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Mainstream, VOL L, No 21, May 12, 2012

Reflections on Marx, Lenin and Us

Friday 18 May 2012, by Mohit Sen

(The following are excerpts from the chapter ‘Reflections’ from the autobiography of noted Communist ideologue Mohit Sen, A Traveller and the Road: The Journey of An Indian Communist.)

Though the birth of the Communist movement took place in 1847-48 when Marx read out the Communist Manifesto, it would not be unfair to date its birth from the victory of the Russian Revolution on November 7, 1917. The news of its victory was sent ’To All! To All! To All!’ Since then, despite defeats, it swept across the world as no other movement in the twentieth century. Its victory in Russia and its former colonies, the defeat of Nazism, the triumph in China, Yugoslavia, Cuba and Vietnam as well as its strong presence in Italy, France, South Africa, Brazil as well as in our country are facts that cannot be erased from history, that is, the memory of mankind. It was not only a question of geographical expansion. Some of the greatest masters of culture in science, literature, cinema, dance, theatre and the arts in the twen-tieth century became Communists or friends of communism.
In our country many among the great masters of culture were drawn towards communism and even more the Soviet Union. Satyajit Ray was among them. He told me that Soviet cinema had inspired him and also “the inspiration behind that inspiration”.

How did this happen? Before examining the reasons for this, it needs to be stated that communism’s triumph was essentially that of Lenin and Leninism. He was a superb tactician undoubtedly but not only that. Lenin was an unsurpassed Marxist theoreticisan enriching all the three components of Marx’s legacy—dialectical and historical materialism, political economy and scientific socialism. Yet, if one were to pick out his greatest and most original contribution to Marxism and revolutionary thought and practice in general, it would be his concept of the vanguard party. He first set out this concept in What Is To be Done? It is not democratic centralism nor discipline that are essential to this concept. What is essential is the relation between spontaneity and consciousness and between the intelligentsia and the working class. The Party is conceived as the indispensable link between the science of socia-lism and the movement and struggle of the working class that creates socialist consciousness. Such consciousness has to be brought to the working class from outside the sphere of the life and struggle of that class but it has to be brought to that class and brought by the intelligentsia that has grasped the science of socialism.

Few adequately understood Lenin’s theory of the Party. Among the exceptions was Antonio Gramsci whose Modern Prince embodies this concept in all its complexity. Such a party existed only as long as Lenin lived and is born and reborn only when it begins its journey in country after country. The Italian Communist Party led by Togliatti and Berlinguer was an exception. In a different way, for a shorter period along with errors, so was the CPI in the 1934-47 period when P.C. Joshi was its General Secretary, that is, in the earliest years of my adherence to the Communist Party.

Lenin’s contributions to Marxism include his analysis of monopoly capitalism and the place of finance capital in it; his theory of the world revolutionary process and its diverse as well as uneven development; his insistence on broad revolutionary alliances with worker-peasant unity as its core. ...

THE twentieth century was for communism its century. In this century, the central contradiction mentioned above expressed itself not so much through the capitalist-worker conflict as through the contradiction between feudalism and the peasantry and that between national liberation and imperialism. This was graphically expressed in the change of the central slogan from ’Workers of the world, unite!’ to ’Workers and oppressed peoples of the world unite!’

The success of the communist movement, it should not be overlooked, was the greatest in countries with no democratic traditions and insti-tutions. Communists succeeded most where they confronted power more than hegemony, where competition from other parties also opposed to the oppressor’s system was weak and where the revolution took the form of a war of movement culminating in a lightning final destruction of the enemy’s citadel. Gramsci’s strategy had elements of Leninism but was essentially an alternative to it. This strategy, it is not enough realised, depended on its success, on the building of a united front not of classes directly but in the mediated form of already existing parties. It required for its success a comprehensive hegemony and not just in the political sphere. It required cultural hegemony understood in the broadest sense. It required a party capable of hegemony. Such a party had to be a collective intellectual and the ’Modern Prince’—a concept that Gramsci developed brilliantly on the basis of Machiavelli’s classic text.

Leninism had reached its peak in the period of unreformed capitalism and in conditions of the absence of civil libertarian democracy. Its mon-opolisation and petrifaction under Stalin deprived it of its open-endedness and capacity to be the basis of qualitative and indispensable departures. After all, Gramsci was not known outside a small circle. To have propagated his ideas would have invited denunciation, expulsion and even death. Even a great leader like Togliatti knew this and kept his knowledge to himself. This was not always a question of cowardice though that was also a factor. ...

In India, as elsewhere, the Communists were patriots and champions of the working people of the country. But they were not nationalists. They did not know India. In my own case, I became a Communist and worked as a Communist for decades before I accepted India. I was not an exception. Mao Zedong was wrong in wanting to Sinicise Marxism and to bring into being Chinese Communism. The correct effort would have been to be Communist and Chinese. Ho Chi Minh achieved this. So did Joshi and Dange. But they were exceptions. Of course nationalism could turn ugly and it did. But so could communism itself and it did....
Nationalism is neither the product of a particular state nor of the perception of an ‘imagined community’. It is the result of the evolution over a protracted period of language and culture bonded by a growing web of economic ties. It comes into being at a certain historical moment as the result both of objective historical processes and the subjective work of leaders with vision and mass influence. Overall, it is an irrevocable development and historically progressive. The best example of the description of the start and progress of a nation that I know is Nehru’s Discovery of India. The change of his ideas about nationalism illustrates its value and indispensability in the struggle for socialist transformation. It is a pity that by and large Indian Communists made no such discovery. ...

THE historical materialist method bequeathed by Marx and developed by Lenin was invaluable to interpreting and to changing history. In the latter sphere, the results obtained, unfortunately, were often transformed into models while in the former sphere the truths established were sought to be put into a Procustean framework of four-stage unilinear progress. There were arcane and abs-tract discussions of the relation between base and superstructure, material production and ideology. The first injunction of the method—the concrete study of concrete reality—was all too often ignored. Yet, when the method was used as it should have been what riches were discovered and created! In the practice in which I was engaged, Lenin’s conceptualistion of the unity and struggle of opposites and Mao’s elaboration of the meaning of Contradiction proved to be the most effective guides to action, both at the macro and micro levels. Of course, it was one thing to arrive at correct conclusions by the use of the method and another to convice the Party that these conclusions were, indeed, correct! ...

Nevertheless, as Moonis Raza once said as he lay dying of cancer, the traveller need not only blame himself as he stumbles—the tortuous and torturing road also has its share of the blame. We perhaps attempted too much but that is what the times demanded and proclaimed. We would have made more mistakes and achieved less had we not attempted to do the impossible. Out of such folly is loveliness born and the world remade even if by others. We pass on our message of historical impudence. My only regret is not that we were not wiser but that morally we were not better. We had too much of personal ambition and realised too little that to be good one had to know the pains of others—the true Vaishnavite ‘peer pariye jaane re’. It was not difficult to understand but extremely difficult to give priority to.

The road stretches temptingly. We shall not be there long enough to know who will travel along it to the end. But some will. Unlike us they will be but not alien to our endeavours and desires. There will be continuity along with the break. Commu-nists we have been of different kinds. There will be other kinds in the future but Communists there will be. More open than we were, less arrogant and going along with many others who will not be Communists but whose aims though diffe-rently expressed will not be all that different from and not antagonistic to what Marx wished for humanity. He predicted fulfilment without insis-ting that a particular party was needed for it. His-tory would do it in its own way. It is enough that we were given the chance to be a part of its greatest forward movement.

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