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PERPETUAL OUTSIDER - A communist's life under capitalism

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By Prabhat Patnaik The author is a former professor, Centre for Economic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
  • Published 8.05.12

Georg Lukács, the renowned Marxist philosopher, had remarked that in terms of attitude to life, Vladimir Lenin’s position had represented a basic shift from that of earlier revolutionaries. Eugen Leviné the leader of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet republic, who, despite being 13 years younger to Lenin, had typified the earlier attitude, had once famously declared: “We Communists are all dead men on leave!” A communist’s life, according to this perception, was always lived under the shadow of imminent death. This did not mean espousing asceticism, and Leviné, who was executed when he was just 36 years of age had been no ascetic, but it did mean the espousal of a personal philosophy where the extinction of life in the revolutionary cause constituted its supreme realization.

Lenin too had been no ascetic. He loved Beethoven, played chess, took long walks in the hills, and liked reading not only the Russian classics but others too, including Jack London. But to him the meaning of life lay in life itself, provided it was devoted to the revolutionary cause. Death was not the supreme sacrifice one welcomed but an end which had to be put off as long as possible, precisely in order to prolong one’s service to the revolutionary cause. So, he relished the exuberance of the myriad details of life, from playing with the Zinoviev children in their adjoining Kremlin quarters to being acutely concerned whether Comrade Inessa Armand dressed sufficiently warmly in the Moscow winter.

But no matter how different Lenin’s attitude to life might have been from Leviné’s, the actual tenor of their lives could scarcely have been very different: being shadowed by secret police, long years of exile in Siberia (Leviné too, born to Jewish parents in St Petersburg, had his baptism in the Russian revolutionary movement), bitter and exhausting arguments with comrades, and the encounter with the horrific violence of civil war. The context today is so different that even a communist who shares Lenin’s attitude to life will nonetheless have to live a life that is vastly different from Lenin’s. What will such a life be? I am not concerned here with the empirical question of how communists actually live under capitalism, but with the theoretical demands that such a life must make upon them. The political praxis of a communist party having to work within a capitalist society, where there are no imminent prospects of a revolutionary transcendence of the system, has been a matter of much discussion. By contrast, the contradictions confronting the personal life of a communist activist in such a context have been scarcely discussed.

Dedication to the revolutionary cause cannot of course be a “nine-to-five” job like office work. A communist activist cannot simply switch off during certain hours and immerse himself in a world of vegetable shopping, television serials and local addas. Being engaged in an effort to transcend the system requires no doubt a host of fairly routine tasks no different from what an average office-worker engages in. But it requires both the performance of these tasks and what one does during one’s “off-task” hours to be informed by a passion for the transcendence of the system that invests even the mundane with a deeper meaning. And such passion must preclude the “nine-to-five” attitude that is symptomatic of an alienated life.

But if this passion, which must distinguish a communist’s life and which underlies the attitudes of both Lenin and Leviné (though each gave a different meaning to it), causes a seclusion of the communist activist from the ordinary quotidian life of the people, then he runs the risk of being out of touch with them and hence irrelevant. What the people think, how they perceive their situation is an important input into communist theory, and hence the formulation of communist praxis. Becoming aware of people’s daily concerns is thus essential, and for this there is no alternative to one’s own participation in quotidian life. Party meetings into which the light of quotidian life of the people does not directly enter, and where only a bunch of committed “theorists” speak to one another are no substitute for it; nor is information acquired through party sources alone, since there is an inescapable tendency for the lower cadre to tell their leaders what they think the latter wish to hear. And reliance on the “public media”, which are largely controlled by corporate interests, for assessing the public mood, has consequences for the movement which are obviously adverse.

Even the opinions of sympathetic elements among the elite constitute a shaky foundation for the formulation of appropriate communist praxis. There is an interesting story of a group of Indian revolutionaries, belonging to aristocratic and affluent backgrounds, meeting Lenin to request Soviet help for India’s freedom struggle. Having listened to their views for some time, Lenin asked if there was any person of proletarian background among them. The visitors scratched their heads, got into a huddle and finally decided that the person who came closest to Lenin’s requirement was the Indian driver of the vehicle that had brought them to Lenin’s office. They informed him accordingly and Lenin asked for the driver to be brought in. When the driver entered the room, Lenin turned his back on the rest of the delegation to have a long chat with him on the Indian political situation. Appropriate communist practice requires not just occasional chats of this sort but a continuous interaction with ordinary people. This can come only from the communist activists’ participation in a quotidian life that brings them into contact with people.

There is, therefore, a peculiar contradiction that surrounds the life of a communist under capitalism. Being immersed in quotidian life sans revolutionary passion, with revolutionary activities treated as a mere “nine-to-five” job, is inimical to correct praxis. Likewise, being confined merely to a charmed circle of fellow-revolutionaries with little contact with ordinary people in their daily lives, is equally damaging for revolutionary praxis, for it leads either to a substitution of one’s own and one’s comrades’ wishful thoughts about the people’s mood for the actual mood itself, or ends up taking the word of the corporate media for assessing the people’s mood. A communist therefore needs both to participate in quotidian life, and yet to retain an “outsider’s” perspective upon it. This condition is not satisfied by dichotomous conduct, such as the communist activist’s engaging intensely with comrades during certain hours of the day, and then withdrawing into a private world to recoup himself; on the contrary, such dichotomous conduct entails a detachment from quotidian life during both periods.

It may be thought that the issue being talked about here is somewhat esoteric, that the problems facing the communist movement in India today are altogether different from those arising from a communist’s engagement, or lack of it, with quotidian life in a capitalist society. There can hardly be two opinions on this: the communist movement in India today has to engage with the question of caste and other identities; it has to fashion its political praxis to form a united front among extraordinarily disparate social groups; it has to defend, not just in a contingent fashion, but as an essential link to its vision of socialism, the democratic rights of the people; it has to strive to unleash the creativity of the people, including that of its own cadres; and it has to carry out “rectification” among its cadres, a thing far more elemental than what we have been talking about, where “vices” such as corruption, local “satrapism” and careerism need prior attention.

Nonetheless, while all this is true, the question of a communist’s life under capitalism remains a relevant one that cannot simply be wished away. What is more, it is not an issue that has attracted much classical Marxist theorizing. Both Karl Marx and Lenin lived the bulk of their lives under the impression that a European revolution was imminent. Both, as they got disillusioned about the prospects of a European revolution, turned their attention eastwards, but did not abandon the perception of capitalism’s days being numbered. This has also been the general perception of the communist movement. This perception may well be more valid today than it has been for quite some time in the recent past; nonetheless the durability of capitalism must not be underestimated, in which case the question of how a communist living under capitalism must engage in quotidian life and yet be outside of it needs to be addressed.