History never repeats itself. Neither as tragedy, nor as farce. Every historical situation is a singularity, a product of its conjuncture and the opening out of different possibilities – thus irreducible to any other. What becomes farcical is the attempt of historical actors to borrow their slogans, icons and ideas from specific pasts and their attempt to reenact them in conjunctures that are radically different. Indian communists, of course, have long had a penchant for re-enacting (or believing they are re-enacting) other histories and other revolutions. And yet, more often than not, they have simply operated on the margins, engaging in violent and heated debates, as if the course of history depended on how these debates were resolved – while other historical actors took centre-stage, actually steering the course of history.
For decades Indian communists debated the ‘class character of the Indian state’ and even though their descriptions of its effects often differed little (except for an emphasis here or an emphasis there), they themselves split many times over in trying to name the beast. They became one another’s bitterest enemies, throwing about labels like “revisionist”, “neo-revisionist”, “sectarian”, “adventurist” and so on. Ask the CPI, CPI(M) or CPI(ML) Liberation, who fought the 2015 Bihar elections together and are trying to come together on issues of common concern today, how invested they are in those characterizations and how relevant they find them for their joint activity today? The really honest answer would have to be that it is of no relevance, whatsoever, whether the state is described as that of the national bourgeoisie, the bourgeois-landlord alliance or as a semi-feudal and semi-colonial one – especially where it concerns joint or common struggles. Indeed, many communists might cringe today if reminded of these characterizations over which not just barrels of ink but precious blood has been spilt in the past. And so it happened, that while communists occupied themselves with all this bloodletting, history passed them by. Not once or twice but repeatedly.
There is a sense of deja vu therefore, when the official Left (at least the CPI(M) and CPI) and many left intellectuals suddenly seem bent upon tearing each other to bits in simply trying to name the Modi/RSS/BJP phenomenon (hereafter referred to as Sanghism – a term I have explained elsewhere). It seems it is necessary to first “correctly” characterize the phenomenon before any fight can even be conceived – even though, I suspect, there will be little difference in the way the different protagonists actually describe it.
Kick-starting this great non-debate, former CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat wrote in The Indian Express, a piece so befuddling that it left many people gasping: The Sanghist/ Modi dispensation, according to him, is “right -wing authoritarian” but not “fascist” and hence there is no need for broader resistance against it (my paraphrase of what is in fact a simple question of whether or not to have an electoral alliance with the Congress!) What was worse, he referred to what he called the “classic definition” (yes, definition!) of fascism, in order to make his point. What was simply a formulation made by Georgi Dimitrov and the Comintern in a specific context, is turned into a definition. Here is Karat’s “definition”: Fascism in power is “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital.” From this definition, he then proceeds to make his deductions about present day India:
In India today, neither has fascism been established, nor are the conditions present — in political, economic and class terms — for a fascist regime to be established. There is no crisis that threatens a collapse of the capitalist system; the ruling classes of India face no threat to their class rule.
Every bit of this statement is an instance of formulaic thinking. As Jairus Banaji pointed out in a sharp riposte, calling Dimitrov’s formulation a “classic definition” is merely a way of suggesting that it was a code graven in stone, and therefore, not open to any critical scrutiny or examination. After all, how can you debate a definition? Banaji, in fact, made an important point in his response: fascism is not merely a conspiracy of finance capital but as later Marxists like Arthur Rosenberg and Wilhelm Reich repeatedly insisted, it was, above all, a mass movement. If one seriously ponders the implications of this claim, fascism’s relationship to capital – finance or otherwise – can hardly be seen as simple and straightforward any more. We will return to this point later.
The Congress question
For the present, let us simply note that as this fundamentally intra-CPI(M) debate came out into the open and took many in the nonparty Left aback, other CPM inclined intellectuals like Vijay Prashad and Prabir Purkayastha also entered the fray, embarrassedly skirting the “fascism” question but entering a defense of the leader’s “no broader resistance” argument. Since I have myself written, in the recent past, on the untenability of a Congress-Left alliance, it will also be necessary for me to clarify the meaning of terms like “alliance”, “coalition”, “joint action” and other forms like loose networks and how the present nondebate seems to reduce all these to the single issue of alliance with the Congress.
Before we discuss the two key issues involved here, one point regarding the “Congress question” in the CPI(M) needs to be clarified once again.
The “Congress question” in the CPI(M), as I have argued in the article linked to above, especially as raised by Irfan and Sayera Habib, Badri Raina and later Zoya Hasan, is a question that has two separate referents which are often conflated – the one is displaced on to the other. While these intellectuals have raised the issue very legitimately in the context of the unbridled Sanghist/ Hindutva vigilantism against minorities, now in evidence across the country, and the equally real threats Sanghism and Modi’s rule pose to the existence of our public institutions and indeed, the spirit of the Constitution, it has tended to get invariably conflated with the West Bengal CPM’s advocacy of an electoral alliance with the Congress. WBCPM, it bears repeating, brought in the question of alliance with the Congress, not in the context of fighting Sanghism or Hindutva but in the context of their Singur-Nandigram fiasco, which announced the beginning of the end of its 34 year rule. WBCPM, still in denial about the continuing unravelling of its electoral and political support, first brought up the question of allaince with the Congress long before the Modi regime was anywhere on the horizon – first after its severe losses in the 2009 general election and then, more vigorously, after it lost the state in the 2011 assembly election. The 2009 election came, let us remind ourselves, barely two years after the Nandigram violence and the Indo-US Nuclear Deal – the issue on which the CPI(M) under Prakash Karat’s leadership withdrew support from the UPA I government. Ever since then, the WBCPM has been singing this song about the break-up with the Congress having lead to a Congress-Trinamool Congress gang-up in the state, leading to their defeat. Neither Singur nor Nandigram had anything to do with that defeat, if one goes by the “analysis” of the state leadership. They simply wanted their neoliberal programme of land grab for corporations to continue and the support to the Congress at the Centre was a convenient trade-off for getting its support in the state.
Thus when the pro-CPM intellectuals like the Habibs or Raina bring up the question of an understanding/ alliance with the Congress by citing the West Bengal case, they are making a fundamental mistake. It is equally wrong for this reason to read the position taken by Jairus Banaji (in the article linked to above) as an argument of the WBCPM type – which many people involved in the intra-CPM debate (including some who have lately left the party) seem to be doing. These are two fundamentally different questions. For Karat (and his defenders), on the other hand, the decision to break with the UPA has to be justified and the anti-Congress position fortified with further arguments from the anti-neoliberal arsenal, but the inability to sustain that argument in the face of strong demands for the broadest resistance, not just from party ranks but a larger Left wing public, leads him to the only mode of argumentation he knows: cite from the scriptures. It is as though all capacity for thought has been lost and he seems to believe that in no other condition but fascism is it permissible to enter into alliances/ coalitions/ understandings with parties like the Congress (calling it ‘social democratic’ is equally problematic) – and he needs scriptural sanction for this position. At the very least, such a position would demand that Karat explain how and why his party, under his general secretary-ship, had supported this “neoliberal party” and the UPA I for any length of time – Dimitrov will not and cannot answer this question.
In any case, it is meaningless to take an either/or position in this respect: either you have an alliance and a power sharing arrangement with it (as in UPA I) or no truck at all. There are actually a range of intermediate positions that are possible, especially where it concerns the question of broader resistance to the Sanghist agenda. It can be argued that while there need be no “alliance”, electoral or otherwise, with it, it is entirely possible to envisage situations where anti-Hindutva vote might have to be channelized towards the Congress – in cases like Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh where it is the only opposition to the BJP. It is also possible to envisage a post-election scenario in which Congress emerges as one of the players along with the BSP, JD(U), RJD and the like. If a UPA kind of formation emerges to replace the NDA, can one stick to the Karatian “no truck” position in that situation? It is of course, a different matter that in all likelihood, in that situation the official Left will probably have no role left for it to play – things will shape up independently of them if the current scenario is any indication. One should not forget that the UPA and the National Advisory Council that emerged in the aftermath of the 2004 election was not ordained by any party resolution but was a consequence of the fact that during the six dark years of the NDA I regime, new understandings had been forged between the social movements, the Congress and the Left parties – simply working in tandem without any electoral calculation in mind.
Fascism and Sanghism – Beyond the “Classic Definition”
It is therefore necessary to disentangle the two distinct questions involved here. The first concerns the very framing of the “debate” in terms of a specific European history – more specifically, German history of the early 193os. This problem is compounded by the steadfast refusal of Marxists to think beyond this experience and beyond the specific “theorizations” of this experience by some Marxist thinkers. In fact, fascism” has become the default category through which leftists in general tend to think of the Hindu Right in India – and this can become debilitating beyond a point. There is no doubt that the Hindu Right has drawn inspiration, from its very early days, from Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. But as with every other political movement and idea, what we can generically call “fascism”, is not frozen in time and confined in space (in effect to Germany alone, not even to Italy). To say that all of “fascism” can be understood with reference to Germany in 1933 or 1935 is a bit like saying that all of Marxism and/or socialism can be understood entirely with reference to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Such a stance fails to recognize the myriad forms in which the sign “Marxism” (or “communism”/ “socialism”) – as a mass movement, as an inspirational idea, as a new political community of equals – has continued to animate struggles of large sections of people in different parts of the world. A similar approach to fascism fails in the same way. If Marxism is irreducible to Stalinism, so is fascism not reducible to its German and/or Italian avatar.
This is not the place to go into a disquisition on fascism but suffice it to say that our understanding of the fascist phenomenon, even with respect to the Europe of the 1930s, remains impoverished in the extreme if we do not engage with the wide range of ways in which thinkers and scholars have engaged with the fascist phenomena. Ideas that came to be associated with fascism and nazism were actually quite widespread in turn-of-the-century Europe and flourished through much of the early decades of the twentieth century. Anti-semitism for one (though this was not a defining feature of Italian fascism) was rampant across Europe and already visible in the Dreyfus episode and the birth of the Action Francaise in the late nineteenth century and France became perhaps the birthplace of the first fascist movement in Europe as scholars like Zeev Sternhell have suggested. The landscape of the early twentieth century is dotted with the existence of fascist movements across Europe but it also found its adherents in different parts of the non-European world. India was one among them. Unlike the communists who had the Comintern to centralize and “Bolshevize” socialist parties across the world, fascism did not have any international central organization, quite understandably, because its appeal was aggressively nationalist. Fascism was a pathology of nationalism/s – the always present underbelly – that eventually charted its own course in different parts of the world. Exaltation of the state/nation and a political culture of violent vigilantism, pogroms (“riots” engineered by the RSS in the Indian case) marked its existence in most places. Whether or not a fascist movement in any part of the world called forth united resistance or a popular front tactic depended entirely on how imminent the threat of the capture of the state by these movements was perceived to be. That fascism was a mass movement in the first instance is true, but it was a mass movement of a special kind, which operated in close coordination with the structures of power, with fifth columns in the state, never taking on either the state or bourgeois property directly. Fascism was not a capitalist conspiracy as early communists and the Comintern believed but rather the “revolt of the small man” (as Wilhelm Reich pointed out) marginalized by the huge dislocations caused by large-scale industrialization and mass uprooting of populations (George Mosse’s work but also Hannah Arendt’s theorization of totalitarianism underlined this); it was the revolt of the small man excluded and culturally marginalized in the liberal representative democracies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. How can we forget that the liberal representative “democracies” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were elite structures where only the propertied and the educated voted and got elected. The rise of mass democracies against the decrepit structures of representative liberal democracies, celebrated by someone like Carl Schmitt, gives us a window into precisely this wave of anti-parliamentary movements that was sweeping Europe in the preceding period. In that sense, fascism and nazism were culturally antibourgeois.
The RSS and other kindred organizations like the Hindu Mahasabha in the early twentieth century, however, cannot be understood only with reference to the global history of fascism. Indeed, all the elements that went into the production of a “theory” of Hindutva, as systematized, for instance by Savarkar, have a much longer intellectual genealogy. The context of mass industrialization and uprooting, large scale atomization of society etc were not the context in which these ideas arose but rather, it was the context of colonial rule. Through the nineteenth century Indian intellectuals grappled with one big question: how is it that we, a large and ancient civilization, came to be colonized by a small island state and a merchant company? In trying to answer this question, they went back to earlier waves of political aggression and “rule by foreigners” – the Turks, the Afghans and the Mughals, all of whom came to be referred, initially as turks and later as Muslims. The answer that they came up with was that we, the Hindus – an identity that was beginning to take shape alongside the identification of the Muslims as ‘other’ – were disunited. Hindu unity came to be seen as the need of the hour, as the centrepiece of the new emergent nationalism. “Disunity” eventually became a way of basically identifying the lower castes as the cause of the defeat of the ancient civilization. The identification of the Muslim other, as is now well known, became the way of displacing the internal question of disunity onto an external entity. The fear of the rapacious Muslim to unite the Hindus was the mode through which the more aggressively “Hindu” elements articulated their programme of Hindu unity. And yet, the anti-Muslim element was not their invention. From Arya Samaj in the north to Bankimchandra Chatterjee in Bengal, Bal Gangadhar Tilak in Maharashtra, this was what had rapidly become common sense in large sections of the nationalist public. It might also sound a bit intriguing that the RSS, which eventually took on this mantle, never actually aspired to “capture state power” – either during the days of the anticolonial struggle or later, in independent India. Nor did it function on the Fuhrer or Il Duce principle of a sole dictatorial leader. Its sarsanghchalaks were not charismatic individuals commanding the loyalty of a large mass of people in the country but were basically creations of the organization (till the rise of Modi, that is). This too is very different from the way fascism in Europe has functioned. The fact of the matter is that the RSS imagination draws on the ancient Indian traditions where political power was never central to the maintenance of social order. The latter was kept in place through an elaborate network of what Ambedkar had called “graded inequalities” – the varna order or varna dharma – and political power was incidental to the maintenance of social hierarchies. Its network of shakhas and schools through which its ideology is relayed, was seen to be the spine around which Hindu society would be reorganized: to carry out, in Savarkar’s terms, the twofold task of Hinduizing society and militarizing Hinduism. RSS was in no hurry to capture power – which was a task left to the relatively less important political wing, the Jan Sangh earlier and the BJP now.
The Dalit Question and the Struggle Against Hindutva Today
The key issue on which the entire project of Hindutva actually hinged was its ability to (re)-assimilate the Dalits and other lower castes into this reconstituted Hindu order. It is strange that even today, when communists debate the struggle against the Hindutva, they seem to miss this key question which is out in the open, even as the hundred-year project seems to be on the verge of unravelling. When they talk realpolitik, they make some passing gestures to the question of the Dalits and the minorities but when they talk “theory”, the inevitable fall back option is texts produced in the context of Europe of the 1930s. Some of Karat’s defenders stepped into the debate gesturing to the new signs of “Left Unity” in JNU (very problematic and debatable, but let that pass) and the one-day strike of workers recently. Others have talked about unleashing “mass struggles” against neoliberalism, which alone are capable, ostensibly, of defeating Hindutva. While I have no quarrel with this position, in principle, it seems little more than a pious wish given that in the past twenty five years of neoliberalism, the official Left has not only abdicated the field of mass struggles (having lost the plot), in West Bengal and Kerala, it has pursued a neoliberal programme – with some minor editions.
The Dalit and minority question (the Muslim question, in particular) is not incidental to the Hindutva project but lies at its very heart. Today this is the fulcrum of the struggle whether we like it or not. Attempts to appropriate and assimilate Dalits and thus isolate the Muslims that had seemed to get some degree of success in the past have now begun to come apart. As the inevitable conflict between Brahmanical/ Manuvadi Hindutva and the cultural symbols and icons of the Dalits, on the one hand, and those with over-zealous cow gangs, on the other come out into the open, a fundamentally new situation has arisen. The question before the Left is how it relates to these struggles. Many of them like the current struggle in Gujarat, following Una, may not have any direct or immediate bearing in electoral terms but they presage the beginning of a new politics of cultural transformation. These along with the new emergent Ambedkarite and bahujan forces in universities present an opportunity to rethink not just strategies of fighting Hindutva but more importantly, of recasting the very language and imagination of Left politics itself.