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Closing the Circle - Reflections on the revolution

by Dilip Simeon, 13 August 2012

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Frontier, August 2012

Closing the Circle

Dilip Simeon

I look at the world and I notice it’s turning
While my guitar gently weeps
With every mistake we must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps
George Harrison and Ravi Shankar at the Concert for Bangladesh; August 1, 1971


The word revolution came to acquire a new political usage from the late eighteenth century. Prior to that, it referred to the circular or elliptical movement of the celestial bodies, more specifically, to the completion of such a rotation. In English history, for example, it did not refer to the civil wars and political upheavals associated with Oliver Cromwell; but to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the installation of a protestant monarch in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was only with the American and French revolutions of the late eighteenth century, that revolution began to signify an overhaul of a social and political system. Even here, the leaders active in the beginning appealed for a return to an order of things that had been sullied by despotic monarchs – they used nostalgic language, they sought a restoration. However, the war of independence and the storming of the Bastille launched a flow of events that overthrew the earlier usages, along with the despotism that was the immediate target. Revolution began its new semantic journey, into the political vocabulary of modern protest and the aspirations of the oppressed. It retains its geometric usage, as in the number of revolutions per minute of mechanical rotors, but in the political realm, it evokes not a circle but a straight line, a pathway to a freedom and a better life.

In the nineteenth century the French Revolution became the archetypal model for an all-round transformation of the social and political order. It became the political embodiment of the Enlightenment ideals of the liberation of the human spirit and the sovereignty of reason. It proclaimed the freedom of the intellect from theological tutelage and the overthrow of the Divine Right of Kings as a principle of state legitimacy. The modernist project was best envisioned in Marquis de Condorcet’s Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind, a veritable manifesto of Reason.1 Ironically, in 1794, his exercise of the right to free speech in defence of political moderation was to cost him his life. Equally ironic is the habitual citation of 1789, a unique and singular event, as the basis for sweeping generalisations about the ‘inevitable’ stages of world history.

The Law of Progress

The late eighteenth century was the period when the idea of history took its modern form. Its new essence was the idea that History was the story of Progress. Gradually the entire vocabulary covering human aspirations towards freedom, justice and social emancipation was overtaken by an organicist concept of history, akin to the evolution of a living organism. This tendency was strengthened with the advent of Darwin’s theory a few decades later. One offshoot of biological evolutionism was Social-Darwinism. The British philosopher Herbert Spencer coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’ in the 1860’s to refer to Darwin’s concept of ‘natural selection’. A branch of Social-Darwinism was Eugenics, the ‘science’ of strengthening the hereditary qualities of a race, most notoriously advocated some decades later by the Nazis. For conservative European ideologues of the racialist anxiety that was current in the era of high imperialism, Darwin’s ideas proved very attractive indeed. But the extrapolation of the ‘dialectics of Nature’ into human history also took place within the progressive thought of the late nineteenth century, and this was rooted in the tradition launched at the time of the first great revolutions.2

Organicist concepts became a means of demonstrating the law-governed nature of reality. History was now deemed to contain the seeds of progress regardless of the thoughts and motives of humans engrossed in their welter of activities. Kant described these activities as ‘melancholy haphazardness’. Hegel described the long sequence of bloody conflicts as a “panorama of sin and suffering.” But, he said “even regarding History as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized - the question involuntarily arises - to what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered.”3 He went on: “The sole aim of philosophical inquiry is to eliminate the contingent…We must bring to history the belief and conviction that the realm of the will is not at the mercy of contingency. That world history is governed by an ultimate design, that it is a rational process - whose rationality is not that of a particular subject, but a divine and absolute reason. The time has now surely come for us to comprehend even so rich a product of creative reason as world history. The aim of human cognition is to understand that the intentions of eternal wisdom are accomplished not only in the natural world, but also in the realm of the [spirit] which is actively present in the world. From this point of view our investigation can be seen as a theodicy, a justification of the ways of God.”(emphasis added)4

Theodicy is a fascinating concept, and it is significant that Hegel used it to describe his investigations. It can be defined as the doctrinal vindication of (otherwise inexplicable) evil in terms of divine providence. In other words, it points to God’s plan to squeeze Good out of Evil. There are many kinds of theodicy; and paradoxically, some are secular in orientation. It is evident that radicals of all kinds (including messianic nationalists) are attracted to this idea, even if they are unfamiliar with the term itself. In the case of secular theodiceans, God’s role is taken by History, which justifies evil deeds performed by the cadre of whichever party is supposedly leading us to the pre-determined goal. In their philosophical compulsion to make sense of the turmoil of centuries, both Kant and Hegel attempted to discern reason at work in the passage of time. Ultimately, Time brought about reasonable changes in human behaviour and institutions. History as the unfolding of the Spirit was seen to be the bearer of these already-present positive tendencies. Just as the seed contained the tree in potentio, so did the seed of historical time contain the tree of ultimate reconciliation. Thus Hegel: “nothing else will come out but what was already there.” (This was another way of saying that there is nothing new under the sun). Thus did Hegel develop his grand philosophical system, the attempt at a complete speech, wherein reason gave an account of itself without recourse to an external ground.

However, whereas Hegel saw the present as the organic outcome (‘ultimate design’) of the past, Marx and the revolutionary tradition turned history into the arena for the future emancipation of the proletariat. In its revolutionary avatar, politics became conflated with History. As a result the revolutionary tradition began to measure itself and its activities with the stages of historical development that were deemed to be built in to the history of all countries. No theory of politics was required, because all political questions were subsumed under the rubric of the Transition. Crucial issues such as the nature, form and legitimacy of political representation, the so-called sovereign Will of the People or Proletariat; the requirements of law and justice; the separation of powers; the phenomenological (rather than tactical) understanding of violence and its relation to politics; and the ideals of freedom and democracy and their implications for workers, were set aside in the face of the imminent Revolution, preparation for which took precedence over all else.

Revolutionary activity

Revolutionary activities in India are closer to the original meaning of revolution than the comrades realise. Revolutionary parties ground themselves upon rebellious sentiments and sacrosanct doctrines. The most significant of these doctrines is that the proletariat has a historical goal, and that there is only one correct strategy that can lead it towards that goal. This strategy is accessible to the scientists of socialism, who are grouped together in the Communist Party. In the minds of its cadre, the party assumes the shape of some kind of incarnation of the working class. (I leave aside the question of the relationship between the early terrorist groups and the left-wing parties of the 1920s). Given the fact that real life always tends to fall short of tall claims and utopian ideologies, sooner or later its cadre tends to become conformist or cynical. They raise questions of bureaucratism and dogmatism - most of the time this indicates a preference for a slightly different set of dogmas - and the party splits. A new vanguard is set up with the same broad organizational and doctrinal beliefs as the old one, and with some minor changes in the title of the party. Apart from doctrinal issues, the dominant narrative in such splits is that of betrayal. The old leadership is deemed to have betrayed the revolutionary path, and the new entity represents the apparent recuperation of genuine revolutionary forces for the benefit of the People. Thereafter the pattern is repeated in a new cycle.

This cyclical vacillation also happens with regard to the status of armed struggle in the activity of revolutionaries. In 1948-50 the CPI converted the Telengana movement into all all-out insurrection against the Nehru government, and launched what Mohit Sen referred to ‘Naxalism without the Naxalites’. In the face of repeated setbacks, a CPI delegation went to Moscow in 1950, where they were told by Stalin to call off the armed struggle and participate in Indian democracy for whatever it was worth. Less than two decades later, the party split twice, first in 1964 (after the 1962 Sino-Indian war) and then again with Naxalbari, in 1967. Charu Mazumdar and his followers denounced the CPI (Marxist) for betraying the Revolution, and also raised questions on dogma, lack of democracy etc. A fresh attempt at organizing armed revolution began in 1969. After the first year there was a crisis, as Charu’s line did not seem to be working even where it was faithfully carried out, as in Midnapur. The leadership sent a senior comrade to China (via an interesting route: Rome, Tirana, Dacca, Peking) and he returned with news of the Chinese Party’s sharp criticisms of Charu’s annihilation line. The CPC was also believed to have criticized the slogan China’s Chairman is our Chairman. 5

Around 1971, splits appeared once more on bureaucratism and points of dogma. The really big political and moral crisis was the Chinese defence of Pakistan’s integrity at a time when Pakistan’s Bengali population was being slaughtered by its Army. Suddenly in late 1971, it appeared that Mao’s chosen successor Lin Piao was a Soviet agent and had died trying to escape to the USSR. Despite all this, the habit persisted of treating the CPC as an oracular source of wisdom. The Naxalites split into pro and anti-Lin factions, and Charu’s obsession with annihilation came under attack.7 Thereafter new vanguards were set up, and participation in mass democratic activity was begun, although within the ambit of a doctrinal affiliation to armed struggle. After a while some very revolutionary comrades denounced as traitors those taking part in peaceful agitations, and re-started the armed struggle. And so on. Now there are signs that yet again, comrades waging People’s War are having second thoughts.

Am I the only person to get the impression that revolutionaries are going around in circles?

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