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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 49, November 23, 2013

‘Freedom and People’s Emancipation’: It’s a Political and an Ethical Project

Monday 25 November 2013, by Kobad Ghandy



The following is the reply of Kobad Ghandy, the Marxist-Maoist thinker lodged in the Capital’s Tihar Jail, to the response of Bernard D’Mello, Deputy Editor, Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai, to Kobad’s “Questions of Freedom and People’s Emanicipation” (a six-part essay that appeared in this journal, the first part on August 18, 2012, and the sixth on January 26, 2013). Bernard’s response was carried

in Mainstream (November 16, 2013)

Dear Bernard,

Many thanks for your critical comments to my Mainstream essay, as also for the enclosure ‘Marxism and Ethics’ by Paul Blackledge. Both will assist in my efforts to improve on my original piece, as both have many added points. The trouble here in this jail is not only do I lack individuals with whom to discuss, but also the necessary literature like what is mentioned/quoted by you and Blackledge—Gramsci, Lukacs, or Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach,The German Ideology,Grundrisse, etc.

I must also thank you for your approach. People like us have to learn such a method to conduct polemics; a method which entails only to focus on how to come nearer the truth. The seriousness of the study reflected in your critique is also to be much appreciated. Hope we can all maintain and enhance the richness of any such debate. The enclosure was also very apt giving a historical background to the development of views on ethics from Aristotle to Kant, Hegel and then Marx. To get a historical perspective on any issue really enhances our understanding manifold.

In this brief reply I would basically like to touch on two issues—Marx’s definition of freedom, and, the relation of internal (spiritual) change to the external environment.

But before coming to these let me first say that I totally agree with your conclusion, when you say: “If you were to ask me, I would like Marxists/Maoists to concern themselves much, much more with their personal ethical side, as individuals, have greater regard and concern for each individual, and never lose sight of the individual in ‘the masses’.”

Though Marx may not have emphasised much on individual ethics at that time, as he and Engels were more preoccupied in countering the utopian socialists, it was Marx’s emphasis on alienation that brought out a very key problem with regard to the question of freedom. And I think he laid the basis for a new ethics when he said: “In place of the old bourgeois society... we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

The tragedy is not so much what Marx did not say, but even what he did say in this sphere (which was quite significant) was not signifi-cantly developed by later Marxists, except, to some extent, in China. So we see a moral degene-ration coming with power not only in the erstwhile socialist states, but also in most of the radical Left movements worldwide.

Bernard, it was these gigantic reversals that had been disturbing me for some time, but I never got the time to really deal with it while outside. In these four years in jail I have had the opportunity to reflect and study. Imagine the pathetic state of affairs today, when we see the bulk of resistance to Western imperialism is from a backward feudal ideology. And even the Islam that they adopt is of the most rigid type, hostile even to the humanist trends within it reflected by Rumi, Ghazzali and even the more recent Iqbal and others.

And all this at such a time when the gap between the rich and poor worldwide is at its highest ever. The objective situation is such that there should have been a resurgence of such Marxist movements. Forget resurgence, there is hardly a voice in the wilderness.

Anyhow, this sentiment I have also reflected in the article. Let us now take up the two points mentioned.

Definition of Freedom 

 On the definition of freedom as “the conscious-ness of necessity” most in our circles understood it as I explained as also did people like Christo-pher Caldwell (Studies and Further Studies in a Dying Culture). Most of us considered this one sentence without its link with Marx’s other writings as brought out by you and also Paul Blackledge. So this certainly needs to be elaborated, additionally bringing in the two points you mention. This I will do in the original article. Yet, having got a more accurate Marxist definition of freedom, the question still remains: is that sufficient for a comprehensive under-standing of the term? Later experiences over the last one-and-half centuries as also scientific knowledge allows us to further develop these basics. That is what I have done in trying to bring in the question of the sub-conscious and conscious mind, our emotional instabilities, our suppressed instinctive needs and the interlinking between all these and our value system.

In this context I would agree with what you add that “these needs are thus about harmony with nature and about real democracy, which would bring harmony within humankind”. But then when you add, “they can be realised through collective struggles to abolish capitalism and build socialism, which will then make possible the development of everyone’s capa-cilties and realization of everyone’s potential”, I wonder why this did not happen in the Russian and Chinese revolutions.

What you say ought to have happened; but the reality was that it did not. And even if, in some aspects, it partially did happen, it could not sustain—for example, the Tachai commune. I think it is precisely here that one needs to seriously find the reasons why this did not happen.

And merely to say that socialism is a relatively new experience and so one has to give it more time, does not give the answer as to how the experience can be refined to make it more successful. Often it is said (and even I used to say), after all, what is a mere century in a human history of thousands of years. With this we then tend to rest back thinking that time is the best healer and in another few centuries things will right themselves, as, after all (we have been taught that historical materialism says) ‘socialism is inevitable’. But, this will not happen in such an evolutionary way; as unlike all prior revolutionary changes (slave, feudal, capitalist) which were evolutionary, the socialist project is a very conscious, planned, organised execution. Unless all the lacunae of the 20th century socialist changes are concretely pin-pointed can there merely an evolutionary revival? And when I say all, I mean in every sphere—for example I only touched on the philosophical, but linked to that would also be the economic changes.

It is now 60 years since the Soviet Union reversed and 35 years since the Chinese experience went backwards. Yet, after such a long period, why is there no revival? Let alone revival there is retrogression as already explained. And unless the new ideas effectively explain the flaws of the 20th century socialist movements and are closer to the reality, it cannot and will not grip the masses and become a motive force.

Anyhow, I do believe that on the question of freedom the starting point is the individual and not the nature of governments or party struc-ture. If leading elements are themselves tied up in knots, having hundreds of complexes and emotional instabilities, where can he/she build an atmosphere of freedom amongst others, whatever the nature of the government or party? As Marx said, “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

Anyhow, Bernard, I will incorporate the change in the original as to Marx’s understanding of freedom. Now to come to the second point.

Question of Internal Change vis-à-vis External Change

Really this is a chicken-and-egg question. More than which comes first, I believe it in a dialectical relationship. But, as most social/political/revolu-tionary activists focus practically solely on the latter, I have, in the essay, sought to focus on the former. Also, there tends to be a subtle assumption that social/revolutionary activists would automatically acquire the values of ‘á’, otherwise they would not be social/revolu-tionary activists in the first place. This is a misnomer (proved also by history); as, for the bulk of the people, they actually stand to gain from a change. While for those from the middle class, no doubt there is an element of enthusiasm to change due to dissatisfaction with the pre-vailing system, but this soon wears off with time and routinism tends to set in. Also, check the documents of any social and/or Marxist organisation and see how much emphasis is given to internal change and how much to the external factors/activities (oppression, environ-mental, social, etc).

In addition, socialism would, one would expect, create the most ideal conditions to facilitate internal change. But, what does the reality show us? Both in Russia and China we find socialism existed for over three decades, but did the values change in the direction of ‘á’, in order to take society further towards communism? On the contrary we find, with the living conditions improving of the masses, even the existing positive values of the revolutionary period get reversed and instead of moving forward it moves back to the old form of society.

What does all this experience show? First, that external conditions act only as the conditions for change, while it is the internal factor that is the basis for change. Of course, as with all processes of change there is a dialectical relationship between the internal and external factors. My main emphasis here is that internal factors will not change by themselves only through participation in socio-economic change. For this a separate and specific effort needs to be put in, with a concrete plan. There needs to be a concrete methodology for the “educator himself being educated”.

In the article there are some suggestions on how this could be initiated. It does not mean putting a stop to our other activities; it only means certain time is made also for bringing about internal change.

Well Bernard, besides these two points there will be others from your article and that of Paul Blackledge which I will definitely use to develop on the original piece.

And yes, I would love to have a get-to-gether but the way the criminal legal process is proceeding I do not know when that would be possible. After covering about 20 witnesses (50 per cent) in six months the judge gave a date after four months. And on that day the court was shifted to a Special Court. The bail application too in the High Court has been pending for nearly a year... The injustice of the judicial system, is to be seen to be believed.

Well hope you are keeping well.

September 12, 2013


Tihar Jail, Delhi

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