Monday, December 7, 2009

The Art of Naming: Meditations on Queer Activism in Delhi

This is another article published in the first issue of the magazine. Akhil Katyal, the author, has completed B.A. (H) English at Hindu College and M.A. English at St. Stephens College, both at Delhi University. Since early 2006, he has been a member of Nigah, a queer collective based in Delhi. He blogs at

…when words found mouths
when tongues wagged their way
into minds,
and each object shrank, suddenly,
to fit its own precise outline.

You could say
that was when the trouble started:

When things stepped into the cage
of a purpose I must have had
somewhere in my mind.

- Imtiaz Dharker, ‘Words find Mouths’

What is in the name: homosexual? If you say it again and again, homosexual, homosexual, homosexual and so on, it begins to sound like a creepy symptom. It is one of the bad habits of words to give way on the slightest bit of repetition. The word leaks out of itself on being repeated, becomes what it originally (!) was – the deceived one brought into the menacing contract of meaning making. Repetition is a paradox: it both consolidates and shatters. To repeat something is to validate it, confirm its thereness and give it a nod of approval; at the same time, repetition, for repetition’s sake has a sincere cheek; it kills the word with a master stroke: pulls it out of contingent frameworks and shows the ghastly madness of the name. The words straight, lesbian, gay, homosexual, MSM are names with the classic weaknesses of names; words which totter if they are not continuously and shamefacedly propped up by dense political, medico-legal or religious frameworks of conception that are consubstantial with their usage. Every name is a product of a particular framework. The name does not define; it is rather a variable within a hopelessly circular (infinitely repeatable!) process – that first gives the premises of naming and then performs the very act of naming based on these premises – and then smugly locates this whole process at the origin of things, before everything else, ala ‘I am gay’, ‘Are you a lesbian?’, ‘We are queer, we’re here, get used to it.’, exercises in definition making, processes of self-identification, loveable repetitions but not simply so!

I am not sentimental about LGBT activism (with about twenty years of a movement behind us in India, no one better be!) but I would be a part of all of it all the same, with an unforgiving self-irony and a constant clapping on one’s own head. Queer activism, here and now in Delhi, as I have lived through for the past three years, is composed of varied definitional excursions that are precisely that, definitional excursions, baggy monsters, simplifying technologies that take enormous and complicated raw material, lets say of the morass of human sexuality (itself a finished product of another technology of conceptualisation), and try to produce, indeed with success, finished products, peculiarly sexualised individuals, gay or straight. These are historical occurrences; contingent responses for a world that can only be dealt with strategic generalisations, with the steady repertoire of names, with banners asking for gay rights, hijra rights, lesbian rights, or with pleas composed of canny statistics. Queer activism in Delhi then, composed of a heterogeneous lot of organisations, collectives and individuals responds practically(!) to this situation of frameworks. For the current case that the Naz Foundation and Voices Against 377, a collective of several queer, child-rights, women and human rights groups, are fighting in the Delhi High Court against the anti-sodomy law, section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, we (the activists? I won’t dare choose to speak for everyone, though!) would present ourselves as minority legal subjects within the immediately available framework of the Indian legal system. Using the weapons at hand, we would shape ourselves strategically and then indulge in another process of self definition: legal State citizens, Indians, homosexuals et al. That some of us provisionally or really buy into such logics of articulate, if not artificial, self definitions and make them the markers of understanding ourselves for ourselves (in our personal diaries!), can not and should not be denied (because why not? we encounter another circular logic here, albeit of much socio-political significance!). Politics is a name for strategies; the desire for and the social process of change have to make use of available names, categories and obstructions and then plunge into a continuous process of remoulding these. We can not start (or end) with something that is already mutatis mutandis. Queer activism, as I have seen in process in Delhi, is the utopian process that deliberately excludes the possibility of a Utopia. It is a utopic process that finally understands the concept of Utopia (for it is only the concept we can possibly discuss; Greek ‘ou’ is ‘not’, topos is ‘place’, ‘utopia’ is a ‘noplace’, it does not exist!). The Utopia is the defeat of all that is utopian and not what we could and have always easily and non-rigorously believed in, that utopia is a the realisation of the utopic. The Utopia is implicit within the utopic; it does not follow it like a flower does a bud or like a child does a foetus.

The legal framework then becomes (pardon the repetition!) precisely that: a framework. The relationship of a framework of conceptualising people and that of the people’s processes of self-definition is a complicated one, like the contract of the name with the person that it names is a contingent and necessarily self-short-circuiting one. This is not to judge the process of naming as simply undesirable or desirable within activist agendas, to get caught in the enquiry of whether it is right or wrong. One of the editors of this magazine, Labanya, mailed me, saying ‘We'd be glad if you write a non-fiction piece on Sexuality, Identity and the Indian State (this is not the title of course, I'm not deciding anything for you). By this I mean that while writing through your subjective experience on what it is to be homosexual in India, you also make mention of Article 377 and it's practical/psychological impact on the everyday.’ Labanya would of course forgive me for quoting from her email, a text sent casually, an anticipatory text in preparation for more formal, definitive texts to follow (“I’m not deciding anything for you.”). It is of course not an act of misrecognition; she could not possibly have been off the mark by saying I could write about being ‘homosexual in India’. To narrate my subjective experience then would be a narration that would consolidate an essay on the homosexual in India, generalised from a grossly localised somewhere of myself and my everyday. The essay would be a point of departure and also the point of arrival, having traversed unrepentant the multiplicity of homosexual subjective (or subjective homosexual?) experiences available within the available ground-space of India. Acts of narration are thereby also acts of naming if they eddy around word clusters, points of identificatory gestures. To say that the concept of the name works contingently i.e. historically, that we circularly imagine them into being within certain points of history, is not to say that they are unreal or fantastical with no palpable effects (the provisional bridge between the editor and me was the common grounds of understanding, by which we imaginatively place each other, homosexual in India or young editor who I’d like to know more). This terrain of the imagined, with all its imports, can hardly be dispelled or easily demarcated from the real. There is no escaping the realities of the name (as if that was desired or possible; names are the basis of how we interact, it is how we generalize ourselves, names mark our presence even when we are absent, kill me, I’ll still be known by my name! The name is everything!) but it is possible for all of us to see what conditions make what names possible for which people within certain moments of history. I could call myself gay; have done that in the past, will do that in the future, but what are the stakes involved here; not the stakes of security, rather the stakes of the very process of finding and legitimating a name for oneself, queer for instance, or even Akhil. When and how does the fact that I love men, that I want to fuck them or get fucked by them, become a variable for what I – want to – call myself? When does the sex-bit get into the name-bit and how does this process work? When does desire become sexuality or sexual-orientation i.e. if it does exist prior to them? Queer activism considers that it is significant to resurrect the sex-bit within the name-bit. The heterosexual is the unmarked sexuality (treated conceptually), it is the presupposition, the grounds we took for granted. The heterosexual need not name himself; he is the beginning of things, he is unlimited dark space. The queer then appears as a name that queers; the sex-bit in the name-bit marks the alternative sexuality, the light from a chink. This marking is a politically indispensable process and politics rushes in my veins (another way to enter oneself, to access and define oneself!), so that I have no way to describe myself without names that do not already try and define something about me; otherwise they would be non-names (ideal, theoretically truly queer, stupid utopias!).

Queer activism is strategically played amidst this game of names. We commemorate the first gay protest in Delhi, the AIDS Behdbhav Virodhi Andolan’s public protest against police harassment of gay men, on the 11th of August, 1991, we co-memorate this event and its participants; collectively memorialize the first gay protest that then becomes (or threatens to become) our common undisputed history as stringed together through a certain name (they were gay, we are gay!). Names are these trajectories we carve for ourselves and others that are carved for us within the otherwise perversely multiple ways in which histories of individuals or a people can be drawn. One of the events that my queer collective Nigah (nazariya? nazar? a way of looking? a perspective? a name?) organised to mark this now historic date of August 11th was when we met at a particular venue at Cannought Place, made presentations about queer urban histories, talked about them, talked about personal experiences and all our first protests, loves, kisses, and then wore T-shirts that we had painted a day ago and walked around the inner circle of Cannought Place wearing those T-shirts with red roses in our hands (the first(?) public LGBT gatherings in Delhi used to happen on the terrace of the India Coffee House in CP; they used to keep a red-rose on the table as a clue, a locally acknowledged symbol; we chose to extend this curve of history, keep on a tradition, use their strategy of self-identification, use their name) and finally got together in Central Park and ended the evening with more songs and chats. The T-shirts we wore (see Figure. 1) on that day with slogans such as 377 Stinks, We’re Queer, We’re here, Get Used to it, Aadmi hoon Aadmi Se Pyaar Karta Hoon, Queer and Lovin It!, Aawaz Do Hum Anek Hain et. al. function like names; they form a visual vocabulary for self-identification within a dense public space like CP in Delhi. They want to disrupt the unmarked heterosexual space, dirty it and produce effects of alternative and strategic namings and spellings (new spells that we cast?). These names, as I have pig-headedly(?) tried to drive home the point, are not at the beginning or the end of things; they are caught in the mire, just like the people they seek to stain.

Failure, Consumerism and a Counter Strategy The IP College Protests: An Insider’s Diagnosis

This article by Paresh Chandra was published in the first issue of our magazine.

Without the clause of class-consciousness that makes the connection between career and exploitation plain resistance becomes a perverse (the usual) form of consumerism, the commodity bought and consumed is “peace of mind” and the cost is a few days out in the sun.

The Protest in Perspective

Almost all theorists of our times have spoken of the trespass of consumerism in all spheres of modern existence; some may seem to like it while others may seem to dislike it, some may like it while others may dislike it, but they do not deny it. Instead of locating signs of this trespass on television or in the mall, which are typical instances used for the criticism of consumerist culture, one needs to spare a glance for what seems to lie at the opposite end of the line. Instead of regurgitating what we as part of this resistance have swallowed from books and essays, we must try something different; we have been walking on feet for too long, it is time to walk on our hands (as some like Slavoj Zizek have tried to do). The observer needs to observe and understand how resistance to consumerism changes into consumerism of resistance—like in all times one must not underestimate the stubbornness of capital, a system that has been able to survive for decades apparently in a moribund state surely has great capacity to integrate all resistance into its folds.

The following paragraph is a somewhat passionate report a propos the recent protests that followed an incident of sexual molestation of girls from Delhi University, published in a hypothetical daily.

A Sunday morning saw the future law keepers of the country participate in a private pogrom. A group of men who had come to that area to attend a police examination decided that they deserved to celebrate the end of exam by molesting a few hundred girls. Such ‘celebrations’ made the students angry and their souls rose against such injustice. The result was discerned in the series of protests in and around the university. A memorandum was brought that asked for the exam to be annulled. Various other demands were also on the list. Delegates visited the vice-chancellor, the commissioner of police, the NCW, the Home Ministry and even Arjun Singh. What went wrong then? If such was the anger in their hearts then why did it stop? And what came out of it? At least we tried—somebody replies; our hearts can be easier.

It would be stupid to explain the short-lived-ness of this agitation purely with reference to conditions specific to it. So before going into a discussion of those specificities I will try to locate the failure of this movement into what has become a tradition of failed protests—the easy acceptance of the failure of agitations that seem astonishingly effervescent to begin with is not uncommon these days. Did the massive anti-war demonstrations in New York and London stop the war in Iraq? An acquaintance of mine who returned from the US recently had me understand that many protests in the US take place on Sundays for matters of convenience. It is strange because these demonstrations supposedly signify a motion against the establishment and yet clearly the principal interests of both the establishment and resistance coincide—workdays and workday traffic cannot be interrupted. In this light the demonstrations were not failures at all, in fact both sides came out of it satisfied—it is a “strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance” [Zizek], to use Zizek’s words. “The protestors saved their beautiful souls”—they made it clear that they did not accept such attitude from the administration. It is a perverse (and the usual) form of consumerism, the commodity bought and consumed is “peace of mind” and the cost is a few days out in the sun. Such battles are fought not to change the world, but achieve a sense of satisfaction that I have done my part—and now that my conscience is at ease the world can go to hell. Every advertisement on televisions tells me that I am not a perfect person unless I consume that product; similarly “resistance” becomes a product advertised in politically correct classrooms.

In the last analysis the interests of the agitators and the administration were the same. During the IP College protests this fact came out in the open most blatantly when on one of the days of demonstrations the students from IP College became rather disconcerted on hearing a rumour that the college would be sealed if the protest continued. It might have been due to the highly institutionalised setup of that college that kept the students in a convent like state of innocent ignorance that they were unable to see through the joke. They were unable to realise that the fight was not between the college and the university; it was hard for them to perceive that the smaller as well as the larger entity were seats of the same central power that the students needed to fight. But more importantly, it became clear that the prospect of really shaking things up had never occurred to them.

At no point are such protests directed at the base of power; rather the people in power are accused of betraying their own professed principles. The protests in this case were directed against the “unsympathetic attitude of our vice-chancellor and our police”; as if the entire episode was an aberration and not the rule. A strange but expected conjecture entirely in observance of the customary practice of complaining about the ever-increasing number of “injustices” and not questioning the status quo. The “solution” that was proposed by the students—nullification of the exam—was more a form of appeasement than anything else. What if this demand had been met? Would that have led anywhere? It is a strange situation—if a movement like this fails in achieving the goals it sets then it gets buried, since all that could have been done is done and nothing came out of it. In future agitations of the sort, those who participated this time would opt out since they know that it would not work. If the demands are by any chance met, even then it gets buried. Mission accomplished. Either way the eventual result had to be the same, so in a fashion logical enough, the easier way was taken. It cannot be denied that each battle has its particular aims and large distant goals alone cannot keep things going, but the strange part is that since this battle was fought only to wear the armour and get a photo clicked, warriors returned home after the horn was sounded. Because of the lack of a larger anti-establishment perspective the demands became ends-in-themselves, incidental to the desire of putting up a show and effectively inconsequential to the agitators; the administration knew that they did not need to satisfy the former. The demands need not be met for in the act of putting forth demands the demanders had been satisfied.

That under all circumstances we stay a part of this system remains the single most important idea that governs our actions. It defines our interactions with the system, whether the interactions are friendly or antagonistic. What we observed above was that even those interactions, which are apparently antagonistic, are often undercut by“faithfulness” to the system. However the dialectical contrary of this understanding, which is that even when our interactions are on surface friendly, underlying it is a deep antagonism, escapes us. I will come to the nature of this antagonism at the end of the essay. Meanwhile I will move on to an analysis of the specificities of the protest that made it so short-lived.

A Digression and a Return

Jean-Paul Sartre differentiates between two modes of existence for an individual as a part of society. In one case persons perform roles that can be describe as being those of “we-subjects” while the in other case they can be described as “we-objects”. The role of persons as “we-subjects” corresponds to a way of associating with other people that Sartre calls “seriality”. Sartre uses the concept of seriality to describe circumstances in which a person’s relation to others is limited to a uniformity of behaviour and isolation otherwise [Jameson 238]. Each person models her/his mode of being after what s/he thinks is the mode of being of the Other, or individuals inhabiting society at large, but any real association with them is lacking as the others don’t really exist, except as a “vast optical illusion, a kind of collective hallucination projected out of individual solitude onto an imaginary being thought of as”public opinion” or simply “they”” [Jameson 239]—such a relation has no real meaning for individuals. For instance when one is in a theatre one feels a part of some sort of community (of viewers); however this feeling of community has no consequence for anyone, self or the other. The situation of those involved in the protest that is being analysed remained by and large a serial situation—being part of the demonstrations had no real consequence for an overwhelming majority of the people that included most of those who stood at the forefront. The aspect of conscience easing is included in this concept; for in this case too the person in question enters the demonstration to fulfil what s/he thinks is the duty of every responsible person—an idea that is defined once again by the clause of public-opinion. Here too then genuine association with others that is required for continued participation is lacking.

The second mode of existence, that as “we-objects” depends upon the formation of genuine groups to get over the helplessness of a serial situation. Such a group is formed only when “I feel myself become an object along with someone else under the look of such a “third” that I experience my being as a “we-object”; for then, in our mutual interdependency, in our shame and rage, our beings are somehow mingled in the yes of the onlooker, for whom we are somehow “the same”…” [Jameson]. How a group maintains its authentic existence (an existence of this mode i.e.) is not our concern here—but it comes into existence against some common enemy and is defined by the vision of the Other. On this occasion the common opponent eludes all concrete formulations and the concept stays limited to a faceless crowd. If this protest had been connected to a larger anti-establishment perspective it would have been easier to sustain, and the demands might have been formulated in a more fruitful manner. It is not strange to find that it was because of a few individuals who formed such a group that held such an anti-establishment that the movement survived for whatever length of time it survived.

(Revision: The larger question at stake in this entire episode was that of sexual harassment and gender and the shared identity that had to be interpreted in a manner to allow for the construction of an authentic group – that of students). This article is an attempt at analysing this protest and the reason behind its short-lived-ness. So the larger question of gender would be a pointless digression; it might also prove a question too large to cope with in an essay like this. When I call it a digression I refer to the fact that in this essay my attempt is to analyse the construction of authentic student groups. The fight against sexual harassment can also allow for the construction of such groups. Further on I will attempt to locate the identity of being anti-sexual harassment fighters in the scheme of things, but I feel the need to warn the reader that this attempt might seem half-hearted owing to its contingency as far as this article is concerned.

For now however this leaves us with the identity of being students. Many locate this identity in a vague notion of a shared journey through the realm of knowledge. Another popular perspective would place the experience of being students in the set of consumer experiences that constitutes modern existence; education being the commodity consumed. Both these notions and most others still remain stuck in definitions of persons as “we-subjects” and a genuine group identity (defined in opposition to something) is denied. I shall proceed to propose one possible definition of a student that could allow for the formation for a genuine group (this would take us to the idea that was left undeveloped at the end of the first section).

We as students are workers-in-making. This statement needs to be qualified for the understanding of who is a “worker” might be different for the reader and the writer of this article. “Worker” here refers to every person whose participation in production is as a wage earner. A worker is a person who owns no “means-of-production” and depends upon his “labour power” to earn his livelihood; in this sense a worker could be a factory “hand” earning a few hundreds a week or a CEO earning in millions or for that matter a college professor earning a few thousand. If this is the definition of a worker most students are workers-in-making. This agreed upon, it is not hard to see that the basis of an authentic student identity that will allow for the formation of genuine groups, genuine students’ organisations that is, will have to depend upon an understanding of the fact that our current relationship with the system remains one defined by class struggle; the aspect of our existence in the eye of the system that we oppose will be our existence as workers-to-be.

Another digression would allow us to look at the role of groups formed against sexual harassment or for that matter all sexuality/gender related questions. Duncan Foley says somewhere that there is never a “democracy of determinants”. In a capitalist society the system of class and the process of class struggle are the determinants that sit on top of the hierarchy of determinants. All other determinants (or structures of exploitation—for all societies till now have structured themselves so as to base themselves on exploitation) form the guard that surrounds this determinant. Race, gender, and caste—all of these are systems that capitalism uses to run its show. However it is important to note that capitalism does not depend upon these structures to reproduce itself. As a result whenever a stage is reached where these structures become hindrances to capitalism, they are questioned—which is not to say that feminist struggles are an offshoot of this tendency, but merely to suggest that the development of capitalism in its industrialized form facilitated, or made it relatively (when compared to earlier modes of production) easier for these struggles to be waged with great success.

All movements and all groups need a degree of self-reflexivity to maintain their revolutionary potential. At this point in history feminist movements need to understand the manner in which capitalism has been able to bottle the revolutionary potential of feminism in revolutionary moments that are past. To free this potential of the chains it has been bound by the fight against patriarchy and harassment made possible by the system of patriarchy needs to be combined with struggle against capitalism. If the power equation in society is decided on the ownership of means of production then the social location of the proletariat provides the proletarian identity a revolutionary potential that is unique among all identities. Our fight against sexual harassment and gender discrimination will become all the more potent if combined with our struggles as workers-to-be and subsequently workers.

In all circumstances a student, consciously or unconsciously understands this relation in whom s/he is bound to the system, what is lacking is the clause of class-consciousness that would make the connection between career and exploitation plain. In the above case, as in most cases this connection is not perceived and the result is submissiveness that exists under the facade of resistance. If and only if this submission is transformed into struggle, would any agitation succeed for the success of all agitations would lie in the manner in which they fit into the battle against the system. Until a vision of this larger battle informs our actions our attempts would be directed towards reform, and the discourse of reform is pointless in a system that cannot exist without inequity. The pointlessness of the demand of increasing police security in the campus, when the people who committed the crime were aspiring policemen is a remarkable instance of the uselessness of reform unconnected from a larger logic of struggle. A system that is defined on the leitmotif of profit cannot be reformed into being a “considerate” system—it can of course sell “consideration” in the market.


1. Žižek, Slavoj, Resistance Is Surrender,[ html], accessed on 16th August, 2008
2. Jameson, Fredric, Marxism and Form, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1974

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On Permanent Revolution

An article published in the October 2008 issue of our magazine. The author, Kumarila, is a left political activist who has worked in various parts of India.

A basic task for a Marxist is to expose programmatic issues concerning revolutionary praxis today and to critically judge political conceptualizations and practice from this perspective. With this concern we reorient ourselves here towards Trotsky's theorization of ‘Permanent Revolution’ and judge its usefulness in informing our debates and practice. However, reading Trotsky’s classic works today would require a point of reference in the context and debates that produced them. Below we try to present a brief overview of this context so as to make available this reference point.

Like any social theory, a Marxist theory of social revolution must be analyzed in the context of objective conditions at the time of its theorization, but its correctness must be judged in terms of its potentiality to trace the tendencies and possibilities inherent in the historical evolution of existing social conditions. Its meaningfulness at the present stage too is determined by this potentiality, as only then would it enrich the conceptualization of present reality and guide our practice. This requires us to visualize societal transformation as a culmination of the contradictions inherent in the historico-logical process producing and reproducing a particular social structure.

Marx’s whole life work and his theoretical endeavors were towards the sole aim of unfolding the processes constituting capitalism and the catastrophic tendencies inherent in them, posing the possibility of a complete emancipation of humanity from class exploitation and oppression. Transcending capitalism requires a complete negation of its essence. Marx saw its eventual transcendence only in class struggle and conscious endeavours of the proletarian class - the only class capable of completely breaking away from the ‘prehistoric’ (or rather transhistoric) nostalgia that afflicts all the other classes. These conclusions were the result of his immense research in and a thorough critique of the political economy of capitalism. Although Marx was always conscious of the political transformations throughout the globe and was involved in vocalizing the evolving agenda of the working class politics, he was still striving towards a dialectical conceptualisation of capitalist reality, and its logical and historical processes.

During Marx's time, capitalism had just become politically triumphant with the 1848 revolutions, that too with enormous compromises. Marx found Germany and the rest of the Continental Europe still suffering “not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development.” (Marx, Capital Vol.1) The possibility of a wide-scale proletarian upsurge against the system was still not evident anywhere (Paris Commune of 1871 being the first experience), hence it was not possible for Marx or anyone at that time to pre-empt all the intricacies of the world revolution coordinating varied class experiences in the societies at various levels of capitalist development.

This is not to say that he did not have any theory of revolution at all, but it was still latent in his political economic researches. It is in this light that we can understand Lenin’s view that imperialism is the age of socialist revolutions, and during Marx’s time capitalism was still in a pre-imperialist phase. Marx’s writings starting from the Communist Manifesto to The Civil War in France, on Paris Commune etc must be studied as his reflections on the objective conditions and social changes that were effected by the French Revolution and the growth of industrial capitalism, culminating in the rise of industrial working class movement which first came into the forefront with the 1848 revolutions. Of course, Marx’s contributions in this regard were not simply historical “interpretations”; rather they established the theoretical foundation for revolutionary proletarian praxis directed towards “changing the world”. But Marx more than anybody else was aware that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) Hence, the circumstantial limitation imposed on the proletarian praxis at the time delimited its direction. This is true for all conceptual and practical aspects of revolutionary praxis of all ages. The same holds good for Lenin’s theory of imperialism or Trotsky’s “permanent revolution”.

It was in the struggle against Bernstein’s evolutionism at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth that the issue of the relationship between class-consciousness and the negation of capitalism became most prominent in the revolutionary discourse. Bernstein saw socialism as a result of the natural processes within capitalism, thus he rejected any revolutionary endeavor for building it. He was severely criticized by his comrades in the Second International, especially Kautsky and Plekhanov, who fore-grounded the issue of a conscious destruction of the capitalist system.

The radical bloc of social democracy led by Kautsky and Plekhanov did the groundwork for the future revolutionary critique of the Second International and social democracy found in the works of Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and others. These revolutionaries for the first time systematically confronted the issue of revolutionary agencies and the nature of revolution itself. One reason for this was essentially conjunctural, as capitalism was exhausting its capacity to reproduce itself after the crisis of 1890s. This state of moribundity leading to imperialist clashes and regimentation, to an upsurge in working class radicalism with the increasingly cohesive national liberation struggles in the colonies, made an eventual collapse of the world capitalist system seem sufficiently possible, forcing the revolutionaries to take the task of making this possibility a reality through insurrections, mass strikes, soviets and workers controls. The lassitude of the traditional working class parties in Europe and their accommodation in the political competition characterizing bourgeois liberal polity compelled the revolutionaries to polemicise against the legalist leadership of these parties, and sharpen the conceptual and practical tools simultaneously. The strategic and tactical formulations comprising the major theory/theories of revolution were the product of this burning time.

Till this period the Marxists always viewed proletarian politics in an international framework aiming towards an eventual destruction of world capitalism. It was not that they glossed over the local specificity, but they saw capitalism as a world system thriving on unevenness, hence the coordinated efforts of the revolutionaries all over the world were the only possible way of realizing socialism. The minimal tasks defined in a particular locus have to be coordinated to realize the maximal goal, their dialectical convergence being the only radical resolution of the crisis determining both. Their mechanical separation led to revisionism and scholasticism, evident in the Second International. This was the conclusion to which all the formidable critiques of the Second International came separately or together. This conceptual solidarity led to their eventual camaraderie whenever the situation demanded despite their mutual diatribes of many years, during the Zimmerwald Congress and the October Revolution. Trotsky recognized this when he said that by reissuing his 1905 work, Results and Prospects (where he for the first time tried to systematically deal with the theory of permanent revolution), in 1919 he “only desires to explain the theoretical principles which rendered it possible for him and other comrades, who for many years had stood outside the Bolshevik Party, to join their fate with the fate of that party at the beginning of 1917.”

The phrase ‘revolution in permanence’ was used first by Marx in his 1850 address to the CC of the Communist League. Marx took revolution to be continuous, an uninterrupted bottom-up negation of capitalism. He viewed capitalism not as any pure and even system, which many have endeavored to put in his mouth, but as essentially comprising of simultaneous existence of various levels of capitalist development even combined with pre-capitalist vestiges. Hence, anti-capitalist revolution cannot be achieved in installments, but continuously. But as noted earlier the circumstantial limitation delimited Marx’s reflections. He could provide the basic foundation for such conceptualization, but the task of its elaboration was left to future generations.

The concept of permanent revolution as understood by Trotsky was representative of the revolutionary spirit prevalent at that time, which recognized capitalism as a global system on the one hand (thus its negation had to be global too), while on the other it took into account the unevenness of capitalist development (thus necessitating the strategic-tactical formulations specific to locations). It is dialectical to the very core viewing revolution as a continuum embedding the particular in general and appearance in essence, with the latter necessarily getting represented through the former. It seeks to stress that the localized peasant struggles and the struggles of other classes and communities against their oppression and alienation can be successful only if they are articulated with and in the world proletarian struggle against capitalism. This becomes more and more true with the evermore intensification of capitalist accumulation that thrives on the continuous subsumption of living labour by capital (formally or actually).

With the introversion of the Russian Revolution as the world revolutionary situation subsided after the defeat of the German revolution, the Soviet Union became more and more isolated—being in power and creating firewalls around it became an existential problem leading to the petty bourgeois nationalist formulation of ‘socialism in one country’. Socialism in this framework was reduced to nationalization, cooperatives and planned economy. This reaction concurred with the nationalist introversion throughout the world due to the particular crisis that capitalism faced with the 1929 Great Crash. With direct colonialism becoming burdensome and unsustainable, the regime of capitalist accumulation demanded a reconstitution of national economies. In this situation, the world revolution lost its immediate appeal, as the ruling class everywhere found the nationalist shell of Keynesian/welfarist policies not only effective in refurbishing the capitalist economies, but sufficiently ideological too to contain the anti-systemic mobilizations through welfarism, full employment and doles. One finds a strong structural and ideological affinity between the political economic governance under ‘socialism in one country’ and Keynesianism, thus licensing the conceptualization of the Soviet economy as State/State-Monopoly Capitalism. But the scope of the hegemonic struggle between the bureaucratic/intermediate class/petty bourgeoisie and proletarian segments in the party and the state justified the notion of a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ of Trotsky.

Simultaneously, the fascist menace that capitalism nurtured to gather the fruits of reaction after the defeat of the European proletarian radicalism in the 1920s and pre-empt any further working class consolidation became a very dangerous option for global capitalism itself, as it began curbing the reconstruction of advanced economies devastated by the Great Crash. It was in this phase that the Comintern’s existentialist policy of the United Front was envisaged in their late attempt to counter fascism. This definitely provided a popular base for the Allied forces in the Second World War. This tactical formula when transformed accordingly and sustained was sufficiently corporatist and useful for bourgeois polity, as it could delay any radical resolution of the capitalist crisis co-opting the leadership of the working class in its service. And this was what the existential logic of socialism in one country led to in the Cold War phase—the Soviet Bloc in order to sustain its influence around the globe blunted the radical movements by nurturing collaborationist tendencies so that the ruling classes of the newly liberated countries were not alienated and did not fall in the lap of the Anglo-American bloc. Hence, the United Front was extended to the anti-imperialist struggle, quite contrary to Lenin’s conceptualization, thus disarming this struggle of its anti-systemic tenor. This trend of disarming the working class by preaching neo-corporatism got its ultimate representation in Khrushchev’s theory of peaceful coexistence.

Nonetheless the Soviet model was posed as a model for nationalist reconstruction in opposition to the liberal model sold by the Anglo-Americans and their agencies. This competition coupled with militarism marked the global polity in the post-World War II era. It is not to say that revolutionary situations did not arise during this phase. They definitely arose, but at the wake of no preparation and frequent betrayals by the unconfident ‘vanguards’ in the name of countering and curbing anarchism and adventurism, they were crushed easily but bloodily. Wherever radical upsurges really became successful they had to struggle against isolation and regimentation before getting recognition, as Cuba and Nicaragua. The existence of the Soviet bloc definitely was a boon for the ruling classes of the underdeveloped world as it allowed the latter to bargain in the world polity. But it acted as a hindrance in the radicalization of the movements against exploitation and oppression, as its own existential problems demanded stable support from the regimes there. This pragmatic requirement guided the officialisation of the formulaic Marxism (which DD Kosambi termed as OM - Official Marxism) that was nurtured to suit the exigencies of the Cold War. This brand of Marxism reified tactical notions and presented them as universally applicable laws and principles. Varieties of ‘democratic revolutions’ were conceptualized to explain the popular upsurges under the communist leadership. They not only explained the class limit of these upsurges, but more importantly they inhibit their transformation into an “uninterrupted revolution” under a proletarian leadership. These conceptualizations became weapons to contain working class radicalism, preaching class collaborationism and blunting the class offensive at crucial junctures as in Indonesia and Iran. The ‘stage theory’ of revolution is always defined in a nationalist framework, despite the lip service paid to proletarian internationalism. It mechanically dissociates anti-capitalist revolutionary politics from democratic struggles, which are essentially reformist. This deconstructs the uninterrupted revolutionary politics of the working class into discrete moments never allowing it to heighten itself onto a newer ‘stage’. And this is justified in the name of pragmatism and practicality.

In retrospect, the struggle between the dialectical conceptualization of permanent revolution (involving a continuum between maximal and minimal agenda of the working class movement) and that of socialism in one country is a struggle for ideological hegemony over the working class movement between the proletarians and national/petty bourgeoisie. This struggle has been going on right from the time of Marx and Engels, when they contested Proudhon, Lassalle and Bakunin. The importance of Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution lies in its analytical ability to discern moments in revolutionary politics without reifying them. It takes revolution to be continuous.

Rereading Trotsky’s classic works on “permanent revolution” acquires a new meaning today with the collapse of “official Marxism”, on the one hand, and with capitalism being in a perpetual crisis, sustaining itself through the export of this crisis from one region to another, on the other. It provides a formidable departure point for a critical assimilation of revolutionary struggles dominated by the tendencies of which it was one of the first critiques. Furthermore, at the time when proletarian internationalism is evidently the only answer to capitalist globalization, the concept of permanent revolution provides us with a powerful tool to confront programmatic issues in coordinating local struggles and articulating them within the anti-capitalist struggle, which is intrinsically international.

The Media Question

This pamphlet was co-written by Correspondence and the editors of Radical Notes. It is the 3rd pamphlet published by us.

Admittedly it has been an old problem with most movements, that they have treated the media only as a means to an end, ‘a way of making themselves heard,’ and so long as they got some coverage with the help of conscientious friends within the media, they were satisfied. The larger dynamics of the media, as a certain sort of work, in a certain sort of work place, with human agents who are workers here, has not been addressed. Newspapers and news channels should be and can be the strongest arms of a democratic society; they can make sure that the voice of the people finds representation. Though cliché, one has to point out how the media can raise difficult questions, but the onus is upon journalists as responsible citizens and in their capacity as workers to raise them.

The decidedly undemocratic tenor of mainstream newspapers and news channels, whose editorial bosses seem to be dummies through which the state on the one hand and multinational capital on the other preach their doctrines, is not merely a sign of the larger move away from democratic values, but also of the way in which journalism is becoming an alienated activity. Responsible journalism, bent upon bringing out the democratic truth languishes as the unholy nexus of the state and moneyed interest decides the ‘line’ of a newspaper. The inability of journalists to raise their voices against recent pay-cuts in houses like TOI is not unconnected from the destruction of democratic space within journalism and mass media. Both of these get subsumed in the large movement away from true democracy – maximization of profit that a few make, in the last analysis determines all these tendencies. That is to say that the general antipathy to democratic movements visible in the lack of honest media coverage and an anti-people, non-democratic shift in the Indian situation at large not only go hand in hand but are also born out of the same tendencies.

Where do we see all this? For one, in the highly disproportionate coverage of various people’s movements by mainstream media. For instance, the space/airtime given to non-violent movements like Narmada Bachao or in Tehri is negligible. The violent movements do manage to get their attention, but nonetheless they are covered very selectively. The struggles in the North East against AFSPA are barely covered. No true attempt to understand ULFA or LTTE is to be found in the mainstream, no attempt to go to the depths of the issue and to not simply report (and reinforce) the state’s position. While the many social activists who have done serious work in the North East, J&K, or Chattisgarh report the excesses and violence committed by the paramilitary, Special Police Officers or the Salwa Judum on innocents, it is only rarely, if ever, mentioned by the media. At the moment though, with the Maoists taking centre stage on the front pages of newspapers and on prime time news, one cannot complain on grounds of quantity. But on grounds of quality, there is a lot to be said.

It has been assumed that the Maoist movement is not a mass movement; it’s only a bunch of ‘outsiders’ imposing themselves upon hapless tribes. The absurdity of the ‘outsider’ clause becomes obvious if one spares a moment’s thought to the way in which they function. The nature and width of their activities could not have been made possible without mass support. This is not the place to substantiate this assertion. What one needs to recognize at the primary level is that this is an open question and needs to be treated as such. If it is an open question with many opinions, the least the media can do is give space to these opinions, and accept the complex nature of the issue. It might be pointed out that the debate shows on news-channels do bring in people of different opinions. However, a closer look at the dynamics of these shows will demonstrate how easily the biases of the mainstream hijack the entire debate. The newer, uncommon opinion cannot be expressed in the 10seconds given to the participants, unlike the hegemonic narrative that we are all so familiar with. This inability to say everything in the imposed time limit is read as the lack of substance in these new voices, and a consensus on the issue is ‘created’.

Arnab Goswami is a good example. He seems to have found answers to all questions posed by him on his show. Furthermore, his show is an exercise in forcing his moment of epiphany upon others. ‘Mr. Varavar Rao, is Kobad Gandhy an ideologue or a terrorist, ideologue or terrorist, yes or no?’ We need to move beyond these multiple choice questions – reality is more layered than the media’s projection of it. We can all do with some thinking, including our editor-in-chief. Arnabism is actually symbolic of the lack of depth, and the fear of depths that haunts the journalism of big news houses. Maoist violence is highlighted again and again, often with cheap melodrama (showing the lack of humanity implicit in this form of reporting) as if it exists in a vacuum. Such portrayal denudes an act of its nature as an utterance, which responds to a situation (possibly another violent act on the state’s part) and is informed by necessities of a spatio-temporal/socio-political position. In the same way the struggles for self-determination are seen solely as ‘separatism,’ (one could go out on a limb and suggest that the refusal to understand or explain Islamic violence, as something more than madness or blood-thirstiness is a sign of the same problem). Just touching the surface, there too a very small section of the surface, the mainstream media presents it to its consumers (for that is what passive reception is) as the entire reality, the sole and complete truth.

It needs to be understood, and this cannot be stated any other way, that the media is responsible for manufacturing consent for war. It has taken the state’s call for war forward by eliminating dissenting voices within. In addition to several other things, the majoritarian nature of the media poses serious questions about any semblance of internal democracy. We have to make a choice between pushing for greater democracy within and allowing ourselves to get subsumed in the state’s narrative. If we choose the latter then we need to question the idea of journalism being ‘free and fair’ and see it as an instrument in the hands of a few who hold power and seek to keep it in their hands.

It is not only that journalists should try and understand the crucial position they can occupy in the struggles of the people. It is important for them to place themselves within these struggles, for even if they try to ‘keep out,’ their attempt to exclude themselves becomes the shape of their inclusion. It is never somebody else’s fight, it is always our own. In the final analysis journalists are nothing but (whether high paid or low) workers working under the imposition of capital, continuously losing control over their own work, unable to determine the conditions of their own existence.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Campaign against War on People

Campaign Against War on People is a collective of students' and workers' organisations active in Delhi University, including Correspondence.

The Indian government intends to deploy 100,000 troops – ostensibly against Maoist insurgents – in 7 states in central and eastern India, including Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh, a vast area inhabited by tribal groups. Forces withdrawn from Jammu and Kashmir (e.g. Rashtriya Rifles) and the Northeast are joining battalions of CRPF commandos, the ITBP, the CoBRA and the BSF, equipped with bomb trucks, bomb blankets, bomb baskets, and sophisticated new weaponry. Six IAF Mi-17 helicopters will provide air support to these ground forces, in which the IAF’s own special force, the Garuds, will participate. The actual strength of the intended targets of this massive action – the Maoist cadre – is believed to be no more than 20,000. Besides the dangers of any state offensive against any section of the people, the scale of the offensive suggests that the state is unable to distinguish the millions of tribals in this area from the Maoists, and has chosen the quick solution of war on the entire region. Several groups which are not Maoist – like the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram in Dantewada – have been clubbed with them and are being targeted. The basic question is, why is the state planning war against its most deprived, oppressed and impoverished populations?

Central India is rich in mineral wealth that is already being auctioned: Till September 2009, Rs 6,69,388 crore of investment had been pledged toward industry in the troubled areas—14 per cent of the total pledged investments in the country. All that stands between politicians/ big money bags and this wealth is the tribal people and their refusal to consent to their designs. Even constituent bodies of Indian state machinery acknowledge the gross failure of state in the tribal areas of the country in no uncertain terms. The Planning Commission Report on Social Discontent and Extremism, has clearly identified equity and justice issues relating to land, forced displacement and evictions, extreme poverty and social oppression, livelihood, malgovernance and police brutality as widespread in the region. The Approach Paper for the 11th Plan states:

Our practices regarding rehabilitation of those displaced from their land because of development projects are seriously deficient and are responsible for a growing perception of exclusion and marginalisation. The costs of displacement borne by our tribal population have been unduly high, and compensation has been tardy and inadequate, leading to serious unrest in many tribal regions. This discontent is likely to grow exponentially if the benefits from enforced land acquisition are seen accruing to private interests, or even to the state, at the cost of those displaced.

The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution grants tribals complete rights over their traditional land and forests and prohibits private companies from mining on their land. In spite of all this, in the name of fighting the Maoists the state – in blatant violation of Constitutional rights and against the recommendations of its own committees – is all set to evacuate the entire area of the tribals and ghettoise them by forcing them into ‘relief camps’, to allow free rein to big business. Instead of addressing the basic rights and needs of the tribals, the impatience of the state/big business in the face of the stiff resistance from them, is leading it to a full-scale war on people who are already fighting an everyday battle for livelihood and survival.

In the past as well the state has tried to crush all popular resistance, armed or not. It has repeatedly ignored and/or suppressed non-violent resistance, be it in Bhopal gas-victims or the ‘Narmada Bachao’ Andolan. Various human rights activists who have spoken out against its policies have also been targeted through draconian instruments like the Chhatisgarh Special Public Safety Act, 2005. It has also brutally assaulted protesters in Singur, Nandigram, Lalgarh and Khammam and conducted military offensives in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh that have been seriously questioned. Now, along with an increasingly uncritical, elitist and complicit media, it is set on drumming up war hysteria to legitimise its own extra-Constitutional programs. The fact that it has either rejected or dismissed offers of talks and mediations – while hypocritically calling for them – indicates the extent to which it is invested in this war. The Central Government’s military offensive further dilutes the federal character of Indian democracy as it covertly shifts the maintenance of law and order off the state onto the centre list.

This war on the people also entails a further shrinking of already limited spaces for democratic dissent and articulation of pro people development paradigms. It opens the way for the state to act with force against any form of dissent or struggle. Any individual or organization protesting against the policies of the state can be labelled as a threat to ‘internal security’. To understand the politics and economics of the current state offensive, we urge people to look beyond the current hype being built by the government and pliable sections of the media. This indicates the emergence of a dangerous consensus towards a police state that will render the people and resources pliable to the demands of global capitalism and authoritarianism.

We call upon all progressive forces – students, teachers and workers – to resist the latest plan of the Indian government. Stop state violence against people.

Join our demand for a peaceful, egalitarian and secular society.,
Website: Ph: 9899523722, 9910455993, 9718259201, 9818728298

Convention Against War on People, Dec 4, 2009


Convention Against War On People
Venue: Speaker’s Hall, Constitution Club, Rafi Marg, New Delhi
Date: 4 December 2009 (Friday) Time: 10 am—7 pm


As you read this invite, Indian state’s ongoing war on people that began on the 1st of November, will already complete several weeks. The body-count of the adivasis –the prime victims of the Indian government’s ‘hunt’– also started to mount. As per the sporadic news from the Ground Zero trickles in through the media, the casualty is escalating by each passing day, as grow the number of burnt villages, persons displaced, injured or arrested. We hear of battalions of CRPF, COBRA, C-60, Grey Hounds, ITBP, Anti-Naxal Task Force and a whole assortment of armed paramilitary and police forces stepping up their operation in Dandakaranya and adjoining regions, backed by air force helicopters and US intelligence satellites, commanded by army top brass. As reports are pouring in already thousands of adivasis have been displaced from their homes as the ruthless state repressive machine has let loose a reign of terror in these areas. The renewed offensive by the joint forces in Lalgarh too has left hundreds of protesting adivasis homeless. There is every possibility that the number of dead and injured people, along with the displaced and destroyed villages will only mount in the coming weeks, if the Indian government does not call for an immediate halt to this all-encompassing military offensive. As has been the case with nationality movements in Kashmir and the North East, the Indian state’s endeavour to find a ‘military solution’ through war will only endanger the lives and livelihood of lakhs of citizens.

Indian government has been preparing for this massive military operation for months, lining up nearly one lakh troops and arming them with sophisticated weapons, mobilising the air force for aerial strikes and involving the Indian army not only for training and logistical purposes, but for operational command and even active combat if required. There are also reports of US intelligence and security officials ‘advising’ the Indian government in conducting this war. As reported by the media, the entire forested regions of central and eastern India have been divided into seven Operating Areas, which the government wants to ‘clear’ within the next five years of all resistance, including that of the Maoists and other Naxalite organisations. An outlay of Rs.7300 crores has already been earmarked for this war.

None is in illusion as to the objectives of this war against the people. This war is being fought by the Indian government at the behest of the corporates and for their benefit, targeting the life and livelihood of the adivasis. The worldwide imperialist economy presently faces its most severe crisis after 1929. The military-industrial complex, which includes multinational and Indian big business interests, is looking for wars that have the potential to artificially generate the much-needed demand for their products in a crisis-ridden market. Moreover, both domestic and foreign corporations desperately want to lay their hands on the minerals worth billions of dollars deposited in the vast forest regions of central and eastern India. Once accessed, this can guarantee the corporations super-profits for several decades. Hundreds of agreements and MoUs that allow free plunder of people’s resources have already been concluded by mining corporations with the central and state governments. The corporations easily cleared all the legal hurdles between themselves and the natural resources. The only barrier that now stands between them and their prize is people’s resistance, whether unarmed or armed. From Nandigram to Niyamgiri, Lalgarh to Dandakaranya, Koraput to Kalinganagar, Dadri to Narayanpatna, people have refused to be mere victims of state-sponsored policies of Liberalisation-Privatisation-Globalisation (LPG) in the name of ‘development’. After trying all forceful measures from police repression to Salwa Judum which have failed to deter the people’s movements, the Indian government is now waging war not only against the Naxalite and Maoist movements which have been termed as the ‘biggest internal security threat’, but against all people’s movements that challenge its policies. By doing so, it not only is trying to bulldoze all kinds of dissenting voices and democratic rights, but is also aiming to exterminate the aspirations of the exploited and oppressed people for a better society, a life with dignity.

Forum Against war on People invites you to this All-India Convention which is an effort to examine the ongoing war on people in all its dimensions. More importantly, it seeks to become a strong voice of resistance against this war. We urge you to participate in the Convention and make it an occasion to collectively demand that the Indian government must immediately and unconditionally stop this war, waged in our name against our own people.

Inaugural Address: Prof. Randhir Singh (Retd. Political Science, DU)


Justice AS Bains

BD Sharma

Vara Vara Rao (Revolutionary Poet)

PA Sebastian (CPDR, Maharashtra)

Prof. Jagmohan (AFDR, Punjab)

Arundhati Roy (Writer)

Bullu Bahan, (Chhattisgarh)

Madhuri (MP)

Prof. Amit Bhattacharyya

Ajit Bhuyan (Editor, Asomiya Pratidin)

Prashant Bhushan

Shashi Bhushan Pathak (PUCL Jharkhand)

Bernard D’Mello (Deputy Editor, EPW)

Lachit Bordoloi (MASS, Assam)

Dr. N Venuh (NPMHR)

Sudhir Patnaik (Lok Pakhya, Orissa)

Prof N K Bhattacharya (Jan Hastakshep)

Malem Ningthouja (CPDM, Manipur)

Harish Dhawan (PUDR)

Shamsher Singh Bisht (Uttarakhand Lok Vahini)

Lateef Mohd. Khan (Civil Liberties Monitoring Committee)

Gautam Navlakha

Kavita Krishnan (CPI-ML [Liberation])

Sheomangal Siddhantkar (CPI-ML [New Proletarian])

SS Mahal (CPI-ML [New Democracy])

SAR Geelani (CRPP)

GN Saibaba

Prof. Jagmohan Singh (Voices for Freedom)

Santosh Mahapatra (Orissa)

Arjun Prasad Singh (PDFI)

Dr. Animesh Das (IFTU)

Raminder Singh (NBS)

Alok (KYS)


JNU Forum Against War on People

DU Campaign Against War on People Correspondence, Campaign Against War on People, Committee Against Violence On Women (CAVOW), Naga Students Union Delhi (NSUD), Navjawan Bharat Sabha (NBS), KRALOS, Krantikari Yuva Sanghathan (KYS), Manipur Students Association Delhi (MSAD), PDSU, PUCL, MKP, Campaign for Peace & Democracy Manipur (CPDM), DSU, CRPP, DGMF, People’s Front (PF), Mazdoor Ekta Manch (MEM), Left Democratic Teacher’s Front (LDTF), RDF, PDFI, CPI (ML) (Liberation), CPI (ML) (New Proletarian), Kashipur Solidarity Forum, Nari Mukti Sangh (NMS), Mehnatkash Majdoor Morcha (MMM), B D Sharma, Arundhati Roy, Tripta Wahi, Vijay Singh, Neshat Quaiser, Laltu and others

Friday, October 30, 2009

BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble

This is the 2nd pamphlet published by Correspondence; it was published in September 2009. It was written by Edmond Caldwell, who blogs at The Chagall Position and Contra James Wood.


In the early days of the current economic crisis, the Treasury Department demanded from the U.S. Congress a 700 billion-dollar bailout to buy up the “bad paper,” a term for all the junk assets owned by the banks and mortgage companies. Bad paper – the phrase was an evocative one, and the next time I found myself walking past a Barnes & Noble Bookseller, looking through the broad front windows at the stacks of unsold “bestsellers” on the display tables, I couldn’t help but imagine the CEOs of the Big Six publishing corporations scurrying to D.C. to demand their own big slice of bailout pie. After all, who could have more bad paper to unload than Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, the Penguin Group, and Macmillan?

In the weeks that followed, the sub-prime mortgage crisis became a credit crisis, the credit crisis a financial crisis, the financial crisis an international economic crisis – until finally the d-word loomed. Through it all, that phrase continued to ring in my mind – bad paper, bad paper, bad paper . . . A huge bubble of paper claims on profits whose value was not based on any tangible, productive assets, on any “really-existing” capital, had finally popped – a bubble of “fictitious capital.” Fiction again! Come to think of it, didn’t the word “credit” itself come from credare, the Latin for “to believe,” as if the financial system operated by asking from us the same “willing suspension of disbelief” that fiction asks of its readers? What was this sudden, weird synergy between the economy and fiction? Maybe the veils were finally being torn away from both, and just as the economy was turning out to be a fiction, so contemporary fiction was turning to be – having plummeted from the airy realms of Art – a thing of squalid calculation.

The crisis caught up with the publishing companies on 3 December 2008, a day which industry observers were soon calling Black Wednesday. Under the euphemism of a “staff reduction,” heads started to roll in all divisions of Simon & Schuster, while the Random House Group announced a major “restructuring,” consolidating less-profitable imprints in a move widely seen as a prelude to downsizing some of them and liquidating others. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced an unprecedented “buying freeze” – a hold on acquiring new manuscripts – and laid off a slew of employees, including several big-name editors. Not too many more days passed before Macmillan followed suit with big layoffs of its own. And the squeeze was being felt all down the line, affecting the distributors and major retailers as well, with the Border’s chain – Barnes & Noble’s main competitor – hemorrhaging money and foreseeing the shuttering of many of its stores and a radical “inventory reduction.”[1] All of these euphemisms really pointed to one thing: unloading that bad paper.

Crisis has a way of accelerating social processes already under way. People are now beginning to talk about the disappearance of the current publishing regime and its replacement by a different model, one based more, perhaps, on Publishing-on-Demand (POD) technologies and the spread of e-books and e-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle. Whatever happens, it looks like a major change is in the offing, perhaps has even been developing – under our very noses, so to speak – for some time. As Gramsci once wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Given that we are in such an interregnum, what morbid symptoms can we diagnose in the field of literature?


In recent decades publishing has been no different than other industries in the drive for the ever-greater monopolization, globalization, and financialization of its assets. The biggest influence on the culture industry during the whole post-1973 historical phase that we call neoliberalism has been “media consolidation.” Starting in the late 60s and early 70s, picking up steam in the 1980s, and accelerating radically in the last two decades in the climate of the Clinton-backed Telecommunications Act of 1996 and similar deregulating legislation, historically-independent publishing houses have been bought up by the same media mega-conglomerates that own all of the music companies, film studios, newspaper chains, television networks, radio stations, theater chains, and amusement parks. Thus, of the major publishers mentioned in the previous paragraphs, Simon & Schuster is owned by the CBS Corporation; the Random House Group (which includes among its divisions and imprints Ballantine, Bantam, Crown, Dell, Doubleday, Knopf, Pantheon, and Vintage Books) is own by the German-based company Bertelsmann AG; Macmillan is owned by Holtzbrinck, and the merged Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was put together by the Ireland-based Education Media and Publishing Group after Houghton Mifflin was sold by its previous parent organization, the French multinational Vivendi. Of the other major publishers, Harper-Collins is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and Penguin is owned by Pearson PLC, the biggest publishing company in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and India (and which also owns the Financial Times and the Economist).[2]

Consolidations such as these have radically altered the character of book publishing, especially in literature, taking power from the hands of editors and placing it in the marketing and publicity departments. As a process of capitalist rationalization, it is comparable to the deskilling of the craft-worker and the rise of modern management undertaken under the aegis of “efficiency” by Frederick Winslow Taylor and his odious “stopwatch men” in capitalist factories a century ago. Instead of nurturing beginning writers through a few modestly-selling titles and developing a strong backlist, publishers are now under pressure to strike it rich with bestsellers; diversity of titles has been replaced by risk-aversion and homogenization. By the same process of rationalization and consolidation, the major chain bookstores have succeeded in underselling the independents and driving them out of business. The result is suggested in the following anecdote, from editor Chad Post:

Paul Slovak, the publisher of Viking Penguin, once mentioned that he believed that at any moment in time everyone in the country is reading the same twelve books. Obviously he’s exaggerating—a bit—but it sure seems that way. The books on display at a chain store in New York City are almost identical to the ones on display in Denver, or in Peoria.[3]

In a disgusted farewell to the profession he had served for many years, another editor, the highly-respected Ted Solotaroff, dubbed this overall system “the Literary-Industrial Complex.”[4]

And yet throughout this period fiction has given the appearance, at least, of flourishing. By the early 1980s – when neoliberalism courtesy of Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the U.S. was just getting under way – the “death of the novel” that had still been the topic of critical debates in the 60s was proved vastly premature by the first contemporary “fiction boom.” In the UK the boom was typified by authors such as Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, and Ian McEwan, as well as by the new influx of ‘Commonwealth’ writers such as Salman Rushdie and J.M. Coetzee. A related cultural phenomenon was the rise in prominence of the Booker Prize, which operated, then as now, as a force for the glamorization of literature (author-as-celebrity) and the normalization of neoliberal globalization. The United States experienced its own version of this boom, eagerly importing the new British and ‘Commonwealth’ authors to share space on the shelves with its homegrown “brat pack” of young literary stars like Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, and Tama Janowitz, as well as representatives of the new “dirty realist” minimalism (Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie) that had taken over the New Yorker. Fiction on both sides of the Atlantic had become cool, hip, and eminently marketable, and in spite of some ups and downs this trend has continued throughout the whole neoliberal period up to its present-day crisis. In a pre-crisis 2008 report on the state of the industry, publishing’s main data-gathering service, R.R. Bowker, reported that in the first years of the new millennium the output of fiction titles doubled:

There were 50,071 new fiction titles introduced in the U.S. last year, up 17% from 2006, and the number of new titles in the category in 2007 was almost twice what it was as recently as 2002. Similarly, there was a 19% rise in new literature books last year, to 9,796, which followed a 31% increase in new literature titles in 2006.[5]

In the Bowker report, the term “fiction” encompasses all non-fiction titles, including commercial-fiction genres such as mystery, romance, science fiction, and horror alongside what the report distinguishes as “literature.” In the Literary-Industrial Complex and among readers alike, this select class of books more typically goes by the name of “literary fiction,” a category whose origins and function merit further investigation.

According to editor Gerald Howard, the term “literary fiction” began to be adopted by the industry “sometime in the early 1990s,” its rise reflecting an ad hoc marketing rationale that he outlines in the following way:

As vague a categorical designation as “literary fiction” is, it bestowed on non-genre novels the gift or illusion of a brand, a more secure niche and identity within the expanding universe of consumer goods. As critically meaningless as a term may be that can apply to such wildly disparate works as Sue Monk Kidd’s sentimental blockbuster The Secret Life of Bees and David Markson’s radical anti-novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, its acceptance and use signified publishers’ acquiescence to and accommodation of new marketing and retailing realities. It is both a comfort and a necessity for editors anxious to know what sort of book they are acquiring and for salespeople needing to know what sort of product they are selling.[6]

Howard’s remarks come off as a criticism that is also, to some extent – not surprising since he still must earn his bread in the industry – an apology. On the surface, at least, the denomination “literary fiction” is intended merely to distinguish “serious” fiction from the “light” fare of genre fiction, what is often referred to with (usually false) humility as “beach reading,” “airport novels,” or “guilty pleasures.” The latter are openly acknowledged to be commodities produced for consumption (for entertainment, escapism, distraction), whereas “literary fiction” is supposedly intended for “higher” purposes, for edification and aesthetic experience.

This is largely a mystification. “Literary fiction” is indeed a marketing category, but one with a difference: it reflects the period in which the category has come to inhabit the very thing it categorizes. It is not extrinsic— merely a framework or convenient, vague “catch-all” – but intrinsic; the “literary” is the appearance and the commodity is the essence. The rise of “literary fiction” represents the completion of the historically-uneven processes of capitalist reification in the field of literature – as was mentioned above, it is analogous to Taylor’s men showing up in the editors’ offices with their stopwatches and slide-rules – with the result that the relations of both producers and consumers to the product “literary fiction” are now wholly alienated, dictated by the protocols not of art but of commodity fetishism.

For its consumers, “literary fiction” designates a particular mark of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu terms distinction, the signification of a social identity constructed within a hierarchy of such distinctions of “taste” or “consumer choice” which correspond to the stratifications of social class.[7] Reread from this angle, the story of literary fiction’s origins appears less innocent: the significations of genre fiction (mysteries, romances, sci fi) are more plebeian or “common,” those of literary fiction more upper-class or elite. Distinction is even reflected in the way fiction is now materially produced and packaged. Before the rise of “literary fiction,” the pocket book-sized paperback format was used for literary and popular titles alike. In the 1960s, say, the reader of a paperback novel on a Manhattan park bench could just as easily have been reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as the latest Mickey Spillane cop thriller; one would had to have seen the cover the tell which. Today, however, literary titles are produced only in the larger trade-paperback format, with attention devoted to the cover art and other signifiers of “quality”; the smaller, pocket-sized paperback – revealingly called the “mass-market” format – is now more or less the exclusive domain of the slick bestseller and genre fiction.

This status-conferring signification of distinction is both “real” and a semblance: real because invidious hierarchies of status are an objective social fact, a semblance to the large extent that “literary fiction” is after all a thoroughly middlebrow genre, above the openly commercial genres but below the canon of “classical” authors. The middlebrow nature of “literary fiction” and its status as just another commodity among commodities must be dissimulated, however, and the “literariness” of its objects ensured. These mystifying benedictions are the role of critics and reviewers, especially those who write for the more prestigious journals – it takes distinction to grant distinction, after all – such as, in the U.S., the New Yorker (James Wood) and The New Republic (Adam Kirsch), whose imprimaturs allow chosen titles to appear to have transcended “mere” marketing. High-end reviewing functions as a nominating process, in which select works of contemporary fiction are nominated into the pantheon of great or at least “major” literature for which the critics’ authoritative allusions to “classic” texts provide the context. Thus obviously banal and middling works along the lines of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, get to share the dais with Virginia Woolf, Chekhov, and Shakespeare. When it comes to literary fiction the latent content of every critic’s jacket-blurb is really “This is not a commodity!” The system only works, however, if the critics give the appearance of being highly selective, as liable to reject as to approve, sometimes even bucking whole trends or dismissing already established reputations. Selectivity ratifies the system as a whole.

What gives the game away, however, is the consistently “reader friendly” nature of literary fiction itself. The defamiliarizing aesthetic radicalisms of the last century’s avant-gardes and the old modernist link between high culture and “difficulty” have both been decisively superceded; populist accessibility – what Brecht in his day derided as the “culinary” aesthetic – rules the day in “literary” as much as genre fiction. This is where our analysis must turn from the consumers of literary fiction to its producers, for the cultural rationalizations of the neoliberal period have retooled these social actors as well, a fact evidenced nowhere more strongly than in the rise, in this same period, of the Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) programs. By now it is likely that a majority of contemporary writers in the U.S. have passed through such credential-granting college and university programs, and a large proportion of these, in their turn, have taken up positions as instructors in the same programs. The official ideology of the MFA program is “writing as craft,” with the attendant cultivation of an ostensibly artisanal ethos. This, again, is mere appearance. MFA-style creative writing instruction is less like a craft apprenticeship and more like the reifying disarticulation of the labor-process (Taylorism again) that had already deskilled the craftsperson in so many other spheres of production; under the rubric of writing-as-craft, these programs transform their students into cogs in the Literary-Industrial Complex’s production line. Writing is taught by formula and rote: A story must have a clear “conflict” signaled on the first page – or better yet in the first line – in order to “hook” the reader; it must have characters with whom the reader can sympathize or at least identify; it must move towards a psychological epiphany, etc. Realism, broadly construed, is the preferred mode; not the Victorian novel per se but incorporating some of the refinements of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary impressionism, chiefly the deployment of close third-person narration or “free indirect discourse.” This is the desideratum, because it ostensibly allows for the representation of consciousness and psychological and emotional interiority; it brings us as close as possible to the “deeply human.” This is nothing more than a secularized version of the outworn metaphysics of “the soul,” inviting readers to gaze narcissistically at an assurance of their own humanity. In a world such as ours, predicated on universal inhumanity, this conferred humanity can only mean another form of “distinction.” To be human is now a privileged status.

Behind the veil of humanist ideology, “literary fiction” is just another genre among genres, written according to a comforting formula and intended for “culinary” consumption. The difference between genre fiction and literary fiction is all in the appearance of distinction, such that if genre fiction = entertainment, then literary fiction = entertainment + status. Works of literary fiction are therefore merely more mystified and meretricious, like those prostitutes who are paid larger sums of money not only to have sex but to pretend they enjoy it.


But what happens when this genre-that-is-not-one breaks down, when its bubble bursts, as it now looks like it might? Who are they, these readers of “literary fiction” – purchasers and consumers of their own exiled, distorted humanity – and how might they be affected by its crisis?

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has conducted several studies of U.S. reading habits in recent years that give a rough picture from which certain conclusions may be drawn. Their 2002 report showed that slightly less than half (46.7%) of their survey sample were readers of “literature,” which they defined as someone who reported reading at least one novel or short story, poem, or play in the past year, with 30% being “light” to “moderate” readers (1-11 books a year) and 16% “frequent” to “avid” readers (12-50 books a year). The demographic breakdown tells us that these readers are roughly evenly-distributed by age (with dips at the younger and older ends of the scale); that they are more likely to be women than men; that they are more likely to be so-called “white” than African-American or Latino, and that their number rises along with income bracket. This corresponds to the employment and education results, because these readers are also more likely to work in professional, managerial, or technical fields than in service industries, manufacturing, or manual labor, just as they are more likely to have graduated from college.[8]

The study makes no distinction between literary fiction and openly-commercial genre fiction, although obviously more respondents are likely to be readers of the latter than of the former, perhaps even – given the proportion of “light to moderate” to “frequent to avid” readers – by quite high margins. To arrive at a demographic profile of readers of primarily literary fiction, therefore, I think it’s a reasonable to hypothesize an intensification of the already-observable trends. In other words we could expect literary fiction’s main audience to be even “whiter” and more likely to belong to the well-paid upper echelons of the professional-managerial class. These are also, it is interesting to observe, the very people who vote with the most regularity. As studies have shown, the people who vote are those who feel that they have the greatest stake in the system, that it represents them and their interests; those who do not vote (and do not, as it also happens, read much “literary fiction”) are those who feel “politically estranged,” i.e., they have the perception – perfectly accurate, in my view – that the system does not represent their interests.[9]

“Literary fiction” functions, therefore, as a humanist apologetics to keep a certain sector of the population – the professional-managerial class – on board with galloping inhumanity. Of course they must be watered and fed, but they also must be kept ideologically engaged rather than “estranged.” It doesn’t matter if they watch CNN or FOX, it doesn’t matter if they vote Democratic or Republican, as long as they keep watching the news and subscribing to popular magazines, as long as they keep going to book club, as long as they keep going to the polls – in other words as long as they keep believing in and cherishing their profoundly human consciousnesses, which exist, if nowhere else, on their bookshelves. Literary fiction and its humanist ideology are intended to give the culture of imperialism a human face. If that face now has a bit of color in it, in the form of President Obama, so much the better – he is the perfect corollary for “literary fiction” in the realm of politics, and he might indeed be able to serve his purpose of prolonging imperialism’s death-agony. That system must be legitimized as it hurtles to destruction and drags the entire globe with it, and “literary fiction” has a privileged role in this legitimizing task. You need look no farther than the pages of The New Republic and the New Yorker themselves: advocacy of “free” characters and their precious interiorities in the “cultural” back pages, and advocacy of bombs away in the Middle East and bulldozers to bury Palestinians in the front pages. “Interiority” for some, nullity for the rest.

But to the extent that literary fiction suffers, legitimization must also suffer. The bursting of the fiction bubble might therefore serve as one constituent, however modest, of a full-blown crisis of legitimacy. Such a crisis could sap the confidence of the professional-managerial layer that is a necessary part of the ruling class’s power bloc and weaken its identification with the system. Naturally we cannot expect a radical transformation of the social order to come from this privileged and ultimately parasitic social layer, but their demoralization and disorganization, at least, could be an important ingredient in opening up possibilities for others better situated to take the initiative. As V.I. Lenin once wrote, “For a revolution to take place, it is not usually sufficient for the ‘lower classes not to want’ to live in the old way; it is also necessary that ‘the upper classes should be unable’ to live in the old way.”[10] Such a citation should not, however, open the door to spellbound veneration of the past. Let us to put away our nostalgias, whether for the novel circa 1910 or the revolution circa 1917. We must wrest our future from the current conjuncture, in the now.

[1] Tom Engelhardt, “Reading in the Age of Depression,” The Nation (18 December 2008);

[2] See, for example, “Who Owns the Media?” at

[3] Chad W. Post, “Publishing Models, Translations, and the Financial Collapse (Part 3)”; 19 November 2008, Three Percent Weblog.

[4] Ted Solotaroff, “The Literary-Industrial Complex,” The New Republic, 8 June 1987, p. 28.


[6] Gerald Howard, “Publishing” in “American Writing Today: A Symposium,” n+1, 4 (Spring 2006): 96-97.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1984.

[8] The 2002 study, Reading at Risk, showed a decline in reading from the 1992 and 1982 NEA studies, while a more recent 2008 survey found that reading had risen across all categories, although still not to 1992 levels. My interest here however is not in the absolute numbers but in the demographic breakdown of those who read fiction versus those who do not, which, except for a rise in reading among youth, has stayed relatively the same from study to study.

[9] “Who Votes, Who Doesn’t, and Why,” a 2006 Pew Research Center survey;

[10] Lenin, “The Collapse of the Second International,” Collected Works, vol.21, pp.213-14.