Saturday, May 21, 2011

The puritanism of Marxists is intriguing

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is remarkable that confronted by an electoral uprising against 34-years of uninterrupted rule in West Bengal, the Communists have reacted with the same self-righteous indignation as Puritans faced with the frivolity of reprobates. Politburo member Brinda Karat has reminded those writing the CPI(M)'s obituary that the party was born out of the 'class struggle' in West Bengal. She avers the party will draw the lessons from a defeat in the electoral arena—always a sideshow in the Communist scheme of things—but it won't be the same one the revisionists, the faint-hearted and other class traitors are anxious to impart. Ms Karat has implicitly reaffirmed her unbending faith in revolutionary intransigence. In time, other Comrades will complement her logic with copious quotations from Marx or Lenin 'himself'.

It is intriguing why Communists invariably suffix the names of their gods with the term 'himself'. It's never 'Marx said' but always 'Marx himself said'. 'Himself' is perhaps the force multiplier that theologians need. The idea is not to impress non-believers but to baffle possible heretics and potential 'revisionists'.

It is, in fact, quite inexplicable why a movement that flaunts its 'scientific' credentials so ostentatiously is so fearful of 'revisionism'. Since 'scientific socialism' has deemed that the victory of socialism is not merely desirable but also inevitable, today's Communists should be as smug as the nut next door who claims to have calculated the precise date on which the world will end. If "history" is indeed "on our side", as the flamboyant Fidel Castro once said, why should Commies be obsessive about textual citations from the Collected Works?

In ordinary parlance, 'revisionism' involves the ability to think, re-think, fine-tune, question and even challenge existing beliefs and assumptions. It's because Galileo was a revisionist that the Flat Earth Society is close to extinction. Yet, 500 years ago, the fear of falling off the edge of the earth haunted explorers and even became a deterrent to commerce in some societies. Progress implies the unending celebration of revisionism.

To Communists, however, revisionism is about as abhorrent as 'popery' was to Anglicans in 17th century England. The analogy with the abstruse sectarianism that gripped Christian Europe after the Reformation is appropriate. For the fiercely God-fearing Puritans the good life meant rediscovering Biblical fundamentals. It also meant the complete rejection of the artistic and cultural embellishments that grew out of the Catholic Church.

More than a century ago, Lenin 'himself' wrote an article whose contents are no longer worth recalling. But it had a very catchy heading that summed up his sectarian conceit: "Better fewer, but better." Whereas most 'bourgeois' parties engaged in the thankless task of contesting elections and satisfying individual ambition, tailor policies to blend existing realities and a nebulous ideal, the Leninist party aspired to be a version of the old ICS—an elite group of the highly motivated with the moral backbone to carry an entire Empire, preferably on its sola topee but if need be, on a majestic Red Flag and to the robust notes of Internationale. Just as the ICS sahibs were presumed to know what was good for the 'real India', the 'vanguard' Leninist party was meant to epitomise the most advanced sections of the 'struggling masses'. The people were mute; the party spoke for them.

Not unnaturally, the people occasionally got a little excitable, demanding the impossible. These resulted, as Bertolt Brecht once rued, in the party having to abolish the people ('counter-revolutionaries') and having to elect a new one.

In November 1989, the collapse of the Berlin Wall triggered a chain of events that culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Throughout Eastern Europe, popular fury was directed at a self-serving party bureaucracy that combined tyranny with monumental socialist inefficiency. The grim inheritance of Lenin and Stalin were brushed aside as people chose personal freedom over regimentation and shortages.

What is interesting is the different ways in which Communists reacted to the Soviet collapse. In Europe, it resulted in Communist parties either going into voluntary liquidation or becoming virtually indistinguishable from the Left-wing of social democratic parties. As a political movement, Communism in Europe died with the 20th century. At best, it maintained a tenuous intellectual presence among tenured academics and the editorial classes.

In India, however, the rejection of the Red Flag in Moscow and the erstwhile 'socialist bloc' was interpreted with dogmatic eccentricity. The socialist experiment faltered, it was argued, because the party was injected with revisionism and had had deviated from Communist principles. For many who learnt their Marxism in parties like the CPI(M), the key to the future doesn't lie in less Leninism (as the Europeans imagined) but even more of it. For the CPI(M), the God didn't fail – the people were unworthy and the Comrades didn't pray hard enough. On such profound certitudes are politics in India based.

Sunday Times of India, May 22, 2011

1 comment:

Objectivist Mantra said...

When the entire empire is lost, puritanism is the only thing that the deposed rulers can cling too... this is the way of the world..