Beyond the Elections – Need for a Vibrant and Credible Left
The Peaceful Counter-revolution
It may not be an exaggeration to say that what has just transpired is nothing short of a peaceful counter-revolution. Counter-revolution, not because there was an imminent threat of revolution that has been put down, but because the big bourgeoisie has finally put an end to the challenge from mass struggles that corporate interests had been facing. Struggles around land acquisition, the pressures for environmental clearance that held-up corporate projects, social welfare programmes that came in the way of the most unbridled pursuit of profit, and subsidies that supposedly introduced market distortions – all these had been greatly troubling the corporate sector and their ideologues. A campaign was built up, gradually over the past few years, to install a strong leader with a solid majority, who would give the bourgeoisie a free hand. And it must be admitted today that most of us failed to see where and how that threat was building up. We failed to see that for at least three, perhaps four years, the idea of the ‘Gujarat model’ was being put in place as a shorthand for an unrestrained play to private big capital.
Even when we realized that Modi was being pushed seriously, our eyes were still fixed on the older question of Modi’s culpability or otherwise in the 2002 carnage in Gujarat. The dream of the Gujarat model was sold over the years in many different ways, among precisely those sections whose support the Left (in its broadest sense) would have liked to enlist. The UPA government, of course, left no stone unturned in alienating itself from its popular support. Thus while important social welfare programmes, formulated under pressure from popular and social movements lagged behind in implementation, the neoliberal axis of Manmohan Singh, Chidambaram and Montek Singh Ahluwalia pushed relentlessly on matters like abolishing subsidy on cooking gas and direct cash transfers. The UPA government’s experience, in fact, showed that you cannot be all things to all people; that the interests of the big bourgeoisie and those of common people stand in irreconcilable contradiction. The balancing act cannot really go on for very long.
It is important in this respect to read very carefully, ideologues like Shekhar Gupta, who see the National Advisory Council of the UPA government as an ‘institutional distortion’. The NAC has been the butt of attack by the neoliberal fundamentalists, for the simple reason that it was the one avenue where policy channels had been open to inputs from social movements, in however mediated a fashion. The NAC was therefore seen as an obstruction in the way of unbridled play for capital. If the balancing act has become impossible today, then, it is because the big bourgeoisie wants everything to itself, exclusively. Right now the big battle is going to be around the natural commons and land.
The Disappeared Left and A Possible Future Left
This is perhaps where the question of the Left comes in. It is only in the fitness of things that the official Left, in its present form as the CPI(M), should have been reduced to its current state of irrelevance, if not actual decimation. After all, as the saying goes, why catch the dog’s tail, why not the dog itself? Yes, BBG (Buddhadeb Biman Gautam) Inc can promise a capitalist haven with all the commons privatized, land taken over for corporates – but this, Modi can do much better, and more efficiently, unconstrained as he is be democratic pressures. Why then should people support a CPI(M)-like formation?
The question here actually revolves around the debate that has been falteringly going on in the CPI(M) for some time. Framed still in an outmoded fashion, this debate is seen as a choice between the ‘Chinese path’ (no longer Mao’s but that of present day China) and the path of 21st century socialism, being experimented with by the New Latin American Left. If the first path represents the path of the same unrestrained capitalism, the second represents an experiment that is premised on a rejection of everything that the first model espouses: productivism, growth-fanaticism, privatization of the commons, mass dispossession of the people, one-party dictatorship. The ‘Socialism in the 21st Century’model is, strictly speaking, not a model. It is rather, a vision that builds on and develops ideas and practices of sharing, of the solidarity economy, of collective ownership of the commons. The idea of 21st century socialism rejects the idea that till a revolutionary capture of state power takes place, Leftists should – and can only – build capitalism. On the contrary, it emphatically underlines the need to ‘build socialism now’- that is to say, build the alternative forms of ownership and values in practice today, for these alone will the lay the ground for any kind of reinvented socialism in the future. Needless to say, this vision also rejects the idea that state ownership is the only alternative to private ownership.
In India, the debate on the possible alternative to 20th Century Socialism have been conspicuous by their absence. All debates and controversies therefore only circle around familiar terrain. In the highly ideologized atmosphere, any innovation naturally becomes a casualty. In fact, even those segments of the Left, like the Maoists, who have been waging a struggle over the issue of the commons and whose primary base is in among the poorest in the countryside, especially the indigenous population, remain happily confined within their old verities. They too think of ‘Development’ in the same fashion and are focused on an extremely state-centric vision of socialism. Any rethinking of old certainties is anathema to them. The world of the Indian Left, therefore, remains largely framed by the polarities that had marked 20th century socialism – the stark dichotomies of the market and the state for instance.
The need for a new kind of Left can hardly be over-emphasized in the context of the counter-revolution that has just overtaken us. The coming years are bound to see an intensification of precisely those struggles that have called forth the united offensive of big capital. These struggles were never led by the official Left in any case. The presence in some of them, of sections of the smaller Left groups or of individuals like an Abhay Sahoo or a Manish Kunjam belonging to the CPI, has unfortunately done nothing to ignite a debate within these parties and groups regarding the future direction of the Left. Most of the movements in this sector, ranging from the anti-nuclear power movement in Kudankulam to the struggles against POSCO and Vedanta, actually fall within what can more broadly be called a social movement Left. Some of them found a point of articulation in the broad platform of the Aam Aadmi Party during these elections but we do not really know what the future of AAP and its relationship with the social movement sector will be. Hopefully, AAP will be able to ride over its current crisis and place its relationship with the social movement Left on a firmer footing. This means, of course, that it will have to retain its character as a platform and resist the temptation to become a party in any of the given molds. At the present moment, it is the only formation that has the possibility and the capacity, thanks largely to the persona of Arvind Kejriwal, to wage an uncompromising battle against the new regime.
AAP however will not and need not be the only force on the horizon. Its presence does not and will not exhaust the range of issues around which struggles are likely to develop. The possibility of the emergence of newer formations and coalitions therefore need to be kept open, theoretically speaking. In the churning that will take place over the next few years, it will perhaps be a completely new cast of characters who will emerge on the political scene. Those who have steered the Left so far never had any vision; now they have lost all credibility as well.
The Communist Debate on Organization
As it happens, the debate in the CPI(M) seems to have remained a non-starter. It has remained a non-starter because it has no organizational resources to undertake such a debate. It is dominated by a clique that is completely out of sync with real life and has nothing but dogmatic inanities to offer, while justifying its sellout to the neoliberal project. The point about lack of organizational resources has also to do with its misplaced idea of political and organizational discipline. The name of this idea in the party’s (and more generally, communist) parlance is ‘democratic centralism’. For over a century, communists have lived in the belief that Lenin’s text, What is to be Done? encapsulated universal organizational wisdom for all time to come. The text has long been part of the catechism of communist parties across the world – but especially in India. Based on that kind of an understanding, the CPI(M) leadership propounded a theory in the late 1970s (in the Salkia Plenum, 1979, to be precise) that laid down that ‘a communist party is always built from above‘. Thereafter, its whole emphasis shifted towards ‘strengthening the party centre’- basically that meant abandoning any commitment to mass political work, even in the most limited vanguardist way that happened earlier.
At the risk of being esoteric, it may be worthwhile spending a few moments on this issue of organizational principles as it is of great importance for any project of reinventing the Left in today’s context. It is important to remember here that one aspect of the communist organizational principles, given up soon after the Salkia Plenum, is that of commitment to and experience of grassroots organizing in the election/ selection of leadership. Thus it was that when Jyoti Basu returned after studying law from England, having learnt his Marxism from the leaders of the CPGB, he did not just become a leader. Muzaffar Ahmed gave him the responsibility of organizing the railwaymen’s union. That was where his political training started. From then on, it was in the hurly burly of mass politics that people like Basu became leaders. Similar is the case with the leadership in Kerala. Compare that to the current crop in Alimuddin Street (Kolkata) and AKG Bhavan (Delhi) and the point will become clear. The leaders in AKG Bhavan have not spent one day with an actual worker in all their lives.
The second and most important issue, it seems to me, relates to the question of decision-making. This is not an issue that is only of relevance to communist parties but one that affects all parties across the board. A lot has been made, lately, of the lack of internal democracy in the Aam Aadmi Party and the media has had a lot of fun ‘reporting’ it. But take a look at the way different parties have reacted to their recent electoral defeat. The most comical sight was presented by the Congress: Even as the results were coming out, Congress workers started a demonstration at the party head-quarters, demanding the Priyanka Gandhi be brought in to take over command of the party! The CPI(M) said it believed in collective responsibility and that basically means that nothing changes. You scratch my back and I scratch yours. Akhilesh Yadav responded by dismissing all the district level secretaries of the SP – even though it was he who was responsible for the Muzaffarnagar riots and their fallout in elections. But the leader can never be wrong. Mayawati took the cake by disbanding all committees and reconstituting them, taking the Akhileshwar logic to its culmination. Arvind Kejriwal was perhaps the only top leader who at least accepted that the people had rejected their abdication of the Delhi government because they felt that AAP had left them in the lurch. AAP will of course, have to address this issue seriously in the near future, more so, because it is not really a political party in its present form but a platform. Becoming a party will involve some serious collective thinking on these issues.
In other words, the issue of organizational democracy and responsibility are matters that affect all parties in the same way. For parties that have a stake in expanding democracy in society at large, the question is of paramount importance. For any future Left too, this will be a matter of capital importance. It can ill afford to remain glued to the old formulations derived from What is to be Done?
It may be of some interest here to note that Lenin had actually made some very different formulations about the party – just five years after he published What is to be Done? But such is the hold of canonical texts that the ranks are never meant to go beyond them. Here is Lenin in 1907 for those who might still care:
The Rules of our Party very definitely establish the democratic organisation of the Party. The whole organisation is built from below upwards, on an elective basis. The Party Rules declare that the local organisations are independent (autonomous) in their local activities. According to the Rules, the Central Committee co-ordinates and directs all the work of the Party. Hence it is clear that it [the Central Committee] has no right to interfere in determining the composition of local organisations. Since the organisation is built from below upwards, interference in its composition from above would be a flagrant breach of democracy and of the Party Rules. [All emphasis added]
Notice that Lenin talks of ‘democratic organization’ and not democratic centralism. Further, notice that in his understanding this meant that the Central Committee had no right to interfere in determining the composition of local committees. Interestingly, much of the struggle within the AAP at the present moment resonates with this struggle characteristic of any living party in its moment/s of formation. Lenin’s formulation here, it seems to me, actually rejects the very logic by which a leader or all-powerful politburo or central committee, can simply disband or dissolve local organizations. It seems to me to be a rejection of even minimal interference in affairs of the local organization. This is not a form that is easily compatible with the idea of a centralized party structure.
For his part, Lenin understood What is to be Done? to be merely a “controversial correction of Economist distortions” and thought that “it would be wrong to regard the pamphlet in any other light”. Thus he asserted:
What Is To Be Done? is a summary [emphasis Lenin's] of Iskra tactics and Iskra organisational policy in 1901 and 1902. Precisely a “summary”, no more and no less. That will be clear to anyone who takes the trouble to go through the file of Iskra for 1901 and 1902.[Emphasis added]
There is no doubt that the vaccuum created by the practical decimation of the official Left will lead to a lot of churning in coming years. There might even be attempts to rebuild a different Left. Once again these questions of organizational principles will become relevant. The debate will at one level have to become a debate on the party-form itself.
In conclusion, it is important to reiterate that any new formation on the Left cannot be worth it if it cannot disentangle itself from the highly statist and growth-centric vision that has driven it so far. If it has to be worth its while, such a formation must establish connection with the movements against nuclear power, rethink questions of energy and the commons that will constitute the central points of conflict of 21st century politics. It must liberate itself from the facile idea that unless it is in a position to build socialism, it should only build capitalism. The struggle must begin here and now. As it indeed has, in sectors of the social movement Left.