Resources of hope

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

A reflection on our times - VII.AIJAZ AHMAD

EARLIER essays in this series attempted a synoptic view of the essential trends in the political history of the 20th century. It would be hazardous to conclude these reflections on the past with predictions regarding the long future. It should be possible, though, to summarise a sense of where the international Left stands now.

As we look back upon the history of revolutions and mass uprisings in the 20th century, four patterns seem to have been persistent:

1. There seem to have been cyclical alternations between periods of calm and storm - or, more precisely, what Antonio Gramsci called "the revolution/restoration dynamic". Thus, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was followed by the defeat of the revolutionary wave across Europe, paving the way for two decades of fascism while the Soviet Union remained isolated and besieged. That isolation was broken only after the Second World War in which the USSR sacrificed 20 million lives. But then the Chinese Revolution of 1949 was also followed by a period of global counter-revolutionary warfare which raged from Indonesia to Chile, while only little corners, such as North Korea and Cuba escaped, until the pace quickened again in the 1970s when countries of Indochina and the Portuguese colonies were liberated.

2. The counterrevolution uses the period between one revolutionary outbreak and another - periods of 'restoration', in other words - to bestow upon that period an air of finality, as if the restoration would now last forever. The revolutions that broke out across Europe in the wave of the Bolshevik victory - notably in Italy, Germany and Hungary - were beaten back so decisively, and USSR was itself so deeply injured, that Nazi triumphalism knew no bounds and the founding of the Third Reich was declared to be an 'End of History'. Then, yet another 'End of History' was announced more recently, in the moment of American triumphalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even during the 1950s, soon after the Chinese Revolution and as revolutionary wars were raging in numerous places such as Algeria and Indochina, the power of counterrevolution seemed so impregnable from inside the United States that American economists took to announcing the outbreak of 'The Golden Age of Capital' and eminent American sociologists formulated the 'End of Ideology' thesis - that is, the passing of all ideologies of social change in the face of the power of capital. That theme was picked up again by postmodernists like Lyotard who have been announcing the end of all 'metanarratives of emancipation' over the past two decades or so.

3. For forces of resistence, this period of 'restoration' tends often to be one not only of defeat and contraction but also of doubt, defence, dispersal, experimentation and what Gramsci called 'molecular' movement - as if it occurs underneath the surface, in small, roundabout strides. Resistence persists, in its dispersed and local forms, everywhere; but in its concentrated form, nowhere. Meanwhile, defeat raises practical questions about previous forms of ideology and action. Triumphs of resistence occur even during such times but they are forgotten quickly; the 1990s are now remembered for the dissolution of the Soviet Union but not for the final demise of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. What is remembered most vividly about even the successful revolutions is their failures, not only because the dominant ideological apparatuses never tire of keeping that memory alive, like an open wound, but also because it is from the failures, not the victories, that one has to learn the most. The Chinese failed when they tried to repeat the Bolshevik form and succeeded only when they discovered their own originality; Cuba neither repeated China nor was ever again repeated elsewhere in Latin America, despite countless attempts. The difficulty with successful revolutions is that they are unrepeatable. In periods of 'restoration', therefore, resistence does not disappear but becomes fragmented and largely invisible, as if caught in an infinity of off-stage rehearsals.

4. Periods of 'restoration' have had the appearance of lasting forever, until they enter a time of crisis. Revolutions, by contrast, whether of the Left or the Right, have tended to break out with surprising suddenness. But for Lenin's audacity, no one could have predicted the October Revolution of 1917 in April that year; Castro's guerillas burst upon the Cuban coast and then moved inexorably toward and into Havana with the ferocity of a tempest, as if out of nowhere. Even in the case of revolutions that unfold over decades, as in China or Vietnam, the same law applies: there comes a point, after a long gestation, when quantity turns into quality and the citadels of power crumble astonishingly fast. The same unpredictability seems to be there when not revolutions but simply some form of mass resistence is involved: the eminent American intellectuals who announced the 'End of Ideology' at the end of the 1950s could not have anticipated that less than a decade later their country would be engulfed by the largest anti-imperialist movement that any imperialist country has ever known.

THE world is at present clearly passing through what I have called, following Gramsci, a period of 'restoration'. The power of capital is today more pervasive, in all the corners of the globe, than ever before. For the first time in at least a hundred years, there is no labour movement in the world that appears capable of overthrowing the rule of capital, not even in a single country. The nationalism of the national bourgeoisie seems to have passed away, and it is difficult today to find - even in a host of such countries as India or Egypt with formidable past traditions of bourgeois anti-colonialism - even a segment of the bourgeois that might be firmly opposed to the new forms of imperialism imposed by the so-called 'globalisation'. It is possible that the present period of restoration may last as long as the one that prevailed between the Paris Commune (1871) and the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) - almost half a century. All oppositional forces, including the communists worldwide, seem reconciled now to working for changes within the capitalist system as such, at least in the present historical period. In such periods, it is prudent to balance every 'optimism of the will' with a certain 'pessimism of the intellect'.

Where, then, are the resources of hope? First of all, in remembrance. It is best to keep in view the synoptic account of the century that this series has tried to capture, especially in the first three instalments ('A century of revolutions', Frontline, January 22, 2000; 'Balance sheet of the Left', February 19, 2000; and 'The century of democratic demand', June 24, 2000). Two things would then become clear. One is that the present period is just that, a period, of a kind that has also come and gone in the past (1871-1917, for example, as mentioned above) and which in their own day seemed interminable; it is in such periods that resistence reflects upon its own past, experiments with new forms, accumulates new experiences, works toward historically new forms for a fresh breakthrough.

Second, any sober reflection upon the century as a whole would help us recall the achievements. At the beginning of the century, virtually the whole of Asia and Africa were under colonial and semi-colonial domination; today Palestine/Israel is one of the few remaining outposts of a sturdy colonisation. Socialism was, when the century dawned, a certain local tendency in a little corner of Europe, based among a proletariat far less numerous than what we have today in India alone; in the course of the century, roughly a third of humanity passed through various experiments toward building socialist societies, and no corner of the globe remained immune to its impact. Colonial rule in our two continents, various kinds of autocracy in Latin America, monarchical rule in most of Europe were the norm when the century began; today, the whole world is enveloped in a whirlwind of democratic demand, while our collective understanding of democracy itself has become more complex, more radical, more far-reaching than ever before, well beyond the issue of parliamentary rule alone.

Thanks to these revolutionary struggles, more peasants have greater control over more land than ever before, worldwide; women have more political and social rights than was imaginable at the beginning of the century; larger cross-sections of workers are better organised, better-fed, better educated; many of the gains, in other words, have remained even though the states and movements which helped bring them about have been defeated or even swept away. There is no absolute failure. The Left seems to have failed - and in substantial measure it indeed has failed - because it achieved so much less than what had been envisioned and had at various times seemed possible.

THAT, then, is the first resource of hope: memory itself. The second is the immense growth of the proletariat in the global class structure. The World Bank in 1995 put at 2.5 billion the number of those who are forced to sell their labour power, directly or indirectly, so as to reproduce themselves. This expansion of the proletariat as a proportion of the world population is such that the number has doubled in barely a quarter century since 1975, and the brisk ongoing transformation of agriculture in the Third World makes it likely that the number shall grow at spectacular rates in the foreseeable future. This is reflected then in the statistics of world income: as of 1990, 60 per cent of the world's population got 5.3 per cent of that income, while the top 20 per cent received 83.4 per cent. It is thus patently nonsensical to assert, as so many of the eminent Western social scientists have been asserting since the 1950s, that the proletariat as a proportion of the population has reached its optimal plateau and what is expanding is the so-called 'middle class'. The principle contradiction remains where it was in Marx's time - that is to say between labour and capital - except that it is no longer a Euro-American phenomenon but a global phenomenon, indeed primarily (and increasingly) a Third World phenomenon where the exploitation is the most acute and the contradiction therefore the most irreconcilable.

IRONICALLY, this virtually unimaginable numerical strength of the proletariat makes the task of organising and building proletarian unity not less but infinitely more difficult. In Marx's time, proletariats were small, concentrated in a handful of countries and in a handful of cities within those countries, hence largely homogeneous, a great majority of them performing analogous forms of work, living in relatively similar circumstances. Today's global proletariat is, even in many of the individual countries, far more geographically dispersed, culturally heterogeneous, ethnically and religiously diverse, linguistically fragmented, stratified in terms of race and caste, performing very many different kinds of work in a far more complicated division of labour, and with far greater numbers of women participating in the modern workforce. Differentials in wages, social provision, and webs of social prejudice within and around this global working class are infinitely greater. Lenin once emphasised that the spontaneous logic of capitalist exploitation and trade union organising takes the proletariat not toward revolution but reform. In that same spirit, one might say that the spontaneous logic inherent in this immense expansion and internal diversity of the proletariat takes it not towards automatic unity but great fragmentation.

This, then, is connected with another phenomenon which is at once a great resource of hope but also, in the immediate present, a source of difficulty. The demise of revolutionary agency ('Farewell to the Working Class' and so on) has been announced ad nauseam since the 1950s and most vociferously over the past decade or so. Contrary to this ideological hogwash, what we have witnessed is in fact an immense proliferation of revolutionary agents. Working class strikes and job actions of all kinds persist throughout the world, though they are made invisible in the dominant media; from China alone, there have been reports of tens of thousands of job actions and peasant revolts over the past couple of years, in opposition to the remorseless market reforms. There have been in recent years pitched battles fought across the globe, from workers in South Korea to the landless in Southern Brazil. In pockets within advanced capitalist countries, as in Germany, currents are growing in some trade unions which demand not only securities of employment and wage but also a partnership in management and share in industrial equity. Meanwhile, proletarian and peasant women are now much more aware of their superexploitation as women as well as workers, at home and at the point of production, in waged work and in non-waged domestic labour; indeed, the consciousness is becoming quickly very widespread that there are particular forms of superexploitation even at the point of production which are reserved specifically for women.

INDIA itself is gripped by a veritable revolution of the oppressed castes which the upper castes as well as the middling ones are trying to contain; and, like any revolution, it is neither a pretty sight nor an inevitably rising curve ('not a tea party', as it were). Hundreds of millions in Latin America are discovering, for the first time, that they are 'indigenous people', not descended from the Portuguese or the Hispanics, and that their economic and social subordination has to do with this whole history of colonisation and capitalism. Although labour is not nearly as mobile under 'globalisation' as capital, relatively greater mobility of labour over the past half a century has concentrated tens of million of workers and petty bourgeois strata from the Third World in Western Europe and North America whose struggles are deeply marked by their sense of ethnic origin and the racial prejudice they face as much in the workplace as in society at large. Pressures for devolution of power to region, locality and even to communities of caste or gender are gaining momentum all over the world.

A consciousness is arising, unevenly but inexorably, leading to very diverse kinds of local as well as international resistences, that production for profit is irreconcilable with a natural environment fit for habitation; that in the realm of ecological disasters the socialism of the USSR was simply a 'capitalism without capitalists'; and that the planet itself may not survive such destructiveness.

In a parallel move, resistence to globalisation is no longer an activity special to Third World progressives. Within the advanced capitalist countries, a new kind of activism is getting organised on the recognition that globalisation is bad for everyone except the corporate elite; hence the sudden and surprising congregations of large numbers of people in Seattle, Washington, Davos, Prague, Porto Allegro in a historically unique wave of transnational solidarity. These defensive resistences against capitalist destructiveness and the corporate elite then have an analogue in other struggles which are designed to augment the capacities and cultural capital of the labouring masses, by providing, with or without cooperation from the state, means of education, vocational training, health and sanitation, instruction in simple sciences and technologies for local use, recovery of local traditions and thus of an alternate history. These hosts of practices give rise to what one might call a 'social Left' alongside the older, more recognisable institutions of the 'political Left' such as the trade union, the peasant league, the political party. In Pakistan, for example, where there is virtually no 'political Left' to speak of, much energy and innovation comes from the 'social Left'; elsewhere, the social and the political Lefts sometimes collide and at other times cooperate, experimenting with a variety of possible relationships.

How, then, to conceptualise this whole complex movement? One needs to reiterate, first, that even in this period of 'restoration', resistences have been punctual and widespread, involving more people around the globe than ever before. Second, however, it needs to be added immediately that precisely at the time when capital has gained unprecedented global unity, resistences have tended to become local and issue-based, with no shared focus or (as Gramsci called the communist party) a 'collective intellectual'. There is a certain disjunction, in other words, between globalist triumph of capital on the macro level and the mushrooming of numerous, and highly differentiated, resistences at the micro level. Third, virtually the whole range of these resistences work to reform capitalism but not to destroy it; one can no longer speak of a fundamental clash of systems as the essential dynamic behind these resistences, as we could say when struggle for socialism was the overarching focal point. Fourth, however, we are also witnessing, within this overall dynamic of reform, two different and parallel movements: those which seek the more traditional kinds of reform that strengthen the system, and others which seek what Andre Gorz once called 'non-reformist reforms' that undermine the system. Instances of these non-reformist reforms can be witnessed in such initiatives as the people's planning campaign in Kerala or a remarkably similar process, undertaken by the more Marxist wing of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT), in the city of Porto Allegro, and more recently in the whole state of the Rio Grande do Sul which is also the hub of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) that represents perhaps the most innovative mass struggle of the landless anywhere today.

THAT last reference, to Kerala and Rio Grande do Sul, then brings up the question of Marxism and the workers' parties within this whole matrix. One hardly needs comment on the size of the defeat and the scope of the retreat. It needs to be said, however, that India, South Africa and Brazil - the three largest countries in their respective continents (except China, which is still ruled by a communist party) - have within them very sizable presence of the organised Left which, in each case, commands much greater influence and authority than even their numerical strength would indicate; the defeat of apartheid would have been inconceivable without the South African Communist Party, and both instances of 'non-reformist reforms' cited above are the work of these parties - in the case of PT, the more radical, more squarely Marxist wing of it. 'Reformed' communist parties, under various names, have a substantial presence in Eastern Europe, Germany, Italy and Portugal. Cuba and Vietnam still survive, despite all the pressures and consequent distortions, as does China where the market is ascendant but far from victorious.

What is equally, if not more, striking is that Marxism no longer has an exclusive purchase on its own vision and the themes it introduced into the politics of resistence now have become part of a universal language. At the beginning of the century only socialists spoke of 'exploitation', as distinct from 'oppression', that happens at the point of production; today, all kinds of activists - in the feminist movements, anti-racist struggles, movements of the 'indigenous peoples, anti-globalisation activists, exponents of 'liberation theology' - speak constantly of a differential wage rate, non-waged labour at home, stratification within the working class based on gender or race or ethnicity, transfer of resources and values from the Third World to the First, and so on. Every populist, every social democrat, every 'green' speaks a part of this language because the language itself has taken hold of the popular imagination; the same is true of a good number of Dalit writers who would otherwise be deeply opposed to the organised Left.

Then there is the case of the dominant knowledge systems in the Western human sciences. Cultural theory is today the most influential discipline, but virtually all the commanding figures whom the discipline invokes were Marxists or at least very deeply involved in Marxism: Lukacs, Gramsci, Voloshinov, Benjamin, Goldmann, Althusser, Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson, Stuart Hall and several others. Poststructuralism, which is the other pole within cultural theory, is dominated by Derrida, a student of Althusser whose professed affiliation with Marxism is so pronounced that he claims that his Deconstruction itself is nothing but a further 'radicalisation' of Marxism, and Foucault, another student of Althusser who maintains a much more ambivalent relationship with Marxism but is on record saying, in a published interview, that entire passages in his work have been lifted straight out of Marx but his readers do not realise it because he does not put them in quotation marks. It is thanks to this very complex and powerful place of Marxism in the upper reaches of Western human sciences that The New Yorker, the famed journal of the American bourgeois intelligentsia, felt constrained to nominate Marx, in 1999, as "the most likely philosopher of the 21st century". Closer to home, subalternist historians deliver copious disparagements of the organised Left and the Marxist historians in India, but punctually in a language borrowed from Marxism itself.

There are undoubtedly elements of cooptation and distortion in this exercise, and what one often gets is that same thing which Lenin once called 'official Marxism' - a sanitised, intellectualised version from which the idea of socialism itself, not to speak of revolution, has been taken out. But this bid to make an overarching official Marxism itself testifies to the power of the unofficial one. Marx is a spectre that haunts the whole of the bourgeois world, from its capitalists to its intellectuals, and must therefore be exorcised through rituals of constant invocation. Nor is this whole process a matter merely of cooptation and distortion. Much of the power of Marxism in academic life itself is owed to its magisterial explanatory power; even for the collapse of the Soviet Union there are no better, more reliable explanations than some of the Marxist ones. The life of the mind in the 20th century, even the bourgeois mind, has had a peculiar fascination with Marxism because its explanatory power overwhelms even those who live in constant dread of the politics which follows from those explanations.

SUCH then are some of the resources of hope. The most striking is the fact that even at this time of the most comprehensive defeat that the Left has had to face in a whole century, resistences are mushrooming all across the globe and the themes that Marxism initially introduced for strictly class-based politics have seeped into a whole variety of militancies which are objectively revolutionary. Some of these other forms of militancy will have to learn from their own experiences that there are absolute limits to what can be achieved within the system.

The ecological destructiveness of profit-based production, for example, can be neither reversed not stopped without abolishing the profit motive itself and replacing it with collective rational planning, across national boundaries. Real environmentalism will have to be socialist and internationalist; the Red, meanwhile, will have to learn to be Green in a way that it has never been. Similarly, there are numerous forms of the subordination of women which are additional to their exploitation in the Marxist sense; in our own time, however, capitalism and patriarchy are so deeply intermeshed that one cannot be abolished without the other; this much Marxism itself will have to learn from socialist feminism.

The Left, meanwhile, will also have to innovate newer forms of politics that correspond to the present life-process of the proletariat which is at once far more numerous but also internally much more socially differentiated; caste, religion, ethnicity, nationality are not merely epiphenomenal but tend to determine the structures of practical consciousness through which the worker comprehends his or her own place in the material world. It is by addressing problems of this kind, and resolving them in practice that new revolutionary forms shall emerge. Those new forms will undoubtedly build upon the achievements of the revolutions of the 20th century but will also be substantially different, since it is a law of history that every revolution must discover its poetry from its own present.

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