Vinod Mubayi


In the last year and a half, the CPM has faced intense criticism from a number of its erstwhile supporters among the left intellectuals and commentators in India. The thrust of this criticism is that CPM has abandoned socialism and is practicing anti-democratic governance in the states where it leads the government.  Are these criticisms justified and do they make sense when the communal fascist forces are again threatening the country?

Beginning in late 2006, a few months after its overwhelming victory in the West Bengal Assembly elections, the CPM (Communist party of India-Marxist) has faced a barrage of withering criticism, not from its political opponents but from its erstwhile “friends and allies” constituting the independent left in India.  The main thrust of this criticism according to some is that CPM has abandoned socialism and is now building capitalism in a manner that fits in well with the neo-liberal, globalization road that India has embarked on.  Others have focused on the alleged anti-democratic nature of CPM governance and have gone so far as to compare the actions of CPM in the Singur and Nandigram episodes to those of the Gujarat government led by Narendra Modi in the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002. These are severe criticisms indeed.  While relations between CPM and those further to the left like the numerous Marxist-Leninist groups, particularly those who merged recently to form CPI (Maoist), who reject the entire system of parliamentary politics had become antagonistic many years ago, something similar appears to be happening to the many intellectuals and activists who earlier supported the Left Front governments led by CPM in the three states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura.   


The experience of Indian democracy ever since the first elections in independent India in 1952 is unique in one respect.  Nowhere else in the world has a communist party managed to consistently obtain a majority of seats in free and fair elections, albeit at the state nor the national level, except in India.  This fact earlier used to be a cause of some celebration amongst the non-party independent left, particularly when the Left Front governments in West Bengal implemented land reforms and gave rights to peasants or their counterparts in Kerala achieved almost a 100% literacy rate and the highest Human Development Index among Indian states.  However, it appears now, as the old adage has it, that familiarity has bred contempt and the long stretch of CPM-led governance has now instead become a lightning rod for criticism amongst its erstwhile intellectual supporters.


The recent spurt of criticism was unleashed after a statement of the ex-Chief Minister of Bengal, Jyoti Basu, that ‘socialism is not possible now’ was published in newspapers in January 2008.  Basu was reported to have stated “We want capital, both foreign and domestic. After all we are working in a capitalist system.” He went to say that industrialization in the state had to follow a capitalist course but the government had to protect the interests of workers.  Basu’s remarks were meant to support the statements of the current Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya that decision regarding industries should be left to the investors and not face bureaucratic or political interference.  These statements have attracted a storm of criticism from left intellectuals and commentators about the CPM’s abandonment of socialism.


The veteran left commentator Sumanta Banerjee’s piece “Goodbye Socialism” in the EPW of January 26-Feb 1, 2008, is an example.  Banerjee begins his piece with a joke about Mao, during Nixon’s visit to China in 1971, telling the driver of his car at an intersection to “give the left signal, but turn right” and goes on to say that while the signal on Mao’s car at least blinked left, in the Tata Nano car of politics that the CPM is driving today even the signal has been turned off as evidenced by Basu’s statements. One wonders if the implication of the joke is that it is better to be duplicitous about what one is doing rather than straightforward and realistic.


To be fair to Banerjee, he does acknowledge that this situation is not new, in fact the dilemma of the parliamentary left began with the first election of the communist government in Kerala in 1957:  How far can our leaders implement pro-poor measures within the given structure of the Indian Constitution and its plethora of laws that are heavily loaded against the poor? By agreeing to govern a state under those laws, aren’t they legitimising the anti-poor system and diluting their commitment to the revolu­tionary goal of overhauling that very system? How are they to reconcile the twin priorities of “struggle” and “governance” struggle against the bourgeois order, and governance of states which they rule under the same order?”


However, in dealing with this question, one has to recall that 2008 is not 1957 and that there have been many changes in the global and national scene since that time. In fact, intellectuals have to first ask what socialism means today when we first consider the way that the experiments of the Soviet and Chinese revolutions have turned out. Most just ignore the question, a few maintain that neither the Soviet Union nor China were ever socialist, while some others think that socialism means a large and growing public sector on the lines of India’s economy in the 1970s. It is good that Banerjee, in contrast to many other intellectuals who are content to just hurl invectives at the CPM, seeks to at least present “alternative options” to the CPM’s “rationalization of capitalism”. So what are these options? In Banerjee’s view they are “small-scale agro-industrial projects, promotion of poultry, milk cooperatives, cultivation of selected commercial and high yielding crops, building of…bridges and roads…re-opening of closed factories and re-employment of their workers…”  The West Bengal government website lists most, if not practically all, of Banerjee’s “options” as ongoing programs of the government in the agricultural and infrastructural sectors.  In fact, every Indian state highlights its “achievements” in the agricultural and small-scale and infrastructural sectors so one could view Banerjee’s “options” as a mere recitation of the obvious. Of course, Banerjee could claim, as almost any analyst could about any government program in India, that the CPM-led government has not been implementing these policies, it has just been paying lip service to them while kowtowing to big capitalists. As far as re-opening factories is concerned, the economist Kaushik Basu writes about the experience of the left front government in the EPW of February 2-8, 2008 that “For nearly 30 years it [i.e., the CPM led government] took a tough line on industrialists – if you want to function in the state you have to pay workers good wages and offer good terms…In response, the industrialists did not employ workers on better terms; they just did not employ workers. They left the state. What West Bengal saw over 30 years was a steady deindustrialization. Since agricultural growth cannot in the best of times match the high rates at which industry and services can grow, West Bengal lost out overall, despite its good agricultural performance.” Kaushik points out the dilemma confronting governments: “Not to attract capital is to doom your workers to poverty and employment” while “To attract capital is to contribute to growing global inequality.” Banerjee and other intellectuals could have chosen to analyze this dilemma that affects or afflicts every democratic government in the world that has to win votes on the basis of its record of performance.  By merely lobbying rhetorical bombs at Jyoti Basu and CPM, they highlight their own political irrelevance at a time when the Indian economy is growing overall at the rapid rate of almost 9% per year, with the benefits inequitably divided of course, as is characteristic of capitalist development, but the dark clouds of communal fascism are again hovering ominously on the horizon.


In studying the laws governing the historical evolution of social formations, Marx conceived of socialism as succeeding capitalism when the development of “the material forces of production in society come into conflict with the existing relations of production…From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes the period of social revolution” (Critique of Political Economy).  Marx pointed out however that “No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed, and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.” (ibid.) In Marx’s time and later, socialist transformation was thought to be possible only in the then advanced capitalist countries like Germany, France, and England.  In trying to justify the revolutions that actually occurred in economically backward and undeveloped countries like Russia and China party leaders at that time put forward various theoretical arguments like “weakest links in the chain” and the concept of two-stage revolution with the proletarian party leading the revolution completing the bourgeois-democratic stage that the largely non-existent bourgeoisie failed to do. With the wisdom of hindsight, one can argue and debate about the merits or otherwise of these arguments.  One can also debate the concept of the withering of the state, that Marx and Engels envisaged as a prerequisite for the transition to communism, under the kind of “socialism” that actually existed and argue whether more control over the economy would lead to a withering or a strengthening of the state machinery.  These are all long-range issues and one may well claim that what Jyoti Basu and CPM in West Bengal are following is a realistic approach to economic development given that there is still  “room” for further development of “productive forces” within the existing “social order” in line with Marx’s dictum above.


But is the advent or non-advent of socialism the main problem facing India today? How about democracy and democratic rights? As a companion article in this issue indicates, national elections are due in a year’s time and there is every possibility that communal religious fundamentalists could triumph again with all the implications this has for democratic freedoms in India. Comparing CPM in Bengal to BJP in Gujarat is both indefensible and tragic. Indefensible, because CPM apologized for its mistakes in the Nandigram episode while neither Modi nor BJP have ever uttered a word of regret for the vastly greater crimes committed in the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002; Hindutva cadres instead boast of them as heard on the Tehelka tapes. Tragic, because the left parties like CPI and CPM in India are and have been the only consistent and committed opponents of communal fascism at the national level. Elevating reasonable differences to antagonistic levels on long range issues at a time when more immediate dangers loom is a mistake that will not only impact the left parties but also those who consider themselves left activists and progressives.

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