Commissar Karat in October 1917

In his opening passage of the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx attributed to Hegel (somewhat mistakenly) the idea “that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice” and added sardonically that Hegel forgot to add: “First time as tragedy, second time as farce.” He went on to illustrate his comment thus: “Caussidiere for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851[66] for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.”

Marx’s point was simple but profound. The tradition of the dead generations, he claimed, weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living: “Just as they [revolutionaries, ‘men’] seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95.”

Believe it or not, Prakash Karat in his Twenty Second July, is the Lenin and Manmohan Singh his Kerensky. On the 21st, his very own Pravda, The Hindu reported him saying that “the country would revolt if it [the govt] tried to push the India-U.S. nuclear deal in case it lost the trust vote in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday.” The country would revolt? On the Indo-US Nuclear Deal? You must be joking. Most Indians, like it or not, couldn’t care less about the deal. If anything they might think, rightly or wrongly, that in the current world scenario, it is best to be on the right side of the USA.

Let us be clear. Our point here is not the deal as such. Others on Kafila have commented on it and related issues like that of nuclear energy itself, on other occasions. My point here is simply of this fantastic assessment of a ‘country rising in revolt’ – almost as dramatic as Karat’s assertion a few days ago that “we are telling the allies that ‘the UPA is a sinking ship’.” (A friend of course remarked: Hmmm, so the rats are deserting the sinking ship). Be that as it may, please do not miss the great Leninist re-enactment here. Remember Lenin: “The people are voting with their feet” – i.e. deserting the war front, just as they are deserting the Kerensky (Manmohan Singh) government (a bit like rats deserting the sinking ship).

So is commissar Karat completely oblivious of the mass mood, unlike the astute politician and revolutionary he is emulating? Does he really think that the country is on the verge of a revolutionary upsurge? In the last sixty-odd years of the Indian republic, despite the best efforts of parties like his – and umpteen others – the most you could get were local revolts. Even the much celebrated Telengana and Tebhaga uprisings were just local revolts. But maybe Karat is not that naïve – maybe he does understand. Despite his complete lack of understanding, both of Indian society as well as the world of politics. From Edinburgh to JNU student politics to the Politburo is not exactly the route that would enable gaining this understanding. Karat never had to discover his India, unlike say Nehru, who after returning from Cambridge had to undergo the rigours of building a mass nationalist movement, as an understudy of Mahatma Gandhi. His own party leader Jyoti Basu too returned from England as a trained lawyer in the 1930s, only to be asked by Muzaffar Ahmed (then leader of the Bengal CPI) to go and work among the railway workers. And you can see the difference. One came up through hard grassroot work of mobilizing and building a movement, while the other just descended from the heights. One student leader of JNU had in fact coined this phrase to describe the trajectory of the likes to Karat: Nothing succeeds like Sussex, he would say. So you can see the difference. Karat can only say anything worth anything on issues that demand neither an understanding of Indian society nor of politics as such – the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, for example. For the rest, his strategy is of staying away from the hurly burly of mass politics and power.

Recall Marx’s profound remarks above, where he comments that in moments of crisis, revolutionaries “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes”. For the parallels with 1917 do not end here. It is a trifle amusing but nevertheless interesting to read the following from Lenin’s text The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution, penned in September 1917. After berating the government for its continuation of the imperialist war in alliance with imperialist powers like Britain, France and others, he goes on to say:
“(T)he new government…has not even published the secret treaties of an obviously predatory character…which as everybody knows, binds Russia (India) to Anglo-French (US) predatory imperialist capital.”

It is as though the entire script of the Karatian drama was lifted straight from the repertoire of the Russian revolution! Truly prophetic was Marx, at least in this respect. First time as tragedy, second time as farce!

And thus the dice was thrown by Karat and his men. My use of this gendered term (‘men’) is intentional, given that Karat and all his little commissars have been aggressively displaying their manhood, promising a scintillating ‘fight to the finish.’ It wasn’t enough to oppose the deal and withdraw support from the government. Like real men, they want a fight to the finish, even if that means ‘traveling in the same railway compartment’ with the fascists who have so long been waiting in the wings. The sinking morale of the BJP has suddenly disappeared. In its stead we saw Advani and his entourage suddenly come alive. Wiser counsels like that of Jyoti Basu’s were of no use. We must teach the UPA a lesson, Moochh ka sawal hai. Many of us could almost hear them say, “We’ll show them who has a bigger youknowhat….”

But all the bluster apart, the Gen Secretary suddenly realized that the game was not going according to plan. There was no mass uprising in evidence anywhere. In fact, even the other parties were not prepared to back this misadventure whose poetry they hardly understood. At last he decided to do the unthinkable. He drove to Mayawati’s place. You don’t have to be especially astute to figure out that at this particular moment, she is really angry with the Congress and the UPA and will be a willing partner in this toppling game. She doesn’t quite care whether the Deal stays or goes. She was clear: Our only purpose is to topple this government. All the while Karat spoke to her about the pros and cons of the N-deal, she was planning her future political moves. After all, Mayawati knows her India, her constituency and her political ground. She knows that ultimately Karat needs her support not she. She knows this because, despite withdrawing support to the UPA, she did not precipitate a crisis. She had neither manhood issues to settle nor was she in any hurry. She knew and knows that the game is hers to play in the long run. And sure enough, commissar Karat must realize, his fortunes started changing the minute he managed to enlist Mayawati’s support. Even within his own party, the alliance with Mayawati has livened up many a depressed soul. He should realize what both the BJP and Mayawati herself know: the game now onwards is hers. We wish her well. After all, all history is unintended consequence. Who would have thought the opposition to the N-deal would catapult Mayawati to the center-stage?

9 thoughts on “Commissar Karat in October 1917”

  1. Karat, now the eternal joker. Even Yechury kept away. Power without responsibility. I suggest bringing all the rhetorical left wing critics into the government to teach them that there is a world in which people live out there. Spewing theory is all enlightened, provide the people with things that might make their life easier, rather than spin doctor words to sound intellectual.


  2. Dear Rameshwar,
    First, I am sure you understand that the idea in the opening lines from Marx (with an attribution to Hegel) is meant to be a sort of literary trope whereby Marx seeks to make a point about mimesis, about imitation of earlier characters and events by those who seek to change the order of things. And it demands that it be read as such. Not literally, as you seem to be doing.
    That said, however, I am sure that you are aware that there are powerful arguments – both historical and theoretical – that underline the immense tragedy of the Event of 1917. And most of these come from the Left: the council communists, Rosa Luxembourg, Leon Trotsky…and all those who in vindication of these arguments faced the firing squads. The final argument was of course made by the ‘Soviet’ people who decided that even predatory capitalism was preferable to what 1917 had bequeathed. We may disagree with their judgement by they lived their times. We did not.


  3. A relevant conversation over the Internet –

    Me: The CPI(M) is heading for a split. Should be a post-historic event for them. They have dumped their horse long back anyway. It will be like one of those famous Bengal vs Kerela, Santosh Trophy matches.

    Mohinder: Great!

    Me: Bidhan said, the CPI(M)’s relevance in Indian politics is over.

    Mohinder: And you know why this happened? Because the CPI(M) and the communist parties generally never considered Indian Politics as relevant. They actually wanted to replace Indian politics with CPI(M)’s dictatorship

    Me: Hmm. Indeed.

    Mohinder: This is the Platonism of the CPI(M)’s philosopher-king mode of thought, basing politics purely on abstract, remote theory and lacking completely in practical wisdom, the phronesis of Aristotle.

    Me: Yes, I was thinking how they always put doctrines over politics. Their politics was always as dirty as the others but their rhetoric was always doctrinaire. A doctrine they don’t really believe in today. So the frustrations are finally being unleashed among themselves as historical/regional animosities are coming out in the open. History has left their yellow pages behind and is now threatening to leave them behind as well.

    Mohinder: They can clean their asses with the yellow pages!

    A Footnote –

    The difference between senility in life and senility in politics is of quantitative importance. In life, only a few around the victim of senility suffer, but in politics a larger community has to bear the effects of the disease. Somenath Chatterjee’s sudden rush of conscience bears no rhyme or reason except the disease of old age, where exaggerated infatuations suddenly take hold over one’s rational capacities and creates monstrous clouds in the mind.

    The CPI (M) in West Bengal has often put their regional identity before their ideological one, testified by their chauvinistic attitude towards the Gorkhaland movement and the amazing show of Bengali solidarity regarding Saurav Ganguli’s recall to the Indian cricket team.


  4. The UPA won the trust vote and the left has lost…everything…which serves them right and im so glad…only wish the government had tried from the begining to create awareness among the people about how significant the deal is for the country…people were/are way too confused…to support either side….and the question of revolt!! how ludicrous!! only karat could say something like that!


  5. I agree with what you say about Karat and the coterie of people surrounding him. It seems that power has really corrupted everything in them and they are digging their own graves. I am a little surprised by your comment on the Soviet people “deciding” that predatory capitalism was better than what 1917 had bequeathed. When did they decide? Did the people of Russia decide all the things that happened in the 90s? My limited conversation with a few Russians tells an entirely different story. According to them, most Russians (of course excluding the oligarchs) look at the Soviet times as a golden age – not perfect but much better than the current appalling conditions. It was of course their lived experience that led them to revolt against the Soviet state and rightly so. But I can hardly accept the fact that they decided or wished what happened after that. And also about Trotsky, when did he or his followers disinherit the experience of 1917? As far as I know, they are mostly admirers of Lenin, but are strong opponents of Stalin, and rightly so.
    Thanks for the article.


  6. Dear Sid,
    Thanks for your comment. I had actually, for the sake of brevity, simply compressed too many things into a small little comment. Now that you ask, let me clarify.
    1. I do think that the ‘moment of 1917’ was a rare and liberatory moment of world-historic significance. Trotsky and others, including Rosa Luxembourg or the Council Communists – even the anarchists, Socialist Revolutionaries etc – never disowned this moment. In fact they continued to celebrate it – and their descendants do so to this day. The dream started souring right from end of the civil war and the ruthless suppression of the Kronstadt revolt (March 1921). It is useful to remember that the sailors of Kronstadt played a truly vanguard role in both the 1905 and the 1917 revolutions. Trotsky had called them the ‘pride and glory of the Russian revolution’. The sailors and inhabitants of Kronstadt had formed a vibrant and egalitarian soviet which was eventually brutally crushed despite offers of mediation by anarchists like Emma Goldman. One has to read Victor Serge’s memoirs (a Bolshevik till the end) to see how this – the ‘Kronstadt moment’ – initiated a decisive move away from the spirit of 1917. Trotsky would of course date the decline from much later – since at this time, he too in true Jacobin style participated in the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt. Most communists who have sought to extricate the Soviet system from the taint of the stalinist counter-revolution have desisted from turning a critical eye towards Lenin, who for all his greatness, was the initiator of many disastrous and anti-democratic measures.
    2. You are absolutely right about the point about the phrase I use (‘the soviet people decided’) for I agree, it is never the people who decide (as in sitting and deliberating and deciding). This is all the more so because in the soviet world it was impossible for ‘the people’ to assemble anywhere to deliberate or to form institutional mechanisms to ensure such process. However, the revolt of 1990-91, after Gorbachov removed the lid, was unprecedented in its mass sweep and support. So much so that when Ligachev and his cohorts removed Gorbachov in a coup, the sheer pressure of the mass movement forced them out and in fact, ensured that the mass mood swung further to the ‘right’: It was then that they seem to have realized that Gorbachov was too mild and hesitant in dismantling the old system and thus entered Yeltsin. Remember that nobody had the guts – not even the soviet army to step in the way of that mass revolt; such was its power. Of course, nobody knows in advance what the consequences of their decision would be. Nor did the soviet people. But there comes a time in politics when people realize that irrespective of whether there is any alternative, they have to get rid of the present rulers. That was the moment at which Yeltsin stepped in and people, by and large, went in knowingly towards the destruction of the Soviet system – even if they now regret it. I am not sure how many do but yes, today there is a greater nostalgia for it than there would have been support in 1991. Just as an analogy let me bring in the case of post-Nandigram West Bengal. For many years, people have hesitated to vote against the Left Front – for there was no reasonable opposition in view. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress was not considered an alternative better than the LF. This situation seems to have changed decisively. For the first time people can be openly heard saying: Even TMC is better than this. Recent electoral reverses of the LF clearly show this. This is to say that, once the Rubicon is crossed, there is no going back – even if decades later, some might want to nostalgically return to the period of LF rule.
    I hope I have clarified my position to some extent.


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