‘Unity in diversity’ on the Left?

When he was only seventeen, Tagore wrote an essay for the family magazine Bharati in which he said:

‘If the remnants of Indian civilization were to become the foundation on which European civilization is to be built, what a most beautiful sight that would be! The European idea in which freedom predominates, and the Indian idea in which welfare predominates; the profound thought of the Eastern countries and the active thought of the Western countries; European acquisitiveness and the Indian conservatism; the imagination of the Eastern countries and the practical intelligence of the West—what a fullness will emerge from a synthesis of these two.’ (Tagore, 1878)[1]

As an adult, he was highly critical of the West. In a lecture he delivered over twenty times in America in 1917 he sets out graphically how he saw westernisation as dehumanising:

‘In the West the national machinery of commerce and politics turns out neatly compressed bales of humanity which have their use and high market value; but they are bound in iron hoops, labelled and separated off with scientific care and precision. Obviously God made man to be human; but this modern product has such marvellous square-cut finish, savouring of gigantic manufacture, that the Creator will find it difficult to recognize it as a thing of spirit and a creature made in His own divine image.’[2]

In today’s world, what was then ‘the West’ has spread worldwide, and is perhaps better termed ‘Modernity’. Dehumanisation as a social disease has become endemic. Academics refer to ‘decadent individualism’, the term ‘decadent’ referring to a situation where the part thrives at the expense of the whole. [3] Tagore’s aim in life was to reverse the process: re-humanise society, in effect, and the phrase often associated with his work is ‘unity in diversity’.

‘Unity in Diversity’ on the Left?

Yesterday evening I attended a meeting of ‘Exeter & East Devon Left Unity’. There were only five of us there, perhaps due to the very hot weather – several apologies were sent to convenor, Dave Parks, who told us that there are about sixty names on the email list. The topic for the meeting had been announced as ‘Left Unity & elections’, which possibly had little appeal to the group who came to the last meeting who were engaged in the campaigning group ‘People’s Assembly’. I remember someone there saying she was no longer interested in party politics, because nothing can be achieved that way. Actions on the streets was now the way to go, which even Tony Benn, a lifelong Labour loyalist, is advocating. Some of us believe there should nevertheless be a political alternative to the three main parties, all of which support the current austerity measures, which are causing real suffering and fear.

On the front page of The Guardian today, 18 July 2013, it is reported that Unite union leader, Len McCluskey, has said that [for Miliband’s plan to work, whereby union political levy payers are to be asked to join Labour individually rather than being automatically signed up en masse] Miliband ‘has got to give ordinary trade unionists reasons to want to be associated with the Labour party. And that really is about policy. He [Miliband] knows within this next 12 months he has got to start out with policy that gives hope to people and something different from the austerity programme that the government is pursuing that engenders nothing but fear.’ Policies highlighted by McCluskey as likely to be popular with his members included repealing the bedroom tax on excess rooms in council homes, opposing the welfare cap, breaking with ‘austerity spending’, building 1m extra homes and increasing the statutory £6.19 an hour minimum wage by £1.50 an hour.[4]

For me, the most interesting remark made at our Left Unity meeting yesterday, was the observation that the political situation now is extremely fluid, anything could happen – which was balm to sooth the somewhat cynical and resigned feelings we had that ‘here we are again!’, the usual suspects, talking about yet another effort towards uniting the Left. This was a main topic of discussion, going over the history of the SWP, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Alliance, the Green Party, the CPB (Communist Party of Britain) – and the future of the 2009 TUSC (Trade Union Socialist Coalition), and 2013’s LU and PA. Collaboration is the key, but how do we achieve that?

At some point Dave Parks mentioned being drawn to the phrase ‘unity in diversity’ on my website. This is a different kind of unity from attempts to get Leftist sects with different approaches and ideologies under one umbrella. As we know, they will just compete for top dog then fall apart again. The point of ‘unity in diversity’ is for everyone to appreciate and take advantage of each others’ different strengths – tolerate perceived weaknesses, allow contradictions – in order to work together for the benefit of the whole; form a community, in other words. In a traditional community, a village (say), needs a diversity of skills, knowledge, attitudes and capabilities. So difference is desirable and necessary. In a new Left party, allowing diversity might provide a political home for a wide range of Left thinking and methods of approach. Instead of (desperately) seeking some tiny patch of common ground, we’d spread wide. The other half of my own activism is with community-building, in permaculture and transition, and someone yesterday mentioned a different kind of community arising today through the internet and social media.

There was a blokey-ness to the discussion/ banter that evening, quite amiable and jolly, so everyone was taken aback by ‘K’, the other woman there (besides myself – and I think I’d been as blokey as the men) insisting on speaking as a woman and ‘atheist Quaker’ (‘me too!’, I wanted to say). K said that there should be at least 50% women in our planning meetings, which would have a constructive effect, we would listen to each other and would learn to be ‘brothers and sisters’. She asked for a pause, a moment’s silence after she had spoken – she didn’t get that; the need and value of it was not understood, except by me – because I’ve been a Quaker, and have a very high regard for the Quaker business method, with its good listening and pauses.

Returning to Tagore – who was very much at home amongst Quakers, and appreciated the value of silence – another key point is that he didn’t engage in blame games. For him the faults of ‘the West’ were concerned with systems, not with particular groups of people. Gandhi said of him; Tagore ‘has a horror of everything negative’.[5] This is crucial. As I reported in the earlier LU report, it dismayed me how some people at the meeting wanted to find fault with the Green Party over the actions of Green Party members of Brighton Council. It also worries me that the first ‘action’ LU was involved in was negative: a protest against ‘Exeter Strong’ and the ‘English Defence League’. That event, conducted as a silent vigil, went well, but I wonder why we cannot talk to people from these ‘fascist’ groups and try to understand why they are so antagonistic to people they see as strangers and usurpers.

The great historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin made another perceptive remark: Tagore ‘tried to tell the complex truth without over-simplification, and to that extent was perhaps listened to the less’.[6] His truth was complex, but his actions in his practical projects in education and rural reconstruction are easier to understand. If we rely on ideas and argument, it can seem impossible for people in the modern world to put the needs of the whole – of some local community in which they are engaged – above their own needs and wants, even of their need to be appreciated. But most of us do that in some area of life. Re-humanizing happens. ‘Unity in diversity’ is achievable – perhaps even on the Left.

My notes from 17/7/13

Present: DP, Chris, G, K, R, several apologies
DP (mainly, + interjections from others):
40 at public meeting
LU & elections ~ what LU ‘is’.
Founding conference in November, up for discussion.
New party of Left, socialist party, entire Left in huge tent.
Include Green Party – 30 years, not going to ditch its name.
‘UKIP of the Left’, i.e. Left populist.
Wider unity, work with people not in LU.
People’s Assembly.
Political alternative, mass party, alternative to Labour.
Alternative to austerity and capitalism itself.
Elections – issues. RMT & Socialist Party, TUSC (Trades Union Socialist Coalition), founded 2009 for European elections, part of ‘No to EU’, SWP part of that, and CPB (Communist Party of Britain).
Problem if no existence between elections.
Local Left candidate(s) in Exeter, put a lot of work in, only 2.4% of vote.
What’s been missing is long term work.
G: whole political class is cut off.
Future of Labour Party like Democrats in US.
R: Ed Miliband is stuck with two years of Tory/Coalition policies. The tactic is to adopt entire agenda for two years, gain swing voters. Gospel. Need gimmick so it sounds radical.
R: People’s Assembly and LU: one a movement, other a party. PA don’t want to fall out with Labour Party – where that goes is interesting.
R: SWP, had a sense of its ‘rightness’ and achievements – proud to stand in the road and sell the paper.
C: Socialist Alliance was driven by SWP.
?: Socialist Party members being supportive.
DP: How to get to be pluralist left party – including SWP and SP.
R: Tony Cliff: if all spit in same direction drown working class.
R: Compare UK with Greece and Spain. Out on streets due to breakdown in country, high unemployment, goods unobtainable, never mind un affordable.
R: UK contraction of wages – according to Office of National Statistics.
TU membership peaked late 70s early 80s, now 14% in private sector.
No culture of TU at all.
Target should be 1 ½ % (?)
DP: Social Democracy is buggered.
R: Such fear in US over Occupy – dry tinder around – panic.
R: Need something winnable, such as Bedroom Tax. Local Councils have said they won’t evict anyone.
C: perhaps what new Left party needs to do is alert people re systems and planet on edge of collapse?
R: Not the way to go – there’s no correlation between economic crisis and public reaction (Trotsky)
C: my other area of activism is concerned with re-building communities: permaculture and transition.
R: New forms of community are coming about via internet.
DP: Future meetings, first half discussion, open to anyone interested; second half LU party business and planning.
K: I want to speak and for you to listen. There should be at least 50% women at those planning meetings. This would have a constructive effect, we would become more like brothers and sisters. […] Now please can we have a pause before resuming the discussion. [didn’t happen!]
Next meeting to be 21 August.

[1] Tagore, ‘Bangalir asa o nairasya’ (The hope and despair of the Bengalis), Bharati, [January-February, 1878], quoted in Stephen N. Hay, Asian Ideas of East and West: Tagore and his Critics in Japan, China, and India (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 21, Notes, p. 339.

[2] Tagore, ‘Nationalism in the West’, in Nationalism (London: Macmillan, 1921 [1917]), pp. 1-46 (p. 6).

[3] Regenia Gagnier, ‘Decadent Individualism’, in Individualism, Decadence and Globalization: On the Relationaship of Part to Whole, 1850-1920 (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 9-11.

[5] Gandhi, ‘The Poet’s Anxiety’, in The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941, ed. by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1997), pp. 65-8 (p. 66).

[6] Berlin, Isaiah. ‘Rabindranath Tagore and the Consciousness of Nationality’. The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History. London: Pimlica, 1996. 249-66 (p. 66).

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