August 28, 2014
May 4, 2014
Starting tomorrow, New Yorkers will be able to see some of the finest new films in the world courtesy of the annual Indian Film Festival that runs from May 5th through the 9th. I had an opportunity to preview four narrative films as well as the documentaries that I reported on in the latest Counterpunch. All are exceptional and one in particular is a work of genius. Titled “Sniffer”, it is the story of a private eye who has more in common with a Truffaut character than Dick Tracy. Watching the film, it dawned on me that the New Wave is still going strong in India even if that great generation celebrated in Cahiers du Cinéma is long gone.
In a conversation with the festival’s executive director Aroon Shivdasani a couple of weeks ago at an opening ceremony party she hosted, she stressed the social and political agenda that many of the films share. Ignoring the typical Bollywood film, not without their insouciant charm, the curators select uncompromising independent films that are geared to the art house market and leading edge film festivals. Since I am the ideal viewer for such films (I told Ms. Shivdasani that I live for films such as these), my assumption is that my regular readers will drive, take trains, fly, run or crawl to the theaters that are part of the festival venue.
I will start with the film that left the greatest impression on me, a jewel among jewels.
Mohammad Anwar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is paid to track down missing people and cheating spouses. As such, his primary tool is a digital camera rather than a pistol. Unlike his boss, who keeps reminding him to keep a cool professional distance from his clients and from the men or women he is tracking, Anwar cannot help but get involved. If sniffer is slang for detective, it also just as easily can refer to someone who can’t mind his own business. In one case, he has been paid to learn why a middle-aged married man has killed himself, a mystery to his wife and daughter. They told him that he was so happy. When he breaks the news that he was a gay man who had reached an impasse with his long-time lover in another city, they refuse to believe him. Instead of shrugging his shoulders and moving on, Anwar asks the daughter to understand and accept his father as the decent and loving man no matter his sexuality as she is practically throwing him out the front door.
I could not help but think of Nathaniel West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” as I watched this powerful work. West’s novel tells the story of a newspaper columnist haunted by the grief-stricken letters he gets from strangers seeking his advice. Although his cynical editor laughs at the letters, the columnist can’t shake them out of his mind. In the evenings he guzzles whiskey to help him forget their sad tales.
Like Miss Lonelyhearts, Anwar takes solace in booze—his favorite drink being rum and coke, the same enjoyed by his sole companion, a golden Labrador Retriever named Lalo. His predilection for alcohol and his keeping a pet dog has provoked his landlord—a pious Muslim—into evicting him. Once Anwar and Lalo end up on the street, they begin sniffing for the ultimate prey: Anwar’s existential being.
Toward the end of the film, when Anwar is in the midst of his vision quest, there’s a scene that will stick with me forever. It encapsulates the power of cinema and is testimony to the screenwriter and director’s ability to convey in images what can never be conveyed in words. We see a path leading down a hill from a distance upon which itinerant peddlers are walking. Their wares born aloft on sticks appear like religious relics from a distance. We can’t help but be mesmerized by the steady but inexplicable procession. Finally Anwar and Lalo appear at the top of the hill and everything falls into place. The art that surpasseth all understanding.
“Sniffer” was written and directed by Buddhadeb Dasgupta, a 70-year-old man who was trained as an economist. In 1976 after growing disillusioned by economic theory’s inability to capture Indian reality he taught, he began a new career as a filmmaker. Wikipedia states that he belonged to the Calcutta Film Society, “where he first started going in his senior high school along with his uncle, exposed him to the works of directors like Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. This, in turn, inspired him take film making as a mode of expression.”
No wonder I love his work.
(“Sniffer” screens at Friday, May 9, 2014, 6:00 pm)
2. WITH YOU, WITHOUT YOU
Although the festival mostly features Indian films, there are works from other South Asian countries, including this one from Sri Lanka. Directed by the 52-year-old Prasanna Vithanage, this is a love story rooted in the tragic realities of the bloody, decades-long civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils.
Sarathsiri (Shyam Fernando) is a 45-year-old pawnbroker who lives alone in an apartment above his tiny shop. Except for his housekeeper and the clients who pawn their gold baubles to help overcome one financial emergency or another, he has no human contact. With his expressionless face and his willingness to take the last ounce of flesh metaphorically speaking out of his customers, he is not a likeable character.
One day a young and beautiful woman comes into his shop to pawn some gold earrings. He shows no emotion but is obviously smitten at first sight. After she returns several more times, he begins to show uncharacteristic generosity toward her that she rebuffs. Undaunted, he persists until her own dire condition persuades her to drop her defenses.
As a Tamil, Selvi (Anjali Patil) has plenty to be defensive about. When Sarathsiri finally proposes marriage to her in his own phlegmatic fashion, she accepts largely as a way of escaping poverty and neglect. But within weeks, she sees his passionate side and begins to return his love, even if she remains trouble by his Shylock tendencies. What she was not prepared for, however, was his secret past as a Sinhalese soldier—thus the underlying dramatic tension that ratchets up inexorably as the film’s tragic dimensions take shape. This is both a tale of star-crossed lovers as well as that of a nation’s social tragedy done with great sensitivity and intelligence.
The film is based on Dostoyevsky’s short story “A Gentle Creature” that has been adapted numerous times, including by the legendary Robert Bresson. I am not sure about the availability of Bresson’s film but my advice is to catch “With You, Without You”, a reminder that the grand tradition of French filmmaking continues in Sri Lanka.
(“With You, Without You” screens at Thursday, May 8, 2014, 6:00 pm)
Fandry is the Marathi slang word (the language of the state of Maharashtra that is used in the film) for wild pig. It is also the word that the upper caste residents of a small town hurl at members of a Dalit family that is paid to drive the animals from the village from time to time. Such animals are anathema to the upper caste residents, but perhaps no more so than the Dalit family they pay to corral them.
The film is centered on the struggle of a teenaged boy named Jabya (Somnath Awghade) to transcend his Dalit status. This consists in part with him trying to work up the courage to tell an upper caste girl he admires from afar about his feelings. It also consists of him trying to do well in school against all odds. He studies by candlelight in his miserable hut while his mother and father insist that he not waste his time with homework. His father is particularly mean to Jabya, insisting that he spend his days doing manual labor instead of going to school. One is reminded of the documentary “Gulabi Gang” I reviewed for Counterpunch that details the cruelty with which Dalit husbands and fathers mete out to their family. Being oppressed by caste and by class does not necessarily make you more sensitive to those under your power.
The climax of the film is an intense collision of wild pigs, the Dalit family and the upper caste denizens of the village. The film is both intensely dramatic and a good introduction to a social system that should have been wiped off the face of the earth long ago, just like Jim Crow. It is quite an indictment of Indian democracy that such a feudal social relationship still exists.
In an interview with Sify.com, director Nagraj Manjule describes his concerns with Dalit oppression.
The village where I grew up, there were two castes who used to eat pigs. Obviously, there were no toilets in villages, and the pigs grow up on this garbage dump. When you eat pig meat, of course, your izzat (dignity) isn’t rated too highly. And caste is such a pertinent issue everywhere – the perception that Brahmins are superior, and there are certain castes in the middle, and then, at the bottom of the pecking order, there are Dalits. The stigma is a very relevant one.
I don’t think caste is something that will ever stop being important to the Indian psyche. You think once someone is educated, it won’t matter so much, but then I’m not convinced. You see it all the time, even when people ask you your name. They want your surname too, so that they can guess your caste. In fact, there are people I know who use initials instead of their surnames, so that people won’t know they’re Dalits. It happened with one of my own crew members. He told me suddenly, while working on the post-production, that he really liked my film, and could relate to it, as a Dalit, and that he felt for the first time that he was represented in a film. That’s when I knew he was Dalit.
(“Fandry” screens at Friday, May 9, 2014, 6:00 pm)
4. LIAR’S DICE
This, like most films being shown in the festival, is engaged with Indian social and political realities. As a debut film by female director Gayathri Mohandas that was shown at Sundance, “Liar’s Dice” hews closely to neorealist traditions. Filmed in the ruggedly beautiful mountainous border between India and Tibet, it tells the story of a mother and her young daughter in search of her husband who has left their impoverished village in search of work in a distant city. After failing to reach him by his cell phone, she has grown worried. In other words, it like “Fandry” gets to the heart of Indian socio-economic conditions but like that film tells it dramatically and additionally with a real flair for India’s staggeringly beautiful backcountry.
With precious little money to sustain them, mother and daughter accompanied by the daughters pet goat board a bus in search of the missing husband. Along the way they run into a Pakistani man who has deserted from the military. Initially attracted to her on the basis that she can pay him for his protection in the big city, he grows fond of the threesome even though he has trouble showing his feelings.
This is essentially a road movie that has become a virtual genre. As with a number of other films from the semi-periphery, including the Brazilian “Central Station”, it throws together clashing personalities and allows them to interact against a landscape made up of highways, road stops and bus stations. At its best, the genre gives you a sense of the vulnerability of marginal characters fending for themselves in difficult circumstances.
My only criticism of the film is that the authenticity of the characters sometimes undercuts the larger aim of character development. As a gruff and sometimes abusive deserter, the male lead is thrust into conflicts with a woman who only sees him as a kind of male protector. The dialog, while realistic, does not take flight. That, of course, is the challenge that all screenwriter/directors working in the neorealist tradition have to meet.
(“Liar’s Dice” screens at Thursday, May 8, 2014, 6:00 pm)
May 2, 2014
Counterpunch Weekend Edition May 2-4, 2014
New York Indian Film Festival 2014
In 1998 Andre Gunder Frank’s highly controversial “ReOrient” appeared. It argued that “the East” (mainly China and India) would eventually supplant “the West” as hegemonic powers, thus reestablishing the relationships that existed before 1492 when all of Columbus’s fleet could be put on the deck of the flagship of Zheng He’s fleet that made multiple voyages to the east coast of Africa in the early 15th century.
I have my doubts about Frank’s overall thesis but on one level it is surely borne out by Indian cinema that now makes most American films look crude and amateurish by comparison. To see Indian cinema at its best, I urge New Yorkers to make it to the New York Indian Film Festival that runs from May 5th to the 10th. It can only be described as an embarrassment of riches.
Trailers for films being reviewed:
April 7, 2014
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
I have plans to get around to Vivek Chibber’s “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital” at some point as well as Ranajit Guha’s “Dominance without Hegemony”, one of Chibber’s chief targets. In the meantime, I try to keep up with the scholarly commentary on Chibber’s book, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s blistering attack that appears in the April 2014 “Cambridge Review of International Affairs” that I read this morning. (Drop me a line if you want to read a copy.)
I doubt that I will ever read anything beyond Guha’s book in order to get a handle on subaltern studies. A big problem for non-specialists like myself is that the price of admission into these academic wars is almost prohibitive. Spivak’s review is shot through with references to figures in the postcolonial field that will certainly be unknown to the average reader. My interest in the debate, however, is probably somewhat narrower than others. In a nutshell, I am interested in exploring what the one negative review of Chibber’s book on amazon.com referred to:
I was excited about this book because I am very interested in postcolonial theory but was disappointed when I learned this book was not really about postcolonial theory at all but Subaltern Studies (which Chibber himself admits is not the same thing)…That’s useful for some purposes but does not fully address the deeper (or larger) issues postcolonial theory raises. Read this book if you’re interested in how capitalism developed in India. Beyond that, not sure if you’ll get much out of it.
That for me is the more interesting question—how capitalism developed in India. When I get around to dealing with Chibber, I plan to refer extensively to Jairus Banaji and Irfan Habib, Indian and Pakistani Marxists who have sharp differences with Robert Brenner, Chibber’s chief influence.
I am not sure how many of you are familiar with Gayatri Spivak but a word or two might be in order. She is a long-time faculty member at Columbia University, a Derrida specialist, and accused (somewhat unfairly) of writing in a dense academic style that is hard to understand, most particularly her “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (http://www.mcgill.ca/files/crclaw-discourse/Can_the_subaltern_speak.pdf) that appeared in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg’s 1988 Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Despite the impression you might have that Spivak is a hardened subalternist, her article is a critique of the school, albeit within its general parameters.
The first part of my proposition — that the phased development of the subaltern is complicated by the imperialist project — is confronted by a collective of intellectuals who may be called the ‘Subaltern Studies’ group. They must ask, Can the subaltern speak? Here we are within Foucault’s own discipline of history and with people who acknowledge his influence.
She then proceeds to find fault with Foucault, including his failure to acknowledge the “epistemic violence of imperialism”.
Her review, however, represents a kind of reflexive defense of subaltern studies and Ranajit Guha in particular, toward whom she feels particularly protective.
Guha, a seasoned communist who paid the price of his political convictions over a brilliantly maverick career as a historian, created a revolution within the discipline. For Chibber to prove him ‘wrong’–especially as an Orientalist misreader of Europe who believes that the ‘non-West’ has a different psychology¾is somewhat like proving W.E.B. Du Bois ‘wrong’ when he calls the exodus of the newly emancipated slaves a ‘general strike’, like the repeated attempts by folks like Bernard Lewis to prove Edward Said ‘wrong’, even, and I do not want to be mischievous, a well-meaning smart sophomore’s attempt to show that in the Poetics Aristotle is ‘illogical’.
In assessing the contribution made by Spivak to the debate, I find her emphasis on Gramsci most useful. Keep in mind that Spivak did not coin the word “subaltern”. In fact, it was Gramsci who was responsible for introducing it into the Marxist lexicon as a way of describing those existing outside the dominant classes examined by Karl Marx in works such as Capital. Some scholars regard Gramsci’s use of the term as a ruse designed to fool the fascists into thinking that he was writing about the proletariat. I for one am convinced that Marcus Green got this question right in an article titled “Rethinking the subaltern and the question of censorship in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks”:
Through an examination of Gramsci’s use of the term ‘subaltern’ in the Prison Notebooks, I will demonstrate that he did not develop the phrase ‘subaltern social groups’ because of prison censorship, but in fact developed the concept of ‘subaltern social groups’ to identify and analyse the politics and activity of marginalized social groups in Italian history. In analyses of specific historical contexts, Gramsci refers to slaves, peasants, religious groups, women, different races, the popolani (common people) and popolo (people) of the medieval communes, the proletariat, and the bourgeoisie prior to the Risorgimento as subaltern groups.
Despite the massive footprint of Gramsci in Guha’s work and others operating within the subaltern studies school, Chibber tells his readers that this does not interest him:
Moreover, this book largely avoids the task of tracing the theoretical lineage of the Subalternists’ arguments. As a result, even though the influence of Gramsci and Althusser is evident to those familiar with the relevant literature, I do not analyze the nature of this connection. Nor do I assess how their ideas have been reconfigured at the hands of Subalternist theorists. Again, this is partly because of the need to keep the book to a manageable size (and it is already longer than I had either wished or intended), but primarily because of my desire that the reader not be distracted by whether Subalternists have correctly interpreted a given theorist. What matters is not whether they are true to this or that theoretical tradition but whether they have produced sound arguments, and it Is that final product—their arguments as they stand—that we need to assess.
Spivak’s reaction to this is worth quoting at length:
Indeed, because Chibber is eager to prove that nothing that the subalternists acknowledged was more than ‘trend’-y, he dismisses Gramsci’s influence as a trend (6). When on page 27 he discloses, ‘I do not analyze the nature of [the Subalternists’] connection [to Gramsci] . . . primarily because of my desire that the reader not be distracted by whether Subalternists have correctly interpreted a given theorist’, this reader is obliged to conclude—and not only because of this ‘correct’-fetishist gurumahashay’s [schoolmaster] demonstrated inability to be auto-critical—that he is not ‘familiar with the relevant literature’.
For then he would have known that Gramsci’s main contribution was not ‘popular history and matters of consciousness’ (6). (Gramsci’s concern anyway is not consciousness-raising but epistemology, education.) Gramsci’s main contribution was to notice that, precisely because Italy, with its tail tucked into Africa, is not France, Britain, Russia or the US, the Risorgimento did not sufficiently assimilate ‘class’ differences created outside of capital logic (basically the incentive to establish the same system of exchange everywhere). This is why the Subalternists chose the word ‘subaltern’. The existence of the subaltern is also evident in the Pan-Africanist WEB Du Bois’s writings, in such essays as ‘The Negro mind reaches out’, although, being a distant yea-sayer to Stalin (of whose purge techniques he was unaware, as opposed to the lynching techniques of the Southern bourgeoisie), Gramsci’s ‘enemy’, he did not know the word ‘subaltern’ (Du Bois 1968, 385 – 414). So, not not capitalist, but separated from full capital logic.
I thought the reference to Du Bois was quite telling. Excerpts from The Negro mind reaches out can be read at http://www.yale.edu/glc/archive/1114.htm. I found this passage most useful:
The attitude of the white laborer toward colored folk is largely a matter of long continued propaganda and gossip. The white laborers can read and write, but beyond this their education and experience are limited and they live in a world of color prejudice…Color hate easily assumes the form of a religion and the laborer becomes the blind executive of the decrees of the masters of the white world; he votes armies and navies for “punitive” expeditions; he sends his sons as soldiers and sailors; he composes the Negro-hating mob, demands Japanese exclusion and lynches untried prisoners. What hope is there that such a mass of dimly thinking and misled men will ever demand universal democracy for all men?
What Du Bois is describing is the “subaltern” status of Blacks in the Jim Crow south. Largely outside the industrial working class and existing in the netherworld between slavery and free labor, Blacks were basically debt peons who according to the stringent categories established by “political Marxism” were caught in some kind of “precapitalist” limbo. If capitalism is defined by market rather than political coercion, then one must conclude that the Deep South until fairly recently existed outside of capitalist property relations except for the coal mines, steel mills, garment factories that were reserved for white labor only.
The problem with “political Marxism” is that it generalizes the experience of 19th century British society and shoehorns all of the rest of the world into that model even if it does not fit. Ranajit Guha’s efforts were directed toward developing a historiography that corresponded to Indian realities after years of finding Eric Hobsbawm et al inadequate.
The problem is not just Eurocentrism, to refer to my old friend Jim Blaut’s writings, but more specifically Anglocentrism. Let me conclude with Spivak’s reference to what she calls Little Britain Marxism, and Chibber’s place within it:
In a 306-page book full of a repeated and generalized account of the British and French revolutions, and repeated cliches about how capitalism works, and repeated boyish moments of ‘I have disproved arguments 1, 2, 3, therefore Guha (or Chakrabarty, or yet Chatterjee) is wrong, and therefore subaltern studies is a plague and a seduction, and must be eradicated, although it will be hard because careers will be ruined, etc.’, there could have been some room for these references to describe the range, roots and ramifications of postcolonial studies, so that the book’s focused choice could have taken its place in Verso’s protective gestures towards the preservation of ‘Little Britain Marxism’, shared to some degree by the journal Race and Class. Aijaz Ahmad’s In theory (1992) was such an attempt. Postcolonial theory is the blunter instrument, and its attempt to disregard the range of postcolonial studies in order to situate subaltern studies—confined to three texts—as its representative can mislead students more effectively.
He misses out on Guha because Guha has been placed within an academic battle between what I keep calling Little Britain Marxism and located postcolonial historiographies, here confused with the metropolitan second-generation version, particularly in the US.
Quite plain-spoken, no?
January 8, 2014
June 28, 2013
The photos below were forwarded from Yahoo by Vijay Kumar Marla, a long-time activist in India. At least a thousand people have died in Uttarakhand and many more are unaccounted for.
For an analysis of the man-made causes of the disaster, you can read an article by G. Sampath that makes some essential points:
According to media reports, when the floods struck, about 28 million tourists were visiting the state, while the local population is close to half that number. First of all, it is irresponsible to let such a huge volume of human traffic into an ecologically sensitive area, that too in the monsoon season. But once the decision had been taken to milk tourism to the maximum, you would naturally need to build infrastructure to cater to such tourist inflows. This requires planning. And given the fragile nature—of both the climate and eco-systems—of the Himalayan region, it also requires a strict adherence to building and environmental norms. The first principle of disaster management is prevention—by taking the necessary precautionary measures. But Uttarakhand, captive to local interest groups, has been doing the exact opposite: actively soliciting disaster.
As recently as February 2013, the Uttarakhand high court had passed an order asking the state government to demolish structures that had come up within 200 metres of the river banks. But the administration did not act. When the floods came, many of those illegal structures got demolished anyway.
Such short-sightedness and flawed (or zero) planning is not unique to Uttarakhand. It is a unique Indian tradition that finds expression even in the most modern of our achievements, and in triumphs we take pride in, such as, for instance, the Delhi Metro. According to a new UN study, the Delhi Metro “ignored disaster threats during planning” as a result of which 50 stations were at high risk, leaving it susceptible to massive casualties when disaster strikes in the form of floods or earthquakes.
June 23, 2013
When I had occasion to speak by phone with Hari Dillon, the former director of Tecnica, on the occasion of the untimely death of Michael Urmann, the group’s founder, I mentioned the interview I had done with a Sikh activist who I had met at work. Hari reminded me of the conversations we had had long ago about the Ghadar Party that a relative of his had been a member of in California, where it was particularly strong. The Ghadar (Hindi for mutiny) group was a revolutionary nationalist formation spearheaded by Sikhs that was an alternative to Gandhi’s pacifism. After chatting with Hari, I had made a mental note to look into the Ghadars but put them on the front burner after discovering that M.N. Roy worked with them to procure weapons from the Germans during World War One to use against British colonialism.
In the same chapter in Sibnayaran Ray’s biography that described Roy’s sojourn in Mexico City that I posted last week, we discover that he had hooked up with the president of Stanford University who had hired Ghadar founder Lala Har Dayal to teach at the school. You can get a feel for how much American higher education has changed through Ray’s account:
Meantime at Stanford Dhanagopal introduced Roy to the President of the University, Dr. David Starr Jordan, who was an eminent pacifist with a democratic socialist outlook and who had earlier given Har Dayal his appointment as a professor. He not only sympathised with the Indian aspiration for independence, but was also deeply interested in the political developments in neighbouring Mexico where one of his friends, General Savador Alvarado, was at that time engaged on some kind of a socialistic experiment as Governor of the province Yucatan. He gave Roy an introduction to Alvarado and advised him see the experiment himself if he ever went to that country.
One of the best introductions to the Ghadar movement is http://www.sikh-history.com. Here’s their entry on the Ghadars:
Many Sikhs and Hindu Punjabis who tasted freeddom outside colonial India in USA started Ghadr movement to free India from British rule in early 1900’s. These Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus were sent to Canada which was under British rule for labour work. They crossed the border over to USA and settled in Western Coast of USA in cities like Portland, San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles. These Punjabis created Gurdwaras [Sikh temples] and established societies. They were subject to draconian laws like “not allowed to marry to american woman” by many of these states at that time. The word Ghadr can be commonly translated as mutiny, was the name given to the newspaper edited and published for the Hindustani Association of the Pacific Coast which was founded at Portland, United States of America, in 1912. The movement this Association gave rise to for revolutionary activities in India also came to be known by the designation of Ghadr.
As I stated earlier, M.N. Roy worked assiduously to procure money and guns from Germany during WWI. Back then, when there was inter-imperialist rivalry and Britain ruled the world, it was considered a tactical question as to who you cut deals with. When WWII came along, the same outlook prevailed. Indian revolutionary nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose knocked on Nazi doors while Ho Chi Minh shook hands with the OSS. After WWII, there was no more inter-imperialist rivalry to speak of and it made perfect sense for the left and those fighting against colonialism to align with the USSR. Old habits unfortunately die hard and the pro-Baathist left continues to look at Putin and Assad as if they were Khrushchev and Castro.
Probably the best overall history of the Ghadar movement is Berkeley professor Maia Ramnath’s “Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism “, the first 90 pages of which can be read in Google Books. Most of Chapter three “Enemy of Enemies: the Nationalist Ghadar” can be read there.
I also recommend the 25 page history of the Ghadar movement that can be found on the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin website. It also details the alliance between Germany and Indian nationalists:
The German government had great sympathy with the Gadar movement because the German government and the Gadarites had the British as their common enemy. In September 1914, Indians formed Berlin Indian Committee (also known as the Indian Revolutionary Society) members of which were Har Dyal, Virendra Nath Chattopadhyay (younger brother of politician – poetess Sarojani Naidu), Maulvi Barkatullah (after his death, he was buried near Sacramento), Bhupendra Nath Datta (brother of Swami Vivekananda), Champak Raman Pillai (a young Tamilian) and Tarak Nath Das (a foundation is named after him in Columbia University, New York). The objectives of the society were to arrange financial assistance from German government for revolutionary activities and propaganda work in different countries of the world, training of volunteer force of Indian fighters and transportation of arms and ammunitions to reach the Gadarites for a revolt against the British Government in India.
The Indian Revolutionary Society in Berlin successfully arranged substantial financial aid for the Gadarites from Germany. The German Embassy in the United States engaged a German national to liaison with the Gadar leadership in San Francisco. Several ships were commissioned or chartered to carry arms and ammunitions and batches of Indian revolutionaries to India.
But what makes things even more interesting is how the anarchist movement fits into all these amazing conspiracies. This is from M.N. Roy’s memoir:
Barring Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, Har Dyal was the most important member of the Berlin Committee. Intellectually, he was by far the superior, but eccentric in emotion and erratic politically. From an orthodox Hindu he became an anarchist — a close associate of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman in the United States. But anti-British nationalism was still the dominating passion.
After having spent 14 years in prison for a failed assassination attempt against Henry Frick, the steel baron who drowned the Homestead strikers in blood, Berkman once again showed his willingness to put his beliefs on the line as the N.Y. Times of February 24, 1918 made clear. I especially love how Har Dyal was using an assumed name of Israel Aaronson. A novelist could not come up with something more mind-boggling.
June 16, 2013
This is an excerpt from V. 1 of “In Freedom’s Quest: a Study of the Life and Works of M.N. Roy (1887-1954)” by Sibnarayan Ray. It is a mind-boggling account of how Roy became the founder of the Communist Party of Mexico, starting with his ties to an expatriate American community that included Carleton Beals and Mike Gold, the famous creator of “proletarian novels”. Later on, Roy would found the Communist Party of India and then become the architect of the Comintern’s policy on national liberation movements. There’s fascinating material on Roy’s contacts with Michael Borodin, the Bolshevik leader whose original name was Mikhail Markovich Gruzenberg, born into a Jewish rabbinical family in Yanovichi near Vitebsk in Byelorussia in 1884, and who had joined the Bolsheviks in 1903. I am making sure to inform my friend Bedo Pain about this story in the hope that the director of “Chittagong” might be persuaded to make a biopic about M.N. Roy, arguably one of the more compelling figures on the left in the entire 20th century.
* * * *
For while they had been working on their plan with the Germans, the Roys had made many friends in Mexico. These included not only members of the German diplomatic colony and Mexican government officials, but also a number of Mexican intellectuals and leftwing political leaders, and a group of American radicals who had taken refuge in Mexico to avoid the draft in their own country. Almost from the time of his arrival Roy had been captivated by the warmth and friendliness of the Mexicans (qualities which I found unchanged when I visited there more than fifty years later in search of material for this book). In refreshing contrast to the United States, Mexico was almost completely free from racial prejudice. Among his early Mexican friends and acquaintances were the editor of the local daily, El Pueblo (The People), who had invited him to write articles on India for his paper; the emancipated woman editor of La Mujer Moderna (The Modern Woman) who had been private secretary of Carranza before he became the President of the Republic; Don Manuel. Speaker of the Camera de los Deputados (Chamber of Deputies); Ignazio Santibanez, – leader of the local Socialist Party; Maestro Casas, the Rector of the University and an admirer of Kant, Voltaire and the French Enlightenment, at whose request he later gave five lectures at the University; Enrique Guardiola, a teacher of Spanish from whom he learnt the language well enough not only to write but also to speak it fluently; and Jose Alleny Villa Garcia, son of an eccentric Englishman and an aristocratic Mexican lady with strong radical leanings. His German friends included an old philologist, Dr. Gramatsky and his wife, who at his invitation came to live with the Roys at their house in CoIonia Roma till the middle of 1919 and who taught them French and German; von Schoen, the Counsellor to the German Ambassador, and his American wife whose salon was a meeting place of the local intellectuals; and a young woman painter who not only did a portrait of Roy but taught him to appreciate art and develop a taste for classical European music.
The American radicals were a somewhat different breed. Temperamentally anti-establishment they included pacifists, “wobblies” and anarcho-syndicalists, socialists of all shades, “slackers”, bohemians and adventurers. Roy had already had his first glimpses of American radicalism at Stanford and New York; now after America’s entry into the war, Mexico had become a great gathering place of the draft-dodging refugees. Among the friends he made here were Maurice Becker, poet and cartoonist; Irwin Granich, novelist; Henry Glintenkamp, painter and cartoonist; and Carleton Beals, footloose journalist — who had all been regular contributors to The Masses, edited by Max Eastman. With Granich (more well known as Michael Gold) his friendship became quite close and lasted a long time. Beals wrote about Roy years later in his book Glass Houses (1938) in which he curiously misnamed him as Rabindranath Roy.” Another intimate friend who later attended the Second World Congress of the Communist International under the alias Frank Seaman but came to be more widely known by his other alias, Manuel Gomez, was Charles Francis Phillips. He and his wife Elinore had escaped to Mexico after evading arrest for organizing pacifist demonstrations on the campus of the Columbia University. In 1964 Phillips under the name of Gomez published a detailed interview in Survey in which he, among other matters, gave his recollections of Roy and Borodin in Mexico. It contained a few lapses and inaccuracies, but is a useful source of information.
At the Roy’s house in CoIonia Roma these friends would meet frequently where they were provided with excellent Mexican dishes by Maria, “a healthy and handsome pure-blooded Mexican woman”, who looked after the household. Roy had also acquired “a splendid brown Alsatian … who slept on the floor by my bed just across the open door.” From the balcony of their house they could see in the distance the twin volcanic peaks of Popocatepetl and Ixtacchihuatl – the latter looking like a sleeping woman lying on her back. The view fascinated Roy, and years later, as he wrote movingly in his Memoirs, the memory of the “Sleeping Woman” haunted him.”
To this home then the Roys returned after having decided to give up the hopeless quest for Chinese arms. But although Roy’s own notion of a revolutionary struggle was already beginning to undergo significant changes, and although he would soon plunge into the vortex of Mexico’s turbulent politics, deep in his heart he was still primarily preoccupied with India’s independence. But before he could find an alternative approach and method, he felt that he had to formulate the Indian case more clearly both to himself and to Evelyn and their friends. He had already tried his hand at writing in New York, and as his first exercise in Spanish he had translated the “Open Letter to Wilson” under his Mexican teacher’s supervision. He now returned to the task of developing and articulating his arguments (the invitations from El Pueblo, and from Maestro Casas provided the opportunity), and during 1918 he published several books, pamphlets and articles. One of these was La Voz de la India, which besides the translation of the “Open Letter” also included two other pieces — a detailed critique of a book El Despertar de la India (The Awakening of India) by an anonymous author who had sought in it to justify the British rule in India; and a shorter essay to answer the question “Why do the Indian soldiers fight for England?” (Por que los soldados indios luchan por Inglaterra?) In the first piece he again stressed the disastrous material consequences of the British exploitation of India — the growing frequency of famines; the reduction of India into a supplier of raw materials to Britain and a purchaser of finished British products; the rise in the average cost of living; the economic drain caused by “Home charges”; the restrictions on indigenous manufactures and the monopolies and protections enjoyed by the British; and the heavy burden imposed additionally to meet the cost of the war. It also argued that the railways in India were intended to defend the British empire and to serve British interests; that while during the Hindu–Buddhist and the Muslim periods education in India was widespread and of a higher order, under British rule less than 2 percent of the population received primary schooling and scarcely 0.003 percent went to any university; and that Indians had no effective voice or representation in the administration of their country.” The second piece pointed out that because of the almost universal poverty in India caused by British rule, many Indians were forced to join the British army for a living; that “all the positions of responsibility and true command are held by the British”; that Indian soldiers were sent abroad under false pretences to be used as cannon fodder in various battle fronts; and that whenever they tried to rebel, they were ruthlessly penalized by the British. It also indicated that a good part of the Indian army was provided by the Princes of the native states who were totally dependent on the British even when they were ignominously treated by their protectors.’ India was thus a great prison full of slaves (una gran prision Ilena de esclavos), and “the situation will remain the same until the heroic endeavours of her sons are crowned with success — the revolution, helped by the support and sympathy of the other nations who sincerely love freedom.”
Roy’s next work published from Mexico in 1918 which I have been able to find is La India su pasado, su presente y su porvenir (India her Past Present and Future). In its flyleaf it mentions three earlier publications “by the same author”: La Voz de la India (already discussed); Carta Abierta al President Wilson (the “Open Letter” which was presumably first published as a separate pamphlet and then included in La Voz); and El Camino para la paz, duradera del Mundo (The Road to Durable World Peace). I have not been able to trace so far a copy of the third of these publications, but from the account given in Roy’s Memoirs it consisted of the “Open Letter” and a “longish chapter on the origin of the Monroe Doctrine and its development in practice during nearly a hundred years”.” According to the summary provided in the Memoirs, the new chapter offered a historical interpretation of the financial penetration and domination of the countries of South and Central America by the U.S., and made a plea to the former to regain their independence by putting an end to the U.S. dominance. It thus marked the beginning of Roy’s commitment to a revolution which went beyond the confines of the specifically Indian context.
La India was a more ambitious work than La Voz; it ran to 198+v pages and consisted of a preface, an introduction, nine chapters and five appendices (the latter devoted to sets of statistical figures showing the non-representative nature of the British government in India, India’s low per capita income compared to other nations, its staggering death-rate, the extremely low public expenditure on primary education, and the high incidence of famines in India under British rule).” In the preface Roy acknowledged the valuable help which he had received in the preparation of the book from his “illustrados amigos“, Senor don Jose G. Montes de Oca and Senor don Enrique Guardiola. The introductory chapter stressed India’s unity in diversity and briefly explained how from a fusion of Dravidian and Aryan cultures India developed a tradition which was tolerant and non-aggressive, which respected differences while believing in the unity of the universe, which offered alternative ways of realizing within individual consciousness the ultimate identity of the microcosm and the macrocosm, and which dealt with repeated invasions and conquests by gradually integrating the invaders and conquerors.” After this the first chapter gave a brief resume of Indian history from the earliest times to the pre-British period in which, among other matters, special emphasis was put on the material progress and prosperity of India under both Hindu-Buddhist and Muslim rule, the provisions made in traditional Hindu social theory on the duties and obligations of the king, the economic and political cooperation between the Hindus and the Muslims which existed before “Aurangzeb’s religious fanaticism and despotism” began to provoke widespread rebellion, the barbarous state of Europe compared to India during the middle ages, and the cunning and unscrupulous methods used by the British to establish their dominance at the time of the disintegration of the Mughal empire.” Chapters two to seven gave a systematic critique of British rule, elaborating all the arguments already briefly made in La Voz, but with greater precision and much more factual documentation. Britain’s Indian administration was shown to be unrepresentative, despotic, monopolistic, and based on the practice of racial discrimination (Chapter 2), but again the main stress was on Britain’s systematic and ruthless destruction of India’s economy and exploitation of India’s resources for Britain’s material benefit (chapters three, four and five). The hollowness of the British claim to have provided India with modern education was exposed in chapter six, while chapter seven dealt with the treatment of Indian labourers in South Africa, and the preposterousness of describing the British empire as “a federation of free peoples.” ” In chapter eight Roy gave a brief account of the Indian nationalist movement indicating why the hope of the Moderates to achieve India’s freedom through piecemeal reforms with the consent of India’s alien rulers was altogether unrealistic, and why radical nationalists like himself believed that “the only way out was a bloody revolution even though it appears almost hopeless in the present circumstances”.” The ninth and concluding chapter showed how the British had been trying to defeat the nationalist movement by playing the Muslims against the Hindus and how neither the earlier Morley-Mint° reforms nor the recently published Montagu-Chelmsford Report offered anything of substance to the Indians; and it reaffirmed the conviction that “India will be free, whether the English liked it or not”. India’s freedom would “assure true liberty to the whole world, putting an end to the attitude of superiority assumed by Europe”.
In writing La India Roy again showed hardly any influence of Marx. There was no concession here to Marx’s thesis regarding the “Asiatic mode of production” nor to his view of British imperialism as being “the unconscious tool of history” in bringing about a fundamental revolution in India.” Nor was there any clear perception of conflict of class interests within Indian society. Roy who had been since 1907 a revolutionary activist par excellence proved himself in this book to be a no less consummate ideologue of radical nationalism. However, his stress on the economic aspects of colonial rule was significant as were his preoccupation with the problem of poverty and his freedom from the common Hindu prejudice against the Muslims. Besides, Marx’s Europe-oriented approach to the non-western world would always remain a problem even with convinced Marxists in later decades. La India was published in December 1918; by then Roy was already occupied with his second plan and actively involved in Mexican politics. Mexico had achieved independence in 1821 after nearly three hundred years of Spanish Colonial rule, hut the problems bequeathed by the Spaniards had continued to plague the country. The most serious of these problems were the enormous powers and privileges, both material and spiritual, enjoyed by the Catholic church; the system of hacienda or landlordism of a semi feudal type which gave no rights or protection to the cultivators and blocked all possibilities of agricultural development; and the institution of military overlords who fought among themselves to impose personal dictatorship. Two of the leaders of the war of Mexican independence, Hidalgo and Morelos, had struggled unsuccessfully against the church and the hacendados. Immediately after independence, a new and even more formidable problem had been introduced by the interventionist policy of the United States which wanted to bring Latin America under its hegemony. In 1845 Mexico had been forced to cede its province of Texas to the United States; the war which followed was disastrous at the end of which the U.S. also annexed California and the vast territory between it and Texas by imposing on Mexico the humiliating Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848. In the 1860’s the country found an inspiring leader in Benito Juarez but the French intervened and imposed its nominee, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, as Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian was eventually overthrown and killed, and from 1867-1872 Juarez as President of the “restored republic- tried hard to modernize and democratize the country’s polity and economy. But Juarez’s death in 1872 marked the end of these efforts; and four years later Mexico fell under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz which lasted until 1911. During the period of the porfiriato or Diaz dictatorship, not only did the church and the hacendados reestablish their power and privileges, but large concessions were made to the United States as regards investments in railways, mines, plantations and industries.”
Diaz was overthrown by Francisco Madero in 1911, but before the latter could take Mexico back to the path of Juarez he was overtaken by Coup d’etat and assassinated by General Victorian° Huerta in February 1913, with the connivance of the U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson.” Then began a struggle for power which saw the emergence of Venustiano Carranza, who had been a supporter of Madero, and who now tried to provide Mexico with a stable constitutional government. In 1915, Carranza’s government was recognized by the United States, but when Carranza declared his opposition to the U.S. concessions in Mexico he immediately incurred American hostility. Carranza sought to create a broad base of support for his government, and in December 1916 called a constitutional convention at Queretaro. The Constitution of 1917 which confirmed Carranza as the President of the Republic had several radical features (which it owed largely to Francisco Mujica, elected chairnian of the Committee on the Constitution). The most important among them were Articles 3, 31 and 130 which committed the state to a secular system of education, and abolished all privileges and special powers of the church; Article 27 (the lengthiest in the Constitution) which prohibited church ownership of real estate except for strictly religious purposes, voided all previously granted concessions to foreign governments and investors for the exploitation of Mexico’s natural resources, established state control over water and underground wealth, and provided for the liquidation of the latifundia and redistribution of land among the actual cultivators; and Article 123 which gave protection to wage-earners and declared the principle of minimum wages.”
The Constitution was, of course, more a declaration of basic principles than anything else, since its enforcement required a strong and committed government which Carranza did not possess. Carranza had inherited enormously complex problems; although an ardent nationalist, by inclination he was no radical; he had few friends but many enemies. Among his opponents were Pancho Villa, the bandit chief, who in spite of repeated defeats was still quite active in the northern state of Chihuahua (he was murdered in the summer of 1923); Emiliano Zapata, the legendary leader of a peasant rebellion, who until his assassination by a treacherous ally in 1919, would be a threat to the stability of the government; the organized church which had the backing of the Catholic establishment in the U.S.; the powerful British-American oil interests which sought to subvert the Article 27 of the Queretaro constitution; and finally General Alvaro Obregon who had the support of the U.S. government as he was prepared to restore the concessions which had been made under the Diaz dictatorship.” Moreover, by mid 1918 the war had begun definitely to turn against the Germans in Europe leaving the U.S. free to resume its interventionist policy in Latin America.
Roy’s initial motivation in getting involved in Mexican politics was to promote anti-Americanism so that this would divert the resources of the U.S. from the allied battlefronts in Europe. He soon found that the anarcho-syndicalists were not very interested in supporting Mexican nationalism against the U.S. He now turned to the socialists and other radicals to organize a broad-based movement which would oppose the U.S. and support the Carranza government on the understanding that the latter would try to make effective the radical principles of the Queretaro constitution. Ignazio Santibanez had already introduced him to the executive of his small Socialist party; he now proposed to it the holding of a socialist conference in Mexico. With what was left over from the funds provided by the Germans shortly after his arrival in Mexico he not only offered to bear the entire costs of the conference but also bought the Socialist party a printing press so that its organ, Lucha de los clases, could be converted into a regular weekly of eight pages.
Through Don Manuel, the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Roy then met again Carranza, and persuaded him to support his efforts and to agree to “a programme of legislation for the protection of labour, particularly against exploitation by foreign imperialist capital”76 He also won over Plutarco Elias Calles, a popular socialist leader in Sonora, who later in 1924 would himself be elected President of the Republic:17 Meantime he had met General Alvarado to whom he had an introduction from Dr. Jordan of Stanford. Alvarado was planning to bring out a daily, El Herald° de Mexico, which would have an English section with Roy’s friend Charlie Phillips as editor of this section. Roy planned with Phillips to use this section for the expression of socialist views, and his articles on American imperialism in Latin America were first serialised here before they were brought out in the form of a book under the title El Camino.
Roy now drafted a manifesto for the projected socialist conference to which delegates were invited from the different States of the Republic, and from a number of Latin American countries. The conference met in Mexico city from August 25 to September 4, 1919, and adopted a constitution according to which the reorganized party was to be called El Partido Socialista Regional Mexican°. Besides Roy and Evelyn the leading figures of the conference were Santibanez, Don Manuel, Francisco Cervantes Lopez, Plutarco Calles, Juan Baptista Flores, Jose Garcia and his brother Roberto, and two American radicals, Charles Phillips and Irwin Granich. The last two organized a demonstration of local industrial workers in support of the reconstituted Socialist party, and managed with the assistance of their friend, John Reed, who had returned to New York after six months in the Soviet Union, to get a message to the conference purportedly sent by the newly founded Third International but actually composed by Reed in New York.” The conference elected an organizing committee with Roy, al companero Indio (the Indian comrade), as General Secretary and Jose Garcia as his assistant. The committee was charged with the re-organization of the Mexican Socialist party, and with making preparations for a Regional Socialist International for Latin America.
The proceedings of the conference, however, did not altogether go without opposition. Roy wanted the re-constituted party to he broad-based; he and his Mexican colleagues were particularly keen to draw into it Luis Morones, who had already founded in 1918 the Confederation Regional Obrera Mexicana (CROM), a federation of labour unions. Morones at this stage was known to be backing General Obregon against Carranza.” Roy’s plan was to draw him away from Obregon and his supporters in the U.S. and to secure his collaboration in the proposed anti-American front This was, however, strongly opposed by Lynn Gale, an American radical, who had escaped from New York to Mexico in 1918, and who ran a journal called Gale’s Magazine.’ For various reasons Roy and Gale had taken a strong dislike to each other — according to Roy, Gale was a neophyte to Indian spiritualism and theosophy who had pressed on him to secure a subsidy from the Mexican government for his (Gale’s) pacifist propaganda, a demand which Roy had flatly refused; while according to Gale, Roy was an Indian nationalist whose conversion to socialism was altogether superficial” — and the conference helped to bring this into the open. Roy had the support of the majority in the conference, and since Gale persisted in his opposition he was expelled from the reconstituted party. Later Gale started a Communist party of his own, founded a periodical El Comunista, and even tried to send an emissary, Keikichi Ishimoto, to the Congress of the Communist International, but his efforts met with no success.” His group was not recognized by the Comintern.
After the conference Roy’s first task was to organize branches of the Socialist party in the various states of the republic. In this he was assisted by Calles with whom he travelled north to Sonora (which was the home base of both CaIles and Obregon), stopping on the way in the silver mining states of Aguascalientes and Durango. The trip, however, proved to be short, as Calles became Minister of Labour in the Carranza government, and Roy returned to the capital city where he soon thereafter met Michael Borodin, one of the top Bolsheviks from the Soviet Union, who had recently arrived in Mexico under the assumed name of Brantwein.”
Borodin (whose original name was Mikhail Markovich Gruzenberg) was Roy’s senior in age only by a few years. He was born into a Jewish rabbinical family in Yanovichi near Vitebsk in Byelorussia in 1884, and had joined the Bolsheviks in 1903. To avoid arrest he had escaped to the United States where before the Russian revolution he had been running with his wife a progressive preparatory school in Chicago. After the revolution he was entrusted by Lenin to organize communist activities in the U.S. and Latin America. In 1919 he was sent to the U.S. with Tsarist Crown jewels worth about a million rubbles to provide with part of its sale proceeds financial support to the Soviet Trade Delegation in Washington, and with the balance to underwrite revolutionary work in the new world. On the way, however, he was forced by circumstances to leave the jewels with an Austrian migrant in Haiti, and after eluding the American police who were hot on his heels he eventually managed to reach Mexico in September without any money or any local contacts.”
Once there Borodin soon found out about the newly reconstructed Socialist party from the English section of El Heraldo, contacted its editor Charles Phillips, and through him got in touch with the new General Secretary of the party. Roy took a strong liking to Borodin — besides being a revolutionary of exceptional intellectual sophistication and wide experience Borodin also possessed a striking physical appearance (he was, according to one description, “a man with shaggy black hair brushed back from his forehead, a Napoleonic beard, deep-set eyes, and a face like a mask”)” — and they soon became very close friends. Borodin stayed with the Roys at their house in CoIonia Roma and was introduced by them to Carranza. During the next two months while the Roys provided Borodin with hospitality and with funds to help out his stranded wife in Chicago and the Soviet Trade Delegation in Washington. Borodin explained to the Roys the intricacies of Marxism and succeeded in converting them fully to the communist faith.” He broke down Roy’s resistance to the philosophy of materialism, introduced him to the dialectics of class struggle, made him realise that political freedom had little significance without the content of economic liberation and social justice, and strengthened his newly developing conviction that the struggle for freedom to he successful had to be international and not confined within national or geographical boundaries.
After a great deal of discussion it was decided that they should try to form a Communist party out of the reconstituted Socialist party of Mexico. Roy then called an extraordinary conference of the Socialist party to which he submitted for approval the Manifesto of the Fint World Congress of the Communist International. With support from Don Manuel he succeeded in winning majority agreement, and the Socialist party renamed itself as El Partido Comunista de Mexico. The plan was that the party would subsequently sponsor the Latin American Bureau of the Comintern whose main immediate task would be to organize resistance to American imperialism.” Borodin who, in the meantime, had been provided with facilities by Carranza to contact the West-European Bureau of the Comintern through the Mexican legation in Holland, immediately sent Lenin his report of the conference.. He was instructed to bring Roy with him as a delegate to the next world congress of the Comintern which was scheduled for July 1920.
It was not altogether easy for Roy to decide to leave Mexico to which he had developed a strong attachment, but Borodin persuaded him to accept Lenin’s invitation with the argument that revolutionary movements, whether in Mexico or in India, were parts of a global struggle which constituted the programme of the Communist International. Besides, with the Comintern backing his efforts he would be able to work more effectively for a revolution in India. Jose Allen now took over as General Secretary of the new Communist Party. Borodin was the first to leave for Europe with Charles Phillips accompanying him; the Roys were to follow shortly afterwards: they were to meet in Berlin before going to Moscow. In November 1919, after two and a half years in what he later called “the land of my rebirth”, Roy left with Evelyn from the port of Veracruz on board the Spanish transatlantic liner, Alfonzo XIII, carrying with them Mexican diplomatic passports provided by the President, in which their names were given as Senor and Senora Roberto Alleny Villa Garcia. Roy’s new alias was borrowed from the name of Jose Allen’s brother, and the Roys would continue to use this passport in Europe till their break-up in 1925. Their departure from the house in CoIonia Roma was kept secret for a while by getting Carleton Beals to come and live there during the months of November and December. The precaution was necessary to escape the attention of the British Secret Service.
The years in Mexico wrought in Roy several significant changes and developments. Ever since the Chingripota political robbery at the age of twenty he had been on the run, frequently changing his hiding places while working as an underground revolutionary, later crossing thousands of miles by land and sea under different aliases in South-East and East Asia and the United States, sustained by a single passion and his extraordinary daring, intelligence and integrity. In Mexico for the first time he had a home of his own where a woman who adored him and shared his ideals brought him new insights and experience of happiness. Although even in Mexico the British and the American intelligence were still after him and there was no dearth of hazards in the country’s turbulent politics, he had here the support and friendship of not a few men and women in high places including the President of the Republic and the Rector of the University. (Carranza would be overthrown and treacherously murdered while trying to escape, a few months after the Roys’ departure from Mexico.) He was in a new milieu where radicalism did not exclude enjoyment of life’s gifts and many refinements. When he had left India he was a political ascetic with strong puritanical taboos and an intense distrust of western civilization. During his early months in Mexico his local friends used to call him “the melancholy philosopher from India” who was impervious even to the charm and festive atmosphere of las Chinampas or “floating gardens” on Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco. But gradually in Mexico he “learnt to appreciate the good things in life”, not only good food and wine, but also music, the fine arts and literature, the beauty of the landscape and the delights of refined recreational activities, stimulating conversations and intellectual pursuits. He acquired new languages, Spanish, German and French; was taken by his friends to listen to Pablo Casal’s music and the majestic voice of Caruso and introduced to the subtleties of the game of chess; and discovered the rich intellectual and literary heritage of modern Europe represented by the works of men like Cervantes, Kant and Voltaire. That the newly developing epicureanism did not make him mentally or physically corpulent is borne out as much by the impressive record of his activities as by the recollections of his associates. To Carleton Beals, he was a person of “boundless energy”, while Charles Phillips remembered Roy during his Mexican years as “tall, slim, elegant and sombre, deadly serious…, very brilliant, a fascinating personality”. Even the Director of Criminal Intelligence, Government of India, had to report that “M.N. Roy won a considerable reputation for himself … by his Communism in Mexico.”
Although India was and would always remain his main concern, Mexico made him into a cosmopolitan in his outlook and sympathies. If he was disillusioned with the Indian revolutionaries abroad, the loss was more than compensated by the friendships he formed in Mexico with local socialists and intellectuals, the German men and women of culture, and American radicals and Bohemians. Evelyn, Casas and Borodin opened to him the intellectual achievements of European civilization, and the Biblioteca Nacional was’ a great source of self-education. Borodin, in particular, helped him to outgrow his cultural parochialism. Not only did his “lingering faith in the special genius of India” begin to fade during his last months in Mexico; he also began to grasp the universalist implications of class struggle and of the dialectical processes of history. He “still believed in the necessity of armed insurrection”, but he “had also learned to attach greater importance to an intelligent understanding of the idea of revolution. The propagation of the idea was more important than arms.” To this propagation he would now increasingly turn his energies having at last discovered in Mexico his literary-intellectual talents in addition to his earlier talent in organizing underground revolutionary activities.”
May 12, 2013
In the film Avengers there is a scene where the villan [sic], Loki, faces the Hulk and does not come out well in the encounter. In irritation he puffs up his chest and shouts, “Enough! I am a God!” Hulk picks up Loki by his feet and smashes him all over the place like a rag doll and leaves him lying helpless in a pile of rubble and sniffs, “Puny God!” Vivek Chibber does a Hulk on the Subaltern School (SS).
From Joseph’s review of “Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital” on amazon.com
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Plus, postcolonial theory now has at least two generations of academics who have staked their entire careers on it; they have half a dozen journals dedicated to it; there’s an army of graduate students pursuing research agendas that come out of it. Their material interests are tied up directly with the theory’s success.
You can criticize it all you want, but until we get the kind of movements that buoyed Marxism in the early years after World War I, or in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you won’t see a change.
From Vivek Chibber interview in Jacobin magazine
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Adolfo Gilly is the author of the most famous book on the Mexican revolution from a Marxist perspective. Formerly a member of the Trotskyist PRT, he is now a well-known member of the PRD.
From the author’s page of International Viewpoint, a semiofficial journal of the Fourth International.
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I became familiar with Subaltern Studies and the work of Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee in the late 1980s. I only really read Edward Thompson in the 1990s. His Making of the English Working Class and Customs in Common lay a lot of emphasis on the category of experience, which in my view is extremely important to Marxist thought.
Adolfo Gilly in the New Left Review, July-August 2010
When it was Partha Chatterjee’s turn to speak in the debate with Vivek Chibber, I fully expected him to start off with something like “Where Marx went wrong…” After all, if you had read Chibber’s interview in Jacobin, you would have been led to believe that you were dealing with an organized intellectual tendency as hostile to Marxism as Lyotard, Foucault, or Baudrillard. This is not to speak of Edward Said, one of the founding fathers of postcolonialism whose attack on Marx’s India articles must have rankled Marxist purists like Chibber even as they might have paid grudging respect to his literary scholarship as well as the stones hurled at Israeli border guards.
Instead Chatterjee outdid Chibber with a Marxist purism calculated to make Chibber look like an utter piker by comparison, including a jibe that his critic appeared committed to Rawlsian contract theory, a charge to which Chibber plead guilty.
This gets to the heart of the problem with the debate. It was conducted on such an abstract level that it was almost like listening to two men arguing about ethics. If it had instead take up one of the Chatterjee articles grounded in Indian history that Chibber took exception to, it would have been more concrete. I suppose that I could read the 35 page “The Colonial State and Peasant Resistance in Bengal 1920-1947” and Chibber’s critique of the article to make sense of their differences, but life is too short and other projects more compelling.
Even more contrary to expectations is Subaltern Studies founder Ranajit Guha’s statement as to his major influences. Given the supposedly postmodernist drift of this intellectual current, it might come as a surprise to discover that he was “inspired by Charu Mazumdar”, the foremost intellectual and political leader of the Naxalite movement.
In order to get a fix on the combatants in this monumental Loki versus Hulk type struggle, I decided to look into the question of the “subaltern”. My only exposure to the term was Gayatri Spivak’s headache-inducing essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, a title appropriated ironically in the Jacobin interview with Chibber: “How does the Subaltern Speak?”. I had never given it much thought but I always assumed that Spivak coined the term subaltern.
As it turns out, we can blame Gramsci, who used it as a kind of synonym for working class in the Prison Notebooks in order to trick the guards who might have been primed to beat him up if he used a forbidden word. Subaltern, it should be pointed out, simply meant a junior officer in the military. Gramsci wrote: “The subaltern classes by definition, are not unified and cannot unite until they are able to become a ‘State': their history, therefore, is intertwined with that of civil society, and thereby with the history of States and groups of States.”
Ranajit Guha adopted the term subaltern to apply to his version of “history from below”, an attempt to do for India what E.P. Thompson did for Britain—a connection made by Adolfo Gilly above. Now I can’t deny that Gayatri Spivak’s work is suffused with Derrida’s poststructuralism but until persuaded otherwise it would appear to me that the original impetus for Subaltern Studies was to tell the story of India’s 99 percent.
Whether or not the theoretical baggage that went along with Subaltern Studies passed Chibber’s smell test is another story altogether. Guha insists that the Indian subaltern classes were never part of the cross-class coalition that typified European bourgeois revolutions and as such the rulers never enjoyed the same kind of hegemony that made a nation like Britain or France relatively stable. If, of course, you make Chibber’s “political Marxism” some kind of litmus test based on the bourgeois revolution never having taken place, many others with orthodox Marxist pedigrees—like Neil Davidson—might not pass the smell test either. Will the Hulk feel the need to pick Davidson up and smash him all over the place like a rag doll as well?
Speaking of smashing people, I want to take this opportunity to apologize to Dr. Chibber for stating that he would regret it if he ever spoke over me at another conference. I was in a blind rage when I wrote those words, but never intended to use violence against him or any other person for that matter who I have a run-in with. There was no excuse for me to use those words and am deeply sorry for any anxiety it might have provoked in him, not that he had any worries about a 68-year-old man with failing eyesight posing any danger to begin with.
Getting back to Gramsci, it might of course prompt some readers who have read their Perry Anderson to say “Aha, there’s proof of your breach with Marxism” since the academic left’s turn to Gramsci was proof that you had broken with ortho-Marxism and strayed into the netherworld of cultural studies.
Speaking of which, I got a chuckle out of Uday Chandra’s observation on Facebook that “Chibber has, unfortunately, been projected by Brenner, Anderson, etc, as the Chosen One to slay the dragon of postcolonial studies.” Does anybody in their right mind think that Perry Anderson is in any position nowadays to define who is qualified to assume the mantle that he and Brenner have worn? In 2000 Perry Anderson signaled the new direction New Left Review would take under his stewardship in an infamous article that told his readers where the real action was taking place:
By contrast, commanding the field of direct political constructions of the time, the right has provided one fluent vision of where the world is going, or has stopped, after another–Fukuyama, Brzezinski, Huntington, Yergin, Luttwak, Friedman. These are writers that unite a single powerful thesis with a fluent popular style, designed not for an academic readership but a broad international public. This confident genre, of which America has so far a virtual monopoly, finds no equivalent on the left.
This prompted Boris Kagarlitsky to write an article in the British SWP’s International Socialism journal titled “The Suicide of New Left Review” that stated:
Perry Anderson, a sophisticated British gentleman, sits in his cosy office at 6 Meard Street and limply discusses the collapse of the left project. He has enough intellectual honesty not to repudiate his radical past or the ideals of his youth, but he is impassive enough not to lament their collapse. Despite Anderson’s readiness to bury the left project of the 1960s, and along with it the first series NLR, his foreword contains not a paragraph or even a sentence devoted to political self criticism. Everything was fine–both when Perry, together with other young radicals, tried to revolutionise social thinking and political life in Britain, and now, when he no longer proposes to overturn anything whatever. And what, in reality, has happened? What particular suffering has beset these people? Have Western intellectuals really lost anything, apart from their principles? No one has been thrown in prison or put in front of a firing squad. Their homes have not been blown up, nor their cities bombed.
Furthermore, as long as Vivek Chibber is determined to identify scratches that might lead to gangrene in the academic left, he might also consider what Robert Brenner had to say about the John Kerry candidacy in 2004:
Our call for a vote for the Democratic Party — while continuing to put the main political emphasis on building the social movements and simultaneously exposing the Democrats as politically reactionary and anathema to the social movements — is an application of an aspect of the united front method, sometimes called “critical support.”
If “political Marxism” is supposed to be some kind of condom to protect you against all sorts of germs—from Subaltern Studies to Paul Sweezy type analysis of the origins of capitalism—we can only conclude that Robert Brenner sprung a leak.
Finally, I have a few words to say about Marxism and academia. While I am not a professor, even though I get to act like one on the Internet after the fashion of Irwin Corey, I have a pretty good handle on what goes on there after having been a Columbia University employee for 21 years. During that time, I was privy to the goings on in both the sociology and Mideast Studies departments from friends who taught there. Additionally, my wife is a tenure-track professor at a N.Y. four-year college and I get a pretty good idea of what is going on her department in much the same way she used to get an earful each night about what I used to see in Columbia University’s IT department.
Seven years ago Chibber was obviously getting ready to start writing or had already begun work on his book, based on the article “On The Decline Of Class Analysis In South Asian Studies” that appeared in Critical Asian Studies. It is mostly an attack on what he refers to as PSPC, shorthand for Poststructuralism/Postcolonialism, and more specifically the dreaded Subaltern Studies.
His analysis is reminiscent of what Perry Anderson wrote in “Considerations on Western Marxism” and “In The Tracks of Historical Materialism”. If Anderson was keen on demonstrating that cultural studies, vaporous philosophizing, and postmodernist cant were tied to the decline of the organized left, Chibber reminds us that the problem still exists:
By the end of the decade [of the seventies], however, while the movements around nonclass identities had scored impressive gains, there was no comparable advance for the working class. Indeed, the balance of class power shifted powerfully to the right, and by the onset of the Reagan era, a full-scale assault on labor and the Left was underway. As a class movement, the New Left had met with a crushing defeat.
In some respects, this mirrored the defeats of the working class movement worldwide in the 1930s, which was followed by rightward shift in political culture. But the setbacks of the New Left during the 1970s were in many respects deeper. For the upsurges of the first quarter of the twentieth century had left in their wake a panoply of socialist parties and class organizations, which provided the milieu in which radical intellectuals survived for much of the century.
What’s more, the students entering the university system following the great retreat were not made of the right stuff, as Chibber complains:
By the middle of the 1980s, the New Left had mostly been domesticated into academic culture. Class analysis was practiced only within a small slice of it, and this was an increasingly marginal component of the academic mainstream. If a pressure for the deepening of class analysis was to come, it would have had to be from below — the students. But here too, there was no reason to expect any such development. For students, a college education is a means of social mobility. Even though their origin may be in the working class, their aspirations are of a more elite nature. For those students who make it into college, the mere fact of social advancement serves to confirm central elements of the dominant ideology, which insists on the fluidity of social hierarchies, and the absence of structural constraints. The mere fact of more working class students entering higher education — as they did after the 1950s — would not generate a mass base for socialist ideas.
I get a chuckle out of this: “Even though their origin may be in the working class, their aspirations are of a more elite nature.” Doesn’t Chibber have a clue that students, both working class and middle class as the case with his NYU students, are not aspiring to become elites but rather to merely get a decent paying job? From the 1980s onward, the job prospects for liberal arts graduates have been dismal. That is why so many smart young people are opting for an MBA, a law, or a computer science degree. Without them, you might as well go live with mom and dad and apply for a job at Starbucks. And even now they are no guarantee. For someone so committed to a class analysis, he seems woefully unaware of the Victorian-era realities of the job market.
I understand that many young people in graduate school today with left politics have—as Chibber put it—elite aspirations. Imagine becoming the next Robert Brenner making $220,000 per year and speaking before adoring audiences at some academic conference in London or Paris. Having your Marxist cake and eating it too.
But getting there is a brutal competitive process that is not for the fainthearted. You have to have the killer instinct that ensures that you will get tenure and not some other schmuck. All in all, academia—particularly at elite schools like Columbia University and NYU—replicates the class hierarchies of 19th century Germany where many of the structures such as the oral examination were introduced (I am not talking about gum disease.) It is calculated to turn you into an asshole unless you were one to begin with.
Try to find a decent paying job that leaves you with lots of spare time and energy, an admittedly daunting task today and then blog your heart out, the contemporary equivalent of Tom Paine’s “Common Sense”. You will reach far more people than you ever will through a JSTOR type journal that is locked up behind a paywall and generally read only by other professors and graduate students, if they bother at all.
Finally, a reminder of what Max Horkheimer said about being a revolutionary:
A revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.
Who would have it any other way?
May 11, 2013
From an interview with Ranajit Guha by Milinda Banerjee in 2010. The full interview is here: http://www.sai.uni-heidelberg.de/history/download/ranajit_guha_interview_2.2.11.pdf
MB: Have you always been so ideologically churned by Tagore and by Bengali literary culture, or is it something which has become important in your mature years?
RG: I had engaged with these in my youth as well, though these issues then were not so apparently visible. Rather, what I felt more explicitly was my passion for social justice for the poor, and Marxism was therefore attractive. Coming from a khas taluqdar [a class of landlords who were technically not zamindars, but who, like zamindars, paid revenue directly to the State in colonial Bengal] family of Barisal in East Bengal, I had witnessed the structure of zamindar-praja [the Permanent Settlement of 1793 bestowed property rights on land in Bengal to a class of people termed the zamindars. Below the zamindars were their ‘prajas’ or‘subjects’ who cultivated their land and paid them rent] relations in rural society, which left a profound impression on me. In my student days at Presidency College, Calcutta, I became a Marxist, and a member of the Communist Party. In the late 1940s, I spent a considerable part of time in Europe involved in Communist Party work. However, I also gradually started getting alienated from doctrinaire Communist Party Marxism. Experiences of the USSR’s handling of the political situation in Eastern Europe, disenchantment with the Communist Party of India’s internal factional squabbles for power, and finally the Soviet invasion of Hungary, made me decide to leave the Communist Party. Later, I became something of a Naxalite intellectual. I still consider myself to have been inspired by Charu Mazumdar’s ideas which, I think, contain a lot of validity. But Charu Mazumdar [the foremost intellectual and political leader of the ‘ultra-left’ Naxalite movement which erupted in West Bengal in the late 1960s, spread to the rest of the India, and continues to be the founding moment of the Maoist peasant insurgency of the present day] and his followers were weak in organizational capability, which resulted in the movement being crushed. I have elsewhere condemned the role of some intellectuals in Indira Gandhi’s period who supported her moves to crush the revolt and praised many of her activities, for instance, the running of trains on time during the Emergency.
The doctrinaire Marxism of the Indian Communist Party was poor in appreciation of real Marxist philosophy. They had a very simplistic understanding of Marxism and most of them had not read the original books. The disenchantment with this doctrinaire Marxism provoked me to explore the philosophical complexities of Marx, which in turn led me to Hegel. Hegel has tremendously inspired me.
[Maybe Guha should be read out of the Marxist movement for hailing Hegel, but then again Lenin studied Hegel at the outbreak of WWI to figure out what went wrong in the social democracy. But we can’t have that, can we?]