Human Activity and Social History: Understanding Politics and the Concept of Equality

Excerpts from a lecture by Dr. Vivek Monteiro
The Marxist breakthrough was to show how social change can be incorporated into an agenda of rigorous science. Human social history presents a new problem to science- how to incorporate human consciousness, conscious human activity, the freedom to choose and to act, into the edifice of science.

Image: Amir Rizvi
How can this freedom of choice be reconciled with the aspect of necessity that is central to all scientific analysis?
In the context of social change, necessity has two different aspects, two different meanings. There is the realm of the subjective, the desirable, necessity as human need, and there is the realm of the objective, the inevitable, what necessarily must happen, what is compelled by underlying circumstances. Marx’s brilliant “Theses on Feuerbach” shows how both the subjective and the objective aspects of necessity can be encompassed into a single, integral, comprehensive and consistent world view.
In the very first thesis, Marx makes a number of assertions about science (rational materialism). In science, theory and practice are inseparable. Though science is objective, and conscious human activity subjective, it is incorrect to pose ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ as mutually exclusive opposites.  In scientific practice, the two aspects are merged.
“The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”
Feurbach‘does not grasp the significance of “revolutionary”, of “practical-critical”, activity.’
“The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power… of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”
All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.
Rational practice is simultaneously subjective and objective. Rational practice (science) , ispractical-critical activity. It is revolutionary.
Marx asserts that revolutionary activity is not an external add-on to science- but a necessary consequence.  Scientific practice, if it remains critical, realistic, consistent and true to the values of science necessarily becomes revolutionary.
Many years later, Engels expressed it thus: “… the more ruthlessly and disinterestedly science proceeds the more it finds itself in harmony with the interest and aspirations of the workers.”
With his ‘materialist conception of history’, Marx achieved what Democritus had asserted two thousand three hundred years earlier.  Marx’s 1845 breakthrough, opened the path, for the first time in human history, for all of reality, both natural and social, to become a subject of rigorous scientific inquiry.
Lenin summarizes the two intertwined aspects of social necessity in a single sentence:
 “Man’s consciousness not only reflects the objective world but creates it “
With all of reality becoming the subject of science, science itself ceases to be a subject, and instead becomes a powerful and distinct method for understanding and engaging with reality. Kosambi’s great achievement was to give a definition of science which can properly encompass this new comprehensive, universal role.
The strength of scientific theory lies in its predictive power. Within twenty five years of the Manifesto, the Paris Commune of 1871 in many ways appeared to be a confirmation of its predictions. Marx and Engels considered the Paris commune to be the realization of the first ‘worker’s state’ in human history. They studied it closely to discover in its practice, general principles for the worker’s movement. In the words of Marx:
 “It was essentially a working class government, the product of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of man.”
The writer C.L.R. Jamesdescribed the commune thus: “The Paris Commune was first and foremost a democracy”. It was governed by a body elected by universal suffrage. It was concerned with worker’s rights. Night shift work was banned in bakeries. None of the government functionaries was paid a wage more than that of a skilled worker. Women played an active role in its defence. The Commune lasted for 72 days after which it was suppressed by a bloodbath in which tens of thousands of workers were killed.
Perhaps for the first time in history, the democratic demand for “Universal suffrage” had been realized in practice, if only for two months.
Only a year after the Commune, in his speech at the congress of the International Working Men’s Association at the Hague in 1872, Marx had this to say:
The congress at The Hague has brought to maturity three important points:
It has proclaimed the necessity for the working class to fight the old, disintegrating society on political as well as social grounds; and we congratulate ourselves that this resolution of the London Conference will henceforth be in our Statutes.
In our midst there has been formed a group advocating the workers’ abstention from political action. We have considered it our duty to declare how dangerous and fatal for our cause such principles appear to be.
Someday the worker must seize political power in order to build up the new organization of labor; he must overthrow the old politics which sustain the old institutions, if he is not to lose Heaven on Earth, like the old Christians who neglected and despised politics.
But we have not asserted that the ways to achieve that goal are everywhere the same.
You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries — such as America, England, and if I were more familiar with your institutions, I would perhaps also add Holland — where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means. This being the case, we must also recognize the fact that in most countries on the Continent the lever of our revolution must be force; it is force to which we must someday appeal in order to erect the rule of labor.”
Tactics may change according to time and place, but certain general principles do not change- the working class must be politically active, and not restrict itself to non-political organizations. It must have its own party. It will prefer peaceful means, wherever these are available, but when suppressed by force, it will defend itself, with force, if necessary.
At the same time when Marx and Engels were becoming active in Europe, important changes were taking place in India. In the second half of the 19th century, modern capitalist production was just commencing in India. A modern industrial working class beginning to be formed. In 1853 the first railway connected Thane and Mumbai. The first textile mill started functioning at Tardeo the next year, in 1854. However, when the country erupted in the revolt against the British rule in 1857, this industrial working class could not play a significant role because it had hardly come into existence.
At this time, in India, yet another stream of political change was being born – a struggle for equality, for social change to abolish inequality and discrimination.  In 1848, Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule started their first school for lower caste women. In the next two decades of the eighteen fifties and sixties, the struggle against caste inequality and for social equality grew steadily in strength.
On the other side of the world, the abolition of slavery in 1865 following the victory of the anti-slavery Union army, under the political leadership of Abraham Lincoln, in the bloody American Civil War, was hailed by democratic forces all over the world.  Both Marx and Phule were deeply impressed by Abraham Lincoln.
In a letter written by Marx to Lincoln in January 1865, Marx articulates that as long as white workers tolerate racism in their midst, they cannot emancipate themselves from their own exploitation.
“While the workingmen, the true political power of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic… they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American anti-slavery war will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead the country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.”
Phule dedicated his book ‘Gulamgiri’ “To The good people of the United StatesAs a token of admiration for their
DEVOTION in the cause of Negro slavery; and with an earnest desire that my countrymen will take their noble example as their guide in the emancipation of their Sudra Brethren from the trammels of of Brahmin thraldom.”
In 1873, Phule formed the Satyashodhak Samaj to work in an organized manner for the emancipation from caste domination. One of Phule’s disciples, Narayan Meghaji Lokhande was among the first to organize the modern industrial working class in India .Lokhande was a mass leader and labour organizer.  Along with the struggles against caste domination and for equality, the fight for labour rights was among the early struggles for democratic rights in India.
It is pointed out that the “Bombay Millhands Association” started by Lokhande was not a trade union. While this may be true, there is no doubt that what Lokhande initiated was a workers movement for basic labour rights concerning working hours, rest periods, leave etc. which later  became rights under legislation like the Factories Acts .Lokhande also worked actively for worker’s unity and communal harmony during the communal riots of 1893. He ultimately fell victim to plague in 1896, while working selflessly in plague relief activities.
By contrast the role of LokmanyaTilak in the labour movement is not without contradictions. Tilak opposed the first Factories Act, on the grounds that it was an instrument of the British industrialists to burden Indian manufacturers and render them uncompetitive. At the same time, he worked actively among the workers to organise nationalist resistance against the British, using the popular Ganpati festival and giving it a ‘sarvajanik’ form, for this purpose. Tilak was much revered by the workers for his militant and uncompromising anti-British speeches and writings.
In 1908, we witness the first mass political uprising of the Indian working class in the form of a six day strike by the Mumbai workers cutting across all industries, to protest the sentence of six years transportation against Tilak. Lakhs of workers came out on the streets in July 1908 and fought pitched battles with bricks and stones against British bullets. More than 200 were killed.
Lenin wrote about this uprising in the following words:
 “But in India the street is beginning to stand up for its writers and political leaders. The infamous sentence pronounced by the British jackals on the Indian democrat Tilak—he was sentenced to a long term of exile, —this revenge against a democrat by the lackeys of the money-bag evoked street demonstrations and a strike in Bombay. In India, too, the proletariat has already developed to conscious political mass struggle—and, that being the case, the Russian-style British regime in India is doomed!
Much has been written about Tilak’s social conservatism. But what must be understood is that his mind was not closed. His views were not static, and were evolving due to his close involvement with the masses, in particular with the labour movement. It has been pointed out that during the 1893 Hindu –Muslim riots in Bombay, whereas Lokhande held both communities responsible, and worked for communal harmony, Tilak in a meeting at Pune, held the Muslims as responsible, though encouraged by the British, and asked Hindus to retaliate. But after he returned to India in 1914 from 6 year prison sentence in Mandalay, Tilak became a votary of Hindu-Muslim unity. His bail application in Mumbai High Court in 1916 was argued by young barrister Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Both Hindus and Muslims crowded to hear him speak at mass meetings. On 1916, he addressed a meeting at Bhiwandi, before a mainly Muslim crowd, in which he was presented with a purse for Rs 5001. The Lucknow Pact between the Muslim League and the Congress in December 1916, was only possible because of the joint efforts of Tilak and Jinnah. Almost 100 years ago, at a mass meeting held in Godhra on 4th November 1917, Gandhi, Tilak and Jinnah shared a common platform as the star speakers.
The epoch making event of the 20th century is undoubtedly the October revolution in Russia of November 7th 1917, and the establishment of a socialist worker’s state thereafter in the USSR. Lokmanya Tilak was deeply impressed by the 1917 Russian revolution. In 1918, he spent a year in Britain while conducting a defamation case against Chirol. According to reports of the British intelligence, Tilak was not interested in sightseeing at London, but spent most of his time in the office of the militant left wing paper “Daily Herald”, in discussions with leftist leaders like Lansbury, Williams, Hyndman and Saklatwala. The intelligence reports record that in his speeches in England Tilak repeatedly made laudatory references to the policies of the Bolshevik party in Russia, and particularly to their international policy.
This year we are observing the 100th anniversary of the historic October revolution. During our commemorations, it would be important to revisit the Tilak archives to study more closely his writings and speeches in the final chapter of his life.

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