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S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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As the last receptacles of a homeless ideology, Indian communists have become archival assets

MARX WILL BE 200 years old in May, and his spectre is left with no place to haunt. Pyongyang? That’s pure comic strip with a dash of uranium-enriched horror. Cuba? Where revolution remains abandoned like a half-chewed cigar, and the máximo lider is gone. China is a different story, where McMarxism and a Leninist apparatus are useful pretexts; it’s social capitalism marinated in Confucian nationalism, and now all in the service of the eternal leader. So where, Marx?

It’s more than 25 years since the ideology was rejected by the street. Then it was revolution in reverse, the Manifesto reimagined. It was then that ‘the masses’ had been humanised, given faces and names. The spectral history of communism came to an end with the exorcism of 1989, the year that redeemed ‘We the People’ from the commissar’s slogan. Today, across Europe and elsewhere, the revolution has acquired a new adjective—and a new leadership, minus Marx.

Beneath every populist movement lies the space abandoned by traditional Marxists. The nomenclature doesn’t matter; they are Democrats, Labour, Socialists, and Liberal Whatever. In a world that was resentful and angry, unequal and also aspirational, their irrelevance, their retreat from the struggle they once promised, made the entry easier for the populist, the new revolutionary on the block.

The First Populist, too, asked them to dream, and his promises matched Christianity’s, but with a difference. The rewards of the struggle would be reaped in this world, in your lifetime. It was heaven here and now. Man never dreamed that big, and no dream swayed minds with such intellectual force either. In the end, what Marx wrote and what communists in power practised did add up, but only to create a paranormal horror story. The dream was dead. The ghost alone prevailed.

The new populist is the post-Marxian dreamer without the benefit of a Manifesto, without the scriptural guidance of a patron saint. It is easy to be distracted by the vulgarity of a Trump, but the sociology of his triumph reveals a liberation struggle abandoned by the Left in the unequal midlands. The new mad men, from the extreme Left or Right, who frighten the liberals and cosy conservatives of Europe are the only revolutionaries with dreams worthy of a slogan. It is the strangest paradox of post-Marxian times that these unhinged revolutionaries are unburdened by the textbook. So where, Marx?

The man and his manifesto mattered in a place where believers had nothing at stake except the belief itself. The empire of the mind, unlike the one built on a beguiling lie, was easier to manage. The soviets they controlled in the countryside owed everything to the possibilities of parliamentary democracy, and they were masters in the art of political harlotry. It was glorious to be in power without having the responsibility of governance. And they still read the Book. They even internalised the purges and the Gulag. Their freedom defied history. Indian communists lived outside it.

When the empire fell, they said it was an error in practice, that the theory remained intact, valid. They, the haunted men of Indian communism, were the last custodians of the lie, still reading between the lines repudiated by a cruel history. The way they gained India democratised an ideology otherwise steeped in the blood of the class enemy, real and imaginary. In the beginning, they borrowed only the slogans. The struggle was a social movement, Indian in its drama and dreams. Once in power, they got lost deeper in the book even as they expanded their little soviets through sub-rural thuggery. Indigenous Stalinism was a necessary method to preserve the Party, Leninist in its organisational rigour. The spectre released from the wreckage of 1989 found a home in Delhi’s Gole Market. In the haunted house of AKG Bhavan, drab men are still struggling with the text to spot that fatal proofing error. Marx, there you are, watching, and pleased.

Maybe, Marx, on his 200th birthday, after experiencing the exhilaration of theory and witnessing the dehumanising horror of practice, has come to the unlikeliest of places where he can afford a smile. Indian communists may have lost India for good, and their irrelevance as ventriloquists may have peaked. But who cares? What remains in the mind alone, no matter even as a superstition, is pure. Harmless. As the last receptacles of a homeless ideology, Indian communists have become archival assets. Whether in scorn or contentment, it is hard to tell, the birthday boy is still smiling.