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Mainstream, VOL L, No 51, December 8, 2012

Questions of Freedom and People’s Emancipation — V

Wednesday 12 December 2012, by Kobad Ghandy


Kobad Ghandy from Tihar Jail is writing on the concept of freedom vis-s-vis present-day society as also in relation to a future just order, bringing out some causes for the failure of the erstwhile socialist states. It will comprise a series of six articles. The first article (covering Part I—The Context) appeared in Mainstream’s Independence Day Special (August 18, 2012), the second one (covering Part II—Search for Freedom through History) in this journal’s September 15, 2012 issue, the third one (covering Part III—Socialism and Existentialism) in the October 6, 2012 issue, and the fourth one (covering Part IV—No Freedom without Values) in the November 10, 2012 issue. This is the fifth article. Since it is quite big, it is being published in two instalments. The first section is the following. The second section will appear in the Annual Number of Mainstream, coming out in a fortnight’s time. The sixth and last article will appear in the Republic Day Special of this journal on January 26, 2013. —Editor


The year was 399 BC. Socrates had been advocating a more honourable society. The rulers of the Greek city state ordered him to change his views or take the cup of poison. He chose the latter.

Nearly two millennia later, the year is 1535. Thomas More, the humanist author of Utopia; was beheaded by King Henry VIII of England. Though Lord Chancellor to the King, when the latter declared himself head of the Church, Thomas more refused to sign the Act. His Utopia was a novel on an idyllic imaginery republic, written as a protest against the abuses of the day.

We have already seen that on all occasions prophets, philosophers and revolutionaries, right from the earliest of times, have sought to bring out the goodness in man, and with it, greater justice in society. When the society was under despotic rule such people invariably faced the wrath of the rulers. When the society was in ferment such ideas facilitated a change in the system.

But, when we delve into these transfor-mations, we find one major difference between all earlier changes (say, to feudalism, capitalism) and that to socialism. The earlier changes were not conscious, planned acts, while that to socialism was. Yet, in all cases the ideas of the new society evolved in the womb of the old. Such ideas became a powerful force for change once they gripped the masses.

The earlier changes were more-or-less evolu-tionary in content. But then, in all these changes, though radical in nature, one section of the elite replaced another section; while with the socialist transformation, it was for the first time in the history of mankind that power sought to go into the hands of the poor and oppressed.

In this penultimate article I shall first briefly trace the link between consciousness/values and revolutionary change through history. Next, I will try and bring out the role of consciousness/values in the latest transformations—that is, in socialism. Finally, in this background, I will seek to present the main goal of mankind and some questions of orientation to facilitate change in that direction.

1. Consciousness and Revolutionary Change

MARX said that it was “social being that determines consciousness”. Though generally true, it does not explain how, through history, many thinkers have been far ahead of their times. To fully appreciate this understanding of consciousness, and avoid a mechanical interpretation, three points need to be considered.

First, if being and consciousness are seen as a one-to-one mirror image, no change would be possible, as our mind would merely reflect the existing reality and nothing else. In actual fact our mind merely gets the raw materials from our sensory perceptions, which it processes through reasoning to give the final product—consciousness. So, the mind acts (or should act) as a machine, not a mirror, and knowledge passes from the perceptual level to the conceptual level.

The second point is regarding the reasoning power. How is it created and from where did it evolve? At any given time an individual has a definite mental make-up, which gives him the ability to reason. This is internal to him, having evolved from childhood through thousands of impressions stamped on the mind due to varied experiences—physical, emotional, scientific etc. etc. Consciousness is also generational—instinctive, like hunger and sex. All these are recorded in the mind—at both subconscious and conscious levels—which give us our ability to reason. It is with this existing mental make-up that an individual, at any point of time, processes the raw material. Of course, this mental make-up is not fixed in nature, it changes with new experiences. So, while the objective reality is a fixed determinant, the mental make-up changes depending on the changing outlook.

The third point is that consciousness itself has evolved over centuries. According to the famous psychologist, C.G. Jung,

“The development of consciousness has been a slow and laborious process that took untold ages to reach the civilised state (which we date somewhat arbitrarily from the invention of writing, about 4000 BC). Although the development since that date seems to be considerable, it is still far from complete. Infinitely large areas of the mind still remain in darkness.”

In fact, most of our instinctive feelings are not because of immediate sensory perceptions, but have evolved through the ages.

So, in a general sense, no doubt, social being determines consciousness. Yet, from the latter two points we find that our mind has been impacted from our activities (being) since childhood and over centuries. And, at any give time the impressions thus created are internal to us, and its impact is specifically reflected in our subconscious.

Now, keeping the above-mentioned factors in mind, let us look at the relationship between consciousness and revolutionary change.

The relationship has been best presented by Marx in his Preface to a Critique of Political Economy, where he says: “At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into contradiction with the existing production relations... From forms of development of the productive forces these relationships are transformed into their fetters. Then an epoch of social revolution opens. With the change in the economic foundation the vast superstructure is more-or-less rapidly transformed.”

This oft-repeated quote of Marx, though presenting the relationship between ideas (part of the superstructure) and revolutionary change, may give the impression that economic changes are a pre-requisite for other changes—that superstructural changes only follow economic changes. In reality, though economics may be the basis, the relationship is dialectical, each impacting the other. Not only do the productive forces change prior to a revolutionary transfor-mation, but also the new ideas evolve in sync with these changes. In the final analysis, it is man and his ideas that act as instruments of revolutionary change, not inanimate forces.

Let us take two of the most recent changes as examples—from feudalism to capitalism and then to socialism.

In the classical (capitalist) French Revolution of 1789, the ideas of humanity and justice were evolving from about 1500. First came the Protestant Reformation in Christianity through thinkers like Martin Luther and John Calvin. This was followed by a large number of philosophers debating the relation between being and thinking as also the concepts of humanity and justice. Finally, these culminated in the concepts of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity put forward by Voltaire and Rousseau, whose ideas had an enormous impact on the French Revolution. But, this transformation was itself the culmination of a number of other gradual changes that had been taking place—for example, establishment of the Parliament in England in 1649 after a seven-year civil war; establishment of a consti-tutional government in England in 1688-89 brought about by the Declaration of Rights; the American War of Independence 1775-83 etc.

Here, we find that both the productive forces and consciousness developed in the embryo of the old feudal order through an evolutionary process of changes culminating in the French Revolution.

As already stated, such an evolutionary process was not evinced in the socialist projects. Both the Russian and Chinese Revolutions were conscious, planned and organised actions. Their post-revolutionary developments (not reversals) were also extremely minutely planned actions. Yet, here too, the socialist/communist ideas were evolving from the time of Marx and Engels in the 1840s.

But, for two reasons the questions of humanity and man’s individuality, his freedom and happiness were relegated to the background.

The first was probably due to equating freedom, humanity etc. with liberating people from the horrors that capitalism wrought. Hundreds of classic novels during the 19th and early 20th centuries depicted the unbeleivable agony resulting from early capitalism. With the extermination of entire populations by colonial conquest, the destruction of moral life; and workers toiling 12 to 15 hours living in inhuman hovels etc. etc., quite naturally the question of humanity was intrinsically linked to freedom from such a system. As a result the individual was somewhere lost amongst the ‘mass’, ‘class’, party etc. It was the mass/class that had to be liberated and, it was assumed, the individual would automatically achieve salvation. But, as we have seen, that was not to be. Socialism raised people economically out of the muck, but did not seek to solve the existential problems of the individual. A herd mentality may be OK for a starving, illiterate, diseased individual; but once delievered from this filth, he/she achieves an identity of his/her own: a self-respect and dignity that calls for a different form of attention in order to achieve liberation/freedom.

The second reason is related to the fact (probably accidentally) that Marxism evolved as a science of society. By adopting a scientific approach to social phenomena, humanity seemed to have got lost somewhere. There is no doubt that with Marxism evolving a scientific approach to understand society, a great leap took place in the realm of thought. Cause and effect, as evinced in the natural sciences, was now also seen in the social sciences. But, while this enormously extended the horizons to understand society and its transformation, a sort of clinical approach developed, which tended to neglect man and his humanity (except, of course, in the sphere of economic equality).

In hindsight one can now view these limitations. Yet, in just one century Marxism, as an ideology, became probably the most powerful force ever in the history of mankind—by the 1960s roughly half the world was under the sway of communism. Yet, surprisingly, barely two decades later there was a near-total reversal. I do believe an important reason for this was the neglect of dealing with these questions of humanity and freedom of the individual.

Though Marx’s very starting point to understand social phenomena emanated from his original search for humanity (reflected in his earlier writings), this was somehow lost later. We find little of this in the writings of the Second and Third International nor in those of the towering Marxist intellectuals of that time. Nor do we see much of this in the Russian Revolution, except in the novels of Gorky. Most writings, statements, analyses were confined to political events, economic analyses and a lot or tactics, strategies etc. In the Chinese Revolution (and after), though the question of values was continuously stressed, it was more in the moralistic tradition of Confucius and Buddha, not linking it to questions of alienation, freedom and happiness and the taking of society and the individual on this path.

So, though ideas have evolved in these 150 years of socialism/communism, these were more in the sphere of political/economic justice, politics, economics and tactics/strategy; not in the sphere of values and the individual’s sense of freedom and happiness. And once the projects failed (as seen after the 1990s) the people’s confidence has been shaken in the feasibility of such a transformation. The lesson to be learnt here is that the development of human consciousness cannot be reduced to merely greater and greater scientific knowledge—whether in the natural or social spheres. As already outlined, this is just one aspect of our consciousness, which also comprises our values, instinctive desires and emotional responses. Overall civilisational advance entails progress in all these spheres.

That it is not just a question of advanced science can best be seen from the example of the present neo-liberal period.

There is no doubt that this period has witnessed gigantic leaps in the sphere of knowledge. The discovery of the computer/internet and its advance, the micro-chip, satellite technology, quantum mechanics, genetics etc. have been truly revolutionary. No doubt this has generated a big pool of brilliant scientists and unheard-of advances in the sphere of the sciences.

Let alone the other spheres, even in this sphere of knowledge has there been any real advance as far as the bulk of the people are concerned? Ironically, it appears, the more advanced the technology, the more moronic the condition of the people. So, for example, calculators do the adding, subtracting etc., the mind is unable to do even simple addition/subtraction, writing is done on computers (now even through voice), so I am unable to write physically; computers do much of the thought processing, so my mind does not think, it merely reproduces. At our workplace, the more sophisticated the technology, the more mechanical and repetitive the job. In my education, cramming and memorising replaces creative thinking. In my leisure, actual sports, music, literature, drama etc. are replaced by sub-standard TV programmes and, instead of performing I merely VIEW the above on a screen. As a result even in the sphere of know-ledge/science, for the bulk of the people, there is little advance, in fact, more probably, there has been stagnation or even degeneration. As a matter of fact, a recent research at Stanford University idicates that humans are losing intellectual and emotional capabilities because “they no longer need intelligence to survive”.

And if we turn to the other sphere of conscio-usness—values, emotions, instinctive desires—there has been serious decay. The overall result of all this is a mental stagnation and civilisational retrogression.

That is why we find today a narrowing of man’s thinking, though there is much talk of the global village. We witness a growth of religious fundamentalism worldwide—not just Islamic, but Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, even Zoroastrian —which restricts our worldview taking us back to a class-type mentality. This breeds exclusive-ness, not humanity; hatred, not love. Not only is this de-humanisation at the level of identity, it is admixed with the worst forms of crass consumerism, resulting in the total debasement of man.

In India the situation is even worse as all those have been super-imposed on a basically feudal and casteist mindset. Caste exclusiveness, upper-caste superiority, and hatred of the lower castes (Dalits) have, in fact, increased in this neo-liberal period.

Of course, there is a reaction to this all-round degeneration which is infusing a new search amongst large sections of the youth. This can be seen in the huge movements in the West, the changes in Latin America and increasing number of people seeking spiritual solace (as opposed to religious fundamentalism).

But, at present what exists is more in the realm of negation. To take a leap in the realm of consciousness and produce something positive, there has to be negation of this negation to result in a new set of values, and a new life-style and production process. For these vast movements, socialism is no longer posing as that alternative as we see a similar retrogression in the erstwhile socialist states.

Today, to once again turn ideas into a force for change would be impossible without taking lessons from what was the most recent of the revolutionary transformations—that is, socialism —and its failures.

2. Socialism—One Step Forward Two Steps Back

CAPITALISM is at a dead-end, heading for a 1930-type Great Depression. There is no sign of any ability to revive given the deepening of the euro-debt crisis and stagnation in the US and Japanese economies.

Socialism too is at a crossroads; all socialist revolutions have reversed, most socialist/comm-unist movements are in stagnation, nay decay; and there are no signs of any renewal/revival. This is in spite of the crisis of capitalism.

So, what of the future? What is the alternative? Does one have to suffer the existing inhumanities of capitalism till “the end of history”? Or, can it be reformed? And is socialism a lost cause, or could it be reformed to make it more sustainable? Or, should one look for some third alternative? What hope is there for mankind from the miseries of today?

Here, we shall try and deal with the socialist experiences, to seek the reasons for their failure. But, first let us take stock of the socialist project as it stands today.

If one traces the history of the socialist/communist movements we see that from the turn of the ninteenth century these grew from strength to strength for nearly 150 years. At the beginning of the twentieth century there were powerful movements in Europe and Russia under the Second International. World War I ended with a socialist state in the USSR and a failed revolution in Germany. The impact of the socialist revolution of the USSR resulted in powerful communist movements not only in Europe, but throughout the world, particularly in China—under the leadership of the Third International. After World War II, with the Chinese Revolution and the vast national liberation movements of Asia, Africa and Latin America, virtually half the world was brought under the sway of communism notwithstanding the massacres of lakhs of Leftists in Greece, Indonesia, Turkey, Chile, India, Latin American countries etc.

But then, with the collapse of the USSR, the reversal in China, and the retreat of the national liberation movements, by the 1990s most comm-unist/Left movements/organisations collapsed, and the few that remained existed, fighting with their backs to the wall. This is the harsh reality even today—a situation worse than ever before!! Never in this past one-and-a-half centuries of communist thought, has the situation been so pathetic.

The situation is serious and would require a thorough review. Here I will merely try and touch on the philosophical point that was the cause of the reversals in the socialist states. But first, I shall touch on the two main arguments given for the reversal. I will then hypothesise in which direction the search for the real cause needs to be taken.

(a) Two Arguments

The two major arguments put forward (in varied forms) for the reversal are:
(i) the productive forces were not sufficiently developed to facilitate the transformation to socialism, and (ii) lack of democracy in the party and the state.

Let us then look at both points briefly:

(i) Question of Productive Forces:

It has been said that only when capitalist relations are fully developed that it is possible to transform society towards socialism. Based on this reasoning they argue that both Russia and China were underdeveloped, and so what existed there was state capitalism, not socialism.

There is no doubt that if a developed capitalist country transformed to socialism the transition would be easier, as both the level of productive forces and social consciousness in these societies would be more advanced.

Though this is generally true, the factors for transformation grew stronger in the backward countries once capitalism developed into impe-rialism. With the world getting knit into a relatively more homogenous unit, the possibility of transition to socialism arose in any part of the world.

This is one aspect that has to be considered. Another aspect is that the argument ignores the fact that the transformation to socialism is a conscious, planned act. They treat it like some evolutionary process where the productive forces will develop and develop transforming the production relations. In a planned process, the practitioners of change can factor in a step-wise process of transformation, depending on the preparedness of the masses to accept the change. Probably it was this that was attempted with the NEP (New Economic Policy) in Russia and the New Democratic Economy in China.

So, the issue of the level of ‘development of the productive forces’ was not really the major problem. It lay elsewhere.

(ii) Question of Democracy:

It is often said that it was lack of democracy within the state/government and party that was the undoing of the new order. Even if this were true, how does one guarantee democracy in a body? Normally when this issue is taken up, it is only discussed at the structural level—democratic centralism, multi-party democracy etc. But, democracy operates at many levels, not only the structural. It is there at the individual level (in one’s behaviour), at the family level (patriarchal behaviour), at the institutional level (boss-employee relations), at the social level (like caste) etc. etc.

The starting point of democracy is not, in fact, structural, but human. If the individuals (particularly leaders) who comprise the state/party/organisation are not democratic, then how can the organisation be democratic, whatever the structure? This would apply not only to an organisation but also to the family, institution etc. A change of form cannot change the content. If those manning an organisation are arrogant, conceited, opinionated, manipulative etc. and have many of the values earlier outlined as evil/bad, would a change in the organisational structure make a difference?

In fact democracy (or the lack of it) is merely one aspect of the question of freedom discussed earlier and is intrinsically linked to the value system we have adopted. Lack of democracy is just a symptom of the disease. The disease is our negative value system. Unless there is a funda-mental change in the latter, whatever tinkering we may do with structures, there will be no democracy. Besides, no structure can guarantee proper democracy; at best, it can facilitate it.

What CAN guarantee democracy are the attitudes within the organisation/institution/state, particularly of its leadership. Definitely, if the leaders are equipped with the values of good (outlined in the earlier article), this is bound to get reflected in their relationship with others. The existence of a democratic approach is very much dependent on the values of modesty, straightforwardness, simplicity etc. and does not exist in an ethical vacuum. And this applies not only to the organisational/state structures but also to the social and institutional structures.

And while on the topic of organisation/state structures, one cannot ignore the question of power. It is rightly said that power tends to corrupt; but for much time to come, it is a necessary evil as structures to run society will entail some leadership. To minimise the possibility of negative factors developing, two steps could be taken: First, divorce power from control over money/wealth. Second, a major criteria for electing a person to power, besides abilities, must be that the individual has the maximum quantification of the qualities of ‘goodness’. This could be structured into some 10-15 rules of behaviour, which could be a model for all, but a criteria for those in power.

Given that both the above were not the main criteria for the reversals in the socialist state, where, then, does one look for the answers?

(b) Direction of the Search

If we are to seek the real cause for the failures of the socialist states, the search must be man-centric. Structures, economy, party etc. exist, after all, to serve man, not vice-versa.

The problem began from the very defining of one’s goals. If that itself was faulty, quite naturally the path taken was bumpy. The goal was defined as being equality and justice. And the primary task was to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.

Were these then correct? On should our final goal have been towards freedom and happiness? By putting the goal as equality and justice, we miss the real target towards which man needs to aspire. No doubt, this could be an immediate first task; perhaps a minimalist first step. But, by restricting it to this, we are likely to fall into the trap of economic determinism, where the entire focus may be reduced to mere economic welfare and not the overall flourishing of man, nature and society.

On the contrary, if we see our goal as freedom and happiness, this would be more all-encompassing, wherein equality and justice would be just one aspect. Keeping this broader goal in mind, the nature of the economy would not be restricted to mere physical/economic welfare, but would seek to also create the material conditions to root out alienation, our negative values, our emotional distress, social injustice and environmental destruction from our lives. It would primarily seek a path for the full flowering of man and his/her individuality.

If we look at the two main socialist experiences, they were, to an extent, able to achieve the goal of economic justice. But, having once achieved the basic necessities of life for all, both societies reversed. Is it because once poverty was extinguished, man’s basic selfish nature came to the fore, bringing out his greed to acquire more and more for his personal gain? Is it then that this ‘human nature’ of selfishness and greed, ingrained over centuries, is unchangeable? This would seem the conclusion, looking at society generally today, and particularly the reversals in the socialist states!!

Whether that is so or not, we shall see later. The main point here is that when the main goal set is merely equality and justice, society was not reconstructed to rid it of alienation, the lack of freedom and other aspects that would carry the individual towards fulfilment and happiness. Nor was it effective in changing the basic value system, nor was the economy, polity etc. constructed in that direction. So, quite naturally, when man acquired the basic necessities and his senses evolved, if the society did not move in the direction of greater freedom and happiness (basing on a new set of values), it would spontaneously move towards seeking happiness in the form of pleasures as was the habit from the past, as also what was visible in the world around them.

And so it was with China. As they were unable to successfully imbibe the values of goodness, the masses began treading the old path to happiness. Probably, after the revolution they sought to bring about change too rapidly for which the people were not yet mentally ready. This was both in the realm of the economy as also in the sphere of people’s thinking. Obviously, people’s consciousness, having just emerged from a backward feudal background, was not yet ripe to accept the commune-type organisation (without private property), nor the selfless values sought to be imposed during the Cultural Revolution.

Just having acquired the basic necessities of life together wth education for the first time in generations, and having so evolved their senses and desires, the natural trend was for greater and greater enjoyment of the newly acquired pleasures, not the rigid sense of duty that the Communist Party sought to impose. So, seeking to forcibly impose selfless values during the Cultural Revolution through the impetuous Red Guards, the cult of Mao, and labour camps (May 7th schools) only created an appearance of conforming to dictates, not real change within the bulk of the people.

Man cannot change his subconscious/conscious mind through imposition and force. It is only possible through a sense of awareness, volun-tarily acquired through a deep understanding that positive values alone can take us on the path to genuine happiness, not the instant pleasures of the day acquired through the new-found wealth of the populace over a generation of socialist construction.

It is now obvious (in hindsight), that during the Cultural Revolution in China, the bulk of the people merely suppressed their desires and wants in order to conform to the hysteria whipped up. And, once the opportunity arose, with Deng’s get-rich theory, the people’s suppressed desires/urges found a release in the form of acceptance. So there was little resistance to the new policies introduced by Deng. Not even the examples of Tachai and Taching (commune models in agri-culture and industry), nor the limited resistance in Shanghai could stem the surge of support to Deng’s reversals. The rest, of course, is history as we witness in China today with the billionaire ‘princelings’ dominating the Communist Party leadership and its 80 million odd rank-and-file comprising a major share of a relatively privileged middle class.

Yet, it is not that human nature is basically bad and unchangeable. No doubt man’s negative values, emotions etc. are very deeply embedded through conditioning over centuries, together with the strong impulses generated from our early childhood days. Yet, we have also seen that man’s thinking is not a fixed entity and the neuroplasticity of the mind allows change. In addition, we have also seen that the innate goodness in man has time-and-again sought to assert itself through history.

The lesson to be learnt from the Chinese experience is that in man the seed of goodness has been covered by layer upon layer of poisonous weeds and is therefore unable to bear fruit so easily. As long as these weeds remain, what grows is a decrepit, shrivelled, ugly, half-dead plant. Mere economic gain, coupled with imposed duties and straitjacket boring lives, would create such individuals seeking the sunshine. And if the sun rising above the horizon is unable to bring the bright rays of a new dawn, it will necessarily bring the routine light of instant pleasures, money and the old world order. No doubt, these rays have raised China from a dwarfed plant into a giant, but, in its wake, it has created more shadows than light.

If one is to seek a new dawn and acquire the sweet fruits from that latent seed of goodness, it is necessary to patiently and tirelessly clean off the layers of poisonous weeds. For this the effort has to be both internal and external. Internally it requires an awareness of what is positive and the voluntary desire to strive in that direction. Externally it would necessitate the creation of the most conducive environment—economic, political, social—to facilitate the change. No doubt both processes may take time due to the deep conditioning within us; but, given past experience, no short-cuts are likely to succeed.

So, to sum up, given this past experience, the direction of the search must be towards freedom and happiness and not confined to mere equality and justice.

In the following part of the article, I will not touch on the latter as there are already examples of their relative success. I will only take up the former, wherein freedom and happiness results in the birth of the natural man, liberated from his alienated self, living in harmony with himself, others and nature.

(To be continued)

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