Back in 1968,when I was busy giving final shape to my revised thesis, I don’t think anyone in Cambridge had heard of Jaques Derrida.The impact of continental ,largely Hegelian Marxism charmed younger scholars while seniors were slightly dazed, though they appeared to prefer their empiricist slumber.Derrida had already thrown his first stone at the bee-hive in the form of a lecture at an American seminar a year back,puncturing the structuralist fantasy of finding the master key to absolutely certain knowledge. Derrida simply pointed out that the certainty depended on the center of structure of the discourse,and the center is only putative and rather unstable.That actually appeared to say just what has already been known in social sciences,i.e.that every systematic account of some new knowledge is based on the provisional adoption of a point of view or critically examined bias.But people were too drunk with fantasy of structuralist approach to notice that condition ,and Derrida’s rigorous intervention fell like a bombshell.
Unfortunately Derrida went on from that point to his own fantasy of the center being unreliable to completely relativize and trivialize all knowledge and building castles in the air with plays on words and wild match-making between impossible partners.The haze of verbal jugglery and theoretical fine spinning left each theorist a prisoner in his own web and communicating not through reason but through sympathetic resonance.
24 years after my last year at Cambridge Derrida once again became the center of a storm there when it was proposed to confer an honorary doctorate on him.Younger scholars were under a spell of the magic woven by him while their seniors dourly insisted that he was merely a charlatan who pretended to high and arcane wisdom.The see-saw battle had ended in the proposal getting accepted,but not before old-style philosophers including some of the tallest ones on both sides of the Atlantic made a desperate joint effort to knock it down.
British traditions value hard-bitten common sense and distrust ethereal speculative fancy and soaring theoretical ambitions.Much like biting a coin to see if it is genuine.On democracy too they give a wide berth to idealized rhetoric and theory that are spun out of the mundane realities into far-off goals.English law itself sets store by concrete precedents rather than abstract principles. Principles are deduced from such precedents,and not presumed to be tried and tested by later experiments.This attitude is accompanied by a remarkable veneration for tradition within the present period of time.
Yet certain concrete rights and expansions of the area of freedom are held fast and held without any compromise.British democracy is a collection of such rights and advances from servitude and bondage that mark so much of heritage.
My own experiences however amount to some regret at the obstinate resistance to universal concepts,but at the same time an admission of and admiration for such heritage.
All this came rushing back to my mind as I watched the fury against British monarchy teeter on the edge of a denunciation of the British people themselves.I recall here my naive exposure to the unsettling culture shock as my beliefs and attitudes clashed with those prevailing in Britain.
My views formed then may be no longer true of the scenario there.But I still believe it needs to be spelt out.
I found the institution of monarchy rather more firmly entrenched than it is today.But even then there were some individuals who thought and said that all that glitz was a bloody shame and the monarchy should be scrapped without further ado.No one would dream of holding them guilty of high treason.
The royal family drew gawking crowds in the streets whenever seen in public,and gossip in the press as well as a thriving industry of books and magazines fed the crowd’s insatiable curiosity about every piffling detail of their private lives.Scandals made them even more fascinating.But the popularity of the Beatles beat them by miles However Queen Elizabeth appeared to me like an ordinary sensible woman managing her ceremonial role and assigned duties with dignity and good sense.
I found the British middle-class,who have been the standard-bearers of British identity,rather off-putting.Their manners were a veneer over wakeful calculation,their kindness equally balanced by cattiness,and their intercourse with other people constantly shadowed by hypocrisy.The few aristocrats who designed to descend from their lofty pedestals rather more open and spontaneous.But on the whole I liked the ordinary British including the great working-class,and they represented for me the true worth of British democracy.
Each had an unassailable right to his or her individual worth and personal liberties which were duly recognised and honoured.Though there was this great mystique of ‘knowing one’s place’,the meanest individual would react spontaneously and fiercely to any affront to his dignity and/or rights.This attribute of democracy therefore was genuine.They were generally nice and kind,and helpful without poking their noses into your personal affairs.That showed yet another aspect of democracy,fraternity,still very much alive.
One striking feature of British society that moved me to admiration was the protection given to the individual from tyranny of institutions and entrenched interests.The ideal of ‘fair play’ though not vaunted much was honoured in practice and the victim of unfair practice was reasonably assured of a hearing and due redress.This is a trait glaringly absent in life in our country and anyone offending or crossing the path of someone in power goes in mortal fear of losing his chances in life.
Let me make these vague hints plain with a few anecdotes.Race hatred which probably had been there always but was kept under wraps had begun to break out into the open.During a bus journey to Scotland I was quite unjustly but repeatedly treated rudely and needled with scornful language by one conductor.Fellow passengers sat with stolid impassiveness,but when I at last reacted with vehement anger they suddenly sat up and supported me,forcing the conductor to keep his peace thereafter.
During another journey there was a break for afternoon snacks.An unremarkable British woman with plain features and frayed shoes on the bus befriended me but I kept aloof in some distrust.Both of us happened to walk down to the same wayside tea-shop with a board showing it was open.The owner flatly and brusquely refused to take my order and said his shop was closed.When I pointed to the board and insisted that I be served tea and scones I had ordered he simply shook his head and waved me away.The woman whom I had avoided now rose from her tea and snacks and firmly and commandingly said he had no business turning me away.The man was dissatisfied but forced to serve me sheepishly. Grateful and ashamed of my earlier reserve I got into conversation with her.She turned out to have been an active member of the Labour party.
During those days Harold Wilson the capable and committed Labour Prime Minister was raising hackles by deflating the snobs and making some working class leaders rising from the ranks members of the House of Lords.Suddenly the titled dukes,viscounts and barons found in their midst Lord Tim,Lord Jimmie and Lord Ken,to their great unease!
Once I saw at Euston station a portly middle-aged man escorted by an officer in civil dress waiting patiently for a train.A friend murmured, ‘Look,that is Harold Wilson there’.When I think of the fussy police,security detail and crowds of hangers-on accompanying public appearance of even Chief Ministers of states in our country,I find myself thinking
I should have added to my experience of the British middle class their relish of gossip and rampant back-biting while earnestly upholding publicly every citizen’s right to dignity and privacy.To my unfledged mind at late youth,it was a crying scandal that illustrious scholars simply loved the game as far as it demolished their rivals’ or critics’ images.However they took it in their stride when others were inflicting similar injuries on theirs’ too.(Here we see somebody taking down everybody else on his social media posts but complaining loudly if subjected to the same treatment by others.)Lionel Trilling an eminent American critic called the gossip culture ‘suburban vulgarity’ in distaste.
To return to the working class I found them remarkably ill-informed about India and other recently liberated British colonies.They were convinced that ever since ‘they’ left India ‘we’ had been making a mess of things that left our future under clouds.This regrettable ignorance apart,they were more direct,open and spontaneous,though they would not readily open up before strangers.
The government having refused to extend my scholarship to complete revision of my thesis I was forced to seek work desperately to support myself and landed in factories as unskilled labour.This enabled me to get somewhat closer to British workers and eventually I even led a strike on the factory floor forcing management to raise wages and slow down the killing pace of work.
We were a miscellaneous pack of native whites,Ugandan refugees of Indian origin,British adolescents on hoiliday and so on.The majority of native workers were women.The manager of the factory sat on the rooftop of the spacious factory-foor in a glasss-walled room,and controlling the speed of the conveyor belt on which we had to throw bad potatos from another conveyor belt.The manager just wanted us to slog away as fast as we could and he regulated the speed of the Conveyor belt to that purpose.
From a stage where we could still snatch a conversation to one where any other thought would be impossible the manager adjusted the speed to a point where the British teenagers left after throwing potatoes all over the place and adults would start noddding in sheer exhaustion.I used to go to sleep at night with hallucinations of sackfuls of potatos dancing all around me.
After about three days I suggested to fellow-sloggers that we call a strike,and all agreed at once.We did not buckle under threats and did not break ranks lured by tempting gifts.The management was forced to yield and we settled down to a tolerable speed.After the great success of the strike under my leadership the workers lost their distrust of ‘the wog’ and treated me with genuine warmth and friendliness.But a fortnight later I was most respectfully told “my services were no longer needed” and escorted out to the beat of
“He’s a jolly good fellow….
So say all of us,so say all
The Brits knew how to ease out a trouble-maker with a cushioned kick.
I lasted much longer at another food-processing factory where the conditions were less harsh,but under a regime following Time and Motion driven schedules of work that wore down the worker slowly.
There I befriended some British young women from the countryside who appeared much more intelligent than the men.
What I found surprising was that despite more than two centuries of hard,bitter and sustained struggle the workers appeared much less politically conscious and ideologically inclined than should have been the case.British trade unions and workers’ parties seem to have either neglected that task or failed spectacularly.
Doris Lessing,the Nobel Prize winning ex-Communist,seems to have recorded unvarnished facts in her GOLDEN NOTEBOOK pointing out that in the working-class district of East London in spite of four decades of Labour in power, the working-class residents receiving the best benefits under various schemes of social insurance, did not exude revolutionary enthusiasm but a vast yawning lassitude. Disgruntled and dispirited ,they raised doubts in her mind about the validity of the socialist vision.
The reason must be that despite the best intentions the generous policy of social democracy reduced workers to beneficiaries,and not producers of a new human destiny through their work and new human relations.Production and production relations remained unchanged and workers only had better wages and other benefits from the state.
All this might appear quite a damning indictment of British Democracy,if taken together with the disgraceful travesty of its laws and liberties in British colonies.
It is not.We had better remember that the history of colonialism included the enslavement and sometimes wholesale extermination of the natives in foreign countries occupied by force as well as the dreadful slave-trade.That was the other side of bourgeois social project geared to their craving for profit even if stained with blood.
But all such gross deviations and distortions are linked to the British bourgeoisie rather than labour.There had been a strong undercurrent of dissent from the official position of ruling class in the camp of labour and progressive middle class.
Irish leaders were not uncommon among the great popular upsurges of the eighteenth century that rocked Britain, and Ireland was one of the earliest British colonies.
Percy Byshe Shelley the great Romantic rebel not only wrote about human emancipation but authored an immortal verse pamphlet A MASQUE OF ANARCHY in support of revolutionaries in Ireland and at home,with the ringing words:”We are many//They are few”.The British Labour party was always better disposed towards the Indian freedom movement than the Tories.
I think I have found clues to establish that the great twentieth century singer Paul Robeson,who used to play rather demeaning roles such as the ‘comic nigger’ in Hollywood films, found unforced dignity and respect among British Labour and came into his own at the fag end of the war.He must have owed it to liberal race relations and the genuine respect for dignity of the individual prevailing in Britain at that time Likewise despite losses suffered by Manchester textile industries thanks to Indian movement to boycott foreign clothes,the textile workers welcomed its leader Mahatma Gandhi with unstinting warmth and cheerfulness.All this is part of British tradition,as much as obnoxious John Bull prejudices.
I had an occasion to examine the primary documents of the popular forces in the first serious attempt at democracy as people’s government, the so-called ‘Puritan Revolution’ of seventeenth century England.The revolt against monarchy and despotism was led by a section of the gentry and militant leaders among protestant reformers.But the revolt would not have had any success without the energetic and enthusiastic support of the Levellers,the thousands of master artisans and their apprentices ,petty traders and disbanded soldiers of the army without a pittance.They played a heroic part in overcoming the trained army of royalists with their grit and guts and turned into expert battle-hardened soldiers.
Quite naturally they expected a share in government and power and raised such demands to the outrage and scandal of the rebel gentry.While their help and support were accepted unhesitatingly,it was unthinkable for them to share power with such riffraff! But the Levellers were unflinching,and both sides sought to sort things out in a series of earnest debates at a place called Putney.The debate continued for several years with neither side yielding any ground until the gentry ended the argument in their favour by force assuming dictatorial power,arrested Leveller leaders and put them on trial,and dissolved the regiments of Leveller soldiers.This took place after the reigning monarch was tried and beheaded for crime against the people and put Cromwell at the head of the government.Significantly the great poet Milton who served as Latin Secretary of the government(combining certain duties of Home and Foreign Relations),secretly helped to shield Captain Lilburne,Walwyn etc from the wrath of the new government even when in disagreement with their views.
The Levellers showed good tactical sense by also submitting to the truncated but still functioning Parliament drafts of agreements with new rulers on the desired form of government and the rights and liberties of the people expected from it.At the Putney debates they proposed to discuss them in detail while Capt.Ireton leading the gentry side flatly rejected the idea.
To my surprise I found many seminal ideas of modern democracy like freedom expression(‘freedom of conscience’),freedom of assembly,periodical elections,tolerance etc.in those documents.That showed working people were also acquiring remarkable capacity for innovative creative thinking from a secular angle.There were also rudiments of social security like old age pension and equality of bargain in these documents. Hence it is no longer correct to assume that such ideas had been exclusively the contribution of the ‘bourgeoisie’,as has been assumed so far.( This is a very brief summary of part of my DURGABAI DESHMUKH MEMORIAL LECTURE,delivered
at India International Center,Delhi in 2018 at the invitation of CSD,Delhi.The speech is much longer than the printed synopsis and is as yet unpublished).
The current of popular protest and aspiration for responsible people’s government continued to flow unabated, sometimes underground sometimes out in the open.These entered into the vital currents of eighteenth century popular movements reaching a climax in such pamphlets as those by the great Tom Paine like THE AGE OF REASON,RIGHTS OF MAN,and and COMMON SENSE.
The nineteenth century which saw the publication of COMMUNIST MANIFESTO also witnessed the tumultuous popular movements against aristocratic monopoly in cereal market,terrible working conditions in factories and the crescendo of Chartist Movements that demanded wider franchise and reform of restricted and corrupt election process.These took a leaf out of the Levellers’ manual of struggle and presented drafts of proposed legislation signed by up to one million people to parliament.These too were suppressed by ruthless bloody measures.But its spirit lived on.
In 1967 or thereabouts I saw a glimpse of this alternative culture of protest in the great anti-Vietnam War procession in and to London that according to organizers numbered more than one hundred thousand marchers and according to an alarmed police and press more than thirty thousand.
There were younger people including our batches from Cambridge(I think I spotted among marchers Stephen Hawking,not yet so famous then, being trundled along on a wheelchair) as well as cherry-cheecked rural matrons among the jubilant determined marchers.
Many were singing old hymns and protest songs in full-throated voice.Barriers among marchers vanished for a time in unreserved solidarity.This I thought was real Britain,not the cautious, calculating,kind persons I met in daily life.One of the leaders of the march was Tariq Ali,and he saw to it that the March did not break out into violence.That helped to put out a moral message.That the British people,regardless of what their rulers did and said,were solidly behind every human struggle for liberty,equality and equality.
I suspect Margaret Thatcher not only set out to destroy the great labour institutions but also dissolve the last remains of this popular democratic tradition in British society.The impact of even big strikes on society diminished after her all out offensive.
But as hardships and setbacks to household economy following measures imposed through Rishi Sunak increase we might see a revival of that tradition,and the British people might resume their place in the great march of mankind towards freedom and solidarity all the world over.
Hiren Gohain is a political commentator