Review Article

Anjan Memorial

Anup Kumar Sinha

[*After the Revolution: Essays in Memory of Anjan Ghosh
Edited by Partha Chatterjee with a Foreword by Dipesh Chakrabarty,
Orient Black Swan, Hyderabad 2020]

This *volume is a bouquet of essays in the memory of Anjan Ghosh. Anjan was an outstanding scholar, a student-friendly teacher, an activist in many social causes, and above all, a very warm and sensitive human being. His sudden and untimely departure left his friends and associates stunned. Some of them put in their efforts in making possible this volume. The diversity of essays in this book reflects Anjan's versatility. Almost all the contributors either claim that their essay was part of a conversation they had with Anjan, or that their essay was actually a conversation they were planning to have with him. The editor has made a difficult job look easy in his Introduction, by threading the essays into three distinct sections. The core idea around which this volume developed was that Anjan and his generation grew up in and around Kolkata during the 1960s and 1970s during which Bengal in particular (and India as well) witnessed the rise of left movements—especially the Naxalite movement and the splitting of the Communist Party of India. In many ways the revolution in India did not come about in the way the activists expected it to evolve. Another decade later witnessed the radical shift in China's politics and economics, and finally in the late 1980s the USSR collapsed along with the Eastern European brand of socialism. To Anjan's generation, these events left an indelible mark on their thinking and their search for answers to what constitutes a revolution, whether the likes of the Russian Revolution or the Long March of Mao could ever happen again. Marx and Lenin have been re-read many times with scholars coming up with many different versions of their understanding of politics and social change. As Dipesh Chakrabarty points out in his Foreword, a crucial question remains hanging: were the events of 1989 the final nail on socialism's coffin? Or is there the possibility of a revolutionary afterlife after the revolution?

The first section titled Revolutions consists of three essays that attempt to look at the aftermath of revolutions or revolutionary movements that did not result in a change of power. According to the first essay the Russian Revolution still contains a semblance of meaning for people who believed that a more just and humane society was possible. People who did not consider themselves to be communists also had admiration for the changes that took place immediately after the revolution. There were discernable influences the revolution of 1917 had on movements against colonial rule and on the newly formed post-colonial states. Not everything succeeded as pointed out in the next two essays where the problems of democratic power and the nature of revolutionary violence and counter-violence are discussed. While the second essay indicates that democracy as the outcome of people's movements has to remain an essential part of socialism, the third essay points out the difficulties of participating in parliamentary democracy in the face of systematic state violence and aggression. In realizing the limits of tactical politics the Naxalite movement has transformed in to a splintered insurgency that exists at the margins of Indian society without being able to emerge as a full-fledged revolutionary upsurge moving from the countryside into more urban areas. It remains a shadowy "spectre of the dangerous classes" according to the author.

There are interesting questions that can be raised from the first section of the book. One important aspect of the Russian revolution was the possibility (as pointed out by Marx as a general proposition, as well as by Lenin in the context of the Russian economy) that the material conditions were not rife for a socialist revolution. The domain of capitalist relations was narrow and at best, nascent. The proletariat as a social class was weak and small. Hence, unless the bourgeois revolution was completed, it would be difficult to build a socialist economy and its new relations of production. There would be a debilitating shortage of capital, technology, and skills that made up the material conditions of society. On the other hand, in the context of India, exactly half a century later, what began as a peasants revolutionary movement could not become more widespread despite being in existence since 1967. The reason lies in the growing hegemonic power of the Indian bourgeoisie based on the strength of the nationalbourgeoisie and their effective control of the state along with its agencies of power. When is the most opportune time for revolution in the development of capitalism? Or is it: there is no time at all that can guarantee success? Or is it that revolutionary movements have not been inclusive enough through too much discipline and the inevitable rise of "partyarchy"?

The second section titled translations contains four papers, each analysing the effect of the idea of revolution in literature, art and culture. Quite often the portrayal of social problems and the need for change are first articulated in literature, poetry, songs and in more modern media like feature films and documentaries. One contributor discusses the use of revolutionary imagery in early twentieth century poetry in India. However, the idea of a revolution, socialism, class, or tactical politics was either absent, or present only in a very embryonic sense. Intellectuals were still making sense of the changing world of the 1920s and 1930s. Though the use of the lens of western education was largely prevalent, the idea of something uniquely eastern (or rather non-western) was noticeable in many literary pieces.

There are two essays that deal with poetry and music, and radical cinema. These have been well known purveyors of revolutionary images, thought and ideas. Bengal has been well known for personalities like Salil Chowdhury, Mrinal Sen, Ritwick Ghatak and Satyajit Ray in their contributions. In their translations of the idea of revolution they not only project something that is of immediate concern and are relatable to a wide section of the audience, but also represent a timelessness of spirit and concerns. From specific revolutionary nuances to wider political ideology, these products of the arts vary widely. Indeed, there are questions raised by the authors regarding how much of it is intentional,and how much ought to be intentional communication to the audience.

 The last essay in this section discusses a particular novel by a Bangladeshi author, written in 1998 which deals with the lives of people living at the bottom of the society.Stormy changes happen at the top of the social pyramid, but the lives of those at the bottom get hardly altered in any substantial sense. Land rights changed, private property in land developed, tenancy and sub-tenancy emerged. However, the worldview and the material conditions of the destitute cultivator did not change. In a way, the author argues, that there was some change happening in society as a whole, but there was no transition in the sense of Marx, whereby society altered to another mode of production. The dynamics of what the author calls "unchanged" can be understood only through something non-material such as the acceptance of one's lot in life reinforced by a rigid caste system and fortified by strong religious beliefs. Once again some scholarly issues are raised in this paper about the (im)possibility of transformations.

The five essays in the third section titled Reconsiderations deal with more contemporary twentieth century issues about revolution and revolutionary practice. Global capitalism has changed remarkably since the revolution of 1917. Global integration of production and markets, labour migration, and different kinds of protests and movements defy any easy categorization according to social class. Inequality has increased so much nationally and internationally, that there are layers of so called working class people who earn a major share of global income. The nature of manufacturing and the concept of the shop-floor have changed too. The evolution of capitalism with new technologies and new financial structures require new forms of political mobilization. Movements like Occupy Wall Street cannot be understood through traditional lenses of class interests according to the author of the first essay in this section. The second essay deals with new forms of finance capital and their global fluidity, illustrated best on a world scale by the housing bubble in USA that crashed the world economy in 2007-08. The nature of the new triggers that produce a crisis and the system's response to the crisis, both have changed substantially. This the author labels as the emergence of a hyper-reality.

Another essay in this section deals with the adivasi problem in contemporary India. According to him, the adivasisare being displaced physically from their habitats to make room for modern projects, and they are also being displaced psychoanalytically as something from the past, to be kept in museums and gradually forgotten. The author argues that the adivasis could be viewed as belonging to a non-capital order that have been either reduced to a pre-capitalist world where it could be assimilated into the transformation into capital, or it could be viewed as inassimilable in the logic of capital. The fourth essay in this section is about the concept of desire and its associated politics. The author posits three binaries in understanding the category of desire in critical social theory: the singular-collective, the hierarchical-transversal, and paternal-maternal. The political goal is to resolve these contradictions at all levels of social formations for any effective social mobilization. The final essay is on the possibility of socialism. The author claims to take the perspective of an activist and not a theoretician. He traces some of the problems of the Soviet State as well as the Chinese experiment. Socialism still remains relevant. While, according to many Western scholars communism has failed,a case for socialism can still be made. However, it is also clear that the unstable features of capitalism like periodic depressions, mass unemployment, massive inequalities and persistent poverty have become clearer and more problematic. The lessons from the Russian and Chinese histories would be worth noting still. The telos of "from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs" remain as significant as ever.

 As mentioned earlier, it is a collection of very diverse essays. It is indeed difficult to edit or even to review this book. There are three takeaways from the book, drawn as common factors from the texts contained in the volume. The first was a set of critiques about the sustainability of what we commonly term as a socialist revolution. The second takeaway is that revolution needs new forms of cultural, political and democratic forms of mobilization that must go beyond a rigid reading of Marx and other Marxist practitioners like Lenin, Stalin or Mao. The third takeaway is the possibility of the making of a less troublesome society with more openness, tolerance and equality.

 A critical fissure of contemporary capitalism is what has been referred to as the metabolic rift. This is about the systematic despoliation of the natural environment of the planet. The issue had been discussed in Marx's writings and also more extensively in Engels. On a personal note this reviewer also had occasion to have a fairly lengthy conservation with Anjan on climate change and environmental decay. It will be fine if one of his friends and associates would have written a piece about capitalism's onslaught on the environment. However, it is only one possible gap.

Back to Home Page

Vol. 53, No. 42, Apr 18 - 24, 2021