What’s the Matter with Kansas?

The liberal assault on Kansas has had a very contradictory offshoot- once the center of American Left- wing politics, Kansas has now become a ‘red’ state in the sense of being a Republican state. Thomas Frank in his book “What’s The Matter With Kansas: How the Conservatives Won the Heart of America?” explains the dramatic, and worrying shift.

At the heart of Frank’s exploration is a chilling paradox: Kansas is falling apart economically under the impact of corporate globalization. Agribusiness has largely destroyed small farms, outsourcing has eliminated thousands of industrial jobs and the gap between the rich on the one side and the middle class and poor on the other has widened nearly to a breaking point. Yet, the victims of such trends spawned largely by corporate greed have turned their radical anger not upon the perpetrators, but upon the “liberals” who, however vaguely defined, have virtually no role in Kansas ‘ trouble.


Family’s retreat in the time of Conservative triumph

In his conversations with Antonio Polito, published five years ago as “On the Edge of the New Century“,Eric Hobsbawm made the startling observation that the central emblemic figure of the 20th century is not the worker or the peasant, but the mother:

As a reversal of a centuries long process, the long historical wave which moved toward the construction and gradual strengthening of territorial states or nation- states comes to an end (the end itself starting around 1960s and deeply accelerating after 1989), Hobsbawm notes that it has become increasingly difficult to mobilize people on collective lines specially in the West. This underlines the crisis of class based action today and also the reason why Hobsbawm considers the most appropriate symbol for the 20th century not to be the working class or the peasantry but a mother with her children.

“The people who have most in common are mothers, wherever they live on the face of the earth and inspite of their different cultures, civilizations and languages. In some ways, a mother’s experience reflects what has happened to a large part of humanity in the 20th century”.

In his recent review on a new book, Hobsbawm returns to the theme of the family and points to the contradiction between the ‘triumphant’ post- 1990s capitalism and its inability to carry forward, and actually reverse, the libertarian and egalitarian trends in the Western family that were unleased during the 1960s:

In my view it also underestimates the relationship between effects on the family of the Western cultural revolution of the last third of the 20th century and its economic equivalent, the belief in a theoretically libertarian capitalism which thinks it can function without the heritage that gave it much strength in the past, the rules of obligation and loyalty inside and outside the traditional family, and other proclivities which had no intrinsic connection with the pursuit of the individual advantage that fuelled its engine. As neo-liberalism triumphed in economics its inadequacy could no longer be concealed. In the light of the contents of this book, it may be suggested that we are also reaching this point in the ideology of cultural libertarianism.

The Greatest Mover and Shaker of the 19th century

The last decade and half have not been the happiest of times for those on the Left, specifically the Marxists among them. It has been a long receeding low tide for them, interuppted happily only by old man Marx getting voted, now and then, as the greatest thinker ever. It is often forgotten that it was after all Lenin who is responsible for launching Marx into the 20th century.On Lenin, perhaps a little later, but Francis Wheen’s talk in the BBC’s Radio 4 reminded me of his biography of Marx that he wrote five years back, and reviewed by this Reader for The Tribune then.
By Francis Wheen
W.W. Norton and Company, New York
Price $27.95 Pages 431

It is not incidental that a biography of Karl Marx should appear a decade after the fall of ‘existing’ socialism in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Pop prophecies that followed the demise of bureaucratic socialism have had no more than a fleeting existence. The much-celebrated Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ was quickly succeeded by what Samuel Huntington termed as the clash of civilisations. Robert Kaplan warns of what he terms as ‘the coming anarchy’.

The Left, caused unawares by the Titanic shift in world systems, is still in a state of defensive confusion, even if it has somewhat recovered from a state of shock. Perry Anderson articulates the dominant Left view that neo- liberalism is still in full deluge, while Eric Hobsbawm has confidently put forward the proposition that globalisation and the neo- liberalism riding piggyback on it is reaching its limits.

It is in this background that the need ‘to go back to Marx’ is evident in the book under review. Karl Marx, “the red terror doctor”- as he came to be known in his own lifetime- and who outlived all his contemporary revolutionists and opponents like Ferdinand Lassalle and Mikhail Bakunin, may as well outlive the current breed of neo- liberal proponents.

Wheen’s Marx comes across not only a person, whose life was identical with the history of contemporary socialism, as Isaiah Berlin treated his subject in his biography of Marx. Wheen’s Marx emerges as a man who loved his family, loved a drink, smoked continuously, chased his opponents with vehemence, was a voracious reader, an assiduous scholar and above all a revolutionary.

He married his childhood sweetheart and five years his senior Jenny Westphalen, adored his daughters and in old age was a grandfather who missed the company of his grandchildren when they were not around. At a different plane, his life long friendship with Frederic Engels that each cherished till the end, is touching and possibly unsurpassed.

Marx was also, and Wheen spends considerable effort on reminding us of this, the father of an illegitimate son whom he loathed. Engels practically owned up and adopted the son of Marx and his faithful housekeeper Helene Demuth. His son died in 1929 in a working class district of London, aged 77, not knowing that he was the son of the person in whose name the world shaking Bolshevik revolution had been carried out in his own lifetime.

On the whole, Wheen succeeds in this first biography of Marx to appear after the end of the Cold War in rescuing Marx from both the demonology that characterised sections of Western scholarship as well as the hagiography that Soviet biographers subjected him to. In an age when we are being told by post- modernists that Marx and Marxism are nothing more than any other ‘text’ and need to be merely ‘read’ as such, or writers who insist on ‘reading vampires in Capital’ in an exercise to understand the man or account for his tomes in his Jewish self- hatred, Wheen has come out with a very balanced biography. The lacuna, however, is evident when the author tries to explain some of Marx’s concepts in simplistic terms. From that perspective, Berlin’s 1939 (revised last in 1978) ‘Karl Marx’ still remains an essential reading (David Mcllean’s biography being out of print for a number of years now, Berlin’s is the easiest one to get).

The only other deficiency that one can identify is the blurring of the growing up years of Marx, between the ages of 10 to about 22. The Marx that we see after this age is a well developed thinker, immensely well read and already hailed by those who knew him firsthand to be the most promising living philosopher and successor to Hegel. How this happened is not dealt with in detail. The reason may be a sound one- not much information is available on this period of Marx’s life.

Did Marx’s own personality, powerful as it was, leave any imprint on his thought and the movements that it spawned? Though the author does not raise this question directly, there is enough material in the book to enable one to judge for himself.

On the downside, it was Marx’s abrasive, sometimes almost offensive and vituperative manner of attacking those who opposed him. Undoubtedly most of his opponents were pygmies in comparison with ‘the Moor’, and he made no bones about it, attacking them with the ferocity of an unleashed hurricane. His followers, at least for the better part of the 20th century, did indeed emulate their master in this regard, often with equal ardour against their own dissenting comrades. It may well be argued, though, that in this respect Marx was as much a product of the revolutionary circles of his age as its progenitor.

On the upside, it has been his exemplary self- sacrifice for the ideas that his reasoning led to. Perpetual poverty, constant illness and the resultant tragedies in his family did not deter Marx from pursuing what he believed to be the rational way of human emancipation. Perhaps the last of the great Enlightenment thinkers, he was the only true prophet of the second millennium, his sacrifices overarched only by the breadth of his thought and the appeal of his vision.

Many of his followers, including the Old Bolsheviks sent to the gallows or shot by Stalin in the 1937 purges, firmly believed till the end that their ideology, seemingly vindictive it had been on themselves, deserved any amount of sacrifice. Man does not live for himself alone, and there are causes that are higher than selling one’s labour each day.

But by far the most enduring stamp that his personality left was that of erudition and detailed study. No social and political movement has sent so many of its followers scurrying into libraries as Marxist socialism has. No other organised movement (except perhaps the anti- Nazi resistance movement in France) has also sent many an armchair philosopher into political battlefield.

What epitaph would Marx have chosen for himself? Wheen recounts an incident at the end of Marx’s life in lieu of an answer.

‘While holidaying in Ramsgate in the summer of 1880 Marx had met the American journalist John Swinton who was writing a series on ‘travels in France and England’ for the New York Sun. Swinton watched the old patriarch playing on the beach with his grand- children and then at dusk was granted an interview. He reported:

‘The talk was of the world, and of man, and of time, and of ideas as our glasses tinkled over the sea. The railway train waits for no man, and night is at hand. Over the thought of the babblement and the scenes of the evening, arose in my mind one question touching upon the final law of being, for which I would seek answer from this sage. Going down to the depths of language and rising to the height of emphasis, during an intersperse of silence, I interrupted the revolutionist and philosopher in these fateful words: What is?’

‘And it seemed as though his mind was inverted for a moment while he looked upon the roaring sea in front and the restless multitude upon the beach. ‘What is?’ I had inquired, to which in deep and solemn tone, he replied: ‘Struggle!’

At first it seemed as though I had heard the echo of despair, but peradventure it was the law of life.’

Thank God, its not Hume

Finally, the verdict on the greatest philosopher ever is out. And its not David Hume.

Karl Marx is the nation’s most revered philosopher. No, this isn’t old Soviet agitprop, but the result of a Radio 4 listeners’ poll organised by the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg for his series In Our Time. The veteran Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, thinks he knows why. His reasoning is as contemporary as Marx’s was visionary. “The Communist Manifesto,” he says, “contains a stunning prediction of the nature and effects of globalisation.”

…Market fundamentalism has now replaced Marxism and its many derivatives in the west, as it has done in the east. Elsewhere, nationalism and religious fundamentalism vie to fill a dangerous, illiberal void. It is as if the age of enlightenment, of the Renaissance, had never happened. Marx spawned some horrors, and the flight from him by the political class has been so total that the gentler tradition of democratic socialism has been all but lost.

Ian Bell comments on the poll.

Hume was the better philosopher. Marx, in any useful sense, was barely a philosopher at all. Hume will give you what it means to be human. Marx will describe what humanity does, routinely, to human beings. Hume was never deluded enough to believe anything he ever said or wrote could alter the human condition in any important sense. Marx, to quote from his second greatest hit, insisted otherwise: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Right.

Among serious students, this is known as the tricky part. Marx was awesome in his ability to describe, woeful in his attempts to prescribe. It is not absurd, for example, to connect bombs in London with the advance of American capitalism. But for old-school Marxists there remains the elephant-sized detail of voracious capitalism’s survival and growth. Karlo, historicist to a fault, said that sooner or later – inevitably, indeed – it would all fold. Instead, generation after generation, it invents its way out of trouble. To be a Marxist these days you have to connect all the dots that Herr Marx missed.

Listen to the BBC program ‘In Our Time‘ that has a discussion post- poll (needs Real Player to play).

The Mystery of the Reticent Englishman

Julian Barnes has published a ‘detective’ novel on Arthur Conan Doyle, where apparently he also delves into the emotional reticence of Sherlock Holmes. The interview in The Guardian flickers off at the end, languidly turning to the fact that Barnes does not read the reviews of his books.To quote from the review:

Throughout, there is something cherishable about Conan Doyle’s Blimpishness and his chivalry towards women, even if his sexual chasteness is, frankly, weird. “There is a tradition of English emotional reticence which can easily fall away into emotional inexpressiveness and frigidity,” says Barnes. “I prefer that to the Oprahfication of the emotions which is what has happened. People talking about their emotional lives in staggering detail on Celebrity Love Island is so banal. “

The TLS too has a review of the same book.

Andre Gunder Frank

…is no more. The Monthly review carries a short remembrance by his close associate Samir Amin. I never got around to read any of Gunder Frank’s books, though I did read Wallerstein and Samir Amin, with whom I broadly agreed with their ideas on the ‘world capitalist system’.I recall that his book “R e O R I E N T: Global Economy in the Asian Age” was decisively demolished by the East Asia crisis of 1997. That created a barrier and I could never actually read any of his works.

I am also reminded me of another wonderful contemporary Marxist Slavoj Zizek. I ran into him on the LRB few months back and will probably collect more links to his articles. This particular one was a comparison between the two totalitarianisms: the Nazi and the Soviet. Needless to say, I much liked the article.

Eric Hobsbawm on America’s New Imperialism

Its funny I never noticed this when I lived there, but today I noticed a car from New York and on its number plate at the back it said: The Empire State.Anyway, I was reminded of this only when I read an extract from Eric Hobsbawm’s preface to a forthcoming book by VG Kiernan: “America: The New Imperialism”. Kiernan has had a long association with India and recently a collection of his essays on India were published. VG Kiernan is most well known in India for his translations of Faiz Ahmed Faiz from Urdu to English and for his studies on Allama Iqbal.

Hobsbawm, the pitamah of Marxist historians mainly reiterates what he has been saying of late, including what he said when he was in India earlier this year- the United States today is in a position to win small scale wars as demonstrated by its occupation of Afganistan and Iraq but the question really is how to rule after the war.

I first read Hobsbawm’s three volume work on the 19th century in the early nineties, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those were my years of intellectual disarray- and the first piecing realization was that my history of humankind started from Marx, I knew little of even extant socialist traditions, not to mention the Enlightenment and Renaissance. The second was that I knew little about India as well- and it was not till I started a more systematic study on my own that I developed some confidence about my ideas and beliefs.

Much later, in 1997-98, when I first spent a few months in the US and got to procure books that introduced me to broader thought currents in the West, that I began to recoup mentally. My confidence in Marx and Marxist thought only increased, even as I read more and more about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath by left- wing and right- wing writers. That also started my own series of books reviews on globalization and the history of 20th century Soviet socialism even as I continued to write on communalism. All this was in the background of increasing Right wing rhetoric and dominance both in India and in the US- the two countries where I have spent most of my professional life in the last decade.

I have to admit that Hobsbawm’s writing formed the anchor around which I got introduced to 19th century history and also the history of socialism.

And then it was the late Mohit Sen too who stroked the fires. He had been a student of Eric Hobsbawm in the 1940s Cambridge and he recounted a number of anecdotes about him that made me feel closer to EH- his ability to rattle off statistics even when he was just about 30 or 32, his lectures that were attended by students from all over the university and his letters to Mohit Sen.

Both went to on recount those years in their respective biographies, though MS must have felt very crest fallen on discovering that EH had not even mentioned his name on his otherwise long recollection with Indian students, though Mohit himself spent considerable ink on his former teacher. That was part of Mohit’s general sense of being forlorn in his last years, of not having been given his due. He had been a brilliant thinker in his own right, and a prodigy of sorts. My own feeling is that Mohit had the mind of a theoretician and the disposition of an ideologue, and the times he lived in cast him in the mould of the latter, with all its pitfalls.

To return to my teacher’s teacher, Hobsbawm, his trilogy on the 19th century, I believe, forms the core his work. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union, that the Marxist in Hobsbawm began overshadowing the historian.

I also believe that today, along with Roy Medveydev, he is probably the most articulte and clear headed Marxist analysts of the contemporary world. There are others as well, no doubt. But what lends authenticity to both these thinkers is their rooted-ness in the Marxism of the Old Left, their lifelong faith and support for Soviet socialism, warts and all, and their ability to explain the aftermath in Marxist terms. Even if they are critical of the Left or the former Soviet Union, I find it easier to accept their views than to accept the same views from anyone who was either anti- communist or anti- Soviet Union when it existed.

Unlike those on the New Left, for example, Hobsbawm and Medveydev have have shown intellectual resilience and imparted an intellectual grace- if not a defence- to the nobility of the ideas that spawned the October Revolution, even as the Revolution crumbled under it own weight.

Coming back to the current Guardian extract, I would like to read all of the preface, but I found the following lines particularly pregnant with meaning:

Even those who do not share the views of the old generals and proconsuls of the US world empire (which were those of Democratic as well as Republican administrations) will agree that there can be no rational justification of current Washington policy in terms of the interests of America’s imperial ambitions or, for that matter, the global interests of US capitalism.

And then he goes to to say:

It may be that it makes sense only in terms of the calculations, electoral or otherwise, of American domestic policy. It may be a symptom of a more profound crisis within US society.

Its the last line that is particularly incisive and Hobsbawm stops short of elaborating on this. Because if this is so, then the policy may turn out to be far more resilient than if it is only the result of the megalnomania of a set of quasi- revolutionary Right wing demagogues.

Books of the Century

Books that defined sensitivity of the age A layman’s reflections on books of the 20th century

My first foray into serious literature was Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”. I was thirteen, in class seven, and it left me overawed and hero worshipping Captain Nemo, who, deeply embittered with the world (I forget why) instead diverted all his energies to build a futuristic submarine called Nautilus. This, of course, was science fiction. The world paid tributes to Captain Nemo when the first submarine was actually built in 1948- a hundred years after it was envisaged in his, and Jules Verne’s mind. The submarine was named “Nautilus”.

But I could read only about 400 of the 700 pages of the small print. It was three years later that I read Charles Dicken’s “David Copperfield” cover to cover in original. My joy knew no bounds. The complete works of Sherlock Holmes soon followed. By the end of class XII, I was ready to take on more serious stuff. Thus started my long affair with classical Russian literature and much else.

But I digress. I am supposed to write about the greatest books published in the 20th century, not the 19th (all three mentioned above are 19th century). Neither am I supposed to write on my own evolution as a bibliophile. But, however much as I would like to stick to the main theme, I cannot get either the 19th century or my own periscopic view off my back. I would, therefore, seek the reader’s indulgence in two respects.

Before discussing the 20th century books, I will briefly mention some of the books published in the 19th century. The more I think about it, the more I feel that all books that have profoundly moved me, or influenced me, are old 19th century works.

Two, the volume of books printed in the 20th century is just overwhelming, both in quantity and the range of subjects. What follows, therefore, is a collage of my readings as a layman rather than any authoritative or sweeping judgements.


The most powerful impact that any book made on me was Nikolai Chernesvesky’s “What is to be Done?”. Other Russian writers like Dostoevesky, Turgnev, Saltykov- Schedrin, Pushkin, Gogol and Chekov also made a deep impact with their running concern on the role of the intellectual in shaping and changing society. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” with its vast canvas, range of characters and the vision of history as a self- governed Gargantuan force, remains certainly the greatest novel ever written.

Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” (that I read when in class X), “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Buonaparte” and Capital (specially the first three chapters of Vol. I) formed the bedrock of my subsequent convictions and beliefs. For a long time, whenever I was in doubt, the first impulse was to turn to the “Eighteenth Brumaire”. The sheer clarity of expression and application of the historical method to analysis of contemporary France is an education in itself, and generations have grown up learning fundamentals of Marxist analysis from this little book.

Having said that, and with the preceding as a backdrop, the first 20th century book that comes to mind is “Mother” by Maxim Gorky (1908). Russian literature took a sharp turn with the emergence of Pavel, the first working class hero. But then it only reflected the great movement then underway in Russia that culminated in the Socialist Revolution of 1917- the last of the great European revolutions in a period of deep political upheavals that started in 1789.

The series of pamphlets that Vladmir Lenin wrote at the time continued to resound for a major part of the remaining century, providing a political impetus that found an echo in all parts of the world. Lenin, “the man who lived politics 24 hours of the day”, became the most published and most read political author in the century. His “What is to be Done?”, “Two Tactics of Social Democracy”, “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back” and “The State and Revolution” became compulsory reading for working class activists as well as armchair revolutionaries, for those on the Left as well as for those who came close to it- and there were many.

His “April Thesis” is startling not only for its political significance but also for its length- it is hardly a few pages long- much like Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme” where Marx came closest to envision a socialist society.

Much of what Lenin wrote, however, came under a cloud later in this century, not only from opponents, but also from those within the socialist movement. The most significant of these was fellow communist Antonio Gramsci’s “Prison Notebooks” that turned many a dictum on its head. Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” marked a significant break, even as it claimed to be a continuation of Lenin’s ideas.

In England, Raymond Williams, Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm provided excellent and insightful Marxist interpretations in history and culture. Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Class” and Hobsbawm’s “Primitive Rebels” are landmark writings, the latter pre- empted, if not spawned, the subaltern school of historiography.

Closer home, D.D. Kosambi blazed in new trail in Indian historiography. A mathematician by training, his works on ancient India- though dated by today’s standards- were a watershed. His “Culture and Civilization of Ancient India” remains one of the most influential books on ancient India. “An Introduction to the Study of Indian History” continues to go into reprints decades after its first publication in 1956.

Kosambi had the onerous task of writing history in a country where written sources are sparse and local variations plentiful. It was his deep sensitivity to life that led him to extend scientific inquiry to the study of society.

His quintessentially humanistic streak is 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.”


Others, from within and without, provided scathing indictment of the Soviet society, notably Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”, Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago” and Solznitzyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. Koestler’s Bukharin- like character Rubashov, personified the dilemma and tragedy of those who led the revolution and then became its victims. It is astonishing that the novel was written in 1940 at all- at the height of Stalin’s power and the extremly limited information about Soviet Union outside.

The Great War of the European nations, later termed World War I was the backdrop of “The Good Soldier Sjevk” by Jaroslav Hasek, the Czeck writer, possibly the finest satire on war written in the century. Sjevk, in his various roles, including as an orderly to numerous army officers, often lands into problems despite his good intentions and like most honest citizens of the modern world finds himself to be a patriot, and even a ‘soldier’, more by accident than ambition. It is a hilarious and humane novel, both at the same time.

It is, however, Gabriel Garcia Marquez who deserves pride of the place with “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. The narrative in One Hundred Years moves through a maze of subtle and often innocuous looking images and metaphors so that one finds the fantastical and mythical interacting with the live and the real. The transmission of ideas and inventions from the outside world to the small village of Macondo takes place through the wandering gypsies so that what reaches them is a bunch of scattered and seemingly unrelated ideas.

The formation of the world- view of the founder of the village Arcadio Buendia, and his successors evolves through this mixture of myth, fantasy and science through the corruption of the spoken word, mingled with songs and tales. Flying carpets and disappearing acts are a part of the hazards. The untiring and fruitless efforts of the alchemists and the dreams of the pioneers of flying transports one to the times of struggle, hope and ecstasy.

Garcia’s works, despite his impeccable roots as a writer of protest, are not propagandist. His vision of his native land is expressed in his novel- Love in the Time of Cholera, which is the story of two separated lovers who rediscover each other in old age. At one level this is a case of old age romanticized, at another, it is the romanticization of Latin America’s tryst with destiny and a conception of a new civilization for the continent. Suppressed for so long, denied its historical role and the seemingly unending brutality of life are sought to be reconciled in a future old age.

In the much acclaimed The General in his Labyrinth, he profiles the George Washington of South America- Simon Bolivar in the last ten days of his life. These are days of retreat. It is the examination of a political leader who has forsaken his people- a character so familiar in Latin America because of repetition. It is a study and an indictment of a weak, indecisive and dithering leadership. It is their legacy that has played havoc with Latin America. It is also the legacy which, ironically, has produced a whole body of literature recognized the world over.


Were there any worst books of the century? This is much more difficult to answer but one book that did let one down was Gandhi’s “Hind Swaraj”. Gandhi is undoubtedly India’s greatest contribution to the world after the Buddha. He was a unique mass leader and one who is continuously being re- discovered by later generations. “Hind Swaraj”, which he considered to be the closest to his formulation of a theoretical framework for his political ideas, was a big let down for its anti- modernism and comments that fly in the face of logic.

Finally, what does one look forward to in the coming century? There are some books that one would like to re- read mainly for the nostalgic aura about them. Tintin comics that I read in school top the list. Then there are those that one either “forgot” to read or have been repeatedly postponed. Gerald Durrel’s delightful animal stories fall in this class.

Then there are others that one has not read because of ignorance and the most prominent of these is Allama Iqbal, who wrote much in Urdu but much more in Persian.

Iqbal’s stress on the development of the self came a fresh breeze, as part of his critique of Sufism, he stressed on the development of the ego or self. While Sufism emphasized the need to merge the self into the whole, Iqbal took a diametrically opposite stand- that of the development of the ego. Thence:

Tu shab afridi, charag afreedam
Sayal afridi, ayagh afreedam
Man aanam ke az sang aina saazam
Man aanam ke az zahar naushina saazam
(God, You created the night, I made the lamp
You created the earth, I made the earthen pot out of it
It is me who made mirror out of stone
It is me who made elixir out of poison)

He is a unique poet, sung in the national songs of two countries, but ignored in one and unfairly mis- interpreted in the other.


I will end by returning to the theme that I started with and my growing up in the shadow of the 19th century works. One hopes that there would be many books published in the 20th century that may still be waiting to be discovered in the new century. After all, Karl Marx, the single most powerful influence on 20th century thought (Reuters has declared him to be the “Intellectual of the Millennium”) was little known, much less read, and still less understood outside a small circle in his own age.

Bhupinder (The writer, 32 years old, is a software engineer.)
December 18, 1999
Published: The Tribune, Chandigarh 23 Jan 2001

Words Like Freedom: The Memoirs of an Impoverished…

Words Like Freedom: The Memoirs of an Impoverished Indian Family 1947-1997
By Siddharth Dube
Harper Collins Publishers India Rs. 395, Pp. 297, 1998

After the recent CPI(M) Congress, in reply to a question as to why the Left had failed to strike roots in Uttar Pradesh, the party General Secretary H.S. Surjeet explained the reasons thus: “There has been no social reform movement in the state”. This surely is a case of putting the cart before the horse, since for those on left of the political spectrum, reforms are only a part of a much more comprehensive radical agenda. The task of the left is to carry out changes that go beyond reforms and not wait for others to carry out the job. Surjeet’s words raise an existential question for the CPI(M).

However, even this recognition of the specificity of the state of Uttar Pradesh is a recent phenomenon. For a long time, its endemic poverty was perceived as not very fundamentally different in nature from that prevailing in the rest of the country. It is only very recently that attention has been drawn to the abysmally poor performance of the state in the key areas of literacy and health- care and the large- scale prevalence of casteism and traditionalism.

Jean Dreze has termed the state as India’s “burden of inertia”.

The book under review is an attempt by the young writer Siddharth Dube to understand the vertical implications of this inertia by relating the broader political economy of the state to the actual life experiences of a marginal family. It recounts the memoirs of three generations of a Dalit family from Pratapgarh district. Its narrative is an interweaving of the family’s recollections of their life stories and the writer’s own scholarly interjections. Surprisingly, the result is a stirring jugalbandi and not a cacophony of illiterate voices and noisy economic jargon, which is what it may have become in the hands of a less skilful chronicler.

The central character of the family is Ram Dass (aged about 65) of Baba Ka Gaon village in Pratapgarh district. This district has been the focus of much interest since the publication of Gyan Pandey’s impressive study on the Awadh peasant revolt (published in the first volume of the Subaltern Studies). Zamindari in this district had existed here in its extreme form. It was buttressed by a rigid caste system in which the untouchables were treated as “neither fully Hindu nor fully human”. The upper caste zamindars on the other hand, enjoying the patronage of the British colonial state, extracted many types of taxes and dues from the tenants and labourers, who without exception were untouchables or belonged to the intermediate castes.

Says Ram Dass, ” (when I was a child) If our family got a letter, we had to go and plead with the Thakur or Brahmin to read it for us. We had to wait till they were free. Or we would work extra hard and finish all their work and then beg them. Even then, they would read it if they felt like it or otherwise they would shout, ‘Get out, go away!'”

“The upper castes would treat us untouchables worse than dogs. They would at least accept water served by the middle castes, but from us they would not accept water, nor would they ever sit with us. If by mistake we touched any of their eating vessels they would throw them away, but if a dog licked the vessels they would just wash them”.

Ram Dass’s son today is a primary school teacher, the first scheduled caste teacher from his village. His grandson now faces an uncertain future because though he is the first of the three scheduled caste graduates from his village, he finds that he has to compete in a highly difficult job market. His degree is not of much help in the face of the demand of the few jobs that are available.

Blatant casteism over the years has slowly became less pointed- though even Ram Dass’ son Shrinath had to sit separately from high caste students in school. Nowadays, scheduled caste children even play with upper caste children”, observes Shrinath.

Ram Dass and his family are at a barely sustainable level, they are an example of a family that has risen from the lowest of the lowest to a family that is now hovering around the poverty line. Land reforms over the years have enabled the family to own 2.5 acres. It is only because of his son’s government job which pays Rs.4000/- a month, that the family of 17 manages to eek out an existence, keep hunger at bay and afford two sets of clothes. The next generation faces an uncertain future again. The gains of the seventies have not progressed linearly.

The most prosperous families in the village are, as during Ram Dass’s childhood years, still the 20 Thakur families that own most of the village land and orchards. Besides, most of them have a family member in a job- army, police or the university. Of the land that has been sold by the Thakurs over the last 50 years, the bulk was bought by the intermediate castes, with only a small amount purchased by the scheduled castes. The rest of the families in the village have been too impoverished to purchase any land at all.

The author’s prescription is what may nowadays be termed as Sen- ism (after Amartya Sen): the government should carry out land reforms, promote good health-care, foster social equity and encourage local democracy. Mulayam Singh Yadav’ s 1995 act on the reservation of posts of the village pradhan for intermediate and scheduled castes is an example of empowerment of these castes. Hitherto, Baba Ka Gaon had the same Thakur pradhan since 1952 till 1995.

“The 1995 elections irrevocably changed caste equations in Baba Ka Gaon. The village Thakurs threatened to kill the former army sergeant from the Maurya middle caste who, with the backing of the scheduled castes, decided to stand for the pradhans’s post. They then burnt the crops of a particularly militant scheduled caste man. A week before the elections, in mid afternoon, a group of Thakurs entered the hut of a middle caste family and started thrashing the wife with their staffs while others pinned her down. But for the first time in the history of Baba Ka Gaon, the scheduled castes- including Prayaga Devi (Ram Dass’s wife)- and the middle castes hit back at the Thakurs and chased them away”.

The memoir is a testament against the notion that the illiterate are not capable of participating in electoral politics. The perceptive awareness that Ram Das and his family members have about the reasons responsible for their poverty is amazing.

Besides this, there are two major points that the book establishes.

First, that serious debate in the era of liberalisation is turning towards what Marxists have traditionally termed as the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. The hair splitting debates that dominated the seventies searching for that elusive algebraic equation of the balance of class forces, which in turn would decide the stage of the revolution, now belong to a bygone age. Similarly the euphoria of the liberalizers in the early nineties is giving way to more introspective studies.

The second is the recognition of near absolute identity of the Dalits as the most oppressed sections in the country. Earlier observers, even among the most radicals ones, disdained this. Groomed in the modernist, Nehruvian framework in the backdrop of global appeal of Marxism, the caste factor was pushed under the carpet. It was even seen as an obstacle in establishing class-consciousness. This has now changed, and rightly so. This was evident in another recent and comparable work that comes to mind: Everyone Loves a Good Drought by P. Sainath.

Dube’s misgiving that the Congress represented the interests of the propertied classes only both before and after independence betrays a direct influence of the subaltern school of historians and indirectly that of R.P.Dutt. This is not only contestable but is the result of too narrow a perspective that students of peasant studies have usually held. The only other problem that mars the text is the author’s straight- jacket perspective that sometimes reads like the CPI(M) party programme. That towards the end of the book Ram Dass turns out to be a Communist (if not a CPI(M)) sympathiser is perhaps indicative of this bias.

December 04, 1998

Published: The Tribune 10 Jan 1999