We cannot take our poetry from the past but only from the future

We have often used this statement by Marx to attack others:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle.

It is time to use it to critique ourselves, as we too have our Lenins, Trotskys, Stalins, Maos, Ches….

Actually, the whole first chapter of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is a necessary reading to understand and critique the left and also its obsession not so much with history but with historical facts.

Marx’ critique of revolutionary language in that chapter is quite powerful. (We should perhaps also keep in mind that when Marx was writing this text the French Revolution had happened around 60 years ago. But for us the Russian Revolution happened more than 100 years ago, the Chinese Revolution 70 years ago and…)

Another famous quote from the text is “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

This is generally posed as a principle of historical materialism, to counter idealism and voluntarism. But Marx uttered this to critique ideology —the process of the fetishisation of the past —names, slogans and costumes etc.

What immediately follows the above statements is quite revealing. It shows how and why such fetishisation happens and ideologies are formed:

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they 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.”

He adds,

“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.”

We can easily replace these figures and facts with ourselves and the historical names, costumes etc with which we seek to connect to.

In fact, Marx compares this tendency with that of “the beginner who has learned a new language”. He “always translates it back into his mother tongue.” But “he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.”

So in which stage of learning are we presently?

Marx differentiates between those who were indulging in “conjuring up of the dead of world history” during his own time and the old French revolutionaries. The latter “performed the task of their time – that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society – in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases.” Once the tasks were completed, the “resurrected Romanism” also disappeared.

According to Marx, the bourgeois revolutionaries needed the old language of “heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars” to bring the bourgeois society into being, as it was in itself unheroic. “And in the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic the bourgeois gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy.”

But what is our purpose in conjuring the past?

Marx further says:

“Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again.”

But during Marx’s time, as in our times too, “only the ghost of the old revolution circulated”. The old names, facts etc become means to disguise, and hide trivialities and “repulsive features”. Only “caricatures” could be produced now with these. Why is this so? Because,

“The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.”

So, what lessons can we draw from all this? For this purpose, let us improvise on the last quote.

Today, “the social revolution… cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past.” Let us not use “recollections of past world history in order to smother” the content of today’s revolution.

Today, “the revolution… must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content.” We must not allow our phrases to overpower and hide the content, since the content today will tear every veil of phraseology.

Didn’t Lenin too tell us not to behave like comedians who “chase words, without thinking about how devilishly complicated and subtle life is, producing entirely new forms, which we only partly ‘catch on’ to”? We must go beyond words and phrases, beyond our literary preferences of names and facts.

Lynching in Ancient India? The Case of Charvaka

The poor Charvaka who had thus remonstrated was unceremoniously lynched by the Brahmin mob, for which act of ‘social gracefulness’ all the Brahmins in the mob were duly compensated by the king with regards and gifts. The whole episode serves as a fine metaphor for what has apparently gone on relentlessly in our society for quite a long time. As loyal traditionalists, large numbers of the contemporary defenders of the so called Dharma perpetuate the crime in a more complex form today. And that does not apply solely to our own India either, because other parts of the globe are not free from such horrendous deeds against the lowly in society.G. Ramakrishna

The most systematic “lynching” (or mob violence against an individual or individuals) in the mythologised history of India was that of India’s materialist philosopher Charvaka, as he was not just killed, but was demonised and his ideas distorted for generations. Charvaka was physically eliminated by a mob of servile brahmins because he could speak truth to power (so much for being called a “sweet talker” – a Charvaka!). The description of this is given in Mahabharata.

When the celebrations for the Pandavas’ victory and Yudhishthir’s coronation were going on and the brahmins stood silently after paying their obeisance (निःशब्दे च स्थिते तत्र ततो विप्रजने पुनः), Charvaka came forward and started addressing on their behalf, of course, without taking any permission. He accused Yudhishthir of fratricide and thus unfit to live:

इमे प्राहुर्द्विजाः सर्वे समारोप्य वचो मयि।
धिग्भवन्तं कुनृपतिं ज्ञातिघातिनमस्तु वै।।
किं तेन स्याद्धि कौन्तेय कृत्वेमं ज्ञातिसंक्षयम्।
घातयित्वा गुरूंश्चैव मृतं श्रेयो न जीवितम्।।

His fearless statement stunned everybody. Yudhishthir and the Brahmins were speechless, afraid and ashamed:

ततस्ते ब्राह्मणाः सर्वे स च राजा युधिष्ठिरः।
व्रीडिताः परमोद्विग्नस्तूष्णीमासन्विशांपते।।

Regaining some crowd spirit, these Brahmins started accusing Charvaka of being a demon and a friend of Duryodhana. Eventually, they killed him with their anger.

ततस्ते ब्राह्मणाः सर्वे हुंकारैः क्रोधमूर्च्छिताः।
निर्भर्त्सयन्तः शुचयो निजघ्नुः पापराक्षसम्।।
स पपात विनिर्दग्धस्तेजसा ब्रह्मवादिनाम्।
महेन्द्राशनिनिर्दग्धः पादपोऽङ्कुरवानिव।।

Since Yudhishthir was quite evidently moved by the incident, a whole section is devoted where Lord Krishna consoles him, while demonizing Charvaka and justifying the act as preordained.

स एष निहतः शेते ब्रह्मदण्डेन राक्षसः।
चार्वाको नृपतिश्रेष्ठ मा शुचो भरतर्षभ।।

See Mahabharata (Pancham Khand): Shanti Parva, 38.22-27, 39.2-11, Gita Press.

But besides this physical murder, the brahminical tradition in Indian philosophy left no stone unturned to erase Charvaka’s philosophical contributions. However, they could never succeed in this. His philosophy true to its name, Lokayata, survived in the unconscious of the Indian mind throughout history, sometimes peeping through the heterodoxy and many a times in theologised discourses themselves (Marx has noted the case of Duns Scotus who “made theology itself preach materialism”). The evidence is of course a continuous endeavour by social and political hegemonies to exorcise the demonic spirit of Charvaka, even in our times.

The most interesting thing about ancient epics and Puranic texts is that due to their being collective products and having undergone continuous modifications, various layers of history (or, rather, histories) have found place in them as inconsistencies and contradictions. Their double entendre, which does obscure real history as a succession of episodes, of “what happened”, but they might provide a nuanced understanding of internally related contradictory conditions – the material and the psychic, the real and the possible. Perhaps, you need a textual archaeology, extensive philological and hermeneutic exercises, to uncover them. The positivist historiographies, many times presented as Marxism, disengage with these texts by their servility towards positive facts or evidence. However, for Marx (and even for Kosambi), history was never simply a chronology.

Historical Materialism is “Historicity without History” but it is not, therefore, Genealogy

Historical materialism is historicity without history. And yet it is by no means genealogy. Of course, isnofar as it is historicity without history — which is the historicity of politics as permanent excess — historical materialism as a historiographical textuality is bound to have a genealogical form. But thought in terms of its practical actuality, the historicity of genealogy is merely a facticity or phenomenality of interiorised experience of difference. Precisely for this reason, genealogy is no more than the obverse of historicism. On the other hand, the historicity of historical materialism is now-time as the uninterrupted ongoingness of determinate excess of presence in its historical index — i.e. infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference in its historical index.

The two citations below — from Adorno and Benjamin respectively — enable one to think this radical distinction between post-Hegelian phenomenology of Heidegger, and historical materialism, and thus, by extension, between genealogy (a phenomenologically reductive hermeneutic of difference) and historical materialism:

“…[Benjamin] seems to converge with the general intellectual current which protested against idealism and epistemology, demanding ‘the things themselves’ instead of their conceptual form, and which found an academically respectable expression in phenomenology and the ontological schools stemming from it. But the decisive differences between philosophers have always consisted in nuances; what is most bitterly irreconcilable is that which is similar but which thrives on different centres; and Benjamin’s relation to today’s accepted ideologies of the ‘concrete’ is no different. He saw through them as the mere mask of conceptual thinking at its wits end, just as he also rejected the existential-ontological concept of history as the mere distillate left after the substance of the historical dialectic had been boiled away.”
–Adorno, ‘A Portrait of Walter Benjamin’ (Prisms)

“What distinguishes images from the “essences” of phenomenology is their historical index. (Heidegger seeks in vain to rescue history for phenomenology abstractly through “historicity”.)….”
— Benjamin, Convolutes N, ‘On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress’ (The Arcades Project)

Why a Marx-Inspired Materialist Historiography cannot Afford to be Historicist and yet it often is

A historically determinist (or hitoricist) historiography takes root when the line shifts from construing the discursive inscription of the immanent forces of history-as-movement as their limit, to making sense of such inscription as teleology. It’s this historical determinism as Marxism — which is arguably the result of reading Marx as if he was Hegel than retroactively read Hegel as Marx (i.e. read Hegel against his grain) — that has been the stageist bane of Marxist political interventions in the so-called non-European societies such as ours. The result: Marxist political discourse in the tropics has become a discourse tailor-made for the legitimation of the ideology of liberalism that can ‘survive’ and ‘succeed’ only by instituting its own materiality, which in this late capitalist conjuncture can, paradoxically, be nothing save neoliberalism.

All politico-ideological pleas of formal equality — all leftist struggles to win various violated or un-enforced juridical rights amounts precisely to that — can today succeed only by reinforcing the exchange-principle, and its basis in value-relations as the qualitative equalisation of qualitative differences through their quantitative differentiation. This would mean the reinforcement of value-relations through reinforcement of exchange-relations in their increasing precarity. And since this increasing precarity of value-relations would, in being reinforced, still be animated by the realisation or expression of value as qualitative equalisation in and through quantitative differentiation, such reinforcement of value-relations in its increasing precarity can only amount to increasing oppressiveness. The neurotic simultaneity of oppression and resistance — which is manifest in our current society and polity as the hegemony of competitive identity politics and lobby politics (both in their secular and so-called pre/non-secular forms) — is evidence of that.

In such circumstances, if one reads the Marx of Capital, in terms of his Afterword to the Second German Edition of Volume I, one will clearly see how Marx reverse-shifts the line, as it were, from teleology to limit, in his reading of history. That, arguably, is what his materialist operation on the Hegelian dialectic — the extraction of the rational kernel (of the dialectic) from its mystical shell (of a prioiri orientation) in his famous, and by now much-abused, words — amounts to. This is precisely the moment of Marx’s complete liberation from historicism. It’s this that gives us the Late Marx, who speaks affirmatively, for instance, of the ‘pre-capitalist’ Russian mir as the germ of a possible Russian road of historical development that could bypass capitalism, which for historical determinists was/is a necessary and un-bypassable milestone.

What does this non-teleological historiographical approach of Late Marx — which comes out of his explication of the logic of historical development in its bare and abstract form in Capital — amount to? It means the incompleteness of capital at particular spatio-temporal locations, once capital has come into being anywhere or everywhere else, is already an integral part of capital. Thus, struggles even at those locations that have the discursive appearance of pre-capitalism must be against capital. Which is to say, those struggles have to seek to abolish all teleology, including their own that will be imposed on them as their respective limits by their respective determinate locations. In terms of a philosophy of history, it means one approach each and every moment of history as being internally divided or schizzed between two temporalities — that of contingency and necessity (or, difference-as-differing-away and difference-as-identity). More precisely, it means every moment of history is an internal division between the time of form in and as its contingent instantiation (event) and the time of form as the concrete mediation of its structuring or being-placed. Walter Benjamin adumbrates precisely this as the historical materialist approach to historiography in his ‘Theses on Philosophy of History’, particularly theses V, VI and VII.

One should, however, have no qualms in admitting that even Late Marx’s historical vision is haunted by a tension between historicism and non-teleological history. Considering that Marx envisaged his critique of historicism (the Hegelian dialectic) — as any seriously radical and profoundly engaged critic ought to – from within such historicism, his battle against historicism is always conducted under the ineluctable shadow of the latter.

Marx’s constant endeavour in Capital is to show how capital — which is nothing but historicism in concrete action — is, in its, objectivity, a moving contradiction and thus constitutively neurotic. That is because Capital shows how commodity, which is the basic unit of capital (capital in its cell-form), is an objective demonstration of itself as the mobilisation of its own immanent critique or negativity — what with commodity being qualitative difference that is use-value in its sheer bodily form embodying or phenomenalising its own negation, which is value as the substance of qualitative equalisation. We can, in other words, say that capital for Marx is qualitative differences or use-values and their respectively singular concrete labours in their limit. But precisely in not being recognised in their limit, use-values are rendered neurotic commodities, wherein use-values in their qualitatively different (or singular) bodily forms embody, in and as the equivalent pole of an exchange-relation or value-form, the substance of qualitative equalisation (value) that is their negation as singularities.

As a result, the conception of limit – which belongs to a rigorously materialist historiography – would, in Marx, often find itself encoded in the historicist language, and, at times, even conception, of destiny and inevitability. The most infamous example on that count is the little that Marx wrote on the Latin America of his times. Be that as it may, we ought to read such ‘Eurocentric’ articulations of Marx, pace Jose Arico, as the exception to the rule of materialist historiography that is definitively posed, if not also instituted, by the approach that Marx’s Capital articulates.

In such circumstances, it would not — and should not — at all be an anathema for a Marx-inspired materialist historiography to deal with questions of culture, consciousness and mentalite as a history of phenomenology of difference. But where it would differ from both the established historigraphes of culture, consciousness and mentalite on one hand; and the equally canonised historically determinist historigraphy of the so-called Marxist historians from South Asia on the other, is in its demonstration of how such differences (as subjective experiences) are both themselves and already always their own limit, and thus subsumption into regimes of necessity. It’s in this sense that a radical Marxist historiographer could – in fact, necessarily should — draw as much from the historiographies of culture, consciousness and mentalite as from the various strains of determinist ‘Marxist’ historiography. For, only in drawing from both these kinds of historiography – by thinking difference and its subsumption together, but in their separateness — will he/she be able to complete the incomplete materialism that orients both those historiographical approaches. This rigorously comprehensive materialist historiography — which is exemplified by the historiographical practices of such rarely found historians as C.L.R. James (in Black Jacobins), Timothy Mason and Arno J. Mayer — is a synthesis of both the aforementioned historiographical approaches. And in being such a synthesis the materialist historiography in question breaks with the historiographical horizon constitutive of this duality.