Politics and Ethics in Communist Practice:From the Margins of the Indian Left

On January 13, 2011 by admin

Rajarshi Dasgupta

Let me begin by explaining the subtitle, which should be relatively easier than the title. Who or what exactly belongs to the margins of communist politics in India? First, let me tell you about certain practices – activities and forms of activism that are no longer paid much attention practically nor thought through in theoretical terms by the dominant communist parties today. In fact, it is doubtful how far communists will currently like to identify the core of their work with such activities. Secondly, I am going to look briefly at a history, or rather micro histories of a movement, consigned to anodyne hagiographies in places like West Bengal, where communist memories primarily dwell on the heroic nostalgia of creating a hegemonic regime. Thirdly, my attempt is to tackle these issues and frame them conceptually in such a manner, which the available communist vocabulary does not allow. It does not possess the resources, which are necessary for a critical hermeneutic of the political and the ethical in the field of everyday practice. That is why I would like to turn to a different set of categories and reading strategies sidestepping the familiar Marxist methodologies here. But is it not paradoxical to study the communist movement in terms that are distant and alien from its own forms of discourse? I would say no, for we are going to study these very forms of discourse – the practice of putting them together, constituting them, building them word by word, act by act, point by point.

The specific problem I have in mind is the practice of speaking the truth – its implications for the self and its relation to other/s.  There is little doubt that the question of relating with the other is of paramount importance to a communist. I have discussed on other occasions  how an entire set of maneuvers  – physical and mental – ascetic exercises were geared to a passage of ‘becoming declassed’ which ensured a normative identification with the masses – the workers and peasants as communists saw them. This was an extremely fraught process – what we usually describe as rooted in the ordinary people, having to compete with other models like that of the satyagrahi, not always successfully but often ending up in a subterranean conversation. Unlike Gandhi’s soulforce and karmayoga, the Indian communists traded in historical materialism and labor. But the question of speaking the truth was never too far from the political performances across the spectrum. How did communists see the status of truth-speaking as an activity intrinsic to politics? What were the kinds of truths invested in such contexts? This is where we must leave the customary communist pedagogy behind and look for other kinds of truth and, as we shall see, other kinds of relation to truth.

Speaking the first type of Truth: Utopian

Broadly, I would say there are three significant kinds of speaking the truth in communist practice. The first kind of truth is very strictly speaking what is not true in an objective sense – that is, it is not out there in the reality around us but symptomatic of a possible future – a truth that is teleological – that states what is to come as per the law of history tomorrow. But this does not mean it is a determinist thing, a rhetorical article of mechanical faith in progress. It is in fact a far more unpredictable and complicated move that arises out of trying to understand the other.  And its function is to fiercely combat accepted wisdoms, in particular, the cynicism of the common sense that wryly explains why certain things never change in a desirable manner, why the status quoist inertia finally comes to win the day. This is of course the truth about utopia – which is not based on the existing state of knowledge but on its profound subversion – the place of an ‘as if’ which breaks down and reassembles the sense of reality in a way that makes it more meaningful and productive. Let me give you a concrete example.  For much of the middle of twentieth century communist activists and intellectuals have racked their minds to understand why the peasants – reduced to dying of hunger in thousands in the infamous famine of forties – never rebelled. Was the very impulse of rebellion basically alien to their class character as peasants? The question is actually not very distant for us at a time of mass suicides and predatory dispossession of land today. However, one of the ways in which the communists sought to address the question is to search for something like an organic intellectual – a poor peasant cum Marxist theorist who would be able to answer the riddle. The question took many shapes within the communist movement and became the subject matter of a number of cultural productions – plays, poetry and short stories. I want to draw your attention to one particular short story, titled ‘Chhiniye Khayni Kano?’ roughly translatable as ‘Why did they not loot and eat?’, given the well-known fact that there was widespread hoarding of foodgrains at this point. The communist author of the story, Manik Bandyopadhyay, plotted the story around a conversation between a bhadralok babu communist who wonders if the peasant is submissive by nature and an old robber, Jogi dakaat, who explains to the babu how hungry bodies can only rebel after a square meal and how they give up when the hunger multiplies: there is no energy left, the body survives at the bare limits of life. The important point to note is not this reason that is no doubt worth serious consideration but the character of Jogi dakaat. What we are looking at in such a character is precisely that organic peasant intellectual that was not there to be found in reality. Jogi dakaat is more of a horizon than an esoteric social bandit dear to Eric Hobsbawm. He is coming from the future into a short story that turns the idiom of realism into configuring a desired possibility, no longer unreal, any more than socialism remains unrealistic.  This then is the first type of truth speaking that marked the communist relation to the other – not like others before us but what others coming after us can teach us about truth. It is their truth that one must work to articulate.

Speaking the second type of Truth: Governmental

In order to be a communist one had to practice speaking another kind of truth – this time extremely grounded, objective and factually as accurate as possible. This is the truth about oneself – or rather, the raw self, the flesh and blood historical individual ‘I’. Everything – every little habit, one’s height, one’s voice, one’s social skills, political education, favorite sport, romantic life, experience of travel, capacity to melt in the crowd and so on are worthy material of deposition in this register and nothing can be left to discretion or privacy. Can you take a hard life full of drudgery? Are you given to day-dreaming and are you lazy? Can you keep your cool under daily panic? What class of coach or train have you been usually traveling? Are you punctual? Do you have a sense of humor? Such are the questions asked in a cyclostyled questionnaire meant for party organizers issued on 31st March 1941 circulated only among unit secretaries, under the title – ‘Before you go UG we want to know you in the raw’.  This obligation to provide knowledge to the party included information ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, the questions reading at times like an interrogation, sometimes like an absurd fiction, but always very systematic, purposive and comprehensive – much like a panopticon disciplining apparatus, that individuates, redistributes, weighs and recirculates people like proper objects – an ordering rationality difficult not to see as governmental, while at the same time, familial in its affective tenor and tutoring in its vocation. Consider questions like: ‘Are you quick at making decisions (any kind: whether you are going to have a bath or not, what you are going to cook, whether you are going to have a meeting or a conference or are going to call it off, etc.?) Or are you a victim of indecision?’

However, I think the crucial question is as follows: ‘Are you self-critical at all (self-critical is underlined)? Can you stand a jharr (acute crisis) without getting demoralized for days? Do you admit your mistakes in the abstract or try to work up all its implications and to correct them?’ We should not miss this either: ‘Have you fallen in love? With a comrade? Are you in love with a comrade now? Give his/her P.Name.’ However, the most important set of questions are given under a heading: ‘the Party in Your Life’: ‘What was your political life before you came towards us? When did you start working with the Party? When did you join the Party? … (Finally,) How has the Party changed you as a PERSON? Do you remain roughly what you were before you became a Communist OR has the Party changed your entire outlook and your habits, methods of thinking, character?’

Here is then the way of ascertaining the extent to which the party is constituting a practical self – one might say of the Aristotelian type, but then again, the place of party as the real sovereign authority is also very clear from the last bunch of questions. The party converts people who go into UG in such ways that being communist moves very close to becoming a law-abiding citizen, or for that mater, becoming a soldier who observes orders without any grumble or scruples. And what kind of truth does such a relation produce. I would like to say it is a truth that constantly self-abnegates and governs oneself – a truth speaking that is similar to self-invigilation. But its main task is to produce the interpellation of a collective body, indeed a body politic of new kind that establishes the party as the sovereign para-state whose members are relentlessly self-correcting and must be brutally self-critical insofar as and when they are in conflict with the party.

Speaking the third type of Truth: Parrhesia

If the second type of truth speaking is comparable to a series of confessions/depositions about oneself under an invisible oath and before a visible edifice of authority, if it is about the scraping and thinning of the self to a virtual transparency, it is fundamentally about learning to become governable. There is however another type of truth speaking that runs directly counter to this practice, to which I shall turn as the concluding note to this discussion. This third type of truth speaking makes visible and brings into play a new factor in the relation between the self and other/s, which is the factor of fear – the factor of threat, of punishment and of course, ultimately, of death. The moot question to engage the communists in this register is how to speak the truth in a situation where the addressee is capable of inflicting retribution while the speaker is vulnerable to potential injury.  I would like to consider this as the most critical of all the three relationships to truth we have discussed so far. This is where the political and the ethical are intensified to a pitch that is difficult to surpass because, to put it simply, one might die for the truth one utters.  An important point to note in the activity of truth speaking under these conditions is often a scandalous overture, calling into question the norms that govern the dominant rules of discourse. The scandalous overture multiplies the risk involved and so unexpectedly it produces a kind of critical pause in the interlocution. This pause is where the truth can unfold in a manner that would refuse to go away even if the addressee decides to injure. In fact the pause becomes a moment of theatre, an act in a farce, a scene that shatters the operatic height of the meeting with power to sober up sensibilities with an ironic laughter, obviously at one’s own expense, but a laughter that makes truth a language of dissidence, and which gestures towards a degree zero of ungovernability. Let me illustrate this with an excerpt from a verse by Samar Sen, an iconic communist poet.

I am not a romantic poet; I am Marxist.
…Materialist good sense allows me today

To sail comfortably with my feet on two boats
Bourgeois butter and working class milk
Someday will surely bring fantastic fame

To this providential poet, I believe.[i][1]

What is remarkable about this excerpt is that it seems to add a new dimension to the practice of self-criticism. If this was really meant to be a deposition it shows a delightful irreverence of tone that does not fit into the box of confession. As speech activity it is strident, provocative and taking risk in a way that is both dangerous and tempting for others: can the reader – you or me – take similar risk? For that is the secret wager of such lines that hook a self turned inside out like a steak hung at the butcher’s.

I would like to describe what happens in this case as a parrhesiastic contract, a game of telling truth about oneself and thereby forcing the hand of the other. This relation to truth is very different from Gandhi’s experiments with truth. It is less a matter of realizations and more of a certain kind of speech activity, setting up such a relationship with the speaker that his speech cannot hide anything from the others. Unlike any metaphysical moral imperative, we must remember it is a game of interlocutors – a game of high risk, ultimately having nothing to do with morality in a conventional sense, but everything to do with power, and with the ethical. It is the activity of speaking truth, what the Greeks referred to in antiquity as parrhesiazesthai, which shows how one can speak the truth without fear, however disagreeable, to one’s comrade bosses, old and new.      

1] Samar Sen, ‘Baaishey June’ in Samar Sener Kabita, p. 125, written around 1943-44. (trans. mine)

Rajarshi Dasgupta is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


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