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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 22 New Delhi May 18, 2019

Cameos / Marx and Marxism

Sunday 19 May 2019, by Nikhil Chakravartty


From N.C.’s Writings

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s 158th birth anniversary was observed last Thursday (May 9, 2019). On this occasion we are reproducing a piece by N.C. on Tagore written 78 years ago, in 1941. It was published in The Calcutta Municipal Gazette—Tagore Memorial Special Supplement, September 13, 1941 (that appeared after the Poet’s death on August 7, 1941). This piece was carried under the pseudonym Vanguard. Though written during World War II when the global scenario was radically different from what it is today, the relevance of this piece remains undiminished.



It was a wet September evening in 1936. We were driving back home after an interview with Tagore, then staying in a suburb of Calcutta. My companion was an Englishman—a young professor of literature, who had just had his first glimpse of Tagore. He was impressed with the Poet’s personality. But he had so many things to ask about him. There was still something that he had yet to figure out about Tagore. After a pause, he asked me how the people, the common people, regarded Tagore. I replied: “Well, we consider him as our national poet. But he is a votary of no narrow nationalism: he has condemned in no unmistakable terms the system that is dominating our country, but he has sought refuge in a broad humanism.” “Yes, but,” he asked once again, “would you call him a People’s Poet, a poet who portrays the life, the struggle and the aspirations of the common man—the toiler in the field and the factory?” I do not remember what answer I could mumble out then, but it was not something that fully satisfied either him or me at the time. As I returned home, the question came back over and over again: Is Tagore a People’s Poet?


Two years later, the scene shifts. This time my friend is an Indian in London, who at one time was a student at Santiniketan. He has settled in England after a struggling academic career. We were discussing Andre Gide who had just come back from the Soviet Union and had started a tirade against that country. It was a shock to the progressive circles and was broadcast all over the world by the reactionary press. What a depressing feeling it was to find the great French writer in the camp of the enemies of the USSR! Little by little our discussion veered round to the favourite topics as to whether it was possible for the intellectuals to be above the battle and retreat into the Ivory Tower like the Eyeless in Gaza: while the world was being enveloped in a desperate struggle of power-politics, and culture stifled all around, nobody could remain neutral without helping the cause of reaction. Particularly was it true in a dependent country like ours, and, I asked, if our intellectuals were alive to their responsibility. Many were not, but how was Tagore? Was he socially conscious? Did he realise the issue at stake? Profit versus the People—does he really know on which side he should stand? My friend kept quiet for a moment, and then, from under a huge pile of books, he drew out a dusty file of type-written pages. It was an English translation of Tagore’s Letters from Russia, and he told me the story behind it.

Years back when this young man was absorbed in his research, there came to him a copy of Tagore’s Letters from Russia. He started translating it and he did it at a time when he was nearly stranded. But he felt a sense of responsibility towards his Gurudeva and was anxious that Europe should know where Tagore stood in this crisis of progress. The impression that the West retained about Tagore with “the lotus and the crescent moon” was out of date. It was time that they should know him again as the realist who had reacted to the sufferings of exploited humanity. With this end in view, he translated the book, and Bertrand Russell willingly wrote a foreword to the proposed English edition. From the Poet himself came glad consent and everything was arranged but, at the eleventh hour, unexpected circumstances came in the way, and the book was never published.

As I listened to his reading of the manuscript till midnight I realised what an unbelievable loss it was that the book never saw the light of day, for it might have given Tagore a new recognition in the West, more impressive and more significant than what he had received on the publication of Gitanjali. This time he would have received more coveted laurels than the Nobel Prize, the gratitude of struggling millons from Spain to China. With what clear understanding he could delineate the ruthless working of imperialism in his own country and compare it with the tremendous material and moral progress in the Soviet Union. Here was Tagore as something more than a poet and philosopher. Though not one of them, he had felt with his own heart the misery and starvation of the common people, and he had the courage to admit the great social advance made under a system which destroys the propertied class to which he himself belongs. Here was the great humanist who would never hesitate to condemn exploitation to welcome a better order of things.


Summer 1939. An international students’ delegation was visiting a concentration camp of the Spanish refugees in the south of France. It was a small party but comprised many nationalities from the Chinese and the Indian to the Yugoslav and the American. The visit was intended to demonstrate the youth’s common front against Fascism and Imperialism, and for the purpose of conveying the greetings of the world students to the youth of Spain as the vanguard of the People’s struggle against Fascism. The camp was situated right at the foot of the Pyrenees, near the frontier, and had a population of 18,000—mostly from the Army of the Ebro, which included men from all walks of life—writers, artists, doctors, workers, peasants, clerks and shopkeepers—men of the famous International Brigade who came and fought shoulder to shoulder with the Spanish people because they realised that the front of Peace, Freedom and Democracy was indivisible and could be defended against not by rival imperialisms, but by toiling millions out to build a new world.

The French commandant did not allow us to enter the camp which was under military control and was surrounded by barbed wire for miles around. He was polite but would not let us go in, lest the French Government should be exposed by the appalling treatment that had been meted out to the sons of the sister democracy of Spain. Daladier and Bonnet, the Chamberlains of France, who with their gang had abetted the Fascist attack on Spain, were now, by imprisoning these valiant fighters, acting as the goal-warders of Hitler and Mussolini. The alternative that was offered to these brave soldiers of democracy was either work in the labour-gangs in France or a passage back to Spain to face Franco’s firing squads.

We were allowed to interview about 20 people called out of the camp. There were Brazilians, Poles and Chinese in the International Brigade. Of the Spaniards, most of them in that particular camp were students from Colleges and Universities. One of them had been working in the University of Madrid on a thesis on literature for his doctorate, before the Fascist rising in 1936. We talked to each other in broken French, and he asked me a number of questions about India. He had heard a lot about Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru. Of these, he ruled out the first, for, as he said, “Gandhi wanted to put the hands on the clock back, while we are out to create a new and better world.” But Tagore and Nehru, he continued, were different though they might be under the personal spell of Gandhi. He had read the works of Tagore in French, and had listened to portions of Nehru’s Autobiography read out by his comrades at the front. He wanted to know what Tagore’s attitude was towards Fascism. Fortunately I had then just read the Poet’s reply to Noguchi, and I told him about that. He was happy and remarked: “He might not be coming from the ranks of the people, but he is sensitive and he is honest. He is on the side of progress and justice.”

And he added after a pause: “You know, Fascism can never be effectively fought by imperialist governments—that is why today we are in prison in the so-called democracy of France. These governments might one day stand up against Hitler and Mussolini when their own interests will be touched, but Fascism will never die so long as imperialism survives; and it is for the common people to rise and smash up the present system of exploitation. In that struggle the intellectuals will be called upon to make their choice. Many would be frightened and go over to the side of the bosses. But the better type, men like Malruax, Fox, Cornford and Lorca who fought alongwith the peasants and the workers—and men like Tagore ad Rolland, Toller and Sinclair, who have sent their greetings from a distance—these will all be on our side. Many of them might not take part in the actual fighting, many might abhor the violence that will show itself in the process, but they will at least be honest when, moved by the agonies of suffering humanity today, they will welcome the birth of the new world of peace, freedom and happiness. By themselves they will not be able to build such a world, but they will welcome its construction when the toiling man will be enthroned. They are no doubt individualists and their reactions will be entirely emotional. Yet they will be our valuable allies in the struggle. Would you regard Tagore as one of them?” I did not have to hesitate to give him the proud answer: “Yes, we regard him so”—and was reminded of the foggy night in London when I had read the translation of the Letters from Russia, and of the monsoon evening in Calcutta when the Englishman had asked me, “Would you call him a People’s Poet?”


Things have moved since then and moved rapidly. I do not know what has happened to the young Spanish student. Perhaps he went back to the Spain that is Franco’s prison, or fell into the hands of the Gestapo after the betrayal of France, or if he is one of the few lucky ones, has escaped to some other part of the world, ever ready to carry on the real People’s struggle against Fascism. But Tagore has not belied our hopes, he has reacted magnificently to the suffering of toiling humanity trying to sever the bonds that bind them. Even in this evening of his life, he has shown the alertness of youth in tearing off the mask from the face of Fascism and Imperialism alike. As I read and re-read his New Year’s Message, “Crisis in Civilisation”, there came back to my mind the face of the young comrade from Spain behind the barbed wire in the concentration camp, and I remembered the ringing words of Rolland, written on May Day 1934 on the advent of German Fascism: “The decisive conflict has begun. It is no longer permissible to keep aloof..... Appeal to life against death, against that which kills, against these ravages of humanity: the forces of money, drunk with gold, the Imperialisms drunk with power, the dictatorships of the great companies, and the various forms of Fascism, drunk with blood. Working man, here are our hands. We are yours. Let us unite. Let us close up our ranks. Humanity is in danger!”

(The Calcutta Municipal Gazette—Tagore Memorial Special Supplement, September 13, 1941)

In the light of the ongoing debate on Marx and Marxism that the bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birth (May 5, 1818) has generated, we are reproducing an article by N.C. on Marx, Marxism and his personal testament in the wake of contemporary developments for the benefit of our readers.

Marx and Marxism

A Personal Testament

The centenary of Karl Marx’s death on March 14 saw impressive tributes to his memory as not only the philosopher who interpreted the world but the revolutionary who sought to change it. From Parliament to the distant hamlet in this farflung country, wherever a Red Flag with hammer-and-sickle is perched on a bamboo pole, Marx was remembered. Not that anybody had seen him even in a film in this country, but they know that his credo now reigns supreme over one-third of humanity and millions in distant lands look upon his message as one of liberation for the dispossessed. His traducers and adversaries have perhaps done as much to keep his memory alive as his adherents. He would not have agreed to be called a prophet. He was the irrepressible inquirer who tried to discern the law that sets social formations into motion.

I am no learned scholar, but a sunburnt reporter. With the serried ranks of pundits from all over the world—our own quota is no less formidable—evaluating his many-splendoured grandeur, it would be presumptuous on my part to write on Marx and his contribution. I can only recall the early days when I stumbled into Marxism as a student fifty years ago. While studying in Calcutta’s Presidency College, I used to pass daily by a small bookshop which used to be raided by the police almost every other day. Not a political activist in those days but just a god-fearing nationalist putting on khadi kurta, I felt curious why this shop was the target of constant police attack. One day as I peeped in there, I had my first encounter with Karl Marx—an illustrated history of the Russian Revolution, tucked away at the back of the shop: I was absorbed in the pictures, but the introduction mentioned about Karl Marx and Lenin and Trotsky.

In those days, Communist literature was banned in our country as also the Communist Party. But clandestine literature naturally appealed to young minds, particularly in the revolutionary ferment that was Bengal in those days. As editor of the College Magazine, I had a junior as the Secretary who seemed to have had an acquaintance with the proscribed literature: an article by him in Bengali on the ABC of Marxist economy, I found very absorbing. I published it in the College Magazine and there was a flutter. The police warned the Principal, who was a liberal and so he let the matter pass. In those days, Marx in my circle was known only second hand through Laski, Sidney Hook and later, John Strachey. The first Marxist intellectual I met was our respected teacher, Susobhan Sarkar, and the first Marxist speaker I heard was Soumyen Tagore, just released from Hitler’s prison.

Once when studying at Oxford I was asked by my tutor, himself a high Tory, to write on Napoleon III; at the end of a long list of readings he said (and I remember his words even today): “There is another book, rather polemical but stimulating, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx.” It was a bleak January afternoon when I settled down with the book and it was late at night when I put it down. This was a staggering experience. Here was a plausible, rational explanation of History, not a chronicle of kings and their battles, nor of the cause and effect: in a flash, many of the great historians—Thucydides, Gibbon or Acton—seemed inadequate. The words of Engels in the Preface to this book still ring in my ears: “Marx discovered the great law of motion of history according to which all historical struggles, whether they proceed in the political, religious, philosophical or some other ideological domain, are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes, and that the existence and thereby the collisions too between these classes are in turn conditioned by the degree of development of their economic position, by the mode of their production and their exchange determined by it.” The next few days, I read up two other books by Marx, The Class Struggle in France and The Civil War in France. Here was the glimpse of a man who could combine fierce partisanship with cold objectivity. A man deeply involved in action, at the same time sharpened by the faculty of taking a total view of a situation. For a young student of History, this was fascinating.

This was my initiation into Marxism. I read little of his economics but more of his historical writings. The first volume of Capital I read, but not the other two. The Communist Manifesto was inspiring, but I was struck by Marx’s intellectual sharpness in his book, The Critique of Gotha Programme, which came to me towards the end of my student days. One can get a slimpse of the wide range of his interest in his Letters. In those days when Marxist literature was not as mass produced at throwaway prices as today, I think we read it with avidity and earnestness and perhaps greater seriousness than today. I need not bore the reader with personal trivia, but it is worth noting that many of us came to Marxism through sheer intellectual pursuit and the life of an activist came later.

In the late thirties and early forties, there was in our country a remarkable commingling of intellectual ferment and militant Left activity, in which the Communists were in the forefront. Not only in the political field but in different branches of culture—literature, drama, science and humanities—there was an upsurge of activity quite out of proportion to the actual strength of the communist movement. Even when the Communists took a grievously wrong turn in national politics as at the time of the 1942 ‘Quit India’ struggle, there was energy and buoyancy in the communist activity.

At the Marx death centenary, eminent Communist leaders have spoken and written paying fulsome homage to Marx’s greatness; and that is as it should be. Their fidelity to Marxism is obviously unquestioned and it would perhaps be presumptuous on the part of a political wayfarer like me to riase a question, simple but nagging: how is it that when Marxism has become widely popular in this country and there is aversion to it in only a die-hard conservative fringe, the communist movement as such has progressively been making less and less impact on national life while its range of interest has conspicuously shrunk in recent years? Many of my generation raise this question not in anger, not in exasperation, but with pain in heart. It is not a question of sitting in judgement on any leader, though many are not of the calibre that can command national eminence: I raise my question in utter humility as I am aware of the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of dedicated workers of this great movement, seeking no publicity for themselves, serving according to their light the interests of the toiling masses in distant corners of our country.

And yet this question has to be raised particularly on the occasion when we remember Marx, for he was himself a withering critic of his own cause, never hesitating to rip open its mistakes and weaknesses, as could be seen, for instance, in his severely objective appraisal of the Paris Commune, done with clinical thoroughness, without belittling its significance.

With the limited understanding of a journalist, I feel that the time has now come when every serious Communist can no longer escape the imperative of an introspective assessment of this movement.

The basic question that comes to one’s mind is: after sixty years of tireless work, why is it that the communist movement in this country has not become a national force? No doubt, they have strongholds here and there; they have regional influence as, for instance, in West Bengal or Kerala, but these do not make them a national force.

Viewed from another angle, one has to admit that at many a crucial juncture of the nation’s history, the Communists found themselves out of step. Born largely out of the national struggle for freedom, how was it that they got delinked from the militant patriots of 1942, who would have been its natural allies? Again—and this was certainly more disastrous—the Comm-unists declared a veritable war on the national government immediately after Independence and thereby alienated themselves from the patriotic masses, and these include the workers and peasants. The Communists have always stood for planned economy, but when the concept of planning was seriously introduced in our country by far-seeing minds like Mahalanobis, it took the Communists two long years to decide whether they should support it or not. The list can be multiplied: the purpose is not to draw up a charge-sheet, but to think out why this dissonance with the national ethos.

This is essentially a question of roots. We tend to look upon this question of roots in an emotional, idealistic way. The Communist leaders will argue that they are not denationa-lised, they have links with their people, they are not alien to the customs and traditions of this country and many of them even observe social or religious rituals. But in a rational, materialist sense, the queston of roots involves a very different discipline. Marx slogged in the British Museum for twelve long years to get a grasp of the Industrial Revolution and discern the laws of class struggle. Lenin in the midst of Czarist persecution made his own study of capitalism in Russia, its impact on the peasantry. This was not a one-time exercise; repeatedly he came back to the subject. And then there is his classic work, State and Revolution, written literally in the midst of revolutionary action.

Mao made his own independent study of the agrarian situation in parts of China, thorough investigation with the discipline of a researcher but the methodology of a Marxist. Ho Chi Minh did his own study of the conditions of his people, particularly the toiling masses under colonial domination. If these leaders emerged as Titans in the esteem of their people, one cannot ignore the enormous effort put in by each of them to understand first hand the working of their societies. And this is not confined to the economic issues alone, it spread to every branch of human endeavour—to culture and philosophy as well. And every one of them acquired a deep grasp of his own national heritage.

What do we see in our case? The early days of the movement saw individual efforts here and there—a Bhowani Sen or a Namboodiripad or a Sundarayya attempted to understand the social forces in their respective areas. But since Independence no serious work of a primary nature has been done by any Communist leader in India. There may have been an outstanding intellect like a Kosambi or a scholar in philosophy like Debiprasad Chattopadhyay, but they came up through their own intellectual background and with little interaction with the leadership of the communist movement.

Why has this happened? This is not because the Indian Communist leaders are intellectually ill-equipped. Many of them have brilliant academic records behind them. It is risky for a lay observer like myself to venture any explanation. What strikes one is the fact that in the early days of the national movement, the young Communists found themselves pitted against outstanding leaders who themselves had taken to mass action as their political weapon in their fight against the imperial power. To assert their ideological identity the young Communists took to a sectarian posture, a common malady of any movement in its infancy. They could have got over it had they applied themselves seriously to study deeply the socio-economic structure in the country: instead, they confined their energy and activity to be a militant ginger group in the national spectrum—more of a radical amendment mover than the organ of an independent line of thinking based on the assimilation of actual mass experience.

Since Independence, intellectual activity by the Communist leadership has progressively declined as could be seen by their contribution in Parliament and State Assemblies, in which the law of diminishing returns is very much in evidence. In fact, election politics has become the main preoccupation of the communist establishment.

Sea-changes have come over the rural scene. There has been no study by any Communist leader of the social impact of the Green Revolution. Abstract debate went on for decades if capitalism had really penetrated into the Indian agrarian economy. This is a country of uneven development: there is no study of substance by the Communist leadership on such problems as that of the nationalities, or tribal identity, and yet the Communists were the first to point to the nationality question in this country in the early forties. The working class in India has undergone major transfor-mation with industrial development. But the Communist leadership has given the new working class no national orientation and has confined its activity entirely to the wage question. The Communist support in the working class has not relatively gone up despite the tremendous growth of the Indian working class, both in numbers and importance.

Every political observer is today faced with the growing complexities of the Indian scene—in all its dimensions, political, economic, social and cultural. It is of course easy for an Opposition leader to be a critic of the govern-ment. But the communist movement cannot relegate itself to a mere perpetual Opposition, a sort of gentlemanly Raj Narain. It has to seriously apply its mind to independently think and try out its approach, its line of action on all the issues facing this country. If Marx faced the thousand and one problems thrown up by the Industrial Revolution, how much more formidable is the task today when we are in the midst of a technological revolution!

Ours is a country of infinite problems as also of infinite promise in the world of tomorrow. If the Communists do not think hard and equip themselves, no models from outside will help. In the hundred years since Marx, the communist ideology has turned out to be the most restless ideology in history: its votaries have taken different approaches to many problems facing them, depending on their own understanding of Marxist methodology. From Peking to Rome, from Moscow to Hanoi, Marxism has manifested itself in different models. Certainly there is much to learn from rich experience in social engineering in other countries of the world, but we have to work out our own model and dare to make mistakes and learn from them. That was how Marx set out to change his world—combination of acute intellectual perception with boundless revolutionary zeal. Both have to be acquired by the Communists if they have to learn from the teachings of the great Karl Marx. The time has come for the Communists in India to undertake what Rosa Luxemburg used to call, Renewal—renewal of their roots as also of their role as the upholder of this nation’s rich heritage.

(Mainstream, April 2, 1983)

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