Individual, Individualism and the Left: Sunand

[ Note that this short note is only a beginning of trying to make sense of  the problem. It can hence be called a work in progress.]

  1. The assertion that ‘individualism is antithetical to left’ is considered to be as common knowledge as the knowledge that if we stand in front of a speeding train then we would be killed. However, the role of theory in praxis lies precisely in eroding away the ‘taken for granted’ aspect of the ‘common knowledge’, situating in the temporal-spatial framework and hence providing it a scientific weight so that it plays the role of pivot in the revolutionary movement. This very short and precise note tries to erode away the ‘taken for granted’ aspect of the assertion ‘individualism is antithetical to left’ and make sense of what it means in our times and in our space.
  2. As Communists (Note: the author of these lines doesn’t claim himself to be a communist and is merely trying to become one) the lens through which we see the world is Dialectical Materialism (DM). “Dialectical materialism is the world outlook of the Marxist-Leninist party. It is called dialectical materialism because its approach to the phenomena of nature, its method of studying and apprehending them, is dialectical, while its interpretation of the phenomena of nature, its conception of these phenomena, its theory, is materialistic.” (Dialectical and Historical Materialism, J.V. Stalin, September 1939)
  3. The relationship between the individual and the universal forms the essence of dialectics. The simplest, most ordinary and fundamental aspects of reality (individual) are studied and analyzed to reveal the contradictions of the universal. This is the method which we seen in its spectacle in Marx’s analysis of the commodity production under capitalism. Note the very important fact that individual doesn’t exist in isolation of the universal; neither does this theorization involve some form totalizing extrapolation. Rather, the individual reveals the germs of the sum total of the contradictions of the universal.
  4. Consequently, the opposites (the individual is opposed to the universal) are identical: the individual exists only in the connection that leads to the universal. The universal exists only in the individual and through the individual. Every individual is (in one way or another) a universal. Every universal is (a fragment, or an aspect, or the essence of) an individual. Every universal only approximately embraces all the individual objects. Every individual enters incompletely into the universal, etc., etc. Every individual is connected by thousands of transitions with other kinds of individuals (things, phenomena, processes) etc. Here already we have the elements, the germs, the concepts of necessity, of objective connection in nature, etc. Here already we have the contingent and the necessary, the phenomenon and the essence; for when we say: John is a man, Fido is a dog, this is a leaf of a tree, etc., we disregard a number of attributes as contingent; we separate the essence from the appearance, and counterpose the one to the other.

Thus in any proposition we can (and must) disclose as in a “nucleus” (“cell”) the germs of all the elements of dialectics, and thereby show that dialectics is a property of all human knowledge in general. And natural science shows us (and here again it must be demonstrated in any simple instance) objective nature with the same qualities, the transformation of the individual into the universal, of the contingent into the necessary, transitions, modulations, and the reciprocal connection of opposites.” (On the Question of Dialectics, V.I. Lenin, 1915)


5. Lenin, in the same essay warns us about the dangers of subjectivism, about the erroneous approach of not seeing the reality as an evolving totality: “Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral. Any fragment, segment, section of this curve can be transformed (transformed one-sidedly) into an independent, complete, straight line, which then (if one does not see the wood for the trees) leads into the quagmire, into clerical obscurantism (where it is anchored by the class interests of the ruling classes). Rectilinearity and one-sidedness, woodenness and petrification, subjectivism and subjective blindness—voilà the epistemological roots of idealism. And clerical obscrutantism (= philosophical idealism), of course, has epistemological roots, it is not groundless; it is a sterile flower undoubtedly, but a sterile flower that grows on the living tree of living, fertile, genuine, powerful, omnipotent, objective, absolute human knowledge.”

6. Let us summarize the main features of our framework, before we go straight into the heart of the problem that we have chosen : (a) Universal exists in the individual and individual exists in the Universal; (b) Individual has the germs , i.e. microcosmic form,   of the sum total of the contradictions of the universal; (c) Our knowledge evolves in a spiral and if we take a segment of that spiral , see it as a straight line and begin seeing that as the whole knowledge then we would be committing subjectivism. In simpler terms, we would see reality in terms of ‘how we slice off the straight line from the spiral’ and NOT in terms of how the spiral actually is.

7. ‘Individual’ (I) then in our temporal-spatial reality is made up of the germs that are characterized and shaped by the dictatorship of the finance capital, the deeply hierarchical system of caste, the feudal remnants, the moral drag of the tradition, the forces of religion, so on and so forth. Now, while the ‘individual’ has the germs of the contradictions of the ‘universal’ (U), what we are interested in is another ‘universal’ (U-O) – i.e. the organization. The U-O’s reason of existence is to tear apart the U and build an alternate U. However, U-O is made up of the I’s who carry the germs of the U. This is the essence of the whole relationship between the individual and the individualism, i.e. the I>>U>>U-O relationship.

8. “Neoliberalism” or the dictatorship of the finance capital leads to a situation where the contradictions between the individual’s desire for individuality and the reality reach its zenith. The root of this heightened contradiction lies in the fact that the tendency to make the ‘Necessary labour’ zero ( which is at the heart of capital accumulation) reaches a frenzy where it operates not only when the individual is working, but also when he is supposedly sleeping , taking rest, spending time with his family or doing anything else. The ‘I’ of our times is characterized by a temporal-spatial subjectivity which in its essence is lumpen in character. This obviously makes the task of building a formidable U-O very difficult (certainly not impossible).

9.  In popular parlance the ‘left’s criticism of individualism’ involves things such as ‘keeping personal interests over the interests of the U-O’, ‘using U-O for personal gains- material or otherwise’, ‘acting in a manner which harm the unified functioning of the U-O’, so on and so forth. All of this is true. Indeed it’s true! However, it doesn’t capture the heart of the problem. It doesn’t capture the myriad forms of individualism which operate- one of the most common being using the critique of individualism to hide one’s own individualism. The chameleon like and seemingly less harmful though it may seem, the other kind of individualism too is equally harmful for the U-O.

10. The most important factor ensuring the dialectical evolution of I>>U-O is the “mass line”, i.e. the ability to (a) maintain closest possible contact with the other I’s who are in the U-O and also those who are outside it; (b) taking the knowledge of the reality, learning from the experience gained through the mass contact and condensing it to get new knowledge; (c) using the knowledge to change the reality. (On Practice, Mao, July 1937). Now the individuals who are able to do this evolve as someone whom we call the leaders of the masses. Note that, the moment that such individuals begin to think themselves as something bigger than the U-O, they run the risk of detaching themselves from the whole chain shown above and while they still might be able to win a few union positions or get space in bourgeois media & its forums or may also go on to win a place in the bourgeois parliaments- they will cease to be the mass leaders in real sense of the term.

11. However, the fact that I’s have the germs of U inside them means that things never go and can never go the way that they should for the U-O to function. While we have already outlined the most common features of the individualism in (9) above, there are other mutations as well. And, one of the most harming varieties is the one which has its roots in ‘Menshevik competition’ – tendency of backbiting, gossiping, leg pulling. While the ‘Bolshevik competition’ is based on learning from each other’s experiences and improving in the process; the ‘Menshevik competition’ is the method of sabotaging the organization, targeting those I’s who emerge as ‘threat to the so-called leadership’, ganging up against them and in the nutshell paralyzing the organization. The agents of such variety of individualism are characterized by their utter inability to master or practice any of the features of “mass line” outlined above. Their survival depends on their style of functioning and their style of functioning requires a coterie, a group, a gang.  It’s a different matter though that they remain where they are by ensuring that the U-O never grows.

12. While individualism of the first variety needs to be combated, it’s the one of second variety that is perhaps even more dangerous, since it retards the U-O by far greater degree.

13. The question arises then how are we to combat both the varieties of individualism. The answer isn’t ready-made for us. It will come out of the process of escalating the I>>U>>U-O process, by remaining vigilant at every moment and by purging those who act as hindrances in the process.


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