“Exiles From the Future”: An Interview with Vijay Prashad

Prof. Vijay Prashad is one of the most impressive scholars today. His recent anthology Communist Histories Volume 1 gathers together a series of essays by historians from across the globe that creates a new vision of Indian history and a Communist Party that was simultaneously aligned with the Soviet Union and a populist mass movement. I sat down for an interview with Prof. Prashad wherein we discussed this new volume and what it can teach activists today. The audio version of this interview is available online and may be used with permission and attribution.

AS: Vijay, you have written this new volume of histories of Communism in India. Can you describe the genesis and the intention going forward with this project?

VP: Well, the book project started about three or four years ago when we had a panel of basically Communist historians at the Historical Materialism conference in Delhi. This must have been in 2013. And our panel was very well-received because most of the panelists, Elizabeth Armstrong, Suchetana Chattopadhyay and Archana Prasad, had done original, empirical work on the history of Indian Communism and it was quite a powerful panel. So what was interesting about that panel and the discussion that this group of us had, we sat out on the lawn at Jawaharlal Nehru University after the panel saying ‘you know, we’ve got to do something about this’. What we discussed was two particular problems.

The first was a problem of how, just in India itself, the Communist movement was being written out of the narrative of Indian history. In other words, people were, in good faith perhaps, writing history books about the Indian working class, Indian peasantry, et cetera, and at no point did Communists make an entry, not even to be criticized. They were essentially being whitewashed from history. And we thought that was irresponsible. We wanted to, as it were, bring them back into the story. The first motive was principally historiographical, you know, it was honesty, like, let’s bring them back into the story.

The second issue was, I think, in a sense more fundamental and this is the issue about politics. Over the last two or so decades, there’s been an increase in thinking among the Left, liberals, intellectuals in the direction of so-called spontaneity. In other words that uprisings happen spontaneously, people are frustrated, angry, then they spontaneously rise up. And what they don’t require is preparation, or what we used to call leadership. Leadership is another word for preparation. In other words, in times when the tempo for struggle is not very high, you prepare populations by conducting acts of courage-building, confidence-building, respect for each other. That’s what the preparation is about and it requires leadership.

So this aspect of political struggle, leadership or preparation, has been largely denigrated. I consider this a kind of neoliberalism of the Left, this rise and promotion of spontaneity above preparation. And of course I understand politically that uprisings take place as a combination of spontaneity and preparation, not that preparation is more important than spontaneity. But in this period of the neoliberalism of the Left, spontaneity has, in a sense, overshadowed preparation. So if you don’t consider preparation to be important, why should you put it into the historical record?

So in other words there are several studies done of peasant uprisings where the first chapter might be ‘conditions in that area’ and so the conditions are bad, and then the second chapter is a kind of conjectural event, somebody’s shot and then there’s an uprising. But there’s no consideration, no chapter on preparation. And interestingly, if you write preparation out of history, leadership and preparation, the building of confidence among people who are exploited, you’ve actually methodologically written out the Communists because, when an uprising takes place, you don’t necessarily see red flags everywhere. You see all kinds of anarchic forms of rebellion, but the moment of preparation is when the Communists and other kinds of political forces play a roll. So this denigration of preparation actually closes the door on writing the history of Communism and so when we want to bring this history back, we’re also contesting this political method which suggests there’s no room for preparation, you simply merely wait for people to rise up.

To take the Arab Spring for instance, the way that history is written, you have the conditions of that region, there’s a huge buzz, and then one particular person, Muhammad Bouazizi burns himself, immolates himself in Tunisia, and that…sparks the uprising. What again disappears is the patient work conducted, for instance, in Egypt by the textiles workers union in Muhalla which played a crucial role of a very patient, confidence-building work among youth done by the four Palestinian groups inside Egypt. You know, they played a very significant role in creating the uprising in Egypt. But if you again, if you denigrate the process of preparation, then you loose the history of all these people and that’s what we really want to recover.

AS: So one thing that strikes me about this project is it has a ripple effect that could impact American activism and particularly the Black Lives Matter movement because I can’t tell you how many times over the last several years I’ve read editorials in mainstream newspapers constantly browbeating about Martin Luther King [Jr.] and this angelic vision of his praxis that is really rooted in what we could call the Richard Attenborough vision of Indian history because there’s this idea that his praxis came from this idealized vision of Gandhi. What are your thoughts on that?

VP: Well…there are two things that you said that are very important.

One is let’s take the King story first. You know, part of this lionization of the Great Man, King, Gandhi, even Malcolm X…minimizes the work that it takes to produce a movement. Lionization, as used, rightly or wrongly, has a great leader appear and by dint of their rhetoric or oratory, people will rise up and follow them. I recommend strongly an interesting rebuttal of this approach but, again, she wrote this book around an individual to make this rebuttal, and that’s Barbara Ramsey’s ver very good, strong biography of Ella Baker because Ella Baker was an organizer, and that book by Barbara Ramsey is an organizer’s biography… Those who were knee-deep in building popular confidence. What was their participation in a movement like? They are often the people who are written out of history. The elevators of history, these are exactly the people we are trying to recover. Who are these people?

So this lionization of the king figure, I mean King deserves all the accolades he gets, but the lionization of the King, or the making King the spark, the beginning and end of the movement, the alpha and omega of the movement, buries people like Ella Baker and the roll they played in actually building popular confidence in localities. So when somebody like King would come and visit a city, there were local organizers who gave people confidence to fill the room. It wasn’t by celebrity that people came to fill the room, it was dangerous to come and hear King, so you needed…the kind of infrastructure of local confidence. That’s the organizer, so I think it’s a very important point. This is also writing against lionization.

You mentioned Black Lives Matter. Now again, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or Occupy, in the American political discussion, there’s a tendency to assume that people sort of arrive politically, that there are these gatherings and there’s no agenda, there’s no leadership, this always an assumption of the media, then they browbeat, saying ‘where are the leaders, why don’t they have an agenda?’ Well, actually underneath each of these…there are networks, there…is this infrastructure of confidence-building. There are organizers who are involved, many of them have been organizers for decades and have great experience in knowing how to build a movement.

And so there is again in the media a writing out of this very crucial work that gets done to produce a movement. If you look at the leadership of Black Lives Matter, they didn’t come from nowhere. They came from queer movements, they came from feminist movements, they came from socialist traditions, they come from a wide variety of confidence-building dynamics and so I think that this argument we are making, admittedly, initially it was merely about Indian historiography, I think it is a bigger critique of the ‘neoliberalism of the Left’.

AS: With those things in mind, tell me about Being ‘Naren Bhattacharji’.

VP: The first essay is by Suchetana Chattopadhyay, who’s a historian at Jadavpur University in Calcutta, and Suchetana wrote a book earlier about one of the founders of the Indian Communist movement. His name is Muzaffar Ahmad. And it’s a terrific book because it’s not really just about Muzaffar Ahmad, who was a writer, an activist, a…very brave and brilliant man.

But it was a story about the city of Calcutta, it was a story about how Communists out of strangeness emerge. What I mean is that to be a Communist or to be somebody who believes in the future is a curious thing. So you have to live with people around you, you have to be with the people. At the same time, you believe things that are askance of reality. You have different ideas of gender relations, you have different ideas of social freedoms, and I think she captures that contradiction quite brilliantly and I think all people of the Left experience this. We go among the people, we live among the people, and yet we are slightly alienated from the people because we believe in certain things that are not commonplace.

There was an American poet, Muriel Rukheiser, who had a beautiful line. She said “We are exiles from the future”. We come from the future, essentially, because we have all these ideas about gender equality, sexual freedom, and these are not shared by the working class, the peasantry among whom we work. So I think she captured that beautifully.

In this essay, she took up the other important founder of Indian Communism who is M.N. Roy. And M.N. Roy is quite an interesting character because Roy, of course, ends up in Mexico eventually and becomes the founder of the Mexican Communist Party and then Roy goes to Moscow where he very famously debates Lenin on the question of the colonial/national standpoint in the Second Communist International meeting. But what Suchetana does is she writes about the early M.N. Roy, before he became M.N. Roy his birth name is Naren and Naren’s story of becoming a Left wing person is very interesting. How this essentially bourgeois nationalist radicalizes himself.

And why I was interested in opening the book with her essay is I think it’s important for people to see how iconic figures like M.N. Roy were not always M.N. Roy. I mean people who become important activists, they also struggle with the process of discovery. Years ago I wrote about Martin Luther King’s discovery when he was a college student and went and worked to pick tobacco in the outskirts of Hartford, Connecticut and he writes these letters to his mother, struggling with what he should do with his life. I think for people to read these stories of how people struggle to become organizers, political people, is I think quite inspiring and I think that first essay is very brilliant in that.

AS: Let’s talk about The ‘Colonial Conference’ and Dilemma of the Comintern’s Colonial Work, 1928-29.

VP: So Fredrik Petersson has got to be one of the most promising young historians of the Communist International. This is a person who has I think control of about fifteen languages…really quite brilliant, has understood the Communist International papers which are a treasure trove of material to build a story of how to understand early Communism. And what Fredrik writes about in this essay is a conference that the Comintern was enthusiastic to hold…

You see, in the early years, they understood very well that the possibility of a breakthrough revolution in Western Europe was diminishing after the defeat of the uprising in Germany, after the defeat of uprisings in other countries, and one of them of course being Hungary, where there was a successful red republic for a short period of time. And as they came to the understanding that the breakthrough in Europe was not going to happen, there was quite a considerable amount of discussion about the so-called weakest link of them all, which were the colonies. And Lenin had written about this earlier and so the Communist International was interested in getting more robust work done in the colonies.

Unfortunately the only way to do that was through the colonial countries. In other words, to get to India, they had to go through the British Communist Party because their access to India was very weak. The Indian Communist Party had been founded in 1920 in Tashkent outside India and the reason is they had a hard time because of strong repression of the British government, hard time building a movement inside India. So this essay is about the attempt inside the Communist International creating a colonial conference among mainly Western European countries, the great colonizing countries, among their Left parties, to gather together and strategize how best to push for some kind of political work in the colonies. And sadly as Fredrik shows that conference never took place and the reasons for that are quite interesting. A lot of it has to do with just the internal politics in the Comintern. Why I like this essay, it’s for anybody who believes that the world of ideas dominates in history.

You see often it’s not ideas, it’s inertia, it’s bureaucratism, it’s all the other things that sometimes come in the way of a good idea.

AS: Let’s talk now about Cuba and the Red International, 1934.

VP: Margaret Stevens is a very, very good historian, teaches in New Jersey, I don’t know if you’ll recall but she was one of the founders of the Iraq Veterans Against the War… Margaret has written a dissertation, this chapter comes out of the dissertation, which is essentially bringing to life the role of the Left…across the Americas, in the Caribbean, or the United States and the linkage between the north and the south.

And what she shows in this chapter in particular is the way in which, remember, I said that the Communist International often, to get to the colonies, had to go through the colonial power’s Left party. So in this case the Communist International was in touch with the CPUSA, the Communist Party of the United States, to engage in Cuba. And the chapter is about an uprising in Cuba, the creation of a commune, Commune 18, inside Cuba, which was inspired and led by a Cuban Communist and the conflict between the kind of ‘red international’ in North America, the Cubans and Moscow.

And she I think very nicely…brings alive that world of the uprising, the leadership, the kind of struggles between them and, in a sense, how faulty leadership played a role in not being able to push the movement and at the same time the exaggerated sense of the power of the people at that time…was also at fault, meaning that sometimes people might rise up but they might rise up too early. The island wasn’t prepared for an uprising.

But it’s an interesting essay because it shows you that there are prehistories of the Cuban revolution of 1959 which are rooted in the Communist movement. One of the ways in which we understand Cuba is that there’s a kind of nationalist revolt in 1959, Castro comes to America, the Americans snub him, and then he turns to the Soviet Union. But what this essay shows you is that there are essentially older histories of Communist rebellion inside Cuba that perhaps contributed in a great way to the revolution.

AS: So let’s talk now about Indian Peasant Women’s Activism in a Hot Cold War.

VP: Now this is one of the essays that was presented at the Historical Materialism conference in Delhi in 2013. And this is another interesting essay… Elizabeth Armstrong had written a book about the All-India Women’s Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA)…which is one of the largest women’s groups in the world, there are 13 million members, and it’s a Communist women’s group in India today. It was an interesting book about the organizational theory of AIDWA.

The idea was that, how is it that in the time of neoliberalism, when all around the world movements are suffering, this group has essentially doubled its membership? So she has been interested in the question of organization and the organizational space between theory and practice. So this is a step backwards, looking at the pre-history of AIDWA.

And here she does a couple of things.

One is she looks at the creation of..pan-Indian women’s political organizations like the All-Indian Women’s Congress, which was a nationalist women’s organization, and alongside that the emergence of Communist women’s groups, first within the All-Indian Women’s Congress and then outside it. And what is interesting is, see, India is largely even today, about 70% of India lives in rural areas, then it was overwhelmingly a rural country, which meant that no mass organization could essentially bypass the question of the peasantry. And interestingly, what the bourgeois women’s groups in India wanted to do in the nationalist period is to have the peasant women essentially follow them… They would be the leaders and the peasant women would be the masses.

What the Communists had to engage with is they wanted to organize the peasant women and make them essentially have power over the movements to create democratic movements. And so this is a history of that struggle between the bourgeois women’s movements and the Communist women’s movements and what essentially is the fulcrum of the essay is in 1943 there was a famine in which perhaps as many as 3 million Indians died in order to feed British troops essentially and the Indian women Communists became some of the leaders in organizing relief against the famine.

And it’s in the experience of working in a famine that they developed the skills to create the Indian Women’s Communist Front, which continues to play an important role, and essentially then is the precursor to the All-India Women’s Democratic Women’s Association… One of the interesting theoretical things that comes out of the chapter is how this experience of building confidence among the masses transformed the very understanding that these Communist women had of politics. They didn’t come there with a pre-written script, it was the experiences that produced an understanding of how to organize, in other words, organizing is always a relationship between the person who arrives and says ‘Let’s meet together’ and the person who comes to the meeting.

There is no passiveness, it is genuinely done, and I think this essay shows very well how there was an active engagement between the organizers and those who themselves became organizers in the process.

AS: So from there let’s talk about The Lost International in the Transformation of Chinese Socialism.

VP: One of the underlying themes of this first volume, because hopefully we’ll have more volumes, is internationalism and the role of internationalism in the Left movement, even in small localities, even if you’re in the middle of a peasant’s struggle, what differentiates a Communist organizer from others is that they have an internationalist perspective.

So Lin Chun, who’s a highly-regarded scholar of China, writes about global capitalism, has written very, very good books on Chinese politics and labor, tackles a sensitive question, which is the question of what happens to Chinese socialism, or rather its internationalism, when its understanding of socialism begins to alter. So what she argues is that from the 1930’s, of course especially from 1949, till the 1990’s, Chinese socialism…had a deeply internationalist agenda. And that internationalist agenda of course can be, it doesn’t always work in a way that one might like, but it was nonetheless internationalist, by which I mean…the Chinese did after all decide that the Soviet Union was a greater threat than the United States and decided to come to terms with the United States when Nixon visits China. It should be understood as a problematic direction that its internationalism went in but nonetheless it was internationalist.

And then she suggests that with the change of economic policy, the political internationalism of China begins to shift and it has a different understanding of its international role. So it’s an interesting chapter, a suggestive chapter…because it suggests that after the slow decline of American unipolarity, as China begins to enter the world stage, what is its international consciousness? And she suggests that its international consciousness is almost entirely removed from that of the high point of Chinese Communism. And I found that a very interesting kind of argument.

So even though it is not as locally-grounded, granular as some of the other chapters in the volume, it’s very thoughtful and I wanted to have something anyway from China.

AS: From here let’s talk about The Warli Movement and its Living Histories.

VP: When we released the volume in Mumbai, in Bombay, just a few weeks ago, one of the people who came to speak on the book Comrade Dhangar, who’s 88 years old and he spoke eloquently about the history of the Warli uprising and then his role in the Warli uprising. The Warli uprising was a major adivasi, or indigenous uprising, in western India against the new Indian government, against the land and forest policy of the new Indian government. And it was seeded and led by important Communist leaders, including Godavari Parulekar, and what the historian Archana Prasad has done is Archana went interviewed people like Comrade Dhangar and others who lived as children at that time but then also struggled right through the century with the commitments of the Warli uprising. And what she found, she first gives a very good assessment of the Warli uprising but what she found was that the initial people, like Godavari Parulekar, when they came in to prepare for an uprising, they also produced a new generation of leaders among the Warlis themselves. And it’s this generation that takes up the cudgel for the next couple of decades.

So it’s an important story because it writes against the assumption that outsides come in, Communists come in, they seed something, and then they continue to lead it. What she shows is that it’s not like there are Communists and then Warlis because within a few years the Warlis become Communists. And they become leaders in their region and that has decades-long effect through families, through community. The other thing she finds is because the Warli region has a living history of struggle against the Indian government’s land and forest policy, they have a living memory of the uprising. In other places that she looks at, where there is no history of struggle after an uprising, the living memory dies.

I thought this was a very interesting point. In other words, let’s assume that there are two places in a country, Place One and Place Two both have major rebellions in the 1930’s. Place One has not only the rebellion in the thirties but it continues to have a history of struggle. Place Two does not have a history of struggle after the rebellion. So what Archana would suggest, what she’s found is, where there is a living memory of struggle, they have a living memory of the rebellion. Where there’s no struggle afterward the rebellion is forgotten. I thought this should be useful for historians where we assume, for instance, that there were places where there was no struggle.

Let’s take American history, you go up to the states in…places like Nebraska or Wyoming and we assume that Wyoming has always been Dick Cheney country. But in fact merely because in the last several decades there’s been no populist or Left uprisings there doesn’t mean that there’s no great history of populist people’s uprisings in places like Wyoming because if you go back and look at it, some of those states had very great farmers movements, cattlemen’s movements. Some of them of course are drenched with a history of massacring Native Americans but some of them also have linkages to the [Industrial] Workers of the World, which had roots in some of these states. So that lack of a living history, Archana suggests, means that you forget these pasts and the reason your forget these pasts is that neither state historiography nor professional bourgeois historiography is going to keep alive that memory.

AS: In closing I just wanted to talk briefly what you’ve described as this ‘neoliberalism of the Left’ and emphasis of spontaneity. C.L.R. James moved towards a position that emphasized spontaneous action in some regards, is that correct?

VP: I’m not that sure. I read a number of James but I read mainly, Andrew, honestly the early James. I know his Black Jacobins very well and of course Beyond the Boundary is one of my favorite books on cricket but I don’t really know the later James.

AS: You just mentioned the I.W.W., the Wobblies, and one of the things that I’ve found by looking at the book Towards a Soviet America by William Z. Foster is, he was originally a member of the I.W.W. during its heyday and he brought to that brought to that book and to his vision of Communism taking root in America a sort of dual power vision that came from the I.W.W. I wonder if you have any thoughts on that sort of logic?

VP: This is…important and I think we at some point should have a long discussion of some kind about this. In the early period of Left struggles, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there were many different trajectories for the struggle, whether you call it ‘syndicalism’ or ‘anarchism’ or, at the time, ‘social democracy’, eventually ‘Communism’, these were different theories of struggle. But all of them shared a basic understanding that the people…experience exploitation, they experience oppression, but they’re not prepared to rise up.

And the reason they’re not prepared to rise up are two-fold: one is they may not have the confidence to rise up, in other words, that there are cultures that produce different kinds of attitudes, whether it’s religion, fatalism, sense of fear, repression, the culture of God and the police minimizes confidence in people.

So one is the role, whether you were an anarchist at the time or you were a Communist, you believe that you must go amongst the people and raise up their confidence. The other one, where there was a disagreement in some sections, was over the use of violence.

You see, one strand…of anarchism believed that you needed to use essentially homeopathic doses of terror by assassinating people, et cetera, the so-called ‘propaganda of the deed’, and that this propaganda of the deed would rouse people up, give them confidence to rise up. Another section believed ‘No, it was not by seeing something happen that people get confidence, but it’s by acting’, in other words, the movements must go among the people and produce small struggles, bigger struggles, to give people greater and greater confidence.

This was a real political debate in the earlier part of the twentieth century and in India, for instance, one of the great iconic figures of our movement is Bhagat Singh, who believed in the propaganda of the deed. When he went to prison Bhagat Singh wrote a pamphlet called Why I Am An Atheist and in this pamphlet he had a very interesting synthesis of the two approaches.

He said in that ‘For mass struggles, nonviolence is essential. In times of great necessity, violence is indispensable’. In other words, when you are threatened, when your life is threatened, you have to fight back. But to build a mass movement, nonviolence is indispensable. That was Bhagat Singh’s synthesis of the two, he didn’t say one is better, he said…there’s a different use for different strategies. Why I’m saying all this is that debate at the time was a rich debate because what everybody shared was the idea that you cannot have politics without building mass-movements.

Now today, why I say ‘neoliberalism of the Left’ is that the idea of building mass movements, and with an emphasis on the word ‘building’, the idea of building, preparing mass movements, is not very much there. We would like to participate in manifestations, in Occupies and things like that. We would like to be involved in a march. But we don’t actually see the very hard work that goes to build confidence towards those events. And we don’t have a shared discussion.

So, when anarchists are having a debate, they’re having a debate about tactics, ‘Should you do this?’, ‘Should you do that?’ The question isn’t ‘Should you do this?’, ‘Should you do that?’, the primary question is how do you build confidence among the masses of people who experience hierarchies, who experience exploitation, who experience oppression. The principle question should not be a narcissism of tactics, ‘What’s the correct tactic?’ The principle question should be ‘How do you build popular confidence?’

And in the previous generations, that was a shared understanding. Today that is not a shared understanding.

AS: Are there any other points you would like to bring up in closing about this volume?

VP: Well, the one thing I would like to say…is that the book is published by LeftWord Books, we are a small Marxist publishing house in Delhi, and our goal essentially is to become a very good and important publishing house in the English language and also in Indian languages. That’s our goal. And our books are available through e-books so we very much recommend that people go to the website, LeftWord.com, have a look, read our books, review our books, fight with us, the last thing a Marxist publisher would like to experience is being ignored. We want people to take us seriously, we don’t necessarily want anybody to agree with us, but please don’t ignore us!

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.