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Theses on Feuerbach, Woody Allen and Nandigram

November 25, 2007

In Wolfgang Becker’s film Good Bye Lenin set in East Germany at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a young boy tries to protect his invalid mother from the shock of learning about the transformation that has overtaken their country. When despite his elaborate deception, she manages to see a television programme showing thousands of cheering Germans at the remnants of the wall, he tells her that the capitalist west has fallen, that refugees from West Berlin are pouring into the East, and that East Germany has welcomed them with open arms. And she believes him.

Thing is, there was no historical inevitability to the fall of communism. The story the boy tells his mother in Good Bye Lenin could well have been the way things went in history, but for the self-destructiveness of Stalinism – its hubris, its fetishization of a certain notion of industrialization and progress, its anti-democratic core, its contempt for the “people” it claimed to represent (or rather, the people it claimed to be.)

Watching the 21st century Stalinist saga unfold in West Bengal, one is overwhelmed by anger and deep sadness. Among the graffiti during the 1968 struggles in Paris was this one – “We are the people our parents warned us against.” To Buddhadeb and the “Left intellectuals” who rally to his defence one can only say – “You are the people Marx warned us against.” If there is one truth to take away from Marx it is this – there can be no one Marxism for all times. The philosopher who said “It is not consciousness that determines being but social being that determines consciousness” – that Marx would have been a post-marxist today.

The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach (“Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however, is to change it”) has been read by Stalinist marxism to mean “Don’t Think, Just Act!” Say the Stalinists, “We have already given you the truth, the way and the life” (the resonance with biblical liturgy is inescapable), “all you need to do is to have your consciousness raised to ours, and to follow.”

But the Theses on Feuerbach are a critique of Feuerbachian materialism, which assumes that the world exists independently of, and outside our minds. Marx, in the ten theses that precede the famous Thesis XI, polemically argues that Feuerbach and all previous materialists envisaged objects in a contemplative way, as if they exist independently of human activity. For Marx, the objects of human perception are not simply given in nature, but are produced in a complex interaction with human needs and efforts. The third Thesis criticizes the “materialist doctrine” of Feuerbach for the assumption that human beings are the mere products of external circumstances and upbringing, forgetting the crucial factor that when circumstances change, it is human intervention that changes them. In Marx’s materialism there is a dialectical relationship between external reality and human thought.

Without this element of human agency, a materialist doctrine must necessarily divide society into two sections – one of which is superior, which understands the abstract laws of progress of matter; and another which is ignorant of these laws and lives its everyday life as if their petty little lives were as real as the laws of progress of matter. The irony of course, is that to posit in advance the metaphysical category of ‘laws of history’ by which we measure ‘progressive’ theory and politics, is not to be materialist at all. It is to give primacy to the conceptual – to the Idea.

It is only when we start with the ways in which subjectivity is constructed – for ‘women’ and ‘men’, for “peasants”, or whatever, within patriarchal/raceist/casteist/capitalist society, and engage with these actually existing subjectivities that our political practice and understanding would be materialist. A ‘materialist’ politics would have to track actually existing subjectivities and engage with their potentialities and limits

Marx emphasises the fact that the development of the mind is at the same time the process by which the world is transformed – the mind and the world are interdependent. Society can be changed only by the mass of people transforming the world (their worlds), and not by a handful of reformers explaining the world to the masses – then shoving the masses into line with armed guards if they have the temerity to have their own understanding of their reality.

Hence Thesis XI. Far from denying the importance of philosophy and thinking, its claim is that to change the world is not to be outside it, objectively “interpreting” a fixed reality and pushing it in pre-determined directions. When you engage with the world, it changes you as much as you change it.

For this Marx, the term “Narodnik” would not be the term of abuse it is for Karat, who hurled it at Sumit Sarkar at some point in this long and dreadful saga. Sumit and his colleagues too, were careful during their press conference to deny they were Narodniks, but after all, what is a Narodnik, and why shouldn’t we be Narodniks? Narodniks believed that peasant communes could be the basis for socialism (see Aditya Nigam’s earlier post for a detailed discussion on this issue) – but my point here is about the ecological unsustainablity of capitalist industrialization. Not only is it not a desirable road to socialism comrades, it is not a possible road to anywhere but the bleak hell of a devastated earth.

Woody Allen once mused, “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.” The CPI(M) conversely, loves peasants (the party is permanently “in solidarity with struggling peasants everywhere”); it’s the peasantry it can’t stand. Unless the class itself is obliterated and every last peasant is transformed into a wage slave, how is the economy to be thoroughly industrialized, and how else will the path be cleared for socialism?

“There Will Be No Chemical Hub in Nandigram.” Nice bumper sticker. But will there be one on some other farmland? A nuclear plant in Haripur? An SEZ in another village? A corporation setting up a “Singapore-type” housing society on farmland anywhere in the state? In that case comrades, remind us again – the difference between you and every other pro-capitalist neo-liberal party is…?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Ajit permalink
    November 25, 2007 5:09 AM

    This is a good article.The central dogma of Stalinist Marxism which makes it lead the people toward this kind of bleak hell is Democratic Centralism. Any communist party(Most or even all of them do) which adopts it means it will only end in disaster like the one being enacted in Bengal. There is no Democratic in Democratic Centralism. It’s only Centralism. DC is the radioactive dirty bomb within Communist Movement. Within a short time there will only be time servers, retainers,yes men and other crooks in the party. If the party gets power this dynamic gets accelerated.
    DC makes even intelligent people behave like automatons.

  2. Atreyee permalink
    November 25, 2007 11:51 PM

    Brilliant stuff! I have always thought though that the history of the Marxist state machinery and that of the left intellectual movement (triggered by Marx’s writings) through the twentieth century have been quite different things. Whereas the intellectual thinktank (including the likes of Aditya Nigam, who wrote a brilliantly incisive post a few months back reflecting on small enterpreneurship and big capital, and how capital and capitalism are understood) have thought and rethought the Commie reading of Marx, the nonchalant violence of the CP(I)M remains an undocumented history of the last three decades of West Bengal’s political ethos.

    A number local NGO activists in rural Bengal, in unguarded moments over chai, will tell you how there is no getting around anything without the tacit consent of the local party goonda. Any independent social activist risks a real and constant threat to her security. These are not Maoist ideolgues, but a widespread,organised network of the Violence unit of the party that have ensured no other effective political alternate will never be possible in rural Bengal. Possibly a twin of similar appendages of the Hindu Right political parties, as revealed in the Tehelka videos. Funny, no media ever talks about violent strategies the left has used for decades.

    My guess is it is this well-oiled Violence machinery that was meant to tackle Singur and Nandigram all the while, except things got a little out of hand, and hence exposed to the rest of the nation.

    Also, while we are on SEZs, has anyone checked the SEZ website of the Union Government? The numbers may sound a little alarming.

    http://sezindia.nic.in/HTMLS/SEZs_notified_under_SEZ_Act_2005.pdf

  3. Preeti Sampat permalink
    November 26, 2007 9:18 AM

    Hear Hear Nivedita! Someone was good enough to forward this. Sitting in the US and watching the ‘Left’ posit over Nandigram, you are a welcome breeze in hot summer! Many thanks for simple clarity and strong positioning.

  4. November 26, 2007 10:34 AM

    What a great post! What a great site! I’m so happy I found this today. A friend in NYC sent me a link about the international leftist statement urging “unity” with the CPI-Marxist – and I have to tell you that information in North America regarding the unfolding struggles in South Asia (from India to Nepal and then some) is virtually non-existent.

    In the USA, we have no (significant) Marxist electoral parties. Those who are similar to the CPI-Marixst support the imperialist Democratic Party and have for decades.

    It was with the New Left of the 1960s that a wave of anti-revisionist parties were formed, though none remains in good shape. Today, social activists and militants often work through movements more than parties – to our great weakness! But still we are in the game.

    Can you recommend more websites that detail or digest the situation for an international audience?

    Again, many thanks. Your materials and analysis on the conflict between the CPI-Marxist (anti-Marxist!) will be shared. I’d suggest that you write personal notes to the intellectuals who signed this statement. For some of them, it’s fair to say they do not know the specifics of the situation, or the neo-liberal agenda of the CPI-Marxist. If South Asians independent of the CPI-Marxist explained what is up, I suspect that several of them would withdraw their signature.

  5. Nivedita Menon permalink*
    November 27, 2007 9:55 PM

    Hello JB, welcome to kafila. Other new-lefty sites – for my part, I recommend Bengal-based sanhati.com and sacredmediacow.com a SOAS London-based blog on Indian media research.
    Meanwhile, many of the signatories of the Chomsky et al statement have indeed also been contacted personally, since many of us know many of them. Susan George, as you may know, has already withdrawn her signature in a remarkably dignified way (see sanhati.com), and some others have privately expressed a rethink, whether or not they come out publicly again. That whole thing has been revealed to be the con it was, so our purpose is served, really.

  6. mohan permalink
    December 9, 2007 6:35 AM

    this looks like reworking of marx by great 21st century philosphers . wonderful, great. keep it up. long live the socialist peasant state.

  7. mohan permalink
    December 9, 2007 6:37 AM

    on second thoughts , state has withered.

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