Readers Write In #523: How fiction and non-fiction complemented each other in building my politics

Posted on November 14, 2022

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By G Waugh aka Jeeva P

Those who introduced me to reading were all people who had no prior experience in non-fiction. As a result, my early reading habit centred around nothing other than fiction. Jeffrey Archer, Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens were my first three authors. By this time (in 2011) when I was 23, I had decided that reading was going to be my lifetime passion, a habit none of my peers or relatives had shared. This gave me a feeling of proud exclusivity in my circle but I was yet to chart a course for myself along the reading path. My friend who introduced me to reading too was not quite proficient then with respect to what to read next.

As I had mentioned in one of my previous essays, just like how I had picked films belonging to the genre of ‘Noir’ as my ‘early specialization’ or my first step into the world of films in order to develop a passion for the medium, I decided to pick genres relating to Marxism or ‘class struggle’ to show me the way into the world of reading. My next novel was John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, an American best-seller that was written by a communist that centred on the struggles of the poor and the dispossessed during the Great Depression of 1929-33.

This book was the place where I was introduced to something called a ‘commune’ where people live as a community without any hierarchical divisions among them. Everyone must clean the toilets taking turns, everyone must participate in cooking regardless of gender or other pre-defined roles and the most important aspect of ‘communes’ such as these was the absence of a higher law-enforcing authority like the police. People must be mature enough to police themselves and in a place where there are no economic or social divisions, crime is assumed to have absolutely no place. Grapes of Wrath in one of its defining chapters describes lives of the protagonists in one such commune and those chapters are the only areas in an otherwise largely bleak novel which offer the reader hope and consolation regarding the future.

It was only my father who then immediately told me that Steinbeck had not written something that was wholly fictional and the entire episode on the communes could have been inspired by the Paris Commune experiment of 1871. Karl Marx was heavily inspired by the experiment and based his ground-breaking theory of Communism(from the word ‘communes’) on that phenomenal event in history.

If you think you have seen or heard about the idea of communes somewhere recently, you can jog your memory and if you had seen Pa Ranjith’s Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, you might be able to easily locate the place from where all those waves of déjà vu in your head are emanating from. Rene’s drama troupe that shares a community to live is completely based on the Marxist idea of communes and Ranjith introduces the viewer to the absence of hierarchies in such a society in the very first scene itself where Arjun is asked to sweep the floors of the theatre.

Jayakanthan in his beautifully involving memoir, OruIlakkiyavadhiyin Arasiyal Anubavangal also writes about his life in communes as long as he was part of the Communist Party of India in the early 1950s. I am not sure whether the practice of community-living is still in vogue in the Party circles but a majority of post-Independence full-time Communist cadre were asked to live in such conditions by the Party.

The reason why I dwell on this concept of Communes was not only because of my fascination with such a hierarchy or a division-free society but also because it was only a work of fiction that had first taught me the meaning of an ideology whom I had assumed I had already enough acquaintance with until then. The novel Grapes of Wrath also helped me witness and realise vicariouslythe immense human suffering that had happened in reality in the United Statessome ninety years ago just like how it was the Schindler’s list and Roman Polanksi’s Pianist when I was 24,that gave me a peek into the real intensity of suffering endured by Jews and Communists under the Hitler Regime.

My passionate involvement soon with the suffering of the Jewish races, trade unionists and socialists through these films ushered me into the world of Nazi Germany through a non-fiction book titled The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich written by William J Shirer. Whatever I had witnessed with passion, feeling and emotion through the simulated worlds imagined by Spielberg and Polanski came in a dispassionate, journalistic format with deep insights into how easy it is for a toxic ideology to get into the heads of the masses and leave them poisoned for at least for a generation. Just like many other works of non-fiction that I would later get introduced to, William Shirer’s work was a simple and well-researched matter-of-fact commentary on the rise of Nazism and how the rest of the world dealt painfully with its menace.

My interest in Nazism/Fascism took me to films such as Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram which painted a vivid picture of how an Indian variant of fascism could wreak havoc on unsuspecting masses and poison even a non-political individual into hate-filled extremism and violence.It was a cinematic work of fiction titled American History X starring Edward Norton that introduced me into the period when some individuals in the United States were attracted to fascism and Hitler-inspired white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. It was the first film that taught me that America too had introduced a kind of affirmative action into its recruitment processes for state services and this knowledge came in good stead for me when I used to argue with my‘anti-reservationist’ friends in office who used to heap lies about how America grew into becoming one of the greatest powers of the world only on the basis of meritocracy.

Despite having so many insights into the phenomena of fascism through books and films mentioned above, it was only British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s best-seller Age of Extremes that gave me the real definition of ‘Fascism’. Hobsbawm’s definitions of fascism were not for a change wholly abstract or obscure (as it usually is) and his chapter on fascism placed the phenomena on a definitive historical context. He explains that at any moment in history there are always two forces that are in conflict with one another and any historic event that takes place at that moment is based on which of the forces takes the upper hand then. For example, Galileo’s postulates on the heliocentric model of the universe went against the grain of Church-inspired thinking and hence the hegemonic forces inspired by the religion then went after the prescient scientist-intellectual. It took a few more generations for the religious Geo-centric model to lose its relevance and it was only at that point of time in history that Galileo’s postulates that the Earth was moving around the Sun started gaining popular currency. In this story, the forces that compelled the society to stick to its foundations or ‘religious fundamentals’ are ‘conservative’ or ‘fundamentalist’ forces and those like Galileo who tried to untether the society from its outdated ideas are called the ‘progressive’ forces.

So Hobsbawm expounds that there are always progressive and regressive forces in a society that keep the society in a state of constant flux and the agents of fascism are all those that belong to the latter.In the film NatchathiramNagargiradhu too, this constant fight between progress and ‘reaction’ forms the core of the story with Rene and Arjun belonging to the opposite camps.One needs to remember that Hobsbawm’s definition was not in fact wholly his but that of Karl Marx who developed the term dialectics (two forces) from his ideological forefather Hegel in the middle of 1800s to explain and theorize sociological phenomena.

Even if my introduction to Marx came to me at a very early age through oral lectures from my father, I was a theoretical illiterate till the age of 24. I had successfully trudged across the pages of his Das Kapital Volume One by then and my understanding of capitalism grew not only from the massive volume but also through real-time experiences in my office life. My derision towards corporate capitalism took another dimension after I had finished John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hitman which was a searing account of how financial institutions such as the IMF pick and train ‘economic hitmen’ to persuade, coerce and coax political leaders belonging to the Third World countries to accept financial assistance from these banks through false and misleading economic projections. These hitmen, Perkins being one of them force the leaders of these smaller countries to sell the national assets to American corporations for throwaway prices, to award contracts for construction of dams, metro railways and bridges to American companies all of which being the necessary pre-conditions for these governmentsto obtain immediate financial support.

Perkins mentions a host of countries in Latin American, African and Asian continents where he had worked towards economically subjugating sovereign countries which soon ended up becoming even more financially and politically unstable, ultimately surrendering their economic independence to these financial institutions. I had read about a similar crisis long back that wrecked the country of Argentina in 2001 that was engineered by institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank.

Without really knowing which country the film belonged to, I had finished when I was 25 a film called The Secret in Their Eyes. I later found that the film was an Argentinian one and the actor who had captivated me with such a restrained performance was named Ricardo Darin. I decided to watch some more films of his, one of which was called the Wild Tales which released in 2014 and went on to win critical acclaim. It was an anthology and one of the stories which Darin starred in was a solid critique of how screwed the system of privatization was in a city of Argentina.

Darin is shown to be an expert in the field of controlled explosion who keeps paying fines to a private corporation for parking his car in a ‘no-parking’ zone for no fault of his.Apparently, it is implied that as long as the State was involved in penalizing parking offenders there were no such incidents of ‘extortion’ and Darin is extremely resentful of how the corporation keeps penalizing even innocent people. His rage soon grows into a point where he packs his car with explosives and parks it intentionally in a no-parking zone. The car is towed away by the authorities to the company’s office where he detonates the explosives leading to a blast with no casualties. I loved this episode in the film very much which illustrated with so much punchy vividness what I had read about free-market Argentina in non-fiction books and newspaper articles.

I am reminded about NatchathiramNagargiradhu once again about a conversation Rene has with Iniyan. Rene says that she disapproves of the theory that the disappearance of class divisions will one day lead to the disappearance of casteism as well.Here was the only point where I differed ideologically from the film/Rene’s argument. According to Marxism, India’s caste divisions are a way of reinforcing the traditional class hierarchy and the collapse of the latter will inevitably lead to the obliteration of the former. Marxism despite arguing against capitalism on almost all counts does not shy away from appreciating its positive aspects as well.

The Marxist theory of history(Origin of Family, Private Property and the State written by Friedrich Engels) says that human civilization ever since it entered the era of agriculture had unwittingly accepted a kind of social and economic hierarchy. The era of agriculture was the time when landlords started employing slaves to work in their farms which soon gave way to the era of feudalism where the farmer was allowed to retain a share of what he had produced after paying his landlord, a practice which was not there in the era of slavery. Slaves had no right to claim what they had produced and hence the coming of the era of feudalism was a progressive step in the story of human civilization.

Feudalism gave rise to multiple guilds or manufacturing communities that specialised in the production of specific goods. Families for the most part converted themselves into guilds each of which was engaged in a specific craft such as weaving, pottery, carpentry, etc. This phenomena of formation of guilds started giving the families something what is today called a traditional occupation which soon congealed into the concept of caste, a practice which became permanent and rigid over time. People began to be identified based on their births and hence occupations began to be assigned based on the same.

But the advent of British traders into India in the form of imperialism gave rise to a new form of society which India had hitherto not seen before- capitalism. One key difference between feudalism and capitalism is, in the former, guilds and manufacturing communities are all small self-contained units which don’t employ people in hundreds or thousands. The size of a guild is usually very small as a result of which there is absolutely no scope for commingling of people of different communities, births and other artificial identities in one common workplace. But the advent of industrial capitalism changed all that. Industrial machinery under the control of big capitalistswas able to produce goods more cheaply than they were being produced under guilds as a result of which people started consuming industrial goods more and more(You can see this happening in Ram’s ThangaMeengal where the hero loses his job in a small factory). People working under guilds soon started losing their jobs and the process of their pauperization turned them into industrial workers for mere subsistence wages. People belonging to different communities and traditional occupations began to merge in the large proletarian sea.

Post 1991, when India moved into full-blown industrial, neoliberal capitalism you could find every traditional occupation becoming gradually mechanised. For the first time in India, persons as different as a traditional potter or a weaver or a barber or a farmerstarted learning newer crafts that hitherto was forbidden to him. The presence of an international commodity market on a large scale for the first time in the world started changing the dynamics of commodity production as a result of which people from various traditional backgrounds started moving into professions or trades that served as the easiest way to progress socially and economically. Many of my colleagues in my workplace are all first time graduates whose parents and grandparents were all engaged in diverse professions imposed upon them by birth. For the first time in human history, capitalism began to employ thousands and thousands of people from different races, castes and religion under one roof- a phenomena previous forms of society such as feudalism did not offer scope for.

So, to put it succinctly, Marx says that the more you allow capitalism to invade your society and your market, there will be the inevitable dissolution of various ethnic and racial identities into one all-encompassing class- the working class. This is why you see lesser and lesser caste discrimination in the cities of India where people from different castes are engaged in professions traditionally unrelated to them while villages where some amount of feudalism is still prevalent, casteism is found to remain ineradicable.

So, all I wanted to tell Rene was only this – the arrival of capitalism marked the melting of various castes and ethnicities of the working people into one large pot called the proletariat or the working class. On the other hand, capitalism also has led to the creation of another class- the employer or the ‘proprietariat’. Just like how capitalism which succeededfeudalism as the new and a progressive form of societyunited people of various shades under one overarching category, Marx argues that the next form of society called socialism shall witness the culmination of the class war waged between the proprietariat and the proletariat (initiated under capitalism), leading to the victory of the latter and the emergence of anew working class state, a state where there is no artificial boundaries separating individuals. Hence according to Marxist theory, the annihilation of class divisions shall inevitably lead to the annihilation of caste as well.

If the reader still thinks that caste divisions and prejudices still exist in a corporate-capitalist-urban society such as ours, I am sure that we probably are the earliest generations who have been exposed to capitalism and with the progress of time, we will soon see the happy disappearance of caste. In a corporate workplace such as mine, I see no reason why I should discriminate against my colleague who might belong to a different caste such as mine. The same applies to even corporate hairstyle networks such as Naturals and Greentrends where I am reasonably sure that barbers and hairstylists employed there haven’t been hired based on their births.