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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 40, September 25, 2010

From ‘Rajniti’ to ‘Lokniti’: Scanning The Works Of Gandhi, M.N. Roy And JP

Tuesday 28 September 2010, by Bhaskar Sur



Power to the People, Vols. I and II by R.M. Pal and Meera Verma (eds.);
Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi; 2007; Rs 1800.

It is a paradox of history that democracy (literally the rule of the people) has so often ended up becoming a camouflaged rule of the power elite at the expense of ‘demos’. Liberal democracy, that flourished in the 19th century, failed to meet the demands of an impoverished working class and it came to be seen as a facade for class rule. This democracy was also burdened with the enormous task of managing empires and keeping the restive population of the colonies under control. Socialist ideologues, therefore, came to call it ‘formal democracy’ and proposed the real power to the proletariat through revolution. However, the great revolutions that shook the world belied the expectations: though people took part in revolutions, power was very quickly concentrated in the hands of the Polit-Bureau and, finally, a determined and ruthless coterie. In this perspective the life-works of the three Indians—Mohandas Gandhi, M.N. Roy and Jayaprakash Narayan—that the book under review presents, are of special importance. All the three thinkers were remarkable personalities who played their part in India’s democratic transition and, despite their differences, there is a convergence of their visions—all pointing to the picture of a reified society.

The life and work of Mohandas Gandhi have proved to be a source of endless controversy and engagement. After the decline of Marxism, Gandhi in recent years has received more critical attention from social scientists, political theorists, and even scientist-activists than other Indians. The book presents Hind Swaraj, generally accepted as his most seminal piece of writing, as well as a spectrum of illuminating pieces from scholars like A.L. Basham, Bhikhu Parekh, Antony Parel, Jayaprakash Narayan and others.

Despite being accorded an elevated place in the corpus of Indian political thought, Hind Swaraj will strike the modern reader not as Bhikhu Parekh would have us believe, a serious critique of modern civilisation, but an atavistic diatribe against the achievements of modern civilisation which failed to have any bearing, except in a negative sense, on India’s subsequent political development. The central core of Hind Swaraj is the theme of self-sufficiency of the Indian culture and superiority over others. Only those ‘who conscientiously believe that Indian civilisation is the best and that the European is a nine-days’ wonder is a true patriot’. Quite naturally a ‘nation with a constitution like this is fitter to teach others than to learn from others’ and ‘those who want to change conditions as I have described are enemies of the country and sinners’. For him, respect to law is ‘unmanly and cowardly’; the profession of a lawyer ‘as degrading as prostitution’; hospitals, in his opinion, are ‘institutions for propagating sin’ the existence of which is likely to deepen our slavery; he dismisses both elementary and higher education as it is not required for the main things and finally machinery ‘the chief symbol of modern civilisation represents a great sin’. He thus advises his countrymen to ‘direct hatred against them (the British) to be transferred to their civilisation’. He insists on sacrifice and ‘chastity’ and as an embodiment of patriarchal values he advises his readers (obviously male) to follow it in their conjugal life. Sex, even within marriage, is an animal indulgence and therefore better avoided. Gandhi’s sympathisers have always tried to explain these away with elaborate sophistry. Nevertheless, they stand out arrogantly and Gandhi, even late in his life, stood by them. More than a century on, Hind Swaraj reads like an angry invective of a holy man against the degradations of the kali-kal and certainly goes against all the demands of social justice and emancipation. It is rather unfortunate that Rabindranath Tagore’s Swadeshi Samaj (1902), where he made a more impressive and reasoned case for rural regeneration and rural self-govern-ment without indulging in ahistorical charlata-nism, did not receive the importance it deserves. One is really puzzled to discover its close resemblance with the Hindutva ideology which has assumed such a sinister shape in our time.

Gandhi’s greatest contribution, however,

is to locate ‘Swaraj’ in the self-reliant village communities, to recognise the value of indigenous knowledge system and, above all, to develop the strategy of a mass movement which is ethically non-violent. The philosophy of Sarvodaya seeks to resolve social conflicts and address the question of inequality through consensus and a programme of creative reconstruction. This vision exercised a powerful influence on both M.N. Roy, who, as we will see, rephrased it in his secular-rationalist but certainly less alluring and less emotive terminology, and men like Jayaprakash and Vinoba Bhave who fought alongside Gandhi during the freedom struggle. The interaction among the three was unilinear: Roy in his humanist phase was, almost in spite of himself, influenced by Gandhi and Jayaprakash, on his part, came to be imbued with the latter’s secular vision of a communitarian, participatory democracy without having occasion to interact.

Jayaprakash, in his essay on Gandhi in this volume, presents Gandhi almost as an empiricist thinker: “He had a keenly questioning mind, and hardly ever accepted anything without reason and experience.” Indeed Jayaprakash’s Gandhi is much more acceptable to us than the negative picture that emerges from Hind Swaraj. Insightful and without sophistry, the article embodies the essentials of Gandhism—decentralisation, the indivisibility of ends and means, and, what is more, the ideal of a living organised community. Gandhi’s vision of a non-violent, egalitarian society would have been based on ‘organised communities rather than an amorphous mass of disparate voters’. Gandhi sought to dissolve politics into a comprehensive programme of social reconstruction. He expected rural democracy to function without the rivalry of competing parties for the share of power. It seems Gandhi, under the influence of Orientalism, idealised Indian villages as heavens of bucolic simplicity or mutual co-operation and altogether ignored the inbuilt structure of their asymmetric power relation and sanctified injustice based on caste, class, community or gender. When we hear of Dalit women being paraded naked or burnt alive or the atrocities of ‘khap’ panchayats, we get the glimpses of the real villages ripping through the seething conflict going on under its placid veneer.

In his article Bhikhu Parekh underlines Gandhi’s insistence on moral control on man’s endless needs which capitalism for its existence whets and legitimises. Marx saw socialism as a society of plenty which the liberated productive forces would make possible. His motto was “form each according to his ability to each according to his need”. However, this need is a relative one and nobody knows how in the future society the ever increasing need of so many billions can be met with finite and fragile natural resources. Gandhi in this respect seems to be much wiser than Marx. The liberal-democratic model of unlimited growth can only push the world into an irretrievable environ-mental disaster. In 1928 he wrote with uncanny foresight:

If an entire nation of 300 million looks for the similar economic exploitation (as Britain did) it would strike the world bare like the locusts.

It can be pointed out here that people’s socialism, as envisioned by Gandhi, must be a sustainable society based on wise and frugal use of natural resources. This is undoubtedly the most powerful and convincing argument against capitalism which, in its pursuit of plenty, completely undermines intergenerational justice and stakes the future of the vulnerable planet on illusory technological fixes. It is this aspect of Gandhi’s philosophy which gives inspiration to scientist-activists like Vandana Shiva in their fight against the ruthless forces of globalisation and the recolonisation of former colonies, countries and the marginalisation of the peasantry. In the words of Vandana Shiva,

Gandhi’s spinning wheel is a challenge to notions of progress and obsolescence that arise from absolutism and false universalism in concepts of science and technology development. (p. 364)

She redefines Swaraj in the following words:

As genetic pollution threatens our bio-diversity and globalisation threatens our farmers, we create living economics and living democracies based on Swadeshi and Swaraj. More than the idyllic picture of rural harmony, this radical anti-capitalist environmentalism is arguably the most relevant legacy of Gandhism.

THE second volume of Power to the People deals with M.N. Roy and Jayaprakash Narayan. M.N. Roy’s fiery political life went through three successive phases—nationalist revolutionary, communist and, finally, radical humanist, when after a lifelong bitter controversy with Gandhi, he came to take a position which was closer to Sarvodaya. No previous critical approaches on Roy brought together so many illuminating articles covering a wide spectrum of views. Not only was Roy the co-founder of the Mexican Socialist Party but also the founder of the Indian Communist Party in exile. In the nine-decade- old history of Indian communism Roy remains the only theorist to have made significant contribution to the development of Marxist revolutionary praxis in relation to colonial and semi-colonial countries. Roy’s draft on the colonial question, which was adopted along with Lenin’s, broke altogether from the line of economic determinism that characterised the theorists of the Second International. Roy observes that the revolutionary movements in the colonies are essentially an economic struggle and the masses are prepared for a revolutionary seizure of power skipping over the stage of bourgeois democracy. He also rules out any collaboration or sharing of power with the national bourgeoisie who would like to come into an accommodation with international capital. According to Robert and Xenida North, Roy’s thesis directly influenced the revolutionary theories of Mao, Ho Chi Minh and others. India in Transition is a Marxist classic though many of its predictions went wrong. Roy, like Subhas Chandra Bose later, announced a premature obituary on Gandhi’s leadership and hoped the proletariat would accomplish the Indian revolution when the comprador bourgeoisie will side with foreign capital.

After his break with the Commintern, Roy, in the face of rising fascism, revised his earlier position and proposed much before Lukacs’ Blum Thesis, a united front with the liberal and social democrats. Much like Gramsci he was deeply thinking over the necessity of a radical cultural transformation. Until there was to be a cultural revolution or Renaissance, or to put it in Gramscian vocabulary, ‘a counter-hegemony’, any seizure of power would dismally fail in its revolutionary mission. The year 1945 marks the end of the critical Marxist period and the beginning of his Radical Humanist phase. New Humanism, published next year (1947), begins by placing Marxism securely in the liberal tradition and showing how fascination for the diabolic has ultimately led to a fanatical ‘political Jesuitism’. Freed from a rigid economic inter-pretation of history, Marxism would become an ethical demand for social justice inspired by the humanist spirit and cosmopolitan justice.

There is nothing new about Roy’s critique of Marxism as similar views were earlier aired not only by such liberal thinkers as Bertrand Russell or Harold Laski but by dissident Marxists themselves. In New Humanism Roy offers a vision of social reconstruction to be achieved in a not distant but foreseeable future by spiritually free individuals working out their vision through people’s committees. His new social vision, formulated in 22 theses, is strongly reminiscent of Marx’s Theses on Feurbach which preceded the Communist Manifesto, and Roy indeed wanted it to be another epoch-making manifesto which it never was. Roy further elaborated on this idea in his Party, Power and Politics while in Reason, Romanticism and Revolution he sought to provide a philosophical groundwork for his philosophy.

THE idea of a ‘revolution from below’ was a phrase first used by Bakunin, the Russian anarchist revolutionary. The anarchist vision of a communitarian society was based on what Prudhon and Kropotkin called ‘mutualism’. The anarchist vision of the free society is not only opposed to all kinds of hierarchy and the state which protects it with brute force but also ideological and religious authority. While Roy’s vision is almost identical with those of the anarchists and is an updated version of the Enlightenment project, Gandhi’s vision owes its origin, to a great extent, to the pre-industrial social formation in which normative belief systems played an important part. In other words, Gandhi’s community is a real community, rural in its orientation held together by traditional bonds. Roy has apprehension about any ‘collective’—whether it is nation, class or even community. The only cementing bond between the autonomous individuals is the all- comprehensive force of reason. Even the chief proponents of the Enlightenment—like Diderot, Adam Smith or Bentham or its modern proponents like Chomsky or Habermas—would hesitate to conceive such an all-important role for reason. Roy’s ‘man’ is also an essentialist conception situated in the pure realm of reason and freed from all associations of class, caste, community, gender or colour. Aditya Nigam in his brilliant “The Non-Contemporaneity of M.N. Roy” has rightly remarked that Radical Humanist is ‘throwback on 18th century rationalism’. In contrast with Gandhi’s religious-moral man living under God’s world, Roy’s man owes his morality from the ‘law governed universe’ or the ‘Ontic Logos’. In Roy’s conception, human rationality is identical with the ‘Ontic Logos’. This is certainly a logical trap because it would rule out the possibility of human volition and freedom.

This philosophical doubt apart, the problem with the vision of a community, as envisioned earlier by anarchists and reworked by Roy, is that it was the product of society/societies which did not have any stable democratic tradition as in the Tsarist empire or in France where successive revolutions had undermined or destabilised the institution of civil society. It is good for Radical Humanists to organise grassroot people’s committees and rally the activists to that end, but in a civil society these can exist only as one of many such competing organisations. These can never, even with overwhelming majority support, hope to be ‘co-terminus with the state’ or replace the institutions of property, capital, legal institutions or bureaucracy. In the year 1946 when Roy formulated the concept of partyless democracy, India had developed quite a few state democratic institutions like union boards, municipal corporations, provincial legislatures and, of course, the central legislature as well as a multiparty system. How, one wonders, did he think of replacing such well-entrenched political organisations drawing sustenance from community, caste or class with his people’s committees in a non-violent way?

Actually, Roy was living in a vacuum caught between his communist past, which was only a memory, and the concrete and sometimes ugly realities of an emerging democracy, with which he did not have any emotional involvement. Roy, it seems, could never overcome the shattering defeat of his Radical Democratic Party in the 1946 elections [he was, as Sibnarayan Ray noted, excited about it and with a rare naïveté expected to secure at least 10 per cent seats] and the vision of a partyless radical humanist society run by ‘spiritually free’ friend-philosopher-guide friends of the people is nothing but a psychological compensation and a regress from critical thinking to a religious one, even though this religion is apparently one of reason.

Roy, despite all his unresolved conflicts, remains a towering intellect with the widest scope of mind. Blackham, the humanist philosopher, called him ‘a materialist on fire’. R.M. Pal’s article ‘M.N. Roy’s Radical Democracy: A New Approach’ written with understanding, genial scholarship and critical acumen is perhaps the best introduction to the diverse aspects of Roy’s thinking during this period. It maps the whole territory for anyone who would undertake the exciting mental journey.

Before falling to the bullets of a fanatic Hindu, spent little over a year in the truncated dominion and with much agony saw around him the streams of millions of homeless political refugees living in abysmal misery, the simmering communal tension and the vile scramble for power by the men and women of his own party. It would be wrong to absolve him of all the evils that followed the partition as, with all his show of humility, he led the party to this tragic end. His call for dissolving the Congress was really a cry in the wilderness and little better than a pious wish, unrealistic and preposterous. His decision to go on another campaign across the country was a noble one but, even if it had materialised, it would have had limited impact on the emerging reality of India. It would have been as ahistorical as had been his proposal in Hind Swaraj. Roy was alive and intellectually active till 1954 but he was busy writing his Reason, Romanticism and Revolution which was so empyrean in its height that he did not engage himself with the mundane political realities. It was only Jayaprakash, one of the early socialist theoreticians, a hero of the 1942 movement, who, now in his mature middle years, was deeply concerned with social change and in touch with reality. He was destined to play an important role later in the seventies and try out his ideas only to fail dismally in the end.

THREE of Jayaprakash’s writings—The Foundations of Socialism (1936), From Socialism to Sarvodaya (1957), and A Plea for Reconstruction for the Indian Polity (1959) are important to study his intellectual journey from classical Marxist socialism to the more comprehensive ideal of socialism, namely, Sarvodaya. The first is a lucid exposition of Marxist socialism in the best European tradition. At this point he believed, like all Marxists of the time, that the abolition of property would inevitably lead to ‘the ownership of the whole community and really empower the people’. But he gradually came to realise that “European socialism, both Marxist and non-Marxist, is the picture of an industrialised society” and India, in sharp contrast, is both rural and most of its people are dependent on agriculture. He rightly saw that there was need to go beyond the development model upheld by the World Bank and the West or the Soviet model with aggressive insistence on rapid industrialisation. India therefore needed, and still needs, a model suited to our economic and cultural conditions. There came about an epistemological break with the philosophical foundation of the old socialism-materialism. He writes:

…materialism as a philosophical outlook could not provide any basis for ethical conduct or any incentive for goodness.

He sought support from a new outlook that would solve the dichotomy between matter and the mind.

What is most remarkable in the vision is the rejection of the growth model geared to meet ‘an insatiable hunger for material goods’. What is most important in his thinking is to develop the ‘socialist way of …sharing together the good things that common endeavour may make available’. Following Gandhi and Roy he would also dispense with politics as a means of having or holding power and all that goes with it. ‘Rajniti’ is the politics of the power elite; ‘lokniti’, by contrast, is the active exercise of the power by the people. In his A Plea for Reconstruction of the Indian Polity he believes—and here against the evidence of history—that communitarian socialism can be still built in India and other Asian countries to save them from the traumatic transition of the Marxist way. The question again resurfaces: how can this partyless polity and non-capitalist economic paradigm be realised in a country where liberal democracy with some superficial socialist pretensions has made great strides and market driven production is the mainstay of the economy? Jayaprakash suffered Gandhi’s fate when, after the struggle against the Emergency and the installation of the first Janata Government, he became completely irrelevant and fighters of the Total Revolution surrendered themselves totally to the cynical pursuit of power. The entries of his Prison Diary are full of disappointments and dark reflections lending a tragic tone to this towering personality. The article of Bimal Prasad, the foremost authority on Jayaprakash, masterfully sums up five decades of restless praxis of a revolutionary who never stopped to think or act.

Power to the people, even six decades after India became a republic, remains a distant dream and though more and more Indians figure in the richest list, a far greater number has sunk into poverty, destitution and helplessness. The dreams of Gandhi, Roy and Jayaprakash have receded to some obscure organisations, somehow struggling to maintain their precarious existence. Three factors almost force themselves into our consciousness—the absolute dominance of developmentality to be measured by growth indices, the growth of the big corporations who dictate the policies of the World Bank and IMF but over which people have no control, and, finally, the triumph of the media that manufactures consent for the growth drive at the cost of the people but, most importantly, for shaping and orienting the people towards consumerism and the market. It is encouraging to see that in the last few decades numerous movements have shot up everywhere in the country resisting the monstrous development projects that displace people and take away their livelihood or, as Vandana Shiva has shown, protecting the rights of the marginalised farmers threatened by Monsanto or Cargill. The growing strength of the civil rights movement all over the country also indicates that people indeed can have power without parties. As these movements for human dignity and sustainable future take shape against all odds, thinkers like Gandhi become relevant and this book is certainly a valuable pointer towards it.

The editors have done a laudable job by taking all pains to provide scholarly introductions at the beginning of each volume as well as sections dealing with individual authors. However, some minor shortcomings are still there: the absence of Gandhi’s Last Testimony and Roy’s Party, Power and Politics is only too conspicuous as both of them are seminal texts indicating the new directions the authors were taking or about to take. Similarly, in the introduction of the fust volume the editor refers to Evelyn Roy’s essay as presenting the Radical Humanist view while it was actually written in 1922 when Roy was a Marxist ideologue and his wife, his staunch follower. The price too may look forbidding for many readers but after taking the mental journey one will feel it to be highly rewarding and worth paying for.

The reviewer, who teaches English in a Junior College under the West Bengal Government, is the Secretary, All India Radical Humanist Association.

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