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.

Makarand Paranjape – A Re-Brahminised Brahmin?


It seems Prof Makarand Paranjape has taken upon himself the task of eliminating the rightist intellectual vacuum of which left-liberal scholars have recently been talking about. He is actively posing himself both as a rightwing liberal and a genuine scholar, especially with his recently published work on Gandhi’s murder, The Death & Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi. Here, he succeeds as a rightwing intellectual, both in his omissions and commissions.

In this book, Paranjape undoubtedly demonstrates a credible scholarship. However, like any right-winger, he unabashedly displays his inability to comprehend the structure of an event, a conjuncture or a catastrophe – conflating facts and fiction (literary facts), reality and virtuality. The conceptual asyndesis that the right wing discourse suffers from flattens the structure of reality. The analytics of the destructed reality are reinforced at the immediate level of discourse, oblivious of the fact that they are differentially located in the composed structure of the event. In his endeavour to come to terms with Gandhi’s murder, Paranjape literally makes everybody responsible for it, even future generations. He absolutises relative responsibilities and makes the regenerated Oedipal guilt of the empowered Hindutva forces a collective absolute of the history of independent India . Ultimately, Godse emerges merely as an executor.

In the epilogue for the Indian edition of the book, Paranjape has clearly indicated his choice against “hypocritical and cynical” “Congress-style secularism” “pandering to and appeasing minorities”. He is not at all dismissive against the “majoritarian political formation. Of course, he wants some actions to see if “Hindutva-Hinduism [is] a better guarantor of religious and cultural pluralism than pseudo-secularism.” He asks, “will the new realism of pragmatic majoritarianism succeed better?” It seems he got his answers very soon.

Similarly, in his video-graphed “lecture” on nationalism in JNU  before an “openminded” left-liberal audience desperately looking for their own variety of Indian nationalism at the time of neoliberal “post(modern) fascism”, Paranjape, like any right-wing street-fighter, goes on poking the left to make their choice among binaries – constitution or revolution, etc, demonstrating once again his ignorance of the complexity of the question of legitimation.

***

Paranjape continues to display the rashness of anti-left tirade in a recent article in Indian Express too, where he blunders on both levels – of arguments and of facts. However, here, he is engaging in manipulations typical of a conservative intellectual and poltician, to defend his recent activism. He starts with some commonsensical utterances to justify adding his name to a petition against one of the best Sanskritists of our times, Sheldon Pollock.

Paranjape jealously questions the exorbitance of the investment by a ‘Swadeshi’ investor in a project to create Murty Classical Library under the editorship of Pollock. As he admits, he doesn’t seem to know more than home economics, and thinks investment in scholarship as similar to buying underpants and vegetables.

In this era of global capitalism, when Indian rulers are busy playing beggar-beggar with other late capitalist economies to make Make-in-India campaign legible to investors, Paranjape and his herd are trying to contribute in it by selling their cheap intellectual labour. But they don’t know that the economic considerations for big industries in modern capitalism are not those of village sahukars – where buying cheap and selling dear are immediately interlinked, immaterial of the nature of products in consideration. Stooping down to the level of Prof Paranjape’s home economic sensibility, we can merely plead that he should have some sense to know that the long term credibility of the investor also matters at least in the field of academic production.

Reasonably, Paranjape tries to win the argument by complementing his home economics with inciting a nationalist inferiority rage. Here he is in a quite good company, as this provoking of bruised nationalist consciousness has always been a hallmark of jingoists and has once again become rampant – Trump, Berlusconi, Le Pen & c, and of course not to forget our own Modi. It effectively generalises, mobilises and instrumentalises anxieties and precarities produced by dispersed Fordism leading to the emergence of post(modern) fascism.

***

Now, coming to what Paranjape calls “the more controversial demand to sack Pollock”, we find him deliberately misinterpreting Pollock for his academic-political ambitions.

Pollock’s essay which Paranjape and his coterie are misquoting to discredit him and to project him as any Orientalist is one of the finest works on traditional Indian intellectual practices, where he displays his knowledge of not just the hegemonic Shastric tradition but also of oppositional scientific and secular voices, who had to regiment themselves by indulging in ritual nodding to the Shastric authority.

To the extent that Pollock demonstrates the intransigent and transcendent nature of the Shastric tradition in prioritising theory, along with its attempt to homogenise and hegemonise practice, his originality is only in the extent of his scholarship, not in his idea. There have been alternative traditions right from the Upanishadic times that have been questioning such ritualisation, many times in shrill voices, and in recent centuries quite openly as by many late Medieval poets and numerous anti-caste fighters like Phule and Ambedkar. 

Moreover, in the very initial paragraphs of the essay, Pollock declares his thesis, “everywhere civilisation as a whole – and this is especially true of art-making – is constrained by rules of varying strictness, and indeed, may be accurately described by an accounting of such rules.” And then he goes on to compare Manusmriti and Amy Vanderbilt’s Everyday Etiquette (definitely, an outrageous comparision from the perspective of a refounded Brahminism of Hindutva), and concludes, “such cultural grammars exist in every society; they are the code defining a given culture as such.” Of course, he credits Shastras for their unique expanse and influence.

Paranjape must remember if he wants to (though it is difficult given his allegiance to particular political projects in recent days), that orientalism happens not simply when whites exorcise brownies, it is also when whites and brownies combine to exoticise and eternalise the orient. Let me remind Paranjape of his own remorse at the “politics of misreading” in 1991 (Economic & Political Weekly), when he was troubled by what he saw the “tendency to indulge in the commonest argumentative fallacy of irrelevance: ad hominem or name-calling,” At that time, he was accused of having represented himself as a “de-brahminised brahmin” by, as he claimed, his student (it is clear that this fact hurt him the most). That “student” today is himself a well-known literary scholar and activist, K Satyanarayana.

However, in recent days Paranjape himself, along with his less-sophisticated ilk, has mastered this politics and is indulging in “the commonest argumentative fallacy” of name calling. He clearly dislikes them with whom he disagrees. Whether he had actually de-brahminised himself earlier or not is debatable, but it is clear, at least for the time being, he has re-brahminised himself, and he feels empowered.

An observation on why Spinoza’s conception of the ethical is materialist


“We see that this natural Divine law does not demand the performance of ceremonies—that is, actions in themselves indifferent, which are called good from the fact of their institution, or actions symbolizing something profitable for salvation, or (if one prefers this definition) actions of which the meaning surpasses human understanding. The natural light of reason does not demand anything which it is itself unable to supply, but only such as it can very clearly show to be good, or a means to our blessedness. Such things as are good, simply because they have been commanded or instituted, or as being symbols of something good, are mere shadows which cannot be reckoned among actions that are the offspring, as it were, or fruit of a sound mind and intellect.”
–Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise

A rather obvious reading of the above passage would be to see it as a version of the fantasy of pure reason. But then we could also follow in Macherey and Althusser’s ‘Spinozist’ footsteps and read this quite differently. Spinoza’s god is the singularity of being and reason — a la the Spinozist conatus. His conatus or being can, therefore, be construed as the uninterruptedly, as opposed to sequentially, continuous excess of symbols that are deposited in and as the determinate moments constitutive of precisely this infinitely excessive, and thus dispersive and non-teleological movement, and which as those symbolic deposits tend to acquire a life of their own by getting instituted as commands (or, as Spinoza would say, human laws). That Spinoza conceives of being as a willing-knowing singularity becomes evident if we follow, later in this text, his explication of god as the concomitance of willing of things that come to comprise the world and the knowledge of those things.

Read in this manner, this Spinozist ‘version of the fantasy of pure reason’ can be envisaged, as it indeed is by Althusserians, as a theoretical mode to ground the practice of ideology-critique, which as that practice is derived from Marx’s articulation of his dialectical method as the theory of critique of political economy. Following Marx, who adopted Hegel’s dialectic only to see it precisely as the inverted reflection of the antagonism to the dialectic itself, Althusserians, particularly Macherey, would read ideology — which Althusser quite correctly characterised as the movement of its own displacement — as the image, or symptom, of its own absence, void or impossibility. And this is an approach that can arguably be read off Spinoza, including from his unambiguous suggestion here that “symbols of something good, are mere shadows” of that good.

The reason why Spinoza is open to such a reading is possibly because his thinking of being a la conatus — which for him is also, at once, “the offspring, as it were, or fruit of a sound mind and intellect” — precludes the need for it to be the ground for some kind of a moral law. In Kant, on the other hand, we have the moral law kick in as retroactive rationalisation (read metaphysicalisation) — and thus prospective regimentation — of multiple instantiations of pure reason as practical reason.