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Retreat to Positivism

The valorisation of the liberal state and democracy in Dipankar Gupta's article comparing Gandhi and Habermas is erroneous and elides the well-known shortcomings and biases of this dispensation. This article also misreads Gandhi and its use of Habermas as a point of comparison appears to be a case of over-interpretation which does not fit the facts.


by experience. But, in India today, we can Retreat to Positivism see how group loyalties and pressures arising from such loyalties disturb, distract or paralyse the individual’s political Hiren Gohain views and choices. Administrative and

The valorisation of the liberal state and democracy in Dipankar Gupta’s article comparing Gandhi and Habermas is erroneous and elides the well-known shortcomings and biases of this dispensation. This article also misreads Gandhi and its use of Habermas as a point of comparison appears to be a case of over-interpretation which does not fit the facts.

Hiren Gohain ( is a distinguished social and literary critic from Assam.

ipankar Gupta’s observations on Gandhi and Habermas (“Gandhi before Habermas: The Democratic Consequences of Ahimsa”, EPW, 7 March 2009) in connection with the emergence and development of India as a liberal democracy make for disturbing reading, as they seem to compromise on intellectual discipline in order to arrive at a fanciful endorsement of the status quo. This is a downhill slide from critical sociology to positivism, inasmuch as liberal democracy is presented as an ideal form of the state that has more or less matured, rather than as a contradictory stage in historical transition (with no predetermined end). Had this been the case, we would not have been witness to frequent communal massacres with the state a helpless spectator, or to rampant prejudice and discrimination against Muslims, selective use of state terror, increasing income inequalities, or the increasing corporate onslaught on the livelihoods of the poor with the connivance with the state. Liberal democracy here a ppears to be the matching political framework for a liberalised economy.

The Liberal Utopia

The whole idea of liberal democracy, stripped down to its essentials, is to establish bourgeois hegemony by managing class conflicts through various strategies. The tolerance it sanctions holds basically between individuals with civil liberties guaranteed by the state, as well as between parties competing for political space within the state. The freedom of opinion and expression is tied to the rule of law/s that sustains the state. Liberal democracy as an “ideal type” considers religious and ethnic conflicts to be relics of a time when the individual (and private property) had not yet gained sovereign status. In the west a protracted period of civil discord and sectarian violence preceded the emergence of liberal democracy, until their irrelevance to the rule of property was confirmed

august 8, 2009

judicial structures at the lower levels are heavily biased towards privileged groups. Further, it should be pointed out that even in mature liberal democracies freedom of dissent has been bought at the expense of political ineffectuality. L egitimate criticisms of state policy seldom lead to a revision of such policy. There is no doubt that in India, and elsewhere, i dealistic people are working overtime to turn the ideal vision of liberal democracy into reality, but their efforts have been met with insignificant and halting success. The media which moderates and circulates opinion is also now controlled by big corporate interests.

Gupta and other liberal scholars have become increasingly wary of the socialist project and tend to see it more or less as a utopia. They do not seem to realise that liberal democracy is itself a utopia, where different ideological visions, bred in different traditions, coexist and engage in a cathartic non-violent dialogue, achieving through the process “calm of mind, all passion spent”. Force is conceived as a transgression of the sacred norms of debate and dialogue and not accepted as a legitimate instrument of class struggle and social change. Gandhi has also been interpreted by Indian liberals as an advocate of dialogue as a means to change the opponent’s heart, as a humane method of resolving insurmountable social conflict. But this is only half the story. They ignore Gandhi’s well-recorded ability to mobilise the masses for non-violent confrontation with their oppressor(s). Even the famous Gandhian concept of “soul-force” is some kind of a force after all. It is to be used as an agency to bring the adversary to the negotiating table. To that extent G andhi stands outside the boundaries of liberal democracy.

Gupta does not take into account the fact that Gandhi’s was the last major a ttempt in India to seek a painless reconciliation between native tradition and the modern liberal ideas and values. He had

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been preceded in such endeavours by Gokhale, Bhandarkar and perhaps even Vivekananda; Tagore was a respected compatriot. All such attempts involved a selective and sanitised version of tradition in order to avoid self-contradiction. However, Gandhi sought to embrace more of tradition than the rest. If this gave a certain richness to his personality and outlook, it also trapped him into theoretical incoherence. While Gupta would make a virtue of this incoherence, it actually led to a culde-sac for his followers on crucial occasions, as when he supported the K hilafat movement or when he abruptly terminated the non-cooperation movement. Such acts filled his followers with distress and r esentment. (A dedicated, self-sacrificing worker from Assam, Chandranath Sarma, called Gandhi a “religious maniac” in despair.) To be sure, Gandhi was responding positively to various elements in his environment – the decay and survival of feudalism, the impact of modernity circumscribed by colonialism, the emergence on the stage of history of several oppressed groups, the powerful tradition of British law to which he had been exposed through his training and practice at the bar, and the overriding ideal of Dharma. But he did not attempt a systematic theoretical exposition, lending his ideas to mystification.

Interpretative Overload

As for the desperate attempt to glamorise the inconsistencies in Gandhi by imposing on them a Levi-Straussian character of Myth – unconscious collective narrative juxtaposing irreconcilable answers to fundamental epistemic quandaries – it seems stretched and something akin to intellectual self-indulgence. Gupta ropes in Habermas as the latter too seems to believe in the efficacy of debate and discussion in arriving at the truth. Going against the grain of postmodernist assertions of “many truths” or “power/knowledge regimes” Habermas posits, as a precondition for debate, the possibility of “an ideal speech-community” free from all interests, prejudices and ideological presumptions, enabling eventual consensus. But Gupta thinks Gandhi goes one better by affirming the possibility of dialogue even b etween people with views and values bred in different life-worlds. Nevertheless Habermas is considered useful in supporting the culture of enlightened debate, which is the heart of liberal democracy. Between the enlightened rationality of Habermas and the almost mystical communion of souls proposed by Gandhi, there seems to be hardly any common ground.

Actually, the acid test of Gandhi’s nonviolent dialogue was the Partition of India in 1947, which he failed to prevent. In the end his tragic death at the hands of a Hindu fanatic brings home the uncomfortable truth that no dialogue is possible with certain types (like fascist ideologies) and liberal democracy can have no truck with them. There is no easy way out of this dilemma. While on the one hand it marks the limitations of “tolerance”, it is also a fact that liberal democracy, at certain moments, targets leftists as the enemy within.

One also wonders if Gupta is attracted to Habermas precisely because of the latter’s gradual retreat from Marxist ideas of class struggle and historical materialism. Down to the late 1930s, when the Frankfurt School was forced to migrate to the United States to escape Nazi terror, the school’s leading lights, like Adorno, clearly and categorically affirmed their allegiance to Marxism (veiled in Aesopian language as “philosophy of world history”, rather like Gramsci alluding to “philosophy of praxis” to elude fascist censorship). But following their American sojourn, with the concomitant weakening of contact with radical movements and thought and especially in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the cold war, they were compelled to confine their work to a critical scrutiny of bourgeois culture and ideology. This hermetic exercise in pure dialectics turned them into unwitting apologists of liberal democracy. Habermas went further down the Enlightenment road, b ypassing the Marxist s upersession of the Enlightenment.

The “ideal speech community”, unrestricted by particular interests, prejudices, power and influence, appears to be a linguistic reformulation of the Kantian “transcendental reason”, which was the Enlightenment’s answer to metaphysics. There is no scope for dealing with the question in detail here, but it is enough to say that like Kant’s “transcendental reason”, the “ideal speech community” refers to no concrete historical condition with necessarily contradictory aspects. Hence, Habermas implicitly renounces the M arxist-Hegelian notion of a historically evolving reason overcoming and sublating contradictions, acquiring ever-greater richness and depth of content, but at any moment, remaining the court of appeal, however imperfect it may be. The appeal to Habermas can thus be read against this background of a general retreat from Marxism.

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