A time to read, a time to remember Prof Abu Mahmud

Afsan Chowdhury | Published: 00:00, May 29,2019


READING to review a book of this kind is not easy but as it belongs to a past almost lost. This is particularly so when its a tome on Marxism, an idea that is no longer active in the functional governance space. But I was attracted to the task not because of Marx but Professor Abu Mahmud, the author. He was once in Bangladesh an immensely influential figure, a man of weight and substance, both reviled and criticised. In the end, he has been remembered for standing up to the might of Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s legendary dictator. And for his relentless struggle to distribute the ideas of Marx to his pupils and acolytes.

The man of resistance
THE incident which brought him to the front pages involved Professor Mahmud as a man of resistance. It has now an iconic space in our history. He filed a case against the university authorities and won it in the court. While returning home after his victorious verdict, he was beaten up by the thugs of the NSF, Ayub Khan’s students wing supporters. It was the physicality of his assault, the fact that Dhaka University teachers could be beaten up within the campus that hit people hard and caught public imagination. It was one of the incidents that began to grow into becoming parts of wider resistance.
In the era of protest that he was part of, the resistance building-up on many fronts, directly and indirectly, grew into the explosion that took history into new stages. Such public wrath is unthinkable in today’s Bangladesh where this sort of events are so regular that no one bats much of an eyelid hearing such news.
In fact, teachers have been found beating up students and such teachers have paraded around with pride. Students beat up just anyone they wish whenever they want. Both are accused of sexual abuse and molestation. Such violence is as common as cow dung. It is hardly the same society of the 1960s that was polite yet robust compared with the current decadent, rude and counter-intellectual world we live in.

A matter of commitment
THE first thing that struck this reviewer was the commitment of the writer to producing such a work. He did want to put it down — all that he thought should be known to others on the topic as far as Volume 1 of the book goes. The chapter sequences of the book shows that the author was trying to capture the power of history through theoretical narratives, a history he believed in.
It does not matter that it was written by a converted for the converted about a set of ideas that had failed to make its historical point. What is significant is that he tried with a level of sincerity that is incredible and so wide in its scope. Today, such efforts would be rare. To wrangle with such a subject would require a state of mind that is missing in our ‘agree to agree with the ruling class’ mentality-driven world.
As one delves into the book, one must admit that this commitment becomes necessary for even to read it. The author was obviously looking at the study of the book with the same passion that a monk would be reading a religious text. On page 330, how he deals with a portion of a text is worth mentioning.
This passage discusses the difficulties which Gramsci faced in interpreting Marx in locating the function of the working class in overthrowing the bourgeois state. The sentence runs for eight lines, one of the longest written in today’s literature. It shows that he also expected commitment from his readers and had great confidence in their intellectual capacity as well. This can only be described as akin to religious devotion.
This line mentioned is in relation to eminent Marxist Robin Blackburn’s quote on the issue which also shows how wide and deep his familiarity was with the contemporary literature of his topic. Professor Mahmud was not only erudite but knowledgeable of the erudition of others. Such beings are not possible today.

A cosmology of past and present
THE book’s fascination is not in what was said but how it was said and why. It is an awesome range of topics covered. It is a stern reminder for all the flaky minds that populate our society and find significance about what intellectuality really needs to be. Professor Mahmud was a teacher at Dhaka University and, of course, dealt with such topics on a regular basis but he found it necessary to put all of it down together between covers.
This speaks of his faith in history and that is important to understand. It was first published by the Bangla Academy in 1985 when global socialism had not collapsed. He was confident that it was going to win and a world as envisioned by Marx would be established.

Leaving his signature behind
I knew Professor Mahmud in the middle to late 1970s as a very popular speaker for seminars and discussion meetings we would organise at the Teacher-Student Centre. He went abroad partly to seek safety after the attack but returned home as a hero of sorts. People who thronged around him were the leftists and Marxists — teachers and students and activists — who wanted to change the world. To these people, he represented an intellectual articulation of hope and answer.
Professor Mahmud did not hesitate to tell them so. His years of exile taught him the power of the spoken and written words and he wielded them easily and often. He had a group that grew around him as he morphed into a regular guru. He lived initially in the spare room of another enigmatic intellectual legend, Professor Razzaq. The big and necessary difference between the two is that Professor Razzaq left no written down thoughts while Professor Mahmud left his signature behind.

Thanks to the editor
PARTICULAR thanks are due to the editor of the book, Professor Abul Barakat. To undertake such a venture needs a kind of selflessness that is rare nowadays. His familiarity with Marxist thoughts must have made his task easier but what he has done as an editor is incredible. It is even more laudable because he has done it twice, second edition, and has midwifed a major work of knowledge support and creation. It is not only a book on a knowledge system about which many talk but few know, let alone understand, but more importantly, he has ensured that it reaches a point where it becomes a book from being a manuscript.
The book was written for those who are committed to Marxism and will be read by the same groups now. That is fine because it is not a polemical but a knowledge source book. What has made a big difference is the return of the book to public circulation. Thanks to all who made it possible.

Marksiya Bishwa Biksha I
(Marxian Cosmology I)
Dr Abu Mahmud
Ed Abul Barakat.
Mowla Brothers: Dhaka. Tk 1,200

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.

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