The year of 2018 marked 200 years of Karl Marx’s birth anniversary. On this occasion, teachers and students of the department of English and Humanities at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh organised a two-day international conference showcasing the ways young scholars have engaged with Marx’s body of work. Nasir Uz Zaman reports from the event.
To celebrate the bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birth, teachers and students of the department of English and Humanities at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh organised a two-day international conference. The conference showcased how young scholars and readers have found ways to understand, analyse and engage with contemporary reality of Bangladesh in Marxism. Debates and discussions that took place at the conference were particularly encouraging at a time when tertiary levels students are often found dismissive of the importance of social theory and economic philosophies and their interest is frequently described as ‘BCS exam oriented.’ There is a historical and economic context in which this tendency has evolved, but that is not the focus of this story. Drawing from the discussions in the conference, today’s cover will focus on how young scholars and readers of Marx have engaged with his body of works to understand language, literature, culture and politics of contemporary Bangladesh.
‘Before teaching Marx, we need to teach our youth to think that they too have a stake in the world’
Sarker Hasan Al Zayed
Convener, Marx’s Bicentenary Conference
Assistant Professor, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh
New Age Youth: What made you think and organise the conference to celebrate the bicentenary of Marx’s birth?
Sarker Hasan Al Zayed: We have already hosted two student conferences celebrating the 400 years of William Shakespeare and the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. So, Marx’s bicentenary conference was a continuation of that tradition that we have at department of English and humanities, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. I could think of organising a Marx conference because we already have a tradition of that sort. My personal investment in Marx’s bicentenary conference at ULAB has been the consequence of my ideological and philosophical mooring in the Marxist tradition. I learnt a lot from Marx, especially from his late masterpieces. I felt organising this conference was our historical responsibility. I discussed it with Professor Shamsad Mortuza, now the Vice-Chancellor of our university, who enthusiastically endorsed the idea and asked me to pursue the project. In today’s world, we are discouraged to read Marx. The trouble is, Marx is one of the finest philosophical minds in the world who also happens to be the most influential critic of capitalism. We will not be able to understand our world if we do not read Marx. The conference was an initiative from me and my colleagues to draw attention to Marx’s philosophy and politics.
New Age Youth: As we have noticed in case of academic conferences, they tend to exclude the politicians and activists, but this conference included them. Why?
Sarker Hasan Al Zayed: Different conferences focus on different themes and practices. The uniqueness of Marxism resides in its capacity to accommodate both philosophy and praxis. One of Marx’s key projects was to explain the economic system that structured his world. Marx’s other important project, academics often forget, was to show how one can transcend the gruesome capitalist structure built up on billions of dead bodies. Marx taught us how to combine philosophy and practice. Marx believed that transformation does not begin at the level of ideas first; it often begins in everyday life, in material life, and then travels elsewhere. Given Marx’s own emphasis on the coexistence of philosophy and politics, we felt incorporating political discussions was necessary. It would be acutely oxymoronic to hold a conference on Marx and not have any political debate.
New Age Youth: The sad reality is that cultural and political awareness among today’s youth discouraged, many term argue it as consciousness among today’s youth is in decline. How can the engagement with Marxism make an impact or improve the situation?
Sarker Hasan Al Zayed: Each generation faces the challenges of its time differently. Personally, I don’t think that political consciousness is declining today; the real issue is withdrawal from the real world. Today’s young people grow up in a corrupt and disorderly world — a world ruled by money and power. Their world is the world of the alienated individual, a world without communities, friends, teachers, family and art. They grow up in a hollow and corrupt education system. Abandoned by parents and alienated from society, they struggle and then withdraw from life outside. Previous generations had to struggle too but they inherited a less corrupt world. The challenge for today’s youth is that it must clean up the mess left by the previous generations and build a new world in its place. This is a massive responsibility. A thoughtful and sensitive human being is not born in a vacuum; s/he is born in a society. Before teaching Marx, we need to teach our youth to think that they too have a stake in the world. It is their world too. Once that idea sets in, we can perhaps introduce them to Marx. Marx has a beautiful passage in Capital Volume 3 which gives us a direction on ethical responsibility. In it, Marx tells us that we human beings are not the owners of the world; we are merely its inhabitants, beneficiaries of nature’s bounties. It is our ethical responsibility to leave the world in better shape than we found it. I feel generations that fail to do so, betray the whole of humanity. I hope today’s generation will remember this lesson, pull themselves out of their isolation and make the world better.
New Age Youth: Is there a relationship between Marxism and Feminism? If so, how was it addressed in the conceptualisation of the program and the dialogues that took place during the conference?
Sarker Hasan Al Zayed: The relationship between Marxism and Feminism remains deep. Some of the most radical Marxists of late nineteenth and early twentieth century were women. Engels himself was a feminist. One can benefit enormously by looking into the body of work that is available in this area, especially the works of Alexandra Collontai, Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg. As a graduate student, I had the good fortune of reading the works of Angela Davis. I have also found Maria Mies, Gayatri Spivak and Utsha Pattnaik very insightful. Marxism believes that labor’s subsumption under capital restricts freedom of all. In Capital Volume 1, Marx mentions innumerable women whose lives have been shattered by capitalist practices. It is too vast to discuss here. Let me rather talk about our conference. One of the most encouraging features of this conference was the participation of women. Most of the presenters were women and so were most of the organisers and volunteers. I came to understand looking at this conference that the future of the academia and radical thought relies heavily on women’s contribution. I also came to know how alienated some women are from the majority of women who live in this country. It is Gayatri Spivak who mentions that understanding one’s privilege as loss is an ethical gesture. Patriarchy is a violent and unjust worldview. Just as women must understand that womanhood is empowering, so men must realise that patriarchy, in its current form, is deeply disabling and oppressive.
New Age Youth: How can conferences like ‘Marx’s Bicentenary Conference’ and rigorous study of Marx’s works help the youths’ future?
Sarker Hasan Al Zayed: A conference like this can introduce students to one of the most brilliant minds in history. When one reads Marx rigorously, one realises how insightful he was as a thinker. Capitalism teaches us to be selfish, but Marx teaches us to be compassionate and just. He tells us that we are bound to one another and we must learn to share the world with others. Selfish beings are unhappy beings. No joy exists in such beings.
Marxism offers a powerful theoretical and critical lens to see society
Student, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh
The paper that I presented in Marx’s Bicentenary International Conference is titled ‘Micropolitics of class and class consciousness: A reading of Akhtaruzzaman Elias’ Khoabnama’. Keeping Tebhaga movement, partition and creation of Pakistan in the backdrop, in Khoabnama, Elias portrays how the people of marginalised class encountered the idioms of exploitations and how they managed to develop the language of resistance. In the novel, instead of getting a static and objective idea of class, a dialectical understanding that addresses the internal contradictions of class struggle is discerned. Class antagonism does not exist only between the dominant and the dominated class but also within the same ‘objective’ class itself. In Khoabnama, the micrological divisions within a class which are not just determined economically but culturally overdetermined is addressed, stressing the heterogeneity and fragmentation in class. Besides, we find the idea of organic class consciousness that develops from the subjective experience of everyday life, mediated by the dialectics of exploitation and resistance. My paper maintains that the small-scale interventions of microcultural and micropolitical factors on the infinitesimal level of social life offer a nuanced and organic understanding of class and class consciousness.
While doing my work, I realised that Marxism offers a powerful theoretical and critical lens to see society and culture in their depth. As literature is the living document of a society and culture, to understand it deeply, Marxism is necessary. Besides, what literature is being written, what is being represented in literature and what is not and what social and ideological symptoms these literatures are carrying–are crucial questions. To address these questions Marxism is relevant in contemporary Bangladeshi literature. In addition, I think today’s youth should be more oriented with Marxist theory and praxis. They have lived their entire life within a capitalist world-system and their conceptual framework has been mediated by its ideology. The contemporary crises like ecological crisis, increasing wealth gap, exploitation on the basis of class, gender, race and ethnicity and unequal power relations in international politics are mediated by the logic of capitalism. The hegemony of this system has been normalised in a fashion that no viable resistance has been developed as its antithesis. In an act of resistance, it is the youth that must be on the vanguard. And it is Marxism which offers the most trenchant critique of capitalism. An orientation with Marxism can help the youth to develop a critical consciousness that will guide them in the conceptual and political encounter with all facets of the exploitative tentacles of capitalism. That’s why Marxism and relevant conferences and seminars should get more attention from young generation.
If forest & nature do not exist, adivasi people will not exist
Senior Lecturer, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh
The alienation of the adivasi people from the nature by incorporating them in the capital accumulation process and in return, existences of adivasi people are becoming key question as the nature loses its sustainability. Chittagong hill tracts region has been experiencing an ecological crisis through various manifestations. Historically this region is a place of resource extraction, which resulted in ecological deterioration. The construction of Kaptai dam in 1960s is the early example of intervention in the ecology of CHT by state mechanism. The intervention unsettles the ecology of CHT through creating new reserve forest, settlement of non-adivasi people in the region, militarisation, land grabbing by multinational and national companies, road construction, tourism, stone extraction, commercial tree plantation, extracting forest resources and so on.
Marxist framework allowed me to understand ecological crisis of CHT through primitive accumulation process. Modern capitalistic economy is making the environment vulnerable ignoring the coexistence due to self-destructible capital accumulation which is reversely knocking the question of human existence. In the case of CHT, it is very visible and the adivasi people of the CHT are in the edge of extinction.
Marx conceives capital accumulation process, through extraction of resources, as class stratification. In capital accumulation process, exploitation trickles down from top to bottom, whereas in Marx’s proletariat class is the object of exploitation. But in the case of adivasi people, they become below proletariat class that conceived by the policy makers as nature or object. Which in a sense, it is true that integrated life of adivasi people’s relation is inseparable. If forest & nature do not exist, adivasi people will not exist. In the bottom adivasi people those who have integrated relation with forest and nature; exploitation amplifies to the forest, forest dwellers and nature by the capital accumulation tools or process.
If you look at the liberal scholarly world, it will give you an obscure and misleading idea about ecology of CHT. Marxian view will give a clear understanding for articulation of this crisis linking with current global climate change. Unfortunately, in both print and electronic media have much sensitivity about CHT’s reality. The youth of Bangladesh have misunderstanding about CHT due to dominant media propaganda. Marxian way of thinking will allow them to overcome the barrier and understand CHT ecology. Finally I want to say without nature and forest there will be no adivasi people in CHT.
Street art, in most of the cases, critiques an existing hierarchy, especially the capitalist reality that we live in
Lecturer, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh
The paper that I presented is titled ‘What are we looking at? : Street art, spectral artists, and the Marxist paradox’. Street art has historically been of a subversive nature. They tend to be unsanctioned, non-elite, and are created in the public domain. The artists also mostly remain anonymous, and choose to convey their message through artistic expression instead. However, there have been instances of street art being branded, commodified, and privatised. That is what I wanted to understand–how the line between street art being subversive and street art being exploited becomes vague. Street art appears to contain this paradoxical Marxist and un-Marxist tension within as it transitions from the streets to the mainstream art world. I also wanted to explore the spectral non-present presence of the street artists–they are there and not there at the same time, with their coded messages, and their mysterious identities. There is also an invisible tie between labor and production. The artist creates something, but does not always have a say in the process of that creation being turned into a product. And in the midst of all this, there is the haunting presence of the spirit of Marx–an ideological aspiration that is always there, but always seems to slip out of the grasp.
Street art, in most of the cases, critiques an existing hierarchy, especially regarding the capitalist reality that we live in. I used Banksy as one example, and the Shubodh graffiti as another. One set of voice dismays against corporate culture and war, the other asserts despair against urban alienation. And I think they both are related to Marxism in essence.
I feel that most of us are familiar with the term Marxism, but not always we have a clear view of what it means. But given that it is a part of the reality that we live in, discussion about it gives us a chance to understand it, and therefore somewhat understand our reality. And conferences as such are a great platform for that.
Marx attempts to understand how history is constructed over time and how inequality is embedded in existing social structure
Senior Lecturer, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh
The advent of Marxist theory in the interpretation of Indian past has significant influence in the historiography of Indian subcontinent. Indian historians began to adapt and apply Marxist theory to understand society and history. Marxist writing began to flow in India in the early twentieth century. The influence of Marxism on Indian historical writings proliferated in the second half of the twentieth century. Some points like the ramification of Marxism in Indian historical writing and trajectory of Marxism in Indian historical writings, how historians applied Marxist theory and understanding in interpreting Indian history and postcolonial criticism of Marxist historical writings on India and the Marxist response to this criticism should be examined.
Damodor Dharmanand Kosambi was one of the few early historians who developed interest in Marxism and applied Marxist insights to understand and interpret Indian history. Historian Ramsharan Sharma too applied Marxist tools to interpret ancient and mediaeval India. The dominant theme throughout the time in Marxist history in India was centered on Marx’s perception on India, the mode of production in pre-colonial and colonial India and formation and consciousness of the working class.
In the late 1970s and particularly 1980s Marxist historiography faced criticism from a group of historians influenced by postcolonial theory. They observed, it is not feasible to study the history of non-eastern society with the theories developed in the West. They questioned the universality of the Marxist theory. The Marxist responded the criticism with vivid insight. Scholars like Rajnarayan Chandvarkar, Aijaj Ahmed, Vivek Chibber and others demonstrated the universal relevance of the Marxism as analytical tool to understand society and history throughout the world. The young scholars in South Asia have much to be benefitted from Marxist interpretation on Indian history and the debates around it.
One of the main objectives of the thinking of Marx’s was to understand and explicate the society, culture and everyday life on this earth. Marx attempts to understand how history is constructed over time and how inequality is embedded in existing social structure. Marx envisaged wiping out the disparities in society through a new social system. The youth are the promising force of this fight against unequal and unjust society. To effectively fight against these disparities and to establish the rights billions of wretched people around the world, the young people must understand and explain history and society. Marxism serves critical and in-depth understanding of history and society. Thus it is urgent for the young people to engage critically with Marxism to effectively fight against the oppression, injustice and inequalities imposed on the global population.
Marxian view is helpful for the young generation to know more about the clutches of capitalism and to be aware of their rights to ensure social equality
Student, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh
The main point of the research is to analyse the texts of Jhumpa Lahiri in order to expose the ‘transnational acculturation’ and to shade lights to the issues like, could the migrants fully assimilate in a foreign land? What are the problems they face during this process? Moreover, Lahiri’s, The Namesake, The Lowland, and In Other Words are parallel to the issues like alienation, homesickness, and mental traumas.
Marx argued that a dominant class exercises its rule through political institutions whose higher personnel must represent the class, unifying so far as possible its actions and reinforcing its control over the process of social production. Besides, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s theory of ‘cultural hegemony’ is applied to trace how the ruling capitalist class uses hegemonic ideology to keep the migrants as a marginalised class as possible. Furthermore, cultural hegemony as a discourse is vital to analyse how individual faces problems during the process of cultural acculturation. Therefore, it is necessary to read transnationalism through the Marxist lens so that the problems of the transnational marginalised migrants can be explored in details and solved accordingly.
With the rise of capitalism, the general masses are suffering more. Social discrimination, class struggles are increasing on everyday basis. It is the young generation who are being largely exploited by the capitalist class and keeping them as ‘puppets’. Marxian view is helpful for the young generation to know more about the clutches of capitalism and to be aware of their rights to ensure social equality. Unless achieving social equality, there can be no peace in the society. As the sailor of countries faith, the younger generation can play a vital role by taking lessons from Marx.
Nasir Uz Zaman is a member of the New Age Youth team