But Prabhat Patnaik is an Honourable Man
[This is my response to the article by Prabhat Patnaik circulating over on the Net. His original article can be read at the end of this response. We have reproduced it in full. – AN]
This piece could be read as a letter addressed to one of my former, esteemed, ideologue-theoreticians. As young students in the 1970s and 1980s, we often went to listen, starry-eyed, to this soft-spoken theorist expound on what we thought were complex issues of our times and come back mesmerized. Yes, Prof Prabhat Patnaik (PP) was one of our idols. Today he fell and smashed himself. And then something strange happened: the broken pieces rearranged themselves to reveal a frightful other face – the face of comrade stalin.
Since Patnaik has referred to all critics of the CPM as “anti-Left intellectuals”, and has also specifically referred to the letter signed by some of us (including me), I think it would not be wrong to assume that the entire article is also addressed, among thousands of others, to me (though I may be pardoned for assuming that a nacheez like me should even exist on his radar!). Since all those who had signed the statement may have their own responses to PP – and some might not legitimately wish to stoop to the level this once-saintly figure has – I must speak for myself here.
Sometime ago, former West Bengal finance minister and marxist economist Ashok Mitra had written a piece on the happenings in Nandigram. It appeared in Ananda Bazar Patrika and was subsequently translated into English and widely circulated. In that piece, Mitra had suggested “prominent economist and party comrade of the stature of Prabhat Patnaik is hounded” by the party leadership in Alimuddin Street. In a way, we sort of knew it; rather, we hoped it would be true. An intellectual like Prof Patnaik cannot possibly be a cog in the stalinist machine, even though he may have stepped in to sign dubious statements not so long ago. We had assumed that given the political history of stalinist Marxism with intellectuals who were maligned, denigrated, humiliated and finally put before the firing squad, Patnaik had made his ‘existential choice’ a la Georg Lukacs. Lukacs, one of the most brilliant philosophical minds, decided to remain in the ranks (the ‘camp of the people’, in Patnaik’s words) and become the voice of stalinism for decades thereafter. Need we recall the whole list of such people – intellectuals – who were thus repeatedly destroyed? And do we need to tell you that so far only fascism or Nazism has been able to compete with the communist record.
We naively expected this even after we knew that years ago, Comrade Patnaik and his CESP comrades had celebrated the infamous August 1991 coup d’ `etat in the then USSR that briefly deposed Mikhail Gorbachev. Patnaik’s recent article, doing the rounds on email and list-serves is of a piece with that forgotten Patnaik. For, he describes all critics of the CPM, including the signatories of the letter as “in any case strongly anti-organized Left, especially anti-Communist (and in particular anti-CPM), belonging as the do to the erstwhile ‘socialist’ groups, to NGOs, to the ranks of Naxalite sympathizers, to the community of ‘Free Thinkers’, and to various shades of ‘populism’”.
Despite his sympathies for Patnaik (‘who is being hounded’), Ashok Mitra too has forfeited his friendship and respect. For has not Mitra too committed blasphemy by doing what PP has accused all of us of? Listen to Mitra before we proceed. He says: “Till death I would remain guilty to my conscience if I keep mum about the happenings of the last two weeks in West Bengal over Nandigram. One gets torn by pain too. Those against whom I am speaking have been my comrades at some time. The party whose leadership they are adorning has been the centre of my dreams and works for last sixty years.”
My purpose here is not to contest the factual claims made by Prof Patnaik. Rather, I would like to examine some of his more revealing statements and theoretical propositions.
PP starts his article with a certain touching innocence: “why have these people turned against us?”, he asks. After all, he tells his party readers, “they may have been anticommunist, anti-CPM, Naxalites, NGO-ites,” “but they did make common cause with us till recently.” “Why is it suddenly so different now?” This is truly touching because it shows the make-believe world that Communists live in, where they cannot understand the elementary fact of change. It suddenly reminded me of another ‘sad’ incident narrated by Slavoj Zizek. It goes like this: In Romania, the magical spell of ‘communism’ was broken quite dramatically, says Zizek. After the demonstrations in Timisoara against the government, in order to prove that he still enjoyed popular support Ceausescu convened a mass rally in Bucharest. “The crowd started to shout at Ceausescu, who then raised his hands in a tragicomic and bewildered display of impotent paternal love, as if wanting to embrace them all.” Little did he believe that this was the beginning of his end.
To this day, there are people who believe that the collapse of socialism was an imperialist conspiracy and look back longingly at the 1991 coup as a last ray of hope that vanished thanks to the CIA!
Interestingly, one of the characteristics of the stalinist method is deployed by Patnaik to brilliant effect. It should be underlined here: After asking why is it that ‘even’ somewhat sensible people (if they made common cause with you at some point, they must be at least partly sensible) have turned against us, you do not ask what ordinary mortals might. You do not ask, “did we do something wrong?” After all what have we done to lose the trust of our own supporters? There are communist, indeed former CPM supporters also among those who are today criticizing us. That is foreign to the stalinist mind. On the contrary, you ask: what is it with them that they have turned against us? Something must be cooking? Have they been bribed by Satan? Has Imperialism been upto some tricks? Surely some Conspiracy must be underway….
But just to set the record straight for PP and his comrades. Yes, we did make common cause with your party. We made every attempt in every possible way to stay together and work on issues of common concern. At every stage people had to deal with the antics of your comrades who believed that they had the contract or better, the Divine Right of being the Vanguard of History, who therefore believed that for this reason nothing should happen except under their leadership.
There was this huge joint demonstration in Bangalore a couple of years ago, where participants discovered to their horror, on reaching the maidan, that the stage had been set up and captured by the CPM. The venue was decorated with CPM flags and the entire control was in their hands. We have innumerable such instances from every part of the country. Or take the antiwar demonstrations in Delhi. Some of the largest joint rallies were held after the US attack on Afghanistan. But then, the CPM suddenly woke up and by the time of the attack on Iraq, your party decided to ‘take over’. It did. The fledgling joint movement was split. Finally there were rallies ‘under your leadership’ where your comrades treated us, hapless participants, to the outpourings of a Joginder Sharma (don’t ask us who he is!) and such others. The result was that in subsequent years, when there were coordinated global demonstrations against the War on Iraq, people gradually dropped out and there were only small CPM demos in Indian cities – the party machinery could never mobilize more than a few hundreds except in Kerala and West Bengal.
The list is really long and begins right at the time of the most vicious manifestation of the Hindutva threat: the day after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Hundreds of people had assembled at the Vithalbhai Patel House lawns. Ask your comrades what happened that day – that shameful day. Even on that day, the CPM refused to hold a joint programme on an equal basis. Senior citizens like Rajni Kothari were not allowed to speak. In full public view, the then state secretary of the CPM told the police, pointing to another small group of CPI(ML) Liberation activists, that “they are not part of our demonstration.” The police proceeded to cordon them off. A few hundred of us came back and were forced to hold another meeting. That was when the People’s Movement for Secularism (PMS) was born.
Some day, all this history will have to be written and it will stink, professor Patnaik. And just to set the record further straight, all this (except for the PMS story) was WHILE THE BJP-NDA WAS STILL IN POWER. Some day, the history of organizations and coalitions like the CNDP will be written and the sordid story of how the World Social Forum process came to be captured by the CPM to the point of making it meaningless, will be uncovered.
Dear Prof Patnaik, you are quite fond of claiming a radical and ‘political’ mantle for yourself, but if you had spent just one day trying to organize the joint struggles that you nostalgically look back at, you would realize how out of tune you sound to everybody but your vanguard comrades.
So, let us take the theoretical propositions and charges, one by one.
PP explains his – and his comrades’ bewilderment – by making an assertion: The coming out of these “anti-Left” intellectuals “openly against the Left” can only be explained with reference to the process of destruction of politics that the phenomenon of globalization has unleashed. There is no argument. Only further assertions to the effect that: “The anti-Left intellectuals say: politics is filthy; rise above politics; detach the struggle against ‘development’ from politics.” Who precisely said this, Professor Patnaik? And where? Any references? The constant refrain here is ‘Politics’ that is repeated like a mantra along with “Left” and counterposed to “anti-politics” and “anti-Left”. So what is this politics? If you try to sift through the definitional web of assertions, you will be able to isolate two ideas:
(1) The Left is something given; some people are born with into it. Else, they have to be certified by the Church or some favoured appointees. THEY do not have to prove anything. Others are by definition, anti-Left. (2) This idea is related to the idea that POLITICS is about two camps: ‘the camp of the people’ and the camp of the ‘enemies of the people’ (those hostile etc). Now since the Left is, by definition, in the camp of the people (remember the contract?), anybody else can only be against the ‘people’, and the Left and therefore, antipolitical.
Quite apart from the fact that Prof Patnaik, that mesmerizing ideologue-theoretician of yore, does not seem to have read anything about any movement since the Cuban revolution, his views on politics actually make one squirm. Did he remember, by the way, that the Cuban revolution was made against the hated Batista regime that was supported by the Communist Party? Is he aware that the new left wing formations that have arisen all across the South American continent, movements that his party does not cease to invoke in its support, are all movements that arisen on the debris of old-style communist politics? From the Zapatistas to the Movement for Socialism of Evo Morales, the Workers’ Party of Brazill, or the Bolivarian revolution of Chavez – all of them, despite their limitations, have managed to make any kind of headway by breaking with that old politics.
We could actually go on, both from the history of Marxism and from the more recent history of anti-globalization struggles to show how the idea of ‘politics’ being enunciated by Prof Patnaik is at least three decades old. This is not the place for a discussion of those movements but we invite Prof Patnaik – or any of his other comrades to an open debate on this in any neutral ground of his choosing.
In any case, apropos of this idea of a world divided into two camps, my point, for the time being, is simply this: By your definition, esteemed professor, neither feminism, nor the Dalit movement nor the sexuality and ecological struggles qualify for either the category ‘political’ or ‘radical’. (By the way, what is their ‘principal contradiction’, and why should they care about yours?).
Now, I can almost hear shocked marxists exclaim, “of course! Class is the Real Thing, the Principal Contradiction”. So for these marxist comrades, let me just remind them that in the meantime, your own class is rapidly rejecting you – if there was any doubt, in the first place, that is. The CITU has come down even below the AITUC in terms of working class membership – a steady decline over the years. On the other hand, the Left has lost the first ever secret ballot in the railway unions. The people, indeed the ‘working class’ too, rejects ‘Politics’! They need your political catechism Prof Patnaik, sorely. Or else, it is time you should think whose vanguard you want to be.
One more word about the ‘two camps’ notion of politics: Was NATO right in bombarding Serbia and Milosevic? Especially considering that a veritable process of ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Muslims had been going on under his leadership? We all participated in antiwar demonstrations against the NATO but would your two-camp notion of politics say that all those Leftists who saw Milosevic as the most immediate danger, were anti-political, anti-Left? And what about those who were being eliminated? They were being silly in welcoming the NATO bombs? Anti-political “messianic moralism”? They should have written “friendly petitions” to Milosevic, or “open letters”? Why were they becoming accomplices of imperialism? And what about the Kurdish people killed in a virtual genocide by the anti-imperialist Saddam Hussain? Does an opposition to the US attack on Iraq mean that all criticism and even strident criticism of such ‘anti-imperialism’ be suppressed?
Finally, Prof PP says, “this attack inspired by messianic moralism has been launched when the latter [the Left] is in the forefront of an extremely crucial but difficult struggle against the attempt of imperialism to make India its strategic ally.” Well, if you really wish to break the possibility, take a leaf out of the book of Brazil or South Africa and take a unilateral position in favour of abandoning the nuclear programme, which is indefensible in every possible way. Everything else is hot air.
THE LEFT AND ITS “INTELLECTUAL” DETRACTORS
With normalcy returning to Nandigram, and with the heat generated over it in intellectual circles somewhat subsiding, it is time for us to ask the question: why did so many intellectuals suddenly turn against the Party with such amazing fury on this issue?
This question is important because joining issue with them on the basis of facts on the specificities of Nandigram, which is what we have been doing till now, is not enough. It is not enough for instance to underscore the fact, implicitly or explicitly denied by virtually all of them, that thousands of poor people were driven out of their homes into refugee camps for the only “crime” of being CPI(M) supporters; it is not enough to argue against them that there was no semblance of an excuse for keeping Nandigram out of bounds for these refugees and for the civil administration even after
the Left Front government had categorically declared that no chemical hub would be built there; it is not enough to point out that the so-called “re-occupation” of Nandigram in November was an act of desperation which followed the failure of every other effort at restoring normalcy and
bringing the refugees back to their homes. All these facts and arguments have been advanced at length, and are by now passé. But the phenomenon of several intellectuals who till yesterday were with the Left in fighting communal fascism but have now turned against it requires serious analysis.
There is no gainsaying that the Left Front government made serious mistakes in handling the Nandigram issue; and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has said so in as many words. But disagreement with the LF over this could have taken the
form of friendly criticism, articles, and open letters, and not of such outright hostility that even put the LF on a par with communal fascism. Likewise disagreements over the LF’s industrialization policy could have been aired in a manner that had none of the ferocity which has been recently displayed. Differences with the LF, even basic differences, therefore cannot suffice as an explanation of what we have just witnessed.
Likewise, the fact that most of these intellectuals are in any case strongly anti-organized Left, especially anti-Communist (and in particular anti-CPI(M)), belonging as they do to the erstwhile “socialist” groups, to NGOs, to the ranks of Naxalite sympathizers, to the community of “Free Thinkers”, and to various shades of “populism”, would not suffice as an
explanation. After all, despite this basic hostility to the organized Left, they did make common cause with it on several issues till recently. Why is it suddenly so different now?
The context clearly has changed. With the perceived decline in the strength of the communal fascist forces, a certain fracturing of the anti-communal coalition was inevitable and has happened, and this no doubt provides the setting in which it becomes possible for these intellectuals to express in
the open the hostility which they might have felt all along against the Left. Indeed, this perceived weakening of the BJP may even encourage attempts, on the part of intellectuals hostile to the Left but aligned to it earlier owing to the pressure of circumstances, at establishing a sort of
intellectual hegemony over society at large at the expense of the Left. But while the recession of the communal fascist threat certainly creates the condition for these intellectuals to come out openly against the Left, the manner of their coming out cannot be explained only by this fact. It indicates something more serious, namely the process of destruction of
politics that the phenomenon of globalization has unleashed.
The crux of political praxis consists at any time in distinguishing between two camps: the camp of the “people” and camp hostile to the interests of “the people”. This distinction in turn is based on an analysis of the
prevailing contradictions, and the identification of the principal contradiction, on the basis of which the composition of the class alliance that constitutes the camp of “the people” is determined. And corresponding to this constellation of classes, there is a certain constellation of political forces among whom relations have to be forged. It is obvious that
the relationship between the political forces representing the classes that constitute the camp of the people at any time, and the nature of criticism among these forces, must be different from the relationship and criticism across camps. Not to distinguish between the camps, not to distinguish
between alternative constellations of political forces, but to club them together on the basis of the identical nature of their presumed moral trespasses, is to withdraw from politics. What is striking about the attitude of the intellectuals arrayed against the organized Left at present is their complete withdrawal from the realm of political praxis to a realm
of messianic moralism.
Such messianic moralism is not just politically counter-productive. The withdrawal from the realm of politics that it signifies, strengthens politically the camp of the “enemies of the people”. (In India for instance the attack inspired by messianic moralism that has been launched on the
organized Left at a time when the latter is in the forefront of an extremely crucial but difficult struggle against the attempt of imperialism to make India its strategic ally, weakens that struggle, and thereby plays into the hands of imperialism). But messianic moralism, quite apart from its palpable
political consequences, is smug, self-righteous, self-adulatory, and, above all, empty. An attitude that does not distinguish between types of violence, between the different episodes of violence, that condemns all violence with equal abhorrence, that places on a footing of equality all presumed perpetrators of violence, amounts in fact to a condemnation of nothing. To
say that all are equally bad is not even morally meaningful.
This messianic moralism, this withdrawal from politics, is based fundamentally on a disdain of politics, of the messy world of politics, which is far from being peopled by angels. It constitutes therefore a mirror image of the very phenomenon that it seeks to resist, namely the “cult of development” spawned by neo-liberalism. Manmohan Singh says: politics is
filthy; rise above politics; detach “development” from politics. The anti-Left intellectuals say: politics is filthy; rise above politics; detach the struggle against “development” from politics.
This disdain for politics, this contempt for the political process, is what characterizes substantial sections of the middle class in India today. It is visible in the absolute opposition of the students of elite institutions to the legislation on reservations passed unanimously by parliament. It is
visible in the persistent resort to the judicial process to overturn decisions of legislatures, and the exhortations to the judiciary to act as a body superior to the elected representatives of the people. This middle class contempt for politics and politicians is apparent in the rise of movements like “Youth For Equality” that make no secret of it and whose
avowed aim is to combat “affirmative action” which they consider to be the handiwork of “opportunist” politicians.
The rise of messianic moralism is a part of the same trend, which is nothing else but a process of “destruction of politics”. Middle class moralism upholds causes, not programmes. It flits from cause to cause. And it apotheosizes the absence of systematic political alliances. Some may call it “post-modern politics”, but it amounts to a negation of politics.
Messianic moralism always has a seductive appeal for intellectuals. To avoid systematic partisanship, to stand above the messy world of politics, to pronounce judgements on issues from Olympian moral heights, and to be applauded for one’s presumed “non-partisanship”, gives one a sense of both
comfort and fulfillment. This seductive appeal is heightened by the contemporary ambience of middle class disdain for politics which the phenomenon of globalization, subtly but assiduously, nurtures and promotes.
The answer to the question with which we started, namely why have so many intellectuals turned against the Left with such fury, lies to a significant extent in the fact that this fury against the Left is also fed by a revolt against politics. The revolt against the CPI(M) is simultaneously a revolt against politics. The combination of anti-communism with a rejection of politics in general gives this revolt that added edge, that special anger. It is the anger of the morality of the “anti-political” against the morality of the “political”, for Communism, notwithstanding its substitution of the
“political” for the “moral”, has nonetheless a moral appeal. The venom in the anti-Left intellectuals’ attack on the Left comes from the fact that this struggle, of the “morality of the anti-political” against the “morality of the political”, takes on the character of a desperate last struggle, a final push to destroy the latter, since “our day has come at last!”.
Ironically it was a group of US-based academics led by Noam Chomsky who sought to introduce a political perspective to the anti-Left agitation of the intellectuals on Nandigram. It is they who pointed out that in the anti-imperialist struggle, which is the defining struggle of our times (the struggle around the principal contradiction), the organized Left was an
essential component of the camp of the “people”, and that nothing should be done to disrupt the unity of the camp of the “people”. But the response of the anti-Left intellectuals to the injection of this political perspective was a barrage of attacks on Chomsky et al for taking a “pro-CPI(M)” position. A political position ipso facto was identified as a “pro-CPI(M)”
position. There could be no clearer proof of the proposition that the revolt of the intellectuals against the Left was simultaneously a revolt against politics, a disdain for politics that has become so prevalent a phenomenon in the era of globalization that it affects as much the proponents of
globalization as its avowed critics. In fact these critics and the votaries of imperialist globalization share in this respect the same terrain of discourse.
The hallmark of the organized Left lies precisely in the fact it rejects this terrain of discourse, that it accords centrality to politics, that it does not substitute an abstract Olympian moralism for concrete political mobilization. It is for this reason therefore that the Left’s attitude to these intellectuals must be informed by politics; it cannot be a mirror image of their attitude to the Left.
Professor, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru
University, New Delhi
Vice Chair, Planning Board, Government of Kerala.