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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 20, May 9, 2015

Widen the Circle, Broaden the Left

Saturday 9 May 2015, by Badri Raina

The Communist Party of India-Marxist has a new helmsman. Sitaram Yechury, a less forbidding man than his predecessor, carries with him the sunny goodwill of many inside and outside the Party. Many among the general middle classes, who view politics rather exclusively in terms of “leadership”, even those who are more familiar with the structures of Left politics than most, sense some sort of a paradigm shift in the offing with regard to both the substance and the style of the Party’s operations and intervention in the coming years. To the best of my acquaintance and education, such a climate of anticipation might flatter and forewarn, if not scare, the new General Secretary in equal measure. Communist Parties, after all, subordinate individuals to collective decisions (remember Jyoti Basu?) and any change of leadership there does not carry the same probabilities as it may and usually does in what are called bourgeois formations.

Which is not to say that times have not changed, even for the CPI-M, even, indeed, for its leadership. Such transformations are, after all, one legitimate function of that Marxian axiom which the new General Secretary is often given to stating, namely, that any valid Left praxis must proceed on the basis of a “concrete analysis of concrete conditions”. When, in fact, that does not happen, stasis and stultification overtake. Such concrete analyses may, of course, vary from predilection to predilection, and need not always be either bold or in tune with the dynamics of history—a circumstance that draws attention to the need for ruthless objectivity and self-criticism if Marxist thought is ever to be successfully applied.

In this context, close watchers of the Party have noted with sanguine approval the new General Secretary’s publicly stated acknowledge-ment ot the fact that some 40,000 ot its erstwhile cadre have deserted the Party in West Bengal, having left for the greener pastures of the Trinimul, and some heading even for the Rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party, perish the thought. This acknowledgement may bear testimony to a new openness, and thereby encourage a less cloistered and more candid debate on the causes of such desertion. This may be one pressing agenda because of which the Party has decided at its recent Congrss to call an Organisational Plenum. Sooner the better, since two sorts of expectation now bear upon its deliberations: one, embracing the reconstitution of its membership in more open and democratic ways in full cognisance of the challenges that await such membership, and, two, the prevention and reversal of such desertions by allowing an internal democracy less stifled and centralised than has been the wont, so that the cadres of the Party have the assurance that they may not be disciplined or discarded at the slightest hint of dissent from the Party Line.

 That thought leads to another much larger debate—one that the new General Secretary one trusts is quite seized of. Can the Party continue to operate with any realistic hope of striking a happy new mass departure if it holds on to the view that the Left essentially must mean the Party, that class struggle must continue to bear only one doctrinaire definition, that no historical transformation in the Indian Republic is, ultimately, of any great meaning if it is not led exclusively by a Left Party, leading to a state of a single-party dominance, and that the present state of India’s multi-party electoral democracy must continue to be viewed as a transitional achievement wholly inimical to the procurement of equity and justice? Needless to say, such a view of the Indian state, and its possibilities must lead to a specific set of conclusions about how a Communist Party must continue to function therein. It would necessarily entail viewing the final end of the capitalist system and of the political arrangements that accompany it as the steadfast praxis that the organised Left must pursue, avoiding associ-ation with political formations, however preferable on a relative scale within the “concrete condition” to other formations for fear of compromising the purity of the communist project. It would also entail the prospect of a revolutionary over-throw exclusively on the “scientific” principle of the demise of alienation and expropriation from within its own womb. This option would then continue to bring into question the tactical participation of the organised Left in state power through the electoral route, since experience would show that this course has been less than friendly to the project of building a mass revolutionary movement wholly inimical to such a tactical line. Any truthful and principled adherence to this understanding would call upon the organised Left to stay away from the contradictions that participation in state power within a capitalist multi-party system inevi-tably unleashes, rendering the Left, willy nilly, a victim to its class compulsions, and to the claims of a frustrating conglomeration of local and regional perceptions and social formations.

This, in brief, might be said to have constituted the career of the organised Left in India since after the Telengana event of 1948.

An alternate view that offers itself might be the following: that however real and deep the cyclical crises within the global capitalist system, the prospects of its final demise seem remote, like those of cancer; that postthe collapse of the Soviet system, as well as the embracing of private entrepreneurship in both Russia and China, the prospect of placing ownership wholly in shared public hands has, if anything, receded; that the only instances of partial, although considerable and pathbreaking, success in beating back the hegemony of imperialism as the godfather of the capitalist system in recent times have been those innovated in what used to be the doormat/backyard of imperialism, namely, Latin America; and that, in the light of such experience and of its acknowledgement, a revamped praxis awaits the organised Left in India.

This would involve a full and unashamed embracement of the fact and prospect that the capitalist order and its concomitant political expressions are for a good while here to stay in the Republic of India, and that the organised Left, equally unashamedly, must undertake the task of reworking its onus and its procedures to constantly and imaginatively furnish mass-political dynamics that debilitate its more brutal and carnivorous aspirations, and advance the clout of both the vox populi and its material interests in the face of those rapacious aspirations.

Such a course will press on the Party-Left to accept the formulation that within a capitalist, multi-party republic, the “Left” must be accorded a definition that reaches beyond the Party, including social groups and mass activities that may seem discrete and atomised, but that together constitute a pool of politics competent to frustrate and wound capitalist hegemony overall. In other words, this reconceptualised Left must be allowed its legitimacy even when it dissents in important ways from what the Party might consider classic Marxism. And, in linking mass activities with this pool of progressive social groups, the Party-Left, while offering its specific strengths to enhance the quality of struggles, must remain content to share hegemony with any and all whose leadership in such movements has effective mass appeal and mass allegiance.

Such a course of reconceptualisation and mass work can be possible only if the organised Left is also willing to see that the oppression of the proles within the Indian republic does not always take place only in classical class terms. This writer has suggested elsewhere that the points of oppression in India are diverse both in spread and quality, and that it has perhaps been one failure of the organised Left to ignore this “concretge” reality in seeking to absorb such diversity exclusively into a base/superstructure paradigm. (See “The State of the Left”, The Underside of Things: India and the Worrld etc., Three Essays Collective, 2012, p. 710)

If the rather mind-boggling spread of these oppressions is admitted, alongwith the limited reach of the organised Left, then it must follow that the ameliorative cooperation of the reconceptualised Left cannot exclude any social or political forces that might play or that have played the role of an effective critic or of ground-level resitance, wether from within or outside electoral bodies, in any arena of opposition to such social/cultural oppression as help the capitalist system to take focus away from the livelihood issues of the vast mass of labouring people. That such forces may also include those who owe allegiance to the capitalist order but are willing and able to make distinctions between one form of capitalism and another—distinctions, for example between a Puritan-American-Hindutva-Neo-Liberal variety and a more humane and accommodating European-Nehruvain-Welfarist one, distinctions that the purism of theory may reject but that an imaginative Left politics might embrace till its own strengths become a real factor in recasting the debate, the choices, and the historical consequences thereof.

Clearly, before the organised Left hopes to play a lead role in gathering the many forces of resistance into effective nationwide pheno-mena, it would need to set an example by first striving to achieve a credible unity/merger of the many Left organisations. The new General Secretary of the CPI-M has said in response to a query that such unity/merger can happen only when the reasons for the split of 1964 are first understood. Logical take, but is there anybody today in a Communist Party who has not understood why all that happened, and is there today any persuasive reason to think that those considerations still obtain? So, we say, nothing would put the new General Secretary on so historic a footing as an honest endeavour without loss of time and without prevarication to first obtain as a task the reunification of the CPI-M and the CPI, leading to embracing unity/merger with other major Left organisations like the CPI-ML. Speaking of the projected Organisational Plenum, nothing would electrify the Left in India generally as such unity/merger, because the lack of effort in that direction leaves most to conclude that other things are of greater importance to the organised Left than advancing the fight against capitalist oppression. Indeed, some of us have argued that, post-the ascendance of a qualitatively different Rightwing in India, we may be facing a Dimitrov moment, calling upon all sections and varieties of the Left to furnish first a United Front and then an Indian Pople’s Front to beat back the unprecedented offensive.

Am I, therefore, offering a recipe for the emaciation of the Party-Left? I do not think so; I am, however, pleading for a metamorphosis from a clan of cloistered and unspoilt purity into an open house where uninhibited conversations among the broadly like-minded translate into consequential interventions and movements in many fields, and on many streets. The pure of mind always have labels ready-to-hand to designate that which seems laden with one impurity or the other; mine may well be designated “revisionism”. Frankly, things in the republic have gone too far for that to be worrisome. Call me by what name you like, but ponder the heresy: you never know what wicked branch may bear life-saving fruit.

Here is wishing the new General Secretary of the country’s largest Communist Party—someone I find personally warm, witty, receptive, and charming—the very best of the time to come. He is a Communist who might even get the better of the country’s raucously inattentive and blody-mindedly red-necked corporate media, as he usually does and will need to so long as our “concrete conditions” of the now prevail.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.