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For a Left Resurgence

One needs to go beyond Prabhat Patnaik's analysis ("The Left in Decline", EPW, 16 July 2011) to understand the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s ignominious exit from power in West Bengal in 2011. What are the reasons for the Party's loss of credibility and legitimacy vis-à-vis the basic classes? What led it to abandon the Left's core agenda of democracy, land and rural welfare? What about the Party's self-proclaimed anti-imperialist credentials? Was not its parliamentary practice bereft of the spirit and vision of transcending capitalism?

DISCUSSION
For a Left Resurgence Dipankar Bhattacharya Banerjee’s piece provoked Prabhat Patnaik to produce a theoretical narrative on the CPI(M)’s decline (“The Left in Decline”, EPW, 16 July 2011). Patnaik has quite categorically argued that the CPI(M) is suffer-

One needs to go beyond Prabhat Patnaik’s analysis (“The Left in Decline”, EPW, 16 July 2011) to understand the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s ignominious exit from power in West Bengal in 2011. What are the reasons for the Party’s loss of credibility and legitimacy vis-à-vis the basic classes? What led it to abandon the Left’s core agenda of democracy, land and rural welfare? What about the Party’s self-proclaimed anti-imperialist credentials? Was not its parliamentary practice bereft of the spirit and vision of transcending capitalism?

Dipankar Bhattacharya (deebee60@gmail.com) is general secretary of the CPI(Marxist-Leninist) (Liberation).

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
novemBER 19, 2011

T
he drubbing received by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] and the Left Front in the elections to the West Bengal state assembly held earlier this year has triggered widespread speculation about the future of the Left in India. Quite predictably, one can hear a loud celebratory noise in the dominant “mainstream” media which treats the CPI(M)’s Bengal debacle as the beginning of the end of the Left in India. This shrill cry is remarkably reminiscent of the “end of history” triumphalism in the American media in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. But after a decade of war and quite a few years of stubborn recession, the discourse in the United States itself has now shifted to the whisper of a possible advent of an American Autumn. No doubt, the “end-of-the-Left” ideological campaign in India will also find itself equally out of sync with the developing climate of popular unrest against corruption and corporate loot.

Even as we reject the roars of bourgeois triumphalism, and the ruling class wisdom that advises Indian communists to reinvent themselves as social-democrats wedded to the idea of making capitalism more humane while abandoning the idea of transcending capitalism, we must however also acknowledge the genuine concerns in Left and democratic circles about the future of the Left and the need for a necessary realignment of Left forces for a rejuvenation of the Left movement. In this context, a welcome debate seems to be shaping up in the pages of the EPW, beginning with Sumanta Banerjee’s insightful account of the recent transfer of power in West Bengal from the CPI(M) to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) (“West Bengal’s Next Quinquennium, and the Future of the Indian Left”, EPW, 4 June 2011). Banerjee sees little prospect of a course correction in the CPI(M) and stresses the need for the rise of a new Indian Left through closer cooperation and realignment among the non-CPI(M) Left.

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ing from a deep-seated malady of “empiricisation”, a delinking of practice from the spirit and vision of transcending capitalism, which has the potential to derail the party completely from the trajectory of Left politics. He however believes that the CPI(M) still has the ideological wherewithal to overcome the degenerative dialectic of “empiricisation” and in case it fails to do that, it can only be supplanted by a communist formation whose theoretical positions are akin to those of the CPI(M).

In a brief response to Prabhat Patnaik, Hiren Gohain has taken the debate deeper into the CPI(M)’s very approach to parliamentary democracy (“Decline of the Left: A Critical Comment”, EPW, 17 September 2011). Gohain holds that a non-revolutionary approach to Parliament leading to a steady assimilation to the attitudes of the ruling classes and fatal weakening of extraparliamentary initiatives and imagination has caused the CPI(M)’s growing alienation from the basic classes. The divergence of the party’s own interest from the interests of the basic classes has led to brutal suppression of popular protests as witnessed in Singur and Nandigram and it cannot just be brushed aside as a mere case of “empiricisation”.

Before we proceed with this discussion, let us take a look at the CPI(M)’s own official review of the West Bengal poll outcome. The review acknowledges that the party has suffered a major defeat, identifies a host of reasons and promises “a more elaborate review…to examine whether the Left Front government did enough to implement alternative policies to the neoliberal framework”. But for all practical purposes, the review would like us to believe that the defeat is essentially attributable to a conspiracy by the ruling classes and imperialism to dethrone the CPI(M) because of its opposition to neo-liberal policies and the Indo-US nuclear deal, and the popular aspiration for change resulted from just a fatigue among the people because of the prolonged duration of the CPI(M) rule.

DISCUSSION

Patnaik’s account is clearly at considerable variance from the CPI(M)’s official narrative. He argues that the CPI(M) has essentially had to pay a price for taking it upon itself to build capitalism while abdicating the guiding vision of transcending capitalism. Patnaik talks of the CPI(M) abandoning the basic classes while the CPI(M) review blames the TMC for driving a wedge between the party and sections of the peasantry by invoking the land acquisition issue. But both Patnaik and the CPI(M) underplay the real gravity of the Bengal debacle, and obscure, if not altogether ignore, the core internal reasons. They thus fail to stress the urgent lessons for any real recovery.

Land and Liberty

For any objective observer of West Bengal developments, there can be no denying the fact that 2011 marked a total reversal of 1977. In 1977, the CPI(M) had come to power riding on a popular quest for restoration of democracy in Emergencyeclipsed West Bengal. By the late 1960s the CPI(M) had already emerged as the main organisational beneficiary of the gains of decades of communist-led popular struggles in Bengal, but 1977 provided the defining moment, and the CPI(M) went on to consolidate its position through panchayati raj and Operation Barga. If land and liberty were thus the twin planks that had created a big base for the CPI(M) in the early years of Left Front rule, the same were the core issues for the people in 2011 as well. A widespread quest for liberation from the stifling domination of the CPI(M)led party-government apparatus and a growing unrest among large sections of the peasantry and the rural poor over land and livelihood led to the CPI(M)’s ignominious exit in 2011.

It is this context which must be the real cause of concern for all well-wishers of the Left. The Right has returned to power in Bengal by capitalising on the ruling Left’s loss of credibility and legitimacy vis-à-vis the basic classes and the core agenda of democracy, land and rural welfare. While Mamata Banerjee enhanced and consolidated her mass appeal with the slogan of Ma-Mati-Manush (mother, land and humanity) the CPI(M) in Bengal came to be bracketed with brutal massacres, special economic zones (SEZs) and Tata Nano! There can be no real introspection without squarely addressing this crux of the problem. And it is not only for the CPI(M) leadership to introspect, but the pro-CPI(M) intellectuals who discredited themselves by trying to defend the indefensible CPI(M) role in Singur and Nandigram should also do some soul-searching.

It is well known that the dominant opinion in the CPI(M)’s Bengal leadership refuses to admit and discuss, let alone rectify, this real problem and instead looks for scapegoats in the CPI(M)’s acts of omission and commission at the Centre. If the CPI(M) Central Committee’s refusal to let Jyoti Basu become the prime minister of a Congress-backed ragtag United Front government in 1996 was considered the first “historic blunder”, the 2008 withdrawal of support to United Progressive Alliance – I (UPA-I) government is being treated as the second. The presumption is that it is this act of withdrawal which facilitated the renewed unity between the Congress and the TMC thereby sealing the CPI(M)’s electoral fate in West Bengal.

Nothing could be farther from the truth than this wishful and bankrupt line of thinking. The TMC and the Congress would have anyway come together in West Bengal and, as the Kolkata corporation elections showed, even if the Congress had stayed aloof, it could have hardly stopped the TMC surge in the state. But the CPI(M) lacks the will to resolve this debate and the result is a review which seeks to project the party’s debacle in West Bengal as an anti-imperialist martyrdom of sorts. This is how the CPI(M) would like to avoid any real critical scrutiny of the developments in West Bengal as well as its role at the Centre.

To set the record straight, for most part of UPA-I’s tenure, the CPI(M) did effectively collaborate with the government. The SEZ Act 2005 was allowed to be passed unopposed – Prakash Karat recently made a candid confession in course of a discussion with students of Jawaharlal Nehru University that the CPI(M) had failed to assess the issue from the point of view of the peasantry, looking at it more from a trade union angle. It is another matter that even from the point of view of working class struggles in SEZs, the Act deserved

novemBER 19, 2011

to be opposed no less categorically. Even on the issue of Indo-US nuclear deal, the withdrawal of support eventually came over a rather procedural wrangling with the government by which time the Indo-US strategic partnership had already gathered enough momentum.

CPI(M)’s Anti-Imperialism

Prabhat Patnaik often refers to Lenin’s thesis on imperialism and cites anti-imperialism as the decisive communist credential of the CPI(M). The biggest merit of Lenin’s thesis was his identification of imperialism as a structural development of capitalism itself. He showed us how war and aggressive external intervention by imperialist powers was not just a foreign policy question – and certainly not an aberration arising from a failure of diplomacy, but rooted in the intrinsic expansionary urge of capital. Going by the Leninist definition of imperialism, it should be clear that anti-imperialism in India today cannot therefore be limited only to challenging the Indo-US nuclear deal and strategic partnership – it must challenge the whole gamut of neo-liberal policies that are promoting corporate loot and ravaging all our resources.

How has the CPI(M) fared on this real test of anti-imperialism? While lauding the CPI(M)’s stand on the nuclear deal, Patnaik is compelled to admit that the CPI(M) in West Bengal was busy building capitalism on the neo-liberal plank. When a party does this in its strongest bastion, its opposition to the same policies elsewhere naturally lacks sincerity or substance. And now thanks to WikiLeaks’ disclosure of US embassy cables from India, we know very well how senior CPI(M) leaders maintained close links with US officials in India even as the party was publicly decrying India’s nuclear deal and strategic partnership with the US.

Mere theoretical recognition of imperialism was never enough for Lenin. Under Lenin’s leadership, communists the world over demarcated themselves from reformists and social-democrats by evolving and following a whole set of revolutionary tactical principles guided by and catering to a revolutionary strategic vision. This revolutionary praxis achieved its greatest success in the victorious socialist revolution in Russia, but it was meant for communists

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EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

DISCUSSION

working in a wide variety of conditions – from the bourgeois parliamentary republics of Europe and America to the colonies and semi-colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Central to the demarcation between communists and social-democrats was the question of intervention in parliamentary politics and utilisation of electoral victories. In contrast to the social-democratic thesis of participation in bourgeois governments and sharing of power with the bourgeoisie, communists resolved to use any power won in elections at local or provincial levels (outright communist victory in elections to the highest level of bourgeois state power was clearly considered highly unlikely) for the advancement of class struggle and as part and parcel of an overall revolutionary opposition to the central authority.

The CPI(M) had moved away from this communist policy quite early on in the course of its protracted parliamentary journey. Against the backdrop of the inspiring victory of the CPI(M) and its Left Front partners in 1977, the slogan that had captured the imagination of Left ranks was none other than “bam front sarkar sangramer hatiyar” (Left Front government is a weapon of struggle). But it did not take the CPI(M) long to realise that such a slogan would not be tenable with the imperatives of a stable government. Thus the slogan was soon effectively withdrawn and replaced by “bamfront sarkar unnayaner hatiyar” (Left Front government is an instrument of “development”, experienced by the people mostly as bulldozer of development). In the wake of Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh, a good majority of people in West Bengal saw it degenerate further as “utpiraner hatiyar” (instrument of repression).

If only Patnaik bothered to look beyond the question of a sheer theoretical recognition of the danger of imperialism into the realm of strategy and tactics of a communist party, he would have noticed how the CPI(M) had abandoned the communist attitude to the question of power in a bourgeois state to opt for a social- democratic framework of relief and reform through power-sharing. The updated CPI(M) program me of 2000 made a provision for the party’s participation in central government

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
novemBER 19, 2011

as a junior partner – a major departure from the famous Para 112 of the party’s 1964 programme which had distinguished the party from the CPI all through the 1960s and 1970s right up to the 1996-98 period when the majority of the CPI(M) Central Committee refused to let Jyoti Basu become the prime minister of a Congress-backed United Front government even as two CPI leaders accepted ministerial positions.

Parliamentary Cretinism

Patnaik does not see any link between the CPI(M)’s model of intervention in parliamentary politics and the trajectory of “empiricisation”. Instead Patnaik accuses those who see a link between the two of being victims of what he calls parliamentary fetishism. Now this is quite interesting. Marx had taken on commodity fetishism to deepen the study of capital – starting from the commodity-crowded surface of capitalism he had taken the reader to the core question of production and appropriation of surplus value. But instead of taking us beyond Parliament to unravel the class nature of the state and explore the means of stronger proletarian intervention in bourgeois politics, Patnaik employs the term parliamentary fetishism only against those who advocate a boycott of Parliament and others who stay away from the political process. Conspicuously absent is any critical gaze at all at those who deliberately invoke Parliament to limit the people’s political initiative and imagination, and who habitually always put the aura and privilege of Parliament above the rights and struggles of the people.

He seems to be completely oblivious of the fact that while fighting against “boycottists” and Left adventurists, Lenin always held that the communist movement faced a much bigger danger from parliamentary cretinism. In his response to Prabhat Patnaik, Hiren Gohain has quite rightly highlighted the CPI(M)’s failure in combining parliamentary work and extraparliamentary struggles, even contrasting it to the imagination and vigour (albeit of the reactionary type) displayed by the Right in their multifarious extra-parliamentary initiatives and programmes.

In fact, Patnaik’s own argument regarding the ongoing popular agitation against

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corruption presents a glaring example of parliamentary fetishism. It is one thing to critique the framework or provisions of the Jan Lokpal Bill or the limited agenda and way of functioning of what has come to be known as “Team Anna” but to project the whole thing as a threat to democracy or parliament is clearly missing the wood for the trees. One understands the desperation of discredited bourgeois leaders to try and hide behind the parliamentary shield, but why should the forces of social transformation be afraid of an awakened people?

Should communists keep aloof from the growing anti-corruption awakening among the people in the name of defending Parliament and saving democracy from “mobocracy” or should communists welcome the people’s anger and try and direct it against the whole regime of corporate loot and denial of people’s rights?

The way ahead for the Left clearly lies through a radical realignment of Left forces on the basis of united struggle. After two decades of domination of neoliberal policies, almost all sections of the people are up in arms against the disastrous consequences of this policy regime. Fundamental questions regarding the nature of our economy and polity are being discussed and debated quite widely. While the Right will definitely try to use this climate to its own advantage and liberals will only limit themselves to shallow and superficial reforms, the Left must seize this opportunity to deepen and widen the struggles and lead them on to their logical conclusions. The more the Left gets integrated with the developing resistance of various sections of the people, the more will be the momentum generated for a resurgence of the Left. And that alone can be the true resolution of the debate over the “decline” of the Left.

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