Reflections on Sudipta Kaviraj’s ‘Marxism in Translation’

Posted: 02/03/2011 by Aditya Nigam in Caste, Culture, Marxism, Politics, Sudipta Kaviraj, Theory
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[The following is a revised version of some comments made during a discussion with Sudipta Kaviraj at the Centre for the Study of Developing Socoeties, Delhi on 21 October 2010. Kaviraj made a presentation based on a recent essay of his ‘Marxism in Translation: Critical Reflections on Indian Political Thought’ (published in Political Judgement: Essays in Honour of John Dunn, Eds Raymond Geuss and Richard Bourke) to which some of us responded. AN]

It is interesting to revisit, with Sudipta Kaviraj, the field of ‘Indian Marxism’. It is an abandoned field, a piece of haunted land where no living beings go – at least not in their senses. What is more, it is a field that ‘Indian Marxists’ themselves are afraid of revisiting. It is their past – the land of the dead, of unfulfilled ancestral spirits, where the ghosts of yesteryears hang like betaal from every tree. The terror of this forbidden territory has redoubled, after the collapse of socialism. It is as if some deep secrets of the past lie buried there which they would rather not bring back to life, for fear of what might be revealed to them of their own selves. It is strange but true that Marxists who swear by history are perhaps as afraid of it as anybody else.

And yet, we must visit that forbidden land, ‘summon up the ghosts of that nether-world’ in the hope that there may yet emerge another tale, maybe many other tales, that may throw some light on an idea that once seduced generations of modern Indians. For, it is all too easy to dismiss marxism as such, and Indian marxism in particular, as a bad dream, as some illegitimate idea that once took hold of us and kept us in that trance-like situation for almost a century (one could say, from the 1920s, at least). It is almost as if there was nothing to Indian Marxism except that it pathetically tried to copy one strand of European thought and history and implant it on Indian soil. It is all too easy, as has been often done in the past, to dismiss this episode as one where entire generations supposedly sleepwalked in the mistaken belief that they were awake – living a misrecognition, as it were.   How exactly did that happen? Presumably, if this rendition of our history is to be believed, the marxists of yore were doped (or duped) by the material successes of the West into believing that they could also all become Western/ modern overnight. The problem with this all too familiar, populist representation is that it forgets that it was not only the English speaking, west-oriented middles classes who were drawn towards marxism, but also large sections of the non-English speaking people of the regional language universe. It forgets too, the tremendous attraction that this vision held for the poorer and more underprivileged sections of Indian society. Thus we owe it to ourselves and to future generations, to take a fresh look at that entire episode. It is necessary for us to revisit the haunted land.

And so, Sudipta Kaviraj must be complimented for having made this foray, if somewhat too briefly, into that world.

Sudipta’s own engagement with the communist movement and what he calls its ‘theoretical history’ has been fairly long – beginning with his doctoral thesis on the split in the Communist Party of India. While that thesis dealt with the more ‘ideological’ [i.e. doctrinal] questions – questions with which communists are as a rule more comfortable, for beyond a point they have little to do with real life – this particular essay, interestingly, deals with the problem of ‘translation’ and what in his judgement is the failure of translation. Very much at stake in this exercise then, is the question of the real world.

Sudipta begins by positing in a somewhat marxist vein, a link between thought and social positionality. If this argument is taken seriously, he says, then it raises important questions for cases where Marxism or any Western-derived theory is used to analyze a non-Western social structure: how is this theory to be ‘translated’ into the different social ecology of Indian society, which is historically and culturally different? And here Kaviraj zeroes in on caste and the way in which Marxists completely ‘missed’ seeing the reality of caste. He also suggests that the primacy of class analysis “drew radical politics inevitably towards those parts of India where this sociology could apply with some felicity” and suggests that “it was hardly surprising that these were the industrialized metropolitan regions” (187).

I find this assertion quite intriguing, and problematic. For, except for the initial successes in Bombay and Kanpur, Indian Marxism actually found a more enduring habitat in Bengal and Kerala – and largely among the peasantry (recall the Tebhaga or the Punnapra-Vyalar movements for example). Similarly, its spectacular success with the Telengana peasantry is hardly a case of success in an industrialized metropolitan region.

I will come back to the question of caste later, but for the present, let me underline a serious ‘methodological’ problem I find with this essay. My main methodological objection is that Sudipta Kaviraj actually walks into that world, already framing it in a sense, with a pre-formed, abstract ‘theory’. We cannot start with the assumption that marxism in India was the same thing that it was in the West. In large part the difficulty with the ‘translation’ problematic lies in its assumption that Marxism in India was trying to achieve the same results as its namesake/s in the West. My point is not to deny that there is a serious problem of translation involved here but we actually need to figure out what marxism in India was trying to do in different phases of its existence. And in order to do this, we need more stories of what was going on, what people were thinking and dealing with in their everyday lives. So my first point is that we must go there like story-tellers – for good story-tellers must also be good listeners and collectors of stories.

The larger intellectual backdrop for my claim is provided by an argument that Sudipta himself and others began many years ago: that there is a problem of serious misrecognition if we look at terms like ‘equality’ or ‘rights’ used by say nationalists and assume they carry the same meanings as they do in the West. It was Sudipta’s work for instance that made us aware that when the discourse of right and equality came to colonial India, nationalists quickly took these terms and transposed them from their context of the autonomous individual to that of the national community. At one level, this was a parallel argument to Partha Chatterjee’s riposte to Benedict Anderson and his claim that it was completely misleading to see nationalist thought in the colonies as a derivative discourse, as a mere import of a modular form; that even if at the level of the ‘thematic’ it drew from Western thought, at the level of the ‘problematic’, it was fashioning an entirely different set of propositions. In other words, if we are to understand the formations of thought and politics of movements in the postcolonial world, it is necessary to reverse the question: Instead of arguing that they mistranslated Marxism, we must ask, what were they doing with marxism? Were they doing the same thing that marxists in the west were doing? Always?

There is another problem that I have with Sudipta’s text: it forgets that between marxism’s birth in Europe and its appearance in India, there is a whole history that rewrote its script – the history that Gramsci called the revolution against Das Kapital. The dislocation of Marxism from its specific context of birth and its move into the largely noncapitalist world of Russia and the colonies is a crucial moment of that history. It was in this move that the first big transformation of marxism took place. From a doctrine of anti-capitalism it became a theory of anti-imperialism and anticolonial nationalism. The well-known early debate on the ‘National and Colonial Question’ in the Comintern where MN Roy famously crossed swords with Lenin, was the moment when roles were reversed. If Marxism as a text had as its addressee the European proletariat, its entry into the colonial world was one where the new nationalist elites ‘hailed’ marxism and took it over, making it perform what they wanted it to perform. And it was actually made to perform not one but many different tasks.

The structure of this thought needs much closer examination, for, here the question of equality was not absent; it certainly animated these early Marxists – but it was always subordinate to that of national independence.

For the present, however, let me briefly indicate here some of the immensely diverse ways in which marxism came to perform certain very different functions.

Let us remember that the first group of people in India to be drawn towards the marxist ideal were the mohajirs who had gone on self-chosen exile. They were religiously motivated devout Muslims and MN Roy tells us in his memoirs that once he told them that revolution meant more than simply driving the British out, they transferred wholesale, their allegiance from Islam to communism. I have argued elsewhere that neither then, nor for many years later, did allegiance to communism demand a severance of relations with religious belief for the simple reason that, at that time, it was perceived to be a political doctrine. It was not a whole new ‘world-view’ that sought to control every part of the believer’s being. I must underline that here and later on, I am referring here to a phase of marxism’s existence in India before it became fully Bolshevized and Stalinized. This period lasts till about the 1940s – and in some places, where the control of the party apparatus was weak, till much later. Many of these stories have been banished from official accounts as well. This delayed temporality of Bolshevization is itself worth a separate study. Comintern’s and Stalin’s Marxism could not be implemented immediately and in some unadulterated fashion, everywhere.

It is also interesting to note that in Bengal for example, there is a very high degree of involvement of Muslims in the communist movements as organizers and propagandists – starting with Muzaffar Ahmed and Kazi Nazrul Islam to Abdul Halim and many others. Most of these people were from very small town backgrounds, often of very modest means and not keyed into global pan-Islamism like the mohajirs, but they were believers nonetheless as Muzaffar Ahmed acknowledges in his autobiography (Aamar Jibon O Bharater Communist Party). My claim here is that as Congress nationalism became more and more a domain of the Hindu upper castes, marxism stepped in to provide a new language of anticolonialism to the Muslims who wished to stay away from the Muslim League platform. The ML, let us recall, was formed in 1906 in Bengal (in Dhaka, to be precise) and Bengal remained its important and most powerful base.

On the other hand, in Northern India there were extremely interesting other developments that were taking shape. The combined activity of the colonial state, the nationalist elites and the declining Muslim elites (in terms of their cultural power, after 1857) over the previous decades, had instituted a deep split between Hindi and Urdu paralleling the Hindu-Muslim divide. ‘Communism’ emerged here as the only platform that attempted to straddle this divide, however uncomfortably. Uncomfortably, because the Progressive Writers Association for example, remained till independence a platform of Urdu writers – viewed suspiciously by Hindi writers, despite the presence of someone like Premchand. However it did try to take within its fold the universe of common Hindi-Urdu literature apart from the distinctively Hindi and Urdu ones. Politically, too, it is important to remember that apart from Gandhi, the communists were the only force trying to unsuccessfully bridge the ever-widening divide between the Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi was trying to do so from within an explicitly Hindu discursive universe whereas communists were attempting to carve out a secular idiom for doing so. Both failed. But both were heroic efforts of swimming against a tide that was to throw the entire subcontinent into an orgy of endless violence for decades to come.

It is interesting in this context to recall that the formation of the PWA was occasioned by the fact that a collection of Urdu short stories Angaare, had been banned for obscenity under the pressure of the more aggressive religious Muslim leadership. The writers contributing to the volume, it is well known, hailed from the North Indian Muslim elite. Among their concerns then were questions of sexuality and individual liberty. This was a very different universe from that of many Hindi writers and intellectuals like Premchand (who of course straddles both worlds), Ram Vilas Sharma and Rahul Sankrityayan who came from relatively much more modest, if not underprivileged backgrounds. Ram Vilas Sharma, from his specifically upper caste Hindi/Hindu universe, enunciated the Hindi jati thesis that saw the Hindi nationality as akin to Bengali or other such, where the distinction between Hindus and Muslims was to be subsumed within a larger linguistic-national identity. It could, of course, never be acceptable to the Muslims but the fact remains that it was an influential idea in giving the Hindi public sphere a more liberal shape. The subsequent trajectory of this thesis is also worth a serious study, for as the divide between Hindus and Muslims and a parallel one between Hindi and Urdu became institutionalized, the thesis of a Hindi jati could not but become more and more exclusivist.

In a sense, to a much larger public, marxism in India as in many other colonies, was a language that was at once modern and provided possibilities for a critique of the West. It was a language that allowed a critique of tradition alongside a critique of imperialism, colonialism and aspects of  modernity in general. That was where its power and its appeal came from.

Much more can be said about the many different marxisms in India, but we can let these instances suffice. I want to now return to the question of caste and its ‘strange disappearance’. Kaviraj talks about two notions of class in Marx: class 1 that is class as a specific category that is relevant for his economic analyses of capitalism and class 2, as a more general category – a placeholder or a conceptual blank that requires more specific filling up in different context, especially non-capitalist contexts. It was here that the labour of translation was required in order to see caste as a historically and culturally specific form of class. To quote him:

“Their inability to distinguish between the two senses of class – class1 and class 2 – compounded this problem, and turned the caste-class debate particularly unpromising for social analysis, and this meant that Marxists must insist on a much more developed state of a capitalist society in India than was plausible to assert in the 1950s.”

Sudipta links the strange disappearance of ‘caste’ from marxist discourse to this ‘misleading sociology’ of the communists. I have argued at length elsewhere that this disappearance of ‘caste’ had nothing specifically marxist about it but was constitutive of nationalist modernity in both its incarnations – secular-nationalist as well as Hindu nationalist. ‘Caste’ is elided with scrupulous regularity through all secular nationalist and marxist writings (including Nehru’s) as much as it is in the discourse of Hindu nationalism. It is as problematic for the Kaka Kalelkar Commission, whose members develop serious doubts about their own report even as they submit it, as it is for RSS members in parliament debating on the bill on reservations in the late 1970s (which led to the constitution of the Mandal Commission). The discourse of the anti-Mandal agitation of the early 1990s which spoke of ‘merit’ and ‘efficiency’ as the counter to caste as also the discourse of outfits like the Youth For Equality exactly replicate the terms of Nehru’s discomfiture with the Kaka Kalelkar commission report; they are also of a piece with the Hindu nationalists on social cohesion (samrasata) as the basis of national identity. To attribute caste-blindness only to marxists and their mistaken sociology is to completely misrecognize the very constitution of our modernity.

Finally, to conclude: does this mean that we do not or should not critique Indian marxism? Certainly not. Sudipta Kaviraj’s critique of Indian marxism within the translation problematic is quite pertinent as far as it is a critique of the Stalinist apparatus and its officially sanctioned sociology. It is true that institutionalized party marxism has done immense damage both intellectually as well as ‘spiritually’. It has, in trying to seize, control and excise these other marxisms, reinstated wholesale all the problematic universalisms of Western marxism and what is worse, in schematized, caricatured form that is opposed to all innovations in thought. That marxism has become truly inward-looking and detached from all concerns to any real world – anachronistic and mummified as Gramsci once put it. At best, it is a historical document of a phase of history long past, whose outdated vocabulary it incessantly repeats. However, even with respect to this institutional Marxism, it is difficult to understand its continuing presence in the life of West Bengal and Kerala, as simply a political phenomenon. At some level, it should be remembered that this institutional Marxism draws its sustenance from the deeper cultural resources of these cultures. And that has been possible because marxism in these states has been constitutively part of the emergence of a modern Bengali or Malayali identity.

I would like to suggest that our critique of Indian marxisms must (a) be based on a careful distinction between different phases and tendencies within Indian Marxism. We must also be able to distinguish the effects of the Stalinist apparatus from the relatively more free and multiply-mediated relations into which marxism was inserted in its long journey in India. (b) It must be able to see how it did or did not relate to the dominant discourses of modernity and nationalism in India.

In the end, I wish to take serious issue with Kaviraj on his reading of the Nehru-Ambedkar relationship. In the last section of his essay, entitled ‘Judgement and Political Efficacy’, talking of two different strands of the translation of the idea of equality – radical and liberal – he claims: “There is hardly any doubt now that the more ambitious, radical Marxist version was far less successful than the liberal one represented by Nehru and Ambedkar.” This sentence ends with the footnote that says:

” It is essential, for political realism, to stress the unpopular point that Ambedkar, undoubtedly the pre-eminent leader of the dalits in modern India, was critically reliant on Congress support and Nehru’s dominance inside the Congress. A gathering impulse of hagiographic exaggeration of Ambedkar’s single-handed impact on Indian society through its constitution does serious damage to an unexcited assessment of causes and consequences in political history.”

This astonishing claim is followed up by further cogitation on how it was Nehru’s astuteness that led to Ambedkar’s inclusion in the new political elite. In my opinion, this is a complete misreading – indeed misrepresentation – of the actual situation as it unfolded during the critical years of 1946-47. Anybody even cursorily aware of that history will know that Ambedkar was actually completely sidelined in the run-up to the negotiations on the Cabinet Mission plan and the subsequent negotiations where he was not even invited. It was in that context that Ambedkar had to revive his Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF) and enter into a political alliance with the Muslim League. The May 16, Cabinet Mission plan had envisaged a three-tiered federal structure for independent India but within two days of his election as Congress President, Nehru made his belligerent statement to the effect that the Congress had made no commitment to the Viceroy or to the Cabinet Mission about the constituent assembly. This statement was actually aimed at Muslim League – for the demand for a three-tiered federation was actually the only way to avoid Partition at that point and had been considered keeping the ML demands in mind. It was this that led to the forging of the new alliance between the ML and the SCF. Nine days after Nehru’s declaration, Ambedkar was elected to the Constituent Assembly as independent member from Bengal with Muslim League support.  The weeks to follow saw joint agitation of the SCF and the ML with the leaders of the latter addressing the public meetings of the former, supporting its claim for separate representation in the negotiations.

The very existence of this alliance was a slap in the face of the Congress to represent the ‘nation’ and even if they could stigmatize the ML as ‘anti-national’, the SCF’s being in alliance was a huge embarrassment.  It was, therefore, in order to break this alliance that the wily Sardar Patel began to pursue Gandhi to meet Ambedkar. Gandhi in his wisdom refused saying that he would not negotiate with someone who was prepared to change his religion opportunistically. When every effort to convince Gandhi failed, Patel decided to abandon him. It was actually the Partition that gave Patel his real chance. Ambedkar lost his seat in the Constituent Assembly and it was at this moment that Patel, having also perhaps persuaded Nehru, offered support to get Ambedkar elected as Congress candidate from the Bombay Legislative Council. And it is this same logic that propels the new leadership to appoint Ambedkar as the Law Minister in the new government. I have written about this at length in my piece A Text Without Author: Locating the Constituent Assembly as EventEconomic and Political Weekly, May 22, 2004, also published in Rajeev Bhargava (Ed 2009), Politics and Ethics of the Indian Constitution, OUP Delhi. It is not necessary here to restate the entire argument or replay the entire drama here. Suffice it to mention that Ambedkar was not merely being ‘used’ by the Patel-Nehru leadership and had his own reasons to make the moves he did, once he realized that partition/independence was imminent. But that is another story.

  1. […] Essays in Honour of John Dunn, Eds Raymond Geuss and Richard Bourke) to which some of us responded. Cross-posted in Critical Encounters. […]

  2. vijay sharma says:

    good reading.but then all erudite texts are open to misuse,misrepresentation,clever uses and improvisations with sinister motives.this will be no exception,i hope.
    but the writing on the wall is clear and explicit.
    vijay sharma

  3. ritam sengupta says:

    Thanks!! This is very very helpful especially for some of us outside Delhi who could not attend the discussion; would it perhaps be possible to post the comments of the other discussants?.

    I would want to add here that in this context it is probably worth thinking about the possibility that even in the career of institutional Marxism (where the problematic was really to replicate the thematic) the earlier phases would have some formative influences, a certain persistence- as one of the results of which, what was produced self-referentially as ‘Marxism’ in India would have to constantly face accusations- ‘pseudo communism’, ‘revisionism’, etc.- from within. Such accusations would then not simply be about the incorrect translation of theory to practice or deradicalisation/bourgeois deviations. They would be criticism leveled at certain (discursive) worldviews based on alternative (discursive) worldviews (themselves the product of both the past and the present of the critical practices in question). I was wondering if this ‘internal history’ of institutional Marxism in India is then to be thought (alongside its association with the construction of regional identities) as a little more than practices dealing with obsolete entities, maybe as certain practices of the self, as a production of distinct political subjectivities in the exercise of Marxism in India. Perhaps such a perspective would resist us from ignoring the still existing Marxist (again, by way of self-reference) ‘political’ practices in India and allow us to form a more nuanced historical account of our political present without rendering invisible certain political existence(s) both inside and outside the framework of formal democracy….

  4. Inasu Thalak says:

    an extremely insightful incursion into the
    complicated, almost century long history of
    Marxism in India. The Indian intellectuals,
    almost all of them being of non-dalit origin,fail viscerally to consider the system of caste primarily as an economic category of domination, denial and exclusion. Only a few radicals could perceive the phenomenon thus. The majority
    belonging to the upper castes and flaunting
    the socalled modenist, liberl,’socialist’
    mantle,instictively failed to see caste as the cruellest form of class division. Of course it was not in the interest of their
    class! This situation continues to this day.

  5. Aditya Nigam says:

    Thanks Ritam and Inasu for your responses. Ritam, I am not sure I can get the other responses as I am not sure they were in written form. I can try. I agree with the general point you make but am not sure if I can or want to read the tiring doctrinal debates (revisionism, neo-revisionism, pseudo-communism etc) in terms that you suggest. I am sure, even there, sometimes, there are ‘irruptions’ of non-doctrinal matters withing the discourse. Yes, I do think that the relationship of institutional marxism with regional identities is very important (especially in Bengal and Kerala) and has not been studied very seriously. I hope to be able to do some of that sometime.

  6. sordidday says:

    Reblogged this on sordidday.

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