How to Re-Appropriate Historical Conjunctures

In the mid-19th c., when Karl Marx announced, in the Communist Manifesto and later in his Capital, the emergence of strong movements of revolt by the working class in industrialised England, France and Germany, he certainly did not imagine that the first cases of such uprisings would actually take place far away from Western Europe. In 1917, the Russian Revolution revealed to the world that this social insurrection could also concern populations of the rest of the world, of “marginal” countries, of the so-called “developing” nations. It is during that era that the left as a political project arrived in India. In the 1920s, the Communist party was officially launched. These times were marked by a world of huge possibilities. Around the globe, young and educated individuals felt the potential of these days and decided which side they would adopt, in a variety of forms. More than just a political matter, this opposition also represented ideologies and ideals, and it would thus find a particularly fertile terrain in the arts and literature. It is in this context that grew, in India, a group of young writers with a broad affinity with leftist politics: All-India Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA).

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These writers had a certain sympathy with leftist politics, but, Priyamvada Gopal argues, this connection, often presumed, is more complex than one may expect. In the memories, the PWA remained related to communism and socialism, to the point that “the dismissal of the Progressive legacy in some influential quarters resonates with a wider disavowal of Marxism within literary theory and postcolonial studies as ‘economistic’ or ‘deterministic’”: for many, rejecting the left meant rejecting the PWA.

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In Literary Radicalism in India (2005), Indian historian Priyamvada Gopal explores four major writers affiliated with the PWA — Rashid Jahan, Khaja Ahmad Abbas, Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto — through the stakes of their enterprise and the obstacles they faced. Their literature was of high importance as it accompanied the shift of India as a British colony becoming an independent and modern nation. These writers had a certain sympathy with leftist politics, but, Gopal argues, this connection, often presumed, is more complex than one may expect. In the memories, the PWA remained related to communism and socialism, to the point that “the dismissal of the Progressive legacy in some influential quarters resonates with a wider disavowal of Marxism within literary theory and postcolonial studies as ‘economistic’ or ‘deterministic’” (Gopal 2005, 4): for many, rejecting the left meant rejecting the PWA. Indian historian Aijaz Ahmad’s argued that the organisation was the “cultural front for or of the CPI” (Gopal 2005, 17), which can be interpreted in a variety of ways, from the possibility of the CPI allowing or recognising artistic expression of its values, to the Party actually looking for a convenient and seemingly more innocent outlet to spread its fundamental political ideology. Ahmad’s view seems quite radical, as numbers of writers from PWA unambiguously displayed a more moderate outlook on the political affiliation of the organisation.

The extent of the relation to leftist politics, and in particular to the Communist Party of India (CPI) was a subject of contention for the very members of PWA. It was one of the points clarified at the official inauguration of the PWA in April 1936, which followed a few years of informal activity of the group. Mulk Raj Anand, one of the founding members, would in fact present the organisation as being purely literary: “actually we were a collection of readers and writers groping together, in spite of our different individualities, towards the realization of certain facts” (quoted in Gopal 2005, 17). According to him, the PWA was actually rich of a variety of types of relations with actual politics, and this “political heterogeneity” (Gopal 2005, 17) actually reinforced the strength of the movement. More than a variety of feelings, certain writers such as Chughtai and Manto were particularly dissatisfied with the CPI. Manto would later acknowledge that his lack of enthusiasm about the party would become the cause for of a certain enmity “from more orthodox socialist and communist writers,” while Chughtai would reaffirm that her writing was not “dictated” by any “association” (Gopal 2005, 17).

Priyamvada Gopal comes back to Aijaz Ahmad’s comment and attempts to understand the recurring a posteriori connection apposed between progressive cultural movements like PWA and leftist politics. Ahmad’s intention may be a constructive one, attempting to highlight the role of the CPI in “forging cultural resistances and alliances” (Gopal 2005, 18), but it goes on denying the very testimonies of the movement’s authors on their own affiliations. Gopal mentions American historian Michael Denning who noticed the same “blindness” with regard to the historical analyses of the Popular Front movement in the US. In both cases, the common analysis consists in subsuming a cultural movement, supposed secondary in the agenda of the days, to the perceived overwhelming power of the contemporary political struggles.

One possible resolution would be to look at the situation in terms of periods, and not in terms of political oppositions. The interwar period was a “particular historical conjuncture” (Gopal 2005, 18) during which radical movements would emerge, but not necessarily within the structure of one major political group gathering smaller factions in specific fields. In the writing of history, the possibilities of mere conjunctures may be unsavoury and unsatisfactory as they prevent from the formation of larger ideological readings. But historiography is indeed there to remain attentive, in those moments of interpretative temptation. “The task of the radical critic and historian,” Gopal concludes, “is to reconstruct this past without undermining either the role of organized party politics or the enormous efforts of those who were not affiliated to the party or who worked in a kind of contentious solidarity with it” (Gopal 2005, 18).

References

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