ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Reimagining ‘New Democracy,’ Rethinking Radical Politics

Bernard D’Mello ( is on the editorial staff of the EPW and is a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

Capitalism, especially Indian capitalism with its monstrous inequalities, has proved to be totally incompatible with democracy when the latter is understood in terms of its basic principles and aspirations—liberty, equality, and comradeship (fraternity is not the appropriate word now). But in transforming Indian society to ensure a better future for the Indian people, radical politics must preserve the kernel of the liberal–political tradition in the process of transcending that heritage. While keeping in place its historic legacy, “New Democracy” needs to be reimagined as part of a longer, truly democratic, human needs-based “political transition period” on the road to socialism.

This is a revised full-text of the First Randhir Singh Memorial Lecture the author delivered in New Delhi on 31 January 2017. He is grateful to Priyaleen Singh, Navsharan Singh and Atul Sood for their suggestions, which helped in formulating the topic of the lecture. He benefited from the discussion that followed the delivery of the lecture and has improved the text in that light. He however assumes full responsibility for the content of the lecture. He draws from the last chapter of his forthcoming book India after Naxalbari that is being published by Monthly Review Press internationally and Aakar Books in India.

With a young generation of activists getting on to the political stage, if Randhir Singh were alive and well today, doubtless he would have been there for them. Surely among us here today there are many who must be really missing him, an intellectual who spoke and wrote clearly and honestly about what he stood for. An icon of India’s intellectual radical-left, Randhir Singh believed in the possibility of a better future for humanity and was sure that it could not be achieved under capitalism, and so he committed his life to the revival and renewal of the historic legacy of the struggle for a genuine socialism that would bring it about. If he were around he would surely have reminded me to reflect an “optimism of a sterner sort. Direct your attention ‘violently towards the present as it is,’ if you wish to ‘transform it,’” he would have advised, prompting us to think like Gramsci, “sick and slowly dying in Mussolini’s prison.” So, like Randhir Singh, let us embark on a “‘journey of hope,’ a ‘shared search’ for human emancipation.”1

The Liberal in the Radical

In rethinking radical politics, I need to begin from “first principles”—common Marxist understandings—and then try to weave my arguments in a sequence of logical steps in as simple a language and with as much clarity as I am capable of. Nevertheless, since the topic at hand requires us to dream together, I will also have to be more open and flexible in my approach. Hopefully such a presentation will help you to make up your mind about the issues at stake. To begin to understand what it means to be an intellectual “radical” one needs to first grasp what it means to be a “liberal” intellectual at his or her best. The hallmark of a liberal education is one wherein teachers impart the truth without fear or favour, so that when their students graduate, they have a sense of authentic history. The present is an historical problem—one has to make use of history to understand it. The two other essentials of a liberal education are an inculcation of the scientific method and constant encouragement and instilling of a questioning and critical attitude toward the world around us.

So that’s what makes a liberal in the best of the liberal tradition, with traits that must also be a part of the radical tradition. So the radical too imparts the truth without fear or favour, has a sense of history, follows the scientific method, and has a questioning and a critical attitude toward the world at large. But while these are the differentia specifica of the truly liberal, when it comes to being radical, one not only has to have a sense of authentic history but one also understands history as class struggle, that fundamental relationship between classes involving exploitation and the inevitable resistance to it.2 Further, being radical not only obliges one to follow the scientific method, but there is a comprehension of that method as “materialist dialectics.” One learns truth from facts (constant empirical verification) and from practice,3 examined with a philosophical orientation called dialectics which emphasises functional unity of opposites and the contradictions between them, transformation of quantity into quality, negation of the negation, and mutual conditioning and mediation among and between the whole and its parts. Besides a sense of history as class struggle and the scientific method as materialist dialectics, being radical entails not only a critical attitude towards the world, but also a recognition that the point is to change it. Going by the negation of the negation then, when one moves from being a liberal to being a radical, one does not entirely obliterate the liberal tradition in the process of overcoming and transcending it; one preserves the best of that tradition (mentioned above, as also universal suffrage and democratic rights) in the process of transforming oneself from a liberal to a radical.

Marx put it very simply when he wrote in 1843 in the introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter ...” But just before that sentence he emphasised that “Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it ... becomes radical.” To me this suggests that those who aspire to be political radicals need “to grasp the root of the matter” about exploitation, domination and oppression, and convey that root of the matter to the exploited, the dominated and the oppressed, of course, after having thrown in one’s lot with them.

Audacity in the Face of Death

What then about being revolutionary? Revolution is a process of rapid fundamental transformation of a society’s socio-economic and political structures for the creation of a better world, with the basic changes in the socio-economic reinforcing those in the political, and vice versa. By its very nature, a revolution produces paroxysms of fear in the rich, and naturally, it is deemed to be an illegitimate, extralegal action overthrowing what is claimed by them to be a “legitimately” constituted political regime, and then, again, “extra-legally,” rapidly transforming the society’s socioeconomic and political structures. This is only to be expected, especially when the producing classes, the workers and the poor peasants, take power from the appropriating classes and their political representatives, and set up their own state, even as capitalism has not as yet been eliminated in the economy. Revolution thus inevitably provokes counter-revolution seeking to turn the clock back and restore the status quo.

In his farewell letter to Fidel Castro, Che Guevara wrote: “one either lives or dies in a revolution (if it is a real one).”4 Che was certain that the revolutionary struggle was worth his life. Revolution was a political and an ethical project for which he fought and died; he was assassinated by the Bolivian army in connivance with the American Central Intelligence Agency on 8 October 1967, fifty years ago. Che often quoted the Cuban revolutionary poet José Marti on what, he thought, encapsulated “the true colours of human dignity”: “’All true human beings must feel a sting when another human being is slapped in the face.’”5 So when in July last year, in the vicinity of Una town in the Gir Somnath district of Gujarat, four young Dalit men skinning a dead cow for their livelihood were stripped, beaten with chains, and deeply humiliated by Hindutvavadi gau-rakshaks (cow protectors), “all true human beings” must have felt thoroughly tormented, an expression that sows the seeds of the struggle of human consciousness against alienation.

Alienation under capitalism divides the working class and even induces loss of a sense of workers’ potential as a collective of human beings. Moreover, the “graded inequality” of India’s caste system has had the effect of sealing off the various jatis from one another, in the sense that each jati does not feel sorry for, indeed, seems almost callous about, what happens to another jati (that is also sealed off from the rest). So the struggle to achieve the kind of dignity that José Marti and Che Guevara had in mind, the endeavour to break the shackles of alienation and bond with other members of the working class in a spirit of liberty, equality and comradeship is a very hard and protracted one in a country like India. But working relentlessly to achieve that kind of dignity in Indian society is part of what it means to be revolutionary, have a revolutionary world view.

A revolutionary upheaval comes about when the dominant classes are deeply divided over major issues, and widespread discontent leads to a militant mass movement of the exploited, the dominated and the oppressed, bringing on a crisis in the affairs of the ruling order. This is, of course, straight out of Lenin, one of the principal leaders of the October Revolution whose centenary is being marked this year. Radicals/revolutionaries, of course, work to bring about such a revolutionary disruption. Be that as it may, they also organise militant mass movements to force the ruling classes to meet the needs and demands of the exploited and oppressed for immediate improvements. Radicals/revolutionaries have to reconcile reform with revolution, but, in doing so, guard against the 20th century trend of communist parties starting out with revolutionary goals but ending up as reformist organisations. The winning of reforms shouldn’t sap the revolutionary will and potential of the militant mass movement. Keeping in mind the protracted nature of the struggle, a communist party’s political programme has to reconcile immediate reform with ultimate revolution, and thereby keep the party and the movement together. The ruling classes and their political representatives will, of course, combine concessions—they will also try to co-opt and wean away the leaders of the militant mass movement—with severe repression.

The 50th anniversary of Naxalbari is a time to remember the main message of the Naxalite/Maoist movement—it has been a constant reminder over the last 50 years that India’s deeply oppressive and exploitative social order is crying out for revolutionary change. We need to however be constantly aware of one of the insights of Moshe Lewin who passionately researched Soviet history—that despite revolutions, societies do carry with them many negative aspects of their past, often deep in their marrows.6

Not Workers’ Power

One common shortcoming of all the post-revolutionary societies of the 20th century was the lack of democracy—the majority of the people, especially workers and poor peasants, were excluded from political power. Government was not in accordance with their will.7 From an international perspective, democratic rights, some of which were hard-won victories of the labour movement right from the Chartists8 onward, were curtailed—freedom of expression and organisation, right to peaceful assembly, universal suffrage, political pluralism, representation in a legislature/parliament which is independent of the executive and can oblige accountability on the latter, independence of the judiciary, etc. Some of these rights were what working people, in the process of struggle, had achieved for themselves. These democratic rights were people’s rights because they had been won in a process of struggle by the people.

Their curtailment was tragic, especially if we recall Marx and Engels’ political–intellectual role in the struggle for democracy in Europe, and the centrality of the worker–peasant alliance in the way they thought of that fight. Indeed, the Communist Manifesto had proclaimed the winning of universal suffrage as one of the first and most important tasks of the workers’ movement. As far as Marx and Engels were concerned, whether it was in the Communist League, the 1848 upsurge, the First International or the Paris Commune, the democratic breakthrough, within or beyond capitalism, was one of their main concerns. The winning of suffrage and civil liberties had a lot to do with the self-organisation of the working class in the latter half of the 19th century.

But tragically, both in the former Soviet Union and in the People’s Republic of China, a nomenklatura acquired a monopoly of power and even identified Marxism and socialism with the new social formation it created. What emerged was direct rule by a new ruling class which derived its power and privileges from unmediated control of the one-party state and its apparatuses of coercion, and of the economy and its surpluses, the utilisation of which became the central focus of its politics.9

The workers, although they had guaranteed employment, housing, education and healthcare, and even though they were the real producers of the society’s wealth, they had no meaningful control over what was produced, how it was produced, and to what uses the product of their ingenuity and labour was put. Thus, while the threat of unemployment no longer hung like the sword of Damocles over their heads, their jobs nevertheless remained boring, debilitating and degrading. Naturally, they did not take much interest in them and performed as little work as they could get away with.

Gone was Marx’s dream of workers inculcating a radically different attitude to work that would make discipline superfluous, where humanising the labour process becomes a collective responsibility, and the workers are closely involved in decision-making in the economy, the community, and in the political realm. In short, most of the post-revolutionary societies had reached a dead end before their great leap backward to capitalism. Early on, Mao seemed to have understood the process of post-revolutionary class formation, this even as it was unfolding before his very eyes, and he fought against it to the best of his ability in terms of what he thought needed to be done, but tragically, he was unsuccessful in this, the last big class struggle of his life.

New Democratic Revolution in China

In China, there were two revolutionary stages, the “New Democratic”10 and the “socialist,” the former with two main goals, the domestic one, the break-up of the semi-feudal system, especially agrarian landlordism, and the international one, the liberation of the country from imperialist intervention and control. The first stage was accomplished in 1949, both militarily and politically, the latter entailing winning the hearts and minds of an extraordinarily large majority of the Chinese people. Tragically however, the other bastion of semi-feudalism, the centralised bureaucratic state, though its specific administration under Chiang Kaishek was broken up, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders “quickly reconstructed a traditional hierarchical (state) apparatus of their own,” where state office holders “found that loyalty and conformity, not skill and zeal, opened the road to promotion.”11 As socialists, one should have a strong antipathy towards such a state bureaucracy, with its hierarchical structure, its rigid principles, its secrecy, its passive obedience, its adulation, nay worship, of authority, and its careerism. Shouldn’t we relook at the conception of New Democratic Revolution (NDR) in the light of all this? Isn’t New Democracy meant to broaden the horizon of democracy?

After the CCP’s huge defeat in 192712 it re-formed in the countryside, and conceived of a new revolutionary path under the leadership of Mao Zedong. In this conception, the national bourgeoisie was relegated to a followership role, with leadership of the revolutionary movement placed firmly in the hands of the party of the workers and the poor peasants, which would seize power and institute New Democracy followed by socialism.

In desperate brevity, the seizure of political power in China involved the CCP’s reliance mainly on the poor peasants in the creation of a people’s guerrilla army on a political base; the building of base areas in which a miniature New Democratic state was sought to be established; use of the countryside in the transition from guerrilla warfare to mobile warfare; and then the encircling and winning over of the cities, all of these while adhering to a policy of self-reliance. Frankly, I do not know much about the claimed leadership by the working class or about the worker–peasant alliance, but “socialism” was sought to be built not much later after the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949.

At the heart of the New Democratic revolutionary strategy was the peasant question, for it was the countryside that provided the space for the revolutionaries and their people’s army to manoeuvre relatively freely and to build their base areas. If there was anything to learn from the Russian Revolution, this seemed to come only in the final stage of the protracted people’s war, in the winning over of the cities.

What then of NDR? In theory, a four-class alliance of the working class, the peasantry, the middle class, and the national (anti-imperialist?) bourgeoisie, but led by the working class (or a worker–peasant alliance), and after doing away with semi-feudalism and freeing the country from the influence of imperialism, paving the way for socialism.

New Democracy and the Working Class

An NDR led by the workers, did we say? But where is India’s working class in the in-process Maoist-led NDR today? Clearly, the revolutionary left has to organise the workers en masse, and not merely around wages and factory conditions, and workplace struggles, but also get the workers involved in political agitation around the wholesale violations of democratic rights—police brutalities, the flogging of landless labourers by the henchmen of the kulaks/kulaks-cum-capitalist farmers, the persecution of Muslims, the torture of Maoists and oppressed nationality militants, the most outrageous forms of censorship, for instance, censorship by hooliganism, and so on.

The working class must be politically ingrained to protest against all forms of abuse, oppression, tyranny and violence no matter which section of the people is affected, this from a communist point of view. The civil liberties and democratic rights campaigns of organisations like the People’s Union for Democratic Rights should be an integral part of the politicisation of the working class. After all, shouldn’t the leaders of the revolutionary movement emerge from the working class, and the NDR led by working-class persons, as it should be? There is also a lot to learn and apply, after adaptation and correction, from the Russian Revolution with its mass working-class uprisings in 1917 in the cities followed by the linking and spread of these rebellions with and to their counterparts in the countryside.13 Basically, the party must be deeply rooted in the working class and dedicated to its emancipation.

What has been conceived from the Chinese and Russian revolutionary experience is revolution by stages as well as uninterrupted revolution, in the cities and in the countryside, there being no barrier between the two revolutionary stages, the New Democratic and the socialist. The more thorough the NDR, the more conducive will be the situation in the transition to socialism. For apart from what is required militarily, politically the leadership needs to win over 90% of the population, and relentlessly prevent any vacillation and backsliding.

Dared, with Their Backs to the Wall

In the Indian case, the Indian state—now proudly, Washington’s “Major Defence Partner”—has been doing everything to prevent the revolutionaries from bringing about a revolutionary upheaval, and the main parliamentary left party has backed that state in its counter-revolutionary manoeuvres. The Indian state has neither any regard for international or national law, in the former, as regards the Geneva Conventions related to non-international armed conflict, nor any moral scruples in the conduct of its counter-insurgency. Its counter-insurgency strategy has endeavoured to snap the close relations of the Maoists in their strongholds with the wretched of the Indian earth, and has been aggressively working to crush the Maoist movement by any and all available means. The Maoist movement is, in turn, bent upon overthrowing the Indian state, this through a combination of protracted guerrilla warfare, mass mobilisation, and strategic alliances with the oppressed nationality movements.

It must be realised that right from the time of independence in 1947, India has had the resources and could have developed the capabilities necessary to make her a country with a high level of human development, but yet the majority of her people have remained desperately poor. Tragically, India is still among the most poverty-stricken countries of the world with most of her people inadequately fed, and that too, on unhealthy diets, with many of them both undernourished and malnourished, miserably clothed, wretchedly housed, among the worst educated and in a most horrible condition when they are disease-ridden or dying. As Randhir Singh would surely have said, over the last 70 years, the majority of the Indian population have been the victims of Indian capitalism’s irrationality, brutality, and inhumanity. No wonder the one persistent message of the Maoists/Naxalites over the last 50 years is that India’s deeply oppressive and exploitative social order is crying out for revolutionary change. Backed by the privileged, the Indian state has, of course, been liquidating the messengers, but “with their backs to the wall,” the latter “have dared.”

What then of radical politics and New Democracy? One thing seems clear. No section of the Indian bourgeoisie, even the so-called national (anti-imperialist?) bourgeoisie, is going to support the creation of a New Democratic state. If anything, the bourgeoisie has been calling upon the Indian state to keep the “deadly virus” at bay.14 It is only a section of students and intellectuals who can be expected to throw in their lot with India’s workers and poor peasants. Given India’s underdeveloped capitalist state and society—not semi-feudal, semi-colonial—what is required is a New Democratic programme that is mainly, indeed, almost wholly, socialist.

The Indian bourgeoisie, even its nationalist segment, is historically the product of the degenerative process of colonialism, and can thus only perpetuate the process of development of underdeveloped capitalism. Including it in the New Democratic alliance will only reinforce the underdeveloped capitalist-class rule of the past, and may even, willy-nilly, feed the forces of Hindutvavadi and other dominant nationalisms. One of the most difficult tasks of the NDR will be the one of rendering the controllers of Indian big business, the state apparatus, and the subsidiaries of the multinational corporations (MNCs) politically impotent by expropriating their wealth. The small and medium enterprises will have to be converted to cooperatives managed by incumbent productive workers after their owners are bought off with interest-bearing bonds. Just like “kulakism”15 as a social institution will be wiped out, and kulaks and kulaks-cum-capitalist farmers, as individuals, will be transformed into working middle-class persons, so also, the controllers of Indian big business, the state apparatus, and the subsidiaries of the MNCs will have to be transformed into working middle-class persons. No doubt this is meant to make India’s class society compatible with democracy in order to aid the transition to socialism.

In the ‘Political Transition Period’

Marx had conceived of a “political transition period” after the working class had established its political rule and when new political and socio-economic structures and institutions would be in the process of being put in place, and the system would be in transition from capitalism to socialism. He had also explicitly suggested that the regime in power during this transition period would be a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” that is, political rule by the working class, those who had been making a living through the sale of their ability to work. But since revolution in an underdeveloped capitalist country is conceived of as an uninterrupted revolution in two stages, Marx’s transition period will have to include both the time of New Democratic rule by the three-class alliance, and, as inequalities between the three classes narrow considerably, a subsequent period of transition from New Democracy to socialism.

In the time that remains, I will deal with three aspects of what I think must be an essential part of any 21st century conception of New Democracy in India—one, about how to grapple with the “peasant question” in all its multiple dimensions; two, about human needs-based transformation of important socio-economic institutions and structures; and three, about the institutions of democracy in the New Democratic polity.16 All these will no doubt call for profound changes in the prevailing political culture,17 for, in New Democracy, democracy and revolution are supposed to be indivisible. As Randhir Singh spoke of Indian politics, the country’s present “political class” acts as a broker for various interests within the prevailing order, and has turned politics into a lucrative business. Surely, such a degenerate political culture must have no place in the New Democratic order in which principle and practice must coincide. Questions of distribution will not be considered as if they were independent of questions of production. Emphasis will be placed on class struggle in the fight for equality—political, legal, and socio-economic.

The Peasant Question

Let us then get to the peasant question. When I refer to “peasants,” strictly speaking, I am including all cultivators who have a claim, however tenuous, to a plot of land, and I also include rural landless wage labourers. What then is the peasant question? One of the clearest articulations of that question I can think of is what one of my teachers, Nirmal Chandra, provides, and I quote: “How can the mass of peasantry be drawn into a revolutionary movement spearheaded by the socialists, representing above all the proletariat?” And he goes on: “The difficulty, at bottom, stems from the fact ... that the peasant possesses ‘two souls,’ one of the proprietor, and the other of a worker.”18

At the heart of the peasant question is political strategy and tactics concerning the transition from capitalism to socialism, and in this, the most difficult problem is how to reconcile the needs of the oppressed for immediate improvements with the necessity of overthrowing the whole system in order to do away with exploitation, oppression and domination. Reconciling reform with revolution is not an easy task, but in any articulation of the peasant question, this is necessary. In India, since colonial times, millions of people have been dispossessed, uprooted and displaced.

The means whereby the peasants lived have been taken away in the name of “development.” In rural areas, many poor peasants who are still in possession of a small plot of land have lost their non-market access to the means of subsistence from what used to be the commons (shared pastures, fields, forests, fisheries, and irrigation systems). And, now with the coming of the agro-food corporations and their agents in the business of “contract farming,” the peasants cannot even decide what to produce, how to produce (some of these techniques require environmentally destructive inputs) and for whom to produce. And, when they are dispossessed of their land by the projects of the “financial aristocracy,”19 they are forced to join the ranks of the millions of “footloose labourers.”

In the past, the classic peasant question focused on class differentiation of the peasantry in the process of capitalist development, the dénouement of which was supposed to be its differentiation ultimately into capitalists and proletarians. In between, the class categories were rich peasant, middle peasant, poor peasant and landless labourer (what Mao conceived of for the Chinese peasantry around 1930) or big capitalist peasants, middle peasants, small peasants, semi-proletarians/tiny peasants, and the agricultural proletariat (Lenin for Russia around 1920), or some combination of the two for India today. And, of course, one also has to take into account what the well-known Soviet agrarian economist and rural sociologist Alexander V Chayanov stressed, namely, “demographic differentiation” which has also been propelling the peasant economy, and which in India has manifested itself in the labour-intensity of cultivation.

From Household Plots to ‘Advanced Cooperatives’

In the land reform that is at the heart of New Democracy, following the allotment of individual household plots of land to the tillers, the peasants will have to be urged to form mutual aid teams where a small number of households will pool resources other than land—tools, implements, draft power, occasional labour—but still cultivate the land on an individual basis. But given the adverse land–person ratio, this will necessarily be followed—and the peasants will have to be convinced of the advantages—by the formation of elementary cooperatives, in which land as well as other resources will have to be pooled, albeit, with individual ownership rights maintained. Incomes will then be based partly on property ownership and partly on labour time committed to cooperative production in ratios set to garner majority local support.

Of course, “dividends” will have to be paid on the assets, including land, made available, and one will have to anticipate the complaint of the middle and rich peasants that this was not as much as they would otherwise have got, that is, if they had cultivated individually by hiring in labour. Indeed, when crop yields begin to increase because of more intensive use of labour in the cooperative mode, the conflict regarding how to divide the income as between the labour contributed and the assets pooled will become sharper. The resolution will possibly have to take the form of moving from something like a labour to capital share of 40:60 to 60:40, for, over time, it will be living labour that will be contributing more to the addition to assets.

A time would then come when the new assets created by labour overwhelm the original assets pooled at the time of the formation of the cooperative, when it then becomes appropriate to abolish the capital share of the net output, that is, move to “advanced cooperatives.” The latter would entail a definite socialist advance, involving all peasant households being incorporated in such producer cooperatives, with common ownership of all productive resources. As the American farmer and author of Fanshen (which documented the Chinese land reform programme of the 1940s), William Hinton puts it:20

When the new capital created by living labour surpasses and finally overwhelms the old capital with which the group started out, then rewarding old shareholders with disproportionate payments amounts to exploitation, a transfer of wealth from those who create it by hard labour to those who own the original shares and may, currently, not labour at all.

Peasant Question’ as a Series of Questions

While the New Democratic land reform will thus take the peasants toward the socialist path in its resolution of the peasant question, one has to also remember the peasants who were forcibly thrown off the land, and their descendents, and in turn, the descendents of the descendents, and so on, right from the colonial period. Taking account of the land grabs right through the colonial and post-1947 periods, to the classic schema of dispossession through class and demographic differentiation of the peasantry I must add dispossession through displacement and environmental degradation, this to take account of the impact of the processes of capitalist development on the dispossession of the peasantry. This leads me to pose the peasant question multidimensionally as a series of questions that New Democracy will have to resolve.21

One is the question of landlessness, or near landlessness, especially of Dalits and Adivasis. The colonial period itself produced a large segment of displaced persons when forest, river and mineral resources were exploited, as also due to the processes of de-(proto)industrialisation and forced commercialisation of agriculture. The Adivasis, in particular, were forced to make an “illegal” living in the hostile environment created by the revenue, forest and police departments. Already at the time of independence, there was a large contingent of displaced persons and these people were further marginalised by the development projects that followed. Lower class and poor Adivasi people among the displaced are looked down upon as a law and order problem, and even when there is a resettlement and rehabilitation policy (usually considered as a necessary evil whose cost has to be minimised) for them and it is implemented, they have to wait for a long time before they get reintegrated into the wider society/economy.

Two is the Adivasi/indigenous people’s question that will have to address the tribal peasantry’s precarious existence in the forests. The forest acts since 1865 failed to record the rights of Adivasis and other forest dwelling communities, rendering them, in effect, illegal occupants and illegal users of the forests. Their denial of the resources of the forests has only deepened their vulnerability, in many an instance, reducing them to migrant workers. Nevertheless, any attempts by the state to seize the forests have invariably been met with fierce resistance, a whole series of Adivasi uprisings, and now, Maoist-led resistance, bearing witness to this. Even today, the prohibition of alienation of Adivasi lands in Scheduled Areas to non-Adivasis, as also the Forest Rights Act, 2006, and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, are observed more in the breach. The Indian officials, foresters and policemen who replaced their British counterparts in the post-1947 period have continued to treat the Adivasis as a colonial people.

Three is the housing/homeless people’s question in the context of the launching of urban and infrastructural projects that displace the urban poor, more than once in the same city when “more valuable real estate” appears.

Four is the informal workers’ question in the context of the casualisation of work, subcontracting, modern putting-out arrangements, etc.

Five is the migrant question and the question of their ‘alien’ cultural and political context, these concerning both internal migrants and migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal, in particular.

Six is the question of mass hunger amidst an abundance of food in the context of the increasing commodification of food with freer trade (that renders peasants vulnerable to international price fluctuations), the diversion of land from foodgrain cultivation to cash crops and exportable agricultural commodities, the diversion of grain to the production of biofuel in the developed capitalist countries, and direct cash payments to the “targeted” poor, this in the midst of a tendency of declining food consumption per person. The question of mass hunger is crucial if one goes by the significantly higher poverty estimates based on National Sample Survey figures of calorific intake per person per day obtained directly rather than based on estimates obtained by adjusting (for inflation) the set of 1973–74 nominal expenditure figures adequate to obtain the 2,400 calories per capita per day in rural India and 2,100 calories per capita per day in urban areas.22

Seven is the ecological/environmental question in the context of deforestation, large dam projects, mining, manufacturing, and electricity generation and transmission projects, tourist resorts, wildlife sanctuaries, etc. In articulating this question, one cannot remain silent on the question of the underlying capitalist system, which is really at the heart of the problem. As Marx understood it, nature requires long cycles of evolution, development, and regeneration, whereas capitalism is governed by the imperative of short-term profits. Also in India, caste discrimination and the colonial–racial oppression of the Adivasis are intimately implicated in ecological devastation. Adivasi community lands have been subject to severe ecological damage as a result of rampant deforestation, and as a consequence, their agriculture has deteriorated so badly that they are unable to meet even their food needs from the land, forcing them to migrate out in search of wage work, and thereby exposing them to exploitation of the worst kind and an extremely hard life for tribal women in particular.23

Sovielving the Seven ‘Peasant Questions’

Overall, what needs to be stressed in any characterisation of underdeveloped capitalism in India is the large number and proportion of petty commodity producers in the workforce, of which peasants are a significant part. They are subjected to appropriation by mercantile, credit and primary landowning capital of the profit, interest, and rent respectively (the latter, mainly in the case of tenancy in agriculture) in the value added of their economic activity, and are left to extract ts for Resotheir own “wages” which, invariably, may not even be the imputed official minimum wages. This is what puts them in “the latent” part of the reserve army of labour, which makes for a huge overall reserve army of labour (the sum of the “floating,” the “latent,” and the “stagnant” parts thereof), whose size is more than the size of the active army of persons who make a livelihood by the sale of their capacity to work.

The point is that with such a significant “pivot” upon which the law of supply of and demand for labour works, as Marx put it, the tendency of real wages to increase is severely restrained. There are a relatively small number of owner-controllers of the oligopolies, beneficiaries of the skewed distribution of the economic surplus, at the apex of the steep social-class hierarchy, at the bottom of which are a large number of casual labourers and the huge reserve army of labour.

The way the classic peasant question has been transformed multidimensionally into the series of questions must be seen in that light, which suggests that the institutionalisation of New Democracy is going to be exceedingly difficult and challenging. Among other things, this will require the putting in place of local institutions of direct democracy in the form of soviets (councils that the workers, peasants and other petty commodity producers must elect in the course of the NDR) to grapple with these questions at the local levels.

What Are We Fighting For?

On the whole, however, since none of the revolutions of the 20th century provided a working model of socialism, public opinion is not going to be favourable—socialism has been tried and has failed will be the usual liberal lament. The communitarian basis for socialism—a socialism from below—has however yet to be systematically tried, and herein lies the basis of our hope in its possibility. Implicit in this particular approach to socialism is a view of democracy and democratisation as a process. The basic principles of democracy are liberty, equality and fraternity—comradeship, implying solidarity, mutual respect, trust and support, would be a better word for fraternity today. Liberty, equality and comradeship are also democracy’s aspirations. Democracy cannot come into being if these aspirations are not at least partially fulfilled, and it is in the militant mass movement in the midst of a revolutionary upheaval that such aspirations gain true recognition.

Essentially the transition is to a society where the human needs of the majority take priority over those of the controllers of Indian big business, the state apparatus, and the subsidiaries of the MNCs, the professional elite at their command, and the kulaks/kulaks-cum-capitalist farmers. These human needs that have to be met for everyone are adequate food, clothing and shelter; clean air and water; a safe environment; free, easily accessible medical care of the best standards available; household possessions, including a home; education that guarantees decent employment; recreation and leisure; friendships, love and affection which gives one a sense of belonging; and genuine democracy that comes only with liberty, equality and comradeship, which alone can guarantee the “true colours of human dignity” and esteem. Fulfilment of higher human needs such as work which is personally fulfilling and socially meaningful and the freedom to choose from within that repertoire of work what one really wants to do and to do it, including the opportunity for creative expression, must also be on society’s priority list, so that one can ultimately, fully realise one’s individuality and potential. Of course, meeting all the above-mentioned needs of everyone would require a complete reorganisation of all existing socio-economic institutions and structures, and free access to works of “art” and the best technologies to aid the process.24

The main source of the power of the persons calling the shots in the existing socio-economic institutions and structures is ownership/control, which permits them to take the decisions that serve their own interests. This is the case in the factories, the utilities, the banks and other financial entities, the hospitals, educational institutions, transportation and distribution networks, whether private or nominally under public ownership and control. In cases of nominal public ownership and control, the decisions are made by those in the leading positions in the party that happens to be in power and those in such positions in the government bureaucracy. In the political transition period, in order to satisfy the human needs of all, the ownership/control of all these socio-economic institutions and structures must first be taken collectively by the people and then they must be completely reorganised along democratic lines to ensure real public ownership and control. Frankly, the existing nominal public ownership and control of “departmental and non-departmental public enterprises” is farcical.

Labour power must never be allowed to be treated as a commodity nor must any of its un-free forms be tolerated. As the controllers of Indian big business, the state apparatus, and the subsidiaries of the MNCs, and the professional elite that serve them, are transformed into working middle-class persons, so also will wage labourers be transformed into working “middle-class” persons. Wage labour cannot continue to exist. Allocation of labour and distribution of the consumer product must be along the lines suggested by Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme for the “lower phase” of socialism. For this, mediating labour certificates will ascertain the share allocated to each working person according to her/his labour time. Of course, with human needs-based reorganisation across the board and real public ownership and control, new challenges are bound to come to the fore.

Certainly one of the biggest challenges will be that of democratic planning to ensure that one, the productive resources get distributed among the various lines of production; two, there is a constant, steady flow of materials through the productive process; and three, consumer goods and services emerge in quantities and qualities sufficient and in line with the human needs of everyone. Of course, each production unit will be managed by the people who work in them, and will thus have complete autonomy, but its output will have to be consistent with the objectives of the national plan. Our hopes must be placed in a younger generation socialised and educated in concerned, caring communities and the radically reorganised schools and universities. They will work together to achieve these and other difficult but worthwhile goals. All this is predicated upon the inculcation of a socialist–humanist culture, which can only come about if the process of such infusion begins in the very process of building the movement for New Democracy today. It is from the latter that the political institutions of New Democracy will take shape.

Political Pluralism and the ‘Mass Line’

Drawing from the practice of democracy in the brief heyday of the Soviets in Russia,25 the theory and practice of the “mass line” (“from the masses, to the masses”)26 in China, and best-practice representative democracy, I would suggest a combination of different forms of political representation, accompanied, of course, by mass participation. The New Democratic constitution must allow for multiparty political pluralism wherein each party accepts New Democracy as essentially making the transition from capitalism to socialism more compatible with democracy and thereby aiding the transition to socialism.

At all local levels, in workplaces and places of residence, multiparty democratically elected soviets (that is, councils) would be expected to take the lead in helping to make these places qualitatively better on the basis of the principles of equality, cooperation, community and solidarity. Of course, one has to keep in mind that a New Democratic society is one that will have just emerged out of India’s underdeveloped capitalism with all the latter’s limitations and problems. This society, if I were to paraphrase Marx from his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme, would “economically, morally and intellectually, still (be) stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Nevertheless, what I have in mind are the various political parties struggling for influence within these soviets (councils), with each party trying to win the right to represent the people.

Two modes of representation can simultaneously be put in place. One is representative democracy (multiparty elections through universal adult franchise) where people vote and elect their representatives, and with the right to recall them, and two is the “mass line” mode of representing the people, instituted in each vanguard party to ensure accountability and responsiveness to the people. Such political practice will, I think, prevent party leadership from degenerating into party domination, and also create a positive attitude towards ideas that are deemed to be non-Marxist. The state and the political parties have to be subordinate to the people.

Indeed, both government and religious bodies must be excluded from control over education, which must be democratically controlled by the people. Education must not be disseminated from above, for going by Marx’s third thesis on Feuerbach, who will then educate the educators? While “freedom of conscience” must be safeguarded, simultaneously—and here I am paraphrasing Marx’s words—conscience needs to be liberated from the spectre of religion. The aspirations of democracy—liberty, equality, and comradeship—can never even be partially fulfilled without the secularisation of Indian society. Indeed, the polarisation of Indian society through the spread of the ideology of Hindutva is making matters worse, and the emerging semi-fascism27 needs to be defeated first, this by organised resistance after putting in place “United” and “Popular” fronts.

A ‘Heroic Creation’

In concluding, I need to summarise what I have been advocating. In transforming Indian society to ensure a better future for the Indian people, radical politics must preserve the kernel of the liberal–political tradition in the process of transcending that convention. While retaining the historic legacy of New Democracy, one needs to reimagine it as part of a truly democratic, human needs-based “political transition period” in the long march to socialism.

From what I have said about New Democracy as I have reimagined it, its driving force will naturally be those who have gained the requisite radical consciousness. Of course, New Democracy in India must not be a copy or an imitation. It must, in the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui’s words, be a “heroic creation” in a long march “guided and fired by the vision of a radically different society,” as Randhir Singh might have added.


1 Some of Randhir Singh’s ideas find a special place in what follows. I would direct the reader to Marxism, Socialism, and Indian Politics: A View from the Left and Selected Writings of Randhir Singh, both published by Aakar Books, in 2008 and 2017, respectively.

2 Of course, one needs to be aware of the nuances and not get carried away by playing down national and religious struggles. It would be utterly idiotic if one refused to admit of anything other than class struggles in, for instance, the crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries or the mercantilist sea battles of the 17th and 18th centuries.


3 Learning truth from practice implies learning it “from history, from economics and politics, from culture in the broadest sense—in a word, from the real world of social relations and class struggle, as distinct from the imaginary worlds of revelation and pure thought,” Paul M Sweezy, “What Is Marxism?” Monthly Review, Vol 36, No 10, March 1985, pp 1–2.


4 Bill Doyle and Dorothy Doyle, “A Revolutionary Life”, Monthly Review, Vol 49, No 5, October 1997, p 27.


5 Michael Lowy, “Che’s Revolutionary Humanism,” Monthly Review, Vol 49, No 5, October 1997, p 3.


6 Moshe Lewin, The Soviet Century, London: Verso, 2005.


7 Michael Lowy, “Twelve Theses on the Crisis of ‘Really Existing Socialism’,” Monthly Review, Vol 43, No 1, May 1991, pp 33–40.


8 Winning suffrage was central to the Chartists’ hopes. Dorothy Thompson’s The Chartists comes to mind, which ought to be read as a companion volume to Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.


9 Paul M Sweezy, “Post-Revolutionary Society,” Monthly Review, Vol 32, No 6, November 1980, pp 1–13. This paragraph and the following two draw on Sweezy’s essay.


10 Mao first began to use the term “New Democracy” in 1939, and his classic text, On New Democracy, is dated January 1940. See Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Vol II, Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1967, pp 339–84.


11 William Hinton, “The Chinese Revolution: Was It Necessary? Was It Successful? Is It Still Going On?,” Monthly Review, Vol 43, No 6, November 1991, p 6.


12 Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang, supposedly representing the national bourgeoisie, proved in practice to be agents and allies of particular imperialisms.


13 According to the 2011 Census of India, there are 45 urban persons for every 100 rural persons.


14 As in colonial times, disease metaphors abound in the “discourse on counter-insurgency.”


15 In the Indian setting, the Russian word designating a powerful agrarian social stratum stands for a hybrid of rich peasant, merchant and usurer, who, in the more developed agricultural regions is a kulak-cum-capitalist farmer.


16 I am not trying to come up with “recipes for the cook shops of the future”, if ever there is a New Democratic society in India, but only imagining, in general terms, some aspects of New Democracy.


17 In China, in the 1940s, Mao felt that the attack on Confucian values launched at the time of the so-called May Fourth movement (a “new culture” movement that began around 1916 and went on into the 1920s) was to be continued, this in order to usher in a New (Democratic) Culture. In a letter of 1944, Mao wrote: “There are those who say we neglect or repress individuality [ko-hsing]; this is wrong. If the individuality which has been fettered is not liberated, there will be no democracy, and no socialism.” He was thus calling for profound changes in the political culture then prevailing. See Stuart Schram, The Thought of Mao Tse-Tung, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp 78–94 (the Mao quote on p 94).


18 Nirmal Kumar Chandra, “The Peasant Question from Marx to Lenin”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 37, No 20, 18 May 2002, p 1927.


19 A faction of Indian big business that has got rich not by production but by pocketing the already available wealth of others, the financial aristocracy is composed of wealthy financiers, stock and real-estate dealers, and the principal beneficiaries of the transfer of ownership/control of lands and other public resources, including spectrum, from public to private hands.


20 We are liberally drawing from the experience of the Chinese land reform as recounted in William Hinton, “Mao, Rural Development, and Two-Line Struggle,” Monthly Review, Vol 45, No 9, February 1994, pp 1–15 (the quote is from pp 6–7).


21 Farshad Araghi, “The Great Global Enclosure of Our Times: Peasants and the Agrarian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century,” in Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster and Frederick H Buttel (eds.): Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food and the Environment, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2000.


22 Utsa Patnaik, “The Republic of Hunger” (Social Scientist, Vol 32, Nos 9/10, pp 9–35) and “Poverty Trends in India, 2004–05 to 2009–10” (Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 48, No 40, 5 October 2013, pp 43–58).


23 See, for instance, Jan Breman, “Agrarian Change and Class Conflict in Gujarat, India”, Population and Development Review, Vol 15, Supplement: Rural Development and Population: Institutions and Policy, 1989, pp 301–23.


24 I take the benefit of a thoughtful and inspiring essay by John and Barbara Ehrenreich, “From Resistance to Revolution,” Monthly Review, Vol 19, No 11, April 1968, pp 1–11.


25 The Soviets as independent self-governing organs began as councils that the workers and soldiers had elected in the course of the February Revolution in 1917 but tragically, they did not last beyond the summer of 1918.


26 For Mao’s classic exposition of the “mass line”, see Mao Zedong, “Some Questions Concerning Methods of Leadership” (1943), Selected Works, Volume III, Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1967, p 119.


27 Bernard D’Mello, “Where Is the Magazine? Indian Semi-Fascism and the Left,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 49, No 41, 11 October 2014, pp 36–50. In this article, I first explain Indian “semi-fascism” in the light of the “classical” fascist regimes of Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, and then advocate 21st century “United” and “Popular” fronts to resist Indian semi-fascism.


Updated On : 16th Mar, 2017


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top