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Mainstream, VOL L, No 6, January 28, 2012

A Brave Pilot Navigating a Tortuous Journey

Tuesday 31 January 2012, by Sumanta Banerjee

BOOK REVIEW

Yadon Se Rachi Jatra: Bikalp Ki Talash by Puran Chandra Joshi; Rajkamal Prakashan, New Delhi; 2009; pages: 247; Rs 325.

This is a collection of essays by an eminent academic who narrates his political journey from the euphoric days of the 1940-50 period (when the Soviet Union was the beacon for those who believed in a socialist future), through the phases of disillusionment following the disclosures of Stalin’s atrocities, the hopes of renewal under Khrushchev and Gorbachev, and ending with the collapse of the first socialist political system in 1989. But unlike many other European and Indian intellectuals who had swung from euphoric support for socialism to an about-turn praise for capitalist Western democracies (like the members of the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom during the Cold-War years of 1950-60), and the present generation of turncoats who have become cheerleaders of the Washington-World Bank-IMF model of neo-liberalism, Dr Joshi believes in the necessity of a future socialist society. He therefore ends his book on the positive note of what he calls ‘the new utopia of socialism’, in the search of which he puts faith in alternative theories and modes of practice.

The first part of the book looks back at the experience of building socialism in post-revolutionary Russia, and its relevance for India, through the eyes of some Indian scholars in the 1950-60 period. The author also weaves into the narrative his own memoirs of travels to the Soviet Union during those days. Prominent among the early writers whom the author examines is K.P.S. Menon, India’s ambassador to the Soviet Union during the crucial period of the end of the Stalin era and the beginning of Khrushchev’s politics (1952-61). By examining and quoting extensively from Menon’s diaries, Dr Joshi brings back the issue of Stalin today in the domain of historical controversies. Was he a villain to be put in the company of Hitler (as frequently done by not only Western politicians, but also some academics)? A demi-god as worshipped by his followers both in his country and outside during his life-time and—even after the exposure of his atrocities—still today by a small coterie of Stalinists? Or, does he deserve a more objective (if not sympathetic) assessment?

Dr Joshi suggests the need for a more nuanced approach while recalling Menon’s diaries, which are an illuminating analysis of Stalin’s character as observed from close quarters, and an objective assessment of his role in the building up of the Soviet Union as a global power. As for his personality, Menon observed three qualities—simplicity, shrewdness and ruthlessness. The first was evident in his simple dress, life-style and conversation (“wholly rustic”); the second expressed “both by his words and his silence”; and the third was prompted by his sharp intelligence. After Stalin’s death in 1953, while summing up his role, Menon refused to equate him with Marx, Engels and Lenin (with whom he was always bracketed by his followers), and compared him instead with Ivan the Terrible. Dr Joshi, slightly differing from Menon, suggests that if for his atrocities he is equated with Ivan the Terrible, for his modernization of Russia why should he not be compared with Peter the Great? A very pertinent point!

But this raises a major question. Can autho-ritarian coercion (usually accompanied by terror) by a politically motivated state be excused on the plea of modernisation? Or, can it be the only condition for modernisation? If we accept dictatorial regimes as a necessary and temporary evil towards modernisation (as often justified by certain historians in their analysis of Peter the Great’s Russia, Bismark’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union—or later day secular but authoritarian governments in Iraq, Libya, Egypt), how do we then justify our present opposition to the neo-liberal model of modernisation, which is being enforced through an equally authoritarian coercive machinery—this time in nexus with the corporate sector? Let us learn from the mistakes of past Communist rulers—Stalin, Mao, and others—who, in their rush for a model of ‘modernisation’ (identified with rapid industrialisation, collectivisation of agriculture, and similar measures of centralised economic planning), ignored the human costs in terms of rights of individual citizens who were involved in these production processes, as well as the environ-mental destruction.

Dr Joshi in this connection quotes the warning that Rabindranath Tagore sounded in the 1930s during his visit to the Soviet Union, when while praising the economic and social benefits that the post-revolution regime had brought about, he said: “I do not say that all is perfect here. …Briefly the defect is that they have turned their system of education into a mould, but humanity cast in a mould cannot endure. If the theory of education does not correspond with the law of the living mind, either the mould will burst into pieces or man’s mind will be paralysed to death, or man will be turned into a mechanical doll.”

One of the other important—but now forgotten—earlier Indian researchers on the Soviet Union that Dr Joshi recalls, is Nigamendra Sen Saxena, who by profession was a police officer, but whose life-long academic interest was in Russian history. His, book How Russia’s Past Shaped the USSR, described how the Stalinist autocracy affected Russian culture and how writers through their literature fought against it. This leads Dr Joshi to a historical analysis of the literary experiments by Russian authors, both during the Stalinist regime and after (from Khrushchev’s period of de-Stalinisation to Gorbachev’s ‘perestroika’), revealing his sensitivity to art and literature. He fondly recalls the poems of Anna Akhmatova and Yevgeny Yevtushenko among others—and in one particular essay ‘Salam Leningrad’, he reminiscences about his visit to the Leningrad War Memorial and discovery of Akhmatova’s poetry on the war days of 1944, and a very moving account of how his friend, the late Dr Shishir Das (who accompanied him during the trip), was inspired to compose a poem on the event.

From a phase of retrospection about his association with, and analysis of the past communist movement, Dr Joshi moves on to another phase, where he examines the prospects of socialism in the future in the second part of his book, which consists of essays dealing with the ideological crisis of socialism and the economic crisis of capitalism on a global scale. I strongly support his arguments dismissing the corporate media-manipulated myth about the rosy prospects of the neo-liberal capitalist model of growth as a solution for all the socio-economic problems. It will be a utopia for the rich and a nightmarish dystopia for the poor and the underprivileged. In his major essay ‘Samajabad ka naya Utopia’, he outlines his vision of a future strategy of a socialist programme of transformation which will combine the goals of equality of all with individual liberty.

Like many of us from among his contemporaries, Dr Joshi navigates a tortuous journey of memories, both sweet and bitter. It begins from his embarkation during his youthful days (1940-50) when he joined the communist movement inspired by the dream of replicating in India the socialist utopia established in the Soviet Union. In his voyage for that utopia, he passed through ports that he found to have collapsed following the disclosures by the 20th Congress of the CPSU. He then veered towards other ports which promised harbour under a Khrushchev or a Gorbachev. But again, like many of us, he was soon to be disappointed. A brave pilot, he is still navigating his boat to reach the final port of disembarkation which he describes as ‘The New Utopia of Socialism.’ Bon voyage!

The reviewer is a prominent Left intellectual and writer.

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