Liberal or Radical: A Dialectical Appraisal of Students’ Politics

 Paresh Chandra

Even though my participation in the current debate puts me incontrovertibly in the same “camp” as the KYS (Krantikari Yuva Sangathan), in fact precisely because this is so, it is important that I flesh out my differences with the way the KYS pamphlet formulates its critique of the UCD (University Community for Democracy). Without going into details, and without bothering to censure them for their aggressive style I will try to get at the definitive concept of their problematic and then proceed to show how I differ.

The KYS pamphlet clearly brings out the organisation’s commitment to a genuinely transformative politics that unequivocally upholds the position of the working class as the only possible agent of systemic change. In an identifiably Zizekian phraseology they have argued that the working class, instead of being one of many of identities, is the terrain which allows, or rather, determines, the way identities assert themselves. So far I have no disagreements with the pamphlet. My disagreement begins when the pamphlet fails to complete the dialectic hence begun. After having argued thus, the pamphlet goes on to say:

“It is a fact that students who join universities like Delhi University (DU), are from different classes. The trend in DU is that students from working class backgrounds generally join the peripheral and evening colleges of DU. They are mostly youth who: a) have studied in government schools, b) come from the Hindi medium background, c) who do not usually get admission to college hostels considering their 12th class schooling, d) are those who really struggle to cope with rising college fees and English medium teaching/coursework. Students from petty bourgeois backgrounds are quite the opposite—a significant number of them have studied in respectable public schools, get admission to the best north and south campus colleges of DU, and are generally the first to get admission to the limited college hostels of DU.”

Quite clearly there is a change in the manner in which class is being conceptualized. Clearly referring to class at a phenomenological plain, and hence deploying a sociological understanding of class, this paragraph reduces it to an identity. So then, there are two ways in which class is seen, first as a process and second as a sociological fixity. In itself, even this is not disturbing. But dialectical logic requires the explaining away of this duality, the exposition of the relationship between what one can call class-as-identity and class-as-class.

First of all I will assert that the KYS pamphlet fails to bring out this relationship (readers can take a look at the pamphlet for proof), and in failing to do so over-emphasizes one side of the duality. Despite arguing that class is not an identity, by and large, the pamphlet treats the working class as if it were an identity located in certain geo-political locations, and not in others (not in North Campus and in the peripheral colleges, for instance). Even when the pamphlet concedes that North Campus and places like it may have working class elements, it speaks in terms of clearly identifiable individuals and not tendencies that work in trans-individual ways. In other words, even here class remains an identity. This is not merely a misunderstanding; it is an over-emphasis borne of a certain sort of engagement with society and needs to be located in that experience. One can try and do just this after having explicated the nature of the relationship between class-as-identity and class-as-class.

*      *      *

The relationship between identities and the process called class is akin to that between particulars and the universal immanent in them, and constructed through continuous abstraction from them; the relationship is – to reassert what cannot be asserted too often – dialectical. An identity is valid at a particular spatio-temporal location, and rooted within it is the logic of truly transformative politics. But so long as an identity does not destroy itself, it continuously gets co-opted within the competitive system of capitalism. After a point an identity needs to transcend itself and move toward assimilation into the multitude of struggling identities. At the same time if one does not recognize the struggles of identities, one recognizes nothing, since struggle is necessarily posed in terms of identities. The class-for-itself is always in the process of being constructed, but is never out there, present a priori, to be recognized as somehow different from and superior to the multitude of identities. To explicate this understanding of class and to locate the student in this understanding I will quote at length from a pamphlet brought out by “Correspondence”.

“When Marx says ‘working class,’ does he mean only the ‘male, white, industrial proletariat?’ Maybe. But what was the logic behind designating somebody a worker? The working class is that section of the people on which work is imposed; the people who are alienated from their creativity, who are forced to create in circumstances that they do not want to create in, and who as a result will have to fight to be able to determine these circumstances. There was another concept, that Marx often made use of: the collective worker. The collective worker is this continuum, a continuum beyond localized time or space, of the working class subjectivity. The collective worker is a universal, common to all those on whom work is imposed. Work is imposed on the collective worker: the collective worker is made of various individuals on whom work is imposed in various ways; in a different way in the factory, in a different way in agriculture, in a different way in the university, in a different way in the household. So work is imposed on the professor in one way. It is imposed on the student in another. Studenthood is a phase in the life of this ‘collective worker.’ It doesn’t matter if some students come from rich households, if some will go on to become factory owners, or vice chancellors, at the moment of studenthood they are part of the collective worker. Professors and students are part of the same continuum. They together occupy the university, and in fighting for self-determination they are essentially on the same side. So in opposition to the student as a consumer, and the student as a product, is the student as worker.”

It should be evident that we are not speaking about individual students and the trajectories their lives may take. The student as a member of the working class experiences imposition of work insofar as s/he too has no control over the many hours s/he has to spend in the university, in attending class, courses studied, fees paid, exams written etc. Decisions are made at another level by administrators whose only considerations are the interests of the market, not what students, or for that matter, professors and karamcharis desire. Members of the administration are not elected representatives; they come in through mechanisms in which we have no say. Today we might be fighting the semester system, or the service regulations, or against the attendance rule, fee-hike or for timely payment of karamchari salaries, but we also need to fight the arbitrariness with which these problems impose themselves upon us. It is this arbitrariness of imposition that determines the students’ status as a member of the working class.

According to this view, it does not matter whether a student comes from a rich family or a poor family – because we talk in terms of the collective worker, we deal with tendencies and potential, not with determination and destiny (which we have to consider when speaking for individuals). At this level of abstraction any geo-political space bears within it the potential for positing a truly transformative form of politics, insofar as each localized moment of capitalism is constituted by the fundamental conflict between labour and capital. The idea that because a student comes from a (relatively) high-income group it makes her/him petty bourgeois has no validity; firstly because the parents belong to this group, and secondly, because income group is not what decides whether an individual is petty bourgeois or not, but the control s/he has over her/his labour power.

In fact, “petty-bourgeois” refers not so much to a fixed position as to a tendency. Each individual, living in the system of capitalism, is constituted by the struggle between this tendency and the tendency toward proletarianisation. The student is a part of the collective worker, but at the same time is also haunted by this specter of possible petty-bourgeoisfication. In some the petty-bourgeois tendency is stronger while in others it is weaker and this varies in proportion to the degree of control an individual has over her/his life. It is undeniable that the socio-economic security that certain parents are able to provide their children, who then become students, means that these students are not easily discontented, and when they are discontented their immediate impulse is to go back to the previous state of relative comfort. In these individuals the petty-bourgeois tendency is strong and hence they are more likely, at a moment of conflict, when they feel pressed, to go for a local resolution, which helps consolidate the status quo.

The KYS pamphlet claims that this is the position of the student studying in North Campus. If this is so, then undoubtedly it will be difficult to facilitate the emergence of a truly radical form of politics here; but even then it is not impossible. This is not the beginning of a lesson in the “optimism of spirit”; one is merely trying to point out that the difference between the North Campus or any other identifiable geo-political space with any other, is one of degree and not kind (“lesser or greater degree of petty-bourgeoisfication,” and not “working class and petty-bourgeois”). Perhaps comrades from the KYS think that they never contradicted this dictum. I will remind them that after a point quantity changes into quality – this seems to have happened in their pamphlet. A class-conscious student would see herself/himself as a member of the working class and in that will leave behind determinations like prehistory and family. All locations and identities are potentially arena for struggle, and this is what the KYS pamphlet fails to take cognizance of. However – and this is not to be denied – there is more to this story. I will come now to the experience that gives birth to a theorisation like the one offered by the said pamphlet.

*      *      *

When one is engaged in the pragmatics of political activity, it becomes necessary to function at a level of abstraction altogether different from the one that forms the core of the science of revolution making – this is the difference between tactic and strategy. Our experiences in “students’ politics” tells us that because of certain reasons, which are clearly linked to the petty-bourgeois tendency discussed earlier, it is harder to build a ground for a sustainable agitational politics in places like North Campus, as opposed to peripheral colleges of DU or polytechnics. So tactically, it might seem more fruitful for an organisation to focus on these other areas. One might even go as far as to say that the form of politics that a space like North Campus might throw up is much more likely to be ideologically compromised than the ones thrown by the so-called peripheral zones.

However, the North Campus continues to be a possible terrain for political engagement for those located here and willing to recognize it as a space, like any other, where individuals do not have control over their labour process. Of necessity, such individuals will be forced to ally with petty-bourgeois tendencies, which at certain moments show an anti-capitalistic tenor, during the course of their struggles – tendencies that in the final instance are constitutive of capitalism. How does one recognize these tendencies as they unfurl into political activity? To answer this question, which is really the most important one here, I will try to engage with the politics of the UCD (University Community for Demcracy) as it has unfolded so far. Below are two quotes from the UCD response to the KYS pamphlet.

“Mocking these attempts the way the KYS pamphlet does is precisely what discourages fellow “petty-Bourgeois” folk from making even that small effort, and makes politics into a club rather than a movement.”

“We have no claim to be any revolution’s vanguard, or harbingers of a future ideal society. However, each of us is actively engaging with how we want to visualize an ideal society. Ideologically some of us are committed Marxists, some are liberals, while most of us are still exploring our paths in the world of ideas and commitments. Some of us are members of other organizations. All we demand is that these not be reactionary, communal, sexist or casteist.”

Clearly, everybody is free to visualize the ideal society of the future – of the ones who do get involved in this task committed Marxists are only a section. Others are liberals. What is needed to be a member of the UCD is not a positive commitment to a politics, but characteristics that can comfortably be clubbed under “political correctness”. Apparently what keeps the petty bourgeoisie (keeping in mind that the ontology been accorded to this “class” is provisional) from political action is not their class position, not the fact that they have a stake in the system, that they like being petty bourgeois, but merely the fear that the KYS will come swooping down on them in a typically undemocratic manner. This complete willingness to accept anything, in what can only be called a liberal democratic spirit, is understandable when it comes from a loosely constituted group with no regulating epistemology, but it is disturbing that the “committed Marxists” in the group have nothing to add – the entire response, falls in line with these utterances and nothing disturbs its harmony. Hence, I, already engaged in this debate, am forced to state my case strongly.

*      *      *

There are two ways in which a vanguardist group (read: a group trying to intervene with an idea of transformation, not the “authentic” vanguard/party) could intervene in a situation. Either a conflict has taken place and the people affected have reacted – in which case the vanguard could enter the movement and try to “direct” its course (this is not necessarily as mechanical a process as it sounds – the final direction that a movement takes could be a compromise between the inertia of the movement and the intervention of the vanguard, or it could be a mutually redefining dialogue). The other alternative covers those situations where a vanguard perceives a moment of conflict gone unquestioned, and decides to “construct” a movement around it. In both cases the vanguard takes its “principles” with it, but in the second case the primacy of these principles is much more apparent. In a case of the first kind the vanguard enters the movement with, in fact because of, its principles, but also with the knowledge that the movement has a direction of its own – this is why it could decide not to enter a movement if it perceives that the inertia of the movement is taking it in an unwanted and unalterable direction. In the second case however the vanguard decides the direction of the movement. Of course once the movement becomes a “mass movement” the weight of the mass could change the direction but the initial impetus that the vanguard provides would be hard to shake off completely.

Despite possible claims to the contrary the inception of the UCD and the conception of the entire movement falls in the second of the two patterns charted above. Although the “Facebook Group” might have been joined by a number of students who were actually affected, the movement proper – if it ever was that – began as an initiative of a few who stood “outside” this conflict and had been drawn to it because of larger political/social commitments.  If this was the case then it was important that the aims of the campaign should have been defined early, and clearly, but this never happened. In fact it is not hard to perceive in the passages quoted earlier and in workings of the UCD overall, a reluctance to discuss these questions.

I will mention something that has emerged repeatedly in various responses to the KYS pamphlet; the UCD response too throws at us the same thing. They say, “Is it not enough that some people are trying to do something? Why do you attack us? Why don’t you too help us?” As if the moment one begins to do “something” what one does becomes irrelevant – it merely detracts from the task of doing “something.” Exploring what this “something” is leads us to the question of form. The way I see it, at the center of KYS’s attack lay a concern with form – the difference of form which decides what politics is merely transgressive and extralegal and what transcendental and illegal/metalegal. Two organisations/groups pick up the same issue and yet there is a difference. While one picks it up in a way that allows the system to deal with it without needing to burp, even though this organisation is able to mobilize “vast numbers”. The other organisation is able to mobilize only a few and yet it mobilizes them in a form that cannot be accommodated within the system. Which is to say, if one does not concern oneself with these abstract questions, which we have to admit have been brushed under the carpet throughout all UCD meetings, we could make all the noise in the world, mobilize millions and yet it would all come to nothing.

To get back, who says “atleast I am doing something?” S/he who does not care what s/he is doing. Hence s/he who does not, in the final instance, have a stake in what is being done. This is the position of that bunch of people who can afford to not care what they do. They are not out to change the world, to make it more equal and so on. They are out to satisfy their conscience – well meaning people, undoubtedly, they feel guilty for not being great sufferers, for being what they are. They need to feel that they too do something for the world. The moment they get this feeling they find felicity; this is the limit of their political project. So what has happened: a moment of conflict was thrown, a group of people got involved, tried to conjure a movement, not knowing where they want to go with it, not caring either; they do “something,” which is in effect nothing objectively, but everything for their subjectivity. Precisely because they do not have a theory of revolution (for they do not need a theory of revolution), the only measure they have to judge the success of their movement is subjective satisfaction. Since they find themselves satisfied, they conclude: “it was good.”

*      *      *

This is the petty-bourgeois-dom that the KYS has charged the UCD of, and it is the dangers of this tendency, as has been said before, that the KYS finds in locations like the North Campus. Certain concerns that the KYS expressed in their pamphlet, albeit in a polemical vein, and which were badly addressed by the UCD response demonstrate the problems of such politics. I will try and deconstruct some of the “concrete” steps that were involved in the form of politics that the UCD spawned, so as to be able to demonstrate exactly how it is a compromised form (emerging out of a petty-bourgeois tendency unchecked by the “committed Marxists” of the group):

1) Teachers taking classes outside/bringing their students to the protest-site: At least in the last few years, if not for longer, whenever we (of the Left) have had to mobilize students, this is a trick we have used. Certain professors, whom we know, and who are indubitably well-intentioned Leftists ask their students to join the protest/rally/whatever. Even if the question is not of internal assessment teachers do have some power over students, and at least some students will do what the teacher asks. This has been an efficient way of increasing numbers on the road. However the clearly pedagogic and top-down nature of this mobilisation implies that no politicisation happens – in fact there might actually be some resentment on part of students “mobilized” in this fashion. The larger point, however, is that this gives us a false sense of “having numbers” – something which is, to my mind, not very good.

2) On the commune:  In the first meeting (which I attended) there was no talk of a commune. After the meeting something happened, and in the evening I heard talk of this idea. In the next meeting it was brought up, supported by some, resisted by some, and if I remember correctly, it was left an open question. In the third meeting or maybe the one after that, the first draft of the pamphlet was discussed which made mention of this idea, without using the word “commune”. The idea was debated once again. Following were the objections made against the attempt to create such a space:

  • Is it in our capacity to arrange alternative accommodation?
  • Why are we doing this? Three reasons were offered by those in favor of this idea. The first was that those left ‘homeless’ (presumably girls from Miranda College, who because they had not been informed of the unavailability of the college hostel beforehand, would have no place to stay) need a place to stay. The second was that this space would serve as a retreat for the movement. The third was that this would be a place of politicisation, a space where an alternative form of “student self-organisation” would be posited etc. Opponents of this idea thought that we should not be wasting our energy on finding shelter – students can do it on their own. Another response to the first point, which also engages with the second, was that if we have to retreat we will occupy college buildings – a much more radical step. People nodded their heads but the plan concerning the commune went ahead, and this alternative idea was not mentioned. The final response, to all three reasons offered, was: who are we to decide the form of the movement already? Let there be a movement, let the “masses” come and then we can decide democratically. Heads nodded. At the end, we concluded that the mention of “envisaging such an alternative” should either be excluded or toned down in the first pamphlet. However in the next draft of the pamphlet the word “commune” came, the paragraph became stronger. (See the note below)

There is nothing wrong with communes, if they come up during the course of a movement. But to aim at “setting up” a commune, even before the movement has actually begun, before the first demonstration or protest, is a problem. Firstly, because claiming to be a platform, not an organisation, a platform which functions democratically, the UCD was showing the worst form of substitutionism – already deciding what was to be done later, without having consulted those who could become part of the movement. More importantly, if we have learnt from past experience we should know that such a space can only be a bubble, which precisely in seeming to be outside the control of commodification gets included in the market. Theoretically, a commune is no different from other market interests, unless it emerges directly from a movement. As a spatially localized zone it is forced into negotiations with the market, an administration is inevitable, the larger questions of class-struggle are, if anything, suspended inside this space of privilege. That such a form of politics was being pushed from the beginning, and most strongly by the “committed Marxists” present in the UCD is explained, in the final analysis by referring to the now notorious “petty-bourgeois tendency,” that they have been unable to transcend.

If the idea of a commune had cropped up during the movement, it could have been a different proposition altogether. Suppose the UCD had, after a series of protests, occupied a college building (even if having mobilized students only from Miranda College) and then under threat of forceful repression from the administration retreated to another area (say a “working class” area). There we could have tried to set up such a space, with the collabouration of those involved in struggles in that area. In this situation, instead of being a retreat, the commune would have actually comprised a move forward in the direction of the generalisation of the struggle against capital.

3) Because members of the UCD have been stressing the democratic manner in which the platform functions, it seems important that they explain why decisions taken in the meetings failed to reflect in the pamphlet brought out. Reactions of some members of the UCD to the “official UCD” response, also suggests problems in its internal functioning.

4) A compromised form is even now undermining the efforts of the UCD. The UCD is at this point trying to expand the campaign to politicize people by selling badges and t-shirts. Rumor has it that people who are buying these commodities (for these are commodities) are being politicized and the number of commodities sold is a measure of politicisation done. What is one to say to this? For one, only those who can afford to buy these will buy them. The bigger problem however is the complete lack of analysis that this attempt comes from – in a system dependent on commodity production we think selling a commodity can help the cause of transformation. People buy so many things! They will also buy these commodities. After buying them, they will feel better, conscience at ease, for they have now done there bit for the world. So then, we help the logic of the market along, and set at ease precisely those consciences, which we on other occasions try to hit at (not that this is particularly useful).

*      *      *

All these problems constitute the form of politics envisaged by the UCD – a limited political project that brackets out any attempt to generalize the struggle, which cannot, or will not, stay wary of the difference between surface reform and the asking of structural questions, which seeks after either localized resolution, or attempts to create a local alternative as an end in-itself. With its tendency to over-emphasize and to side-step dialectical reasoning, the KYS pamphlet tries to bring out these problems in the politics of the UCD, and its members. The said over-emphasis makes it seem as if these problems are inevitable for a form that emerges out of this location.  One will allow that the petty-bourgeois position too gains a provisional ontological mooring, but more than that, while trying to conceptualize the terrain and agency of political action, cannot be granted. One cannot deny the inevitability of the problems that the “natural” form of politics that this position throws up contains, but it has to be asserted that these can, nonetheless, be resolved with a proper amount of retrospection and with an engagement with other forms that arise out of other locations. Unfortunately the UCD response not only does not attempt this, but tries to evade its necessity by claiming that the issues raised by the KYS have no basis in reality and are founded in the “mal-intent” of KYS-members and in a series of “lies”.



The said paragraph in the initial draft of the first pamphlet:

“At the same time, we call upon students to envision another space, an imaginative and practical alternative that is self-governed by members of the university community, that meets its own needs and conducts itself in a responsible and democratic fashion.”

What it became in the final draft:

“On our part, let us work towards creating another space, a commune perhaps, an imaginative and practical alternative that is self-governed by members of the university community, a cooperative living space that meets its own needs and conducts itself in a responsible and democratic fashion.” [emphasis original]

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