Platypus Review 58 | July 2013
On June 25, 2013, Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh interviewed Jonathan Sperber, historian of the 1848 revolutions and author of the acclaimed new biography Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013), on the radio show Radical Minds broadcast on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) Chicago. What follows is an edited version of the interview that was conducted on air.
Spencer Leonard: Let me start off by asking a very general question. As indicated by the book’s subtitle, this is a “19th Century life”: You are placing Marx in his context, and claiming that Marx is not our contemporary, but best understood within the 19th century, a century you view as both fading into the past and distinctively still with us. So, if Marx is more a figure of the past than a “prophet of the present,” one could ask, Why bother writing a new biography of him?
Jonathan Sperber: In his history of the 19th century, The Transformation of the World, Jürgen Osterhammel argues that the 19th century is sometimes extremely close to us, but more often it is very distant. That’s how I look at Marx. There are ways in which he seems relevant to present concerns, but most often when we look at his writings—stripped of their 20th century reinterpretations—we find Marx is dealing with a different historical era than our own, with different problems and different issues. Though he uses many of the same words, like “capitalism,” this means something very different from today’s global capitalist economy.
Sunit Singh: When Marx confronted the possibility that a university career might be closed (once Friedrich Wilhelm IV initiated a rightward, anti-Hegelian shift in Prussia around 1840) Marx turned to work as a journalist and editor. You describe Marx the crusading young newspaperman as follows:
Marx blasted [the] enemies [of the freedom of the press], linking their arguments to an archaic society of orders, to an authoritarian Prussian state trying to prop up this society, and to intellectual trends defending it…. [He also set about] praising freedom of the press as part of a broader encomium of freedom, articulated in opposition to the nature of the Prussian monarchy… [and] the debates on freedom of the press in the recently concluded Rhenish Provincial Diet…. Marx brought together liberal aspirations for an effective legislature, and for a constitution guaranteeing basic rights, such as freedom of the press, and liberal hostility to the society of orders…. [Marx argued] in Hegelian fashion, [for] a free press as the objectification of the people’s spirit and not an objectification alienated from its spirit, but one that knew itself as such (83-87).
As editor of the Rhineland News, Marx adopted a “liberal, anti-protectionist, and even anti-communist stance” that the “bourgeois liberals who were financing the newspaper” could rally around. Moreover, this commitment to free trade or even his criticisms of communism were, on your account, not the ideas of a liberal youth that Marx would later discard. So what were Marx’s formative political experiences and how does a Nineteenth Century Life reframe our understanding of them?
JS: I’ll mention four places where I show Marx’s formative political experiences. One was his relationship with the Prussian monarchy. Marx was born in Trier, a city that had been annexed by Prussia by the time of the Congress of Vienna. Its inhabitants were deeply hostile to Prussia. Marx himself was profoundly ambivalent towards Prussia. Nevertheless, as a Young Hegelian, he looked to it as a source of liberalism, reform, and enlightened ideas. However, he would ultimately become a strong enemy of Prussia. This break with liberal illusions about Prussia was formative for Marx. It led to him becoming a radical, who saw the resolution of political confrontations in violent revolution. Then, there are the ideas of Hegel, which shaped Marx’s views of historical process, and social and political struggle. Third, was Marx’s confrontation with the ideas of classical political economy in the form of figures like Adam Smith, and Smith’s most important disciples, such as David Ricardo, and James and John Stuart Mill. We see this in a very early form in Marx’s advocacy of free trade, which was something he maintained throughout his life. Although Marx, of course, broke with nineteenth century pro-free-market and pro-private property liberalism, becoming a communist, he did so while retaining the basic tenets of classical political economy. Marx always criticized socialist thinkers like Proudhon, who tried to prove Ricardo wrong. (This was one of the central points of Marx’s critique of Proudhon in his polemic, The Poverty of Philosophy.) Finally, there is Marx’s confrontation with the French Revolution, the dominant political event of the first two-thirds of the 19th century. The revolutions that Marx the radical advocated were modeled on those occurring in France in 1789 and 1793. These were Marx’s formative political experiences. His developed theory was an attempt to combine all four into a cohesive view of the past development and future trends of European history. This developed theory reminds me a little of what happens when you put a cat into a box. Cats like boxes, and they often climb into them even if they aren’t big enough. No matter how much they contort their bodies, there’s always some part sticking out. Marx’s effort to combine all of these influences into one theory strikes me as very much like this.
SL: While editing the Rhineland News in Cologne, Marx criticized many of his fellow Young Hegelians for their foppish “lifestyle-based radicalism.” How did this critique of bohemianism develop into more politically pointed criticisms of fellow socialists in Paris and Brussels?
JS: What Marx disliked about the Young Hegelians was the way their interests revolved around carrying on an atheist lifestyle, making fun of established religion and gender relations. When Marx became a newspaper editor, and began to hang around with businessmen and politicians who were actually trying to change things, he began to see the Young Hegelians as a frivolous lot and their efforts as non-serious, as leading to no changes in state and society. This attitude was expanded and developed in his various critiques of fellow socialists in the 1840s, such as Proudhon and Karl Grün. Marx criticized them for trying to smuggle communism into existing capitalist society by making it a lifestyle choice (e.g., by joining workers' cooperatives or Fourierist phalansteries) instead of seeing it as a political issue involving revolutionary social struggle. So Marx developed this critique of the lifestyle-based politics of the Young Hegelians into one of communists skeptical of political struggle. They saw the implementation of communism as a matter of changing people’s opinions and social habits, rather than of overthrowing the government.
SL: They thought if people’s ideas changed, political change would follow?
JS: Yes, but in that case political change would become unnecessary. If people’s ideas changed, then there would be no problem. Marx was well aware that people’s ideas must be changed, but he saw such change as being effected through political struggles.
SS: You argue that Marx’s developing worldview in the mid-1840s is perhaps best captured by his articles, “Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law” and the review of Bruno Bauer's “On the Jewish Question,” both written for the Franco-German Yearbooks. The two articles represent his attempt to digest Hegel’s theory of modern society after the collapse of the society of orders and, despite this collapse, the apparent antagonism between the state and civil society. While the rhetoric of, especially, “On the Jewish Question” has forced “Marx’s defenders [to] tiptoe around the essay in embarrassed fashion” (127), you take Marx’s engagement with Bruno Bauer over Jewish emancipation to mark a crucial stage in his development as, so to speak, a late Hegelian. How did Marx’s position in these pieces mark a real crystallization of his thought?
JS: As far as Marx’s review of “On the Jewish Question,” in the second part in particular, Marx really lets loose on Jews, accusing them of being greedy, selfish, and capitalistic. He claimed that in a communist society, Judaism would no longer exist, and Jews would no longer be an identifiable group. Seen from the point of view of the 20th century, with the Nazi and Stalinist persecutions of the Jews, this is very embarrassing. Indeed, many have denounced Marx as an anti-Semite and a proto-Nazi. One of the things I argue in the book is that this is a false perspective on the essay. What we actually see here is Marx making a very interesting distinction between what he calls “political emancipation” and “human emancipation.” He argues that the emancipation of the Jews would involve granting them equal rights with Christians and the creation of a society like in the United States with a separation between church and state, which marked a crucial step in the completion of the program of the French Revolution.
Now if Marx had stopped there, no one could have accused him of being an anti-Semite. But Marx believed that the completion of the program of the French Revolution (the creation of a democratic republic, a society in which people were equal under the law, an end to discrimination on the basis of religion or race), while a historic step forward from the old regime society of orders, itself created a society marked by alienation and capitalist exploitation. So, in the second part of the essay "On the Jewish Question," the part which tends to offend people, he went on to argue that true human emancipation requires an end to this capitalist society of alienation, exploitation, and the separation of state and society. This is the beginning of his Hegelian argument for the creation of a communist regime. It seems in some ways an odd argument. Marx was saying that Jews needed to be emancipated in order to act freely as members of civil society, but that when they do that, the moneyed among them will simply end up as capitalist exploiters. So the question becomes: Why would you bother doing this in the first place? What was Marx talking about? And this becomes a central element of his political aspirations, a dilemma he would wrestle with for the subsequent 40 years: How would it be possible to do both, to complete the tasks of the French Revolution by overthrowing monarchies and creating democratic republics and societies of equal citizens, but also go beyond that by creating a communist society in which alienation was abolished, and society, the state, and individuals were harmonized. Trying to carry out these two revolutionary acts at once turned out to be impossible. Marx never found a way to resolve this issue.
SL: One major theme of Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life is that, as you have indicated already, Marx understood himself as heir to the French Revolution. Specifically, Marx expected and, indeed, in perhaps the most famous passages of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, described 19th century revolution as a repetition of the 18th century French Revolution, particularly in its 1789–1794 phase. Thus, Marx simultaneously longs for the revolutionary poetry of the future, even as he argues that the past necessarily recurs. You describe Marx’s thinking at the time of the Revolution of 1848–49 as follows:
Using his influential position within the newly reorganized Communist League… Marx took scant time to join the revolutionary fray. For a little over a year, from the spring of 1848 through the spring of 1849, Marx was, for the first and last time in his life, an insurgent revolutionary: editing in brash, subversive style the New Rhineland News; becoming a leader of the radical democrats of the city of Cologne and of the Prussian Rhineland; trying to organize the working class in Cologne and across Germany; and repeatedly encouraging and fomenting revolution. In all of these activities, Marx persistently promoted the revolutionary strategy he had first envisioned in his essay on the Jewish Question, and would present in scintillating language in the Communist Manifesto. He pressed for a democratic revolution to destroy the authoritarian Prussian monarchy. At the same time he aspired to organize the working class to carry out a communist uprising against a capitalist regime he expected such a democratic revolution to establish. In effect, Marx was proposing a double recurrence of the French Revolution: A repetition of its 1789–1794 phase in mid-nineteenth century Prussia, and also a workers’ seizure of power… (195)
And, again, when you come to address the Manifesto itself, you note the magnetic influence of the French Revolution upon its programmatic aspect. “The ten-point program in the Manifesto,” you write, “was designed for a revolutionary government, one modeled on the radical, Jacobin phase of the French Revolution in 1789” (210). How and why does Marx, who is after all, the great theorist of modernity’s historical dynamism, also view history as subject to this sort of repetition such that he expects the French Revolutionary past to return under changed conditions?
JS: Maybe we need to revise our notions about Marx’s attitude toward modernity’s historical dynamism. Marx’s political thought—like most of his contemporaries’—was centered on the French Revolution. This was just a reality that dominated the first two-thirds of 19th century Europe. When people thought about politics, they thought about it in terms of the French Revolution. Marx was no exception in that respect. What’s interesting about Marx is this idea of what I like to call the “double recurrence” of the French Revolution. On the one hand, the French Revolution would literally recur in Central and Eastern Europe, with an uprising against the Prussian and Austrian monarchies and their replacement by a revolutionary German Republic. This would probably include a revolutionary war against the Tsar—a literal rerun of 1793 in mid-19th-century Germany. But there would also be a recurrence by analogy. That is, Marx saw the bourgeoisie as seizing power, bringing the feudal society of orders to an end, and replacing it with a capitalist economy. By analogy, the workers would do the same thing: They would overthrow capitalism and create a communist society. Marx wants to do both at once in 1848, but he finds it very difficult. He discovers, in trying to overthrow the Prussian monarchy, that you can’t get the workers riled up against the bourgeoisie, because the bourgeoisie then won’t support you in overthrowing the monarchy. In his speech to the Cologne Democratic Society in August 1848, he ends up describing the class struggle as nonsense. The problem was that organizing the workers against the capitalists did not necessarily mean opposing the Prussian state.
SL: What I meant by Marx as a thinker of historical dynamism is the way that Marx thinks about industrialization as producing constant historical change. It is in this respect that the 19th century looks different from the 18th century, the century of the French Revolution. In this sense Marx is quite conscious of holding on to the French Revolutionary conception of politics under vastly changed circumstances.
JS: I really think that Marx here is a primarily backwards-looking figure, who is reading capitalism’s future out of its past. He sees the future political crisis of capitalism being resolved by a movement along the lines of the French Revolution. His whole economic vision of the future of capitalism (e.g., the labor theory of value, the falling rate of profit) is based upon the ideas of David Ricardo, who wrote in the early 19th century, the earliest phase of the Industrial Revolution. Marx saw these conditions, which by the mid-1800s were capitalism’s past, as being capitalism’s future. All of Marx’s invocations of dynamism and constant change—we all know the famous (and actually mistranslated) section of the Communist Manifesto proclaiming that “all that is solid melts into air”—tend to end up parsed in terms of Marx’s past.
SS: Could you provide your translation of “all that is solid melts into air”?
JS: The German original is “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft.” “Stehende” and “Ständische” both come from the verb “to stand,” and is used here as sort of a pun—it refers to both “that which exists” and the society of orders, the old regime world that still existed in Prussia and Austria. “Verdampft” means to “evaporate,” to “go up in smoke.” What Marx was suggesting here is that the power of capitalism—capitalist steam engines (“Dampf” means “steam” in German)—would “evaporate” the society of orders. This would also bring to an end the intellectual world that went along with it: Romanticism, the glorification of the Middle Ages, and religion. Marx’s comment at the end about “man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life” is about an age of realism, e.g., literary realism. One of Marx’s friends when he was in exile in Paris was Heinrich Heine, the great early German realist.
Mine is a very different take on the passage. The way it has been interpreted in the 20th century is that capitalism produces many new consumer demands; we have a world which is constantly changing in communications, artistic trends, etc. That’s a 20th century reinterpretation of Marx’s ideas.
SS: One of “Marx’s least successful predictions” from the Communist Manifesto, you note, is that of the imminent end of nations and nationalism: “National distinctiveness and conflicts between nations disappear more and more with the development of the bourgeoisie, with free trade, the world market, the uniformity of industrial production and the relations of life corresponding to them.” As you note, the resurgence of nationalism in pre-1914 Europe belies any straightforward affirmation of what Marx wrote. But as you also note, Marx’s view nevertheless contained an element of truth rooted in Marx’s own experience. Marx had participated with the London Fraternal Democrats and the Brussels Democratic Association, both of which “were based on the cooperation of radicals of different nationalities” (207) and, of course, Marx, whose own perspective was resolutely internationalist, went on to participate in other organizations dedicated to international cooperation. Given this, might we not take Marx’s observation in the Communist Manifesto as indicating, if not straightforward dissolution of nationalism, then its substantial, if subtle, transformation from British patriotism or, later French revolutionary nationalism of the 18th century? In the history of European nationalism, how does the revolution of 1848 serve as a watershed moment? How did Marx and Engels relate to post-1848 nationalisms—particularly Polish and Irish (we’ll get to Marx’s brand of German nationalism later)—and how did this shape their political outlook?
JS: The early advocates of nationalism in the first half of the 19th century tended to envisage antagonisms and military conflicts between different countries as the result of the lusts of monarchs for conquest, glory, and expansion of their domains. They imagined that when states were ruled by nations, by peoples, all of this would come to an end, and nations would spontaneously cooperate with each other. These were the ideas of Giuseppe Mazzini, the leading democrat in 1830s and ’40s Europe, whose organizations Young Italy and Young Europe were designed to be an alliance of different nationalist groups against the existing monarchical order. The Brussels Democratic Association had an absolutely fabulous name: The Democratic Association Having as its Goal the Union and Fraternity of all Peoples. This expresses exactly what nationalists thought. But in 1848, the old regimes are swept away, bringing nationalist governments in power and the first thing that happens as a result is that all these different nationalisms go to war with each other. This is especially the case in the Austrian Empire, with the Germans, the Slavs, the Hungarians, and the Italians all at war with each other. This also happens to some extent in Prussia with the Germans and the Poles, and in the far north of Germany between Germans and Danes. That is, it then became clear that nationalist movements were profoundly antagonistic to one another and that nationalism was a militaristic, bellicose ideology. This was a great disappointment and left many nationalists frustrated.
Marx and Engels developed an instrumental relationship to nationalism. For instance, Marx was a fan of Polish nationalism because it was violently anti-Russian, and he saw the destruction of the Tsarist Empire as a central revolutionary step. Marx’s daughter Jenny, who followed in her father’s political footsteps and became a left-wing journalist in her own right, wrote mostly about her support for Irish nationalism, not communism or the labor movement. Marx and Engels ended up supporting Irish nationalism, because they thought it might ultimately destroy the position of the landowning Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and this, they thought, would be a blow to English capitalism and capitalism worldwide. There were lots of other nationalisms that they didn’t like, like that of the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe—which tended to be anti-German and pro-Russian. Engels states in Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany, which is a sort of post-mortem of the revolutions of 1848, that if we have a revolution in Germany and the Czechs are opposed to it, we’ll just kill all of them—frankly genocidal rhetoric. We see here the way that that these disillusioned nationalities will not in fact spontaneously fraternize, and so it is necessary to view nationalism through its usefulness for revolutionary goals.
SL: Marx’s stint as an active revolutionary was spent editing the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne. Reminiscing about the paper in later years, Engels asserted that “war with Russia and the creation of a united German republic were its two main themes” (226). Explain the logic of this and, more generally, the strategic orientation of the paper vis-à-vis other socialists, such as Andreas Gottschalk, whom you described as a “True Socialist, [and] a friend, pupil, and close confidant of [the Young Hegelian philosopher] Moses Hess” (220). What was Marx’s political aim in the revolution of 1848? How did Marx’s political development over the previous half decade or so prepare him for the role he played as editor-in-chief of the New Rhineland News? How did his position evolve over the course of the 1848–49 revolution?
JS: You will remember this idea of the “double recurrence” of the French Revolution, the literal and analogous. Marx had a “double-track” political strategy in 1848 of achieving both of these revolutionary goals at once. His work in Cologne on the New Rhineland News represented the literal, “Jacobin” wing of this strategy that would call for a united German republic, the overthrow of the Prussian monarchy, and revolutionary war with Russia. Marx spent a lot of his time really socking it to the Prussians: making fun of the monarch, the royal family, government officials, tax collectors, and army officers. He stirred up the population against them all. The Prussian officials got angry because Marx was quite good at it. And in the western provinces, the Prussians were widely despised.
The other thing that Marx wanted to do was to organize the workers and to form a nationwide German workers’ association that would prepare for a new revolutionary struggle against the capitalists once this democratic republic was achieved. The first “Jacobin” part worked pretty well, but the workers’ association did not. Marx’s working-class, communist followers were disappointing. They spent a lot of time drinking in the cafes and playing dominoes, rather than trying to organize their fellow workers. In Cologne itself, Gottschalk headed a very large workers’ association—something like every one in three adult males in the city belonged to it—but to be honest it would be fair to describe him and his mentor Moses Hess in contemporary terminology as “airheads”—fabulists who believed that everybody was in favor of communism, and all you had to do was wait a little while in order for communism to emerge on its own. Gottschalk was notorious for refusing to take part in political campaigns. He sabotaged the elections to the German National Assembly by calling the democrats bourgeois frauds and calling on workers not to vote, thereby allowing the Cologne conservatives to dominate the election. He refused to join the republican and anti-Prussian campaigns. He was really screwing everything up, and all the democrats in Cologne were hostile to Gottschalk—Marx was no exception in this respect. When Gottschalk was arrested by the Prussian government in June 1848, Marx and his followers took control of his organization and attempted to use it to support the democrats. But instead the organization itself collapsed, so that Marx found himself, in 1848, pursuing only the Jacobin/democratic half of his political agenda.
In the fall of 1848, a period of revolutionary crises, Marx was busy stirring up efforts to overthrow the Prussian government, and in November these came very close to succeeding. He continued in this vein until the very end of the revolution, until in the spring of 1849 he suddenly changed his mind and began trying to organize the workers again. He broke with the democrats and the movement for German National Unity, and stood aside in the last revolutionary crisis of May 1849. There’s this odd back-and-forth pattern, which would be the same with the International Workingmen’s Association, within which we see the difficulty Marx had in getting both prongs of his “double recurrence” to work simultaneously.
SS: As the U.S. Civil War reached a revolutionary pitch and Polish nationalists rose in revolt against the czar, Marx came to help form the International Workingmen’s Association. Respecting Marx’s involvement in the association and its original aims, you write,
Marx’s plans for the association appeared in his agenda for the First Congress of the IWMA... The items for action included the advocacy of social reform—a shorter workday, limitations on women and children’s labor, the replacement of indirect with direct taxation, an international inquiry into workplace conditions, and the endorsement of producers’ cooperatives and trade unions. There were just two expressly political points, both taken from the arsenal of nineteenth century radicalism: the replacement of standing armies with militias; and “the necessity of annihilating the Muscovite influence in Europe... [via] the reconstitution of Poland on a social and democratic basis.” (358, ellipsis in original)
Starting from this basis, how did the IWMA politically evolve? What developments did it face and what were the central tensions within it? What were the primary aims Marx sought to advance in his struggles over the direction of the First International? How did these evolve into a struggle with the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and what was at stake there?
JS: As you can see in the quote, one might think of Marx’s objectives in the IMWA as not involving any specifically revolutionary goals. He saw the IMWA primarily in terms of trade union and workplace-related reform movements. Marx believed that these would ultimately be revolutionary in nature because of his theory of surplus value, according to which capitalists gain their profits by taking part of the product that workers have produced. Marx saw unions as trying to seize some of that surplus value back from the capitalists. He hoped that, if the unions continued this effort with the support of the IMWA, it would tend to reduce capitalist profits and lead to a revolutionary crisis. This was a long-term strategy that would take a while to work out. Marx was supported in these ideas by the English trade unionists that formed the backbone of the IWMA and provided it with most of its meager finances.
The opponents of Marx were revolutionary adherents of secret societies, who saw the IWMA as a means by which to overthrow the existing order in Europe. They were interested above all in this idea of a secret society organization. At first, this was less the case for Bakunin than for the followers of the French revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui, who spent the 1830s–1870s plotting revolutions, trying them out, going to jail, being released, and plotting new ones.
There were two things that created tensions in the IWMA. One was its spread, from Northern and Western Europe (where it began), to countries in Southern Europe, where there weren’t really any trade unions, but where the tradition of secret societies was still very active. The second was the Franco–Prussian war of 1870, which disrupted politics all across the European continent. Marx was actually not at first hostile to Bakunin. The two became friends when they met in exile in France in the late 1840s, and Marx was always very impressed with him. When they met again some 15 years later, Marx wrote to Engels saying that Bakunin was one of the few people who had moved forward in the interval rather than backwards. Bakunin was an enormous fan of secret societies, and became involved with some very dubious ones like that of Sergey Nechayev, who was famously depicted in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. He therefore found himself increasingly in opposition to Marx. This eventually led to a break between the two, and a struggle for control of the IWMA. As part of this struggle, Marx decided that the IWMA had to endorse the idea of workers’ political parties. At the time, very few workers’ political parties existed. There were two competing ones in Germany at the time, but Marx trusted neither entirely. This led to a ferocious struggle between Marx and his followers, and frankly every other element in the IWMA. In the 1872 Hague conference, Marx’s followers were victorious and they expelled Bakunin. They then moved the headquarters of the IWMA to New York, basically with the intention of destroying the organization; Marx realized that plans for revolution probably had to be shelved after the repression of the Paris Commune. Just as Marx took control of the organization, he chose to bring it to an end.
SL: Why was Marx concerned to maintain the IWMA as an open, democratic political activity? A quarter century before, Marx and Engels had fought to publicize the activities of the Communist League, though it is true that, after the reverses of 1849, the Communist League took on a secret, underground form. Still, is it fair to say that the struggles in the IWMA repeat his struggles in 1847 for an open form of politics and publication?
JS: I think so. The Communist League did adopt a clandestine form after 1849, but that’s because open political activity was essentially impossible in an age of revolutionary repression. Marx was always a proponent of open politics. He was a newspaper editor—this was always one of his chief forms of political activism. Marx was suspicious of secret societies and believed wholeheartedly in open politics. One of the ironies of his struggles against Bakunin was that Marx was convinced Bakunin was trying to undermine the IWMA by smuggling in his followers in order to form a secret society within the IWMA itself. This was actually not the case, and it was ironically one of Marx’s allies who was proposing this idea, the veteran German revolutionary Johann Philipp Becker. Marx flew off the handle at Becker’s suggestions, and thought he was being manipulated by Bakunin.
SS: Two of Marx and Engels’s key associates in the German workers movement were Ferdinand Lassalle and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Eventually, it was Liebknecht, who opposed Lassalle’s coziness with Bismarck, who came to enjoy Marx and Engels’s support. One crucial division between the two, and what eventually divided Lassalle from Marx as well, was again the question of nationalism. As veterans of 1848, they all supported in some sense the cause of Germany, but Marx articulated this as an anti-Prussian demand for a German republic. Yet, in the face of eventual German unification enforced by Prussia, Marx and Liebknecht were forced to make something of it. This meant coming to some sort of terms with the followers of Lassalle. What were the fundamental underlying tensions expressed by Liebknecht’s opposition to the Lassalleans and to what extent were these overcome?
JS: There were three issues here. One was the question of the nature of a united German nation-state. Would it be a Grossdeutsch one that included the ethnic Germans of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or would it be a Kleindeutsch one, without those Germans, and so exclusively dominated by Prussia? Marx was always a Grossdeutscher and, certainly, Liebknecht was a follower of Marx on this point, while Lassalle was strongly opposed. But the issue was ultimately decided by war: The Prussians trounced the Austrians in 1866, therefore Bismarck’s state would be a Prussian–dominated Kleindeutsch state. Marx was unhappy with this, but he understood that he had to come to terms with it.
The second issue was whether the German nation-state would be a democratic republic or not. Liebknecht, as a veteran of the revolution of 1848, was a strong adherent of the idea of a democratic republic. Lassalle was too, though he flirted with the idea of a constitutional monarchy, and had conspiratorial meetings with Bismarck. This tension too was decided by history. The united German nation‑state persecuted both the followers of Liebknecht and Lassalle equally, and the followers of Lassalle increasingly became opponents of the existing monarchical order.
The third issue, and this was the really tricky one, was the question of relations between the labor movement and liberal–progressive parties in the German government. Lassalle and his followers clearly despised the liberals and made deals with the conservatives, while Liebknecht and his followers were willing to make deals with at least those democrats that shunned the conservatives. This was an issue that, even after the two wings of the labor movement united at the Gotha Congress of 1875, remained alive in the German socialist party. There were some who felt that opposing liberalism was their primary aim, even if it meant collaborating with conservative authorities. Others felt that opposing the conservative authorities should be the primary aim, even if that meant collaborating with the liberals. |P
Transcribed by Tom Willis
. See Friedrich Engels, “Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848-49)” available at <ahref="http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/03/13.htm">http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/03/13.htm. In that 1884 piece, Engels observes, “The political program of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung consisted of two main points: A single, indivisible, democratic German republic and war with Russia, including the restoration of Poland.”
An interview with Jairus Banaji
Platypus Review 26 | August 2010
Given the considerable international interest in the progress of Naxalism on the Indian subcontinent, particularly in the wake of the 2008 Maoist revolution in Nepal, we are pleased to publish the following interview with Marxist and historian Jairus Banaji conducted on June 28, 2010.
Spencer Leonard: The immediate occasion for our interview on the Naxalites or Indian Maoists is Arundhati Roy’s widely read and controversial essay, “Walking With the Comrades,” published in the Indian magazine Outlook. There Roy speaks of “the deadly war unfolding in the jungles of central India between the Naxalite guerillas and the Government of India,” one that she expects “will have serious consequences for us all.” Is Roy’s depiction of the current situation accurate? If so, how have events reached such a critical state? How, more generally, does Roy frame today’s Naxalite struggle and do you agree with this framing? Does the “main contradiction,” as a Maoist might say, consist in the struggle between the Naxalite aborigines on the one side, and, on the other, what Roy refers to as the combination of “Hindu fundamentalism and economic totalitarianism”?
Jairus Banaji: There certainly is a Maoist insurgency raging in the tribal heartlands of central and eastern India, much of which is densely forested terrain. The tribal heartlands straddle different states in the country, so at least three or four major states are implicated in the insurgency, above all Chhattisgarh, which was hived off from Madhya Pradesh in 2000. To the extent that there has been a drive to open up the vast mineral resources of states like Chhattisgarh and Orissa to domestic and international capital, there is the connection Roy points to. As a definition of the “conjuncture” that has dominated the conflict since the late 1990s, she is clearly right.
A Naxalite guerilla army in central India
But the Naxal presence in these parts of India has little to do with the factors she talks about. Naxalism, or Indian Maoism, goes back to the late 1960s. What distinguishes it as a political current from other communists in India is the commitment to armed struggle and the violent overthrow of the state. It is not as if the perspectives of Naxalism flow from the circumstances one finds in the forested parts of India. The question is why, after its virtual extinction in the early 1970s, the movement was able to reassemble itself and reemerge as a less fragmented and more powerful force in the course of the 1990s. To account for that we have to look to different factors than those Roy identifies.
The Naxalites have always seen the so-called “principal contradiction” as that between the peasantry or the “broad mass of the people” on one side and “feudalism” or “semi-feudalism” on the other. They have never abandoned this position since it was evolved in the late 1960s. The revolution has always been seen by them as primarily agrarian, except that now “agrarian” has come to mean “tribal,” since their base is on the whole confined to the tribal or adivasi communities.
Sunit Singh: Please explain the confluence that led to the formation of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in September 2004, which united the Naxalite splinters, the People’s War Group, and the Maoist Communist Center? What explains the dramatic revivification of Naxalism after its decimation in the early 1970s and how do we understand the CPI (Maoist) as a political force today? To what extent has today’s Naxalism changed from its predecessor, the original CPI (Marxist–Leninist) (CPI (M–L))?
JB: The key fact about the Naxals in the late 1990s and 2000s is that they began to reverse decades of fragmentation through a series of successful mergers. The most important of these was the merger in 2004 between People’s War, itself the result of the People’s War Group fusing with Party Unity in 1998, and the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI). That 2004 merger, which resulted in the formation of the CPI (Maoist), reflected a confluence of two major streams of Maoism in India, since People’s War was largely Andhra-based and the MCCI had its base almost entirely in Jharkhand—the southern part of Bihar which also became an independent state in 2000. To explain the successful reemergence of Naxal politics in the 1990s, we have to see the People’s War Group (PWG) as the decisive element of continuity between the rapturous Maoism of the 1960s–70s, dominated by the charismatic figure of Charu Mazumdar, and the movement we see today. The PWG was formally established in 1980 after some crucial years of preparation that involved a unique emphasis on mass work, the launching of mass organizations like the Ryotu Coolie Sangham, which was like a union of agricultural workers, and a “Go to the villages” campaign that sent middle-class youth into the Telangana countryside. Kondapalli Seetharamaiah, its founder, was able to attract the younger elements because he was seen as more militant because, among other things, he refused to have anything to do with elections. Following a dramatic escalation of conflict in Andhra Pradesh from 1985, PWG was able to build a substantial military capability and a network of safe havens for its armed squads (dalams) across state borders, in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, directly north of the A.P. border, and in the undivided region of Bastar or southern Chhattisgarh to the north and east. Regis Debray in his Critique of Arms points out that no guerrilla movement can survive without rearguard bases, by which he means a swathe of territory which it can fall back on with relative security in times of intensified repression. This is exactly what happened with the squads that had been trained and built up in Andhra, or more precisely in Telangana, the northern part of the state, in the 1970s and 1980s. The recent flare up of conflict in Chhattisgarh is largely bound up with the intensified repression of 2005 that drove even more fighters into the Bastar region.
SL: In “Walking with the Comrades,” Roy sidesteps the question of Naxalite politics in favor of siding with a marginalized group, in this case “the tribals.” Thus she states that “[some] believe that the war in the forests is a war between the Government of India and the Maoists… [they] forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries.” But she also wants to have it the other way around. For instance, this is what she says of the Naxalite leader and theoretician who first founded the CPI (M-L): “Charu Mazumdar was a visionary in much of what he wrote and said. The party he founded (and its many splinter groups) has kept the dream of revolution real and present in India.” What do you make of this curious political ambivalence respecting the actual Maoism (and the Marxism) of the Maoists? How do you understand Roy’s anti-Marxist, tribal revolutionary romance?
JB: The idea that the tribals and the CPI (Maoist) share the same objective is ludicrous! What the tribals have been fighting against is decades of oppression by moneylenders, traders, contractors, and officials of the forest department—in short, a long history of dispossession that has reduced them to a subhuman existence and exposed them to repeated violence. A large part of the blame for this lies with the unmitigated Malthusianism of the Indian state. By this I mean that the adivasis have been consigned to a slow death agony through decades of neglect and oppression that have left them vulnerable to political predators across the spectrum, including the Hindu Right. As Edward Duyker argued in Tribal Guerrillas, the Santals whom the Naxal groups drew into their ranks in the late 1960s “fought for specific concessions from the established rulers, while the CPI (Marxist–Leninist) fought for a new structure of rule altogether.” There is a big difference between those perspectives! The tribal aim is not to overthrow the Indian state but to succeed in securing unhindered access to resources that belong to them, but which the state has been denying them. The tribal struggle is for the right to life, to livelihood and dignity, including freedom from violence and from the racism that much of India exudes towards them. The massive alienation of tribal land that has gone on even after Independence was something the government could have stopped if it had the will to do so. Today the huge mineral resources of the tribal areas are up for grabs as state governments compete to attract investment from mining and steel giants. But whatever the CPI (Maoist) might think, the vast majority of the tribals in India have no conception of “capturing state power,” since the state itself is such an abstraction except in terms of harassment by forest officials, neglect by state governments, and violence from the police and paramilitary.
SL: In online comments on Roy’s article posted on kafila.org, you responded to the preoccupation with tribals and Naxalites with a series of rhetorical questions:
Where does the rest of India fit in? What categories do we have for them? Or are we seriously supposed to believe that the extraordinary tide of insurrection will wash over the messy landscapes of urban India and over the millions of disorganized workers in our countryside without the emergence of a powerful social agency… that it can contest the stranglehold of capitalism… without mass organizations, battles for democracy, struggles for the radicalization of culture, etc.?
To this you add, “in [Roy’s] vision of politics, there is no history of the Left that diverges from the romantic hagiographies of Naxalbari and its legacies.” Thus you contend that Roy’s thinking is impeded by a kind of amnesia. How precisely does Roy’s lack of awareness of and confrontation with the history of the Left compromise her ability to think through what it would mean to stage an emancipatory politics today? How does awareness of the history of the Left in the sense you intend differ from simply knowing the Left’s past? What are the consequences we face because of the Left’s widespread failure to work through its own history, a failure of which Roy is but a recent and prominent instance?
JB: Roy lacks any grasp of the history of the Maoist movement in India, which is why she can make that silly statement about Charu Mazumdar being visionary, when the bulk of his own party leadership denounced his “annihilation” line as pure adventurism and a whole series of splits fragmented the movement within a year or two. Mazumdar also played a disastrous role in splitting the movement in Andhra through a purely factional intervention. Roy’s background is clearly not the Left or any part of it, including the Maoists. What she does reflect is the disquiet generated, beginning in the 1990s, by the opening up of India to the world economy and the drive to create a globally competitive capitalism regardless of the costs this would inflict on workers and the mass of the population.
The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the campaign to halt the project to build a hydro-electric dam on the river Narmada, was the best example of the kind of “new social movements” that emerged in India in response to issues that the party left simply failed to take up. It was not led by any party, was related to a major single issue, and had roots very different from those of the organized left. It involved large-scale mobilization of the communities uprooted by the dam, but the NBA of course was eventually defeated in the sense that it failed to stop the dam from being built despite massive resistance. The defeat of the NBA generated a profound disillusionment with the state of Indian democracy, which is strongly reflected in Roy’s work—a kind of “democratic pessimism.” The most extreme expression of this is the idea that India has a “fake democracy,” whatever that is supposed to mean.
But, let’s get back to Roy’s bizarre reference to Charu Mazumdar as a “visionary” who “kept the dream of revolution real and present in India.” The fact is that the “annihilation” line had led to such disastrous results by the end of 1971 that the majority of his own Central Committee denounced him as a “Trotskyite” and expelled him from the party! Indeed, the majority of a twenty-one member Central Committee had withdrawn support from him by November 1970, and Satya Narayan Singh, who was elected the new general secretary, described his line as “individual terrorism.” Even when the AICCCR (All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries) transformed itself into a party in April 1969, leading figures of the early Maoist movement in India were unhappy with the decision and many stayed out.
SS: Elaborate, if you will, on the exact form of struggle that Charu Mazumdar is associated with. What was the “annihilation line,” exactly?
JB: Like all Maoists, Mazumdar believed that the key social force in the revolutionary movement in India would be the peasantry. He adhered to the strategy mapped out in the deliberations between the CPI leadership and Stalin at the end of 1950, one product of which was a document known as the Tactical Line, which spoke of a two-stage revolution starting with a People’s Democratic State that would be ushered in by an armed revolution. Of course, by then Liu Shao-ch’i was already recommending the Chinese revolution as a model for all colonial and “semi-colonial” countries in their fight for national independence and people’s democracy. This would have to be an armed revolution based on the peasantry and “led by” the working class. The reference to the working class was purely rhetorical, since the leading class force in the revolution was the peasantry and the leadership of the working class existed in the more metaphysical shape of the party. The distinctiveness of Mazumdar’s politics was that he seriously believed it would be possible to arouse revolutionary fervor among the “masses” by annihilating “class enemies” such as the jotedars or larger landowners of Bengal, by forming small underground squads that would selectively target landlords, state officials, and other representatives of the exploiting class and state apparatus. Such shock attacks, he felt, would create a decisive breach and unleash a mass response. Mazumdar believed that the revolution in India could be completed in this manner by 1975! The idea was that the masses were simply bursting with revolutionary zeal and only needed a catalyst. As I said, the line generated considerable dissent, not least because it abandoned any notion of mass work.
Charu Mazumdar (1918–1972), first General Secretary of the CPI (M-L)
SS: So, when the Mazumdar faction constituted itself as the CPI (M–L) in April of 1969, what followed? Were other factions loyal to Peking folded into the new party? What happened to Mazumdar’s Maoist critics, those who argued that their M–L comrades had substituted terrorism for mass organizations such as trade unions and kisan sabhas?
JB: The Chinese Communist Party backed away from the Naxals pretty early when they realized that they were talking about different things. There was a distinct loss of enthusiasm from Peking, and Mazumdar faced increasing criticism. Parimal Dasgupta, a prominent union leader, advocated the building of mass organizations among workers, and criticized the neglect of urban work by Mazumdar’s followers. He disapproved of the idea of a clandestine party organization because it would mean abandoning any effort to build broader class-based organizations. Another leading figure, Asit Sen, split on similar grounds. T. Nagi Reddy, the leading communist in Andhra Pradesh, disagreed with squad actions that were isolated from any mass struggle and simply substituted for it. He wanted a period of preparation and mass work before the armed struggle, but the group around him was disaffiliated from the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR), the body that transformed itself into the CPI (M–L) in April 1969. Even people who were otherwise close to Mazumdar like Kanu Sanyal and [Vempatapu] Satyam, a leader of the Srikakulam Movement, disapproved of individual assassinations based on conspiratorial methods by small underground squads. As Manoranjan Mohanty shows in his book Revolutionary Violence (1976), a unified M–L was already in decline by the middle of 1970, roughly a year after the party was proclaimed.
SS: How should we view the embrace of revolutionary violence as a tactic by the Naxalites, both in its moment of inception in the late 1960s and in the present day by groups such as the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army? Does this zealousness signal radicalism, or helplessness? Can it be seen as the outcome of the defeat of the Left in previous decades, the consequence of the abandonment of a politics seeking to abolish alienated labor or, indeed, the abandonment of any explicitly labor-based politics?
JB: When the CPI (M–L) was formed in 1969, its key function was seen as “rousing” the peasant masses to wage guerrilla war. Mazumdar believed that the killing of landlords would “awaken” the exploited masses. This, classically, was what Debray calls a “politics of fervor,” a politics in which revolutionary enthusiasm substitutes for ideas rooted in mass struggle and for the class forces that conduct those struggles. But there were tendencies in Andhra that rejected this line and even went so far as to argue that, if the armed struggle were waged as a vanguard war, the people would become passive spectators. One writer quotes Nagi Reddy as saying, “Their [the people’s] consciousness will never rise. Their self-confidence will suffer.”
Today we can see that this is a vanguard war trapped in an expanding culture of counterinsurgency, and the most the CPI (Maoist) can do is flee across state boundaries and regroup in adjacent districts. What they have not been able to do and cannot do, given the nature of their politics, is consolidate enduring mass support in their traditional strongholds. In Andhra, where the fight against the Naxals has been most successful, from the state’s point of view, the backlash has been ferocious and beyond all legal bounds. The state there has institutionalized “encounter” killings, India’s term for extra-judicial executions, on a very large scale, and trained special counterinsurgency forces to hunt down the Maoists. In Chhattisgarh the state has sponsored (armed and funded) a private lynch mob called the Salwa Judum, or “Purification Hunt” in Gondi, the local language, that has emptied hundreds of villages by forcing inhabitants into IDP (internally displaced persons) camps where they can be easily controlled. In Chhattisgarh both sides have recruited minors. Both states have seen staggering levels of violence, with a pall of fear hanging over entire villages in Telangana, and the atomization of whole communities in Dantewada. We should remember that it was successive waves of repression in Andhra Pradesh that drove the PWG squads into regions like Bastar and southern Orissa in the first place.
One consequence of the massive escalation of conflict from the late 1980s was a substantial weapons upgrade, a major increase in lethality. The Naxals have used land mines on an extensive scale, using the wire-control method, and inflicted heavy losses on the paramilitary. The crucial result of this conflict dynamic is a wholesale militarization of the movement, a major break with the pattern of the late 1970s when they built a considerable base through mass organizations, in Telangana especially. The civil liberties activist K. Balagopal, who saw the movement at close quarters, became progressively more disillusioned as the military perspective took over and reshaped the nature of the People’s War Group. In 2006, a few years before he died, he described the CPI (Maoist) as a “hit and run movement,” underlining precisely these features.
SS: What kinds of affinities do the Naxalites share with other militant New Left groups?
JB: I would hardly call them “New Left.” I think the best comparison for the CPI (Maoist) is Sendero Luminoso in Peru. Abimael Guzmán’s idea that the countryside would have to be thrown into chaos, churned up, to create a power vacuum, is a mirror image of the CPI (Maoist) strategy. Guzmán called it Batir el campo—“hammer the countryside.” The idea was to generate terror among the population and demonstrate the inability of the state to guarantee the safety of its citizens. That is how Nelson Manrique has described the strategy. In the end it meant the assassination of village heads and increasing violence against the peasantry (from the Senderistas) that brought about their rapid downfall. A key element of the Batir el campo strategy was the systematic destruction of infrastructure with the aim of isolating whole areas of countryside from the reach of the state. The idea was that, effectively, these would become “liberated zones.”
The CPI (Maoist) have been pursuing a very similar strategy. The role they played in sabotaging the movement in Lalgarh bears a striking resemblance to the Sendero’s interdictions against all forms of autonomous peasant organization. The drive of the CPI (Maoist) to isolate the areas under their control from the rest of the country, to impose an enforced isolation on the tribal communities, is similar to the way the Senderistas worked in Peru. This is the deeper meaning of forced election boycotts. During elections the threat of violence is palpable. Sabotaging high-tension wires, goods trains, railway stations, roads, and bridges is simply the physical analogue of the election boycott. Interlinked with this is the continual execution of “informers,” a kind of exemplary punishment that is clearly designed to bolster a culture of fear in the CPI (Maoist) “base,” which breeds the kind of resentment that creates more informers. Balagopal was a powerful critic of these practices that, I suspect, were largely a product of the new leadership that took over the PWG in the early 1990s, when Kondapalli Seetharamaiah was driven out of the party.
A movement like this will obviously tolerate no dissent. There have been repeated instances of the different armed struggle groups murdering each other’s cadre, sometimes over the course of years and on quite a large scale. Indeed, at least one reason for the merger between the PWG and the MCCI was the turf war between them in the years before 2004, when on one estimate they killed literally hundreds of each other’s supporters. Left parties like the CPI (Marxist) have also seen their party activists being murdered, as if this is what the People’s Democratic Revolution needs and calls for! I should add that the CPI (Marxist) is hardly blameless, either, since they have their own vigilante groups or terror squads called the “harmads.”
SS: It seems to me that the perspectives of the Maoists do not arise from the circumstances of those they claim to represent, but are rather static in and of themselves. Party documents and Maoist “theorists” seem capable of little more than the recycling of desiccated fragments of ideology.
JB: Maoist theory has a timeless quality about it. It deals with abstractions, not with any living, changing reality. The abstractions stem from the debates and party documents of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the agrarian line emerged as an orthodoxy for the Left in countries like India. The Chinese Revolution was an incorrigible template and everything about India had to be fitted to that. Within India itself this generated what were called the “Andhra Theses.” As I said, the deliberations with Stalin generated a series of documents that all factions of the undivided Communist party accepted to one degree or another. The Tactical Line mapped out the outlines of a strategy that flowed straight into the Naxalism of the late 1960s. Some of the terminology was changed, such that “People’s Democracy” became “New Democracy,” but these shifts in rhetoric marked no crucial differences. So there is a sense whereby the Naxalite split from the CPI (Marxist) did not represent a total break with orthodoxy within the Indian movement. It was the CPI (Marxist) that was poised ambiguously between the USSR and China.
SL: Embedded in this refusal of reality, this insistence upon rehashing empty abstractions, there seems an unmistakable retreat from the very project of Marxism. Am I wrong to see an elective affinity between Roy’s insistence that the tribal people’s impetus to resist comes from outside of capitalism, on the one hand, and on the other, the rhetoric popularized by Charu Mazumdar, which identifies the peasantry as the primary revolutionary class? Roy and Mazumdar seem to share the idea that the old anti-feudal struggle was and remains viable. Both exhibit a lack of interest in the question, What dynamics within capitalism point beyond themselves? While I agree that Arundhati Roy lacks any grounding in the history of the Left, there does seem to be common ground between the Naxals’ nihilism and her romantic anti-capitalism.
In earlier comments you argued that Roy’s “democratic pessimism,” as you referred to it, has led her to argue that the ongoing Naxalite insurgency “is the best you can hope for.” Similarly, with respect to Maoists, you have suggested that, at bottom, they view those whom they claim to represent as “cannon fodder,” so that “it is not hope but false promises that will lie at the end of the revolutionary road, aside from the corpses of thousands.” To begin to understand what has brought together these two political streams—the new social movements and late Stalinism—is it fair to say that both, as expressions of political defeat and despair, are equidistant from what you have called “the vision of the Communist Manifesto,” in which Marx argues that the task of the Communists is, as you put it, “not to prevent the expansion of capitalism but to fight it from the standpoint of a more advanced mode of production, one grounded in the ability of masses of workers to recover control of their lives and shape the nature and meaning of production”?
Adivasis and Naxalites
JB: There are different strands here. One is Roy’s tendency to see Maoism as the passive reflection of a tribal separatism that is rooted in decades if not centuries of oppression of the adivasis. The trouble with this is that it makes the Maoists purely epiphenomenal. It is a reading that has little to do with politics in any sense. More to the point, Maoism simply is not a continuation or extension of tribal separatism. It is a political tendency committed to the armed overthrow of a state that is both independent (not “semi-colonial”) and democratic in more than a formal sense. Millions of ordinary people in the country have immense faith in democracy, despite the devastation that capitalism has inflicted on their lives—and when I say capitalism here I include the state as an integral part of it. The other strand relates to the way the Left has reacted to “globalization” and the isolationist stances that have flowed from that. This is not peculiar to the M-L groups—it is the soft nationalism of the whole Left and stems from the inability to imagine a politics that is both anti-capitalist and internationalist in more than purely rhetorical ways. The rhetoric of anti-globalization, which opposes the reintegration of India back into the world economy, forms the lowest common denominator of the entire Left in this country. The Indian Left today cannot conceive revolutionary politics apart from national isolationism. Everything is reduced to defending national sovereignty against the forces of international capitalism. But modern capitalism is not an aggregation of national economies, however much the working class is divided by country and in numerous other ways. It is hard to see how the movement in any one country, even one as big as India, can overthrow capitalism as long as it survives in the rest of the world. Paradoxically, it is the smallest countries, like Cuba and probably Nepal after the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) takeover, that survive best in these conditions!
SS: In its 1970 program, the CPI (M-L) claimed that “India is a semi-colonial and semi-feudal country…. the Indian state is the state of the big landlords and comprador-bureaucrat capitalists…. and its government is a lackey of US imperialism and Soviet social-imperialism.” What are the limitations of such a vision of anti-imperialism and of what might be referred to as the “semi-feudal” thesis of capitalist development in India?
JB: The Naxalites haven’t substantially modified their positions except to the extent that they realize that the forces they are up against today have more to do with capitalism than feudalism. So, if you read any of the interviews that they give to various publications like Economic and Political Weekly, there are more references to capitalism than there used to be back in the 1970s. Back then it mattered much more whether you defined the social formation as mainly “capitalist” or mainly “feudal.” Today it doesn’t seem to matter as much, since it is obvious to everyone that India is capitalist. Perhaps this wasn’t so obvious forty years ago.
Most Naxalite groups still accept the four-class bloc, and the “national bourgeoisie” is part of that alliance. This position derives from the “semi-colonialism” line, and its only practical function today is that it can help the Naxalites justify a whole nexus of relationships necessary for the party to fund itself, largely by means of the tax imposed on traders and contractors. For example, in Jharkhand it is said that the Naxalites demand (and are paid) 5 percent of all large, government-funded projects in the rural areas. If “national bourgeoisie” is supposed to refer to the smaller layers of capital, those are of course among the worst exploiters of labor, as the appalling conditions in small-scale industry and so much of the caste violence in the countryside show. As for “semi-feudalism,” the irony is that the Naxalites’ survival in the late 1970s and 1980s depended precisely on creating a base of sorts among the dalits and adivasis, the vast majority of whom have always been wage laborers. Indeed, the bulk of the population in India comprises the wage laboring and salaried classes, and a political culture that does not start from there—that does not start from the right to livelihood, the right to organize, and the aspiration to control resources and production collectively—is not going to make the least bit of difference. To keep referring to the land-poor and landless as a “peasantry” shows how much one’s political thinking is defined by dogma as opposed to reason.
SL: Earlier you spoke of how the Naxals, like the Sendero Luminoso, created a kind of ghetto around themselves. Is this the endgame of the politics launched in the 1960s and 1970s, which itself represented an inadequate response to what had become an increasingly bureaucratic and opportunistic Stalinism in India? How can the left politics that now trails this long legacy of failures reconstitute itself? But what about the larger question of intersecting the Naxalites, since many of these groups have been attracting some of the brightest young minds in India and, in this respect as in others, they represent a major impediment to the reemergence of the Indian Left? How do we break the appeal of political nihilism?
JB: As I said, the vast mass of India’s population are wage laborers. They work in very different sorts of conditions from each other. So it’s not as though we are dealing with a homogenous or unified class. One way forward as far as I can see is through the unions. Unions have been a stable feature of Indian capitalism and always survived despite repeated attacks. As a small but significant example of the kind of left politics we should be concentrating on, the New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), which was formed around 2005, is an attempt to organize a national federation of all independent unions in the country, regardless of which sector they belong to. This started as an initiative of the unions themselves and it has seen slow but steady expansion all over the country and includes, for example, the National Federation of Forest Workers and Forest Peoples. There is also a great deal of rethinking on the Left, both against the background of the public relations disasters of the CPI (Marxist) in Singur and Nandigram and of course the violent internecine conflicts within the party left. There is a whole layer of the Left in India that can be called “non-party,” which is for that reason both more dispersed and less visible perhaps. It includes numerous organizations active in areas like caste discrimination and atrocities, communal violence, civil liberties, women’s liberation, child labor, homophobia, tribal rights (e.g., the Campaign for Survival and Dignity), the Right to Food Campaign, campaigns against nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and many others. Dozens of Right to Information activists have been murdered, and there are numerous movements against displacement throughout the country. All of this reflects a different political culture from that of the left parties, more specialized and professional, also more autonomous, and the true agents of the churning of democracy that India is currently witnessing.
SL: How do you imagine the potential political expression of that? Does this take a party political form? How does it intersect parliamentary politics?
JB: If India could establish a workers’ party on the Latin American model, then much of this non-party left would gravitate to that as its national political expression. But the culture of such a workers’ party would have to be radically different from the sterile orthodoxies of the old left parties. It would have to be a massive catalyst of democratization both within the Left itself and in society at large, encouraging cultures of debate, dissent, and self-activity, and contesting capitalism in ways that make the struggle accessible to the vast mass of the population. The fact is that the bulk of the labor force still remains unorganized into unions and a workers’ party could only emerge in some organic relation to the organization of those workers.
SL: What you are arguing then is that the Naxalites constitute a major impediment to the reinvention of the Left?
JB: Absolutely! That would be an understatement. The militarized Maoism of the last two decades is a politics rooted in violence and fear. Those in positions of leadership refuse to do any “hard thinking” in Mao’s sense. You cannot build a radical democracy, a new culture of the Left, on such foundations. The recent beheading of a CPI (Marxist) trade-union leader who refused to heed the bandh (strike) call of the CPI (Maoist) is a spectacular example of how profoundly authoritarian the Naxal movement has become under the pressure of its overwhelming militarism. When actions like that damage their credibility, they are explained away as “mistakes.” But these continual “mistakes” fall into a disturbing pattern. As a friend of mine wrote in Economic & Political Weekly, “the CPI (Maoist) is as little concerned about the lives of non-combatants as is the state.” |P
. Arundhati Roy, “Walking With The Comrades,” Outlook, March 29, 2010, <www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?264738>.
. Regis Debray, Critique of Arms: Revolution on Trial, Two Volumes, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Penguin Books, 1977-78).
. Edward Duyker, Tribal Guerrillas: The Santals of West Bengal and the Naxalite Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
. Manoranjan Mohanty, Revolutionary Violence: A Study of the Maoist Movement in India (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1977).
. Debray, Critique of Arms.
. K. Balagopal, “Public Intellectuals in the Chair 7: ‘All the News we get is Killing and Getting Killed,’” interview by Vijay Simtha, Tehelka, January 21, 2006, <www.tehelka.com/story_main16.asp?filename=hub012106inthechair_7.asp>.
. Nelson Manrique, “The War for the Central Sierra,” in Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru, 1980–1995, ed. Steve J. Stern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 193–223.
. Nivedita Menon, “Radical Resistance and Political Violence Today,” Economic & Political Weekly 44, no. 50 (December 12, 2009), 16-20.
Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2008.
Platypus Review 21 | March 2010
IT IS NO COINCIDENCE that there is a new English translation of Black Skin, White Masks (Peau Noire, Masques Blancs , hereafter BSWM), since in this first book, Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) himself believed that the fight against racism had nowhere found more succor than in the United States. Fanon poetically describes the shorn “curtain of the sky” over the battlefield after the Civil War that first reveals the monumental vision of a white man “hand in hand” with a black man (196). Yet while blacks continue to remain segregated under Jim Crow, the situation for the French man of color haunted by liberal metropolitan racism, is rather different. He remains locked in an existential struggle for recognition, unaware that freedom means “when there are no more slaves, there are no masters” (194). Fanon contends in BSWM that there is no more insidious obstacle than racism to the realization of our species capacities or the completion of the historical dialectic. Of course this claim only makes sense if racism is treated, like in BSWM, as a symptom of capitalism. That is, even The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnés de la Terre , hereafter W of E), fails to achieve the depth of analysis in BSWM. The Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was presumably speaking about W of E in the quip that “every brother on a rooftop” in the 1960s was able to recite Fanon. For no one quoting BSWM can miss its incisive rebuke of black militancy as proffering a chimeric freedom or its bold claim about alienation as the exclusive privilege of a certain class of blacks. “Fervor,” the narrator in BSWM poignantly remarks, “is the weapon of choice of the impotent” (9 CLM). The awful truth that no one, except a handful of academic leftists interested in presenting BSWM as an anti-humanist phenomenology, reads this book anymore indicates the depth of the sea change in attitudes about race on the Left. But if the utopian interracial schema of BSWM speaks to us at all, this is a consequence of the peculiarity of the US as a “nation of nations,” where the experience of racism raises the dilemma of freedom with acuteness.
Born in Martinique in 1925, Frantz Fanon saw action with the free French army in WWII before going on to study psychiatry at Lyon. He died of leukemia related complications in Bethesda, Maryland in 1961. After resigning as médecin-chef at the psychiatric clinic in Blida, Algeria in 1957, Fanon worked for the anti-colonial Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). The French war in Algeria lasted from 1954-1962.
The historic importance of W of E to the New Left overshadows the brilliant analysis of racism in BSWM. Even the appearance of a new translation on the scene scarcely alters the conditions of this elision. His latest translator, Richard Philcox, in his afterword to the retranslation of W of E, explains the relevance of—or rather, expresses the contemporary confusion about—Fanon thus: “We cannot forget the martyrdom of the Palestinians when we read…‘On Violence’….We cannot forget the lumpenproletariat, the wretched of the earth, who still stream to Europe from Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the countries of the former Eastern bloc, living on the periphery in their shantytowns.” As Philcox laments, “[there are those who] still unreservedly and enthusiastically adopt the thought characteristics of the West.” The Freud-Marx confluence in BSWM sits at odds with this politically naïve anti-imperialism. No doubt this at least partially explains why the new translation elicits a tepid foreword by Kwame Anthony Appiah. More pointedly, Appiah reads three themes as shared across both works—a critique of “the Eurocentrism of psychoanalysis,” a bid to reckon accounts with Negritude, and a concerted effort to develop a “philosophy of decolonization”—as if these formed a triptych. However this is no more than a trompe l’oeil. The concern with “disalienation” in the first book is non-identical with anxieties about “decolonization” in the latter: Whereas BSWM analyzes the wretchedness of racism under capitalism, W of E recoils from the task of pushing through what, in the conclusion to BSWM, is referred to as the “pathology of freedom” by virtue of its close identification with Third Worldism. On the other hand, the foreword seems apposite to this new translation, since the choices that Philcox makes in trying to render into English the peculiarity of the French in BSWM often coincide with the interpretation Appiah advances on the thematic unity of Fanon’s oeuvre. Hence, in its endeavor to restore some of the philosophically inflected categories (particularly in the fifth chapter), the new translation mirrors a wider historical trend privileging a descriptive phenomenology of race over a psychoanalytic interpretation. The manner in which the new edition assumes the onus of parsing the French words nègre or noir (“black/the black man,” “negro,” or “nigger”) tends to blunt the affective charge of “negro” as well as the rhetorical use of “nigger” by preferring to update—although by no means always—these epithets with the more innocuous “black” or “the black man.” Part of the issue is that the French uses a number of words to express the gray scale that distinguishes black skin from white, “the Creoles, the Mullattoes, and Blacks,” (la békaill, le mûlatraille et la négraille), that in English are collapsed into “black/black man” or the more pejorative “negro/nigger.” Nevertheless, the cumulative effect is that the newer version shrouds a claim at the heart of BSWM: Blacks as much as whites share the connotations or stereotypes associated with what is “black,” so that the “nigger” is always someone else, somewhere else. The new, “more accurate” translation painstakingly reconstructs the specificity of the numerous cultural references in the text, its idiosyncratic use of medical jargon, and its loanwords from existentialism. But these virtues are limited by the fact that it lacks the apparatus of a critical edition with which to adjudicate matters of nuance. Despite its infelicities, the older translation by Charles Lam Markmann, first issued in 1967, seems more aware of its intended audience; its age captures quaintly the historical texture of BSWM. The older translation was, in an important sense, more aware of the stakes of BSWM.
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of modern psychoanalysis, was a key influence in the theory of racism and black disalienation that Fanon develops in Black Skin, White Masks.
“The black man,” confesses the didactic narrator in the introduction, “wants to be white. The white man is desperately trying to achieve the rank of man” (xiii). This attempt to “achieve the rank of man” is complicated by the fact that under capitalism we share a common lot—alienation. Moreover, in the case of the black man, this alienation results in a double bind, the “first economic, then the internalization or rather epidermalization of this inferiority” (xv). Genuine disalienation, the narrator contends, “implies a brutal awareness of such socioeconomic realities,” but a solution to racism needs to be “found on the objective as well as the subjective level,” since “reality demands total comprehension” (xv). An individual black man, in other words, can no more overcome racism by desperately plunging himself into the “black hole” of a mythic or cosmic black civilization as if it is simply a matter of the “salvation of the soul” than a neurotic can will himself to health with knowledge alone (xv). After all “what is so often called the black soul is a construction of white folk” (xviii). There is then another uncomfortable realization tied to this conclusion that the totality—capitalism—must itself be transcended: “There is but one destiny for the black man. And it is white” (202). But, paradoxically, the obverse, that whiteness is the flipside of blackness, is false. This is the central claim of BSWM that stands at both ends of the book. For the black man, admits the narrator, offers “no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man” (90).
BSWM starts with the observation that the isomorphic relationship between the races results in “a massive psycho-existential complex” (xvi). A “cure” can only be had if one analyzes racism as a symptom. Fanon argues that “only a psychoanalytic interpretation” can transfigure the significance of the symptom so as to make life more livable. That is, if we bracket the socio-structural causes of racism, then we can attack the psychopathology of race. Anti-black racism often serves to alibi poverty or class differences, but to confuse anti-black racism as the cause of structural disparities is to misunderstand the particularity of modern racism, which is also why a psychoanalytic explanation of racism differs from a sociological one, despite the fact that its object of analysis is the same. A psychoanalytic treatment of racism takes as its concrete concern the affective satisfaction that blacks as well as whites obtain from anti-black racism. One manifestation of this “double narcissism” is that the “white man is locked in his whiteness, the black man in his blackness” (xiv). Fanon thus develops an analysis of racism rather than race—the naturalization of race is the object of this critique. The role of the analyst is to assist the analysand to “‘consciousnessize’ his unconscious, to no longer be tempted by a hallucinatory lactification, but also to act along the lines of a change in social structure” (80). To simply identify oneself politically as either black or white is to eschew the hard work of analysis.
The ambitiousness of BSWM is rooted in its attempt to deal with the ways in which the psychical or fantastical reality of race might be more consequential than the empirical one. Because the connotations with the color black are purely negative, blacks share the stereotypes as much as whites, so disalienation can never mean a simple negation of what is black. Jean-Paul Sartre had made a similar claim about anti-Semitism, which, in a sense, “overdetermines” the Jew. Assimilation, nevertheless, eludes the black man, who is burdened with the “fact of blackness,” with history. Here the new translation substitutes “the lived experience” of the black man for the “fact of blackness.” Now “the lived experience” is much closer to the French l’expérience vécue, itself a translation of Erlebnis from the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. Lived experience (Erlebnis), which is made up of acts (being-in-the-world) in which consciousness/the body that is faced with the world/other, differs from the notion of experience (Erfahrung) at the heart of Bildungsroman or self-development. But while there is no ahistorical “fact” of blackness, Erlebnis remains a descriptive category in BSWM, which means it cannot be arrayed against cumulative experience or Erfahrung. Fanon as a Martiniquan who is a French citizen does not feel himself to be black, subjectively, but then the realization comes that objectively, the Martiniquan is seen as black. This “fact” comes as an existential shock to Fanon. He writes, in the words of the old translation,
I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slave-ships, and above all else, above all: “Sho’ good eatin’.”…But I did not want this revision, this thematization. All I wanted was to be a man among other men. I wanted to come lithe and young into a world that was ours and to help build it together. (112 CLM)
If we compare the last bit of this passage in the new translation its valence is suddenly more opaque: “I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered my blackness, my ethnic features; deafened by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders, and above all, yes, above all, the grinning Y a bon Banania” (92). Absent from the new translation are the tom-toms (le tympan), which still somehow deafen the narrator, even when the verb défoncer means to batter or smash in. How, one might ask in exasperation, is one to decipher the reference to “Y a bon Banania,” an advertisement for a French chocolate drink mix that uses a grinning black caricature that is not unlike Aunt Jemima, without so much as a footnote?
These issues aside, the realization that one is black induces “nausea,” shame, and it locks the black man in an infernal circle that makes it impossible for “either side to obliterate the past once and for all” (96, 101). But much like the Jew who once stood in as the symbol of humanity, the black man is now forced to do the same; the struggle for disalienation carries within it the emergent universal category of man. The black man thus finds himself faced with the task of transcendence. He is only a rational subject whom others can recognize in spite of this blackness. However the extent to which the black man is an object of racism he cannot be a subject. “The black man is a toy in the white man’s hands” (119). Elsewhere, quoting René Étiemble, the narrator observes, “the white man will always be able to find a specious argument: shameful, dubious, and thus doubly effective” (149). There is then a bad-faith quality to racism that delivers it its affective charge. And Fanon is interested in inquiring: What kind of a subject (with a weakened or hyper-cathected ego) needs the affirmation of the other?
The only way out of this dual narcissism is to liquidate history so that one can recognize that what is attributed to the other is what one should attribute to oneself. The book ends with the words: “Was my freedom not given to me to build the world of you? At the end of this book we would like the reader to feel with us the open dimension of every consciousness” (206, translation modified). Fanon urges that the same affect that is enlisted in racism (which, when it is negative and destructive is what we refer to as authoritarianism) is, when it is turned inside out, the dynamic invested with the hope of destroying racism—the denied, twisted investment in the other that racism plays on is the same affective source for the obliteration of racism! The interracial utopian vision in BSWM is that this transformation needs to occur within the context of capitalism. This is what it means that “whiteness” is the black’s “destiny.” Fanon attempts to hook the temporal core of psychoanalysis explicitly to the Marxist conception of emancipation.
Disalienation will be for those Whites and Blacks who have refused to let themselves be locked in the substantialized “tower of the past.” For many other black men disalienation will come from refusing to consider their reality as definitive….In no way do I have to dedicate myself to reviving a black civilization unjustly ignored. I will not make myself the man of any past. I do not want to sing the past to the detriment of my present and my future. (201)
Here, in order to underscore the idea that overcoming the narcissism at the core of racism requires one to break the repetition compulsion of the neurotic symptom, Fanon cites Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) to the effect that the socialist revolution draws its poetry from the future. His emphasis on the role of the individual fits this interpretation: On the one hand, the fact that individuals mediate society means racism can be overcome in a future based on the elements that are already available; on the other hand, “race” is a reified category that identifies individuals with society. “I am not a prisoner of History….I must constantly remind myself that the real leap consists of introducing invention in life….And it is by going beyond the historical and instrumental given that I initiate my cycle of freedom” (204–205).
BSWM makes it clear that emancipation from the psychopathology of racism would mean emancipation from “History” which is itself the manifestation of capital. The collapse of the utopian framework of BSWM in W of E amounts to an affective disorientation over what is versus what ought to be the relationship between the struggles against oppressions of various kinds that are reproduced in the context of capital, that therefore also contribute to its reproduction, in the struggle to overcome capital. As the narrator in BSWM cautions, “[a] long time ago the black man acknowledged the undeniable superiority of the white man” (202). This superiority was synonymous with capitalism, but insofar as the aim of the black man shifts from trying to achieve a “white existence” to “culture,” so much the worse. He asks in frustration: “What am I supposed to do with a black empire?…I am French. I am interested in French culture, French civilization, and the French,” “[all] I wanted…[was] to be a man among men” (179, 92). After all, “I should like nothing better” than to drown in “the white flood composed of men like Sartre and Aragon,” since as a man “the Peloponnesian War is as much mine as the invention of the compass” (179, 200). The fact is often overlooked, in light of the uncritical enthusiasm for Third World nationalism in W of E, but Fanon supported départementalisation over independence for Martinique after World War II. His call to arms in W of E, “come comrades…let us flee this stagnation [of Europe] where dialectics has gradually turned into a logic of the status quo,” fit a wider trend on the Left which sought to locate the future of socialism in Third World movements. This shift, which renders the utopianism of BSWM implausible, is useful negatively, in provoking a critical recognition of the ways in which the Left abandoned the aim of emancipation. The limitations of a spatial “fix” to the temporal dynamic of capital are all the more salient in light of historical failures of decolonization to achieve autonomy or autarky in the ex-colonies. These failures obscure, putting it simply, what the black narrator of BSWM advocates, namely the rejection of ontology. The Arab like the black Martiniquan had the right to refuse being in the name of becoming. Yet the reification or naturalization of race is surely what Fanon’s final prayer in BSWM is intended to stave off: “My final prayer: O my body, make of me always a man who questions” (206). It is thus in the poetry of BSWM rather than in the fervent cries of W of E that Fanon represents what the Left should aspire to be, namely “hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” |P
. His other, more minor works include, A Dying Colonialism (L’An Cinq de la Révolution Algérienne ) as well as Toward the African Revolution (Pour la Révolution Africaine ).
. All references to the older translation by Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967) are indicated by the abbreviation CLM.
. See Homi K. Bhabha’s influential essay “Interrogating Identity: Frantz Fanon and the Postcolonial Prerogative,” in The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 40–65.
. W of E was lauded by the New Left Islamist Ali Shariati as an inspiration for the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Yet Fanon the Marxist probably stood no chance once the mullahs turned their ire against their leftist counterparts who were treated as atheistic interlopers in their revolution. Fanon is also often remembered as a mujahid (warrior) of the Algerian War. However there is no space in the martyrologies of the Arab-Islamist FLN for Fanon. He occupies a liminal space even in Martinique, where Aimé Césaire, the chief theorist of the negritude movement Fanon critiqued in BSWM, made it clear: “He chose. He became Algerian. Lived, fought and died Algerian.” Even within France the “68ers” completely overlooked Fanon in their enthusiasm for the “revolutions” then afoot in China and Vietnam. For more on the ambivalent ways in which Fanon is remembered see the excellent biographical work by David Macey, Frantz Fanon (New York: Picador, 2000).
. Richard Philcox contributes an afterword, “On Retranslating Fanon, Retrieving a Lost Voice,” to The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 241–251.
. A more complete consideration of the awkward relationship between existentialism and phenomenology in BSWM is beyond the remit of this review, but if the earlier Markmann translation was weighted toward existentialism, in the new edition Philcox sometimes veers in the opposite direction. For example, in the conclusion, Fanon writes, “Je suis solidaire de l’Etre dans la mesure où je le dépasse” (Peau Noire, Masques Blancs [Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952], 186). Markmann had translated this as “I am a part of Being to the degree that I go beyond it,” capturing the reference to Sartre’s L’Etre et le Néant (Being and Nothingness ), whereas Philcox translates this sentence much more freely as “I show my solidarity with humanity provided I can go one step further” (229 CLM; 204).
. We should be thankful that the translator breaks the model first adopted in his retranslation of W of E, where “negro” is substituted with “black man” whenever the speaker refers to West Indians or Africans and “nigger” is retained only when the colonizer refers to the same, or else the entire thrust of BSWM would be lost.
. For a suggestive article on this subject, see Amanda Armstrong, “On the Relationship Between Psychoanalysis and Emancipatory Politics” Platypus Review 2 (February 2008).
. Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry (Indianapolis: Bob-Merrills Company, 1904), 90.