The Revolutionary Left & the Notion of Sacrifice

Sacrifice and who sacrificed how much is a dominant trope in discussions within (largely urban) left organisations. But I am sorry, as experience suggests, it is usually invoked to sideline important self-reflections. Problematizing this petty bourgeois (which is predominantly feudal in character in India) notion of ‘sacrifice’ in the revolutionary discourse, Priya Ranjan writes:One may become a Marxist out of moral considerations. But Marxism is not simply a ‘moral science,’ it is primarily a political doctrine deriving its strength from the materialist conception of history. It provides us with theoretical and methodological tools not only to understand our social reality but also to change it. But the real story of revolutionary change is always complicated because the actors who try to bring about such change are themselves part of that social reality.

A significant section of the Left (both revolutionary and revisionist) leadership in India has traditionally come from the petty bourgeois (mostly upper caste male) background. It was inevitable, for this section (at least a part of it) had access to university education where they were exposed to new ideas, theories and an awareness of global historical processes. Many of them became Marxist and joined the communist movement. A lot has been said about the petty bourgeois leadership in the communist movement in India. Here I want to reflect upon the notion of ‘sacrifice’ which became part and parcel of the revolutionary discourse with the petty bourgeois section becoming dominant in the leadership of the communist movement.

(These reflections are based on my limited experience as a student activist of an organization in JNU which believes in the new democratic revolution. I was its EC member from 2006 to 2014. After a three year long debate on gender relations and patriarchy, I dissociated myself from this organization in 2014, for it became obvious to me that the revolutionary movement’s understanding of not only gender relations and patriarchy but also of caste relations is highly problematic. More importantly, there was hardly any democratic space to debate these issues.)

In 2008, the first Anuradha Ghandy (a Maoist leader) memorial lecture was organised in JNU. A number of speakers narrated how Anuradha Gandhi, who studied in one of the elite colleges in Mumbai and later became a lecturer in Nagpur, ‘sacrificed’ her comfortable life to work FOR the upliftment of Dalits and Adivasis, and later how she worked AMONG adivasi women of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand in extremely difficult circumstances, despite her chronic illness. (I humbly request my revolutionary friends, who treat Anuradha Gandhi as a demigod, not to take out their dagger against me. I am not rejecting her revolutionary work. I am making a different point here.)

Let us contrast this with the ways in which the revolutionary movement treated the Dalit poet and singer Vilas Ghogre, who lived in Ramabai colony, a slum in Mumbai. He had nothing to sacrifice. But when Vilas Ghogre tried to earn some money to add a small room in his chawl for his son, where he could live after his marriage, the revolutionary movement not only accused him of ‘deviation’ from the revolutionary line but also expelled him from the organization in which he worked.

How to understand the invocation of the notion of ‘sacrifice’ in revolutionary discourse? It seems to me that the notion of sacrifice in revolutionary discourse is not radically different form the feudal brahminical notion of sacrifice. The petty bourgeois leadership in the communist movement seems to have carried this brahminical notion of sacrifice (of course unconsciously) to the revolutionary movement. In the brahminical tradition, one of the important sources of power is sacrifice. Anuradha Ghandy made sacrifices and she has become an iconic revolutionary leader. On the other hand Vilas Ghogre, who wanted some ‘comfort’ for his son, was thrown out of the organization.

In the last two decades, the number of first generation students (predominantly from the oppressed identities) entering higher educational institutions has gone up. In JNU, the number of such students has been proportionally higher (when compared to other such institutions) because of its progressive admission policy and low fee structure. While coping with the hardship in an ‘elite’ institution like JNU (many students who are unable to ‘adjust’ are forced to leave their studies, which is generally referred to as ‘drop-out rate’), many of these students are also under constant pressure to fulfill their familial expectation. Such students find it bizarre when they are expected to sacrifice their ‘career aspiration’ to contribute to the revolution which is fighting FOR THEIR people.

There is also a different set of students, coming from elite colleges and genuinely moved by the rampant injustices and violence in society, who become revolutionary overnight and declare that they are fighting FOR the oppressed. The ones who become revolutionary overnight also want the revolution to take place overnight. (Here I am not making any generalizations but pointing towards certain tendencies based on my limited experience). Such revolutionaries also romanticize and patronize certain kinds of struggle. For instance, in certain Delhi-based individuals and groups, I have seen a high degree of romanticization of working class struggles. For them, working AMONG the working class is to visit working class areas during weekends and sermonize on how the working class should fight its struggles. (Of course there are activists who live in working class localities and fight shoulder to shoulder with workers against the bloody capital. Such activists must be distinguished from the weekend tourists to working class areas)

The notion of ‘sacrifice’ in revolutionary discourse seems to be doing two things simultaneously. It gives power to the person (and whether that person is aware of that power or not is an immaterial question) who seems to be making sacrifices for the revolution. At the same time, it makes the oppressed people aware of the power of the person who is making the sacrifices for THEIR liberation. Perhaps this could be one of the reasons why the leadership of the revolutionary movement even after the five decades is still dominated by the upper caste male petty bourgeois section.
It appears to me that the revolutionary movement is in dire need of improving its understanding and approach. The petty bourgeois sections in the revolutionary movement needs to realize that they are not simply fighting FOR the liberation of the oppressed people but they are also fighting for their OWN liberation.

This kind of power relations in the revolutionary movement can only be countered by consciously democratizing the organizational spaces in which views and opinions are judged on their ideological political merit and not on the basis of WHO has placed them. It is only through the democratization process that we will internalize the fact that revolution is a process to end all kinds of exploitation and oppression and to create a society, “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” [Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto].


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  1. Bloody Commie
    September 20, 2017

    Are you not making the same fetishization of an ideal ‘Brahminic’ sacrifice while you are sarcastic of students’ weekend visits or ‘weekend-tourism’ as you call it to worker belts by hinting at an ideal practice of engaging with the working class issues to fight the ‘bloody capital’ which is only achieved through living in the working class areas?

    Additionally, your fetishization of the Dalit movements lead you to call such sacrifices – which are commonly called processes of de-classification as you know – as Brahmnic, even though such processes have existed globally since the inception of socialist thought.

  2. Ania Loomba
    September 20, 2017

    Excellent piece, Absolutely right on the notion of sacrifice that was actually shared across much of the nationalist movement as well.

  3. Farooque Chowdhury
    September 25, 2017

    I agree with Sushmita Verma: “The article suffers from huge inconsistencies The observations made in the article seem to be based on a few anecdotal events ( which are also factually incorrect ). … The author’s field of analysis seems to be revolving around JNU campus, rather than a rigorous study of the lives of various leaders and martyrs of the movement, ample literature on the same is available. I think it has become fashionable to theorise superficial observations and then get it published without a thorough review or feedback.”
    The better way for the article would have been to have a heading different from the present heading; or, to frankly state its limited view, which is: The articles has not looked into the vast plains, the valleys, thousands of villages and hundreds of towns, patches of forest which limits the view, and consequently misses many characters standing as examples.
    Actually, a bit of humbleness was required, which would have led to perceive that the subject covering hundreds in a vast land is difficult to discuss.

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