In spite of my abiding interest in literature when I came to college, I was vaguely inclined to major in History. In the long break between school and college, I chanced upon two books of Marxist history which opened me to a new vista of looking at history. The first was Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism. This book showed me that there is a discernible pattern in the jumble of facts in history, which attracted me. Soon after, I read a lesser Marxist history book, A L Morton’s People’s History of England, which showed me how recasting the old widely-known history of England from the people’s perspective gives you new insights. These books whetted my appetite to read more of Marxist history.
In Presidency College there was a thriving tradition of Marxist history; the doyen of the historians there was the Marxist historian Susobhan Sarkar, who had inspired generations of history students there. (I managed to attend a couple of his lectures as a sit-in student, but soon he was to leave Presidency after a long career there). Sarkar’s son, Sumit, also a famous historian now, was a contemporary of mine in College. All around me, in College and in the coffeehouse, the dominant intellectual current was that of Marxists.
At Presidency College there was a thriving tradition of Marxist history
College Street, the main thoroughfare in front of the College, and the road which I walked everyday between my home and College, was athrob with energetic leftist movements, the most important of which were the protracted agitations in the demand for adequate food at affordable prices for the poor. Loud processions, barricades, blocking of streets, tear gas, police chasing of students, and occasional police shooting became part of my daily excitement.
But on the intellectual level doubts slowly gathered in my mind, not so much about Marx, but more about some of the Marxists around me. Many of them were unreconstructed Stalinists; they would dismiss the by-then well-documented atrocities of Stalin as mere American propaganda, and go on repeating the usual Party line and cant, to which I became allergic. They also dismissed too easily the value of what they described as ‘bourgeois democracy’. In general I found the official Marxist schema much too neat to fit in many of the complexities of social relations around. Actually reading Marx, particularly his late works, I found him much more open than the Marxists I met — no wonder faced with so-called Marxists around him, he reportedly told his son-in-law that he was not a Marxist.
There were furious debates among several of us at the coffeehouse tables. In order to fortify my arguments I started reading up particularly on the writings of anti-Stalinist European leftists. Every Friday the local British Council Library would get its latest copy of The New Statesman. As soon as the day’s classes were over, a friend (Premen Addy, a historian and also the captain of the college cricket team) and I would take the bus and rush to that library. The magazine column we breathlessly read first was that of Isaac Deutscher, the Polish Marxist writer, famous for his three-volume biography of Trotsky.
The coffeehouse those days attracted all kinds of characters. One table has several budding poets smoking away and, short of money, sometimes sharing one cup of coffee among themselves (Allen Ginsberg, the American Beat poet, in what I believe his last poem, is nostalgic about his Kolkata days in early 1960s, referring wistfully to the “young coffeehouse poets”); another table noisily discussing their literary preferences as signifiers of political partisanship (Sartre vs Camus, Bengali poets Buddhadeb Bose vs Bishnu De, etc); in a corner table two lovebirds cooing to each other ignoring the din and bustle around; at another table a rising film star (Soumitra Chatterjee) and a friend (Nirmalya Acharya) are busy editing the latest issue of the leading intellectual Bengali magazine Ekshan; at another some students are loudly discussing the student union elections or the latest soccer game results; at one table a young man is holding the open palms of two women making a pretense of reading them; another table has some famous Bengali writers on their way back from visiting their publishers in the neighbouring book district; at a corner table a lonely bearded once-famous poet, now mentally unbalanced, is staring at the middle distance…..
For a time I also edited an (English) political-literary magazine from the coffeehouse titled ISM (Indian Students’ Magazine), which was started and funded by a young businessman, a regular at the coffeehouse, whom I did not know well but who wanted to be associated with intellectual activities. In the beginning, before others’ contributions started coming, I wrote the editorial, and one of the main essays inside, and just to show that sufficient number of people are reading it, once I even wrote with a false name one of the letters to the editor, criticising my own editorial of the previous month.
Another regular at the coffeehouse was an economics professor (not at the College), Amlan Datta, whom my communist friends loved to hate. When I first went to College, he had recently published a book titled For Democracy, which was essentially a short tract giving the usual liberal arguments against Stalinism in a cool-headed logical way. When I read it, I did not consider it a great book, nor did I find anything particularly objectionable. The abusive words I heard about him made me curious, and one day I walked across to his table and introduced myself. Very soon we became good friends in spite of our large age and status difference—he a university professor and a leading public intellectual, I, a callow student recently out of high school. What I immediately liked about him, even though I disagreed with him on many points, he’d give me a patient hearing and honour my arguments by giving a respectful, point-by-point rebuttal. After some time when we knew where we agreed to disagree on politics, we moved to other subjects like literature. I also found out that he had the largest collection of western classical music records or glossy books of western art reproductions of all my acquaintances. So by arrangement I used to go to his home Sunday afternoons when I’d listen to the music and look at the art prints for hours. He also introduced me to Chinese cuisine, appreciation of which has been long-lasting with me.
Although I remained an admirer of Marxist history (over time with a growing list of important qualifications) I soon realised that to delve into the materialist interpretation of history I needed to understand the intricacies of Economics, so this was how I gravitated to that subject. Looking back I think my first exposure to Marxist history being with Maurice Dobb’s book may have inclined me in that direction, since Dobb himself was an economist (whom I met several years later in Cambridge, England). There is a story that when he was first offered the job in Cambridge by the conservative economist Dennis Robertson, he wanted to come clear that he was a member of the British Communist Party, to which Robertson replied, “So long as you give us a fortnight’s notice before blowing up the chapel, it’d be all right.”
The author is Professor of Graduate School at University of California, Berkeley. The article was first published in the blog 3 Quarks Daily
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