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.

Some Scattered and Sketchy Critical Remarks on the Theoretical Assumptions of Subaltern Studies Historiography

If one is allowed to indulge in some bit of abstraction one could say — pace Marx’s value-theoretic approach — that the historiographical method of the Subaltern Studies fails to account for how time-as-substance — the concrete, the qualitatively different, or the singular as a phenomenological or interiorised subjective experience — is instrumentalised to be rendered the embodiment of the tendency of its own negation, which is time-as-measure. Time-as-measure being qualitative equalisation (value as congelation of human labour in the abstract) manifest in and through quantitative differentiation. The historiography of Subaltern Studies, as a result, refuses to rigorously think the dialectical asymmetry of difference (as differing away) and difference-as-identity — or, the asymmetrical dialectic of the concrete and the abstract (or, use-value and value/exchange-value). In other words, it fails to rigorously account for the dialectic between history as a genre of writing, which is meant to be a narrative representation of diverse experiences, and history as a conceptual registration of those experiences, and thus also the structure/structuring of the experiences at hand revealed by such conceptual registration. It’s precisely this dialectic that Reinhardt Koselleck, for instance, points towards when he plays on the etymological difference between the two German words for history: historie and gesischte.

The Subaltern Studies historians refuse, nay fail, to come to terms with the fact that the asymmetry between the concrete (difference as differing-away) and the abstract (difference-as-identity) — or subjective cultural resources and social relations of production respectively — that is activated only as a radical antagonism, tends to be generative of a dialectic that, thereby, distorts their radical antagonism into a mutually constitutive contradiction. This philosophical, or theoretical, inadequacy is most clearly evident in Ranajit Guha’s reading of Marx’s Grundrisse in ‘Dominance Without Hegemony’. Here Guha mobilises the determinate registration of the dynamic tendency of antagonism to, or limit of, capital in Marx’s account arguably as a sociologically static empiric of the same. Guha, therefore, repeats the same mistake that Hegel, according to Marx’s Introduction to ‘Grundrisse’, committed: conflating the object of knowledge with the concrete real world that lies outside human thought. As a result, Guha is unable to grasp, and discursively demonstrate, how the radical separation of the two temporalities of difference and difference-as-identity is tendential, or logical, while they are, chronologically speaking, coeval. Which is to say, that even as difference as differing-away is envisaged it must be simultaneously grasped as difference-as-identity that is the limit imposed on difference on account of its inescapable determinate condition. Only such an approach can generate a rigorously anticipative, prefigurative strategic manoeuvre for suspending, as opposed to merely puncturing, capital or “History I” as the horizon constitutive of the law of value.

Guha’s inability to see that the radical separation of the two temporalities of difference and difference-as-identity – or, the concrete and the abstract – is a tendential or logical one prevents him from grasping why the tendential temporality of antagonism is, at once, generative of the counter-tendential temporality of dialectical constitutivity. In fact, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s move, in ‘Provincializing Europe’, to strengthen this conception and theoretical discourse of non-dialectical difference of History II (or outside of capital) to History I (capital) continues to perpetuate Guha’s philosophical error of hypostatising the determinate registration of the dynamic tendency of antagonism into a sociologically static empiric of the same. This, in spite of Chakrabarty’s decision to follow Heidegger in his thinking of ontological difference through phenomenological reduction; or, perhaps because of it.

It’s because of this philosophical/theoretical inadequacy — something that underlies and informs the Subaltern Studies project almost in its entirety — that the historiography/historiographies inspired and/or influenced by that project are rendered incapable of reflexively accounting for the linguistic reification that historiography as a genre of writing, or narrative representation, is bound to tend towards. Not surprisingly, the politics that such historiography affirms is radical communitarian, which is situated, all said and done, within the political paradigm of liberal-republicanism as its constitutive obverse.