Samuel Moore’s translation of The Communist Manifesto is the most widely known of its English versions. Friedrich Engels helped Moore with the exercise and oversaw its publication in 1888, 40 years after the original, jointly authored by Karl Marx and Engels, had appeared in German. Scholars must know, but I do not, whether the Manifesto’s opening head-quote, now a slogan of slogans, appearing just beneath the title, was written by Marx or by Engels. Perhaps it was written by neither, but retrieved from an earlier work. But Engels must have most certainly approved Moore’s powerful rendering of it in the language of Shakespeare :
Workingmen of all countries, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win.
I was reminded of the three-line preamble to that work of almost Biblical status when news came of the death of Hugo Chavez Frias.
If there is anyone outside of processions, michhils and bandhs who could have been energized by a slogan of the Left, it was the late president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. I have seen the clenched fist raised by members of the ‘Party’ self-consciously and even apologetically, except at mass rallies or at the funerals of comrades where solidarity is natural and sloganeering and gestures of camaraderie, at home. But, irrespective of where he was, and what was happening around him, Chavez would have raised his right fist first, and then waved both his hands in a trance of exhilaration on hearing even the first syllables of that piece of revolutionary literature.
His one and only visit to Calcutta — a 24-hours affair — took place on March 5 and 6, 2005, within three months of my having joined duty in that city. State visits are not frequent in Calcutta and a certain uneasiness over how it was to be handled was apparent at the Writers’ Buildings and at Raj Bhavan. But Chavez was not the kind of State guest we need have really worried about in terms of protocol-compliance or formalities. He was the very embodiment of ‘workingmen’, their broken chains, their unity and self-assertion. Chavez wanted to see Calcutta’s socialist exuberance. Calcutta wanted to see a leftist star. Neither was disappointed.
That very morning, at an event where prizes were being given to police personnel, the then chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, made a speech — the first I was hearing him at — in which he asked the police to be friends of the people and a foe to criminals irrespective of ‘who they are’. To me, this meant that he wanted the police to be totally impartial and be un-swayed by the political affiliations of the accused, an admirable doctrine. It was with this glad thought in my mind that, a few hours later, I went to the airport to receive the visiting dignitary. I had seen pictures of the Bolivarian leader but I was surprised by the way health and vigour seemed to be bursting from the man’s enormous hulk. The ceremonies were quickly over, with Chavez on a clear ‘high’ and the chief minister not quite able to keep pace. But the mismatch was soon rectified.
At a mammoth rally that evening, at the Rabindra Sarovar Stadium, Chavez held forth for a considerable length of time in Spanish. A wonderful young interpreter, detailed, doubtless, by the ministry of external affairs, did his best to render the sonorous words into equally lilting Bangla. Applause and cheers followed almost every other sentence until a difficulty arose. Chavez decided to recite, in Spanish translation, Tagore’s “Chitta jetha bhoy-shunya”. The audience knew the original by heart, by training, by instinct. The brave interpreter, however, was trying to do the Spanish translation into his own Bangla, with hilarious results. Calcutta would have preferred to hear Chavez’s Spanish rendering of the famous work untranslated rather than hear it done into an improvised Bangla. Jeers rent the air. Taunts tore into the interpreter. Chavez was thrown off guard. Have I said something wrong? Have I committed a faux pas? He stopped, looked at all of us, seated beside him, in wide-eyed wonder. And that is when Buddhababu rose. Asking the president of Venezuela to re-start the poem, he said he would recite the poem line by line, from the original Bangla of Tagore’s composition, from memory. I have not heard too often the kind of deafening applause that now replaced the jeers. As a visibly relieved Chavez resumed his recitation, a supremely self-confident chief minister completed it. By the time Buddhababu reached “Bharotere shei svarge…” the gathering of at least 20,000 was delirious.
And I, too, I must confess, was not unexcited. Here was a visiting mass leader, being interpreted by another mass leader, the chief minister of West Bengal, in front of a mass of humanity. More, ‘my’ chief minister was one who had just a few hours earlier said something that was so admirably civilized, namely, that the police force was the ‘people’s friend’ and was to make no distinction between ruling party sympathizers and others.
A State banquet for visiting dignitaries is de rigueur, and a scarlet red president can be no exception. But neither he nor the chief minister was really interested in food, of which elegant portions remained uneaten on their cold plates. Chavez would not stop talking through the many courses, the same interpreter doing his Spanish into English for the chief minister’s and my benefit. Complimenting Chavez on his Rabindra Sarovar speech, I asked him at what age he had made his first speech. “Ah,” he replied, through the interpreter, “when I was eleven…” And he added he remembered what he said in that speech. Unlike many politicians , particularly from our part of the world, he was not coy with the hostess. Holding my wife Tara’s hand, he said, “You remind me of my mum,” a compliment she has not forgotten. Effective informality overtook the formal setting of the banquet which ended up being a very chaotic success.
Chavez was no intellectual, unlike his effective host in Calcutta, the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. But if Buddhababu knew his Tagore, I do not doubt that Chavez knew his Simon Bolivar, and was more than aware of the political philosophies of Salvador Allende and Che Guevara. Noam Chomsky among contemporary thinkers influenced him. His great quote of 2010 recalls Moore’s translation of the Manifesto’s head-words: “Rousseau said, ‘Between the powerful and the weak all freedom is oppressed. Only the rule of law sets you free.’ That’s why the only way to save the world is through… a democratic socialism... giving power to the people... it is not the government of the rich over the people, which is what’s happening in almost all the so-called democratic Western capitalist countries.”
Chavez’s stout defence of national sovereignty against economic co-options and political hustling will be remembered with approval and even admiration. As will his passion for education and his sense of Latin America’s unity. But his apologist support of Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad will leave question marks.
Why is it that so many of the great mass movements of the world — with great exceptions like those in India and South Africa — have, on getting entrenched in power, become so hated and so reviled, their leaders turning to figures of fear rather than of inspiration, their political organs turning into bywords for rough handling and terror hordes ? Why does the idealism of a mass movement, when it enters the plaster cast of government, forget the value of internal debate, participatory processes? Why does a slogan become a shibboleth? Why does courage, when robed in office, become authoritarian? And why does a spartan, when rebellious, become a gourmand for power, when enthroned? Why does the chitta that is bhoy-shunya when in the streets, no sooner than it is installed in office, wield that very bhoy like a baton ?
These are not questions that Hugo Chavez could have answered, but they are questions that must be put to the Chavez ‘type’, socialist and non-socialist, for idealism must be redeemed from its debasings.