The Twenty – First Century: The End of History or the Beginning of Transformation?

By Dilip Simeon
(NB – This essay originated as the Chandrasekhar Memorial Lecture in Patna organised by Punaschya on September 20, 2000. It is now offered as a means of debate. I plan to rewrite it after further study and discussion – Please do not cite without permission – DS).

Dilip Simeon

1. Introduction

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War are events of great magnitude. Because we are living through them, many of us do not appreciate fully the significance of what has happened – but as the new century unfolds it will become clearer. For certain liberal intellectuals these events signify the end of history itself – that is, history interpreted as the realisation of the idea of progress. Thus, Hegel’s celebration of the Prussian absolutist state is replicated in Fukuyama’s understanding of liberal capitalism as the final point of arrival of historical evolution. This ideologically coloured concept of history carries the implication that the future can unfold only as an endless vista of capitalist accumulation, and that there is a logical and natural connection between capitalism and democracy. Such theories are linked to classical political-economic notions of capital as a ‘natural’ phenomenon, or an ahistoric “factor of production”. The same presumptions underlie the view that capitalism is an economic system which mysteriously combines greed and profiteering with the fulfillment of human interests through what Adam Smith named “the hidden hand” of the market. Contemporary history has also been witness to the ideological rise of monetarist triumphalism, the politically inspired dismantlement of the gains of social-democracy, and an all-round crisis of vision that affects both left and right-wing political forces. It has heralded an era of identity politics and fragmentation, creating more and more barriers between ordinary people on the one hand, coupled with structural adjustments geared toward maximum freedom for MNC’s and speculative capital, on the other.

The idea that capitalism is a permanent arrangement is an assumption that we must challenge. But there is a problem here. Right-wing triumphalism may indeed be challenged when placed in historical perspective. However, radical theory cannot approach the gigantic historical events of the century gone by without performing a thoroughgoing critique of its own past. Is it capable of doing this? The traditions of the past weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living, said Karl Marx – and the movement for social transformation is certainly living through a nightmare. To what extent is it of our own making? I will approach the issue by looking for theoretical lessons in historical events. The constraints of space and the limitations of my understanding will permit only a partial exploration.


2. Theoretical questions

The dynamic nature of social reality implies the need for theoretical dynamism. Without this the radical sensibility becomes fragmented and ultimately loses itself in the dominant discourse of capitalism, nationalism and identity. This is what is happening now. Unfortunately this trend is buttressed by the habit of denigrating theoretical effort to a level inferior to so-called ‘activism’. I state below some issues which require reflection.


  • Nationalist ideology and capitalist media have perverted the concept of truth. In the first case God, or Truth is always with Us or the Nation, in the second case, truth is abolished and substituted by credibility. Thus, advertising (political or commercial) is barely distinguishable from propaganda – the truth-content of a message is of less importance than whether it is credible or incredible. The concept of ‘image’ dominates modern political vocabulary, despite the obvious distinction between ‘image’ and ‘reality’. Has this degeneration of political language affected the theory and practice of the Left?
  • The dogmatic nature of social theory and pedagogy in India has reduced both the critical intellect and the education system to a moribund condition. I suggest that the Leninist concept of “the outside” and the Stalinist convention that “the party is always right” imply an absolutist epistemology and an authoritarian notion of truth. In addition, they are associated with the epistemology of revelation (ilhaam). Such approaches to knowledge are shared by institutions as far apart as the Vatican (with its notion of papal infallibility), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the various Leninist groups and parties. An important reason for the fractious nature of the Indian Left is its doctrinal attitude to knowledge.
  • There exists today a theoretical vacuum in the ranks of the “progressive forces”. Important questions such as the value of democracy, the nature of violence and nationalism are treated pragmatically, as ‘tactical’ matters rather than substantially, as aspects of social relations. Most dominant ideologies, from Left to Right, attach (at best) an unreflective, or (at worst) a positive value to violence and to the Nation. The word ‘foreign’ is too easily used as a term of abuse. Most political currents treat democracy as something to be used rather than preserved.
  • The category of identity and the phenomenon of violence carry deeply ambivalent ramifications for the Left. They pose an intellectual and ethical challenge that has never been adequately addressed. An absolutist mentality finds ambivalence intolerable and even terrifying. Faced with historical complexity, it finds refuge in simplistic formulae, and black and white ideas about the social universe. Because of this mental escapism, the radical sensibility has become fragmented. It strives to retain a left-wing posture while in fact it is profoundly conservative. Such issues must be addressed with frankness.
  • We often say that religion must be separated from politics. But what of the relationship between ethics and power? Is it possible for political power to operate in a manner that has nothing to do with morality? A debate is needed on the false dichotomy between ethics and science (including the social science and the “science of revolution”). This debate will have a fruitful impact on theories of economic reductionism and social motivation.
  • What impact have our political practices had upon the institution of citizenship and the concept of the individual? What are the links between these two ideas and what relation do they bear with the ideals of social democracy? Or with the politics of identity?
These are some core theoretical concerns that need to be addressed. Unfortunately it has become a habit among radical activists and intellectuals to attribute base motives to, or treat with contempt those who criticise established doctrine. Their mode of debate is polemical – coloured by personal remarks and sarcasm. This practice is detrimental to a genuine exchange of ideas. It re-inforces factionalism and is a waste of time. It also signifies complacency. Firm adherence to dogma may be psychologically comfortable, but it can only ensure permanent political marginalisation.


3. History and Paradox

Nothing underlines the need for theoretical rejuvenation so much as the appearance of historical paradoxes. Let us look at some of these:

1. Integration and Fragmentation: We are supposed to be living through a period of globalisation. Actually, the emergence of a world economy began a few centuries ago, although the process has moved through specific phases. Yet it is also accompanied by increasing geo-political, ethnic and social fragmentation. Antagonisms based on ethnic and cultural identity proliferate, whilst at the same time capitalist institutions and capitalist relations acquire uniformity and integration. Political formations specialising in the preservation of ‘tradition’ and ‘national uniqueness’ encourage the colonisation by MNC’s of mineral and forest resources, the commercialisation of common lands. The Czechs do not want to live with the Slovaks, but both desire to be part of the European Union and NATO. India and Pakistan hate each other, but both are desperate for American approval.


These apparently divergent phenomena may be understood within a theory that combines the particular characteristics of culture with the universal tendencies of capitalism. Thus, every nationalism celebrates particularity, yet the nation-state remains the general form of political association, common to all continents. Every monetary currency possesses validity within certain boundaries, yet money as such remains the universal language of capitalist commerce. Nationalist particularism performs the function of ideological control and discipline. Another way of presenting this problem is to conceptualise the lag between the interdependent character of the world economy and the fragmentary nature of its political constituents. This is manifested as the inadequacy of global regulatory structures to contemporary economic and political requirements. Given the inherently conflictual nature of capitalist production relations, this should not surprise us. Global economic life includes policies of world financial institutions that affect the lives of millions of people denied a say in the decision making processes of these bodies. In a nutshell, not only is there no direct co-relation between capitalism and democracy, it appears that capitalism as a global system is structurally undemocratic. The preservation of democracy will ultimately require humanity to transcend the capitalist system. Or else the capitalist system will end up destroying democracy.


2. Democracy and Equality: Another problem relates to the tension between political equality and social inequality. The dominant common-sense of our times often counterposes political liberty to social and economic freedom. What issues arise out of such a juxtaposition? Without the movement of the repressed and exploited sections of society, feudal particularisms and barriers of capitalist accumulation could never have been overthrown. At the same time, the destructive impact of the capitalist market on traditional livelihood had become apparent by the early decades of the industrial revolution in mid-nineteenth century. It is noteworthy that the institutions of political democracy were not handed down by the ruling elites, but were a product of class struggle. Adult suffrage, the right to combine, and the right to social security were gains of the labour movement. In brief, the movement for political democracy was potentially always a movement for social democracy as well. In this sense the modern democratic state system has its origins as much in the aspirations of workers as in the requirements of capital. That is why its internal contradictions are always latent, and come to the surface periodically, when the consensus breaks down.


I would like now to address the logical tensions inherent in the concept of democracy. Democracy is a political form embodying certain principles of association. When considered within the context of a specific socio-economic system, the history of democracy raises the question – how compatible is capitalism with human equality? I believe there is an incompatibility between a political form based on the ideal of equality on the one hand, and an economic system grounded on the subjugation of labour, on the other. However, since capitalism came into the world flying the flag of equality of opportunity and opposition to caste / feudal status and hierarchy, and since capitalist wealth takes liquid (monetary) rather than fixed (landed) forms, it is easy to confuse capitalism with democracy as such. However, the exploited elements of society are bound to struggle for deepening political democracy, and realising its social-democratic potential. When citizenship and equality before the law become dangerous for the sustained growth of capitalism, the elite’s committment to democracy can and will be withdrawn. This is what is happening in India today.


The above argument provides us an occasion to reflect on another paradox. Three decades ago, a section of the Indian communist movement took the ‘Naxalite’ turn. At that time it denounced the electoral process as a fraud on the people, and aimed at the overthrow of the constitutional order. The ruling elite took political refuge behind the Constitution and the rule of law. Today, significant sections of the radical Left and its well-wishers have emerged as staunch defenders of the democratic rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution, while the Indian ruling elite has repeatedly shown its discomfort with constitutional rights and proprieties. The protagonists have switched positions. Those of us who desire social change must think of a coherent explanation for this 180-degree turn. The analysis must focus on the following questions: 1./ which political currents and social forces want to undermine democracy;


  • which social groups most require the preservation of democracy;
  • whether democracy may be protected by arousing the conscience of the social-political elite or whether this object entails an explicit effort on the part of oppressed social groups; and finally, 4./ whether the defence of democracy requires a commitment to basic democratic values

Democracy and Identity: The idea and practice of democracy is linked to the concept of identity. The “rule of the people” carries the implicit, logical presupposition that we know who “the people” are, even before we speak of their right to “self-determination”. Definitions of the ‘self’, the ideologically defined boundaries of “the people” are presupposed in the practice of democracy. This issue is related to the birth and development of the nation-state and the notion of sovereignty. Identity is an ideological construction and therefore, a matter of political power and class interest. For example, the slogan that the Kashmiris have a right to “self-determination” implies that the identity of Kashmiris is self-evident. The moment the issue of the identity of Ladakhis or Dogras is brought into the argument, the latent violence of unilateral definitions becomes evident. We also need to distinguish between various streams of identity – religion-based, ethnic and linguistic, etc. Thus whereas communalism is one type of identity politics, all identity politics are not communalist in orientation. The question of communalism will be discussed further below.

The exploitation of labour has always been linked with certain co-ordinates of identity. This is true with regard to the African slaves of the American cotton plantations, Tamil tea-garden workers in Sri Lanka, Irish builders of British railroads, and the thousands of Indian indentured labourers, mostly of the so-called Depressed Classes, who were sent all over the British Empire to work on plantations. Identity has played a crucial role in extra-economic oppression, serving to intensify the exploitative process. Historically, the communist movement in India underplayed the question of caste-oppression and looked upon it as an ideological rather than structural issue. This alienated it from the most significant social group with a vested interest in democracy, and is one of the basic reasons for its political marginalisation and theoretical stagnation. (This matter needs a separate discussion).


Mobilisation around identity can be a powerful magnet in politics, but it is a double-edged sword. If the vision behind any specific politics of identity is that of human liberation, its language will be an inclusive one, seeking allies on the ground of similar existential experience. Thus, social humiliation, which is characteristic of the life experience of Dalits, and which formed the basis for the emergence of a “Depressed Classes” estate, has also been the experience of other groups. Opposition to systematic humiliation can become a basis for building bridges between all oppressed people, Dalit and non-Dalit alike. Furthermore, a radical social-democratic politics must try to understand the links between social oppression based on caste and race, and the capitalist system as a whole. Without this, identity politics runs the risk of speaking an exclusive language and thereby losing its liberatory potential. Although a focus on identity is necessary for workers who have been socially humiliated, its future depends on the evolution of a democratic programme speaking a common language of human liberation.

We must address the nature of identity politics. It cannot be dismissed or wished away, and it contains a potential for human betterment. But it is vulnerable to the problems of definition, of generating authoritarian tendencies towards its own constituents (needless to say, this has happened in the communist movement as well), of reducing itself to a vacuous radicalism of little benefit to the oppressed in whose name it speaks. It is also subject to the never-ending logic of internal fragmentation, as more and more identities are generated within the confines of the community which is being constructed. We may also note that those who speak the language of “minority rights” often ignore the rights of minorities withinthe minorities, or individual rights.

In its exclusivist form, by attaching virtue and vice to entire communities, identity politics enables India’s savarna-capitalist elite to erode the rights and status of the individual citizen and thereby to subvert Indian democracy. For example, when communal violence is condoned by the police and legal system, this implies that all of us do not enjoy equal protection under the law. Citizenship is also undermined by the class/caste biases of the elite, including the senior bureaucracy, who are duty-bound to uphold the Constitution rather than interpret it.


Identity politics also contains the risk of repressive political tendencies. The shifting and overlapping nature of Indian identities – regional, linguistic and caste-based, makes this a complex and contentious matter. It is high time that we give it the attention that it is due.


4. Some Landmarks of Modern History

In this section, I will briefly recount selected aspects of twentieth century history that are relevant to my argument. This exploratory exercise is meant to place our immediate and local predicament within a larger context. The period from 1789 till the second decade of the 19th century marked a revolutionary change in human affairs, with the appearance of the ideals of democracy, the nation state and republicanism in the political sphere and industrialism in the sphere of economic life. It is noteworthy that the establishment of capitalist society was not a smooth process, nor was that of democracy. Nor should the two be confused. The French revolution was succeeded by Napoleonic imperialism, itself a highly ambivalent historical process, which set off severe political and military convulsions all over central and eastern Europe, not least in Germany and Imperial Russia. The English industrial revolution was marked by state interventions to establish the so-called free market economy, the very gradual retreat of the landed aristocracy, and massive struggles by the working class for enfranchisement and the right to combine. It was the reformist trends in the English and German labour movement, combined with revolutionary and syndicalist groups in France and southern Europe, that produced the International Working Men’s Association, otherwise known as the First International. For practical purposes, the latter came to an end after the failure of the Paris Commune of 1871. The memories of 1789, of “the people” in motion, and of barricades and urban uprisings hung like a shadow through the events of the 19th century, prompting Marx to begin his famous manifesto with the image of a spectre. Although the much spoken-of worker’s revolution did not occur, the fact remains that it was the pressure of the emergent labour movement that led to the staggered appearance of universal franchise and democratic institutions.


The unification of Germany in the 1870’s, its emergence as a great power in central Europe radically altered the balance of power. Along with this, the competitive scramble for empire in the last quarter of the 19th century laid the seeds for some of the most profound and disturbing developments in human history. Steam engines, coal, steel and telegraphy transformed the face of the earth and enabled Europe to colonise most of the globe. Powerful labour movements, some of them influenced by anarchism and syndicalism, spread ripples of class antagonism among the ruling classes, who were themselves divided by factional power struggles. The political tensions accompanying this process led to the conflagration of the Great War, or the First World War, which saw the massive deployment of modern industrial processes, state-controlled economies and the mobilisation of entire populations for the war effort. It also broke forever the unity of the socialist movement


Between 1911 and 1918, five dynastic empires collapsed – the Manchu, the Hohenzollern (Germany), the Tsarist, the Hapsburg (Austro-Hungary) and the Ottaman (Turkey). This was the historical equivalent of an earthquake of the highest magnitude. The events of those seven years contain the key to the geo-politics of the twentieth century. The re-description of international boundaries at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, and the establishment of international institutions such as the League of Nations and the International Labour Office, were some of the new developments originating in those years. By far their most significant outcome was the Bolshevik Revolution and the appearance of two competing visions of the new world order – the Wilsonian (after US President Woodrow Wilson) ideal of co-existing capitalist nation-states, versus the Leninist ideal of international socialist revolution.


The Russian Revolution: Bolshevism was the first major challenge to capitalism and imperialism. The debate about the historical experience and legacy of Bolshevism will continue for decades. In this essay I merely wish to present an outline of an alternative approach. Firstly, the events of 1917 were possible only by the confluence of a peasant revolution against landed property with a workers revolution against capitalism – in a marxist sense, this combined the beginning of the bourgeois era with its end. The “peasant question” thereby became a major problem for the regime. Second, there took place not two Russian revolutions in 1917-18, but three – the third being the upsurge of oppressed nationalities. It is noteworthy that today, the members of the CIS, the successor states of the USSR, signify by their existence the most lasting legacy of 1917. As one insightful historian has remarked about the First World War, “(It) had been a war of nationalities throughout; and the Russian Revolution had acted as a solvent of imperialism for the benefit, not so much of Communism or even of socialism, as of nationality” (Elie Halevy, The Era of Tyrannies : Essays on Socialism and War,1967). Despite the ideological impact of Bolshevism, the 1920’s witnessed greater membership growth for the moderate social-democratic parties than the communist parties affiliated to the Third International.


The third point I would like to stress is the need to look at the Stalinist regime and its hegemonic power in Central Europe after 1945 as an outcome of certain trends in Russian national history, and not as an example of Marxism in practice. (For example, the contest over Afghanistan between Russia and the Western powers began in the early decades of the 19th century). Russia was devastated by German expansionism twice in the short space of twenty-five years, the first time as Tsarist Empire, the second time as the USSR. The second occasion found her more prepared to face the onslaught than the first. The USSR fought alone for three years against a three million strong army that Hitler unleashed upon it in 1941, and lost over twenty million (two crore) lives in the process. The battle of Stalingrad alone cost 5 million (50 lakh) lives. We should not forget that the Red Army and the Russian people bore the brunt of the human cost of saving the world from a Hitlerian victory. If we consider the impact of the First World War on Russian national life, we can see that the need to counter the second Germanic invasion (everyone expected this, especially after Hitler’s rise to power which began in the late 1920’s) was a major motivating factor behind the accelerated industrialisation and collectivisation of the 1930’s. And the establishment of puppet regimes in Central Europe after 1945 was a defensive reflex of a state that had paid the maximum price in two world wars. The history of German imperialism (and Russia’s resistance to it) helps explain developments in Eastern and Central Europe for most of the 20thcentury. The decline of the military-bureaucratic state system that was the Soviet camp during the second half of the 20th century was a historical necessity, and should not be seen as the end of the socialist challenge.

The Crisis of the 1930’s: Another major development in world history was the 1929 financial crash, which highlighted the inner tensions of the emerging capitalist world economy. The economic decline that followed (known as the Great Depression), resulted in factories and machines lying idle, job-losses for millions of workers and the spectacle of foodstuffs rotting or being destroyed while people starved. Suddenly the Marxist critique of capitalism became more respectable, especially as the USSR seemed to be poised on an industrial take-off. Around this time John Maynard Keynes presented his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, which advocated state intervention in the economy (via employment generation) over and above the mere regulation of financial activity. Keynes was by no means a socialist, and his intentions were to save the capitalist system from financially generated crisis and collapse. And we may analyse Keynesianism as the product of the impact of social democracy on bourgeois economic doctrine. Howsoever we look at it, Keynes’ departure from the dogma of laissez-faire economics showed a way out of mass unemployment and provided a theoretical basis for social-democratic participation in European governments. It also influenced American President Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930’s. Workers’ distributional demands within capitalism could now be articulated without revolutionary rhetoric. The social-democratic class-collaborationism inspired by Keynesian economics became the basis for the emergence of the so-called welfare state of post-war Europe. We may name this phenomenon “capitalism with a human face”.


I have mentioned elsewhere (see below, section 5) the characteristics of fascism and nazism, in the 1930’s. In part this was a consequence of the politics of militant nationalism and revenge, engendered by the aftermath of the First World War, in part of the Great Depression and mass unemployment. The mass-psychological and symbolic causes of the rise of fascism are crucial to an adequate understanding of this phenomenon. Its victory was not inevitable – Hitler could have been electorally defeated right up until 1933, had the German social-democrats and communists fought the Nazi party unitedly. For several reasons, this did not happen, and the world was dragged into the most violent conflict in humanity’s history, culminating in the criminal acts such as the genocide of European Jews and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Following the triumph of Nazism, the policy of the Third International (or Comintern) turned in the direction of anti-fascist united fronts. Major developments took place in France, where a Popular Front ministry took power in 1936. In Spain, the monarchists, the Catholic Church, and the generals launched a coup d’etat against the Popular Front. This resulted in the Spanish Civil War (1936-38), in which the right led by General Franco were supported by Germany and Italy. The USSR intervened to support the Republic, but the policy imposed by it upon the republican forces, of confining the revolution within the constitutional framework even after the ruling classes had launched a military coup, led to inner division and final defeat in 1938. The governments of Britain and the USA remained neutral, and subsequent research has shown that they preferred to see the victory of the fascists than risk the emergence of another red republic. The tragedy of the Spanish Civil War was overshadowed by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.


The significance of the Second World War: The second world war could be seen as a continuation of the first, given the many unsettled issues arising from the crisis of 1914-18. Although much opprobrium has been directed at the USSR for the so-called Nazi Soviet Pact of August 1939, the fact remains that Stalin had attempted an alliance with the western powers right up until a few weeks before that pact, but Britain did not want to guarantee the security of the USSR. Moreover, the British had conceded Hitler’s domination of central Europe at the Munich Conference of October 1938. However, the micro-politics of the war’s origins do not concern us here. In terms of war losses, the USSR was the greatest sufferer – as I have mentioned above. The following points are worth recounting.


First, in terms of the struggle against Hitlerism, the second world war was a Soviet-German war with some peripheral action by British and American forces. At the height of the hostilities, in 1942-43, there were 186 German divisions in the Russian theatre, and only six stationed in France. The USSR fought the war with its own resources, war ordnance, and aircraft – American assistance was limited to clothing and transport. It was only in 1944, when the Red Army was pushing the Nazis out of central Europe, that the Anglo-American land offensive against Germany began. Second, it was the Moscow agreement in late 1942 between Stalin and Churchill on their respective “spheres of influence” that set down the foundations for the partition of Europe. Third, the determination of the British and French to retain their colonial empires gave the lie to Allied propaganda about freedom and democracy – this is why they re-armed the surrendered Japanese army in Vietnam in 1944 in order to obtain manpower for the war against the communist party and the Vietminh, who had fought the Japanese occupation. There are many such examples, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Korea. Fourth, the war led to a tremendous growth of communist parties and the left in various countries from Europe to Asia. In Europe the CP’s were in the forefront of the anti-Nazi underground, in China and parts of East Asia, they led hegemonic nationalist movements. Thus, in 1939 membership of the CP’s was estimated at 1 million, (ten lakhs). The Comintern was abolished by Stalin in 1943, but despite this, by 1945 the membership of worldwide communist parties had risen to 14 million. Once more, a spectre was haunting Europe, even the world. Fifth, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was undertaken to warn the USSR about American intentions to dominate the United Nations and the post-war global system. The refusal by the USSR to accept a subsidiary role or to vacate central Europe without adequate guarantees for her security and of the neutralisation of Germany, plus the refusal by the Vietnamese, Indians, Indonesians, etc to tolerate the continuation of colonialism by the Allied imperial powers formed the background for the advent of the Cold War. Finally, at the end of the war there was a tremendous popular groundswell in favour of peace. This led to the establishment of the United Nations (for which plans were laid in the summit meetings of the allies from 1942 onwards), and the beginnings of a system of global governance. One of the earliest decisions of the UN, the partition of Palestine (the USSR had voted for the creation of Israel in 1948), also turned out the most dangerous for world peace.


The Cold War and the Second Half of the 20th Century

The British intervention in Greece in 1944-47, inaugurated the Cold War. It was intended to secure the western sphere of influence agreed upon by Churchill and Stalin. It led to Soviet neutrality even as British troops assisted the Greek monarchist forces against the left-wing National Liberation Front, which wanted a democratic republic and land reforms. Concentration camps and press censorship were freely used by the leaders of the “free world” to crush a moderate democratic movement in Greece. It was during this period in 1946, that Churchill made his famous speech in Fulton (USA), in which he spoke of an “Iron Curtain” that now divided democratic from totalitarian regimes. Thereafter ultra-right wing dictators became a favourite with Anglo-American policy-makers, as these were the most devoted anti-communists. Vietnam, Indonesia and Chile are a few prominent examples of this policy.

The Vietnam war was inaugurated by British Indian troops sent there in 1944 in order to accept the surrender of the Japanese and hand over the country back to the French. In this sense it was the last colonial war in 19th century style. It was also a nationalist struggle more than a communist one. General Giap, who presided over the defeats of three colonial powers, is certainly one of history’s greatest generals – it is a pity that few people know that he is still alive. The war led to an American determination never again to intervene with land forces in Asia, it radicalised an entire generation of western youth, and gave occasion to the US rapprochement with China. The radicalisation of civil society in the western world led to a renewed critique of capitalism, which was expressed most forcefully in the May 1968 uprising in France, when ten million workers went on the largest-ever lightning strike. There were other signs of global radicalisation – including the crisis of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe (the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion). and the anti-war movement in the USA. The late 1960’s could be named the third moment of radical utopia in the 20th century, the others being the periods 1917-21 and 1945-47, when the desire for revolutionary transformation actually gripped millions of people the world over. Utopia always recedes, but utopian moments leave their mark on history.

The rise of Solidarity and the Polish workers movement in the 1980’s contributed to the end of the cold war, by bringing about the collapse of state-socialism. Regardless of their ideological stance, it was the working-class that fought for democracy in Poland. It is true that the western powers and the Vatican used the opportunity to undermine Soviet influence in Eastern Europe – but the roots of the problem lay in the grossly undemocratic and unpopular nature of the “socialist” regimes. It would be simplistic to blame it all on a CIA conspiracy. The Soviet bloc collapsed under its own weight, leaving us with the enormous task of comprehension.

The above is a scanty outline of some facts and interpretations – there are a great many issues that I have left untouched. I must stress once more that we have lived through a very significant historical period and that popular struggles have contributed to some very positive developments. For example the European Nuclear Disarmament movement of the 1980’s (END), one of whose inspirational leaders was the English historian E.P. Thompson, played a major role in defusing nuclear tension over the Star Wars and MX missile programmes of NATO, and building public nuclear awareness. The collapse of apartheid in South Africa was another great popular victory for democracy – the strong presence of communists in the anti-apartheid movement demonstrated the stark links between social democracy and political democracy. The disappearance of the USSR and the rise of right-wing triumphalism came hand in hand, but today it is no longer possible for capitalist ideologues to explain the global crisis by a simple reference to the failures of socialism. Capitalist society is now face to face with itself.


5. Fascism as a Global Phenomenon

The history of fascism and nazism deserves separate treatment which I will not attempt here. (I shall use the word ‘fascism’ to refer to both). After the violent events of the 1930’s and 1940’s, fascism can no longer be defined as purely European. I will sum up the overall defining characteristics of this historical tendency which is the very antithesis of socialism and democracy. These characteristics are as follows:

  • fascism is radicalised conservatism – a fearful ideological response to democracy;
  • it’s hatred for equality and citizenship is disguised by exclusivist forms of identity;
  • fascist ideology depicts selected communities as the source of all social and political ills;
  • it generates the militarisation of civil society, with constant preparation for civil war;
  • it reduces the discipline of history to the legitimation of symbolic memory; to a record of victory and defeat;
  • fascism glorifies violence as a ‘masculine’ virtue, evokes sentiment to justify violence;
  • fascism joins criminality to political activity, uses democracy to destroy it.


6. Indian Fascism – The Century-Long Communal Mobilisation

The disastrous events of the 1930’s and 40’s had a global impact, not least because they dragged the whole world into an anti-fascist war that cost nearly six crore lives. We are still living through its after-effects. Communalism is the Indian version of fascism. The fact that some people use the term “fascist” rhetorically does not mean that it can never be used with rigour. Indian fascism, like Indian capitalism, has been staggered in its development. Unfortunately the Indian left failed to understand the profound significance of communalism, and at one stage (through the Adhikari resolution of 1942) the CPI endorsed the idea of Pakistan by artificially equating the national question in colonial India with the Bolshevik theory of Tsarism as a “prison of nations”. By supporting the idea of a Muslim nation, the CPI ended up unwittingly bolstering the equally dangerous theory of Hindu Rashtra. For many years thereafter, the communist movement tended to treat so-called ‘minority’ communalism as something less dangerous than so-called ‘majority’ communalism. Not only was this an example of a doctrinal retreat – by accepting the arithmetic of communities rather than that of caste/class differentiation – it also demonstrated a fundamental analytical failure.

Fascism bases itself on fabricated and exclusive ethnic identity. The complex and multifarious nature of ethnic differentiation in India gave Indian fascism its segmented character, which is its greatest strength. It must therefore be stressed that communalism is one phenomenon with different manifestations rather than an arithmetical total of Hindu, Muslim or Sikh communalisms. Its self-sustaining tendency derives precisely from this apparent binary structure, with each reproducing the other. To understand it, we must abstract from its compartment-like appearance, and concentrate on its generic uniformity, ie., on elements common to all types of communalism. Indian fascism’s ideological method defines democracy in arithmetical rather than institutional terms, while despising democratic values; accords superiority to sentiment and hateful ethnic mobilisation over the requirements of civic order and criminal justice; uses so-called traditional values to express a fear of women and hostility to gender equality; and glorifies violence as a ‘masculine’ virtue. Once we have comprehended the fundamental unity of all communalisms, we may understand that Partition was the achievement of Indian, rather than Hindu or Muslim communalism. V.D. Savarkar was as much a believer in the Two Nation theory as Jinnah. The theory of Hindu Rashtra, (whose roots lie in the late 19th century), apparently geared towards a unitary state, fueled the demand for a Muslim homeland. And the success of this demand strengthened the politics of Hindu Rashtra. Conservative social forces are obviously each others’ best allies. In short, if Indian independence (as conceived of in the pre-1947 period) were to be imagined as an authoritarian state constructed around religious symbols, the logic of fragmentation (rather than unity) was always the likely outcome. This is why the emergence of Pakistan was the first step on the road to the partition of Pakistan itself. By the same logic, Hindu Rashtra and Akhand Bharat are mutually exclusive ideals. The political successes of Hinduttva will push India towards further division and fragmentation.

Some persons are deceived by the presence of agreeable demands in right wing politics. This is not logically an indication that it is not fascist. Demands to eradicate unemployment or corruption (etc) are essential to fascism. Some are implementable, some purely rhetorical. The RSS will do disaster relief, and the Shiv Sena will provide subsidised lunches. They might also demand the punishment of the guilty of 1984 (and never do it when they are in power). But the communalists will not hesitate to undermine legal processes with regard to their own vicious activities. The fate of criminal prosecutions after the Babri Masjid demolition, the Delhi Riots of 1984 and the Bombay Riots of 1993 demonstrate this.

There remains an important matter that I should mention – that is, the similarities between Nazism and Stalinism in the matter of the repressive aspects of these regimes. The mainstream Indian left has thus far not even acknowledged the widespread violence that took place in the USSR during the 1930’s. We cannot dodge this question forever without the risk of moral cowardice. However, it must be said that a Marxist politics does not locate human evil in an ethnic community nor even in the capitalist class, but in certain iniquitous social relations. There have indeed been murderous marxists, but the physical elimination of a whole class of persons, (howsoever defined), by degrading them to a sub human status, does not logically flow from Marxist positions. This is not an apology for stalinism but an underlining of the difference between stalinism and nazism An interesting argument on this matter may be found in the preface to the Czech edition of J.P. Stern’s book The Fuhrer and the People, (Fontana, 1990). The further marxists move from humanism to ethnicity as an approach towards ordinary people, the closer do they resemble fascists. I have no hesitation in describing the activities of Pol Pot as genocidal. Certain communists, being doctrinally contemptuous of ethical philosophy, and wedded to “scientism”, never commit sins, only “errors” and “mistakes”, even if those mistakes involve millions of dead bodies.

Since India has not yet been fully hegemonised by fascist politics, some of us hesitate to recognise its presence. This is because we refuse to see fascism as a political process, an outcome of socio-economic developments. The specific political expressions of this trend have their own fluctuations. Some fascists are successful some not, some halfway there. Some are completely marginal. They cannot be judged solely by their successes. To recognise them for what they are only after they have murdered thousands is not a fruitful procedure. Elemental ingredients of fascism are present in political currents other than fascism, just as all human beings possess the capacity to indulge in highly destructive behaviour, (even if it remains unrealised or controlled). The reduction of the question of violence to the level of a tactic is the first sign of degeneration, followed by the elevation of violent instinct to a virtue. I speak of politics in the sense of a mass project, a developmental process. The presence of these elements does not mean that such and such political activity is already fascist, just as futile would it be to say that all participants in communal rioting are fascists. Their growth into a stable political project is the defining moment.

The normalisation of brutality and the preparation for and installation of civil war as a fact of life are the consequence of fascist politics. Civil war has been taking place in South Asia for decades. Partition was an escalation of communalist civil war to geo political dimensions. Parts of independent India have been under armed occupation for most of 50 years, Sri Lanka is in the midst of civil war. Pakistan underwent civil war in 1971, and is today in the grip of what is called the “nationality problem”. These are examples of staggered fascism at work. But the Indian left still does not have an understanding of fascism. Some of us are fixated by European paradigms. Since we think civil war is the only way to combat fascists, and since we are in no position to launch civil war, we come to the simple conclusion that there is no fascist movement to combat. This attitude was prevalent in the mainstream left for years. Thus, collaborating with fascists was impossible for communists after 1945. But if the CP’s wanted to collaborate with the RSS political fronts or with the Muslim League on an anti Congress platform, all they had to do was to refuse to acknowledge their fascist character. They did this until 1989. Indian fascism has already indulged in civil war spread over decades and we surely do not need any more civil war to resist it. But resist it we must.

Communalism is one project with several faces, a veritable hydra headed monster. Its object is not upholding Hindu or Muslim “culture and traditions”. To the contrary, if indeed there is any Hindu or Muslim culture as popularly practiced, communalism is destroying it. Its object is to undermine democratic politics and to forestall the potential of social democracy. Given the lakhs of people killed in the riots before and after Partition and the wars over Kashmir and Bangladesh, the tens of thousands killed in massacres such as those which took place in 1969, 1979, 1982, 1984, 1990 and 1992 3 etc., this project has had many successes, and is still unfolding. Communal violence reinforces communal identities. Its function is to undermine citizenship in order to maintain the ‘traditional’ recruitment and regulatory structures of informal labour. It has undermined the evolution of civic culture, citizenship and a functioning regulatory apparatus that might benefit millions of labouring poor. It has almost completely demolished the criminal justice system. Vast numbers of army and policemen in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and India think communally   for them the concept of a citizen with inalienable rights regardless of religion would be unthinkable, and a secular state an example of deracinement.

What concerns me is a realistic understanding of the function of communal politics. It signifies the destruction of rational discourse, and an erosion of democratic values and institutions to the detriment of those who most need a democratic constitution to protect themselves. Its method is that of the protection racket   give us power or we shall keep on murdering innocent citizens. Like all criminal power seekers, they will appeal for public order after they attain the throne. It is the brutalisation of human conscience that is most tragic. I still remember the carnival atmosphere that gripped the middle class colonies in Delhi while their residents watched Sikh citizens being beaten to death or burnt alive in 1984. Muslims of Pakistan paid the maximum price for “their” version of a victorious communalism. They are still doing so. The historical price of Hinduttva‘s victories has yet to be gauged.


7. The Necessity of Social – Democracy

If I were to summarise the mobilisational needs of Indian socialism, it would be in the following simple requirements:

  • Formation of unions of rural workers, artisans and so-called “informal sector” labour for struggles around minimum wages, equal pay for men and women, and against acts of extra-economic exploitation and oppression
  • Articulation of the demands of urban poor and middle classes around both working-class and ‘stakeholder’ issues concerning transport, housing, energy, education and environment.
  • Formulating and agitating for social-democratic programmes on land relations, working conditions and workers control of industry, and ecologically sound policies on water, toxic waste disposal, food production and forestry.
  • Defence of citizenship and development of democratic institutions at all levels of society; resistance to communalist, chauvinist and hate-mongering politics; to caste and gender based discrimination.

These elements, to my mind, are the lowest common denominator of a social-democratic programme for the Indian left. A united front of democratic forces committed to social justice, economic redistribution and cultural pluralism would be immensely popular with ordinary Indians. But unity around a common programme has become impossible for the several factions of leftists, who have yet to produce an explanation of their own marginalisation in a country whose conditions cry out for a socialist movement. I have tried to indicate why this is so – but we are still far from a clear understanding. I will now state some propositions towards that end. These will be more contentious than the above.

There are three ways in which the word ‘socialism’ may be used; the first refers to the doctrine of the liberation of labour, the second refers to an existing socio- economic system, and the third refers to a movement. Confusion arises when we unconsciously employ interchanging usages. The doctrines of socialism are in crisis because of their failure to explain events of recent decades (except in terms of ‘betrayal’ etc). The crisis need not be permanent – but socialist theory has to face the challenge. The social system known as the ‘socialist bloc’ has all but disappeared. China, Vietnam and Cuba, the countries still under the rule of communist parties, hardly see themselves as the vanguard of world revolution. It seems that the first phase of ‘transition’ has ended, and the experience has to be interpreted. Was this the pre-history of socialism, a phase of militant nationalist resistance to imperialism rather than the emergence of an alternative to capitalism? We have to digest and learn lessons from this rich and painful history. Finally, socialism refers to a social movement – the need for which is constantly generated from the very ground of capitalist society and oppressive social relations. A new social movement of opposition to capitalism is already in formation, and it is self consciously taking international forms. How it will develop depends on all of us.

The crisis of revolutionary doctrine has one root in the history of leninism with its programmatic presumptions of absolute truth; and its dubious concept of the Outside. The ossification of critical thought in the Indian Left is partly the product of the resonance between brahmanical and leninist epistemology, both of which presume a social division between those who possess knowledge (seen as an entitlement to power), and those who work. An absolutist starting point also generates the approach of using theory as a means of sectarian demarcation, rather than understanding and changing social reality. The purveyors of this outlook may be named the “aristocracy of the intellect”. The view that a certain caste or a group of theoreticians are naturally qualified to produce the truth for society is at heart antithetical to “the democracy of the intellect”, which alone can develop the resources for social transformation.

This dogmatic approach to knowledge was the reason why left-wing theory could not deal with categories of caste and gender as they operate in Indian society. Thus, it is apparent that the Indian population during the years of nationalist mobilisation tended to align themselves along class-oriented as well as conventional lines, making confederations of caste. Organisations of class interests emerged, but so did estates (as I suggest we name them) of caste-interest. What is significant is that these estates were not the traditional forms of caste society, but novel means of political organisation. They were traditional in name, but modern in function. Among the tasks of a rejuvenated Indian socialism would be the analysis of how class interests are represented in caste-federations, such as the Dalit, OBC and savarna estates. New organisational methods would stress inclusion rather than exclusion, theoretical exploration rather than final, absolute truth. This would help achieve maximum unity on a minimum platform, in contrast to the approach of “minimum unity on maximum programme”, which has only resulted in fragmentation.

The crisis of the radical sensibility (this is not merely an Indian phenomenon) is exemplified by ethical nihilism (generated by post-modernist relativism), the glorification of smallness, a belief in economic autarky (swadeshi), and confusion over the politics of identity, violence, and nationalism. Whereas Marxism’s best known slogan used to be, “Workers of all countries, unite!”, today the platform of internationalism has been vacated by the socialist movement and occupied by MNC’s and finance capital. There is an urgent need to revitalise the critique of capitalism, to analyse the mythic notion that capitalist relations are natural, and that ‘growth’ will eventually lead to universal peace and prosperity. On a global scale, the capitalist system generates violence and conflict, not prosperity and growth. Most of all, it endangers democratic institutions and undermines human equality.

Social democracy involves the emergence of an ethically defined community, a community based not on ethnic but normative elements. The central features of these socialist values are: human and gender equality, the dignity of life and labour, and social justice. To these we must add ahimsa and karuna, which are Gandhiji’s contribution to the vocabulary of humanitarian politics, of respect for human life. Violence is the underlying grammar of every type of oppressive social relation. Devoid of the value of ahimsa, the socialist movement will remain caught in a vicious cycle defined by the traditions of the past, rather than the needs of the future. Finally, it must stop habitually confining itself within adversarial politics and adopt the posture of owning democracy and whole-heartedly participating in the development of democratic institutions.

Historical reality has always challenged theory. It is time once more for theory to challenge reality. We are not the fortunate witnesses of History’s end. Can our ideals, thought processes and imagination keep pace with history? If not, we may only look forward to nuclear war, communal conflicts and onslaughts on the rights and living standards of working people. If we can, we may yet embark upon designing the history of the future.


Addendum on cultural provenance of fascism:

On the matter of whether there are any traditional ingredients of fascism in Indian culture, this was a very important question which I failed to answer in the aftermath of my lecture. Upon consideration, I have the following comment. It is this: certain norms and conventions of Brahmanic culture militate against the ideals of human equality. Prominent among these are legal doctrines (or values stemming therefrom) which delineate crime and punishment within a hierarchical universe, according to the status of the wrong doer rather than the crime committed. Texts such as the Manusmriti, the Satapatha Brahmana and the Arthasastra, make it clear that concepts of truth, wrong doing and punishment are relative to the caste of the persons involved. Brahmins were repositories of truth, were exempt from corporal punishment, and along with Kshatriyas, from the payment of taxes. Gautama’s Dharmasutra even permits a Brahmin to help himself to the money of a sudra by force to defray the expenses of a marraige or ritual… Sudras (in some texts the very representation of untruth), were excluded from the pursuit of knowledge, condemned to a life of hard labour, could expect no civil or religious rights, and liable to severe corporal punishments. Real life often deviated from these clear cut norms, but the fact remains that the prescriptions governing individual conduct differed according to rank, as did punishments for the same offence. The stamina of these ideals caused much irritation to the administrators of the East India Company in the late eighteenth century. Thus, Brahmins in Benaras were exempt from capital punishment till 1813, after which too, they could not be hanged within the city precincts. In addition, Macaulay’s draft penal code of 1837, permitted judicial discretion on the length of the sentence for rape, (two to fourteen years), on grounds of the status of the victim. The rape of an upper caste woman by a low caste man was deemed more grievous a crime than the molestation of low caste women. More information on this is available in Radhika Singha, A Despotism of Law: Crime and Justice in Early Colonial India, O.U.P., Delhi, 1998, pp. 101 102.

To this I will add Ambedkars’ comments on Brahmanical ideology, which he refers to as the “negation of liberty, equality and fraternity”. He likens it to Neitzsche’s philosophy, which he identifies with “power, violence and debasement of the common man”, and is “capable of producing Nazism”. My point is that there are indeed, philosophical traditions in Indian culture that can feed a modern fascist ideology. They conflict with the ideals of the Constitution, which is based on a notion of human equality. Even though this Constitution is not implemented, we should note that it is under siege precisely by those forces which wish to replace it with a more authoritarian structure. I have not referred to them here, but undoubtedly, there are iniquitous tendencies in conservative Islam as well, that can militate against democratic values. I accept that these points need to be debated more fully, nevertheless, I feel that they are important enough to be publicly placed for discussion.