Arundhati Roy, Anuradha Ghandy, and ‘Romantic Marxism’
by Bernard D’Mello
This is the full-text of the introductory remarks made by the author at the Fourth Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Lecture delivered by Arundhati Roy on 20th January 2012 at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. The article originally appeared in mrzine.
I woke up this morning to the chirping sounds of the swallows. Arundhati Roy seems to have brought in those love-birds that come in to Mumbai at this time of the year from the cold environs of the North. The lively spirit of Anuradha Ghandy (Anu, as she was fondly known) is all around us — that picture of hers reminds me of one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs, “Forever Young”. We have here with us Anu’s mother — comrade Kumud Shanbag. Parents abiding by Hinduism usually give their daughters away at the time of marriage in a ritual called kanyadaan. Comrades Kumud and Ganesh Shanbag, rational and progressive, broke with this humiliating tradition; they raised their daughter Anu (Janaki) to decide what she wanted to do with her life and she joined the Revolution (Kranti). One might call what she did kranti-daan, though, I think, daan (donate) is not the right word for it. The Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sanghatan (KAMS) is justifiably proud of Anu (Janaki). Not long ago, when Arundhati Roy was walking with these comrades, they proudly showed her a photograph of Anu that they were carrying — she’s dressed in fatigues, an olive green cap with a star on it, rifle slung over her shoulders, and smiling, as always.
Anu came a long way, from the Hamil Sabha (the general student body) of Elphinstone College in the first half of 1970s to the Byramgadh area in old Bastar in the latter half of 1990s. For her, dalit, adivasi and women’s liberation1 were part of the fight for “new democracy” — indeed, for her they were a prerequisite for any kind of democracy. Just as Anu was shaping this policy of the Party — the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (People’s War) — in the 1990s, Arundhati Roy created a character called Velutha in The God of Small Things (1997). Velutha came from a dalit, attached-labour household. But despite his origins — Velutha came from the wretched of the wretched of the Indian earth — he became an accomplished carpenter and mechanic, indispensible to semi-feudal capital’s profit register in the small town of Ayemenem. Rahel and Estha, Ammu’s children, established a close bond of friendship with him. Ammu was attracted to him, fell in love with him — he was a passionate lover, he loved her like no one else could ever have loved her.
Velutha is my hero — for me, he is the classic Indian proletarian. Despite the exploitation and the oppression, Velutha did what he did with devotion — he kept the creativity and imagination in him alive. For him, like it is for his creator, ingenuity and work became one. This characterisation tells us something about Arundhati Roy, Velutha’s maker. In the conception of Velutha, I saw, very early on, signs of a romanticism closely linked to revolution in Arundhati Roy as a writer. That subversive intent was there from the very beginning. From The God of Small Things to Broken Republic, Arundhati Roy is through-and-through a romantic, anti-capitalist writer. There is a basic structure of feelings in her writings that touches my heart.
I don’t know if she will agree with me, but I’d like to believe that Arundhati Roy has embraced ‘Romantic Marxism’. I know the ideological censors would be frowning at me; for them, there can never be anything like ‘Romantic Marxism’; “comrade Bernard, you cannot mix romanticism with Marxism”. I differ and in this I am with E P Thompson. And, with Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1959)2 and his passionate denunciation of capitalism in Capital, Volume-I — with a language and imagery that makes the reader realize the need for Kranti. Marx did, after all, also hitched romanticism with his exposition of the structure, the social relations and logic of the inner workings of the capitalist system. At its core, ‘Romantic Marxism’ brings together Marx’s thesis of alienation with his theory of value and welds these with the basic structure of feelings that such a consciousness evokes.
Let me now say a few words about the topic of today’s lecture — “Capitalism: A Ghost Story”. Capital is not a work of Marx’s imagination; so also, and I’m sure, Arundhati has a real story to tell, and it’s going to be a passionate denunciation of really existing capitalism. If we were to look at capitalism from a romantic Marxist perspective, we would see, above all, the total domination of exchange value, the “cold calculation of price and profit . . . over the whole social fabric . . . the death of imagination and romance, . . . the purely ‘utilitarian’ . . . relation of human beings to one another, and to nature”.3 What should be reciprocity in human relations — love for love, intimacy for intimacy, trust for trust, as it was with Ammu and Velutha — has been replaced, in capitalism, by the exchange of money for commodities: accumulation and possession is all that matters today. Indeed, beauty, now defined by capital, has also been commoditised; nothing remains unsullied by capitalism, its logic, and its basic structure of feelings. Human beings have been turned into wretched beings — physically, psychologically and spiritually dehumanised.
We, the Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Committee members, are old-fashioned Marxists. We continue to insist that wealth comes from the exploitation of human labour and nature. To quote Marx and, keeping in mind the importance he assigns to ecology, include capital’s “sucking” of nature too:4
Capital is dead labour [and out-of-play nature] that vampire-like only lives by sucking living labour [and extant nature], and lives the more, the more labour [and nature] it sucks.
Value then is nothing but congealed labour and defunct nature incarnate in commodities. And, in the contemporary world capitalist system, we witness the real subsumption of labour, nature, and even democratically-elected governments to finance. Yes, the bond markets — the funds and financial institutions that buy government bonds, not the people who elected the governments — are able to very significantly influence public policy, for it is they who specify the conditions under which they will buy those governments’ bonds. Indeed, the main focus of corporations today is financial, and here, with quarterly reporting on a mark-to-market basis, short-term net worth is all that seems to matter. Add to this stock options-based remuneration of those who manage the huge financial portfolios, monetary policy designed for the benefit of high finance, and rising labour productivity alongside stagnant real wages, and the result is “traumatized workers”, “indebted consumers”, and “manic-depressive savers”5 high on Prozac and Viagra which keep Pfizer’s cash register ringing. “Humanity” has become “an appendage of the asset markets”, my friend Jan Toporowski writes.6 We are reminded of what Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff (then editors of Monthly Review) wrote in the aftermath of the 1987 stock market crash in the US and it seems appropriate to paraphrase their words to apply to the present: “The mess” the world-system is in flows “from capitalism’s ruthless pursuit of unlimited wealth by any and all available means, whether or not these have anything to do with satisfying the needs of real human beings.”7 Indeed, capitalism — which has metamorphosed into a life-threatening disease — has become a threat to humanity and other forms of life. The only remedy “is a truly revolutionary reconstruction of the whole socio-economic system”.8
But, the failures of the revolutions of the 20th century stare us in the face. I have taken more time than I had intended to, and lest I become a barrier between the star-speaker and you, I need to quickly wind up. Let me then not mince words — revolution is about expropriating the expropriators, and “force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one”.9 But, and more importantly, revolution is also about “human emancipation”. It has to create a socialist sensitivity, a socialist consciousness; so forms of violence — cruelty and brutality — which negate the very end of revolution must never be a part of the means. Now, while the “seizure of power” and the strategy to achieve this seem to be the central preoccupation of revolutionaries, we need to remember these words of Marx from The German Ideology (1932; written in 1846):10
Both for the production on a mass scale of . . . communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of [human beings] on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.
Rightly, Marx was more concerned about the “human emancipation” that must come about in the process of making the revolution, the kind of emancipation that makes of us a new kind of “human” being, a practice necessary to found a society that is egalitarian, cooperative, and democratic.
With this “brief” (ha, ha!) introduction, may I invite Arundhati Roy to take the baton.
1 Scripting the Change: Selected Writings of Anuradha Ghandy, edited by Anand Teltumbde and Shoma Sen, Daanish Books, Delhi, 2011.
3 See Michael Lowy’s “The Romantic and the Marxist Critique of Modern Civilisation”, Theory and Society, Vol. 16, No. 6 (November 1987), p 892.
4 Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1954; a reproduction of the first English edition of 1887, edited by Frederick Engels), chapter 10, “The Working Day”, p 233.
5 Riccardo Bellofiore and Joseph Halevi, “Magdoff-Sweezy and Minsky on the Real Subsumption of Labour to Finance”, 2010, at cemf.u-bourgogne.fr/z-outils/documents/communications%202009/AHE.pdf.
6 Jan Toporowski, “The Wisdom of Property and the Politics of the Middle Classes”, Monthly Review, Vol. 62, Issue 4, September 2010.
Bernard D’Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, and a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.
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