Saturday, December 08, 2018

Beyond Ideology: the participatory praxis of movements of democratic resistance and socialist construction in India … and elsewhere

Half of India’s 1.3 billion live in conditions of deprivation. Government policy over the past three decades—inspired by the neoliberal policy state—has produced a hostile environment for survival. A quarter of a million farmers and peasants have committed suicide, a direct consequence of capitalist agriculture and an adverse global trade order. The current government of the Hindu Right is not only the complete inheritor of such harsh economic policies, but it has the added disadvantage of being culturally suffocating. Attacks on freedom of expression and speech as well as a spectrum of threats against cultural and religious difference have begun to mark the social landscape. [….] Slowly, surely, the politics of the Shiv Sena and the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party: both fueled by an Hindutva ideology which is, I think, along with a significant number of social scientists inside and outside India, fundamentally fascist], as well as its allied organizations [e.g., Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], wore down the forms of secular culture that had been in formation for a century.

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The slow decline of the trade unions and of members in the mass fronts of the socialist and communist world leaves very many millions of Indians outside the studied influence of the Left. [….] No more the values of the anti-colonial movement or of the Nehruvian period of national development. Nor more the traditions of Indian socialism, as authored by Periyar and Ram Manohar Lohia [embedded links added here, above and below], anchored by the Dravidian parties and the Samajwadi parties. The core values of the present are personal consumption and career advancement. Such a cultural universe is detrimental to the kind of political project promoted by the Left.

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From the 1900s to the 1940s, the communists in Calcutta and Bombay lived in communes—not dissimilar to the Gandhian ashram, but now not in rural outposts but in the midst of bustling urban cities. Cross-class housing, disregard for caste restrictions, men and women mingling freely—all this was a direct challenge to staid bourgeois ideas of respectability that had moved out of the middle-class into the working-class areas as well. The Calcutta commune at 37 Harrison Road would have people like Soumendranath Tagore –who would later become a Trotskyite—comewithout shoes [wearing] shaggy hair, and dressed only in khadi,’ as Kazin Nazrul Islam in one sitting would translate the Internationale into Bengali so they could sing it with their loudest voices. Manikuntala Sen remembered that people would think of the communists asfollowers of an irreligious, unsociable lifestyle.’ Basavapunniah recalled how middle-class intellectual of the fledgling party would stroll into working-class areas of Madrasagricultural labourerscolony and untouchablescolony’—to introduce their understanding of Marxism and Leninism. They were looked at strangely, and then welcomed warmly.’—Vijay Prashad, No Free Left: The Future of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015)

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The following is from an article, “Legacies Crucial for the Commons,” by Ashish Kothar in The Hindu, arguing that “Gandhi and Marx are more relevant now than ever before:”

[….] “And so we must turn for hope to the many movements of sangharsh (resistance) and nirman (construction) throughout the world. These movements realise that the injustices they are facing, and the choices they must make, are not bound by the divides that ideologues play games with.
Let’s take sangharsh. At any given time in India, there are dozens of sites where Adivasis [a term for indigenous peoples in South Asia], farmers, fisherpersons, pastoralists and others are refusing to part with their land or forest or water to make way for so-called development projects. One thousand farmers have filed objections to their lands being taken up by the Prime Minister’s pet project, the bullet train. News that is both inspiring and depressing keeps coming from Latin America, of indigenous people standing up for their territorial rights against mining and oil extraction, and all too frequently paying the price when state or corporate forces kill their leaders. Nationwide rallies were organised by the National Alliance of People’s Movements and the Ekta Parishad in October. They involved movements for land and forest rights, communal harmony, workers’ security and other causes that are not so easy to place in any ideological camp.

The same goes for nirman, or the construction of alternatives. Across the world there are incredible examples of sustainable and holistic agriculture, community-led water/energy/food sovereignty, worker takeover of production facilities, resource/knowledge commons, local governance, community health and alternative learning, inter-community peace-building, reassertion of cultural diversity, gender and sexual pluralism, and much else. 

It is in many of these alternative movements that I find inspiration for building on the legacies of Gandhi and Marx (and Ambedkar, Rabindranath Tagore, Rosa Luxemburg and various luminaries) and, equally important, on the many indigenous and Adivasi, Dalit, peasant and other ‘folk’ revolutionaries through history. There are many examples that dot the Indian landscape: the few thousand Dalit women farmers who have achieved anna swaraj (food sovereignty) in Telangana while also transforming their gender and caste status; the several dozen Gond Adivasi villages in Gadchiroli that have formed a Maha Gram Sabha to stop mining, and work on their own vision of governance and livelihood security; a Dalit sarpanch near Chennai who combines both Marxist and Gandhian principles in his attempt to transform the village he lives in. Similarly, there are others across the world: a thousand people have experimented with anarchic community life in the ‘freetown’ of Christiania in Copenhagen for four decades; indigenous peoples in Peru, Canada and Australia have gained territorial autonomy; small peasants in Africa and Latin America have sustained or gone back to organic farming; fisherpersons in the South Pacific have their own network of sustainably managed marine sites.

What I find of significance in many resistance and alternative movements is the exploration of autonomy, self-reliance, people’s governance of politics and the economy, freedom with responsibility for the freedom of others, and respect for the rest of nature. While these movements do often call for policy interventions from a more accountable state, there is also an underlying antipathy to the centralised state, as there is in both Gandhian swaraj and in Marxist communism and in many versions of anarchy. Private property is also challenged. In 2013, the Gond village Mendha-Lekha in Maharashtra converted all its agricultural land into the commons. Note that commons here does not mean state-owned, a distorted form of ‘communism’ that has prevailed in orthodox Leftist state regimes. 

And while Gandhi was weak on challenging capital, and Marx on stressing the fundamental spiritual or ethical connections amongst humans, these movements often tend to bridge these gaps. Insofar as many of them integrate the need to re-establish ecological resilience and wisdom, some even arguing for extending equal respect to other species, they also encompass Marx’s vision of a society that bridges humanity’s ‘metabolic rift’ with nature, and Gandhi’s repeated emphasis on living lightly on earth. With this they also challenge the very fundamentals of ‘development,’ especially its mad fixation on economic growth, reliance on ever-increasing production and consumption, and its utter disregard for inequality.” [….]

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One quibble: while it may be a distinction some won’t find palatable or even plausible, I think Gandhi may be justly described as “weak” when it came to challenging capitalists, most likely because he saw them as individuals amenable to persuasion on a personal level, and some of them provided significant funds for several of his campaigns (it helps to trace the statements and behavior of these capitalists after Indian independence). As far as “capital” (or capitalism) as such is concerned, I don’t find Gandhi at all very “weak.” For an excellent discussion  regarding Gandhi’s views directly bearing upon this judgement see, for example, Bhikhu Parekh’s treatment in Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination (University of Notre Dame Press, 1989) and—on Gandhi's conception, as it were, of moral and political economy—B.N. Ghosh’s Beyond Gandhian Economics: Towards a Creative Deconstruction (Sage Publications, 2012).

In any case, and along with more than a few of the “communists” in India (of yesteryear and today), I think both Marx and Gandhi are indeed “more relevant now than ever before.” And, we might add, among others, B.R. (‘Babasaheb’) Ambedkar to the mix (Kothari writes of ‘building on the legacies of .... Ambedkar, Rabindranath Tagore, Rosa Luxemburg and various luminaries’), for several reasons I will not go into here (incidentally, Ambedkar died on this date in 1956).

Relevant Bibliographies
See too this short list I posted as a Note on my Facebook page: Toward an Understanding of Society and Politics (including political economy) in Contemporary India.


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