Friday, September 23, 2011

What suits

It started with the question of what to wear. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, the newly elected Prime Minister of Nepal, comes to your university, and because of your connection to a Himalayan research project you're invited to the lunch. You wear a coat and tie, of course? Not of course, since he's from the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Indeed, he's giving a talk on the topic "What is the Relevance of Marxism in the 21st Century?" He won't be wearing a Mao suit but perhaps some traditional Nepali costume, or is it battle fatigues? He's the main theorist of a successful military insurgency - but a theorist... So you wear a jacket and a nice shirt but no tie. (He comes in wearing a suit and tie, though not in the dark colors of his entourage - the picture below is from a newspaper interview last year. In any case you're not at the same table, and better dressed than some of your colleagues.)
But it turns out this question was just a dress rehearsal for deeper questions raised by the PM's talk and the ensuing discussion. He named one by starting with a quote from Lenin about how much more useful and pleasant it is to fight a revolution than to write about it - what can a theorist, even one who's been part of revolutionary struggle, say? Isn't what's pleasing and useful at the level of argument or reflection likely to be irrelevant to practice if not indeed a distraction from it? More broadly, can you talk generally about the insights won of particular struggle, especially if your brand of Marxism insists that it is the "creative application" of universal principles in particular circumstances that keeps it revolutionary? And if you are now head of a government and helping birth the constitution for a democratic federal republic, whose words are at once the words of a Marxist and the leader of a state...?! Whether one could talk usefully about it or not, how can a Marxist build a bourgeois democratic state and economy? They're trying to do just that, we learned - what's appropriate now to make the communist revolution possible in the future - but the deeper questions just got deeper.

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