Wednesday, March 02, 2011

'The God That Failed' still good enough

My friend Suresh Menon had brought for me a worn-copy of 'The God That Failed', A Bantam Fifty edition of 1959, exactly 10 years after the book was published. He got it from a second-hand bookstore in London. There is first the pleasure of getting a copy of an old book, and a worn-out copy seems to add to the pleasure!
The book was never liked by many in India except those who were ardent-communists, which was natural. That is perhaps the reason that the right-wing Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, founded by that educated reactionary, K.M.Munshi, published an edition of 'The God That Failed' in India. But that was much too long ago. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan has itself faded. It is not surprising that there was no new edition of this book!
Though there are stories in India of how many devoted communists were disillusioned with the dictatorial ways of the party -- poet and film lyricist Sahir Ludhianwi and to some extent the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma were among them -- no one among them wanted to describe conversion to communism or their disillusionment with it. Yes. There was M.N.Roy, who was the hero of a certain kind of intellectuals and humanists in the country, but he too did not seem to bother to write about all that was wrong with the working of the party as it was done in this book.
Of course, as one my friends, Gurucharan, pointed out in the early 1980s when I gave him the book to read and that was also the first time I read it a full 30 years after it was published, that I could not be serious and that I must be pulling his leg. Of course, I was serious when I wanted him to read the book. But now I realise the full implication of what he said.
The six pieces written by Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone, Andre Gide, Louis Fischer (biographer of Gandhi and who later married and divorced Stalin's daughter, Svetlana when he was in Princeton) and Stephen Spender in the book are at one level pure propaganda and that was how it was used by the anti-communist lobby.
But the writers did not intend it that way. Except Koestler, who is some sort of an intellectual hustler, the rest were looking back seriously at their infatuation with communism-Marxism and how they saw through it. Most of them were also protesting against the ways of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and its overbearing ways in wanting to direct international communist movement. It can be rightly argued that the sins of CPSU cannot be laid at the door of Marx.
It is also true that none of the writers have seriously countered marxism/communism at a philosophical level. Perhaps, given their literary credentials, they were not equipped to deal with marxism as a political philosophy. It is this sense that 'The God That Failed' is a shallow book. But it has curiosity value at the literary biographical level, how some of the sensitive minds were attracted to this ideology with its unmistakable totalitarian trappings. It should be something like some of the European intellectuals and men of letters from Edward Gibbon and Cardinal Newman in the 18th and 19th centuries were attracted to the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, Gibbon recanted! And there are the examples of Graham Greene in the 20th century, who was sympathetic to communism and converted to Roman Catholicism! The latest example of the attraction for Catholicism is that of former British prime minister Tony Blair.
I have to quote two interesting bits of Silone's piece which are both tragic and hilarious.
"Just as I was leaving Moscow, in 1922, Alexandra Kollantaj said to me: 'If you happen to read in the papers that Lenin has had me arrested for stealing the silver spoons in the Kremlin, that simply means that I'm not entirely in agreement with him about some little problem of agricultural or industrial policy.'
Later Silone writes of what he told his best friend,Lazar Schatzky, head of the Russian Communist Youth: 'We were in the Red Square, not far from the tomb of Lenin...Then I pointed to the tomb, which was still made of wood at that time, and before which we used every day to see an interminable procession of poor ragged peasants slowly filing. 'I presume you love Lenin,' I said to him. 'I knew him too and have a very vivid recollection of him. You must admit with me that this superstitious cult of his mummy is an insult to his memory and a disgrace to a revolutionary city like Moscow.'
Those are telling anecdotes which point to the problems of revolutionary parties.
Though communism is dead in many ways, the lessons it holds are still good enough for other political movements.

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