Monday, September 06, 2010

Left alone in a crumbling Coffee House


Left Politics in Bengal: Time Travels among Bhadralok Marxists by Monobina Gupta (Orient BlackSwan, 272 pages, Rs 195)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Engagement with Left politics may well be compared to college romances: a few passionate years of intense involvement, followed by a steady process of detachment and finally, a bitter separation, as both sides realise they have evolved very differently. Western literature is replete with writings in the God that failed genre, some crudely propagandist and others reeking of pain and regret over many wasted years. The theme of 'betrayal' resonates constantly from both sides and, ironically, adds to the romance of a movement that combines lofty idealism with callous disregard of human feelings.

Monobina Gupta's study of Left politics isn't another journalistic account of the impulses that made for the building of the CPI(M)'s Red Fort in West Bengal. It is a semi-autobiographical account of her own involvement with the CPI(M) and the realisation that what she had endorsed was an intellectually deficient, power hungry and uncaring party. Based on her own experiences, and those of many of her Comrades, she tries to capture the degeneration and decline of Bengali Communism. It is a compelling, well-written narrative that goes some way in explaining West Bengal's growing distaste for the CPI(M).

What comes through is a familiar horror story centred on a party that tries to own its cadres body and soul, suppress all traces of individualism and deny Comrades the luxury of intellectual and emotional independence. Like a medieval church, the party is brutally intolerant of dissent and heresy. It not only discards the contrarian but accompanies the rejection with vilification.

Gupta's book is rich in detailing the emotional turbulence of the renegades and revisionists, including their search for an alternative Left space. The chapter on Lalgarh is particularly instructive for its insights into the way the Maoists replicate the CPI(M) wariness of movements from below.

The book is, however, somewhat sketchy in detailing the political intimidation mounted by the party and the state to maintain control. This is understandable. What attracted many people (including, I suspect, Gupta) is the headiness of belonging to a machine that was personified the 'vanguard'. In the writings of Lenin and the political practice of Stalin, there was always a divergence between the party and the masses. The party was always the army of the enlightened, a status that always appealed to a Bengali bhadralok that flaunted its own superiority in a philistine-dominated world. The masses, on the other hand, were either voting fodder or a romantic abstraction.

Gupta delves into Marxist theology to explain why the seeds of degeneration were in-built. Unfortunately, she doesn't locate the CPI(M) and its politics within the context of a bhadralok society that is itself in a state of decay. On the contrary, there is an unmistakable deification of the economic stagnation that is the hallmark of contemporary West Bengal after 30 years of Left rule. Like others in the Left, Gupta looks back a bit too self-indulgently at the world of coffee house politics, subtitled films and street protests—the symbols Bengal's wasted years.

Tehelka magazine, 7(36), September 11, 2010

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