What The Hell Is Communism And Why Should I Care ?
Trying to understand what communism really is and what good can it do to a layman in 2023.
It is 2013. Like most teens, I am going about my life. Neither am I striving for academic excellence, nor am I achieving athletic greatness. My parents don’t bother me much, apart from the occasional “you need to get serious about things, Dhyanesh” once in a while.
As we inch closer to 2014, everything is pacing up. Life seems to be changing tracks. On a daily basis, there are questions being asked of me. Differently worded questions that ultimately mean one thing : “What is your plan after you finish school ?”. Based on a mix of rational and completely irrational judgements, I come to a decision. “I want to be a lawyer”, I announce to my parents. They are perplexed. Not the happiest, but they decide to help me with my decision, because at the end of the day, something is better than nothing, right ?
A week later, I have been enrolled for the Common Law Admission Test coaching, and I am staring at a stack of study material that will help me sharpen my general knowledge, logical reasoning, legal reasoning and language.
Juggling between school, where I loved being outside the classroom more than inside, and CLAT coaching, which isn’t too different, I discover something. I discover the joy of reading a newspaper.
I think it is a Sunday because my father is home and sitting next to me reading something in the afternoon. I am there catching up on the Sunday editorial about “what the left ought to do”.
System error !
This makes no sense. What even does “what the left ought to do” mean ?
Since there is no option to quickly look up the internet, I turn to my most trusted source of knowledge. “Paa, aa left etle su ?” (Paa, what does left mean here ?), I ask him. Caught a bit off guard, he quickly skims the piece to grasp what I am asking.
He puts down the paper, removes his spectacles and says…
Not his exact words, but I remember him saying something like, “These are people who believe that everything should be owned by the government.” Maybe I am reading more than there was to it, but the way he said “these people”, I knew very clearly that my father was not one of them.
I have always believed that once you learn a new thing, you automatically start spotting it all around you in your daily life. Maybe the word had always been around you, but it just passed you by.
Between 2013-2016, a lot had happened. India had a new PM, I was no longer aspiring to be a lawyer, internet had started penetrating middle class households and if news channels were to be believed, leftist students like Kanhaiya Kumar and his ilk were the biggest threat to the nation.
As my political consciousness grew, I started noticing the words ‘right’ and ‘left’ more often than I ever had. I heard them in debates, books, articles, interviews. Call it coincidence or call it an ideological pull, but I found myself watching, reading and listening to people who unabashedly criticised right wing politics.
A pattern emerged. People who influenced popular culture, for example journalists, actors, filmmakers, writers and artists were all anti-right, and had current or past affiliations with the left movement in India. Stories of members of the progressive writers movement living in a commune in Mumbai, creating art in aspirations of a revolution fascinated me. A prominent artist, I am forgetting who, said something to the effect that being a right-wing artist was an oxymoron. I swallowed this statement like a truth pill.
Left was still a vague idea in my head. Deeper specifics about who was a communist, socialist, liberal and Marxist was too much hard work for someone who was just interested in communicating that he was not a right winger.
Just like I was a ripe recruit for the glorious and morally untainted left, my father was equally vulnerable to the state’s right wing narrative that India for long been corrupted by these western communists, and it was time that the motherland was given her lost glory back.
An unattributed quote that went viral when viral was a word only used for seasonal flu was, “If you are not a socialist at eighteen, you don’t have a heart. If you are not a capitalist at twenty five, you don’t have a mind.”
Forget having a heart and a brain, can you imagine what it feels like to be twenty five and not really knowing what communism, Marxism, socialism really mean in their truest sense ? Dumb. That’s how you feel. Especially when people before you have floated across the spectrum from loving it to hating it at a young age.
It is completely natural to question why knowing about communism and having an opinion on it is important in the first place ? It is a legitimate question that I have no answer to.
Or maybe I do have an answer, but you might have to read this till the end to find out.
Having interacted with a lot of communists at SOAS, I was sure that talking to them is going to be an exercise in futility. Their inability to talk simply and their complete disregard for people’s lack of understanding about their area of expertise has made them intellectually indolent. Considering that I was coming from a place of equally balanced naivety, curiosity and skepticism, I needed someone who spoke an understandable language and also had an ability to engage, explain and pushback where necessary.
Enter Sanket (aka Sanky). A funny and eloquent postgrad at SOAS who also happens to be a communist. What separated Sanky from the others was his intellectual honesty. While discussing the hypocrisies of the left and all that was wrong with the Indian left, he said that it was not for nothing that left parties had always ruled the roost in college politics while facing continuous electoral decimation in state and central elections. He did not say anything new, but the way he put it said something larger - socialist at 18, capitalist at 25. Remember ?
Before I dove in to understand the complicated world of communism, I wanted to see if there was more to this ideology than just big words and theoretical frameworks. Having witnessed a few RSS men, one thing that is worth complimenting is that they are doers. An RSS man can barely be seen theorising his ideas, but you can see his ideology seep into his day to day activities (and also his Whatsapp forwards.)
I asked Sanky how he led a communist life. As with most things related to communism, his response was not simple. He said that morality was a privilege and if he decided to denounce money altogether, the bank would take away his parents’ house that he had mortgaged for a loan and sell it off. So he has no option but to become a part of this capitalistic world. In that case, I asked, where does he draw a line for himself ?
His response was a personal takeaway for me. Even though it might not be possible to follow it to the tee, but just developing this lens might add something to my life. Through multiple examples, he explained how he drew a line between comfort and luxury. Comfort is where he stopped himself. He will want enough money to buy himself a pair of comfortable shoes that protect his feet, but he would never buy an expensive pair of Air Jordans. His reasoning ? Many of Nike’s original employees were said to have had affiliations with race supremacist organisations like the KKK. Did this response convince me? Not really.
I tried to push this a little further. I tried to understand how would a communist look at the very basic human desire of wanting to enter a restaurant that advertises a big juicy looking burger on the billboard outside. To this, he said, “Communism is a very theoretical idea, right ? Communist practice would be you having the right to having that burger without anyone judging you, despite the class position you come from. See capitalism is saying that you charge 15 pounds for that juicy burger and say that anyone can have it, but in reality we know that only rich people can have it. Communism says that even a poor man has the right to have the juicy burger and the access they have to that burger should not be blocked just because of their class position.” Living in the world we live in, if communism was established, it seems to me that we might not even have a burger joint. Neither for the rich, nor for the poor. Equality one way, or another.
From my limited conversation with Sanky, I realised that communism in its purest form was impossible to achieve. It seemed utopian and impractical. Even Sanky agrees to it, but his response is that just because something is unattainable doesn’t mean you stop working towards it. And that, is something that I respect.
How To Communist - TL/DR Version
Based on my interaction with Sanky and having watched a long video on the origins of socialism, I am putting down a small extract for you. There will be a few useful links in the end it you wish to dig deeper.
Communism and socialism are similar, but not the same.
Socialism ultimately aspires for equality.
To attain this aspiration, socialism attempts to mitigate hierarchies of all kind.
Communism is a type of Socialism, or we can say that socialism is the broad tradition and communism is a specific variant.
Karl Marx was the philosopher who came up with an economic and political thought which later came to be known as Marxism.
Marx saw the world divided in two primary classes. The rich (bourgeoisie) and the poor (proletariat). Backed by his rationale that he explains in his book Kapital, Marx envisioned a society where these class divisions will end, and property and wealth will be collectively owned. (I know what you are thinking. But wait, don’t react just yet.)
The main features of communism -
1- Abolition of private property.
2- Abolition of class distinction.
3-Dictatorship of the proletariate (working class people/poor people)
These pointers should hopefully help you float through a house party conversation without seeming like an ignorant fool.
It is more complex than you think it is
Before you switch tabs and go on the watch the next reel, it is important to understand that Marxism, Socialism or even Liberalism are not ideas that can be grasped in a couple of hundred words. It is simplistic to rubbish either of them as utopian or exploitative and join tribal fights on social media supporting or opposing either.
It is an undeniable reality of our lives that not making money is not going to be an option for most of us. But it is equally impossible to deny that while we accumulate wealth by using whatever means available to us, inequalities continue to thrive around us. Just look up from your phone screen right now and you might find a lady as intelligent as you mopping the floor of your house, or a man more capable than you picking up your glass of water in your office. Why ? Because they were born in the house they were born in, and you were born in the house you were born in. You have unfair advantage over other, and some people have unfair advantage over you, not just on the basis of a financial divide, but also caste, gender, skin colour, race, body type, language and more.
As promised earlier, even if you don’t aspire to become an activist/academic/ideologue (I am seriously hoping that you are not), I’ll tell you how I think communism/socialism can help you. My thoughts are much better articulated by Eduard Bernstein, a German Marxist theorist and politician. He said, “To me that which is generally called the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything.”
Tigmanshu Dhulia, in an interview explains this more simply. When asked about his father’s communist roots and how that shaped him, he says :
थोड़ी अच्छी किताबें तो पढ़वा देता है आपको । गोर्की या टॉलस्टॉय पढ़ लेते हैं, चेकोव पढ़ लेते हैं, पुश्किन पढ़ लेते हैं। और थोड़ा compassionate बना देता है आपको। कम से कम आपके साथ जो लोग काम करते हैं आप उनसे तमीज से बात तो करते हैं। कोई आके पानी रखता है तो thank you बोलते हैं। इतनी ही समानुभूति आप में क्रिएट कर दे तो कोई बुराई नहीं इस बात में। संस्कार दे देता है कम्युनिज्म एक तरीके का।
It at least makes you read a few good books. It makes you read Gorky, Tolstoy, Chekov. It also makes you compassionate. You at least start giving respect to the people who work with you. If someone comes and puts a glass of water, just saying thank you to them. Even if it creates this much empathy in you, then there is no harm in it. Communism can make you cultured.
In today’s times if an ideology can push you towards reading more and being empathetic, then despite all its impracticalities, I would still hold it in more regard than ideologies that are busy erasing history and encouraging you to hate one another.
Signing off for now.
Laal Salaam !
This is the shortest, most digestible version of what communism is, straight from the horse’s mouth.
An interesting article that I came across while researching for this post.
This video is a fantastic primer on the origins, trajectory and the current state of communism. Also a great channel to follow if you’re interested in political science !
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