Fifty Years After Naxalbari, Popular Movements Still Have Lessons to Learn

Source: WikimediaCommons/Praveenp (CC BY-SA 4.0)

8.03.2017

In 1967, an armed rebellion by peasants in Naxalbari, a hitherto unknown village in northern Bengal, broke out that was to leave its imprint not just on the politics of the time but on the course of radical movements all the way down to the present. Fifty years on what happened in West Bengal needs to be put in context, taking into account the events of the preceding years and decade.

From 1965 onwards, there were street revolts and protests that spread to small towns and villages across the state. West Bengal witnessed industrial unrest, a food crisis, an upsurge of the youth and students, civil liberties movements against oppressive policies like the Defence of India Rules (DIR) in the wake of the border war of 1962, and a massive radicalisation of the popular mood against the ruling Congress government. Thus what happened in 1967 was not a sudden event, though the fury of the response took many by surprise. The events also clarified the points of contention – it became necessary for political forces to define their respective stands. Who stood where, who were ‘friends’, and who were ‘enemies’, and which way the path of the movement lay. In this sense, of course, 1967 was “spring thunder”.

To study the protests and revolt in the latter half of the ‘sixties, the context of popularity is important. This is because it indicated the flexible nature of the unrest, which spread quickly through the state. There were many actors, many organisations and many modes. The participation of small peasantry in the villages, slum dwellers and the lower middle class in towns and students in colleges, schools and universities, all made the movements popular in nature. It was not a unique show by single party. Indeed, this plurality was crucial for the unrest to spread and engulf the whole of West Bengal.

In another way, the popular context characterised the nature of the revolt. The upsurge was not centrally directed – it occasioned the emergence of plural subjects and its flexibility and creativity in modes of articulation had much to do with the context of popular movements in the preceding decade. In fact, to anticipate the history a little, the untimely centralisation of the radical forces following the peasant struggle in Naxalbari, and undue haste in ideologically framing the movement and formalising it on the lines of an established doctrine of a party organisation bore the death knell of the upsurge.

Radical subjectivity

The radicalisation in the second half of the 1960s was also extremely republican and egalitarian in an odd way. It erased all distinctions, hierarchies, and inequalities from the map of revolution. There was no caste, no gender, no occupational distinctions. Everyone was a ‘Red Guard in the service of revolution’. Workers were to go villages, peasants were to be educated in political ideals, jails had to be transformed into universities, affluent students had to ‘declass’ themselves, and all this was to happen not in an isolated or exceptional way, but generally, en masse – in the form of a movement.

The nation was to have no nationalism; it called for the chairman of China to be “our chairman”. As if the distinctions that could not be eradicated from society could be made to vanish away from the landscape of revolution. Radical subjectivity was the main mark of the movement at the time. In some sense, we can say that the movement of the sixties gave birth to the political subject.

During the course of the upsurge, issues of property relations were raised directly. The land question became the most important issue in the radicalisation of the movement. Likewise, in factories, workers-led councils and solidarity platforms became a dynamic idea. Autonomy became a guiding principle for mass movements.

Questions were raised on the streets – what does it mean to act in the name of freedom? What does it mean to act politically? What does social transformation require? The extremely contentious politics of the time forced people, in particular the street fighters, to ask the rulers – who are you to rule? What are our roles then? Who is the ruler and who is the subject? In short, the issue of the political subject emerged directly under specific conditions, cutting many philosophical-ideological knots. Political necessities led to new thinking; political subject-hood became a practical question of society. This was a great transition, whose significance unfortunately is still not fully understood by social theorists and political thinkers in India. These questions did not present theories  – except in extremely distorted ways in party doctrines and in the programmes of the revolutionaries, which mostly echoed the Chinese experience of revolution. These questions presented not theories but non-conformist ‘thinking’, not philosophy, but rebellious ‘thought’, and not ideologies but ‘subjugated ideas’.

The movement was quickly dubbed as fanatical. It is important to understand today how the emergence of the political subject was seen by established society as the fanatic’s appearance – unruly, violent, and unpredictable. The political subject exceeds the standards set by the regime for permissible violence, and displays determination in the pursuit of a goal – hence its unruliness, its fanaticism.

Fanaticism is the readiness to go to war, discontinuing the prevailing mode of politics. Political subjects exceed rules of politics. The unruly subject in India not only repeatedly exceeded the overwhelming legal realities, but demonstrated by its life experience that the emergence of the political subject is fundamentally a matter of non-conformity with the dominant thinking of the time. In short, if politics has to set its face at times against given legal rules and codes, and given political modes, how will it act? The question is thus about the autonomy of politics: what can be the enabling or debilitating conditions affecting the autonomy of politics, of the subject that claims and gains political agency?

As with several other politically climactic periods, the period of the Naxalite movement had a plural composition, even though it left in the minds of people and on society a singular impression of extremism, of an unbridled radical attitude and youth upsurge. These impressions were not pure myth, and had elements of reality in them. The movement had the participation of peasants, students, youth, sections of lower middle classes, and workers. In this sense the popular movements of the decades of the ‘fifties and early ‘sixties culminated in the radical upsurge of the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, it will be important to see how these sectional participations played out in the upsurge as a whole, and how specific class participations varied, and how the workers movements, particularly the Great Railway Strike of 1974, was the moment of climax. After that, came the imposition of the Emergency, which brought the the curtains down on the decade of the upsurge, though in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh the radicalisation continued, and the movement spread.

Shackled by structure

Can we compare the memory of radicalisation in the 1960s with other epochs of such radical upsurge? For instance, India in the 1940s, elsewhere in Europe in the 1960s, or more classically, the European revolutions in the 1840s? We have to explore some of these questions in order to understand more comprehensively the historical significance of the upsurge during the 1960s. How did Marx, for instance, view the European revolutions in 1848?

With the defeat of the upsurge, the imposition of Emergency in 1975, and mainstream politics swinging back to the parliamentary mode, did the following epoch usher in an age of passive revolution? What general lessons does this carry for a chronicle of popular movements and popular politics?

From the point of a legacy, we can ask one more question: if the years of the mid-sixties carried the imprint of a crisis, was it also not a crisis of the radical form, a crisis of the transcendent nature of popular protests that were to culminate in an upsurge? The crisis of organisation, decimation of cadres and leaders, the vanishing or the indefinable point of retreat, the decline of plurality, doctrinal despotism, and multiple splits – was this the fate of the movement? Why and how did the source of popular protest get exhausted in the process of radicalisation and organisational transformation? While we may ask these questions now, there is no escape from the fact that the entire movement, notwithstanding its diversity, was finally framed (or shackled if you like) in the organisational form of a party, which, while carrying the mantle of revolt, did everything required to destroy the spontaneity, multiplicity, and diversity of the movement and the participants. What dialectical irony lay in this?

The upsurge of the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies had many paradoxes – while the movement spread, it had limited epicentres; while it was autonomous, the leaders had a desire to centralise; while the urban youth dominated, the centrality of the peasant remained in question; while there was reliance on China for ideological-theoretical guidance, the overwhelming national specificities of India had given birth to the movement; and finally, there was the lower class basis of participation in the movement and the middle class doctrinaire.

What political organisational strategy in place of the one that had focused so much on Mao’s ideas (commonly known in those days as Mao Tse Tung’s Thoughts or today as Maoism) could have coped with these paradoxes and taken popular struggles as the basis of going forward for social transformation? What kind of federalisation of radical politics was the call of the hour? Perhaps a new history of Indian radicalism will  provide us with a possible answer someday.

The bind of universality

The line between popular protest and a radical-revolutionary movement is porous. The years of 1966-74 proved that historically, it is difficult to keep the two categories – the popular and the revolutionary – separate, though we may perhaps need to make an analytical distinction. An important question therefore is, how influential were the inner party struggles in the communist party – such as the 1964 split in the Communist Party of India which led to the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the Burdwan plenum of the CPI (M) in 1968, when radicals within the party formed the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries ­– in developing the popular upsurge?

At one level, we may say that intellectual struggles reflect, in a particular way, the ongoing class struggles. Yet, if this statement is not to become a banal declaration, we have to ask about the historical connection between the political debates within the party and the ongoing popular movements of the time against the Congress government at the Centre and the states at that time. Even more fundamental is the relationship between the particular nature of the peasant and workers’ movement, and the political formulations of the AICCCR, later known as the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninst) such as that India was semi-colonial and semi-feudal, that the city has to be surrounded by the countryside, that peasants had to be at the centre in any revolutionary strategy, etc.

We can see striking similarities when this epoch is compared to the period between 1946-50. Then too, people were in revolt, and then too, the revolutionaries wanted a universal ‘line’ that could help Indian transformation. And as we know, the revolutionaries failed then, with the popular upsurge finally stymied by the parliamentary framework of rule. This time, Chinese experiences and Mao’s teachings were to provide the universal framework. What is this bind of universality that has repeatedly inspired Indian revolutionaries, only to fail the cause of social transformation?

Perhaps we need to review the history of popular politics, popular upsurge, and revolt in the 1960s and 1970s in the way Marx repeatedly went back to the history of 1848 or the way Lenin repeatedly drew the link between the developing unrest of the Russian society of his time and the work of the Bolsheviks. This calls for a greater dialectical understanding of the relationship between the autonomy of popular movements and unrest and the political-organisational strategy of the party that the upsurge gives rise to.

Ranabir Samaddar is Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, Calcutta Research Group. In January 2017 he was Guest at the IWM.

From The Wire.

Copyright © 2017 Ranabir Samaddar

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    Karl Schlögel war Professor für Osteuropäische Geschichte zuerst an der Universität Konstanz, dann an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. Nach seiner Emeritierung arbeitet er an einer Archäologie des Kommunismus und einer Geschichte des Wolgaraumes. Zurzeit ist er City of Vienna/IFK Fellow am IFK in Wien.     Print

  • Thomas Schmid

    Thomas Schmid is the publisher of the WELT Group, Berlin. He worked for various newspapers, among them as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. From 2006 to 2010 he was Editor-in-Chief of Die Welt.   Print

  • Margit Schratzenstaller

    Margit Schratzenstaller is senior researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and is currently coordinating (together with Karl Aiginger and Stefan Ederer) ‘WWW for Europe’, a 4-year research project within the 7th Framework Program funded by the European Commission.   Print

  • Dieter Segert

    Dieter Segert ist Professor für Transformationsprozesse in Mittel-, Südost- und Osteuropa am Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Wien. Seit September 2007 ist er Mitglied des Vorstandes des IDM Wien, seit Juni 2008 Mitglied der Leibniz-Sozietät der Wissenschaften zu Berlin.   Print

  • Victoriya Sereda

    Sociologie, Ivan-Franko-Universität, Lviv
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  • Michel Serres

    Michel Serres ist Philosoph und Mitglied der Académie Française.   Print

  • Anton Shekhovtsov

    Visiting Fellow, Ukraine in European Dialogue
    (January 2016 – December 2017)
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  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University
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  • Sławomir Sierakowski

    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Ondřej Slačálek

    Assistant Professor of Political Science, Charles University, Prague

    Jan Patočka Junior Visiting Fellow
    (January – June 2017)
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

    .
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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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