Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2015 > VS, Corbyn and Democratic Centralism

Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 39, New Delhi, September 19, 2015

VS, Corbyn and Democratic Centralism

Sunday 20 September 2015, by M K Bhadrakumar

An extraordinary thing happened in the Left politics in Britain and in the southern State of Kerala last week. There are similarities and dissimilarities between what happened in the two situations so far apart. But it gives much food for thought for all Leftist workers and their leaders as well as the fellow-travellers of the Left in India.

The stunning victory of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party in UK on September 12 made headlines in the world media. Corbyn won despite the Labour Party establishment opposing him tooth and nail. He was in sync with the party’s rank and file who are desperately looking for change from the corporate-style functioning of the party establishment. Of course, his stirring call for a return to the Left-wing programme of the Labour found resonance with the cadres who feel disillusioned with the ‘party machine’ and blind alleys of capitalism alike. Read an excellent analysis, here, of the political earthquake in Britain.

Corbyn’s victory happened to coincide with an equally astonishing event in Kerala on the same day (September 12). Over 4000 tea estate workers had been staging an agitation in Kerala without any help from the organised trade unions or any political party. This has been an extraordinary chapter in Kerala politics. The agitators wouldn’t allow any trade union leader or politician to patronise them.

The solitary exception was the Marxist veteran, V.S. Achuthanandan. The agitators alleged that the so-called trade union leaders belonging to the Left were ‘agents’ of the tea estate owners. The top leaders of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, including the party General Secretary, tried in vain to persuade the agitators to let them at least identify with the protest. According to media reports, the local MLA belonging to the CPM was apparently driven away by the furious agitators, branding him as a class enemy who hobnobbed with the capitalists.

But when ‘VS’ appeared, the mood changed completely. The agitators warmly welcomed him, provided him with a chair to sit amidst them, and held an umbrella to protect the octogenarian from the scorching sun.

Frankly, I was speechless watching on television such a spontaneous outpouring of emotions on the part of the working class upon seeing a political leader. Indeed, the agitating workers had legitimate demands but they had lost their faith in Kerala’s political class to take up their cause, including in the CPM. In the entire State, they would hold in high regard and repose trust in only one politician—VS, the unvarnished Communist leader.

Absolutely extraordinary! And, yet, VS is not a Polit-Bureau member of the CPM. He doesn’t even figure in the top echelons of the State leadership of the party. The CPM, unlike Britain’s Labour Party, subscribes to the Leninist principle of ‘democratic centralism’ to elect its leaders. Succinctly put, it is a bit like the election of the Pope in the Vatican. You are on the lookout for the smoke and when it rises from the chimney, you know you have a new party General Secretary.

Suppose CPM had a system of direct election of the party’s leader by the cadres at every stage of leadership. I have no doubt VS would have won hands down as the leader of the party in Kerala and would have been a full member of the party’s Polit-Bureau, having a big say in the functioning of the party.

How can a party rejuvenate unless its leadership is elected directly by the ordinary party workers? The indirect election, explained away dogmatically as ‘democratic centralism’, leads to stagnation and decay. This happened in the Soviet Union. I saw with my own eyes, while living and working in Moscow as a diplomat in the mid-seventies and late eighties, how such profound alienation had set in among the Soviet people, how they increasingly viewed the CPSU Polit-Bureau members as fatcats and cynics — and how the party finally ‘imploded’.

What happens in an indirect election is that the party invariably ends up in the hands of a clutch of ‘bosses’. In course of time, a cabal forms and it begins to control the party and arrogates to itself the right to speak on behalf of the party by virtue of its control of the party apparatus.

But a political party is not a business concern, especially a Communist Party. It is a throbbing, organic entity. It can’t be run in corporate style. To my mind, India’s Communist Parties should emulate the Labour Party’s example. They need Corbyns at the national level, State levels and district levels who can energise the Left movement, reconnect with the masses and, hopefully, revive the Left’s fortunes as a political force of reckoning.

Without doubt, VS is Kerala’s Corbyn and the fact that he doesn’t even figure in the top echelons of the party is a disgrace. Importantly, it is an insult to the masses who root for him. What is so sacrosanct about the party’s rule-book? The party belongs to the people and not to its rule-book. Rewrite the party canons that excluded VS from the leadership!

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.