Prabir Purkayastha's article on the Left, 2009 Elections and beyond. Originally published in the Centre for Policy Analysis' journal.
Much of the discussions on the left after the 2009 elections have narrowly focussed on the CPI(M) -- its policies and its organisational issues. No doubt that these are important for the left movement, but it should not make us believe that these are the only issues or even the most important ones facing the CPI(M) and the left movement in the country.
Globally, the left has some common problems. It would be a partial view if we believe that the Indian scenario is largely driven by our internal dynamics. In the age of global media and instant communication, the politics of the world is intertwined in different ways. A victory for the Right in Europe, an advance for the Left in Latin America and the rise of fundamentalist forces in different parts of the world, all have an impact on India and the left.
Obviously, the decline of socialist countries, their disintegration in Russia and Eastern Europe, the market driven “socialism” in China have had a traumatic effect on the left movement across the globe, as also in India. If we look at the post World War II scenario, socialism was advancing rapidly, the major imperialist powers were in decline except the US. Liberation struggles, backed by the socialist camp, were spreading across Asia and Africa. Today, not only has the socialist camp disintegrated, we have a resurgent imperialism, which under the guise of globalisation is subjugating the economies of the Third World.
In most countries in the world, the left has weakened considerably. From the powerful force that the Communist parties were in Europe -- even in Western Europe (France and Italy) -- they have become pale shadows of themselves. Only in Greece, they still retain some strength. The Trotskyist formations had believed that with the disintegration of the socialist camp, the Communist parties would also disintegrate, leaving the left space open for them. This has not happened and if we look at the left space today in Europe, the decline of the CP’s has not lead to the emergence of new left formations to take their place. The only successful attempts for regaining the left space were in Italy and Germany. In Italy, it saw various formations come together as the Rifondazone, which after some initial success, has again gone into decline. The German attempt saw the erstwhile CP first change its name and constitution and then merge with a break away fraction of the Social Democrats. Interestingly, both attempts had the CP’s as a vital part of the re-organisation of the left.
The Latin American scenario is probably the most interesting from a global left perspective. Latin America was the first to fall under the neo-liberal sway. Pinochet’s Chile was the laboratory where its tools were first forged. Not surprisingly, it has been the first to emerge from the neo-liberal thrall – Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina – amongst others have seen major advances for the left.
In Asia, while the CP’s survived in many countries along with other left parties, the major CP’s outside the socialist countries that have still remained as important force in their countries are Nepal, India, Philippines and Japan. In other countries, the left remains splintered and fragmented wielding relatively less influence. In Palestine, the left could be a significant force, if the PFLP, PPP and DFLP come together in a united platform.
Africa, except for South Africa, Angola and Mozambique again remains a place where there are left forces but not organised left parties. The left space is filled in these countries by church and NGO’s, who are the only ones that are allowed to operate openly.
Though the left forces world over is seen to be weaker than they were post World War II, it must be seen that the left in numbers today are still significant. The anti War struggle before the Iraq invasion saw huge numbers march in countries where we might think the left is insignificant. They marched under the leadership of the old left of various hues, but nevertheless clearly identifiable as left. What is missing there today is the ability to translate these numbers into sustained political interventions, and this is primarily due to the weakening of organised political parties in the left spectrum. It is this inability to transform its numbers into political intervention that brings out the importance of organised political formations – namely the left parties.
The belief that the decline of organised political parties does not matter runs counter to the experience in different countries. Wherever there are no left parties, the polity is able to shift much more towards the right. Amorphous left mass has much less striking capacity than organised left parties – this is lesson before us. The electoral reversal of the left in India must therefore cause concern amongst all individuals that value the left space in the country, as this weakens the resistance to neo-liberal economic policies and the forces of religious identity based politics in the country. If the electoral reverse translates to a long-term decline of the left parties, this would pave the way for the two right wing formations – the Congress and the BJP -- to emerge as only alternatives in the country.
The issue for the left is not only to address the specifics of the Indian scenario. If we look at the Indian picture, it might appear that the cause of the left’s and CPI(M)’s electoral reversal is the infighting in Kerala or the land acquisition policies in Bengal, which alienated the peasantry. If we take a step further, we can also talk about the alien trends – the slow erosion of communist values – in sections of the party due to being in power for too long.
All these no doubt are proximate causes, but what we need to look at is the bigger picture. Is what is happening here exclusive to India or are there similar trends elsewhere? If the left is not strong enough to create a revolutionary situation, what happens if it wins regional and municipal elections? Does the structure of the parties have any relation to the inability of the left parties to revitalise themselves? How can the fragmentation of the left world over be reversed? And finally, what is the left vision of a new socialist state, different from the one that failed in Soviet Union and that seems to be failing in China? The answer for the Indian left will not emerge just analysing Kerala and Bengal but must take this larger context into account to create a meaningful analysis of the left in India.
State/Regional and Municipal Governments and the Left Movement
There are a number of places that the Left forces had gained control of provincial or state governments. In most of these, after a period, the left forces were unable to continue their hegemony and lost to other forces. Most of these Governments had a number of innovative measures to their credit but somewhere a strategic understanding of the role of these state governments in building a larger left movement was lost sight of and a more defensive mindset of how to continue in power became the sine qua non of their practice.
In India, the land reforms in Bengal and in Kerala and the Peoples Plan in Kerala are important examples of what the left has done which is completely different from other political parties. In Brazil’s Rio Grande de Sul province and Porte Alegre, the town municipality, again participative peoples’ planning was amongst the innovations that the left introduced. However, here also the left lost in Rio Grande de Sul as well as in Porte Alegre.
The key issue here is how we see those organs of state power, winning of which may not give the left a means to make a decisive shift and yet give a salience within the bourgeois state. When the Left came into what were called United Front Governments in 1967 and 1969 in Bengal, they were still a minority within the UF. The UF Government was seen as an instrument of struggle. The Left within the UF was able to advance land struggles significantly in this period. It was the sharpening of the land struggles that saw the split within the UF and though the UF Governments fell as a result, the left forces and the mass movements really grew through this process.
After the 1977 victory and the end of semi fascist terror in Bengal, the Left faced a new scenario. They now had a dominant position within the state Government and could craft its policies within the context of the centre state relations in the country. It was no longer possible to confine the Government role of being an instrument of struggle but also use it to provide relief to the people. The land reforms and land distribution became the focal point of its immediate program and this is what built for the CPI(M) and the left in Bengal long-term support base. Its continuing electoral success was in a large measure due to the land reforms.
The question that the left faced and will face is that providing relief to the people cannot be a long-term task. It works if it is seen as a transitory phenomenon. With the stagnation of the left movement outside Bengal and Kerala, the problem then is what does the left do in such states? Does it then see its agenda as one of providing some relief to the people as well as running a bourgeois government –a kind of capitalism with a human face -- or does it start thinking about an alternate vision of development, which it tries then to implement? The left did not squarely address this issue and instead, the left agenda became a kind of ad hoc reaction of providing relief within the measures that the central government was proposing. As the centre shifted more and more to the right and public investments dried up, it meant that even the left state governments, in order to industrialise, became more and more capital friendly and joined the race to provide more and more incentives to private capital to come to their states.
Before we take the easy path of being critical of the left in state governments, let us recognise that crafting an alternate vision of development within which the regional/provincial governments can play some role is not an easy task. The easy ideological road that some of the anti-globalisation forces take is the neo-Gandhian one of remaining an agrarian, subsistence economy. This is what was suggested during the debates on Nandigram and Singur -- build only small agro industries eschewing big industrial plants. In this view, the village economy should be the basic economic unit and transformed to be self-sustaining only by infusion of micro technologies.
Any serious examination of this will show that this cannot address the problems of the people – we would need urbanisation and industries – if we were to meet the needs of the people. The question that we need to pose is whether there is an alternate path of industrialisation instead of an alternate to industrialisation and what can the left in the state governments do to push such a path?
This is not only a challenge to the Indian left but also a global challenge. It is not only about what to do within the boundaries of capital today but also about the socialist vision of the future. A socialist economy cannot arise de novo from a capitalist one – its genesis and its forms must lie within the existing capitalist forms. The kind of organisation of production under socialism therefore needs to be envisioned. If we are able to create this blue print of a socialist economy, then the task of the placing the regional governments at the centre of this struggle for an alternate trajectory can become meaningful. If not, then the left in state governments will run out of steam once the relief agenda finishes. The bickering and the self-serving nature of a section within the left then becomes a natural consequence, if the major task of the left is to help capitalist industrialisation. It is the lack of a unifying vision of the socialist economy beyond the ownership of the means of production that today hampers the creation of an alternate vision of development.
The left in regional and other local governments in India and elsewhere must therefore address the local governments’ role within the context of this new socialist vision, if they have to go beyond providing some relief to the people. This is not to argue for a kind of incremental view of reforming the capitalist system. It is creating hegemony of this socialist vision over the capitalist one – the predatory and neo-liberal globalisation that underlies today’s capitalist vision. The political struggle for socialism needs the instrument of state governments to propagate this alternate vision of society. It is this political struggle that the left parties failed to carry out after they completed a major part of their reform agenda: relief can only carry the left so far. It is the rest that now needs to be crafted.
The Left and its Organisational Forms
One of the major discussions that have taken place in the world has been on the organisational form of the left parties, more specifically the Communist Parties. The CP’s earlier all had democratic centralism – a form in which the lower bodies elect the higher ones and no factions are allowed. Democratic centralism also means that members only disagree within their committees and not outside.
This specific form of the party came after the Bolshevik revolution when factions were banned. It could be argued that this was a specific form of the party necessitated by a fledgling socialist state besieged by all the great powers. The party evolving a command and control structure of democratic centralism is a consequence of this situation and not a general principle. To carry forward this structure to all conditions and situations that was an exigency of a specific time and place does have implications for the left movement today.
This article is not meant to address this issue, but has an important bearing on a related one. If a reunification of the left is to take place, as many have argued and some of the parties abroad have carried out, the problem is that different parties here have different operational structures. A party that believes in strict membership and is structured around democratic centralism cannot unify easily with another that believes in open membership and does not believe in democratic centralism.
Most of the parties that have united have done so after they gave up democratic centralism. In Italy, or in Germany, the important constituents had given up democratic centralism before the unification process. Therefore, the unity was based on a common view of organisation principles.
People have argued that if left forces start the process of unity, this would create a larger movement and could revitalise the left. The international experience is mixed on this one. Italy, after an initial success has seen Rifondazone decline quite drastically. The German experience at the moment is quite positive. However, it is also clear that in India a unity of the left including the Maoists is not feasible. At the moment, it is difficult to imagine left unity to be more than a united platform of democratic forces with the left parties as its core.
That having been said, it is important that the left re-examines the issue of democratic centralism. While the command control structures has helped the CPI(M) to survive the disintegration that has overtaken many of the powerful CP’s that existed elsewhere, its problems are all too real, the major one being that the opinion of the party as a whole can be disregarded by the party leadership. This can lead to a dissonance between the masses and the leaders and also create barriers between the people and the party. At times where the party needs a course correction, democratic centralism can carry on with a wrong position for longer due to this barrier in communications.
Globalisation and collapse of the economic nation space
The advance of the neo-liberal agenda and globalisation, is seen to be generally unrelated to the fault lines of ethnic and religious violence that are opening up in various countries. However, globalisation has been accompanied by far more violent “religious” and ethnic conflicts than earlier.
Why should globalisation be accompanied by such religious and ethnic identity based conflicts? In the period of struggles against colonial regimes, in most national movements, civic nationalism with its core of economic nationalism became the dominant force as economic exploitation of people and countries was at the centre of colonialism. Once the leadership, in country after country, decided to give up their economic space under the assault of neo-liberal globalisation, they had two choices: either give up the concept of the nation itself or define the nation in terms of either a cultural, linguistic or an ethnic identity. As giving up the nation would mean accepting virtual re-colonisation, therefore the need arose for falling back on narrow nationalism with its attendant ethnic or religious fault lines. It is not surprising therefore, if we find that along with penetration of global finance capital, there is also a rise of identity based politics. By redefining the nation in narrow religious or ethnic terms, nationalism is sought to be preserved, while giving up economic sovereignty.
This of course the exclusionary nationalism that led to the rise of Nazi Germany and it is not an accident that the leading lights of the Hindutva forces had openly expressed their love for Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. Their Indian nationalism was Hindu nationalism in which all religious minorities would remain outside the boundary of the nation.
The South Asian countries, all show a similar characteristic in this period. All have seen the rise of religious and ethnic identity based politics. India saw the rise of “Hindu nationalist” forces in precisely the period that started with neo-liberal reforms. The BJP, the political front of the RSS lead two successive coalition governments – from 1998 to 2004. Similarly, Islamic forces have gained ground in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Sri Lanka has the problem of defining itself as either a Simhala country or as a multi ethnic state. Even after the crushing of the LTTE forces, the issue of defining Sri Lankan nationalism still remains.
Faced with the problem of this divisive nationalism, some sections of the left have been arguing against the use of nationalism or going beyond the nation state. This would be to surrender the legacy of the national liberation movements to the exclusionary nationalism of Hindu, Islamic or other ethnic forces. As long as imperialism and re-colonisation remains as threats to the countries of the third world, nationalism is also a terrain on which the left forces must battle.
The key issue is how does the left fight on these two fronts – imperialism and religious identity based exclusionary nationalism.
The Left, Religious Identity Based Forces and Imperialism
The religious identity based politics has its historic roots in the same kind of politics that gave rise to Fascism in Europe. The threat of such religious identity based politics turning the country into a fascist one is all too real. The BJP and its pogroms in Gujarat, its links with Hindu terror groups makes clear that the threat is no idle one.
Similarly, the Taliban forces in Pakistan make no bones about what they stand for. Even though the forces allied to Taliban lost the elections in North West Frontier province to a relatively secular party, the ANP, it was physically forced out ANP from the area under the threat of the gun. For the people, there are either the guns of the state (or US drones and missiles) or the guns of the Taliban. The fact that the Taliban is also anti US imperialist as a force, does raise the issue how we see the anti imperialist struggle in Pakistan,
It is obvious that the ability to fight the twin challenges of identity based politics and imperialism would be a lot easier if a broad unity can be forged on both these counts. One of the problems in forging a broad front is that should the front be against one or both threats? If we forge an anti-imperialist front, should we also include religious identity based forces that are completely opposed to secular politics? If we forge a secular front, should it include sections that are secular but agree with the neo-liberal agenda?
Fortunately for us in India, things are a little simpler than in Pakistan on the anti-imperialist front. The Hindutva forces – the BJP -- see themselves as natural allies of the US and are also in favour of economic liberalisation. The Congress has given up its anti-imperialist agenda and is espousing economic liberalisation as its current agenda. Strategically, it also is willing to join the US camp. This shift in Congress policies is sharpest in its relationship with Israel – it has continued the pro-Israel shift in strategic thinking ushered in by the BJP. Therefore, it might appear that a broad front against both parties is possible.
However, the issues are more complex than this. As in 2004, the left may have to take into account the threat from the BJP to the secular fabric of the nation. Similarly, on issues of an independent foreign policy such as the nuclear deal, it might find itself on same side as the BJP in Parliament. As long as there is no real alternative that the left can offer to the people, it will have to pick and choose its immediate course keeping both these threats in mind.
It is not possible to bring about any major change in the Indian scenario without the left becoming a much stronger force. It is also clear that such a left force can only emerge from mass movements taking up basic class issues. The question today is also how we address a political scenario where the left has some mobilising strength as well as some electoral strength. If it decides to fight alone, it will be limited to a small minority with little impact on the larger polity. And that polity can shift dangerously towards fascist forces. If it only plays the bourgeois game of numbers, it will lose its identity. The key for the left is therefore to build mass movements on basic class issues, while creating a long-term left and democratic alternative to both the Congress and the BJP.
While we address the long-term issues by patiently building mass movements and a long-term political alternative, how do we fight the immediate issues that are allied with either the imperialist or the fascist agenda? The left needs to build multiple issue-based platforms for campaigns and movements on these issues, which go beyond the political parties. For this, I believe that the left in parallel building a long-term political alternative, must also build issue-based coalitions. These coalitions can be much broader than the political coalitions discussed above and also be more flexible. The left needs therefore to have this twin strategy in place if it has to negotiate the complex terrain of nationalism, secularism and anti-imperialism.
The Need for a New Socialist Vision
The debate within the left in India has touched on many aspects of the failure of the socialist states. To many, it was a failure of the political formation that led to the failure of the socialist states. To others, it was their economies, which failed to stand up to competition from the more technologically advanced capitalist. This article is not about the why the socialist states failed. What I am raising is can we attract people to the left without addressing the question of what kind of socialism do we want to build: whether we will build a new form of socialism or will we recreate the old one? Without addressing this central question, we are unlikely to go forward.
I have already underlined the importance of a new socialist vision in the context of the left parties and local governments. This to me is the central question confronting the left – a new vision of socialism that is distinct from the old one. This is not to argue that the old socialist vision was wrong. It was limited – as all visions are -- by its time and its place. The time was the early twentieth century when technology was largely in the Fordian paradigm of economies of scale. The place was Soviet Union, large parts of which were emerging from feudal autocracy. To create a socialist vision with the technology fix of early twentieth century is to miss the enormous possibilities of a decentralisation and flexible forms of production. This is what global capital seeks to exploit, as it turns more and more away from productive forms of capital. If we look at technology, the possibilities of de-scaling production are immense from a socialist perspective.
This is not to argue that all production needs to be de-centralised and de-scaled. All that I am pointing out is that industrialisation based on huge factories are no longer valid across a class of commodities. It may still be required in some specific sectors such as steel plants, but not in all.
This vision of a new socialist economy need not be one based on petty commodity production with low levels of productivity. Cutting edge technology no longer needs large economies of scale as early twentieth century demanded and can dovetail advanced forms of production with much smaller unit sizes.
The other issue under socialism that needs to be addressed is how people’s ownership of the means of production expresses itself. Earlier, this meant government ownership. Is it possible to think of ownership of the factories by workers or the people not as centralised government ownership but express this in other ways? The Soviets were the earliest form of this expression under socialism and still remains an alternative to government ownership.
How would we plan for such a socialist economy? The simplest planning model is to consider the entire economy as one large model and try and optimise this model. This was socialist planning did and created the command economy. A future socialist economy could conceivably create future plans working together collaboratively as a number of units -- a participative planning from below. The Kerala model of peoples plan could then be a possible way that future socialist states could plan.
The re-imagining the future lies at the heart of the socialist project. It is neither the intention here nor the claim that this article provides such a vision. What I want to underline is that without the left resolving some of these issues, not only will it fail to gather new forces, but will also fail to continue in its current trajectory. The setback to the left will continue unless it addresses the central issues of a new socialist vision, the principles of organisation and how it perceives its trajectory. This is not only an issue confronting the left in India alone, but also a truly global challenge.
Back to the Future
There is a belief amongst some sections that there is no need for organised left parties today and a diffused global civil society can fight global capital. The problem with this position is that diffused movements cannot constitute alternatives in any real sense, as they have to confront finally the well-organised, coercive instruments of the state. It is only organised political parties that can address the question of state power.
It is only through organised movements – locally, regionally and nationally – can we confront the state. The organised movements here have to work with similar movements elsewhere to provide global resistance. Global capital cannot be fought only locally, or defeated locally. Instead, a global vision, a global network encompassing local, national and global resistances is the way forward. There is no need for a new international but there is a need for a network of global left forces coming together to fight global capital. It is this larger re-organisation that the left will have to address.
What the left needs to do today is to believe that its numbers are much larger than within its organised fold. It needs to build a set of coalitions that will give it much greater intervention in the policy issues, while building its organisation for the future. It needs to rework its basic socialist vision. It needs to see its current challenge as an opportunity to re-examine and rework its current agenda. It is a long and difficult path. But why should we believe making history was ever going to be easy; or without its ups and downs?