Saturday, 14 April 2012

"My name is Karl. And I am not a Marxist"

Mamata Banerjee is no stranger to controversy. Conspiracy, it seems though, is what really bothers her. Well, personally I have run out of jokes on her conspiracy theories regarding crib deaths, censuring newspapers, and labelling rapes as orchestrated by her detractors. And now she had to go and remove references of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels from the state higher secondary syllabus. And more recently—which is actually a day old—she got a professor arrested for circulating a “malicious, and derogatory” cartoon of her on the internet.
It was rather hilarious, until the Marx bit. But now, I’ve hit saturation point. I mean, there is a limit to how many times you can tweet about one person on Twitter. And like I said, I was running of jokes.

From a probashi (diaspora) point-of-view, I’ve always imagined how life in WB would’ve been like. I mean, apart from my annual trips to my ancestral home, and the two-day stay at Calcutta, I have never really explored the culture there, and nor have I had a chance to understand the politics of the state—at least, in a way I understand it back home, considering the Saffron legacy in Bombay and Maharashtra. Now, however, I am not too sure. I think being a distant commentator (and thus, far away from Mamata’s jurisdiction) is what I would prefer. Heck, I’m even trying to contemplate under what section she could charge me (to the utter horror of my dad). The thing is, honestly, I know that the politics of the Trinamool are fed by paranoia and paranoia alone; their ideology, so to say, is an anti-ideology—violently negating every (seemingly oppositional) belief system, be it political, ethical, cultural or moral.
So, without taking on the Trinamool and Mamata directly (mostly, because I don’t wish to recycle Arnab Goswami’s profound critiques) I think I should give a little thought to the ‘real’ victims of the Didi’s vendetta: Marx and Engels.

My first tryst was Marx was in the 10th standard, when I first wished to read Das Kapital, as much as I wanted to read Rousseau, or Jefferson—because back then, history had a way of inspiring the mind of a fifteen year-old, and the idea that I could bask in the ideas of these great men, ideas which inspired revolutions, was just fascinating.
Fast forward four years, when I’ve actually read quite a bit of Marx, well enough to see the naivety and sheer stupidity of Mamata’s move. And I don’t think Mamata’s solely responsible for this—the more widespread outlook on Marx, and Marxism, are often very crass and diluted versions of Marx’s original ideas. For example, almost everyone—every layperson at least—would equate Soviet Communism with Marx. While Marx’s vision of the Revolution did indeed encapsulate the establishment of a communist stage,[1] but he never envisaged a communist state—which is a contradiction in terms.[2] The later works of Marx are often his more scientific one; that is, his vision of the revolution isn’t merely a utopian one, but a scientific and logical one, which is rooted in the class inequalities and exploitation of the capitalist political-economy.[3]
The Communist Party of India’s (Marxist) attempts have also been an ideological corruption of several of Marx’s core arguments; the bourgeoisie social location of its top leaders, like Karat, Yechury and their well-rehearsed arguments against the neo-liberal economics, are examples of a few. However, the real issue here is not the CPI(M), but the problem of putting a Marxian ideology (once again, a contradiction in terms, insofar as Marx’s works are concerned)[4] in the multiparty political scene in India.
I’ve had the privilege of learning under teachers who’ve presented both the strengths and weaknesses of the bulk of Marx’s works, and under them, I’ve had the confidence to engage with (and critique) some of his ideas, which I wouldn’t have, had I not been interested in the philosopher as a na├»ve 15 year-old. And by removing the reference to Marx (for, they’re exactly that: references to Marx and Engels, in context of the Russian and Industrial Revolution, where they all but mention Marx for a mere paragraph or two) she’s sending out a very wrong, and erroneous message to the to-be intellectual van guard of tomorrow: the fact that someone else gets to choose and thus, to shape what we would learn; the ideology of the state, an ideology of paranoia. I agree with Derek O’brien when he says equal weightage has to be given to Mahatma and Mandela. But is Marx any more, or less, important? I don’t think so. For, as a friend of mine put it, in education, balancing is not synonymous with deletion.   
In one sociology class, we were debating the relevance of Marxian thought, one side of the argument stating that Marx’s works have lost their relevance now that the revolution he predicted never happened, and that even universities abroad don’t study Marx. Then again, on the other hand, modification of Marxian thought, like the new-Leftism of the Frankfurt School,[5] and very recent movements against neo-liberal economics, like ‘Occupy Wall Street’ have showed that the central arguments of Marx’s works will always be relevant, because of their deep engagement with the struggles of humanity. And as long as the debate rages, young people will find one way or another to read up on Marx, and by god, we need educational institutions which can guide students without corrupting the core ideas of an intellectual tradition. 
Marx’s sociology was, in many ways, incomplete. But which theory is otherwise? I think (arguably) his most central idea—that of economic determinism, has been proved wrong by both his critics as well as his successors.[6] But that only enhances his relevance, not diminishes it. In a country like ours, until we’re able to tackle the most basic, and human issues, the German philosopher would continue to influence as well as intimidate, many like me and my peers. But I cannot see a reason why Didi should be so bothered. I mean, by the extension of her logic, the next step would be to ban left-lane driving in West Bengal. Then again, to those of you familiar with WB traffic, there is hardly any lane driving, in the first place.


[1] Marx essentially sees history as dialectic, that is, it moves through stages with different competing interests between social groups; the stages he refers to are: primitive communism, where everyone owned everything; slave mode of production where the slaves had no rights; the feudal mode, where the serfs were tied to their lands; capitalistic mode, where the capitalist owned resources, including the labour of the workers; and, the stage of communism, where the capitalistic economy was dismantled, or overthrown.
[2] For the revolution to be successful, Marx predicted, it was necessary that the state, which is an apparatus to favour the capital-owning class, to “wither away”.
[3] In a capitalistic political-economy, it was in the state’s benefit to favour the capital-owning class as it ensured greater profits for the state. The population, for Marx, was effectively divided into the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (haves and have-nots, respectively) and the latter were exploited by the former. Class struggle was thus, the basic premise of the revolution, for Marx.
[4] For Marx, ideologies or the “superstructure” (e.g. religion, political systems etc.) stemmed from the “base”, viz. the material or the economic sphere, i.e. the relationship of man to the means of production.
[5] By the mid-twentieth century, proponents of Marxian thought were disillusioned with the Soviet state’s practice of ‘corrupted’ Communism, and the blatant capitalistic economies of the West. Thus, a new wave in Marxian thought emerged, of which one of the most well-known is the Frankfurt Institute (1930s to 1960s).
[6] The Frankfurt School, for example, used the ideas of another sociologist, Max Weber, and argued against the economic reductionism of traditional Marxian thought, saying that ideologies and ideas were equally important as, and not entirely dependent on, the economic sphere of life.

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