Twilight of Ideas


This article owes nothing to philosopher Nietzsche except a faint echo of the title of his celebrated work,TWILIGHT OF THE GODS,suggesting a similar crisis and detour of European spiritual culture as its icons were getting brittle after reigning supreme for a century.

Nietzsche promises to go to them with a hammer.I have no such pretensions.I am only referring to the insensible erosion of their meaning and worth in our country.So obvious yet so pointedly ignored by the liberal intelligentsia. I have in mind the emancipatory ideas and ideals that had once so stirred the masses in Europe and then in its colonies. They were by and large the products of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

Let me approach the subject at a tangent.European modernism in literature and its emulations and adaptations in the East had been a revolt against that heritage.T.S.Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ once regarded as the watershed mark in that transition expressed distaste for the working classes and condemned the Russian Revolution of 1917.Eliot like many other exponents of literary modernism had also significantly snorted at what they regarded as the desiccating power of ‘ideas’.Their Guru Mallarme had famously said that ”poetry is written with words,not ideas”.It gave precedence to words and thought ideas were disposable garbage.Eliot also wrote about Henry James that ”he had so pure a mind that it could never be corrupted by ideas”Sensibility rather than the intellect was the better and more effective guide to reality and life. Why this scorn for ideas?Why are they considered so soulless and defiling?

To speak plainly, the entire generation belonged to a bourgeois class that had been riding on the crest of revolutionary ideas and profitted most from them but had not only suffered loss of authority but also a threat from an unexpected quarter which they thought they had effectively suppressed.This was the root cause was the unanticipated decline of capitalism as an economic order as its contradictions seemed to overwhelm its functioning.What was more galling was that the challenge came from classes that appeared to pick and hold up their patent slogans of Liberty and Equality.One way of deflecting the challenge was to change entirely the grounds of the debate. What, modernists argued,was important were not so much as leading ideas as ideas in themselves.

They were not entirely deluded.Ideas that have become outworn shells of vibrant social impulses of the past could evidently not serve any purpose other than demagogy and repressive policies.These no longer provided intellectual support or spiritual sustenance.For just one instance the very idea of exploiting nature for increasing human benefits has turned out to be a dangerous fantacy.

Where they went wrong was in thinking that ideas in themselves were suspect.This also helped them mask their own regressive attitudes and predilections.Actually a great many of them were deeply afraid of any progressive social change and hid this fear under cover of a horror of the Mob.That is,they had already foreclosed the possibility that revolution could bring about a change for the better.

In any case new social ideas take shape in the cauldron of not only powerful social impulses but also stirrings of new movements and of new incipient conceptions.Poets and writers sometimes register them inarticulately,which take definite form only much later as the creative new social re-structuring gets under way.

But the period when there is a meltdown of old ideas is also a period of indecision and uncertainty.In our present age there has loomed into view a quite dangerous,tried and tested method used by reactionary forces to abort and frustrate creative social re-structuring.They mimic true revolutionary campaign in an attempt to create a catastrophic situation where violence and forcible remoulding of old social and political institutions and practices is organized on a mass scale for the benefit of monopolistic capital.By and large lower middle-class people,relatively poor or hit by threat of poverty, who are afraid of losing their ‘aspirational’ chances join such crowds in millions.Its appeal is usually to ‘the nation’ and to raw allegedly ‘natural’ instincts and passions.Like a legitimate revolution it also pretends to re-shape society for a goal which is however above all rational discourse.This is Fascism.It takes advantage of flabby liberalism when the latter loses the voluntary support and enthusiasm of the common working people.Owing to its apathy to larger social goals dear to the people.

Since they have little chance of winning the battle in the court of reason,they spare no pains in undermining reason.Ultimately they invoke some mystical over-arching concept that is cloudy and transcendent.’The Nation’ is put on a pedestal high above the people themselves. Something to be worshipped blindly,followed blindly and to lay down lives for blindly.It is a Moloch at whose altar millions of alleged ‘enemies of the nation’ may be sacrificed without remorse or compunction.A militaristic mindset is conjured with the motto……’Theirs not to reason why’.The ideology acts like a hallucinatory drug and astute oratory,demagogy and disciplined organizations arise to mobilise such drugged masses against targetted enemies to liquidate them.Sometimes eminent people like the thirteen German Nobel laureates who joined the bandwagon of this massive counter-offensive and condemned Einstein’s ‘Jewish science’ and the philosopher Heidegger who as Rector of Heidelberg University led cheering mobs in organizing the book-burning event where thousands of books of the library were incinerated to save ‘the nation’ from poison.In his oration Heidegger said that the terms and concepts embedded in those books would only enfeeble and emasculate the German ‘volk’.In his scholarly work he desperately tried to free himself and his readers from the web of such alleged mirages as ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’ having thousands of years of history behind them and concocted outlandish new words to project hazy newly minted ‘ideas’ which scholars have quarrelled over for many decades to decipher.

The moot point is whether our country is lurching towards such a destination.Hitler had a blueprint for the programme in his ‘Meinkampf’. Best to question ourselves whether we are aware of such a clear plan and goal,such organization and such ideology here and now.

The general context is quite distinct.The framers of our Constitution had put the ideas of Liberty and Equality in its centre.Since they could see that without massive politicial interventions these would remain empty,they tried their utmost to achieve that end through state intervention.Nehru built new institutions galore to help put in practice and sustain these central ideas.But we now understand what is happening to them.Afraid that reaction might manipulate “the deadweight of the past” to sabotage the monumental project Nehru had put his foot down to insist on the promotion of “a scientific temper’.

By 1991 it was becoming clear that this originary project had either halted half-way or strayed from the path.The big bourgeoisie hankering for more profit in tandem with international big capital and the middle classes allied to them now looked up to the Neo-liberal model dangled before them by Bretton Woods institutions of imperialist foreign capital. Which entranced them and prodded them on to junk the foundational ideas of our state.

But the political form for the introduction and maintenance of such new goals could not be made to order ,as the attraction of such words as ‘democracy’,’rule of law” and ‘fundamental rights of citizens” were badly needed to underpin the legitimacy of the new content through elections as long as they were needed.

But all the time the old substantive ideas already weakened by the new economic order( which included brusque denial of labour rights and basic entitlements of citizens for liberty and equality), helped in turning ions of citizens into mere beneficiaries without agency and hallucinated upholders of a toxic social and political vision.

Much has already been accomplished in engineering the goals of the new axiology.There is a cacophony of support for each mortal blow at the old state.Its promoters are only waiting for an opportunity to wrap up the offensive and deliver the coup de grace.

No one cares to play the Cassandra for self-satisfiction.The prospects are dire,but there is still some glimmering of resistance.But unless the protests and resistance at various levels and quarters have a clear idea of the peril in its totality and unite, they might well end up in confusion and witless squabbles in short-sighted suicidal intrigues accelerating the enemy’s progress towards completion of its plan.

Hiren Gohain is a political commentator


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