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CULT OF MEDIOCRITY - The CPI(M) has lost its moral and intellectual high ground

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By Rudrangshu Mukherjee
  • Published 21.06.09

And all these things were
wonderful and great;
But now I have grown nothing,
knowing all.

— W.B.Yeats

“For PCJ who lit up the lives of some of us’’ — so reads the dedication of a book published in the 1980s. The uninitiated will ask, “Who is PCJ?” Today, only a handful of people will know that the dedicatee is none other than P.C. Joshi, the legendary leader and one-time general secretary of the undivided Communist Party of India. The word, legendary, is used advisedly, even though the story of Indian communism does not quite lend itself to legends.

Joshi is today a forgotten figure even in communist circles. His birth centenary, two years ago, passed virtually unnoticed. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) in its party organ, People’s Democracy, published an article by Prakash Karat that recalled Joshi’s contribution to the making of the CPI. Joshi was the undisputed leader of the CPI during the only glorious period of the party’s history. Given his current forgotten status, it is necessary to provide here a few facts about Joshi’s life.

He came to communism in the early 1930s from the Meerut Conspiracy Case in which he was one of the accused. He became the party’s general secretary in 1936 and was disgraced and expelled from the party in 1949 when, under the leadership of B.T. Ranadive, the CPI declared that Independence was fake (yeh azadi jhoothi hai, was the slogan) and that India was ripe for an armed insurrection. In the 1950s, after Ranadive’s removal, Joshi was reinstated in the party but he never regained his position and influence. The split in the communist party in 1964 broke his heart and he spent the later part of his life as a lonely figure within the CPI trying to document and write the history of communism in India.

What was so remarkable about the man and about the years in the CPI that have come to be associated with his name and his line? Photographs of Joshi or descriptions of him by those who knew him do not suggest that he was a man with a commanding personality. He was a shortish man who always wore baggy shorts; he had smiling and mischievous eyes. He had the rare gift of reaching out to people. Recalling his first meeting with Joshi, a comrade wrote , “I found [in Joshi] a person in whose hands I could place myself without reserve — a strange mixture of affection and dedication.’’ What was unique about Joshi was that he could be as comfortable sitting in an upper middle-class ambience — a communist professor’s flat in Elgin Road in Calcutta, for example — as he would be sitting on a charpoy chatting to a working-class comrade. Both the professor and the worker would also be at ease with Joshi. This outstanding quality enabled Joshi to spread his and the party’s influence among a large section of the people.

Joshi zealously pursued excellence. He wanted communists to be the best and the brightest in every sphere of life. Only then, he believed, would communists become the exemplars for the rest of society. Communists would be looked up to by others because of their excellence, their integrity and their behaviour. He told students who were drawn towards communism to be the best in their various subjects. He inspired some of the best teachers, artists, poets and writers to either join the party or to work closely with it. In Bengal, Sushobhan Sarkar, the famous teacher of history, Bishnu Dey, the poet, Sambhu Mitra, the actor-director, the maestro Ravi Shankar, the artist Chittaprosad, the photographer Sunil Janah, were some of the figures who were close to Joshi and worked with the CPI. Many brilliant students of Presidency College were inspired by him and were known inside the party as ‘Joshi’s boys’. He transformed the CPI from a marginalized organization to a mass-based and well-organized political party with enormous intellectual and cultural influence. One reason why Joshi was able to do this was because he was unwilling to compromise on sincerity and quality.

There was another reason for Joshi’s success: he was not sectarian and he was untouched by pettiness and rancour. He realized that for communism to strike roots in India it would have to appeal to all sections of society. Only then would communists become part of the national mainstream. Such a project had no scope for narrow-mindedness and sectarianism. His ability to rise above pettiness was exemplified by his attitude when he was expelled from the party. In 1948-49, the period he was under attack from the party, many of his close friends — Sushobhan Sarkar for one — and young comrades whom Joshi had nurtured — like Arun Bose and Mohan Kumaramangalam — abandoned him to show their loyalty to the party. But Joshi never held this against them. In fact, Sarkar remained one of his closest friends. What is even more remarkable is that when Ranadive became the target of an inner-party struggle in the early 1950s, Joshi ensured that Ranadive wasn’t victimized in the manner Joshi had been.

To be sure, the breadth and generosity of Joshi’s vision and his ability to attract the best had been possible within a particular historical context. The late 1930s and the early 1940s, Joshi’s halcyon years, saw the Soviet Union and communists at the forefront in the battle against fascism. The Depression of 1929 and the rise of fascism had persuaded many in Europe that the future of the world and civilization lay in communism. It was said then that “communism represents our singing tomorrows”. Some of the best minds of Europe were drawn to communism, and this had its impact in India and the movement that Joshi pioneered.

Joshi’s efforts to attract the best sounds very distant today. The record of violence and oppression of all communist regimes across the globe has brought disgrace to the ideology of communism, which no longer attracts the best minds. But this is not the complete story so far as India, especially West Bengal, is concerned.

In 1964, when the CPI split and the CPI(M) was born, the latter, at least in West Bengal, got the giant share of the party’s resources save the intellectual ones. The intellectual cream remained with the CPI. The CPI(M) was born under the sign of mediocrity. Its leadership promoted anti-intellectualism and the cult of mediocrity. This, it was assumed, would bring the CPI(M) closer to the people. Promode Dasgupta, the redoubtable head of the party apparatus in West Bengal, was the driving force behind this kind of thinking. Under his successor, Anil Biswas, this tendency was aggravated. Biswas personally controlled educational institutions and intellectual organizations. This brand of nepotism alienated real talent. Many came under the flag of the CPI(M) lured by the loaves and fishes of office, but numbers did not make for quality. The moral and intellectual high ground that communists had once enjoyed in West Bengal gradually came to be eroded. Today, the CPI(M) stares at a moral and intellectual vacuum.

There is no need to uphold everything that Joshi did; like most communists of his time, he committed many errors. But in the context of its plight in West Bengal, the CPI(M) leadership could think of rediscovering Joshi and trying to understand what communists need to do to establish moral and intellectual hegemony over society. The transformation of society will never occur through the brutal use of State power and the deployment of terror through cadre. It demands a more sensitive handling by a leadership that is confident enough to be broadminded and open. Joshi failed because his comrades were unwilling to listen to him, save for a brief period. That period still has lessons to offer to those who are willing to learn. Will the CPI(M) learn?