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Marxism in theory and practice

Print edition : Apr 04, 1998 T+T-

E.M.S. NAMBOODIRIPAD straddled the history of 20th century Kerala and the Indian Communist movement in a manner which invokes awe. The word "history" is what recurs in the Malayalam media while paying tributes to him. History maker, history's man, epochal figure: these are some of the terms which underline the recognition that EMS was something bigger than a successful political leader.

EMS began his public activities in 1930, when as a student he participated in the Namboodiri social reform movement. The quest to "make the Namboodiri a human being" by breaking the shackles of hide-bound upper-caste conservatism began the remarkable journey to the making of a proletarian revolutionary who strove to liberate the whole of humanity.

EMS, like many other potential Communist leaders, was a product of the major social and political movements of the early decades of the 20th century. As an activist in the social reform movement, he focussed on the inhuman system which kept Namboodiri women in gilded bondage. Anti-caste revolt was the first spark. Next came the broader canvas of the anti-imperialist movement. He became a young leader of the Malabar Congress and one of the key organisers of the Congress Socialist Party.

The next big step in the background of the rising peasant struggles against landlordism was the introduction to Marxism and becoming a life-long adherent to the cause of Communism. This trajectory of political development is mirrored in hundreds of militant young men and women who joined the Left movement in the 1930s.

Two things set EMS apart from all of them and made him unique. First, EMS with his extraordinary intellectual genius was able constantly to stay ahead of his contemporaries in applying Marxism to the specific conditions in Kerala and later the whole of India. He was a path-finder. In 1939, even when his study of Marxism was elementary, he wrote a brilliant note of dissent on the Malabar Tenancy Reforms in the committee set up by the Madras Legislature, of which he was a member. The trenchant analysis of the jenmi (landlord) system and the advocacy of radical land reforms presaged his later pioneering role in initiating land reform measures as the first Chief Minister of Kerala in 1957.

This is only one example; there are many others. His The National Question in Kerala published in 1952 was the first creative application of the Marxist-Leninist approach to the nationality question to a specific nationality in India. This work brought him international attention in Marxist circles. He provided the historical basis for the development of the linguistic nationality of Malayalees, which translated into the foundation of Aikya Keralam, the unified linguistic State which was formed out of Travancore-Cochin and Malabar in 1954.

It is this quality in EMS - of grasping the theoretical essence of the Marxist approach and translating it into political movements and practical solutions - which made him stand above most others. EMS was not only a theoretician; he was a master of practice. The Kerala Communist movement was fortunate in having P. Krishna Pillai, the founder and master-organiser; A.K. Gopalan, the mass leader; and EMS. In the annals of the movement, history will record the pre-eminent position of EMS in this brilliant trio who fused his immense theoretical abilities with unerring practical politics.

EMS was also the most innovative in expounding the role of parliamentary democracy in India and relating Marxist strategy and tactics to developing the working-class movement in such conditions. From 1957 onwards, EMS was the pace-setter in clarifying and developing the role of a Communist Party which participates in governments where it has popular mandates, while continuing to keep the major focus on developing mass movements and the struggles of the working people. Not for him the sterile sectarianism of abjuring the mass politics of parliamentary democracy or the crass parliamentary opportunism which many people comfortably slipped into. During his last days, EMS was deeply concerned with the corrosive effects of parliamentarism, which subordinates the interests of the mass movements and the demands of class struggle.

The second outstanding quality which EMS possessed and which made him a phenomenon rarely seen in India is his role in shaping society and politics by unleashing the democratic impulses of the people. Whether it was implementing land reforms to transform feudal Kerala, or creating the climate for an alternative vision within a parliamentary democratic system in a bourgeois state, or an ideological struggle against the dominant ideology of the ruling classes, EMS was unparalleled in communicating to the people the necessity to organise and act. His was a life of democratic dialogue and polemical debates. It was a daily engagement with the people of Kerala and its politicians through the print media and his public meetings. What EMS stated became part of the political discourse instantly. This, along with his personal example of intellectual commitment, integrity and simplicity, made him the most beloved thinker Kerala has produced. A.K. Antony, the Congress leader, expressed the feelings of all Malayalees when he said: "Kerala will not be the same again without EMS."

Kerala changed for the better in the 20th century due to the mass democratic endeavours of its working people. To an enormous extent, the credit for this goes to E.M.S. Namboodiripad.

Prakash Karat is a member of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).