International Women’s Day: Anti-War, Anti-Capitalist Movement to Emancipate All Workers!

by Saswat Pattanayak in

By Saswat Pattanayak


“Down with the world of property and the power of capital! Away with inequality, lack of rights and the oppression of women – the legacy of the bourgeois world! Forward to the international unity of working women and male workers.” (Alexandra Kollontai) 

The radical roots of International Women’s Day are being systematically suppressed via liberal appeals for male virtues to prevail upon a patriarchy. Revolutionary struggles waged by the women and men to challenge feudal and capitalistic orders are being overshadowed by reformist emotions dramatized in commercials targeting women as a burgeoning consumer class. Incessant demands for emancipation of the working class under the banner of International Women’s Day (IWD) are being discarded in favor of trickling down of legislative charities.

When in 1917, the IWD was first observed in Leningrad, women workers of Petrograd had organized a mass of 50,000, comprising their fellow male comrades in demanding for “bread, peace and land” and to end the imperialistic world war. They confronted the Tsarist military exceeding 180,000 troops, and refused to disperse. Not only that, the organizing women proved to be so exemplary in their resistance, that the Russian Army had to turn mutinous and the first International Women’s Day resulted in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the end of Romanov dynasty and the end of Russian Empire. 

Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai, who spearheaded the movement to establish March 8th as the International Women’s Day, had declared it as a “militant celebration, a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of proletarian women.” 

Far from being a day for reviewing the strength of working class, March 8th today has been rendered as merely a day for symbolic overtures. Far from a celebration of solidarity across working women, it has become a day to cheer for the women celebrities bossing over structural inequalities. Defeat of the very corporate culture which cemented the women’s day has today usurped the principles and made the anti-capitalist day into an event of consumerist fanfare.

March as the Women’s History Month:

With much of the capitalist world failing to officially regard March 8 as the International Women’s Day, considering its communistic roots, they have however acknowledged the month of March as one to acknowledge the role of women in nation-building. Women’s History Month is now celebrated in the US, UK and Australia among a few other countries. Just as they have succeeded in obliterating the significance of May Day by not celebrating it officially because of its communistic history, they have also managed to avoid IWD as an occasion to duly observe. Instead of celebrating the working class struggles against the imperialistic power structures, Women’s History Month has become a marketing opportunity to further reinforce capitalistic ethos. Instead of celebrating the mass movements and unsung protesters, the Month is instead being used as a way to iconize individuals, bereft of their political contexts.   

This March 8 should serve as a reminder that despite the collapse of Soviet Union and despite the lack of global initiatives to bring the women’s rights struggles to the political forefront, the principles guiding the International Women’s Day remain as relevant as ever. IWD is an anti-war, pro-working class global movement that aims to emancipate all women and men. On the March 8th of 1970, the Berkeley Women’s Liberation Front outlined the heroism of Vietnamese Women while answering “What does the Vietnamese War have to do with women’s liberation?” In the words of these radical American feminists: “Everything! Women in the movement here are talking about the essential right of people to live full and meaningful lives, demanding an end to the way women, throughout history, have been objectified and dehumanized. How then can we not recognize these same claims that are being made not only by the oppressed in our own country, but by those who are oppressed by this country abroad?” 



The very heroic struggles of Vietnamese women which once informed the revolutionary potential of women in the US are at the core of the IWD history. Although the IWD was celebrated only in the communist countries, it had its roots in American labor history, and this is something the American ruling class conveniently overlooks. After all, it was on March 8, 1911 that the American working women had gathered to commemorate this occasion for the first time, even as it was never granted an official status in the US. And even during the anticommunist era, American women gathered again to celebrate the IWD in 1969 in the city of Berkeley. In subsequent years the day was to be commemorated across institutes in the US, despite official disapprovals. The popularity of IWD grew so much that to evade further embarrassment, Jimmy Carter had to proclaim the week of the March 8th as the “National Women’s History Week” in 1980. Under the Reagan Administration, this History Week was to be formalized and finally celebrated, starting 1982. Five years hence, in 1987, Ronald Reagan would finally expand the History Week to a month, upon the insistence of “National Women’s History Project” (NWHP). Through 1988 to 1994, several legislations ensured that Women’s History Month would be formalized and it has been so since 1995. 

This series of reluctant observations on part of American administrations also corresponds directly with the half-hearted approaches towards addressing issues of women’s rights in this country. Struggles for equal pay across sexes, maternity leaves, freedom from racial discriminations, wealth disparities across classes continue to define oppression of women in the United States, and pretty much rest of the world. Without any alternative economic model of women’s empowerment in this vastly unipolar world, capitalistic values continue to impose themselves on people everywhere. It has become almost impossible to break away from the chains of slavery gifted to us by capitalistic greed and mindless competitions which have systemically left behind the traditionally oppressed people, most significantly, the women of color and the disabled women. 

If history teaches us any lessons, then the International Women’s Day teaches us a few: that, women will not be emancipated anywhere without women’s liberation everywhere; that, without the recognition of the ways race, class, gender and other social locations intersect, there is no way to bring the historically oppressed women to the same platform that has been achieved by the privileged women; that, the radical history of working women’s movements to liberate women and men must not be diminished by those eager to erase the history of struggles and replace them with history of charities. That, the month of March, the week of March 8th and the Day of the International Women instruct us this: the working women (and, men) of the world must unite in cause, because they have nothing to lose. And, everything to gain.

(Written for Women's Rights NY Blog)

The Politics We Deserve

by Saswat Pattanayak in

By Saswat Pattanayak



Politics hates a vacuum. If it isnt filled with hope, someone will fill it with fear.  (Naomi Klein)

Fear-based politics reaches disproportionate heights when coupled with nationalistic frenzies. As a first sign of fascism, it assumes a normalized state, masquerading as an agency to dispel fear itself. To rejuvenate the political climate with a fresh lease by resorting to masculine rhetorics becomes its core strategy. It predictably attacks the progressives as conspiratorial and traitors, while it paints the secularists as impotent and pseudo. Fear-based politics mocks constitutional frameworks, not out of concern, but from disdain. It revises historical narratives not out of an interest to engage scholastically, but because anti-intellectualism becomes its mainstay. It obsesses with geographical, cultural and religious borders. It is constantly wary of those outside as enemies, unless they acquiesce; it thrives in a climate of hatred towards those it treats as fringe elements, within its territory. Fear-based politics aims at reawakening the traditionally privileged, lest their inherited spoils are subjected to redistribution. It resorts to reaffirming the sacred, upholding the holy, instituting moralisms and reimposing strictures, often borrowed from the ancient texts to undermine the modern reforms.

Fear-based politics reinforces the reactionary aspects of a cultural status-quo, while opposing the liberal strides of a political one. It confuses social majoritarianism with democratic mandate, while employing religious discourses as an invigorating weapon. It assumes equality of all as a preexisting condition, regardless of unique histories of oppressions and privileges. It celebrates military conquests with glee, abhors the idea of lagging behind, and limits the imaginings to supersede as an authority. In short, fear-based politics celebrates the survival of the fittest in the political arena, where the leader is seen as vigorous and brawny, reveling in pride for unquestioned heritages. The desperation to lead a country’s journey into emerging as a superpower is predicated upon the unceasing fear of losing whatever remains left of an imperious status.

If histories of fascism and nazism are any indication, such desperations on part of the politicians are merely natural corollary of a suitable political climate. People deserve the kind of leaders they elect, select, or tolerate. Although it is far more tempting to paint a specific prime-ministerial aspirant as the apostle of fear-based politics at this juncture, it would be more prudent - and sincere - to hold responsible, the political culture itself - reared by the Indian citizens thus far, as the country goes to polls in a couple of months from now, in what is being hailed as a potential “turning point”.

The reality that a far-right politician is indeed legitimized as a candidate to the top political post in the country is immensely telling, whether or not, he ends up winning it. What is only more disturbing is the sheer predictability of this reality - it is almost as though we were bracing the country for this day. Our social conditioning has manifested in our misplaced patriotic duties to refuse authority to a woman not on grounds of political differences, but solely because she is a “foreigner”, despite having been more of an Indian than the countless NRIs whose funds we voluntarily have solicited to fuel hatred in the subcontinent. Our collective derision of a prime minister not because he is the architect of a neoliberal agenda, but because he was not macho enough to outgrow his “silence” that appears to us as jocular. Our unquenched thirst for the blood of imagined enemies - ranging from the Maoists to the Muslims, grounded on unfounded claims of sovereignty losses, from within the borders, and from outside. Our unabated eagerness to claim and reclaim golden ages of a monolithic culture that suits our propensity for consumption of selective glories, harking us back to celebrate a certain five-thousand years old civilization.

Such a predictable crossroads where the opinion polls suggest a significant support for a party that draws its convictions from xenophobia and isolationism has arrived not because of a single politician who once spearheaded attacks on members of a vulnerable minority group. We are confronted by it today because as a nation, we have ducked the difficult questions posed before us by historical opportunities, time and again. We have consistently refused to address the special plights of the people inhabiting occupied territories and have evaded any referendum even as we have reinforced military might without pause. We have reached this unfortunate stage where resurgence of Hindu nationalism is treated with admiration because we have unfailingly nurtured the sanctities around inherently regressive tendencies of Hinduism, a religion that must relegate a section of its followers to the abyss in order to herald another section as its panacea, and we have offered it a clean chit as a ‘way of life’ instead. In endorsing this way of life, we have flatly rejected any attempt to equate casteism with racism. Not only that, in endorsing the Hindutva philosophy that governs our everyday lives, we keep rejoicing patriarchal mores, so much so that our images abroad are the images of the assaulted and raped. And yet, instead of reflecting over how our subjugations of women and the minorities are sanctioned by the very texts we hold fundamental, and instead of finding our cultural nationalism at odds with constitutional prescriptions, we have reached a stage where rabid jingoism is the preferred flavor for most pre-poll respondents, because we have as families have continued to raise our children against the spirits of the constitution, and through installing in them values of distrusts, superstitions, ruinous competitions and superiority complexes.

It must not surprise us that we have reached this crossroads where we have to choose between the secular and the communal. It should however alarm us like never before. It should alarm us because we have even begun to dismiss the relevance of secularism. By attacking it as “pseudo” and “appeasing” and simply unworkable, we are thumping our chests to decry what we have started mocking as “sick-ularism”. Just as we have done with our opposition to “reservations”. Instead of recognizing the dividends and therefore expanding them, we are choosing to dispense with the progressive policies. We don’t just stop there - our attacks on the drafters of our constitution and makers of the nation are not so much to learn from their struggles to resolve the crisis - some of which still are pending for us to do justice to them ourselves - but to revise our history books to undermine the various streams of anticolonial movements that gave birth to a fairly new republic of India for whom inevitable challenges were to far outpace prospective accomplishments.

Despite critical issues abound which we must tackle sustainably, systematically - informed by needs for social justice, we treat national elections as sensational phases to posit individuals against one another, in a farcical, albeit, spectator sport. In the most recent such attempts, we witnessed Arnab Goswami trying to outsmart Rahul Gandhi, and as the various analysis from leading commentators affirmed, he clearly outsmarted Gandhi. Some wrote that Gandhi was not prepared for the barrage of “specific” questions, and some said he just could not have answered anyway. From crude jokes to outright waves of sympathy were expressed for the ways Gandhi had to endure Goswami. And most of them were correct observations. Indeed, Goswami’s voice has started representing not just the content, but also the manners in which public discourses are taking place in India - the very reason why we are at this crossroads, to begin with.

Goswami’s overzealous attempts to elicit a duel between personalities (in this case, a “RaGa vs NaMo” match) perfectly synchronized with how we tend to treat elections. His demand for a PM candidate ahead of the polls so that he can then hold the individual responsible for the social diseases, is exactly how we are always on the run for our favorite scapegoat. His obfuscation surrounding origins critical to understanding 1984 and 2002 in context is exactly how we rationalize the rise of Hindu nationalism under various garbs. Finally his “challenging” Rahul Gandhi for “a direct one on one battle with Narendra Modi” is just reflective of the yardstick which many of us measure the national politics by. Some have argued that this interview - Rahul Gandhi’s first - was going to be disastrous for his political career; that it amply demonstrated how incapable he was in handling the tough questions, and therefore it proved him feeble in leading the country.

And yet, the reality may just be the opposite. In more ways than can be described here, the interview indeed proved that India has finally found a political leader who is immensely capable of discerning questions, identifying issues, and persisting with the necessary. When Arnab’s unrelenting question was, “Are you afraid of losing to Modi”, Rahul’s response to that was only appropriate: “What millions of youngsters in this country want is to empower and unleash the power of the women in this country.” This is as direct an answer as could have been provided to a question about Modi’s growth in Indian society. Missing the connection is precisely the point. An empowered citizenry does not opt for fascist politics. Only a fear-based political climate gives rise to despots. Hailing from a political family that has directly been targeted by fundamentalist forces, Rahul Gandhi is only acutely aware of it. The good part being, he acknowledges the same. Instead of resorting to any meritocratic claims of individualistic journeys, he recognizes the privileges, responsibilities, and the perils - of having been born in a family that has remained at the helm of Indian politics for decades.

While BJP and its ideological apparatus offers misogyny as a response to women’s rights, Rahul Gandhi keeps returning to the issue of women’s empowerment as crucial to national development. From media portrayals to dining table discourses, the space we provide to issues of gender inequality has always been dismal, and it will not be an exaggeration to state, as Rahul Gandhi has cited on a separate occasion quoting a NGO activist, that no nation will prosper which oppresses its women. And despite his insistence on deliberating over women’s issues in India, the manner in which Arnab Goswami continued to reject that as a non-issue in the only interview he had with Rahul Gandhi, is exactly the reason why we as a country need to reflect upon which questions are indeed tough, and which ones are just plain wrong.

Not all questions are relevant, just as not all changes are desirable. Often times, our temptations, and not our studied observations, clamor for a change. And more often, the changes we seek are not systemic ones, instead we merely look for a facelift. The questions before India are not just about who will lead the country, but much more importantly, which issues will govern it. What Rahul Gandhi has proposed is that constitutionally the MPs choose the PM candidate and so who will lead the country will be answered after the polls, not before. But even if it is decided that we must reject one between Gandhi and Modi, the choice is clear: only one of them is decidedly professing a majoritarian religious sentiment in a country founded upon secular values. There is no dispute here. What are at stakes, however are the core issues that will govern this country at such a defining intersection.

Macho sloganeering of “India First” is directly benefitting the popularity of right-wing nationalism in the country today. It is an embarrassing development for a nation that urgently needs to check its own powers, not expand those any further. “India First” is also reminiscent of the dark days of Pokharan test - a filthy display of militarist pride borne out of disregard towards humane priorities. It is important to remember that India was never designed to be a first. India’s emancipation lies in its setting an example for the world, in being an equal partner in progress for the Third World, which still suffers from excesses of capitalism and neocolonial projects. India’s future lies in acknowledging its own transgressions, ending the war on its own people, confirming with international standards set in dealing with occupied territories. India’s future lies in empowering the Dalits, the women, the working poor, in preparing for a nation that respects the spirits of its constitution and the fundamental duties it prescribes, among which feature the development of “the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

Economic development - no matter what the model is called - cannot be a substitute for social democracy that embraces values of humanism and inclusiveness. In 2010, Sonia Gandhi aptly described what it implies, “Social democracy is not populism, it is not generosity; it is the justice that our constitution promises. The backlog is huge, but without social democracy, Indian democracy could well be undermined.” Taking a leaf off Indira Gandhi’s own visions, she cited the four features of a social democracy that India must strive towards: first, a belief that social democracy must not only be responsive or responsible, but also be representative of many diversities; second, a conviction that social democracy is unachievable unless economic growth empowers the disadvantaged, deprived and the discriminated against; third, a yearning for social democracy must pay highest attention to the preservation of environment and regeneration of natural resources; and finally, a passion for social democracy must provide for a nation-state as an instrument for change and protection of national sovereignty.

Last year, eminent Dalit scholar Kancha Ilaiah hailed Sonia Gandhi as one of the greatest foreign-born Indian women to have left a deep imprint on our history, he was not stretching the truth. He articulated at least four legal measures, in which Sonia Gandhi had “changed the course of the Indian welfare state” and enabled Indian democracy to become “seriously transformative”: the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the Right to Information Act (RTI), the Right to Education Act (RTE) and the Food Security Ordinance (FSO).

Ilaiah argued that the UPA government had empowered the villagers to get their wages without being subjected to any humiliations via contractual engagements with feudal lords. For the first time in memory, villagers are telling stories about their increased food intake. On matters of transparency, RTI was a radical step towards the right direction and required a level of courage on part of a political party, that was not commonplace. Right to Education Act put in place by the UPA has also been revolutionary and has given hope to parents who could not have otherwise afforded education for their children. Most importantly, Right to Food Ordinance is a direct attack on casteist superstructure of India, apart from being an exemplary contribution to alleviate poverty.

Going by Mahatma Gandhi’s Talisman, the four measures above apply to the poorest in India, but at the same time, they may not be impacting the lives of the middle class or the rich, which explains partly why the corporate media refuses to engage in conversations on these issues. A “Shining India” slogan invariably overlooks issues concerning food, clothing, shelter, literacy and rural employment, because, it can afford to take these for granted. But even more critically, the deliberate oversight owes itself to the ongoing class war in India - the war waged by the rich upon the poor, which subsequently helps in agenda-setting for the media.

As a result, the central electoral issues end up becoming the ones that concern the upwardly mobile. One question often posed to Rahul Gandhi in this regard is, “How can India be a superpower if we continue to depend on the United States?” His answer has been unequivocal: “It is not so much that we depend on another country. We don’t need favors from others. But there is a certain amount of integration, and it has massive advantages. If we built an inward-looking IT industry, and we don’t allow it to go beyond Indian borders, that will be very limited. Our strength is we are young and highly educated. We are not saying we should depend on another country, in fact, what we are saying is others should depend on us. It’s a different way of looking at the world.” Thereafter in a classic instance of misunderstanding this “different way of looking”, the convener concluded with glee that, Rahul Gandhi had said other countries should depend on us. And Rahul had to immediately clarify that it is not what he had meant at all: “It is not that the other countries should depend on us. The world is integrated. We have offices in Bangalore and Hyderabad contributing to the world economy. Once you believe in yourself and can compete with anyone, it’s not about whether we are depending on others, it is about their views on us.”

Rahul Gandhi’s assertions of a changing India that will be a key participant in world economy, and not a haven for domestic capitalism, is one that needs to be understood with the “different mindset” he keeps harping on. He draws from the Nehruvian legacies of peaceful co-existence, not Reaganesque argument of one-upmanship. His view has been that “We should not be in the business of making decisions based on fear. We have to think about not how we will be affected by the problems but how we shall affect the problems. Instead of having a mindset where we fear that we might get pushed around by someone, we should recognize that we have a place in the world and we should occupy that place in the world.  If we don’t have this attitude, rest of the world will not respect us.”

Respect, not fear, is what Gandhi’s central thesis has been. His party has been infested with corrupt politicians and yet he has earned praises from Anna Hazare for his anti-corruption crusades in getting the Lokpal Bill passed. If corruption has been a core electoral issue, Rahul Gandhi has rightfully taken credits for his activisms involving Right to Information, Aadhaar and NREGA as transformative anti-corruption projects. He is not ashamed of the socialistic aspects of Indian economy, despite being at odds with Dr. Manmohan Singh himself. Calling them as unmatched transfers of power, he applauds his party for its efforts at ensuring “bank nationalization, telecom revolution, rights paradigm, fight against the British - everything for power to the people. Answer to every single problem is to push this democratization further, to make it reach the heart of this country.”

One of the ways democratization takes place is through political machinery, by restoring the faith in the legislature, so that the MLAs and the MPs do what their business is: to make laws. Addressing the elected representatives recently, Gandhi said, “This is not just another turn or another election - this is a turning point. No one is in a mood to accept less than full or to compromise; they want individual choice, participation, fair deal - and frankly, they deserve it. Either we wake up to their aspiration, or we have no business to claim that we represent them. While the work you do in the ground is very important, today laws are being made by the media, by judges, on the streets of this country, and the people elected to make laws are being sidelined. We have to get you - our MLAs, MPs and Pradhans - back.”

In a time when politics is a dirty word and politicians are most distrusted in the society, so much so that Arvind Kejriwal won the elections with his “anti-politician” rhetoric, what Rahul Gandhi is saying is refreshingly different: “Real change is structural, and for that we need to work continuously through legislation, reform and sustained political efforts…Imperative before us is not whether to change, but when and how to change. What does this mean for us as a political party? Responding to an immense demand to change…But we can’t complain without articulating clearly what is going to be done about it, we can’t oversimplify non-solutions, we can’t subvert democratic institutions by blocking parliamentary sessions; we cannot turn people against one another, or spread communal hatred or propose that structures be handed over to one man or they be viciously destroyed.”

Rahul Gandhi has democratized the Youth Congress and NSUI and succeeded in multiplying the numbers of new members, but more laudable is the way Congress Manifesto itself is now demanding mass participations in its revisions. As a first step in the country, Congress also intends to introduce direct candidate selection process in 15 Lok Sabha constituencies. As an electoral promise that certainly sounds tall, but truly emancipatory, Rahul Gandhi has assured that 50% of Congress Chief Ministers shall be women, in addition to his support for the reservation for women in Parliament. Gandhi’s stress on reservations is based on his assertion that there is not one India, but two. The India that is left behind in the race needs to catch up with the India which has surged ahead rapidly. For this to happen, the means need to be peaceful, democratic and constitutional. While, he contends, the opposition parties are headed exactly in the opposite directions.

Time will tell if Rahul Gandhi lives upto the different attitude and mindset he is espousing. But suffice it to say, contrary to mainstream media contention, his words and actions as a political leader, have been reassuring and inspiring so far, enabling imaginations, while thankfully remaining devoid of fear tactics and warmongering. Most of all, he has a principled composure difficult to maintain at a time when nationalistic rhetorics have started reverberating, almost to the point of stifling out voices of reason. He reminds us of what patriotism truly entails, howsoever unpopular it may sound at the moment:  “We do not love our country because it is powerful or because it is rich. We love our country because it upholds the ideals we wish to live by, we love it because it stands on the ideals of humanity, inclusion, and no matter how much our shortcomings might frustrate us, and they do; we love this country because it always taught us to love one another, how to remain united in the face of adversity and to never ever give up, no matter how hard or difficult the struggle is, or how dark the night. India teaches us to fight on, with compassion in heart and faith in future.”

No one knows who shall lead India this year, and how much of reflections we as a nation may have to undergo post this election, but hopefully it will be someone who truly believes in compassion in heart and faith in the future. Because, in the current climate of desperation and vacuum, politics needs to be filled with hope, not fear.

(Published in Kindle Magazine, March 2014)

Matter & Consciousness: Revisiting Lokayata

by Saswat Pattanayak in

By Saswat Pattanayak 


“Thought and consciousness are products of the human brain and the human being is a product of nature, which has developed in and along with its environment; hence it is self-evident that the products of the human brains, being in the last analysis products of nature, do not contradict the rest of nature’s interconnections but are in correspondence with them.” 

 - Engels

Various schools of thoughts within philosophy, psychology, linguistics and anthropology have attempted to analyze matter and consciousness through dualism and monism. 

Spinoza had considered mind and matter, or everything spiritual/intellectual and everything material, as aspects of the same basic Substance. But like Hegel’s idealism, his monism attributed this substance to a God as the totality of all things. Error to him was not external to truth: “The truth is its own measure and the measure of what is false.”

Hegel likewise separated consciousness (sense-certainty, perception, and understanding) from self-consciousness (struggle for freedom), reason (observation, actualization and rationality) and finally the idealistic aspect of spirit (ethics, culture, morality, religion, art, death and absolute knowledge). 

Berkeley’s idealism was equally absolute. Turning Locke’s empiricist philosophy into metaphysical, he argued that one could not separate the primary and secondary distinctions, i.e., it was not possible to distinguish the primary shape of an object without its secondary color. Drawing upon Locke’s illogicalities, Berkeley reached the conclusion that all our experiences were mental ones caused by God and that our every experience was a gigantic illusion, as formulated in his famous maxim: esse est percipi; to be is to be perceived. 

One step further was the sophisticated idealist, Kant, who replied to Hume’s assertion about gradual building up of conceptual apparatus from human experiences, with an argument that unless human beings have some kind of mental conceptual apparatus to begin with, no experience would be possible: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.”     

As against the backdrop of such eternal idealistic truths, Marxism developed a scientific, dialectally materialistic outlook, whereby the interplay between environment and consciousness found adequate attention with an aim to overthrow the hitherto existing philosophical fixations. The premise of dialectical materialism in Marxist sense claimed that it is not the consciousness that determines existence, but on the other hand, the existence that determines the consciousness. The matter, above all. But it did not just stop there. What set Marx apart from all the materialists before him was his understanding of consciousness as a sensuous activity, a function of the brain and the nervous system, raising the relationship between matter and consciousness to the level of dialectical materialism. 

Marx displayed great disdain towards philosophers and intense optimism towards philosophy. Unlike the materialists preceding him, he treated philosophy as the practical, revolutionary knowledge which needed to be acted upon, in order to change the world, and in the process, salvage itself. Certainly, he denounced the idealists, the Utopian socialists and those that would resemble the abounding postmodernists. But that was only the given. What made Marx a radical was his constant critique of the materialists themselves. The spontaneous atheists of the ancient era (Fan Wanzu, Shen Xu, Heraclitus, Democritus), the metaphysical materialists of the modern times (John Locke, Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Denis Diderot, Feuerbach), and the democratic revolutionaries of subsequent periods (Chernyshevsky, Markovic, Khristo Botev) provided to him insufficient, if not reactionary, grounds for applicability of philosophy as an emancipatory medium.

Materialists throughout the history accurately identified humans as products of circumstances. But it took Marx to declare that it is the people themselves who must change circumstances. “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionizing practice,” Marx theorized. 

The aim of the present study is to locate Marxism’s possible roots (spontaneous, or not) within the ancient Indian materialism: the Lokayata, which also remains as the very first exposition of empirical materialism in the history of philosophy.     

Lokayatikas considered the soul to be nothing but body with the attribute of consciousness. While seeing the soul in the body itself, they argued that there is nothing called soul apart from the body. According to them, consciousness emerges when transformed into the form of the body. That, the human being is nothing but a body qualified by consciousness. There is thus, according to them, no soul separate from the body capable of going to heaven or of obtaining liberation, because of the presence of which in the body, the body is supposed to acquire consciousness. On the contrary, the body itself is conscious; it is the soul. 

Lokayata did not deny the consciousness so much as it complicated it. Instead of acceding to an assumption that consciousness could be a peculiarity of the spirit, it depicted consciousness as an attribute of the body. This occurred, according to them, because whereas the material elements comprise the living body, consciousness is produced in it. This was augmented by the Lokayata stipulations, according to Sankara: a) Wherever there is body, there is also consciousness (anvaya), and b) wherever there is the absence of body, there is also the absence of consciousness (vyatireka). 

What Lokayata did in an unprecedented manner was to explain the origin of consciousness from the matter itself. In other words, to explain unconscious from the conscious. According to Sankara, consciousness to the Lokayatikas was like the intoxicating power of the alcoholic drink which was produced from certain ingredients, none of which has the intoxicating power. Sankara explains, “(According to the materialists) anything whose existence depends on the existence of another, and which ceases to be when that other thing is not there, is ascertained to be an attribute of the latter, as, for instance, heat and light are attributes of fire. As regards such attributes as the activities of the viral force, sentience, memory, etc., which are held to belong to the soul, they too are perceived within the body and not outside; and hence so long as any substance other than the body cannot be proved, they must be the attributes of the body itself. Hence the soul is not distinct from the body” (Gambhirananda). Like Sankara, another critic of Lokayata was Jaina philosopher Haribhadra who alluding to the above wrote that for Charvakas, the folly was then to renounce what is actually observed - the pleasures of the world - in favor of what is never observed - heavenly pleasure. 

D. Chattopadhyaya argues that Lokayata took a fully naturalistic view of fermentation and distillation and discarded the ‘spiritual’ view of it, which even the 17th-century European science was to outgrow. “In the Lokayata view, there is nothing mysterious about the origin of the intoxicating power…Only the material elements are real and everything in the world is caused by them.” Such a radical position was unique to only the Lokayata. As S. G. Sardesai points out, “Even among the materialists the Lokayata was the only exception to the rule. All the rest, while persistently rejecting the conception of a creator, of anything existing prior to matter in one or another form, kept company with religious beliefs, rites and even cults in daily life.” Although, to their credits, Charaka and Sushruta had adopted the same views as Lokayata, regarding consciousness being a product of the elements, while rejecting the idealist positions as untenable.

K. Damadoran writes that the Charvakas denied the independent existence of an immaterial soul. When the body perishes, consciousness also perishes, because consciousness is only a function of the body. So the doctrine of transmigration also is false: “There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world. Neither in experience nor in history do we find any interposition of supernatural forces. Matter is the only reality and the mind is matter thinking. The hypothesis of a creator is useless for explaining or understanding the world.”  

The rationalism and necessary atheism in Lokayata was the logical consequence of their consistently materialistic outlook. As a result, they were vigorously attacked by numerous idealists, most prominently by scholars of the Vedanta school (such as Madhavacharya), so much so that most literatures available about them are mere criticisms that have expounded on their positions. Whereas the idealists considered attainment of moksha to be the aim of life, the materialist (Lokayata) philosophers do not entertain a possibility for freedom from feelings, sorrow or joy. Lokayatikas vehemently criticized the priests and Vedic mantras. For them, Vedas were not only human compositions, but were also meaningless recitals. If the priests argued that the animals sacrificed at yajnas attained heaven, the materialists urged them to instead send their own parents to heaven by sacrificing them. Whereas Vedanta laid a claim to “perfect” knowledge, omniscience, and supernatural intuition (antardrishti), Lokayata Sutras rejected such conceptions because according to them, the very objects of study - nature and human society – were constantly changing and revealing ever new features that did not exist before. 

The attempt at idealistically delineating matter as different from consciousness through the employment of Vedic scriptures was considered by the Lokayatikas as “devices of greedy brahmins to earn wealth by cheating the common folk” (Damadoran). The Lokayatikas also pointed out the stupefying effects of religion, which to them was as harmful as opium-intoxication. Prayer was the hope of weak without the will-power, worship was the insincere egoism to save oneself from tortures of hell, and prophets were the greatest liars of any generation (Sastri).  

Lokayata’s influence was vastly noted by prominent scholars of various ages, whether they agreed with them or not. If Kautilya mandated that the princes (in “Arthasastra”) study Lokayata along with Samkhya and Yoga systems, Radhakrishnan (in “Indian Philosophy”) acknowledged it duly, “Materialism signifies the declaration of the spiritual independence of the individual and the rejection of the principle of authority. Nothing need be accepted by the individual which does not find its evidence in the movement of reason. The Lokayata philosophy is a fanatical effort made to ride the age of the weight of the past that was oppressing it. The removal of dogmatism which it helped to effect was necessary to make for the great constructive efforts of speculation.”    

For a philosophy to become truly relevant, it must encompass all humanity; the most basic needs and deepest aspirations of the majority. Until the world is transformed into a classless society free of exploitation, the political thoughts of Lokayata and dialectal materialism will continue to empower the majority into attempting at progressive revolutions.


(First written for Red Monthly).


Pete Seeger: UnAmerican, Communist, and a People’s Songster

by Saswat Pattanayak in ,

By Saswat Pattanayak

 Pete Seeger was not the “American conscience”, as he is being now crowned by the corporate media after his demise. In reality, he was the UnAmerican conscience. And to understand this, it is important to underscore the extent of his internationalism, his commitment towards humanity, his selfless unpatriotic journey as a fervent communist, his lifelong quest against American militarism, adventurism and exceptionalism. Most importantly, to use history as a weapon in the class struggle, as Pete used music as his tool, it is pivotal to not let go of the “unAmerican” label that was imposed upon him by the American power, because he was perceived to be a communist, when in August 1955, he was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and he refused to testify against his comrades or to pass on any information regarding the Communist Party that could help implicate any office-bearer of the party. 

Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra)

Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra)

Unlike many entertainers and intellectuals who gave in to the peer pressures or social benefits, Seeger always stood by his old comrades. Disregarding his own health and limitations, when he arrived at the Tamiment Library of New York University on October 28, 2006 to express his appreciations for African-American civil rights activists James and Esther Jackson at a symposium titled, “James and Esther Jackson, the American Left and the Origins of the Modern Civil Rights Movement”, I had my first privileged opportunity to meet him. What struck me instantly was how humble and accessible a public personality he indeed was, when  he took time out for an exclusive chat with Amrita, where he showered praises on India. What also struck me from his outward appearance was that he not only sang for the working class, he also belonged to the masses. There was not a whiff of elitism about him, not a remote chance of him being perceived as a celebrity. For the few more times that I got to see him after that day, I always noticed him wearing the same shirt, or something quite similar. Nothing fancy about his outfits at all. The only other constant was the way he made sure to engage the audience in the songs he sang. Even a stage appearance for him was an occasion for revolutionary potential. He was a legendary musician, possibly the greatest in his genre; and yet he was not surrounded by bodyguards. Difficult to imagine such a public personality in our contemporary celebrity culture. Maybe because, he never lived a pretentious life boasting extraordinary lifestyles that most celebrities possess today.

Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra)

Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra)

The last time I got to see Seeger was at a solidarity event for the imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier, on December 14, 2012. It was a sobering occasion, and Seeger dedicated profound emotions for Peltier. Not only was he used to stand up for the rights of the marginalized and oppressed people of color, he also always expressed his desire for greater racial diversity. In recommending the same for the US Flag, he once wrote:

“My blue is good, the color of the sky.

The stars are good for ideals, oh, so high.

Seven stripes of red are strong to meet all danger;

But those white stripes: they, they need some changing.

I need also some stripes of deep, rich brown,

And some of tan and black, then all around.” 

Pete Seeger in support of Leonard Peltier (Photo: Saswat Pattanayak)

Seeger’s refusal to cooperate with the American ruling class was not one of his own design. He always recognized his stake in being identified as an American.  He never denied the privileges he enjoyed as a white male in America whose “light-skinned ancestors participated fully in the decisions, good and bad, which formed this nation.” And yet, he also acknowledged that it was the stench emanating from American pride that was repulsive to him. He wrote in 1969:

“At midnight in a flaming angry town

I saw my country’s flag lying torn upon the ground.

I ran in and dodged among the crowd,

And scooped it up, and scampered out to safety…

And then I took this striped old piece of cloth

And tried my best to wash the garbage off.

But I found it had been used to wrapping lies.

It smelled and stank and attracted all the flies.”


The lies and deceptions characterizing American hegemony had formed the impetus for revolutionary music that went back to search for answers in the folk traditions. As a key figure in the movement, Pete Seeger relentlessly championed the causes of the oppressed through his emphasis on proletarian music. During the 1930s and 1940s, whereas the political struggles of the Communists suffered owing to sectarianism from within the movement and repression from outside, their cultural journey - firmly founded by the likes of “Joe Hill” and “Hammer Song”, never really subsided. It merely transformed itself into even more radical positions. As a result, 1946-1949 marked the period of People’s Songs, Inc., which provided the crucial glimpse into the potential of cultural workers in American communism. With Paul Robeson in its Board of Sponsors, People’s Songs had clear goals of pursuing the path of socialist realism. In March 1946, People’s Songs elected a national board of directors which included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Bess Hawes, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Walter Lowenfels, Felix Landau, Earl Robinson, Benjamin Botkin, Tom Glazer, Waldemar Hille, among others. For all the three years until People’s Songs dissolved, Pete Seeger remained its national director. People’s Songs was followed by People’s Artists and the Weavers - both communist folk collectives, and they continued the tradition of the Old Left through the sixties.

Seeger’s songs were far from merely “protest music”. They were radical communist verses, calling for uncompromising class wars, infused with boundless optimism for a new progressive era that the working class must usher in. Along with Lee Hays, Seeger wrote in 1949:

“O, comrades, come and travel on with me,

We’ll go to our new year of liberty.

Come, walk upright, along the people’s way,

From darkness, unto the people’s day.

From dark, to sunlit day.

Tomorrow is a highway broad and fair

And hate and greed shall never travel there

But only they who’ve learned the peaceful way

Of brotherhood, to greet the coming day.

We hail the coming day.”


What the People’s Songs under Seeger had achieved was remarkable and unique in the context of American history. They strove to collect and preserve American folk materials with the aim of disseminating progressive values. This vision was made possible upon their visits to Soviet Union where American artists witnessed first-hand how the socialist state was providing institutional supports to sustain and nurture cultural roots. Pete Seeger himself had been to Soviet Union to verify the fruits of revolution, first hand. In his recollections at a later stage, he once wrote, “What I saw in the Asian republics of the USSR was a great satisfaction to me. I think it proves that Kipling was wrong when he said East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. He was wrong, it’s not true, they can meet. And let’s hope that in the world to come they’ll be meeting more and more…. I was surprised by the bright-colored clothing that Soviet people wore. In America I was often told that Russia is a drab country, that everybody dresses in browns and blacks because they’re scared of wearing anything bright. Walking down the average Soviet street, you see the brightest colors you ever saw: reds, yellows, greens, blues, purples, pinks, sometimes all on top of each other. We saw a young man in the Frunze airport with a green hat, a purple jacket, and a red suitcase - bright, all of them, bright….Now it’s perfectly true that the average Soviet citizen can’t, as yet, afford the many luxuries the average American can. The average food on their table is not as fancy. So I was happy to note that even though Russia doesn’t have the stores overflowing with different commodities that American cities have, neither does it have the slums. This is important to me because, while I love my own country, I must confess that there’s not a city I can go to where, in parts of the town, the streets are not littered with trash, the houses are unpainted and dilapidated, and the people live with a sense of demoralization and lack of hope because they think there’s no chance for them ever to get ahead.”

Progressive American artists upon returns from the USSR had helped create the Federal Arts Project which found governmental support in the US not only in archiving and enriching historical materials, but also for the first time, in ensuring that American artists too, like their Soviet counterparts, received compensations for their works which was to be recognized as necessary contributions to society. The WPA Arts Project helped in distribution of folk music, and the group comprised Charles Seeger, Earl Robinson and Herbert Haufrecht. Charles Seeger was the father of Pete Seeger.   

Charles Seeger was the founding member of the communist cultural group of the 1930s: Composers Collective, which was an offshoot of Pierre Degeyter Club of New York City - named after the French composer of “Internationale”. Composers Collective was just about as radical as it could get. Their foreword proclaimed:

“Music Penetrates Everywhere

It Carries Words With It

It Fixes Them In the Mind

It Graves Them In the Heart

Music is a Weapon in the Class Struggle.”


Music was indeed a weapon in the hands of Composers Collective - an unpolished, unsophisticated group that was musically catering to the masses, and therefore revolutionary in every sense. According to Charles Seeger, “proletarian music was defined by its militance in text and tune and by its association with the working class.” The collective drew inspiration from a German revolutionary composer Hanns Eisler whose songs were sung by untrained workers on mass marches. The only reason the Composers Collective could embrace specific musical legacies, especially of folk, was because of their reliance on the “Mighty Five” Russian composers -  Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov. The communists were Americans, and the Americans the communists in the Composers Collective, which gave way to later radical formations, Almanac Singers and People’s Songs. And Charles Seeger’s son Pete Seeger was to carry the burden forward to enlighten, agitate and entertain. He wrote:

“If a revolution comes to my country

Let me remember now

Old dollar bill, you won’t mean much

I better learn right now

What in life has true value

And, oh, if we’d only learn to share

There’d be no more need for revolution

Oh, hear the thunder. . .”


Ably aiding Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger was Alan Lomax who was serving as director of the Archive of American Folks Songs in the Library of Congress. Lomax helped Guthrie, Seeger, Josh White, Burl Ives, and Leadbelly perform across cities and to bring folk music back to the folks, in a progressive, emancipatory  package. Lawrence Gellert’s “Negro Songs of Protest” also helped chronicle the specific plights of black workers in a labor movement that was complicated by race relations. The slogan of the Popular Front during FDR’s time, “Communism is twentieth century Americanism” was inspired by Stalin’s prescription for Soviet Union where nationalism and communism intersected in useful ways. Socialist realism informed American folk musical traditions to the extent that Charles Seeger set standards to judge music: “The main question, should not be ‘is it good music?’ but ‘what is the music good for’?”

Being Charles Seeger’s son, Pete Seeger was not only introduced to the rich traditions of folk music that informed American history, but also to the immense radical possibilities that communism had to offer. Seeger joined the Young Communist League at Harvard in 1937 and decided against becoming a journalist since he refused to make compromises on political fronts. His association with Popular Front during Earl Browder’s leadership of CPUSA remained unflinching. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie supported the Communist Party’s decisions all the way, including at the most controversial of times, when FDR was addressing American Youth Congress to favor aid for Finland to fight the Soviet Union. Guthrie ridiculed FDR with “Why do you stand there in the rain?” Both of them, along with Lee Hays, Millard Lampell and John Peter Hawes, were part of the Almanac Singers. As unrepentant communists, they vociferously attacked Roosevelt when the communists adopted an anti-war position, and urged him later on to extend support to Soviet Union as an important ally. Here is a stanza that describes FDR as a warmonger prior to Germany’s attack on Soviet Union:

“Oh Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt

We damned near believed what he said

He said, “I hate war — and so does Eleanor,

But we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.” 


Comparing FDR to bankers and militarists, Seeger further wrote,

“Franklin D., listen to me

You ain’t gonna send me ‘cross the sea.

‘Cross the sea, ‘cross the sea

You ain’t gonna send me ‘cross the sea.

You may say it’s for defense

But that kinda talk that I’m against.

I’m against, I’m against,

That kinda talk ain’t got no sense.

Wendell Wilkie and Franklin D.,

Seems to me they both agree,

Both agree, both agree,

Both agree on killin’ me.”


After Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the communists needed wartime organizing, and the Almanacs supported the war efforts in no uncertain terms:

“The butcher, the baker, the tinker and the tailor

Will all work behind the soldier and the sailor --

We’re working in the cities, we’re working in the woods

And we’ll all work together, to deliver the goods.”


Seeger was never to mince words and he never did, regardless of shifting political positions -

“Now Mr. President, we haven’t always agreed in the past, I know,

But that ain’t at all important, now,

What is important is what we got to do,

We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and when we’re through,

Let no one else ever take his place,

To trample down the human race.

So what I want is you to give me a gun,

So we can hurry up and get the job done.”

Pete Seeger in support of Leonard Peltier (Photo: Saswat Pattanayak)

It is important to note that Seeger was not driven by pacifism or any spiritual notion of universal peace. For him, peace was an active process needing persistent political efforts towards combating fascism in every creative way possible; and therefore to institute peace, if there was a requirement to turn his music into a weapon, he never hesitated to sing pro-war anthems. With Guthrie’s guitar machine “killing the Fascists”, Seeger joined him and Lampell in expressing their collective hatred towards Hitler in this telling stanza of 1941:

“I wish I had a bushel,

I wish I had a peck,

I wish I had a rope to tie

Around old Hitler’s neck.

Hitler went to Russia

In search of Russian oil,

But the only oil he’ll find there

Is a pot in which he’ll boil.”


Because the American press worked overtime to expose the contradictions in CPUSA stands, and since raid-baiting was a stark reality, Seeger wrote “Talking Unions” to clarify Almanacs’ position -

“Now, you have come to the hardest time;

The boss will try to bust your pocket line.

He’ll call out the police, the National Guard;

They’ll tell you it’s a crime to have a union card.

They’ll raid your meeting, hit you on the head. 

Call every one of you a goddamn Red -

Unpatriotic - Moscow agents -

Bomb throwers, even the kids.

But out in Detroit here’s what they found,

And out in Frisco here’s what they found,

And out in Pittsburgh here’s what they found,

And down in Bethlehem here’s what they found,

That if you don’t let Red-baiting break you up,

If you don’t let stool pigeons break you up,

If you don’t let vigilantes break you up,

And if you don’t let race hatred break you up -

You’ll win.”


The House Un-American Activities Committee reported on the Almanac Singers in 1944 and they were viciously attacked in the press as Communist entertainers. No respite followed even after Almanac Singers gave way to People’s Songs and the Weavers. When for the first time, HUAC heard testimony against them in July 1947, they were denounced as “subversive organization”, and a “vital Communist front because of its emphasis on appeal to youth and because of its organization and technique to provide entertainment for organizations and groups as a smooth opening wedge for Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist propaganda.” Against the overwhelming climate of red-baiting, of various left (Trotskyist) oppositions towards the communists and the McCarthy era looming large, Seeger remained defiant, and along with Guthrie, he supported and rallied around Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, as per CPUSA line. And Seeger wrote the iconic “Hammer Song” to celebrate the communist symbol:

“If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning,

I’d hammer in the evening — all over this land.

I’d hammer out danger! I’d hammer out a warning!

I’d hammer out love between my brothers & my sisters —

All over this land.”


Seeger’s antiwar sentiments have been much written about. What is less mentioned is that his opposition to war was principled and decisively progressive. His protests against Vietnam War was indeed against American hooliganism and militarism. His call to bring the American troops home was at the same time, an open support for Vietnam’s right to self-determination. He wrote:

“I may be right, I may be wrong,

But I got a right to sing this song,

Bring them home, bring them home.

There’s one thing I must confess,

I’m not really a pacifist,

Bring them home, bring them home.

If an army invaded this land of mine,

You’d find me out on the firing line,

Bring them home, bring them home.

The world needs teachers, books and schools,

And learning a few universal rules,

Bring them home, bring them home.

So if you love your Uncle Same,

Support our boys in Vietnam,

Bring them home, bring them home.”


Seeger did not quite stop there. In a glowing tribute to Ho Chi Minh, he wrote:

“I’ll have to say in my own way,

The only way I know,

That we learned power to the people and the power to know

From Teacher Uncle Ho!”


Seeger always took his communism seriously and he wrote about capitalistic contradictions, but carefully employing a language that was truly accessible to the workers, to the “bottom” uneducated and semi-literate section of society who he remained connected with, all his life. If it was Teacher Uncle Ho at times, it was Karl the Marx at other times that he introduced in his songs. In a poem later in his career, he wrote about the class society in America and resented how the working class was being stigmatized:

“Some say the trouble’s in the Pentagon

Some say the trouble’s in the street

Some say the president’s a paragon

Where’s the trouble at the bottom?…

Some say the trouble’s with the system

Some say the trouble’s in the class

Karl said the trouble is the upper one,

That is the upper, not the bottom.”


Like Robeson, Seeger had chosen his side in the class war that was, and continues to be, waged. He was deeply affected by the imperialistic aggressions and social unrests afflicting the world. And yet, he was hopeful of resolutions and positive outcomes, and like fellow communist poets Victor Jara and Nazim Hikmet whose songs he also used to adapt post-translations, he too remained at heart a romantic, an untiring lover of humanity. When he dabbled with imaginations for a better world that he, the weaver, could weave, he wrote:

“Oh, had I a golden Thread / And needle so fine

I’d weave a magic strand / Of rainbow design

In it I’d weave the bravery / Of women giving birth,

In it I would weave the innocence / Of children over all the earth,

Far over the waters / I’d reach my magic band

Through foreign cities / To every single land,

Show my brothers and sisters / My rainbow design,

Bind up this sorry world / With hand and heart and mind,

Far over the waters / I’d reach my magic band

To every human being / So they would understand.”


Seeger was always resolute and optimistic. He possibly could not afford to be otherwise. For someone with the burden of carrying the legacies of several generations of radical songsters, he had to convince the world that he was going to be there every step of the way. And he knew more than any of us, that the march towards a Soviet America was a long and tiring one. But it had to begin with changing the hearts of the people, with expanding the scopes for their imaginations. It was going to be a long process, step by step. In his words, therefore:

“Step by step, the longest march can be won, can be won

Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none

And in union what we will, can be accomplished still

Drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none.”