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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 6 New Delhi January 27, 2018 - Republic Day Special

Discourse on Challenges for the Left: Several Vital Queries Unexplored

Saturday 27 January 2018

by Sobhanlal Datta Gupta


Challenges for the Indian Left by Murzban Jal (ed.); Aakar Books, Delhi; 2017; 576 + xcii pages;
Rs 895.00.

This is an edited volume, comprising thirty-seven essays, penned by noted scholars and political activists belonging to various streams of the Left. It is an attempt to make an anatomy of the Left in India in the context of the growing menace of the Hindu Right and the Left’s decline. The editor has undertaken a gigantic task of putting in one basket so many essays, many of which are quite strongly polemical in temper. Murzban Jal deserves congratulations for this colossal engagement. It also needs to be said that the spirit underlying most of the articles is theoretical and critical, drawing repeatedly from the Marxist classics. The collection, therefore, deserves thoughtful and patient reading.

The tone has been set by the editor in his long scholarly Introduction where, among others, two issues highlighted by him deserve special attention. One refers to the neglect of the caste question by the Indian Left and in this context he attributes the rise of the Hindu Right in the wake of the 2014 parliamentary polls to the seizure of the political space essentially by upper-caste Brahmins. Indeed, the caste-class linkage provides the clue to the understanding of what the Left rightly describes as ‘corporate Hindutva’ but it is true that the Left is yet to make any serious exploration of the class-caste nexus, since the overdetermining role of caste has never been recognised in the vocabulary of the Indian Left. As caste has been viewed as an appendage of class, the key specificity of Indian society has remained beyond their reach.

But a related question has remained some-what unexplored. This refers to how the Hindutva brigade has succeeded over the years to win over the electoral support of the Adivasis and non-Brahmins too, raising, following Gramsci, an important theoretical question: is this an exercise in hegemony or domination?

This leads to the second question: what led to this neglect? This is explained as the failure of the Stalinist mould of Indian Marxism. The Stalinist distortion of Lenin, which shaped the future of international communism for decades, univer-salised a dogmatic brand of Marxism, unrelated to historical particulars. It blunted any creative theoretical advances in Marxism and communism in India, which thrived under the shadow of Stalinism, was no exception.

This viewpoint of the editor, however, is not shared by the authors of many of the essays. In fact, the essays may broadly be divided into two categories and the editor could have done it a little more neatly for the benefit of the readers instead of making the volume look like a collection of assorted chapters. One category covers essays concerning the decline and crisis of the Indian Left, while the other category has its focus on theoretical polemics in Marxism relating to collapse of the Soviet Union, democratic centralism, Gramsci’s relevance for India, Leninism and Maoism, revisioning socialism in the 21st century, etc.

This review, understandably, will deal with some select issues. Regarding the first group of essays, attempts have been made to explore why the communist Left has failed to withstand the assault of the Right and for obvious reasons the debacle of the Left Front Government in West Bengal, after a rule of 34 years, has come under scrutiny. On two levels the question has been analysed. One dimension refers to the performative aspect of Left rule, while the other aspect involves a larger theoretical question, namely, the Stalinist outlook underlying the kind of Marxism practised by the Indian communists. While this has resulted in a disconnect with the toiling masses, more particularly the subaltern masses, the adivasis and the poor peasantry, as explained by Sumanta Banerjee, Kunal Chattopadhyay, Pranab Bardhan, Prasenjit Bose et al. in their essays, two issues arise therefrom.

First, performance itself was vitiated by the virus of Stalinism, as narrow party consi-derations got priority over those of governance. In one essay on democratic centralism, Prakash Karat points out that the CPI-M, after drawing lessons from the Soviet debacle, corrected its position in the 14th Congress of the Party in 1992 when it dropped the idea that democratic centralism was a principle valid for running the Communist Party but inappropriate for running the state. (pp. 380-81) Second, in running the state adiminis-tration in a parliamentary democracy the Left, while subscribing to the idea of alternative governance, must treat the issue of governance somewhat autonomously, regarding it as a kind of performative craft.

This is exactly what constituted Lenin’s worry, expressed so many times in the aftermath of October, when he underscored the importance of mastering skill, efficiency and the appropriate culture which the Bolsheviks lacked, while running the socialist state. For necessary training he told his colleagues to send the concerned officials to Germany for appropriate training and to learn from “American efficiency”. Unfortunately, although Lenin has come up so many times in the book, this aspect of Lenin’s thought has remained untouched. Prasenjit Bose’s piece, covering how socialism should be envisioned in the new century, partially addresses this problem when he focuses on the importance of workers’ collective, cooperatives, planned industrialisation through democratic consul-tations, basic guarantees of right to food, housing, education, healthcare and social security, ecological sustainability and prevention of environmental degradation. (pp. 80-82)

Although written along two different tracks, the observations on Lenin by Pranab Bardhan in the context of espousal of the principle of party supremacy under the Left Front rule in West Bengal and by Paresh Chattopadhyay in more than one essay provide clues to two important theoretical and methodological questions and thereby lead us to explore more extensively the other chapters in the book, which, as stated earlier, address larger questions of Marxist theory. Bardhan attributes the retreat of the Left to the “poisonous Leninist legacy” (p. 505), while Chattopadhyay is firmly of the opinion that it was Lenin who failed to understand Marx and that Bolshevism and Leninism were distortions of Marx.

The first question that arises is: can the “poisonous Leninist legacy”, which was nothing else than Stalinism, be attributed to Lenin? To be more exact, was Lenin simply an advocate of ultracentralism, the roots of which are traced to his 1902 classic, namely, What is to be done? How correct is this portrayal of Lenin and the understanding that Stalinism thrived on this unilinear image of Lenin? This position has been contested by Kunal Chattopadhyay and Soma Marik, Murzban Jal and Javeed Alam in a number of essays. In fact, the Lenin-Stalin continuity thesis, although it is still embraced by fanatic and dogmatic partisans of the Left, is no longer tenable, as recent studies on Lenin have completely unmasked the hollowness of this claim.

The second question is methodological and it stems largely from Chattopadhyay’s position on Lenin, although this is a problem that is common to most of the articles. Chattopadhyay’s yardstick of judging whether a system is socialist or whether Lenin was a true Marxist is simply to examine whether Marx’s words and terms have been followed to the letter. Any innovative intervention, as was done by Lenin, is, for him, a deviation from Marx and thereby is unmarxist. Many of the essays are trapped in this methodologically flawed understanding of Marxism.

This approach, which reduces Marxism to a semantic understanding of Marx’s writings, makes a fetish of his words and expressions, ignoring their spirit of fluidity and dynamism. It is the spirit and not the words which provide the key to the understanding of Marx. This is exactly what Lenin meant when he used to say that he often sought counsel from Marx. Instead of recognising this element of motion so deeply latent in Marx, it has become customary to understand him with reference to select quotes and terminologies, thereby decontextualising the sense of historical totality and its dynamics which informed his writings. Lenin could build up the Bolshevik brand of Marxism, because he applied and did not aim at reproduction of what Marx had written. It is this power of imagination and innovation which distinguished Lenin from many of his contemporaries, although unfortunately his followers made a fetish of his writings and wordings too, missing completely the element of dynamic flow, the notion of self-criticality and self-transcendence in his thought.

The irony is that those who are so punctilious in regard to alleged “deviations” from Marx, they indirectly prepare the ground for a doctrinaire understanding of Marx and Marxism, blocking off negotiations with emergent new areas in the understanding of society. Except some rather scrappy references in the editor’s Introduction, there is hardly any essay which examines Marxism’s negotiation with post-modernism, postcolonialism, recent advances in cultural theory, postmarxism etc. The theoretical universe of Marxism thus gets severely constricted, as Marxism situates itself in a frame that is frozen in time. It is of no use to simply dismiss these new developments as unmarxist/antimarxist, without engaging them in a dialogue.

This, in fact, gives rise to a larger theoretical question. Once Marxism is viewed as something authentic, abstracted in time and space, the canon of authenticity comes in conflict with the autonomy of the subject who looks upon Marxism as something dynamic and fluid. It is this claim to authenticate Marxism to the exclusion of any other alternative that prepared the ground for the positivist Marxism of the Second International and subsequently Stalinism.

Democratic centralism is one such issue which divides the Marxist camp. In the two essays penned by Javeed Alam and Prakash Karat, this is strongly evident. While Alam exposes the dichotomy of theory and practice of this principle in the running of the Communist Party and thereby explains how at the operational level it is centralism which overshadows democracy and thereby argues that this concept has become virtually redundant today, Karat contests this position. While he admits that the practice of this principle has often invited the charge of focusing too heavily on centralism, which has led to occasional modification of this concept in varying conditions, he sticks to the idea that it was, after all, not Russia-specific, as “it was extended by the Communist International to all Communist parties in its Third Congress in 1921..” (p. 366) What Karat misses is the warning given by Lenin in the Fourth Congress of Comintern in 1922 when he said, referring exactly to this resolution, that it was “a failing”, as it was too heavily “Russian” in spirit and necessitated rethinking.

Finally, the enigmatic question of the collapse of the Soviet Union has been addressed in a couple of essays in the form of an interesting debate, involving Markar Melkonian, Paresh Chattopadhyay and Cem Somel. While some of the old issues, namely, whether post-revolutionary Russia witnessed any real build up of socialism or whether a new elite had taken over power or whether Marxism had ever gripped the consciousness of the Russian masses or whether it was the virus of Stalinism or of Right reformism, allegedly perfected by Gorbachev, that led to the fall, have come up for discussion.

Two central theoretical issues arise therefrom. First: was it the failure of Marxism per se or of the Soviet brand of Marxism? Was there a distinction between the kind of Marxism that had the possibility of flourishing in the Lenin era and the Stalinist version that developed subsequently? This question deserves special attention today, but has remained unattended in the volume. Second: Melkonian’s remark that “Marxism did not inform Soviet policy any more than John Locke or Jeffersonian democracy inform United States policy today” (pp. 193-94) is interesting but the full potentiality of this statement has remained unexplored. Why is it that capitalism, on the operational level, does not require iconisation of figures like Locke or Jefferson, but Marxism necessarily requires projection of an icon, Marx or Lenin or Stalin or Mao? While for capitalism desecration of a portrait of Locke or Jefferson is quite immaterial, destruction of Lenin’s statue was deeply symptomatic of what ailed Soviet socialism.

The book would certainly provide fresh food for thought to those who are still interested in studying the discourses of the Left. Especially encouraging is the way the debates have been presented. For those who aim at critical, yet theoretical encounters with Marxism, this book is a must buy.

The reviewer is a former Surendra Nath Banerjee Professor of Political Science, University of Calcutta.

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