This is a slightly edited reproduction of a conversation between Ashok Mitra, well known economist and former finance minister of West Bengal (1977-1987) and Prasenjit Bose, leftwing activist and Pragoti editorial member, which has been recently published in the India Today. Ashok Mitra and Prasenjit Bose, who represent two generations of the Indian Left, discuss contemporary politics and the Left in a session moderated by India Today Senior Correspondent Tithi Sarkar at Mitra's home in Alipore, Kolkata.
Prasenjit Bose (PB): We have been witnessing a global economic crisis for the past four years. The triumphalism which we saw in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union - Fukuyama saying that it's the end of history - how would you look at such a prognosis today, in the light of the global crisis?
Ashok Mitra (AM): I would say that Marx's ideas about the final stage of capitalism are about to be vindicated by the latest series of developments in the United States, as well as in Europe. The falling rate of profit we have been reading in textbooks, we have been discussing galore; now suddenly we find that what Marx had predicted has come true. The United States is trying hard. The Europeans are trying to pick lessons from what their American gurus are suggesting but to no avail. Employment is falling, the rate of growth stagnates and suddenly we find, despite what lyricists on behalf of capitalism might chant, the world is really taking a shape which was foretold by Marx hundred and fifty years ago.
PB: I think that there is definitely a return of interest in Marxism, not only its intellectual components but also in the way we are seeing popular movements coming up in Europe today. In countries like Spain and Greece there have been huge protests by the trade unions and the workers which are leading to political changes as well. The Occupy Wall Street movement also caught the imagination of people across the world. Marx's analysis of capitalism as a crisis-ridden system based on exploitation is definitely getting vindicated. But what we are seeing today in the political domain - is there a return of the kind of revolutionary politics that we saw hundred years back or are there new trends that one has to look into?
AM: I do admit that there is a certain qualitative difference between what had taken place throughout the major part of the 20th century and what is happening now. Certainly as a major consequence of so-called economic liberalization - which others call globalization but I wouldn't call it globalization because the original concept of globalization is very much a Marxist concept. It was Marx who talked about globalization of the working class - anyway, what is currently happening is that there are a lot of discreet movements in various countries which are trying to articulate the grievances and discontent of the suffering masses. But the gelling element is missing. The mobilization which took place through the major part of the 20th century under the leadership of the Communist Parties in country A, country B or country C, we find it fading all of a sudden. It seems that the masses are groping for an alternative formulation for expressing what they want. And this groping for the alternative is where, sad to say, the Communist parties have failed. This is a major development which nobody can deny.
PB: This is a very interesting point. I remember reading a major piece which you wrote for the EPW where you noted that in the past decade and a half, the biggest political upheavals against neo-liberal capitalism have happened in Latin America. It has been widely commented upon that there has been a pink tide or a continental shift towards the Left. But whichever shade of Left rules in each of these Latin American countries - you have these moderate social democratic regimes in Brazil and Argentina and more radical regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia - none of them are obviously being led by traditional Communist parties. Of course, you still have the Communist regime in Cuba but they also seem to be undergoing many structural changes. Do you think that the experience of the Soviet Union - and most of the socialist regimes which came after it in the 20th century followed the Soviet model - has something to do with this? Because the kind of Left that is staging a comeback today is making certain departures from that Soviet model. Isn't this necessary?
AM: Let me point out one additional feature of the Latin American developments. Even in Cuba, Fidel Castro did not really belong to the Communist mainstream. In fact, when he started his movement, he had quite a few interjections from the official Communist party. It was only after his revolution became successful that the established Communist party surrendered their soul and body to the Castro movement. Having made that point, I would still say that the basic issue is that the Soviet Union is gone but the hangover of the system which the Soviet leadership had built still persists. And much of that persistence has to do with a reluctance to try out newer experiments with the party structure and with ways of communion between the party and the people. Progressives in a particular country co-exist with arch-conservatives, even with outright fascists. You have to fight them and win against them. Now, if you have to fight them and win against them, you must be able, all the while, to read the mind of the masses. It's very difficult to have that kind of constant and continuous conversation with the entire range of people which constitute a nation if you stick to your old format of discipline within the old Communist party.
PB: Not only are you making a very significant point but I think this really needs some deeper reflection. Is it only about the organisational structure or discipline which in Communist terminology is called democratic centralism? Or is it the very ideological vision of socialism that was represented by the Soviet Union - in terms of a single-party state, a very top-down model of socialism which led to deep alienation of the people and ultimately the Soviet Union collapsed. If you look at China today, it is very interesting, because a lot of people think that China has moved along with the times, has adjusted itself to globalization and has done a very good job of it. But there are very important contradictions emerging in China whose development path is giving rise to protests by the peasantry, the working class and increasingly there is a tendency to suppress dissent. And this is dissent arising from very genuine concerns and material needs of the people. So, in one way while China has transformed its economic system through greater marketisation, one can argue that there has been a reversal in terms of political democratization. The Chinese state seems to have become even more removed from the people. In this context, isn’t there a need to relook and rethink socialism as a more democratic and open system?
AM: I would say that the problem you have raised should constitute a part of the dialogue between the constituents of the Communist party and the masses. There should be genuine give-and-take. Within our country there is a multi-party system and it is not enough for us to state to the people that there is a certain issue on which we have gone wrong and we have discussed the matter within our folds and we are going to correct it ourselves. Now, the party may be satisfied but the people won't be. The people would, in fact, want to know the internal process through which we have reached a particular decision. Now this is inevitable in a multi-party system; if you want to succeed in such a system then obviously you have to take the people into confidence about the kind of discussion we are having within the party. However, I quite realise that there is the other side of the picture. That there must be a certain minimum modicum of discipline in a revolutionary party. Without discipline, a party cannot really move forward. But this is the big challenge; how we sustain the discipline and yet modulate it so that it satisfies the urges of the people.
PB: Just building on what you are saying; I think another important aspect of contemporary times is the revolution which has come in communication technologies. Today in China there are over 500 million Internet users. In India too we are rapidly progressing in terms of the number of Internet users. People are able to express their views more freely and the scope for lateral communication has expanded across geographical boundaries. Now people in India and China are commenting and reacting freely on the cyberspace on developments in the United States or Latin America or other parts of the world. So, this whole concept - that there are some wise men sitting at the top deciding the destiny of a movement, a nation or the people while the others are inert and passive recipients of ideas from above – this appears to be an anachronism. Especially when there is no proper mechanism through which ideas and critical opinions can flow from the bottom to top. Don't you think that this is also a very big problem?
AM: Your point is very well taken. In fact, the lesson should have been learnt from the Soviet experience. It was the Voice of America which was really responsible for the downfall of the Soviet system. Because you can close your frontier, you can prohibit the import of books, you can prohibit the import of cinema which is not to your liking, but you couldn't stop the Voice of America. I think we should have started worrying about this development at least 40 years earlier.
PB: Banning, censuring, prohibiting is not the way society is meant to be. It should be a more free society.
AM: On the other hand, we must not lose our balance either. We have to remember there are 500 thousand villages in this country. Telecommunications are only still striving to reach and we must try to evolve other forms of communication, so that we can also engage our friends in the countryside in this knowledge-developing process that is on all over the world. And for that perhaps in the interim period we need to think of alternative devices.
PB: Since you are mentioning the villages of India, let us talk a bit about what is happening in India today. Isn’t it a remarkable fact - that global capitalism is in a crisis from which it is unable to come out, at least so far. You have, in Latin America, a Left which is quite resurgent. In Europe at least in the peripheral countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal, there is a revival of Left-led mass movements. But in India we have a different picture. On the one hand, we find that under this present dispensation led by the Congress, the economic situation has deteriorated very sharply during the last three years. The inflation problem persists, now growth is slowing down, you have an increasingly precarious external debt situation and on the top of it all, there is a proliferation of corruption scandals. It has almost become a scam-a-week government. In this milieu, unfortunately, one doesn't see a vibrant Left movement. Isn't this a paradox? Why do you think this is happening in our country today?
AM: I would say that there are two factors at work. Number one, the Communist party on which the masses had bestowed their hope in India, was very clever in analyzing the social situation much ahead of anybody else. The party had diagnosed the caste-class dichotomy in the Indian system. But despite the efforts mounted over the past 60 or 70 years, the party of the working class failed to solve the deadlock and sectarian parties have taken advantage. The other factor is the tradition of hero worship which is a bane of the Indian psyche. We are respectful, we are obedient by nature. We try to take at face value what our leaders tell us. And the leaders can be quite unscrupulous and the leadership of the two major political parties has demonstrated that, yet they continue to be leaders. The masses realize that some hanky-panky is going on, the people realize that some stealing is taking place in high places and yet there is that hesitation in that moment. Will it be manners to speak up against somebody who belongs to such a holy family? Corruption has now emerged as an acceptable attribute of the system. But an economic arrangement which sustains corruption cannot last very long because the whole machinery of running the economy will go to seed.
PB: I see your point completely. I think that what is perhaps missing in the discussion on corruption so far - but it is an undeniable fact and it is bound to acquire a central place in the debates over corruption in India in the days to come - is the link between the neo-liberal economic policies being pursued by the government and the kind of corruption scandals that we are seeing today. From the 2G spectrum allocation, the coal block allocation to the KG basin gas scam, all these scams involve big corporates who are direct beneficiaries and a nexus seems to have developed between these big corporates and sections of our ruling class politicians and bureaucrats. No political party seems to be immune from that. From the Congress to the BJP to most of the regional parties, all of them seem to have their hands in it. There is a systemic thing behind corruption, isn't it?
AM: This is where the moral fibre has weakened and the alternative could have been presented by the Left but the Left is much too disorganised. This is the dilemma which is daily confronting the Indian polity that the system is getting more and more corrupt by the day. There is open contact between the corporate sector and those who run the administration. You have a price and I pay the price for you. I satisfy you and you satisfy me. But even those in a position to do something are simply licking their fingers and waiting for their time to come. In such a situation, the people demand the Left to offer not only a political leadership but also a moral leadership.
PB: Are you suggesting that there is a crisis of that within the Left today?
AM: If the Left leadership is too bemused by the pattern of administration set up by the crooks that run the government at the moment, then of course there is no hope for the people. This is where the Left can succeed. Only when the Left sticks to its own ideology, only when it sticks to the Left morality. When the Left morality is gone, the masses are left in loneliness.
PB: You are raising a very important point. One has often felt while hearing this entire discourse about the Left changing with the times and coming to terms with globalization…fair enough, the world has changed, the Left should change too…but what is the exact direction in which that change should occur? This has been a matter of much debate. Isn't it the case within our society, even today, and even within the younger generation - not only the middle class youth, the young workers, the young farmers, the young rural workers - the old virtues of the Left still have much currency. And this moral leadership that you referred to reminds me of the fact that during the anti-corruption upsurges in the 70s - and then during Rajiv Gandhi's time, when VP Singh came out of the government and there was a huge anti-corruption movement - in all those anti-corruption initiatives, Communist leaders like Jyoti Basu and EMS Namboodiripad were seen as the most vocal voices of protest and disgust against corruption. Don’t you think that somewhere in trying to change with globalization, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water as far as the Left is concerned?
AM: This is what is really worrying me the most now. I have heard some elements among the Left rather carelessly and I'd say a bit irresponsibly remarking on what is to be done if the system gets corrupted and saying that it's inevitable that some of this corruption is bound to seep into our own movement, but you must be careful. This is where I'd say that our leadership is facing a challenge. That if the rest of society has become corrupt, should I too join the bandwagon? This is where the Left morality has to assert itself. No, I am not part of this system, I have the Left ideology to follow and the Left ideology tells me those certain essential truths which do not alter whatever the external circumstances are. Let the rest of the parties go to dogs, we will not allow our party go to dogs. That kind of bold statement can be made only by a party which has faith in the working class, which has faith in the masses. And if we have faith in the masses and you have constant communication with the masses, then you can sustain yourself from what the masses have to offer to you.
PB: Coming to West Bengal, this is the state where a Communist party has been in power for the longest period, not only in India but the entire subcontinent. Out of the three decades that the Left has been in office, you have yourself been, at least for a decade, the finance minister in that government. From whatever we know, from our experience as students in Calcutta, there was a lot of promise that the Left Front government had held out to all sections of people, to the working class, the peasantry, the youth and the unemployed. At least in the first phase of the Left Front government, it definitely delivered. However, today morning I was shocked to see a survey done by a newspaper. May not be a very representative sample, only 1000 urban youth - 50 per cent of whom are saying that Mamata Banerjee is more Left than the Left. From that phase, 1977 to say 80s, to where we have arrived today, how do you look at this journey? Isn't it very ironical what has happened?
AM: I think this is a tragic development. Let me make one point. We talk about degeneration within the party but I would still say that if you compare parties across the country, a Communist party has perhaps the most dedicated, honest and selfless band of workers. No other party can match what the Communist party possesses. Certainly this is true for West Bengal. Now it has been discredited because of the misdoings or I'd say the misjudgements on the part of some elements, somewhere within the party. But by and large, I'd still say that it is a very healthy party, it is a very honest party and it is a party that can be relied upon. I would always make a distinction between the party in Bengal and the leadership of the party in Bengal. I'd say that the leadership can occasionally go amiss but not the party. I am still very proud of the West Bengal party as it exists today but the only thing that it needs is perhaps a wiser band of leadership.
PB: Isn't it slightly more complex than that? The obvious question that will arise is, if the party is still something to be proud of in terms of its rank and file and yet obviously the leadership has gone amiss - otherwise why this electoral debacle alongwith a political decline and ideological confusion - the leadership is definitely responsible to a very great extent, as you mentioned. But is it because there is a problem with the structure where the rank and file has a superior opinion which does not get reflected? For instance, the obvious question is that why doesn't the leadership get democratically replaced? If there are better elements within the rank and file, why don't other people democratically come up and replace the leadership which has gone amiss? Or is it the case that in a party - especially a Communist party - the leadership has a disproportionately larger share of both achievements and failures? And the kind of wrong trends that we discussed earlier have percolated below too. What I find very striking is the continuing defection from the ranks of the Left to the Trinamool Congress. Despite TMC's populist rhetoric, it is very much a right-wing authoritarian and reactionary force. If such defections are taking place at the village level, it shows that today somewhere the Left ranks comprise elements that are not very committed to the Left ideology. Don't you think so?
AM: This really links up with the issues that we were discussing earlier, where the masses hold a certain point of view which does not get reflected or does not get transmitted to the upper echelons because of the system of discipline that is enforced. To put it a little more bluntly, where the entire process of democratic centralism works rather odiously, there is more centralism and a shade less of democracy. This has been a problem. I would say in the case of West Bengal - I may sound a little facetious - the nature of the leadership that took control of the party in the late 50s or early 60s and thereon, their motivations were alright. But you have the party structure which breeds democratic centralism. On top of that, you have your own antecedents. So what is your antecedent? You look into the character of your leadership. It is still Bengali upper middle-class, Hindu upper middle-class with feudal roots which goes back to barely two or three generations. Emotionally and intellectually, they might have got converted to the Communist cause. But when it comes to behaviour - everyday behaviour - enforcing party discipline or presiding over the party administration, there is a feudal streak that keeps recurring.
PB: Are you making the point that the era of Bengali bhadrolok Communists is over?
AM: All I am saying is that a compound of democratic centralism and Bengali feudalism can be a dangerous concoction, of which we have been victims in Bengal, of which the party in Bengal has been a political victim.
PB: What you are saying are serious matters that one should deeply reflect on. On a more serious note, our country and especially West Bengal, it needs the Left. What is the future of the workers, the peasants and the poor people without a strong Left movement in the country and especially in West Bengal? Given the state of the Left today and the role of the Left in democracy, how do you see the way forward? There is so much debate and discussion going on about the revival of the Left. But how is a comeback of the Left to be made possible?
AM: I would say that it would be a mistake to stop the flow of debates. Let there be more open debates and discussions and I'd say that one way of revival certainly would be to open up the Communist party in West Bengal. We must keep on hammering and hammering at the party, that this is our final hope, this is our only hope. The Left is the only hope for the country, the rest are all scum. We have known through our experience that they are scum. But the Left must be kept pure. In order that the Left might stay pure, it is necessary for the Left to be opened up. Those who are inside the Left movement must know what is happening in the rest of the society, they must not be kept away from the developments that are taking place. For example, those who belong to the Left, you should never tell them to read only the party journal. I'd tell them to read the party journal but also what our enemies have been saying. You judge for yourself whether what we are saying is right or what our enemies are saying is right. You ensure thereby that at least some of the things that are happening in the rest of the world percolate inside the party. The only truth may lie with the party but occasionally that truth needs to be amended.
PB: This notion of the party having the monopoly over truth has been linked by many Marxists to the concept of a vanguard party. That the Communist ideology in its most pristine form should be reflected in a well-structured, disciplined and regimented Communist party. Across the world, especially in Latin America, this notion itself has come under serious challenge.
AM: The real challenge is whether you can have a disciplined party without having a regimented party. And this is the issue with which we have to wrestle.
PB: I think it's not only the question of a regimented party. I am pointing out to the fact that all across the country, you have a tremendous growth of social movements. Not only the movements of the adivasis and other deprived, marginalised communities but also new social movements. If you see over the past 10 years, the most progressive ideas at the national level - for instance, the Right to Information Act…a lot of these revelations and exposures over corruption are happening thanks to the Right to Information…or the NREGA, the job guarantee programme - all these ideas today are being thrown up by social movements. A large number of people across India are being attacked and killed by the mafia…I think the numbers of such martyrs must have crossed 50 by now…are RTI activists, who are fighting against corruption at the local level. They are taking on the system and therefore they are being targeted. Given the Latin American experience, don't you think that in India there is a big need for the organised Left to have a more close dialogic relationship with these people's movements - the coming together of the political and the social Left, as they say in Latin America? Do you see some scope for that and can that be the way forward?
AM: This is precisely what we are saying. You admit that you failed to solve the caste problem and since you could not offer leadership to those who have been at the receiving end of caste discrimination, others have stepped in. Make a frank admission that alright, where we have failed organisationally, they have succeeded. Let us try to come to an understanding with them. That should be one criterion. Those who are not with us are not, by definition, our enemies. That old notion should be dropped. Those who are not at the moment with us, perhaps some amongst them have things to convey which may be very much in line with the kind of ideas that we are fond of. Let us try to come to an understanding with them. Let us have an open mind. This is where that old cliché comes to my mind…the fear of freedom. We open up, we talk. Allow your workers to talk across the boundaries with other political parties and then you should not have any mental reservations. It is important at this juncture. Let us admit that we have failed in certain directions and we are suffering the consequences of that failure. But in order to make up ground, in order to make up time, it is necessary that we join hands across the frontier. But we certainly have to be discriminating. There have been many unfortunate developments in the whole attempt of building a third front. We have tried and tried and we have relied on people who are not reliable.
PB: Finally looking at the current political situation…one thing which strikes someone on the Left, is that you can find new forces like India Against Corruption who are taking up the corruption issue, mobilizing people and getting substantive response in Delhi and elsewhere. On the other hand, one finds that the role of the Left in building up struggles and movements is negligent, especially at a time when the government is so discredited. There are oil price hikes today, LPG price hike tomorrow…there is so much anger on the streets too. Don't you think that in today’s situation there is an over-emphasis of the Left on parliamentary tactics, which too are not working? Today there is an effort to support somebody to create a wedge between Congress and Trinamool, tomorrow it is going with Mulayam Singh Yadav and then getting ditched by Mulayam Singh Yadav, again. This has happened twice already. Rather than that, shouldn't there be more emphasis on going to the people, on taking up issues, building up mass movements. Why do you think that is not happening?
AM: Perhaps on behalf of the Left, the point will be made that they do get involved in movements, for example those of the dalits and adivasis but they do not get enough coverage in the corporate media. Whereas if you are a retired army general, you talk loudly from a platform against corruption and you get very wide publicity. And not all the shouting is necessarily for a genuine cause. This certainly is a point that the Left can make. But on the other hand, it is equally true that perhaps there has been a lot of waste of energy on the part of the Left in trying to develop alliances at the super-structure level rather than at the level of the base. But I would keep on reverting to what I still consider to be the major issue. And that is the issue of ideology - that in these very uncertain times the Left has to be not only ideologically pure but also morally pure. And if there is a certain deficit on either, the Left will be under shadow.
PB: So basically what you are suggesting is not only an ideologically assertive Left but a more open and democratic Left and a Left which engages with various forms of social movements against oppression.
AM: A Left which people would believe is, by definition, like Caesar's wife.
PB: Which is above suspicion! Thank you so much, Sir.