This like all books on the Progressive Writers Movement is to be heartily welcomed as an attempt to redress a very serious historical neglect. To subtitle it an episode is however to acknowledge and reinforce the overarching and unquestioned authority of the national question over all other approaches and framings of this period. The progressives can then only be judged as a mere subset or stream within the broad national current, rather than as an emergent force, which they were. Their oppositionality to the national and nationalist consensus can only be treated as a minor aspect of the overall dynamic, something that is eventually swallowed by the national logic as it worked its way through Partition. Ahmeds book suffers from the progressives subordination to the dominant nationalist definition only in a very oblique way.
Being written from a historians perspective, she brings a whole host of material and new informationrecords from Home Political files, Constituent Assembly debates in both India and Pakistan, interviews with surviving members, to give us a distinct and fresh light on the official account. But her tone and conclusions do not add up. The historians pen is unable to flesh out the nuances and intricacies of the literary, inserted only for their contextual value. For instance, Ahmed begins her history with what is seen as an apt epigraph from Edward Said: Real intellectuals are never more themselves than when, moved by metaphysical passion and disinterested principles of justice and truth; they denounce corruption, defend the weak, defy imperfect or oppressive authority.
Unlike for Said, the inspiration for progressivism in the PWA was a Marxist one, in which passion is not defined in disinterested or metaphysical terms. It is this persistent need to define the progressives as an autonomous and indigenous literary movement, not merely a front of the CPI that seems to drive a current stream of scholarship on the Progressives. Admittedly, PWA was a much broader formation of writers and artists, beyond those who were Party members. But arent most fronts like that? Also, far from being funded by Soviet money, it barely managed on scraps of donations and collections from ticket sales at literary events and annuals. While it is important to clear these technical confusions, what is of crucial importance is the need to establish the volume of progressive writing in India as following a trajectory very different from the one dictated by the 1934 Soviet Writers Congress in Moscow. Ahmed hails the Indian Progressive writers adherence to social realism almost as a heroic struggle against the narrow and dogmatic understanding of progress under the sign of socialist realism. Socialist realism in contrast is dismissed as the false poster reality of happy peasants and contented workers, a utopian diagram. Instead, she argues that what the Indian Progressives articulate is far more heterogeneous and closer to the formulations of Trotsky and Gramsci, two theorists whose work the progressives would not have been familiar with in her view, albeit for different reasons. While Trotsky is not someone towards whom they would have had a favourable attitude, Gramsci was probably totally unknown.That Ram Vilas Sharma, a selfacknowledged Trotskyite from whom she quotes extensively pushed for a nonsectarian and open revision of the Ranadive line (a peoples war line), speaks of her source in a Trotskyite aversion to a Leninist idea of art. While Trotskys theories about the relevance of an older cultural heritage to the literary project of a future, the artists relative autonomy, and the reluctance to be dictated by the narrowly political are seen as crucial elements in the corpus of the Indian progressives, Gramsci is invoked for a similar understanding of the literary exceeding the political and the conception of organic intellectuals entering history with a direct stake in social change. In short, an antianticulturalist line!
In tandem with these modifications, we come across sentences like the following: So the picture that emerges of the PWA is not necessarily one of subservience to a Party machine but rather of writers own experiences leading them to move towards its positions. They and their organizations were not simply prisoners of a Party line (p. 95). Or To simplify the progressive project as following the dictates of a party line ignores the genuine anguish many felt (p. 162). It is as if being in the Party and having genuine anguish are mutually exclusive! What we would benefit from is a history which highlights the actual conjunctures where a rift can be observed between the artists and the Party diktats, not merely a vague acknowledgement of there being difference. For instance, she says that the peasants movement petered out after the Party asked the guerilla groups to stop fighting. Again there is the bare hint thrown at the role of the Party in reconciling itself to the Muslim League objectives.
What role did the Party play in crushing the movement and betraying its own cadre and to what extent was the PWA questioning this and distancing itself from the Party? What is most disappointing is the concluding chapter of the book which traces the fallout of the Ranadive line (which declared P.C. Joshis united front with the bourgeois Congress Party revisionist) and its attendant hostility to the Nehruvian regime as being disastrous for the movement. While it is true that the hard sectarian position was harmful to the PWA, in terms of the many detentions and imprisonments the writers suffered, to say that to label the Nehru government as puppets of imperialism was ridiculous in the extreme, in spite of the actions of the Indian state, coming right after a page in which there is a gory description of the tortures the Indian army inflicted on the peasants of Telangana, is to lose the plot completely. After repeatedly illustrating the betrayals of the Congress visvis workers, peasants and Muslims, to say that the progressives call of jhoothi azadi or a fake freedom was only an instrumentalist way to justify continued insurrections is to subscribe to a reified Party line, where the Party in question is no less ominous for being invisible and unacknowledged.
What is this appropriation of an alternative Marxist legacy meant to achieve? What does the dogged distancing from the Party as indelibly tainted by propaganda and simplistic for mulation imply? Why is the socialist unproblematically hailed as a cuss word? Surely these are symptomatic of a Cold War legacy. At the same time, one can not avoid discerning the almost unconscious pressure from a revisionist and fashionable line of historiography doing the rounds in metropolitan circles, inaugurating what they call a vernacular (caste ridden) Marxism as opposed to a universal Marxist critique of capital with its base in Europe. It is as if the caste and indigenous location of the Marxist inspiration in India automatically cancels the status of capital as a universal and abstract enemy and compels us to investigations that end up inexorably being more about difference than dialectics. Talat Ahmeds book is not one of these. In fact, the richness of the documentation forces us in the direction of a history of peoples struggle. It is only the conclusions and glossing which are disappointing and undercut her valuable contribution.
Nandini Chandra is an Assistant Professor at the English Department, Delhi University. She teaches a course titled The Progressives (1932-73).