OUP USA, (2012)
ISBN: 9780198077381 (pb)
Reviewed by Carlos Eduardo Rebello de Mendonça, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro
This work is as much of a depiction of the historical roots of the Naxalite movement in 1960s India as an angry and far-flung critique of its historical presuppositions. Naxalite refers to communist rebels in India it originates from Naxalbari, a village in West Bengal associated with a tribal-peasant uprising in 1967. As the author ascertains at the very beginning of his work, the praxis and ethos of the Maoist Indian revolutionary movement based itself, from its very beginning, on a contradiction: claiming to be Marxist peasant revolutionaries whose activity is supposedly grounded on 'the real movement of things' , they were Naxalites 'on grounds of conviction having to do with individual proclivities and dilemmas, [rooted] in the psychological traumas of the urban educated ones' [p.xi-xii, my emphasis]. Hence for the Naxalites 'the reality of the world was in the last instance "political"' , in that what started as a movement for the revolutionizing of actual Indian social relations eventually became what the author calls a farcical - and bloody – parody of metaphysical regeneration, in which soi-disant peasant revolutionaries recruited among Bengali university middle class (or actually the vernacular-speaking stratum of this middle class) youth, became in fact urban terrorists. The frenzied, ’active‘ nihilism of the Naxalites – the activity of destruction as an assault on meaningless values that, being itself meaningless also, is at the same time a justification unto itself – would be simply a case-history of an ex post revolutionary agenda trying to impose itself onto an ex ante social reality.
What Ray considers is, as Naxalism partook of a Western ideal of 'modernization', expressed in the question 'why is it that India cannot industrialize?', it couldn’t break with the idea of a violent renewal of things, prompted by what is, simply, an idea – the purely political idea of revolution [p.215] and not an actual reality. Oppositely, Hindu law and thinking distinguish clearly between the normative (dharmik) and the customary (laukik) – so having a better grasp about the persistence of traditional social relations amid the process of Indian economic development.
As the author explains, any attempt of explaining Indian social relations by means of standard Marxist terminology always fails to explain the very fact that such a vocabulary does not correspond to actual social relations: the peasant revolution preached, in Maoist terms, by the Naxalites, in terms of class struggle as such, between the haves and the have-nots, in fact, as the author explains, not only fails to explain the caste-ridden reality Bengali rural society, but also the fact that the original Naxalite leadership itself belonged fully to the ranks of the bhadralok – i.e., more than a petty-bourgeoisie, actually the owners of 'cultural property' [p.63], or, as Bourdieu would have it, Cultural Capital.
In a certain sense, Professor Ray's work is an ascertaining of Indian cultural and political specificity – which is, by the way, extolled by the author as deserving of the highest encomia, as a political culture where the demands of modernization are tied to the notion of political compromise via parliamentary institutions [p.180, 185].
That a standard Marxist terminology – specially in the crude form employed by the Naxalites – cannot cope with the actual reality of Indian social relations, is something that can hardly be denied; however, as the historical account on which Rai’s work is based concerns itself mostly with the emergence of the Naxalite movement , it somewhat fails to explain the reasons for its present-day resilience – except for some offhandedly comment about the 'peripheral' character of these present day 'depredations' [p.217]. There is also the fact that the mode of insurrectional politics represented by the Naxalites has surfaced recently in other, entirely different societies – if in the same unsettling circumstances. Is we have here a casae of politics that do not “correspond” to existing social relations, that poses the issue of how a social subject- specially a subaltern one - can, somehow, find a 'representation' through which it could “speak”. An issue rendering Rai’s work all the more interesting and deserving of attention.