On the Kafila Debate on Arundhati Roy’s ‘Outlook’ Article on Maoists

Pothik Ghosh: There is no doubt the Indian Maoist movement – which has erupted in the sense of pure socio-occupational and physical geography in the agrarian-tribal location – has rendered the externalised imposition of a given Marxological/communistological historiography to define (in discourse) and articulate (in the materiality of lived practice) its struggle uniquely determinate to the specificity of its historico-geographic location redundant. But to assert that it has done so by claiming something that is purely autonomous tribal aspiration and struggle would be equally fallacious. For, tribal identities as they exist and pose themselves in and through struggles – both in areas of Maoist influence as also in sangh parivar-infested tribal areas of especially Orissa and Madhya Pradesh – are formed by being inscribed within the determinate, if not discursive, mode of capital. Those identities and their movements are thus either articulated by the specific configuration of dualised and hierarchised capitalist power, or are responses to the respective historico-geographic specifications of such a general configuration of power.

In such a situation, one must speak of rupture, not in terms of romantically reified forms, but in terms of what is yielded through the posing of a continuous critique. The empirically discernible form of the Indian Maoist movement in emergence is clearly a rupture with both the capitalist continuum of history (and thus its historiographic sense) and the established Marxological narrative (an analytic really) of the history of capitalism. But then the subsequent affirmative emphasis on this Indian Maoist form as form, both for its original physical geographic location and outside it, marks a return of the logic of duality via the return of the tendency of representation and the discursive structure of capitalism. This form, therefore, can continue to be the horizon of rupture, which it has been in its emergence, only when it posits its own negation as a form qua form for other specific temporal, spatial, spatio-temporal and socio-occupational moments.

The repeated failure of the Indian Maoist/Naxal movement to not only expand beyond the specific historico-geographic boundaries within which it has emerged, but, therefore, as a result face imminent defeat, if not cooption (the experience of the constituents of Communist Party of India (Maoist) in Jharkhand and Liberation in Bihar would be telling on that score), in its purported historico-geographic and socio-occupational bastions is, if one were to talk in terms of effects, precisely due to this problem of reifying one moment of the process, which is meant to unfold by constituting itself through critique of its reified/abstracted moments, and thus obstruct its critically constitutive unfolding.

The point is, the Indian Maoist movement can be defended or saved as the specific embodiment of the general revolutionary logic of event or rupture that it is, only if that logic unfolds through its critical re-enactment, or reconstitution if you will, for other historical locations through the emergence of forms idiomatically specific to the diverse historicalness of those locations. To that extent, socialism ceases to be a systemic horizon in a teleological sense and becomes a horizon of continuous motion that is not serial but dialectical having to be constantly constituted through critical opposition and rupture. It was not for nothing that Marx in his ‘The Class Struggles in France’ came up with the idea of “revolution in permanence”.

Thus, socialism, as a mobile and open ‘epistemological discourse’, can be aphoristically called a multiplicity of singularities. That is also the epistemological context of Benjamin’s ‘Theses on Philosophy of History’, and his injunction therein to “blast open the continuum of history” must be seen as a critical struggle against the distortionary conflation of labour’s life-world and its history with the textual abstraction of a centred historiography and/or analytic. It’s a struggle to reclaim life and its history from such abstraction and domination and in the same movement pose the idea of life-world in critical opposition to the discourse of textuality, even as we show that the life we live empirically, before its reclamation through critique, is an analytic abstraction or text. This idea of the life-world, which was formulated by Marx as a conceptualisation of the horizon of constantly self-constituting and thus dialectical motion, is something that is constitutively posed in our continuous Benjaminian struggle to disrupt the analytic continuum of history that constantly forms following every successful move to blast it open. The counter-discursive horizon that this continuous critical struggle to overcome the horizon of discursivness or reason in history, which is history as a continuum, poses is what Benjamin called montage and Trotsky narrative in the context of formulating a revolutionary discourse of history. It’s really a narrative (Trotsky) or montage (Benjamin) of singularities, where the constitutive narrative/montage link among them is the fact of them being singularities or events. It’s this horizon of revolutionary history, which is a horizon of constant ruptures, that Foucault posed as “genealogy” against the horizon of conservative and reactionary history, which is canonically called History and is a serial continuum. Foucault’s term for singularities and their repeated self-constituting evental emergence is respectively fragments and archaeology, something that was his active critical-political-methodological engagement, as opposed to a detached discursive-methodological engagement, with history both as it is lived and is formulated as discourse. The generalised horizon that is posited by him for his event-constituting archaeological manoeuvre is termed by him, in a quasi-structuralist kind of way, as the “history of problematics”. My subjective preference is, however, for the Benjamanian concept of gestus over Foucauldian fragment, which as a word still has the whiff of the old whole-fragment (universal-particular) dualised and discursive discourse.

However, to the extent that genealogy, montage or narrative are all discourses of history, they appear as a serialised continuum in much the same way as the analytic-centric form of conservative History. But we must remember that the former is a discourse of life-world, which makes it a discourse of counter-discourse, even as the latter is a discourse of lived life, which in not being critical and in being established, is really an abstraction and thus a textual discourse. Thus in the material operation of empirical living, the former posits continuous critical opposition and rupture with abstract schemas that seek to prevent life from constantly constituting itself critically and thus autonomously; even as the latter seeks to transform lived life into a non-critical piece of the abstract schema of history as it is given in the positive materiality of empirical human lives. Thus motion in the latter is really the continuance of the abstract schema through time. The former is a discourse, as you also seem to be pointing out, of living history while constituting it, while the latter is a discourse of living history as the a priori abstraction in which it is given.

To return, through this theoretical excursus, to the immediate question at hand, is to once again focus on the need to generalise the logic of event or rupture enacted by the Maoist movement and the failure on that count. It is in this context that Arundhati Roy’s Outlook article poses a problematic. The article is a problem, not per se, but in that it enacts a modality of radical politics at the urban location that obstructs the recognition of this need to constantly generalise the evental logic that has found its specific expression for the agrarian-tribal location in the form of the Maoist movement. It is, in fact, more of a problem because this modality of radical politics is fast becoming a dominant modality among urban radicals. The failure to recognise this need for generalisation of the logic encapsulated by the Maoist movement for all other locations beyond the agrarian-tribal geography conveniently enables urban radicals like us to displace the identity crisis and anxiety we experience as denizens of our specific urban ground on to some other ground – in this case the ground of insurgent tribals and peasants – and live our own class rage, without recognising it as such, cathartically and vicariously. That enables such urban radicals to exempt themselves from taking up the more difficult struggle of engaging with and critically opposing the configurations of capitalist class power – which in its myriad ideological forms of culture, economy, society is the real cause of anxiety and crisis that urban creatures face – on their own specific ground to overcome the crisis they experience as city inhabitants.

That, of course, is not the failure of Roy or the Maoists, much less their tribal-peasant base, alone. It’s the failure of all working-class forces, which includes me and my comrades as well, in all other locations. The point is to begin, as Zizek says citing Lenin, from the beginning by recognising this failure.

Pratyush Chandra: One point that interests me in Jairus Banaji’s post in Kafila and the subsequent debate on the post is his focus on labour as the centre of the movement. I think this focus is fundamental in order to ground various local/localised struggles in political economy (or rather in its critique) and to understand the underlying interconnections between them (whether the leadership of these struggles understand them in this manner is immaterial – did not Marx appreciate Paris Commune even when Blanquists were in hegemony?).

Marx’s conceptualisation of labour and of capital-labour relations is rich enough to provide tools for comprehending various struggles against capitalist accumulation (both primitive and normal). He understood subsumption of labour by capital as a process (not some particular fixed states), which starts from being formal to real – from a stage where labour is subsumed through non-capitalist “forms” of exploitation to the actual subsumption in “pure” wage-labour form. Between these two poles, subsumption can take a plethora of forms. Who knows better than Jairus that unwaged labour (reproductive or otherwise) is also part of the capitalist subsumption of labour.

So how do we understand tribals and “peasants” struggles against land and resource alienation within this framework? They are essentially fighting against capitalist efforts to alienate them from their resources, which create (or, better, reproduce) conditions for the subsumption of their labour by capital. Whether they will become wage labourers is not at all essential; if they are not employed, or even employable, they still remain labourers as part of the reserve army of proletarians or surplus population (stagnant, latent and floating) reproducing themselves on their small pieces of land, or by food gathering (in forests or trash cans). Their struggle, in a Marxist sense, can be understood as part of the anti-systemic working class struggle to control the conditions of production and, I stress, reproduction too.

Now coming to the forms of struggle (armed, unarmed, etc), I think we as Marxists (of all hues and colours) cannot act as idealists, by considering only those movements as working class movements or anti-capitalist movements, which are projected in our idioms, and are developing according to our framework of strategic-building. The working class can throw diverse forms of struggles according to its internal constituents or class composition. However, one must critique forms in order to show the limitations and problems of those forms, in order to avoid the problem of overgeneralisation of particular forms, and also in order to undertake the revolutionary task of generalisation seriously, which essentially means to see a revolutionary building up against capitalism within and through all forms of working-class struggles.


  1. I would agree with both comments. I would like to advance an additional point here for discussion. Putting it very briefly and crudely, both the attacks on and the “defences” of the Maoist movement that have recently been circulating tend to analyse this political moment precisely as if it lacks politics – as if it were the result either of some kind of “natural uprising of the people” or . I will not waste any time discussing the latter, but the former is worrisome, as it is predominantly being engaged in by intellectuals on the left (including Roy in this piece), and constitutes a retreat from analysis and critique into a kind of blind “naturalistic” description of events. As if the Maoist movement were some kind of automatic response to oppression, dispossession and brutality, without a politics, history and political function that has evolved within and as an integral part of the larger Indian landscape of class struggle. At most, we are told, it is the most “genuine”, the most “authentic”, or the “leading edge” of the struggle.

    This ignores the other forms of working class struggle, as Pratyush points out, and also essentialises and dehistoricises the Maoist movement, as Pothik implies. A living political formation operating amidst other political projects is reduced to a Manichean narrative of binaries that precludes critique, political evolution and analysis. The Maoists are not some engineered project of a handful of crazies (pace the state) but they are also not some automatic response of the “masses” to betrayal and oppression. In the name of rejecting state propaganda, let us not deny political agency (and the many forms it takes) to the very “people” whose struggle we claim to be part of.

    But it also, to my mind, there is also a strategic danger in this argument; it perversely strengthens the state’s narrative. If the Maoists are only a response to the failures of the state to fulfill its liberal democratic facade, then the question for people in general and the working class in particular outside the Maoist movement becomes a simple choice: does one believe that the state or the Maoists is more likely to fulfill that facade? And since this “defence” of the Maoists offers no reason except that the state “has betrayed it” and the “Maoists will not” (indeed, Roy goes so far as to say that “should we let apprehensions about the future immobilise us in the present?” as her only answer to this question), the issue is reduced to which force enjoys more legitimacy. The reality is that in most parts of India, the Indian state is hegemonic, liberal democracy is not seen as “a lie”, and merely saying that it is is not going to make it one. Instead, since it is implied that the Maoists are “the masses”, and everyone else is not, the question becomes “us vs them” – and for many, us will be the state. This is my apprehension.

    Indeed, the question in any critique – which indeed applies much more so to other forms of working class struggle, as it does to the Maoists – is the extent to which they open contradictions in the hegemonic project. There are many modes of struggle, as both Pothik and Pratyush point out, and there always will be. The question before us as leftists is to engage with the various forms of struggle and to build ourselves towards a broader counter-hegemonic movement. If anything, to once again be crude, the difficulty with the discourse advanced by Roy and others at the moment is that it precludes a critique of the Maoists and protracted peoples war – and in the process takes us backward rather than forward.

  2. Apologies, the phrase “insert standard propaganda narrative of the state” was somehow deleted from the sentence “Putting it very briefly and crudely, both the attacks on and the “defences” of the Maoist movement that have recently been circulating tend to analyse this political moment precisely as if it lacks politics – as if it were the result either of some kind of “natural uprising of the people” or [insert standard propaganda narrative of the state].

  3. pratyush chandra says:

    Rural society and the market are so intertwined throughout India that you cannot squeeze the markets (or towns) off by abruptly cutting their connection with the villages (the logic of encirclement). In fact the opposite has occurred in most of the cases – in Bihar and many places in Jharkhand, ML groups couldn’t sustain their “zones” because the villages were squeezed off by the elongated disruption of their relationship with the market. They were successful and that too marvellously as long as people perceived “liberation” as “strikes”, i.e., as strategies for bargaining for prices – prices of labour and labour power (interestingly, Marx termed strikes as guerrilla attacks). When these “strikes” tend to create “liberated zones” – a semi-permanent rupture in the relationship between the larger market and local communities, the local support starts getting alienated and disgruntled.

    At many places, the naxal movement has successfully opposed the oppressive “diku” intermediary system in Tendu-leaves type trades, but the impossibility of posing an alternative economic system in a piecemeal fashion within the isolated “liberated zones” (this is due to India’s political economy) helped reestablish the similar oppression, however, with a notable change that now we find locals (not dikus) for the role of mediating a more intense internalisation of capitalist relations – “mutually embedding” of the market (labour, capital and commodity) and communities. Hence, we see ex-comrades becoming part of the established political formations (as for instance during the last elections in Jharkhand) or as traders, contractors etc. It is this section, which was the immediate beneficiary of many local militant struggles and which became agencies of the status quo. The phenomenon of Salwa Judum can also be perhaps explained in this framework – it is constituted by those elements in the tribal communities who have benefited by the expulsion of diku intermediaries, and now they want an accommodation within the hegemonic establishment.

    But all this demonstrates the success of the Naxal movement in developing right “tactics” for organising locally, but the problem comes when those tactics are institutionalised as strategies (when guerrilla battles are confused with the whole war). This is the problem of spatio-temporal overgeneralisation, of essentialising particular tactics beyond spatial and temporal contexts. This problem occurs due to a partial critique of India’s capitalist political economy – viewing particular/apparent forms that it takes in specific locations (according to which specific tactics are formulated) as the essence or the general reality. The lack of a comprehensive critique of India’s political economy in revolutionary practice (but “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary practice”) has led to the cornering of “the political” and foregrounding of the voluntaristic military operations.

    The ‘generalised’ guerrilla tactics that we saw in China (also in pre-republican Nepal) were conjunctural (based on the concrete analysis of concrete situations). If we go through Mao’s writings (not just those published officially), we can see self-organisation of the working population (even with their ‘unsophisticated’ consciousness) at the centre of his politics (see his Hunan report and intensive/extensive land investigations in which we find him engaging in throughout the revolutionary phases). In fact, the guerrilla tactics was organically grounded in this as a ‘specific’ vehicle to interconnect various locations of experiences. This specificity derived from a feudalised political economy that was present there (I am calling it thus, because the post-Qing Chinese state was virtually a network of local militarised (warlords) interests).

  4. Mao’s guerrilla war to consolidate the Yan’an base to which the communist revolutionaries had retreated (Long March of 1934-35) is a case in point. What Indian Maoists call tactical counter-offensive was in actuality realised by Chinese communist revolutionaries, where guerrilla forays from their Yana’n base against the Japanese was not merely a military operation, which is what our Indian Maoist comrades seem to have made it out to be, but it was a politico-military manoeuvre where the military move against the congealed embodiment of political power in the Japanese colonialists was accompanied with changing the specific feudalistic (formally speaking) socio-economic organisation of the general political economy of capital in those areas where the guerrilla strikes were carried out by leveraging the legitimacy conferred on them by the anti-colonial Chinese sentiment because of their military operations against an occupying power. In this way, Mao and his comrades were able to transform what was seemingly a colonial and patriotic question for the large mass of the Chinese into a question of socio-economic transformation through a critique of global capitalist political economy in the specific concrete conditions of China. This struggle was, thus, able to also render the constitutive entwinement of political power with the sphere of circulation of value easily widely cognisble. Thus the defence and consolidation of the base was, for Mao, never purely a question of defence. It was, as is a Marxist dialectician’s wont, the transformation of a defensive “war of position” thrust upon them by the system into a war of manoeuvre while and through fighting the former. That’s why the guerrilla forays to defend the Yan’an base, insofar as they were also agencies of transformation of specific areas abutting the base, expanded its even while transforming its formal nature rooting it in the organicity of the concrete conditions of those areas, which would differ in specificity from the concrete conditions of Yan’an, the original base camp. Thus Chinese revolutionaries’ defence of base was, right from the word go, its constellated expansion where specific and localised struggles were all woven together through the single and singular thread of class struggle (the generalised principle of critique of political economy). Thus the defence of Yan’an base-camp was also its generalised expansion and a gradual expansion of a horizon of counter-power, of which the civil war of 1946-49, which culminated in the successful accomplishment of what is termed the New Democratic Revolution, was nothing but a quantitatively more heightened form. So, the revolution, in a sense, did not begin with the start of the civil war in 1946, it started with the completion of the Long March in Yan’an in 1935 and the subsequent guerrilla war that began immediately afterwards to ‘consolidate’ this base camp of revolution.

  5. “There is no doubt the Indian Maoist movement – which has erupted in the sense of pure socio-occupational and physical geography in the agrarian-tribal location – has rendered the externalised imposition of a given Marxological/communistological historiography to define (in discourse) and articulate (in the materiality of lived practice) its struggle uniquely determinate to the specificity of its historico-geographic location redundant. But to assert that it has done so by claiming something that is purely autonomous tribal aspiration and struggle would be equally fallacious. ”

    Please explain the above in simple english. This language really looks radical only fit to be published in either PD or Ganashakti. :))))


  1. […] several well-argued critiques (Kafila, Mint, Outlook). But this one by a former sub-editor*, in Radical Notes, takes the cake and the bakery for what it does to the English […]

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