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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 29

Need For A New Left

Friday 11 July 2008, by Sipra Sarkar

The outlook for Indian democracy is even bleaker than most Leftist critics would admit. When the Rightward drift in official policies is matched by the growing political indifferentism of large sections of the people, it is something to worry about. Not all the glowing platitudes about “the masses” and their militancy can cover up the facts of political life. Any serious thinking by Leftists today is bound to pose certain questions about the whole basis and accepted conventions of their movement.

Calcutta Poll

Recent elections provided some proof of this. In the Calcutta civic poll, the Congress won 49 of the 100 seats, but the voting trends of the last general elections were confirmed with a slight drop in both the Congress and Communist votes.

Two negative features would stand out in any objective review of this election. The first is the fact that in a city with Calcutta’s fighting traditions and stupendous civic problem, only 51 per cent of the voters came to the booths in the first ever civic election held under adult franchise. Through-out the campaign canvassers were dogged by the voters’ apathy, their open lack of confidence in the ruling party and the Opposition alike.

Secondly, communal and separatist forces swam to the surface as never before. A number of independent Muslim candidates acted together as an informal bloc, an unhealthy though understandable sign in minority politics. Much more serious was the organised Hindu communal campaign in East Calcutta, much of it aimed at the local Communist MLA, herself a Hindu. This campaign claimed its most spectacular victory in the election of a detenu held under DIR for communal rioting; he defeated both the Congress and UCC (Left Bloc). For the first time Calcutta has a Councillor from the Jana Sangh.

In Kerala, the sensational Left Communist victory did not mean anything like a general swing to the Left. Not only did the victors’ strange sympathies and antipathies give the results a decidedly mixed-up look. The total Communist vote fell by about 13 per cent since 1962, and the Congress vote rose by about 12 per cent, ignoring for the moment the split in both parties. So the official CPI setback meant only the most of the “Party masses” had voted with the rival party.

No doubt, the politically seasoned Left CPI leadership in Kerala is pondering over these facts which seem to have escaped their less mature admirers. They will be helped in their reappraisal by the fact that immediately after the election, lack of popular response turned the release campaign into a flat Communist exercise when one would have expected a mass upsurge on behalf of the 29 elected detenus at the very least.

Diminishing Returns

The same pattern is repeated in other areas of political experience. Take Calcutta again. It retains its status symbol as the rebel city of India. The brave banners are out for bread and liberty whenever occasion demands. The protesting voices are more, not less strident. Yet party volunteers are becoming uneasily aware of a sort of law of diminishing returns in politics. The results are often so meagre compared to the efforts unlike the experience of a few years back. Leftist food movements and jail-goings are watched by the people without much hope. Even the Dum Dum medicine could not be repeated in a leaner year. Teachers camp in the street and one can only recall with wonder how the same tactics electrified the city in the recent past. American aggression in Vietnam arouses little interest in the streets where students once shed their blood on the half-forgotten ‘Vietnam Day’. As I write, the tram fare agitation is on. It is difficult to comment on it just now, but certain contrasts with 1953 are already very clear. Marching feet and shouted slogans do still establish moments of communication between demonstrator and bystander, but the light fades out of watching eyes before the procession has turned the next street corner.

Reactionary Consolidation

This is the situation at a time when popular discontent is on the increase because the Government cannot or will not hold the price line, and the future looks grim. The vision of a self-reliant Socialist India is growing dimmer. A social consolidation of reactionary forces seems to be taking shape.

Obviously, the challenge before the Indian Left today is not that of a ripening revolutionary crisis. It is not that forces for struggle do not exist. They do, and new forces are coming up from the changing realities of social life in independent India. What has failed to materialise is the simple, unilinear development of the Indian revolution visualised by the Left. The result is a gap in the understanding and in the movement itself, a lack of perspective that makes the best efforts seem unreal and brings popular energies to the point of evaporation.

For this, incidentally, the Communist split is blamed more than any other single thing. One can appreciate this attitude, and it is flattering for Communists to be considered responsible for a crisis of such proportions. But a cynic might ask what glorious achievements the undivided Party had been chalking up over the last dozen years. The failure of the Indian Left to come to terms with itself covers much wider ground than the CPI split. Basically it is the failure to adjust the movement to unforeseen post-war developments. Specifically it has resulted in the inability to analyse the nature of the people’s discontent and thus inevitably, to discover the appropriate idiom of expression. It is, in short, the failure to evolve a mass line with the necessary slogans for every front of action.

Curious Features

As analysis of the general Left movement as it has developed, with Communists in the forefront, would reveal some curious features. It has been in the main a city-based movement with a standardised agitational character. The forms are essentially demonstrative, with the stress on meetings, processions and courting arrest in busy city centres. The slogans express popular demands in a general way, often without the knowledge to make them more concrete and realistic. They tend also to concentrate on official misdeeds, leaving private enterprises and other vested interests alone. The whole point is to “expose” the Government rather than force it to adopt workable alternative policies in the interests of the people.

With this stereotyped pattern, the movement assumes the form of seasonal campaigns. Without a constant pressure at the base (which itself is narrow, excluding many who might have responded to other forms and slogans), the united front to which every Leftist pays lip service tends to be an arrangement at the top for the allotment of seats in elections, volunteers for going to jail and similar activities.

The trouble with such a movement is that it simply does not bring in enough people. Being negatively oppositional in character, it cannot as a rule go beyond the range of Leftist parties and fellow-travellers. Politically uncommitted people, not to speak of Congress supporters, are usually left out.

The absence of concrete demands based on facts is another limiting factor. Forms of popular local initiative and self-help movements for the immediate improvement of conditions are seldom sought to be developed. This is mainly because such forms of action are supposed to be unworthy of revolutionaries. Also trying to wrest small gains from the Government is considered to encourage illusions about its nature.

Similarly, and in keeping perhaps with traditions of petty-bourgeois radicalism in India, ‘non-political’ issues like various expressions of social injustice and conservatism—caste, communalism, personal freedom and so on—are rarely considered worth fighting over unless they are linked up with some immediate political issue, like actual riots. To this one might add the complacent overlooking of alien and backward influences in thought and culture.

These limitations are reflected in organisational forms often more suited to a small, isolated vanguard than a national mass party.

Logic of Dogmatism

Dogmatic Leftism never will understand that the fight for limited reforms can be given a national and socialist perspective. Even the so-called non-revolutionary forms of action can become intervening factors to stop the drift from bad to worse and force a turn for the better. It is a question of building up mass pressure, counterposing popular forces against the vested interests in every field. Such a movement can turn the balance in the people’s favour and force even fundamental changes.

This may not correspond to the abstract sketch of a revolution many Leftists carry in their minds. The time has come to re-examine this blueprint and see if it leads anywhere, least of all to the cherished goal of power. What we have in the meantime is a movement that relies on short-term agitations with an eye on elections, and falls far short of the actual possibilities of struggle for the people’s demands. What is this but the very essence of reformism!

How many Leftist agencies have bothered to find out more about how the people live and what they really want? Yet the socio-economic framework is changing. The habits and moods of different social strata cannot be taken for granted in the old way. Political parties know little about social differentiations in the countryside as a result of land reforms, the spread of education and other factors. Or about the changing demands of the town labourer into whose life a new middle class element is being injected.

Students and young people are at times glorified as authentic revolutionaries and at other times denounced as careerists, with no attempts to find out what kind of movement might attract them. The examples could be multiplied many times over. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that even the material knowledge for the favourite ‘exposure campaign’ is often missing.

The danger of the situation is that we are getting used to the disruption of the older nationalist basis of idealism without trying to discover what new elements of stability and opportunities of advancement are playing a part in this disruption. Armed with such knowledge, a socialist movement could build up the values of a new idealism. Without a notion of real conditions and with a general vague belief that the worse things are, the better for the revolution, such a movement has no earthly chance of influencing the people.

More of Same

Since this has been more or less the case, a deep sense of frustration and uncertainty has overtaken the movement. This is the inner crisis of traditional Leftism. It is not surprising that a fairly articulate demand for a ‘hard’ Left line is being heard in several quarters. Habits of mind die hand, and ‘more of the same’ seems the obvious remedy when one has never questioned the accepted myths.

The ultra-Left talk—it is little more than talk—has a smooth plausibility and the advantage of sounding familiar. Its over-simplified appeals attract many, not least those amateur dabblers in Leftism to whom words come easier than action. Allied with efficient organisational manoeuvres, this so-called militant approach can still register short-term successes where it can stand out as a symbol of resistance. But no amount of thunder on the Left seems able to win new forces—as distinct from “our masses”—to the banners of Socialism.

Clear Choice

At this point Indian Communists should take a harder look at themselves. Some time back a letter in a leading English daily described “the CPI” (which CPI is not quite clear from the context) as “a group of intelligentsia without any definite plan, action or purpose. Like the ruling Congress party it also is fond of lecturing and putting forward vague and unimaginative plans.” There is certainly an element of truth here. The split brought the Communists to their political crossroads (for which they had been heading for some time) and if the hesitation there continues too long, history might condemn that as a greater disaster than the split itself. This is ignored alike by sentimentalists crying for unity at any cost and holier-than-thou critics who condemn squabbling.

But the costly setback of the split did at least present the Communists with a clear choice of policies and techniques of struggle, and a chance to go on from there to a higher level of realism. Having come a few steps of the way with its new political approach and forms of action, the CPI cannot stop exploring unknown paths and put itself back on the beaten mud track of familiar dogmas.

If one were to ask how best the Communist Party could work to clarify its own ideas and set its goals, the answer might be: through uninterrupted research and a continuous process of ideological re-thinking. This is not a plea for turning the Party into a talking shop and the preserve of experts. No expertise an take the place of the living experience of the mass movement and it is from there that the mass line must come in the last resort.

But it is time to get rid of hasty and amateurish methods, whether in the preparation of a satyagraha or a speech. The party has never made full use of technicians’ services—there is no lack of professional people who are also socially aware—in building up its own study teams. An apparatus for the collection of data from every field is indispensable as the CPI’s Organisational Resolution has recognised.

Equally indispensable is the need for continuous discussion of vital problems, reviews of movements and so on, with room for the expression of divergent opinions through accepted channels. Perhaps it needs to be stressed that some of the channels should connect the Party with people outside, and not merely different levels of the Party. What Italian Communists call “the dialogue with the masses” should be organised through bolder forms of exchange of ideas, not leaving out political opponents and people under alien influences. In fact, a new sort of work-study principle has to be evolved, with the Party ready to come out boldly in day-to-day activities and struggles, and ceaselessly revaluating its ideas through both study and practice.

As for the Left or Marxist Communists, it is difficult to say whether they believe fascism to have already arrived in India or to be on is way. In either case, they seem quite ready to let it have its way. A theory of pure revolution round the corner and in the meanwhile the refusal to countenance ‘illusions’ of improving the people’s lot through their own struggle turns out in practice to be an inability to organise the masses for either defence or attack.
Here again the reformist core of Left-sectarianism exposes itself. The Left CPI is second to none in abstract theorising, and when it comes to slandering the “Dangeites” it can always give a performance worth watching. All it seems incapable of is the working out of positive alternatives to the CPI or any other line whenever a concrete problem arises.

It is time responsible political workers asked themselves whether this is good enough. Can the old-style jargon and political behaviour, with disruptive acts thrown in, give the movement the sense of direction it lacks at present? Unless some basic questions are asked at this stage and the primary deficiencies of ideology and organisation uncovered, total anarchy in thinking and a moral collapse can hardly be avoided. This is happening to partymen, intellectuals who have sported red ties in their time, and the new generation growing up in free India.

The only way out is to re-orientate the movement so that it does not have to fall back on the sterile rocks of a pseudo-Left isolationism from which there is no turning back and no going forward.

(Mainstream Annual 1965)

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