Home > 2018 > Transcending Spaces: Searching for a New Political Philosophy

Mainstream, VOL LVI No 39 New Delhi September 15, 2018

Transcending Spaces: Searching for a New Political Philosophy

Saturday 15 September 2018

by Murzban Jal

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. (Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch).

Theodor Adorno, Prisms

The Greeks might seem to have confirmed the death of the sage and to have replaced him with philosophers—the friends of wisdom, those who seek wisdom but who formally do not posses it. But the difference between the sage and the philosopher would not be merely of degree, as on a scale: the old oriental sage thinks, perhaps in Figures, whereas the philosopher invents and thinks the Concept.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy?

It would be unfair to compare Nehru to Ambedkar, the leader of the Untouchables, intellectually head and shoulders above most of the Congress leaders, owing in part to far more serious training at the LSE and Columbia. To read Ambedkar is to enter a different world. The Discovery of India—not to speak of its predecessor The Unity of India—illustrates not just Nehru’s lack of formal scholarship and addiction to romantic myth, but something deeper, not so much an intellectual as a psychological limitation: a capacity for self-deception with far-reaching political consequences.

Perry Anderson, The Indian Ideology

Auschwitz and the Problem of Philosophy

“All facts and personages of great importance in world history,” so we were once told, repeats itself twice, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”1 One wonders in which epoch we reside—the tragic or farcical epoch. The 2017 UP elections, that witnessed the hurling of Yogi Adityanath (a very saintly and devout monk, as this tragifarcical drama goes) into the chair of the Chief Minister, has brought in one truth: The Indian Auschwitz and the fear of a coming holocaust cannot be far behind. After all, saints, messiahs and the holocaust are not exactly unrelated.

These 2017 elections also jolted the memory of the people. The memory of 2013, in the build-up of the 2014 National Elections, and the hysteria of “Love-Jihad” (where imagined Muslims were said to kidnap even more imagined Hindu girls leading to unimaginable massacres of innocent Muslims in UP) was awakened. A new Romeo and Juliet was scripted. India got its new Shakespeare. But this tragifarcical politics of “Love-Jihad” was not a mere passing episode in India’s sorrowful history. It was an essential part of India’s public policy. In this New Public Policy, Muslims were transformed into the Jews in fascist Europe (of the 1920s and 1930s) and the Nazi ideology of biological superiority and racial hygiene, the taboo of intermingling with the imagined “other” and the extermination of the “enemies of the state” became parts of the Indian state doctrine.

We know from the annals of history that the Nazis had built concentration camps in Poland for the mass extermination of what they imagined as “Un-Aryan” people, the so-called people of the “lesser races”, and these concentration camps served as the fulcrum of the Nazi Holocaust. “Auschwitz” is however not only an event that happened once upon a time. It does not exist merely in history textbooks. “Auschwitz” is a signboard of the future governed by late imperialism in permanent crisis. We also know that the people, who have chosen this path, exist in India. These same people strongly follow the anti-Semitic racial superiority theory of Nazism, just as they believe that Semites (here “Muslims”) are “dangerous” and “violent” people. The choice of intellectuals can be the one chosen by Martin Heidegger—support for the Nazis—or the one of the Frankfurt School—trenchant critique of fascism.

It was Theodor Adorno who had once said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”.2The question that one needs to raise is: can one involve in the writing of philosophy after Auschwitz? Can one write philosophy in the world of multiple Auschwitzs, multiple Auschwitzs that want to build walls around themselves, who want to chase Romeos and Juliets out from India, multiple Auschwitzs with multiple phobias, delusions and psychosis? And consequently, can writing of philosophy prevent future Auschwitzs? It is here that one needs to ask the pertinent question: “Is philosophical thinking necessary to bring sanity in the Indian public life-world?” 

We know that philosophical thinking is devalued. The ruling classes know that philosophy can be a dangerous enterprise. We know that there can be no innocent philosophy. One can be a Socrates—and be killed for philosophising, or one can be a Marx—and unleash international revolutions. This choice one has to make, just as the thinkers of the Frankfurt School had made to oppose fascism and just as Heidegger had made to support it.

To understand this one needs to understand what philosophy means and whether a revolution in the entire repertoire of philosophy is needed. And to articulate this one needs to understand the importance of philosophical thinking—a thinking that creates an intellectual “conception of the world” (to recall Gramsci),3 an intellectual activity that studies the conditions of the possibilities of emancipatory knowledge and consequently studies the possibilities of knowing the human condition. In the era of Auschwitz and multiple Auschwitzs knowing the human condition and thus knowing the most important question: “Can this human condition ever be known?” becomes even more important.

In History and Class Consciousness Georg Lukacs talked of a certain kind of reification of consciousness, where consciousness got distorted, consciousness that could at the most know only appearances, and that too know only the world of false appearances. We know that Marxism is said to have emerged from German classical philosophy and that this type of philosophising insisted on knowing through the labour of the Concept, the Concept that tore the veil of false appearances. But this Concept is much more that what Deleuze and Guattari stated.4 Instead the Concept as the Begriff goes to the study of the Essence (Wesen) of Being (Sein) whereby the “idea of the true” and the “idea of the good” are stated in clear, dialectical, historical and revolutionary terms.5 This clarity of the Essence (Wesen) of Being (Sein) is of great importance.

What needs to be stated is that in today’s “post-truth” world, the world of the “new normal”, there is no sage. There is most certainly no Figure, forget the precision of the Concept. Instead in this not-so-brave-new-world of walls and phobias, the “last man” that Francis Fukuyama idealised as the perfect ‘man’ of bourgeoisdom, this great liberal democrat who was supposed to rescue Western civilisation would, if not die, then get transfigured into the “man with the wall”, the “man” chasing Romeos and Juliets out from India. Here philosophy, as we know it, in all its various avatars, would die. And when philosophy, as we know it, would die, it would at the same time be forced to be born once again. But this rebirth would need a complete revolution.

Liberalism and the Problematic of Alienation

What has made the redundancy of philosophy is not the postmodern world of hyper-technology, or of post-industrial civilisations (as has been argued by academic professors)—it is the world of late capitalism in permanent crisis (and its liberal ideology) which not only negates philosophical thinking, but recreates a form of primordial nativism which renders unnecessary the process of critical thinking. Denkverbot (prohibition against thinking) is the term of Jurgen Habermas that Slavoj Zizek uses to call the contemporary situation in political philosophy. Both the secular liberals and the Established Left have made a mistake in not questioning the premise of liberalism, not questioned this Denkverbot and in fact turning to liberalism and Denkverbot to fight fascism. Liberalism, one must stress, cannot fight fascism. Instead it abets and aids fascism.

What is surprising is that the Indian Left lost all its (even) social democratic leanings and has turned to parliamentary politics to seemingly “rescue” Indian democracy from the marauding fascists. And when they do this they also turn to Gandhi, completely forgetting their Marxism. For the Indian Left, obsessed with parliamentary fetishism, Gandhism is something that can be used to fight fascism. According to this line of thinking, one can oppose Gandhi to the benefit of the Indian fascists. And in accordance with this social democratic ideology, Gandhi was opposed to the communal-fascist politics of Savarkar and Golwalkar.

They then go into the prehistory of India to find their heroes. They forget the proletariat; they forget the caste system which Gandhi and the Congress defended. In order to oppose the mythological nationalism of the Rightists, they start defending the mythological nationalism of Gandhi and Nehru. They completely forget Ambedkar and his trenchant critique of the Congress as a party of the upper-caste Hindus who would never give up the system of caste-slavery.

They forget that the political language of Gandhian politics was (and is) couched in the language of caste-slavery and the ideology of counterrevolution. And because of their teleological, unilinear idea of history, where they find only villains in the present, they find their heroes from the past. Marx had said that the “tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”.6 The Indian Left, obsessed with the parliament and versed with their Anglicised colonial attitude, are found “conjuring up”, to recall Marx once again, “of the dead of world history”.7 They speak in “borrowed language”.8 They do so because they are grounded in this problematic of alienation that Marx had outlined in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 as the most fundamental problem of modern society.

According to Ambedkar, it was Gandhi who represented this form of primordial nativism that negates not only critical thinking, but negates thinking altogether. Ambedkar talks of Gandhi as the “Mahatma” who “does not believe in thinking”.9 There is a clear difference between the idea of reason—to be precise reason as the dialectical unfolding of reason (Vernunft), the line argued by Ambedkar—and primordial nativism and transcendental idealism of Gandhi. Consider Ambedkar once again:

“The Mahatma appears not to believe in thinking. He prefers to follow the saints. Like a conservative with reverence for consecrated notions, he is afraid that if he once starts thinking, many ideals and institutions to which he clings will be doomed. One must sympathise with him. For every act of independent thinking puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril. But it is equally true that dependence on saints cannot lead us to know the truth. The saints are after all only human beings, and as Lord Balfour said, ‘the human mind is no more a truth-finding apparatus than the snout of a pig.’ Insofar as he does think, to me he really appears to be prostituting his intelligence to find reasons for supporting this archaic social structure of the Hindus.”10

What is important to understand is that Indian political liberalism (from the early twentieth century) was dependent on a form of conservatism that Ambedkar had critiqued. What is also important is that this form of “conservative political liberalism” could never reason. What needs to be done, in antithesis to this form of conservatism, is for a call for philosophical thinking as the dialectical unfolding of reason (Vernunft) that discovers new spaces. We must discover new spaces, or as Louis Althusser said, discover new continents of knowledge.11 The Established Left has made a mistake in being trapped in the old continent, forgetting Zizek that “if you’re trapped in the dream of the other, you’re fucked”.12 The Left has not understood what has happened to it.

Here it is important to recall Hegel’s Philosophyof History where reason as reason has necessarily to go beyond the realm of myths, since mythology does not merely deal with abstract particulars (thus forgetting the element of the universal), but deals with what Marx calls the phantasmagoria.13 And what is this phantas-magoria that destroys reason? This phantas-magoria is the delusion of ghostly beings appearing as “independent beings” that are said to be given life (“endowed with life”, as Marx puts it) and haunting the human life-world.14

What we get from this new reading is that the Indian liberals (that the Left yet loves) deal with ghostly beings and delusions, as also deal with commodities. To elaborate this let us take Marx’s reading of the phantasmagoria further and find that there is a

“....fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is inseparable from the production of commodities”.15

What was forgotten was that Gandhi was from the Guajarati bania caste (like Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Mahatma of Pakistan) and thus liberalism, conservatism, fetishism and commo-dities went together, as if, naturally for Gandhi and the Indian transcendental idealists. What needs being elaborated is that for the Congress, it is not secularism and the love for the nation which is important, but the fetishism of commodities and the love for private property. In this case why are the alleged critics of private property (the Left) marching hand in hand with the lovers of private property (the Congress)?

What needs to be done is to create a New Left with a New Philosophy that breaks all forms of dependency on the fetishistic attachment to liberalism. This New Philosophy does not want to deal with what Marx calls “the ghost of old revolutions”.16 It does not want to deal with saints and mahatmas, fetishes and commodities. Armed with philosophical reason, this New Philosophy needs to not only state the truth, but claims to find the material sites of the realisation of these truths. What one finds—as a philosopher (as the friend of wisdom, to recall Deleuze and Guattari)—is the space of alienation, the ontological space that devours every type of thinking. It is this fundamental ontology that we need to analyse. This fundamental ontology has also to see that there is a great abyss between Ambedkar on the one hand, and Gandhi and Nehru on the other hand. Consider Anderson’s The Indian Ideology:

Gandhi did not claim much book learning. In London, he had found his legal textbooks full of interest—a manual on property law ‘read like a novel’—but Bentham too difficult to understand. Tracts by Ruskin and Tolstoy were a revelation in South Africa. In prison in India he came to the conclusion that Gibbon was an inferior version of the Mahabharata, and that he could have written Capital better than Marx. What fixed his attention were the short list of works he had read by the time he came to write Hind Swaraj, and a limited number of Hindu classics. When he left South Africa, his basic ideas about the world were essentially complete. Not in more books, but in himself lay truth. ‘I have searched far and wide for another individual, placed in comparable circumstances, who has used the first person singular with such unabashed abandon as M.K. Gandhi,’ wrote one Indian critic, warning of the dangers of ‘such cocksureness in an ill-stocked mind’.17

While Gandhi appears as a self-appointed narcissist, Nehru appears as a romantic mythologist. Anderson continues:

It would be unfair to compare Nehru to Ambedkar, the leader of the Untouchables, intellectually head and shoulders above most of the Congress leaders, owing in part to far more serious training at the LSE and Columbia. To read Ambedkar is to enter a different world. The Discovery of India—not to speak of its predecessor The Unity of India—illustrates not just Nehru’s lack of formal scholarship and addiction to romantic myth, but something deeper, not so much an intellectual as a psychological limitation: a capacity for self-deception with far-reaching political consequences.18

While India is now witnessing the transfor-mation of self-appointed narcissism and romantic mythology to fascistic demagogy, the fatal role of Indian liberalism should not be forgotten. At the outset, let it be known that Gandhi (like Nehru), as Anderson notes, is the one who worked in this fundamental ontology of alienation and despite all his borrowings from Tolstoy to Ruskin, his politics (like Nehru’s, as also the Established Left, from the CPI to the CPM) was of complete alienation. After all, “the ‘idea of India’ was,” to recall Anderson once again, “a European, not a local invention, as the name itself makes clear”.19 And it is this (European-alienated) “idea of India” that the Left wants to fight for. And it is this alienation that the Indian National Congress had once mastered to control the masses. Now the same problematic of mastering and manipulating alienation (“idea of India”) is taken over by the Indian fascists. The transformation of the “idea of India’ into “Hindu Rashtra” is the transfor-mation from one form of alienation into another form. The Indian fascists have found a new technique to master this nationalistic alienation.

There are two sites of this fundamental ontology—the economic base and the political and ideological superstructure. A critical reading of Marx will see that both the base and the superstructure are not value-free a-historical sites. Instead they are sites which are afflicted by alienation. What do we understand from this? We understand that one cannot move in the sites of the base (also decoded as “civil society”) and politics (or “ideology” and the “state”).

Now we know from Engels’ letter to Franz Mehring that ideology is nothing but “false consciousness”.20 What has also to be understood is that the entire site is a falsity—appearing in what Engels calls “inverted form”.21 Then only can one understand that any type of redemptive philosophy has to be anti-ideological, anti-state and anti-political. After all, as one deduces from the very term “political” (and “party”) is that there is a certain type of partisanship.

One way to critique this form of partisanship is to follow Ambedkar who said that politics is a type of “commercialisation”.22 For Ambedkar, Gandhi is this type of commercialisation—a commercialisation that Theodor Adorno ascribed to the culture industry—where Gandhi tries to “spiritualise politics” (to recall Ambedkar once again), forgetting that it is “politics that has commercialised him”.23 It must be noted that Ayatollah Khomeini did just what Gandhi before did—spiritualised politics and commercialised politics.

This type of reading (Ambedkar’s critique of Gandhi) follows that of Marx’s On the Jewish Question where Marx talks of selling as the “practice of alienation”, where humanity is subordinated to an “alien substance—money”.24 In this domain of alienation, the entire political discourse is subject to alienation/money, where all connection with social reality is lost. It must be said that late capitalism with its Propaganda-Media Industry makes a paradigm shift from the nineteenth century capitalism governed by the print media where the semblance of social reality yet remained. One needs to recall Adorno here:

There are no more ideologies in the authentic sense of false consciousness, only advertisements for the world through its duplication and provocative lie which does not seek belief but commands silence.25

The Advertisement Industry and the Illusion of the “Post-money” Society

In a way one can also manipulate philosophical discourse and say that this, not-so-brave-new- world, is the world of “post-money”, where the tragi-farcical leader is seen as abolishing money to create his dystopian-utopian society. This world of “post-money” is actually a world of “post-false consciousness falsity”—ahyper false consciousness—governed by the Advertisement Industry that demands a complete subjugation to its Big Lie. The Big Lie works to serve the BigOther. And we know that this Big Other is nothing but the Corporate Managerial State. The Managerial Corporate State’s “authoritarian personality” is the personality of this corporate state in the service of late imperialism.

And it is in this epistemic space that we understand how alienation works in a hyper-capitalist society. Take the instance of “post-money” hyper-capitalism that November 8, 2016 heralded and that sought the mythical war against corruption, which saw instead the advent of Surveillance Capitalism.

Let us see how this new form of alienation works. Here the politics of demonetisation is represented (but falsely so) as a form of negation of this alien substance/money, but a negation which is a false and spurious negation. Here we pick up from Freud who mentions “money complex” and how money is represented in populist imagination as defecation defined as the “connections between the complexes of interest in money and defecation”.26 But this critique of money is a fascist critique—they want corporate-monopoly capitalism and classes to stay, but they want to remove the filth called “money”. In this mythical discourse that contemporary populism picks up—money is not only dirty and filthy, it is literally said to be “the faeces of hell”,27 the hell that populism would claim to clean up with their Swachh Bharat campaigns. What global populism claims is that they both get involved in this excremental function, as well as claim to clean up this filth. Old philosophy—or the type of philosophy that is cultivated by the ruling elite—then works as a form of “excremental function” and “excre-mental excess”,28 as well as the celebration of this excremental excess.

Radical Philosophy

The role of the philosopher then becomes that of the scavenger, the scavenger who is being sunk into excremental excess. Unlike Gandhi, radical philosophy will not get spiritual delight in scavenging. In fact, radical philosophy will be the revolutionary critique of the “practice of alienation” which produces the faeces of hell. Instead philosophy will not be merely an act of critique—it will be an act of rebellion.

And in this act of rebellion, the entire base of philosophising, as we know it, from the Socratic one, the one as typified from the Judeo-Christian tradition, as also the Brahmanical one, will be critiqued, resisted and rebelled against. Philosophy will be one that understands insurrection as art form. One could say following Zizek of the need for “repeating Lenin”. We know that it is Zizek who has talked of this “repeating Lenin”.29 This uncanny repeating Lenin would mainly have to inculcate a discipline of learning the fine art of what Louis Althusser called a “different practice of philosophy”.30 This different practice would also once again recall the entire history of philosophy. We would then be repeating Lenin and the entire history of philosophy.

And in this repeating of Lenin, the “last man” (celebrated by Francis Fukuyama as neo-liberalism’s “end of history”) would die (contrary to Fukuyama’s messianic prognosis) in the world of “post-truth”. This death of the messianic capitalist would need the resurrection of philosophy, not as mere speculation, or idealistic muttering of phrases that Marx and Engels denounced in The German Ideology. Radical Philosophy (who slays capitalism’s “last man”) would talk of the “public” and thus talk to the insurrectionist public—the unity of the popular classes in rebellion against late capitalism.

But this radical public as the revolutionary multitude is not the public of civil society, the “public” that ex-NGOs like AAP tried to mobilise. One must know that civil society is the site that creates false consciousness. One has to transcend civil society for what Marx calls “human society”.31 It is this human society or “socialised humanity”32 that transcends the hyper-individualism of civil society. We need to transcend the old spaces that bourgeois society bequeathed us. We thus need to transcend both civil society and the state.

Ex-NGOs like AAP made the mistake of borrowing from the repertoire of capitalism, like their cousins—the Established Left (led by the CPM). Once upon a time, AAP wanted to reform civil society. After this Great Reformation they now try reforming the state. AAP (like the CPM) forgets that both civil society and the state are beyond reformation. For what is deformed can never be reformed. 

In this sense we need to create new concepts. We need thus to talk of the philosophy of the future. We must cease being like the angel of history that Walter Benjamin mentioned in his Theses on the Philosophy of History where the angel of history is seen looking backwards while being blown forward by the storm of progress.33

In the times of Benjamin, it seemed that there could be the storm of progress, now we have the storm of the apocalypse. Looking backwards and being blown backwards is now a simultaneous act. The question remains: Can we afford this?


1. Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ in Marx. Engels: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 96.

2. Theodor Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1981), p. 34.

3. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1987), pp. 323-4.

4. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tominson and Graham Burchell (New York: Colombia University Press, 1994), p. 3.

5. G.W.F. Hegel, Science of Logic, trans. A.V. Miller (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1969), pp. 783-823.

6. Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, p. 96.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Reply to the Mahatma’ in The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar, ed. Valerian Rodrigues (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 319.

10. Ibid., p. 318.

11. Louis Althusser, trans. Ben Brewster, Lenin and Philosophy (Delhi: Aakar Books, 2006), p. 22.

12. Slavoj Zizek, Event,A Philosophical Journey through a Concept (London: Melville House, 2014), p. 74.

13. The English translation has kept Marx’s original die phantasmagorische form as “fantastic form” See Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), p. 77. See Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Ertser Band (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1993), p. 86.

14. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Ertser Band, p. 86; Capital, Vol. I, p. 77.

15. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 77.

16. Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, p. 97.

17. Perry Anderson, The Indian ideology (Gurgoan: Three Essays Collective, 2012), p. 51.

18. Ibid., p. 52.

19. Ibid., p. 11.

20. Frederick Engels, ‘To Franz Mehring in Berlin, London, July 14, 1893’ in Marx. Engels. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 690.

21. Frederick Engels, ‘To Conrad Schmidt in Berlin, London, July 14, 1890’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 684.

22. B.R. Ambedkar, op. cit., p. 316.

23. Ibid.

24. Karl Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’ in Karl Marx: Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 241.

25. Theodor Adorno, op. cit., p. 34.

26. Sigmund Freud, ‘Character and Anal Erotism’ in The Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 7, On Sexuality (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 213.

27. Ibid.

28. Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997), pp. 4-5.

29. Slavoj Zizek, ‘Repeating Lenin: Lenin’s Choice’ in Lacan.com

30. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, p. 17.

31. Karl Marx, ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ in Marx. Engels: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 30.

32. Ibid.

33. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1979), pp. 259-60.

Murzban Jal is the Director and Professor at the Centre for Educational Studies, Indian Institute of Education, Pune.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62 Privacy Policy Notice Addressed to Online Readers of Mainstream Weekly in view of European data privacy regulations (GDPR)