Surjeet and Solzhenitsyn passes away – lives coming back in full circles

Posted on August 4, 2008. Filed under: Communist, Politics, Russia, Solzhenitsyn, Surjeet |

Harkishen Singh Surjeet, one of the the architects of centre-left coalition governments in its Indian form has passed away. So has, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the most intriguing voice of Russian dissidence against the Soviet Government. Surjeet started his political career as a teenage Congress enthusiast who risked being shot by forces under the British to raise a flag, when the flag-raising venture had been virtually abandoned by regular Congress volunteers because of the shoot at sight orders. From this Surjeet graduated to the Socialist faction within the Congress, and finally into the Communist Party of India. But what Surjeet so successfully revived was the early anti-Trotskyte dogma within Stalin dominated post-Lenin Comintern – form national fronts with “progressive national bourgeoisie” against colonial imperialists. As in most Soviet era polemics the primary reason for this dogma was two-fold : (1) take an opposite position to that of Trotsky whose policies appeared to extend revolutionary fervour across the world (2) the more practical reality of Stalin’s illusion that he could get on with the West, particularly the USA, whose industrialist “darling of capitalism” Ford, got involved in early Soviet industrialization. Typically Stalin managed to dump all responsibility for the horrendous consequences that befell the nascent Communists in Asia (like the CCP in China which had 27000 decapitated in a single day in Shanghai, by their erstwhile “progressive national bourgeois” ally – the Kuomindang of Chiang Kai Shek) on “right deviationists” and “party wreckers”. By early 30’s Totskytes had been effectively liquidated, and Stalin felt safe enough to attack the “Right” officially associated with Bukharin and blamed the horrors of the National Front policies (among other “errors”) on “Bukharinites” and removed them from party-power (since the party was the state apparatus itself in the USSR, this meant virtual proscription). National Front policies remained “untouchable” with instruction from the Comintern to the Asian colonies under imperialism to join National liberation struggles with or without “national bourgeoisie”, until the beginning of WWII, when desired alliance with the West led to a sudden switch-over. Most of the Communists in early 1942 India were in favour of and to a certain extent involved in the “Quit India” movement. The Communists in jails had a sudden “change of heart” and realized that the “greatest danger” was that of fascism, and that Communists should immediately start collaborating with the British as part of defending Soviet socialism from Fascists (there is an inexplicable lag in the change of policy between “jailed” and “free” Communists – with the strange case of the “jailed” getting whiff of Comintern winds before their “free” comrades). This was definitely convenient for the British, as they now had access to a small but determined group with native connections who had not only been weaned away from the 1942 struggle which in many places were beginning to show signs of violent overthrow of British Rule, but could also possibly serve as additional eyes and ears of the administration. At this time, Gandhi’s “conscience” bit him badly, and he also decided in favour of helping the British War effort. So a degree of collaboration could develop between Congress and the Communists, although it did not last, just as the similar honeymoon between the Chinese CP and Kuo Min Dang was short lived.

Th collaboration issues resurfaced with the split of the CPI into CPI and CPI(M). At this time initially, CPI(M) was against collaborating with the Congress, while CPI was in favour. Internal factional power struggles got mixed up in polemical battles typical in Communist history, with the classic cyclical patterns of periodic complete reversals of policies and positions. CPI(M) itself got a taste of power, and hence got hooked to coalitional governments after forming state governments in Kerala and West Bengal with rebel factions of Congress, and other left forces whom they had vehemently fought with before over questions of nationalism and interpretations of Marx and Lenin.

Surjeet, together with Jyoti Basu, simply revived the old Comintern idea of a collaborational effort within “non-military” versions of Communist capture of state power. The Communist ideology of action only by precedence within selective strands of “Marxism”, implies that present “forces” have to be identified with “similar” forces in the “glorious battles” of communism in the past. Surjeet was recreating the classic 1942 Soviet position that “everything else” was to be subjugated to the need to “fight fascists”. Perhaps, on a subconscious level this is a cover for the (1) practical political perception that Communism on its own has a very restricted power base (the fact that determined minorities can hijack state power in the face of apathy of society as a whole is a consistent feature of all “glorious revolutions”) (2) the psychological proximity to “class and cultural” origins. Thus Surjeet’s politics came full circle in returning to alliance with the Congress.

Solzhenitsyn was worlds apart from Surjeet. A Russian Red Army officer, who was arrested for allegedly caricaturing Stalin, to be shut up in Gulag internment as part of a general Stalinist suspicion of anyone who did not lick his boots. (totalitarian leaders usually hate most their mockers, from the Prophet of Islam to Stalin) Stalin had decimated the old Bolshevik reconstructed Tsarist and revolutionary armies transformed under Trotsky into the Red Army. The decimation was part of Stalin’s power struggle and his extreme jealousy and intolerance of people intellectually brighter than himself, including Trotsky, who had the single largest contribution in the formation of the Red Army. Stalin’s suspicion of the Red Army continued unabated until Hitler’s attack, and continued even throughout the war. There were some real grounds for Stalin’s suspicions as there had been substantial support for the advancing Germans among the German communities living in south-western Russia from the time of Peter I. Stalin’s extreme brutality and cynical annihilation of large chunks of the Russian population (or his system that allowed “courtiers” to settle personal scores of their own) definitely created conditions under which loyalties could be shaken. However, Solzhenitsyn’s decorated military creer proved that there was a possibility that he was a genuine patriot. He could have been kept under watch, or given non-frontline duties, or assigned to the partisans, but still given a chance to prove himself. This is the basic and fundamental failure of the Communist model of Stalin, it has no concept of redemption, no faith and confidence in the self to inspire and change others, leading to blind and overwhelming reliance on terror. (Eric Hoffer of course thought that terror was a more reliable instrument to ensure loyalty to mass movements than ideology).

Solzhenitsyn is a curious dissident. Born of a Tsarist Army officer dad, and a highly educated mother who was a daughter of a self-made landed gentry, Solzhenitsyn trained to be a mathematician, and by his own admission had no questions about the state ideology he was then taught through his philosophy courses. He is not an avid critic of the authoritarian system as such and his treatment at the hands of the state did not affect his patriotic feelings. However, it appears that he started to explore the origins of the Soviet system, through an analysis of the individuals who led to the formation of the system. His first ever book that I read was “One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch”, and I can still quote from memory passages from the book. The most poignant line from the book was the description about how important was the last bite of bread in the daily meal for the Gulag prisoner Ivan – as the piece of bread was crucial in mopping up all remnant traces of the soup in the bowl – crucial for Ivan’s survival as nothing, not even a single drop of soup could be wasted. For literary critics, this book is his high point, and “Lenin in Zurich”, a smaller extract from his much bigger work, “August, 1914”, a documentary devoted to “single-minded deconstruction of the motivations of the Bolsheviks”, with an attempt at painting “Lenin” as a Hofferian “fanatic” bent on imposing his will with absolute contempt for the “masses”, and for other “Bolsheviks” and for anyone else in general. “Gulag Archipelago” is the most scathing of his documentary style, and it takes a lot of determination to force oneself to read through descriptions of deliberately organized rape of the women related to condemned ex-Bolsheviks or Red Army men, while on journey in prison trains through Siberia. Was Solzhenitsyn lying? I do not think so. For the Communist regime in absolute power, like any other totalitarian regime like that of Pinochet or Franco or the ancient and modern religious fanatics, everything is allowed, rape is just another instrument of coercion, the act supremely enjoyable not only for the sense of power it gives to the rapist deputed by the authorities, but also for the authorities themselves who enjoy the pain of the raped.

He described the problems of both East and West as “a disaster” rooted in agnosticism and atheism. He thought it was “the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness.”

“It has made man the measure of all things on earth—imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.”http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/solzhenitsyn/harvard1978.html

Like Surjeet, Solzhenitsyn had returned full circle, in his case to his mystical, spiritual roots of the society he originated in, and the philosophical concerns of the social class he happened to be born in. But being a creative man he probably escaped the fate of being a Bolshevik fanatic almost all of whom had origins in similar social backgrounds.

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