Clash of ideas

Hegel’s paradigm claims that history moves through conflict of ideas. Does the leftist ideology today calls for an insurrection

Clash of ideas

The world of ideas is different from the physical world. It is difficult to identify major tectonic shifts in the landscape of ideas. We understand ideas in terms of institutional practices, social behaviour, dominant episteme and regimes of truth.

Time follows its course of change; whereas ideas tend to ossify with the passage of time. Hence, they fail to resonate with changed objective conditions. Since the dawn of modernity, our intellectual framework has worked within the paradigm that subscribes to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s ideas which claims that history moves through conflict of ideas. According to the Hegelian schema of dialectics the dominant thesis creates its antithesis or negation, which ultimately clashes with the dominant idea. From this clash appears synthesis. Seen in this way the whole history appears to be history of the clash of ideas.

Karl Marx saw immense explanatory potential in Hegel’s formulation of dialectics, but he criticised Hegel for his famous pronouncement, because "With him it (dialectics) is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell." To turn him up on feet, Marx developed his concept of dialectical materialism by appropriating Hegelian dialectics in his theoretical edifice of socialism. His dialectical materialism opened up possibilities for the creation of a new world, society and self.

Marx posited the idea of negation and destruction against the dominant system. Mao Zedong expresses this view of negative constructivism in his famous declaration -- "No construction without destruction".

Since the death of Karl Marx and Bolshevik revolution, the intelligentsia with leftist persuasion have tried to understand and explicate the political in terms of dialectical materialism. It is owing to its relevance to the objective conditions of time that the ideas of communism inspired struggles for independence and movements of anti-imperialism in the post-World War II period.

In colonial India and postcolonial Pakistan, the literary movement of ‘Progressive Writers Forum’ was inspired by ideas of Marx and Bolshevik revolution. Although leftists in Pakistan could not realise their dream of insurrection with dominant system because of state suppression, at literary level their influence is far-reaching and profound. They broached important issues related to emancipation, equality, democracy and freedom from all kind of exploitation and suppression.

After the disintegration of USSR and triumph of liberalism over communism, the political condition of the world changed from bipolar to unipolar. With the disappearance of its political negation or antithesis, the capitalist system found itself the sole sovereign to determine the conditions of the world. The opening of hitherto closed economies and societies to market forces enabled the capital to spread its tentacles at every nook and cranny of the world. In addition, gloablisation, network societies, information and communication technologies, and media have created a condition famously declared as ‘postmodern condition’ by French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. It is this condition that has given birth to a certain thought called postmodernism.

Under the influence of postmodern condition the global condition has also undergone drastic changes. The functioning and processes of capital in the global world is different from the role and forms of capital during its formative phase and period of late modernity. Such a condition has rendered many assumptions of not only communism but also of liberalism irrelevant if not totally obsolete. Earlier, the political and economic facets of liberalism were defined by the discourse stemming from its theorists. Currently, it is the economic imperative of free market that underpins the political discourse and theoretical postures.

The shift from economy and politics to economy conditioning thought is necessitated by the postmodern condition. This shift is not confined to liberalism only. Its reverberations can be felt in the lifestyle, political practices, social transformation, perception and ideas in different parts of the world. The only moment where the antithesis/negative of communism and liberalism converged was the World War II when both ideologies confronted fascism.

During the cold war, the destructive constructivism of communism inspired freedom movements of which violence was an integral part. It was because of violence as political tool that Algeria, Cuba, Kenya, Vietnam and other countries won freedom from colonial rule and imperialist masters. The dissenting minds in the cold war even lent legitimacy to violence and destruction by providing theoretical ground.

In the fight against fascism of Franco in Spain, people from the left joined resistance fighters in droves. Many intellectuals lost their lives in the Spanish Civil War, including Christopher Caudwell. Che Guerra went to Africa and South America to fight against imperialism. Franz Fanon was member of Algerian National Liberation Front, which employed violence as a political tool, and Viet Cong fighters of Vietnam became symbols of resistance.

Compared to the political strategies, practices and ideas of negation and insurrection against the dominant positive or thesis in the past, the contemporary narrative about freedom movements, ideas and violence appear diametrically opposite. Today its narrative in Pakistan does not have anything to say except knee jerk reaction against religion. Indeed, the very word narrative was not even prevalent in the liberal ideological repertoire in pre-9/11 period. So weak is the liberal narrative in Pakistan that if you subtract religion from it, intellectually it will become pauperised. Similarly, most of the leftists in Pakistan are stuck in slogans of Bolshevik revolution and rhetoric of cold war. When one invokes the name of Karl Marx to critique, one invites wrath of the guardians of ossified ideology that has attained a sacred status.

Karl Marx did not approve of only explaining the world, he emphasised on praxis to change it. A common mantra among the leftists is that the time and situation to entertain violence in ideology has changed. Pakistani leftists want to explain the world only, while keeping the world and essentialist nature of communist ideology intact. Today no one from the left joins resistance movements of the left, if any, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine etc, because revolutionaries have jettisoned negation or antithesis, and internalised the dominant thesis of peace propounded by the power of capitalism.

Now the most popular picture of Che Guera with beard and cap adorns drawing rooms and shirts in peaceful protests. Che has been domesticated in the spaces of drawing rooms, and the battlefields have been left for obscurantists, Islamists and nihilistic capitalism. We do not have Christopher Caudwell and George Orwell who went to write and fight against fascism. Disappearance of such precedence in the left today basically connotes the leftist ideology fizzling out against the dominant idea.

French philosopher Alain Bourdieu provides a cogent explanation through idea of subtraction according to which it is necessary for leftist ideology to distinguish Marxism from communism. He is of the view that it is not absolutely necessary to keep the word communism. Bourdieu’s ideas regarding expunging of negation in the leftist political theory clears the confusion regarding possible contours of political ideas and agenda for the politics of left. His is an attempt to liberate the left from the dogma produced within socialism. He favours disciplinary form of politics for emancipation and alternate world.

For Bordieu, the time for disciplinary politics for insurrection like Lenin is over. At the same time he asks for new formulation of some of the foundational ideas of socialism, and the problem of critique and negation. "Contrary to Hegel, for whom the negation of the negation produces a new affirmation," Bordieu writes, "I think we must assert that today negativity properly speaking does not recreate anything new. It destroys the old, of course, but does not give rise to a new creation."

Alain Bordieu’s observation is also true for militant Islamism, which destroys the old Islam, but does not create new. Rather it creates nihilism within Muslim societies. Similarly, the leftist ideology in Pakistan calls for insurrection, but it cannot give rise to new because its existence and ideas are conditioned by postmodernity, which has given birth to network society, hybridity, localised strategies and paradoxes. The starting point should be exploring hybridity, diversity and paradoxes within, instead of daubing diverse manifestations in the mono colour of mata-ideology.


Clash of ideas