“Why does one need to study Marxism?”

Without waiting for the 180-odd students before him to elaborate why exactly they signed up for a course on Marxism, historian KN Ganesh launched into a two-hour-long monologue, listing 10 major criticisms against the political philosophy and innumerable reasons why the political and economic ideas of the German philosopher Karl Marx were still relevant.

The students, comprising government employees, medical professionals, bank staffers, school teachers, college lecturers and research scholars, in Kozhikode, Kerala, diligently took notes.

This was on November 27 during the first session of the year-long course launched by the Keluettan Centre for Study and Research in Kozhikode. The institute functions under the Kozhikode district committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the ruling Left Democratic Front in Kerala.

“With the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block in the late ’80s and early ’90s, proponents of capitalism had termed Marxism as an outdated philosophy,” said Ganesh. “They even alleged that Marxism was against democracy...But we should realise that Marxism espouses an open and comprehensive world view. It has stood the test of time and continues to be relevant even now.”

He added: “Marxism is not all about theories. It is impossible to study Marxism without a strong desire to bring about a change in society.”

A political education

In 2012, the central leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) warned of the dwindling number of members with political and ideological influence in its ranks. It observed that an increase in the membership of the party would not be sufficient to exert the party’s political and ideological influence among the masses.

“There was a time when cadres used to read Marxist literature and attended party classes to understand Marxism,” said KT Kunhikkannan, the director of the Keluettan Centre for Study and Research. “Even peasants and working class people were able to explain theories like historical materialism. But the scenario has changed. Now some leaders of SFI [Students’ Federation of India], the party’s student wing, and DYFI [Democratic Youth Federation of India], the youth wing, are not aware of basic Marxist principles. The collapse of the Soviet Union had driven many youngsters away from pursuing Marxian studies.”

This is one of the reasons why the Centre decided to launch the course on Marxism with the support of the state leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

“The CPI(M) wanted to cultivate a generation with clarity on Marxist ideology,” said Kunhikkannan. “The course may help young leaders explain contemporary issues based on Marxian theories.”

A formal announcement about the course was made on Facebook in the first week of October. “We received a whopping 220 applications,” said Kunhikkannan. “We never thought that so many people were interested in learning [about] Marxism.”

Though the Centre did not restrict the intake of students to party cadres and those associated with other communist parties alone, Kunhikkannan admitted that it steered clear of those associated with the Sangh Parivar.

“We didn’t select people who believed in Sangh Parivar ideology as we feared they would divert our discussions,” he said. “It would rob us of our valuable time.”

Each applicant paid Rs 1,000 as the course fee, and were provided with printed notes, notebooks, snacks and lunch. The Centre plans to hold two day-long sessions a month.

Course director Ganesh said that the inspiration to start the course came during his interactions with youngsters. “When I taught history at the University of Calicut, many of them had complained about the lack of opportunity to study Marxism despite the CPI(M)’s huge presence in the state,” he reminisced.

Marxism reloaded

Beginning with the first module, Why one needs to study Marxism, to the last, Contemporary Marxist trends, the syllabus covers culture, science, religion, gender, Marxist economics and the growth of Marxism.

“The course has been divided into three stages, such as basic concepts, historical background and ways to implement the concepts,” said Ganesh.

The Centre has lined up an eminent panel of lecturers from Kerala and outside to speak over the next 38 weeks. “S Ramachandran Pillai, Sunil Elayidom, KEN Kunhahammed, Venkatesh Athreya, M Jayaraman and VK Ramachandran have already confirmed their availability,” said Ganesh.

But opponents of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said that the party did not need its cadres to learn about Marxism as it seemed to be doing well without following Marxism’s basic tenets.

“I was with the party for a very long time,” said KS Hariharan, leader of the Revolutionary Marxist Party. “It never encouraged Marxian studies. All it needed was organisational growth, electoral success and power.”

He claimed that many current members in the party’s central and state leadership have never read the Communist Manifesto, the 1848 political pamphlet written by Marx and Friedrich Engels.

“So I think the course on Marxism will remain an academic exercise and will not bring about any changes in the CPI(M)’s political stand,” said Hariharan. “The party will keep mum on crucial issues like encounter killing of Maoists, developmental projects in environmentally fragile areas, and Adivasi struggles. Those who studied Marxism will have to either toe the official party line or have to go out.”