In conversation with Aijaz Ahmad: Excerpts from an earlier interview

A conversation with Aijaz Ahmad: Excerpts from an interview Aijaz Ahmad gave to Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M., which was published in the Frontline issue dated August 2, 2019.

Published : Mar 21, 2022 06:00 IST

Aijaz Ahmad.

Aijaz Ahmad.

Aijaz Ahmad is a Marxist thinker of Indian origin and an internationally renowned theorist of modern history, politics and culture. He has taught in various universities in India, Canada and the United States and currently serves as Distinguished Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine, where he teaches critical theory.

A large part of this interview concerns questions of Hindutva communalism, fascism, secularism and possibilities for the Left in the Indian context. In other sections, he reflects on globalisation, global prospects for the Left, the uses and misuses of Antonio Gramsci’s thought, and the relevance of Karl Marx in our time. The interview was conducted before the 2019 general election and updated after the election results were out….

Narendra Modi again won the people’s mandate in May 2019. How do you look at his comeback? What are the main factors that contributed to the BJP’s return to power with a historical mandate? How do you foresee India’s future under the RSS-BJP’s second term in office?

Led by Narendra Modi, the BJP has certainly scored an electoral landslide. Whether this can be called a “people’s mandate” is very doubtful. In order to give their mandate, people have to have the benefit of a rational political debate based on strict respect for facts, not to speak of calm and clear enunciation of alternative policies by the contending political parties. Even if political parties are able to offer rational alternatives based on facts, the people today no longer have access to any of that because the corporate media in India are aligned almost exclusively with the Sangh machine and are no longer committed to public civility and unbiased reporting of facts and policies. A democratic exercise through which the people can give their mandate further requires strict observance of ethical, constitutional and legal norms by all the institutions involved, notably the Election Commission, the highest judiciary, law enforcement agencies—which is no longer the case. There once was a time when the Indian polity observed these democratic norms to a very remarkable degree. But a civil compact of that kind has been fraying in India for some decades now, getting increasingly more corrupted as years go by. By “corrupted”, I don’t mean just the massive use of money, which is itself a big factor in determining electoral outcome. I mean an all-encompassing erosion of what could reasonably be called a democratic process. 2019 seems to have been the point when any relation between the size of the electoral victory and the basics of the democratic norm has disappeared altogether.

Indian politics has been Americanised to an astonishing degree. The cult of the great leader—the messiah, the saviour—on the one hand, and the systematic production of fear and hysteria on the other, have become quite the norm. Politics are now driven by 24×7 TV channels, opinion polls, and immense campaign extravaganzas staged with billions of [rupees of] corporate financing, much of it secret and untraceable. The escalating hysteria about citizens and non-citizens, which is likely to reach hysterical proportions with Amit Shah as Home Minister, is itself a carbon copy of [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s racist, virtually genocidal policies toward the South American economic refugees crossing into the U.S. All of this the Sangh conglomerate has imbibed from the U.S., with three differences: outright hysteria is much more the norm in virtually all the TV channels in India; sources of the money that went into the oiling of the BJP machinery in 2019 were more opaque while the amounts were even greater than in the U.S.; and the low-intensity but unremitting violence that the Sangh deploys so routinely, without fear of judicial reprisal, is far ahead of Trump’s savageries.

Did the 2019 results surprise me? Yes, as did the 2014 results. I am not a student of day-to-day electoral politics. My personal expectations in any election are shaped very much by estimates that I receive from sources on the Left and the liberal Left. And you know what those estimates were: narrow margins on either side, possibly a hung Parliament. Once I recovered from those immediate expectations, I returned to the very premises of my structural analysis.

Secularism, a minority position always

I always emphasised how a true commitment to secularism was always a minority position in Indian society and politics, how very much more Hinduised Indian society has now become, how communal violence always leads to very rich electoral dividends for the BJP and its associates, how all the key institutions of the Indian state were getting eroded and increasingly serving the interests of the BJP, including the Election Commission and the higher judiciary. I had written a more conceptual essay on the larger trends in 2015, in the aftermath of the 2014 elections, which Socialist Register published in 2016. That article was then reprinted in a couple of other places, in Britain as well as India, and has now been reprinted again in Frontline [“India: Liberal Democracy and the Extreme Right”, June 7, 2019]. Much of what has happened now is simply the intensification of what I had then identified as major features of Indian politics.

I had said at that time that the electoral decline of the Congress in one way and that of the Left in another was at least as important as the BJP’s majority in the Lok Sabha. I had noted that Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister who gained virtually total support of the great capitalist magnates well before the elections got going, and that he had not only forced Indian politics to go presidential, on the American model, but spent roughly the same amount of money on his election as did [former U.S. President Barack] Obama on his. A point that probably went unnoticed by even some of the keenest readers was that the money he raised and hoped to keep raising from the corporate sector made him considerably independent of the RSS, the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad], and even the BJP itself, because he now had enough money to buy up into his loyalty structure the cadres the RSS had provided to the BJP for electoral campaigns, not to speak of the middle-level functionaries of the BJP who too could be bought up with that money. The invincibility of the Modi-Shah duo within their own world is probably owed at least in part to the fabulous wealth they now control.

Also read: Post-democratic state

I had argued at great length that the RSS had long settled on a strategy whereby it would accept the liberal institutional structures but would fight to acquire long-term state power by taking over the institutions of the state from within. “Long march through the institutions” I had called it, in an ironic reference to a famous slogan of the Left from the 1960s. On an even broader scale, I had argued that there was no fundamental contradiction between projects of the Far Right and the liberal institutional structures; the RSS can take hold of those institutions and rule through them. These and many such propositions in that earlier analysis still give me the rudiments that can be developed into a further analysis of where we now stand. So, for instance, and considering what I have argued over the past few years, I was not in the least surprised at the scale of the electoral fraud of various sorts or the fact that every major institution of the Indian state has colluded with the BJP/RSS in protecting it against any fallout. The state has been taken over substantially, from within.

Bitter realities

A more complex analysis shall have to wait. A couple of bitter things need to be said, however. The first is that the BJP is now really the only truly national party and that the Modi-Shah duo represents a stable centre in this formation. Second, with the exception of the Left, there is no political party, including the Congress, for which the need to fight collectively for secular civility takes precedence over its own sectoral, corporate interest. The corollary of that recognition is that there is no such thing as “secular parties” with which the Left can reliably align itself; secularism for every one of them is a matter of convenience, and the isolation of the Left on this issue is absolute. Third, the decline of the Congress is definitive; any second coming will have to involve major changes that are not in sight.

Fourth, election results in U.P. [Uttar Pradesh] demonstrate that a combination of the politics of religious hysteria and social engineering within the fragmented field of caste politics can prove strong enough to trounce even the combined force of the S.P. [Samajwadi Party] and the BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party], the two major faces of caste politics in the State. From Gandhi to the RSS, the dream has been to contain caste antagonisms within the larger Hindu fold through a machinery of concessions. A middle caste solution for the coexistence of the upper and lower castes, so to speak! The U.P. results are only the most recent among many a success that the RSS has had to its credit on this score, all the way from Gujarat to the north-east. We have to re-examine very closely our settled belief that the question of caste will somehow trump the Hindutva project.

Finally, from the long-term perspective of any prospect for a politics of liberation and renovation, the collapse of the Left-oriented popular vote in West Bengal, and the fact that much of it seems to have veered toward the BJP, is virtually the most disheartening event of 2019. This is not the first time when, nor is West Bengal the first place where, we have witnessed how very disorienting the savageries and duplicities of liberal politics can be for the wretched of this earth. What do the bereft, the desperate and the immiserated do as they try to cope with everyday material miseries and get caught in the crossfire between criminal political forces like the Trinamool [Congress] and the BJP? I said before the elections that the Left is so isolated in these ruins of liberal politics that it will have to be fighting for bare survival. Now, with these results coming in, the situation becomes even more grim.

Role of the Left

Having said that, I do want to stress three things about the Left in India. One, it commands a level of political experience and organisational depth that is quite unmatched. If anyone thinks that the social movements, the NGOs [non-governmental organisations], the little groups here and there are going to fill the spaces from which the Left is being forced to retreat, that is just not going to happen. Second, the Left is the only force in India that has a coherent vision and a comprehensive social understanding from the standpoint of the poor and the working class as a whole. Third, the Left in India has an extraordinary presence in the intellectual and artistic life of the country; no other political force comes anywhere near. The basic resources are still there, even though the beginning of a reconstruction will now require tremendous audacity. After all that has happened over the past five years, nothing about the elections of 2019 is really fundamentally surprising—not even the prospect that the next five years are likely to be very much worse. An age that our Independence had inaugurated does seem to be closing, though, and the young will now inherit a country so extensively damaged that they will have no choice but to remake it, from the bottom up.

The Hindutva right-wing offensive has attained new heights during the Modi period. Mob lynching, cold-blooded murders, assassination plots, stifling dissent by right-wing groups were the daily norm in the country in the last five years, and it continues so. How do you analyse these?

You are of course right about this escalation, but things should be seen in perspective. The republic was born in the midst of a communal holocaust and the largest religion-based migration of peoples in human history, Hindus and Sikhs migrating from Pakistan and Muslims from India. Communal violence has been with us ever since and indeed since well before Independence and Partition. There are undoubtedly millions of Indians who are perfectly tolerant in their social lives and secular in their political conduct. But one should also remember that there are severe limits to how tolerant and secular a caste-based, god-intoxicated society can be. That is the first point.

The second point is that we have seen over and over again since about the mid 1980s that communal violence pays very handsome cultural and electoral dividends. The killing of thousands of Sikhs in the nation’s capital served to unite the Hindu nation and delivered to the Congress the largest number of MPs it has ever had. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement was unleashed to detach that Hindu majority from the Congress and win it for the Sangh Parivar. After about five years of agitation, which included homeopathic doses of violence, the BJP jumped from two Lok Sabha seats to 85 in 1989. After two more years of rath yatras and rivers of blood, it rose to 120 seats. Then, in the first election after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, it won a plurality of seats in Parliament, with 161 MPs, and even formed a short-lived government at the Centre.

Given this record, it would be politically foolish for the Sangh to give up the communal violence that comes so naturally to it. I might add that Modi was a minor figure before the Gujarat killings of 2002. After those killings, he and Amit Shah were unstoppable, first at the State level and then at the federal level. Electoral arithmetic may lead to temporary setbacks now and then, but on the whole, the Sangh Parivar has been gaining power and prestige since about the mid 1980s.

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It is not only that the RSS and the BJP have gone from strength to strength in federal as well as State elections, but they have also succeeded in altering the very temper of the nation socially and culturally. India is now a much more Hinduised country than even 20 years ago, and this applies as much to the saffron yuppies as to rich peasants and even lower castes in large parts of India.

For instance, the [A.B.] Vajpayee government tried to introduce a beef ban in its early days but retreated hastily in face of the uproar in Parliament; the Modi-Shah government was able to implement it without any consequential opposition. The RSS is able to implement much more of its agenda. The new groups of leaders, Modi to [Yogi] Adityanath, are much more crude and bloodthirsty than Vajpayee or even [L.K.] Advani, who had spent a long time in Parliament as members of a small party before their rise began. And I need not even comment on the disarray of the opposition. In short, the worst elements of the RSS have risen to power precisely at the time when the BJP is at the apex of its electoral strength. Why should they give up the tactics that have brought them this power?

You were the first among the intellectuals who warned about the ascendancy of fascism in the country in the context of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Your lecture, later published as an essay, “Fascism and National Culture: Reading Gramsci in the Days of Hindutva”, was an excellent text on the rise of Hindutva fascism in India. In that you wrote that “every country gets the fascism it deserves”. Does India get its own fascism now?

Yes, that was my initial reaction, and I did use the term “fascism” at that time rather frequently. But I introduced many caveats very soon after that initial moment. I still believe that the destruction of the Babri Masjid was a fascist spectacle and that the RSS has many classically fascist characteristics, but I do make a distinction between the RSS and its mass political front, the BJP, which is historically a very unique party. We need very precise dialectical operations to understand the structural novelty of this party before putting an easy label on it. My lecture/essay that you refer to was also written very soon after the Ayodhya demolition. But it was not on the “the rise of Hindutva fascism” as you put it. Rather, it was a reflection from inside India, at a particular moment of crisis, on a particular problem that Gramsci had posed for himself. As of 1920, the Italian Left was incomparably stronger than the rather small and disorganised fascist formation. Three years later, [Benito] Mussolini was in power, and by 1926 his power had become absolute, with the Left decimated as a political force, well before the Nazis came to power in Germany. In this context, Gramsci asked himself: what is it in our history and society, what was in the bourgeois nationalism of our country which has led to such easy victory for fascism and such easy defeat of the Left? Very large parts of Prison Notebooks are a reflection on Italian history, on the special place of the Vatican in that history, on the peculiarities of the Risorgimento and Italian unification, on the stunted nature of the Italian bourgeoisie and its industrial cities, on popular fiction, and so on, so as to grasp patterns of popular consciousness. I tried to raise similar sorts of questions about India. The problem with that essay is that too much of it is based on analogical thinking, which is a very inferior form of thinking. Soon after that I wrote a very long essay on Italian fascism, which I like better.

When I wrote that every country gets the fascism it deserves, I had in mind the great difference between Germany and Italy, between Italy or Germany and Spain, and so on, which then implies that if and when fascism comes to India it will be a product of our own history and society, quite different from any other. You ask me if fascism is coming to India now. The answer is “No”. Neither the Indian bourgeoisie nor the RSS needs fascism. In interwar Europe, varieties of fascism came in countries where the working-class movement was very powerful and a communist revolution was very possible. No such situation obtains in India. Communal violence, no matter how ugly or punctual, is not fascism. Do the RSS and several of its non-parliamentary fronts have some fascist attributes? Yes, they do. But so do dozens of movements and parties of the Far Right all over the globe. A fascist streak has been a part of capitalist politics since about the 1880s, but very few states or political parties can be called fascist in the strict sense….

How important is the idea of secularism?

Secularism is a good idea in all contexts. One needs to hold on to it. But the struggle against Hindutva majoritarianism requires all sorts of other ideas as well. Congress-style secularism and BJP-style majoritarianism are competing ideologies within a system that is based on the most ruthless forms of repression and exploitation. Indian electoral politics is largely organised around caste, religion and various forms of property. The idea of secularism is descended from the Enlightenment formulae of “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality”. Secularism falls into the broader category of “Fraternity”. Can a caste-based society be “fraternal”? If not, then can it be secular in any meaningful sense? Is “Fraternity” possible without “Equality”—which is to say, is democracy possible without socialism? [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau gave an answer well before the French Revolution, let alone the Bolshevik one: those who are unequal in their access to material goods can never be equal in the eyes of the law! Communism as we know it was first glimpsed during the French Revolution, which gave us secularism as an opposition to the power of religion as well as [Francois-Noel] Babeuf’s “Conspiracy of Equals”, a veritable communist organisation. That communist tendency was defeated; we were therefore left with secularism and liberalism. So, for more than 200 years, the question has persisted: Can liberalism alone defend secularism? Is secularism possible without socialism?

My answer is “No”. Look at histories of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in liberal France itself and across all of liberal Europe. So, as regards your question: yes, the idea of secularism is very important. But you have to have a genuinely socialist society before this idea can be realised materially. In present-day India, any true realisation of this idea is impossible. We know how poisonous majoritarianism is, but we often forget that liberalism has always betrayed secularism and it always will.

Left movements are gaining some momentum in different parts of the world. Yes, the Left in India faced a big setback in the 2019 election. But what is the relevance of Left politics in the present Indian context?

…. The Left in India has always been at a great disadvantage. Since the very beginnings of the electoral rise of the RSS in Indian politics, which actually goes back to the period of the Emergency, and pressed by the necessities of our present, many on the Left have chosen to forget who sent the armed forces against the communists in Telangana and who dismissed the world’s first elected [Communist] government in Kerala. There are times in electoral politics when one aligns with one opponent or the other, but one needs to remember the nature of those opponents. We need not mention the Socialists—JP [Jayaprakash Narayan], [Ram Manohar] Lohia and their progeny—who hated the communists even more than they hated the Congress. When the crunch came during the Emergency, JP preferred an alliance with the RSS over an alliance with the CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] in the anti-Emergency coalition, thus helping ensure the very right-wing contours of the Janata government that emerged out of the elections held immediately after the lifting of the Emergency—a moment that proved fatal for Indian politics in decades to come. That is when the RSS came into its own, aided by the Socialists and the Congress breakaways such as Morarji Desai and his gang. The fact that the power of the Left Front in West Bengal is traceable to that very moment of 1977 has served to occlude the fact that the political isolation of the Left also started growing at roughly the same time.

So, I now return to your question about the role of the Left. Since we have been discussing the issue of Hindutva communalism and majoritarianism, I will reply to you with reference to that very question. In my opinion, the communist Left is the only force in India that has a profound, irreversible commitment to a secular society and polity in India. All the regional parties have collaborated with the BJP, a political front of the RSS, at one time or another. As I was just saying, the JP movement and the RSS were close collaborators in the anti-Indira, anti-Emergency movements which then led to the formation of the Janata government in which the Jan Sangh contingent was the largest and most powerful force. Even before Independence, there was always a powerful communal wing within the Mahatma’s own Congress. Hindu communalism has always been a major current in Indian society and politics.

The secular current remained dominant for some decades after Independence, partly because of the power and prestige of the communist movement in many parts of the country and partly because the ruling Congress party was itself identified with this current, thanks very largely to [Jawaharlal] Nehru and a very small group of his associates, especially after [Vallabhbhai] Patel died in 1950. That character of the Congress began to decline after the Emergency, even in Indira’s time. By the time of [P.V.] Narasimha Rao’s refusal to meaningfully confront the Sangh Parivar over the destruction of the Babri Masjid, an elaborate structure of tacit understandings was in place among the leadership elites of all the political parties except the Left parties. You will recall that Parliament was not allowed by these elites to even formally discuss the Gujarat carnage. I do think, though, that the whole package of Hindutva precepts and plans is now much more acceptable to the Hindu middle classes than ever before, all over the country, and not even Kerala or West Bengal, with their long communist traditions, are immune. So, the Left has to do what it can, but its options are limited. Look at the constant violence, year in and year out, that the Left has to face, at the hands of the RSS in Kerala and the Trinamool in West Bengal. The degradation of Indian politics at the hands of the RSS but also at the hands of the liberals is such that the Left has to first of all fight for its own survival and then to guide Indian politics in rational, secular directions as much as it can….

The caste factor

In the social context of India, some criticise Marxism for its “class blindness” and “Eurocentrism” and for not paying enough attention to the phenomenon of caste. This criticism is levelled against the communist movements too. How would Marxism deal with the question of caste? How do you evaluate the performance of the Left movement in carrying forward the agenda of caste annihilation?

I do believe that the question of class revolution in India passes through the caste question and that no socialist revolution is possible in India without the annihilation of caste. In this [B.R.] Ambedkar was right in his insistence on annihilation rather than reform. He was right in arguing that the CPI [Communist Party of India] had not really understood how much caste had been historically the key to class formation and the making of dominant ideologies in India, and he was right in his deep dislike of Gandhi’s cynicism and opportunism on this question. It is also fair to say, I think, that for all the upheavals that India has witnessed in the class and caste structures since Independence, a certain broad correlation between caste and class has persisted. These ground realities should then be connected with other kinds of complexities, however. The much higher rates of capitalist expansion in post-Independence India and the newly installed capitalo-parliamentary ruling system served to open up great areas of social mobility for certain selected fractions of the middle and even the most oppressed castes. This involved electoral tokenism but also great many state initiatives ranging from the relatively modest land redistribution schemes and the Green Revolution to the policy of reservations, etc., which greatly benefited the middle castes but also some sections of Dalits as well.

Also read: Liberal Democracy and the Extreme Right

All of this has created some caste-based elites, local power brokers and various kinds of upwardly mobile strata, while caste itself has emerged as a key political category in the parliamentary system as well as in most other spheres of society. Very much more than class, actually! For instance, who would ever insist on reservation of seats for the working class in schools and colleges and state employment or in State legislatures or the Lok Sabha? Caste has a different kind of primacy in the politics of the liberal bourgeoisie itself. In this political sphere, the issue has been captured mainly by the new elites arising out of those middle and oppressed castes. The big bourgeois parties, from the Congress to the BJP, have their own highly cynical ways of manipulating the issue of caste. There has been a very powerful idea, which these new caste-based elites propagate most vociferously, that the material interest of a caste can only be represented by members of that caste. This kind of caste politics often collides with class-based politics. My observation is that the Left has supported more or less every progressive initiative arising from the oppressed castes, and it has undertaken numerous initiatives of its own on the caste issue at the ground level, all of which go unreported in the media and unrecognised by those upwardly mobile elites. When the Left goes out to organise the urban and rural working classes, it necessarily organises people from the oppressed castes—precisely because most of the working class, especially among the rural landless and the urban sectors of menial labour, comes from those oppressed castes. So, yes, there has to be greater sensitivity, greater energy devoted to this issue, great mass education of Left cadres on the question of caste. However, the question of caste is currently so much monopolised by the caste-based elites that there are great limits imposed on what the Left can do. Whatever it actually does should also receive its proper recognition. The charge of Eurocentricity gets levelled against the Left mostly by members of those upwardly mobile elites.

Some Left writers say that apart from some passing references to “class”, there are no concrete definitions of it by Marx. Mao Zedong was brilliant in defining and analysing class in Chinese society. Samir Amin talks about six classes in modern capitalist society. In Marxist vocabulary what is class, and how it is different from the liberal understanding of the category of class?

Anyone who thinks Marx does not define class must have a very mechanistic notion of what constitutes a “definition”. Every Marxist who has ever done class analysis, Mao and Samir Amin included, has derived his/her categories of analysis from Marx. That would not have been possible if Marx’s own work did not offer very precise criteria for determining what a class is. It is true, though, that Marx was not a positivist, nor an American-style social scientist in search of an 11-word—or seven-word—definition that could be marked right or wrong in a multiple choice exam. Marx was a dialectician. For him, class is above all a relational category—that is, a social relation, like capital itself. Neither means of production nor money are capital as such; these become means and forms of capital accumulation only under certain circumstances. Likewise, there is no proletariat in and of itself. It exists only in relation to its polar opposite, namely the capitalist class and only within an elaborate structure of class relations which in its totality we know as capitalism. If there were to be no capitalism or a capitalist class, which is what the word “communism” signifies, human beings would still work but there would be no proletariat. Various types of working classes and class fractions exist within an overall, historically determined system of property, production and distribution. We can specify the structural positions and attributes of particular classes or class fractions in any given social formation, but Marxism cannot offer a formalistic, supra historical definition of class per se , a sort of definition that would apply to all classes at all times.

Gramsci’s contribution

There is a narrative that presents Gramsci as purely an intellectual and cultural theorist divorced from class analysis. His writings are also being treated by some as a break from the Marxist tradition up to that time, and in some way highly critical of that also. How do you read Gramsci and what is his essential contribution to Marxism?

Gramsci was 22 years old when he joined the Italian Socialist Party, which was to associate itself with the Third International. He rose rapidly to become a prominent leader within that party. Gramsci was a great, active supporter of the Workers’ Council Movement in the industrial city of Turin. He often invoked Lenin’s famous slogan “All power to the Soviets” in his arguments against critics of the movement and in the hope that the councils would become the nucleus of a future communist formation. Later, in 1921, he emerged as one of the key founders of the Italian Communist Party [PCI] and then became the party’s chief leader in 1924. Meanwhile, he had spent time in Moscow, from where he returned with instructions from the Bureau of the Third International to form an anti-fascist front of all left-wing parties and forces with the PCI at its epicentre, a position that was resisted by many of his colleagues in the party. He was arrested and sentenced to prison for 20 years as the leader and chief theoretician of the PCI.

There are two fundamental themes underlying all his reflections in the approximately 30,000 pages of Prison Notebooks : what were the structural causes—historical, cultural, social, religious causes—for the defeat of the Left and the victory of fascism in Italy; and, how to reconstruct a communist party—for which he used terms like “the Modern Prince” and “the collective intellectual”—in a way that would address the specificities of the Italian situation. Given all this history, it is simply absurd to try and detach Gramsci’s thought from its basic communist grounding.

In a sense, Gramsci’s essential undertaking was not very different from that of Mao in China. When the party was in disarray after the defeat of the Shanghai proletariat in 1927, Mao asked himself a simple question: how to reformulate Marxism-Leninism for revolution in the conditions of a vast, semi-colonial, mainly peasant country like China? His solution was ingenious: to execute the logic of a proletarian revolution but with a peasant army, developing the revolutionary force not so much in the industrial cities as in the agrarian hinterlands, with strategy not of a frontal attack on citadels of state authority—as in the case of the storming of the Winter Palace—but by surrounding the cities from the countryside. Mao introduced an entirely novel corpus of thought into the Marxist-Leninist tradition.

The PCI was barely five years old when Gramsci entered a fascist prison, which he was to leave only when he was too ill, too close to death. We have to remember that Gramsci was severely ill most of his life and died at 46. As such, his highly original approach to the problem of revolutionary practice in a major European country remained confined to the realm of thought, never allowed to be tested in actual practice. Thus, he cannot be compared to Mao, but the undertaking was similar: thinking concretely about one’s own national situation in order to arrive at an adequate communist strategy.

Gramsci was a keen student of Marx and was virtually obsessed with some of the passages in Marx’s famous 1959 preface. One of those passages reads as follows:

“The changes in the economic foundations lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophical—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”

Gramsci drew several conclusions from this. First, that the relation between base and superstructure is dialectical in nature and neither is reducible to unitary determination by the other. Second, that the scientific method with which we can analyse “the economic conditions of production” with great “precision” cannot give us an equally precise understanding of “ideological forms”; for that we need a complementary but somewhat different science of the superstructures. Third, that “ideological forms” are multiple and have overlapping but also relatively autonomous histories.

The legal superstructure of bourgeois Europe represents not only its capitalist present but is also premised on layered, highly sedimented foundations that date back to the Canon Law of the Catholic Church as well as the Roman Law of the old Empire. The religious superstructure that is specific to Catholic Italy is not the same as in Anglican Britain or the Saudi variant of Wahhabi Islam; each has a historicity and concreteness of its own. Fourth, and most important, that whereas the fundamental factors and crises that open up the possibility of revolutionary transformation arise in the field of the forces and relations of production, it is in these other “ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out”.

Thus, the struggle over the ideological forms and the concrete consciousness that arises out of those forms gains enormous salience for the practice of revolution as such. Gramsci’s great interest in actual, empirical analyses of these many ideological forms in Italian history and society and his ambition to formulate a science of superstructures arises out of this revolutionary necessity, not in some new-fangled postmodern culturalism….

Commercialisation of religion

Many thought that with modernity and the “passing of time”, religion would retreat from the public sphere and that it would be less important for modern man with progress in science and rationality. But contrary to that, religiosity is growing significantly all over the world. How would you explain this growing religiosity?

The truth of Europe must always be viewed from the standpoint of its victims. Secularism, in the sense of a formal separation between Church and state, certainly got instituted in most Western countries, but religion did not disappear from public life. In his essay “The Jewish Question”, Marx demonstrates brilliantly how the formal privatisation of religion in the U.S. made it all the more sacrosanct by placing it beyond the reach of the state. Anti-Semitism remained a feature of all Western societies, to lesser or greater degree, until it reached its final orgiastic crescendo in the Nazi extermination of Jews.

Edward Said documented at length how old, punctual and ineradicable has been Europe’s hatred of Islam. There is much truth in [Theodor W.] Adorno’s sardonic comment that instead of disappearing religion just got commercialised and that the only thing that remained of the Christian faith was its hatred of the neighbour. Islamophobia is the new name for an old disease. It is true, though, that this disease has been showing very lethal new symptoms over the past two decades or so as the West has waged a brutal war against Muslim populations over a vast expanse from the Red Sea and the Levant to North and West Africa.In our part of the world, increasing religiosity is among the many forms of right-wing ascendancy in our time, and it is structurally connected to the defeat and/or retreat of the Left. Secular nationalism and communism were the dominant political trends in a host of Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, ..., precisely where Islamism is now dominant, including in its Salafi and jehadi forms. Roughly the same could be said about India if you compare today’s India with the India of 50 years ago. This is by no means just a local development. Imperialism fought as hard against secular nationalism as it fought against communism because both posed a great threat to imperial interests. Right-wing forces of all stripes gained immeasurably from those imperialist offensives....

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