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.

On Rights Politics and Migrant Workers


These notes were prepared for a discussion in Delhi on a report on the condition of migrant workers in Delhi, Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu (October 6 2017).

REFORMS & REVOLUTION

1. The two significant aspects of demand and right politics are – firstly, they are grounded in the immediate social needs that are framed within a structure. Secondly, they are attempts to establish a discourse with the state machinery – hence they are discursively circumscribed within the field of social relations. Thus, they are necessarily reform oriented, but they need not be reformist. The questions of rights, reforms and demands are unavoidable guerrilla struggles, which build the capacity of workers to organise larger movements. But do these struggles mean deferring the final movement that targets the very structural and superstructural setup that give language to those social needs? No, because they also test the vulnerabilities of the system and can become endeavours to burrow through it the final escape or emancipation. Every moment is a moment for both reform and revolution, and also reaction. When a movement is able to transcend its initial demands, to go on to attack the present social relations and to reorganise them then it becomes revolutionary. When the movement attempts to take the leap, but fails, then reaction happens. When the movement is not ready to take any leap beyond or reneges at the last moment, reform and/or reaction can happen, depending on the level of crisis in the system.

2. However, because the rights politics in itself is concerned with achievements of the rights and demands, at its own level will be geared towards negotiations and bargains, and impressing upon the state machinery, rather than changing the social relations themselves. Even the trade union politics is embedded in this kind of relationship. There is nothing in these forms that makes them question the structure of that relationship between workers and capitalists, or in the former case between workers and the state. The danger of reformism comes from this. But once again, as a conscious part of the larger movement against the structure of present social relations they play a crucial role of waging guerrilla struggles. But what does this signify? Then how do we define the working class politics? Also what will be the organisational question which balances between reform and revolution?

3. When we talk about workers’ politics, it is grounded in the dialectic of competition and collectivity. Marx captured this very aptly, when he said: “Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association.” The politics that is premised upon the segmentation of the workers vs the politics of ever-expanding combination and association, that is grounded in the everyday interaction among workers. The latter is not a mechanical aggregation or unity of isolated workers with similar grievances or demands, but a combination or network that is built in their daily conflict with state and capital. Only an expansion of this network has the capacity to refuse to be subsumed by capital and its network. In this, demands are definitely raised but are incidental. In this framework, demands and rights play the role of testing the system’s vulnerabilities and the organisational strength of the expanding combination.

ON MIGRATION

4. Migration is not just a fact, but also an act. It is not fully incidental that a word for migration in Hindi is पलायन (the more formal word is प्रवास). The former is very rich, often used as a stigma – one of its meaning being running away or an escapist act. In my view, it is this sense that renders the act of migration politically rich. Migration is not just a spatial fix, a response of the weak to the immediate contingencies of life. It is also a rebellious withdrawal, an escape, a long march against “the current state of affairs.” It is an act of refusal, non-acceptance of the lot. As an immediate spatial fix it demonstrates the weak agency of the migrant – a weakness in mastering the system. But it also has a utopian element that makes any human agency restless, that may come one time as an escape, another time as an emancipation, especially when individual weakness becomes a ground for collective subjectivity. Wasn’t this Ambedkar’s intention when he advised dalits to escape villages?

5. Legal Unionism is bound to consider migrant and mobile workers unreliable for their purpose – it simply cannot rely on them. On the other hand, social unionism which seeks to overcome the limits of traditional unionism is caught up in the discourse of non-conflictuality and negotiations with state (which in turn is problematically conceptualised). Hence for this school too it is always about accommodation – creating space for the migrants, not about problematising the whole space itself which is the etatised field of labour-capital relations. Therefore the vagrancy and mobility of proletarians are something to be shed off, not to be made a ground to imagine an overhauling of social relations and ideologies. Hence migrants as migrants are suspects, to be always put in the peripheries of organised politics. But different revolutions have shown how it was mostly settled workers’ organisations, afraid of losing their accumulated privileges, developed petty bourgeois tendencies and were unable to go beyond the legal fights when required, unless workers revolted and autonomously organised themselves.

6. Right from Karl Marx, Marxists have understood the relationship of workers mobility and their political consciousness. Lenin provides an insight into the poltical meaning of migration and demonstrates how to think about workers beyond their victimhood and our philanthropist vanguardism:

“There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth.”

“Thus, Russia is punished everywhere and in everything for her backwardness. But compared with the rest of the population, it is the workers of Russia who are more than any others bursting out of this state of backwardness and barbarism, more than any others combating these “delightful” features of their native land, and more closely than any others uniting with the workers of all countries into a single international force for emancipation.

“The bourgeoisie incites the workers of one nation against those of another in the endeavour to keep them disunited. Class-conscious workers, realising that the breakdown of all the national barriers by capitalism is inevitable and progressive, are trying to help to enlighten and organise their fellow-workers from the backward countries.”

7. In recent years, Negri (and Hardt) repeats the same in the language of our times:

“Traditionally the various kinds of migrant workers, including permanent immigrants, seasonal laborers, and hobos, were excluded from the primary conception and political organization of the working class. Their cultural differences and mobility divided them from the stable, core figures of labor. In the contemporary economy, however, and with the labor relations of post-Fordism, mobility increasingly defines the labor market as a whole, and all categories of labor are tending toward the condition of mobility and cultural mixture common to the migrant. Not only are workers are forced to change jobs several times during a career, they are also required to move geographically for extended periods or even commute long distances on a daily basis. Migrants may often travel empty-handed in conditions of extreme poverty, but even then they are full of knowledges, languages, skills, and creative capacities: each migrant brings with him or her an entire world, Whereas the great European migrations of the past were generally directed toward some space “outside,” toward what were conceived as empty spaces, today many great migrations move instead toward fullness, toward the most wealthy and privileged areas of the globe…

“Part of the wealth of migrants is their desire for something more, their refusal to accept the way things are. Certainly most migrations are driven by the need to escape conditions of violence, starvation, or depravation, but together with that negative condition there is also the positive desire for wealth, peace and freedom. This combined act of refusal and expression of desire is enormously powerful…. Ironically, the great global centers of wealth that call on migrants to fill a lack in their economies get more than they bargained for, since the immigrants invest the entire society with their subversive desires. The experience of flights is something like a training of the desire for freedom.

“Migrations, furthermore, teach us about the geographical division and hierarchies of the global system of command. Migrants understand and illuminate the gradients of danger and security, poverty and wealth, the markets of higher and lower wages, and the situations of more and less free forms of life. And with this knowledge of the hierarchies they roll uphill as much as possible, seeking wealth and freedom, power and joy. Migrants recognize the geographical hierarchies of the system and yet treat the globe as one common space, serving as living testimony to the irreversible fact of globalization. Migrants demonstrate (and help construct) the general commonality of the multitude by crossing and thus partially undermining every geographical barrier.”

Between Left-Hegelian Anthropology and Marx’s Materialist Dialectic: Some Random Observations on C.L.R. James


The transfer of philosophical categories to political practice in an immediate kind of way is one of C.L.R. James’s key theoretical proposals in Notes on Dialectics. He clearly states as much in the third paragraph of page 17 of the book: “Let us transfer this [the categories] to the labor movement. (These transfers are rough but Hegel intended them to be made. That is precisely what logic is, an algebra, but an algebra in constant movement.) ‘Categories’ of the labor movement are, I repeat, union, reformist party, reformist international, revolutionary party, revolutionary international, etc.” This proposal and insistence to transfer philosophical categories to political practice in an immediate kind of way is, I would argue, typical of the Left-Hegelian modality of “contemplative materialism” that Marx criticised in Feurbach’s critique of Hegel. This immediate way of transferring philosophical categories into political practice renders the dialectic a methodological foundation — which is no more than the obverse of dialectic as a (metaphysical) system in Hegel. This, I must say once again, is not the break that the materialist dialectic amounts to. The materialist dialectic, if I allow myself another repetition, is dialectic as the determinate presentation of its asymmetry, which is to say, the dialectic as the determinate presentation of the excess of itself as an abstracted structure. In other words, thinking the dialectic in materialist terms is to think it as an image of the actuality of its own asymmetry. It is to think dialectic as an image of “dialectics at a standstill” (Benjamin). In that context, the modality of the dialectic as a methodological foundation means, among other things, that one does not grasp knowledge as the limit-form of practice (knowledge as praxis in its limit on account of its determinate condition) but rather grasps knowledge as the realisation of practice or praxis. In fact, in this instance, practice and praxis stand conflated. It must also be mentioned here that the algebraic modeling of movement – something that James, as an avowed follower of Hegel, proposes here – is yet another instance that shows how knowledge is, for him, supposed to be grasped as the realisation of practice and not as the latter’s limit-form.

It is for this reason that one critically terms this, following Marx of The German Ideology and Theses on Feurbach, “contemplative materialism”. The only difference between this modality of contemplative-materialist thinking and practice, and that of Hegelian dialectical idealism is that while in the latter practice is realisation of knowledge (the infinity of the geist grasped in and as its finite concrete realization), in the former knowledge is grasped and envisaged in terms of realisation of practice. In either case, knowledge is not seen as the interruption of praxis on account of its determinateness. What merely happens is that from the a priori idea or geist of the latter the locus of ontological expressivity shifts to the historically concrete human agency of practice and the thinking of practice by its historically particular human agency in the former. The result of this shift of the ontological locus of expressivity from a priori idea to a historically concrete practice in terms of how it’s thought by its historically concrete human agency is no more than the radicalisation of the successive continuity of movement that is capital. And what this radicalisation of the successively continuous movement basically amounts to in terms of politics is no more than continuous democratisation of value-relation being mistaken for the real movement in its uninterruptedness, which should actually amount to the suspension of the logic of value-relation itself, and not its continuous democratisation. That James tends to oscillate from one to the other — the real real movement and the mistaken real movement — is often evident in his directly programmatic political writings. We come across this oscillation of James in, for example, ‘Every Cook Can Govern’, particularly when tries to demonstrate how the form of direct democracy as practised in the Athens of classical antiquity is the almost fully-developed political form of revolutionary democracy that socialism is supposed to replicate.

Therefore, in this mode of thinking there is no attempt to grasp a determinate historical practice in terms of its own immanent thought by detaching it from the sense it acquires in the thought of the historically concrete human agency or agentic-subject that, from the perspective of such “practical-materialist” (Marx’s words) modality of thinking practice, would merely be the historical index and anthropological register of its determinate instantiation.as praxis (practice as its own immanent thought in action). Clearly, this particular modality of thinking practice — wherein a historically concrete practice is thought necessarily only in terms of the sense it is given by its historically concrete agentic-subject — has its basis in an expresivist-ontological conception. And it’s due to this particular modality of upholding the centrality of practice that such thinking is arguably termed “contemplative materialism”. That is precisely the reason why both Hegelianism and such Left-Hegelianism, which has as one of its foundational proposals the immediate transfer of philosophical categories to political practice, inhabit the the same Hegelian idealist paradigm as the obverse of one another. And that is precisely why the difference in the respective political practices they generate is the difference between liberal-conservatism and radical republicanism and/or social democracy. A difference, if I I am allowed to be telegraphic here, objectively amounts to little in this late capitalist or neoliberal conjuncture.

Of course, I’m not saying that this expressivist thinking of the dialectic as a trans-epochal method is all that there is to Notes on Dialectics. The work is choc-a-block with many many brilliant insights into what the ‘structure’ of dialectical thinking as a rigorous articulation of materialism amounts to. Here is one from Part II of the book: “In reading on ‘Quality’ in the ‘Doctrine of Being’, Lenin writes in very large writing:

“LEAP

“LEAP

“LEAP

“LEAP

“This obviously hit him hard. He wanted it stuck down in his head, to remember it, always. He makes a note on it as follows:

“At the basis of the concept of gradualness of emergence lies the idea that the emerging is already sensuously or really in existence, only on account of its smallness not yet perceptible and likewise with the concept of the gradualness of disappearance.”

Now this acute observation of James’s unambiguously indicates that humanity as fully realised sensuousness can be generic only in its construction, and not in the Left-Hegelian (mainly Feurbachian) humanist sense of being an a priori expressivist ontology and/or the dialectic as a transhistorical methodological ground. This observation of James shows that if one is faithful to Marx, especially the Marx of Capital and Grundrisse, one can never think of the dialectic as a method, much less as a system. Fredric Jameson too says as much in the opening essays of his book, ‘Valences of the Dialectic’. Instead, one has to think of the dialectic, as Marx clearly does in his ‘Afterword to the Second German Edition’ of Capital, Volume I, as the presentation of precisely the determinate excess of itself as an abstracted structure. Hence, the dialectic, when one is in strict fidelity to the Marx of Capital, is not symmetrical, something that both Hegel through the neurosis of his dialectical thinking, and his apparent Left-Hegelians and/or Marxist-Humanist overturners would insist. It is, rather, asymmetrical and thus materialist.

It’s because of such keen insights into the materialist nature of the dialectic in Marx (and Lenin) that I like this book by James, even as I wonder; why then does he continue, more often than not, to swing towards a kind of Marxist-Humanism. After all, it’s not for nothing that James chooses to concentrate on Hegel’s Logic, and not Phenomenology.

Yet, there is no denying his oscillation between that and a Left-Hegelian-type expressivist dialectical anthropology. Therefore, for all its brilliant and lucid insights into the structure and nature of the materialist dialectic, this work by James does not, for me, constitute a decisive break with the Left-Hegelian, expressivist articulation of dialectics,. The former, as far as I am concerned, is in James’s thinking tainted by the latter. It is, therefore, no accident that James described himself as a Marxist-Humanist.

Muhammad Iqbal – his contradictions and greatness


Marxist historian V.G. Kiernan’s introduction to his translation of Muhammad Iqbal’s poems echoes Lenin’s classic essay in defence of Tolstoy. It provides a perspective to Iqbal’s contradictions, which arguably make him the greatest intellectual of the twentienth century India (including Pakistan). To paraphrase Lenin, the contradictions in Iqbal’s views are indeed a mirror of the contradictory conditions of his time – on the one hand, “centuries of feudal oppression, [colonialism] and decades of [colonial] pauperisation piled up mountains of hate, resentment, and desperate determination”. Iqbal strives to sweep away all the old forms and ways that characterised the old order. But on the other hand, “striving towards new ways of life, had a very crude, patriarchal, semi-religious idea of what kind of life this should be”.

Iqbal’s writings are full of such Tolstoyan contradictions – or what Kiernan says, “Iqbal, as usual, put new wine into old bottles not always well suited to it”; he “had ended by being, in some ways, the prisoner of the ideas that had promised to liberate him. All his life as a poet he had been using the hard, distinct, unyielding thoughts of a bygone age as supports round which the softer tendrils growing out of the amorphous sensations of his own age could twine themselves and climb. Dante and Milton did the same”.

Iqbal’s contradictions and consistency make him great. But, what was consistent in him? He “hated injustice; his protest, first made in the name of India, continued in the name of Islam; in this form it was reinforced, rather than superseded, by a protest in the name of the common man, the disinherited of all lands”. This is very important to understand ideas underneath the pan-Islamic theological crust that he developed to shape them.