For some time, one has been preoccupied with various issues, which have emerged in the course of involvement in activities for social change. Some informal discussion with a few friends has led me to believe that others too may have been wrestling with similar ideas. With this background, below I have outlined some questions (and a few tentative answers), flowing from the feeling that there is clearly a need for some fresh thinking. Starting from a broadly ‘creative Marxist’ framework, I have tried to look at some of these questions which span both philosophy and politics, and have tried to put them down briefly, for further discussion and debate among friends. Since the main idea is to pose questions, the treatment of these issues is not at all comprehensive, and some contrasting positions may have been oversimplified to make a point; however one hopes that further discussion would lead to many more ideas being shared, and an overall better understanding would emerge.

A. Seeking a dialectical alternative to mechanical monolithic thinking and postmodernism: Coherent pluralism

“None of us is as smart as all of us”Japanese proverb “Beware of the man of one book”English proverb

Many of us have felt uncomfortable with the ‘correct line’ concept of many Left parties and groups, which could be stated, in a somewhat simplified manner, as: ‘There is only one correct understanding of reality (the correct ‘line’ which belongs to our group), all other interpretations are mistaken in some degree, or worse still, deliberate distortions which help the ruling class.’

Needless to say, this kind of ‘Either you are for us or basically against us’ type of thinking stands far from a dialectical understanding of the situation. (This mechanical, ‘Master discourse’ mode of thinking is of course not unique to the Left; imperialist and religious ideologues have much stronger variants, the recent most being George W. Bush). However, this sort of thinking, ingrained at a deep level, has remained quite strong within the Left movement, contributing to repeated splits, bitter intra-group and inter-group altercations, and has significantly undermined the strength and richness of progressive thought and action. I feel that besides its obvious political dimension of sectarianism, there is a philosophical dimension, an underlying, flawed understanding of ‘absolute truth’ that leads to continued adherence to such a mechanical mode of thinking.

In contrast to this, we see the swing of the pendulum to the other extreme, the ‘postmodernist’ framework (which includes among its adherents many progressive thinkers too), which denies that any viewpoint(s) could be more valid than any other(s), and places all viewpoints and positions on an equal plane, like ‘various interpretations of a text’, with nothing to commend one or the other except your individual choice. The problems with this kind of framework are obvious, not the least being its possible regressive or paralysing political implications. However, one cannot deny that the monolithic ‘Master discourse’ mode of thinking mentioned in the previous paragraph has contributed to creating a ground for the postmodernist response. This reaction may have started from a valid concern but has ended up with extreme relativism. These latter folks succeed in throwing out the bathwater of ‘only one view of reality’, but succeed in disposing off the baby of ‘understanding reality’, too.

So how do we look at this from a dialectical viewpoint, distinct from both of the above frameworks? Is there something to be learnt from the parable of the six blind men and the elephant? Can we accept that we do know certain facets of reality, but the ‘reality’ is also something multi-dimensional and evolving, allowing for a plurality of positions within a broad shared framework? As long as we agree that what we are dealing with is the same animal, can we chalk out a process by which we continue to grasp and share different aspects of this elephant, moving towards a richer understanding compared to our specific positions?

Because I lack a better term (probably a better term already exists! in some ways it is just common sense made explicit), I will call this more dialectical approach ‘coherent pluralism’. It has coherence, because it recognises that there are major aspects of reality that can be known, and there could be a shared broad framework of understanding. At the same time, within this framework, it allows for pluralism, for ‘validity’ of differing viewpoints, which does not close debates but allows for synthesis and continued enrichment of understanding. Both the coherence and the pluralism are not just ‘tactical’, but are deeply held philosophical positions. We can defend the value of coherence, a broadly shared understanding, based on a wealth of knowledge and social experience borne of engagement with reality. And we can respect pluralism, not as a ‘compromise’ but as a recognition of the richness and necessity of a diversity of positions, to grasp a highly complex, multidimensional and evolving reality. It could be a dialectical way of understanding reality which has multiple contradictions, with a degree of convergence. A coherent pluralist viewpoint would recognise, in the words of the Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, ‘a truth that contains many truths’.

A coherent pluralist position could lead to at least three kinds of implications, which would influence the way we interact with reality. These are briefly outlined below:

1. Understanding reality: At the level of conceptualising and understanding reality, we could accept the validity of parallel viewpoints, which look at different aspects of reality, yet have a degree of convergence. For example, in pre-revolutionary Nicaragua of the early 1970s, there were three revolutionary factions, each with its own version of social reality and each pursuing its own revolutionary strategy. For the Tendencia Proletaria, the working class was the main force of the revolution, and hence they focussed on working class organisations. For the Guerra Popular Prolongada group, the primary force was the peasantry, leading to a strategy of protracted rural guerrilla warfare, and ‘the countryside surrounding the cities’. The third group of Terceristas relied more on youth and students, and executed daring, planned urban guerrilla actions drawing inspiration from the Che Guevara tradition. Working in mutual isolation, at some stage they realised that none of them could overthrow the Somoza regime single-handedly, and that each of the viewpoints had certain validity. In 1978 they combined forces within the FSLN, with a nine-person joint directorate (three representatives from each faction) and successfully carried through the Sandinista revolution in 1979.

Coming to present day India, the classical Marxist position holds the class contradiction to be the principal contradiction in society (though the exact nature of the revolutionary class remains a matter of considerable debate). For feminists, the gender contradiction is the decisive relationship, whereas for dalit and anti-caste activists it is the caste system. Environmental activists believe that an unsustainable developmental model and large-scale environmental destruction pose the greatest threat to human well-being. In the traditional mode of debate, each group insists that ‘our problem is the biggest problem’ and that one of the contradictions must be recognised as ‘primary’, while all others must become ‘secondary’. Should it not be possible to recognise the validity of each of these positions, within a shared framework of revolutionary change? Cannot these viewpoints acknowledge mutual relevance, and both refine and strengthen each other within a framework working for a new society that would transcend class exploitation, patriarchy, caste oppression and an unsustainable developmental model?

2. Debating about reality: If we embrace coherent pluralism as a valid approach to understanding reality, then this should reflect in the way that we debate and develop knowledge. While certain broad parameters of coherence should be defined, the method of debate should not be of sharp polemics to demolish all opponents, but rather the attitude of one of the blind persons talking to the other blind persons. Diverse viewpoints would be given adequate space - even though they may be contested - and the fact that the ‘sum of the parts of the debate may lead to a greater whole’ would be accepted. For example, in the anti-communal movement, the opposition to communalism could form the framework for coherence, within which diverse viewpoints could be debated. The acerbic and stultifying dismissal of alternative viewpoints and ‘vanguardism’ could be replaced by an atmosphere of joint action combined with lively ideological debate, fruitful dialogues and richer syntheses. Such a way of thinking has been expressed by Subcomandante Marcos, one of the leaders of the historic Chiapa rebellion in Mexico, in this way: “What do the Zapatistas hope to get ...? ... not the doubtful honour of being the historical vanguard of the multiple vanguards that plague us ... Yes, the moment has come to say to everyone that we neither want, nor are we able, to occupy the place that some hope we will occupy, the place from which all opinions will come, all the answers, all the routes, all the truths. We are not going to do that.”

3. Changing reality: The same attitude of coherent pluralism could change the way we organise and act, at several levels – a. At the social level, building broad and inclusive coalitions for social change. These could be issue wise coalitions, mass political coalitions or revolutionary coalitions. While there are many examples of such efforts, I would here mention one, which I have direct experience of: the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, a recent interesting experiment of developing such a coalition in the health sector, where a very diverse range of organisations and individuals have been working together at state and national levels, on issues of people’s health and health rights. A ‘People’s Health Charter’ forms the basis for a shared consensus about health, and the ongoing campaign for the ‘Right to Health Care’ involves groups from diverse backgrounds working together. One can think of many more large-scale possibilities of building broad alliances for social change, including revolutionary coalitions.

Indeed, the entire revolutionary process needs to be looked at again, if it is not to culminate in the domination of a single party under the garb of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Let us see again what Marcos has to say: “We think that revolutionary change in Mexico is not just a question of one kind of activity ... It will be the result of struggles on several fronts, using a lot of methods, various social forms, with different levels of commitment and participation. And the result will not be the triumph of a party, organisation or alliance of organisations with their particular social programs, but rather the creation of a democratic space for resolving the confrontations between different political proposals ... Revolutionary change in Mexico will not be under the sole command of only one homogeneous group and its great leader; rather leadership will be shared by various groups that change over time but that all rotate around a common goal: the utopia of democracy, freedom and justice which will or will not be the new Mexico. There will be social peace only if there is justice and dignity for everyone.

b. At the organisational level, encouraging healthy intra-organisational debates, respecting minority viewpoints and giving space to sceptics and internal critics, rather than insisting on a single correct ‘Line’. The Workers Party (PT) of Brazil is an interesting example of organisational coherent pluralism, where a large diversity of political streams or ‘tendencia’, including Catholics, feminists, environmentalists, trade unionists and staunch Marxist-Leninists? have been able to consistently work together in a single organisation, with a high degree of effectiveness, yet without smothering debate. (Both in geometry and in politics, a ‘Line’ is not only unduly straight, but also very narrow. Maybe we need to think instead in terms of streams, within which the water continually plays upon itself, changes its course and does not always move ahead in the same direction, yet which possesses the energy to move boulders and to continually chart a new path.)

c. At the individual level, always keeping self-doubt alive, recognising the validity of counter ideas, and being willing to modify one’s viewpoint without rancour, when a richer or more comprehensive understanding emerges. One can abandon the inherently unachievable goal of ‘absolute truth’, and engage in action while enjoying the enrichment of one’s understanding, as newer aspects unfold through debate and dialogue. One can be serious about social change, yet need not take oneself too seriously (!), and can let laughter intervene from time to time. One can respect Walt Whitman for saying ‘Yes, I might contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes.’

II. Material and non-material social drives in the era of globalisation

It is a basic tenet of Marxism that socio-economic conditions, and more specifically, the means of production, broadly define the range of cultural and ideological formations that are likely to prevail in any particular society. This has been viewed as the ‘base-superstructure’ relationship, sometimes in a rather simplistic fashion. However, the unfolding of events in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century seem to necessitate a re-examination of this relationship, or at least a more sophisticated understanding of how ideologies are shaped by material circumstances. I feel that this has considerable implications for our work as activists who deal in the realm of ideology.

To give a few examples:

• A country which has seen nearly half a century of socialist rule (Yugoslavia), and would be expected to have eradicated all remnants of feudal society, is torn apart by most brutal ethnic violence. Religious and ethnic identities, which were assumed to have been transcended in a common developmental process, assert themselves in the most inhuman and violent form, including large-scale genocide. In the former Soviet Union, despite seventy years of socialism / state capitalism, religious identities assert themselves with violent vengeance in regions such as Chechnya and Central Asia. • In India, the two states which have experienced the maximum ‘capitalist’ growth, in agriculture (Punjab) and trade and industry (Gujarat), and hence would be expected to have the least ‘material basis’ for feudal culture, are precisely the states that go through periods of extreme religion based violence. Capitalist development has not mitigated religious identities, in fact they seem to have become stronger. • In the Islamic world, from Morocco to Afghanistan, despite growing integration into the world market with ‘globalisation’ and the capitalist prosperity from oil trade, fundamentalism continues to grow and we witness the paradoxical scenario of extremists armed with increasingly primitive ideologies wielding increasingly advanced destructive technologies. • Europe moves towards unification and dilution of national identities in the European Union on the one hand, but witnesses the growth of the ‘New Right’, attacks on immigrants and increased racism on the other hand. In the United States, the country with the ‘highest level of capitalist development’, the desperate search for identity takes the form of morbid consumerism (where children murder other kids to get a pair of Nike shoes), extreme varieties of faddism, Rambo style chauvinism and a resurgence of Christianity.

Should this be viewed as a disjunction between the economic base and the cultural superstructure? Or does it signify that in the era of globalisation, with weakening of national identities and growing atomisation, ethnic and religious identities may in fact grow stronger with a particular variety of capitalist development? Since human nature (like physical nature) abhors a vacuum, when traditional community and family identities weaken under the onslaught of capitalist globalisation, are people hurled into a void where they become very insecure and prone to grasp at other, more primitive and exclusivist identities?

It seems that we have underestimated the deep yearning for collective identity, a need to ‘belong’ that all of us crave for as human beings. This drive is second only to the drive for survival, and may even supersede the latter in many instances. Yet we are living in an increasingly ‘globalised’ and atomised world, where national, community (village or urban locality) and family identities are being dissolved rapidly. The middle and lower-middle class, especially youth, are perhaps most exposed to this recent shift, and are responding by clutching at religious and ethnic identities, becoming cannon fodder for communal and fundamentalist political forces. What is often regressive about these identities is that they are usually much more ‘exclusivist’, inherently socially divisive and tend to promote violence against ‘the other’.

It is clear that people live not for bread alone, but for bread and a sense of belonging. We need to develop a much deeper understanding of the ‘non-material’ drives which motivate social behaviour, and learn to create spaces for inclusive, humane and progressive identities. We need to see how a socially radical movement can also help persons to transcend ‘self’ and find meaning in a shared identity. Buddha was perhaps one of the earliest social radicals who combined a socially progressive movement (moving away from the emerging Brahminical caste system) with a deep understanding of transcendence of ‘ego’ through a collective identity in the Sanghas, which may be seen as communes.

In short, emphasising the material need for social change (exploitation, material deprivation, hence the need for more material well being) should be integrally combined with addressing the equally important psycho-social needs – the need for sharing and collectivity, freedom from the fear of being taken advantage of, the need to feel secure, having a sense of intrinsic worth and meaning as a human being, and moving beyond self to a feeling of belonging to a larger collective. Stressing the first while ignoring the second is a questionable enterprise, which could only lead to sterile economism in various forms. A revolutionary philosophy should tell us not only how to change the world, but also how we can change ourselves and our relationships. And it is clear that as a society, we need to come to grips with this soon, before we are engulfed in a bottomless spiral of majoritarian fascism and minority reactive violence, which feed each other and could destroy all our dreams of a humane society.

We all need to think about this aspect of philosophy, examine the progressive trends within our own socio-cultural traditions, and through social exchanges, help create a widening process that could reach out to ordinary people. Progressive intellectuals and social trends should be able to develop a process of evolving personal philosophies that any ordinary person can easily relate to. Otherwise, charlatans will continue to captivate the masses, while those who claim to be armed with the ‘philosophy of the working class’ will remain ideologically and culturally distanced from the very masses they seek to work for.

After all, the task before progressives is not to just capture state power, but to help carry through a much deeper change. As Marcos has put it,

“And what would triumph be? Seizing power? No, something even harder to win: a new world.”

Permission to upload this is ggranted on October 15 2005


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