Sudipta Kaviraj has long been recognized as among India’s most thoughtful and wide ranging political thinkers and analysts, one of the subtlest and most learned writers on India politics. Paradoxically, this has remained something of a state secret, because Kaviraj’s writings have remained scattered in journals difficult to access.
The essays in this volume try to approach India democracy from different angles. Kaviraj argues that it is wrong to believe that with the rise of modernity human societies suffer complete disenchantment: modernity creates new forms of enchantment, and democracy is infact, part of the political enchantment of modernity.
Focusing on Indian democracy, Kaviraj shows the limits of Marxist and liberal political analyses. In its Indian incarnation, he says, liberal democracy has had to inhabit an unfamiliar cultural and historical world whose peculiarities are very different from the peculiarities of European societies. Viewed by conventional political theory, Indian democracy appears inexplicable. It defies all the preconditions that theory lays down for the success of democratic government –namely, a strong bureaucratic state, capitalist production, industrialization, the secularization of society and relative economic prosperity. The durability of Indian democracy has survived, we need to ask if those are in face preconditions for democracy.
The essays in this volume try to approach Indian democracy from different angles. There are problem in Indian democracy, as there are in all other democracies; but there is a special sense in which the existence of democracy in India is itself a problem. The establishment, relative success, and unfamiliar historical elaborations of forms of this phenomenon all go against some of the deepest assumptions of conventional democratic theory. Infact that is precisely what makes studying it empirically and theoretically fascinating.
In any enterprise of this kind, there is an interchange between two types of themes-the peculiarity of the objects we are studying, and the methods and techniques we find preferable over competing ones. Inevitably, this turns into a discussion about the peculiar approaches of political sociology which provide us with our repertoire of methods, and the historical peculiarities of Indian politics which is our field of facts. I shall briefly discuss these two subjects.
It appears wrong to believe that with the rise of modernity human societies suffer complete disenchantment, or that modernity produces a miraculous capacity o think unideologically about everything. It seems closer to the truth that the great transformation wrought by modernity allows people to think skeptically about some matters and without skepticism about others. While enchantment in some areas becomes more difficult, in other areas modernity creates new forms of enchantment. Democracy is, in fact part of the political construction of society which leads to exhilarating moments-by making some unprecedented changes possible. But it also leads opt despair by making people expect too much, often by turning the conception of democracy-in some forms of naïve thinking –into a secular equivalent of paradise.
It appears to me now that both the conventional approaches to Indian democracy, through Marxism and liberalism, have serious shortcomings. Conventional marxism is excessively critical of what it regards as bourgeois democracy, treating it primarily as a deceptive institutional arrangement and, in its more extreme variants, regarding democracy as a sham. Liberal approaches are too uncritical and treat democracy as ideologically uncriticizable as a political form simply because it is preferable to other available arrangements in the modern political order. Methodologically, in order to think critically and historically, it is necessary to go beyond these two methods. It is moreover clear that in its Indian incarnation liberal democracy has had to inhabit an unfamiliar cultural and historical world whose peculiarities are very different from the peculiarities of European societies.
Viewed from the angle of vision of conventional political theory, Indian democracy is inexplicable. It defies all the preconditions that theory lays down for the success of democratic government. These preconditions are not chosen arbitrarily, but picked out of the conditions that surrounded the rise of democratic forms in the modern West— namely, the presence of a strong bureaucratic state, capitalist production, industrialization, the secularization of society (or at least the prior existence of a secular state), and relative economic prosperity. But the durability of Indian democracy in the face of a different history shows that instead of asking how Indian democracy has survived, we should probably turn the question around and ask: Why do we ask this question? Or perhaps we should change the question into: Are those preconditions really preconditions for democracy, or were we led to believe they are by some fault in our thinking? In other words, why should we convert the historically contingent conditions that accompanied the rise of West European democracies into its theoretical preconditions? Is this the right thing, or even the reasonable thing to do?
Existing theory urges us to think of the world rising slowly to civilization under the pressure and influence of the great Western civilizing-colonizing mission; but, at the same time, this theory is never quite happy if the non-West becomes fully civilized; it must become gradually civilized, but always at a safe distance behind, so that some of the entitlements of full civilization, such as democracy, can be denied to non-European societies without a collapse of the theory. Among the best examples of such thinking are John Stuart Mills reflections on the prospects for democracy in India in the nineteenth
century; but the vestiges or such ideas still float around in political analyses. Many of the dominant liberal approaches to the study of democracy are, for this reason, unserviceable for studying Indian democracy. Because of its underlying premises, this approach would tend to turn the very existence of Indian democracy into an unnecessary mystery rather than study it historically.
The first theoretical move in thinking about Indian democracy, then, is to look for models in political theory which offer a more critical way of asking the question about how democracy is possible, and what it does to societies. Among the major strands of modern theory, two instances stand out for their sharply critical approach to the enterprise of democracy: the critical and historical reflections in Marx and Tocqueville. It follows that to think unromantically, non-ideologically, or not 'vindicatorily' about democracy we must find a way of looking at democracy as a historical phenomenon—that is, as something that originates at a particular historical point, and not as something that sleeps inside human societies until it is awakened by a call from Western Enlightenment, nor as a natural tendency that springs out or blossoms once the dark and repressive institutions of premodern despotism are eroded by a sceptical and impartial perspective. The theories of Marx and Tocqueville appear the best candidates for this task because both are sceptical about democracy, or at least agnostic about its merits. Their scepticism vis-a-vis democracy arises from op-posed political preferences. Tocqueville's scepticism is based on aristocratic cultural preferences, Marx's on proletarian sympathies; but both agree that the evolution of democracy, which had barely begun during their time, must unfold fully before its entire consequences for society can be viewed, analysed, and judged; so historical judgements on democratic government must be reserved till a much later time. It is true that Tocqueville thought democracy was changing social structures too radically, whereas Marx thought it was doing too little; but both took a cautious, critical, clearly non-liberal approach to the prospects of unfolding liberal democracy.
Remarkably, for both of them another aspect of modernity played a highly significant role—though neither of them theorized this directly. They noted an underlying logic in modern societies of a separation of spheres: a distinction between the spheres of the economic, political, and social which were first conceived as intellectual suggestions and then written into the ontology of societies by the repetitive and daily practice of those ideas. This inaugurated an entirely novel way of deciding what was right and wrong conduct in a segmentary fashion, creating new boundaries for types of social acts within which people followed regional criteria of appropriateness that did not necessarily extend into other, adjacent spheres.
The essays that follow draw upon both Marx and Tocqueville in trying to make sense of democratic politics in India. Some are written from an orthogonal position in relation to India's Marxist tradition. While that tradition has generally tended to reduce the historical significance of 'bourgeois' democracy, these essays view it as crucial to India's political modernity and as a positive historical force. I wish to claim that the comprehensive opposition to 'bourgeois' democracy is based on a mistaken reading of Marx's texts. So I am critical of the conventional use of Marxist theory, and for two reasons: first, because I think that line of thought has read Marx's texts anachronistically, deriving a false conclusion about the value of democratic government; and second, because it has viewed democracy only as a form of government. This makes conventional Marxism differ from Marx—as well as Tocqueville. Both thinkers viewed democracy sociologically— they believed the historical analysis of democracy should be concerned not with older debates regarding the desirability of the form of government, but about the sociological effects that long-term continuance of democratic rule produced in the history of a society.
Marxists and Democracy
At first sight it may seem that marxists take a sceptical stance towards democracy that is very similar to Tocqueville's, even if their scepticism of democracy stems from political sympathy with the subaltern and not the aristocratic classes. The advantage of Tocqueville's stance is that he used his aristocratic background and political sympathies to great critical effect: he turned them into a particularly productive critical orientation towards the unfolding spectacle of French democracy. On the one hand he viewed democracy as an irreversible process of political emancipation; on the other, because he viewed with sympathy some of the aristocratic institutions and values that democracy destroyed, he did not see democracy, as the liberals did, with consistent partiality. He saw that democracy, in spite of being a good form of government. Could produce effects that were negative, or at least troubling. I think it is possible for Marxists to view democratic transformations of society with a similar critical detachment. In the modern world, which is in part the product of democratic practices, intellectuals are unlikely to possess Tocqueville’s aristocratic temperament or background; it is more probable by far that intellectuals will harbor sympathies of a more radical kind. It is possible, it appears to me, to deploy such sympathies as the basis of detachment, and to keep away from an overly justificatory, ideological vision of actual democratic politics.
The excessively dismissive view of democracy in Marxist theory can be traced to faulty intellectual history. Reading the classics of Marxist theory-all produced in the world of nineteenth century European capitalism, because Russian writers were also inhabitants of a long nineteenth century-it is possible to conclude that Marxist theory is inherently hostile to the very ideals of democracy. Marx, Engels, and Lenin wrote withering critical denunciations of ‘bourgeois democracy’ as a political regime, characterizing it, in a fascinating range of negative metaphors, from being a ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ to a malodorous pigsty. The essence of the argument is that what is offered as ‘liberal democracy’ is simply a masked version of political rule in which the bourgeoisie imposes its class will on all other subordinate classes in society, precluding the possibility of resistance. Resistance, when it occurs, is bloody and revolutionary. Historically, such resistance usually filed-as Engels expected in a famous text-crushed by political counter-revolutions which were orchestrated by a coalition of the bourgeoisies and reactionary feudal elites. These judgments, analyses, and expectations were broadly true, or at least plausible-in their time.
What I’m implying is that these analyses were true in their time, not in ours. For the stark fact is that what is called ‘democracy’ is today a quite distinct form which undoubtedly emerged genetically from transformations of what Marx called ‘bourgeois democracy’, but is structurally, in its character and consequence, fundamentally different.
If this argument is true, then it has a serious implication for Marxist critiques of ‘bourgeois democracy’. It suggests that Marx never saw what we call democracy today: what he saw and criticized, often with great force and justification, was a different form of rule-the two a being united simply by a misleadingly historically durable term-‘liberal democracy’ or ‘bourgeos democracy’. The term democracy history in Western cultures, from ancient Athens to contemporary Europe: but over its different periods it designates substantially different forms of political rule. The terminology causes confusion if its users fail to note a very simple Skinnerian principle. The similarity of a term does not indicate the similarity of a concept, as Skinner showed forcefully, or an identity of its institutional referent. The confusion in Marxist thinking is due to a simple problem of anachronistic description: because Marx uses the terms ‘bourgeois democracy’ for a form of rule, and we do too, it is assumed, without conceptual discrimination, that they are the same . Marx would have had to be clairvoyant to have produced a ciritqueof a political form which emerged more than half a century after his death. His critique was right for the historical period to which it pertained: the form of property based liberal constitutionalism (of the kind Locke defended) suffered from precisely the disabilities that Marx described. But what we describe as democracy today is not liberal in the Lockean sense: the meaning of liberalism has become transformed in the age of universal suffrage and there have been significant modifications to the capitalist system that Marx experienced. The tendency towards greater attention to the economy that accompanies much marxist thinking has made Marxist observers update their analysis of economic structures without adequately noting that political change change gives new meanings to old political terms and concepts.
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