Reason as Weapon

Partisans in Common

Bernard D'Mello

Although the 1967 revolutionary armed peasant uprising in Naxalbari, at the foot of the Indian Himalayas, was brutally crushed, the insurgency gained new life elsewhere in India. In fact, this revolt has turned out to be the world's longest-running "people's war," and Naxalbari has come to stand for the road to revolution in India. What has gone into the making of this protracted Maoist resistance? Bernard D'Mello's narrative in his new book India after Naxalbari: Unfinished History (New York: Monthly Review Press; Delhi: Aakar Books) answers this question by tracing the circumstances that gave rise to India's "1968" decade of revolutionary humanism and those that led to the triumph of the "1989" era of appallingly unequal growth condoned by Hindutva-nationalism, the Indian variant of Nazism.
What follows is an excerpt from the end of chapter 10, "History, Memory, and Dreams—Reimagining 'New Democracy'"]

In the immediate present, as part of an interim political programme, how… may the forces of New Democracy take on Hindutva-nationalism and semi-fascism?

Where are the weapons?
I have only those of my reason
and in my violence there is no place
for even the trace of an act that is not
—Pier Paolo Pasolini-the Italian poet, filmmaker, novelist, and political journalist-in an audacious and inspiring poem, written in 1964, entitled "Victory"[1]

The proponents of New Democracy must bring together a wide range of partisans in common, including poets, filmmakers, litterateurs, and writers of political prose. Pier Paulo Pasolini, the unarmed partisan who once brought his creations to the magazine-poetry, cinema, literature, and political prose-famously said: "I have only those of my reason". The bard dreams on a gray morning that Italian partisans killed in the resistance against fascism return from their graves to see if those who survived made the world worth their martyrdom. What they discover is betrayal, an Italy inimical to justice, trivialised by the power of consumerism. With the high hopes they once had shattered, the partisans preach vengeance, retribution.

Don't you see nothing has
Those who were weeping still weep.
Those who have stolen from
the common good
precious capital and whom no law
punish, well, then, go and tie them
up with the rope
of massacres. At the end of the
Piazzale Loreto
there are still, repainted, a few
gas pumps, red in the quiet
sunlight of the springtime that
with its destiny: It is time to make it
again a burial ground.

Piazzale Loreto is the square in Milan where, after Mussolini was shot dead on April 28, 1945, his body was hung upside down from makeshift scaffolding. And, among the partisans who descended "from their graves, young men whose eyes" held "something other than love," was Pasolini's martyred sibling, Guido, who had joined the Catholic partisans in the fight against fascism, and whom the poet saw off at the railway station, when, in 1944 at the age of nineteen, he left home to join the armed struggle against fascism, never to return. The Left has never been the only partisan against fascism.[2]

The German-born American political theorist, Hannah Arendt, who was no votary of identity politics, once said: "When one is attacked as a Jew one must defend oneself as a Jew." I am reminded of Shahid Azmi, the advocate who never turned his back on Muslim youth falsely implicated in criminal cases. He was my co-worker in the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights in Mumbai. Having been through acute suffering at the hands of the police and the criminal justice system, he could empathise with the suffering of others like him. As my friend and co-activist, Monica Sakhrani, put it, roughly something like this: "It would have been impossible for him to live with himself had he given up his work as their advocate," for which he was assassinated on February 11, 2010.

Some Muslims who feel the community has been defeated, humiliated, and crushed by the forces of Hindutva-nationalism with the active complicity of the Indian state, and do not expect justice from the courts, do see terrorism as the only weapon that can strike back. From each crime of the Hindutva-nationalists and the complicit state, the explosive RDX is delivered. Nevertheless, one has to embrace humane values even in the struggle against state and state-sponsored terror. Just as the latter is criminal, so also is the terrorism of the insurgent Islamic groups fighting it. The desperate followers of the leaders preaching vengeance are "as much victims as those who perish in the attacks of which we read and hear." But let's make no bones about it. State and state-sponsored terrorism is the more dangerous, for it masquerades as justice. The fight against terrorism, "the cycle of senseless violence," will make headway only as part of the larger struggle to do away with the injustice that gives rise to it. In these dark times, Islamic and Hindu liberation theologies might also be the need of the hour. And, winning the political and legal battle to strip the state and state-sponsored terrorists of their impunity and bring them to justice is an integral part of that fight[3], for which Shahid Azmi fought to the very end.

In his own way, Shahid Azmi had something in common with Pasolini. They were unarmed partisans who, nevertheless, fought against neo-fascism/semi-fascism in the making with other weapons. Pasolini fought with the weapons of poetry, cinema, literature, and political journalism, Shahid Azmi with the weapons of jurisprudence and the law. India's liberal-political democracy is rotten, and this makes the way easier for semi-fascism. All the more reason why those who have been struggling to further the process of democratisation should be welcomed to bring their "weapons" to the "magazine." A Subbarao Panigrahi, like the guerrilla-poet in Srikakulam, with his Jamukulakatha (theatrical rendering of songs in a folk idiom), brutally "encountered" by the police, will surely be there, but so too must a Gandhi, like the Mahatma with his pacifist resistance, risking his life in Kolkata, Noakhali, Delhi, and what are now, Bihar and Haryana, in trying to prevent the anti-Muslim pogroms there, even ready to confront the Hindutvavadi mobs who were killing Muslims, assassinated by a Hindutva-nationalist intolerant of his multicultural, multi-religious, assimilative idea of Indian nationhood.

And all those who are committed to the habitability of the natural environment and the security of everyone in their socio-cultural environments, implacably opposed to the monstrous class polarisation that has been a consequence of the accumulation process following India's "1989," and the associated hijacking of the electoral process with the power of money and wealth. They too must be part of the "magazine." A twenty-first century United Front must include all sections of the left and must be one where non-party but generally leftwing persons feel at home. It brings to mind Samir Amin's idea of a Fifth International[4] that draws its inspiration from the First International, the only International to recognise the plurality of the socialist tradition, and that's the principle a twenty-first century United Front should uphold. A much broader Popular Front, also the need of the hour, will include all those who regard semi-fascism as a priori intolerable.

In his final work, Salò, a very disturbing allegory of fascist repression and intolerance, Pasolini tried to track the roots of fascism (and "neo-fascism"), the socioeconomic and psychological conditions that gave rise to it. Above all, what made the self-proclaimed "Masters" representing the landed gentry, religion, and the law (the swelling book of rituals and rules), finance capital and its politics-all "lawless and without religion," and above all, consumed by the lust for absolute power-unleash the horrors of Mussolini's Repubblica di Salò. In the face of the Resistance, though, the Republic of Salòdidn't last. So too, will any nation-state founded on Hindutva meet its doomsday.

The democratic state... does not need religion for its political completion. On the contrary, it can disregard religion because in it the human basis of religion is realized in a secular manner. The so-called Christian [or, one might add, Hindu, or Islamic] state, on the other hand, has a political attitude to religion and a religious attitude to politics. By degrading the forms of the state to mere semblance, it equally degrades religion to mere semblance [additions and italics, mine].
—Karl Marx, On the Jewish
Question, February 1844.[5]

The truly democratic state is not anti-religion. Within the limits of reason it respects religion, but it certainly must have already critiqued religion, overcome, and gone beyond it[6], even as it retains the human foundation of religion-the "heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions"[7]—which it must realise in a secular way. This is the way one must grasp the dialectical relation between religion and the democratic state. Tragically, India's rotten liberal-political democracy and "secular state" are a far cry from such a dénouement.

I have had a Christian upbringing and so I have been searching for the "human basis of religion" in Christianity, but one might very well look for it in some of the Bhakti traditions of Hinduism. Consider the words of Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 in the New Testament: "And now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three, but the greatest of all is charity." Here's an explanation of what St Paul meant[8]:

Charity in the vision of St Paul doesn't mean giving alms, but is again a translation of the Greek 'agape,' which means something like acting according to your conscience with full consideration of the fate of your fellow man. That means, in one sense and perhaps above all, that every ... [human being] is important-not only people as a whole, but every individual is important.

Such a progressive interpretation of charity had its origin in the early Christian period, when Christianity was the religion of the oppressed, the persecuted, the damned, and the banished, when Paul met the same horrible fate-beheading-as that of John the Baptist. But, refusing to give reason its due, deliverance was always believed to come only in the hereafter. Be that as it may, the "human basis of religion" inherent in the notion of acting according to one's conscience with full consideration of the fate of one's fellow human beings-focusing on the personal, ethical side of the individual-is already ingrained in the mode of thought and the basic structure of feeling of revolutionary romanticism, in other words, already realised within revolutionary romanticism "in a secular manner." More generally, such a "human basis of religion" can be realised "in a secular manner" by a New Democratic state through a practice based upon the mode of thought and basic structure of feeling of revolutionary romanticism.

Revolutionary romanticism, however, calls for a libertarian democratic consciousness, which requires a deep commitment to beauty, artistic freedom, and democratic rights, more generally speaking, and further, to crafts- personship, to un-alienated and creative work, to love, to sexual fulfilment in erotic love, to the unity of all working people, to their mutual and shared interests. A New Democratic Revolution may not be a democratic way of bringing about democracy, but it will certainly help in establishing the preconditions of democracy. As Barrington Moore analysed long ago, England, France, and the United States underwent "bourgeois revolutions" from below to emerge as capitalist democracies, but Germany and Japan, restraining such revolutionary impulses, underwent the transition to capitalism through a conservative alliance between the pre-capitalist landowning classes and the rising capitalist class, and the result in both these countries was fascism.

I am an old-fashioned socialist who continues to insist that wealth comes from the exploitation of human labour and the appropriation of nature. To paraphrase Marx but also to bring in the importance he assigns to ecology, I would like to emphasise the point about capitalist wealth originating in the exploitation of labour and the appropriation of nature in the process of production: "Capital is dead labor" and out-of-play nature "that vampire-like only lives by sucking living labor" and extant nature, "and lives the more, the more labor" and nature "it sucks."

At the heart of what I have been stressing about India's semi-peripheral underdeveloped capitalism is what I have called monstrous class polarisation-islands of wealth, luxury, and civilisation in a vast sea of poverty, misery, and degradation. By no stretch of imagination can "the sea" enjoy equal citizenship and partnership in the process of democratic decision-making alongside "the islands." In the absence of economic emancipation of the majority, political emancipation is a far cry. The people's struggle for economic and political emancipation, indeed, human emancipation, and how they can realise this goal is the problem of India.

The rotten liberal-democratic regime, however, couldn't care less. It seems to be taking on semi-fascist traits and assuming the position of a sub-imperialist power in South Asia, even as hundreds of millions of Indians continue to be relegated to irrelevance. What then of the prospects of New Democracy? Very dim, unless at some point, the soldiers and armed policemen in the employ of the state reckon that the people might win, and so they join the masses in revolt. I hope to live to witness the times when those hundreds of millions of Indians relegated to irrelevance, heeding the "small voices" of history and "the present as history" decide to enter history on their own terms. Society, after all, is a human creation subject to human influence, and so, a society of equality, cooperation, community, and solidarity is still possible.

References :
1.   "Victory" by Pier Paolo Pasolini, translated by Norman MacAfee with Luciano Matinengo-"A Hitherto Unpublished Pasolini Poem on the 30th Anniversary of the Poet's Death, A Direland Exclusive" (October 26, 2005), at
2.   Jews, many of them forced refugees, did more than their bit, especially in France, where Armenian and Polish Jews even attacked German officers in Paris. And, one must never forget the part played by women partisans.
3.   Michael E Tigar, "Terrorism and Human Rights," Commentary, Monthly Review (November 21, 2001), at The rule of law based on the principle of equality before the law, to the extent that it is made to prevail, is certainly a means of protection of the weak, the victims of the anti-Muslim pogroms, and Muslims who are falsely accused of acts of terrorism.
3.  Samir Amin, "In Defence of Humanity: Radicalisation of Popular Struggles," in Corinne Kumar (ed.): Asking We Walk: The South as New Political Imaginary (Bangalore: Streelekha, 2007), 160.
4.  Karl Marx, in "On The Jewish Question," 1844, at
5.  Aufhebung is the German word Hegel used, meaning overcoming and going beyond but nevertheless preserving the befitting core of what is overcome.
6.  Karl Marx, in "A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right" (1844), at
7.  Dirk J Struik, "People Are Important: A Mathematician's Faith," Monthly Review, 49:8 (January 1998), 49.
8.  Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966).
9.  John Bellamy Foster, Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).
10. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1954), a reproduction of the first English edition of 1887, edited by Frederick Engels, chapter 10, "The Working Day," 233.

Autumn Number 2018
Vol. 51, No.14 - 17, Oct 7 - Nov 3, 2018