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Come all ye faithful

Come all ye faithful

Author: Rudrangshu Mukherjee
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: November 17, 2001

Introduction: Dogmatism and blindness still plague West Bengal's communists

P.C. Joshi, the legendary general secretary of the Communist Party of India, who, in the words of an admirer, "lit up the lives of some of us", had a remarkable story to tell in one of his pieces. The story was about Susobhan Chandra Sarkar, another legendary figure in the world of history teaching in Calcutta. Joshi considered Sarkar to be one of his "best friends". In 1948, when Joshi was suspended from the party, then under the leadership of B. T. Randive, he appealed in writing to the central committee and made carbon copies and sent a copy to Sarkar to forward to the party leadership. In response, he received a one-liner from his friend: "I am with the party right or wrong."

Most people who know the history of the communist movement, especially the way the communist parties functions under aegis of Joseph Stalin, will not be surprised at this reply of a professor who in the classroom stoked his students' first doubts. The party had replaced god, and Stalin personified the divine presence on earth. The party and Stalin were infallible. Loyalty was synonymous with blind obedience. This mindset embraced communists, stretching from an eminent scientist like J.D. Bernal to an outstanding teacher of Presidency College to ordinary mortals who had sought solace in the security of a red card. In football, a red card puts a player outside the playing arena; in communism, a red card puts a comrade outside the pale of reason.

If you think that such a pathetic predicament belonged only to the Forties, you only have to follow events in West Bengal to realize how wrong you are. Take the controversy about the Russian film called Taurus, which is supposed to be based on the life of Lenin. Some very prominent people, including the former chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, and the politburo member of the CPI(M), Biman Bose, protested against the screening of the film. They were against the film because, they said, the film had denigrated Lenin. The former chief minister and veteran communist went to the extent of saying that such films should not be allowed to be made. The important point in these comments is the fact they were made without seeing the film. Most of the protesters had not seen the film either. The protests and the condemnation were all based on hearsay.

What was this hearsay? It said that Lenin, in his last years, was shown in a poor light. The film, according to the protesters, had depicted Lenin's failing health and failing mental powers and his dependence on his nurse. Most people would think that there is nothing objectionable in all this. But then most people are not Lenin worshippers.

Within the communist tradition, Lenin has been deified. Others abide our question but not Lenin. From the reactions of some West Bengal communists, it would appear that he was beyond illness and old age, let alone any kind of criticism or wrongdoing.

But the fact of the matter, no matter what some believe, is that Lenin, in the last two years of his life, was critically ill and his ailment had affected his nervous system. He was no longer the active human being he had been. He was so ill that there were times when he was barely able to speak. His wife, Krupskaya, recalled in her memoirs the poignant moment when he failed to recall Martov's name and pointed to the place on the bookshelf where Martov's books were kept.

Yet as the historian, Moshe Lewin, has shown in his book, Lenin's Last Struggle, Lenin used his last energy and his lucid moments to curb the rudeness, the concentration of power and the dogmatism that Stalin was instilling into the Bolshevik party Further research has shown that many of these tendencies had entered the party under the aegis of Lenin himself and had been encouraged by him. But he was self-conscious enough to see, as he lay dying, the dangers inherent in the system that he had built.

All this is to underline that Lenin, far from the god that he has been made out to be, was a human being. He was driven by the political goal of changing the world but this did not make him infallible and immaculate. His condition during his illness, his love for his wife and his tender relationship with Inessa Armand only emphasize his humanness and his frailties.

This point needs to be laboured because of the blindness and the worshipful ness of a large body of communists in West Bengal. One obvious consequence of such attitudes is an intolerance towards whatever runs against the grain of the party line or the accepted wisdom. Not s4 long ago, there were shows of protest against the film, City of Joy. Today, there is condemnation and protests about Taurus, The only difference is that then, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee led the protest, and now he says (or so his comrade Anil Biswas would have us believe), nothing is wrong in Taurus. The relevant point here is the simple injunction that a film, whatever its political or ideological content, should not require either the certificate or the disapproval of either the chief minister or the party There is one other difference which should be noted. There was a time when on issues like this, the entire party, if not the entire communist world: would have spoken in one voice according to the diktats emanating from either Moscow or Peking. Now no such diktats are forthcoming and in West Bengal the truth of the party no longer unites.

The dogmatism that produced sentiments like the party is always right; one hopes, is on the way out. The deifiers of Lenin and the propagators of the party's infallibility do not know the disservice they have done to the ideology they claim to uphold. Marx himself asserted that "doubt everything" was his life's motto. Thinkers and activists like Rosa Luxemburg refused to accept the notion of the monolithic party that Lenin imposed under the banner of Bolshevism. A scientist like J.B.S. Haldane walked out of the party because he could not accept the line imposed by Stalin during the Lysenko controversy A majority of the members of the Communist Party of Great Britain resigned their membership because they could not accept the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956; among them were the famous Marxist historians Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson. In India, a group of communist intellectuals protested against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The key figure in that protest was, ironically enough, Susobhan Sarkar.

Those who made and perpetrated the Lenin cult and advocated blind to, the party have consistently mocked at this rich tradition of dissent. The tradition of self-conscious and self-critical human activity - what Jean Paul Sartre called "constituting reason" as opposed to "constituted reason" (political goal formulated into party discipline) - remains the more enriching tradition to which even non-Marxists are heirs. That some communists in West Bengal find it alien is only to their own and their cause's detriment.

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