Puzzle of the day
Interest in Marxism Waning?
Asection of small book-
sellers in the College Street
area of Kolkata recently told this writer that after the fall of the left in the assembly elections in West Bengal last year, any book bearing the name of Marx or Lenin was repelling the buyers or visitors. Is it true? The present-day young generation has reason to be reluctant to take interest in Marxism, may consider it an outdaed philosophy ; but should the study of Marxism be treated as an anathema?
The question is very important because Kolkata (Calcutta) has a long tradition of publishing and promoting Marxist literature including the books written by Marx, Engels or Lenin. Rebati Burmon, a national revolutionary who later turned Marxist, started a publishing unit—Burmon Publishing House—at least a decade before independence. This writer possesses a copy of ‘The German Ideology’ by Marx and Engels published by Burmon, not dated but probably in the early 1940s. Later in the same decade, the Communist Party of India (undivided) set up its publishing unit—National Book Agency [NBA]. Rebati Burmon was also associated with it. As early as 1944, NBA published Marx’s ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ and a Bengali translation of Lenin’s ‘To the Village Poor’ (Grammer Garibder Proti).
Since the late 1930s, as Ganesh Ghosh recalls, the then Bengal government had been tacitly encouraging promotion of Marxist literature in order to wean away the youth from their path of ‘revolutionary terrorism’. Hence, one may assume, NBA did not face much resistance from the British Government and could continue with its business. It would sell the memories (1946) of Kalpana Datta of Chattogram rebellion fame, who later married the communist leader P C Joshi, the General Secretary of the Party in the late 1940s.
After the division of the Communist Party in 1964, NBA began to be controlled by the CPI(M), while the CPI set up its own publishing unit and bookshop—Monisa—in 1964 in the same College Street area. Monisa banked mainly on the books sent by the erstwhile USSR and would sell them at very cheap prices. A copy of the Bengali version of the Communist Manifesto could be had for four annas only. As the pro-Stalin CPI(M) had strained relations with the USSR, it used to sell Marxist literature published from other sources like Penguin/Pelican. Alongside it would also publish books on its own. In 1967, NBA brought out Stalin’s ‘Foundation of Leninism’ in English and in 1969 an abridged Bengali version of Engels’s classic ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’.
In 1967 NBA had also brought out a collection of articles entitled ‘On Art and Literature’ by Mao tse-Tung. Interestingly, in 1971-72 when the very name of Mao would evoke fear in the general public mind and Maoist literature was almost banned, NBA continued to sell that book for Rs 2 only. Suren Datta, one of the organisers of NBA meanwhile developed Naxalite leanings, left NBA and set up a small bookshop—New Book Centre (NBC) which would sell pro-Naxalite literature. NBC also published some books, as for example, David Guest’s ‘Lectures on Marxist Philosophy’ (1971). In the 1970s, NBC was known as a centre of Naxalite literature.
After the death of Dilip Bosu, one of the founders of Monisa, it ran into rough weather in the 1990s. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the source of supply withered. Monisa however continued to pull through with the Soviet books already in hand and the books published by the pro-CPI, Delhi-based People’s Publishing House. Monisa had also some ‘progressive’ books to its credit. It however began to lose its glory and presently it sells books published by Visva Bharati, Sahitya Academy, National Book Trust and others. NBA however continued to flourish, thanks to the CPI(M) headed Left Front rule in West Bengal which began in 1977 and ended in 2011.
Did the leftist reign in West Bengal which continued for more than three decades help spread of Marxist literature? It is a tricky question. Besides those named above, there are also a few units in Kolkata which routinely publish Marxist or broadly leftist books. If the nature of publication is an index to go by, then Bengal may boast of a steady readership of Marxist literature at least among the intelligentsia. This group comprises college and university professors, schoolteachers, researchers and academic-minded readers in general. All of them are of course not loyal to the CPI(M) or CPI, but they cherish an affinity for Marxism. There are also some individuals who religiously refer to Marx or Lenin to prove that the CPI(M) is not a Marxist party at all. Writers of this ilk get their articles published in Frontier too.
Bengal, particularly Kolkata, is conspicuous by a large variety of Marxists. There are numerous Marxist groups which bring out magazines or booklets—each underscoring the claim that it alone adheres to true Marxism. At the same time, one may discern a paradoxical trend. Till recently, the CPI(M) had occupied almost all public spheres; but Marxism as a subject of debate and discussion disappeared from public discourse. Marxism failed to attract the young generation. Political groups, critical of the CPI(M), began to be represented by senior citizens or at least those aged above fifty or approaching the ‘senior’ mark very rapidly.
Of the youth, of course, some stand by Maoism, some try to combine Marxism with environmentalism and feminism ; but unlike in Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu, there is little attempt in Bengal to review Marxism in the context of rising dalit and tribal questions. Bengali intellectuals seem to be more interested in viewing Marxism from the Focauldian or post-modernist point of view. It may therefore be said that Marxism, now-a-days, does not hold sway over intellectual discourse but has not become wholly irrelevant to academic exercises.
But more important is to take into account those who grew up with the left front regime and are now in the thirty-plus age-group. For them, including those who support the CPI(M) or have reluctantly joined its student or youth fronts, Marxism has become synonymous with the CPI(M). They are not at all keen on studying Marxism, even in the manual form. They only know that they must echo the voices of their leaders and help the party win the polls. After the historic ‘parivartan’ i.e. change of power in May 2011, they are now free from the obligation to prove their leftist credentials.
Given the experience of the Left rule, Bengal’s present generation now tends to look upon Marxism with disgust. The psychology of those who never supported the CPI(M) is no different. Even the anti-CPI(M) youth activists spend their energies more on exposing the hypocrisy of the CPI(M) than on studying the philosophy they vouch for. Marxism, on the whole, is thus going to become archaic, if not repulsive, to the present-day youths.
This is one of the glaring contributions of the leftist rule in West Bengal. Instead of widening the base of Marxist culture that it had inherited when it came to power, it has ended up in practically demolishing that culture. The onus undoubtedly rests with the CPI(M), the largest ‘leftist’ party which headed the Front. The post-globalisation international scenario preceded by the fall of socialist states should also be reckoned with. There are valid reasons for questioning the relevance of Marxism in the present-day world. But the Bengal scenario has a distinct character. The hypocrisy of the CPI(M) leaders coupled with the sheer cruelty of its cadres has projected Marxism as something horrible and detestable to the general public. The senseless Maoist violence has only made matters worse.
To come back to the question of dwindling interest in Marxism, the small booksellers’ allegation may have elements of truth in it. According to the Central Home Minister, Maoism poses a serious threat to the internal security of the entire country. Well, but who reads Marxism or Maoism? Has the present Maoist politics anything to do with Mao? It is a bizarre scenario indeed! People of various hues swear by Marxism without caring to read Marx. The same is true of the so-called Maoists. This is the fate of a philosopher in this part of the globe who had once ushered in a new age in the world of philosophy.
Vol. 45, No. 14 - 17, Oct 14 - Nov 10 2012
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