A Few Lessons on Marxism and Politics
“At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organizational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent and lead them, are no longer recognized by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression” – Antonio Gramsci, Prison Noteboooks, International Publishers, New York, 1971, p. 210. Emphasis added)
This is how Gramsci, sitting inside Mussolini’s fascist prison, began his now celebrated discussion of the ‘crisis of hegemony’. I cite this here apropos of the discussion that has gone on some of the previous posts by Monobina Gupta, Sankar Ray and myself on the CPM/Left in West Bengal, in the course of which, I have been accused of ‘coming out’ as a supporter of the Trinamool Congress, which some have also termed as a fascist or even ‘super-fascist’ organization! Clearly, these gentlemen neither know the history of fascism nor indeed of Marxism. Fed on pamphlets of a certain marxist catechism, they have learnt only one thing: the division of the world into two camps where ostensibly, battle lines are permanently drawn between parties that apparently have a ‘mandate from heaven’ of bearing a particular class character, either bourgeois or working class. I hope none of those who have learnt their ‘dialectics’ or their ‘historical materialism’ from marxism-made-easy pamphlets of Emile Burns, Maurice Cornforth and Stalin will jump to pronounce Gramsci a postmodernist who denies this supposed ‘class essence’ of parties . (I am told though that these too are passe now; ‘cadres’ these days are not meant to read beyond party resolutions and ‘theoretical’ essays of Prabhat Patnaik, whose own world has stopped with Michal Kalecki).
And though Gramsci here was talking of the crisis of hegemony in the context of the traditional bourgeois parties, his discussion makes it clear that he was thinking of much more than that. There is no permanent relation of any party with the class or classes it claims to represent. Simply because a party that has ruled for thirty four years still has a signboard of a communist party does not mean it represents the working class or peasantry in perpetuity. It is patently clear from all evidences coming from West Bengal that the party there represents the interests of a combination of the real estate and builder mafia, corporate capitalists and a self-perpetuating party machinery.
Gramsci further suggests that “When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic ‘men [and women, we may add] of destiny’.” Shades of Mamata Banerjee here, one might say. Under such conditions, the ‘passage of troops’ of many different parties under the banner of a single party, which better represents and resumes the needs of an entire class, is an organic and normal phenomenon, continues Gramsci (p. 211). And here Gramsci touches upon what is most critical in the present case of the CPM in West Bengal: “This order of phenomena is concerned with one of the most important questions concerning the political party [Note the generic term 'political party']- i..e the party’s capacity [or incapacity - AN] to react against the force of habit, against the tendency to become mummified and anachronistic.” One could go on and on, with how Gramsci and others – the more creative thinkers in the history of marxism – were reflecting upon the tumultuous politics of their times. One is struck by how profoundly they engaged in analyzing and reflecting upon their times, compared to the empty rhetoric of the kind that ones witnesses among the representatives of the ‘mummified and anachronistic’ Left. Notice the absolute silence regarding any analysis of the rise of the Mamata phenomenon – apart from blaming others on the Left. In ordinary English, shoot the messenger who brings you bad news!
Let us assume for a moment that Mamata is a fascist and Trinamool Congress a dreaded fascist force. Can those who claim to be Marxists absolve themselves of the responsibility of explaining its disastrous rise? I am deliberately not putting ‘disastrous’ in quotation marks because, I do think, that at one level, this is a disaster. For, three and a half years ago, I had written, right here on Kafila, on the need for an alternative Left platform in West Bengal. That would have been a preferred alternative for many. But it was not to happen. It was not to happen because of the lack of moral courage and audacity among various Left forces – including the other partners of the Left Front. And so the ‘inevitable’ happened. And now that it has happened, we are told that this is the rise of fascism – and that it is the result of a massive conspiracy – involving all and sundry from ‘US Imperialism’ to Sumit and Tanika Sarkar! If the rise of fascism in Germany or Italy was a result of the crisis of hegemony and the mummification of traditional ruling class parties, and if according to all analyses from Gramsci, Trotsky and Dimitrov to Poulantzas (though I do not agree with all these analyses in toto), the rise of fascism cannot be thought apart from the crisis of traditional party representation and the crisis of the Left, what is the analysis our critics have of the rise of this novel kind of fascism in West Bengal? Absolutely none!
In response to some of our criticisms of the misogyny, sexism and crass political cynicism in the CPM, our critics have only one, rather pathetic response: Trinamool Congress also does it! Great! These gentlemen revolutionaries who want to create a New Man, no less, have to justify their degeneration by pointing to the TMC! So, as long as that is clear, if we agree that we must judge both parties with the same yardstick – we must then also agree that they are really parties of the same genre. Our not condemning such behaviour on TMC’s part is simply because we do not and never had any expectations of the TMC, for there is no larger claim there about representing the ‘working class’ and about being the agents of ‘World-History’!
Finally, some of the commentators have also patronizingly suggested that I am a ‘disillusioned’ communist, which is why I write what I do. Indeed, I have no desire to make a personal response on this – except to say this is the standard tactic: nobody can disagree with you; they can only be ‘disgruntled’, ‘disillusioned’ or ‘cynical’. But there is one theoretical/ conceptual issue involved here in this welter of accusations: I have no connection with mass movements, so I have no right to speak.
Once again, I will not respond to the personal part of the accusation for I do not need any certificates from anyone on this – not the least from those whose party membership entitles them to the club of the privileged few of history. What I do want to underline is the completely farcical understanding of Marxism itself that underlies it. Generations of marxists – of a certain brand of marxists – have chewed the cud over the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach without ever understanding its import: Philosophers have only interpreted the world so far; the point however is to change it. The Theses, as we know, was written in 1844-45. Thereafter, Marx did not jump into organizing the working class but immersed himself in the next couple of decades to the writing of Capital. He was thereafter only found either in the British Museum Library or other libraries. The eleventh thesis was, as many have pointed out, not a denigration of intellectual work but a critique of philosophy – that is to say, speculative philosophy including materialist philosophy of that period. Marxism, to the best of my knowledge, always sought the ‘unity of theory and practice’ and not extolling one at the cost of the other. For, Marx understood one thing clearly, which his followers cannot: if he had surrendered to the eternal blackmail of current politics of choosing from given options, no new vision would ever have emerged. Sometimes, he knew, some people had to decisively reject this blackmail. At some level, it is Marx who remains our inspiration.