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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 31, New Delhi, July 17, 2021

Towards Justice: Radical Democratic Ideals for the 21st Century | Sanjeeb Mukherjee

Friday 16 July 2021


by Sanjeeb Mukherjee*

The long 20th century, which is flowing into the present, has many lessons to offer as it witnessed world wars, revolutions, national liberation struggles, decolonisation, environmental degradation and violence and human suffering on a global scale. It will, perhaps, be remembered as a century of lost opportunities, of heroic struggles, of colossal failures and suffering; the triumph of global capitalism, unprecedented advances in knowledge and the challenge to the very survival of the human race. What lessons can we learn from this experience and how can we build a new future in the 21st century, free of the injustices and suffering of the past? How can we free ourselves from the long dark shadow of the past? Which are the ideas that survived and what new thinking is required to face this challenge? How do we build a new world, where there is justice, freedom, equality and peace? And how do we protect our environment and save us from the impending mass extinction we are facing?

The darkest century of modernity

The grand alliance of knowledge and technology, nation-state, mass culture and the economy, whether capitalist or state socialist has resulted in the worst century of wars and violence — from world wars, to regional wars, imperialist aggressions or civil wars, terrorism and genocides. This alliance has also waged war over nature, global climate and all forms of life and has brought us to another mass extinction of different life forms.

But this was also a century of hope and it began with the world’s first socialist revolution in Russia, followed by revolutions in different parts of the world. National liberation struggles led to the end of centuries of colonialism, crowned by the victory of Vietnam over the mighty American empire. The other positive struggles were for democracy, human rights, women’s movement, environmental struggles and justice and the opening of new frontiers in knowledge. Unfortunately, none of these positive foundations could save the world and offer a way forward. Two major trends can be discerned today, on the one hand, the rise of single issue centred new social movements and on the other hand the rise of different forms of fundamentalism, fascism and authoritarianism.

Today, we are living in a world where the socialist dream has imploded and the world is one big global capitalist family and capitalism, rechristened as investments is seen as the only solution to all the problems of the people. What was earlier seen as the key problem is now redefined as the only solution. Though we are living in the age of globalisation, nations and nation states are seen as the only way for any society to exist. Nation states are the principal agents of violence and militarization of the world. The combined defence spending of nation states is perhaps larger than all other spending put together. Not only have they waged wars against others, they are also responsible for the overwhelming majority of mass killings of their own people and suppression of differences and diversities. Nation states are also the nodal agency for the convergence of capitalism, knowledge and mass culture. Markets and nation states are the new institutions and practices of powers which, through a system of checks and balances correct and reinforce each other. Political parties have turned into massive bureaucratic machines to mediate between the state and the people and secure the consent of the people to rule and have ceased to be the voice or representative of diverse sections of society. Unprecedented advances in all fields of knowledge, instead of serving the people has become the primary tool of both capitalism and the state to expand their capacities of capital accumulation and surveillance and control of the population.

The long 20th Century

The greatest source of hope of the 20th century was the Russian revolution, followed by the Chinese and other revolutions; but by the end of the century the dream of socialism crashed. There was something awfully wrong with the Leninist model of the communist party for it gave birth to a new form of power and state, we may call, partiarchy. The dictatorship of the proletariat promised a higher and richer model of democracy, but the reality was a cruel joke. Revolutions, it was believed would put an end to wars and capitalism; but today both are firmly and globally the new normal. The last century was marked by the largest number of deaths caused by wars, genocides, ecological degradation, industrialisation and hunger, disease and poverty. The revolutionary dream of equality has turned into the worst nightmare of global inequality.

The second source of global hope was the struggle of national liberation against colonialism. It was best summed up by the promise of the Indian Constitution to secure to all its citizens

“JUSTICE, social, economic and political;LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;EQUALITY of status and opportunity;And promote among them allFRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation...”

Justice, democracy and development were the key to this promised future and where are we after seventy years of the Indian nation state and its true for the entire third world. [This sentence is rhetorical. I think you should say where things stand after 7 years with respect to these goals. Also a few lines separately on the rest of the third world.]

If the 20th century saw the failure of soviet socialism, it was also the failure of the nation state form. [‘it’ meaning the 20th century? Or soviet socialism?] In fact, the nation state is responsible for deaths and violence and near total control over its population on an unprecedented scale in human history.

The existing alternatives to address the present have miserably failed. Some of the major solutions offered are: 1) investments and market driven development; 2) state intervention, social welfare and development programmes; 3) new social movements, which are mostly single issue based; and 4) the old belief in revolution. In the face of this failure there has been a reaction towards different forms of fundamentalisms, fascism and other forms of authoritarianisms. There is, of course, an academic literature on justice but it fails to show the way out.

The long 20th century, which is flowing into the present is primarily marked by an axis between the state, capitalism, knowledge and mass culture trying to control and use both the people and nature as resources to further increase their power and wealth. The success of global capitalism also reflects a deep intellectual and ethical crisis of the people for its inability to create a vision and the way to build a new century.


Towards a Political Philosophy for the 21st Century

Ideology, for long, was seen as the correct guide to emancipation. Socialist ideology contended with liberal bourgeois ideology to shape the future. Socialist ideology was seen as the political ideas of the oppressed classes in conflict with the dominant classes and the struggle for justice was seen as the advancement of this ideology along with a continuous vigil against any revision or deviation from this ideology. Marxism-Leninism became the definitive statement of the ideology of orthodox Marxism. Debates and polemics were conducted to uphold this singular ideology and the communist party was the final authority to pronounce and uphold the truth. This inevitably led to an authoritarian policing of any dissent or alternative interpretations of socialism or for that matter any ideology. Religions in history have also followed this model of re-affirming the truth found in holy books. The fate of the socialist world was to a large extent determined by the reign of a singular authoritative ideology, buttressed by the state and the party. In fact, no other party could be imagined to exist for their was only one right ideology, which the communist party embodied.

Does history offer an alternative to ideology as a guide to political action for ensuring a just society? All major social transformations in history have been inspired not by such complete and closed ideologies but by ideals. However, ideals have usually been codified into all-encompassing ideologies claiming to be true and hence in need of continuous policing to prevent its distortion or abuse. Ideals are open-ended concepts, subject to continuous debate and re-interpretation and enrichment. There is no definitive authority to pronounce the last word on ideals. In other words, ideals are essentially democratic in their epistemic character. Ideals are impossible goals, which are relentlessly pursued, debated, revised and new ideals imagined or some even discarded.

Some of the ideals which has inspired human action in our time has been liberty, equality, rights, justice, democracy and of course, socialist ideals of Marx, his predecessors and his followers. In fact, if we look at the history of some of these ideals we will find a continuous conflict between powerful institutions trying to convert these ideals into a definitive ideology and programme and the people trying to further expand them. The best example is the ideals of liberty and equality which the bourgeoisie has tried to transform into a philosophy [ideology, in your sense, right? The distinction is interesting but the next few lines look like you do not think this became an ideology] inseparable from upholding the primacy of private property. Liberty has no meaning if it does not give you the freedom to own and sell property and the equal right, albeit formal, of all to own it. In fact, in the early days of capitalism these rights were restricted to white, property owning males only. Women and men of colour were not entitled to these rights.

But there was a ceaseless battle over the meaning of these ideals and they were expanded and made universal by the new ideal of democracy. Rights, now extended to all citizens irrespective of sex or colour or wealth. The socialist ideal further interrogated the limits of these liberal and democratic ideals by raising the question of justice and the property question, especially the private ownership of the means of production and its consequences for human freedom and equality. It did not mean the jettisoning of freedom but its actualisation for all. If socialism is seen as a set of ideals it has to be open to continuous criticism and revision, especially in the light of practice, rather than its policing to uphold the pristine truths found in the Marxist classics, much like the truths claimed by many to be found in religious texts.

In search of ideals for our time

Broadly, there are four kinds of ideals now existing. The first is pre-modern, largely religious and the second, is modern liberal and democratic ideals and third, are socialist ones. Finally, faced with an impending environmental disaster new ideals are emerging and old ones being reformulated to address this age of the Anthropocene. Let us now try to compose a set of ideals to guide our fight for a just future.

We are social beings and live in society. Hence the organisation of society or the terms of social cooperation is the fundamental basis of justice. Society is a gigantic system of social cooperation between individuals and groups in different sectors of social and economic life and also across sectors and between societies on a global scale. The terms of cooperation are often neither fair nor are people freely engaged in them. Conquest and violence leads to the breakdown of cooperation. Following defeat people are forced to cooperate and that in turn is later legitimised. People have also rebelled and resisted against unfair terms of social cooperation.

Modern societies involve complex webs of cooperation and all social, economic, cultural and intellectual production is the product of expansive layers of social cooperation. In fact, human beings are the products of such cooperation; they have no independent existence outside society. They are socially constituted selves. Hence, the idea that society is the product of a social contract entered into by pre-existing free individuals is a legitimising myth for a society driven by the centrality of the idea of ownership and self-interest. Modern society is founded on the idea of such a self-owning person, who by the use of his labour and mind can acquire private property over that part of nature which he brings under his dominion by cultivation.[Interestingly, I learnt that this right is not absolute even in Europe. So for instance, in some Scandinavian countries, anyone exploring the countryside can pitch his/her tent on any land — even if it ‘belongs’ to someone. Because nature cannot be privatized]. This again is legitimised by the assumption that nature is bountiful and that it exists for man to use and own.

In the above scheme of things the priority of society and social cooperation is denied. In fact, all social cooperation is redefined as a market like transaction where there is a free exchange between individuals trying to maximise their interests. It is important to distinguish between a contractual relation between individuals and social cooperation, where individual gain is not the principal motive of human engagement. Reciprocity and sharing based on the ethics of care and concern is totally denied in the contractual view of society. However, contrary to the official ideology, starting from the family to the nation [you mean nation? I would doubt that. Popular practices certainly] we find the centrality of the ethic of caring and sharing.

However, the terms of social cooperation is more often, than not, unfair and unequal and entered in conditions of unfreedom due to the unequal structures of power, wealth, knowledge and status. Thus we need a set of fundamental principles or ideals to create fair, free and equal terms of social cooperation for building a society based on justice.


The ideal of justice has had a universal appeal. However, the contents of this ideal has changed over time and circumstances. Given the global situation in our time how do we define the ideal of justice? It is a time of extreme inequality, deprivation and an unsustainable economic model, which is destroying our planet and all forms of life itself.

There have been broadly two ways of defining the ideal of justice. Socialists have privileged the property question and liberals and democrats have given priority to the importance of the individual’s rights to life, liberty and equality.[I would add the ecological idea of inter-generational equity as another powerful view of justice, as well as gender justice predicated on a critique and reimagining of family and indeed nation/state beyond their masculinist and patriarchal forms as yet another] These rights have remained formal and not substantial and they hold the individual solely responsible for actualising their rights. Socialists, on the other hand have reduced the question of justice to the property question and argue that if private property is abolished and the working classes capture state power justice and democracy would flourish. Both these articulations of justice have proved to be one-sided and limited. We need to transcend their limits.

There are two fundamental basis of property, one acquired from nature and the other the product of human endeavour, primarily, labour, knowledge, organisation and other faculties. How can we legitimise private property over any part or product of nature? The liberal theory of property is based on the assumption that nature is bountiful, that is, there is enough for everybody. Secondly, it places humans at the centre of the universe and hence nature is seen as created for human use and enjoyment. From these assumptions, liberals argue that through the application of human mind and labour on nature whatever products are acquired can rightfully be owned by the person who expended his efforts, for example the animals he hunts or the fruits he gathers. Liberals make another crucial move. Since nature is bountiful, any person who cultivates a piece of land can claim rightful property rights over it. Furthermore, through inheritance and market exchanges property rights are reproduced and transferred.

Today it is common knowledge that nature, far from being bountiful, is on the verge of a disaster due to its irresponsible use exclusively for humans. We need to re-imagine our relationship with nature and fundamentally question the very idea of owning any part of it. We have to treat nature as a gift given to us from a non-existent god to be shared with all other forms of life and, like all gifts, an obligation to pass it on to future generations. Given human intelligence and moral sense we are collectively the trustees of nature and we have to care for it, use it responsibly and share it with other forms of life and pass it on to the future. No individual or nation or state can thus claim to own any part of nature.

All human production of material or cultural or intellectual goods are the result of social cooperation and the use of our common planet and hence the very idea of private property is problematic. Of course, individuals have to be rewarded for their work and even hold personal property to ensure their security. Knowledge now is one of the driving force of economic production, but this knowledge is the result of immense social cooperation and property over intellectual or cultural goods too have to be questioned.

Human rights are central to the ideal of justice, especially the rights to life, liberty and equality. These rights can only be meaningful if people actually enjoy these rights by having equal access to all the resources, material and cultural, necessary for human flourishing.

Ideals are often abstract and pay no attention to what happened in history. Human history is grounded on building structures of injustice, inequality, oppression and exploitation, both within and between societies and states. Our present is constituted by history and hence our ideal of justice must redress historical injustices caused by colonialism, imperialism as well as local structures of caste, gender and class.

Finally, we have to re-examine and re-imagine the self who will uphold such ideals of justice. If the self is imagined to be a self-owning, acquisitive and self-interest oriented being then these ideals of justice cannot be realised. For that, we have to re-fashion the self; the socially constituted, free and equal person imposed with a gigantic responsibility as a trustee of nature and our cultural and intellectual heritage — a gigantic cultural task to be collectively attempted.

Democracy and peace

The greatest failure of the Marxist tradition has been on the question of democracy. Dictatorship of the proletariat as a higher form of democracy has proved to be worse than liberal democracies. Unfortunately, the left has conflated liberalism with democracy. Liberalism unabashedly uphold the individual’s rights to freedom, equality before the law and private property, including a conception of the self as an atomic and self- owning and self-interest pursuing being. Democracy has challenged the limits of liberalism by giving primacy to the idea of equality in a more substantial sense — ranging from equality of opportunity and equal right of all to flourish fully. Secondly, democracy has created a new agent other than the liberal individual. It’s the idea of the people as a collective sovereign who has the right to govern itself or establish self-rule directly or indirectly through their elected representatives. Thirdly, individuals and groups have the right to dissent, protest and the freedom to hold different views and live their own lives the way they want as long as others rights are not violated. Finally, in case power is usurped or if democracy is subverted by the rulers then the people have the right to disobey and even rebel against it to re-establish democracy and equal rights. Democracy upholds equal rights and justice for all and hence theoretically private property is not central to the idea of democracy unlike liberalism and capitalism.

However, democracy under liberal capitalism has been tamed to uphold liberal bourgeois principles and legitimise it by getting popular consent through elections. The radical potential of democracy has to be reclaimed by the people by taking on the responsibility of participating in the democratic process regularly and actively; by making democracy more representative of the diversities existing in any society and by building and defending autonomous public institutions like the media and universities, among others.

Today, knowledge and technology has been used by states to control and discipline populations through its possession and use of big data and surveillance. Popular struggles must counter this process by reversing the gaze, that is, put all public officials under continuous surveillance to ensure that they do not abuse their power. The democratic space has to be reclaimed by the people and institutionally deepen and enrich it.

Central to the idea of democracy is non-violence for it is a process based on informed public debate and not coercion or hatred, but respect and tolerance towards others. History has shown the power of non-violent struggles in defeating powerful empires. Violence begets more violence and even legitimises the state’s use of power to curb violence. Violence and hate justifies the state to arm itself in the name of defending the nation. Global peace is an imperative today.


The modern idea of responsibility is best expressed in the saying, “each one for himself and God for all”. We are only responsible for our selves and what we do to others. But today society as a complex web of cooperation has produced unprecedented power and knowledge, and we consume without any limits. This has brought us to the brink of collective disaster, both of the natural and human worlds. As recipients of the gift of nature and culture we are obligated to protect both our planet and all kinds of life. From this stems our responsibility and it becomes all the more acute under a democracy, because everything is done in our name and with our sanction. Unless we value and cultivate the ideal and ethic of responsibility we can never hope to fight for a better world.


Organisational questions of radical democracy

One central lesson of the 20th century has been the failure of all political parties, both of the left and other persuasions to either build socialism or represent the people under a democratic order. Parties have come to usurp power and de-activate the people. They have retained their power by getting popular consent and are not any serious representative of the people. Now experts and modern technology do the business of ruling and governing hollowing out the very essence of democracy.

As a reaction of the failure of political parties new forms of activism have emerged outside the frame of parties, like civil society organisations, peoples’ movements and even NGOs. This leads to one dimensional radicalism, for most of them focus on a single issue and completely dissociate themselves from the formal democratic process. It results in the further impoverishment of the fragile democratic arena and its takeover by criminals and corporates. Armed revolutionaries by declaring war against the state give it an excuse to further erode democratic rights.

The central importance of democracy in any kind of politics, revolutionary or otherwise is now part of our commonsense. So especially in countries like India where there is a functioning democracy, however imperfect it might be, it has to be strengthened rather than attacked or abandoned. The peoples’ struggle must reclaim the democratic space for themselves to build a better and more just world here and now rather than wait for the revolution to happen.

How then can we re-imagine the organisational form of radical democracy? Parties have primarily failed to represent the diversity and plurality of the people and their dreams and demands. They have become gigantic machines for generating consent to rule the people. The alternative may be the coming together of different peoples’ organisations and movements, trade unions, associations, individuals, groups and even parties in a broad based platform. This platform cannot possibly include and represent this diversity by any ideology, however scientific it may claim to be. It can bring them together if they share a common perspective and a common set of ideals, which we had identified earlier.

This platform will celebrate differences and diversities rather than bulldozing them.

What is to be done now?

Today, more than ever before, we need revolutionary changes, not only to fight capitalism but also to ensure the very survival of the human race and other forms of life. Then, what is to be done to bring about such revolutionary changes?

Our 20th century idea of revolution was that of an event, marked by the transfer of state power from the hands of one class to another. In the case of the socialist revolution the proletariat was to take power at the end of a long battle led by the communist party. Treating revolution as an event divided historical time into two periods — one before and the other after the revolution, which inaugurates socialism. It then becomes the primary task of the communist party led state to defend the revolution from its enemies and build socialism under its direction. Socialism is seen as some kind of an essence which unfolds itself armed by the knowledge of it by the party. Socialist ideals are given a definitive content and form by the ideology enunciated by the party. It leads to the establishment of a party state or partyarchy, where power is concentrated in the hands of the party bureaucracy and in the absence of any freedom or democracy the restoration of capitalism is almost a seamless process, unmarked by any dissent, debate or protest.

The central lesson of the socialist experience is to re-imagine the revolution as a long on-going process, where revolutionary changes happen in different spheres in different moments of time, ultimately leading to the creation of a new society. The best example of such revolutionary changes in a particular sphere was Marx’s theories in the world of ideas under capitalism. Or the democratic struggles leading to the establishment of democratic constitutions with equal rights for all. In other words, driven by ideals of justice and democracy we must work towards bringing about fundamental changes in the very terms of social cooperation existing in any society as well as in different sectors of society. We do not have to wait for the revolution to build the new society, we must start doing it here and now.

Outline of a strategy for revolutionary changes in India today

We had earlier described society as a system of social cooperation, especially between, among others, labour, knowledge, capital and nature. One of the key characteristic of colonialism is to disrupt this system of cooperation and insert itself by connecting key sectors with the imperial economy as subordinate providers of key inputs, often free of cost like slave labour, natural resources, knowledge etc. This leads to the primitive accumulation of capital in the empire. One of the key factors of the disarticulation of the process of social cooperation was effected by the introduction of the colonial system of education, whereby knowledge was completely dissociated from the needs of our society. Rather it was integrated with colonial rule and exploitation.

After independence, in spite of a host of education commissions, our knowledge system could never be re-integrated with the needs of the people. The plan was to re-design the education system to service and guide the project of a planned state led capitalist development project coupled with an ambitious social welfare scheme. Very soon after independence the nationalist fervour evaporated and the middle class elites who were the drivers of this new educational programme looked to the west and the opportunities offered by global capitalism. Thus, for example the IITs etc or our elite colleges and universities have set global standards of teaching and research. As a result most of them are unable to work in India or address the needs of our society. So to continue with this knowledge agenda they have little option but to go to the west to serve the needs of global capitalism or create an enclave in the global chain. In other words our education system is increasingly integrating with global capitalism as a key partner of a system of global social cooperation underlying contemporary capitalism.

As a result our education system has taken a hierarchical and pyramidal form, where students in every layer seek avenues of mobility to reach the higher stages and often ultimately aim to go the west. For this mechanism to function efficiently our examination system acts like a gigantic sieve which continuously eliminates the failures from the system. Thus a huge part of our education is simply wasting and the cream is skimmed to service the needs of global capitalism.

Global capitalism today is driven by knowledge and technology and a large part of it is willingly provided by the third world free of cost. In other words, the primitive accumulation of capital today is still sourced from countries like India. The only difference is that force or violence is no longer used, we freely offer our knowledge and knowledge based services free of cost and voluntarily, and with considerable pride, to drive and service global capitalism and provide for capital accumulation.

Hence any project of justice and democracy as ideals for building a new society will have to question the terms of social cooperation between knowledge, labour and nature and intervene to re-frame these fundamental relationships. We have a great example of such efforts leading to the creation of new educational institutions in colonial Bengal. During the Swadeshi movement a nationalist educational movement was launched and under its impact five of the major universities of West Bengal today were all set up under this nationalist dream. They are the universities of Calcutta, Jadavpur, Visva-Bharati, Indian Statistical Institute and the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science. Whatever their state today does not matter, what is important is the project of building institutions and integrating knowledge with the needs of Indian society and not serving colonial needs.

Global capitalism today has geographically dispersed into a vast chain of global first world enclaves primarily centred around metropolitan cities around the world, including India. The rest is a vast hinterland serving their needs and providing cheap labour, natural resources and providing a market. Nation-states are the pivots who hold this global system together.

Most people of this hinterland live in the districts, where increasingly, villages, market and small towns and the district headquarters overlap and there is a continuous flow between them. Of course, the draw of the metropolitan world is the most powerful magnet. If we have to intervene to re-draw the terms of social cooperation from below our theatre of history and politics must be the district. By organising district conferences and building district peoples’ platforms by bringing different organisations and movement on board we have to work towards re-articulating education and knowledge at the district level with the people and nature and integrating traditional knowledge and skill with modern knowledge. This will create new challenges for district universities and other institutions and create new livelihoods and opportunities.

This should be accompanied by movements for economic, social and gender justice. Besides struggles for equal rights and dignity we have to raise the demand for just wages and prices for products and services provided by the unorganised sector. The benchmark for them must be the lowest salary of government employees and till it is reached their salaries must be frozen. This is the only way to remind public servants that they are not our masters but the opposite.

If radicals once care to read the Indian Constitution they will find it to contain a radical democratic potential, especially the chapters on fundamental rights and directive principles.

Left and democratic politics in India is geared to providing relief — loan relief, free power, doles etc. instead, if we focus on questioning the fundamental terms of social cooperation and fight for substantial reforms they will have a long term revolutionary impact.

Conclusion: Form Matters

A new radical democratic politics to create a just world has to create new forms and languages of protest and resistance. These forms are not merely instruments for doing the work efficiently, rather they should embody the new world we want to build. And it should not only be just and democratic it should also be beautiful. Ethics and aesthetics are integral to any alternative politics.

* (Sanjeeb Mukherjee is independent researcher, formerly with the University of Calcutta)

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