Making sense of them
Who are the communists? Well, in our country their popular image is of these shabbily dressed people who pontificate on the evils of capitalism, ‘neo-liberalism’ and religion. This is when they are harmless, even a little amusing. When they are not harmless and amusing, they plot the overthrow of the Indian state in the forests of Dantewada and Sukma by waging a war against it. Communists of both types – harmless and harmful – derive inspiration from a revolutionary vision originally propounded in the nineteenth century by a German polymath called Karl Marx.
Who are the liberals? They are, unlike the communists, a rather slippery category. They, after all, do not swear allegiance to one political prophet. Nevertheless, I will still make a somewhat timid attempt to identify them. The typical liberal, both in India and the west, is a suave, urban toff. He or she generally has a degree from an elite university, is smartly clad and is upper or upper middle class. Unlike the communists, they have tender bleeding hearts and never contemplate waging revolutionary wars to arrive at desired political ends. They are always quick in opposing cultural and racial prejudices, political authoritarianism and, these days, ‘Islamophobia’.
On the face of it, thus, communists and liberals, and by extension communism and liberalism, are quite different. But what if I were to suggest that the two are actually fundamentally the same – that they are both forms of ‘elite reaction’? I will try to establish this by first hearkening to the beginnings of communism in Russia, the first country to undergo (suffer?) a ‘communist revolution’, and then dwelling on the extent to which communist attitudes and world view are derivatives of the liberal tradition.
‘Bolshevik Revolution’: A coup staged by an authoritarian, reactionary elite
Those of us familiar with the history of Russia know that the country underwent two revolutions in the year 1917. The first revolution was a constitutional one and ended the centuries old Tsarist monarchy. It occurred on 12 March 1917 (27 February as per the old Russian calendar) when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in the face of massive unrest and Russia became a republic. A Provisional Government, headed by Prince Lvov as Prime Minister, took charge of the country. This government comprised of the elected members of the State Duma – the lower house of the Russian Imperial Parliament. It represented, however limited, an electorate and had an ‘empirical’ legitimacy. Lvov was replaced at the helm by Alexander Kerensky, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, in July 1917.
The second ‘revolution’, resulting in the birth of communist Russia, was a coup. It was when the Bolsheviks, aided by sailors from a naval base on the island of Kronstadt and their own militia, the Red Guards, seized control of the government buildings in St. Petersburg (then called Petrograd) on the night of 7 November 1917 (25 October as per the old Russian calendar). The next day they drove the legitimate Russian Premier Kerensky and his cabinet out of the Winter Palace, the seat of the Provisional Government, and completed the so called ‘Bolshevik Revolution’.
The Bolsheviks thus seized power. But it was soon obvious that their rule had no popular legitimacy. We see that when elections to the Russian Constituent Assembly were held on 25 November, the Bolsheviks won a mere one hundred and seventy five of its seven hundred and fifteen seats. The Socialist Revolutionary Party beat the Bolsheviks by a long margin. It polled forty one percent of the votes and won three hundred and eighty seats.
The nonplussed Bolsheviks stalled the convening of the Constitutional Assembly till 5 January 1918. Its deliberations collapsed amid squabbling the very next day and it was dissolved. Russia now quickly plunged into a civil war as numerous groups – pro-monarchists, republicans, socialist revolutionaries, et al – took up arms against the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks emerged victorious out of this sanguinary bedlam, mainly because of their advantageous location. As Robert Service, acclaimed historian of Russia puts it, “The Reds benefitted from holding on to Moscow and Petrograd. This gave them the logistical advantage of the core of the Russian rail network; it also provided them with a region of dense population from which to conscript their soldiers.”
Following their military victory, the Bolsheviks stamped their authority upon the vastness of Russia with brute force. The authoritarian Bolshevik ways even galled the very people who had helped them seize power. On 2 March 1921, the Kronstadt naval garrison mutinied and arrested its Bolshevik political commissar. According to Robert Service, these sailors “detested being ruled by a single political party and called for an elective political system.” Leon Trotsky was put in charge of quelling the mutiny, he discharged this responsibility employing “exceptional measures.”
After consolidating their rule, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the former Russian Empire a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. The Soviet State was to be held together through force and force alone. Democracy and popular legitimacy of the state were outlawed ideas in the Soviet realm.
Did the Bolsheviks have an option? No, not really. The front-line Bolshevik leadership had emerged from a tiny bourgeois elite and did not represent or care for popular will. Vladimir Lenin came from a fairly comfortable upper middle class family, being the son of a father who was a professor at the Penza Institute for the Nobility, Leon Trotsky’s father was a prosperous land owner and commercial farmer in the south of Ukraine, Lev Kamenev was the son of a wealthy railway contractor. They appreciated the good life. After the revolution, living in the ‘humble’ Kremlin, writes Robert Service, Trotsky felt “no inhibition about ensuring that his wife and children were kept in bourgeois style.” Trotsky’s comrade and brother-in-law, Kamenev, too nurtured a mild penchant for luxury. While on a diplomatic mission to London in 1920, Robert Service informs us, “he frequented the Café Royal and Claridge’s and took trips to Hampton Court and the Isle of Wight. He flirted with women of high society.”
The Bolsheviks were, I will dare suggest, a form of ‘elite reaction’. Of course, the Provisional Government too had comprised of a small bourgeois and aristocratic elite. But it was not a reactionary and authoritarian elite, and it believed in electoral and constitutional legitimacy. The Bolsheviks disregarded both, much like the monarchists. This makes them, in my eyes, reactionaries. The ‘Bolshevik Revolution’ was thus a military aided bourgeois elite takeover of a backward, agrarian, till very recently monarchical, state making a clumsy transition towards democracy. It was a supremely regressive moment in the history of Russia, one for which it paid a very heavy price. The Bolshevik economic experiments, the collectivization of farmland being one, claimed the lives of tens of lakhs of Russians by causing want and misery. The Bolsheviks also tried their best to destroy the lived culture and traditions of the Russian people by attacking their faith. They publicly hanged priests of the Russian Orthodox Church, in 1931 they even bombed and razed to the ground the Cathedral of Christ the Savior that stood in Moscow. The Soviet State suffered from no remorse, it treated its people like an insentient, inert mass that could be legitimately experimented with.
Like the Russian Bolsheviks, communists across the world share a disregard for popular legitimacy and people’s will. All communists assume, as the Bolsheviks did, that human beings can be herded and experimented with like inert, will-less objects through the medium of an all pervasive state. Among communists, these inherently authoritarian views manifest themselves in various forms of reaction against lived culture, tradition and popular will, which are sought to be effaced and fettered. Plainly put, all communists display the attitudes of the Bolshevik ‘elite reaction.’ But what is the source of these attitudes, did they originate with Bolshevism? No, instead I suggest that they trace their roots to liberalism.
Liberalism and Communism: ‘Apart’ but United
This might sound rather radical, but liberalism and communism are actually not so different after all; the seemingly striking dissimilarities notwithstanding. Communism, as a matter of fact, is an outcrop of liberalism. For instance, it is from a stage in the development of liberalism – the European enlightenment – that communism derives its assessment of religion as being mainly ‘unreason’. The age of enlightenment in Europe ushered the ‘disenchantment’ of the world (made it void of magic) and the retreat of the sacred from the domain of ‘legitimate’ knowledge. This is evident in the epistemic attitude of the period. The cultural historian Robert Darnton, for example, points out how Diderot and D’ Alembert, philosophers and authors of the Encyclopedie, a foundational enlightenment text, excluded from the realm of knowledge all that could not ‘reach reason through the senses’. They consigned orthodox religion to the ‘unknowable’, ‘excluded it from the modern world of learning’ and trimmed the ‘tree of knowledge’. The enlightenment, thus, made ‘knowledge’ materialistic and empirical and condemned religion to the status of ‘false knowledge’. In 1843, ninety-two years after the publication of the Encyclopedie, Karl Marx identified religion as a ‘false state of mind’, which obscures material and empirical realities. In the Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, he famously derided religion as the “opium of the people”. He stressed that “real happiness of the people requires the abolition of religion, which is their illusory happiness” and a “holy form of human self-alienation.” Marx’s dismissiveness of religion directly derived from the intellectual postures of the enlightenment age. Since religion, in all societies, is the most obvious manifestation of lived culture, we can say that communism learnt to disregard it from the philosophy of the enlightenment and, by extension, liberalism.
Communism’s anti-traditionalism too is a derivative of liberalism. As Harold J Laski pointed out in his seminal Birth of European Liberalism, the ‘liberal’ social and intellectual tendency originated, among other things, as an effort to emancipate the economic motive from the fetters of tradition. As the “capitalist spirit triumphed”, wrote Laski, “within the confines of the older system the potentialities of production could no longer be exploited”. The ‘older system’ was the bearer of ethics, which made the unbridled pursuit of gain difficult – the traditional attitude to usury, for example, as fostered by the Church, was unqualifiedly condemnatory. Nascent liberalism, thus, had to struggle against elements of tradition, which hindered enterprise. It sought, to quote Laski, the abandonment of the ‘non-economic standards by which economic behavior was judged’. This was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the time we come to the end of the eighteenth century the liberal tendency had bred a fully-fledged intellectual outlook – utilitarianism. The British historian E P Thompson terms it a “modernizing urban liberalism of individualism, money and the market.”
Utilitarianism was militantly anti-traditional. It wanted all tradition and custom to be tested on the benchmark of ‘utility’ and sought those that hindered ‘progress’ to be obliterated. The utilitarians believed that the responsibility of getting rid of tradition that obstructs progress ought to be taken by the state. If that involved treating human beings as inert, will-less objects, it could not be helped. It is perhaps more than mere coincidence that the rise of utilitarian philosophy (a la Jeremy Bentham and J S Mill) in nineteenth century Britain coincided with the passing of the ‘Enclosure Acts’ by the British parliament. These acts allowed the rural landowners to ‘enclose’ (fence in) all their lands and ended the customary practice of setting aside some village land as the ‘common’, which all villagers could access and use. The ‘common’ too could now be fenced in by its owners. This paved the way for the large scale capitalist exploitation of the common lands – in many cases their owners turned them into sheep walks and took to wool production. However, common lands were vital to the survival of the British rural poor as they used them to graze their cows or pigs. As they were fenced in, the result was untold misery for large numbers of villagers. But did the utilitarians care? No they did not. They came from the upper crust of British society, the British rural poor very likely failed to register on their mental radar. Mr. Bentham, for example, was the scion of a wealthy London family that traditionally supported the Tories. Mr. J S Mill too, being the son of the illustrious James Mill, had not really known want.
Communism shares the utilitarian outlook. Think of the forced collectivization of farmland in the USSR and China. What was being sought in both countries was not mere efficiency of cultivation (never achieved), but the effacement of traditional peasant individuality. The two communist states thought it to be a regressive thing and took it upon them to combat and destroy it. This is because, like the utilitarians, communists too view the state as the ultimate enforcer and instrument of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ and are ready to treat human beings as insentient objects in the name of process.
Liberalism and communism have another feature in common. Inherent in both the liberal tendency and the communist political program is a similar reading of history. Both see history as a linear, teleological process that (ideally) should lead to a definite goal – the universal triumph of ‘reason’ and ‘progress’ or the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Both act like they have a legitimate proprietary right over history and can determine the course it takes.
How do the two – liberalism and communism – seek to exercise their exclusive right over history and its unfolding? Well, by manipulating the nature of the state and making it an instrument of the will of a select elite. Yes, doing so often means disregarding the will of the people that the state in question might govern – in other words, being reactionary. A natural willingness for this is one more thing liberalism had taught communism. We commonly suppose that liberalism believes in democracy and popular legitimacy of a state and government while communism does not. It is not quite so. Actually it is more logical to argue that liberalism believes in making the state the instrument of its agenda and regards it legitimate only till it performs this role. Classical nineteenth century liberalism believed in all the democracy that was required to achieve this end, no more. The scope of this democracy, in class terms, thus, was quite limited. The nineteenth century European democracies restricted the franchise to the propertied and were polities of the bourgeoisie and the landed interests. Wherever the social hegemony of the bourgeoisie waxed – they were the class from whom the classical liberal values and thoughts originated – the state became an instrument of the bourgeoisie, and by extension, the liberal, will. Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, observes that it happened in his country when in the nineteenth century, French society was increasingly subjected to the bourgeois idea of order and discipline. This was achieved through ‘power-knowledge regimes’ – forms of authority and control that derived their outlook and agenda from a certain understanding of the world. The nineteenth century French penal system, one such ‘power-knowledge regime’, thus, according to Foucault, imposed “on the proletariat, by means of penal legislation, of prisons, of newspapers, of ‘literature’, certain allegedly moral categories.” Together these amounted to “the system of bourgeois values, the opposition between the moral and the immoral, the just and the unjust, the honest and the dishonest.”
The contemporary liberals too are democrats only till the state is an instrument of their will or outlook. The moment it is not so anymore, they rue democracy – call to the mind the reaction of the Indian liberals in May 2014 and their counterparts in the USA in November 2016. They and the communists are no different. Both naturally believe that the state ought to be an instrument in their hands and adopt, if not political, economic means to turn it into one. That is why, even that most clinching of the seeming differences between liberalism and communism, that of approaches to the organisation of the national economy, is illusory. Liberalism and communism, instead, actually propagate two extreme variants of capitalism. Liberalism fosters a disaggregated capitalism through the free market (fostered by the state), while communism organises an aggregated, statist capitalism employing the command and control system (whose reins are held by the state). In both instances, the major gains go to a small, entrenched and reactionary elite in charge of the state in question. We know that the untrammeled free market capitalism does not benefit the ninety-nine percent. Well, communism does not either. Take the Soviet case, for example. What the Soviet economic and political order created, observes Robert Service, was a class of bureaucratic elite, the – the apparatchiki – who “enjoyed privileges without limit and could pass them on to their sons and daughters.”
Why has there been such an easy and large scale transfer of values from liberalism to communism? The answer is simple, the class basis of both is the same – they are forms of authoritarian reaction emerging from the elite. The celebrated liberal thinkers have come from the elite or the gentry, so have the most revered communist prophets (the Russian case is already taken note of). Mao Tse Tung’s father was a wealthy land owner and cultivator, so was the father of Fidel Castro. The roving revolutionary Che Guevara came from the urban upper middle class of Argentina.
Neutralising Reaction: What is to be done?
At the moment, the two forms of elite reaction – communist and liberal – are politically disempowered in our country. But they are still very much alive. How do we ensure that they remain disempowered and eventually wither away because of the want of political room? Perhaps this could happen if the Indian state evolves into a genuinely Indic democracy that upholds indigenous lived culture. I am conscious of the irony, but I cannot resist quoting Leszek Kolakowsky, the historian of Marxism, at this juncture to lend weight to my suggestion. “The aim of democracy as Marx understands it”, writes Kolakowsky, “is to make the state once more an instrument of man…Only a state which is a form of the existence of its people, and not a foreign body over and against them, is a true state, one which conforms to the essence of statehood.” So, it seems like an Indic democracy suffused with indigenous lived culture, the ‘form of existence of its people’, will be consistent with Marx’s understanding of a truly democratic state. But now, the question emerges spontaneously, what exact appearance should such a state assume in India? I do not know. But perhaps we could debate this, with civility and without calling each other names. However, one thing to me is clear, such a state must recognise its most numerically manifest indigenous lived culture’s right to the sacred sites and shrines that have lapsed from its possession. By the way, Marx’s understanding of democracy indicates that he wasn’t as complete a reactionary as his later day disciples.
Darnton, Robert, ‘Philosophers Trim the Tree of Knowledge: The Epistemological Strategy of the Encyclopedie’ in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History
Foucault, Michel – Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-77.
Kolakowsky, Leszek – Main Currents in Marxism: The Founders, The Golden Age, The Breakdown
Laski, Harold J. – Birth of European Liberalism
Service, Robert – The Penguin History of Modern Russia. From Tsarism to the Twenty-First Century.
Service, Robert – Trotsky: A Biography
Thompson, E. P. – Customs in Common