Comparative lens

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By: Ramachandra Guha

In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, wrote a celebrated (and since notorious) essay called “The End of History”. Fukuyama saw the death of communism in Eastern Europe as presaging the death of authoritarianism everywhere. The great ideological debates, he claimed, had ended; now, every country in the world would approximate to the Western model of liberal democracy.

Fukuyama is not cited in Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s new book, but plenty of other authorities are. The product of a lifetime of wide reading, the book traces the ebb and flow of liberal thought down the centuries. In early modern Europe, Locke, Smith, and company compellingly argued for the enhancement of the rights of individuals and the diminution of the arbitrary powers of the State or monarch. However, as Mukherjee points out, Western liberalism was fatally flawed by being complicit with colonialism. Thinkers as great as David Hume and John Stuart Mill thought that while democracy was an imperative in the West, coloured people did not really deserve it.

TWILIGHT FALLS ON LIBERALISM By Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Aleph, Rs 399

Mukherjee then examines early communitarian critiques of liberalism. Albeit from very different perspectives, Marx and the Marxists, and Gandhi and the Gandhians, rejected the idea of the sovereign and autonomous individual. Human beings, they argued, could only find enduring happiness in their relations with one another, not on their own.

The Russian Revolution led by Lenin promised to bring about this state of individual/communal bliss. The pages on the failure/betrayal of this revolution are among the best in the book. Mukherjee convincingly demonstrates that Lenin was the original despot, paving the way for Stalin, who merely furthered the cult of personality and the brutal crushing of dissent that his mentor had begun. He also rightly notes that the totalitarianism of the Bolsheviks preceded the totalitarianism of the Nazis.

Amidst the wreckage of the Holocaust and the Second World War a new order came into being. Mukherjee examines the birth of the welfare state in Western Europe, which sought to provide both bread and freedom, to insure citizens from poverty and ill-health without trespassing on their individual freedoms. In India, Jawaharlal Nehru likewise tried to combine democracy with purposive State action to remove poverty, albeit with mixed success.

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States of America began the counter-attack on the welfare state. Government schemes to provide education, healthcare, transportation and pensions were undermined or dismantled in the name of individual freedoms. Inequalities increased as a result; these, combined with immigration from the poorer parts of the world, led to paranoia and insecurity, to overcome which populations put their faith in populist leaders who presented themselves as bulwarks against the strange and the foreign. Hence the victory of Trump and of Brexit.

And the victory, in India, of Narendra Modi. Mukherjee’s elegant little book ends with a searing critique of our prime minister, his party, and his regime, whose polarizing politics threaten to undermine all the gains (political, social and economic) we have achieved since we achieved our freedom from British rule. “India today,” he writes, “is facing a situation where some of the fundamental features of democracy are under serious threat. The threat emanates from the ideological orientation of the present prime minister and of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.” In “the name of Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra”, he continues, “the rule of law is made to disappear and mob violence prevails”.

In our parochial times, Mukherjee’s comparative lens is commendable. Yet, I wish he had paid some attention to those Indian reformers who recognized that the individual is threatened not just by the caprices of the State but also of the community. In our country, the greatest threats to liberty and freedom have arguably come from caste and gender hierarchies. Thinkers such as Phule, Ranade, Gokhale and Ambedkar laboured mightily to remove or mitigate these hierarchies; and a historical survey of liberal thought surely should have paid some attention to them.

In his section on Russia, Rudrangshu Mukherjee quotes the Bolshevik Lev Kamenev saying in 1918: “I become ever more convinced that Lenin never makes a mistake. In the end, he is always right.” In 2018, BJP leaders say this about Narendra Modi all the time. Not for the first (nor sadly, last) time, the authoritarian Right mimics and meets the authoritarian Left. Liberals must always, and without fear, oppose both. But they must also, at the same time, strenuously challenge the oppressive hold of custom and convention. For, as the great sociologist, André Béteille, once remarked: “Critical understanding does not mean simply taking an oppositional stand in relation to the government. In a country like India, that is fairly easy to do. Critical understanding, as I use the term, includes a very deeply critical understanding towards the people, which does not come very easily.”


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