‘Freedom and People’s Emanciapation’

F Bernard D’Mello

[Here is a response to Kobad Ghandy's "Questions of Freedom and People's Emancipation" (a six-part essay that appeared in the Mainstream, Vol XI, No 40, November 16, 2013, the first part on August 18, 2012, the sixth on January 26, 2013) from Bernard D'Mello, Deputy Editor, Econom'ic and Political Weekly, Mumbai.]

Dear Kobad,

Thanks for giving us this six-part essay on "Questions of Freedom and People's Emancipation" in Mainstream. If I have understood you correctly, you believe that to achieve "freedom and people's emancipation", the "key lies in man [and woman] acquiring the values of goodness (â), and utilising this inner strength to change the outside world" for the better. And, you reiterate that the main "enemy" in the realisation of this goal is within; it is our flawed character. We must all try to become Anuradha-like, emulate Anuradha Ghandy.

Is such spirituality/morality on your part a reflection of the condition of the movement and the political organisation of which you have been a part over the last 35 years? Whatever the motivation, I think that you are raising matters of great importance. But your spiritual/moral/ethical fervour has to be communicated in a manner that will move ordinary people to do things that would change the face of the movement and the organisation. In other words, your spiritual fervour has to be rendered into a material force.

It might surprise you that I say this, especially since your comrades have yet to react to what you have written. Their silence doesn't surprise me; indeed, in the 1860s Marx was boldly dismissive of all references to morality (for instance, he rubbished Proudhon's concept of "eternal justice"), and by-and-large, Marxists since then have followed in his footsteps. But I would not adopt such an attitude, for much water has flowed down the world's major rivers since then. History's first serious efforts to introduce socialism, in the 20th century, have failed, and we now have to first, learn from these failures and then, revive and renew the historic legacy of socialism. The task surely involves addressing questions of morality, socialist culture and the institutions appropriate to a socialist society. So we cannot be emulating the Marx of the mid-19th century in this respect; rather, since we are living through the present times, we will have to look at our 20th century past with the help of Marx's method and in the spirit of Marx- in the 21st century he would not have been dismissive of questions of morality.

Kobad, I think the most revealing statement of Marx and Engels on morality is to be found in the following quote from The German Ideology, written from the fall of 1845 to the middle of 1846, and first published in 1932, and here I quote from the "Abstract of chapter 3 [Idealist mistakes and materialist corrections]" at http://www. marxists. org/archive/mar...

Communists on Selfishness and Selflessness
Communists do not oppose egoism to selflessness or selflessness to egoism, nor do they express this contradiction theoretically either in its sentimental or in its high-flown ideological form; they rather demonstrate its material source, with which it disappears of itself. The Communists do not preach morality at all.

They do not put to people the moral demand : love one another, do not be egoists, etc; on the contrary, they are very well aware that egoism, just as much selflessness, is in definite circumstances a necessary form of the self-assertion of individuals. Hence, the Communists by no means want to do away with the "private individual" for the sake of the "general", selfless man. That is a statement of the imagination.

Thus, unlike religious heads, Communists do not impose moral strictures for they understand what brings on egoistical forms of behaviour as much as what brings into being altruism. Marx rejected Immanuel Kant's liberal conception that "moral behaviour involves the suppression of natural desires that are seen as selfish and individualistic". (Paul Blackledge, "Marxism and Ethics", International Socialism, Issue 120, at http//www is In this he is closer to Aristotle who didn't assume that "to be good entailed acting in opposition to our desires". But it was Hegel who synthesised Kantian morality and Aristotelian ethics, and Marx took his cue from here and went on to arrive at an historical understanding of human nature and how collective struggles in the course of history rubbish the assumption of egotism as a fact of nature. Nevertheless, like Kant, Marx put the attainment of human freedom centre-stage (one of his central themes was about how to realise human freedom). However, unlike Kant, he insisted that "to act freely was to act in accordance with necessity". (Blackledge, Ibid.)

This brings me to Part I of your essay in which you try to explain Marx's proposition: "Freedom is the consciousness of necessity". You talk of freedom as "knowledge of the laws that govern us and society, give us the freedom (ability) to act effectively..."

I think, for Marx, the meaning of freedom evolves over time; it comes to be defined and realised through collective struggles. But if I were forced to generalise, I think Marx (in the mid-19th century) is referring to our consciousness of certain needs whose genuine satisfaction through collective struggles would bring freedom.

The two main needs he had in mind are : (i) the need for collective common control of the conception, design and accomplishment of societal processes and outcomes, these in harmony with nature; and (ii) the need for human relationships in which alienation is absent. These needs are thus about harmony with nature and about real democracy which would bring harmony within human-kind. They can be realised through collective struggles to abolish capitalism and build socialism, which will then make possible the development of everyone's capacities and the realisation of everyone's potentials. The process of fulfilment of all of this is, of course, going to be a long one, with many ups and downs, advances and setbacks, and the 20th century has been witness to a part of this evolution. Marx's ethics, above all, concerned the collective struggle to bring about freedom and real democracy. His politics was always deeply imbued with such an ethics. His involvement in the political struggles of his day came from a passion for the consummation of freedom and real democracy. Be that as it may, Marx nevertheless seemed to have reserved much of his scorn for the "ethical socialists" of his day, like, for instance, towards Proudhon. This brings me to Mao. Wasn't Mao also an ethical socialist, albeit of the Marxist kind, for he tried his best to bring about a just and egalitarian society in China even when the material conditions were wholly unfavourable for this to happen? Now isn't the latter the case in the entire periphery of the world capitalist system today? It was in such a context that Mao tried to define a Marxist notion of the individual and her/his relationship to society, a relationship of reciprocity ; it was the individual's social and political ties that were to make her/him responsible to the community and society in which she/he resided, and society, in turn, had a responsibility towards the individual.

In Mao's conception, the "public interest" would have to be defined through the democratic leadership principle of the "mass line", which no doubt requires leadership that is not only far-sighted but also one that is abundant in the values of goodness, the á values, as you put it. The individual's self-worth was to be reckoned in terms of her/his service to the people ("serve the people" was the main slogan) which involved his/her spiritual transformation. That Mao and the Chinese Communist Party under his overall leadership didn't succeed in this respect has a lot to do with the fact that the material conditions were very unfavourable and remained so.
Kobad, with respect to your thesis of morality, the question is whether consciousness can actively, dynamically reconstitute itself by itself. I don't know, but that doesn't mean that I would shun a proposition that I cannot, at this point in time, apprehend with the use of reason. If I were to do that then I would have to shun Marxism's utopian impulse itself, the one that stirs the urge for revolution. Let me then go from Mao back to Marx, and here I would get straight to the latter's Third Thesis on Feuerbach :

"The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that circumstances are changed precisely by men and that the educator must himself be educated... The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can only be conceived and rationally understood as revolutionising practice.

"Historical materialism helps in understanding the world; proletarian revolution is the means of changing it. In the course of doing so, the proletariat would, in the process of remaking the world, also remake itself. In other words, in the process of remaking society for the better, revolutionaries also remake themselves into better human beings."

Kobad, you seem to be dismissive of this line of thinking, that is, of Marx's Third Thesis on Feuerbach, when you say that "It [changing one's own values] is normally taken for granted as some sort of by-product which will automatically change while struggling for just causes". In fact, Mao, whether he knew it or not, took Marx's Third Thesis on Feuerbach very seriously, so much so that he conceived of continuous revolution in the form of a series of cultural revolutions, and we need to understand and imbibe the set of values that were being inculcated in the course of the Chinese revolution, right since 1927, and why this process didn't succeed.

You want to teach people why they should tell the truth, but for this we need to put in place a political and economic structure in which there are moral incentives for truth telling. You want to teach intellectuals that like Anuradha, the teacher, they also ought to share their knowledge and understanding freely among the people to the benefit of the latter, but for this to have any effect we must put in place a society where all knowledge is a public good and those who produce it in the first place do not seek any material advantage at the expense of the interests of the public at large, and are held in great public esteem for that. The principles and values that you talk of, what you have grouped together as 'á', for them to be widely practiced so much so that what you have called 'â', namely, the bad values, get extinguished, we have to create a world where such values are greatly valued and rewarded. In the absence of even any gradual movement towards such a society, it will be almost useless to exhort people to inculcate 'á'. Individual moral integrity ('á') in a society full of 'â' is certainly desirable but it cannot by itself change the society from a 'â' into an 'á' one. But those who have and consistently practise 'á' values in a 'â' society are revolutionary beings, and one expects that people in the M movement be of that kind. On this, I am in agreement with you, and Anu was one of these revolutionaries—the more Anuradhas (the 'á' types), the better and the greater the chances of revolutionary success. No doubt, such people will have a very difficult time in any 'â' society for they will be revolutionary menaces to the functionaries of the state and ruling classes of that society.

Kobad, at times in your essay you seem to adopt a religious perspective which I cannot identify with. What you call 'â', the set of bad values, does not reside exclusively in the heads and wills of individuals; it is enshrined in the social structure itself, because of which even the best intentions of the Anuradhas (the 'a' types) are vitiated.

I will end by saying that I think that we can realise our full stature as human beings, do our finest and most creative work, achieve our potential as rational human beings only when we create a socialist structure that makes it possible for us to discard our 'â' selves and realise unimpeded our 'á' selves as natural, social beings. Sadly, such a socialist structure has not and did not emerge anywhere though humanity did make its first serious attempt to create one such a structure in the 20th century but failed. I deeply feel this loss and the serious consequences of it - the alienation of Marxism from the lives of people. Today, Marxism is such a minor trend, even in progressive movements, why, even in CPM or CPMaoist politics on the ground in India, or even elsewhere, in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and so on. Why? Is Marxism no longer responding to people's needs? Why has it become so separated from people's lives? Maoism, of course, has been outlawed, and the anti-terrorist squads of the state are hunting down alleged Maoists; so it faces enormous hurdles in gaining a respectable status among the people. This is all so depressing.

If you were to ask me, I would like Marxists/Maoists to concern themselves much, much more, with their personal, ethical side, as individuals, have greater regard and concern for each individual, and never lose sight of the individual in "the masses". After all, Marx and Mao were socialist humanists, and what is Marxism/Maoism if not socialist humanism. Anyway, hope you come out on bail soon.

Kobad, following Oscar Wilde, you say that jail is "structured to break a person both physically and psychologically". From what you write, I feel assured that you will continue your personal struggle to not let that happen to you. Take care.
Bernard, Mumbai
May 17, 2013


Vol. 46, No. 28, Jan 19 - 25, 2014

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