Text and context in Integral Humanism
Photo : Ravi Dev
Returning to Guyana from the US in 1990, I wrote a paper “For a New Political Culture”, which I circulated to the leadership of the three major parties then in Guyana, the PPP, PNC and the WPA. I had proposed a conference to discuss the premise of the paper encompassed in the title. It never came off, because of objections - interestingly enough - from the WPA.
In the introduction, I wrote: “Race, in Guyana, transcends class as the dominant cleavage and suffuses politics as well as most other social interactions. A powerful norm, however, has emerged which militates against the public acknowledgement of this fact. The main purveyors of this convention have been the politicians who, desiring to be “national” leaders, engage in ponderous textual hermeneutics of their imported, unadapted “isms”, to declare that ethnicity has no objective existence. In spite of this, these same politicians, by their mobilization tactics and other activities, demonstrate that they have come to a modus vivendi with the ethnic imperative.”
A quarter of a century before, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, in proposing a new approach for India in his four lectures collected as “Integral Humanism”, had extended the point to insist on the need to interrogate all these “isms” that originated from other societies before applying to India or any other society. He proposed that every particular “ism” had been created to deal with specific circumstances in particular societies and time and needed to be contextualised.
At the time, India had spent the seventeen years after independence in 1947 practicing “Democratic Socialism” espoused by Jawaharlal Nehru, who had passed away the year before in 1964. Upadhyaya explained, for instance, that both “democracy and “socialism” had originated under quite specific circumstances in Europe. The former, in the wake of the breakup of the Holy Roman Empire starting in the 10th century: “there ensued a conflict between these new centres of power and the established kings and feudal lords. The fundamental principles of democracy became the pivot around which this conflict revolved.” Socialism arose of in Europe following its Industrial Revolution in the 18th century where the conflict between the workers and the owners of capital was identified by Karl Marx as the starting point of his “explanation of Dialectical Materialism”.
Upadhyaya did not suggest that there was not necessarily any merit in those “isms” but that they be examined within the context of the values etc of the receiving nation to consider their relevance and not apply them arbitrarily. Similarly, he was no “revivalist” of some ancient notion of “glorious” India as some proposed. He advised, “We too, have attempted to reshape our life as was required to face the new situations. Therefore, we cannot afford to shut our eyes to all that has happened in the past one thousand years. Similarly, those who would like to make Western ideologies the basis of our progress, forget that these ideologies have arisen in certain special situations and times. They are not necessarily universal. They cannot be free from the limitations of the particular people and their culture which gave birth to these isms.”
Photo : pandit deendayal upadhyay
Upadhyaya thus presaged Quentin Skinner's 1969 article 'Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas' which launched the now dominant “Cambridge School” of political or intellectual thought which insists that context is crucial to a historical understanding of texts. In fact, Skinner excavated Hobbes’ “Leviathan” - a foundational text of “democracy” to show the latter was answering specific questions posed by the historical circumstances posed.
In 1990, I concluded the introduction to the call for “A new Political Culture”: “It is the contention of this paper that until the politicians and other actors in the public arena openly and publicly confront the racial basis of Guyanese political culture and structures, and deal with its consequences affirmatively, we will remain mired in a Sisyphean paradigm. Doomed to struggle strenuously - perhaps even heroically - but ultimately futilely, for the goal they all claim to share in common - a Guyana in which all groups can have their just share of power: political, economic and social.”