Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2010 > Marx to Gandhi—Experiences of a Lifetime

Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 1, December 25, 2010 (Annual 2010)

Marx to Gandhi—Experiences of a Lifetime

Friday 31 December 2010, by Sailendra Nath Ghosh


In Search of a Better World: Memoirs by Jolly Mohan Kaul; published by Samya, a publishing house in Kolkata; 2010; pages 384; price: Rs 700.

This reviewer has much in common with the author. Both joined the communist movement in their teens. This reviewer, after a stint of 19 years, relinquished his membership in February 1957, after his differences on both domestic policies and foreign affairs culminating in his public denunciation in 1957 of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, while the author resigned his membership in January 1963 after the Chinese aggression on India in 1962. Both have come to embrace the Gandhian philosophy and outlook on life. Both became interested in spiritual matters, the author defining God as the “intelligent cosmic conscious-ness” and this reviewer calling God the transcending force that regulates the order of the galaxies and the universe in motion and also the “Divinity within” which inspires one-ness with all of Creation, that is, the “interacting forces of the cosmos”. Yet, there has been no dearth of critical scrutiny of the book’s contents.

The book is highly readable. Quotations from verses at appropriate places make the narratives delicious, and lend a moral force to the author’s arguments.

The Foreword by Prof Amlan Datta, one of the greatest thinkers of modern India (who passed away recently), says that the book is an account of how the author’s worldview was transformed over the last six decades.

The first five chapters describe the author’s family background and neighborhood, and his days in a catholic Christian school and college. The sight of the beggars in the market-centres and the cruelty to “domestic servants” in general inspired in him a resolve that he must do something for them. His one Catholic teacher inspired him by the exemplary use of every moment of his life in useful activity and his “strong faith” and yet the author could plainly tell him that Christianity is not the only true faith. Paradoxically, after reading Vivekananda (evidently later in life, at his wife’s instance), he came closer to Christ. From the school and college, he learnt the importance of ethical behaviour.

The book covers the milestones of his life in the Communist Party—his life in the under-ground when the party was illegal; his life as a trade union organiser—his analysis of the errors the party committed in the wake of the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union by supporting the British war efforts during the ‘Quit India’ movement; the harrowing experiences of false reports, deceptions, and sending cadres to the jaws of deaths by igniting senseless strifes during the period of left adventurism (1948-51); the shortlived thinking that started about the party’s role in the wake of Khrushchev’s revelations at a secret meeting of leaders of some parties that attended the 20th Congress of the CPSU; the stoppage of this thinking process after the dismissal of the communist-led State Government in Kerala; the queer experience of a jolt to the faith in the Soviet Party and yet the faith remaining unshaken; the emergence of rivalry between the CPSU and CP of China for leadership of the international communist movement resulting in the split in the Communist Party of India.

Mingled with this party history is also the history of major events in India and the world—the famine in Bengal during the war years; the great Calcutta killings in 1946; and the firmness of unity of factory workers amid these strifes; the onset of the Cold War between the USSR and NATO forces; the fall of the Berlin Wall; and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The last eight chapters of the book describe the author’s and his wife’s struggle for survival after the severance of links with the party; his forays in the corporate world and business journalism; his finding peace in Tapogiri Ashram, a unit of the Aurobinda Ashram in Ramgarh village in the Kumaon hills; his soulful involve-ment in Kanti Mehta’s Gandhi Labour Foundation at Puri; and finally, the questions that have been asked of him for the creation of a better world and his answers thereto.

Thus, the book covers a vast spectrum. The review will, therefore, highlight only the author’s salient findings; inviting the reader to read the whole book for getting the details. The reviewer’s comments will be only where he differs from the author’s conclusions or finds his answers lacking in completeness.

Soon after his initiation to the communist movement he was given a sermon by the leaders, which was contrary to what he had imbibed from the Jesuit Fathers in his school and college days. He was told that “whatever was in the interest of revolution was moral”, meaning thereby that “anything that opposes it was immoral”. But who decides what is in the interest of the revolution? And what is revolution? “Whatever helps power coming into the hands of the Communists” is revolutionary and moral. (p. 49)

The judgment of what is in the interest of revolution rests not with the Communist individuals or with the collective. The Polit-Bureau and ultimately one person, the General Secretary, is the judge. He, too, takes the cue from the internationally dominant leader of the communist world. The book gives examples of how the democratic content of “democratic centralism” gets knocked off and only one person, in the name of the working class, exercises dictatorial power. In India it happened even when they were far from seizing state power. This could happen because all members were subdued by the code of strict discipline. They, like the foot soldiers in an Army, are “not to reason why; they are there to do and die”. This became clear when even Muzaffar Ahmed, one of the founders of the party and universally respected as “Kakababu”, did not approve of what was happening during the Ranadive period and yet, “in keeping with the prevailing norm”, refrained from openly protesting or expressing any difference. (p. 131) The very fact that at the time of each change of party line only the outgoing General Secretary was punished and excluded, proves that there was no democracy and no collective decision. The undivided CPI always took guidance from the CPSU. Now, the CPI-M takes guidance from the Communist Party of China. The brain has always remained mortgaged to some power-holding Communist leader/s outside the country.

The party leadership does not want the cadres to think for themselves. Even a leader like P.C. Joshi, who probably had a broader outlook than any other Indian Communist leader, told the author and his classmates at a party school that “party members should avoid reading Marxist classics. The party journal would provide all the education needed.” (p. 91) In corroboration, this reviewer adds that in 1957, Bhupesh Gupta told him: “Free thinking? All the thinking that was needed had been done by Marx. None can, or should try to, improve upon it.” Thus, the party, which decried religion as the opium of the people, installed Marxism—or its interpretation by some supposed leader—as a religion which the “faithfuls” needed to blindly obey!

No Difference in Objectives between the Soviet State and the Capitalist States

THE author points out that the Soviet state sought to promote a consumerist society which was, and is, also the capitalist state’s objective. (p. 189) The underlying meaning is that in the name of raising the living standards of the people, the Soviet state too, promoted consumerism and did not care to educate the people about the need to voluntarily limit the wants. Voluntary limitation is needed, for both the purposes of radiant health and conservation of resources. Gandhian philosophy alone advocates this. Thus, Gandhian philosophy is in accord with ecological principles.

What more the author could have pointed out is that the Soviet society had no difference in other respects, too. In farming technology, industrial structuring, architecture, methods of energy generation and use, and in the transportortation patterns, there was no difference. There is no understanding among the Marxists that with “nature-conquering” technologies and high-concentration-energy (fossil fuel, nuclear power) systems, which are inherently pro-centralisation, you can never, never build an egalitarian society. Most Gandhians and all Marxists fail to understand their respective gurus’ core messages about the genre of technology. There is need to cognise that Mahatma Gandhi called the Western civilisation dehumanising because nature-conquering technologies make machines the master of men. High concentration-energy systems always promote nature-conquering technologies. Based on them, centralised production systems come up and lead to concentration of economic-cum-political power. Karl Marx, pointing to the importance of the genre—that is, inherent orientation—of technology, had said that hand-mills give rise to independent producers and artisans while steam-mills produce capitalist entrepreneurs.

Regarding the trade union movement, the author has made three significant points. One is about the benefits of a genuine trade union movement which cements workers’ unity. During the “Great Calcutta Killings”, when Calcutta was plunged deep in communal riots, “the workers in the port and in other establishments with strong unions remained steadfast”: they not merely avoided communal rioting but also promoted communal harmony. (p. 96)

He bemoans that “the trade union movement has moved away from its original goal. Trade union was meant to be the united platform for all workers in a factory or industry. Today’s trade unions are what we call ‘party fractions’ within the trade union. Each party has its own trade union organisation and, in many cases, there are different factions within a party, each with its own union. The absence of this unity has led to the weakening of the trade union movement. Of course, there are other factors responsible for the current decline but the fragmentation of trade unions within each factory and each industry is the main factors.” (p. 110-111)

Pointing to the follies of the seekers for contrived hegemony, he shows that the practice of fairness and broadmindedness in sharing power with genuine and experienced leaders of other parties helps to achieve the real hegemony. (p. 83)

The author points to a great lacuna in the trade union movement. There are many working class cadres with leadership qualities. If they were given some education in history, geography, and elementary Marxism, they could grow up as natural leaders of the working class and replace the outside leaders. “Regrettably, we let them languish for lack of education.” (p. 222)

The author’s narrative of his, and his ailing wife’s, struggle for survival after their severance of links with the party is a saga of integrity, grit and determination to live with dignity. It is best left for the readers to read the whole story themselves. (pp. 265-275) Frankly, this reviewer used to wonder how Communists like Prasanta Sanyal and Jolly Mohan Kaul could function as PR-men of business houses without compromising their conscience. The reviewer was, of course, aware that the company, IOL, that produces life-giving oxygen, was to be regarded as an exceptional category of enterprise. The book makes it clear that he and some others tried their best to impress upon company managers that “business should not think only of profits, and that it had to give back to the society what it had acquired from the community”. “Business could do this by creating an environment in which it was possible for it to grow and prosper.” (p. 286) A suitable environment meant a congenial public opinion which required curbing the companies’ greed for super-profits. One wishes the author gave some account of the impact of this advocacy (for social responsibility) on our business houses.

Judging by his portrayal of the Indian companies’ outlook, there has been virtually no change. The author says: “Few managing directors and Chairmen did serious reading... I suppose they relied on consultants and think tanks to advise them... Nor did companies undertake original research, not even to update their technology, which is why they had to go in for foreign collaboration or foreign equity participation to be spoon-fed for product development and marketing.”

On the question of ethical standard or integrity of candidates for company jobs, the head of a recruiting firm plainly said: “As long as the person meets the objectives set for him in terms of profits, et cetera, we are not bothered how he does it.” The author’s finding, after many interactions with top managers, is that “ethics and integrity are not constraints for top managers in many concerns”.

On the Chinese Communist Party, the author’s conclusion is that it is a party of national chauvinism. “It is unthinkable that a communist country would escalate border clashes into a full-fledged attack on India.” Since a considerable section of the Communists in India supported the CPC and there was a bitter internal strife, he felt repelled and resigned in January 1963. The book does not say whether his wife, Manikuntala Sen, who was a pioneer of the women’s movement in Bengal, resigned or not—and, if she did, on what ground.

The author and Manikuntala lived 34 years of married life, from 1953 to 1987 (the year she died). They had a Spartan lifestyle. The author says the more he looks back to this period of his life, the more he realises how much he owes to her. Further, he says: “Above all else, it is to her that I owe the complete turn my life took shortly before her death. I found God again—the god that I had abandoned and even reviled for the greater period of my life.” She wanted Diksha by a monk of the Ramakrishna Order before her death. Was there a long-felt urge? What role does spirituality play in life itself? The author does not delve into this question and stops by merely saying that “spirituality is different from religious fanaticism”. He could have added that spirituality is different from fatalism and that it is communion with the indwelling spirit, which gives one the feeling of “holiness within” and of becoming the Divinity’s tool. It gives peace and calm in mind, and remoulds the personality by instilling indomitable will, boundless faith in self; freedom from fear of mundane powers; utmost humility; purgation of arrogance; capacity for creative thinking and awakening of intuitions.

The long, nearly seven-page quotation from Kanti Mehta’s vision and his reasons for founding the Gandhi Labour Foundation is an excellent exposition of Gandhian philosophy that will repay reading. (pp. 336-342)

In the last chapter titled “Whither Better World?” the author raises questions and gives his own answers. The questions are:

(i) How did the mighty Soviet Union collapse within a few days, like a house of cards?

(ii) Why, in India, the communist movement has not been able to expand outside West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura?

(iii) Is there any possibility of a viable alternative to the capitalist democracy—which is now dominant in the USA and in both Eastern and Western Europe—emerging?

Reasons for Collapse of the Soviet Union

FOR limitation of space, the author’s own answers are not given here. Where, in this reviewer’s opinion, the author’s answers lacked depth, the missed-out points are given for the author’s and readers’ scrutiny.

What collapsed was not a socialist or even a socialism-oriented state. The USSR was a society of state capitalism, with all the attributes of a capitalist society plus the vices of state-centric polity. Secondly, the concept of an appropriate political structure of socialism was never debated. Socialisation of means of production was taken to mean that these had to be owned by the apex organ of the state. There was no reason why the ownerships could not be vested in the state organs at community levels. This would have meant decentralisation of economic and political power.

The Soviet leaders learnt no lesson from Nature’s order. In a biological system, there are acids, alkaline and neutrals. In a socio-biological system, there was need for both private and state enterprises, with co-operative enterprises as the buffer as well as the cement. If any of three aspects was lacking or ill-developed, the whole system got diseased. This is what happened in the Soviet economy.

Again, in Nature’s order there are large, medium, and small—the largest being the fewest, the middle-sized being medium in number, and the smallest being ubiquitous. Soviet industries overlooked this principle. Hence the national economy could not reach its potential.

No thought was given to the need for countervailing forces—that is, checks and balances. There was no scope for consumer councils: hence product quality suffered and the product cost remained high. There was no independence of judiciary: this was considered a bourgeois trait. Hence there were gross violations of human rights.

In the USSR, the accent was on production—production of arms and “heavy machines for production of machines” which could, in the distant future, be used for producing abundance of consumer goods. Meanwhile, the citizens’ appetite for consumer goods was rising, creating repressed dissatisfaction.

The need for producing “socialist men and women” with socialist values ingrained in the core of their beings, was neglected. As a result, everybody felt he/she had only rights on the society, forgetting his /her obligations to it. Thus, the expectation to receive was the maximum but the willingness to contribute was the minimum. Amid such a pervasive mindset, the Stakhanovite movement could not maintain the momentum of production for long periods. Alcoholism, wife-beating etc. became rampant in this situation of disoriented minds.

Reports of (i) loss of freedom of expression, (ii) restriction on trade union activity, (iii) divisions within party leadership, and (iv) liquidations of leaders reached Europe and America. So the original support for the “socialist state” from the world people did not last while the arms race between this one state versus the many states of the European the American continents kept rising to the Soviet people’s disadvantage.

In the works of Marx and Engels, there were several omissions and ambiguities and some sweeping conclusions which this reviewer discussed elsewhere at length in 1988. Lenin sought to build an egalitarian society with “nature-conquering”, centralising technologies. These were the mistakes at the fundamental level. In these gaping loopholes, Stalin implanted his distortions. Hence the collapse of the system was inevitable. Gorbachev’s perestroika, too, was foredoomed to failure because it was impossible to build a socialist society or even to compete with capitalist societies with their kind of (consumerist) philosophy and their genre of (“nature-conquering”, centralisation-prone) technologies.

Why is the Communist Base Shrinking in India?

ON the second question as to why Communists could not expand beyond West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, the reviewer would restrict himself to making just three sentences. In States where the communists did not have strong bases before the 1940s, built on the sacrifices of heroic comrades and of mainstream leaders won over to Marxism, there was no scope of their expansion later. After the series of Himalayan blunders during the ‘Quit India’ Movement (1942-45), and again during the period of Left adventurism (1948-51) and yet again in 1962 (at the time of the Chinese aggression)—and also after successive proofs of brain mortgaging to outside powers—who would venture to give them a niche? In West Bengal and Kerala, they are now facing splits and their bases are shrinking due to factional strifes and ego problems which crop up when the capacity to share thoughts with the grassroots people dries up.

The third question is important for developing a perspective. The answer is: certainly a superior alternative to bourgeois democracy is possible. It has to be based on the Gandhian concepts of simplicity of life; voluntary limitation of wants (which entails curbing of greed), “bread labour” (that is, “voluntary manual labour to earn the right to eat bread”—and on constitutional provisions for village republics, and other levels of republics with widening horizons functioning like concentric circles within the great Indian Republic. Since the pattern of energy use largely decides the life-style, and the technologies of energy generation decide the pattern of economic activities, the energy base has to be fossil-fuel-shunning, and nuclear power-avoiding. It has to be based on eco-friendly renewable resources, such as solar energy, wind energy, biogas, biomass, microhydel, mini-hydel and tidal energy. There is an abundance of these energy resources in India and the world. Only vested interests in oil, coal and nuclear power have clouded the visions of today’s policy makers and the elitist intellectuals. Ecological resources and ecological principles will have to be the decisive inputs in this real “people’s democracy” ensuring sustainability and universally shared long-term prosperity. This is a vast subject which cannot be compressed in this book review and will be discussed in a separate article.

The author has mentioned several persons again and again who have been very helpful in alleviating his adversities. Nikhil Chakravartty was the foremost among them. Next came Bhupesh Gupta, Sunanda K. Datta Ray and some others. This reviewer, too, found that Nikhil Chakravartty was the only person who kept in touch with him after his “expulsion from the party for anti-party activities” in 1957. Interestingly, this “expulsion” was after his resignation and publication of a booklet denouncing Soviet suppression of Hungarian uprising and execution of Imre Nagy.

Indrajit Gupta found compliments in the book for his aloofness from factionalism, effective oration and integrity. Jyoti Bose, who dominated West Bengal politics for more than three decades, was mentioned as a leader who did not bother about theory and was known as a pragmatist. This reviewer found him devoid of any social perspective—any thinking about the society’s goal and where we are heading.

On page 362, there is an error. The author says Julian Huxley, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo had visualised that there would be a “development of human consciousness, a leap forward to a higher level”. The vision of Sri Aurobindo for more supermen (more than one in a population of a million) was shared, not by Julian Huxley, but by Aldous Huxley.

A question crops up. Why, instead of a relatively large percentage of supermen, a much larger percentage of pelf and power-hungry, corrupt men and women are coming up? Whereas Lord Buddha and Jesus Christ’s teachings remained steadfast in people’s lives for about a millennium before their degeneration, why do the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Aurobindo in recent times, while attracting millions of devotees across the world, fail to prevent the deepening of an ambience of corruption, thuggism, hypocrisy and sycophancy? Does it mean the latter were lesser gurus? Or have some wrongs occurred deep down in the foundation (that is, the infrastructure) of the societies, in their economic and political structures and in their cultural superstructures? Can these be radically altered by reclusive meditators of metaphysical and cultural issues alone? The author does not seem to have pondered.

One last related point. The author has claimed that he has been in search for a better world. As for the present situation in the world and in our country, he rightly says in the last chapter (i) that the piled up nuclear weapons have the power to destroy all life on earth; (ii) that the Arctic ice is melting, the Himalayan glaciers are receding and the sea levels are rising, threatening cataclysms; (iii) that we, in India, are trapped in the tentacles of globalisation and its institutions; (iv) that our foreign debt is mounting and is probably in the range of $ 200 billions and (v) that there is, therefore, a “need to strike out a path of our own, more self-reliant and less dependent on globalised economy and less destructive of environment”. He says that he has not actually taken sanyas and is “not altogether inactive”. What is he active in? His “current areas of interest are literature, fiction, philosophy, cultural heritage of India and recent developments in science”. The pursuit of these at this stage of history is suited for persons who want to remain academic, not for social change-makers. This reviewer finds the author is already rich in English literature and has a positive approach to philosophical and cultural questions. But he has not cared to cognise that social change and the search for a better world need holistic thinking about the problems in common people’s lives and the path to their solution. All knowledge streams are no doubt important. But this search requires knowledge of the latest in life sciences and environmental sciences, more than that in physical sciences. It also requires the knowledge of technologies accessible to common people and information about the emerging technologies for tapping the gifts of Nature in the form of renewable energies. This, in turn, requires living contact with people’s struggles which throw up hundreds of queries everyday, impelling a furious search for answers from various disciplines which give versatility and faster acquisition of knowledge needed for building a better world. Even at the age of 90, one can use the pen as one’s sword if there is a strong desire to help the battles being waged by the people in the fields, factories, offices and laboratories.

Pursuit of spiritualism is of two kinds. One is of monks and silent meditators who do not directly influence economic and political restructuring. The other kind found its highest expression in Sister Nivedita who was highly active till the last breath of her life. Change-makers have an unending engagement with society’s problems from which there is no respite.

An erstwhile leading activist of the Communist Party in West Bengal who worked among the peasantry in the South 24-Parganas district, the author was the secretary of the economic unit attached to the Central Committee of the undivided CPI (1955 and 1956). A former Director of the Bureau of Petroleum and Chemical Studies, New Delhi, he is a social philosopher and an environmentalist.

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