Home Global Village How Marx influenced ─ and failed to influence ─ India

How Marx influenced ─ and failed to influence ─ India

Sudheendra Kulkarni pays tribute to a great philosopher whose 200th birth anniversary is being commemorated this month

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Sudheendra Kulkarni |

Which political philosopher has left the most widespread influence on the minds of the people around the world in the last hundred-odd years? More importantly, who has inspired the most number of people in the world to act on the basis of that influence and effect radical changes in the political, economic and governance systems in their respective countries? The answer to both questions is the same, and there are no prizes for guessing it. It is Karl Marx. Marx’s was not a theory for abstract debate in search of truth.

Rather, it was a call for action to change the world for the better, as is evident from his audacious declaration: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” He described that better future for mankind as communism, when a society will no longer be divided into antagonistic classes when there will no longer be exploitation of man by man. He believed that “revolutions are the locomotives of history”, and regarded potent and progressive ideas to be the fuel for such locomotives. “Theory becomes a material force,” he famously said, “as soon as it has gripped the masses.” No wonder, his call “Workers of the world, unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains!” gripped the minds of working masses and progressive intellectuals around the world.

One may or may not believe in Marxism ─ and there are many who agree with parts of it and reject its other parts ─ but it is impossible for anyone to deny that no other revolutionary philosopher left as decisive an imprint on the political developments globally in the 20th century as Marx did.

All philosophies have their flaws. Furthermore, many more flaws get added in the course of the practical implementation of a political philosophy, as happened in all the communist-ruled countries.

From Russia to Cuba, from China to Angola, from Germany and Italy in Europe to Vietnam and Korea in Asia ─ the influence of Marxism was felt almost all over the world in the last century. Not in all these countries did Marxism ignite the torch of proletarian revolutions. But even where it did not, its distinct mark on the political and intellectual landscape could be seen.

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Marx during India’s Freedom Struggle

India was one of those countries that refused to yield to the appeal of a communism-inspired revolution. Nevertheless, Marx’s thoughts impacted the political thinking of leading personalities and parties, both before and after India attained independence. Naturally, the Communist Party of India (and its many subsequent offshoots) explicitly swore allegiance to Marxism ─ and also to the theory and practice of Vladimir Lenin, who had led the world’s first-ever communist revolution in Russia in 1917. Many non-communists of that period had also praised the Russian revolution.

Prominent among them was Lokmanya Tilak, the most important Congress leader of India’s freedom movement before the dawn of the Mahatma Gandhi era. Lenin in turn expressed his solidarity with India’s anti-colonial struggle. Congress, and much of the rest of India, did not accept a key element in Marxist theory and practice ─ namely, class struggle. Even less was the support to the idea of violence as a necessary or desirable means for bringing about a revolution. This is because Mahatma Gandhi had firmly anchored India’s freedom movement in the principle of nonviolence, which was also consistent with India’s age-old cultural and spiritual ethos.

Nevertheless, the ideal of socialism ─ which Marxists describe as the first stage towards establishing a communist society, but which was independently espoused by many non-communist theorists and political leaders as a codename for a society based on equality and justice ─ gained wide acceptance during India’s freedom struggle. Gandhiji once affirmed that he would call himself a communist if communism shunned the path of violence.

The influence of Marxism was felt almost all over the world in the last century. Not in all these countries did Marxism ignite the torch of proletarian revolutions. But even where it did not, its distinct mark on the political and intellectual landscape could be seen.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru rejected the dogmatic approach of communists, and also, like Gandhiji, their advocacy of violence as an instrument for social change. Even so, the egalitarian core of Marxist philosophy had a major influence on his own belief in socialism. His tour of Europe and the Soviet Union during 1926-27 sharpened this belief.

The influence of Marx can also be seen on many other leaders of that era such as Subhas Chandra Bose, M.N. Roy, Dr Rammanohar Lohia, Jayprakash Narayan and Acharya Narendra Dev, to name a few. In his treatise ‘Buddha or Karl Marx’ (1956), Dr B.R. Ambedkar proposed to show the “similarity and differences between Buddhism and Marxism”. If socialism has entered the Indian Constitution as one of its preambular principles, at least a part of the credit goes to Marx.

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Why Marxism Retreated Worldwide

Nothing hampered the growth of Marxism in India more than non-communist Indian leaders’ and intellectuals’ disillusionment with large-scale killings, political purges and suppression of dissent and individual liberty in the Soviet Union (under Stalin), China (under Mao Zedong) and other communist-ruled countries. In subsequent decades, the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the disintegration of the USSR itself, made a huge dent in Marxism’s appeal on the Indian mind.

Another important reason for the failure of Marxism to sink deep roots in the Indian soil (and also in the soil of all the other South Asian countries) is that Marxists belittled, and often altogether dismissed, the influence of religion on the people. The religions of India have created a strong bond of spiritual and cultural solidarity within and among communities. Even the cultures and customs in our subcontinent bear a distinct stamp of religious influence on them. Belief in God is the common characteristic of all the subcontinental religions ─ be it Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, etc.

Therefore, the common people in these communities, unlike some intellectuals, could not be swayed by an ideology that was avowedly atheistic and regarded religion, at least in popular perception, as “the opium of the masses”. It is not surprising that not a single Muslim country in the world ─ atheism being a taboo particularly in Islam ─ has accepted communism. In India, even the non-Muslim peasants and workers largely stood aloof from the communist ideology, even though they greatly admired certain communist leaders for their sacrifice, selfless struggles, honesty, and commitment to secure justice for the poor.

Lenin in turn expressed his solidarity with India’s anti-colonial struggle. Congress, and much of the rest of India, did not accept a key element in Marxist theory and practice ─ namely, class struggle. Even less was the support to the idea of violence as a necessary or desirable means for bringing about a revolution.

A striking indication of this disconnect between Marxism and the broad masses of the people is the fact that the two main communist parties in India, CPI and the CPI(M), have both witnessed a massive erosion in their support base. Marxism no longer attracts university students and young intellectuals, who are committed to the ideal of social change, in the same way it did in the past. This is, of course, true about all the countries in the world, including China where the communist party is still in power.

Revealingly, the Chinese Communist Party today lays greater stress on reviving the thoughts of China’s own philosophers like Confucius than those of Marx or Mao. All this is not surprising. The flow of human history never allows itself to be dictated by any one philosophy, philosopher or prophet, howsoever great that person may be. All philosophies have their flaws. Furthermore, many more flaws get added in the course of the practical implementation of a political philosophy, as happened in all the communist-ruled countries.

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However, in spite of this retreat of Marxism, there can be no doubt that the humanist in Marx will remain alive in history, although the theorist in him will become less and less relevant. All those who dream of a better future for mankind ─ a future free of exploitation, inequity, injustice and denial of human dignity to millions ─ will continue to find many of Marx’s ideas and ideals illuminating and inspiring. Finally, a note of disappointment and protest. As the world commemorates the 200th birth anniversary of Karl Marx this month, it is unfortunate that Official India has completely ignored the occasion.

No government-funded national agency ─ Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), University Grants Commission (UGC), etc., ─ has deemed it necessary to organise a conference, or a series of debates, on what Marx and Marxism have meant to India and the world. There is no surprise in this. What can one expect from a government that refused to honour Nehru himself, India’s first prime minister, in the year of his 125th birth anniversary four years ago? But BJP should know one thing: antipathy for Marxism is not in itself a mark of intellectual superiority.

The author was an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the PMO. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com. This is a slightly expanded version of an article that was originally published in National Herald, an Indian newspaper founded by Jawaharlal Nehru. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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