Birbal, Marx and modern intellectuals

Ready to build castle in the air

You may wonder, what is common among Birbal, Marx and modern intellectuals. Please read the full article to discover a remarkable commonality.

Those who have read Akbar-Birbal jokes might be familiar with the joke I am going to narrate.  

Birbal was one of the Navratanas (Nine Jewels) in Akbar’s court and the Emperor’s most favourite. He was supposed to be the wisest among the Navratanas because he had a solution to every problem. Jealous of him, the other members of the elite group were always in search of an opportunity to downgrade him in the eyes of the Emperor. One day, they told the Emperor that since nothing was impossible for Birbal, he should be asked to build, literally, a castle in the air. The idea pleased the Emperor to no end because he enjoyed pulling Birbal’s legs. (Perhaps, Akbar and his men had all the time for entertainment.)

Akbar asked Birbal whether an intelligent man like him could build a castle in the air. Shrewd Birbal immediately guessed the intention. He looked at the smiling faces of his colleagues, other members of the court, and the Emperor and accepted the challenge. However, he requested the Emperor to supply the building materials and give him one month to make the necessary preparations. The conditions were accepted.

After remaining absent from the court for one month, Birbal returned and requested the Emperor, all the other members of the  Navratana and whosoever wanted to see how he was going to build a castle in the air to come to an open field.

‘Why should we go to an open field?’ Asked Akbar.

‘Because the castle in the air cannot be built inside the courtroom. It has to be built in the air.’ Birbal explained.

All of them assembled in an open field wondering what miracle Birbal was going to perform. In the field, Birbal had kept large number parrots in cages. He released all the parrots. They flew in the sky. Some parrots were telling ‘Send bricks”, some were demanding “sand and cement” and some were shouting “send iron rods.’

As parrots do, they kept on repeating. ‘Send bricks’, ‘sand and cement’, and  ‘iron rods’. Bewildered Akbar and all others were looking sometimes at the parrots and sometimes at Birbal. ‘What is this, Birbal?’ Demanded the Emperor.

‘Your Highness, they are my labourers. You had promised to supply building materials to them. Please supply. They will do their job.’

Akbar and the other members of the Navratana had to admit once again that Birbal was the wisest man.

A more dangerous suggestion for ‘building castle’ in the air was given by Karl Marx and his friend Frederick Engels in the “Communist Manifesto” that suggested the poor workers whom capitalists were exploiting should forcibly snatch all the means of production form their employers, capitalists. and establish their own “dictatorship of the proletariat”,  an intermediate stage that will lead to a classless society and, therefore, withering away of the state.  

Marx being an intellectual, a philosopher, did not bother to go into the nitty-gritty of “dictatorship of the proletariat”.  He did not bother to explain how there could be a dictatorship of a vast multitude of workers. He did not bother because he did not have to face the problem in a real-life situation. The first communist to face the problem was Vladimir Lenin. His solution was that the dictatorial powers were vested in the Communist Party. (Expand this a little bit). Under his successor Joseph Stalin, it became the dictatorship of one individual. Similarly, in China Mao became a dictator. Under all these dictators, millions of people were killed in the name of revolution. Ultimately, partly under people’s pressure and partly because of the failure of Marxism to solve a pressing problem of poverty of the working class, Marxism collapsed. The Soviet Union disintegrated. Russian Federation formally abandoned communism. China is still ruled by a Communist Party but only for maintaining a one-party rule. It has nothing to do with Marxist ideology. China has adopted the capitalist system for economic growth and reduction of poverty.

Marxism, as visualised by Karl Marx and his friend Frederick Engels, remains a utopia.

A fortnight back, 24 persons[i] who would like to be recognised as “intellectuals” gave a “revolutionary” advice to the government of India to mobilise resources to fight coronavirus:

“All the resources (cash, real estate, property, bonds, etc) with the citizens or within the nation must be treated as national resources available during this crisis.”

I marvel at their genius. They are more “revolutionary” than Karl Marx. Marx had advised taking over the wealth of the capitalists only. These 24 “intellectuals” do not want to spare even the proletariat. However, they are not as courageous as Marx. Marx had suggested the use of force to snatch the means of production from the capitalists and replace the catalyst state machinery by “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The current age “revolutionaries” want the existing government to only acquire everyone’s properties without being dictatorial.

There are also as naïve as Karl Marx. Marx did not explain the structure of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. The 24 “revolutionaries” also do not explain how the government would acquire everyone’s property, whether the government has necessary constitutional and legal powers to do so and whether there is administrative machinery to manage all the assets when they come under the government control.

To me, they appear more like Birbal who told the Emperor that his “workers” (parrots) would build a castle in the air provided he (the Emperor) sent building materials to them. The 24 worthies have told the government that ‘we have told you that there is no dearth of resources but it is for you to bring all those resources under your control.’

Birbal knew that everybody knew that ‘building castle in the air’ was only a metaphor and nobody expected him to build one. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel knew that they did not have to establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. So, they did not bother whether it was feasible or not. The 24 “intellectuals” knew that nobody would take their suggestion seriously. So, they did not bother whether it was feasible or not.


Devendra Narain

June 8, 2020




[i] If you want  to know who these 24 “intellectuals’ are, here is the list.


Abhijit Sen. Former Member. Planning Commission. CESP. JNU

Amit Basolc, Associate Professor Economics. School of Arts and Sciences. Azim Premji University. Bangalore. Karnataka

Ashok Kotwal. Editor-in-Chief. Ideas for India. Professor Emeritus of Economics. University of British Columbia

Ashutosh Varshney, Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences, Professor of Political Science. Brown University

Bezwada Wilson. Founder & National Convener. Safai Karamchari Andolan

Debraj Ray. Silver Professor. Faculty of Arts and Science. Professor of Economics. New York University

Dccapk Nayyar. Former Vice Chancellor. University of Delhi. Former Chief Economic Advisor to Government of India

Dipa Sinha. Assistant Professor. Department of Economics. Ambedkar University

EAS Sarma, Former Principal Adviser (Energy). National Planning Commission. Headed Administrative Staff College of India

Ganesh Devy. Literary Scholar & Cultural Activist

Harsh Mander. Director. Centre for Equity Studies. Founder. Karwan-e-Mohabbat

Himanshu. Associate Professor. Centre for Economic Studies and Planning. Jawaharlal Nehru University

Jayati Ghosh. Professor & Chairperson. Centre for Economic Studies and Planning. Jawaharlal Nehru University

L Ramdas. Former Chief of Naval Staff. Indian Army

Lalita Ramdas. Founder. Greenpeace India. Former Boardchair. Greenpeace International

Maitreesh Ghatak. Department of Economics. London School of Economics

  1. Paul Divakar. National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights

Nikhil Dey. Majdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan

Pranab Bardhan. Professor of Graduate School. Department of Economics. University of California. Berkeley

R Nagaraj, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai

Rajmohan Gandhi. Research Professor. Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern

Studies,University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Ramachandra Guha. Historian

Vipul Mudgal. Director Common Cause

Yogendra Yadav. President. Swaraj India



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