Mainstream, VOL LIV No 40 New Delhi September 24, 2016
Karat’s Thesis and A Rejoinder
Saturday 24 September 2016
“The BJP is an authoritarian, not fascist, force. The fight against it cannot be conductet in alliance with the other major party of the ruling classes,” writes Prakash Karat, the erstwhile General Secretary of the CPI-M, in the following article in The Indian Express (September 6, 2016). It is being reproduced here, with due acknowledgement, for the benefit of our readers. An effective rejoinder to this thesis follows in the subsequent pages.
Know your enemy
The existence of a BJP Government at the Centre, with a stable majority in the Lok Sabha, has led to a debate within Left circles and among some liberal intellectuals about the nature of the government in power. The advent of the Modi Government saw a Right-wing offensive unfold in the country. A combination of Right-wing neo-liberal economic policies and the aggressive advance of the Hindutva agenda mark the offensive. How to counter this offensive is the primary concern of Left, democratic, and secular forces in India today.
A significant section of Left and liberal opinion has characterised the present situation in the country as the arrival of fascism. An influential stream of opinion within this thinking defines the present set-up as “communal fascism”, arguing that this is the Indian variant of fascism.
What sort of Right-wing threat is India facing? A correct understanding of the ruling regime and the political movement that it represents is necessary because it has a direct bearing on the political strategy and electoral tactics to be followed in order to fight the BJP and the Modi Government. There has to be clarity in defining the character of the BJP. The BJP is not an ordinary bourgeois party. Its uniqueness lies in its organic links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The BJP is a Right-wing party with respect to its economic and social agenda, and can be characterised as a Right-wing party of majoritarian communalism. Further, given its linkage to the RSS, which has a semi-fascist ideology, it is a party that has the potential to impose an authoritarian state on the people when it believes that circumstances warrant it.
Fascism as an ideology and as a form of political rule emerged in between the two World Wars in the 20th century. When the capitalist system was engulfed in deep crisis and faced with the threat from a revolutionary movement of the working class, the ruling classes in Germany opted for an extreme form of rule that abolished bourgeois democracy. Mussolini’s Italy and Japan were also fascist regimes.
The classic definition of fascism leaves no room for ambiguity: Fascism in power is “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reac-tionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital”. In India today, neither has fascism been established, nor are the conditions present—in political, economic and class terms—for a fascist regime to be established. There is no crisis that threatens a collapse of the capitalist system; the ruling classes of India face no threat to their class rule. No section of the ruling class is currently working for the overthrow of the bourgeois parlia-mentary system. What the ruling classes seek to do is to use forms of authoritarianism to serve their class interests.
In India today, the Hindutva ideology and chauvinist nationalism are used to polarise the people on communal lines and to attack religious minorities. Brutal methods are used to suppress the religious minorities; dissent and secular intellectuals are sought to be put down by branding them “anti-national”. From above, at the level of the institutions of the state, and from below, through the outfits of the Hindutva brigade, a determined effort is being made to reorder society and polity on Hindutva lines. While these activities pose a grave and present danger to democracy and secularism, they do not, by themselves, constitute the establishment of a fascist order.
India today confronts the advance of an authoritarianism that is fuelled by a potent mix of neo-liberalism and communalism. Apart from Hindutva communalism, the other major source of authoritarianism is the Right-wing neo-liberal drive. The neo-liberal regime acts to constrict the democratic space, homogenise all bourgeois parties. hollow out parliamentary democracy, and render the people powerless as regards basic policy-making. The impact of neo-liberalism on the political system has led to the narrowing of democracy.
In the world today, imperialism and the ruling classes of various countries deploy different forms of authoritarianism rather than open fascist rule in order to perpetuate their class rule and pursue the neo-liberal policy. Such authoritarianism can be imposed on a system where formal democracy and elected governments exist
There are varieties of authoritarianism in the world today. In some, political mobilisation around religious-ethnic lines is used to impose an authoritarian order. Religion-based communalism or political mobilisation is accompanied by the imposition of extreme Right-wing economic policies. India is one such country.
There are striking similarities between India and Turkey with regard to religion-based political mobilisation and authoritarianism. After the Modi Government came to power in May 2014, the writer Amitav Ghosh was among the first to write about these common features. Both countries have ruling parties that use religion-based “nationalism” to mobilise support. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is an Islamist party while the BJP is based on Hindutva. Each has a strong leader with authoritarian tendencies—Recep Erdogan and Narendra Modi—in government. The AKP seeks to desecularise the Turkish state and targets the Kurdish minority and secular intellectuals. The BJP and the Modi Government target the minorities and seek to suppress the dissenting voices of secular intellectuals. Both have embraced neo-liberalism. However, it would be erroneous to characterise the government and state in Turkey or India as fascist: they are better described as being Right-wing authoritarian.
The authoritarianism of the Modi Govern-ment is buttressed by its growing military cooperation and strategic ties with the USA. The fight against the BJP-RSS combine is thus more complex and multi-dimensional than a black-and-white struggle between fascist and anti-fascist forces.
The BJP and its patron, the RSS, have to be fought in the political, ideological, social, and cultural spheres. The fight against the BJP and Right-wing communal forces has to be conducted by combining the struggle against communalism with the struggle against neo-liberalism. Since the two major parties—the BJP and the Congress —are alternately managing the neo-liberal order for the ruling classes, the political struggle against the BJP cannot be conducted in alliance with the other major party of the ruling classes. Unlike in the fight against a fascist order, where elections in a democratic system become redundant, the electoral battle is also important in India.
The slogan that the fight is now against fascism obfuscates some of the vital issues around which the people can be mobilised to oppose the BJP and the Modi Government. These include its rapacious economic policies and subservience to big business and finance capital, issues that affect the livelihoods and economic rights of the people.
The specific situation obtaining in the country today cries out for the broadest mobilisation of all democratic and secular forces against communalism, while also building a political alliance of Left and democratic forces based on an alternative programme. Only such a dual approach can check and roll back India’s Right-wing forces.
The author, an erstwhile General Secretary of the CPI-M, is currently a member of the party’s Polit-Bureau.
Stalin’s Ghost Won’t Save Us from the Spectre of Fascism: A Response to Prakash Karat
While all authoritarianisms are not fascist, all fascisms are a form of authoritarianism. What is distinctive about fascist authorita-rianism is its appeal to forms of mass mobili-sation and attempt to create sources of legitimacy among ‘the masses’—through cultural (for example, pseudo-religious) and ideological domination
In The Indian Express (September 6, 2016) Prakash Karat, the former General Secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist has an opinion piece defending the BJP against its characterisation by sections of the Left in India as the external face of a fascist movement driven by the RSS and its vision of a non-secular, Hindu state. The threat that is sweeping through India today is one of authoritarianism, not fascism, he argues. Nor are the conditions present for a fascist regime to be established, even though a ‘determined effort is being made to reorder society and polity on Hindutva lines’. The crux of Karat’s argument is a conception of fascism lifted straight from the famous formula adopted by the Comintern’s Executive Committee in December 1933. “Fascism is the open, terrorist dictatorship of the most reac-tionary, most chauvinist and most imperialist elements of finance capital.”
Why is it that every time mention is made of Prakash Karat powerful images of rigor mortis rush through my brain? Is it because the young student leader from the JNU days always impressed me as the pure type of the apparatchik, the social type that flooded the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by the late 1920s, swamped it as the emerging base of Stalin’s rapid consolidation of power within the party and then in the country as a whole?
The apparatchik destroyed Lenin’s party but he couldn’t discard Marxism completely. He adapted to Marxism by converting it into a draw full of rubber stamps. Incapable of thought, much less of any more creative process like actual intellectual engagement, the building of theory, unfettered debate, etc., he (for we are dealing overwhelmingly with males) opened the draw to look for the right stamp every time some phrase or expression triggered a signal.
Stalin with Dimitrov
‘Fascism’, ah yes, what does the stamp say? It had Georgi Dimitrov’s name on it. A definition of fascism first adopted by the Executive Committee of the Communist International at the end of 1933 became famously associated with Stalin’s favourite, Dimitrov, when it was taken over and circulated more widely in his report to the Seventh World Congress in 1935. This is the one I’ve cited in the preamble above, ‘Fascism is the open terrorist dictatorship (etc.)’. It rapidly became orthodoxy on the Stalinist Left, the ‘official’ line on fascism.
Karat reiterates it with a profound sense of loyalty and timelessness, citing it in the Indian Express piece. The implication here, of course, is that nothing that has been said or written about fascism since 1933—1935 has any relevance for him. We have gained not a whit (in under-standing, knowledge, analysis and so on) since those (pre-Holocaust!) years. Do we have a better understanding of fascism today? Obviously not as far as Karat is concerned. That definition is ‘classic’, as he says. ‘Classic’ here means cut in stone, impermeable to argument, eternally true like some truth of logic. As Karat says, there is ‘no room for ambiguity’ here.
The Comintern had deliberately narrowed the definition to ‘finance capital’ to allow other sections of the capitalist class to join the fight against fascism once Stalin decided he desperately needed alliances (‘Popular Fronts’) with all manner of parties regardless of who they represented. For Karat the reference to ‘finance capital’ suffices. It sums up the essence of fascism, and fascism for him is simply a state form, a type of regime that breaks decisively with democracy (‘bourgeois’ democracy).
The response to this is simple: how did such a state emerge in the first place? Fascism must have existed in some form other than a state for it to become a state? Since Karat stopped reading Marxism decades ago, it may be worth rehearsing some of this for him. Before fascism succeeds as a state it exists as a movement. And fascism only succeeds in seizing power because it first succeeds as a mass movement.
The question the revolutionary Left simply failed to address in the twenties and thirties (with a handful of exceptions such the German Marxist Arthur Rosenberg and the psycho-analyst Wilhelm Reich) was why fascists are able to build mass movements. How do they create a mass base for the parties they form? As soon as we frame the issue in these terms (breaking with Karat’s myopic fascination with end results), the problem itself becomes a practical one. We have to look at the specific techniques used to generate mass support. We have to ask also how this ‘mass’ that fascism creates and dominates differs from, say, the social forces that Marx saw driving revolutionary movements forward.
To suggest that fascism is largely or entirely about ‘finance capital’, that a handful of bankers could have created the fascist movements in Germany and Italy shows how detached dogma can become from reality when it ignores the formation of culture and looks simply at the economy as a force that affects politics without mediations of any sort.
Anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, Islamo-phobia, Islamism, Hindutva, patriarchy, male violence, caste oppression, militarism, and (not least!) nationalism then become basically irrelevant; window-dressing on a beast (capita-lism) that works in some purely economic way, as if the ‘formation of the authoritarian structure’ (Reich) which has everything to do with how reactionary ideologies come about in the wider reaches of civil society is not a process every bit as material as the economy.
What does Karat think he is debating? Is there anyone on the Left who claims that we are currently in the throes of a full-blown Hindu Rashtra in India, that the machinery of the law lies in ruins, that the media, servile as they are, have been taken over and remoulded by a self-defining Hindu state, that trade unions have been abolished, Opposition parties banned, active opponents rounded up and murdered? That would be India’s counterpart of a fascist state.
On the other hand, is there anyone (on the Left especially) who is naive enough to think that there is no danger of any of this? That the rampant cultures of communalism, attacks on minorities and repeated violence against them (this includes unlawful detention) are not being used (consciously used) as tools of fascist mobilisation of a spurious ‘Hindu majority’? That the Indian state has not been extensively infiltrated by the RSS at all levels, even down to the vice-chancellorship of the JNU?
That the Gujarat cases had to be transferred out of the State of Gujarat by the Supreme Court, no less, speaks volumes for the Court’s view of the shamelessly compromised state of the justice system in Gujarat under Modi’s government there. That the mass violence against Muslims in Gujarat became pivotal to the consolidation of Modi’s support-base in the State and then rapidly in other parts of India, leading to his emergence as the Prime Minister; that Modi financed his campaign for power with the explicit backing of big business groups who were looking for a ‘decisive’ leader; that nationalism is now being used to whip up hysteria among the middle classes to try and justify the repeated use of charges like ‘sedition’ and justify attacks on freedom of speech, thought and politics; that the Right-wing in India has repositioned itself in the more totalising and utterly sinister discourse of ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’ to create the absurd sense of an Indian Volksgemeinschaft and cons-truct definitions of the other as ‘anti-national’, a sort of fifth column of the nation’s enemies... if none of this reminds us of the way fascism emerges and builds itself up historically, then we have no memory, and certainly not a historical one.
“India today confronts the advance of an authoritarianism...,” Karat argues, wanting to distinguish this from fascism. The issue surely is what form of authoritarianism we are up against in India today. While all authoritaria-nisms are not fascist, all fascisms are a form of authoritarianism. What is distinctive about fascist authoritarianism is its appeal to forms of mass mobilisation and attempt to create sources of legitimacy among ‘the masses’— through cultural (for example, pseudo-religious) and ideological domination.
This is why Hindutva becomes a marker of something more sinister than just authoritarian politics. In Karat’s mental map, as I said, culture and ideology play no major role; they are simply tools to divide people to allow those in power to implement what he sees as the truly dangerous agenda of ‘neo-liberalism’. They are a sort of sideshow, pure excrescences on a largely economic programme where capital remains the chief instrumentality.
Karat agrees that the RSS has a “semi-fascist ideology (and) the potential to impose an authoritarian state on the people when it believes that circumstances warrant it”. Why ‘semi-fascist’? What is its other half? When Golwalkar praised the extermination of the Jews as a possible model for the way a future Hindu state might want to deal with its minorities, was he being ‘semi-fascist’? Is the growing culture of intolerance and forcible suppression of political views the BJP finds abrasive ‘semi-fascist’?
And the qualification ‘when it believes the circumstances warrant it’? How do people at large tell the RSS has finally come around to that belief? That it has so decided? The answer, alas, as with so much of the immobile Left, is —when it’s too late!
The German film director Alexander Kluge calls this approach to history and politics ‘Learning Processes With a Deadly Outcome’. If that mum with her three kids in the basement of this house in Halberstadt on April 8, 1945 had fought the Nazis in 1928 and millions of others like her had done the same, she wouldn’t be there now, on this dreadful day in April, sheltering from a fleet of 200 American bombers that will, in seconds, wipe out her entire town.
If Stalin and the Comintern hadn’t worked overtime to sabotage the possibility of a United Front between the German Communists and the Social Democrats and the two parties had fought fascism with combined strength; if the Left in Germany had campaigned more consistently and vigorously against anti-Semi-tism than it ever did and started those campaigns much earlier; if feminism had been a stronger force in German society and the patriarchal/authoritarian order less firmly entrenched in German families... and so on and so forth.
Learning processes that shape history, that affect its outcome, are those that strive consciously to learn the lessons that generate a politics that preserves and affirms life against the ‘deadly outcome’. Do we wake up one morning and say, India’s fascism was ‘majoritarian communalism’ after all!!
“The political struggle against the BJP cannot be conducted in alliance with the other major party of the ruling classes.” This of course reflects a major rift within the CPI-M itself and may well be Karat’s way of posturing for control of loyalties in the web of factional conflicts that have characterised the party for years. So why was the CPI-M in alliance with that ‘other major party of the ruling class’ in the first place?
The alliance broke over a nuclear deal with the US but doubtless no similar deal with Putin would have occasioned a major crisis of that sort. Since the United Front has come up and Karat prefers the safety of a ‘Third Period’ position (short of calling the Congress, a former ally, ‘social fascist’; ‘Third Period’ refers to the politics of the Comintern in the period of widespread economic collapse that was said to have started in 1928), perhaps we can leave him with Nehru’s more Marxist grasp of this issue than he himself seems to have:
“It is, of course, absurd to say that we will not co-operate with or compromise with others. Life and politics are much too complex for us always to think in straight lines. Even the implacable Lenin said that ‘to march forward without compromise, without turning from the path’ was ‘intellectual childishness and not the serious tactics of a revolutionary class’. Compro-mises there are bound to be, and we should not worry too much about them. But whether we compromise or refuse to do so, what matters is that primary things should come first always and secondary things should never take precedence over them. If we are clear about our principles and objectives, temporary compro-mises will not harm...” (Nehru, An Autobio-graphy, p. 613)
There is a constant sense in Karat’s opinion piece that neo-liberalism is as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than communalism. But this is a senseless position. To the extent that communa-lism leads to a fascist transformation of the state, it deprives the working people of any basis for resisting capitalist onslaughts. Neo-liberalism disarms the working class economically, destroying its cohesion in an industrial, economic sense. Racism, communalism and nationalism (all nationalism, not just what Karat calls ‘chauvinist’ nationalism) do the same in more insidious ways, destroying the possibility of the working class ever acquiring a sense of its own solidarity and of what it really is.
The author is a well-known historian and Marxist intellectual.