The Left and its "Intellectual Detractors"
Dec 12th 2007, Prabhat Patnaik.
The With normalcy returning to Nandigram, and with the heat generated over it in intellectual circles somewhat subsiding, it is time for us to ask the question: why did so many intellectuals suddenly turn against the Party with such amazing fury on this issue?
This question is important because joining issue with them on the basis of facts on the specificities of Nandigram, which is what we have been doing till now, is not enough. It is not enough for instance to underscore the fact, implicitly or explicitly denied by virtually all of them, that thousands of poor people were driven out of their homes into refugee camps for the only "crime" of being CPI(M) supporters; it is not enough to argue against them that there was no semblance of an excuse for keeping Nandigram out of bounds for these refugees and for the civil administration even after the Left Front government had categorically declared that no chemical hub would be built there; it is not enough to point out that the so-called "re-occupation" of Nandigram in November was an act of desperation which followed the failure of every other effort at restoring normalcy and bringing the refugees back to their homes. All these facts and arguments have been advanced at length, and are by now passé. But the phenomenon of several intellectuals who till yesterday were with the Left in fighting communal fascism but have now turned against it requires serious analysis.
There is no gainsaying that the Left Front government made serious mistakes in handling the Nandigram issue; and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has said so in as many words. But disagreement with the LF over this could have taken the form of friendly criticism, articles, and open letters, and not of such outright hostility that even put the LF on a par with communal fascism. Likewise disagreements over the LF’s industrialization policy could have been aired in a manner that had none of the ferocity which has been recently displayed. Differences with the LF, even basic differences, therefore cannot suffice as an explanation of what we have just witnessed.
Likewise, the fact that most of these intellectuals are in any case strongly anti-organized Left, especially anti-Communist (and in particular anti-CPI(M)), belonging as they do to the erstwhile "socialist" groups, to NGOs, to the ranks of Naxalite sympathizers, to the community of "Free Thinkers", and to various shades of "populism", would not suffice as an explanation. After all, despite this basic hostility to the organized Left, they did make common cause with it on several issues till recently. Why is it suddenly so different now?
The context clearly has changed. With the perceived decline in the strength of the communal fascist forces, a certain fracturing of the anti-communal coalition was inevitable and has happened, and this no doubt provides the setting in which it becomes possible for these intellectuals to express in the open the hostility which they might have felt all along against the Left. Indeed, this perceived weakening of the BJP may even encourage attempts, on the part of intellectuals hostile to the Left but aligned to it earlier owing to the pressure of circumstances, at establishing a sort of intellectual hegemony over society at large at the expense of the Left. But while the recession of the communal fascist threat certainly creates the condition for these intellectuals to come out openly against the Left, the manner of their coming out cannot be explained only by this fact. It indicates something more serious, namely the process of destruction of politics that the phenomenon of globalization has unleashed.
The crux of political praxis consists at any time in distinguishing between two camps: the camp of the "people" and camp hostile to the interests of "the people". This distinction in turn is based on an analysis of the prevailing contradictions, and the identification of the principal contradiction, on the basis of which the composition of the class alliance that constitutes the camp of "the people" is determined. And corresponding to this constellation of classes, there is a certain constellation of political forces among whom relations have to be forged. It is obvious that the relationship between the political forces representing the classes that constitute the camp of the people at any time, and the nature of criticism among these forces, must be different from the relationship and criticism across camps. Not to distinguish between the camps, not to distinguish between alternative constellations of political forces, but to club them together on the basis of the identical nature of their presumed moral trespasses, is to withdraw from politics. What is striking about the attitude of the intellectuals arrayed against the organized Left at present is their complete withdrawal from the realm of political praxis to a realm of messianic moralism.
Such messianic moralism is not just politically counter-productive. The withdrawal from the realm of politics that it signifies, strengthens politically the camp of the "enemies of the people". (In India for instance the attack inspired by messianic moralism that has been launched on the organized Left at a time when the latter is in the forefront of an extremely crucial but difficult struggle against the attempt of imperialism to make India its strategic ally, weakens that struggle, and thereby plays into the hands of imperialism). But messianic moralism, quite apart from its palpable political consequences, is smug, self-righteous, self-adulatory, and, above all, empty. An attitude that does not distinguish between types of violence, between the different episodes of violence, that condemns all violence with equal abhorrence, that places on a footing of equality all presumed perpetrators of violence, amounts in fact to a condemnation of nothing. To say that all are equally bad is not even morally meaningful.
This messianic moralism, this withdrawal from politics, is based fundamentally on a disdain of politics, of the messy world of politics, which is far from being peopled by angels. It constitutes therefore a mirror image of the very phenomenon that it seeks to resist, namely the "cult of development" spawned by neo-liberalism. Manmohan Singh says: politics is filthy; rise above politics; detach "development" from politics. The anti-Left intellectuals say: politics is filthy; rise above politics; detach the struggle against "development" from politics.
This disdain for politics, this contempt for the political process, is what characterizes substantial sections of the middle class in India today. It is visible in the absolute opposition of the students of elite institutions to the legislation on reservations passed unanimously by parliament. It is visible in the persistent resort to the judicial process to overturn decisions of legislatures, and the exhortations to the judiciary to act as a body superior to the elected representatives of the people. This middle class contempt for politics and politicians is apparent in the rise of movements like "Youth For Equality" that make no secret of it and whose avowed aim is to combat "affirmative action" which they consider to be the handiwork of "opportunist" politicians.
The rise of messianic moralism is a part of the same trend, which is nothing else but a process of "destruction of politics". Middle class moralism upholds causes, not programmes. It flits from cause to cause. And it apotheosizes the absence of systematic political alliances. Some may call it "post-modern politics", but it amounts to a negation of politics.
Messianic moralism always has a seductive appeal for intellectuals. To avoid systematic partisanship, to stand above the messy world of politics, to pronounce judgements on issues from Olympian moral heights, and to be applauded for one’s presumed "non-partisanship", gives one a sense of both comfort and fulfillment. This seductive appeal is heightened by the contemporary ambience of middle class disdain for politics which the phenomenon of globalization, subtly but assiduously, nurtures and promotes.
The answer to the question with which we started, namely why have so many intellectuals turned against the Left with such fury, lies to a significant extent in the fact that this fury against the Left is also fed by a revolt against politics. The revolt against the CPI(M) is simultaneously a revolt against politics. The combination of anti-communism with a rejection of politics in general gives this revolt that added edge, that special anger. It is the anger of the morality of the "anti-political" against the morality of the "political", for Communism, notwithstanding its substitution of the "political" for the "moral", has nonetheless a moral appeal. The venom in the anti-Left intellectuals’ attack on the Left comes from the fact that this struggle, of the "morality of the anti-political" against the "morality of the political", takes on the character of a desperate last struggle, a final push to destroy the latter, since "our day has come at last!".
Ironically it was a group of US-based academics led by Noam Chomsky who sought to introduce a political perspective to the anti-Left agitation of the intellectuals on Nandigram. It is they who pointed out that in the anti-imperialist struggle, which is the defining struggle of our times (the struggle around the principal contradiction), the organized Left was an essential component of the camp of the "people", and that nothing should be done to disrupt the unity of the camp of the "people". But the response of the anti-Left intellectuals to the injection of this political perspective was a barrage of attacks on Chomsky et al for taking a "pro-CPI(M)" position. A political position ipso facto was identified as a "pro-CPI(M)" position. There could be no clearer proof of the proposition that the revolt of the intellectuals against the Left was simultaneously a revolt against politics, a disdain for politics that has become so prevalent a phenomenon in the era of globalization that it affects as much the proponents of globalization as its avowed critics. In fact these critics and the votaries of imperialist globalization share in this respect the same terrain of discourse.
The hallmark of the organized Left lies precisely in the fact it rejects this terrain of discourse, that it accords centrality to politics, that it does not substitute an abstract Olympian moralism for concrete political mobilization. It is for this reason therefore that the Left’s attitude to these intellectuals must be informed by politics; it cannot be a mirror image of their attitude to the Left.
Fear of the Unfamiliar – Responding to Patnaik
December 16, 2007
By Partho Sarathi Ray, Sanhati
A spectre is haunting the CPI(M)- the spectre of the People. All the powers of the old Left (or to borrow their term, the “organized Left”) have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Prakash Karat, Prabhat Patnaik and N. Ram, party cadres and state police.
The first step in the process of exorcism is delegitimization. The resistance of the people of Singur and Nandigram has long been attempted to be delegitimized by attributing it to the so-called unholy alliance of the Trinamool Congress, Jamaat and the Maoists. That is familiar terrain, to brand all opposition as the handiwork of right wing or ultra Left forces, and hence deny it’s political legitimacy. However, what was unfamiliar for the CPI(M) was “so many intellectuals suddenly turn(ing) against the Party with such amazing fury on this issue”. That tens of thousands of common people would accompany these intellectuals, many of them long time fellow-travellers and supporters of the Left Front, out on the streets in a spontaneous show of outrage and protest was something totally unfamiliar to the CPI(M), which has converted “the people” into a fetish. And, Prabhat Patnaik’s essay seems to have been born out of a fear of this unfamiliar.
The problem for the CPI(M), and for Prof. Patnaik, has been the category in which these intellectuals could be included in order to rationalize this unfamiliar phenomenon, and to delegitimize their protest. Here they were, marching under no party banners, vociferously opposing the party with which several of them were associated till “yesterday”. Prof. Patnaik, in his essay, first tries to suggest that these intellectuals were basically “anti-organized Left, especially anti-Communist (and in particular anti-CPI(M)), belonging as they do to the erstwhile ”socialist” groups, to NGOs, to the ranks of Naxalite sympathizers, to the community of “Free Thinkers”, and to various shades of “populism””. But he himself finds this explanation wanting, in his black and white world of “either you are with us or against us”, as “they did make common cause with it (the CPIM) on several issues till recently”. So he opens up a new line of attack, the ultimate rationalization, of accusing these intellectuals of not just being anti-”organized Left”, but being anti-political. He thinks that once it is possible to attribute their opposition to a “withdrawal from politics”, to a “messianic moralization”, it can be proved to be devoid of any political content, and correspondingly attributing the resistance of the peasants to the handiwork of Trinamool Congress, the Jamaat and Maoists, the spectre of the people rising up can be firmly put to rest. This is a dangerous stratagem of denying all legitimacy to the opposition from the intellectuals, of making it “smug, self-righteous, self-adulatory, and, above all, empty”.
Why is this cunning rationalization required? I would be presumptuous to remind Prof. Patnaik the etymology of the word “political”. It derives from the Greek politikos, “of the citizens or the state”, which in ancient Greece was the “polis”. By actively playing their role as citizens, coming out on the streets and organizing to publicly oppose actions of the state, are the intellectuals not doing exactly what Prof. Patnaik accuses them of doing, of demonstrating “disdain for politics, this contempt for the political process”? Or does the “political process” for Prof. Patnaik just mean the dutiful casting of votes during elections, of docile participation in meetings organized or sanctioned by the Party, or of indulging in “friendly criticism, articles, and open letters”? Or is it that the intellectuals are really making a political statement by their protest, a statement of their involvement in the affairs of the state, which makes Prof. Patnaik so uncomfortable? Would he have been more comfortable if they marched under the banner of the Trinamool Congress or the Maoists, as that would have placed them in his comfortable dualistic world where their protest could be attributed to the opportunistic or anarchist “politics” of the opposition?
I understand that Prof. Patnaik finds it hard to believe that “the people” can start organizing outside the auspices of a political party, that such organization can, and has become in the past, the nucleus of a very political movement, and rather than being a process of “destruction of politics” it is the very affirmation of the “political”. Or maybe it’s just that what unnerves him, and the CPI(M) bosses, that “the people” have finally refused to just being a fetish which can be invoked according to convenience, and have decided to mobilize politically, to actively assert their role in the affairs of the “polis”. This would put into serious jeopardy the mantle of the “organized Left”, which Prof. Patnaik claims for the CPI(M). It is a surprising mantle of monopoly, considering the fact that several Left political parties have been actively involved in the people’s resistance and the protests. Does Prof. Patnaik consider them to be “disorganized Left” or “organized non-Left”? Or does “organized Left” for Prof. Patnaik just means the Left entrenched in power, the Left which can use the contrivances available in an electoral democracy to regularly churn up votes during elections. It is evidently unfamiliar for Prof. Patnaik that hundreds of struggles are breaking out in India, where the people have correctly identified imperialism to be the “principal contradiction” of the times - imperialism that is equally represented by the nuclear deal between the USA and India and the attempts to take over their lands and livelihoods for the profits of corporations like the Tatas and the Salims - and have therefore consciously distanced themselves from the ”organized left” in their struggles against imperialism. It is the fear of this unfamiliar that has shaken the “organized Left” or rather the “un-Left”, a description inspired by the mythical “un-dead”, like which it has the appearance of life but is actually dead, ensconced in its grave of power for the last thirty years, now busily hammering the last nail of neo-liberalism into its own coffin.
Professor Patnaik and the Aftermath of Nandigram
by Dilip Simeon
Professor Prabhat Patnaik's criticism (http://www.pragoti.org) of the opponents of the Left Front's policies and actions in Nandigram is instructive. In my view, the following points deserve especial notice:
1/ The title of his article is The Left and its "Intellectual" Detractors. Although many critics of the CPI (M) may not call themselves intellectuals, there are undoubtedly some scholars among them. Patnaik places their intellect within inverted commas. This grammatical sneer conveys the impression that the CPM's detractors are mindless nullities. Patnaik's contemptuous title suggests a mental annihilation of criticism.
2/ In Patnaik's view, genuine politics consists in being able to distinguish between "alternative constellations of political forces" that represent the 'camp of the people' and the camp of those hostile to 'the people'. Since the Left for him is by definition the CPM and its allies, it follows that the correct delineation of these camps may only be made by his party. Many of his comments on political correctness deal with the struggle against communal-fascist forces. This is significant. On the one hand we have before us the recent spectacle of the author Taslima Nasreen being hounded out of Kolkata by a contingent of these very forces. On the other, as late as 1989 his party was in an electoral alliance (euphemistically named 'seat-adjustment') with the BJP that assisted its political growth. It is clear that the 'camp of the people' undergoes frequent changes. In 1989 it included the front organisations of the RSS. Given his assumption of partisan infallibility, it follows that Patnaik's party made the correct analysis 18 years ago, and has made yet another correct analysis today, when presumably the camp of the people includes corporate interest groups and real-estate developers. If this is the level of discernment that determines the CPM's political decisions, surely we may ask whether the political emptiness to which Patnaik refers has not entered the portals of his own party, and whether the retention of political power has not become an end in itself.
3/ Patnaik states that the failure to distinguish between types of violence, to condemn all violence with equal abhorrence, to place all perpetrators of violence on an equal footing, "amounts in fact to a condemnation of nothing. To say that all are equally bad is not even morally meaningful." He condemns this "messianic moralism", and scorns those who adopt such positions as apolitical "Olympian moralists" who have removed themselves from "the messy world of politics". Interestingly, Patnaik's observations in (elliptical) defence of certain forms of violence, could be made by any left or right-wing extremist. Violence has a tendency to blur political distinctions. Such arguments are in fact raised by many political partisans who practice the tactical deployment of force to achieve their ends, and who believe that their own good intentions are the touchstone for converting murder and goondaism into virtuous acts. If there is messianism at work here, it is evident in the actions of those who believe themselves to be beyond good and evil, because all their actions are already certified by History. If political damage has been incurred by the Left Front, surely it is more on account of the images of masked men on motor-cycles carrying out armed actions in the name of the CPM, rather than because of irritating articles written by its detractors?
There is an established tradition of non-violent resistance in India. Gandhi was no Olympian moralist, if by this phrase Patnaik wants to denote a distaste for politics. Nor did Gandhi say that all violent protagonists were equally bad. What he did say made sense to ordinary people and spoke to everyday experience. He said, "What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?" His commitment to non-violence was arguably his way of ensuring the evolution of a democratic public sphere. So close was Gandhi to the messiness of everyday life that in August 1947 he managed to touch the hearts of the people and thus prevent a repetition of the terrible events known as the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946, an achievement for which even his severest critics gave him credit.
4/ Criticisms of abstract moralism apart, Patnaik ignores a central concern of the CPM's 'detractors'. This is the sheer fact of the use of a political para-military in Nandigram. Granted that criminal acts were being committed by political groups interested in exploiting popular grievances in Nandigram, a sustained non-violent campaign could have been undertaken to re-establish the rights of those driven away by force. Such a course would have enhanced his party's prestige. Along with that, the state government was always entitled to use legitimate force. However in March 2007, it sent in irregulars along with the police, and in November, it sent in hundreds of vigilantes after neutralising the police. (Patnaik refers to this as "re-occupation"). The Home Secretary of the state used the phrase "war-like situation" to describe the state of affairs. The deliberate disablement of the police by the political executive in order to enable the violent activities of paramilitary gangs, can only be described as state-terror. If this is an example of the centrality (to use Patnaiks' phrase) that the CPM accords to politics, we are in a dangerous situation indeed. It was precisely this action that reminded the LF's critics of Gujarat in 2002, notwithstanding the crucial difference that the Nandigram action was not a communally inspired massacre. West Bengal's government violated its oath of office by depriving its political opponents of constitutionally guaranteed protections and subjecting them to blatantly partisan violence. This was illegal, politically inept and ethically indefensible. No amount of polemical scorn vented on critics can erase this fact. This is not an abstract question, nor will it go away. The Chief Minister has apologised for his words, but not for his deeds. Patnaik could have addressed this issue, but did not.
5/ It is good that Patnaik has raised the issue of the contemporary vaporisation of politics. One symptom of this phenomenon is the impossibility of rational conversation, because of the rapid degeneration of debate into personal attacks, ad hominem remarks, scorn and derision of the kind reflected in his own use of polemic to deal with what is a serious crisis of legitimacy for leftism. Undoubtedly, many sectors of the democratic polity and not just the CPM, indulge in such destructive forms of speech. But surely it is to the advantage of the CPM that reasoned discussion and a willingness to deal with inconvenient truths not be completely overtaken by blind loyalty and disregard for facts? Should political debate be reduced to a form of religious propaganda? (Our opponents wrong-doings are crimes, but we only commit 'mistakes'). If no one will allow argument and dialogue to change their minds, why will anyone join the Left? If all our parties are always right, are we not living in a subjectivist universe, where the truth has been politically abolished and judgement replaced by whim? Intellectual shut-mindedness and physical intimidation are two sides of the same absolutist coin. They might bring satisfaction for awhile, but have always been the harbingers of disintegration. Patnaik should cast his critical gaze inwards - it might yet yield beneficial results.
Dilip Simeon, 18 December 2007
Manash is a doctorate in Political Theory from JNU and is presently as he puts it “just writing.” This is a response to ‘The Left and its Intellectual Detractors’ by Prabhat Patnaik.
Prabhat Patnaik is upset about the “heat generated” over Nandigram in “intellectual circles”. But he doesn’t state how the heat was directly proportional to the heat generated by the West Bengal Government over the lives of people in Nandigram. Patnaik is critically interested in only one side of the heat. Wonder why no heat was generated in him about the ruthless events in Nandigram. Maybe years of teaching have taken their toll. Or does belonging to the Party numb one’s senses more than anything else?
For Patnaik, the idea of the left intellectual seems to be of one who is first and foremost a thinking tool of and for the Party. Even Sartre with his idea of the “committed intellectual” would have shuddered at such a sterile expectation of the left intellectual. Patnaik can however be excused for falling short of Sartrean definitions because he doesn’t seem to have either the guts or the power to live up to them. But he can’t be excused, even within his modest intellect, for hiding the truth under the Party’s carpet of lies and go into the offensive against those who showed infinitely more courage than him to tear off the Party’s façade regarding Nandigram.
It was in a desperately reconciliatory gesture with the erstwhile Soviet leadership after Lenin’s death when a sidelined Trotsky declared, “the party is always right”. He had even, more disturbingly, equated such a sentiment with the notoriously colonialist English saying, “My country, right or wrong”. It seems Patnaik is in a similar predicament about proving his fidelity to the Party in the wake of serious intellectual criticism of the Party, from supporters of the left.
Patnaik wants to join issue with his intellectual adversaries “on the basis of facts”. Everybody knows the “facts”. But Patnaik’s “facts” only include CPI (M) supporters allegedly driven out of Nandigram. He turns a blind eye to all the atrocities committed by the Party. Patnaik seems to be a surgeon of facts. Those who follow the dictates of a clinical politics take up such a role.
Patnaik is happy about “normalcy” returning to Nandigram. Like a typical bourgeois citizen, all he cares for is normalcy. As if the state is a rational structure which normalises the abnormal tendencies of society. Society is neither normal nor abnormal. But society does not need such language to justify itself. The state does. The state creates these pathological distinctions by playing around with popular dichotomies in order to justify its atrocities. Patnaik should know how the so-called restoration of “normalcy” is a well-known gimmick-language of the state to clear up the blood in the streets and declare, “Look! There is no more blood flowing”. But what about the blood that has already flowed? Who will account for that? What about the skeletons in the Party’s cupboard? How is the Party going to normalise the raw wounds and memories of people who suffered the barbarism of CPI (M) cadres in Nandigram?
The Left Front Government, we learn from Patnaik, has made “serious mistakes” in “handling” Nandigram. As if Nandigram is the name of a wayward derelict. The LF has always admitted to “mistakes” in the past. These were mostly about ideological issues within the Party. But this time the mistakes aren’t mistakes but crimes. Taking away people’s lives and dignity can’t be called a mistake by any standards Mr. Patnaik. Society is anyway not responsible for paying the price of the Party’s “mistakes”. So the Party can’t get away by merely admitting to have committed them. Or else, we will have Narendra Modi trying to get away by admitting tomorrow having made “serious mistakes” in Gujarat. Ideological support cannot gloss over political crimes if there has to be a difference between the left and the right. Those who critiqued the LF know it. But Patnaik, by showing intolerance over their criticism, wants to erase that difference.
Patnaik should understand that equating the LF’s crimes in Nandigram with the acts of communal fascism in Gujarat is not to compare them in a similar manner ideologically, but is nevertheless to be deliberately provocative by forging them politically. It is precisely along the ruptures between ideology and politics that intellectual criticism takes place. The difference between the Party and the intellectual should ideally come into focus at this point. The Party will always justify its politics with its ideology but the intellectual has to highlight the difference between them. In that sense, every Party has totalitarian tendencies and every intellectual’s duty is to warn us of such tendencies. This difference is exactly what makes dissent possible. And dissent, as Vaclav Havel had famously said, means “living within truth”. This truth however isn’t “outside” politics as Patnaik might think. Even Gandhi did not make a distinction between truth and politics – rather, he saw them as one and the same thing. So we can even replace “dissent” with “politics” and say – Politics is living within truth. It is however not the totalitarian truth of the Party but the critical truth of the intellectual. There is nothing “anti-political” about it, as Patnaik understands. Anti-political is a word without any sense or meaning. One can be anti-religious because religion is a belief (or be anti-right or anti-left for the same reason). But one can’t be anti-political because politics is the name of the condition under which the world lives. You can reject a belief, but you can’t reject a condition. We learnt that from Marx.
There is certainly a degree of anarchism about the intellectual’s task but this anarchism alone helps the intellectual to be able to stand outside the Party (not politics) and judge its actions. The Party, ideally, should ask for such judgements about itself. The intellectual has to be the Party’s critical mirror. If the Party derives its power from a plurality of commitments, the intellectual derives his power by the singularity of his critical distance from the Party. This however doesn’t make the intellectuals who critiqued the LF stand on an “Olympian moral height” as Patnaik seems to think. The intellectual’s distance is not vertical but horizontal - he may stand away, but not necessarily above, the Party.
The intellectual’s struggle is twofold and paradoxical – to argue for and against power. The intellectual has to keep the Party in check. Or else, we will succumb to Stalinism.
The equation of politics with the Party by Patnaik thus exposes his totalitarian mindset. Just as there cannot be anything remotely “anti-political”, there cannot be anything more fanciful than a phrase like, “destruction of politics”. What he calls “the process of destruction of politics” on the part of those who attacked the CPI (M) is based on fallacious conceptual and political premises. The Party is only a political mediator between society and the state. How can the questioning of that mediation be the destruction of society’s own politics? The Party has to negotiate its policies, and if there is resentment against those policies, they have to be withdrawn. Politics exists in this very zone of Yes-or-No saying. Programmes forced upon the populace is not politics. Such an attitude smacks of a technological mindset where programmes are understood as machines and people are seen as guinea pigs. It is such brutal implementation of “programmes” which aim to destroy politics by destroying the possibility of raising questions over it. Politics is more about questions than about answers. Unless Patnaik wants to equate politics with “dadagiri”. Intellectuals with a conscience cannot be expected to be complicit in the Party’s crimes. Intellectuals can’t be seen as cows that survive on Party grass. This isn’t about Patnaik lecturing in the classroom to wide-eyed SFI students. Patnaik seems to be suffering from a godfather syndrome.
I don’t think there is any “perceived decline in the strength of the communal fascist forces”. The communal fascist forces are waiting in the wings and Modi is once again on the saddle. Everyone is constantly alert on the activities of the communal fascist forces. Just because they aren’t in power at the Centre doesn’t mean people have gone to sleep. In fact, if anything, there is a constantly perceived threat regarding the communal fascists.
Patnaik’s woe regarding the “fracturing of the anti-communal coalition” is a false nightmare. The anti-communal coalition is not, in the first place, a sacrosanct coalition. It is also an ideologically hotchpotch coalition. It helps us ward off the right wing threat, but doesn’t make us ward of the problems of the coalition rule itself. We can’t be expected to carry roses to the leaders of the UPA and thank them for keeping the BJP out. As Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, just as it is necessary to forget differences when fascists take over power, it is equally important to ruthlessly critique the workings of the democratic state when the fascists are not in power.
We have no choice but to walk this double edge of criticism. Political legitimacy should anyways be considered partial, never total. Or else, that legitimacy can always degenerate into political barbarism.
The phenomenon of globalisation, which Patnaik points out, has only come to mean so far, the destruction of people’s habitats and their livelihood. When people protested, it amounted to the destruction of their lives itself. This has been a very systematic political exercise by the state. Against the ruthless “political praxis” of the WB government, left intellectuals displayed their own sense of political praxis by strongly analysing and condemning the phenomenon. Patnaik’s creation of two camps – that “of the people” and that which is “hostile” to the “interests of the people” – is ridiculous. The idea of the “people” is a politically fictitious term that the state uses to legitimise its hegemony. The world has learnt many new lessons since the French Revolution. If the Party was anyway a “true”, representative of the “people”, then the problem of the dictatorship of the Party would not have occurred in history. In any case, it cannot evade the serious issue of representation. Also, Patnaik’s use of the term is designed to mean that the Party alone represents the “people” and those against the Party are against the “people”, which is an atrocious logic.
The term Patnaik must be feeling proud of is “messianic moralism”, which he uses to describe the phenomenon of those intellectuals who criticised the Party. According to Patnaik, messianic moralism stands for “the contemporary ambience of middle class disdain for politics” which “upholds causes, not programmes”, and comes from a desire to “stand above the messy world of politics”.
It will be good to remember Fredric Jameson’s assertion that part of the attraction of Marxism comes from the messianic nature of the ideology. There is an emancipatory affirmation in Marxism. Even Derrida has noted this in his Spectres of Marx and Jameson has responded approvingly to Derrida’s description.
Now comes the question for Patnaik – Can moralism be messianic? Moralism is normative, whereas the messianic is a liberating ideology. Every liberating ideology will have an idea of the good but an idea of the good is not based upon ideas of liberation. The idea of the good, or a set of normative moral principles, has a very different purpose to serve than the messianic. Moralism is not a liberating exercise. Patnaik assumes that moralism liberates the intellectual from the “messy world of politics”, but we know it isn’t true because no act can liberate anybody from politics. Also, to accept a messy world of politics doesn’t mean one has to justify it as well. Patnaik has lost all sense of distinction here.
Patnaik has tried to painfully argue on “the different episodes of violence” and condemns the presumed failure to distinguish between them. To have called the mechanisms of the West Bengal government fascist is to have categorically conveyed that no kind of right-wing politics will be tolerated, even if perpetrated in the name of the left. It is to have the politically nuanced view that right-wing politics is more generally as well as concretely any kind of violent, authoritarian politics that need not be sanctioned by a right-wing party alone. Those who differed from the LF and from intellectuals like Patnaik have not only differed on the “facts” in Nandigram, but also on “ideas” regarding what it means to be left.
Intellectual hegemony is anyway less powerful (but conversely, more political in the emancipatory sense) than Party hegemony. Every intellectual is not supposed to help make programmes. Just because Patnaik is a party intellectual who helps in making programmes doesn’t mean his credentials are intellectually superior. If that were true, then all those party members who made programmes for Communist parties in Europe would have been superior to Sartre and Walter Benjamin.
I would like to end by pointing out that the Party, which Patnaik defends with such dogmatic and slavish sentiments, has always been tested by Names – Naxalbari, Telangana and now Nandigram. These Names echo the history of atrocities and resistance, of movements that raised new questions and strategies of struggle. These Names highlight specific historical contexts against the Party’s general claims. These names loudly echo the presence of politics more than the CPI (M)’s “programmes”. These Names haunt the Party, because the Party has always been more interested to rule than to support the cause of the peasantry.