“Gramscian Organic Intellectuals” – Innocuous or a Potentially Dangerous Threat to India?
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A few years ago, Jack Dorsey, former Twitter CEO, triggered a controversy when he, along with a group of Indian women, held up a “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy” placard and posted it on Twitter. Criticized for exhibiting distaste towards a community, it was also called out for promoting hate speech. In one of my undergraduate courses, I remember my professor once remarking that Savarkar’s reform efforts were not actually reforms but were acts aimed at reaping political benefits – apparently to identify Dalits as Hindus. Some of my peers were happy to believe that Savarkar being a savarna male, the reforms he proposed could hardly have been a major preoccupation for Savarkar. The reader would also recall the recent incident of a highly divisive graffiti adorning the walls of one of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s constituent institutes calling for the “expulsion of Brahmins” from the campus while warning them about a possibility of a “revenge”.
One may well be forced to think as to what is new in these three disparate examples. After all, while Brahmanical patriarchy is a term freely used with a sense of academic authenticity, vilifying Savarkar is considered as a noble act which attests to one’s secular and progressive credentials. And for those who have lived on the JNU campus, the slogans on the walls would not have surprised them beyond a point. Simply because anti-Brahminism as a construct is deeply rooted in the prominent Left discourse in the university, albeit practiced in the accepted and acceptable fashion in India’s raucous halls of academic righteousness. Practiced with a gloss of academic finesse, the Left on the JNU campus and elsewhere have for long not just insinuated but loudly proclaimed that “Brahminism” is “oppressive” all the while attempting to slur Hinduism as a “religion” and Brahmins as a “class” supposedly upholding the tenets of it. Any counter to the point is met with an avalanche of abuse and epithets.
What then connects the three disparate instances is the pattern of contempt towards alternative positions – a hallmark of the left discourse generally, but also more importantly, it is the ideological construct of Marxism and the seemingly innocuous Gramscian idea of “organic intellectuals” which gives an intellectual foundation to the contempt.
When the raison d’être of Marxism – a revolution to usher in a perfect society – failed miserably, the unease in the Marxist School was reflected in the efforts to explain away the failure with convoluted concoctions of “intellectualism”. The sum-total of that effort today goes by various names, but for the sake of simplicity let us call it neo-Marxism. To put it rather simply, neo-Marxism is a way to explain why Marxism never really worked. Antonio Gramsci in many ways represents the apex of such efforts but more importantly he was also the initiator of the new tradition that was to reformulate Marxism fundamentally – in theory as well as in praxis, the later more notably. With him, Marxism was renewed with a substantial addition to their political lexicons which would be deftly used by the generation of Marxists after him. A major focus of Gramsci’s work was to re-examine Marxian orthodoxy, which reduced it to solely materialistic interpretation, and provide a way out of the deterministic trap Marxism found itself in. In other words, Gramsci was occupied by identifying alternate explanations of struggle in society which would renew the strategies for political action — the ones apparently lacking in conventional Marxism. In that, Gramsci moved beyond the objective conditions – the material realities like modes or production and exploitation – and focused on the subjective realities that impede the possibilities of revolution. These subjective realties were the consequence of a variety of factors ranging from the ideational ordering of society through institutions like religion to culture to the nature of the civil society, etc. Addressing these subjective realties therefore becomes an imperative to actualize the revolution according to Gramscian thinking, and it implies the need for deconstructing these subjective realities to fit the material premises of Marxism. This is where the Gramscian idea of “organic Intellectuals” becomes a great tool.
For Gramsci intellectuals were a diverse but functionally significant group of individuals who had the agency to act in a socially and politically consequential way. But the nature of political or social action differed from intellectual to intellectual. “All men are intellectuals,” Gramsci would declare, “but not all men have in society the function of an intellectual”. In other words, while everyone had the intellectual faculties, not everyone was able to bring about the “desired” social change. The ones who were capable of doing so were the “organic intellectuals,” who, according to Gramsci, were the ones which every class produces “organically” from within and therefore are directly connected to the structure of the class they supposedly emerge from. Organic intellectuals are then contrasted with the “Traditional Intellectuals” who are not directly linked to a class — or at least pretend not to be linked — but emerge independently of it. Also, these organic intellectuals are produced by each class, and consequently they represent the true interest of that class as opposed to the traditional ones who represent a sense of “independence”.
So, a capitalist class will produce intellectuals organically from within and will only justify the perpetuation of that mode of production. Similarly, the working class will produce intellectuals from within, and they alone will be able to articulate the true interest of the labor classes since apart from their intellect, they also have the “lived experiences” which the intellectuals outside the class do not have. This brings us to the interesting quandary: can an intellectual, who is outside of the class, be an organic one? Unlikely, according to this line of thinking, unless the individual renounces his/her class identity in totality. Two points become extremely significant here – with one being that an individual “from the class alone” can truly represent the interests of the members of that class. Being premised on the logic of perpetual class struggle, it a priori delegitimizes efforts of reconciliation among the apparently antagonistic classes unless one accepts the ideas of the other. Second, it institutionalizes ideational conformity by problematizing at one level the agency of the individuals to think beyond the class and reducing individuals to merely their “class” identities. But, on a broader level, it creates a perpetual rift among the identities by institutionalizing class differences.
A question then that needs to be pondered here is — why this insistence on “socially located” organic intellectuals? The answer to this lies in the inability of conventional Marxism to deliver the objectives it sought to fight for. The predictions of Marx of an impending revolution in a capitalistically advanced economy turned cold with the so-called proletariat making peace with the eventual movement towards liberal democracy in Europe. The so-called bourgeoise too found a way to concede ground and even the churning within socialist circles started exploring avenues “beyond revolution”.
On the other the hand, the revolutionary experiments in Russia, China, and elsewhere morphed into totalitarianism. This posited an existential crisis for Orthodox Marxism fixated with the revolutionary changes premised on the material conditions. When the stand-alone economic logic of class struggle failed to materialize into a revolution ushering the socialist dream, the solely materialist logic was found highly inadequate and inappropriate. The Gramscian emphasis on the “ideational” rather than the “material” therefore appeared to be rescuing Orthodox Marxism — with Gramsci’s deft application of the concept of hegemony and with the ideological construct of “organic Intellectuals” providing the necessary tool to actualize it.
The Gramscian innovation helped Marxists to move beyond the economic class and enter the domain of the “social” and the “cultural”. For Gramsci, the revolution was obstructed by the hegemony of the “dominant class” which worked through various social-cultural process in the realm of “super-structure,” thereby ensuring the survival of the “oppressive” political order. Any efforts at revolution therefore must first dedicate itself to the process of “counter-hegemony” which implies the penetration of revolutionary ideas within all the institutions of the “super-structure”. In other words, the counter-hegemony would focus on eradicating all the existing social and cultural influences and replace it with the Marxist revolutionary ideals of class struggle which would prepare the ground for an eventual overhaul of the political order expected in the Marxist prescriptions. The role of organic intellectuals is assumed to be central in this process. The counter-hegemony can be actuated by intellectuals who are convinced of the Marxist notion of class-struggle and revolution, and they would first lead the intellectual assault on the existing “dominant culture” to weaken it from within.
Consequently, the fault-lines in society are to be diabolically exploited to make space for such a politically motivated action. It actively involves conjuring up of antagonistic identities – religious, gender, ethnic – and pitting them against each other to push for a “struggle within these identities”. These struggles then must be articulated in the language of Marxian class struggle — a role which is to be carried forward by the organic intellectual. This is then to be followed by stitching together an alliance of the “identified” oppressed classes to prepare within them a “vanguard” for the revolution. But this also meant any reconciliation among the apparently “opposing classes” is detrimental to the process of “counter-hegemony”. So, any explanation short of revolutionary struggle is deemed illegitimate at the outset itself. The construct of “organic intellectual,” which gives credence to the assertion that anyone outside the class does not have the social function to truly represent the interest of the class, becomes extremely handy as it preempts any reconciliation among the classes – unless of course, the class conforms to the ideas of revolutionary change. Even if an intellectual, supposedly from the “oppressed class,” speaks in the language of conciliation, the intellectual is dubbed to be under the influence of the “ruling class,” and therefore not a “true representative of the class interest”. The construct of “organic intellectual” thus provides the intellectual requisite and rationale for ideological conformity and the tool to cancel any alternative to the “revolutionary struggle”. The consequences of this however are increasingly reductionist explanations of society and diabolical deconstruction of culture just to provide a political momentum to a dangerous and an outdated idea.
The Indian Context
In the Indian context, the Gramscian framework has been routinely put to diabolical use to deconstruct the Indian cultural space by exploiting the fault lines like caste, gender, language, and even using the redundant constructs of racial Aryan-Dravidian divide to further the narrative of “struggle”. In doing that, a highly motivated, concocted, and tailored perspective of Hinduism is presented to form the scaffold of the political movement. The process involves the reductionist interpretations of religious texts, post-facto application of modern norms to historically dated ideas and conjuring new forms of “oppressions” to justify the assault on the religion entirely. The purpose is thus not to solve the “problems within Hinduism” but to project that “Hinduism itself as the problem”. And any position that does not conform to the idea of “Hinduism itself being a problem” is not an adequately sound or radical position and therefore not to be entertained seriously.
Take for instance the conventional practice of equating Hinduism with Brahmanism – a practice which originated with the colonialist and European interpretation of Indic traditions but has been enthusiastically embraced by the Marxists of different shades and hues. The votaries of such a line of thought would go any length to hide their intended bigotry by making a point that the term “Brahmanism” does not necessarily connote any “class (read as caste)” but relates to the hierarchical structure of society which is apparent in the different Hindu texts. Since these texts are authored primarily by Brahmins they ensured their superiority in the hierarchical structured society, they assert.
Yet, the fascinating fact remains that Brahmanism (a Sanskrit term would be brahmanatva?) as an expression is not found in any of the Indic texts to begin with. Also, hierarchy as a reflection of society is not exclusive just to Hindu traditions/society and different forms of hierarchies exists across the globe. Conscious ascription of the term Brahmanism thus makes little sense. A detailed exposition on the hollowness of the term Brahmanism or Brahmanical has been done by Saumya Dey and so I need not delve much into it. Yet, what is curious is that the terminology is consciously retained as it helps to equate Hinduism with Brahmanical hierarchy and thereby the “root cause” of all the problems. Once that equation gets academic authenticity, it is freely used to connote different kinds of ills – from patriarchy to conspiracy. The prefix “Brahmanical” just serves the purpose of insinuating the oppressor-oppressed binaries and delegitimizing the contrarian viewpoint.
Blaming Hindus traditions and texts as the root cause of social ills in India and offering the convenient cover of “Brahmanism” for such a thesis also serves a peculiar purpose. Anyone who seeks to “reform” society by making a judicious use of religious texts are dubbed as “traditional,” “patriarchal,” “conservative,” or “Hindutva,” and their efforts dismissed as either meaningless or inadequate. The argument is, since the problems emerge from the “Brahmanical class and traditions,” unless one renounces those very traditions no meaningful change is possible. This line of thinking suffers from the twin Gramscian/Marxist fallacy: one, there is an a priori conviction that antagonistic classes exist, and their reflection is inevitable in the social-cultural spaces, and second, that any prescription, short of intensifying the struggle is unacceptable. Anyone thus offering anything less than destroying the “oppressor” class – in this context the Brahmanical class – is just not good enough.
So, for instance someone like Justice Ranade, who argued for the true interpretation of Indic texts and reforming Hindu society by attacking the evils of caste system but argued for the necessity and integrity of Hindu spiritual and philosophical traditions, is dubbed an elitist. To further belittle such efforts a deliberate, and arguably unnecessary, comparison is made with Jyotiba Phule who spoke of a radical departure from Hinduism. Gail Omvedt captures this tendency accurately when she remarked that –
“Phule’s thought represented the fulfilment of the renaissance desire for social transformation along revolutionary lines. In sociological terms it makes good sense that he – and not the later elite thinkers, from Ranade through Tilak – should be seen as the primary renaissance figure. Any culture, after all, rests upon a class society and the dominance of a particular class. Hence the total transformation of culture requires the destruction of this dominance. In terms of India, Hindu culture and the caste system rested upon Brahmanism”.
The same logic is uncritically, blindly taken forward without any careful interpretation of Indian social realties. And to give it academic credence, the arbitrary categories of savarna and male intellectuals are offered essentially to reduce individuals to their caste-class identity, thereby delegitimizing their arguments and efforts when they do not conform to so-called revolutionary struggles. Similarly, reforms which are sought broadly within the framework of Hinduism are routinely criticized unless it explicitly targets religion.
Even the great tradition of Bhakti — which inspired movements across the country and sought to decentralize the faith by retaining inherent Indic spiritual traditions – are belittled through similar reductionist logic. Take for instance someone like D. D. Kosambi, another famous Marxist intellectual, who ludicrously concluded that the Bhagavad Gita was an attempt to provide an ideology of feudalism. One may argue that Kosambi was writing before Gramsci acquired his fame, but the logic Kosambi applies betrays the same lack of objectivity and rigor needed for a genuine inquiry of any subject. Howsoever nonsensical his argument may appear, a number of “intellectuals” who wished to discredit the essence of the Bhakti movement have taken Kosambi at his word to problematize the Bhakti movement. They see the Bhagavad Gita as the major source that inspired the Bhakti movement. This is the same logic that is applied to the reform efforts of Savarkar, who is reduced to his savarna male identity and his subscription to the ideology of Hindutva. Identity politics of this sort, far from contributing to making any meaningful change, actually intensifies the fissures within and exploit people for the sake of pursuing a terribly failed ideology.
This trend is fast becoming a fashion in academia as well as in popular media, art, and entertainment spaces. Increasingly, Indic traditions, festivals, and values are interpreted through this stilted Marxian logic and the Gramscian notion of the “organic intellectual” is providing the intellectual foundation to discredit any alternative positions. In this instance, we can recall how the artificial divide between adivasis and Hindus is exploited to fuel a struggle between the two, something which is reflected in the controversy surrounding the celebration of the victory of Durga over the demon Mahishasura. Increasingly, such racial impositions are fast becoming the norm and different groups are pitted against one another — a savarna is pitted against the Dalit, the Lingayat against the Hindu, the adivasi against the country. The gendered interpretations of texts like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the routine discrediting of the reform efforts of Vivekanands, Aurobindo, Savarkar, and even Gandhi by reducing their efforts to their gender-class identity is becoming a measure of scholarly acumen — although there is hardly anything scholarly in these efforts and everything is crudely political. This upsurge of “cultural studies,” with the explicit aim of “deconstructing” culture is a trend consistent with such political strategies and objectives of Marxism. The seemingly innocuous idea of “organic intellectuals” is providing the ammunition needed to establish conformity and intensify the “class struggle,” leading to violence and creating tensions within society. Any effort at reconciliation is sought to be undermined and nullified. It is therefore important that we connect to our cultural roots to counter this insidious propaganda which is aimed at narrow political objectives than any meaningful change.
One of the most important things to understand about Marxism is that it is not just a “framework” or theory but an idea that instigates violent political action. This praxis part of Marxism cannot be ignored when one is seriously attempting to inquire into the modus operandi of Marxists. Gramsci’s idea of the “Organic Intellectual” and “Hegemony” is no different. When the practical realities brutally challenged the purported universality of Marxian ideas, Gramsci accorded a medium through which the realties could be consciously tailored to fit the political scheme of revolutionary Marxism. Gramscian application is therefore equally problematic. It inevitably results in the misrepresentation of facts to suit the political objectives of “revolutionaries”. Marxists in India have done that quite efficiently in the context of Indian culture in general and Hinduism in particular. The ideas of Gramsci therefore are not just a tool for the analysis of society – but are politically intended potent frameworks or a construct that would initiate and support a peculiar program of political action. Indeed, one may well argue that the defined political goal actually conditions the assessment of social reality – a trend which is too serious to be ignored.
Gramsci, A. (1971/1989). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers Co.
Thomas. B. (1976). “Role of Intellectuals in Class Struggle,” Synthesis, 1:1, pp. 20-27.
Kosambi, D. D. (1961). “Social and Economic Aspects of the Bhagavad Gītā’,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 4:2, pp. 198-224.
Kunal. C. (2008). “The Lily and the Mud: D D Kosambi on Religion,” Economic and Political Weekly, 43:30, pp. 60-70.
Gohain, H. (1987). “The Labyrinth of Bhakti: On Some Questions of Medieval Indian History,” Economic and Political Weekly, 22:46, pp. 1970-72.
Omvedt, G. (1971). “Jotirao Phule and the Ideology of Social Revolution in India,” Economic and Political Weekly, 6:37, pp. 1969-79.
Dey, S. (2020). “That Bogey called Brahmanism,” India Facts, https://indiafacts.org/that-bogey-called-brahminism/
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