A public lecture delivered at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), organised by Azim Premji University, Bangalore on Thursday, 6 November 2014.
- As with the previous lecture of this speaker I transcribed, the present transcript also has been edited quite a bit. The speaker is prone to omit articles in his speeches, especially the definite article. These have been supplied. He also has a tendency to add additional information, often a lot of it, about his characters or topics just a sentence or phrase into a theoretical argument or exposition. These additions have therefore been moved in ways I thought appropriate.
- This lecture starts abruptly. The divisions have been added by yours truly, although where they should be are fairly obvious. And as always with lecture transcripts, the video is embedded at the end.
- For advanced students, the last section will be of particular interest. The Q&A also addresses some important questions. The point about cultural self-hatred, for instance, worries an audience member who fears that its corollary, which would be to take pride in India’s own traditions, to look at them as, to use the speaker’s words, “a resource, repository of ideas, values, and conceptual frames”, smacks of the same chauvinism and stridency, although he [the audience member] does not use these terms, that characterise the BJP. As he suggests, perhaps the gulf between the AAP (Yogendra Yadav was with the AAP at the time of the lecture) and the BJP isn’t that great; that perhaps the speaker could sit across the table with Amit Shah and talk! Yadav’s response to that criticism is, I think, important.
It appeared to me that one could go back to it’s [the idea of equality] past and recover as well as understand the ideological/doctrinal foundations. And what I am going to present to you is an overview argument — I won’t be able to get into the specifics — of four or five phases of the evolution of the idea of equality in India through the twentieth century and how we came to where we are today, and finally say a word or two about how it can possibly be recast today which is what possibly connects it to my current birth [as a politician].
I’ll begin tracing that journey from the nineteenth century because, in many ways, it is the later half of the nineteenth century that sets terms for how we were to understand the idea of equality. Just a word about the pre-colonial past. We all have a broad understanding which is that here was a caste-ridden hierarchical society that never contemplated equality. That is the very rough picture with which egalitarians look at our pre-modern past. I don’t know how many of you share that thought. But the beginning of the journey should be rethinking that assumption itself. Because what we have in the pre-modern, pre-colonial past of India are multiple ways of reflecting on equality, except that equality is understood in a very different context.
There are two contexts there: one is equality before God which is the basic unity of mankind [you find this when you look at the Bhakti tradition, Sufi tradition; it’s all about basic unity of mankind, reversal of material hierarchy in view of matters spiritual] and the other is equality within the self which is equanimity. These two are dominant ways of thinking about equality.
This of course is very unfamiliar to modern egalitarians because modern egalitarians want to understand equality in material terms. They want to understand it in terms of distributive equality in terms of goods and commodities. This is not available in that tradition and, therefore, it was very easy for modern egalitarians to say that this was a caste hierarchical society and had no notions of equality. This is just a small footnote and we move on.
The first stop is the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the 1870s, you have three texts that come up in three different parts of India.
[Comment: More accurately, in the 1860s and 1870s. The date for the first text he mentions (see below) is 1867 and not 1876, as he puts it. Clearly, this is an inadvertent, perhaps a careless, error.]
The first is by a less known Marathi thinker called Vishnubuva Brahmachari [1825–71, born Vishnu Bhikaji Gokhale] who wrote this very unusual tract called सुखदायक राज्यप्रकरणी निबंध [Sukhdaayak Rajyaprakarni Nibandh, translated as “Concerning the Ideal State”, 1867]. It’s a little Plationian vision and it basically advocates communism. He has no western education and he not familiar with any of the western ideas of communism or something of that kind but he proposes an ideal state, somewhat similar to Plato’s Ideal State where property is to be vested in state, where caste is to be abolished, children are to be handed over to kings, and the state is to arrange for education and marriage. This is written in 1867 and by someone who has no formal western education or connect. Equality is treated in material terms. Also, it is not an organising principle of society.
In 1873, we have another text, somewhat better known, by Jyotiba Phule [1827–90, Jyotirao Govindrao Phule] called गुलामगिरी [Gulamgiri, “Slavery”]. Phule has an English education; he is influenced by European religion and radicals in American revolution. There is a conscious deployment of western categories: freedom, equality, rights. But he twists it by bringing the focus on caste, and subjects the caste system and Brahmanic dominance to a comprehensive critique. Unusually, for his times, he extends this critique to man–woman relations — one of the first Indian thinkers to think about what we would call today “feminism”. He deploys culture and mythology. Phule is no nationalist and he actually supports British regime.
In 1879, in Bengal, comes a very famous essay by a very well known thinker, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (or Chatterjee), called Samya [Equality]. And most academics who write about the history of the idea of equality usually begin their journey with this essay. This is the first essay written in India which is aware of the western egalitarian tradition and carefully casts itself in that tradition. He is familiar with European socialism and communism. He is not interested in their metaphysics, their philosophy of history and things of that sort. His attention is to the concept of equality and what is specific is his critique of social differences beyond natural differences. He too does a critique of inequality in man–woman relationship as well as exploitation of peasantry. He is also a staunch nationalist. Having written this very first pioneering essay on the idea of equality, he strangely, and formally, withdraws that essay in 1892 saying essentially that what he said was silly. Why? Because the idea of equality is in tension with the idea of nationalism. As a nationalist, he does not want to be seen as exposing fissures in his society, to talk about peasantry, Zamindars and all kinds of inequality.
What we get in these three texts, briefly introduced, is, first, a shift in the idea of equality, he received idea of equality — remember that notion of equality before God, and inner equality. Equality becomes the organising principle of a good society. Equality is now at the centre of thinking about future society which it was not before. Second, it is also shifted to a different domain. That’s to say, it is shifted from a moral and metaphysical and spiritual to the more familiar — to us, today — domain of distribution of material goods, to the distribution of justice. Third, the bearer of responsibility — which earlier was me unto myself — is now the State which is tasked with providing equality. We have now the beginning of somewhat familiar notions of equality which happens in the late nineteenth century.
Let me jump to the early twentieth century. It’s fascinating period, not quite well-researched. And I would urge those of you who may have some interest in the history of ideas to look at this period. The nineteenth century has been explored and looked at. The early twentieth century is fascinating because Indians by this time know that there is socialism, there is communism, they have an idea. Except that the information is fairly limited. This is a period of what I call free translations. We have a broad idea of what socialism might mean and then we do a lot of value addition of our and say this is socialism, this is Marxism, this is communism.
One exemplary text of that sort is Lala Har Dayal‘s Karl Marx: A Modern Rishi . The title gives you something: Karl Marx is a rishi. Har Dayal has an English education, has been educated abroad, founded of the Ghadar party in the US, and wrote Hints for Self Culture  which became a very famous book. He offers a very sympathetic exposition of Marxist ideas and life but, interestingly, the focus is more on Marx’s life than on Marx’s ideas. It is Marx, the rishi, who undergoes difficulties, who undergoes self-sacrifice — that is the one AHar Dayal highlights.
There is a fairly accurate depiction of Marx’s ideas, but what is his judgment about those ideas? He finds them one-sided and defective, and too focussed on the moral message of communism which is that land should belong to the community. His emphasis is on Marx’s character and he nicely assimilates Marx into nationalism. That is why official histories of Marxism in India are very uneasy about this book. Either they don’t mention this book. Or if they mention, they sort of say, but he never understood Marx. Because, in a sense, what he is doing is that he is incorporating Marx in a native register of sensibilities, of what is in the nationalist movement, and a register of Indian sensibilities of what is it worth celebrating about Karl Marx.
After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Indian Hindi magazines are full of essays and reports about Karl Marx, and reports about socialism, on the experiment of Russia and there is the feeling that Indians must bring the news to their compatriots except that the news is very inadequate; they don’t really know facts. Now, this can be seen as a problem but I look at it as an occasion for creativity. This was the one short period when Indian reading of socialism and Marxism was at its creative best. Lack of information gives you a lot of room to be creative. So, Indians were mixing their interpretation. There were value additions in terms of facts, imaginations, dreams. That phase is really worth looking at because, in a sense, Indians were writing their dreams into what they thought was Russia. This was a period when Indian socialism was experimental. It is, as i said, a period of free translations. I read your text and I translate it freely to say what I think it means.
This period is to my mind interesting because in this open ended engagement with the idea of equality, Marxist ideas are selectively received and rearranged. At some stage, I called it a pidgin socialism — pidgin as in pidgin languages, pidgin and creole languages where they pick a few words and phrases from a mother language and using those words, you describe the entire universe. So Indian socialism at his stage was a pidgin language where the received vocabulary of Marxism and socialism was truncated, cut into pieces, and rearranged. That’s what we were witnessing at that time. Of course, official Marxism, or the official left, does not think very much about that phase because it’s embarrassing. I really think that’s one of the most creative phases of Indian socialism and the Indian left.
Interestingly, there was no specification about how India was to be read. How should an egalitarian look at India was still an open question. Left to your imagination and your reading. Then comes the guillotine. In 1922, a Bengali thinker produces which signals the end of imagination, end of creativity, and the end of free-floating ideas. The thinker is Manabendra Nath Roy [1887–1954, born Narendra Nath Bhattacharya] and the book is India in Transition. Unlike all these other people, Roy actually has read Marx; he knows European languages; he has some access to German; he has travelled; he has actually seen it: in fact, in 1921 he has just been invited to Russia by Lenin and he has a brief encounter with Lenin. Roy writes a book explaining what is India and what is a correct egalitarian reading of India. I really think that once you read that book, you can almost read the history of the next seventy years of left Marxist writings of India because he establishes a paradigm. Its an astonishing work: its marked both by the brilliance of his imagination and the power of his writing. The trouble of course is that all such powerful writings tend to constrain future imaginations.
[Roy’s life is something which you can incidentally read like a thriller. It’s an astonishing story of an Indian revolutionary who set out to purchases arms, ends up in Mexico, becomes a leading political figure in Mexico, goes to Europe, makes friends with Lenin, goes to advice the Chinese communist party about how to create revolution in China — thankfully they did not listen to him, and comes back, sets up a communist party in India and so on.]
India in Transition is preceded by a shorter book which he wrote in 1918. This book had been written in Mexico. It was called India: Her Past, Present and Future. For someone inclined to do research, it would be very instructive to compare this book with the book he wrote four years later because both the books offer dramatically different readings of India and tells you what happens to Roy when he converts to Marxism.
What India in Transition is to place India in a European trajectory. It puts it on a graph and enables you to plot India, where the axes are familiar and given, borrowed from European history. He says capitalism is already established in India. However, the bourgeoisie is weak and cannot be robustly anti-colonial. It’s 1922 and Roy is writing it in Europe. There has already been the rise of the proletariat and intense class struggle has begun in India. Caste system, he says is already finished. Class is the reality of India. Congress’ nationalism represents an unreliable character of the capitalist class, and therefore what you need is national liberation with socialist revolution. [Sorry, this is a five line summary of a 400-page book.]
Roy establishes this framework of understanding India. What is interesting about this new paradigm, this new orthodoxy, is that it invites you to think of India as a country which is in transition. The name itself is very interesting. Transition presupposes two poles: both an origin, one where it started and a telos, one towards which it is transiting. Roy has a deep faith in European modernity and he has the peculiar habit of describing every Indian event with a parallel in European history. So, every single Indian character is a distorted version of a true and authentic European character.
Equality is of course distributive and he combines it with militant nationalism. Unlike Bankim, he has no difficulty in reconciling Nationalism, anti-colonialism with a critique of inequality within. So, in this paradigm, you have strong universalism where the contingencies of European experience are seen as natural and necessary forms through which every society has to pass. There is also a distance from anything traditional. It simply turns its back on India’s intellectual resources. Because that would be backward, that would be chauvinist, that would be conservative: he turns his back to all that. India’s specificity is understood as a transient and surface specificity which very soon will give way to proper correct forms that you would find in European history.
So, the idea that what you witness today is only a recent or distant past of Europe is an idea that firmly gets entrenched with Roy. There is a unitary view of India. That India may have diversity within and could actually comprise all kinds of social forms and production forms is something that doesn’t interest him and you can’t blame someone who is writing that first book which gives you an overview. And what you have is a text-centric experience-distant view of reality. There is no space for experiences and practices of actors. The categories that the actors themselves use are useless because they don’t understand what is really happening. Now, all that I have described continued to be strong hallmarks of Marxist readings of Indian society for the next fifty to sixty years to come. Strong universalism, distance from traditions, Indian specificity as a transient form, unitary view of India in some ways, and text-centric experience-distant view of reality. That’s why I think Roy is simply such a powerful figure for the twentieth century.
After that, there is a long period — from the 1920s to the next sixty years. There are at least two traditions in this period. There is an orthodox tradition and there is an unorthodox tradition. The orthodox tradition is what faithfully follows more or less the framework set by Roy. Interestingly, Roy’s own framework allowed for two or three different readings which is what the left in India kept playing with. In the orthodox tradition, I would put India’s official communists who were radical in many ways but their ideas are what I would call conformist. The CPI, the CPI(M), the Naxalites: all of them work within the frame given by Roy. The Congress socialists, specially the BSP and the Janata family and the Congress left, all of them are part of this orthodox tradition. The BSP tradition of socialism also very much falls within that orthodox reading. At the same time, you have an unorthodox/heterodox tradition which emerges because this idea of equality enters into an encounter with something outside. What was that outside? It could be two or three things? One is the encounter with Gandhi. This encounter was a source of so much of soul searching and creative thinking as to how to engage with the old man, a concern that bothered the Indian left, especially the socialists, a great deal.
Within the Indian left there were the communists who were outside, and the socialists who became part of the Congress and were within. Specially those who were within has serious existential anxieties about how to deal with the old man. Partly because the old man was very kind. So, Jayprakash Narayan was the son-in-law of Mahatma Gandhi because Gandhiji had adopted his wife as his daughter. And interestingly, the first proper Marxist critique of Gandhi was written by Narayan living as Gandhi’s son-in-law in his ashram where he says Gandhi may be a nice person but in the last instance he is an agent of the bourgeoisie. The point is that you have these existential encounters that keep happening. The encounter with Gandhi leads people like Narayan, Vinoba Bhave [1895–1982, Vinayak Narahari Bhave], Rammanohar Lohia [1910–67] and Acharya Javadekar [1894–1955, Shankar Dattatraya Javdekar] to reinterpret Marxism and inequality in India.
A different kind of encounter happens when some of them encounter religious traditions. Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi [1872–1944, Buta Singh Uppal] in what is now Pakistan encounters Islam and he wants to reconcile egalitarianism with Islam. Bhagwan Das [1869–1958], another thinker of the 30s and 40s, wants to reconcile socialism with the Vedas and wants to think of Vedic socialism. Acharya Narendra Dev [1889–1956] is a renowned scholar of Buddhism and he wants to understand egalitarianism through Buddhist lens. So, you have all these experiments that are happening and of course, not to forget Ambedkar [1891–1956, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar] who simply steps out of all of these and thinks of equality in a very different way. All these experiments are taking place. I won’t bore you with each of the experiments but I’ll just pick one thinker, Rammanohar Lohia someone from whom I have learnt so much.
Lohia is an Indian socialist who, unlike most Indians of that time, goes not to Britain or America but Germany to study; he comes back and is a rebel nationalist socialist; he becomes one of the founder members of the Congress socialist party, and after independence, is a leader of the Indian socialist party. He is someone who tries to rethink the foundations of the idea of equality. Two interesting things about Lohia: he is the first Indian thinker to directly confront the question of Eurocentricity of the idea of equality. He has a famous essay called “Doctrinal Foundations of Asian Socialism”, and it basically says that, so far, the idea of equality has been colonised by Eurocentric imagination and that we Asians cannot possibly borrow European socialism and live with it and that we have to reinvent the foundations of socialism in our context. And what is wrong with socialist thought?
Lohia says “No greater disaster can befall socialism than if the historical peculiarities of its career in Europe sought to be universalised and reproduced in the other two-thirds of the world. Socialism in Europe has been gradual, constitutional, and distributive. Socialism henceforth and in the rest of the world must be drastic, unconstitutional when necessary, and lay the accent on production.” He goes on to write a critique of Marxist economics; how development on one was preconditioned on underdevelopment in the other. Lohia writes an unfinished book called Economics after Marx and his project thereafter is to do a critique of economics, politics, and philosophy and history that socialism has presupposed. And he goes on to rewrite all of these.
In Lohia, you have an extension of the critique of Marxism in terms of the critique of the dominant frames of knowledge, limits of modern civilisation and critique of cosmopolitanism that passes for universalism in our part of the world. And he searches for an alternative universalism. There has been a lot of literature and research in the last twenty years on alternative modernities and to me it appears that one of the first Indian thinkers to anticipate that is Ram Manohar Lohia. He actually says that in India we can produce modernity of a kind that Europe has never known and cannot imagine. So, there is a search for alternative modernities.
He wants to produce a non-provincial reading of history, forward-looking modernism, a third camp in world politics and an alternative civilisation. What Lohia does is that he recasts the idea of revolution. He basically say that the idea of revolution that has come to us from Marxism is based on only one of the aspects, which is class. What we need, he says, are seven revolutions [सप्तक्रांति, sapta kranti] at the same time. What are these? Against gender inequalities — and Lohia is again one of the early thinkers from outside a proper feminist tradition, one of the first egalitarian thinkers to lay emphasis on gender equality; against caste inequalities; against inequalities between rich and poor; against racial inequalities; against inequalities among nations; also against encroachment of privacy by collectives; and finally for civil disobedience and resistance to injustice. So what he does is that he opens up thinking about equality to multiple dimensions and what he does is to move away from that debate about whether caste or class is real, which of them is the real distinction around which society needs to be organised and reorganised, and so on. He says that you have to look at all of them at the same time.
In a very short essay called “The Concept of Equality”, he actually changes the received ways of thinking about inequality — it is a very short essay, almost incomplete where at the end he is brushing up not having enough time to spell it out. What he does there is to say that what we have called equality so far is equality in the material realm and in the internal dimension which is to say material equality within a nation or a country. He thinks we need to think afresh. Equality has a material and a spiritual dimension and it should be realised in the external and in the internal domain. It gives you a 2×2 grid.
In the material realm, we first have a familiar one, which inward approximations [or equality] among classes within a country. The second one is somewhat familiar as well: equality among nations/countries in the world and Lohia keeps saying that Marxism draws you away from equality across different coutnries and much of the communist politics takes you away from that. Interestingly, he then says, in the spiritual realm, what is external and internal equality. In the external domain, spiritual equality would mean kinship, fraternity, बंधुत्व (bandhutva, “brotherhood”). And in the domain, equality should mean equanimity, समदृष्टि (samadhrishti), समभाव (samabhaav). It is one of the rare attempts in the egalitarian tradition of India to reconnect with that other notion of equality that we had abandoned in the nineteenth century.
I’ll take a jump again and come to the last phase which is after 1989, the fall of the Soviet Union, the fall of dominant socialist paradigms. There is a dead end although nothing really dies in India — Stalin may die in the USSR but he would continue to live in India; Victorian English after a few years would be spoken only in India, nowhere else! The dominant left ways of thinking suddenly come to a halt. They reach a dead end. The collapse of the Soviet Union leads to the political extinction of distinct socialist political streams. There is an abandonment of official socialism. It becomes embarrassing.
[Today, if you call yourself a socialist, it almost looks like a gaali. When people have to attack Aam Aadmi Party, they say, look at people like Yogendra, they are socialists. Full stop. Q.E.D. That’s the end of it.]
But this is the time when the idea of equality is being reinvented by those who do not officially affiliate to the egalitarian tradition. It is being reiterated in farmers’ movements, women’s movements, Dalit movements, etc. Victims of development and displacement are rewriting the rules of what equality should mean, what kind of struggles we need for the next century. You have lots of new activist thinkers. Some of them are new Gandhians, ecologists, reconstructed socialists, Dalit and feminist theorists. Allow me to pick just one: Kishen Pattnaik [1930–2004]. He wrote a book for which we don’t have an English translation but what we can do is read his Odiya writings and actually make it available.
[I always wonder why D. R. Nagaraj [1954–98, Doddaballapura Ramaiah Nagaraj] and Pattnaik are not available to the rest of the world. Our friend Prithvi [Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi who edited The Flaming Feet and Other Essays: The Dalit Movement in India, a collection of essays by Nagaraj] has done some service and Nagaraj, I believe, is available in English. So, we should do for Pattnaik.]
Pattnaik is a thinker of the new social movement and through the 80s, 90s, till his death, he is reimagining what it would mean to be egalitarian, socialist although he stops using the word socialism. And in his book when he is asked to describe his ideology, he says this is a देशज विचार (deshaj vichar, literally “indigenous idea/thought”). He doesn’t call it समाजवाद (samaajavaad, “socialism”) even though he was a समाजवादी (samaajavadee, “socialist”). What he does is that he reengages with Gandhi’s critique of modern civilisation. And within the egalitarian tradition, he insists that we need to rethink the very idea of development.
So, Pattnaik brings to the very heart of the egalitarian imagination the critique of development which has been developing outside the egalitarian tradition. He invites us to look for new forms of resistance among people who are fighting displacement, among subnational movements like those in Assam and Punjab which were seen by the progressives and left as chauvinist movements, and asks us to reengage with farmers’ movements. No wonder he was a friend of Prof. Nanjundaswamy [1936–2004, Mahantha Devaru Nanjundaswamy] who we should recall today. He doesn’t provide a full-fledged frame of how to rethink the idea of equality for the twenty-first century. But we can try and develop one looking at this entire history.
Having done this survey, I will just talk about two things towards the end. One is to say whether we discover some new intellectual resources through this history. And second, whether we have some nodes around which we can recast the idea of equality. So, let me end by stating a few things there because, in many ways, and that is what connects to my present birth, politics of the twentieth century is about reimagining what it means to be left, what it means to be radical, what it means to be socialist. These words are dead; they are gone; they don’t have purchase with the new generation; they don’t have purchase with the victims of oppression and injustice. But there is oppression; there is injustice; there is inequality. How do we recast it is the question we need to ask.
Some of the resources available to us are — as I said — early responses to socialism which emphasise the ethical core of socialism rather than its paraphernalia of historical materialism and everything else. We also have unusual encounters — I just mentioned Sindhi, Das, Dev, Narayan, Javadekar — which produced very unusual conceptual resources for us to go back and try and recover. There are external resources available which the idea of equality has not sufficiently made use of. Narayan Guru [1854–1928], Ambedkar, and Periyar [1879–1973, Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy]. There are resources offered by feminists, ecologists, and the Swaraj tradition in the post-Gandhian Gandhism. These are all resources available for recasting the idea of equality today. But how do we recast it?
I will just raise a few questions. First, must equality be the central organising principle of politics? This is what egalitarians always thought. They always thought equality is not just one of the values but that it is to be the central organising principle. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that radical politics of the future need not place the idea of equality at the center. It has to be one of the organising principles. Why does it have to be the central principle?
Second, should the state be the principal agency for social transformation? This has been almost a matter of faith for all egalitarians and that’s why harking back to the state, the public sector, license-quota raj: if there’s a problem, the state has to solve it. This is not what people thought a hundred-fifty years ago and maybe they were right. Can we think of multiple agencies? This excessive reliance on the state as the agency for social transformation is probably overdone.
Third, can European modernity be the cultural touchstone for politics of equality. It has remained so. Much of the egalitarian tradition has treated European modernity as the cultural touchstone. Everything is with reference to that. Can we not rethink that?
And finally, how do we ground politics of equality in partial truths, contingencies, and particularities. Much of the egalitarian tradition has participated in that strong form of universalism. Need we do that? Lohia opens his book Marx, Gandhi, and Socialism by reflecting of the idea of partial truth, by saying that truth is partial — which then and still looks very odd for a practicing politician, and which is a strand of Lohia that no one picked up on. But in many ways that idea opens the possibility of a new epistemology of egalitarianism. The attempt to ground egalitarianism in a strong positivist universalism is something that needs to be questioned. And that allows us to understand India in a different way. How do we relate to India’s past? Is India’s past only a source of problems and embarrassments, the source of these wretched, negative, conservative traditions? Or can we look at it equally as a resource, repository of ideas, values, and conceptual frames? That’s one question we need to reflect on.
How do we erase elements of self-hatred that pass off as radicalism in India? Sorry, it’s stated somewhat strongly but so much of what passes for radicalism is nothing but cultural self-hatred. This is passed off sometimes as radicalism, sometimes as left, sometimes as modernity, or whatever. But no society evolves by simply presenting self-hatred. And the strength of European socialism was that it picked up the best of European traditions; it actually picks up the best of Christian values and incorporates those. Our radicalism, our egalitarianism however wants to turn its back on all that our traditions have to offer. So, do we really need to hate ourselves, our cultures so much? How do we learn from European social theory?
The manner in which much of egalitarian thinking of the twentieth century has related to European social theory is to treat it as a repository of abstractions which can be brought and applied to India. The assumption of course is that these are true universal abstractions. I am not too sure. I have come to believe that underlying each of these abstractions is are special and peculiar contingencies of the experiences of a tiny part of the world called Europe. So, when we use the word “state”, in small tiny brackets, there is some Europe inscribed there. Similarly, when we say “society”. And so with most concepts in social theory.
To my mind, the challenge for egalitarian traditions is to empty European social theory of its contingent experiences which are lodged inside these concepts and to fill these concepts again with experiential concepts and practices drawn from our Indian reality. This is as much a challenge for egalitarians as for much of our social science. It is as much a theoretical challenge as it is a political challenge. The challenge today is not to turn our back to this hundred-fifty engaging years of thinking about equality — which is quite fashionable today because somehow we have persuaded ourselves, especially if we read the pink press, that ideas like equality are matters of the past — but to reconceptualise and reformat it for a new kind of radical politics.
It is possible and likely that this radical politics will not call itself by any familiar name. It will not call itself socialist, it will not call itself left, and it shouldn’t, as long as it speaks to concerns about inequality, injustice, exploitation, and wants to find a way past that. This, as I said, is as much a theoretical challenge as it is a political challenge. And what I meant to do today was to invite you to join everyone in this theoretical and political challenge.