Theses on Feuerbach, Woody Allen and Nandigram
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…?