Some critical questions on left practice

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(The revised version of article on "Some critical questions on left practice" written by Arup Baisya has appeared in the online page of Frontier Weekly. So this has now been replaced by the article appeared in Frontier Weekly. You may also  visit

Capitalist crisis and statist outlook

The new phase of structural crisis of capitalism started brewing up in the late sixties or early seventies. Amidst the Cold War framework, the peasant and popular uprisings especially in the third world countries came to the centre stage to set the left activism anew. Lenin envisaged the revolution in developed countries after breaking the weakest link of capitalism in Czarist Russia. But the revolution in China already shifted the focus of revolution from the developed countries to backward countries as centre of gravity for transcendence of capitalism. The socialism building in post-revolutionary China, Soviet practice of socialism vis-à-vis “the really existing socialism” was the inspiration to innumerable left-activists who were like “fish in the water”(Mao) within the resurgence of peasant and popular uprisings unfolded in the backdrop of entry of capitalism in the new phase of structural crisis. The heat of the tumultuous situation did not allow the majority of the practicing left-activists to look back to question the socialist-legitimacy behind the Soviet aggression in the name of exporting socialism and the Chinese practice with lack of democracy. Instead of relying on the inherent logic of capitalism behind imperialism, majority of them were engrossed with the idea of treating ‘socialist state power’ as the basic countervailing factor to challenge capitalism and its highest form, imperialism. This statist outlook veiled the process that strengthens the state power instead of social power necessary for the real socialist transitional project of ‘withering away of state’ to build communist society.

Defeatist mindset of the left

The skewed vision developed within the garb of revolutionary activism and revolutionary zeal to complete the imminent revolution in third world left many questions out of the purview of left discourse within the practicing left circles. After the disintegration of Soviet Russia, and when the facts, hitherto remained unnoticed or discarded being treated as the conspiracy of the capitalist roaders, started pouring out abundantly in a neo-liberal environ from within the Chinese society confirming its reversal from socialist trend, the most of the practicing left became puzzled and started questioning Leninist position on imperialism and Mao’s path of revolution. Instead of dwelling on the ‘really existing capitalism’ and the mistakes in the socialism building process and thus improving the concept of ‘theory and practice’ behind the revolutionary success story to fit in a new set of existing parameters, they preferred to go for a paradigm shift from the Leninist and Mao’s position. The defeatist tendency instilled in the minds of millions of left activists has actually provoked some left intellectuals to delineate the present situation in such a way that being far from Leninist position justifies the left inactivity or activity without agenda to defeat imperialism and to transcend capitalism. This, at least for the time being, suits the activists to cope with the argument of eternal capitalism.

The basic premises on which the aberrant and skewed vision have its fall out can be identified as (1) the question of imperialist rivalry (2) the Indian caste-class question (3) the democracy in a socialist state (4) the revolutionary organization.

The question of imperialist rivalry

On the first question of imperialist rivalry, a section of the left intellectuals want to describe the current phase of capitalist competition as ‘collaborative competition’ that nullifies the Leninist formulation on imperialist rivalry and war. Aizaz Ahmad asserts an element of fundamental novelty of present situation by stating “the first specificity of this regime (in the United Sates) lies in the fact that, thanks to the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, this is the first time in human history that a single imperial power is so dominant over its rival that it really has no rival, near or far, precisely at the time when it has the greatest capacity to dominate the globe”.1 He further asserts that Lenin’s conception of ‘inter-imperialist rivalry’ arose in the course of a conjunctural analysis required by an intense debate on whether a world war was imminent or not. He also points out, “the specificity of the conjuncture in the imperialism of our time, as different from Lenin’s, is that its core – consisting of advanced capitalist countries – is comprised of neither rivals nor equals”.2 He even rules out the idea of inter-imperialist rivalry being shifted from the Atlantic zone to Pacific zone as less plausible and more or less futuristic. Evidently any form of ‘imperialist rivalry’ in Leninist sense of the term does not hold good in his scheme of things depicting the present time. In the cold war phase, one camp of the left squarely put the difference of ideological convictions as the main driving force behind the rivalry between the U.S. and erstwhile Soviet Union and other camp emphasized the difference of material interests.  As in the present neo-liberal phase of capitalism, there does not exist a powerful state that bears an ideology polar opposite to bourgeois liberalism and a state or group of states powerful enough to challenge the scheme of planetary domination of Pax Americana, it is concluded that the imperialistic rivalry in Leninist sense of the term does not hold good. The overemphasis on external phenomena rather than the internal dynamism of capitalism where the material interests and ideological convictions are intertwined obscures the underlying reality.       
Lenin locates the nature of imperialism in the modes of behaviour of monopoly capitalism to protect and increase their profit. Among the essential features of the imperialist stage, according to Lenin, are the economic struggle (or alliances) among sectors of finance capital for division of markets and investment opportunities in the advanced as well as the underdeveloped nations, and the military and diplomatic struggle among the imperialist powers for control and influence over weaker nations, industrialised  as well as non-industrialised. Lenin emphasises imperialism as the culmination of inherent dynamism of capitalism and imperialist rivalry as the extension of the logic of this inherent dynamics rather than as formulation evolving from conjunctural analysis of Lenin’s time. The imperialist rivalry is the basic tenet of capitalism in monopoly phase, the only difference is that at a certain point of time, one power-center may be economically and politically much more powerful than others who may strive to avoid full-blown conflict as a tactical move. But this armistice among the imperialist powers is not the principal feature of the time, rather the intrinsic crisis as well as monopolistic interest set the trend to face one another as rivals to combat. The basic premise of Lenin’s theorisation of imperialism as monopoly stage of capitalism, during which finance capital is in the ascendancy and the imperialists rivalries do hold good provides us the necessary framework to analyse the situation unfolding at this juncture. Harry Magdoff describes the features of the post-World War II years as the integration of military production with the dominant industrial sectors, the drive of multinational corporation toward worldwide control of the most profitable and newest industries in both the periphery and advanced countries and the priority of the interest of military-multinational industry on the affairs of the state. He is right when he states, “true, this describes primarily the situation in the united states, but at the same time it outlines the path now being followed in rival imperialist powers – a process that may well be speeded up in view of the weakness now being revealed in the internal and external position of U.S. capitalism”.3 But the strange situation of apparent non-death of neo-liberal capitalism and the fall of “really existing socialism” has retarded the process Magdoff envisaged. In the first Gulf War and subsequent Yugoslav conflict United States asserted its hegemony through its traditional policy of multilateralism. But from the Nineties in the vacuum created by the collapse of Soviet Union, the features of unilateralism in American foreign policy started emerging. But after the Iraq occupation the policy of planetary domination of Pax-Americana and the atavistic American attitude has soon started retreating under the unforeseen political, military, and economic difficulties arisen from rival powers and in the backdrop of deep crisis of capitalism. So it can be said that there are transitory phases unilateralism, multilateralism and full blown conflict within the ambit of underlying imperialistic rivalries after the emergence of monopoly capitalism as Lenin envisaged and this basic tenet of Leninism has not been changed in the present phase of neo-liberalism except the fact that the finance capital has overwhelming sway over industrial capital and the oligopolistic corporate giants have become more powerful than the nation-states whose interests are sometimes downplayed by the global interests of the corporate, but these surface phenomena in the monopoly phase of capitalism whose internal dynamics is to ensure the wheels of capitalist machine running, and to produce and reproduce the relations of production brings the imperialistic rivalry back in the centre stage.      
Sustainability of neo-liberal capitalism

In the present phase of neo-liberalism, the rules of the market are set by the state on behalf of the large corporation in globalising India in the name of economic development. The twentieth century post-war capitalism developed through a complex process of conflict and cooperation between state and market. The state furthered the market’s interest but at times also regulated it in favour of the labour. But in the current phase of capitalism after 1980, the state is under the complete sway of giant corporate oligopolies, and the role of the state is completely determined by the motive of profit-maximisation of the financial and other corporate gulags. Neoliberalism departs from both the political and economic legacy of liberalism in not seeing any problem in a close relationship between firms and the state, provided the influence runs from firms to state and not vice versa. The first error of this position is not to realise that firms try to influence the state precisely because they then want that influence to turn back onto the economy, to grant them favours. The occasional ruptures of financial bubbles in the World’s largest economy of America like dot com or sub-prime bubbles blown by the multi-faceted and skillfully designed debt structure causing abundance of toxic financial assets to surface has been handled by the state to bail out the farms which are considered “too big to fail” following the prescription of the powerful corporate lobby. Thus the precise meaning of neo-liberalism is getting clearer to everyone.
Karl Marx considered that at certain moments of historical crisis a social class would emerge whose concerned became the international proletariat and thus there would be an end to the process, because the proletariat was the generality of society and not just a particular interest within it. The Keynesian model that guided economic policy in the first thirty years after the Second World War did represent a temporary coincidence between the interests of the industrial working class in the global northwest and a general interest of the politico-economic system. This had been the class likely to threaten political and social order. It was also potentially the class whose mass consumption could fuel economic growth of a kind unprecedented in human history. The Keynesian model, combined with mass production, was a response to these demands that reconciled workers with a capitalist system of production. The opposing set of neoliberal ideas that leapt to prominence during the 1970s stagflationary crisis of the Keynesian model was also carried by a class, the class of finance capitalist, geographically grounded primarily in the USA and the UK, but extending across the globe. By the 1980s the process generally known as globalisation, both a producer and product of deregulation of financial market set the only actor capable of rapid action at global level were giant TNCs, which preferred their own private regulation over that by governments. Does the strange situation of non-death of capitalism appear to be prevailingly due to the creation of demand in the financial market by series of financial bubbles do away with the imperialist war for supremacy over neo-colonial states? Does the global scenario represent homogeneity of market regulated under single capitalist centre regulated by oligopolistic cartel instead of imperialistic-capitalist pattern of multilayered centre-periphery structure and thus bring the capital-labor contradiction as the principal contradiction in the global stage? Rather the converse is perhaps true and the facts reveal that the gap between diverse centers and peripheries are widening with the gradual strengthening of multiple centers more and more backed by the policy makers who are advocating strong states amid deepening and unmanageable  financial crisis.  

Class-Caste struggle 

The militancy of the industrial workers in 1970s, though this section never constituted a majority of the working population anywhere, had been the growing class, but now they are declining. Workers in the main growth sectors of the new economy, private services, were usually not organized and had developed no autonomous political agenda, no organization to articulate their specific grievances. So as the class interest of workers and peasant being contingent to the community interest in the developing countries like India, the community struggles are steered under the leadership of the class or group of people who benefited from the first spell of neo-liberal economy. This development in this neo-liberal phase of capitalism has been hitherto ignored by the dominant section of the left forces. After 1947 in the post British period, though Indian communists advocated linguistic states, but it tragically failed to comprehend the overlapping & multi-dimensional identity & consciousness of the Indian people due to their adherence to the Russian legacy of deterministic approach and in this context there remained a curious inconsistency in their position on nationality question and subsequently they even bade farewell to the idea of “right to self determination”. Lenin always advocated right to self-determination. But though in the case of Georgian invasion Lenin envisaged the danger of “Great Russian bully” over Georgian revolution, Lenin’s agreement with the invasion in the first instance is also questionable and seems to be guided by the deterministic approach of overemphasizing the external factors rather than complete reliance on the dynamics of internal forces. This deterministic approach also moulded the ideological mindset of the Indian first generation communists like Dange to overlook the caste reality of India to suggest that Brahman was the ‘commune of Aryan Man’ which was ridiculed by eminent Marxist historian D.D.Kosambi. The religious doctrines that are so venerated by Indian Castes, minimized the need for internal violence, thereby leading all social manifestations of the class-struggle in India into religeo-philosophical channels of expression. In this sense, opined Kosambi, caste is the negation of history, so that it is not in the least surprising to find that Indian literary tradition has virtually no historical sense or content ( Kosambi : stages of Indian history). The servility towards religious doctrine and religious amassing of wealth as expropriator has been retained by the popular classes from their traditional past, as this popular classes was the Sudra who could not be manumitted. Manusmriti 8.414 tells us  explicitly : ‘Even if released by his master, the Sudra is not freed from servitude :  if (servitude) is his lot by nature, who can remove that from him?(Kosambi : On a Marxist approach to Indian chronology). The Indian caste question has always been neglected by considering it as the question of superstructure which will be automatically abolished with the change of structure. But there were no dearth of empirical and theoretical data to consider caste as the question of structure and super-structure both at the same time. So for formulating a revolutionary strategy, the deterministic approach and the narrow definition of class on the basis of juridical ownership only need to be abandoned and focus on the method of concrete situation of concrete analysis.

Democracy in a Socialist state

The discourse on democracy is based on Stalinist theoretical enunciation that withering away of state would occur through its reinforcement and leading role of the party. These two ideas combined give rise to strengthen state-power with the communist party at its overwhelming control. Going by the Stalinist conception, they believe that this state cannot exercise ‘function of repression’ because in the socialist state, exploitation is suppressed, the exploiters no longer exist, there is no one to be suppressed. As the democracy and politics get withered away with the withering away of state as the instrument of suppression and dominance, there cannot be any socialist democracy. So only task on the question of democracy is to attain purest form of bourgeois democracy in a bourgeois state and as a result, the struggle for democracy is limited to rectify the aberration in bourgeois democracy in a bourgeois state, not to extend and surpass it in a socialist state. The task of simultaneously weakening the state power and strengthening the social power under the leadership of working class gets obliterated from communist proggramme that revolves around the reformist act of taking corrective measures to attain purest form of bourgeois democracy and then discard the essence of this democracy altogether instead of extending it in the futuristic project of socialism building. Charles Bettelheim writes, “the Stalinist ideology of the state and of its relationship with citizens thus enunciates a double discourse : a “democratic discourse” which is in contradiction with facts and an absolutist and repressive discourse which is a commentary on actual practice. This duality is an expression of a social schizophrenia. It reflects the deep contradictions of an economic and political system which oppresses this masses, subjects them to repression and exploits them with an intensity rarely attained in history”.4 So for evolving a futuristic project for socialism building, the question of democracy has the paramount importance.

Question of Organisation  

One of the most important aspects that needs to be discussed and debated is the question of communist organisation. The skewed vision on the question of communist organisation can be traced back even to Lenin’s time. Lenin’s idea of ‘Vanguardism’ is ripe with implications that can arrest the process of working class self-consciousness. Being the vanguard, the communist party and its activist-leaders are indoctrinated as the infallible mass-leaders who only bear the knowledge to lead the civilization ahead. Mao’s idea of communist activist as ‘the fish in the water’ and to educate the masses from the conception of “from the people, to the people”, though a better extension of vanguardist idea, is also problematic in initiating the process of development of mass-consciousness. This metaphor that symbolises communist organiser as ‘fish’ and society as ‘water’ is closely inter-related with the question of being declassed. As the fish can be brought from outside and thrown into the stagnant water, a communist activist becomes leader of the working class from outside and it does not entail the communist who is evolved from within the class and the mutual interaction between the activist and society to ensure the raising of self-consciousness of working class. As the activists constitute the basic foundation of the party-strength, the party is bestowed with responsibility to train them who in turn repose high esteem to the party high-ups for preparing the theoretical materials to train them. Thus the social division of mental and physical labour starts replicating and reinforcing within the party life itself and sets the ground for cultism. Recently the ruminations on this question are becoming visible within the practicing left circle, after the demise of “really existing socialism” and the loss of ground of the main stream left forces. It is now being felt that the organisational practice of the communists till date is not in keeping with the Marxist concept of withering away of state and politics. So keeping in view the Lenin’s theoretical concept of consciousness to the masses from without and proletarian vanguard, Stalinist practice, Gramsci’s concept of organic intellectual and Rosa Luxembourgian critiques, this organizational question needs to be discussed & debated at length.

On the organization question, Luxemburg took an overall organic view. Her polemics against Lenin can be understood when she says, “let us speak plainly, historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful and more valuable than the infallibility of the best of all possible central committees”.5 But over-dependence on spontaneity may distract the party organiser from its educator role and transform the party-leaders into quotidian activists in a sterile situation or quixotic in a vibrant situation with a built-in ‘empiricist outlook’. That Luxemburg was aware of this is clear from her passage that states, “On the one hand, we have the mass; on the other, its historic goal, located outside the existing society. On one hand, we have the day-to-day struggle; on the other, the social revolution. Such are the terms of the dialectical contradiction through which the socialist movement makes its way. It follows that this movement can best advance by taking betwixt and between the two dangers by which it is constantly being threatened. One is the loss of its mass character; the other the abandonment of its goal. One is the danger of sinking back to the condition of a sect; the other, the danger of becoming a movement of bourgeois social reform. That is why it is illusory, and contrary to historic experience, to hope to fix, once for always, the direction of the revolutionary socialist struggle with the aid of formal means, which are expected to secure the labour movement against possibilities of opportunist digression”6. Like Lenin, Gramsci also finds the remedy of the problem in democratic centralism. But in his opinion, democratic centralism must be elastic, it comes alive in so far as it is continuously interpreted and adapted to necessity. It needs continual renewal. Democratic centralism, again, must be ‘organic’ in the sense that both the leaders and the rank and file must obey the rule of democracy. So the central core of the organizational problem lies on the question of organic nature of party members and the continuously evolving and extending the party democracy vis-à-vis overall democracy. Gramsci states “The Socialist Party is not a sectional, but a class organization: its morphology is quite different from that of any other party. It can only view the state, the network of bourgeois class power, as its antagonistic likeness. It cannot enter into direct or indirect competition for the conquest of the state without committing suicide, without losing its nature, without becoming a mere political faction that is estranged from the historical activity of the proletariat, without turning into a swarm of ‘coachman-flies’ on the hunt of bowl of blancmange in which to get stuck and perish ingloriously. The Socialist Party does not conquer the state, it replace it; it replaces the regime, abolishes party government and replaces free competition by the organization of production and exchange.”7 It must be emphasized that the evolving consciousness of the masses should transform their status from object of history to the subject with the withering away of the party itself and in this context, mass-action is to be given utmost importance as Rosa Luxemburg envisaged and on this premise the concept of new left organization needs to be developed.

Notes :
(1) Iran, Afghanistan : The Imperialism Of Our Time, by Aijaz Ahmad, LeftWord Books, March 2005, page 239. italic words in parenthesis are additions of the author of this article.
(2)  Ibid, page 242.
(3) Imperialism : From the Colonial Age to the Present, by Harry Magdoff, Monthly Review Press 1978. page 111.
(4) Cass Struggle in the USSR, Third Period : 1930-1941, Part 2: The Dominators, by Charles Bettelheim, T R Publication Pvt Ltd 1996, page 17
(5) Readings in Revolution and Organization : Rosa Luxemburg And Her Critic : Selected and Introduced by Sobhanlal DattaGupta, Pearl Publishers, September 1994, page 139.
(6)  The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis & Kelvin B. Anderson, Cornerstone Publication August 2005, page 263.
(7) The Antonio Gramsci Reader, edited by David Forgacs, NYU press, 2000, page 40.011)


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