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Reflections on the Left

If the Left accepts the advice given to it to overcome its "outdated" opposition to imperialism and neoliberal policies, this will lead to its incorporation into the structures of bourgeois hegemony. The Left lost votes among the peasants and the rural poor because its antiimperialism did not extend to the formulation of an alternative economic policy.

COMMENTARYjuly 11, 2009 vol xliv no 28 EPW Economic & Political Weekly8Reflections on the Leftprabhat patnaikPrabhat Patnaik ( is at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.If the Left accepts the advice given to it to overcome its “outdated” opposition to imperialism and neoliberal policies, this will lead to its incorporation into the structures of bourgeois hegemony. The Left lost votes among the peasants and the rural poor because its anti-imperialism did not extend to the formulation of an alternative economic policy.Perhaps the most significant feature of the recent election is the loss suf-fered by the Left. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) defeat was more or less anticipated, except by the psepholo-gists, as was some loss by the Left; but the actual extent of the Left’s loss has been quite staggering. True, its vote share has fallen only marginally; but in its base in West Bengal, it has a majority in only about a third of the total assembly seg-ments, and in Kerala even less, which is a serious setback. This setback is significant because the Left, even though not a con-tender for power at the centre as of now, is a major driving force behind India’s jour-ney towards a modern, secular and demo-cratic society. It is of course not the only such force: there are large numbers of pro-gressive social and political movements which also play this role. But it differs from all of them in one crucial respect, namely, that it also has electoral strength which they lack; and such strength does matter. Any impairing of such strength therefore portends ill for the progress of India’s democratic revolution. Opposition to ImperialismThe media has been full of analysis of the Left’s loss and of advice for its revival, much of which ultimately focuses on just one point: it must discard its “phobia” about “imperialism”. This is occasionally expressed directly, such as by Meghnad Desai in an interview to The Hindu, but usually indirectly. Sometimes it is said that the Left should not have withdrawn support from the United Progressive Alli-ance (UPA) government; but since the withdrawal was precisely on the question of India’s entering into a possible strategic alliance withUS imperialism, this argu-ment amounts to saying that the Left ex-aggerates the imperialist threat. Some-times it is said that the people’s verdict was in favour of “development”, from which the inference can be drawn that the Left’s electoral loss must be attributed to its lack of success in ushering in “develop-ment” (meaning “development” within the neoliberal paradigm, for which the different states in the country are vying with one another to attract corporate, in-cluding multinational, investment). This again amounts to saying that the Left’s op-position to the neoliberal paradigm, which is linked to its anti-imperialism, is respon-sible for its obsolescence, and hence de-feat. Sometimes it is argued that there was a “wave” in favour of a secular and stable government which worked to the advan-tage of theUPA and to the detriment of the Left, since the latter forged links in the “third front” with parties that had done business with theBJP earlier. If the con-clusion from this claim is that the Left should have gone into the election alone rather than with “third front” allies, then that at least is compatible with the Left’s ideological premises (though it is unlikely to have made much difference to its elec-toral fortune); but if the conclusion is that the Left must always be with those who would be normally supposed to ride such a “wave”, then that amounts to suggesting that it should compromise on its anti- imperialism to become a permanent fix-ture of theUPA camp. The commonest ad-vice to the Left, in short, is to stop making a fuss over “imperialism”.This is hardly surprising. All over the world, in countries where the urban middle class has escaped as yet the ad-verse consequences of globalisation, anti-imperialism among the students, the edu-cated youth, and the literati is at a low ebb. On the contrary, there is even a desire to welcome closer integration with the impe-rialist world as a means of ushering in a secular and progressive modernity, and of countering phenomena like feudal patri-archy, religious authoritarianism and communal-fascism. Since Left ideas typi-cally get nourishment from the literati and the urban intellectual strata, even though these ideas reach their fruition in the struggles of the workers and peasants, who are the victims of globalisation but are sociologically distant from the intel-lectual strata, the Left movement gathers momentum in situations where the urban
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 11, 2009 vol xliv no 289middle class has also suffered from glo-balisation and hence makes common cause with the workers and the peasants. But it faces problems in situations where the urban middle class is a beneficiary of globalisation. In such cases, the resistance to imperialism and globalisation often gets championed by forces other than the Left; or, if the Left remains committed to the interests of the “basic classes” and re-sists globalisation, it often suffers through isolation from the intellectual strata and the urban youth and students. (This loss, though real, can of course be more than offset by an increase in its support base among the peasantry through its resist-ance to globalisation.) The current anti-imperialist upsurge in Latin America, which has brought Left or Left-oriented governments to power over much of the continent, is a consequence of the long years of crises that hurt, and hence radicalised, the urban youth, stu-dents and intellectuals. On the other hand, in much of central Asia, and now Iran, where the urban youth has not directly ex-perienced the adversity inflicted by glo-balisation, imperialism still retains the capacity to mobilise, or at least claim the sympathy of, vast numbers of the urban population in so-called “orange”, “tulip” and “velvet” “revolutions” that are sup-posed to bring in modernity and democ-racytogether with neoliberalism. In India, since the adversity of workers, peasants, agricultural labourers and petty produc-ers, under globalisation, has been accom-panied by high growth rates, and rapid in-creases in incomes and opportunities for the urban middle class, a degree of pro-imperialism among this class which in-cludes the intellectuals, the media per-sons, and the professionals, and hence a degree of exasperation with the Left’s con-tinued adherence to old “anti-imperialist shibboleths”, is hardly surprising.The Left’s error that accounts for its loss in the recent elections can be located here. As long as the urban middle class in India is not hit by the adverse consequences of globalisation, it will continue to remain sympathetically disposed towards imperi-alism. Anti-imperialist ideological appeals alone, though they must continue to be made, will not sway it much. Two addi-tional factors that will contribute towards this sympathy for imperialism are, first, the assumption of US presidency by Barack Obama who represents “imperialism with a human face”, and, second, the strong op-position to imperialism coming at present from the Islamist movements with which broad sections of the Indian urban middle class have little affinity. As long as the Indian Left remains true to its ideology and the interests of its class base, the pro-imperialist sympathies of the Indian ur-ban middle class will necessarily entail some estrangement of this class from the Left. This is a phenomenon that will haunt the Left for as long as the current conjunc-ture continues. In the recent elections, it follows, a certain loss of urban support for the Left became unavoidable when it broke with the UPA because of its anti-imperialism. (In Kerala, such alienation from the Left was compounded by certain specific local factors.)Erosion of Class BaseIf the Left had managed to increase its support among the workers, peasants, petty producers and the rural poor, then it could have offset this loss among the urban middle class; even if it had man-aged to retain its support among the former, its overall loss would have still remained limited. But, notwithstanding its opposition to imperialism, it did not have an alternative policy on develop-ment, different from what the neoliberal paradigm dictated. In West Bengal, the government led by it pursued policies of “development” similar to what the other states were following and in competition with them, which, being part of the neo-liberal paradigm, necessarily brought with them the threat of “primitive accumula-tion of capital” (in the form specifically of expropriation of peasants’ land). These policies, though subsequently reversed in several instances, had an adverse impact on the “basic classes” and caused a crucial erosion of the class base of the Left. While some loss of peasant support on account of Singur and Nandigram was an-ticipated in West Bengal, it was thought that the opposition’s thwarting of “deve-lopment” would make the urban middle class switch to the Left as the preferred alternative (because of which pictures of the Nano car were posted all over the state as part of theCPI(M)’s campaign to remind the electorate of the opposition’s intransi-gence in thwarting “industrialisation”). As a matter of fact, however, the Left lost votes both among the urban middle class and among the peasants and the rural poor. It lost votes among the urban middle class because this segment could not stom-ach the Left’s anti-imperialism and its fall-out in the form of a distancing from the UPA; it lost votes among the peasants and the rural poor because the Left’s anti-imperialism was insufficient, in the sense that it did not extend to the formulation of an alternative economic policy. True, the scope for a state government to produce such an alternative economic policy is limited; but no effort in this direction was discernible.The Left, it follows, cannot pursue its resistance to imperialism unless it also evolves an alternative approach to “deve-lopment”, different from the neoliberal one which is promoted by imperialist agencies everywhere. The central feature of such an approach must be the defence of the interests of the class base of the Left. Development must be defined in the con-text of the carrying forward of the demo-cratic revolution, as a phenomenon con-tributing to an improvement in the eco-nomic conditions of the “basic classes”, and hence to an accretion to their class-strength. It must be seen as having a class dimension and not just referring to the augmentation of a mass of “things”. A supra-class notion of development, such as the augmentation of a mass of “things” or the mere growth of gross domestic product, is a form of commodity-fetishism, and a part, therefore, of the ideology of imperialism. Hence any “development” that entails primitive accumulation of capital (which includes primitive accumu-lation through the state budget via the doling out of massive subsidies to capital-ists for undertaking investment), that entails a reduction in workers’ wage-rates, rights, and security, cannot form part of the Left’s agenda. If, in the context of the competition between different states, pri-vate investment refuses to come into Left-ruled states because of their development agenda being different, then alternative ways of undertaking investment (for example, through public or cooperative

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