In India

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Aijaz Ahmad is a Marxist thinker of Indian origin and an internationally renowned theorist of modern history, politics and culture.

By Jipson John & Jitheesh P M

Published on Frontline, August 2, 2019

Aijaz Ahmad is a Marxist thinker of Indian origin and an internationally renowned theorist of modern history, politics and culture. He has taught in various universities in India, Canada and the United States and currently serves as Distinguished Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine, where he teaches critical theory.

A large part of this interview concerns questions of Hindutva communalism, fascism, secularism and possibilities for the Left in the Indian context. In other sections, he reflects on globalisation, global prospects for the Left, the uses and misuses of Antonio Gramsci’s thought, and the relevance of Karl Marx in our time. The interview was conducted before the recent general election in India and updated after the election results were out.

Aijaz Ahmad argues that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its fronts, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), display distinct fascistic characteristics, but the Indian state continues to live by the liberal playbook, no matter how hollow the Indian liberal institutions may have become. He anchors this proposition in a distinctive theoretical position.

Aijaz Ahmad believes that there is a fundamental contradiction between democracy and liberalism but says that no such contradiction obtains between the rule of the Far Right and the liberal institutional form of the state. Liberalism undermines democracy and strengthens the Far Right. That is why forces of the Far Right in a whole range of countries—the U.S., Israel, Turkey, India, and so on—are able to rule through liberal institutions.

He also believes that the question of fascism needs to be viewed in two very different frames that are often confused. In one of these theoretical frames, fascism can be viewed as a generic tendency that is permanent and immanent in all forms of the politics of the capitalist bourgeoisie throughout the epoch of imperialism. Numerous political parties that display fascistic tendencies function happily within the rule of liberal/neoliberal capitalism, all over Europe for instance.

In the narrower frame of reference, however, the fully fascist movements and states such as those of Germany, Italy or Spain arose during the interwar period in very special circumstances. The balance of class forces in those countries was such that abrogation of the liberal form of the state was essential before warlike violence could be unleashed against the very powerful revolutionary movements of the working class that threatened the rule of capital as such. Working-class movements are weaker today than at any other point in virtually a century. A fascist order is unnecessary. The Far Right and the liberal machine can coexist happily in an infernal embrace.

Aijaz Ahmad writes in English and in Urdu. His work has been translated into Chinese, Turkish, Portuguese, Korean, French and Arabic. Some of his books in English are Ghazals of Ghalib (New York, 1971; New Delhi, 1994), In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London, 1992; New Delhi, 1995), Lineages of the Present (New Delhi, 1996; London, 2000), Globalization and Culture: Offensives of the Far Right (New Delhi, 2004) and Afghanistan, Iraq, and The Imperialism of Our Time (New Delhi, 2004).

Narendra Modi again won the people’s mandate in May 2019. How do you look at his comeback? What are the main factors that contributed to the BJP’s return to power with a historical mandate? How do you foresee India’s future under the RSS-BJP’s second term in office?

Led by Narendra Modi, the BJP has certainly scored an electoral landslide. Whether this can be called a “people’s mandate” is very doubtful. In order to give their mandate, people have to have the benefit of a rational political debate based on strict respect for facts, not to speak of calm and clear enunciation of alternative policies by the contending political parties. Even if political parties are able to offer rational alternatives based on facts, the people today no longer have access to any of that because the corporate media in India are aligned almost exclusively with the Sangh machine and are no longer committed to public civility and unbiased reporting of facts and policies. A democratic exercise through which the people can give their mandate further requires strict observance of ethical, constitutional and legal norms by all the institutions involved, notably the Election Commission, the highest judiciary, law enforcement agencies—which is no longer the case. There once was a time when the Indian polity observed these democratic norms to a very remarkable degree. But a civil compact of that kind has been fraying in India for some decades now, getting increasingly more corrupted as years go by. By “corrupted”, I don’t mean just the massive use of money, which is itself a big factor in determining electoral outcome. I mean an all-encompassing erosion of what could reasonably be called a democratic process. 2019 seems to have been the point when any relation between the size of the electoral victory and the basics of the democratic norm has disappeared altogether.

Indian politics has been Americanised to an astonishing degree. The cult of the great leader—the messiah, the saviour—on the one hand, and the systematic production of fear and hysteria on the other, have become quite the norm. Politics are now driven by 24×7 TV channels, opinion polls, and immense campaign extravaganzas staged with billions of [rupees of] corporate financing, much of it secret and untraceable. The escalating hysteria about citizens and non-citizens, which is likely to reach hysterical proportions with Amit Shah as Home Minister, is itself a carbon copy of [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s racist, virtually genocidal policies toward the South American economic refugees crossing into the U.S. All of this the Sangh conglomerate has imbibed from the U.S., with three differences: outright hysteria is much more the norm in virtually all the TV channels in India; sources of the money that went into the oiling of the BJP machinery in 2019 were more opaque while the amounts were even greater than in the U.S.; and the low-intensity but unremitting violence that the Sangh deploys so routinely, without fear of judicial reprisal, is far ahead of Trump’s savageries.

Did the 2019 results surprise me? Yes, as did the 2014 results. I am not a student of day-to-day electoral politics. My personal expectations in any election are shaped very much by estimates that I receive from sources on the Left and the liberal Left. And you know what those estimates were: narrow margins on either side, possibly a hung Parliament. Once I recovered from those immediate expectations, I returned to the very premises of my structural analysis.

Secularism, a minority position always

I always emphasised how a true commitment to secularism was always a minority position in Indian society and politics, how very much more Hinduised Indian society has now become, how communal violence always leads to very rich electoral dividends for the BJP and its associates, how all the key institutions of the Indian state were getting eroded and increasingly serving the interests of the BJP, including the Election Commission and the higher judiciary. I had written a more conceptual essay on the larger trends in 2015, in the aftermath of the 2014 elections, which Socialist Register published in 2016. That article was then reprinted in a couple of other places, in Britain as well as India, and has now been reprinted again in Frontline [“India: Liberal Democracy and the Extreme Right”, June 7, 2019]. Much of what has happened now is simply the intensification of what I had then identified as major features of Indian politics.

I had said at that time that the electoral decline of the Congress in one way and that of the Left in another was at least as important as the BJP’s majority in the Lok Sabha. I had noted that Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister who gained virtually total support of the great capitalist magnates well before the elections got going, and that he had not only forced Indian politics to go presidential, on the American model but spent roughly the same amount of money on his election as did [former U.S. President Barack] Obama on his. A point that probably went unnoticed by even some of the keenest readers was that the money he raised and hoped to keep raising from the corporate sector made him considerably independent of the RSS, the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad], and even the BJP itself, because he now had enough money to buy up into his loyalty structure the cadres the RSS had provided to the BJP for electoral campaigns, not to speak of the middle-level functionaries of the BJP who too could be bought up with that money. The invincibility of the Modi-Shah duo within their own world is probably owed at least in part to the fabulous wealth they now control.

I had argued at great length that the RSS had long settled on a strategy whereby it would accept the liberal institutional structures but would fight to acquire long-term state power by taking over the institutions of the state from within. “Long march through the institutions” I had called it, in an ironic reference to a famous slogan of the Left from the 1960s. On an even broader scale, I had argued that there was no fundamental contradiction between projects of the Far Right and the liberal institutional structures; the RSS can take hold of those institutions and rule through them. These and many such propositions in that earlier analysis still give me the rudiments that can be developed into a further analysis of where we now stand. So, for instance, and considering what I have argued over the past few years, I was not in the least surprised at the scale of the electoral fraud of various sorts or the fact that every major institution of the Indian state has colluded with the BJP/RSS in protecting it against any fallout. The state has been taken over substantially, from within.

Bitter realities

A more complex analysis shall have to wait. A couple of bitter things need to be said, however. The first is that the BJP is now really the only truly national party and that the Modi-Shah duo represents a stable centre in this formation. Second, with the exception of the Left, there is no political party, including the Congress, for which the need to fight collectively for secular civility takes precedence over its own sectoral, corporate interest. The corollary of that recognition is that there is no such thing as “secular parties” with which the Left can reliably align itself; secularism for every one of them is a matter of convenience, and the isolation of the Left on this issue is absolute. Third, the decline of the Congress is definitive; any second coming will have to involve major changes that are not in sight.

Fourth, election results in U.P. [Uttar Pradesh] demonstrate that a combination of the politics of religious hysteria and social engineering within the fragmented field of caste politics can prove strong enough to trounce even the combined force of the S.P. [Samajwadi Party] and the BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party], the two major faces of caste politics in the State. From Gandhi to the RSS, the dream has been to contain caste antagonisms within the larger Hindu fold through a machinery of concessions. A middle caste solution for the coexistence of the upper and lower castes, so to speak! The U.P. results are only the most recent among many a success that the RSS has had to its credit on this score, all the way from Gujarat to the north-east. We have to re-examine very closely our settled belief that the question of caste will somehow trump the Hindutva project.

Finally, from the long-term perspective of any prospect for a politics of liberation and renovation, the collapse of the Left-oriented popular vote in West Bengal, and the fact that much of it seems to have veered toward the BJP, is virtually the most disheartening event of 2019. This is not the first time when, nor is West Bengal the first place where, we have witnessed how very disorienting the savageries and duplicities of liberal politics can be for the wretched of this earth. What do the bereft, the desperate and the immiserated do as they try to cope with everyday material miseries and get caught in the crossfire between criminal political forces like the Trinamool [Congress] and the BJP? I said before the elections that the Left is so isolated in these ruins of liberal politics that it will have to be fighting for bare survival. Now, with these results coming in, the situation becomes even more grim.

Role of the Left

Having said that, I do want to stress three things about the Left in India. One, it commands a level of political experience and organisational depth that is quite unmatched. If anyone thinks that the social movements, the NGOs [non-governmental organisations], the little groups here and there are going to fill the spaces from which the Left is being forced to retreat, that is just not going to happen. Second, the Left is the only force in India that has a coherent vision and a comprehensive social understanding from the standpoint of the poor and the working class as a whole. Third, the Left in India has an extraordinary presence in the intellectual and artistic life of the country; no other political force comes anywhere near. The basic resources are still there, even though the beginning of a reconstruction will now require tremendous audacity.

After all that has happened over the past five years, nothing about the elections of 2019 is really fundamentally surprising—not even the prospect that the next five years are likely to be very much worse. An age that our Independence had inaugurated does seem to be closing, though, and the young will now inherit a country so extensively damaged that they will have no choice but to remake it, from the bottom up.

The Hindutva right-wing offensive has attained new heights during the Modi period. Mob lynching, cold-blooded murders, assassination plots, stifling dissent by right-wing groups were the daily norm in the country in the last five years, and it continues so. How do you analyse these?

You are of course right about this escalation, but things should be seen in perspective. The republic was born in the midst of a communal holocaust and the largest religion-based migration of peoples in human history, Hindus and Sikhs migrating from Pakistan and Muslims from India. Communal violence has been with us ever since and indeed since well before Independence and Partition. There are undoubtedly millions of Indians who are perfectly tolerant in their social lives and secular in their political conduct. But one should also remember that there are severe limits to how tolerant and secular a caste-based, god-intoxicated society can be. That is the first point.

Dividends of communal violence

The second point is that we have seen over and over again since about the mid 1980s that communal violence pays very handsome cultural and electoral dividends. The killing of thousands of Sikhs in the nation’s capital served to unite the Hindu nation and delivered to the Congress the largest number of MPs it has ever had. The Ramjanmabhoomi movement was unleashed to detach that Hindu majority from the Congress and win it for the Sangh Parivar. After about five years of agitation, which included homeopathic doses of violence, the BJP jumped from two Lok Sabha seats to 85 in 1989. After two more years of rath yatras and rivers of blood, it rose to 120 seats. Then, in the first election after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, it won a plurality of seats in Parliament, with 161 MPs, and even formed a short-lived government at the Centre.

Given this record, it would be politically foolish for the Sangh to give up the communal violence that comes so naturally to it. I might add that Modi was a minor figure before the Gujarat killings of 2002. After those killings, he and Amit Shah were unstoppable, first at the State level and then at the federal level. Electoral arithmetic may lead to temporary setbacks now and then, but on the whole, the Sangh Parivar has been gaining power and prestige since about the mid 1980s.

It is not only that the RSS and the BJP have gone from strength to strength in federal as well as State elections, but they have also succeeded in altering the very temper of the nation socially and culturally. India is now a much more Hinduised country than even 20 years ago, and this applies as much to the saffron yuppies as to rich peasants and even lower castes in large parts of India.

For instance, the [A.B.] Vajpayee government tried to introduce a beef ban in its early days but retreated hastily in face of the uproar in Parliament; the Modi-Shah government was able to implement it without any consequential opposition. The RSS is able to implement much more of its agenda. The new groups of leaders, Modi to [Yogi] Adyanath, are much more crude and bloodthirsty than Vajpayee or even [L.K.] Advani, who had spent a long time in Parliament as members of a small party before their rise began. And I need not even comment on the disarray of the opposition. In short, the worst elements of the RSS have risen to power precisely at the time when the BJP is at the apex of its electoral strength. Why should they give up the tactics that have brought them this power?

You were the first among the intellectuals who warned about the ascendancy of fascism in the country in the context of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Your lecture, later published as an essay, “Fascism and National Culture: Reading Gramsci in the Days of Hindutva”, was an excellent text on the rise of Hindutva fascism in India. In that you wrote that “every country gets the fascism it deserves”. Does India get its own fascism now?

Yes, that was my initial reaction, and I did use the term “fascism” at that time rather frequently. But I introduced many caveats very soon after that initial moment. I still believe that the destruction of the Babri Masjid was a fascist spectacle and that the RSS has many classically fascist characteristics, but I do make a distinction between the RSS and its mass political front, the BJP, which is historically a very unique party. We need very precise dialectical operations to understand the structural novelty of this party before putting an easy label on it. My lecture/essay that you refer to was also written very soon after the Ayodhya demolition. But it was not on the “the rise of Hindutva fascism” as you put it. Rather, it was a reflection from inside India, at a particular moment of crisis, on a particular problem that Gramsci had posed for himself. As of 1920, the Italian Left was incomparably stronger than the rather small and disorganised fascist formation. Three years later, [Benito] Mussolini was in power, and by 1926 his power had become absolute, with the Left decimated as a political force, well before the Nazis came to power in Germany. In this context, Gramsci asked himself: what is it in our history and society, what was in the bourgeois nationalism of our country which has led to such easy victory for fascism and such easy defeat of the Left? Very large parts of the Prison Notebooks are a reflection on Italian history, on the special place of the Vatican in that history, on the peculiarities of the Risorgimento and Italian unification, on the stunted nature of the Italian bourgeoisie and its industrial cities, on popular fiction, and so on, so as to grasp patterns of popular consciousness. I tried to raise similar sorts of questions about India. The problem with that essay is that too much of it is based on analogical thinking, which is a very inferior form of thinking. Soon after that I wrote a very long essay on Italian fascism, which I like better.

When I wrote that every country gets the fascism it deserves, I had in mind the great difference between Germany and Italy, between Italy or Germany and Spain, and so on, which then implies that if and when fascism comes to India it will be a product of our own history and society, quite different from any other. You ask me if fascism is coming to India now. The answer is “No”. Neither the Indian bourgeoisie nor the RSS needs fascism. In interwar Europe, varieties of fascism came in countries where the working-class movement was very powerful and a communist revolution was very possible. No such situation obtains in India. Communal violence, no matter how ugly or punctual, is not fascism. Do the RSS and several of its non-parliamentary fronts have some fascist attributes? Yes, they do. But so do dozens of movements and parties of the Far Right all over the globe. A fascist streak has been a part of capitalist politics since about the 1880s, but very few states or political parties can be called fascist in the strict sense.

Low-intensity democracy

You say that right-wing forces such as the Sangh Parivar do not need to fully smash and abolish the liberal political framework in India. Instead, they can work within it and make use of it. Is our democratic tradition and liberal political set-up strong enough to keep us a liberal democratic parliamentary system without crumbling under right-wing totalitarian tendencies?

Changing some aspects of the Constitution is not the same thing as smashing the liberal order. The U.S. Constitution includes many amendments. There are parliamentary procedures for introducing new elements in a Constitution. You or I may or may not like those changes, but so long as those parliamentary procedures are observed, the liberal order remains intact. You must understand that I am a great defender of democracy, but I dislike liberalism. I have actually published an essay denouncing the liberalisation of democracy. A very frightening development over the past five years has been the extent to which the BJP has been able to elicit great compliance from key sectors of the liberal order such as the judiciary, the Election Commission and, of course, the great majority of the electronic media, the dominant TV channels, etc. We have always had a low-intensity democracy, and whatever intensity it did have is getting eroded. And, by the way, I despise the word “totalitarianism”. It was invented to denounce communist countries and then to posit that communism and fascism are equally totalitarian.

How do you trace the emergence of the RSS and Hindutva politics in the colonial context of the 20th century? Earlier you have written that similar counter-revolutionary forces, the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, emerged in different parts of the world during the interwar period. What led to such emergence? How are they similar in character?

A satisfactory answer would require a lot of time and space. Three points can be made briefly. First, Europe itself has had a very long history of struggles between revolution and counter-revolution, rationalism and irrationality, secular definitions of nationhood and racial or religious definitions of nationhood, various sorts of liberal institutions as well as various kinds of authoritarianisms, and so on. Colonialism brought all this baggage into the colonies, and such contests became common in our societies as well. So, there is nothing particularly Indian about Hindu nationalism or Muslim nationalism; they are just a colonial variant of, let us say, the French counter-revolutionary tradition which despised the French Revolution for abolishing the monarchy and the privileges of the Catholic Church. Communal violence against religious minorities is nothing but a colonial copy of European anti-Semitism.

Second, organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim Brotherhood were quite aware of the fascist movements in Europe and partially learned from them; [V.D.] Savarkar, for instance, said that Hindus should solve their Muslim problem the same way that Nazis had solved Germany’s Jewish problem, that is, through genocide. Third, factors for the emergence, success or failure of such movements in one country or another, at one time or another, are usually very specific to each country. Too much generalisation can be very misleading in such matters.

How important is the idea of secularism?

Secularism is a good idea in all contexts. One needs to hold on to it. But the struggle against Hindutva majoritarianism requires all sorts of other ideas as well. Congress-style secularism and BJP-style majoritarianism are competing ideologies within a system that is based on the most ruthless forms of repression and exploitation. Indian electoral politics is largely organised around caste, religion and various forms of property. The idea of secularism is descended from the Enlightenment formulae of “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality”. Secularism falls into the broader category of “Fraternity”. Can a caste-based society be “fraternal”? If not, then can it be secular in any meaningful sense? Is “Fraternity” possible without “Equality”—which is to say, is democracy possible without socialism? [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau gave an answer well before the French Revolution, let alone the Bolshevik one: those who are unequal in their access to material goods can never be equal in the eyes of the law! Communism as we know it was first glimpsed during the French Revolution, which gave us secularism as an opposition to the power of religion as well as [Francois-Noel] Babeuf’s “Conspiracy of Equals”, a veritable communist organisation. That communist tendency was defeated; we were therefore left with secularism and liberalism. So, for more than 200 years, the question has persisted: Can liberalism alone defend secularism? Is secularism possible without socialism?

My answer is “No”. Look at histories of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in liberal France itself and across all of liberal Europe. So, as regards your question: yes, the idea of secularism is very important. But you have to have a genuinely socialist society before this idea can be realised materially. In present-day India, any true realisation of this idea is impossible. We know how poisonous majoritarianism is, but we often forget that liberalism has always betrayed secularism and it always will.

Left movements are gaining some momentum in different parts of the world. Yes, the Left in India faced a big setback in the 2019 election. But what is the relevance of Left politics in the present Indian context?

As regards “different parts of the world”, it depends on what you mean by “Left” and which parts of the world you are referring to. The record is uneven. The Latin American Left—the so-called “Pink Tide”—has been largely contained. The largest country in South America, Brazil—Lula’s Brazil—is now under a Far Right hammer, arguably more brutal than Modi’s India. So is Ecuador. Argentina is under the boot of a somewhat less brutal regime but one that is bent on reversing all gains that the working classes made under the two previous administrations. In Venezuela, the Chavista government and movement survive but suffer from unspeakable sufferings arising from the embargo and strangulation of the economy imposed by the U.S. On the other hand, some core countries of the Euro-American zones have witnessed a challenge from the Left to right-wing governments, in the case of the U.S. a challenge to the government of the Far Right. This too needs to be seen in perspective.

Bernie Sanders in the U.S. is hardly a socialist in any meaningful sense; he is a very decent kind of New Deal Democrat: a higher minimum wage for the working class, a system of the public health resembling that of Canada and Western Europe and other reforms of that kind—catching up with very mild form of social democracy. In Britain, [Jeremy] Corbyn still is what he always was: a representative of the left wing of the Labour Party as it used to be in the 1950s and 1960s. In France, Jean-Luc Melenchon, a former member of the always centrist but now-corrupted Socialist Party, made a remarkable showing at the polls with a more radically left-wing programme than French presidential politics has known in 30 years or more. Who stopped them? The Democratic Party high brass in the case of Sanders, the Blairite wing of the Labour Party in the case of Corbyn, and the refusal of the now very much reduced Socialist Party to make common cause with Melenchon in France. In short, the established liberals’ betrayal of the mildly socialistic Left. An old story!

A fatal moment

The Left in India has always been at a great disadvantage. Since the very beginnings of the electoral rise of the RSS in Indian politics, which actually goes back to the period of the Emergency, and pressed by the necessities of our present, many on the Left have chosen to forget who sent the armed forces against the communists in Telangana and who dismissed the world’s first elected [Communist] government in Kerala. There are times in electoral politics when one aligns with one opponent or the other, but one needs to remember the nature of those opponents. We need not mention the Socialists— JP, [Ram Manohar] Lohia and their progeny—who hated the communists even more than they hated the Congress. When the crunch came during the Emergency, JP preferred an alliance with the RSS over an alliance with the CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] in the anti-Emergency coalition, thus helping ensure the very right-wing contours of the Janata government that emerged out of the elections held immediately after the lifting of the Emergency—a moment that proved fatal for Indian politics in decades to come. That is when the RSS came into its own, aided by the Socialists and the Congress breakaways such as Morarji Desai and his gang. The fact that the power of the Left Front in West Bengal is traceable to that very moment of 1977 has served to occlude the fact that the political isolation of the Left also started growing at roughly the same time.

So, I now return to your question about the role of the Left. Since we have been discussing the issue of Hindutva communalism and majoritarianism, I will reply to you with reference to that very question. In my opinion, the communist Left is the only force in India that has a profound, irreversible commitment to a secular society and polity in India. All the regional parties have collaborated with the BJP, a political front of the RSS, at one time or another. As I was just saying, the JP movement and RSS were close collaborators in the anti-Indira, anti-Emergency movements which then led to the formation of the Janata government in which the Jan Sangh contingent was the largest and most powerful force. Even before Independence, there was always a powerful communal wing within the Mahatma’s own Congress. Hindu communalism has always been a major current in Indian society and politics.

The secular current remained dominant for some decades after Independence, partly because of the power and prestige of the communist movement in many parts of the country and partly because the ruling Congress party was itself identified with this current, thanks very largely to [Jawaharlal] Nehru and a very small group of his associates, especially after [Vallabhbhai] Patel died in 1950. That character of the Congress began to decline after the Emergency, even in Indira’s time. By the time of [P.V.] Narasimha Rao’s refusal to meaningfully confront the Sangh Parivar over the destruction of the Babri Masjid, an elaborate structure of tacit understandings was in place among the leadership elites of all the political parties except the Left parties. You will recall that Parliament was not allowed by these elites to even formally discuss the Gujarat carnage. I do think, though, that the whole package of Hindutva precepts and plans is now much more acceptable to the Hindu middle classes than ever before, all over the country, and not even Kerala or West Bengal, with their long communist traditions, are immune. So, the Left has to do what it can, but its options are limited. Look at the constant violence, year in and year out, that the Left has to face, at the hands of the RSS in Kerala and the Trinamool in West Bengal. The degradation of Indian politics at the hands of the RSS but also at the hands of the liberals is such that the Left has to first of all fight for its own survival and then to guide Indian politics in rational, secular directions as much as it can.

Revolts against neoliberal capitalism are growing in many parts of the world. Do you think that a world revolutionary conjuncture is on the horizon? What are the chances, possibilities and challenges of socialist revolutionary upheaval?

Capitalism is a savage form of mass cruelty, particularly in its neoliberal extremity. There will be revolts so long as these cruelties last, and many of those revolts will come from the Left. But no, I don’t think a world revolutionary conjuncture is at hand. As a global phenomenon, socialism has been on the retreat for a long time, since the famous Deng [Xiaoping] reforms of the late 1970s in China. Many people have rightly invoked for our time Gramsci’s famous characterisation of his own time—1930s, the ascendancy of fascism—as one when the old world was dying but the new was not yet born and the world was therefore beset by a host of morbid symptoms. The rise of racial and religious hatreds and violence is among those symptoms, and these symptoms arise as much among the victims as among the victors. The most extreme forms of jehadi madness—the so-called Islamic State—got its recruits overwhelmingly from among the victims of the American invasion of Iraq. The Left is currently very much on the defensive, in India as well as across the world.

Marx today

The year 2018 was the bicentenary of Karl Marx. What is the most important contribution of Marx which is ever relevant? Why Marx?

Well, the question you have asked is so important but also so very broad that I am left more or less speechless. So, let me simply recall something [Jean-Paul] Sartre said more than half a century ago. In the book-length introduction to his Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre comments that Marxism is the unanswerable science of the capitalist mode of production and it will therefore remain the ultimate horizon for all thinking so long as capitalism lasts. That, I think, is the crux of the matter. But Sartre also said that Marxism is by its very nature an unfinished and unfinishable knowledge because as a science of the existing world that keeps on changing Marxism too is not a static but a dynamic knowledge, always updating itself, renewing itself, changing itself because the material world, the object of its knowledge, is always caught up in the whirlwinds of change. In other words, Marx lives among us in two forms of existence: in the grandeur of the work that he has bequeathed us as his legacy and then in the intellectual and political contribution of those generations of Marxists who have built upon that legacy.

Let me add something else, though. The greatness of Capital is so overwhelming that there has developed a tendency to look to Marx for principles and methods for economic analysis and to look to [Vladimir Ilyich] Lenin for the strategy and tactics of revolutionary politics. I don’t want to underrate the importance of Lenin, but I do want to emphasise that Marx is the seminal figure in the conception of politics itself, a practising revolutionary and the founding philosopher of working-class politics as such. The great tradition of the intellectual-activist in the history of the Left is modelled directly on the life and work of Marx himself.

The caste factor

In the social context of India, some criticise Marxism for its “class blindness” and “Eurocentrism” and for not paying enough attention to the phenomenon of caste. This criticism is levelled against the communist movements too. How would Marxism deal with the question of caste? How do you evaluate the performance of the Left movement in carrying forward the agenda of caste annihilation?

I do believe that the question of class revolution in India passes through the caste question and that no socialist revolution is possible in India without the annihilation of caste. In this [B.R.] Ambedkar was right in his insistence on annihilation rather than reform. He was right in arguing that the CPI [Communist Party of India] had not really understood how much caste had been historically the key to class formation and the making of dominant ideologies in India, and he was right in his deep dislike of Gandhi’s cynicism and opportunism on this question. It is also fair to say, I think, that for all the upheavals that India has witnessed in the class and caste structures since Independence, a certain broad correlation between caste and class has persisted. These ground realities should then be connected with other kind of complexities, however. The much higher rates of capitalist expansion in post-Independence India and the newly installed capitalo-parliamentary ruling system served to open up great areas of social mobility for certain selected fractions of the middle and even the most oppressed castes. This involved electoral tokenism but also great many state initiatives ranging from the relatively modest land redistribution schemes and the Green Revolution to the policy of reservations, etc., which greatly benefited the middle castes but also some sections of Dalits as well.

All of this has created some caste-based elites, local power brokers and various kinds of upwardly mobile strata, while caste itself has emerged as a key political category in the parliamentary system as well as in most other spheres of society. Very much more than class, actually! For instance, who would ever insist on reservation of seats for the working class in schools and colleges and state employment or in state legislatures or the Lok Sabha? Caste has a different kind of primacy in the politics of the liberal bourgeoisie itself. In this political sphere, the issue has been captured mainly by the new elites arising out of those middle and oppressed castes. The big bourgeois parties, from the Congress to the BJP, have their own highly cynical ways of manipulating the issue of caste. There has been a very powerful idea, which these new caste-based elites propagate most vociferously, that the material interest of a caste can only be represented by members of that caste. This kind of caste politics often collides with class-based politics. My observation is that the Left has supported more or less every progressive initiative arising from the oppressed castes, and it has undertaken numerous initiatives of its own on the caste issue at the ground level, all of which go unreported in the media and unrecognised by those upwardly mobile elites. When the Left goes out to organise the urban and rural working classes, it necessarily organises people from the oppressed castes—precisely because most of the working class, especially among the rural landless and the urban sectors of menial labour, comes from those oppressed castes. So, yes, there has to be greater sensitivity, greater energy devoted to this issue, great mass education of Left cadres on the question of caste. However, the question of caste is currently so much monopolised by the caste-based elites that there are great limits imposed on what the Left can do. Whatever it actually does should also receive its proper recognition. The charge of Eurocentricity gets levelled against the Left mostly by members of those upwardly mobile elites.

Some Left writers say that apart from some passing references to “class” there are no concrete definitions of it by Marx. Mao Zedong was brilliant in defining and analysing class in Chinese society. Samir Amin talks about six classes in modern capitalist society. In Marxist vocabulary what is class, and how it is different from the liberal understanding of the category of class?

Anyone who thinks Marx does not define class must have a very mechanistic notion of what constitutes a “definition”. Every Marxist who has ever done class analysis, Mao and Samir Amin included, has derived his/her categories of analysis from Marx. That would not have been possible if Marx’s own work did not offer very precise criteria for determining what a class is. It is true, though, that Marx was not a positivist, nor an American-style social scientist in search of a 11-word—or seven-word—definition that could be marked right or wrong in a multiple choice exam. Marx was a dialectician. For him, class is above all a relational category—that is, a social relation, like capital itself. Neither means of production nor money are capital as such; these become means and forms of capital accumulation only under certain circumstances. Likewise, there is no proletariat in and of itself. It exists only in relation to its polar opposite, namely the capitalist class and only within an elaborate structure of class relations which in its totality we know as capitalism. If there were to be no capitalism or a capitalist class, which is what the word “communism” signifies, human beings would still work but there would be no proletariat. Various types of working classes and class fractions exist within an overall, historically determined system of property, production and distribution. We can specify the structural positions and attributes of particular classes or class fractions in any given social formation but Marxism cannot offer a formalistic, supra historical definition of class per se, a sort of definition that would apply to all classes at all times.

Gramsci’s contribution

There is a narrative that presents Gramsci as purely an intellectual and cultural theorist divorced from class analysis. His writings are also being treated by some as a break from the Marxist tradition up to that time, and in some way highly critical of that also. How do you read Gramsci and what is his essential contribution to Marxism?

Gramsci was 22 years old when he joined the Italian Socialist Party, which was to associate itself with the Third International. He rose rapidly to become a prominent leader within that party. Gramsci was a great, active supporter of the Worker’s Council Movement in the industrial city of Turin. He often invoked Lenin’s famous slogan “All power to the Soviets” in his arguments against critics of the movement and in the hope that the councils would become the nucleus of a future communist formation. Later, in 1921, he emerged as one of the key founders of the Italian Communist Party [PCI] and then became the party’s chief leader in 1924. Meanwhile, he had spent time in Moscow, from where he returned with instructions from the Bureau of the Third International to form an anti-fascist front of all left-wing parties and forces with the PCI at its epicentre, a position that was resisted by many of his colleagues in the party. He was arrested and sentenced to prison for 20 years as the leader and chief theoretician of the PCI.

There are two fundamental themes underlying all his reflections in the approximately 30,000 pages of the Prison Notebooks: what were the structural causes—historical, cultural, social, religious causes—for the defeat of the Left and the victory of fascism in Italy; and, how to reconstruct a communist party—for which he used terms like “the Modern Prince” and “the collective intellectual”—in a way that would address the specificities of the Italian situation. Given all this history, it is simply absurd to try and detach Gramsci’s thought from its basic communist grounding.

In a sense, Gramsci’s essential undertaking was not very different from that of Mao in China. When the party was in disarray after the defeat of the Shanghai proletariat in 1927, Mao asked himself a simple question: how to reformulate Marxism-Leninism for revolution in the conditions of a vast, semi-colonial, mainly peasant country like China? His solution was ingenious: to execute the logic of a proletarian revolution but with a peasant army, developing the revolutionary force not so much in the industrial cities as in the agrarian hinterlands, with strategy not of a frontal attack on citadels of state authority—as in the case of the storming of the Winter Palace—but by surrounding the cities from the countryside. Mao introduced an entirely novel corpus of thought into the Marxist-Leninist tradition.

The PCI was barely five years old when Gramsci entered a fascist prison, which he was to leave only when he was too ill, too close to death. We have to remember that Gramsci was severely ill most of his life and died at 46. As such, his highly original approach to the problem of revolutionary practice in a major European country remained confined to the realm of thought, never allowed to be tested in actual practice. Thus, he cannot be compared to Mao, but the undertaking was similar: thinking concretely about one’s own national situation in order to arrive at an adequate communist strategy.

Base and superstructure

Gramsci was a keen student of Marx and was virtually obsessed with some of the passages in Marx’s famous 1959 preface. One of those passages reads as follows:

“The changes in the economic foundations lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophical—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”

Gramsci drew several conclusions from this. First, that the relation between structure and superstructure is dialectical in nature and neither is reducible to unitary determination by the other. Second, that the scientific method with which we can analyse “the economic conditions of production” with great “precision” cannot give us an equally precise understanding of “ideological forms”; for that we need a complementary but somewhat different science of the superstructures. Third, that “ideological forms” are multiple and have overlapping but also relatively autonomous histories.

The legal superstructure of bourgeois Europe represents not only its capitalist present but is also premised on layered, highly sedimented foundations that date back to the Cannon Law of the Catholic Church as well as the Roman Law of the old Empire. The religious superstructure that is specific to Catholic Italy is not the same as in Anglican Britain or the Saudi variant of Wahhabi Islam; each has a historicity and concreteness of its own. Fourth, and most important, that whereas the fundamental factors and crises that open up the possibility of revolutionary transformation arise in the field of the forces and relations of production, it is in these other “ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”

Thus, the struggle over the ideological forms and the concrete consciousness that arises out of those forms gains enormous salience for the practice of revolution as such. Gramsci’s great interest in actual, empirical analyses of these many ideological forms in Italian history and society and his ambition to formulate a science of superstructures arises out of this revolutionary necessity, not in some new-fangled postmodern culturalism.

There is an allegation that in the Soviet Union the Marxist ideas of dictatorship of the proletariat and democratic centralism made democracy a casualty, especially in the period of Joseph Stalin. On the other hand, leftist thinkers like Antonio Negri theorise about the revolt not of the traditional working class but of the multitude, without a single-party leadership. What in your view is the relevance and importance of a communist party?

The two concepts you mention have different origins. The concept of “dictatorship of the proletariat” dates back to Marx himself. In the Manifesto itself, Marx describes the liberal state as a managing committee of the bourgeoisie as a whole. Elsewhere, he described that kind of state as a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie over the rest of society in general and over the proletariat in particular—that is, the dictatorship of a tiny minority over the great majority. In today’s language you could say “dictatorship of the 1 per cent over the 99 per cent”. “Dictatorship of the proletariat” was to be the absolute negation of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. In other words, it signified the rule of the absolute majority over a tiny minority or, if you will, the dictatorship of labour over capital. Lenin’s famous slogan “All power to the Soviets” had roughly the same meaning as “dictatorship of the proletariat”, that is, a more perfect democracy in which various kinds of labour represented themselves through new forms of organisation.

By contrast, the concept of democratic centralism refers to Lenin’s organisational concept for the illegalised, underground revolutionary party in conditions of tsarist autocracy and, by extension, more generally in times of great state repression. Rosa Luxemburg had already warned, in Lenin’s own time, that this organisational form could under different circumstances degenerate into an autocratic rule by a tiny clique or even into a personalised dictatorship. However, I must say that every party form or state form carries within it the possibility of degeneration, and how well a concept functions in practice has to do with the people who implement it and the objective conditions that determine the conduct of those people. The kind of authoritarian state that emerged during the period of Stalin’s leadership had very complex origins in the material conditions that prevailed and is by no means reducible to one concept or another.

As for [Antonio] Negri, he began his career with a workerist kind of ultra-leftism and was even involved in Italy with terror groups of an ultra-Left vanguardist nature. Some three decades later, he emerged with a kind of theorisation which I regard as an extreme form of anarchism but one so odd that he denies the very reality of American imperialism or any identifiable centres of corporate power. His idea of the “Multitude” can be explained in many ways, but in essence it arises out of that kind of theoretical incoherence. In practice it shares the world view of the NGO world which denies the fact of class struggle and calls for “Changing the World without Taking Power”—in short, a series of social reforms that lead to a more humane face of capitalism.

We have learned at least two things from the experience of recent uprisings in the Arab world. What are called “spontaneous” uprisings of the masses that have no clear-headed leadership—Negri’s “multitude”, so to speak—are highly susceptible to manipulation, as happened in Egypt where a powerful mass movement was soon taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood and led to the Islamists’ electoral success which, in turn, frightened a whole multitude of Egyptians to such a degree that they actually welcomed the military coup that overthrew the government of the Muslim Brotherhood and brought the great Tahrir Square uprising to a tragic end. At the other end, in this age of corporate monopoly over the global electronic media and their visual representations of the world, “multitudes” can be virtually manufactured out of thin air, as was done in Libya and Syria. In earlier histories, it is simply undeniable that Hitler and Mussolini rose to power at the head of right-wing, hysterical “multitudes”. There is nothing necessarily progressive about “people”, “masses”, “multitudes”, etc. Class organisations and struggles are necessary to ensure a progressive content in agitations and uprisings of the popular classes.

Americanisation of the world

Globalisation has many facets. How it affects culture is an important thing. What is this cultural face of globalisation? How does globalisation affect our culture?

The word “globalisation” is a bourgeois euphemism for the latest phase of imperialism. Cultural imperialism has always been a fundamental aspect of imperialism as such. Any expansion and deepening of imperialist power is bound to also deepen the hold of imperialist culture. This is greatly facilitated in our time by the new information and particularly visual technologies. This applies to high culture as much as to mass cultural forms. Hollywood cinema is the predominant cinematic form, and national film industries in Asia or Africa are basically local variants of it with very big doses of what I call “imitative originality”. American music is the only global music now, and the majority in the middle classes of the world increasingly have no musical tastes except their taste for American music and its local variants, again with great doses of imitative originality. Jeans are now the predominant element in the globalised dress code and becoming more so very rapidly even across the gender divide. I don’t at all mean that there is something reactionary about the wearing of jeans as such or about listening to American music. But there does seem to be an objective correlation between such quotidian changes in day-to-day life and American cultural forms.

At the other end, the American university system is the primary site for the training of the techno-managerial class, even diplomats and the higher-level civil servants, for virtually every country in the world. The American system of education is what is followed in more and more national education systems globally. Again, I don’t mean that anyone who studies or teaches in an American university is a reactionary. There are always radical, oppositional minorities in such institutions. I am simply pointing to the predominant function of this immensely powerful system of ideological reproduction for all spheres of life globally. Postmodernism in all its aspects—from high theory to production of cultural artefacts to day-to-day habits like fast foods—is essentially an Americanisation of the world. The higher up you go in the class structure of our society, the more common would be an identification with various aspects of American culture. American victory in the cultural sphere has in fact been far more impressive than in military battlefields. China may be rising as a competitive economic power, but the spread of American cultural forms there is very striking.

Third World or Tricontinental?

“Third World” is the term commonly used to describe the countries of the South. Instead people like you use the term tricontinental. How did the term “Third World” become a popular coinage, and what does this shift in vocabulary to tricontinental denote?

The term “Third World” was coined by a French journalist at the time of the Bandung Conference of 1955 as a catchy phrase for his French readers for the newly rising phenomenon of non-alignment. The phrase caught on, and different people, and even different countries, started using it with varying connotations. I have traced that history in the last chapter of my book In Theory. The Bandung Conference was almost exclusively an Afro-Asian event, along with lone figures like [Josip Broz] Tito from Yugoslavia. The term “tricontinental” arose in revolutionary Cuba and was a particular favourite of Che [Guevara], to connote a fundamental unity of Latin America, Africa and Asia as victims of colonialism and imperialism. The term was popularised through revolutionary publications, international conferences, etc. I do sometimes use the term “Third World”, simply because it is very familiar for a lot of people, but I dislike its French journalistic origins. I prefer the term “Tricontinent” because of its revolutionary origin and Cuban association.

Commercialisation of religion

Many thought that with modernity and the “passing of time”, religion would retreat from the public sphere and that it would be less important for modern man with progress in science and rationality. But contrary to that, religiosity is growing significantly all over the world. How would you explain this growing religiosity?

The truth of Europe must always be viewed from the standpoint of its victims. Secularism, in the sense of a formal separation between Church and state, certainly got instituted in most Western countries, but religion did not disappear from public life. In his essay “The Jewish Question”, Marx demonstrates brilliantly how the formal privatisation of religion in the U.S. made it all the more sancrosanct by placing it beyond the reach of the state. Anti-Semitism remained a feature of all Western societies, to lesser or greater degree, until it reached its final orgiastic crescendo in the Nazi extermination of Jews.

Edward Said documented at length how old, punctual and ineradicable has been Europe’s hatred of Islam. There is much truth in [Theodor W.] Adorno’s sardonic comment that instead of disappearing religion just got commercialised and that the only thing that remained of the Christian faith was its hatred of the neighbour. Islamophobia is the new name for an old disease. It is true, though, that this disease has been showing very lethal new symptoms over the past two decades or so as the West has waged a brutal war against Muslim populations over a vast expanse from the Red Sea and the Levant to North and West Africa.

In our part of the world, increasing religiosity is among the many forms of right-wing ascendancy in our time, and it is structurally connected to the defeat and/or retreat of the Left. Secular nationalism and communism were the dominant political trends in a host of Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, etc., precisely where Islamism is now dominant, including in its Salafi and jehadi forms. Roughly the same could be said about India if you compare today’s India with the India of 50 years ago. This is by no means just a local development. Imperialism fought as hard against secular nationalism as it fought against communism because both posed a great threat to imperial interests. Right-wing forces of all stripes gained immeasurably from those imperialist offensives.

Islamist politics is being played out in different forms in different countries. What is the history and growth of political Islam? How do Islamist politics and Islamophobia reinforce each other?

Political Islam, as we now know it in many variants, was first confected some 70 years ago in keeping with the Truman Doctrine, which postulated that Islam—the Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia and the Salafi Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood—was the most reliable bulwark against communism in the Middle East [West Asia]. And, the West needed to control the Middle East because it also happened to be the place where the largest reserves of the industrial world’s most important strategic raw materials, petroleum and natural gas, were located. The U.S. intelligence and counter-insurgency networks cultivated as well as created Islamic extremists around the world very extensively.

As soon as a progressive, communist-oriented government arose in Afghanistan, the U.S. managed to assemble an anti-communist force comprising CIA [Central Intelligence Agency]-paid—and Saudi-paid—Mujahideen drawn from some 40 countries for the Islamic crusade against those godless anti-imperialists. Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were first received in the White House by President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower. The core leaders of this new gang of Mujahideen were received in the White house by Ronald Reagan. Before he turned against the U.S., Osama Bin Laden was a CIA asset. As the U.S. and its allies launched more and more wars against Muslim countries, every independent journalist and scholar warned that these invasions would necessarily create a whole new breed of anti-West terrorists.

The U.S., however, knew what it was doing. It has been remarkably successful in keeping jehadi terror out of the Western countries, with the exception of about half a dozen mostly minor events over almost two decades, while it condemned millions to death, destruction and homelessness. Against this backdrop of endless wars against entire populations, the U.S. plays a complex game with various jehadi outfits, fighting those who threaten its interests but also keeping many of them in reserve to unleash them in various parts of the world as and when required, in Libya and Syria already and very probably in Central Asian Muslim-majority republics as well as the Muslim-majority zones of China in the foreseeable future. Very few Westerners have been killed by jehadi terror, but this terror has killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims across countries and continents. These games of empire, in these particular forms, are also among the morbid symptoms of our time.


Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M. are fellows at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and contribute to various national and international publications including The Hindu, The Caravan, The Wire andMonthly Review. The writers can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].


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