Mainstream, VOL L No 42, October 6, 2012
Questions of Freedom and People’s Emancipation — III
Thursday 11 October 2012, by
PART III—Socialism and Existentialism
The 19th and 20th centuries witnessed two major schools of thought—socialism and existentialism. The former reflected the agony of the vast impoverished masses, the latter mirro-red the acute alienation within society, strongly reflected in the middle classes. While socialism focused on the society, the existentialists con-cerned themselves more with the individual. Both these philosophical trends had a powerful impact till the 1980s.
I shall first briefly look at these two trends and then come to the present, post-1980s situation.
The agony of the impoverished people was beautifully portrayed in a large number of classics in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There was Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in Britain, a large number of novels by authors like Emile Zola, classics like the book Grapes of Wrath etc. which depicted how cruel capitalism was.
In the post-war period there were a number of African and Latin American writings which pictured the agony of colonial conquest like the book Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galaeno.
Then the Russian and Chinese Revolutions threw up brilliant writers like Gorky and Lu Hsun as also a number of philosophical writings. There were also a number of important socialist writings from Europe. But, on the concept of alienation/freedom and humanism few developed further on Marx’s initial concepts, though Rosa Luxemburg and Gramsci did touch related issues. The Chinese Revolution did make serious attempts in the sphere of values and humanism, but these too did not sustain. Finally, it all crumbled, like a pack of cards, in the 1980s.
The existential vacuum in people’s lives was reflected as early as the beginning of the 19th century as in Coleridge’s poem ‘Dejection’ (1802). A theoretical form was given by Kierkeguard around the 1950s.
The vacuum in people’s lives arose from the fact that while capitalism had stripped the individual of his earlier props—traditions, customs, beliefs etc.—the alternative it promised to provide in liberty, equality, fraternity, remained illusive.
So man had nothing to anchor him. Evicted from his rural roots, cut off from nature, alienated from his fellow beings and even from himself, life became meaningless. Without any purpose to existence, existentialists portrayed the sensitive individual as fragmented and broken by the exigencies of modern life. Estranged from ‘normal’ society, the individual was unable to distinguish between his authentic and unauthentic self.
Existentialism was a philosophy of disorientation and the literature that had developed concomitant with its influence was a literature of despair. Yet, it also reflected the individual’s stubborn search for human identity in an un-known world. All this was conveyed in some form or the other in the writings of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Moravia, Sartre, Beckett and others.
Dostoyevsky’s famous existentialist motto was: “Thou shall love life more than the meaning of life.” Tolstoy, in Memoirs of a Lunatic, Death of Ivan Ilyich etc., examines the situation wherein man is estranged from himself because he is trapped by a society that cannot fulfil his deepest needs. The ‘lunatic’ finds his salvation in charity and generosity and in a general withdrawal from the kind of behaviour society expects. For Sartre, existentialism becomes a philosophy of liberation; it is an attempt to set free man’s authentic self from his cage-like existence. Existentialism, Sartre felt, was a new basis for humanism which, though pessimistic, provokes to awaken man from apathy and make him face his true self, no matter how unpleasant that confrontation may be.
The existentialists sought to bring out the conflicts within a person’s personality resulting from the acute alienation caused by the capitalist system. While Marx saw liberation from this only in a new social order, the existentialists excellently pictured the trauma of individuals in society, but did not have any solution. For a period in the late 1960s, it did lead to a non-conformist hippy culture. But, this could not sustain as commune life with persisting deeply individualistic/selfish traits are contradictory.
Today, with the neoliberal economy having pushed man’s alienation to extreme levels resulting in the veritable cracking up of large sections of the middle class, a vast number of new-age gurus have come on the scene like J. Krishnamurthy, Rajneesh etc. providing a mix of existentialism, religion and psychology as a panacea. But these, at best, provide a palliative, not a solution—a balm to the troubled soul, not a path to freedom/liberation. The mad rat-race of present-day existence does not allow moksha so early.
We find in today’s era both socialism and existentialism in a state of limbo. This, in spite of the fact that mass impoverishment and alienation have increased manifold in these past two decades.
With the reversal/collapse of the erstwhile socialist states and the decline of communist movements worldwide, socialism has lost its appeal. Communist resistance remains in isolated pockets and the millions who have come out on the streets have few Communists amongst them.
Similar is the state of existentialism. Though alienation has increased ten-fold since the neo-liberal economy was introduced, crass consu-merism, with its focus on sex, has swamped the bulk of the middle classes. Their alienated lives, suppressed existence with little sense of purpose seek release in sexual fantasies (inflamed by TV, media, films), ever new consumer gadgetary, cricket/football craze and, above all, money-mania, together with regular visits to the flouri-shing pilgrimage centres. Existentialism reflected the pain of the sensitive being which has been numbed by such values/culture.
Individualism/selfishness has reached such extreme levels that, let alone empathy for the poor, there is little concern even for one’s asso-ciates, neighbours or for that matter even rela-tives. All this has been aggravated by the de facto segregation of the middle class from the urban poor—the former housed in colonies with reasonable amenities, the latter increasingly ghettoised. So, impoverishment forms little part of their consciousness—which is confined to ME, I, MYSELF and of course everything I own. The ego is inflated to elephant size, and instant pleasure takes the place of real happiness. No wonder today’s best-selling novelists, except for rare exceptions like Arundhati Roy and a few others, are neither social nor existential—magic (voodoo) and soft porn seem to be the trend today.
The entire global economy is geared to create a growing super-rich of billionaires, an expanding middle class and a huge mass of destitutes. The first two provide their market, the rest are dispensable. Besides the super-rich who wallow in their voluptuous, degenerate lives, both the impoverished masses and alienated middle classes’ search for freedom, humanity/justice and happiness continue. But, their context is different.
Freedom in Today’s Context
For the masses submerged in hunger, disease, illiteracy, not knowing where their next meal comes from, liberation/freedom can only mean freedom from deprivation and ignorance. At this level of existence, man’s life is primitive and all his human faculties are geared merely to survival.
For such a person, freedom would mean freedom from deprivation. A serf’s sense of freedom would be liberation from his ties to the land/landlord. A small plot of land for him would be the ultimate in freedom. And for those living above the subsistence level, freedom would have another meaning altogether. Yet, even for the starving man, once the problem of hunger is solved, his faculties will evolve and his senses will develop, and for him too freedom will have a fuller meaning.
While speaking about our sense perceptions Marx put it succinctly when he said (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts): “Man’s musical sense is only awakened by music. The most beautiful music has no meaning for the non-musical ear, it is not an object for it, because my object can only be the confirmation of one of my own faculties. It can only be so for me insofar as my faculty exists for itself as a subjec-tive capacity, because the meaning of an object for me extends only so far as the sense extends (only makes sense for an appropriate sense). For this reason, the senses of social man are Diffe-rent from those of non-social man. It is only through the objectively deployed wealth of the human being that the wealth of subjective human sensibility (a musical ear, an eye which is sensitive to the beauty form, in short, senses which are capable of human satisfaction and which confirm themselves as human faculties) is cultivated or created. For it is not only the five senses, but also the so-called spiritual senses, the practical senses (desiring, loving etc.), in brief, human sensibility and the human charac-ter of the senses, which can only come into being through the existence of its objects, through humanised nature. The cultivation of the five senses is the work of all previous history. SENSE, which is subservient to crude needs, has only a restricted meaning. For a starving man the human form of food does not exist, but only its abstract character as food. It could just as well exist in the most crude form, and it is impossible to say in what way this feeding activity would differ from that of animals. The needy man, burdened with cares, has no appreciation of the most beautiful spectacle. The dealer in minerals sees only their commercial value, not their beauty or their particular characteristics; he has no mineralogical sense. Thus the objectifica-tion of the human essence, both theoretically and practically, is necessary in order to HUMANISE man’s SENSES, and also to create the HUMAN SENSES corresponding to all the wealth of human and natural being.”
So, we find that it is only when man’s basic necessities are satisfied that he is able to evolve as a full human being, with more developed senses, thereby acquiring the ability to flower in the full bloom of freedom. If in the process of socio-economic change these factors are not realised by the protagonists, and one continues to see him as a primitive man, as a mere tool for production, there is bound to be a reaction.
In the next article, when I deal with values and freedom, I will be referring to the evolved human beings—whether those that already exist, or those who have been raised to that level from their sub-human existence.
This problem of alienation does not seem to be given importance to by many a Marxist practi-tioner—often it is dismissed as petty-bourgeois rubbish. For many of them only the economic struggle is of importance; but class oppression considers not just one but all forms of oppre-ssion—economic, political, social, cultural, ideolo-gical, religious etc.
Besides, today the urban society is far different compared to the times of Marx, or for that matter even during the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. Then, the urban society was more or less polarised between the capitalist and pro-letarian classes and it was said that the middle class was being continuously pushed down into the ranks of the proletariat.
On the contrary, today, the middle classes are huge and, in fact, growing. (For example, in most countries the service sector is far bigger than manufacturing; in India it has increased from 30 per cent to 60 per cent since 1950, while manufacturing has increased from nine per cent to 15 per cent in the same period. In Africa, the ADB says the middle classes comprise 34 per cent of the population.) This is because in the neo-liberal schema the focus of their market is the middle class, which is pampered even at the cost of extreme pauperisation of the rest (through taxation and other policies). Of course, in this period of acute economic crisis, all are being affected, including the middle classes, yet their numbers are substantial. Practitioners of change ignore the middle classes only at their peril.
To sum up, this then is the prevailing atmos-phere today and division of classes in the world. Except for the super-rich, all are suffering the inhumanity of the system and are searching for answers. Those who are sensitive seek to free themselves from the crass consumerism. They are searching to give more meaning to their lives.
(To be continued)