“Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” – Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845)
“In the twentieth century, we tried to change the world too quickly; the time is to interpret it again.” – Slavoj Žižek, “Don’t Act. Just Think” (2012)
On the occasion of Lenin’s birthday on 22 April 2020, I posed ten questions, via Facebook, to the activists of the Students Federation of India (SFI) and the supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)(CPIM) regarding the contemporary politics in West Bengal. While most of the audience who engaged with the post shared my concerns, there surfaced a handful of self-proclaimed supporters of the Left Front who tried to obstinately defend their position, sometimes at the cost of fabricating and distorting historical facts. They went to the extent of trying to pull down my mask, whatever that might have meant, as I had given the disclaimer that I was posing those questions from an Ambedkarite subject-position. In this short article, feel free to treat it as an “opinion piece,”I address my questions by way of claiming that the edifice of the so-called Marxist Party – in Bengal and the Soviet Union, among other places, admittedly there are exceptions – is built on white lies, unacknowledged crimes and flawed theoretical suppositions. My point is not simply that CPIM does not stand a chance of regaining power in upcoming elections in Bengal. I argue that it is undesirable and that it might have disastrous consequences if CPIM, in its existing avatar, comes back to run the government.
To begin with, CPM should not be voted to power because the history of barbaric repression from Gulag to Marichjhapi makes one question their commitment to humanity. Echoing Žižek from the epigraph, I claim that it is high time we dig up and revisit the suppressed history of the communist parties. To that end, I offer a brief outline of what happened in Gulag before proceeding into further discussion.
Gulag, perhaps, best demonstrates the idea that violence and bloodshed are considered to be the legitimate basis of a communist revolution. It refers to the state agency that created and controlled hundreds of camps – known as Gulag camps – across the length and breadth of the Soviet Union from early to mid- twentieth century. The agency was set up in 1919 by Lenin and, after Lenin’s death in 1924, was run highhandedly by Stalin till his death in 1953. Gulag camps took various forms, including transit camps, concentration camps, criminal camps, political camps, prisoner of war camps, labour camps, women’s camps, punishment camps, and children’s camps. A staggering number of people were put through the Gulag system. According to the journalist Anne Applebaum, whose magisterial work Gulag: A History won Pulitzer Prize in 2004, a total of 28.7 million people were rendered victims of Gulag. Out of these, a total of 20 million victims died in the Gulag camps – a statistics which is further supported by the authors of The Black Book of Communism.
On the surface, those who were sent to Gulag camps were considered as the “enemy,” i.e., the enemy of the people/the state, or simply “unreliable elements.” In reality, anybody and everybody could fall into this vague category of “enemy.” This arbitrariness is best captured in an anecdote/joke that circulated in the camps. “Three men,” so goes the anecdote, “are sitting in a cell in the (KGB headquarters) Dzerzhinsky Square. The first asks the second why he has been imprisoned, who replies, ‘Because I criticized Karl Radek.’ The first man responds, ‘But I am here because I spoke out in favour of Radek!’ They turn to the third man who has been sitting quietly in the back, and ask him why he is in jail. He answers, ‘I’m Karl Radek.'” Such was the farcical choice of “enemies!” One may nevertheless argue that some enemies were well-defined, and included the following – prisoners of war, Mensheviks, Anarchists, Social Revolutionaries, Trotskyites, industrialists, merchants, counter-revolutionary priests, anti-Soviet officers, and the like. However, two categories of people, namely joke-tellers and peasants, totally subverted the idea of a well-defined enemy of the Soviet Union. People were not allowed to crack jokes! Incredible though it might appear, Stalin did order camp sentences for people just because they cracked jokes about him casually! And who could imagine that a so-called communist government, theoretically focused on the uplift of the proletariat, would not hesitate to execute millions of peasants? In an attempt to deal with the poor economy of the country, Soviet Union undertook the project of “forced collectivization in the countryside” in 1929, as Applebaum puts it, a devastating decision which led to thousands of resisting farmers being shot dead, a few million given camp sentences, and the death of about 7 million due to the resultant famines of 1929 and 1934.
One must mention here the brutality of the camp life faced by the Gulag inmates. These camps were totally different from the Czarist prisons of the old regime where Stalin and Trotsky were imprisoned for a short time but where they spent a rather luxurious life. The Gulag camps, in complete contrast, were located in the most unforgiving wintry climate where the inmates froze to death or died due to typhus-epidemics. A disgusting stench pervading some of the camps due to dirty and mildewed clothes made it impossible for the inmates to breathe. There was an acute scarcity of food and while no bread was available most of the times, a disgusting soup, known as “balanda,” was served to the prisoners, which led to stomach ache and painful death. The inmates were used for industrial purposes like mining, construction, artillery projects, manufacturing aircraft etc. and they were almost always overworked. Sometimes, for sadistic purpose, notes Applebaum, they were made to do unnecessary tasks including moving huge quantity of ice from one place to another. If cold, typhus, starvation, malnutrition or overwork did not kill them, there were other available techniques. Prisoners were killed with exhaust fumes; inmates were driven into the forests in the middle of the night, were shot en masse and were buried in mass graves; and in some other instances, they were stripped naked and bound to a tree in the forest and they slowly died of mosquito bites.
Would it be wrong to claim that the value of human life and the dignity of the individual were concerns that never bothered the so-called communists?
After Stalin’s death, Gulag camps were gradually abolished. However, given the numerical magnitude of victims, the arbitrary choice of the enemy, and the barbaric treatment of the inmates, it is ironical that Gulag is hardly discussed in academic and political discourses whereas Nazism and Holocaust, albeit justifiably, continue to inform the international political rhetoric. But there are reasons for this suppression and side-lining of Gulag history. Unlike the Holocaust, the documentation of Gulag camps was categorically prohibited and for decades the Gulag archives were out of reach for scholars. In fact, as much as Holocaust Studies was encouraged in Western academia, Gulag Studies was systematically discouraged. Surely, exposing the barbaric side of a communist party was less desirable to Left-dominated academia than discussing a Hitler. But thanks to the daring attempts of a Žižek or an Applebaum, the mask of the pretentious communists is falling apart.
Gulag, in other words, not only involved violence in a physical and psychological sense it also included what is known as “epistemic violence” involving the forced suppression and flat denial of the history of this violence. I claim that Gulag is the best historical example of the naked barbarism that constitutes the very basis of communist revolution. Gulag, in Lacanian terms, is the symptom (sinthome) that keeps intact the core of the communist parties because this sadism is what constitutes their life-force. One wonders if the total lack of spirituality in the Marxist discourse, a point that Ambedkar made while contrasting Buddhist communism with Marxist communism, is responsible for such barbarism.
The validity of my claim is illustrated by the curious case of the Left Front in West Bengal. While it is possible to question CPIM, which ruled Bengal for over three decades, on many grounds, my specific concern is how this political party, in the garb of promoting equality, committed systematic violence and gross violation of human rights. The genocides committed by the Left Front at Marichjhapi, Sainbari, Bijan Setu, Nandigram and Singur circulate in the political discourses of Bengal, and almost every single politically informed Bengali is familiar with these names. However, what makes these crimes so much grave is how CPIM continuously denies their ever happening in the first place. CPIM claims that these genocides never happened and that referring to them serves only the purpose of propaganda against the party. Two things must be noted here. First, just because CPIM is in the denial mode does not mean that these genocides did not happen. For there is an overwhelming amount of evidence against them. Second, the shrewd way these massacres were executed and the general lack of sympathy for the victims who hailed from the lowest of the low are the two reasons why in some cases CPIM could not be held legally responsible. And deny as they may, the downfall of Left Front a decade back is certainly a public verdict against these atrocities.
Let me take up the case of Marichjhapi massacre. The events that historically led to Marichjhapi massacre are too many to be described here. As Dwaipayan Sen points out, Bengal was one of the strongholds of Dalit movement as is indicated by the historic leadership of Jogendranath Mandal, an important member of All India Scheduled Castes Federation founded by Dr Ambedkar, and also the leader of the Namasudra movement in the late colonial Bengal. Scholars claim that the Namasudra movement, once having a powerful impact, had to be suppressed and the policy of the Partition, which facilitated the migration of caste Hindus from East Pakistan to West Bengal, served the purpose of strategically weakening the movement. Over half a million caste Hindus moved to West Bengal immediately after the Independence, and eventually settled in the urban space of West Bengal. However, the untouchable migrants desiring/forced to move from East Pakistan to West Bengal, who were supposed to be accommodated in India as per the policies undertaken during the Partition, did not meet with the good luck, unlike their upper caste counterparts. When the untouchables started coming over to West Bengal in the 1970s, the then ruling party, Congress, decided to make them settle in Dandakaranya. The Left Front, the then opposition party, however, demanded that the untouchable refugees be allowed to settle in West Bengal – near the Sundarbans. However, once the Left Front came to power, they completely reversed their policy, as Ross Mallick points out. As thousands moved to Marichjhapi, an island at Sundarbans, CPIM decided to evict them. The refugees who had sold every last bit of their possession to travel to Marichjhapi refused to leave the island for they had nowhere to return to. To resolve the issue, an incompetent CPIM took recourse to brutal force. On 26 January 1979, thirty police launches created an economic blockade around the island. “The community was tear-gassed, huts were razed, and fisheries and tube wells were destroyed,” writes Mallick, “in an attempt to deprive refugees of food and water.” On 27 January 1979, Section 144 was promulgated, and nobody was allowed to move into or out of Marichjhapi. Consequently, there was a total stoppage of food and water supply from the mainland to the island. The islanders of Marichjhapi started dying of starvation. According to some reports and researches, because of this Left-led massacre, around 17000 people died either due to starvation or exhaustion, or in transit, or due to police firings in Marichjhapi, Kumirmari and Kashipur. Marichjhapi, perhaps, remains the worst unacknowledged crime committed by the Left Front.
The obvious question that arises is why were the culprits not brought to book? Several answers could be given, following Ross Mallick. First, attempts were made to accomplish the Marichjhapi operation in such a way that no documentation could be possible. For instance, no body-count was possible as the dead bodies of the victims were dumped into the downstream river which washed them out during the tide. Second, no powerful organization took up the cause of the untouchable refugees; hence, serious charges could not be pressed. Third, Calcutta High Court gave a strict order of non-intervention in the refugee matters but CPIM leaders skilfully denied their intervention and instructed the police to handle the issue in an extra-legal manner; for instance, by employing Muslim gangsters to kill the refugees. Fourth, journalists were ordered to stay away from the island; hence documentation became a difficult job. Fifth, whatever small amount of complaints from the refugees surfaced those either got lost under the heaps of files or were not dealt with sympathetically. Fifth, those from within the Left Front or their alliance, for instance, some members of RSP (Revolutionary Socialist Party), who expressed their disagreement about the measures taken at Marichjhapi, were eventually eliminated from the Party and thus the memory of Marichjhapi was forced to recede to the background. The point is just because no concrete legal action was or could be taken does not mean that the Marichjhapi massacre did not happen. The testimonies of the handful of survivors, the relatives of the victims, and the local people as well as the newspaper reports, administrative documents or the gaps therein are enough to constitute a Marichjhapi archive. The fact that Marichjhapi continues to be discussed is the classic example of a return of the repressed. The spectre of Marichjhapi, the biggest cover-up by Bengal CPIM, is destined to haunt them eternally.
Obviously, Gulag cannot be compared with Marichjhapi because of, among other things, the sheer difference in the numerical magnitude of the victims. But can we not say that in both these genocides one can trace a pattern of military repression leading to a devaluing of human life, dehumanizing individuals and violation of human rights? I argue, following Žižek, that if anything defines the communist parties truly it is this barbarism which exists in the guise of civilization. The only difference between Nazism and communism resides in that whereas Nazism is naked barbarism, communism is barbarism hidden under the façade of egalitarianism. In clinical terms, if Nazism is Id then communism is Superego which, as any sound clinician would know, is nothing but obscenity in the guise of morality.
The strategies developed by the caste Hindus during the Partition to sabotage the Namasudra movement and the Marichjhapi massacre, mass murder of the untouchables led by the caste Hindus masquerading as communists are two historical episodes which offer enough explanation why and how caste question has declined in Bengal. Arguably, the Left Front, rather than Congress, has been majorly responsible for this suppression of caste question. Whatever ideology CPIM might cling to, in the ultimate analysis, the Left Front is an upper-caste political organization serving the interests of the urban Savarna men. Marxism has, long back, been condemned because it tends to posit itself as a “grand narrative,” as Jean-François Lyotard once put it. Can Marxism, the way CPIM interprets it, be the solution to all forms of exploitation? Marxists tend to posit “class subalternity” as the only form of oppression and class struggle as the only way to interpret history. But what about exploitation based on caste, territory (urban/rural divide), gender (all genders), religion, and sexuality? And I am not alluding to the clichéd notion of intersectionality here! I am asking for acknowledging “sectionality,” if you like, i.e., the idea that distinct forms of exploitation exist and deserve to be addressed in their terms. Economic empowerment might fulfil the political fantasies of urban Savarna male communists, but that cannot end the exploitation of the masses nor can it give back the dignity that is due to each individual.
As a matter of fact, Antonio Gramsci, who problematized such class-based reading of Marxian philosophy, was misappropriated by the Savarna academicians from Kolkata who created a Leftist but inevitably Brahminical enterprise called “Subaltern Studies.” As corroborated by Marcus Green, from Ranajit Guha to Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak, almost every subaltern studies scholar claimed that Gramsci used the word “subaltern” in place of “proletariat” because using the latter would have landed him in trouble even inside the prison in a Fascist regime. Neither Spivak nor Guha consulted the original Italian manuscripts of Prison Notebooks where Gramsci used the two terms side by side. So much for Savarna merit! Furthermore, Gramsci went beyond class subalternity and theorized territorial, gender, religious and racial subalternity as well. But Spivak and Guha would make us believe that Gramsci was talking only about the proletariat or the class subaltern. This is what happens when one looks at Marxism through only one lens – in this case, a Savarna and classist lens. Like the Left in the political front, Subaltern Studies has been stuck with the class question in the academic front. Some might claim that Subaltern Studies also accommodated the gender question. Well, the gender of whom? Inevitably, the upper caste women! Even when looking at Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan women, the perspective developed is inevitably a Savarna perspective! As the activist Anu Ramdas has pointed out, Savarna feminism is another name for Brahminism.
This is why we need Ambedkar more than Marx for revolutionizing Indian politics. The fundamental difference between a Marxist and an Ambedkarite position rests in this. A Marxist has a tendency to deny the caste question and obstinately adheres to the class question. An Ambedkarite, on the contrary, while acknowledging the issues related to class, gender, religion, race, and territory, emphasizes how the problem of caste shapes a bulk of these issues. History of India, indeed, is a history of caste supremacy. Ambedkar claimed that in the Indian context Buddha was way more appropriate than Marx since Buddha, a warrior against caste oppression, promoted equality coupled with non-violence while Marxian politics is fundamentally based on the legitimization of force and violence. Ambedkar also claimed that had Lenin been born in India, he would have first eradicated untouchability before undertaking the project of the revolution. Many other historical and theoretical references from Ambedkar may be brought to substantiate how ignoring the caste question in any political project would inevitably fail to bring about a democratic development for Indian society.
Arguably, it is CPIM that has systematically suppressed and sabotaged the anti-caste movements in Bengal. During the Mandal Commission agitations, Jyoti Basu allegedly claimed that in Bengal there was no OBC there was only PC (proletariat class). Sunil Gangopdhyay, the chairman of Sahitya Akademi, claimed that in Bengal there was no Dalit literature. In the 34 years of communist rule, not a single Dalit Students’ Union was allowed to be set up in Bengal. Caste violence was systematically continued, from anti-reservation discourses to as grave a consequence as the suicide of Chuni Kotal, but the victims were not allowed to use the vocabulary of caste discrimination. Masses belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who resided in places close to Marichjhapi, like Satjelia, Kumirmari, Kachukhali, Mollakhali, Radhanagar, Beltali, and the interiors of Gosaba were kept outside the purview of development projects during the three decades of Left Rule. Ironically, a Savarna Leftist poet like Sankha Ghosh has the guts to question the development projects of the current ruling party of West Bengal. Nevertheless, the caste question was kept alive as part of a rather marginal discourse, by the Dalits in Bengal through politico-cultural platforms like Ambedkar Missions and Dalit Sahitya Sanstha, among others. But the Dalit experience was never really accommodated in the mainstream media which has traditionally been dominated by the upper castes.
Given that the Left Front, as some feel, is an urban, casteist, sexist, in some cases homophobic and Islamophobic and overall a repressive organization built on lies, I seriously have no clue what gives them the right to condemn TMC or BJP in the context of contemporary politics in Bengal. In my view, the Bengal SFI and CPIM are largely thriving on anti-campaigning these days. The Left Front also remarkably demonstrates their insecurity and paranoia every time somebody criticizes them. Until and unless they learn to accept criticism and engage in a truly inclusivist politics they do not run a chance, nor do they deserve to have a chance, to come back to power. Importing foreign thinkers with no reference to the limitations of the same, as pointed out by the indigenous thinkers, is bound to be a failure. No doubt CPIM could never leave a noteworthy mark as a national level party.
The young Marxists should also realize that politics is not just about reading and discussing lofty theories about a classless society. There is something called politics as lived experience. In a country where Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan and minorities constitute 85% of the population, ignoring their interests and their specific problems can only be self-defeating. Lived experience also extends to the idea that the voters of West Bengal, specifically in rural areas, are largely divided between TMC and BJP supporters. The great bulk of them does not even consider CPIM to be a viable option. If the Left Front cannot make their importance felt in the consciousness of the masses, they would have to wait for decades to return to power. In such a situation, they should forget Marx for the time being, take a break from their obsession with “changing” the world, and following Žižek, devote time for serious introspection.
Ambedkar, B. R. “Buddha or Karl Marx.” Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 3, edited by Vasant Moon, Dr Ambedkar Foundation, 2014, pp. 441-462.
Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. Doubleday, 2003.
Byapari, Monaranjan. Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit. Translated by Sipra Mukherjee, Sage Publications, 2018.
Courtois, Stéphane. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Translated by Jonathan Murphy, Harvard University Press, 2015.
Green, Marcus E. “Gramsci Cannot Speak: Presentations and Interpretations of Gramsci’s Concept of the Subaltern.” Rethinking Marxism,vol. 14, no. 3 (2002): 1-24,
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi,University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Mallick, Ross. “Refugee Resettlement in Forest Reserves: West Bengal Policy Reversal and the Marichjhapi Massacre.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 58, no. 1 (1999):104-125,https://www.jstor.org/stable/2658391.
Mandal, Mahitosh and Priyanka Das. “Rethinking Communism in the Age of Trump and Modi: The Bengali Film Ghya Chang Fou Sets a Milestone in Cinematic History.” Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film & Visual Narration,vol. 4, No 2 (2019): 78-81,
Marx, Karl.”Theses on Feuerbach.” Marx/Engles Selected Works, vol.1, translated by W. Lough, Progress Publishers, 1969, pp. 13-15, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm.
Narake, Hari et al, eds. “Editorial.” Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, vol. 3, part 1, edited by Hari Narake et al.,Dr Ambedkar Foundation, 2014, pp. xvii-xxix.
Ramdas, Anu. “Feminism is Brahminism.” Facebook, 2 May 2020, 3:46 p.m., https://www.facebook.com/anu.ramdas.5/posts/4190331480980639.
Sen, Dwaipayan. The Decline of the Caste Question: Jogendranath Mandal and the Defeat of Dalit Politics in Bengal. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Žižek, Slavoj. “Slavoj Žižek – ‘Don’t Act. Just Think.'”YouTube, uploaded by Big Think, 28 August 2012,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgR6uaVqWsQ.
__________. “Slavoj Žižek – The Difference between Communism and Fascism.” YouTube, uploaded by The Radical Revolution,17 December 2018,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqZmXf3MfKQ.
Dr Mahitosh Mandal is Assistant Professor of English at Presidency University, Kolkata. His areas of interest include Dalit Studies, Lacanian Psychoanalysis and Holocaust Studies. He is th e author of the book Jacques Lacan: From Clinic to Culture (Orient BlackSwan, 2018). He is the founder of the website All About Ambedkar (https://www.allaboutambedkaronline.com/).