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Neel Mukherjee’s Top 10 Books about Revolutionaries

Neel Mukherjee’s top 10 books about revolutionaries
Those acting to overthrow an existing order have not had an easy ride from writers, but the portraits here give compelling life to these turbulent men and women

Neel Mukherjee
Wednesday 14 January 2015

The Naxalite revolution – an ultra-left, Maoist movement – in Bengal, and elsewhere in India, in the late 1960s provides one strand of The Lives of Others. The following are works I have found useful, over the years, in thinking about revolutions and armed struggles, and people caught up in them, both activists and those on the receiving end. A common theme in most of these books is how revolutionary action is foredoomed to failure and revolutionaries are either deluded, or wrong, or both; at worst, they are psychopaths and criminals. Idealism seems to be vitiated the moment it is translated into (usually misguided) action.
I find this scepticism – and, in the case of VS Naipaul, open contempt – towards any movement for progressive change fascinating. Is the status quo so attractive? For whom? I find Nadine Gordimer’s complex engagement and Mahasweta Devi’s openly (and correctly) partisan position much more appealing than, say, Dostoevsky’s demonisation of anything that would threaten the hegemony (whew, I’ve used that word) of the Orthodox church. I have also tried to emphasise how porous the categories of “revolutionary” and “terrorist” are. The freedom fighters in India’s long struggle for independence from British rule, or members of the African National Congress, were once classed as terrorists. History, as they say, is written by victors, but history also has many cunning corridors – how much time must elapse before all those tricky side-passages are revealed?
This is, needless to say, a highly selective and subjective list. I have had to leave out, for example, GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, VS Naipaul’s Guerrillas, and Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (a writer I have never liked, I must confess).
1. The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1872)
I have given the old title – a wrong one; in modern translations, it is the more accurate Demons – simply because I read it first, in Constance Garnett’s translation, as The Possessed. I cannot decide whether Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky should be branded as the true revolutionary in this scathing denunciation of idealistic, utopian revolutions, since the obvious revolutionary, his son, Pyotr Stepanovich, who drives the nihilistic shenanigans in a provincial town in Russia, is influenced so markedly by Verkhovensky Sr’s views. This is an intensely political novel, examining, broadly, five different and opposing ideologies, but Dostoevsky reserves the brunt of his ire for the new-fangled nihilism of Pyotr Stepanovich. While the scepticism is bracing, I do not warm to Dostoevsky’s Russian Orthodox Christianity.
2. Virgin Soil by Ivan Turgenev (1877)
This, Turgenev’s final novel, is a world away from Demons in the sympathy and kindness it extends towards its revolutionary malgré lui, Alexei Dmitrievich Nezhdanov. The handsome illegitimate son of an aristocrat, Nezhdanov is a dreamy romantic. He comes from a class that has forever been the target of satire for breeding so many do-gooders and revolutionaries – the wealthy, urban, educated, upper classes who take on the cause of the downtrodden. Turgenev, however, eschews derision and delivers profound compassion. The cause that Nezhdanov takes on is Populism, which incited newly liberated serfs into armed uprising against their landlords. He never really believes in the movement and when disaster ensues from his political action, as he has always known it would, Turgenev makes sure that our sympathies lie entirely with Nezhdanov in a way they don’t with Pyotr Stepanovich.
3. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907)
The unsurpassed novel on terrorism. The anarchist movement at the heart of the book is a revolutionary movement; Bakunin and Kropotkin were both influences in the writing of the novel. Inspired by the death of a French anarchist, possibly en route to bombing the Greenwich Observatory, in 1894, the novel centres on the secret agent and anarchist, Adolf Verloc, employed by a shadowy embassy to initiate an act of terrorism to provide Britain with an excuse to crack down on revolutionary groups. Sounds familiar? The novel asks deep questions about the morality of terrorism, and how revolutionary ideals and idealism are always already compromised.
4. Aranyer Adhikar by Mahasweta Devi (1977)
The title can mean exactly opposite things, both The Forest’s Rights and The Right to the Forest. In fact, this Bengali novel, written by one the greatest living Bengali writers, asks both questions. Who owns the rights to a forest that has been the home of a tribal people from ancient times? And does a forest have any rights? This is the rousing and ultimately tragic story of Birsa Munda (1875-1900), the tribal revolutionary who organised a guerrilla army against the mighty British colonial force.
5. Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer (1979)
A homage to Bram Fischer, the defence lawyer for Nelson Mandela’s treason trial, Burger’s Daughter is Gordimer’s most immersively political novel, landing us in the very thick of the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s. Rosa is the daughter of white Afrikaner anti-apartheid activists (and members of the South African Communist Party), both of whom die in prison. Rosa was brought up with Baasie, a black boy the Burgers had adopted, until the family was sundered and Rosa lost touch with Baasie. Years later, while living in a kind of exile in London, she encounters Baasie again, a meeting that will make her return to South Africa and confront the question of the involvement of white anti-apartheid workers in the black struggle for freedom.
6. The Moro Affair by Leonardo Sciascia (1978; augmented ed. 1983)
There are no revolutionaries in this book, only terrorists, but I’ve included it for two reasons, the minor one being that the terrorists in the book, the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades), would have viewed themselves as communist revolutionaries. But the more important reason is the seminal nature of the book in looking at how terrorism impinges on the state and the state’s complicated relationship with terrorism. The Sicilian writer (and politician) Sciascia’s investigation into the Brigate Rosse’s very public kidnapping, secret trial and ultimately murder of Christian Democrat Party president Aldo Moro, uncovers a very tangled web of deceit, silence, collusion, corruption, and vested interests touching every sphere of Italian public life. Sciascia’s extraordinary book, using the tools of detective fiction, concludes that because the boundaries between fiction and reality are so blurred in Italian public life, there is no ultimate truth to be uncovered.
7. The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing (1985)
This is not a book I like, nor is it one of Lessing’s better books, but I decided to include it because the animating spirit behind the book is a kind of contempt: contempt for the hopeless ineptitude and immaturity of the middle-classes in being (or becoming) proper, effective revolutionaries. The novel follows the trajectory of how Alice becomes a “good terrorist” almost accidentally. She drifts in and out of lefty communes until she joins a squat housing the comrades of the Communist Centre Union. There Alice becomes the house-mother, cooking, cleaning, restoring the shambles into which the house has fallen, while the men plan the bombing of a hotel in Knightsbridge. The action, of course, goes badly wrong. Lessing satirises the revolutionary poses assumed by affluent people living in affluent societies yet the important question to ask seems to me to be: “Why did so many of the ultra-left movements of the Sixties and Seventies turn to terrorism?”
8. Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising, 1930-34 by Manini Chatterjee (1999)
An eloquent and gripping book about the small group of revolutionaries, led by Surya Sen, who mounted an attack on two armouries in Chittagong in April 1930 and captured the headquarters of the European Club with a view to assassinating government and military officials of the British Raj. It is a lesser-known story amidst the bigger and more famous narratives – the 1857 uprising, the “Quit India” movement, Gandhi’s non-violence movement etc – of the struggle for Indian independence. I find it affecting because it failed.
9. Magic Seeds by VS Naipaul (2004)
Naipaul’s work has engaged repeatedly with revolutions and revolutionaries in postcolonial societies in a way that very few postwar novelists have. There are several revolutionaries to choose from in his oeuvre, most notably Jimmy in Guerrillas (1975), or the chilling, opaque and absent President (“The Big Man”) in his masterpiece, A Bend in the River (1979), but I’ll pick Willie Chandran, the protagonist of his late novel, Half a Life (2001) and its sequel, Magic Seeds, because Willie, like Supratik in my novel, joins a Naxalite/Maoist guerrilla group in a forest in India (south India in Willie’s case). But it’s the late 1970s and the fraying of the movement and its inevitable descent into compulsive violence, its ideals corrupted and debased, is what interests Naipaul. The portrait is chilling and shocking and makes for queasy yet compelling reading.
10. Sally Heathcote, Suffragette by Mary M Talbot, Kate Charlesworth, and Bryan Talbot (2014)
Well, I had to include a graphic novel and this rousing book, with its irrepressible flame-haired heroine, is it. It also relates in an angular way to an intermittent theme in this list – the derision that writers seem to reserve for middle-class or privileged revolutionaries, who are often seen (for example, by Lessing and Naipaul) as playing at revolution. Sally Heathcote, on the other hand, is a solidly working-class revolutionary – she begins as a maidservant in the home of Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Heathcote is radicalised after a spell in prison, during which she goes on hunger strike and has that terribly inhumane treatment meted out to suffragettes, force-feeding, inflicted on her, too. She joins a secret suffragette activist group that plants a bomb in Lloyd George’s home. This is stirring stuff, beautifully executed in black-and-white, with perfectly judged touches of colour.


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