Saturday, October 6, 2012

Questions of Freedom and People’s Emancipation, by Kobad Ghandy in Tihar Jail


Mainstream, VOL L, No 35, August 18, 2012

[Kobad Ghandy from Tihar Jail now writes on the concept of freedom vis-à-vis present-day society as also in relation to a future just order, bringing out some causes for the failure of the erstwhile socialist states. It will comprise a series of five to six articles. —Editor]


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 environment. 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…

……………….This yellow slave,
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed;
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench.

……………….Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that put’st odds
Among the rout of nations, I will make thee
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.

(To be continued)
Mainstream, VOL L, No 39, September 15, 2012
Questions of Freedom and People’s Emancipation — II
Kobad Ghandy

Kobad Ghandy from Tihar Jail is writing on the concept of freedom vis-à-vis present-day society as also in relation to a future just order, bringing out some causes for the failure of the erstwhile socialist states. It will comprise a series of five to six articles. The first article (covering Part I—The Context) appeared in Mainstream’s Independence Day Special (August 18, 2012). —Editor

Part-II—Search for Freedom through History

Throughout history man has searched continuously for freedom, happiness and humanity/justice (that is, good over evil, …I club humanity with justice as one cannot go without the other; the struggle of good over evil necessarily entails justice). Through the ages, prophets (religious), philosophers and enlightened individuals have sought answers to these basic concepts of life. In fact, through early history, right through the Middle Ages, philosophy and religion were basically the same, where freedom and happiness were sought through rapport with God. It was only with the Renaissance (1300-1600), and more particularly the Enlightenment (1600-1800), with the evolving of man’s individuality (from the earliest clan structures), that philosophers focused on a more concrete search for freedom in real life, reflected particularly in the debate on the question of the primacy of mind or matter. But, even through this later period the philosophers’ link with religion continued. The enormous impact of religion on philosophy for about twenty centuries is because the prophets of the various religions were the main people to propound the values of goodness in a desert of evil and stood against the establishment.

It was only in the 19th century, when capitalism was more or less established in Europe and science had advanced, that philosophers sought answers to these vexed questions of life in society itself without any prop of religion. Primarily it was Marx and Engels who crystallised most of these ideas into an analysis showing that the lack of freedom, justice, happiness and humanity was a direct product of the prevailing systems. Marx also went on to show how these values could be achieved in a new just order.

The problem is that while, on the one hand, prophets and philosophers have presented genuine values of humanity and sought to reform society, on the other hand, tyrant rulers and oppressive systems sought to debase these very values and keep mankind in perpetual chains. In this conflict, it was the latter that won, as it is they who wielded power, and this power was able even to co-opt and debase the very religions themselves. We saw this happen during the past period of Zoroastrianisam (before Islam came) and more particularly with the Church. Not only the religions, we saw this happen even with the ideas of Marx, which too have been corrupted, and the socialist systems, which sought to be a stepping stone towards the ideal, have today turned into its very opposite.

In this article I will briefly try and present the history of man’s search for freedom. Let it be remembered that this search was intrinsic to opposing the prevailing establishment and supporting the oppressed. Most prophets had their main supporters from among the poor, and many were martyred by the tyrannical rulers of their times.

For example, Moses and his rag-tag supporters were hounded for decades by the Pharoahs of Egypt; Zoroaster is said to have been killed by a General of the King; Christ was crucified; Mohammad was hounded from Mecca and spent the major part of his life fighting wars for survival; Socrates famously drank the cup of poison (399 BC) sitting amongst his disciples, as he refused to retract his views as demanded by the city-state.

Not to see the rise of these religions in a historical perspective and their emancipatory efforts, and to only see their present-day forms and roles, covers up an important historical reality. In this article I will not touch on the aspect of their (prophets’) struggles against the estab-lishment, which is anyhow well documented, but only briefly present their views on the subject under discussion.

A. Pre-Christian Thought

This period witnessed two major phases of intense awakening. The first was the 1500-1200 BC period where the great civilisations of West Asia brought forth the ideas of Moses or Zoroaster. Simultaneously in India, there was the birth of the Rig Veda.

The second phase was around 600-300 BC which brought forth the great phisosophers of Greece; Buddha, Upanishads and the Charvakas in India; and Tao and Confucius in China.

First Period

The Ten Commandments of Moses (part of the Old Testament) not only laid down a set of values to follow, but laws and norms for the systematic functioning of society. Also, by opposing idol worship, he put forward, in effect, the first concept of alienation in Western thought. The essence of what Moses (and other prophets), who opposed idolatory, conveyed was that man bows down to worship things; worship that which he has created himself. In doing so he transfers to the things of his creation the attributes of his own life, and instead of experiencing himself as the creating person, he is in touch with himself only by worship of the idol. He becomes estranged from his own life forces, and from the one and only Ultimate Creator (as then conceived), and is in touch with himself only in the indirect way of submission of life frozen in idols. From Abraham to Christ and Mohammad—all the prophets opposed idol worship and insisted on the one Almighty/Creator who, they said, alone had all the attributes of good. Moses and most of the other prophets (including Christ) came from the Egypt-Syria-Palestine belt.

In the neighbouring region (what later became the vast Persian Empire from 300 BC to 650 AD) was the prophet Zoroaster. His main theme was simple—good thoughts, good words and good deeds. Zoroaster’s life was closely associated with nature, and Fire was the symbol of ultimate purity. Life was portrayed as a struggle between good and evil—between the God, Ahura Mazda, representing light, truth, goodness and knowledge, and Angra Mainyush representing darkness, falsehood, wickedness and ignorance.

Like the Old Testament, the Avestha also laid down norms for the systematic functioning of society. Surprising for its time, it gave equal respect to women as men.

So, we find that in both these earliest religions maximum emphasis was given to acquiring the qualities of goodness. Universal Permanent Value systems of goodness are put as the attributes of God by his messengers (prophets) and so, according to them, closeness to him would help acquire his attributes and pave the way to Heaven.

One can see the same thread continue in Christianity and Islam. If we turn to India, we find that around the same time the Rig Veda came into being. While this too was said to contain the result of revelations (from Above), it different from the above two, in that it was polytheist. The Rig Veda (Royal Knowledge) primarily comprised mantras propitiating the gods of the numerous natural forces—rain, wind, thunder, sun, dawn etc.

In the Yajur and Sama Vedas, that followed the Rig Veda, mantras were replaced by sacrificial chants and elaborate rituals (yagnas). The latter were not only to propitiate the forces of nature but to also acquire things in life. Here the concept of freedom was mostly from the wrath of nature, and the yagnas were also to gain freedom from the evil forces and spirits.

Second Period

The earliest Greek philosophers put forward theories of hedonism which believed the attainment of pleasure and avoidance of pain to be the aim in life. The earlier crude form of hedonism was refined by Epicurus (4th century BC) who tried to show that his concept of pleasure as the aim of life is consistent with the virtues of temperance, courage, justice and friendship. Here ‘pleasure’ would reflect man’s earliest search for freedom and happiness in life itself.

Plato believed all actions are subject to fate, and considered humans as part of nature’s general laws. He also viewed the human being primarily as a soul/spirit and the body as nothing but a prison-house. For him death was liberation, as the soul was freed from the prison-house of the body. Aristotle propounded differently views on ethics built on the science of man. He said happiness, which is man’s aim, is the result of ‘activity’; it is not a quiescent possession or state of mind. The free, rational and active (contemplative) man is good, and accordingly a happy person. With Aristotle, we have probably the first man-centred humanistic proposition encompassing the concept of freedom and happiness linked to a person’s values.

These Greek philosophers had a major impact on the philosophers of the future. Around the same time (6th century BC), Buddhism evolved in India with its deeply humanist philosophy. It also replaced the ritualism of the earlier period with meditation as a path to liberation.

The Buddha put forward his concepts in his Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path and Ten Precepts. But, going to the other extreme as compared to the hedonists, he maintained that nirvana (liberation) could only be achieved by suppressing all desires and wants and cutting off from society.

At that time itself the Charvakas and Upanishads presented opposite poles within Hinduism. The Charvakas promoted somewhat hedonistic views, took up cudgels against caste and much of the ritualism of the past. (Mostly ignored by mainline historians, the Lokayats were elaborated at length by Debiprosad Chattopadhyaya, but this is not available to me in jail.)

The Upanishads too opposed the rituals, focusing on meditation, and, like the Buddhists, denied all wordly pleasures as the path to achieve liberation. The Upanishads say the Self (Atman, Brahman) is linked to the mind, which, in turn, is linked to the senses. If the senses are controlled, the mind is still/quiet, then alone we will be able to realise the Self and achieve Moksha (liberation).

It says freedom from desires/wants results in freedom from grief and therefore happiness. It thus says a complete suppression of worldly desires alone can result in knowing thyself through meditation—thereby one can achieve liberation and immortality, escaping the trauma of the cycle of life, death and rebirth. Though the Upanishads do not appear to say much on values, around the same time came the epic, Mahabharata, which symbolised the war of good against evil—the Pandavas versus Kauravas.

Finally, if we turn to the Far East around the same time (500 BC), we see the birth of the famous Chinese philosophies—Taoism and Confucianism. Confucius’ views elaborated on statecraft and values in order to build an ideal society. This was presented in his famous writings: ‘Five Classics’ and ‘Four Books’.

In his principles of ‘Li’, morality is actualised through education, self-reflection and discipline. He teaches that a simple, secular and unassuming attitude towards life is the root of morality. In his principles of ‘Ren’, to build a true gentleman, he puts focus on five virtues—self-respect, generosity, sincerity, persistence and benevolence. He also speaks about Tao, the Great Ultimate, giving it a divine status; but here too he sees Tao comprising opposite energy forces—the Yin and the Yang.

So we see that in this earliest period of recorded history, the focus of most religions/philosophers was to bring about some norms in society—at both the personal and societal levels—to facilitate the transition from the nomadic/pastoral stage to a structured state. At the personal level they advocated values of goodness and at the societal level structures and laws for a society to be ruled. Some used the concept of God, where man through rapport with him may acquire his (positive) attributes, while others (like Buddha, the Charvakas, Confucius) did not. So, in places so far apart as West Asia and the Far East, we find a similar search for the victory of good over evil. But, for all the teachings of the prophets/philosophers, evil continued to envelop society. So West Asia gave to this world two more Messiahs: Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohammad.

B. Christianity, Islam, Bhakti and the Middle Ages

Hegel had said it was the Germanic people, through Christianity, who came to the awareness that every human is free by virtue of being human, and the freedom of spirit comprises our most human nature. While Christianity, like Islam, does say that men freely choose their own actions, this freedom is, to a large extent, negated as God is the ultimate cause of every-thing. Also Christianity (and most religions) inculcate numerous guilt complexes, like the ‘Original Sin’, which keeps man in a perpetual state of insecurity. An insecure person, generated by any means, can never be free; as such weak people become the most vulnerable tool to ANY form of power. Guilt, insecurity and inferiority complex give man a slave-like mentality, destroy his creativity and quash his initiative.
Christianity presents the most excellent values of love, compassion, honesty, simplicity etc., but we find in its practice (in later years) exactly the opposite. It goes so far as to say that “the Meek shall inherit the Earth”, but in the name of the Bible the entire African continent was raped and the indigenous people of the Americas were massacred on a scale never seen before. Today the ‘civilised’ world perpetrates the worst atrocities.

Then, a few centuries later, came the last major religion of the world—Islam. This contained all the positive aspects of Christianity and even went further. It called for equality of the people and laid down certain economic norms; it spoke of fighting evil not only within us, but in society as well. As the famous poet-philosopher, Iqbal, said: socialism+God=Islam. Islam also produced the great mystic poet-philosophers during the 10th to the 13th centuries like Gazzali, Razi, Rumi etc. Rumi’s entire six volumes (in Persian) is devoted to inculcating the best values within man, told in simple poetry and story form. Throughout history there have, in fact, been numerous Sufi saints that presented the liberating aspect of Islam. But, here too the religion has been corrupted, taking on a fundamentalist form with numerous sects. The Arab Sheikhs, for example, make sure that Islam serves their rule and their billions of petro-dollars.

Both Jesus Christ and Prophet Mohammad lived simple lives, with their supporters amongst the poorest. For this reason their philosophies spread far and wide, in spite of enormous persecution. As with other religions, these too were co-opted by the rulers of their times, distorted, twisted, factionalised, and began to be used as ideological weapons amongst the very masses whom the two prophets sought to arouse.

In India in this period the Hindu religion witnessed probably the greatest retrogression. Buddhism was thrown out and the Charvka influence reduced and with the consolidation of the Magadh state in BC itself, the Manusmriti was written on social relations and the Kautilya/Chanakyan statecraft. The former consolidated and rigidified all the worst aspects in social relations, while the latter did the same for the form of rule. In reaction to this rigidity, particularly in the sphere of caste (besides inhuman untouchability, only the upper castes had access to God and the temples), the Bhakti Movement said every individual could have direct access to God through bhakti (devotion). Though the first sparks of the Bhakti Movement emerged around the 8th/9th century in the South, it took a powerful form and spread widely between 1300 AD and 1550 AD. Interestingly, the bulk of the bhakti saint-poets were from the lower castes.

Though we find that the ideas presented were powerful, positive and had a great liberating impact (whether Christ, Mohammad and, to a much lesser extent, Bhakti), they were unable to sustain as they were not accompanied by radical social change. This entire period saw little socio-economic change where slave relations continued along with the consolidation of feudalism. Not surprisingly, it is referred to as the Dark Ages.

The period that was to follow in the West witnessed probably the greatest ever leaps in the realm of thought as it was accompanied by enormous socio-economic churning.

C. Renaissance and Enlightenment

The salient feature of the medieval period was an uncritical and blind acceptance of authority and power, overemphasised by theology, neglecting human freedom and life on earth. Emancipation from the authority of the Church led to the growth of the individuality in man. While the Greek philosophers were more institutional, in the Middle Ages the philosophers were usually monks.
The main landmark of modern philosophy, which distinguishes it from medieval thinking, is its growing faith in the power of reason. The ability to reason, independent of the stifling confines imposed by the Church and State, was in itself a great leap in the realm of freedom unleashing a surge of creativity., Of course, this was possible and sustainable as the period also witnessed big social changes. While the centre of the Renaissance was Italy, that of the Enlightenment was England, France and Germany.


The Renaissance was a sort of bridge between the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason. Three major discoveries added to its impact: gunpower, the compass and printing. The first two facilitated colonial conquest in far-off places; the last allowed, for the first time, the widescale spread of knowledge.

Just the 50 years from 1490 to 1540 in particular witnessed giant leaps in the sphere of knowledge, as also important social changes in society. The latter was reflected in the Reformation, with Protestantism being introduced by Matrin Luther (Germany) and John Calvin (France). These, in turn, were inspired by the writings of the foremost humanist of the period, Desiderius Eramus (Holland).

It was also in this period that Thomas More wrote his ‘Utopia’ as a protest against the abuses of the day. Though he served as the Chancellor to King Henry VIII, he was beheaded when he refused to accept the King pronouncing himself as the head of the Church. It was in the first decade of the 1500s that Italy witnessed the great paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Not only were they among the greatest artists ever, but they were also scientists and philosophers combined into one.

It is also in this period that we see the first steps towards colonial conquest. In the 1490s Vasco da Gama discovered India and Christopher Columbus, America. In 1519 the Spanish Empire spread to Central and South America. Finally, we see that the Enlightenment was ushered in by the great scientific discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo; the works of the great dramatist ever, William Shakespeare (1566-1616); and the writings of the fathers of modern philosophy, Francis Bacon (UK, 1561-1626) and Descartes (France, 1596-1650).

Enlightenment—Age of Reason

The period of the Enlightenment, 17th and 18th centuries, witnessed enormous churning in all spheres of life—the socio-economic, political, scientific and philosophical fields. It was a period of transition from feudalism to capitalism. In the sphere of socio-political turmoil there were the following: the 30-year war between the Catholics and Protestants from 1618 to 1648; the seven-year civil war in Britain—1642 to 1649—resulting in the beheading of King Charles I and the establishment of Parliament; the American War of Independence from 1775 to 1783. And all these culminated finally in the historic French Revolution of 1789. In the sphere of the sciences there were Kepler’s discoveries in Astronomy published in 1609; this was immediately followed by Galileo’s famous discoveries; in 1628 William Harvey published a description of the circulation of the blood; in 1687 came Newton’s Principa Mathematica; in 1705 the steam pump was discovered; and in 1709 came James Watt’s steam engine facilitating the industrial revolution.

Probably in no other period of recorded history has there been such a spate of well-known philosophers as during these two centuries. It produced three major schools of philosophy—the rationalists, the empiricists and the idealists. While much of the debate revolved around the existential question of the primacy of mind or matter, in their bid to understand man’s relation to the outer world, they also focused on questions of freedom, humanity/justice and happiness.

In the rationalist school the big names were Descartes, Spinoza and Leibnitz; among the empiricists there were Locke, Berkeley and Hume, also Spencer; and the idealistic school of thought was initiated by Emmanual Kant, and followed by Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. These are just a few of the names, there were many more. And together with these the two great French philosophers, Voltaire and Rousseau, propounded the concepts of freedom, equality and justice, and their views had a major impact on the French Revolution.

It was, in fact, Origen who was one of the first authors of this period to write a treatise on freedom. His famous work, De Principiis, is a remarkably profound and systematic work on free will. According to Origen, men are free; truly man is everywhere in chains, but it is, in Origen’s opinion, his own responsibility that is the cause of his enslavement. Origen asserts that Divine Providence allows man’s free will full scope in his cooperation with God. He says that if a believer takes away the element of free will from virtue, he destroys its essence.

Here, not only does the author make a break with the fate-centred concepts of most religions, but also links the question of humanity (virtue) to the question of freedom.

Acquinas distinguishes between the free choice of humans and the natural instincts of animals. Descartes regards freedom of the human will, or liberty of choice, as so important that he compares it with the concept of Divine Infinity. He presents it simply as having the power of choosing to do a thing or choosing not to do it. He holds that the power of free will is the greatest perfection in humans, through the exercise of which we become masters of our actions, and thereby merit praise or blame
In the sphere of values/virtue, it was Spinoza’s masterpiece ‘Ethics’ that had a major impact on future philosophers like Goethe, Hegel and even Marx. ‘Ethics’ is a work of ethical philosophy, whose ultimate aim is to aid in the attainment of happiness. For Spinoza, all affects were to be divided into passive affects (passions), through which man suffers and does not have an adequate idea of the reality, and active affects (generosity and fortitude), in which man is free and productive. He adds that while reason shows man what he ought to do in order to be truly himself and teaches him what is good, the way to achieve virtue is through the active use man makes of his powers. Famously Spinoza said: “Happiness is not the reward of virtue, but is virtue itself”, and he put forward a ‘Model of Human Nature’ as a scientific concept. He adds that virtue is identical with the realisation of man’s nature.

For Spinoza, Goethe, Hegel as well as for Marx, man is alive only inasmuch as he is productive: inasmuch as he grasps the world outside himself in the act of expressing his own specific human powers, and of grasping the world with these powers. In this productive process man realises his own essence, he returns to his own essence, which in theological language (according to Spinoza) is nothing other than his return to God.

Scientific ethics was further elaborated by John Dewey. Like Spinoza, he postulates that objectively valid value propositions can be arrived at by the power of reason; for him, too, the aim of human life is the growth and development of man, in terms of his nature and constitution. But, his opposition to fixed ends leads him to reject Spinoza’s ‘Model of Human Nature’.

Here, I have in no way done justice to the elaborate views presented by the philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries on questions of freedom, humanity (also called ethics, virtue etc.) and happiness.

Here, I have tried to present a small sample of the type of thinking taking place in these spheres during this period.

There was a deep search for the meaning of life within life itself. In the earlier period, the search was mostly within the realm of rapport with God. Now, though Divinity often still played some part with most, the emphasis was to find answers within society itself.

D. Age of Science

And as we come into the 19th century, we could say one has shifted from the ‘Age of Reason’ to the ‘Age of Science’; and this has continued uptil today. The advances in sciences in the 19th and 20th centuries would be greater than all hitherto history put together. Capitalist production demanded continuous scientific research to increase productivity, and big powers required continuous upgradation of weaponry. So, scientific advance has literally reached the moon, nay the Mars. The positive aspects of this was it developed a scientific temper. With it God was given a back-seat, only to be utilised as an opium of the masses. The scientific temper demanded no longer mere ‘reason’ but concrete evidence for any postulation.

Though this approach was also put forward by the empiricist philosophers of the earlier period, it was not so clear-cut. Scientific discoveries one after another widened man’s horizons beyond anything earlier imaginable. (It is another matter that science has wrought unimaginable destruction as well—in wars, of the environment, and even of man. However, that was not the fault of science per se, but of those who wielded it.) But, somehow with all this scientific fever and ever new gadgetary ethics was lost, values were considered old-fashioned, freedom was merely reduced to the free market and right to vote, and happiness was, de facto, equated with pleasure. Market fundamentalism and crass consumerism reduced philosophical materialism (primacy of matter over mind) to vulgar materialism which added to the destruction of man’s spiritual values—his emotions, feelings, and his very humanity. No doubt there has of late been a reaction to this materialism; but this is as bad as the former. It is in the form of religion; religion minus its value-system, with a fundamentalist, intolerant and hate-oriented form. This is to be seen in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, even Buddhism (as in Sri Lanka). So, humanity has been lost by both the ‘materialists’ and today’s religionists.

Now, coming back to the philosophers of the early 19th century, we find that most of the answers to the existential questions raised by the earlier philosophers was found by Marx. But, even before Marx we find utopian socialist idealistic views presented by philosophers like Fourier, St. Simon etc.; the dialectics of Hegel; we see the materialism and humanism of Feurerbach; as also the political economy of Adam Smith and Ricardo. Marx took much from these past philosophers and economists, but he did not confine his views within the framework of their debates; he took a major leap in the realm of thought by interlinking the concepts of freedom, justice, humanity, happiness etc. with a scientific analysis of the prevalent capitalist system. For, Marx sought not merely to interpret the world but to change it Change it did with socialism sweeping one-third of the world during the 20th century. But, by the end of that century all those huge changes were reversed. So, were his views utopian?

Well, during the recent financial crisis it was reported that there was an upsurge in reading Marx to understand the crisis. But, that is regarding the present system; what about the future?

In the 1990s, it was postulated that with capitalism we have reached the ‘End of History’. But even these authors have revised their views since the unending crisis beginning 2008. Like all human endeavours and scientific discoveries, however great, they will have the limitations of time, existing knowledge and prevalent conditions. If Marx’s writings are turned into some infalliable gospel, Marxism de facto becomes a new religion. But here I seek to bring out Marx’s understanding of the concepts under discussion—freedom, humanity, happiness—to better understand not only the causes for the reversals, but also the impact of the lack of these values in today’s prevailing existence. I will not dwell on his concepts of justice as those are well known except, of course, in their interconnection with the above concepts.

Very often Communists give a crude under-standing to the term class struggle, totally negating the individuals who comprise the “class”. This sort of thinking results in economic determinism on the one hand, and, on the other, it sees only the forest and not the trees. It tends to reduce people into mere instruments/tools of change, forgetting that change is for those very people themselves.

It tends to put everyone into straitjackets where any sign of emotion, feelings etc. are ‘bourgeois sins’ and ‘class’ rigidity is the only virtue, even if it entails the “Mani syndrome” (who in Kerala said we kill all those who dissent/oppose). So, humanity is said to be non-class; so also freedom and happiness. Once this was said about caste as well.

In further articles we will see how these are not only misconceived and blinkered views, but precisely those that resulted in reversals to socialism. For the present, I will restrict myself to briefly mention what Marx had to say on these issues. I will have to be forgiven for quoting at length. As these views of Marx are little known, if I do not quote the original I may be accused of misrepresentation. Under normal circumstances it would be best not to quote too much as that is the method of dogmatists with a tendency to lose creativity.

Here I will just present the basic concepts on these issues in brief. Later I will try and develop these, while applying them to alienation today and also the socialist reversals.

E. Marx and Freedom

As I mentioned is my earlier article, besides defining freedom as the consciousness of necessity, Marx outlined at length how alienation in the capitalist production process deprives man of his freedom, de facto turning him into a commodity. It was Hegel who, is fact, first used the term alienation. For Marx, as for Hegel, the concept of alienation is based on the distinction between existence and essence; on the fact that man’s existence is alienated from his essence; that in reality he is not what he could be.

Marx outlined how alienation operates in the capitalist system of production. While comparing it with earlier forms of production, he said (Capital, Vol. I): “In handicrafts and manufacture (the earlier mode), the workman makes use of the tool; in the factory, machines make use of him. There the movements of the instrument of labour proceed from him; here it is the movement of the machine that he must follow. In manufacture, the workmen are part of a living mechanism; in the factory we have a lifeless mechanism independent of the workman, who becomes its mere living appemdage.” This, in fact, was beautifully portrayed by Charlie Chaplin in his film Modern Times.

As a result of this type of relationship in the production process, Marx added (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts—EPM): “A direct consequence of the alienation of man from the product of his labour, from his life activity and from his species-life is that man is alienated from other men. When man confronts himself, he also confronts other men. What is true of man’s relationship to his work, to the product of his work, and to himself, is also true of his relationship to other men, to their labour and to the objects of their labour. In general, the statement that man is alienated from his species-life means that each man is alienated from others, and that each of the others is likewise alienated from human life.”

Then Marx goes on to show how the production system totally dehumanises man. He adds (EPM): “Production does not simply produce man as a commodity, the commodity man, man in the role of a commodity, it produces him in keeping with this role as a spiritually and physically dehumanised being—the immorality, deformity and hibernation of the workers and capitalists. Its product is the self-conscious and self-acting commodity—the human commodity.”

This was written over 150 years ago. There is no comparison between the factories of those days and the highly automated production of today, where everyone is a mere cog in the giant global industrial machine. The more sophisticated the technology, the less the need for skill, and more mundane and repetitive the task. Even the middle-class jobs of clerks, accountants etc. are much the same; those of salesmen are even worse where they are forced to act roles, maintaining artificial smiles to please customers; worse still is the role of call-centre employees, where they must not only have a fake identity, but also a false accent/voice; and if one turns to models, actors, TV people, even their bodies are fake—made up artificially. Today the entire life has reached extremes of artificiality and the levels of alienation are so extreme that mind-related (tension-associated) diseases and deaths have reached epidemic levels, not to mention the unheard-of levels of suicides. When Marx spoke of alienation, it would not have been even one per cent of what it is today. Such acute levels of alienation bring with them a total lack of freedom (becoming slaves to the images we seek to maintain), unhappiness, and lack of self-confidence. And people with such deep insecurities are the most prone to fascist and fundamentalist values as they are desperate for recognition and an identity outside themselves.

In fact for Marx, independence and freedom are based on the act of self-creation and self-assertion, exactly opposite to that of the above type of insecure individuals. He says (EPM): “A being does not regard himself as independent unless he is his own master, and he is only his own master when he owes his existence to himself.” Further, Marx adds that man is inde-pendent only “… if he affirms his individuality as a total man in each of his relations to the world—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, willing, loving—in short if he affirms and expresses all organs of his individuality.”
Indeed the maximum the flowering of one’s individuality, the greater is a person’s creativity and effectivity. Unfortunately, often even in people’s organisations we tend to see the relation between the leader and the cadres similar to that between the boss and his clerk in an office. The cadres often have little individuality, little ability to make decisions independently and therefore little impact on the people. In such cases the leader tends to monopolise to himself all ‘creativity’, authority etc., while the cadre is forced into a claustrophobic existence. And if the leader-cadre relation is further cemented by money dependency, the boss-babu relation is complete. In India’s feudal/casteist culture such structures/relations evolve spontaneously if one is not alert against it.

So, this brings us back to the question of MONEY—it is not only the source of satisfying all needs, today it is the source of power. Money is a necessity, it is also the source of what is rotten in this system. This contradiction cannot be wished away, but has to be taken cognisance of, and dealt with by those seeking change. Marx said (EPM): “The need for money is the real need created by the modern economy, and the need which it creates. The quantity of money becomes increasingly its only important quality —excess and immoderation become its true standard. This is shown subjectively partly in the fact that the expansion of production and of needs becomes an ingenious and always calculating subservience to inhuman, depraved, unnatural and imaginary appetites.”

Then, elaborating on the alienating effect of money, Marx added: “Everything which the economist takes from you in the way of life and humanity, he returns to you in the form of money and wealth. And everything which you are unable to do, your money can do for you, it can eat, drink, go to the theatre. It can acquire art, learning, historical treasures, political power; and it can travel. It can appropriate all these things for you … But, although it can do all this, it only Desires to create itself, and to buy itself; for everything else is subservient to it.” Marx also famously added that “the production of too many useful things results in too many useless people”. And that a man who has thus become subject to his alienated needs is “a mentally and physically dehumanised being … the self-conscious and self-acting commodity”.

So, through all these writings (and more) Marx outlines at length how this unjust system destroys every aspect of man—his humanity, his freedom, his happiness. And, of course, all this to perpetuate an exploitative system. Quite obviously, his call for a just order entails bringing out all that is best in man, resulting in freedom and happiness. His concept of justice does not merely mean satisfying man’s economic needs, but also fulfilling his spiritual needs and thereby creating happiness for the majority of people.

C. Summing Up

So we see that throughout history, the struggle for people’s emancipation has been intrinsically linked to man’s search for freedom, humanity and happiness. This we particularly see throughout the 2000-year history of the prophets of West Asia. Even in China we find that Confucius, while seeking an ideal society, was hounded in his later years.

Surprisingly in India, it seems the mainstream religion/philosophy has remained more or less independent of the struggles for people’s emancipation. (Historians need to study this.) But, here too the Charvakas, Lokayats and some other schools of thought at that time, as also some of the bhakti saints, linked their ideas with people’s issues and did face repression at the hands of the establishment.

Another factor to note is that economic justice is only one aspect of people’s emancipation. The economic determinists tend to equate the two. The tragedy is that the bulk of humanity is even worse off than animals, who at least have their food, water and habitat. By such logic the determinists seek to merely bring man to the level of animals! But, there are also many other aspects to people’s emancipation like social (caste, gender etc.), religious, spiritual/ethical, environ-mental (man’s relation with nature), educational and recreational (language, sports, music, theatre, art, literature etc.); sexual and man-woman relations, questions of alienation, questions of dignity of labour (important in this feudal/Brahminical culture), and of course genuine political empowerment, with the right of all to live with self-respect and dignity. Though economic justice may be the starting point, unless all other aspects are developed step by step (that is, consciously) societal change will not sustain, as we have seen in the erstwhile socialist countries.

Of course, this is easier said than done, as the international powers with their enormous ability at subversion and moral corruption, as also the force of past habits, tend to destabilise the process of change. In order to prevent these forces from impacting the process of change, the Communist Parties, and particularly their leaderships, maintained tight controls over most aspects of peoples’ lives. But, did it stop the reversals? Not only did they revert, in every case it was that very leadership, who controlled ‘tight’ reins of power, that was the first to revert. This was the case everywhere—the USSR, China, East Europe—and it was these very leaders who became the new elite. And ironically it was precisely these ‘tight controls’ that prevented any resistance to the reversals. That there was not much opposition is another aspect… But, more on this later, when we deal with the subject, freedom and socialism.

Here, to conclude, we see that in the history of society, man’s search for meaning in life goes far beyond meeting the basic economic necessi-ties. He has sought fulfilment in all other spheres of life, which can be realised through a set of ethical values, which alone will allow humanity to flower in the fresh breeze of freedom. Invariably the class that ruled resisted such positive values developing in the people; so the struggle for ideas/values has continued through-out history. And, as we will see in the next article, it continues till this day.
(To be continued)

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