October Revolution, Four Freedoms and all that
(This piece was written earlier this month, but was not posted so that Bangladesh’s current struggles could be highlighted).
Earlier this week was the 90th anniversary of a revolution and the 75th anniversary of an election. These were two major events that determined the course of history in the 20th century, and profoundly shaped our understanding of liberty. This post — ramblings masquerading as reflections — is about what the ideas associated with the revolution and the election have meant for Bangladesh.
Let’s start with the revolution. Like all revolutions, this was really a putsch that later official historians glorified as a popular uprising — here is what wiki says about the October Revolution. The revolutionaries promised ‘peace, bread and freedom’. I won’t even pretend to add anything to the volumes written on Marxism-Leninism, the ideology that inspired the revolutionaries. Suffice it to say that the freedom the revolutionaries conceived of involved an end to inequality — the have nots could never be equal to the haves.
At its peak, from the 1950s to the 1970s, Marxism-Leninism’s supporters numbered in tens of millions around the world. Trotsky is meant to have told his opponents to ‘go into the dustbin of history’. And yet, the state that was founded by the Bolshevik coup didn’t see its 75th birthday. Today, 90 years after the putsch, it is Bolsheviks who have been consigned to the dustbin of history.
I’ve often wondered why Marxism-Leninism attracted so many dedicated followers, when there was another model that also talked about freedom in abstract, and that actually did improve the lives of the poor in practice. I’m talking about the model provided by an election 75 years ago. I’m talking about Franklin D Roosevelt’s election to American presidency.
It was the depth of the Great Depression. A quarter of the workforce in the industrialised world was unemployed. Revolutionaries of the socialist left and fascist right were threatening the capitalist democratic order in much of the continental Europe. If not for FDR, America could very well have had a putsch, and ‘the American Revolution’ could have meant a very different thing to us.
FDR also talked about freedom:
“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want–which, translated into universal terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”
Freedom of speech and faith, freedom from want and fear, much more than the abstract concepts of Marxist tomes, one would have thought that these could form the basis of politics in a country like Bangladesh. One would be wrong.
Bangladesh’s experience with communism goes back to the 1920s. Muzaffar Ahmed, a pioneer of the Communist Party of India, hailed from the Noakhali district in the deep heart of East Bengal. In the 1930s and the 1940s, many land reform activists joined the communist movement. In the 1950s and the 1960s, the movement was the natural home of progressive politics. By the 1970s, communist factions looked to become dominant players in the country’s politics. They commanded the loyalty of thousands of young people who dedicated their lives to improving the lot of the wretched of the earth.
I had an early exposure to many such revolutionaries. I don’t have any recollection of this, but my early years were spent in a large house in Dhaka’s Indira Road neighbourhood. Ostensibly rented by my parents, the house was a hideout of communist dissidents. Among the residents of that house was a former general secretary of Dhaka University’s student union. He became a very successful businessman in the 1990s.
Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking to make profit. Contrary to the Bolsheviks’ ideology, private enterprise is what creates wealth and drives progress. And to be sure, many of those who had abandoned the revolutionary ideologies in the 1980s and beyond still maintained a social conscience. Many, but certainly not all. There were others who not only abandoned the cause of enfranchising the downtrodden, but also participated in the same patronage politics that continues to disenfranchise the downtrodden. They became integral parts of the establishment they sought to overthrow.
And certainly not everyone has made wealth. As I write this, I recall a family of dedicated workers that used to live in the government staff quarter in Green Road — the father retired as a small-time clerk, the sons couldn’t finish their university education, the mother had a nervous breakdown brought on by poverty. There were many such dedicated party workers who have ended their lives in abject poverty, but who never sold out.
Yes, factions of various communist and socialist and workers’ parties had thousands of such workers who never sold out, and thousands more who did, but prior to selling out were dedicated foot soldiers of a cause that was ultimately doomed. FDR’s promise of freedom actually worked, in America, but also in other places that adopted that system of organising the society. Who championed that idea in Bangladesh?
The dominant forces in Bangladeshi politics, like in much of the formerly colonised parts of the world, were nationalisms of one kind or other. Nationalists made overtures to socialists and communists or turned to totalitarianisms that bordered on fascism. No nationalist in our history truly embraced liberal democracy. Abul Mansur Ahmed bemoans in his memoir that independent Bangladesh felt the need to enshrine socialism, nationalism and secularism as the new republic’s founding principles when establishing a properly functioning democratic order would have been a worthy enough objective in itself.
Even today, we have a non-democratic regime that implicitly arguing that the freedom from want is a higher priority than other freedoms. Even today, this regime is supported by an intelligentsia that has its origin in Marxism-Leninism. Even today, the regime and its opponents are likely to cloak themselves in nationalist rhetoric. And I’m not even going to discuss those who seek a return to an imagined golden age. Even today, liberal democracy does not have any champion in our politics.
This blog, in very small ways, but without equivocation or qualification, tries to change that.