Daya Varma


The contradiction between organization and individual freedom has been addressed in bourgeois democracy by devising various provisions. Lenin’s organizational method of “Democratic centralism”, vulgarized to its extreme by  Stalin leaves little room for individual freedom; yet disciplinary measures under this method can vary from simple censorship to expulsion and execution (when in power). The expulsion of veteran communist leader Somnath Chatterjee for abiding by his conscience and parliamentary duty against the dictates of CPM leadership is an extreme and uncalled for measure. – Ed.


There is an inherent contradiction between adherence to the dictates of an organization and following individual freedom of conscience. It cannot be otherwise.


Bourgeois democracy, which needed both, devised various systems to accommodate individual freedom while developing organizations. Discretionary power of courts, sanctity of freedom of expression, intent as opposed to action in judging individuals, etc are some of the methods. The least accommodating organization is the army but here too there is now some provision for desertion without being hanged or shot.


In contrast communist organizations and societies based on principles developed in the former Soviet Union paid greater attention to limiting individual freedom in order to strengthen organization. A formal shape to this was given by Lenin’s organizational method based on the absolute necessity of “Democratic centralism”. Since democratic centralism suits leaders, Stalin took it to its extreme vulgarization. Indeed in the 1937 trials, the accused were initially charged with subversive activities but some were merely charged for being Trotskyites. Thus political views themselves became sufficient ground for execution and one of the accused was even executed despite vehemently denying Trotskyite leanings. Surprisingly, Stalin did not think of executing adversaries on the basis of dreams – the content of which could have been established by appropriate interrogation.


Democratic centralism is the constitutional method of all communist parties, not only of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM.  There must be such a clause in the CPM constitution, which allowed the Polit Bureau to take the action it did against Somnath Chatterjee. In this sense, Prakash Karat, the General Secretary of CPM was just doing his job. Why should he be criticized?


On the other hand, even in communist party constitutions, there are other clauses for punitive action such as criticism, charge sheet, censor, suspension, etc. The specific circumstances in which Somnath Chatterjee disobeyed the Party Orders are a bit complex for two reasons and therefore there is some ground for debating the merits and demerits of the punitive action against him.  The first relates to a choice between abiding with his duty to a nonpartisan position as the Speaker of the Indian Parliament, a position he could only accept with the consent, indeed with the pride, of the CPM. The second is the question of individual conscience.


During the Nuremburg trials and subsequent similar trials, whether fairly or unfairly, the accused were charged with crimes against humanity because they obeyed rather than disobeyed the orders of the organization to which they belonged. Thus, obeying orders rather than disobeying them was a crime.


In the specific case during the no-confidence motion in the Indian Parliament on July 22, 2008, the question of conscience did arise. Should a communist under orders of his Party Leadership side with a fascist party like BJP or not?


It is puzzling that Karat and other leaders did not consider the possibility that there might be party members in the parliament and membership in general who might not like to create conditions for BJP to come to power notwithstanding the pros and cons of the nuclear deal. It is hard to believe that the entire membership of CPM is like a herd of sheep without any conscience of its own and they would rather defend a dubious version of nationalism even if they have to side with fascism.


A slightly more generous consideration of these factors could have allowed Prakash Karat and the CPM Central Committee to take a more generous view of the position of Somnath Chatterjee, even if it was judged by them to be a Supreme Crime. 

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