which proclaimed as its goal the creation of a humane, democratic socialism.

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Discovering Che- Forty Years Later

“It is impossible to eclipse the life of Che, nobody could do that. One could consider themselves the successor of Che only if they give their life for humanity.”

- Evo Morales, first indigenous President of Bolivia speaking today on the 40th anniversary of the Latin American revolutionary’s summary execution

***

My discovery of Che Guevara started on a false note when I met “Guevara”, the tall, lanky leader of the student union. He had just managed to flunk, I believe for the second time, his second year in B.A in the local government college. A sticker on the front of his light chocolate coloured Vespa two wheeler had a picture of a man with flaming eyes and another on the rear number plate  read “Guevara”. He called himself “Guevara”, all other students called him “Guevara” and that is what I thought his real name was– until I discovered his real name. My curiosity simply sky rocked: who is, or in this case was Guevara? Only then I discovered, that our local hero had taken the name after a person called Che Guevara, the harbinger of the Cuban revolution.

I went on to read Che’s biography at the library. The otherwise informative hagiography written with typical Soviet dryness failed, however, to transform me into a wide- eyed admirer of the Argentina born revolutionary, even as I sympathized with his politics.

Meanwhile, the “Guevara” that I knew went on to flunk a few more examinations, finally dropping off and taking up a distance education course to complete his bachelors and then his law degree from the local university. By then, his escapades were well known. He had always been very energetic and had once slapped a senior political activist in his face during a drunken brawl. I mean he was energetic in that sort of way.

Soon thereafter, on my first travel abroad, I chanced on a just published book in Amsterdam airport- The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara and found myself carried away by the adventures of the 23 year old medical student venturing to travel all over South America on a motorbike. His descriptions of a continent that he, as Simon Bolivar before him, believed to be essentially one, are evocative, touching and peppered with insights. For the brief time that Che and his friend Alberto spend with the inmates of a leprosy hospital, for example, they establish an instant rapport.

‘Although it was very simple, one of the things which affected us most in Lima was the send- off we received from the hospitals inmates. They collected 100.50 soles (the local currency), which they presented to us with a very grandiloquent letter. Afterwards, some of them came up personally and some of them had tears in their eyes, spending time with them accepting their presents, sitting listening to football on the radio with them. If anything were to make us seriously specialize in leprosy, it would be the affection of the patients’.

This is how Che describes a working class couple in the copper mines of Chuquicamata.

‘In the light of a candle, drinking maté and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken features stuck a mysterious, tragic note. In simple but expressive language, he told us about his three months in prison, his starving wife, and his children left in the care of a kindly neighbor, his fruitless pilgrimage in search of work and his comrades, who had mysteriously disappeared and were said to be somewhere at the bottom of the sea’. These copper mines – ‘ spiced with the lives of poor unsung heroes of this battle, who die miserable deaths, when all they want is to earn is their daily bread’- produce 20 percent of all the world’s copper…’

The book made me respect Che more than I did earlier and the reason was not far to seek.

Meeting the “Guevara” of my university had not been a pleasant experience. The Soviet book had dwelt on the political exploits and ideology of Che. The Motorcycle Diaries, on the other hand, presented the young Che, the Che that had not yet become a legend and was a well meaning, inquisitive medical student out to discover the people and humanity of South America– a continent bruised by centuries of colonization and conflict, much before he went on to discover an armed revolution there. The political Che, I realized, was an outgrowth of his deep seated humanism.

His legacy, however, has turned out to be an inversion in which his aura as an armed insurgent seems to overshadow his humanism.

To some extent this is understandable, after all if Marxism was the face of humanism for many in the twentieth century, armed revolution was nothing but an extension of the same in the 1960s South America and elsewhere. The appeal of his persona finds resonance in every upstart generation everywhere while the appeal of his humanism echoes only in the silence of the jungles as it were. The self- styled inheritors of his name and legacy continue to be all sorts- the lumpen as well as young people revolting without any cause in particular. Entrepreneurs profit from his name by printing his pictures on T- shirts and coffee mugs. Che, the revolutionary, has become a money-mill for his nemesis, Capital. Cuba wallows in his name to justify Castro’s dictatorship. His legacy, therefore, is confusing, and seems to appeal to all and sundry, and it is disconcerting to find his admirers especially among the  ‘wrong set’ of people, sending out wrong messages about the man.

In my case, for example, my introduction to Che started with a person with whom I would rather not be friends. It created little interest let alone respect for Che. Nevertheless, I persisted and tried to discover him in his politics, first via the Soviet hagiography and then via his book On Guerrilla Warfare. Both left me cold and uninspired.

I finally found Che in The Motorcycle Diaries, in the deep humanism of a 23 year old student, as frightened by a pair of a cat’s eyes in the night as anyone else in his place would be.

I realized then that to discover Che, one has to trudge through various layers of reality, through the phases in his life and his deeply sensitive reactions to the world that he lived in.

To discover Che, one has to go with him to his youth and grow up with him.

To discover Che, one has to accompany him to the ruins of Machu Picchu, and observe with him in quiet poignance- ‘gold doesn’t have the same quiet dignity as silver which acquires new charm as it ages’.

To discover Che, one has to realize that Che is talking as much about himself as about the ruins of Machu Picchu.

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“Motherland” by Lal Singh Dil

In Memory of the poet Lal Singh Dil

Lal Singh Dil died earlier this week on 14th August.

LalSinghDil

Motherland

Does love have any reason to be?
Does the fragrance of flowers have any roots?
Truth may, or may not have an intent
But falsity is not without one

It is not because of your azure skies
Nor because of the blue waters
Even if these were deep gray
Like the color of my old mom’s hair
Even then I would have loved you

These treasure trove of riches
Are not meant for me
Surely not.

Love has no reason to be
Falsity is not without intent

The snakes that slither
Around the treasure trove of your riches
Sing paeans
And proclaim you
“The Golden Bird”*

* The reference is to ancient India termed as a “Golden Bird” because of its perceived riches.

A previous post on the Dalit Marxist poet.

Source of the poem in Panjabi. Translation into English by readerswords.

An essay on Dil by Amarjit Chandan (in Punjabi, pdf file). Thanks to HD for sending the essay. Picture at the top of this post is taken from this essay, and is credited to Amarjit Chandan.

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20 Years Later: A Requiem for Perestroika

Dateline: Jan. 27, 1987

At a Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party plenum, Gorbachev announces his perestroika program, aimed at “restructuring” Soviet economic and political policies. “We need democracy just like we need air to breathe,” he said.

As a young student, while wading through the eerily desolate aisles of the University library and the dusty thick volumes on the deliberations of the CPSU Congresses of the 1950s and 60s, I was bemused that the Party resolutions from those years that confidently spoke about achieving communism in the next 20 years. I was, of course, wiser and knew, in that tumultuous decade of the 1980s that it was a wrong analysis. Communism would be a long haul.

I was very confident that this long haul would still be achievable in my lifetime, it was just a matter of another decade or two, maybe three, but then, all of us are allowed the illusions of our youth.

While I was walking up and down the aisles of the library that City that is both meticulous and drab in its imitation of European sensibilities of city architecture, that the CPSU General Secretary Gorbachev was ushering in Glasnost and Perestroika in the Soviet Union. Today(27January ) marks the 20th anniversary of the two words that brought down the superpower, the flag bearer of ‘existing socialism.’

But in those years, Perestroika and Glasnost was music to my ears, and I believe, to many of my generation. It brought the shine back to those glorious names as it invoked the trinity of Lenin, Bukharin and Trotsky. It also brought into the tradition of the Old Left, questions of what in those years was termed as the Scientific and Technological Revolution and Environment.

It brought an immediate sense of urgency for ending the nuclear arms race. It raised questions on the limitations of class analysis and issues that transcended class-these had been the themes of the New Left in Europe in the 1960s, but ignored by the most organized global political movement of the 20th century.

Perestroika and Glasnost meant hope.

The Gorbachev of those years,confident, smiling, youthful if not cherubic remains the face of that last, and grossly failed, attempt of socialism with a human face.

Inside his own country, Gorbachev had opened a Pandora’s box with its myriad of seemingly unsolvable problems.

In August 1987, a minister reported that there were still 1.3 million people in prison in the Soviet Union — almost three times as many as in the United States — and that 10,000 crimes were being committed each year in the prison camps alone. “Our prisons,” an agitated Gorbachev commented, “are producing hundreds of thousands of thugs and furious opponents of Soviet power. Millions of people have passed through the camps — the best sort of school for turning them into hopeless criminals.”

At that point his perestroika had been going for almost two and a half years. And virtually nothing had changed. It was like tilting at windmills — in a country that was being plagued with a new disaster on an almost weekly basis. link

Increasingly sidelined in the face of opposition from his own Party (which he called, at one time, “mangy, rabid dog”) and the liberals under the leadership of Yeltsin, Gorbachev was, fighting losing battle and his outbursts against the Yeltsin ultra liberals came too late.

Yeltsin, the then speaker of the Russian parliament, who had left the Communist Party three months earlier and had since emerged as the shining light of the great Soviet republic, had given the Kremlin an ultimatum the night before: His republic would no longer consider itself subservient to the Soviet leadership. Yeltsin was threatening Gorbachev with secession…

Gorbachev was at the meeting and, as Chernyayev wrote, he “listened, depressed and moved at the same time.” But he was mostly silent. Only as he was leaving did he angrily strike out at Yeltsin and his supporters: “They ought to be punched in the face.” But it was a moment in which he probably sensed that perestroika, his great historic project, was coming to an end. link

Russia, the primary successor nation to the Soviet Union, has since then borne brunt the neo- liberal onslaught which has resulted in a human catastrophe. The dominant media continues to portray as a legacy of the socialist state, rather than locating it in the disastrous recipes churned out by the West for the former superpower. Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out:

“The scale of the human catastrophe that has struck Russia is something we simply don’t understand in the West. It is the complete reversal of historical trends: the life expectancy of men has dropped by ten years over the last decade and a large part of the economy has been reduced to subsistence agriculture. I don’t believe there has been anything comparable in the twentieth century… I believe it is (entirely due to the application of free market rules)if for no other reason than that free market rules, even if adapted, require a certain kind of society. If that kind of society does not exist, the result is disaster”. link

Alongside the wholesale destruction of Russian society in the last decade and half, it has also played havoc with the Russian intelligentsia, a phenomenon to which Perry Anderson has drawn attention to in his recent sweeping article in LRB:

Fifteen years later, what has become of this intelligentsia?Economically speaking, much of it has fallen victim to what it took to be the foundation of the freedom to come, as the market has scythed through its institutional supports. In the Soviet system, universities and academies were decently financed; publishing houses, film studios, orchestras all received substantial state funding. These privileges came at the cost of censorship and a good deal of padding. But the tension bred by ideological controls also kept alive the spirit of opposition that had defined the Russian intelligentsia since the 19th century – and for long periods been its virtual raison d’ être. link

This decimation of the intelligentsia is also on a world scale which drew much from the unique position that the Russian intelligentsia has occupied since Napolean’s armies left a burnt down Moscow. Its ambivalent position as part of the Western world found an echo in those who too were placed in an ambivalent situation with respect to the West, especially in the former colonial world.

But above all, the failure of Perestroika and Glasnost robbed socialists of dreaming- of dreaming big, of dreaming of carrying out world shaking events leaving that to neo- liberal globalizers. Socialists now need to be content with incremental changes, tweaking here and there, sometimes looking at the liberal heaven in Sweden, and sometimes to the Chavezistas in Venezuela for inspiration.

Gorbachev is now memorable for little more than the advertisement for Pizza Hut.

Not altogether uncharacteristic for a man who, whatever may have been his intentions, who ended up as a pizza deliveryman for capitalism.

Was the collapse of the might CPSU inevitable? Most opinion seems to favor this view, Manuel Castells in his celebrated three volume Rise of the Network Society provided gist to the idea that the Soviet Union had failed to catch up in the knowledge, network based economy and had collapsed under its dead weight. Roy Medvedev in Post-Soviet Russia, however has pointed out it has been was possible to reform the Soviet State- in a work that has been neglected.

Stephen Cohen, in a recent article in The Nation, too has argued on similar lines.

Political and economic alternatives still existed in Russia after 1991. Other fateful struggles and decisions lay ahead. And none of the factors contributing to the end of the Soviet Union were inexorable or deterministic. But even if authentic democratic and market aspirations were among them, so were cravings for power, political coups, elite avarice, extremist ideas and widespread perceptions of illegitimacy and betrayal. All of these factors continued to play a role after 1991, but it should already have been clear which would prevail. (link)

Altogether, the failure of Perestroika and Glasnost left behind them, a sea of uncertainty and a world that no longer has the option, in Rosa Luxemburg’s evocative phrase, the choice between barbarism and socialism. Barbarism rules. Anarchism, if at all it is an option, is still available for those who cannot do without one.

Perestroika and Glasnost left behind a world that is no longer safe for socialists.

Image Acknowledgement: No Road

Kaifi Azmi: The Poet who would die in Socialist India

(The play Kaifi aur Main based on the memoir written by Shaukat Azmi, and played by Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar is currently on tour in India)

Kaifi Azmi was part of the fiery triumvirate of the Urdu poets in post independent India. Along with Sahir Ludhianvi and Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi wrote “red poetry” when the appeal of socialism among the intelligentsia in India and the world at large was substantial.

Two names that should belong to the list are Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Makhdoom Mohiuddin.

Makhdoom gave priority to politics over his poetry- representing the Communist Party of India as an MLA in Andhra Pradesh while Faiz Ahmed Faiz in a metaphorical sense, and in a reversal of roles, substituted the lack of the political Left in Pakistan with his poetry. Sahir Ludhianvi wove magic with his uncanny, and unsurpassed ability to lyricize complex ideas, including ideological, into a brilliant tapestry of words making films his terra firma.

Kaifi Azmi and Ali Sardar Jafri together tread the path of literary activism, practically being the official poets of the Communist Party of India.

It would be futile to look for Kaifi Azmi, the man, in his film lyrics. They represent him only partially and those that do, bring out only the personally romantic side of him, specially in those sung by Mohammad Rafi in his mellow, bass elegance. Kaifi lacked the lyricism of Sahir that appealed to Bollywood movies and also the great literary sweep of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

What Kaifi excelled at was the nazm, marking as he did, the break from the classicism of the ghazal form. As one of the angry young men thrown up in the aftermath of the Civil Disobedience Movement, at the time when it was very heaven to be young- the time of Jawaharlal Nehru’s youthful swerve to socialist ideas, the formation of the Congress Socialist Party and the radical appeal of the Communist Party of India under P.C. Joshi who made culture as one of the ‘fronts’ on which the party had to fight in its struggle for socialism- much before Antonio Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony came to be known and gain credence.

Kaifi was one of the major activists of the Indian People’s Theater Association in his younger days and in 1986 made a valiant effort to revive the movement as its president. He was known for his closeness to the CPI, and even once had a spat with Sahir when he accused the latter of compromising his lifestyle while proclaiming his leftist political commitment.

I remember Kaifi Azmi, Comrade Kaifi to us youngsters, reciting his famous nazm Naujawan, after a spate of street dramas enacted by various groups in the IPTA troupe. His recitation was the last one as night crawled around us and a mild March breeze began to blow. His voice boomed in the pin drop silence, what a voice he had !

Raah agyaar ki dekhain yeh bhale taur nahin
Hum Bhagat Singh ke saathi hain, koi aur nahin.

Zindagi humse sada shola e jawaani maange
Ilm o hikmat ka khazana humdaani maange
aisi lalkaar ke talwaar bhi paani maange
aisi raftaar ke dariya bhi rawaani maange

(That we would wait for others to take lead, does not suit us,
We are the comrades of Bhagat Singh, and none else

Life beseeches us our burning youth
The treasures of knowledge and courage
A cry so sharp that the swords may cry out
Such an electric flow that the oceans may look to us for inspiration)

At its most sensitive turns, Kaifi Azmi’s poetry was meant to highlight the life of the poor and the suppressed, and at its most inspired movements, meant to inspire the young cadre of the communist movement to go out and work for upliftment of the “insulted and the humiliated”. Kaifi Azmi had once proudly declared: I was born in colonial India, I have lived in an independent India, and will die in a socialist India.

Kaifi lived to see the dreams of his youth smothered as fort after fort of existing socialism collapsed in East Europe and its citadel, the Soviet Union. He was shell shocked.

And even in his silences he spoke for the grim silence of all those who had been inspired by the message of the October Revolution. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he did not speak for many months, and neither did he write.

It was the attack on Indian secularism on 06 December 1992 that awoke the activist poet in him and he wrote the nazm invoking Lord Rama.

Towards the end of his life, he returned to his roots, the small mofussial town of Azamgarh, building a high school for girls and a hospital. He had written:
Woh mera gaanv hai, woh mere gaanv ke chooleh
Ke jinme shole to shole, dhooan nahin milata

(That indeed is my village, and those indeed are the ovens of my village
In which, not to speak of the fires, even the smoke is not seen)

In the more famous matla of this ghazal, he had expressed the restlessness that inspired him:

Main dhoondta hoon jise woh jahan nahin milta
Nai zameen, naya aasmaan nahin milta

(The world that I search for, I do not find,
The New World, the New Heavens I do not find)

To look for Kaifi, is to keep on searching the for new, better, more egalitarian worlds. And heavens that are more just. To remove this search from his poetry would be to take away its soul.

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to meet with “Comrade Kaifi” at Ajoy Bhawan in New Delhi in 1986. On seeing a bunch of youngsters from the Punjab, he gave me a pointed look, the tuft of hair on his forehead falling over his eyes, and asked me, referring to the Khalistanis: Why are these young men angry?

I did not have an instant answer. And perhaps the question in that context has become irrelevant. But then, perhaps Kaifi was also referring to his own younger days, and asking: What is it that makes young men (and women) angry?

He had spent a lifetime in poetry trying to answer this question.

***

Thanks to Alok for having revived memories of Kaifi and for the link to the “Kaifi aur Main” site.

Image Source

Inside the Mind of Mao

(On the eve of the 57th anniversary of the foundation of People’s Republic of China)

Sidney Rittenberg was the only American ever to join the Communist Partyof China, working closely with Mao while translating his works into English.

His interview published in Al Jazeera sheds interesting light on The Great Helmsman who may be dead but whose presence looms large as various groups lay claim to different aspects of Chairman Mao’s thought as it evolved from the days of the Long March to the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

Understanding the mind of Mao is also to understand the reversal of the socialist revolution in China.

Understanding the mind of Mao’s is to also understand the mind of the “Communist” leaders in China today, as they go about building capitalism, in the words of author Wang Anyi, “with the enthusiasm of a proletarian revolution.”

Excerpts from the interview:

SR: I think it was his own ideology in Marxist clothing. Not that he was not a sincere Marxist. But his view of Marxism was to take dialectic materialism and use it to analyse Chinese reality and then develop a Chinese programme.

He had no interest in copying what was done in the Soviet Union or any other country.

In the days before the PRC [People's Republic of China] it was whether the Chinese revolution would depend on the peasants or urban industrial workers. And the orthodox Soviet line was that Marxism belonged to the proletariat. There was no Marxism in the mountains they used to say. The peasants are backward.

But Mao said when the Party educates the Chinese peasants they could be just as good revolutionaries as anyone else in the world. That was the bedrock of his thinking.

AJ: Mao has been revered across the world. Why, and does he deserve it?

SR: I don’t think he deserves reverence.

I think he deserves acknowledgement as a serious historical leader at a certain period and he needs to be studied, both the good and the bad.

And I think he was not content with seeing China plod along. He wanted to see China advance to a prominent position in the world during his lifetime and I think he became overly ambitious.

He said in 1958 at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward that he would use the strategy and tactics of a people’s war and not use the Soviet way of brick upon brick to build the economy.

This was totally unrealistic and resulted in this huge man made famine.

I think it was what went on inside his head that was the problem. His plans during the Great Leap to catch up with Britain and America met with opposition from almost all his sober-minded colleagues. This awoke the conspirator and narrow envious peasant in him.

Link via Naxalrevolution

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Jis marne te jag dare, mere man anand

Jis marne te jag dare, mere man anand, Marne te hi paiye puran parmanand

(Death, that terrifies most in this world, is what brings me happiness
it is in Death alone that one finds eternal bliss.)

- Kabir doha recited by Bhagat Singh when conveyed the judgement on his death sentence

27 September is the birth centenary of Shaheed Bhagat Singh

Picture acknowledgement: Punjab Panorama

It is may not be a false statement to assert that one hundred years after his birth, Bhagat Singh is at best a name to be remembered ritually. His brief life indeed finds a mention every year, generally on his death anniversary- 23 March, but his ideas are conveniently forgotten.

In the age of trickle down economics and when youngsters learn to balance college studies with a job in the BPO around the corner, his message is perhaps irrelevant to many of those who are in the same age group as he was when he climbed the gallows.

Bhagat Singh was 23 years 5 months and 25 days when he was hanged by the British government.

Despite Mahatma Gandhi’s pacifism and opposition to capital punishment he made no attempts to stop the hanging. Some consider it to be one of the political mistakes that he made.

But it is a tribute to the young man that his pictures are the only ones, along with Dr Ambedkar, that can be found in all parts of the country today. He is owned up by the Arya Samajis as well as the Communists, by the Bollywood mucksters as well as Dalit organizations. By the Khalistanis as well as the Hindutva brigade.

It may be difficult to fully understand why Bhagat Singh, and why not Chandrasekar Azad or many of those from other movements like the Chittagong Armoury raid participants, is still given an honour that is denied to many other participants in the less pacifist strands of the Indian freedom movement.

One of these reasons is undoubtedly that Bhagat Singh personified the thinking terrorist. It is amazing to see the maturity that he brings to the table in his Why I am an Athiest? He was a vociferous reader and perhaps one of the few revolutionary leaders who read so profusely till the end.

His passionate embrace of death was underlined by a deep social commitment that envisaged an egalitarian society that went beyond the struggle for independence from British colonialism. Freedom may have come to some, but for many it is still a distant dream.

Which is why Bhagat Singh and Dr. Ambedkar can still be seen on dilapidated walls and off colour posters across the country.

A tribute to the restles revolutionary.

A previous related post.

Cross posted at: Desicritics

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The Underdogs- A Novel of the Mexican Revolution by Mariano Azuela


Few novelists have managed to create a successful short novel- some that instantly spring to mind are Turgenev (Father and Sons, Rudin), Juan Rulfo (Pedro Paramo), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Fiftyfive Five ), even Flaubert (Madame Bovary) and perhaps a few more complete the list.

To this short list also belongs Mariano Azuela’s classic novel about the Mexican Revolution: The Underdogs. In a mere 150 pages, Azuelo captures the tribulations of an Indian peasant leader- Demetrio Marcías and through him, the tribulations of the Mexican Revolution. Suffice would be to quote a a few lines from the novel that also serves as the summary of the novel:

Villa? Obregon? Carranza? Who do I care? I love the Revolution like I love the volcano that’s erupting! The volcano because it is a volcano; the Revolution because it’s the Revolution!… But the stones left above or below after the cataclysm? What are they to me?

“Why do you keep on fighting, Demetrio?”

Demetrio, frowning deeply, absentmindedly picks up a small stone and throws it to the bottom

of the canyon. He stares pensively over the precipice and says:

“Look at the stone, how it keeps going…”

The stone falling into a bottomless precipice is allegorical about the fate of the Mexican Revolution itself.

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Blogging in the Time of Vietnam War

A journal written by a young woman doctor named Dang Thuy Tram during the Vietnam struggle is now a bestseller in Vietnam. Had internet been available then, I am sure she would have blogged these experiences:
“My youth is over: Fire, smoke and war have robbed my youth of the happiness of love,” she writes “The 20-year-olds of this generation have given away the dreams and happiness which they should have had. My youth is soaked with sweat, tears, blood and the bones of those living and those already dead.”

The Americans attack on June 22. One GI reported later to Whitehurst that the doctor tried to fight off the heavily armed soldiers with a single-shot rifle.

There were no Vietnamese survivors to tell her story; the five wounded guerrillas were killed with her. But her remains, buried by villagers and turned over to the family in 1976, also indicate that she stood her ground.

“When I went to pick up her bones, I saw a bullet hole in her forehead,” Dang Kim Tram said. “I imagine that she would pick up a gun. I know for sure that she faced the enemy.”

Four days before her death, Dang Thuy Tram seems to recognize that the end is near.

“When you live like this, then you understand the value of life,” she writes. “Oh, life changed by blood and bones, by the youth of so many people, how many lives have ended in order to allow other lives to be fresh and green?”

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Made in China, or China Unmade

Amleft has this post on China and concludes:
One wonders, however, whether the time for a peaceful evolution has passed, given the intransigence of the regime, the support of international finance capital and the general disinterest of social justice groups in the US. With the exception of the colonial period, China has frequently made its own history, often in a turbulent way, as shown in the 20th Century through the Boxer Rebellion, the May 4th movement, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Some China scholars contend that there is a stubborn tendency towards utopianism in Chinese society that leads to an excessive embrace of new ideas and policies, to the extent that they are adopted ruthlessly and uncritically, only to be abandoned in equally ruthless fashion. Deng’s departure from Maoism promised a break with this practice, as did his unceremonial funeral, but his naive promotion of capitalism in his later years may ultimately be recognized as a poisonous weed that facilitated its return.

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