Interesting on India, and on left politics generally

08 Jun

I am no expert on her work, in fact I am expert on very little really, but whenever I read something by Martha Nussbaum I am usually impressed.

Martha Nussbaum was born in New York in 1947. Her father was a lawyer, her mother an interior designer. Nussbaum gained a BA from NYU and an MA and PhD from Harvard. Currently professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, she is considered one of the world’s foremost philosophers. She is an award-winning author whose many books include The Fragility Of Goodness, Sex And Social Justice and Hiding From Humanity. Earlier this year she published The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Reading mysteries when I am supposed to be reading student papers. And answering this questionnaire when I am supposed to be writing letters of recommendation.

To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?

My teacher and friend, Bernard Williams, for depreciating some of his more anti-Enlightenment writings. Not that I’ve changed my view, but I am sad we were less close in the later years of his life…

Which living person do you most despise, and why?

I don’t waste time despising people. Anger is much more constructive than contempt.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

‘Deep’, ‘fascinating’.

What is the worst job you’ve done?

Acting in a theatre company whose director was having a mental crack-up and kept changing everyone’s parts.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?

I’d like to be a student in Rabindranath Tagore’s school in Santiniketan in around 1915, dancing in the dance-dramas he wrote…

This weekend’s Arts & Letters Daily leads to Nussbaum’s Violence on the Left: Nandigram and the Communists of West Bengal.

AFTER A PERIOD of relative impotence, the Hindu-supremacist right in India has rebounded, with the December reelection of Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Narendra Modi as chief minister in Gujarat. Modi’s role in the mass murders of Muslims in that state in February 2002 has long been so well documented that he has been denied a visa to enter the United States. Recently, moreover, extensive corroboration of his role was elicited by a hidden-camera inquiry conducted by the news-magazine Tehelka. Despite overwhelming evidence that he is a mass murderer extraordinaire—or perhaps, because of it—Modi defied media predictions, and even exit polls, to win by a landslide, a victory in which fund-raising and politicking by Indians residing in the United States (40 percent of Indian Americans are Gujarati) played a large role. Because the rival Congress Party, which controls the central government in a coalition, understands well the intense hatred of Muslims that animates many Gujarati Hindus, leading politicians tiptoed around the issue of sectarian violence, hoping to defeat the BJP in Gujarat on its weak economic record. Only Sonia Gandhi, courageously and repeatedly, denounced Modi’s reign of blood. (American Gujaratis responded with an e-mail campaign denouncing Gandhi in abusive language.) Hitler is revered as a hero in school textbooks in Gujarat. In Modi, those who worship at that shrine seem to have found the type of leader they seek. Let’s hope that the nation as a whole does not embrace his charismatic call to hate.

Meanwhile, however, violence has been in the news from a very different part of the Indian political spectrum. People connected to the Communist government of West Bengal have been guilty of some extremely vile actions, including rape and murder, toward dissident peasants, in a struggle over land acquisition, and the government has done nothing to prevent these terrible things. This struggle has split the Indian left, between those who think that people on the left must maintain solidarity in the face of right-wing threats and those who insist on calling murder murder no matter who does it. It’s a conflict from which we can learn a lot, not only about Indian politics but also about what stance a contemporary left movement can reasonably and morally take on rural development issues…

And that last thesis sentence is what makes the article especially interesting, quite apart from what we may learn about the politics of the world’s largest democracy, about which most of us in Australia know surprisingly little.

…It is this issue that has split India’s left. The artists and intellectuals I’ve named are in a few cases motivated by a woolly romanticism about agriculture and an ideological opposition to all industrial development. For this they should be criticized. Some of them may also have had unrealistic expectations for this government, whose Stalinists roots they have perhaps insufficiently appreciated. For this lack of caution they should also be criticized. They also, however, have had the courage of consistent moral principle, standing up against brutality even when the perpetrators are friends. For this they are to be greatly admired. Not so admirable, by contrast, have been the statements of some leftists to the effect that one should not criticize one’s friends, that solidarity is more important than ethical correctness. One may or may not trace this line to an old Marxist contempt for bourgeois ethics, but it is loathsome whatever its provenance.

A particularly fatuous document of this kind was a letter authored by Noam Chomsky, signed by a number of Indian American intellectuals who should know better, and published in the Hindu, a leading national India newspaper, on November 22, 2007. Besides lauding the CPI(M) for “important experiments” for which it deserves no particular credit (such as “local self-government”), the letter reasons that people on the left ought to focus on opposition to the actions of the United States in Iraq, rather than fighting with one another. “This is not the time for division when the basis of division no longer appears to exist,” concludes Chomsky, having asserted, entirely without cause on that date, that things are basically back to normal and that the two sides have reconciled. This is the type of left politics that holds that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, no matter how many rapes and murders that friend has actually perpetrated.

HERE WE ARRIVE at an issue that lies at the heart of all the leftist political movements of the twentieth century: is solidarity itself a major political value or is the basic value that of justice to each and every person, treating each and every one as an end? The latter vision is that of left-liberalism, which has always held that the purpose of a politics of human welfare is to improve the lives of individual human beings, and that each human being counts as equally worthy of respect. By contrast, “solidarity,” both on the communitarian right and on the antiliberal left, has suggested to many that the lives of individuals may and often must be sacrificed in the pursuit of class or group goals, and that worries about the justice of such sacrifices are irritatingly bourgeois. That’s really what the split in India is about, and it corresponds to a split between the Nehruvian/Gandhian founding of the nation and its long-standing communist tradition…

I am firmly on the side of the irritatingly bourgeois, absolutely. Hence in part my frustration with the weak African response to the Buffoon of Zimbabwe, my cynicism about romanticising Hugo Chavez, despite my deep lack of sympathy for many of his critics, and my reluctance to praise suicide bombers… Among other bourgeois problems I happily admit to.

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One response to “Interesting on India, and on left politics generally

  1. Manjari

    June 8, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    A visit to West Bengal reveals about all that the left speaks and does. What it speaks in New Delhi is so totally different than the way it wins elections in W. Bengal by controlling booths.

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