Karl Marx’s Discovery of the Law of Life

Marx, and to a lesser extent Engels, provided not merely a philosophy of the world and how to change it, but also a philosophy of life and how to live it.

The influence of Karl Marx and his ideas was a matter of course for many of us who grew up in the 20th century. How they affected us was a matter of degree, but the influence itself was inescapable. After all, even a character as insignificant and ordinary as the one in Robert Walser’s novel, The Assistant, has a brush with the ideas of socialism.

IMG-0957My earliest recollection of this influence, which went almost unnoticed, goes back to class 6, when I had to transcribe a page in English as part of my homework during the summer vacations. I picked up a book that had been lying around the house. It happened to be the biography of Karl Marx by E. Stepanova, which my father had received as a prize in school in the late fifties.

I slogged through the transcription with little interest, intrigued by unfamiliar words, such as proletariat, plebian, capitalism and socialism, understanding very little. These words came back to me in class 10, when I read the NCERT books by Arjun Dev that referred to Marx and the Russian Revolution. In a couple of years, I was to begin a journey that isn’t quite finished. Continue reading “Karl Marx’s Discovery of the Law of Life”

End of the road for Orlando Figes

It’s a pretty tragic end for Orlando Figes. I was quite impressed with his first major work on the Russian Revolution- A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, even though I later felt that his work was little more than a well narrated compendium of many extant works on the Russian Revolution. I do not agree  with his blanket statement that the Russian Revolution was a “people’s tragedy”. At that time, however,  in my own little, dilettantish manner I had ended the review of his book with these words:

… The brashness of his youth shows clearly in the rather eclectic treatment of the subject throughout the text. But the sheer volume of the information makes up for any slackness in analysis.

There cannot be any doubt that Figes’ book marks the start of a brilliant career for the author and is central to the debate that he has brought into sharp focus.

By owning up to writing negative reviews of the books of his rivals, of all places at the Amazon.com book reviews, I am afraid the brashness of his no-longer-youth (the review was written over a decade back), has brought his brilliant career to a grinding halt.

The Autumn after the Prague Spring

The Prague Spring was probably the last opportunity for bureaucratic ‘socialism’ to reform. To be fair to him, it is also true that Brezhnev hesitated to use any force against the ‘uprising from within’ when the Czeck Communist Party’s First Secretary Alexander Dubchek and his associates started moving towards ‘socialism with a human face’.

Jan Puhl revisits the survivors of the Prague Spring and concludes that the legacy of the year of when both the East and the West faced revolts was diametrically opposite. Brezhnev’s hesitation gave away finally to a decisive crushing of the Prague Spring, but it also spelled an eventual autumn for the Soviet brand of socialism. It was otherwise in the West.
Continue reading “The Autumn after the Prague Spring”

May Day

Paintings by Diego Rivera : From the cycle: Political Vision of the Mexican People (Court of Labor):

Tehuana Women. / Mujeres tehuanas
Exit from the Mine

The first May Day celebration in India was organised in Madras by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan on May 1, 1923. This was also the first time the red flag was used in India. The party leader Singaravelu Chettiar made arrangements to celebrate May Day in two places in 1923. One meeting was held at the beach opposite to the Madras High Court; the other meeting was held at the Triplicane beach. The Hindu newspaper, published from Madras reported:

“The Labour Kisan party has introduced May Day celebrations in Chennai. Comrade Singaravelar presided over the meeting. A resolution was passed stating that the government should declare May Day as a holiday. The president of the party explained the non-violent principles of the party. There was a request for financial aid. It was emphasized that workers of the world must unite to achieve independence. “(Wikepedia Source)

A Salute to Comrade Fidel

CastroIt is unusual for a ruling communist leader to voluntarily step down from an official post before his death.

Comrade Fidel Castro, the name by which he will now be writing his weekly newspaper column, and who stepped down on Tuesday as President of Cuba, is a certainly an exception.

But then Fidel was not really a communist to start with. It was only when he was hounded by the United States that he turned towards the Soviet Union, declaring his country socialist two years after the revolution. He ruled his country with a heavy hand and hounded out many detractors, which mar his record. From his point of view, as he has remarked in his resignation letter, he had to hold the reins of power to stand up to the United States. Given that the United States practically ruled South America by proxie via a set of military dictators and made numerous attempts at dislodging and assasinating Fidel, he probably has some reason to claim so.

The Bay of Pigs invasion sponsored by the United States during the nascent years of the revolution was not only courageously repelled by the revolutionary government, but also brought the world closest to a nuclear catastrophe. The United States has still not lifted the trade embargo for the last half a century and in fact continues to occupy a part of Cuba- the infamous Guantanamo.

He has given a justification of sorts for holding on to power even when seriously ill in his resignation letter:

It was an uncomfortable situation for me vis–vis an adversary which had done everything possible to get rid of me, and I felt reluctant to comply.

It is tough for any socialist to agree completely with the dictatorship of the Cuban Communist Party under Fidel.

It is still more difficult not to salute the last of the Cold Warriors.

To his credit, Fidel not only survived the years of isolation in South America between the 1960s and 1980s, but also continued to stand up to the United States, the center of world capitalism, after the Soviet Union collapsed and the later regimes in Russia refused the former status to Cuba. Its other potential allies, China and North Korea have little in common with Fidel’s socialist commitments. China is little more than a totalitarian neo- liberal state and North Korea a strange mix of feudalism and totalitarianism.

Another reason is that the Cuban Revolution was a home grown one, not an exported commodity as it was in much of East Europe where the Red Army ‘brought’ socialism in the course of the World War II. Its own attempts in exporting revolution via Che’s exploits were courageous but dilletante- ish and ended in failure, indeed in Che’s own brutal death. The Cuban state brought commendable literacy levels and a health system that compares with some of the best in the world, even better than in some developed countries. Under his leadership, the Non- Aligned Movement maintained a loud, even if sometimes boisterous, voice against neo- colonialism.

Fidel’s success, for that is what needs to be remembered today even while criticizing some of his actions, remains in the fact that he not only lived through the fall of the former Soviet Union but also to see the rise of left- wing governments in South America when most of his key Non Aligned Movement allies had ditched NAM to join as junior partners of the core capitalist countries under neo- liberal regimes, like in India. Fidel may be seen as a devil incarnate in the United States and especially among Cuban immigrants there, but he retains the image of a David standing up to the Goliath for many in rest of the world.

For many in India who watched the NAM summit in New Delhi in 1983, the bear hug he gave Mrs Indira Gandhi remains a powerful memory.

For anyone who has ever worn a patch of red in his heart, it is indeed a day to salute Comrade Fidel.

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Kosambi Festival of Ideas

Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi (1907- 1966) embodied the quintessential Indian Renaissance man that came into its own in the immediate years after independence.

He was a polyglot- an accomplished mathematician and a self- trained historian. He was well trained in Sanskrit and had a very good knowledge of Buddhism acquired from his father, a noted Buddhist scholar of his times. Educated in the United States, he returned to India not only to make contributions to mathematics but, above all, lay the basis of the current historiography of ancient India.

His orientation was firmly Marxist, and his works are a very good example of how the Marxist method can be used to give surprisingly innovative results. Many of his formulations have been proven incorrect by subsequent researches, but anyone reading his works even today cannot be but impressed not only by the wide scholarship and fascinating field work that he carried out, but also illuminating insights.

His deeply humanistic streak that still inspires many to read his works is best reflected in his own words.

“The subtle mystic philosophies, torturous religions, ornate literature, monuments teeming with intricate sculpture and delicate music of India all derive from the same historical process that produced the famished apathy of the villager, senseless opportunism and termite greed of the ‘cultured’ strata, sullen, uncoordinated discontent among the workers, general demoralization, misery, squalor and degrading superstition. The one is the result of the other, one is the expression of the other…it is necessary to understand that history is not a sequence of haphazard events but is made by human beings in the satisfaction of daily needs.”

The DD Kosambi Festivals of Ideas being celebrated in Goa right now was inaugurated by Vice President MH Ansari on 5th February. P Sainath delivered a lecture on the 6th and Romila Thapar, who can easily be considered his most deserving succesor (along possibly with RS Sharma), had a talk yesterday. The events are being covered at the DD Kosambi blog. A news video there covers the speeches of Vice President Ansari and Dr. Meera Kosambi, DD Kosambi’s sociologist daughter.
For anyone who at any time has bathed in that suffusing glow of enlightenment when reading any of Kosambi’s works, reading and watching (the video) of the tributes to him, would be both nostalgic and re- assuring.

(A short biographical note appears here, as well as some of his other writings.)

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