Nandigram: Noam Chomsky vs Arundhati Roy

So what sort of conflict sees Arundhati Roy signing her name to a letter castigating Noam Chomsky? It’s a little unusual to see these two luminaries of the left bickering, but at stake is a bitter and divisive conflict in a democratically elected Marxist state – West Bengal, in India.

I’ve written before about the struggles over farm land in places like Singur. The battleground this time is the village of Nandigram, where the Communist Party wants to bring development by building an Indonesian chemical factory. The story’s well summarised in the Al Jazeera clip above.

Chomsky, together with a range of other people sent this letter, asking ‘the left’ to sort its shit out, calling in particular for unity among the left. That is, unfortunately, exactly what the Communist Party have called for while, at the same time, being responsible for a range of atrocities, from sexual violence to a straightforward massacre.

Feeling that this was a ‘left’ that they in no way wanted to be unified with, Arundhati Roy, together with a brace of Indian intellectuals, shot back with this response.

Stung by the rebuke, Chomsky, Tariq Ali and a few others sent out an ‘oops’ statement. So how could they get it so wrong?

Well, in part, it’s interesting to note that one of the original signatories, Vijay Prashad, didn’t sign the retraction. For the record, I think his books are fantastic, but when it comes to communist parties, it does seem that his critical faculties shut down (he is, for instance, still willing to defend the clown troupe that runs the South African Communist Party).

But I think there’s more going on here than just uncritical support. I blame the idea of ‘solidarity’. From a distance, after all, the CPM looked like an organisation that represented the left, insofar as it laid claim to a heritage of pro-worker policies (land reform, workers rights, etc). As
such, the signatories of the original letter shared, as their original letter suggests, a degree of ‘optimism that some of us have experienced during trips to the state’.

‘Trips to the state’ is an important phrase. None of the signatories actually live in West Bengal. Residency in a place doesn’t, however, rule out informed comment about it. (Else where would our opinions about Iraq be?)

What does rule them out is that they seem to have spent little time digging into the issue about which they have written. If they had, the horrors of the CPM’s conduct in Nandigram would become evident.

Those who are, sadly like me, fascinated with the slow-motion self-destruction of the CPM have noticed, a recent shift in the party rhetoric, from communist to neoliberal covered solidly here.

So what is one to make of all this? Well, in all this, the Trojan Horse seems to me to be the idea of “solidarity”.

This is difficult for me to write because I have in the past spent much effort promoting the cause of solidarity.

But I now realise I used the word to cover a politics that was heir to the kinds of mistakes that Chomsky et al made. “Solidarity” always comes with baggage, with ideas about who gets to represent whom in contexts far away from those with which solidarity is being shown.

The idea of some notional community of the left is what, for me, has been indicted in this episode. I think this has some important lessons for political organising wherever we are, and flags, at least for me, the necessity of studying a struggle with a great deal of thought and back-and-forth in forums such as this, before coming to a conclusion.

Do I think that public deliberation is the magic bullet here? Not really. But I’m convinced that without criticism, the chances of bad politics are, sadly, much higher.