In the belly of the beast
(A shorter version of this article appeared in Republica daily on October 12 2011: http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=37041)
In the belly of the beast
Marxism and Baburam Bhattarai in New York City
PRANAYA SJB RANA
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
– Marx, Theses on Feuerbach
NEW YORK – What really is the relevance of Marxism in the 21st century? In Kathmandu, I look around at the explosion of buildings: the malls, the ‘cheap’ housing, the shiny, all-glass office towers. There are laptops and iPods, Coca-Cola, KFC and Pizza Hut. We have the World Bank, the IMF, the ADB. We are part of the global world of capital. And though many may roll their eyes when Baburam Bhattarai talks of ‘imperialistic capitalism’, it is no less an accurate term. Capitalism carries on the legacy of imperialism, only now through culture and globalisation. It is the subjugation of the world under the banner of the dollar. One for all and all for none.
So what really is the relevance of Marxism in the 21st century? Capitalism took a dangerous blow this past decade, with the American economy is shambles, drained by its warmachine, and its monolithic debt to China, not to mention the crumbling economies in Europe, led by Greece and Italy. But capitalism doesn’t die so easy. It’s a many headed hydra, each time one of its heads is cut off, another two sprout to take its place. But these are trying times. We’ve sold our souls to many devils. Each corporation and conglomerate a different devil and each World Bank, each IMF a neoliberal shaitan in disguise. In an era that puts so much stake in material, a new house, a new car, money in the bank, cash to spend, new furniture, new clothes, its hard to take Marxism seriously. Wealth is defined as individual property: how rich are you? The social structure at the heart of Nepali society is slowly being eaten away by this very notion of wealth: that things belong to me, not to us, not to a whole but to one single individual who claims independence from the group. Even though this very individual is but one node on a matrix of relations: as mother, father, brother, son, student, teacher, sister, writer, artist, academic, businessman, shopkeeper, farmer, conductor.
Baburam Bhattarai realises this. He is a smart man, a clever man, a political man. A man whom Gramsci might have been proud of. He seems to embody praxis, that confluence of the theoretical and the practical. This is at the Theresa Lang centre of The New School in New York City, where three years earlier Comrade Prachanda gave his own New York talk. Contrary to Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal though, Baburam Bhattarai is quiet, confident and restrained. When he comes up to speak, he looks smaller than everyone else. His moustachioed face is broken in a small smile, one that betrays the irony of speaking about Marxism in America, in New York City, only few blocks north of Wall Street. First he speaks as an academic, neatly excusing himself as a scholar lured from the world of academia by the call of revolution. He speaks of historical dialectical materialism and how no other system can really explain, to him, the functioning of the world. He mentions that the struggle of the world is a class struggle, one of the working class. Nepal doesn’t have a proletariat but we have peasants, says our Right Honourable Prime Minister saap. More than a decade ago, our PM, then known as Laldhoj, along with Comrade Prachanda, armed these farmers, these poor from the villages and a bloody bloody revolution was fought. And it was won.
Baburam makes reference to the Paris Commune, a model that he gravitates towards even in his academic writing. He distances himself from Stalin, even though Comrade Joe adorns the party flag. He calls Stalin’s regime “mechanistic and codified.” Baburam’s version of Marxism, under the tutelage of Maoism, is adaptive. For Baburam, Marxism is “a combination of universality and practicality.” This a reference to Marxism’s universal applicability but only through a mediation of local social forces, hence its practicality. “This is my belief,” he says emphatically.
I want to believe this man because I want to believe in Marxism. I want to believe that the hard fought revolution that cost so many Nepali lives is not going to be wasted. I want to believe it is possible to hold on to your soul, despite losing your body to capital. I want to believe that we are all capable of treating each other with the worth that we treat ourselves, not as commodities, not as sources of labour but as human beings that are an end in and of themselves and not just a means. We have toppled the monarchy, we’re rewriting the very fabric of our country, we’re negotiating footholds and handholds for every caste, creed, group, religion and affiliation. I want to believe that this is the man who will not disappoint, who won’t be just another jogi with his ears pierced. I want to trust in this man’s knowledge and dedication to Marxism as a tool for social reform, not as authority or as oppression. I want to believe that this man has learned from ten years of bloody war. “It is better to be a revolutionary than to talk about it,” he says himself. But the revolution hasn’t ended, in fact, the hardest part begins now.
Andrew Arato, professor of Political Theory at The New School, questions Baburam stridently. He is clearly sceptical and doesn’t believe any of Baburam’s claims. There are others who question Baburam, Partha Chatterjee, Mary Des Chene and Sanjay Reddy but none are as critical as Arato. Baburam brushes the questions aside, answering them as evasively as he can. He replies with vague promises and assurances of commitments to various nebulous causes. Now he is politician mode. He isn’t lying outright but he is shifting the truth, evading it. Sitting there in the audience, I watch as pieces of paper are collected from the audience and sifted through. A series of critical questions about land reform, the Tibetan community and the economy are levelled at the PM. He is unfazed and proceeds to answer just as he did to the academics. The final question, more of a statement than a question, comes from Afghanistan and Baburam smirks. He knows when a question is not a question.
I am disappointed when I leave. I talk to Nepali friends outside and some American communists. We Nepalis agree, it was a disappointing talk but the Americans seem pleased.
A few days later, I come across an article online with pictures of Baburam with his family: his beaming wife and smiling daughter. The man in those photographs is the same Baburam, sometimes a slight smile, sometimes a stare. But the photographs are strangely comforting. They connect Baburam the father, the husband to Baburam the politician, the Maoist in an oddly human manner. I wonder if this is the same man who led the Maoists during their insurgency. I wonder if he had ever held a gun to someone’s head. I wonder if he has ever killed a man. But I also wonder if he’s a devoted father, a devoted husband. I look at Baburam and his family next to a green metal armoire, a familiar Godrej to every middle-class Nepali household.
I think I want to believe in Baburam a little longer. I trust in Marxism as an antidote to this rabid disease that is capitalism. I hope that Baburam is not just content with interpreting the world. He needs to change it. This is my belief.