positions politics

Utopianism and its Discontents

Sandeep Banerjee

On 28 September 2014, a mob of frenzied Indians surrounded three African-origin students in Delhi’s Rajiv Chowk metro station. In a scene that evoked memories of the lynching of African Americans in the American South, they rained blows and hit them with sticks and belts besides subjecting them to verbal abuse. As the recording of the incident shows,1 members of the Delhi Police force simply stood around watching the events unfold even when the students sought refuge inside a police assistance booth. And in a display of jingoist patriotism, enthusiastic supporters egged the mob on by chanting “Bharat Mata ki Jai” [Victory to Mother India].2 This incident undoubtedly points to Indians’ (and contemporary India’s) fraught relationship with its racialized “others” and is just one of the innumerable instances of racism faced by people of African origin living in India.3 But, as the nationalist sloganeering suggests, it was more than just another instance of “brown over black” racist violence.4 It suggests the maturation of a xenophobic nationalism in India that disavows – indeed, signals the demise of – that utopian desire that was decolonization that manifested in “Third-World” or “Afro-Asian” solidarity.

Decolonization today is commonsensically understood as the dismantling of the European colonial regimes in Ireland as well as Asia, Africa and the Caribbean during the course of the twentieth century. What is often omitted from this seamless narrative is the defining role of the Russian Revolution of 1917 in not just engendering the decolonizing impulse but, more crucially, imbuing it with the utopian spirit in addition to making that hopeful vision of an egalitarian world beyond colonialism and capitalism real, and realizable.5 It heralded the actualization of hope – hope for a better and more egalitarian world – and became, unsurprisingly, an inspiration for the colonized people the world over. The Russian Revolution also fostered a spirit of internationalism that allowed people to forge bonds of solidarity that sought to transcend determinants of gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality. In what other context could one imagine a Bengali from India set up the Communist Party of Mexico? Or a Vietnamese politician writing against the lynching of African Americans? And it is this spirit of internationalism that eventually fostered the “Bandung Spirit” and its aim of Third-World solidarity and South-South co-operation.

Any assessment or reconsideration of Marx and Marxism in India would have to insist on the importance of the Russian Revolution and Vladimir Lenin in both shaping the reception of Marx and Marxist thought, as well as fostering the decolonizing impulse, in South Asia. Lenin provided the majority world with a concrete instantiation of what was an abstract theory of praxis in the works of Karl Marx. He, furthermore, connected imperialism with the depredations of capitalism thus “stretching” Marxism for the colonial context.6 In so doing, Lenin took Marx out of the confines of Western Europe and activated Marxism as a global and internationalist theory of anti-colonial (social) and anti-capitalist (economic) praxis. To use a Derridean conceit, Lenin’s intervention makes him a kind of dangerous supplement to Marx where the term “dangerous” qualifies both the supplement as well as Marx. He supplements Marxism by actualizing its revolutionary potential making it a “dangerous” theory of social and economic transformation while also transforming Marx into a “dangerous” thinker.

Marx/ism arrived in South Asia during the inter-war years re-formed as it were by the Leninist imperative and recast as a global theorist and as a theory of radical economic and social praxis and justice. This last point is important to reiterate as members of the Hindu Right in India as well as post-colonialists of all stripes seem united in stressing – incorrectly – the European provenance of Marx and Marxism. In India, Marxism gained popularity and acceptance for not just being a doctrine of economic justice (which it surely is) but, more crucially, for being a utopian creed of progressive social transformation. It has been a key vehicle of struggles against gender and caste oppression, the exploitation and wage-theft of workers, the dispossession of indigenous communities as well as agrarian distress. In addition, Marxism helped shaped India’s decolonizing impulse and has enabled South Asians to think beyond structures of filiation to fashion other affiliative communities both within and, in an internationalist vein, beyond their own social formation. In sum, it offered India and Indians a vision of an egalitarian global order where (the people of) Asia, Africa and the Caribbean stood shoulder to shoulder against their former colonial masters.


Dreamworlds and Catastrophe

Theodor Adorno suggests that as far as the utopian dreams have been realized, “they all operate as though the best thing about them had been forgotten.”7 Adorno’s comment suggests that the actualization of utopia provokes a kind of amnesia that undermines the “best thing” about them and is salutary for thinking about the utopian project of decolonization. The processes of political decolonization in the twentieth century transformed that unequal world into our contemporary world-system of nominally equal territorialized nation-states, what Aihwa Ong would call a “graduated sovereignty.”8 While the establishment of these postcolonial nation states was fundamental to the decolonizing project, it also removed from view what was perhaps the “best thing” about the utopian impulse decolonization: the vision of a global order predicated on international solidarity. In the formerly colonized parts of the world, the postcolony that was forged in the crucible of decolonization was imagined as the horizontal comradeship that was the nation. In British India, the idea of the postcolony came to be understood as the Indian nation and subsequently, the Pakistani nation. And nationalism, “that magnificent song that made the people rise against their oppressors” did indeed stop short, falter, and die away on the day independence was proclaimed.9 In other words, the utopian impulse that underwrote decolonization was arrested, and absorbed into the figure of the nation-state.

The postcolonial Indian nation-state accepted decolonization as an event of the transfer of political power from white to darker hands and de-emphasized the idea of decolonization as a process. The understanding of decolonization as a process, which is undoubtedly the more challenging aspect of it, suggests that the transfer of political power is but a moment that inaugurates not just the dismantling of European structures of rule but also the reconstruction and reanimation of the political, economic, and the cultural spheres of the colonized, leading to the breaking of the “mind-forg’d manacles” – of decolonizing the mind. Instead of working towards a radical reconstitution of formerly colonized societies, the postcolonial nation-states made peace with the depredations of capital against labor and incorporated the colonial ethic into their outlook, thus taking a neo-colonial turn. Most crucially, the world system engendered by colonialism – the one and unequal world of metropolitan and peripheral spaces now turned into a concatenation of nominally equal nation-states structured by the boundary-concept – was left untouched by the newly independent states. Instead, the territorialized state-space was valorized and coded with an affective charge and turned into a reified and quasi-mystical category. In this milieu, the postcolonial nation-state emerged as the sole arbiter of utopianism, now recoded as progress and understood from a strictly statist perspective.

Ultimately, this points to the failure of the utopian impulse of decolonization. The first intimation of this was probably the shock of violence that was directed by the colonized not at the colonizer but at each other. The Irish Civil War at the dawn of Irish independence and the ethnic violence and displacement at the cusp of the colonizer’s departure from South Asia, and the partition of British India, provide salutary reminders of that history. And this structure of violence in so-called postcolonial societies – India is no exception – has continued and has typically been directed against “othered” communities residing with these spaces: women, working classes, religious minorities, immigrants, people of the so-called lower castes and of minority sexual orientation and gender identity, the First Nations and other autochthonous groups, to name just a few. In addition, colonialism and capitalism, while continuing to maintain their mutually affirming relationship, have re-invented themselves to deal with the “crisis” of decolonization.

As the United States of America claimed the mantle of imperial metropole from the United Kingdom and France in a kind of modern translatio imperii, new modalities of rule ranging from coups and Napalm to debt bondage and outsourcing were developed to keep the formerly colonized spaces nominally free (though at times not) but always very far from their decolonizing missions. The failure of decolonization as a utopian project is underwritten by these twin emphases: of a reinvigorated US-led colonial-capitalism across the globe especially since the fall of the Soviet Union and the abandonment of the utopian impulse of decolonizing by the so-called postcolonial nation-states.


Towards a Utopian Praxis

India today stands at the brink of a mammoth and unprecedented consolidation of the Hindu Right in its political, economic, and cultural domains. The Indian nation-state is moving gradually but firmly towards a blut und boden kind of nationalism whose primary aim is to achieve a congruence between the categories of Indian and Hindu. This ideal is best summed up in the words of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the doyen of the Hindu Right. Savarkar writes:

So to every Hindu, from the Santal to the Sadhu this Bharata bhumi [India] this Sindustan is at once a Pitribhu and a Punyabhu – fatherland and a holy land. That is why in the case of some of our Mohammedan or Christian countrymen . . . [who] have inherited along with Hindus, a common Fatherland and a greater part of the wealth of a common culture – language, law, customs, folklore and history – are not and cannot be recognized as Hindus. For though Hindustan to them is Fatherland as to any other Hindu yet it is not to them a Holyland [sic] too. Their holyland [sic] is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and Godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil. Consequently their names and their outlook smack of a foreign origin. Their love is divided.10


Savarkar, as is evident from the passage, articulates a distinct kind of utopianism – it understands India in terms of, and as, an exclusively Hindu space. This notion of India was developed by European Orientalists and subsequently propagated by the British through the entirety of the colonial state apparatus ranging from the repressive to the ideological.

These orientalist ideas shaped the anti-colonialism of some of the political groups of colonial India. It informed the idea of India of the Hindu Mahasabha (HMS) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the latter is the ideological mentor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that currently rules India – besides those of the Muslim League (ML). While the HMS and RSS imagine India as a land of Hindus with Muslims as “outsiders,” the ML conceptualized British India as comprising a Hindu and a Muslim nation. In contrast to these, the anti-colonial imaginary of the Indian National Congress (INC) has ranged from a developmental statism of a Jawaharlal Nehru to a tolerant but conservative Hindu majoritarianism of a Mohandas Gandhi. It is worth recalling that Gandhi imagined independent India in a nostalgic tenor – as a return to Ram rajya or the rule of Ram with capitalist trusteeship and caste privileges and hierarchies intact.11 In contradistinction to these are the Marxist-Leninist ideas of a radical egalitarianism and internationalism, and Bhimrao Ambedkar’s idea of a progressive state providing constitutional guarantees of individual and group rights that, despite their important differences, demonstrate significant overlap and commonality of vision.

While much has changed between India of the 1920s and 1950s and now, much also remains the same. The single most important change remains the ascendancy of the Hindu Right who played a very limited role in India’s freedom struggle. Any attempt to think about Marxism in India in the years and decades ahead need to take into account the transformation of the Indian polity. It needs to ask how, and in what conjuncture, the Hindu Right have managed to transform the common sense of a people and the tactical alignment of forces within the Indian social formation. Marxists must consider the ways in which the Hindu Right have engaged in a protracted war of position; how they have, in a Gramscian vein almost, organized culture as a productive activity.

And at the same time, Indian Marxists must engage with that category of the Indian social formation that remains immutable even when all else changes: the category of caste. To reinvigorate Marxism in India, Indian Marxism must embrace, and engage with, caste as a concrete expression of social oppression within the Indian social formation more fully than it has previously done. For the Hindu Right, caste is and will remain a stumbling block for their utopianism is definitionally incapable of transcending their caste bias. Not so for Marxism, which needs to return to its roots and re-connect with its own utopian vision of radical egalitarianism and its self-definition as a philosophy of utopian social praxis and transformation.

Sandeep Banerjee is a literary critic, theorist, and translator and Associate Professor of English at McGill University, Canada. He is the author of Space, Utopia and Indian Decolonization: Literary Pre-figurations of the Postcolony (Routledge, 2019). His articles have appeared (or will appear) in Modern Asian StudiesUtopian StudiesVictorian Literature and Culture, and Mediations in addition to several anthologies. He is a General Editor of the Routledge Series in the Cultures of the Global Cold War and is the recipient of grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Fonds de recherche du Québec, and the Gerda Henkel Stiftung in Germany.

  1. “India: African Students Mobbed by Attackers in Delhi Station,” RT: Ruptly, September 30, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96sSr0y5ASw.
  2. See Scroll Staff, “Cops Look on as Mob Attacks Black Men in Delhi Metro Station,” Scroll.in, September 30, 2014, https://www.scroll.in/article/681590/video-cops-look-on-as-mob-attacks-black-men-in-delhi-metro-station.
  3. Sibaji Roychoudhury, “Racist Mob? No Worse than what Africans Face Every Day in Delhi,” Scroll.in, October 2, 2014, https://www.scroll.in/article/681845/racist-mob-no-worse-than-what-africans-face-every-day-in-delhi.
  4. I borrow the phrase “brown over black” from the title of a book by the historian Antoinette Burton. See Antoinette M. Burton, Brown Over Black: Race and the Politics of Postcolonial Citation (Gurgaon: Three Essays Collective, 2012).
  5. For an extended discussion of decolonization as a spatial utopianism, see Sandeep Banerjee, Space, Utopia and Indian Decolonization: Literary Pre-Figurations of the Postcolony (New York: Routledge, 2019).
  6. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington. (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 40.
  7. Ernst Bloch, Theodore Adorno, and Horst Kruger, “Something’s Missing: A Discussion Between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing,” in The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 1.
  8. See Aihwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).
  9. Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 203.
  10. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? (Bombay: Veer Savarkar Prakashan, 1969), 113.
  11. For an illuminating discussion of the differences between Mohandas Gandhi and Bhimrao Ambedkar, especially on their positions of caste, see Arundhati Roy, The Doctor and the Saint: Caste, Race, and The Annihilation of Caste: The Debate Between B.R. Ambedkar and M.K. Gandhi (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).