Vinod Mubayi and Daya Varma


The Indian communist movement is almost a century old.  It began in the aftermath of the Russian revolution as an expression of militant worker struggles against capitalist exploitation during the colonial era.  It maintained a critical alliance for a while with the main anti-colonial freedom movement led by the Congress Party. In 1947-48, the CPI launched the anti-feudal Telengana struggle, which managed to create, at its height, a liberated zone of over 5000 square miles, ousting landlordism in the erstwhile feudal state of the Nizam of Hyderabad.

In the first Indian elections held in 1952, it managed to obtain the second largest number of seats in the national assembly (Lok Sabha) after the Congress party.  The Indian communist movement was able to attract some of the best talent of India in literature, theater and film as well as academics  into its fold but its growth was not only due to the high ideals of Marxism and communism but also because of the organizing ability of the Communist Party of India under the dynamic leadership of the late PC Joshi.  The Indian communist party was the first anywhere in the world to come to power through bourgeois democratic elections as it did in Kerala in 1957 and later ruled West Bengal without a break for over thirty years from 1977-2011. Despite the unfortunate CPI-CPM split in 1964, the communist party remained an intellectual and political force and the obvious symbol of the Indian communist movement was CPM. Being the largest communist party in India, it drew the ire of Marxist-Leninist parties on the one hand and a coterie of left intellectuals on the other, each imagining itself to be purer and more revolutionary.


However, CPM, along with the other traditional left parties in India, is in a deep crisis, electorally, politically, and also organizationally.  The CPM’s ouster from power in two major states, particularly West Bengal where the Left Front had ruled for an unprecedented 34 years, could have been an opportunity to cleanse the party of the many unsavory elements who had latched on to it during its long period of rule.  The recent 20th Congress of the CPM in Kozhikode, however, did not reveal any major self-criticism or introspection on the part of the party’s leadership regarding its recent reverses. Instead the CPM leadership seems to be repeating some of the worst traits of the Bourbon monarchy in France who were reputed to “have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.”  One piece of evidence is the expulsion of the JNU unit of CPM’s student organization, SFI, simply because it dared to criticize the leadership’s decision to support the candidature of Pranab Mukherjee for the post of President of India.  Never mind that the CPM leadership itself had been vociferously opposing the Congress and UPA over the last 4-5 years, to the extent of even joining hands with the rabidly communal BJP on occasion to oust the UPA government and going as far as expelling one of the most prominent of its senior party members, Somnath Chatterjee, who had risen to the prestigious post of Speaker of the Lok Sabha, for refusing to kowtow to the demands of the leadership on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal. But when the leadership somersaulted and suddenly supported the UPA and Congress nominee for President it then expected that all the party fronts or linked organizations would meekly fall in line.  One would have thought that this authoritarian streak would have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but, as events revealed, one would have been quite disappointed.  Another piece of evidence is the party’s failure, due to a split in its Kerala unit, to investigate and bring to book the killers of Chandrasekaran, a former CPM member, who was close to the CPM mass leader and ex-chief minister of Kerala V. S. Achuthanandan. The murderers are widely believed to be CPM cadre.


The CPM’s decline, however, only mirrors that of the traditional left all over the world, as evidenced first in the demise of the once mighty communist parties of Italy, Indonesia and France and then in the decline and fall of the “actually existing socialisms,” most importantly in the Soviet Union and China, not to speak of an emerging trend of capitalism in Vietnam, and, to a lesser extent, even in Cuba.  As a matter of fact, the traditional perspective and vision enunciated by Marx and Engels in the 19th century, the concept of the working class as the fundamental agent of revolutionary transformation (“the grave-diggers” of the bourgeoisie), and by Lenin in the early 20th century, of the communist party as the vanguard of the revolution, are in retreat.  Whatever meaning is ascribed or attributed to the concept of socialism, the traditional sequence of events associated with a Marxist-Leninist notion of socialism: viz. a vanguard communist party leading the overthrow of the bourgeois state and erecting the dictatorship of the proletariat, abolishing private property and establishing centralized ownership and control over all economic activities was historically contingent on a set of conditions that is unlikely to be realized in the future in the form these conditions existed in the mid-20th century post-second world war period when the great wave of decolonization began.  (Except, perhaps, in the minds of isolated groups of Maoists, who still think that India is a semi-feudal, semi-colonial country in the manner that Chairman Mao Zedong described pre-revolutionary China).


This does not in any way imply that imperialism has disappeared or is no longer an important force.  Opposition to U.S. imperialism in Latin America has remained strong and grown in countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, under charismatic leaders like Chavez.  The series of explosions in various countries in the Arab world, generally known as the Arab Spring, has been dominated by the desire to oust dictatorial regimes installed or supported by U.S. and European imperialism which wishes to control the region’s oil resources.  But in none of these movements is the working class or a working class party a notable participant.


It is of course doubly ironic that disintegration of traditional Marxism-Leninism as a political force happens to coincide at this moment with an acute crisis of capitalism, especially in the developed world of the European Union and North America.  The tremendous growth of inequality in the U.S. symbolized by stagnating wages of workers coupled with an explosive growth of incomes of the top 1%, and the encirclement and virtual capture of the political process by the plutocrats aided by a right-wing Supreme Court, has led to the emergence of an oppositional force, exemplified by the Occupy movement, based on a recognition.  It is true, as CPM’s 20th Congress noted, that there “are growing protests worldwide against the neo-liberal order”. However, the protests are not worldwide; indeed they are confined to wealthier societies, especially in Europe that has witnessed some of the worst excesses of late capitalism leading to tremendous income disparities but not mass poverty. In the countries that are home to most of the poor like India, there are Anna Hazare type protests for cleaner capitalism so neoliberalism and globalization can roost more than they already are doing.  The CPM congress also noted that the “period since the 19th Congress has seen the unfolding of the biggest economic crisis in the capitalist world since the Great Depression of the 1930s” and that this “crisis is a direct outcome of the neo-liberal capitalist trajectory driven by international finance capital. This prolonged crisis points to the unsustainability of finance capital-driven globalization.”  But, as Marx famously pointed out, crisis is endemic to capitalism, it is in-built in the system, and crisis usually leads to capitalism’s further consolidation and not its unsustainability.  In contrast, much more dramatic changes have taken place in socialism and communist organizations and even in the political perception of their relevance.  This feature needs to be both acknowledged and addressed, if the left in India is going to play the role the country desperately needs it to do in the future.


CPM’s decline along with that of other traditional left parties, CPI, RSP, etc. has very negative implications for addressing three major issues that confront India: mass poverty in various urban and rural areas that persists despite a faster rate of economic growth, aggressive Hindutva that seeks to overturn the secular state, and violent and chauvinistic regional and ethnic movements (e.g. Shiv Sena and its offshoots in Mumbai) directed against “outsiders” who happen to come from other parts of the country.  None of the other parties have a capability of successfully addressing these issues; they are either directly or indirectly involved in stoking them for short-term gains.  Historically, communist cadre in India has consisted of individuals with a highly developed social conscience and an energetic desire to face up to the problems afflicting the country without thinking solely of their own personal advancement.  Communist party existed to give a channel and a voice to amplify these energies, whether in trade union movements of the working class, in cultural areas, like film, art and literature, or in social areas related to such burning issues as caste oppression.  To do this successfully in the present day where there is a heightened recognition of the democratic rights of both individuals and of previously marginalized categories, requires a shedding of the top-down, autocratic structures of party organization inherited from the Leninist model.  The French philosopher Alain Badiou in his essay “The Communist Hypothesis” remarks that “Leninism, the party of the proletariat…all the inventions of the 20th century…are not really useful to us anymore.  At the theoretical level they certainly deserve further study and consideration; but at the level of practical politics they have become unworkable.”


How correct this assessment is only time will tell, but at the level of organization it does seem to have a useful lesson for the left in India and, perhaps, in other countries where the left movement is still a significant political force.  So, maybe the first step in rejuvenating the left in India is to move towards an organization that maintains the high ideals of justice and equality, traditionally associated with communism, while discarding the Leninist party model that has outlived its usefulness. Another step that is relevant to India is that the left has to pay far greater attention to the unorganized sector of the country’s economy where the vast majority of the country’s laboring class is located.


The Common Minimum Program that was adopted by UPA-1 alliance and supported by the left, including CPM, contained many valuable provisions such as the employment guarantee act, universal food security and strengthening of the public distribution system, social security for the unorganized sector, central comprehensive legislation for agricultural workers, etc.  While some of these like the employment guarantee act were adopted through legislation others remained pending.  Instead of focusing on ousting the UPA by all means of opportunistic alliances, the left needs to refocus its attention and its programs on issues that are important to the majority of the country.  We hope to bring to the fore, from time to time, through the columns of Insaf Bulletin some perspectives on what the broad left can and should do in the complex situation facing the country.

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