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Time And The Revolutionary Imagination

August 7, 2007

“If the socialist revolution in the ‘twenty Latin Americas’ cannot be unified, then neither can its timing. The national fragmentation of the Latin American revolution is matched by the way its political calendar is fragmented into quite unconnected rhythms and upheavals. In each country the process has its own time clock: whether armed or not, the class struggle will always be at a different moment in Caracas and Buenos Aires, and again different in Guatemala city. Vanguards can see far and wide: it is this that makes them the vanguard…Vanguards decide on their present action in view of the ‘far-off socialist ideals’ with which, by theoretical anticipation, they become contemporary. But it is pointless for them to set their watch to Caracas time in Buenos Aires (or Hanoi time in San Francisco for that matter). The people who make history are living by the time not of a continental, or world, revolution, but of the material living conditions of the area, the town or the country, which their horizon is bounded by. ” Regis Debray[i]

“In the Austro-Hungarian monarchy there are examples of all the economic forms to be found in Europe, including Turkey…What exists in the International as a chronological development – the socialism of artisans, journeymen, workers in manufacture, factory workers, and agricultural workers, which undergoes alterations, with the political, social or the intellectual aspect of the movement predominating at any given moment – takes place contemporaneously in Austria.” Otto Bauer.[ii]

‘Staging’ a Revolt

A little over forty years ago, in May 1967, the extraordinary event called ‘Naxalbari’ took place in a northern Bengal village (whose it name it bears), ante-dating the May 1968 upsurge in Europe by a full year. A peasants armed struggle to begin with, Naxalbari represented a utopian burst of revolutionary energy as rebels from within the CPI(M) challenged the cautious pragmatism of the party leadership that has, ironically, increasingly come to mark radical political practice since then. Formally, the main plank of the movement was its complete rejection of all parliamentary politics and a call for armed seizure of power. Located within the global conjuncture of the rise of Left-wing radicalism of the 1960s, the revolt was formally inspired by Maoism and the ongoing Cultural Revolution in China.

Maoism of course, has had a longer history in India and has presented an attractive alternative to sections within the Indian communist movement ever since the days of the Telengana peasants armed struggle. A section of the communist party had, ever since, remained sympathetic to Mao Tsetung and the “Chinese Path” – the path of protracted peasants warfare as opposed to the short sharp, “Ten days that shook the world” model of the Bolshevik revolution type, based primarily on the working class insurrection in the cities. The disagreements never really died down but took on a different shape in the years after the withdrawal of the Telengana struggle. The differences had international coordinates no doubt but it would be completely ahistorical to reduce the emergence of a powerful movement such as that simply to Chinese influence. In the conjuncture of the 1960s, the great attraction of Maoism was its relentless drive against the grey, formalist bureaucracy that had come to mark the Soviet model of socialism. The Maoist slogan ‘bombard the headquarters’ was seen and felt by many in the Left as a call to arms against party bureaucracies. But more importantly, it was the disillusionment of the youth in different parts of India, with the promise of independence and the corrupt nexuses of power that had come to mark the institutional structures of parliamentary democracy. Peaceful social transformation in India’s villages and towns seemed like an impossible pipedream.

In the years preceding the emergence of Naxalism, the internal differences within the CPI had reached a point of no return. After Independence, the CPI had actually emerged as a significant electoral-political force in some states, and within a decade was able to form the first elected communist government anywhere in the world, namely the EMS Namboodiripad government in Kerala in 1957. While these experiences strengthened a parliamentary perspective within the party, they were also leading to increasing restlessness among sections who were beginning to see these moves as abdication of the revolutionary path. The debate within the CPI, which eventually led to the split and the formation of the CPI(M) in 1964 involved thus a whole range of issues connected with the understanding of Indian state and society, the nature of its democracy, the strategic perspectives of the Indian revolution and such other matters. That the CPI(M) leadership, following the split failed to discuss and take a position on many of the issues concerned, certainly helped the more youthful and restless sections to gradually move away from the leadership. It was in such a situation that once again the newly formed ‘revolutionary’ party, namely the CPI(M), was presented with the opportunity to form coalition governments in the two states of West Bengal and Kerala. Once again, the unresolved questions came to the fore. The party decided to go ahead with the task of forming governments in these two states. It was at this juncture that the rebels decided to strike. In fact, it was on the very day that the new government was taking oath, in 1967, that the first ‘incident’ was reported from Naxalbari. Thereafter, the matter simply escalated. That the Chinese Communist Party hailed the struggle as the “burst of spring thunder” over India and lent its support to the rebels, only added to the escalation.

Very soon, what had begun as a bye-product of an internal debate within the CPI(M), became a public Event of major significance. It unleashed a debate in society at large about matters that might have had little to do with the “path of India’s revolution”. In a sense, the Naxalbari revolt was literally ‘staged’, intended to serve as an aid, more powerful than words and treatises, in the inner-party struggle. However, as happens with most such matters, the protagonists of the revolutionary message/line had also really started believing what they were saying. Nothing was said for mere effect. The rebels really believed that the Indian revolution was round the corner, that the people were ready but it was the ‘revisionist’ and reformist leadership of the CPs that was holding them back. The Maoist dictum “a single spark can start a prairie fire” was understood to be valid for the India of the late 1960s and 1970s, to the extent that Charu Mazumdar could exhort – and most Naxalite rebels would believe and follow him – to make 1970s the decade of liberation.

It seems in retrospect, however, that the real significance of Naxalbari was not in the doctrinal stances of its leaders and the endless esoteric debates that followed them, it was rather in the fact that Maoism and Naxalbari became a powerful political and moral critique of the dominant institutions of Indian democracy as well as of existing forms of radical political practice.

The actual revolt did not last very long – in fact was surprisingly short-lived. But soon the idea of Naxalbari caught on – initially within the peripheries of the existing CPs, mainly the CPI(M). There were Naxalbari-type peasant revolts in different parts of the country – Lakhimpur Kheri in UP, Debra and Gopiballabpur in Midnapore district of West Bengal and later in Musahari in Bihar etc. In fact an important and much more intense armed struggle was already on at that time in the Srikakulum area of Andhra Pradesh which began attracting public attention only after it formally allied itself to the Naxalbari path. There were incidents in some parts of Kerala too. This extended period, between the crushing of the Naxalbari revolt and its spread to other parts, primarily in the form of a peasants armed struggle, covered something like two years. By the time the revolutionaries had regrouped and formed ‘the party’, namely the CPI(ML), the movement in its first phase was well on the way to being over. This was April-May 1969 – the party being formed secretly on April 22, Lenin’s birthday and announced publicly at a May Day rally that same year. This was the time when the second United Front government came to power and released the Naxalite leaders who had been arrested after the fall of the eight-month long first UF ministry. The second UF ministry lasted about two years.

It is also well-known that within two years, that is, by this time, the movement in West Bengal at least had moved and become an almost exclusively urban affair, attracting to its fold some of the brightest students from the most elite backgrounds. Gradually, the more underprivileged students of from the vernacular background began joining it. In this phase, the movement had already exceeded the intentions and control of its authors, some of whom watched in bewilderment, as brash young students went about demolishing the statues of respected figures of the ‘Bengali renaissance’. By this time Naxalbari had become an ‘idea’, a metaphor, a call to arms and more; it became a call to ruthlessly critique the legacy of colonial rule and everything that went with it. And it was then that, as colonial rule came under the scanner, even the role of important Bengali leaders and intellectuals was found to be wanting in that respect. They were all seen as collaborators – or at least as not sufficiently strong and resolute in their opposition to colonial rule. The Naxalite characterization of contemporary India as a “semi-feudal and semi-colonial” country, even though it drew its poetry from Mao’s formulations on pre-revolution China, served to underline aspects of continuity with colonial rule – of which there were undoubtedly many. This was in sharp contrast to the insistence of the mainstream CPs, on the aspect of break following Independence – of which too there were many. The point here is not whether the Naxalite characterization of India as semi-colonial was correct or not; what was of crucial importance was that it enabled a wholesale re-examination of certain aspects of our intellectual and political heritage. The youthful impetuosity witnessed in the iconoclasm of that period is only an exaggerated and irreverent form of what was to be undertaken later by scholars in their re-assessment of the Bengal renaissance in the early 1970s.

In its stated intent, however, the Naxalite movement wanted Revolution in the Marxist sense of capture of state power. That was the reason for its impatience with the pragmatism of the leaders of the traditional communist parties. And whatever their poetry of “protracted peasant warfare”, they wanted an instant revolution. Thus the call to make the 1970s the decade of liberation. Thus the impatience with anything that would prolong this period of revolutionary transformation. It was the return in a different form, of the ‘original’ notion of Revolution as Apocalypse, drawn in the Marxist imagination from its deep roots in Judaeo-Christian culture. This secularised eschatological idea of revolution as an apocalyptic moment of rupture has had a long innings in Marxism, which, in its Leninist form, recast and reconstituted this imagination quite substantially. This Leninist reconstitution, as we know, was based on a rendering of the idea of the ‘current situation’ or conjuncture and the related concept of the ‘weakest link’. In Naxalite discourse, the ‘current situation’ or the revolutionary conjuncture takes a form very different from Lenin’s. For by insisting that the situation in countries like India, the ‘objective’ situation is always revolutionary, they sought to shift the terms of debate to the ‘subjective’ aspect – the essential non-preparedness of the CPs to take on the task of revolution and revolutionary mobilization. The characterization of India as a “semi-feudal and semi-colonial” country was meant to emphasize the point that such a regime could not but be isolated from its people, being basically a parasitical and narrow stratum which ruled simply by virtue of support from its ‘imperialist masters’. Hence the only thing required was determined action by a revolutionary vanguard and people would readily lend their support to it. In contrast, in Lenin, the ‘current situation’ is of course a highly unstable moment of the arrangement of forces.

As time went by, however, the rebels realized what their predecessors, the cautious pragmatists of the CPI and CPI(M) had during the years following the withdrawal of the Telengana struggle: A militant armed struggle, even of revolutionary proportions, could not hold out in one small and isolated region. If Regis Debray, in the passage cited as epigraph to this essay, saw a fragmentation of the Latin American revolution along national lines, “following quite different and unconnected rhythms”, the Indian communists have seen this time and again within the huge landmass enveloped by the Indian ‘nation-state’. Invariably such struggles have died out waiting for synchronized countrywide revolutionary struggles to develop, and have eventually given way to different forms and degrees of parliamentary participation. Today, with the exception of one, the recently renamed CPI(Maoist), most of the Naxalite groups have decided to participate in elections and parliamentary politics in some form.

The Ghost of ‘Uneven Development’

Most revolutions have failed not because the revolutionaries were insincere. Likewise with the various shades of communists in India, for they too genuinely wanted to bring about a (revolutionary) transformation of Indian society. That they failed has to do with something more than just ‘betrayal’ or foolhardy romanticism. There may have been elements of both in the numerous failed revolutions across the world, but we need to understand why every revolutionary movement is so persistently haunted by the spectre of ‘reformism’ and ‘betrayal’. This has to do with the fact that most times in history are what could be called non-revolutionary times. Thus a recurring motif in all attempts to ‘explain’ such revolutionary ‘failures’ is that of ‘Uneven Development’ – gesturing to the virtual impossibility of a synchronized and simultaneous attack (of different regions, different classes etc) on state power with a view to ‘capturing’ it

As a matter of fact, the global history of the communist movement, it will not be an exaggeration to say, has been continuously ridden with this anxiety of dealing with the ghost of ‘uneven development’. The dream of world revolution floundered and died on the rock of ‘socialism in one country’. The initial years of the Russian revolution in Lenin’s lifetime were marked by the anxious wait for the European revolution that never happened and ‘socialism in one country’ had to be reluctantly accepted as a reality. The Chinese revolution had to await, among other things, the crisis if imperialism and the Second World War, the overall process of decolonization – in other words, the simultaneity of the anticolonial revolutions – in order to finally take control of state power. Even the Russian revolution, we know, was made possible by the peculiar conjuncture of the First World War when all the social contradictions fused together into an explosive unity. Trotsky’s formulation of the “law of combined and uneven development” – and the related idea of “permanent revolution” – was an attempt, among many others, to deal with this heterogeneity or non-simultaneity.[iii]

Our own experience in India has revealed a continued tension brought forth by this ‘uneven development’ of the revolutionary situation. There were at different points of time, different points of conflagration and intensity of class struggle but they could never add up to the materialization of the dream of an all-India upsurge. The sharp debates around the Telengana peasants’ struggle in the late 1940s in the Communist Party centred on the same question: whether to continue the peasants’ struggle that began in the princely state of Hyderabad, and was directed against the Razakars and Deshmukhs, even when it became integrated within the central state power of Independent India. It has been argued for instance, that a revolutionary situation existed in Hyderabad at that time, but once the state was merged in the Indian Union and Nehru’s armies marched in, the situation underwent a qualitative transformation. In the rest of India the nationalist fervour of the anticolonial struggle was now being directed towards the new task of nation-building. Other ‘discordant voices’ of the days of the nationalist movement, namely the Dalit movement and the Muslims who decided to remain in India, had to struggle to find a place for themselves in the new dispensation. Different currents of the pre-1947 days were now coming together through complex negotiations, in the entity of the new nation. In the midst of these different stories, the desire for an armed insurrection could only sound discordant. The disastrous ultra-Left line of insurrection in 1949, known more popularly as the BT Ranadive line, proved exactly that. Eventually, the CPI, on the advice of the CPSU, had to call of the armed struggle.

In the history of the CPI(M), the question surfaced repeatedly, in the course of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. This time round the question on the agenda was not revolution. There was no armed struggle anywhere. Yet the intensity of popular mass struggles in the preceding decades in Bengal and Kerala had provided a secure place to the communists. In the rest of the country their presence was on the whole, negligible. For the communists, this was a difficult situation. For they have never had any clue about what to do when ‘revolution’ was not on the immediate agenda. Lenin had told them that in such circumstances they could and must participate in elections and enter bourgeois parliaments and carry on the struggle within – to complement and strengthen the struggle without. But what if this participation led, as it did in the late 1960s to the possibility of their forming governments? Not do take the responsibility would be an abdication of the trust of the people who voted them into power. And what if, they continued to be voted into power for three decades and more? How were they to manage the bourgeois economy? How were they to retain their revolutionary character?

For the majority of those who remained in the parent party after the Naxalite split, entering the government was, initially, merely a holding out operation. They were still ‘waiting for the situation to mature’ in the rest of the country – so that they could go back to where they belonged. The simultaneous ‘maturation’ of the revolutionary situation was the dream that propelled them but the cruel fact of the matter was that this was not to happen. Fortunately for them, till the Left Front government finally came to power, they were rescued from this predicament each time, by the ruling party’s intolerance which saw to it that none of their governments lasted more than a couple of years at best. After 1977, things changed dramatically, much to the discomfort of the communists. The first few years of the CPI(M)-led LF government were actually spent in the expectation that they would be toppled soon. With that perspective, the government initiated some popular measures like a token allowance for the unemployed, a food-for-work programme in the villages, hikes in salaries of teachers and government servants etc. The LF government of the day was clearly not expecting to be in office for long and had not thought through the financial implications of these measures – that would be the headache of the government that followed. Alas! That was not to be. With its own hands, very soon, it had to revoke some of these measures. The party had to come to terms with the fact that this time round they would be tested on a fundamentally different ground. This was another effect of ‘Uneven Development’. There was even a time, as late as in 1985, when important sections within the West Bengal CPI(M) demanded that para 112 of the party’s Programme, which provided for the party’s participation in state governments, be deleted. In a sense, even when the party eventually reconciled itself to the possibility that it will have to work within the parliamentary framework indefinitely, the debate in 1996 around participation in the Central government was haunted by this very spectre of uneven development.[iv]

This repeated reappearance of the ghost of uneven development points insistently in one direction: the impossibility of synchronized and simultaneous assault on state power. The irreducible heterogeneity of the ‘present moment’, or what Louis Althusser called the ‘historical present’. It points to the “unconnected rhythms and upheavals” and the difficulties of unifying the political calendar that so troubled Regis Debray in the South American context. This was after all what cost Che Guevara his life: South America was not Cuba and the revolutionary movement could not simply be wished into existence. A ‘revolutionary situation’ in the Leninist sense, is the rarest of rare occurrences in history; for the most part there are what one might call ‘non-revolutionary times’, that is, times marked by the extreme heterogeneity of the present moment. And experience shows that revolutionaries do not really know how to deal with such ‘non-revolutionary times’. They know – or so they believe – what the conduct proper to revolutionary situations or times is. And whatever else, it is certainly not the lack of a will to fight or the courage and determination that they lack. The problem really is that revolutionary imagination is predicated upon the notion of a simple and homogeneous, singular present – that is a Present (or a revolutionary conjuncture) where all the different presents merge into a single moment. The revolutionary lives for that time. All other times are times out of joint, where s/he must simply wait for that moment or at best act in ways that hasten its arrival. In a profound sense, this is an anti-political notion of politics that takes away from politics that which is constitutive of it – its contingency that is fundamentally linked to the character of what Lenin called the ‘current situation’.

Revolution and the ‘Current Situation’

This brings us to the question of ‘politics’ as such. Every politics needs to be understood in relation to its object. Every politics addresses a specific object, which it acts upon and seeks to transform. We could also say that all politics is about transforming the ‘present’ in some way. Yet as we can see, there are at any point of time, many different presents that constitute the object of the many different kinds of politics that relate to them. The object, one could argue, is not something that exists prior to the politics that seeks to transform it. Nevertheless, the different discourses and practices through which both the politics and its object are constituted have a certain history, an experience, a certain narrative of the past, not all of which are reducible to the history of capital labour relations. So for instance, Dalit politics or feminism address their own specific objects, namely caste oppression and patriarchy, which their respective politics seeks to transform.

When the revolutionary imagination speaks of the ‘present’ it refers almost exclusively and solely to capital and capitalism and the working class. In the vocabulary of the Old Left, revolutionary times were understood as times of large-scale mass upheavals that, in one rutpural moment burst forth on the political scene and led to transformations of political regimes. Lenin described a ‘revolutionary situation’ as one marked by a “considerable increase in the activity of the masses” that moved them into “independent historical action”. He would always insist that revolutionaries cannot simply wish a revolutionary situation into existence; they had to always act upon a given situation – the ‘current situation’, even if they themselves constitute important elements of that situation. It is the attributes of this ‘current situation’ that all revolutionary/ radical political action needs to first comprehend. However, there is one problem: this ‘current situation’, as Althusser rightly pointed out, is a situation of complex determinations, comprising of the accumulation and fusion of innumerable different ‘contradictions’.[v] He called it the ‘overdetermination’ of contradictions. We can paraphrase his point thus: It is not a simple ‘maturation’ of the ‘principal contradiction’ within the totality called ‘global capitalism’ or the ‘world economy’ that will lead to a revolutionary rupture but the fusion of a number of different ‘contradictions’ into an explosive unity that will define a ‘revolutionary situation’. How else, asks Althusser, could the class-divided popular masses (proletarians, peasants, petty bourgeois) throw themselves together, into a general assault on the existing regime?[vi] We could add to this list of class-divided ‘popular masses’ today, a whole range of other groups and sections engaged in struggling against different kinds of oppressions – patriarchy, racism, casteism, and the nation-state/capital’s displacement of communities etc. The popular masses, in other words, are not merely class divided but also divided along innumerable other axes and for all of them to come together, there has to be a truly ‘exceptional’ situation – a revolutionary situation – in existence. In other words, there has to be a recognition from within these different kinds of movements of the immediacy of the need to rally against the same forces, usually represented in some centralized institution like the state. But this is precisely what happens very rarely in history. What is more, the experience of past revolutions shows that the outcome of such apocalyptic transformations is not always the same for all the forces that came together to achieve it in the first instance. A mere change of political regimes does not lead to the transformation of all those power relations, the struggle against which animated the ‘popular masses’ in the first place. In most cases, the initial success of the revolution leads to the dissipation of popular unity, as is evidenced by the experience of innumerable movements the world over.

We are then led to take the step that Althusser does not: The Leninist programme of revolution as capture or transformation (?) of state power is a very restricted one and itself needs to be rethought. Since such a revolution always acts upon one privileged present – at the point where the political tension at any given moment is the highest, all other presents are subsumed, all other questions deferred, in order to strike at the state power in question. Once the regime change has taken place and the immediacy of the moment is lost, the revolutionary energy dissipates, leaving only the most Jacobin elements within the revolutionary bloc to take control of the newly constituted power.

Rethinking the idea of revolution in this sense involves a rethinking of the very idea of a ‘present’, defined by a singular logic of the totality. The old radical project – the project of the pre-Althusserian Lenin for instance – was premised on such an idea of a singular present, defined by a certain notion of totality that was governed by a single organising principle or logic. ‘World capitalism’ was understood to be a single whole and all the nation-states, differentially incorporated into it were seen to be, despite certain specificities moving towards a fuller incorporation within it. The idea of an international working class movement, representing a common interest of an undifferentiated class, was clearly based upon this notion of a global totality animated by a single logic or, in its lexicon, the ‘principal contradiction’ The Leninist-Maoist moment, in its recognition of the crucial significance of national liberation struggles in breaking the chain of imperialism, did rupture this understanding to some extent but only in a practical form. It did this by positing peripheral national liberation struggles/revolutions and subsequently, nation-states, as critical players in the overarching struggle against imperialism, and therefore against world capitalism. However, even that intervention did not change the logic of the ‘principal contradiction’. It was the ‘principal contradiction’ that provided the governing logic and other contradictions, though recognised, always had a secondary place. It always had to be a single defining contradiction that would determine the fate of all others.

Needless to say, the catalogue of social contradictions enumerated by the different communist parties/groups was in itself quite restrictive and took no cognisance of the innumerable other conflicts that were already playing themselves out, particularly in the eighties and nineties in the postcolonial world, not to mention other conflicts that had already broken out in the metropolitan countries. Important among these conflicts were those that were articulated around issues of identity, gender, race, sexuality and the impending ecological disaster. These were issues that were either considered to be the product of some ruling class conspiracy or at best, matters that would be resolved automatically once the basic class questions were resolved. Their ‘resolution’ had therefore, to be infinitely deferred to some future socialist society. That the new society could itself reproduce all the old structures of domination had to do, critically with the fact that the very understanding of revolution was based upon the notion of a single, homogeneous time and restricted in its imagination to the macro-structural level. Micro-power and the everyday always eluded the revolutionaries because their eyes were fixed on the large structures of capitalism and state power.

Radical politics, then, cannot be seen as a specific kind of politics that only defines itself in relation to the present of global capital. As will be evident, there are at any point of time, any number of different oppressions and modes of domination and power that operate, against which different kinds of political practices emerge. Since none of these different oppressions are ever reducible to each other or to any common denominator, it follows that the discourses and practices of opposition and resistance that they engender are never also reducible to any single thing called Radical Politics. Hence, the postcolonial present, for example, can never be the same as the present of global capital or the present of the metropolitan countries.

Within what we call the postcolonial or the metropolitan societies, there are different, layered presents. The postcolonial present, moreover, is not merely the present of some geographically specific area/s but extends into the very heart of the metropolises – the struggle against racism, for immigrants’ rights, against sweatshops in the megacities of the metropolises. Likewise, the present of global capital invades the present of the postcolonial world, everyday, every hour in a myriad different ways. In doing so it tears apart many old structures, some of them extremely oppressive, and ironically therefore, also opens up new spaces of struggle even while it seeks to demolish the relative independence of nation-state structures and usher in a new form of right – that which Hardt and Negri call the right of Empire. It is these complex, oppressive presents that a renewed radical project will have to take into account in a context when the old binaries of revolution/reaction do not appear in a straightforward and simple manner.

Non-revolutionary Times

What then, are non-revolutionary times? From the preceding discussion we could say they are heterogeneous times. We could try to understand such times with reference to Lenin’s idea of a ‘revolutionary situation’. Lenin, for instance, repeatedly points out that revolutionaries cannot simply call a revolutionary situation into existence or create it out of nothing; they must always act upon a given situation. Thus his assertion, in the context of the collapse of the Second International, that “to the Marxist it is indisputable that a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation” and that not every revolutionary situation need lead to a revolution.[vii] Lenin also points out that one of the critical signs of a revolutionary situation is a “considerable increase in the activity of the masses” as a consequence of which they are drawn into “independent historical action.[viii] We might also reflect more seriously on the specific phrase used here: “independent” historical action, that is, spontaneous action not ‘mobilized’ [by vanguard/s]. So important is this idea for Lenin that it prompts his own response after the defeat of the 1905 revolution and especially after 1908, the period of Stolypin reaction: they would have to wait for the “new revolutionary upsurge”. Reading Lenin’s formula in reverse then, a non-revolutionary situation is a situation where the ‘masses’ or ‘people’ are not active as one singular political entity. Altering Lenin’s terms somewhat, we might also say, it is a situation where the ‘masses’ or ‘people’ do not yet exist, that is, exist as so many different classes, social groups, communities, or socio-cultural groups – yet to be constituted into a revolutionary subjectivity through political practice. The ‘people’ does not exist prior to the political practice that constitutes it as such – a political practice that acts upon an overdetermined and explosive present.

In this context, it is useful to consider the argument made by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in their important work, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Laclau and Mouffe show convincingly that the early twentieth century responses to the ‘crisis of Marxism’ – especially those of Rosa Luxemburg and Eduard Bernstein – reveal a very different notion of class unity from those of more conventional renderings like those of Karl Kautsky. Unlike Kautsky, Luxemburg and Bernstein begin with the premise of an initial fragmentation of the working class, which is located in the very structure of the economy, that is to say, capitalist production necessarily fragments the working class rather than unites it. Gramsci would in fact locate the sources of its fragmentation, additionally, in the activity of the ruling classes. Thus, the history of the subaltern classes is necessarily episodic according to him. Its unity only emerges, or must emerge through political practice, or what could be called in Laclau and Mouffe’s terms, through hegemonic practices. The “unity of the working class is not an infrastructural datum constituted outside the process of revolutionary overdetermination”.[ix]

If this is the case with the working class whose theoretically posited unity was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain, then, Laclau and Mouffe suggest, the matter is infinitely more complicated in relation to what Althusser calls the ‘popular masses’. “The concept of hegemony”, they suggest, “will emerge precisely in a context dominated by the experience of fragmentation and by the indeterminacy of the articulations between different struggles and subject positions.”[x] In their discussion, Laclau and Mouffe thus distinguish between what they call democratic struggles and popular struggles. Very schematically, democratic struggles refer to struggles like feminism, antiracism, Dalit politics, environmental politics etc., which are predicated upon a proliferation of antagonisms, as distinct from popular struggles, which are based on the division of the political space into two camps – the popular and the dominant power bloc The latter, we can see, is a defining feature of the revolutionary or insurrectionary moment. There is a point in this way of delineating the notion of ‘popular struggle’ or what Poulantzas called a situation of ‘dual power’, especially if we consider this formulation in the specific context of third world revolutionary and national liberation struggles through the twentieth century. Here the moment of rupture is not one ‘insurrectional’ moment but develops over a prolonged phase extending over decades. Thus re-worked, the idea of overdetermination can help us understand the meaning of such struggles, where the revolutionary situation does not ‘mature’ in one apocalyptic moment but proceeds through a series of protracted hegemonic struggles but where the political space is already divided into two camps.

It is instructive in this context to look at Mao Tsetung’s reading of the situation of the Chinese revolution. With Mao we repeatedly get the feeling that the continuous emphasis on “protracted warfare”, on the prospect of a long-drawn out struggles over decades, as against the search for the sudden insurrectionary moment of rupture in Lenin, has to do with a different sense of time. Russia, to Lenin, was the “weakest link” in the imperialist chain, which could be ruptured with decisive proletarian action, at the moment of crisis. This was possibly because Russia was situated at the intersection between the European imperialist (modern) and the colonised Asian (premodern) worlds. This intersection was certainly a spatial one in the sense that literally, the Russian empire straddled both worlds. But it was also a ‘temporal intersection’ in terms of the development of capitalism, a modern proletariat, links to the European world, on the one hand and the vast mass of Asian populations who lived, as it were in a different time. But what determined Russia’s future was its European part – for that part was where history was. The Asiatic part of the Russian empire never really figured in Lenin’s revolutionary imagination.[xi] China, on the other hand, was not merely geographically isolated but, like the Asiatic parts of the Russian empire, lay outside the “frontiers of history” and therefore also temporally outside the domain of the present of World-History.

The prospect that Mao was dealing with was that of “long term survival” “of one or more areas under ‘Red political power’ completely encircled by a white regime.”[xii] Mao is clear that such localized “Red power” can survive, among other things, only because of two crucial conditions: (i) China is neither an imperialist country nor “a colony under imperialist rule” – in other words, lacking in a centralized state power.[xiii] This survival is made possible by internecine wars among warlords – and this is a consequence of China’s being a localized agricultural economy and not a unified capitalist economy, alongside its division into different spheres of influence.[xiv] This provides the revolutionary forces the possibility of moving between these different areas and escape the repression of a centralized state machinery. (ii) More importantly, for our purposes, the survival of this power also depends upon “whether the nationwide revolutionary situation continues to develop. He states unambiguously that “if this nationwide revolutionary situation does not continue to develop but stagnates for a fairly long time, then it will be impossible for the small Red areas to last long.”[xv]

What is the notion of a revolutionary situation implicated in this formulation, where clearly a ‘local red power’ can take shape but which may or may not find a nationwide resonance? What is the disjunction that Mao seeks to register here? Let us return briefly to the passage from Regis Debray, cited as the epigraph of this essay. Debray speaks of national fragmentation of the Latin American revolution, with which he discerns a certain symmetry of the different temporal rhythms: “in each country the process has its own time-clock”. This formulation suggests a certain uniformity of temporal experience within a nation/state structure that differentiates it from others. The “people” (“who make history”), according to Debray live in the time of the area, town or country which their horizon is bounded by, in contradistinction to “the vanguards”, who by theoretical anticipation become contemporary with the time of continental or world revolution. Mao’s China, lacking in a single, centralized state structure lacks in a singular time. Different temporalities mark its different constituents. The revolutionaries in China therefore, do not have the possibility of the kind of revolutionary situation that the Bolsheviks had in Russia, which as we saw was articulated around a centralized state structure. What is more, China does not even have a unified capitalist economy; it is but a huge landmass with warring warlords. The vanguards in China therefore live the time of world revolution, almost entirely by theoretical anticipation.

The project of the modern state becomes one of the production of nationhood and of a hoary past – the invention of a Great Tradition of the incipient nation and the homogenisation of temporal experience within. It is this that Poulantzas referred to when he suggested that “The State establishes the modern nation by eliminating other national (sic) pasts and turning them into variations of its own history.”[xvi] The state, according to him, thus monopolizes national tradition, storing up the memory of the people-nation. In much the same way as Laclau and Mouffe see the fragmentation of the working class into so many different sections as an initial condition, so too does Poulantzas see the “spatiality and historicity of each [national] working class” as a variant of the time-space of its own nation – and not of the “working class” as some supra-national or a-national original essence, subsequently assuming contingent national forms.[xvii] This discussion of the state/nation and its relation to time has a direct bearing on our understanding of Mao’s ‘China’ and Regis Debray’s Latin America: the non-existence of the state in China and the existence of different national states in Latin America account for a very different kind of idea of a revolutionary situation from the one Lenin encountered in Russia.[xviii]

None of the above however, exemplifies ‘non-revolutionary times’. The instances in the above discussion merely point towards different kinds of revolutionary situations from the Russian – or French – kind. But they do show how even these depend critically upon the development of a simultaneous revolutionary situation for their success. That is precisely what Mao calculates for in China, and that is precisely what eludes Debray in Latin America. When Otto Bauer (in the second epigraph to this chapter) asserts that forms that appear as chronological in the international context, are actually contemporaneous in the Austro-Hungarian empire, he is in fact pointing to the fact that given these different forms, the idea of revolutionary intervention in the old framework of acting upon a single present becomes extremely problematic. It requires the spelling out of a different notion of revolutionary intervention. To quote Bauer: “To see the processes of transformation of capitalist society no longer as following the tempo of a unified and homogeneous logico-historical mechanism, but as the result of a multiplication and proliferation of endogenous factors of mutation of the relations of production and power – this implies…at the political level, a supersession of the mystifying alternative between ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’.”[xix] Bauer is also careful to point out while making the above point that this proposal of his “does not involve an evolutionist type of option, as if socialism were realizable through homeopathic doses”.

It is important to remember that Trotsky’s formula of “combined and uneven development” attempts to deal, at a global level, with precisely the problem that Otto Bauer is trying to grapple with in the context of the Austro-Hungarian empire – with of course, very different conclusions for theory and revolutionary strategy. Here Trotsky posits two laws, which he attempts to combine into one. “Unevenness, the most general law of the historic process, reveals itself most sharply and complexly in the destiny of the backward countries. Under the whip of external necessity, their backward culture is compelled to make leaps. From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development – by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms.”[xx] Michael Lowy rightly notes that the presupposition of this formulation is a specific idea of human history: “with the appearance of capitalism as a world system, world history becomes a (contradictory) concrete totality…”[xxi] The very idea of “unevenness” presupposes a totality; it assumes that the different entities involved here are parts of a larger whole – capitalism and world-history.

Yet the second law posited by Trotsky produces a notion of the totality that is at once threatened. For, in the passage above, the totality of world capitalism confronts a ‘backward culture’ as an externality, which it then forces to transform under its whip. “Savages (sic) throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road which lay between these two weapons in the past” says Trotsky, suggesting that in the process what has happened is that something entirely unexpected and new has come into being – a combination of the archaic and the contemporary. Does this ‘backward culture’ or ‘backward country’ thereby become fully integrated into the totality of world capitalism? Clearly, if it were the case, Trotsky would not have any need to posit this ‘law’. The problem is that he has to deal with the fact that the ‘totality’ of world capitalism he is confronted with is never really complete. It is true, as Lowy remarks, that this idea [of combined and uneven development] “enabled Trotsky to transcend the evolutionist conception of history as a succession of rigidly predetermined stages and to develop a dialectical view of historical development through sudden leaps and contradictory fusions”[xxii] It enabled him to argue against the evolutionist conception of the Marxism of the Second International that held that the socialist revolution could only, legitimately take place in the countries of advanced capitalism. In making this innovative move however, Trotsky effectively problematizes the very idea of a totality whose existence in governed by an internal rationality. A totality is made up of elements which are internally united in a relationship – where the part has no meaning apart from the whole. It is therefore, necessarily a complete and closed whole. The very idea of an externality interrupting the internal movement of its logic, determined by the identity and difference of contradiction, is therefore foreign to this fundamentally Hegelian idea of a totality that Marxism took over in the nineteenth century. In a sense, Lenin’s own idea of the totality is one that is effectively decentred and what Trotsky is doing here is building upon that Leninist insistence that revolutions may or can break out in completely unexpected places, as was happening in Russia in that conjuncture. Here the argument of the ‘weakest link’ put forward by Lenin becomes the mode of his displacement of the Centre of the totality of world capitalism. As Lukacs points out, he constantly reiterated the “warning to seize the ‘next link’ [this term is used by Lukacs, not really by Lenin] in the chain…that link on which the fate of the totality depends in that one moment…”.[xxiii] This idea is crucial. For, despite Lenin’s understanding of the revolutionary conjuncture as one overdetermined moment, his idea that the fate of the totality varies from one moment to another, with different links assuming the role of the centre, makes it open and indeterminate in a profound sense. It can no longer be understood as moving in accordance with an internal evolutionary logic – and like Trotsky, he too sees a relation of externality between capitalism and pre-capitalist societies, even if that happens through the problematic agency of colonial annexation and war. And it was such a reformulation of the idea of a decentred totality that Althusser attempted in the 1960s, by enunciating an alternative view of a ‘complex unity of the structure-in-dominance’, basing his re-conceptualization of the marxist totality on some of Mao’s texts.

It seems to me that while Trotsky is correctly able to challenge an evolutionist view of history, and thus overcome the ‘stagist’ mindset by arguing for socialist revolutions in ‘backward capitalist countries’, the continuing hold of the category of ‘totality’ forces him to still see world capitalism as a single closed entity, moving towards a common destiny. It is not difficult to discern here the idea of a single logos, a governing principle, at work that compels all countries to move towards the common socialist future of all humanity. It is this that makes him see all these ‘backward’ countries as already ‘backward capitalist countries’. It is this ideological a priori of the category of totality that subverts the possibility opened out by his reading of world capitalism as an ever-incomplete whole, confronting the so-called backward countries always as an externality. Needless to say, this is not a problem that is specific to Trotsky alone. All shades of Marxists have functioned – and continue to function – with some such notion of a totality of world capitalism driven by a singular internal logic. What if we deny the very possibility of a fully formed, internally coherent totality? What kind of implications does it have for our understanding of radical and revolutionary politics in the capitalist periphery?

In the first place, it calls attention to the ways in which we have discussed the revolutionary movements in the postcolonial world as merely some other version of a socialist/proletarian revolution. Even Mao, who challenged the Comintern and Stalinist orthodoxy in very significant ways, continues to talk of the Communist Party of China as a ‘working class’ party and the Chinese revolution as merely a contingent of the International Communist Movement. It is worth discussing some day how this idea has impoverished the possibilities of theoretical elaboration of the constitution of political subjectivities in these parts of the world. I will also argue that this way of understanding the history of Marxism in the postcolonial world has closed off all possibilities of understanding what this encounter did to marxism itself. The assumption that Marxism transformed large parts of the postcolonial world while itself remaining unchanged, is unsustainable and needs to be interrogated in the interests of understanding the meaning of this encounter.

Secondly, if we understand the very idea of a social totality to be an articulation of different temporalities, of many different presents, we can see that the possibilities of their fusion into an apocalyptic revolutionary situation can only be a rarest of rare events. We will then have to contend with the possibility of having to confront for the most part, non-revolutionary times. If revolutions have not occurred in many parts of the world where we would have expected them to, the fault may not lie with the practice of revolutionaries so much as with theoretical illusions about the imminence and inevitability of the revolutionary moment. “Uneven development” then becomes the explanation for the failure of that promised moment to arrive. Trotsky may not have foreseen this function of the “uneven development” thesis but this has provided it its most important after-life.

Non-revolutionary times then, are times that are marked by this deep heterogeneity of different presents. They may not always be times of reaction and counter-revolution but are likely to be characterized by what Laclau and Mouffe call the proliferation of antagonisms and the emergence of different kinds of democratic struggles which resist the constitution of the subject position of the ‘popular’. These are times that, therefore, call our attention to the very framing of ‘revolutionary politics’ in the abstract, torn from all historical context; they direct us to reconsider the entire conceptual framework that sets up the absolute priority of some eternal revolutionary principles and can only recognize anything that lies outside its framework as reformism. It is necessary to pose the central question more starkly: the dichotomous world of the old revolutionary framework erects the “dual power strategy” as the sole form for transformative politics.[xxiv] Consequently, it does not know what to do when such “dual power” situations are nowhere on the horizon. It is the persistence of the dual power strategy that inevitably poses the question of transformation in terms of an all-or-nothing option. The binary of revolution versus reformism is a logical consequence of such a strategic outlook and blocks any possibility of new, creative forms being thought out, as every strategy that moves out of this frame of reference is ab initio illegitimate, even if sometimes necessary. ‘Working within the system’ can only produce varieties of social democratic surrender to the logic of the system. We can only have the pathos of a Biman Bose or a Benoy Konar who claim that they are only building capitalism in West Bengal because that is all that they can do! With this bad conscience, the revolutionary can never think it the possibility of being and working subversively ‘within the system’.

This is why all radical politics is always besieged by the threat of ‘reformism’/ cooptation and ‘parliamentarism’. On the other hand, one could take a leave from the book of feminist politics to see how to be within a system subversively. One might then be able to see that radical politics can only exist in constant tension with itself, rejuvenating its transformative impulse by continually reinventing itself. The moment at which a radical politics freezes its categories into some eternal, timeless truths, it cannot but get caught in the mesh of domesticated bourgeois institutionalism. In order that radical politics is able to thus reinvent itself, it will have to be continuously alert to the ways in which newer subjectivities are taking shape and new challenges to the system are emerging on the ground in actual political practice.


[i] Regis Debray (1977) A Critique of Arms, Vol 1, Penguin Books, Great Britain, pp. 19-20. Emphasis added.

[ii] Otto Bauer, cited in Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1998) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Verso, London and New York, pp. 27-28

[iii] For a fascinating and detailed discussion of the genealogy of this idea, see Michael Lowy (1981) The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development – the Theory of Permanent Revolution, Verso, London.

[iv] I shall examine this trajectory of the CPI(M) and its transformation form a party of struggle to a party of governance, and to a party of order in a subsequent chapter.

[v] I find it extremely useful and productive to rework some of Althusser’s concepts and some very interesting insights. However, it is not hard to see that I read Althusser in a very different way from what he himself would have allowed, from a kind of post-Althusserian terrain. His extremely problematic structuralism needs to be, in my view abandoned. Some of the resources for going beyond his framework are actually provided by Althusser himself, provided we read him today with a different eye.

[vi] Louis Althusser (1979), For Marx, Verso, London, p. 99

[vii] V.I. Lenin, “The Collapse of the Second International”, Collected Works (CW), Vol 21, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, p. 213

[viii] Ibid. p. 214

[ix] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1998), Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Verso, p. 13

[x] Ibid. p. 13

[xi] Witness for instance the following from his criticism of the Mensheviks, where he claims that they do not understand that what is decisive in Marxism is its ‘revolutionary dialectics and adds: “For instance, it does not even occur to them that because Russia stands on the border-line between the civilised countries and the countries which this war has for the first time definitely brought into the orbit of civilization – all oriental, non-European countires – she could and was indeed bound to reveal certain distinguishing features.” Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 33, pp. 476-77. Emphasis added.

[xii] Mao Tsetung, Selected Works, Vol I, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1977, p.64

[xiii] Ibid. P. 65

[xiv] Ibid. p. 65

[xv] Ibid. p. 66

[xvi] Nicos Poulantzas (1978) State, Power, Socialism, NLB, London, p. 113. We can see however, that Poulantzas’ discussion is still framed by old categories of nation, which are in some sense assumed to be already there, as for instance when he says: “the modern nation-state also involves eradication of the tradition, histories and memories of the dominated nations…” (p.113). This however does not reduce the significance of his observations cited above.

[xvii] Ibid. p. 118

[xviii] The existence of the state is a necessary though not sufficient condition for a unified and homogeneous temporal experience. The power and reach of the state into the deep recesses of society has other coordinates which we cannot go into now. But it is for this reason that even in countries like India, despite the existence of a centralized state, communists have always had to deal with heterogeneous times.

[xix] Otto Bauer, Cited in Laclau and Mouffe, p.45.

[xx] Lowy (1981), p. 87

[xxi] Ibid. p. 87

[xxii] Ibid. p. 87

[xxiii] Georg Lukacs (1971), History and Class Consciousness, Merlin Press, London, p. 221, note 60.

[xxiv] I borrow this phrase from Poulantzas, Op. Cit. pp. 257- 260, who uses this expression used by Lenin to designate the situation in Russia where the power of the soviets confronted the power of the state, but generalises it to describe a strategic perspective of the kind we have been discussing above. For my purposes, both kinds of perspectives – that is the Russian and the protracted war – can be seen as instances of dual power.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Thalmann P. Pereira permalink
    November 10, 2007 1:00 PM

    Excellent insights.

    The “Non-Revolutionary times” require a strategy of digging in.

    But is capitalism itself “homogenous” or uniquely-crystallized in time? Consider, when one wage negotiation goes on in one industry, the other industries already have their variously timed long-term wage settlements. A sort of merry-go-round in which one trade unionist can effectively work all 365 days negotiating one new wage settlement for one industry, each new day, for the next three or four or five years, before revisiting the first one for its fresh settlement.

    Not only does it imply that the working class is heterogenous in the time-dimension, but also that capitalism itself is heterogenous in the time dimension.

    Unlike a purely agricultural economy, where, for a given climatic region, the season homogenises the landlords as well as the peasants, both in their economic and non-economic aspects.

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