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Which Way Forward?
by Naveen Jagan Bookmark and Share

The past few articles I have written for this site have been pedantic responses to articles written by others. This is perhaps unfortunate; but I find myself once again writing an article in response to Dr. Shah's piece New Direction. In the article, Dr. Shah lays out some of the principles of orthodox-Marxist thought. He also claims that the Russian model of socialism as failed and that the only alternative left in bringing a better world is in everyone converting to Hinduism (actually more like, what I dub as "New Ageism"). Since the crux of his article is on Marxism, it is perhaps in line with the concept of dialectics to respond to Dr. Shah.

My response hopes to critique some of his contentions-to make the article interesting allow me to digress at times to cover a few other issues. My point is to add to the discussion two key dimensions of Marxism not mentioned in Dr. Shah's presentation. It is crucial to understand the Marxist analysis of ideologies, of which Hinduism is one such ideology. Likewise, the Marxist analysis of exploitation as spiritual exploitation was only mentioned in passing by Shah, this needs further development. I also argue that the Russian model of socialism was never really socialist. This claim is controversial, given the amount of ideological assault on socialism, and the decades of propaganda, in both the capitalist-west and the state-capitalist Soviet Union calling that bureaucratic system "socialist" (also communist). The Soviet system, after Stalin stole the Russian revolution, turned away from socialism. The October revolution waged by Lenin and Trotsky, and the proletarian dictatorship from 1917 to 1921 was markedly different from the Stalinist-state-capitalism that became associated with communist Eastern-bloc. 

By developing these arguments I wish to show: 

  1. Hinduism-however brilliant it may be-is inadequate in solving today's problems of poverty etc. and in fact is counterproductive to the emancipation of humanity. (Although I say this as someone who studies Hinduism and places it within the context of multiculturalism.) 

  2. The split between spiritual East and practical West supported by Shah is part of the racist ideology of Orientalism and does little justice to Hinduism itself. 

  3. There are real possibilities for ushering in a socialist society, from which humanity can recover its spirituality.

Hinduism as Ideology: Theory and Practice

Before we examine the Hindu ideology, we must understand the Marxist theory of ideology. According to classical Marxist theory, reality is split into two categories, the base and the superstructure. The changes in material conditions, in the means of productions and class structure of society, i.e., the base, are reflected in the superstructure. The superstructure consists of the political systems, philosophical ideologies, popular culture, religion and other macro-institutions. Under this view changes in the base are correlated with changes in the superstructure. The dominant ideologies are the ones that correlate with the dominant class at the base, and similarly the political systems correlate to those that are in power over the means of production etc. This is not to be viewed in a strictly mechanical way or reduced to simple economic determinism. For there can be ideas and philosophies that probably do not have a class interest but serve other functions in society. For instance, Homer's Odyssey, which was first produced in a different class society, is still with us and is part of popular discourse, although the capitalist means of production is different from that of Homer's time. This is so, since the ideas and concepts presented in Homer's books may be of interest to preserve the political institutions and power structures of society. So although culture or ideology is not easily reducible to the base it is part of the interplay between the base and superstructure.

Accordingly Hinduism as a religion came into existence along with the changes in the means of production and start of class society in ancient India. For instance, the mystery and the power of fire to be able to produce different artifacts, to mold iron, to cook food that could then be preserved, all led to a sanctification of fire as Agni. Similarly, the caste system correlated with the rise of class society, and served as a dominant ideology to preserve a class of workers from whom surplus value was extracted. Although it must be noted, that class and caste are not the same thing. At different periods of Indian history different castes were in power, but nevertheless the caste system served as part of an ideological bloc to protect class interests. 

Viewed with these Marxist lenses the contradictions of Hinduism, just as any other religious ideology becomes clear. On the one hand, Hindu philosophy speaks of spiritual enlightenment and fulfillment. At the same time, it has for centuries, played a role in the oppression of lower castes and women. Hinduism's idealism must be pinned to its practical role in governing society. This is similar to Christianity's claim to freedom of the soul, charity, shunning materialism and greed, but at the same time the Catholic Church served as an institution of manorial feudalism, and accrued tremendous wealth. It is also responsible for the violent crusades. 

All of these religious ideologies and their contradictions also correlate to the contradictions of the societies in which they appeared. And as the class nature, and production capabilities of these societies changed, so did their ideologies. Hinduism has not remained the same since its inception. It has metamorphosed into various schools of thought and has even diverged into different religions such as Buddhism and Sikhism. There was for a time an atheistic-materialistic school of thought within Hinduism. They were known as the Charvaka school of thought. This is documented in the Vedas and it is said that they held the view of the common people. They denied that there is another world than this material reality. These pre-Marxist materialist considered the material reality in front them in its final stage. That is, they did not see the dialectics of material change. Marx combined dialectics with materialism to overcome some of the philosophical problems associated with early materialists. Thus, Hinduism from its inception has been changing and has a diversity of thought that argued against the Vedas and reformed some of its ideas to fit the practical considerations of history-class interests. 

It must also be noted, in support of this argument, that Mahatma Gandhi appropriated Hinduism to meet the practical needs of the independence movement. Before Gandhi's involvement in the movement, there were very few women involved in the struggle, and Hinduism played a divisive role in the hands of Hindu fascists. Gandhi called for the introduction of the "female agent" to turn the movement towards a non-violent path. His idea of the female principle was not a sexist gendered notion of the passive female. But rather his understanding of Hinduism was one of harmony, and balance between contradictory forces. The harmony was to be achieved through the amalgamation of active action in a form of defiance ' active-civil disobedience. Thus Gandhi's own Hindu ideology, I would argue, was a progressive step, in line with the bourgeois ideology of freedom and democracy. Nevertheless, it is precisely Gandhi's lack of understanding of the class forces acting within the independence movement that didn't result in the real emancipation of the majority of the toiling masses. The mass strikes, soldiers' revolts and peasant uprisings played an integral role for independence along class lines, but were dismissed by Gandhi. Instead due to his call for harmony between contending classes, the oppressive landowners ' zamindars ' and the capitalist industrialists came to power with little changes to the lives of the majority.

Today Hinduism profanely serves the interests of the BJP and their fascist goons in RSS and VHP. Their version of an ideal Hindu state with Brahmanism is disgusting and is such a perversion of the richness and diversity of Hindu thought. The different twists and changes to Hindu thought must definitely be studied as part of a multicultural project. For it reveals so much in terms of our understanding of reality and cultural change. But as a matter of practice it must be put to use only to take the best of Gandhi, and to neglect and fight against the worst of the Hindu-right. If Hinduism can be appropriated in such a way to serve the interests of the proletariat in their conquest of power, then Hinduism becomes a valuable ideology for such a cause, away from its current malignant use. 

It is a beauty of historical dialectics that in our current "globalized" society the commodification of religion has exposed clearly the ways in which the neo-imperial project uses religion as a cover for subjugation. On the other end the same commodification of religion allows us to fight imperialism, not through reactionary methods such as Hindu-nationalism, but through multiculturalism and fighting the racist hegemony of the capitalist West. Here I am referring to the project of Orientalism, which began with colonialism, as a form of justification for the subjugation of "primitive peoples." I am also referring to the recent fights within the Western academia, especially the U.S. academia where multicultural education has challenged not only the dominant ideologies of the West but the entire colonial project. It is worth examining Orientalism further to understand the role Hinduism has played in the hands of the colonizers and the potential role it plays in undermining the colonial project.

Hinduism as Orientalism, and Multiculturalism as Resistance

The philosopher of history, Hegel believed that India and the East were forever stuck in a primordial ancient culture. He believed that history did not progress in these regions. Hence, India possessed tremendous resources for material progress but due to the unselfish and spiritual nature of these people there was very little material advancement but a high level of spiritual advancement. This idea of the unchanging spiritual East and the practical materialist West became the axiom of colonial ideology. This became a cover for the exploitation of these countries and for channeling the material wealth of these places to the West. 

This identification of the ahistorical East and the dynamic West continues today, and serves powerful functions at home and abroad. Within the U.S. this identification elevates the status of desis and other Asians to a transcendental level which is our passport out of the malignant aspects of U.S. racism. The model-minority status attributed to us is due to the "wisdom" present in "our" ancient texts: the Vedas and Confucian thought. Thus Hinduism is exploited to the benefits of Deepak Chopras and gives us the status of spiritual beings. Never-mind that this boxing-in of cultures is itself an act of benign racism that attributes essentialist features to a people so diverse and so heterogeneous in their class, caste, and other political interests. Abroad, this fuels the development projects of such institutions as World Bank and IMF and the neo-imperial globalization of the bosses. For it is argued that these "undeveloped" people need a dose of U.S. capitalism to alleviate them of their poverty-which is not caused by the same forces of international capitalism, but are due to the essential cultural practices of these places. As Milton Friedman competently argued, it is the Indian's laziness from practical work that is the reason for India's slow growth in GDP. Deepak Chopra's description of poor malnourished children in India is another example. Chopra wrote in one of his (nonsensical) self-help books that children in India even in their poverty-struck state live happily, since one finds masked gods inside each one of them. How sick! Malnourished children in India need food, and are far from "happy." It is the cutbacks in Public Distribution System of Food, due to the strong-armed policies of IMF and World Bank that is directly responsibly for their ill state. Dr. Shah and Deepak Chopra's brand of Hinduism does little to feed these children. Going in search of ones god-self is not a free-time hobby afforded to these children. These are real material issues, with simple solutions that involve material distribution.

Another aspect of this ideology serves in the West as a response to the spiritual alienation of workers at the shop floor and as consumers in a maddened consumer-culture. There is wisdom in the simplicity and poverty of these third world peoples we are told. We need a healthy dose of Hinduism to restore our spiritual alienation but at the same time maximize "our" profits by overworking workers. The argument missing here is the Marxist idea that exploitation of a worker is inversely related to his spiritual alienation. Here spiritual alienation is defined in terms of a person losing his ability to function as a human being, thus reduced to the status of flesh bonded to the cogs of the factory machines. This Marxist conception is brilliant. One can be fully human only when one maximizes their actions in all realms of existence-the Aristotelian concept of "good." But when someone is toiling away a majority of their time at the factory floor or in front of computer and returns home tired to a TV set featuring reruns, their spirituality and humanity is lost. Sitting down and meditating is hardly the answer. To find a real solution to the alienation of man, radical changes in social relations must be found. The Marxist project was aimed at such a solution, which I will soon delineate. 

It is precisely a challenge to such conceptions of the East that are now being introduced in multicultural studies in the U.S. Issuing a serious challenge to the neo-colonial projects political science, and sociology course across the academia are paying attention to the effects of colonialism on these countries. The impact of neo-liberalism is studied with special attention paid to third-world women in women's studies courses. Indian philosophy is examined critically along with its political roles and how it served the interests of the colonizers. Such a study of Hinduism, India and her diverse culture is the healthy outlook for a better world. We must fight against this Chopra-style consumer Hinduism-if one truly believes in representing Hinduism in all its glory. It might seem fashionable to some to think there's a god hiding in them, but is hardly useful as a "New Direction" forward. 

Therefore, it is crucial to critically analyze which way to move forward. In doing so we cannot afford to skip the usefulness of the Marxist project in issuing a challenge to capitalism. Shah and I can agree on the needs to uproot capitalism. It seems that we both agree that capitalism has outlived its usefulness for history. If we agree on these then it is perhaps useful to understand why socialism is the way forward? I'm not interested in achieving the Soviet system of socialism. My conception lives in the tradition of Marx, Engel, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg. 

Socialism and the Soviet Union 

As Trotsky expulsion and later assassination decisively showed, the Soviet Union was not the place of "real" democracy and a state transforming society into the "realm of freedom." Although Trotsky considered the Soviet Union as a degenerate worker's state, it was far from it. As Tony Cliff argues the Soviet Union was a state-capitalist system. Due to the historical circumstances-the bloody civil war, imperial invasions, failure of German revolutions, lack of industry, decimation of the working class-the party of the Bolsheviks that successfully led the October revolution became the bureaucratic dictatorship. The dictatorship of the proletariat was substituted for the dictatorship of the party. 

The ravages of the civil war decimated the revolutionary elements of the working class that so inspiringly ousted the czar. By the end of the civil war the working class had been reduced to one-thirds its size. Russia was invaded by the armies of twelve countries (including the U.S.) to destroy the newly setup workers' state. Armies of workers needed to be fed, who were defending the state, the same workers who were being destroyed in this fight. This alone was enough to cause the removal of the party from the control of the working class. Other objective factors mentioned earlier also separated the working class from playing an integral role in the government. With the active elements of the working class killed in battle, the soviets-workers councils-were useless in making political decisions. The party became an entity with different interests than that of the working class. The precise reasons for this transformation of the party is up for debate-and admittedly my explanation is rather simplistic-but the vicious Stalinist-bureaucracy that followed is not my idealization of a worker's state. 

How effective is it to speak of a workers' state, when the worker had very little control over the government? But besides this fact, let us analyze why the Stalinist-Soviet Union was state-capitalist as I am claiming. Firstly, any state that accumulates capital from the exploitation of workers is capitalist. This the Soviet Union clearly was: many reasons were given to justify the profits raked in by the state, either as a need to fund space programs, to compete with the U.S., to deter nuclear annihilation through nuclear adventurism, etc. None that seems convincing, as characteristics of a state controlled by the workers. Secondly, the Soviet Union invaded countries in Eastern Europe, under the name of socialist "liberation." (It also invaded Afghanistan, and Chechnya, which remains a colonial possession of Russia.) If anything is evident of reading Marx, it is that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. No outside entity can liberate the workers; neither can a party hand down socialism. If this understanding is correct then those countries of the Eastern bloc were not socialist or communist. They were rather state-capitalist countries with the same class dynamics of Russia, i.e., a toiling working class from with a class of state bureaucrats substituted for the role of capitalists. 

The objection that is often raised to this analysis of the Soviet Union is from a common misconception regarding socialism. Many claim that since there was low level of private property and that since the means of production were owned by the state-characteristic of socialism-the Soviet Union was socialist. It is true that socialism requires socialization of property, but this alone is no requisite for socialism. Many states around the world have industries that are nationalized; this does not mean some of these countries are quasi-socialist. Marx would have laughed at such a conception. Central to Marx's understanding of society is his analysis of social relations of production. As long as there are some who benefit from the wealth produced by workers, the social relations of production remain capitalist. The relations of production in the U.S. with private property, and Soviet Union with socialized property were essentially the same. Both contained (still contain) an authoritative relation of production. As long as commodities exist there can be no true socialist society. 

There are more to such an analysis of the Soviet Union, and definitely many parallels to private capitalism can be drawn. Nevertheless capitalism, either state or private must be overthrown by the working class in favor of a true working class state, which did exist in Russia for a brief period between 1917 and 1921.

Socialism: The only way forward

Russia immediately following the revolution, and when all power was in the hands of the soviets (workers councils), was a place of flourishing democracy and an incredible spiritual haven of human beings. Spiritual fulfillment does not happen in a vacuum. It must arise from the social relations and social conditions that we are presented with. Women under oppressive family conditions cannot fully realize their potential and experience self-actualization. What is needed is also a change in family relations and emancipation of women as a social category in society. This is true of all oppressed people, based on race, nationality, etc. By analyzing Russia after the social revolution we find the glimpses of what might be objective conditions for spiritual fulfillment. We also see how the new social relations shaped the lives of individuals. A few examples would illustrate this argument:

Reading John Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World, a report on what went on in Russia is filled with accounts of incredible democracy. Firstly, workers' councils spread everywhere, and became such powerful political and economic bodies. Workers through these councils decided the number of hours they worked, democratically elected their administrators, declared same pay for supervisors and workers. People everywhere formed committees and councils to democratically decide on initiatives. Lenin's wife, Krupskaya, recalled a memory in her diary. She writes about a discussion with a workingwoman: "During our conversation, I asked her what shift she was working in. I thought she was working the night shift. Otherwise she would not have been able to come to the Commissariat in the daytime. 'None of us are working today. We had a meeting yesterday evening, everyone was behind with her domestic work at home, so we voted to knock off today. We're the bosses now you know.'" This was echoed everywhere. Neighborhoods were organized into committees that tried to regulate the details of communal life. Neighborhoods setup childcares so women can be freed of housework. School children elected their teachers, and got rid of, through their councils, mandatory examinations. Such was the scene in Russia, with democratic social relations prevailing everywhere, creating a society of equals, where people and their immediate interests were placed above profit seeking motives; a place where common people made decisions not powerful corporations and unaccountable politicians. A society that made sure everyone's happiness could be maximized. This is the prerequisite, Dr. Shah, for any type of spiritual fulfillment and self-actualization. 

Having sketched this as the goals for a future society, how can we move forward? 

Only socialism has a scientific path towards such a society. Only workers can change society, since they are responsible for the creation of wealth in our society. If they choose not to work everything shuts down. Thus workers must be organized to firstly shut off the capitalists from raking in profits. They must be organized into a revolutionary party that can lead the masses in an uprising, which will turn into an insurrection to overthrow the state. The people must now form a workers' state based on workers' control to defend their revolution. A centralized state apparatus must be setup to defend from counter-revolution by the propertied classes; property must then be socialized and put to the immediate use for all of us. All of this is laid out in theoretical detail in the Marxist project. And there are huge debates as how to move forward.

This analysis of social change is based on a historical analysis of classes. The proletariat is the only agent powerful enough in the historical scene to oust the bourgeoisie. Conversely, Shah's proposals that we should all resign to being Hindus is not only based on mysticism and some New-Age notion of limited Hinduism, it is also impracticable. It is ahistorical understanding of Hinduism, and of contemporary society. He is sadly pedaling a form of escapism that neglects the real material existence. In the process he has reduced Hinduism to the consumer New Ageism and teases our intellect. We must instead the forge a head to change the social relations of our existence. Multiculturalism and studying the intricacies of Hinduism, its history and politics, would go a long way in laying down the path for a better society. It is in this search that we must find revolutionary aspects of Hindu ideology that will allow us to solve our contemporary problems. 

We are seeing the movement for change in the rise of the anti-globalization protests. Everywhere in the world, people are protesting their living conditions and are demanding a better future. From the streets of New Delhi, to Paris, to Porto Alger, workers are striking; students are on the streets, fighting capitalism. We saw the convention of 50,000 trade unionists and students in Quebec City protesting the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and 300,000 people showed up on the streets in Genoa, from all-over Europe to protest George W. Bush and the G8 leaders. A huge demonstration is planned at the heart of capitalism this fall, in Washington D.C., against the undemocratic institutions World Bank and IMF. This is the way to change society; this is the promise of democracy; this is the way forward for a future society. And maybe we can use Hinduism, not in the form of New Ageism, but as a source of inspiration for our struggles. Maybe the oppressors can be seen as Ravana with multiple heads in multiple countries, but who nevertheless must be destroyed by our collective action. We can find inspirations in the struggles of Gandhi and invoke the images of Kali to uproot capitalism. This would be a healthy dose of Hinduism.      

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