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Future Nostalgia and the Unicorn of Left Unity

Benjamin Zachariah ( is a historian at the University of Trier, Germany.

Exploring Marxist Bengal c 1971–2011: Memory, History and Irony by Debraj Bhattacharya, Kolkata: K P Bagchi & Company, 2016, pp xii + 285, 995.

No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism by Vijay Prashad; New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015, pp 378, 395.

Once upon a time, there was a Left Front government in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. It was in power from 1977 to 2011, witnessing and surviving the slow decline of the Soviet Bloc and the transformation of the People’s Republic of China into a capitalist state with authoritarian characteristics. The survival of the Left Front, its continued relevance in Indian politics, its resilience in West Bengal and in the smaller state of Tripura, even as it oscillated from ruling coalition to opposition in its other “stronghold,” Kerala was the lifeblood of political discussion on the left for a long time, especially after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, and the alleged discrediting of communist or quasi-communist parties the world over.

In the 1990s, even as many academics of leftist persuasion leapfrogged their own shadowy former selves to recant their socialist views, the Left Front governments in India became something of a comfort to those who chose to remain on the “left” of the political order. Together with that experiment in socialism in one postal district that was Cuba, these survivals served as comfort to those who needed “really existing socialism” to continue to really exist somewhere or the other, so that their continued leftist imaginations could attach themselves to some institutional or state structure that would legitimate their continued optimism. The socialist cause, thus, lived on, both in its Indian regional variations and in its island paradise at the other end of the world.

It might be useful to note here that the socialist cause, differently viewed, could have well been represented by other existing movements. In India, a wide variety of “Naxalite” or “Maoist” groups existed, and large swathes of the Republic of India were “liberated zones,” where the writ of the official government of the federal states or the centre was unenforceable. Nor, at the time, did the state seem terribly interested in enforcing that writ, preferring to fund right-wing and caste-based vigilante groups to fight a proxy war with the “Maoists.” (This last tactic has been carried forward into later stages of confrontation.)

However, the often paternalist international optimism around the alleged survival of socialism in India seemed to deliberately orphan these movements without parliamentary–democratic aspirations or participation. Championed instead was the cause of groups such as the left fronts in India, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), the largest and best-organised of the parties, and ironically, the section of the communist “movement” that took its inspiration from Maoist China.

Looked at more closely, of course, there were already a number of dissenters to this picture. Electoral support did not equate to a socialist imaginary among the electorate, and a lesser-evil logic dominated the voters’ loyalty to the CPI(M) and its smaller allies. But, that did not disturb the picture for the loyalist–optimists within and without India who rallied around the name of a communist party that those who had seen it from up close had long ceased to see as one.

“Wer hat uns verraten? Sozialdemokraten!” (Who has betrayed us? Social democrats!) is an apt slogan to be borrowed from Germany in this context. Only, the gently social-democratic, mostly upper-caste Hindu men who ran the CPI(M) and patronised its allies on the “left” were not just social democrats: in authoritarian tendencies, they borrowed from Stalin, and in cultural politics, from Nazi theories of Entartete Kunst (apasanskriti or distorted culture). As time went by, their Chinese path extended to Deng Xiaoping’s capitalism with Chinese (or Bengali or Keralan or Tripuran) characteristics: courting businessmen, and selling the land—that the party itself had given provisionally to the tiller—onwards to corporate houses. Singur and Nandigram brought the Left Front crashing down in West Bengal—its safe haven for more than a generation. Nandigram provided the whiff of grapeshot by which party cadres disguised as policemen signalled the end of their revolution.

Two Books

The occasion for these reflections is provided by two books, both effectively dealing with the beginnings and ends of the Left Front in West Bengal. One is straightforwardly and directly personal, Debraj Bhattacharya’s Exploring Marxist Bengal c 1971–2011, a good-humoured, if at times self-indulgent, memoir that narrates a progressive disillusionment with the CPI(M), the “left,” and with claims to “progressive” politics among his generation (and mine; Debraj was in my cohort in the history class of 1993 at Presidency College, Kolkata).

The second, No Free Left, by Vijay Prashad, promises no less than a narrative and analysis of “the past of Indian Communism and an assessment of its future,” which again cannot be written, as he tells us, invoking Antonio Gramsci, “without writing a ‘general history of a country’” (p 15). Prashad’s account comprises a series of banalities written in prophetic tone. His self-appointed task, then, is by far the more ambitious of the two exercises in left-leaning (self-)analysis. He has been “involved in the Communist movement for more than a quarter of a century” (p 15), and therefore has served enough time to write about his beloved movement and party. Prashad makes a pretence of dealing with other points of view: he argues with popular histories that were intended to introduce India to first-time readers; cites outdated texts and castigates their authors for their inadequacy while ignoring more recent work; and he sprays guilt-by-association graffiti on the reputations of fellow populist authors: “Both [Sunil] Khilnani and [Ramachandra] Guha are Nehru’s men” (p 13). Are they, really?

In the first 20 pages of this book, the necessary shibboleths have been pronounced (Gramsci, Brecht), and the spectrum of Indian political parties active now summarily dismissed. Other left parties are discounted: socialists and Maoists are outside his “left;” the “demise” of Indian socialism (comprising Lohiaites, Gandhians and Periyarists, a strange cross-caste-and-class combination that he seems to have invented as a category of analysis) is asserted; and Jawaharlal Nehru’s “anticommunism” ridiculed. “Liberals,” he adds for good measure, have failed to produce a viable political party, and are therefore irrelevant.

By this time, a reader should have been firmly driven away from the bastions of communism to the less exalted domains of the lesser parties, to the heresy of anarchist scepticism or the bourgeois deviation of ineffective individualism. But, reviewers are made of sterner stuff, and I read on.

Memory, History and Irony

Bhattacharya weaves autobiographical account into impressionistic political testimony: the survival of the Left Front government against the backdrop of the encroachment of the world of liberalisation into everyone’s everyday lives. His tale is a wry narrative of awkward juxtapositions: the vanishing of Soviet books and hence cheap translations of Russian literature from the reading world we grew up in, Glasnost and Perestroika, the end of the Soviet Union, student politics at Presidency College, satellite TV, Coke and Pepsi, Sushmita Sen winning the Miss Universe competition (in 1994), the discovery of his own implicit caste prejudices around the Mandal Commission recommendations, and an acknowledgement of what was for him an “unconscious divide.”

The social worlds of the upper-caste Bengali male, however “left wing” he might see himself as, and despite the potential for some of them to draw on their very own victimhood narratives as refugees from East Bengal, did not include persons from Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes (the term “Dalit” was not yet current).

Bhattacharya’s memoir-that-is-a-history also records a personal passage from disillusioned academic to developmental worker, recording in passing his university education, the moment of arrival of postmodernism and postcolonialism, and his own move to hands-on rural development work, which he records with self-effacing clarity. Much of Bhattacharya’s account can be read as a counterpoint to the grand testimony of party leaders and pontificators; and when he allows himself his own commentary, it is often to the point: a plausible social democratic capitalism after the fall of the Soviet Union was not considered by the CPI(M), which instead “swung from anti-imperialist rhetoric to neoliberal capitalism. Marx was kept in the bookshelves… but in reality it was time for Special Economic Zones” (p 20).

His account provides reminders of the uncomfortable details of aggressive anti-poor activities on the part of the Left Front in power (and indications as to why it is so difficult for people who “grew up in Marxist Bengal” ever to trust the official communist parties again). For instance, “Operation Sunshine” was the blithely named destruction of illegal hawkers’ stalls (and their livelihoods) at Gariahat Market in 1996.

Bhattacharya draws attention to what he calls “conservative Marxism”—the moral censorship exercised by the party on women’s clothes and social habits, on “Western” culture, denounced as apasanskriti. The framework of a memoir works to firmly return to public memory elements in the record that have been forgotten or actively disremembered: the 1990 Bantala rapes and murder, for instance. Bhattacharya also records the proliferation and the growing popularity of what he calls “local religious sects” that were exceedingly popular in the era of official left rule (with the implication that they were part of the same social context as the Left Front, even drawing upon overlapping personnel): the Ramakrishna Mission, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the Dakshineshwar and Tarakeshwar temples, Baba Loknath, and Balak Brahmachari, the last-named of which had an organisation of political roughnecks called Amra Bangali (We are Bengalis).

Though Bhattacharya does not mention this, it is worth recalling that they terrorised local businesses and travelled with tar and brush across the city, blackening the signs of businesses that dared to maintain their names in the Roman script. A vivid personal note that I could add is of our family doctor, whose small clinic on Rashbehari Avenue had been regularly subject to such attacks, standing on a ladder, repainting his own sign in Bengali: “Majumdar Clinic,” replacing the English language sign “Mazumdar Clinic;” spelling his name with a “z” reflected his East Bengali roots far better than the Bengali script could do. The cultural chauvinism represented in this trend was, of course, well-represented within the Left Front government, whose position on “Western” culture was in the 1980s and 1990s indistinguishable from that of an emergent Sangh Parivar.

Reading the two books, Prashad’s and Bhattacharya’s, in parallel, it is difficult to imagine that they are capable of addressing one another; or indeed, each other’s imagined audiences. And, Prashad must address Bhattacharya’s far more urgently than Bhattacharya must address Prashad’s.

A Closed Chapter?

Both Prashad and Bhattacharya tend to lead us through narrative histories with which most of us who grew up in Marxist Bengal, or who engaged with the pasts and presents of Indian politics, are familiar, but which are of greater importance to those with only a rudimentary initiation into the politics of the times described. In Bhattacharya’s case, the genre he has chosen sits well with the retelling, from a more personalised perspective, of those histories. Prashad is both economical and rhetorical with the truth, a category that he needs for his book more urgently than Bhattacharya does.

Prashad asserts the continued importance of the left in a number of chapters of potted history, a genre for which he has come to be known. The argument reads as follows: the left has had significant contributions to make to the Indian polity when and where it has been in power. Prominent among them have been land reform, tenancy rights, “devolution of power” (it is hard to be clear what that is), and defence of secularism and minority rights; its rural agenda was beneficial especially to Dalits and Adivasis. But, its power began to be undermined by its own success. “Radical land reforms” started producing a rural propertied class whose “instincts” moved them away from the left. (How radical were the reforms? How inimical to the “instincts” of small landowners was the “left”?) The “most fatal error” was the West Bengal land acquisition policy for industry, exemplified by “the key words… ‘Nandigram’ and ‘Singur’” whose “implications … have been digested.” (Is he really asking us to see this as a closed chapter?)

The absent agenda on education and health is mentioned as problematic, and Prashad further argues that the 2011 election “debacle” in West Bengal “began to frame the problems faced by the left,” “overshadowing” its achievements in Kerala and Tripura. The achievements of “Left activists from Andhra Pradesh to Punjab” have been “obscured.” The “mainstream media” has been unfair and hostile, and has “exaggerated” every failure (pp 24–25). But, the left is still relevant and must be reorganised, resurrected for a greater cause.

There is an implicit argument we should throttle here and now: that the “propertied peasantry” were those protesting the state-led private sector land-grabs in Nandigram and Singur, and that the CPI(M)-led coalition, therefore, was dispossessing a class it had (mistakenly) created. It was evident, of course, to all who engaged with the Nandigram and Singur protests that even without the intervention of bourgeois intellectuals from the city, the language of rights spoken by the farmers was a language that the left, in its days of radicalism, might well have provided. But, the more significant victims of the land-grabs were landless labourers, whose only future options were to join a reserve army of labour for the promised industrial enterprises, once they emerged. Meanwhile, it is reasonably well known that the title deeds for the lands allegedly given in “ownership” to the tiller in West Bengal were always provisional, contingent on their continued support for the party, which could give or take away benefits.

Rightward Drift

There follows a series of inexplicable chapters: the first charts the rightward drift of the Indian political order since “liberalisation,” a story that is told in familiar party-line terms. The “decline of Indian socialism” is the tale of the following chapter, which reaches back to colonial times to argue, among other things, that the appeal of Gandhism had little to do with Gandhi’s own views or ideology. (This is unproblematic, and has been said before and often. But, what is Gandhi doing in a chapter on “socialism”?) Gandhi is used to represent a yearning for social justice that Gandhi himself cannot fulfil. This is, again, an unproblematic assertion, but once again, this is a teleological narrative of “only the communists can fulfil the urges of the people.” A short chapter on “populism” lumps Manmohan Singh, Narendra Modi, and Mamata Banerjee together. The next three chapters deal with the “left” from which Prashad excludes “Maoists,” prone to irrational violence, factionalism and individual “terrorism,” and therefore unworthy of being included in Prashad’s conception of the left.

No one knows who Prashad’s left really is or what became of them. Apparently left governments have provided much value in the past and present for Adivasis, women and Dalits to improve their lot (and Prashad claims for his left groups, such as the All India Democratic Women’s Association [AIDWA] who might well object to such an incorporation). What, then, became of this progressive left in Parliament and outside? Prashad merely tells us that “Nandigram” (within scare quotes provided by him) damaged the “image” of the left (p 141).

Meanwhile, Prashad’s account descends to statist apologia when he asserts that it is the left coalition that rescued Tripura from “separatism” (p 212) that has dogged the rest of the North East. He is notably soft on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958, extended to Kashmir since 1990, the opposition to which “is not the main policy platform” of the Left Front, although Tripura has been “gradually ending its use” (p 212). This sleight of hand in rhetoric illustrates the rightward drift of the official communist movement in India. Kashmir, by the way, is completely absent from Prashad’s book; even the index cannot find a single entry under that word to record.

The book deals with the past of Indian parliamentary communism, in a nostalgic tone projected into the future. If Marx turned Hegel on his head, it has been left to Prashad to turn Marx on his side. What that does for a left or right orientation remains to be seen.

Left Unity?

Both Prashad and Bhattacharya insist on the need for left unity. But, Prashad’s factionalism and Bhattacharya’s more inclusive (if overoptimistic) understanding of what this “left” might consist are far apart. Bhattacharya makes a case, through a long narrative of rural development work, for the left to change its language and its modes of engagement, to be less hostile to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in general. He recalls Prakash Karat declaring NGOs to be imperialist “Trojan horses” (p 79); the left saw NGOs and the concomitant “foreign funding” they brought with them as competition for left parties and a dilution of the radical potential of left movements in favour of a more diluted social agenda not inimical to capitalism. Bhattacharya suggests that the two are not in competition, that there are different kinds of NGOs, and that the left’s own failure to organise is at the heart of the need for NGOs to step in where others have not (and he describes in detail different kinds of rural development work).

What Bhattacharya leaves unsaid is that that there has long been no radical agenda for the parliamentary “communist” parties to work for in any case; therefore, their sense that they are in competition with NGOs is not unrealistic. He also somewhat punctures the narrative of the successes of village panchayats, referring to “centralised decentralisation” and pointing to the burying of inconvenient reports or documents on rural poverty, malnutrition or starvation—which he attributes to both the “left” and its successor party.

In Prashad’s world, the sites of the left’s defeats do not really exist; no one knows where Alesia really is, Chief Vitalstatistix is told as a young man about Vercingetorix the Gaul’s defeat by the Romans at that site. It is left to Bhattacharya to attempt a description of the end of left government in West Bengal.

His account is careful and dispassionate, relying on newspaper accounts and his own experiences as a rural development worker at the time: Singur, where land grabs on behalf of the Tatas by the Left Front were opposed; Nandigram, where murder and rape accompanied the dispossession of the peasant proprietors and the displacement of rural landless labourers; Lalgarh, where an apparent attempt by Maoists on the life of the Left Front Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was met with random police violence against the tribals; the murder-disguised-as-suicide of Rizwanur Rahman for the crime of marrying a Hindu industrialist’s daughter along with the accompanying police cover-up; the apparently principled withdrawal of support from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in its first term (2008) and an inexplicable support of regional non-left parties like the Telugu Desam under the “third front” scheme in 2009, resulting in the depletion of seats of the parliamentary left; and the continuing war between the parliamentary and revolutionary left, to the detriment of both.

Between the lines, Bhattacharya suggests that the new leadership of the parliamentary left, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in West Bengal and Prakash Karat or Sitaram Yechury at the centre, were incapable of leading a party, the latter two having emerged not from major political struggles or trade union movements, but from student politics in the relatively safe environment of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Bhattacharya recalls the disagreement among two representatives of the old Naxalite movement, Sumantra Banerjee and Dipanjan Ray Chaudhuri. The latter suggested that using Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress to unseat the Left Front in West Bengal was a desirable outcome, while the former pointed out that a short-cut to power without popular mobilisation and ideologically informed politics was the road to disaster. Bhattacharya sides with Banerjee in this debate.

Two conflicting positions emerge from the two books. Prashad postulates a left unity of a pre-described left that is so narrowly defined as to be irrelevant. In terms of numbers, the CPI(M) has nine seats, the CPI, one, and the Revolutionary Socialist Party, one. Given that this “left” must revive, stand alone, and attain relevance while refusing to address its weaknesses in mobilising Dalits, or its utter idiocy on matters essential to communist practice, namely, supporting the right to self-determination (in Kashmir, for instance), one is not particularly hopeful.

Bhattacharya postulates a broader coalition of left and left-leaning forces from the parliamentary and revolutionary left, informed by new practices that have emerged from developmental agencies and NGO experiences. This, perhaps, is more appropriate for a political moment that neither author actually names or describes: the moment of an aggressive Indian fascism. Should we wish to quibble about whether the Sangh Parivar is (or is already) fascist, we might be waiting too long. Karat and Yechury might disagree, and Prashad might side with Karat, but to await signs of life from the detritus of the dustbin of history would be a mistake. Meanwhile, as identity politics and “class” are postulated as opposed bases of mobilisation, the Sangh Parivar’s “Hitler Youth” can dominate the streets.


Updated On : 7th Jul, 2017


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