Monday, January 18, 2010

Man and history

"It is man and man alone who creates history" (Jyoti Basu, 1914-2010)

It is appropriate to pay respect to the departed comrades: Jyoti Basu, who passed away yesterday in Kolkata at the age of 95, was a historic figure of the communist movement worldwide. I will not be getting into an analysis of what his tenure as the longest serving head of a democratically elected communist government achieved in West Bengal. There are people who are more expert and closer to the local reality to judge. It is clear, however, that the fact itself that a state with a population of over 80 millions, which makes West Bengal larger than any single one of the main European nations, had been governed for half a century by a democratically elected communist party, is a fact of crucial significance in world history. Too often the dominating Cold War propaganda, which dragged on, in Europe and elsewhere, well beyond the end of the Cold War era, had tried to persuade the general public that a Marxist version of Communism would be strictly incompatible with a political system based on an elective democracy. Well, perhaps the biggest contribution of Jyoti Basu to world history lies in having proven that this claim is simply wrong. Basu served as Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1977 to 2000, the longest-serving Chief Minister of India, and a record time in office compared to any democratically elected leader worldwide. What made the fortune of the Communist Party of India (Marxists) and its Left Front government coalition was a mixture of massive land reforms, the general support with the population gained after the difficult experience of West Bengal in the 1970s, torn by the experience of war, of the refugee crisis and of the Emergency. The two states of India with the strongest communist tradition, West Bengal and Kerala, have also the highest literacy rate, the lowest incidence of communal violence, and the best profile on issues such as women rights. West Bengal has additionally retained its leading role in culture and the arts, as well as a rapidly expanding presence on the scene of the current Indian scientific blooming. The CPI(M) has its opponents, to the right and to the left: among the latter, most prominently, a very composite archipelago of Maoist movements. Nonetheless, Basu has been highly regarded as a political figure by supporters and opponents alike.

The historic heritage of communism around the world is very diverse and very fragmented. Perhaps the most serious criticism that communist intellectuals can raise against what they would regard as their own political culture is this tendency to continuously split along the fault lines of ideological differences: Marxists-Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists, Anarcho-Socialists, and so on. The label of "Revisionist" has been thrown infinitely many times at one or another target, akin to "traitor" or worse. In the end, these endless cracks opening up in the body of the international workers movement have only had the effect of weakening it, diluting it to an impotent homeopathy of ideology. The reaction, which efficiently created all the monstrous European and South American Fascisms of the 20th century, all finding their "justification" of existence in the need to stop the advancing of Communism, does not waste time in debating subtle ideological differences: they just go in straight for the kill, while we waste most of our energies deciding whether an already minuscule communist faction in this or that country should further split into two even more ineffective groups over a difference of interpretation of a line in the Grundrisse. The communist leaders who really make history are only those who have the intelligence to adopt an inclusive viewpoint on ideology. This is not the much feared "revisionism", comrades, it is reality knocking loudly at the door!

The international workers movement has a rich tradition which encompasses Anarchy, various version of 19th century Socialism, Marxism and all its historic derivatives throughout the 20th century, as well as the practical, empirical, experience of trade unions, women rights activism, the civil rights movement, the students movement of 1968. We come from very far and if we want to have a fighting chance to keep going very far, we better accept that all of these experiences are with us to stay and they do not have to form a water tight package of ideological consistency in order to be effective. There will always be contradictory stands anyway, there is no way to avoid it, except the repressive one which does not lead anywhere. Our strength is in unity, but "unity in diversity". The experience of India can hopefully teach something to the rest of the world, which is struggling with the burden of being unaccustomed to diversity. This is why the Indian experience of Communism is so relevant to the world. There is no perfect solution, no silver bullet, not even the Revolution and the "final struggle" our fathers sang about. The Bengali solution is also, like everything, a compromise, one that works and doesn't work, one that has good sides and bad ones. We are not building a workers paradise, nor are we seriously changing the deeper nature of humankind, not as our culture had once hoped to do. The youth of ideology is a landscape of dreams, but the struggle that matters in our everyday life is the one that diminishes exploitation of the poor by the rich, that contributes to give to all human beings equal dignity, regardless of their race and gender, that broadens people's access to good education, to good medical care, it is the act of standing up against wars, against brutality and oppression wherever they manifest themselves. These are not secondary tasks, this is the essence of what makes us "progressive", a progress conquered step by step, with the burden of all our contradictions.
The struggle carries on.