‘Where a deep divide exists between capital and wage, democracy is bound to be throttled at every step there, since money is the main vehicle.’ The average arm-chair Marxist might be shocked to note that the above words are quoted from Rabindranath Tagore, from one of his essays called Samabay Neeti (on co-operatives), published in 1928, two years before his visit to the now-defunct Soviet Union. Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818 and Tagore on May 7, 1861. Tagore did not read Marx, not at least texts like A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy or Communist Manifesto, not to speak of Capital or Grundrisse. Yet as Paresh Chattopadhyay, professor of political economy at the University of Quebec, Canada, has pointed out, a synergy existed in thoughts between Marx and Tagore in their commitment to take up cudgels for the ‘emancipation’ of mankind.
In one of his recent papers, ‘The Myth of Twentieth Century Socialism and the Continuing Relevance of Karl Marx’, Chattopadhyay questioned the ideological validity of all socialist models for neglect of the ‘emancipatory content of socialism’. For Tagore, Chattopadhyay points out, emancipation “doesn’t emanate from any shackle-less vacuum, but aims at fulfillment”. The ‘myriad-minded poet’ had a clear perception of society he craved for. “If the society doesn’t ensure me full freedom, how do I belong to that society,” he said in his article ‘Letter of a Chinese’. It reminds us of the 19th century scholar George Holland Sabine, who in his treatise A History of Political Theory, said “Society is made for man, not man for society”.
Tagore elucidated his point further. “The basis of society is coherence. This togetherness became absent in the West since the early 20th century.” Worried about its derivative, the encirclement of countryside by urbanisation that permeated into colonial India, Tagore wrote: “This unnatural imbalance cannot be good (for any society)…”
Tagore was a spiritualist, Marx a materialist. Religion had a different connotation with Tagore. His god was ‘Jeevan Debata’ (the god of life). In 1909, in an essay, ‘Verdict of Religion’, he observed that the new era would look forward to a new religion: “The human knowledge has reached a point in the arena of emancipation that unless it is fitted into the prevailing mindset, the religion would be discordant with the theme music of life, rather fail repeatedly to catch up with the rhythm.” For Marx, individuals are assigned to “build a new world from the historical acquisitions of their floundering world” and in producing “material conditions of a new society, no effort of spirit or will can free them from this destiny”.
Differences notwithstanding, Marx and Tagore had the same goal: emancipation of individuals. Marx envisioned “a reunion of free individuals”. Tagore harped on the same point in every sphere of life. They had a striking similarity in the ideation of alienation. Two workers in Tagore’s play Red Oleanders (1925) introduce themselves as ‘47-O’ and ‘69-E’, an idea propounded by Marx in his ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844’, which wasn’t known in India even during the Stalin era. “The worker”, Marx wrote, “only feels himself outside his work” and gives in to “forced labour”. In his lyric ‘The Tame Bird Was In A Cage’, Tagore says “They flutter their wings in yearning, and sing, ‘Come closer, my love!’/The free bird cries, ‘It cannot be, I fear the closed doors of the cage.’/The cage bird whispers, ‘Alas, my wings are powerless and dead.’”
Tagore scathingly criticised two things that Marx did synoptically. One was the darkness of egoism in the West. India, he firmly believed, was against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others . “Let India stand for the co-operation of all the people of the world,” Tagore said. The second was his chagrin against “hyper-consumption”, expressed in an essay ‘Samabay Neeti’.
Chattopadhyay, in a personal communication to this writer, said, “Rabindranath is my second hero, after Marx in extolling the emancipatory ideals. One can’t help but agree with him.
Sankar Ray is a veteran journalist specialising in Left politics and history. The views expressed by the author are personal.