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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 24, June 4, 2011

China: Who’s Counter-revolutionary?

Thursday 9 June 2011, by Nikhil Chakravartty



June 4, 2011 marks the twentysecond anniversary of the massacre of countless students and youth at Beijing’s famous Tiananmen Square. On this occasion we are reproducing the following piece by N.C. written in July 1989.

Sometime ago, I was attending an interesting discussion on the subject of a national alternative. The discussion concentrated largely on the basic approach to the malaise of the present order, and was bereft of the excitement of a Rajiv-versus-V.P. Singh debate. Many distinguished scholars, political and social scientists participated and so did some political leaders.

One of the party leaders began his peroration with: ‘I am not an intellectual, I am a political activist.” Looking pleased with this autobiographical touch, he rubbed it in repeatedly.

This outburst set me thinking. Can politics in the real sense, serious political thinking, be divorced from intellectual effort? There can of course be a political operator who has no pretence of making any intellectual effort. An electioneering expert, a specialist in rigging, a Tammany Hall boss—they all look upon politics as an end in itself. They deem it necessary to put a rival aspirant in the wrong, whether he is a rival candidate in a poll battle or anybody posing a threat to the authority of someone holding office. Beyond such operations, for them there is no need to understand the forces at work in a serious political set-up and the interaction between such forces. Politics at that kind of level is somewhat primitive.

From what I gleaned of the recent Chinese upheaval at Tiananmen, it was shocking to see how a well-knit political party thriving on the glamour of a revolution that moved the largest sement of peasant masses in history, could find itself so much out of touch with the mood, the temper of an entire generation of the intelligentsia that it could send out tanks to mow down a whole mass of humanity—men, women and children—just to assert the authority of the powers that be, the use of the gun’s barrel to terrorise the subjects kept under that power.

After perpetrating that ghastly killing, the power brokers, who had ordered the tanks to shoot, justify their operation by bringing in the bogey of “counter-revolution”. No doubt in the million-strong crowd there must have been opponents to the system itself who were keen on exploiting the situation. But if the historic gathering in Beijing could be so misread so as to answer their question by shooting, then one can only comment that the Chinese leadership has become totally insensitive to human feelings having brutalised itself into an automation of power—bereft of any intellectual understanding of the world they are living in.

From this snapshot glimpse of this frightening exercise of power, one can understand the magnitude of the horrors perpetrated under Stalin. We have in our country a handful of people who cling to their worship of Stalin as the builder of socialism. The Chinese Communist leaders also hold on to that view of Stalin, though his own country has totally repudiated him. Perhaps such a mentality can explain the Chinese leaders’ capacity to let loose tanks to kill unarmed people. A glimpse of the Orwellian Animal Farm.

If one ponders over what happened at Tiananmen on the night of June 3-4, one can realise the enormity of activism minus intellectual input. Biologically, when intellect is placed at a discount and activism is enthroned unencumbered by intellectual endeavour, one demeans oneself to the level of an animal.

History tells us that all great revolutions were preceded by tremendous intellectual ferment. One can’t think of the French Revolution without the encyclopaedists or Rousseau and Voltaire. The Russian Revolution was preceded by almost a century of intellectual ferment in which rose Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy and many others, right upto Gorky. Back home, the mass revolutionary upheaval that brought independence was preceded by a veritable renaissance and was accompanied throughout its tempestuous journey by phenomenal intellectual creativity.

Before our very eyes, we find Gorbachev’s restructuring of the stratified Soviet society has rallied the entire intellectual community of Russia. Significantly, he calls his perestroika New Thinking, and no new thinking is possible without open debate and interplay—that is glasnost. No wonder then that what’s happening in the Soviet Union today is a new revolution and its impact is like the Midas touch for many of the intractable global problems.

Compare this rallying of intellectuals by Gorbachev with what’s happened in China. Deng Xiaoping made a signal effort in lifting his country by the bootstraps from the devastations of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Deng’s modernisation drive needed to harness the intellectuals. He boldly followed an open-door policy not only for the entry of modern technology but also for Chinese intellectuals to come back and go out into the world.

But Deng had no new thinking like Gorbachev’s. He only harnessed the intellectuals to the new technology, not realising that a true intellectual can thrive only in a liberated environment. He or she has to be given not only due scope for work but also an honoured place in the social hierarchy. But as Deng’s modernisation drive ran into difficulties, it was the intellectual who was hit—not only by inflation but by the bureaucratic obstacles while all around there spread the vice of corruption. And the denouement was when the restless intellectual who came to Tiananmen Square—the Gate of Heavenly Peace—was silenced by the guns mounted on tanks. The very negation of revolution.

Truly, it is the counter-revolution that has taken over in China today, seeking to crush the free spirit of human endeavour. Those who stood up for democracy in that square are the true revolutionaries and those who sought to silence their voice are the real counter-revolutionaries. Posterity will bear this out as it has done in Hungary and Poland.

The wheel has to turn in China—may be tomorrow, or the day after.

(Mainstream, July 8, 1989)

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