December 07, 2014

Contextualising Cultural Praxis

Below are the excerpts of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Lecture delivered by Sitaram Yechury on November 22, 2014. The memorial lecture was organised by the Jana Natya Manch. LOCATION OF CULTURE: A MARXIST APPROACH By choosing this, I am conscious of, at least, two limitations at the outset. First, this theme may appear tautological by the time I conclude sharing some thoughts with all of you. This is because cultural praxis, for that matter all praxis, at any point of time is contextualised by that very time. By time we do not mean the chronological linear un-directional movement of time. We mean the material basis of human existence at that point of time; the concrete material conditions of human existence, hence, of all human activities including culture. Secondly, much of this may appear pedantic as I re-surf the terrain of some all too familiar postulates and analysis. This, however, I think is necessary in today’s context, particularly to establish the location of culture in human civilisational advance. This is also necessary in the current paradigm of discourse when post-modernism – one of the ideological offshoots of neo-liberalism – seeks to negate class struggle, in fact, a class divided society itself, by compartmentalising all identities and associated cultures as autonomous entities independent of each other. Society is seen merely as the aggregation – the sum of autonomous identities alone. Such consequential cultural compartmentalisation, in my opinion, is the very negation of both the recognition of the reality of a class society as well as the syncretic evolution of culture, particularly Indian culture. Often culture is understood, in a limited sense, as aesthetics – as I will argue later, culture stands for something much larger, in fact, encompassing the entire canvas of the `human essence’. Idealist aesthetics considered art, for instance, as a reproduction of the ideal, standing over and above actual reality. The origin of any art form, its development, flowering, and decay, all remained incomprehensible to the art theoreticians and historians of the pre-Marxian period, inasmuch as they studied these in isolation from man’s social existence. The materialist understanding shows that it is impossible to divorce culture and all its attributes including cultural expressions like art, literature, painting, dancing, music etc from the material conditions of existence. Dialectics remains the foundation of modern philosophy. “The concrete analysis of concrete conditions is the living essence of dialectics”, Lenin had once said. German philosophy developed modern dialectics, Hegel being its tallest proponent. Karl Marx always claimed, of course with his characteristic modesty, that all he did was to make Hegel stand on his feet instead of him remaining on his head! Along with Engels, in German ideology, he says: “In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here it is a matter of ascending from earth to heaven. That is to say, not of setting out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but of setting out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process demonstrating the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the brains of men are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, and all the rest of ideology as well as the forms of consciousness corresponding to these, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their actual world, also their thinking and the products of their thinking. It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness. For the first manner of approach the starting-point is consciousness taken as the living individual; for the second manner of approach, which conforms to real life, it is the real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness”. Marx independently had come to a similar conclusion when he disagreed with Feuerbach and a small band of youth that the latter had led in philosophical discussions on how complete and comprehensive human emancipation could be achieved. The `Young Hegelians’, as this group was known, were arguing that human liberation was possible only when you liberate human consciousness or the mind, particularly from the influence of religion. Disagreeing with this, since he felt that such an understanding is incomplete, hence incapable of realising the complete emancipation of the human being (which remained his life long quest), Marx writes in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “The first work which I undertook to dispel the doubts assailing me was a critical re-examination of the Hegelian philosophy of law; the introduction to this work being published in the Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher issued in Paris in 1844. My inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human mind (which was the Hegelian conclusion), but that on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life, the totality of which Hegel, following the example of English and French thinkers of the eighteenth century, embraces within the term “civil society”; that the anatomy of this civil society, however, has to be sought in political economy….. (This led him to the study of `modern society’ – capitalism – resulting in his magnum opus Das Kapital.) The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became the guiding principle of my studies can be summarized as follows: In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” To summarise so far: Historical materialism shows that the development of human civilisation is based on the constant interaction between man and nature; the appropriation of nature by man, ie, the man-nature dialectic. In other words, it is the production by men of their material life. As Marx and Engels say in German ideology, “As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are coincides with their production. Both with what they produce and how they produce. Hence what individuals are depends upon material conditions of production”. Marx further proceeds to show that production is always social production. In the process of appropriation of nature, man interposes between him and nature, tools, which are the means of production; technology. This process however, is always taking place in a specific social context releasing a specific expression of creativity and imagination shaping the culture of that time. I In this process of man-nature dialectic, while transforming and learning the laws of nature, a human being undergoes changes. Developing greater mastery over nature, a human being continuously interposes more tools, higher techniques enlarging the contours of imagination, creativity and, hence, culture. This leads to the constant development of the social productive forces. The social productive forces and the relations of production together constitute the mode of production. This is the base upon which the superstructure of a specific social formation arises. Consequently, culture at any point in human civilisation arises upon this base. But it is never confined within these limits alone as hangovers of the past (for example, racism as an offshoot of the slavery mode of production) and anticipating the future (like anti-capitalist and anti-establishment art forms) co-exist in defining culture at every point of time. However, lest Marx and be misunderstood and their philosophy is interpreted in a narrow economic deterministic sense, Engels says: “According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure – political forms of the class struggle and its results, such as Constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc, juridical forms, and especially the reflections of all these real struggles in the brains of the participants, political, legal, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas – also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form in particular. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent and neglect it), the economic movement is finally bound to assert itself.” (Engels to Joseph Bloch, September 21-22, 1890) I believe, culture must be understood as an entity that goes beyond the various artistic forms, aesthetics and behaviour to encompass in a sense the totality of life – the human essence. As Marx says in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts: “If man’s feelings, passions, etc, are not merely anthropological phenomena in the (narrower or limited) sense, but truly ontological affirmations of essential being (of nature), and if they are only really affirmed because their object exists for them as an object of sense, then it is clear: “That they have by no means merely one mode of affirmation, but rather that the distinctive character of their existence, of their life, is constituted by the distinctive mode of their affirmation. In what manner the object exists for them, is the characteristic mode of their gratification.” Multiple modes of such gratification find expression in sensuous affirmation, feelings, behaviour, enjoyment etc. The totality of such affirmations, ie, the totality of human gratification finds expression in all form of artistic and creative activity, the totality of which, in turn, constitute what we can call as `culture’. But such culture, at any point of time as we have seen, is based on the material conditions of existence. “Production not only provides the material to satisfy a need, but it also provides the need for the material. When consumption emerges from its original primitive crudeness and immediacy – and its remaining in that state would be due to the fact that production was still primitively crude – then it is itself as a desire brought about by the object. The need felt for the object is induced by the perception of the object. An objet d’art creates a public that has artistic taste and is able to enjoy beauty – and the same can be said of any other product. Production accordingly produces not only an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object”. (Karl Marx, “Introduction” to Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58) II That human creativity expresses in various artistic forms that constitutes the larger body of culture specific to a society has remained with the human species all through its existence. Every technological advance, every effort at extending the frontiers of knowledge and every new revelation of our own past history and evolution confirms this. A current archaeological and scientific investigation shows that shortly after the Homo Sapiens evolved, harsh climatic conditions nearly extinguished our species. Scientific American (August 2010) reports on such ongoing efforts and states: “At some point between 195,000 and 123,000 years ago, the population size of Homo sapiens plummeted, thanks to cold, dry climate conditions that left much of our ancestors’ African homeland uninhabitable. Everyone alive today is descended from a group of people from a single region who survived this catastrophe. (Area named as `Pinnacle Point’.) “The southern coast of Africa would have been one of the few spots where humans could survive during this climate crisis, because it harbours an abundance of shellfish and edible plants. “Excavations of a series of sites in this region have recovered items left behind by what may have been that progenitor population. “The discoveries confirm the idea that advanced cognitive abilities evolved earlier than previously thought – and may have played a key role in the survival of the species during tough times.” With regard to the last point here, the team leader of the excavations and investigations says: “In addition to being technologically savvy, the prehistoric denizens of Pinnacle Point had an artistic side. In the oldest layers of the PP13B sequence, my team has unearthed dozens of pieces of red ochre (iron oxide) that were variously carved and ground to create a fine powder that was probably mixed with a binder such as animal fat to make paint that could be applied to the body or other surfaces. Such decorations typically encode information about social identity or other important aspects of culture – that is, they are symbolic. Many of my colleagues and I think that this ochre constitutes the earliest unequivocal example of symbolic behaviour on record and pushes the origin of such practices back by tens of thousands of years. “These sites, along with those at Pinnacle Point, belie the claim that modern cognition evolved late in our lineage and suggest instead that our species had this faculty at its inception”. I have laboured on this aspect to prove a point which is fast being pushed out of human consciousness in India today: human beings since the beginnings have always developed a culture that is in correspondence with their material conditions of existence. III Praxis When culture is located in this sense, cultural praxis is, therefore, inseparably integral to the larger question of achieving complete human emancipation and liberty. Praxis, unlike its dictionary meaning which says that it connotes action or practical application of any branch of knowledge, philosophically means the synthesis of theory and practice without presuming the primacy of either. The word praxis is not explicitly found in the works of Marx, Engels or Lenin. But the whole corpus of their work means precisely this. Marx alluded to this concept in his Theses on Feuerbach when he said: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. Likewise Lenin, in What is to be Done? says: “Without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement”. On the other hand, theory can never be enriched without practice. Marxism, thus, is a philosophy which is at the same time politics and politics that is philosophy – the dialectics of theory and practice. Marxism means that philosophy’s validity lies in informed action. It was Antonio Gramsci, who popularised this term Praxis and its associated understanding. IV THE INDIAN CONTEXT Viewed from this point of view, the cultural development of India is, indeed, defined by perennial confluences between various civilizations that criss-crossed these lands. Amongst the many influential thinkers who repeated this concept hear what Rabindranath Tagore once said: “Aryans and non-Aryans, Dravidians and Chinese, Scythians, Huns, Pathans and Moghuls, all have merged and lost themselves in one body”. And, this body is India. India is, in essence, the churning crucible of civilisational advance that produced a complex rich cultural mosaic. In fact, without confluences, there is no cultural growth. Literature (for that matter, all forms of art) continues to command interest because every human being is conscious that in his/her life time, it is impossible to experience the entire canvass of human feelings and experiences. Literature provides, in a sense, an extension of one’s own life experience. Likewise the other forms of cultural expression. Today’s Indian context is predominated by two distinct yet converging tendencies. One is the process of the unfolding of imperialist globalisation and its accompaniment – neo-liberal economic reforms. The other is the resurgence of the communal offensive. Both merge together in the current phase of this Modi government impacting upon our country’s future and importantly impacting upon the collective social consciousness of our people that evolved through a syncretical civilisational ethos. It is this very synthesis of confluences that defines Indian culture which is under direct attack today. The RSS chief recently (August 10, 2014) asserted that “the cultural identity of all Indians is Hindutva and the present inhabitants of the country are descendents of this great culture.” This comes in direct conflict with the familiar term of what we call `The idea of India’ – a pluralistic society of rich diversity that defined the vibrancy of its cultural mosaic. Cultural praxis, in today’s context, is thus defined by this reality. Neo-liberalism and communalism knot together to impact on culture in a lethal manner to strengthen the grip of the ruling class hegemony over our society. On the issue of the ideological hegemony exercised by the ruling classes, Marx and Engels observe: "The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch, the ruling ideas: ie, the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations; dominant material relations, grasped as ideas: hence of the relations which made the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things, consciousness and therefore think. In so far therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an historical epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age; thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch." (German Ideology, Moscow 1976, p. 67 emphasis added.) V The historical evolution of Indian culture as an expression of its syncretical civilisational advance is one aspect. This combines with the processes that emerged during our people’s epic struggle for freedom. The emergence of the conception of the idea of India arose from a continuous battle between three visions regarding the character of a future independent India during our freedom struggle in the decade of the 1920s. The mainstream Congress vision had articulated that independent India should be a secular democratic Republic. The Left, while agreeing with this objective went further to envision that the political freedom of the country must be extended to achieve the economic freedom of every individual, possible only under socialism. Antagonistic to both these was the third vision which argued that the character of independent India should be defined by the religious affiliations of its people. This vision had a twin expression – the Muslim League championing an Islamic State and the RSS championing a `Hindu Rashtra’. The former succeeded in the unfortunate partition of the country with all its consequences that continue to fester tensions till date. The latter having failed to achieve their objective at the time of independence continues with its efforts to transform modern India into their conception of a `Hindu Rashtra’. In a sense the ideological battles and the political conflicts in contemporary India are a continuation of this battle between these three visions. The contours of this struggle continue today in the post 2014 general elections. The outcome of this struggle will define the direction and content of the process of the consolidation of the idea of India. However, the mainstream Congress vision could never be sustainable unless independent India freed itself from its bondage with imperialism and breaking the stranglehold of the monopoly capitalists, on the one hand, and the feudal landlords, on the other. Post independence, in an effort to consolidate its class rule, the Indian capitalist class led by the big bourgeoisie compromised with imperialism on the one hand, and feudal landlordism on the other. The consequent bourgeois-landlord ruling class alliance prevented a thorough going agrarian reform, liberating millions of our countrymen languishing in the backwardness of feudal and semi-feudal exploitation, from taking place. For, such a transformation would have meant attacking the socio-economic base of landlordism, a partner of the ruling class alliance. Thus, the absence of a thorough going agrarian reform meant that the vast mass of Indian people were left as victims of not only economic backwardness but also of the social consciousness associated with it. A social consciousness dominated by caste and communal sentiments which deeply influenced cultural constructs. Therefore, in a situation where the path of development chosen by the ruling classes created illusions amongst the people without delivering the goods, the popular discontent kept mounting. While the Left and democratic movement sought to channelise this discontent into struggles aimed at achieving a thorough going agrarian revolution, the right reactionary forces sought to channelise this discontent, diverting it away from the true liberation of the people, into channels that advanced its communal project of the establishment of a `Hindu Rashtra'. In this they were ably assisted by a social consciousness that was susceptible to exploitation of religious sentiments due to its backwardness. Thus the reason for the growth of support to communal forces lies in the concrete conditions of post independent reality rather than in the realm of metaphysical appeal. Sociologists define modernity as “characterised by an attitude of equality with, and respect for, others”. It is not as if in a modern society all are actually equal. Yet, in spite of the many differences that exist among people, modernity demands a baseline similarity so that people can live with dignity and can realistically avail of opportunities to better their conditions of existence. It is on this bedrock of equality that other differences and inequalities can be added on. But the foundational equality cannot be compromised for it is on this that claims of citizenship are made in modern societies. In feudal orders, there were rulers and subjects but no citizens. An Iranian intellectual, Jalal-e-Ahmad coined the term `westoxication’ as opposed to `westernisation’ in the context of Ayatollah Khomeini led Iranian revolution when Iranian elite returned from exile in Western Europe flashing branded fashion wear and advanced gadgets. With due apologies, I wish to extend this, in the Indian context, as modernity vs. modernoxity. Intoxication with modern consumerist display of latest commodities and gadgets is currently being passed off as modernity. This has become India’s symbol of an `emerging economy’ rubbing shoulders at the G-20 high table. A mere glance at the matrimonial columns will show us as to how the most modern sections of our society, including NRIs who have never stepped on Indian soil, seek alliances in their sub-castes. Those who scrupulously respect law in western countries are the most eager to violate law in India. The more expensive and modern cars on Delhi’s roads are often the ones that violate traffic rules. India’s march towards modernity is being subverted not merely on the tenacity of the past institutions – caste-based social oppression, patriarchic order that suppresses women, the khap panchayats, unequal treatment of religious minorities etc – alone. This are kept alive and buttressed by the values of neo-liberal consumerism (modernoxity), treating women as objects of display and not as human beings etc. This is also strengthened by the widespread opportunism inherent in our electoral system where all these unjust and unequal features of our social order are reinvigorated for electoral gains. Thus, there appears to be no contradiction when people wearing the most modern fashionable branded clothes, Gucci shoes, sporting expensive perfumes and displaying Mont Blanc pens, indulge in all these practices that ought to be consigned as anachronistic in a modern democracy. Such is the cultural milieu – paradoxical as it may appear – that is being shaped by the concrete material conditions of developing capitalism subordinated to imperialist globalisation through the implementation of neo-liberal economic reforms, not by destroying the pre-capitalist modes of production and their associated social consciousness, but in collaboration with them. Such super-imposition of capitalism over the vestiges of pre-capitalist feudal social formations is producing a specific unique cultural milieu – a deadly cocktail of neo-liberal consumerist degeneration and the decadence associated with waning feudal vestiges. The ruling classes exercise their `hegemony of ideas’ in this manner in the current Indian situation. (To be continued)