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Vayalar Rebellion: A Rethought
Anilkumar pv


Anilkumar PV

Anilkumar pvThere is no other grand claim about history as that of Hegel’s inimitable remark: “God is God only in so far as he knows himself.” It was Marx who liberated thought from the idealism of Hegel and placed it in the materiality of the productive relations of history. And, as we all know, he sharpened his ears for the siren calls of class struggle to make their mellifluence in the industrially advanced society of England. But, tragically, the Marxist notion of class as a self conscious entity performed its historic mission in the political frames of the east known by ‘oriental despotism’, which was accused to be represented by Mao and Lenin. In other words, what in reality the prophecy of Marxism did, in the guise of finding an agency which would be responsible for the annihilation of the liberal bourgeois political system of the industrialized countries, was to dig up an agency called ‘peasants’ in the backward economies of the east, which then was instrumental in transforming the productive relations of one despotic system into another despotic system with  different production relations.

Those who have read Mao’s 1927 classic “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” will remember the way in which Mao celebrates and glorifies peasant revolution: “the fact is that the broad peasant masses have risen to fulfill their historic mission, that the democratic forces in the rural areas have risen to overthrow the feudal power…..It is very good indeed. It is not a “mess” at all. It is anything but “an awful mess”.” We have already seen the theoretical foundation of this glorification in a text written by Lenin in 1899, “The Development of Capitalism.” In this work, even after recognizing the industrial and political backwardness of Russia when compared to Western Europe, he still maintains that Russia was a capitalist economy.

In other words, in their relatively backward economies Lenin and Mao, true to their political acumen and genius, dealt with the question of agency in a radically different way. This is precisely where they differ from the classical Marxist perspective. While Marx saw the seeds of modern revolution that culminates in the establishment of a liberated society in the struggle between capitalists and the impoverished proletariat, Lenin saw the potential for Russian revolution in the split that existed between the peasants: between a minority of rich peasants and an impoverished majority.

This knowledge—that peasants were fulfilling their historic mission—is what makes Russian and Chinese revolutions different from the Peasant War that took place in Germany during 1524-26. The demands of the peasants who participated in the War are documented in what is to be later known as “Twelve Articles”. If we go through it, it is clear that nowhere in it one finds, as in Lenin and Mao, the Hegelian self showing its own self-consciousness. In other words, the German peasants do not show any kind of intention of radically overthrowing the state. Moreover, their demands were not founded upon the abstract notion of a ‘universal man’ that bourgeoisie system produced for its own self preservation and reproduction. The foundational claims of their demands could be traced to a Christian humanism that the scriptures raised. In short, the Peasant War of 1524-26 could be looked upon as a internal problem of the Christians of a not much developed political economy of the then Germany.

Let us revisit the question that Paul Zachariah, the Malayalam novelist and columnist, asked: “What is the use of intellectuals?” If you think that they are of no use, I think you are far off the mark. It was intellectual despots who imported the Western European view of history, in which peasants were seen to be fulfilling their historic mission. It was the same intellectuals who spearheaded and transfigured those peasant revolts, which otherwise would have ended as a hysteric eruption of violence, into obsessional nature that would result in the ultimate overthrow of the state. Even before Antonio Gramsci developed the notion of an organic intellectual, Lenin in his pamphlet “What is to be Done?” had already talked about intellectuals who would perform vanguard function in the revolution.

In short, the real genius of Lenin and Mao lies in their unearthing of the real, revolutionary subjects of the political structure often caricatured as oriental despotism. This is exactly where Marx becomes a prophet of the past. In other words, an identity politics based on class is possible only at a particular juncture of the history of productive relations. Even if we see the Paris Commune as the temporary victory of the prophecy of Marxian philosophy, the later development of capitalism unmasks the prophecy that Marxism is. That is, in the early phase of the modern capitalism, a vast mass could identify themselves as proletarians and stick to the revolutionary aspiration of a political praxis based on the same identity. But what has happened in the history of late capitalism is that there have taken place many splits to the abstract category known as people to form those particular categories as ‘women’, ‘African American’, ‘sexual minorities’, ‘migrants’, ‘dalits’, ‘adivasis’, ‘religious minorities’, ‘fundamentalists’ and so on and so forth.

Among the fractured identities mentioned above, who is the ‘real agent’ capable of bringing a social and political revolution? Are the interests of these groups the same? Should a Christian, with a proclivity towards bisexuality, align herself with the Church, which has historically emerged as the voice of the Christian minority, or the state that seems to be moving in a direction which may make homosexuality legal practice? How should she negotiate with the knowledge that there are increasing number of attacks against the Christian and other religious minorities where the political parties or persons with Hindutva sympathies are in the corridors of power? What should she do with the knowledge that historically people with her sexual orientation were brutally victimized by the church?

From what I understand, the struggles in Punnapra and Vayalar point to something else other than the split that Lenin finds in the peasant consciousness between the poor and the rich. In other words, Punnapra and Vayalar struggles are as different from the Russian and Chinese revolutions as both these revolutions are from the Peasant War of Germany. My stress is not on the hysteric nature of the Punnapra-Vayalar revolutions. In both Russian and Chinese revolutions, the army, which is thought to be the repressive apparatus of the state, plays a significant turnaround. In both revolutions the army, parading its dual identities, moves to the polar ends of the oppressor and liberator. Whereas at the end of the Russian revolution the army became the revolutionaries, in Chinese revolution the revolutionaries became the Red Army. This points to a surplus element that exists both within the army and a revolutionary mob. It enables a regimented and disciplined mob to prove a prey to revolutionary fervor and also to make a victory march of the most disciplined sort by a seemingly anarchist horde. What clearly emerges from the scenario mentioned is the fact that it is with the help of the impoverished peasants, in the guise of both army and revolutionary, that the social churning was achieved.

A closer look at the Punnapra-Vayalar struggle would reveal that neither the revolutionaries nor the army had any form of split identity, which would enable either of them to be its other. The revolutionaries had no aspiration of becoming an army (they knew they were running with wooden spears toward the bayonets), nor the army had any intention of betraying the repressive measures of the Travancore states. Both knew very well what they were. The reason for this formidable knowledge could be located in the caste composition of the army and the revolutionaries. Owing to the difference in their caste, the revolutionaries and the army had different priorities. Were the revolutionaries, who were shot dead, with their wooden spears, running against their ‘class enemy’? Or did they just want to put an end to their lives heroically as their life as untouchables had been the most wretched on earth? Did the army shoot down the impoverished peasants or the filthy lives of untouchable origin?

If we take into account the masculine and patriarchal tendencies of the Punnapra-Vayalar struggle, things will be even more complex. Who is that Leninist vanguard intellectual from India who has reduced such a complex struggle to a mere peasant revolt? Will the same intellectual carry the spear?

This is an excerpt from the author’s forthcoming book. Please don’t reproduce without permission.



Anilkumar Payyappilly Vijayan is Assistant Professor of English at Government Victoria College, Palakkad, Kerala. He has a PhD in English from Kannur University. His doctoral dissertation titled “Untouchability of the Unconscious: Containment and Disfigurement of Dalit Identity in Malayalam Cinema” makes, with the help of Lacanian psychoanalysis, a methodological inquiry into the logical aspects of the construction of Dalit identity in Malayalam cinema.


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