“The God That Failed” is a book that describes the association of six prominent Western intellectuals of the twentieth century, from Andre Gide to Arthur Koestler and Stephen Spender, with communism and their subsequent disillusionment with and repudiation of the communist philosophy. While I am not analysing their motivations in first ardently espousing and then just as emphatically rejecting the charms of communism, the subject set me thinking on the very human need for a greater force (or purpose) to give meaning to human lives and how this impacts and has had particularly earth-shaking effects on human life and conduct, especially in the last one hundred years or so.
What has set off this train of thought has been my own experience of encountering individuals in the course of my life who have moved from the extreme left of supporting a people’s war movement to the extreme right of religious conservatism in the span of a few decades. I entered Delhi University in the fourth year of the 1970s when the pro-Naxalite movement in its elite colleges had run its course and those who had forsaken their college education to work for the cause of the oppressed were returning to the routine existence of university life. There were enough ideologues spouting Marxist philosophy in Delhi University itself; one did not need to turn to the other major university in South Delhi to encounter those who were spellbound by Marxist economics and Communist politics. What has since caused me immense surprise is to find many of those in the vanguard of left revolution in the 1970s ensconced in the camp of staunchly rightist parties with a strong religious ideology by the start of the twenty first century. Now I am not for a moment suggesting that we should be fixed in our ideological views over a lifetime; what I do find interesting and worthy of more detailed analysis are the possible reasons for this dramatic change in worldview.
I will only mention in passing the possibility that the shift in loyalty to a different ideology is occasioned by a cynical calculation of where one’s interests lie. In today’s amoral, consumerist age, the desire for fame and social position may lead one to make conscious choices to espouse an ideology which offers social and economic advancement. Such a person will switch sides with alacrity once he senses that the boat he is on is sinking: just study the recent instances of candidates for elections to the Indian Parliament and state legislatures nimbly party-hopping to secure their electoral futures. Setting aside the cases of those falling in this category, I am more concerned with those who blindly adhere to a specific ideology. What motivates such people and what implications does this have for the evolution of human society, given that this phenomenon pervades all countries and societies?
The basic urge for holding to an ideology is the fear of loneliness of the individual. As a social animal, man seeks to conform to accepted social norms to acquire a sense of belonging. Established religions have shrewdly recognised this urge and created a culture of myths and legends to attract followers and hold them in thrall. Deviations from the accepted wisdom have been severely punished. Many ‘heretics’ perished in the Inquisitions of the Middle Ages. Galileo escaped by the skin of his teeth by recanting on his view that the earth revolves around the sun, though he is supposed to have defiantly muttered under his breath “Eppur si muove” (and yet it moves). Even today, followers of organised religions severely punish what they see as transgressions from the laid-down laws, sometimes with the full concurrence of the government of the day and often in flagrant breach of the rule of law. The victims range from ordinary citizens of different countries to air travellers to, as we saw recently, schoolchildren and cartoonists. In India, religion has fed on a sense of lack of identity and a feeling of victimisation in the majority community, to generate historical grievances which are apparently to be corrected in the present day.
The Industrial Revolution and its aftermath saw a weakening of the hold of religion on the populace. As education spread and the Age of Reason extended its influence, a new prophet appeared on the scene in the shape of Karl Marx. As the old order collapsed with the onset of the first World War, Communism entrenched itself, first in Soviet Russia and then, in stages, in Eastern Europe and, most significantly, China. The promise of equality and a classless society came as a whiff of fresh air to a host of Western intellectuals, disillusioned by the operation of the capitalist system. Not surprisingly, the infection also caught up with restless youth in countries like India, especially when the Nehruvian experiment started unravelling from the mid-1960s onwards. However, the senseless violence of the Naxalite movement and the severe state repression it invited led to rapid disenchantment with ‘armed revolution’ and the idealistic youth were soon engaged in making their way up in middle-class India, in the bureaucracy, academia or journalism.
With ideology in the form of a classless state having lost its charm, more so as the horrors of China’s Cultural Revolution have come to light and as that country itself has abandoned the socialist path, the Indian middle class has now latched on to a heady mixture of the desire for a strong man, coupled with a yearning for an idealised, mythical past. Central to this development is the loss of individual identity in an economy and society buffeted by the storms of globalisation and liberalisation. Weak governance systems have failed to provide the citizen with the comforts that would be taken for granted in a developed country. At such times, there is inevitably the longing for a political messiah who will cut through the slough of despondency and hopelessness and lead the nation to a brighter future.
And so we move from the ideology of religion to ideology in the form of a philosophy, epitomised by a strong party/state and the omnipotent individual. The twentieth century moved through the absolute domination over large parts of the world, from Soviet Russia to China, North Korea, Kampuchea and Libya, by powerful dictators, whether they espoused a left or right of centre philosophy, or indeed no philosophy at all. But what is it that impels the individual to associate himself so totally with a dominant ideology, party, state or individual? It arises out of the sense of personal insignificance of the individual and his fear of the finiteness of his existence. Religion at least gave the individual solace that there was an afterlife, that wretchedness in this life would be compensated by rebirth, hopefully in happier surroundings. The rudderless individual, confronted by a world that he is unable to deal with, desperately seeks to merge his identity in a larger than life entity to get a feeling of security and belonging. It is here that the tragedy of the Indian intellectual can be clearly observed. The scholar/sociologist Dipankar Gupta in a prescient article last year in the Times of India drew a sharp distinction between intellectuals and ideologues. While the former maintain impartiality and independence in their analysis of affairs of the world, the latter are co-opted into a dispensation which uses their skills of “intellectual” jugglery to bolster its position and gain legitimacy. Some of these ideologues do benefit in terms of social or official positions but the greater benefit lies in the secure cocoon of a political formation that gives meaning to their lives.
Where does all this leave us circa 2015? The continued existence of a democracy is crucially dependent on independent, sceptical commentators who are wedded to the concept of a liberal, open society. They are not against any person or political formation — rather they recognise the truth of Lord Acton’s dictum “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The twentieth century has seen enough instances of systems and individuals promising utopia to their masses, only to bring them rudely down to earth. The second portion of Lord Acton’s statement, which is never quoted, is relevant in this context “Great men are almost always bad men.” Lest this be interpreted as a sweeping indictment of statesmen and political leaders, let me hasten to add that the inexorable operations of social and political systems invariably cause even leaders who start with noble intentions to adopt the path of curbing political freedoms to remain in power, ostensibly to attain their lofty goals. The need of the hour, not only in India but elsewhere as well, is for thinking individuals who seek to influence public opinion to critically examine trends in social and political life and ask searching questions of those in power. Ultimately, we should all echo that little child as he beheld the emperor’s new clothes “But he hasn’t got anything on!”