The purpose of progressive culture is to raise the awareness and consciousness level concerning social problems faced by the people of a society. In this respect Indian cultural activists have the benefit of learning from two leading cultural movements that played a vanguard role in raising the awareness levels of the masses during the pre-independence era- namely the Progressive Writer’s Association (PWA) and the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).Their trials and tribulations and their struggle to make the people of India aware of the hardships and injustices that the disadvantaged sections of our country had to suffer are lessons that every cultural activist and those aspiring to be one, must take seriously, if they don’t want to lose their way while fighting for their cause. Yet, there are many things that have happened in this world since then that progressive intellectuals and cultural movements need to reckon with, and they can choose to ignore them only at their own peril.
In the pre-independence period and for many years thereafter, IPTA was not only involved in raising awareness about society but also in projecting a goal/dream (with a halo around it), which most progressive social movements emulated. That goal (which in all fairness to those who strived for it) was based on information that was available in the public domain, and it was achieving a society like Soviet Union.
Soviet Union was the model that cultural activism was desired to lead to. Today, unfortunately there is no Soviet Union that one can strive to achieve and this is a stark reality that all progressive forces have to come to terms with. Whether the Soviet experiment failed to achieve the realistic items on its agenda or not is a debatable issue. After all, it can’t be denied that it managed to rid the Russian empire of a very oppressive Czardom. However, the fact of the matter is that it has ceased to exist and also that it came to a rather ignominious end largely on account of financial bankruptcy. Hence, today there is no tangible objective that progressive cultural movements can point to in order to bring hope in the lives of the miserable.
This brings us to the larger issue of progressive movements of which cultural movements are a significant component. In order for a progressive movement to succeed, it is not sufficient (though absolutely necessary) that those who lead (and preferably even those who participate in) such movements be well meaning individuals; they also need to be aware of social and political dynamics and human psychology. The situation is pretty much like a doctor, who in addition to being caring ought to be well versed in medical science. Hence the goals that should guide a progressive movement should be realistic and above all scientific. Without taking note of evidence provided to us by history, a progressive movement’s journey forward will be inevitably met by failure.
The one incontrovertible evidence that we all have become aware of in recent times is that capitalism is a great survivor, i.e. it has what can be called “staying power”. I am not going to use euphemisms to describe capitalism and draw a distinction between so called “social market economies” and others, or the economic system prevalent in the Scandinavian countries and that in the US. Of course the capitalism that is realistic and makes practical sense is thankfully not laissez-faire capitalism; the latter is a convenient fiction for the champions of “economic jungle raj”.
What I have in mind when I use the word capitalism is an economic system where there is private ownership of the means of production (not merely right to private property) and markets are regulated and invigilated by a government. The invigilation aspect is particularly significant as the 2008 financial crisis has brought to the attention of the world. Further, regulation can range from the minimal whereby government merely uses taxes, subsidies and legally monitors competition to the more extreme form where the public sector has a sizeable presence in the production of goods and services. Within this range, in a capitalist economy, the predominant form of ownership of capital is “private ownership”. However, government intervention should be limited, particularly in our country which has a long history of abuse of state power, beginning with the emergency that was declared by Indira Gandhi. Subsequently we have suffered the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, the post-Godhra ethnic cleansing in Gujarat to mention a few. Today, the situation has become so serious that abuse of state power and vigilantism practiced by hoodlums and lumpens with the tacit support of the state machinery has become a routine phenomena. A free press, privately owned and that too not by crony capitalists, is the very minimum that is required today to save our country from fascism.
Unlike Francis Fukuyama I can’t celebrate the end of history, i.e. the sovereignty of capitalism hereafter, if that is indeed true. I don’t consider the survival of capitalism to be good news for all; it is something we have to accept and live with.
It is important to recall Lord Buddha and his significant realization that the world we live in is an imperfect world. On the basis of this realization he handed down to humanity his profound teachings. The following statement has often been attributed to Winston Churchill (:My sincere apologies to the readers if this name sounds like a jarring note when mentioned immediately after Lord Buddha): “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”. This is an excerpt from a speech Churchill delivered in the House of Commons on November 11, 1947. I think a similar assessment can be made about capitalism, if we replace the phrase “forms of government”, by the phrase “economic system”, the word “democracy” by the word “capitalism”.
At this point of time, I cannot imagine a world where someone like Mother Teresa who brought dignity and peace to the wretched of this earth while they were dying, will not be required. I cannot visualize a world where trade unions and progressive movements are not required to raise their voice in favor of the exploited and down-trodden. I cannot visualize a world where cultural activists like Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte and Bhupen Hazarika or cultural movements like PWA, IPTA and SAHMAT will not be required to make people aware of the grievances of those who have been denied justice.
It could be my own intellectual limitation that I cannot conceive of a world without the kind of people or groups that I have mentioned above. However, if that is not the case, then we better be prepared for a long-haul (or perhaps a never-ending) journey in a world where there is inequality, desire for self aggrandizement and ruthless competition, that capitalism can easily lead to. The onus of the progressive forces will have to be to constantly fight against such tendencies so as to minimize the brutality that it often unleashes against the common man.
In this game of life, it appears to me that there always will be “winners” and “losers”. Perhaps, it is precisely the incentives that come with winning (even if it is as harmless as academic recognition), that leads to scientific, technological and material progress. The fact that a person is a winner with regard to the material comforts of life may be a loser in some other aspect of life (as is usually the case) is of small consolation to hungry and starving individuals. The habitual winner in this game of accumulating wealth becomes intoxicated with success and often tramples on the fundamental human rights of the underdog, little realizing the these rights of the loser are basic and ought to be protected.
By raising a voice on behalf of the socially underprivileged and fighting for their rights (the Indian word for which is “adhikar”), we bring their woe to the attention of the larger society and government. Cultural movements can be used to sensitize people about the violation of such rights so that they join the chorus of protest to deliver justice to the unfortunate. A sympathetic government may make humane interventions on behalf of the sufferers of injustice and rectify the situation. An unsympathetic government needs to be voted out of office at the earliest opportunity.
The curious reader is entitled to ask the question- Why don’t we aspire to create an egalitarian society? The simple answer to that question is that by depriving individuals the incentive to take up and solve challenging problems we come in the way of progress, and progress (scientific, cultural and spiritual) is what several others and I do believe is the purpose of humanity. Egalitarianism may temporarily abate the barbarism that human beings in this civilized world are often led to under capitalism. At the same time, egalitarianism may lead human beings to a life which is devoid of purpose for their existence. Further, if egalitarianism is measured in material terms, it needs to be realized that it may not be desired by even those it is supposed to benefit.
A simple example is an academic department where serious academics often forgo the opportunity to be involved in administrative tasks and the extra benefits that come with it, simply because they may want to devote their time to more intellectually challenging pursuits. (However, if pursuing intellectually challenging pursuits led to a life of perpetual want and penury, then few with the necessary talent would want to be engaged in it.) It is not always the case that material compensation that one receives is in keeping with the intellectual challenge of the task that they perform. Often the compensation is paid for what others may consider to be “a drudgery” or perhaps what people with a conscience of their own may consider “a dirty job”.
Societies which have tried to adopt egalitarianism as their objective have either had to abandon it (as for instance the erstwhile USSR and the People’s Republic of China (PRC)) or still live under the yoke of deprivation and inferior quality of life (as in the case of Cuba). The eventual inferiority of the quality of life in an egalitarian regime is not an outsider’s view of the prevailing situation. Over a period of time, the people living under an egalitarian regime realize the worth of their own quality of life. PRC is an example of a non-democratic capitalist country. In fact they publicly denounce all democratic pretences. It abandoned its egalitarian objectives and aggressively privatized the economy in order to lift its huge population from the morass of poverty which it was stuck in.
Given that egalitarianism has not succeeded in delivering adequate social reforms, we need to aspire to a society that is practically achievable: a capitalist democracy where individuals feel included and not alienated. An inclusive society does not only attempt to uphold the fundamental economic rights of its members. It also attempts to uphold the fundamental human and political rights of all sections of the society, be they minorities or members of the LGBT community, and includes them in the mainstream of society. Such a society is inherently secular.
Privileged status by the state to a religious community is against the very essence of a secular state. Equal treatment of all religions by the state is simply impractical if the a state is serious about dispensing good governance, and not spend all its time in running innumerable religious services for the different members of the society. After all, the business of a government is to govern and not run prayer services. Hence an inclusive state needs to distance itself from all religious activities and biases and effectively function in an atheistic manner. That however does not prevent individuals in an inclusive society to have their personal religious beliefs or none if so be their choice.
If we closely examine the trajectory of IPTA, then its glorious phase coincided with the glorious phase of the undivided Communist Party of India of which it was a frontal organization, and during the time Puran Chand Joshi (PCJ) was leading the party. The IPTA (the name itself being suggested by the famous Indian nuclear physicist Homi Jehangir Bhaba) at that point in time was a reservoir of talent drawn from all sections of the society and a literal who’s who of cultural giants in years to come. This list included Pandit Ravi Shankar, Salil Chowdhury, Jyotirindro Maitra, Hemanta Mukherjee almost all the forthcoming stalwarts of Hollywood and Bollywood, to mention just a few.
IPTA (and the CPI to a certain extent) functioned as an inclusive and popular front against imperialism and fascism, rather than a doctrinaire and dogmatic outfit. PCJ was an organizer par excellence, but not a great theoretician. Hence he did not tamper with the codes and the manuals of the party but in practice the party and all its frontal organizations functioned as a popular anti-fascist and anti-imperialist movement raising its voice continually against social injustices prevailing in India. In retrospect, PCJ led a massive, vibrant and united organization.
This is hardly the time to sit and debate on the exact economic contours of a future society, particularly when historical evidence is so stoutly and robustly against cherished dreams. It would be a tragedy, if the human instinct for diversity and plurality was overwhelmed by uniformity and egalitarianism. A call to egalitarianism will only alienate liberals like me (and let me assure you I am a modern/social/left liberal and not a classical liberal living in the halcyon days of the nineteenth century) from the task of uniting the country under one secular democratic umbrella. There are already too many dividing lines and boundaries that run across Indian society each generating its own kind of exploitation and vote bank in the name of identity. Let us strive towards an inclusive society and an inclusive culture whose spirit in the words of Woody Guthrie would be: “This land is your land, this land is my land…This land was made for you and me.”
By Somdeb Lahiri
Acknowledgment: My views on this and related matters has benefitted significantly from long and useful discussions with Abhik Lahiri and Pratik Lahiri.