Questions of Freedom and People’s Emancipation By Kobad Ghandy
[The political prisoner, Kobad Ghandy, wrote this work while imprisoned in Tihar Jail. Its six parts originally appeared separately in the magazine Mainstream in 2012 & 2013.]
PART I — THE CONTEXT
Communism is the return of man himself as a social, i.e. really human being, a complete and conscious return which assimilates all the wealth of previous development. Communism, as a fully developed naturalism, is humanism, and, as a fully developed humanism, is naturalism. It is the DEFINITIVE resolution of the antagonism between man and nature, and between man and man. It is the true solution of the conflict between existence and essence, between objectification and self-affirmation, between freedom and necessity, between individual and species. It is the solution of the riddle of history and knows itself to be this solution. —Karl Marx
Utopian? Maybe. Yet, it sounds like the ultimate in freedom, something toward which one could move towards, step by step. The rose of freedom in the above-mentioned garden, called by any other name, would, no doubt, smell as sweet. It may seem ironical to dream of freedom locked up in a jail within jail (the high-risk ward), with lathi-wielding cops breathing down one’s neck 24 hours a day, denied access to even the normal jail facilities. But dream one must to maintain one’s sanity under such conditions.
Yet FREEDOM… that much abused word. Freedom—around which hundreds of myths have been woven into beautiful-looking intricate webs waiting to entrap us. US, as the ultimate in freedom: free speech; free trade; free association; free thought; et al. And, if perchance we are unable to find freedom here, there is always the escape to religious illusion—moksha, to be acquired in splendid isolation. In all this are we not losing the essence of freedom?
Coming back to this jailed existence, we find some bright spots within the darkness—like the compound attached to our ward covered by a canopy of trees. I sit in silence watching the squirrels prancing around in gay abandon, and listen to the chirping of birds in the tree. Looking at them, they seem so free. But, are they really? I begin to think what really is the meaning of freedom?
My thoughts drift to the time I developed an interest in communism. It was a time in the late 1960s and early seventies when lakhs, nay millions, of youth came to a similar conclusion in their search for freedom and justice. After all, at that time one-third of the world was socialist, and, in addition, Left national liberation movements raged throughout the backward countries. One can safely say that about half the world was under the sway of communism. But today, just forty years later, when the world is going through one of its worst crisis, when the gap between the rich and the poor has never been so wide, the communist existence is insignificant. Though all the conditions exist for it, yet it is unable to captivate the minds of the youth, workers and students. The socialist countries have collapsed, the national liberation movements have been replaced, in many places, by Islamic resistance, and of the millions who have come onto the streets in the West, one can see only a sprinkling of Communists. There continue to be a few communist resistance movements, but even of these, many have collapsed, while a few continue with enormous difficulties, fighting with their backs to the wall. Sitting here in the quietude of the compound, I begin to contemplate the serious implications of what has happened. Why such a devastating reversal? What happened to our hopes and dreams of a better future? Was it to witness a mafia-type rule in the first ever socialist country, or the billionaire princelings of China, not to mention the tin-pot dictators of earlier East Europe!! Forget the autocratic rulers, why did the masses so easily choose a free market over freedom from want? If there are no clear-cut answers and also solutions, the Communists of today may continue to live ostrich-like in their make-believe worlds; but the people will go their own way. The reasons given by many an academic for the failures—lack of democracy and development of productive forces—are in no way convincing; so these have little impact on the people. If the sensitive amongst the people are unable to find answers in real life, they will once again seek solace in religion and spiritualism. As Marx put it, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of an unspiritual world. It is the opium of the people.” Yes, people are seeking spiritual solace from a crass-materialist consumerist opium, far more potent than earlier religions. Do we not see such a turn not only amongst the deeply alienated middle classes, but even amongst the organised working class? Communism seems no longer an attraction for the youth, as it was for us in the 1960s and 1970s.
Tracing my way back to the cell, through two locked iron gates, I feel that I am returning from the garden of paradise to the real cruel world. My musty cell brings me back to reality—recollections of my past experiences.
Images float before my eyes, some clear, some hazy. Quite naturally the first image to come is of the person with whom I had the longest and deepest relationship—my late wife Anuradha. So lively and chirpy, like the little squirrels, she was straightforward, simple, with few complexes, and her reactions were so spontaneous and child-like (not calculated and cunning). My impression was that probably her inner feelings were very much in tune with her outward reactions; as a result she was closest to what we may call a free person.
The image passes. Then others appear—of associations experienced over forty years of social activities. I could club them into three categories:
First is the Anuradha-type. Many of these (not all) would be from tribal, women and Dalit background, but would include others as well.
The second category would be those from the other extreme. Notwithstanding their dedication, they have been unable to get out of the prevalent value system, deeply embedded in their sub-conscious, and have to resort to pretences, intrigues, subterfuges, etc. to gain acceptability. Often they may even be unconscious of this dichotomy wherein their inner feelings are in deep contradiction with their outward behaviour. They therefore get entangled in a web of comp-lexes, like caged animals in a zoo. Particularly, in India, the entrenched caste hierarchy adds to the existing feelings of class superiority, creating fertile grounds for these complexities. This may not reflect in crude casteism, but gets manifested in the form of intellectual superiority, arrogance/ego, domi-nation/authoritarianism, etc.—one could call it, in its extreme form, the Chanakya syndrome.
And between these two extremes of white and black would lie the third category—the varied shades of grey: some veering towards the white, others towards the black. I would consider the majority would lie here.
My mind then switches back to myself and the present caged existence. I look out at the guards walking up-and-down through two sets of gates. It reminds me how animals in a zoo look at us humans from their cages—only they have one set of gates, and sufficient space to pace up and down. In this caged existence it is difficult to evaluate myself in relation to freedom, in the sense outlined above. But before arrest, where would I have stood? An honest self-assessment is often the most difficult, while one easily jumps to conclusions about others. Yet, a truthful self-assessment is most important, as that and that alone would be the starting point for any positive change—given that we would all be infected, to varying degrees, with the dominant values prevalent in the system. Well, I think I would place myself in the third category. One may say that this is a convenient broad categorisation. Very true! But, the important aspect here is to remember that no one is static (this applies to all categories), we are in continuous flux; the key factor here is the direction of our movement—whether it is towards white or heading towards the morass of black. This I leave to others to assess.
NOW, before coming to the CONTEXT in which FREEDOM should be viewed, a point of clarification needs to be made. The above presentation may appear as a crude pragmatic interpretation of freedom, lacking a scientific content. But, all I have sought to present is the reality. Science seeks to understand the laws behind the reality, which I will try and do in my future articles.
What I have presented is no moral categorisation that seeks to praise or condemn people. It is just to bring out that in this society, not only social activists, but all are impacted by the prevalent value system in varying degrees. A lot depends on childhood influences and the environment in which we are brought up. The point here, however, is to what extent have we been able to use our conscious effort to counter the negative within ourselves and the environ-ment. For, if we are unable to do this, no sustained social change is possible, as we see with what has happened to the leaderships in the erstwhile socialist countries.
Yet, another point of clarification, before coming to the CONTEXT, is on Marx’s definition that “freedom is the consciousness of necessity”. In other words, knowledge of the laws that govern us and society, give us the freedom (ability) to act effectively, compared to those who do not understand the laws. To that extent this is true; yet there are two limitations if we just confine ourselves to this framework of freedom (which Marx himself did not do; but Marxists do). Firstly, laws of nature and society are continuously being developed, and what seemed correct yesterday, turns out to be incorrect today. Take, for example, the recent discovery of God’s Particle; it is said it may overturn much of how we understood physics. Even as regards society, Marx and Lenin would be turning in their graves seeing the resilience of the capitalist system, notwithstanding its present deep crisis. So, as new laws continue to be discovered, this “consciousness of necessity” has some limitation in interpreting the concept of freedom. Besides, every individual would have a limited ability to grasp such extensive laws for nature and society.
The second point is precisely this—Marx never did try and apply this formulation to individuals. In fact, while dealing with the freedom of the individual his main focus has been on the concept of alienation, on which he has written extensively. [See Capital, Vol. I; German Ideology, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts etc.] On this I will deal later; here the more pertinent point is that though we may have an excellent grip on the laws that govern society, we may also be immersed neck-deep in all sorts of fears, jealousies, insecurities, pettiness, etc. With all this baggage can we still be said to be free? Far from it. We would be in a state of extreme unfreeness, entangled in a web of complexes and distorted behavioural traits. The point is that at the time of Marx (or for that matter even Lenin) psychology had not yet emerged as a sphere of science. But, after the discoveries of Freud and future psychologists, we can under-stand that our inner feelings, emotions, fears, complexes, etc. would also have some bearing on freedom.
While dealing with the concept of freedom today, it would be necessary to take not only what Marx said, his and others’ concepts of alienation, but also the findings in the sphere of psychology and the working of the mind. Only then would we be able to deal with the question of man’s freedom more thoroughly.
WITH this brief introduction, I will now present the CONTEXT within which I intend to look at the issue.
First Context: There is nothing like absolute freedom, it will always be relative. Maximi-sation of freedom should be a goal to which we continuously strive. There has to be regular and unending efforts to deepen its content. This approach is important as we often look at it in black and white terms, like some mathematical formula.
Second Context: Real freedom must necessarily be linked to the innate goodness in man (I use this word to denote ‘mankind’, that is, both men and women). The factor of goodness is essential as one’s individual freedom should not act to deprive/curtail others/another of their freedom. If it is associated with evil, it will restrict others’ freedom. For example, a greedy person may himself be happy, but his greed would be snatching the livelihood of so many others, causing much pain all around. On the other hand, if linked to good, one’s awakening to freedom would be contagious—impacting one’s entire circle. Similar, say, to a torch that gives a beam of light in the darkness; and more the torches the greater the brightness. But, if my torch acts to extinguish the light of others, only darkness will prevail. Third Context: After the basic necessities of life are met, freedom from deprivation should necessarily result in greater happiness for the majority. If it does not, and people only act as a sense of duty, it will not last. Freedom and happiness must be intrinsically linked. A sense of guilt, often fostered by organised religions and even by Communists, deprives man of his freedom and also happiness, and keeps him/her in a continuous state of insecurity. If one does not meet up to the standards of goodness (more on this later), one needs to be open about it with society providing acceptability/toleration in order to help rectify the shortcomings—it should not create a sense of guilt. The goal of a better social system must, in the final analysis, result in greater happiness for the majority. And this happiness must sprout from the bedrock of the goodness within us. No doubt such new values of good may take time to evolve, given the rot all around; yet it cannot be imposed or forced down one’s throat. If this is done, it will not sustain. Could this be part of the reason for the reversal in China?
Fourth Context: There can be no social/political/economic freedom if the individual is bound in chains. There must be a dialectical inter-relationship between the two. Greater freedom to the individual must reflect in increasing freedom in the social/political/economic sphere. And greater freedom in the latter must create a conducive atmosphere for the flowering of the individuality of the majority. How the existing system crushes a person’s individuality has been brought out beautifully by Goethe, Marx, Chekhov and the many existentialist writers. Fifth Context: The development of a person’s individuality (not individualism) is closely linked with freedom from the alienated lives we lead. Marx has elaborated this at length, as to how the production process in capitalism alienates man not only from his product, not only from the production process, but also from other men, and finally even from himself. In Marx’s alternative, he dreamt of a new society where man ceases to be “a crippled monstrosity and becomes a full developed human being”. (Capital, Vol. I, p. 396) Alienation from oneself gets reflected in the contradiction between our sub-conscious thoughts, feelings, emotions, desires etc. and our conscious behaviour. But, more on this later; suffice it to say that in today’s ultra-consumerist world this contradiction has reached peak levels.
Sixth Context: Freedom is the very opposite of determinism. Many a religion propound determinist views wherein a superior being decides one’s fate—everything is pre-ordained and there is no question of free will. We see such sentiments widespread amongst inmates in Tihar, where coming in and going out is, they feel, already decided by ‘Uppar Walle’ (The One above). With the development of science, a new type of determinism came into being where all phenomena were given some mathematical formula-type inevitability. Also, there were some scientific theories which were deterministic like the one that says genes determine all our characteristics. And then, we also find Marxists falling into the trap of economic determinism. This was reflected in the theory of productive forces, which says economic development and socialisation of production automatically will result in a change in social relations. It was crudely seen in India, where Communists (of all hues) negated caste differentiation as only class division and saw the automatic withering away of caste oppression with industrialisation and/or revolution. In all this the free will of man to impact phenomena/change is negated.
All these six points have to be woven into a beautiful embroidery of freedom and happiness. This I will attempt in future articles.
IF we look at our country today, let alone freedom, more and more are so traumatised that suicides have reached epidemic levels—16 per hour in 2011, that is, one lakh thirtysix thousand in the year. And these are not the poverty-stricken, but mostly from the lower middle classes, who, neck-deep in insecurities of varied kinds, reach acute levels of alienation, depression and suicidal tendencies. And, probably, for every one suicide there would be hundred on the brink. No one cares for them and they see a bleak future before them. Unlike a hope that the youth of our generation (1960/1970s) had, they see no answers in their conflicting lives—conflict between their internal wants and desires (created mostly by the mainline media/films etc.) and what is socially and economically possible. Finally, sick of the crass materialism, many turn inwards towards spirituality. But, cleansing oneself is no easy task, unless the muck in which we live is, at least to some context, cleaned up.
And amidst all this trauma, there is one factor central to impinging on freedom; and that is MONEY. Without it, in today’s world, there is no self-respect, there is no recognition, there is no possibility to meet any of our wants and desires; why even spirituality is available at a price. You are what your money makes you. Yet, it is money that has the power that destroys all freedom, all of natural life, all good, fosters all greed, destroys all morals, and wields power over all mankind—the God of MONEY. The Church/Religions wield it to control others, political parties use it to control their cadres, organisations of all types use it to control their flock—it is the one power that subverts the maximum of freedoms. Marx said that MONEY is “the power to confuse and invert all human and natural qualities, to bring about fraternisation of incom-patibles, the divine power of money resides in its character as the alienated and self-alienating species-life of man. It is the alienated POWER OF HUMANITY.” [Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts]
Why, even five centuries back, Shakespeare presented the same point poetically in ‘Timon of Athens’:
“Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
No, Gods, I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens!
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant…
Do thy right nature.”
I am not in any way advocating doing away with money, but just bringing out its role in the subversion of freedom. To restrict this a first step could be that those wielding power do not have control over the purse-strings. This could apply to governments, political parties (including Communist Parties) and for that matter ANY organisation. Decision-makers could focus more on good policy rather than bother about mundane things like controlling and distributing funds—which could be more de-centralised.
Sounds utopian? On the contrary, very pragmatic, as otherwise money tends to call the shots. Power itself tends to corrupt; but, combined with money it becomes an explosive cocktail. Though all may not be able to implement this, at least those who desire change need to give this a serious thought. This may not be easy, as it will necessitate honest, upright persons who control the funds without its misuse. But then, it is only the existence of such people that can bring about lasting change. Having now placed the CONTEXT in which I intend to elaborate on the question of freedom, I shall take up various aspects and angles in future articles. But before doing that, in the next article I will briefly trace the history of man’s search for freedom.