The Invisible Matter between the Particular and the Universal:
Dalit Identity and Indian Parliamentary Marxism
Anilkumar Payyappilly Vijayan
Primo Levi’s writing is a sad and remarkable testimony to the ineluctable epistemological crisis one finds oneself when writing becomes an act of confronting the nuances of the particular and the universal. His writing looks directly at the unfathomable terror of modernity encapsulated in the Nazi gas chambers. The relentless skeptic that he is, his look refuses the indictment of a judge and the innocence of a helpless victim. Rather, he is seen torn between his particular Jewish identity and the universal human identity. No wonder, he was often asked whether he considered himself a Jew or a human[i]!
Every struggle and existence based on particular identification runs the risk of having to answer the same question, which delimits one’s existential choice to this or that. Dalit discourse is no exception to this metaphysical trap. One way to answer the question is to resort to the philosophical notion of freedom developed by the most significant philosopher of the critical theory, Theodore W. Adorno. In the 85th aphorism of his Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, he writes: “Freedom would be not to choose between black and white but to abjure such prescribed choices.”[ii] But here if we ask the question concerning the nature of the space that is created after abjuring all the prescribed choices, we encounter all the difficulties that the negative dialecticians posit before us as they have no name for such a place. By refusing to give ‘substance to its utopian vision’[iii], which is a fuzzy reproduction in philosophy of the traditional Jewish prohibition on naming and describing God and paradise, the Frankfurt School has always demanded a negative relationship with the mediated forms of our existence. In our exercise of freedom, we must step out of all proscriptive choices like black, white, homosexual, Muslim, Christian, Dalit, woman, aboriginal, etc., but the formidable intellectual of the Frankfurt School will not tell us what our form will be after such stepping out! Isn’t stepping out of all proscriptive choices one more proscriptive choice?
That will be engaging in solipsism. At the moment, we will look for a different line of flight than the ‘melancholy science’ of Adorno offers. Marx’s On the Jewish Question[iv], where he is at his dialectical best, is a supreme example of such a flight. The Jewish question had already been asked by Bruno Bauer, for which Marx’s essay was a rejoinder. How could the German Jews be emancipated from the Christian state that “knows only privileges”? Bauer locates two problems here. One, how could the Jews demand that the state should get rid of its Christian prejudice when the Jews themselves are not ready to get rid of their Jewish prejudice? Two, if the Jews demand recognition from the Christian state, it simply means that they recognize the state in its current form, with its oppression of the general public. If the Jews have nothing to say about the general oppression by the state, why should they clamor about the particular form of oppression that the state has in store for the Jewish people? Again, these two questions are relevant for the current Dalit politics just as they are for other identity political strategies like queer, woman, minority politics, etc. In fact, in Kerala Hameed Chennamangaloor has been for quite some time now Bruno Bauer’s ventriloquists’ dummy.
Bauer’s answer to the problem is formulated in the best of the enlightenment tradition. He sees this as a religious problem and finds an antidote to the problem in critical thinking. As long as the opposition posited by Bauer is between a religious state (the Christian state that Germany was) and a religious people (the Jews), the problem too remains a religious one. And the best way to avoid a religious problem, in Bauer’s scheme of things, is to abolish religion altogether. Once, with a critical mind, both Christians and Jews could see that their religions are “different stages in the development of the human mind” both of them could abolish their religiosity and establish human or scientific relations between one another. In other words, both the Jewish people and the state have to be secular if political emancipation is to be achieved. Up to then, neither the Jews nor the Christians in Germany are free.
Marx, at this point, finds Bauer’s analysis one-sided because he has failed to ask the right question: “What kind of emancipation is in question?” (emphasis in the original). The trouble with Bauer lies in the fact that he criticizes only the “Christian state” and not the “state as such”. And to substantiate his point Marx points out that even in a political state like the United States people are predominantly religious, a fact Bauer too agrees with. Hence, says Marx, “existence of religion is not in contradiction to the perfection of the state.” Marx is quite categorical about what he does and what is amiss in Bauer:
Since, however, the existence of religion is the existence of defect, the source of this defect can only be sought in the nature of the state itself. We no longer regard religion as the cause, but only as the manifestation of secular narrowness. Therefore, we explain the religious limitations of the free citizen by their secular limitations. We do not assert that they must overcome their religious narrowness in order to get rid of their secular restrictions, we assert that they will overcome their religious narrowness once they get rid of their secular restrictions. We do not turn secular questions into religious ones. History has long enough been merged in superstition, we now merge superstition in history. The question of the relation of political emancipation to religion becomes for us the question of the relation of political emancipation to human emancipation. We criticize the religious weakness of the political state by criticizing the political state in its secular form, apart from its weaknesses as regards religion.
Bauer’s cause becomes Marx’s effect and vice versa! The political analysis of Marx that follows the above passage, which is precise, dense and beautifully polemic in a schizoid way, is one of the remarkable feasts of intellectual vigor humanity has ever seen. It is clear from the above passage that Marx does not see Jewish question as a religious problem. In fact, he locates the problem in the very nature of the secular state, that is, bourgeoisie nation state. In its formal mode, a secular state is constituted in and through elements the existence of which the state denies formally. In other words, the secular state defines “that every member of the nation is an equal participant in national sovereignty” (emphasis in the original). At one stroke the state abolishes the distinctions of birth, social rank, education, occupation, etc. Now comes the crucial point. Abolishing these distinctions formally, the state allows these distinctions to “act in their way…and exert the influence of their special nature.” To sum up: “Far from abolishing these real distinctions, the state only exists on the presupposition of their existence; it feels itself to be a political state and asserts its universality only in opposition to these elements of its being” (emphasis mine). This thoroughly Hegelian formulation could be rephrased in this way: only by OPPOSING, and NOT by REMOVING, the distinctions based on caste, religion, region, gender, education, occupation, sexual orientation, etc (the elements of state’s being) that the STATE COMES INTO BEING as a political state. If these distinctions are not there, the state too will cease to exist, the state will wither away. That is, as long as the state remains “as such”, these distinctions are there to stay.
Marx’s point is that in its formal structure the state creates simultaneously a political man with public life and a civic man with private life because only in this force-field between the particular (civic) and the universal (political) that universal (state) is produced. In the political life, it seems, everyone is free and equal because there one, when it is a question of exercising one’s political right, is not constrained by one’s locality, caste, religion, region, gender, etc. In the civic life, in contrast to the political life, one is constrained by all these elements, that is, there are innumerable restrictions based on gender, sexual orientation, locality, caste, religion, etc, which the state has practically no control over. For example, one should not marry from within one’s gender or without one’s linguistic, caste or religious group, one should wear particular dress, or one should eat only particular food, etc.
If we look closely, it is discernable that one’s political life, in contrast to one’s civic life, is free from many constraints. As a political being of the state, one cannot be forced to perform what one is forced to perform in his or her civic life. At this point, Marx’s metaphor, like many of them in the Eighteenth Brumaire, is charged with poetic vigor: “The state is the intermediary between man and man’s freedom. Just as Christ is the intermediary to whom man transfers the burden of all his divinity, all his religious constraint, so the state is the intermediary to whom man transfers all his non-divinity and all his human unconstraint” (emphasis in the original). That is, both Christ (in the realm of spirituality) and the state (in the realm of materiality) are man’s projections. Both are the results of man’s projection of qualities onto an external body, which, if there was no projection, could be realized by man himself or herself. This projection ensures that we can be different from what is projected.
God, to redeem humanity of its sin, has taken the form of man and sacrificed his life on the cross. Such a conception of Jesus Christ always already makes it impossible that I could be Christ-like. The cross, the religious constraint, the ethical-moral constraint, which every individual has to carry is already transferred onto the shoulder of Christ. Now that he has carried it and redeemed humanity of its sin, I, as a Christian, can make all those hypocritical compromises which Christ would never have done. I, rather than showing my other cheek to the aggressor, would engage in Crusade. I would throw stones at people whom I deem unworthy. Now if someone questions me about my hypocritical life as a follower of Christ, I can easily tell her or him: “Well, I am just human. Such divine things as Christ has done could only be performed by divine beings. Don’t expect that stuff from me.”
The same happens when man transfers his or her human freedom (human unconstraint) to the intermediary known as the state. Man has the potential to break all the shackles that restrain him or her in the civic life and thus be completely free. Instead, what he or she does is to transform this potential onto the state. As a corollary, the state becomes free from the limits set by religion, gender, sexual orientation caste, region, etc. And as a political being in the political state, that is, as a citizen, man becomes free from the civic restrictions. It is precisely here man confronts a big problem. The problem precisely is that as a political being, as a citizen of the state, I feel that my life is inauthentic. And what I take to be my authentic life is lived out as an individual in the civil society. In other words, when I carry the burdens imposed upon me by the civil society that I think I am an authentic being. While the state is free, I am happy to be authentic and unfree.
Within this problematic, the question raised against Levi becomes crucial. The question that Levi faced is not whether he considered himself a political citizen or a civic individual but rather whether he considered himself a Jew or human. The choice is between his civic identity and a form of identity known as human, which we have no idea of. What do we mean by human within the duality of political citizen and civic individual created by the bourgeois nation state? Here we locate the central problem of the Marxian thought, the problem of antagonism or contradiction. It is the same human that becomes a civic individual and a political citizen. S/he is at the same time the particular and the universal. Within the constellation of the nation-state, human simultaneously is and is not. If you are a Dalit or Jew, you are an imperfect, and sometimes monstrous, human, because you have given expression to a particular (imperfect) form of humanity, that is, the Dalit or Jewish form. If you transcend your Dalit or Jewish identity and become a political citizen, you are still an imperfect human because as a political citizen you have given up your religious or spiritual essence, the vital life experience that, we think, makes us human.
Human is produced as a perfect ideal, albeit impossible, in this force-field between the particular and the universal. I think it is appropriate to bring in here an observation made by Konrad Lorenz: we ourselves are the missing linking between man and animal[v]. That is, within the formal closure ensured by the symbolic structure we can never be truly human. One is human only insofar as he or she is in not constrained by any symbolic closure, which is tantamount to saying that one is human only when one is not conscious that one is human. In that sense, if we were to believe our projection of animal life as instinctual, we must admit that animals are truly human than humans!
So our principle answer to the Indian liberal parliamentary Marxists’ intolerance toward identity politics is that their intolerance is grounded on a very poor understanding of the Marxian theoretical corpus. If you think that you can overcome people’s religious narrowness within the liberal parliamentary set up by criticizing their religious narrowness, you are repeating Bruno Bauer in contemporary times. Who are you trying to kid? The clamors for particular demands are here to stay as long as Indian state is there and as long as the Marxists are caught up in the rituals of flexing their muscles against American imperialism and blah blah in true Hedgewar patriotic style. The politics of present demands a more visionary approach than the narrow-mindedness of Indian parliamentary Marxists can offer.
So far the so-called and self-styled Indian Marxists have been teaching us Dalits the Brahminic Vedas in the language and jargon of Marxism, now want to teach them Marxism in a reverse-paternalistic fashion: read a little bit of Marx and Hegel before dishing out advice.
[i] Zizek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sidways Reflections. New York: Picador, 2008. p. 157.
[ii] Adorno, Theodore W. Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life. Trans. E. F. N. Jephcott. London: Verso, 2005. p 132.
[iii] Jay, Martin. The Dialectical Imagination: History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923-1950. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. p. 56.
[iv] All the citations are from Karl Marx’s On The Jewish Question in http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/
Anilkumar P V is an Assistant Professor of English at Govt College Thrissur. His doctoral thesis deals with the representation of dalits in Malayalam cinema. He may be reached at : +91 9447994442 / firstname.lastname@example.org