Another World Is Possible
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
My period of intellectual contact with Samar Sen
was brief. And I did not know him—Babu as the, of Babu Britanto. When I met him as an adult in the 70s and 80s he was a respectful, distant intellectual—discussing problems of the left in West Bengal, in India, and in the world. I say "as an adult" because I also knew him somewhat in my childhood as a legendary "Khokamama", who taught Bengali—actually I later learnt that he had been in charge of translations—in Moscow. His eldest brother Amal Sen was a close friend of my uncles (of whom Jnan Majumdar is the best known) and the rest of his own family with his wife and daughters—and his brother's entire family, I had a familial relationship which I still maintain with the latter. But he himself quietly moved our relationship on to an intellectual plane, talking left intellectual theory and practice in his sitting room on Swinhoe Street, talking Frontier, drinking rum.
What did I learn from him? That the non-parliamentary left must remain critical of the compromises of the parliamentary left, especially if the government at the center is adverse. India began, of course, as a socialist state with a mixed economy, but, by the time, in the mid-70-s, that I began to visit him, the situation had "regressed" to a more and more absolute policy at the center, and finally came to the Emergency. Thus these discussions took on a more intense tone, especially since, for a while, Frontier was banned.
In the context of that failure of decolonization, he spoke of the exhilaration of the late 30s and the early 40s, when revolution and national liberation seemed indistinguishable. He pointed to Israel and Palestine as a phenomenon comparable to the historical disappointment that was then playing in the air. I think often of those words as we contemplate our current situation. In the same vein, he spoke of the decline of the Soviet Union, of the change in his own estimation of Stalin, and of the basic simplicity and good faith of the Russian people, and of his experience of putting together the Tagore century volumes in Russian. I remember a vigorous discussion of the fall of Amanullah of Afghanistan, as described in Sayad Mujtaba Ali's Deshe Bideshe. He admired the generation of the sixties in the United States that rose against the Vietnam War and the general corruption in education and society and he was happy that I had been associated with those movements, however marginally. He had quite an astonishing knowledge of the history of the Wobblies in the United States, and I think it took his mind off current realities to discuss since I lived in the United States—the situations of the First International as well as Marxism in the US Midwest and the East and West coasts.
In the mid-1980s, he introduced me to Ranajit Guha and the Subaltern Studies group. He was not himself associated with them, except through personal and mutual respect with Guha himself. But as a result of this introduction, my life took a new turn.
Our discussions continued independently during my frequent visits to Calcutta. As a result of these discussions, I little by little came to think of myself as a person influenced by Frontier thinking, because he spoke in a generalized rather than a personal way. His emphasis on the Left intellectual's responsibility to a seemingly leftist state led me to a Rosa Luxemburg-style Social Democracy—not his own view, of course—that remains my general position.
I hope it is clear from these brief remarks that his influence on my work has been out of proportion greater compared to the brevity of our relationship, It is my good fortune to have been associated with such an outstanding man, however briefly and I conclude these words with the hope that his beloved Frontier established in defense of "democracy, secularism, and socialism"—continues to prosper and uphold his idea of a Marxism that goes beyond the boundaries of state formations.
Vol. 49, No.13-16, Oct 2 - 29, 2016