Saturday, November 20, 2004

More about Ram Guha

Ramachandra Guha has an interesting column on Dom Moraes in today's Hindu. But this post is not about Moraes, but about Guha. At some point in his article, he quotes Isaiah Berlin.

    Isaiah Berlin once described the political tradition to which he belonged as being composed of a "small, hesitant, self-critical, not always brave, band of men who occupy a position somewhere to the left of centre, and are morally repelled both by the hard faces to their right and the hysteria and mindless violence and demagoguery on their left ... This is the notoriously unsatisfactory, at times, agonising, position of the modern heirs of the liberal tradition."
Some hard faces on the right. On the left -- hysteria, mindless violence, and demagoguery. A liberal who sees more harm on the left than on the right? I think in Berlin's case, this is perfectly understandable. For,
    Isaiah Berlin’s response to the Soviet Union was central to his identity, both personally and intellectually. Born a Russian subject in Riga in 1909, he spoke Russian as a child and witnessed both revolutions in St. Petersburg in 1917, emigrating to the West in 1921. He first returned to Russia in 1945, when he met the writers Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak. These formative encounters helped shape his later work, especially his defense of political freedom and his studies of pre-Soviet Russian thinkers. [From the description of "The Soviet Mind" at Amazon]
Guha is an ardent admirer of liberal sensibilities. He is a proud heir to the liberal tradition that Isaiah Berlin spoke of. He perceives a decline of the liberal thought in India, and often laments over that. For instance, see his EPW article -- "The Absent Liberal". So far so good. But as a historian based in India, is it okay for Guha to be a verbatim Berlin? The single most threatening force in today's India is from the RSS, from the right. In India, you see "hysteria, mindless violence, and demagoguery" only on the right. You might see a few "hard faces" on the left though. (Irfan Habib is not a Narendra Modi, and Namboodiripad was not a Stalinist). Unfortunately, Guha often deliberately chooses to be verbatim Isaiah Berlin. He described himself at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (2003) thus:
    I describe myself as someone with moderate views with extreme expression… I am only just left of centre. I have found people that are far left can be much worse than far right views.
I only hope that he was misquoted.


At 9:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ram guha might have a personal axe to grind with some left intellectuals, who can be as intolerant of dissidence as anybody else. that is a guess one could make from his statements - he seems to be airing a personal grievance rather than making an ideological statement. employing the quote from isaiah berlin is probably only a scholarly decoy.

and juxtaposing in comparison modi and habib seems a repetition of the error which is being attempted to be pointed out.

and as for the second quote from guha, he has a point. it is often empirically true that extreme left and extreme right are quite similar - ideology is pretty much like a horseshoe magnet where the two poles actually are (uncomfortably) close.

At 11:00 PM, Blogger Anand said...

Perhaps Guha has personal issues with a few "left intellectuals". Perhaps not. But several of his essays do indicate that he has problems with the "left". (That's perfectly fine by the way. I like Guha's writings very much).

Ideology being a horseshoe magnet: It's one's belief, and good imagery perhaps! I do not think it's true. I definitely do not think it's "empirically" true.

At 9:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

in the indian context, the left scores way above the far right, or the center for that matter (guha himself has emphatically noted at least once the near total absence of leftists among the ranks of the (in)famously corrupt politicians in india). however, from a global perspective, the horseshoe acquires a certain truth value beyond mere beliefs and prejudices - unless of course, if one were to say that what happened under stalin and mao was not "the real thing".

it appears that in india, the electoral process has, so far, kept the left anchored to its core human values better and enabled it to play a more purely constructive role (and saved it from running away to oppressive totalitarianism).

At 12:29 AM, Blogger Anand said...

According to me, you've got it absolutely right. Two things that place the Indian left on a high pedestal are (i) they gain (and lose) power through elections, and (ii) there's a vibrant inner party democratic machine; their own leaders are always elected. Thus even when they are able to form the government for a period continuously, there are certain checks and balances; nobody gets absolute power.

At 2:28 AM, Blogger Aswin said...

I am pretty new to the blogosphere and seeing many prominent journos/writers..I shot off a mail to Ram Guha asking him to blog, so that there is a one-point access to his stuff. He said he will make an effort after "The Modern History of India" is completed!

At 12:37 PM, Blogger pennathur said...


You have a long way to go before you lose your illusions. It is hard to be kind to a bunch of bootlickers of mass murderers like Lenin, Stalin and Mao, who even today will not come clean about their perifidy at many crucial points of the history of 20th century India . Be it during the freedom struggle when people like Jyoti Basu served as paid informers of the Brits (which is why JP, Patwardhan, and other socialists detested them) or during the Chinese invasion of India in 1962 when EMS pleaded with the USSR to support China against his own country (and when Mani Shankar Aiyar raised funds for China as a student in England) or during these perilious times when tinpot commissars like Karat confabulate in secret with Pol Potist butchers like Bhattarai and Prachanda. The Communists in India have coldly used violence to establish authority in WB and Kerala where in large parts of the State the Party is the Administration settling civil and even criminal cases. It has amassed a huge warchest in very capitalistic ways - newspapers, beedi factories, petty extortion (ask the residents of Siliguri about Charu Mazumdar's son's) and very soon will rake in the moolah thru an amusement park, hospitals and universities. The Left chokehold over India's educational system has left our fields of thought an intellectual wasteland. The harebrained economic ideas of the Left have seen India squander the opportunities of the 1950s that saw Japan forge ahead of the rest of Asia and the waves of the 60s and 70s that saw Singapore, S. Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia break out of stagnation and the heady 80s that saw China surging ahead. The traitorous role of the Leftist scum in the 40s is well known and now the Mitrokhin papers have shown these thugs to be nothing better than two bit thieves in the 50s and 60s. Much more remains to be written about the continuing perifidy of these crooks thru the last 40 years. Like the fact that the Commie crooks of India have never once condemned China's nuclear tests but wanted to run a float on R-Day 1999 condemning Pokhran-2! Isn't it interesting that the sanctimonious South Indian China Post (aka The Hindu) isn't squeaking out a word about the Mitrokhin papers? Its devotion to the Chinese Communists' party line has been so slavish that it has not since the ascent of N.Ram criticised Chinese policies even once. That sort of slavish devotion reveals a dangerously compromised line of thought and a total lack of conscience. When even the Guardian notes the anniversary of the Tian-an-Men Massacre with solemneity and the press around the world condemns state-organised thuggery inflicted in Beijing against the Japanese Mission; The Hindu glibly tut'tuts homilies at the Japanese and asks them to grin and bear it. Of course forget for a moment that the Frontline was the only paper from a free country to pay its praise to that thankfully departed North Korean Stalin Kim Il Sung (as it now bleats out the virtues of Kim Jong Il). Ram Guha's veneer of civility seems to have held up this time in his disapproval of leftist thuggery. It shd. The thugs of the Mimic Marx (what Naipaul calls Jyoti Basu) have a long history of organised violence in WB. In those good old days of the 'communist paradise' bandhs were a frequenct occurence in WB. Public sector employees would try to beat the bandh by staying back overnight on the eve of the bandh to keep the offices going the next day. How did the Mimic Marx deal with this definace of the party line? Cleverly. Red ruffians incensed by this antipeople activity soon made it a habit to sneak into offices on the eve of the bandh (with police protection of course) and thrash the 'enemies of the people' terrorising them not to be foolhardy. The Left has made a fine art of keeping its seamy side hidden from the public eye. In WB over the last 30 years the line between petty criminals and the party cadre has blurred so much that now the two are one and the same. Recently in Bangladesh a Islamic terrorist who was arrested has been found to be a member of the CPI(M) in WB and a registered voter in that district.

I am sure you and many of the intellectuals of India (yes I do consider people like you to be learned) know all this but rationalize your doubts away. It is not the first time that intellectuals have done this. It happened during the great "Soviet experiment" of the 30s (10 million dead) and the Maoist tyranny (50 million killed) when people like Joan Robinson quenched the their conscience and put on a brave face (There Is No Alternative). I guess it is a mentality that one must go thru and get over to grow and develop. But today India is poised at a dangerous cusp. In earlier pivotal times all we did not have much to lose. But today it is different. Further dalliance with the decripit ideology of the Left risks breaking up the acheivements of the last 15 years when India has finaly shaken off that accomodation with mediocrity. The Left in India would dearly love to make its present home (what you and I call our country) into a receptacle for foreign ambition and turn the clock back. Let's hope they don't succeed.

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