EPW article : Strategic dilemma of the left.

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Strategic Dilemma of the Indian Left

Arup Baisya (swabhiman.ngo@gmail.com) is a social activist based in Silchar, Assam.
While the Communist Party of India and the CPI (Marxist) follow a strategy based solely on the category of a "war of position", the CPI (Maoist) is trying to implement a strategy based entirely on a "war of manoeuvre". The interconnectedness of these two categories and their dialectical relation with the state are missed in each party's strategising of the revolutionary movement.
A leading section of the Left mechanically delineates the path of establishing working-class hegemony as a “war of manoeuvre” in the East in contradistinction to the “war of position” in the West. Following the 1970s, in practice, the traditional parliamentary left and the extreme left strategically placed themselves completely in a war of position and war of manoeuvre, respectively. Though this phase is heavily burdened with their past legacy, the post-1970s period demands special attention in view of the neo-liberal phase of capitalism which differs in significant ways from the post-war boom and welfarism. This phase is marked by many new dimensions in the scene of global capitalism due to the far-reaching consequence of the process of centralisation-cum-globalisation of finance capital, but it does not perforce indicate a radical break from Lenin’s prognostication on monopoly capital and imperialism. The mere counterposition of war of position to war of manoeuvre in any Marxist strategy, in the end, becomes an opposition between reformism and adventurism. In the history of the communist movement, once the United Front had been equated with the war of position, against the war of manoeuvre or “revolutionary offensive” strategies of the adventurist period of all-out confrontation, it threatened to slide towards a gradualist reformism that was the mirror image of the ultra-leftist position it proposed to replace (Thomas 2013).
Misconstrued Notion
The crisis of the traditional left is ingrained in a serious political error. The left’s implicit and explicit politics was that capitalism was standardising Indian society, that proletarianisation would reduce rural “idiocy”, that, like the freedom struggle, class struggle would reduce obscurantism, communalism and casteism, and finally, the community fabric of society would be more and more transformed into a class fabric. The parliamentary or mainstream Indian left – which includes the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) – and CPI – has, from the 1970s onwards, been visibly changing its strategy in practice to a war of position alone, equating this with United Front activity, and thus losing the zeal to build a mass movement. Theoretically, the CPI(M) and the CPI accept the semi-feudal character of the Indian state, but with an understanding that the national bourgeoisie is at the helm of affairs moulding the capitalist formation.
However, the development of capitalism in India has not resulted in the submerging of the communities in the process of sociopolitical development. Rather, dormant communities have now woken up, awakened communities have become restive, and a competitive polity based on a regime of subsidies and patronage has created communities out of sub-communities. The left offered neither non-violent resistance at Ayodhya, nor did it order a halt to L K Advani’s march at Purulia. More importantly, the slogans and methods to preach secularism were imprisoned by the rhetoric of the Nehruvian liberal age. Alternatively, the extreme left – in the main, the Indian Maoists – is engrossed in a static mindset and fails to notice the internal dynamics of societal change under the influence of global capitalism and Indian democracy, even in the hinterlands.
Land reform was undertaken haltingly from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s. A National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) report (Report No 491: Household Ownership Holdings in India 2003) shows that landless households comprise 31.12% of all households, while households having more than 3 hectares of land comprise only 5.18% (of this, 3.06% has 3-5 hectares, 1.6% has 5-10 hectares, and 0.52% has more than 10 hectares). The Pocket Book of Agricultural Statistics, 2013 (published by the Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India) reveals that in 1951, 71.9% of the agricultural workforce were cultivators while 28.1% were agricultural labourers, but these figures changed to 45.1% and 54.9% respectively in 2011. In 2002-03, according to NSS Report No 492 on operational landholdings in rural India in 2002-03, marginal holdings (holdings of size one hectare or less) constituted 70% of all operational holdings. Small holdings (one to two hectares) constituted 16%; semi-medium holdings (two to four hectares) 9%; medium holdings (four to 10 hectares) 4%; while large holdings (over 10 hectares) were less than 1% of all operational holdings.
NSS data also show that the share of agricultural workers among male rural workers declined steadily from 80.6% in 1977-78 to 71.7% in 1989-90, and for rural females this share dropped from 88.1% in 1977-78 to 81.4% in 1989-90 (Jha 1997). These figures suggest that the non-agricultural rural sector absorbed about 70% of the total increase in the rural workforce between 1977-78 and 1989-90 (CSD 2012). These changes in the rural landscape have substantially changed the balance of forces as far as semi-feudal relations of production are concerned, and this itself demands special attention to formulate a new programme for the Left movement.
Different Phases of Transition
The series of successful revolutionary upsurges that had been first witnessed in Russia and ended with the last revolutionary victory in Vietnam in May 1975 was based on the premise of the worker-peasant alliance built against the backdrop of rising peasant militancy. But widespread peasant militant movements like Tebhaga and Telangana could not be transformed into a revolutionary social movement in India under the leadership of the working class. The objective barriers, as Utsa Patnaik (Thorner ed 2001) pointed out, were:
for one, the strength and efficiency, honed over two centuries, of the repressive apparatus of the unitary British colonial state, as compared to moribund Tsarism in Russia or the internal bickering of rival imperialist powers in semi-colonial China. For another, the relative strength of the English-educated Indian bourgeoisie which seized the leadership of the national movement particularly after Gandhiji’s return from South Africa and his brilliant political innovation – the satyagraha, which perfectly suited the requirement of a movement which wished to stave off revolution while taking over the legacy of power.
In addition to her diagnosis of objective difficulties, it would be pertinent to say that the Indian peasant movement of that period had seldom crossed the caste-community fault lines built into the semi-feudal hierarchical caste structure and could not change the upper-caste moorings of the English-educated class who acted as colonial intermediaries.
In a country like India with an emerging market economy, there occurred many changes in the structure of the workforce as between workers and peasants over the period from colonial rule with deindustrialisation in the 19th century to dirigiste industrial development during the period from the mid-1950s to the end of the 1970s, to the present phase of imperialist globalisation. It can be claimed that deindustrialisation was merely a decline from a development which had been especially stimulated by the activities of the European merchants themselves in buying Indian cloth for export to other countries. Hence the major part of the deindustrialisation process must be attributed to the displacement of traditional manufacturers as suppliers of consumption goods to the internal Indian market.
Characterising the colonial deindustrialisation process, Amiya Kumar Bagchi (2010) wrote:
Capitalist industrialisation up to the phase of maturity is attended by at least three types of changes: (a) an increase in the proportion of the population engaged in secondary industry, (b) a sustained increase in per capita income, and (c) a continual rise in the degree of mechanisation in industry – and to lesser extent perhaps, in agriculture. The reversal of any of these conditions over a long period of time can be characterised as deindustrialisation. India experienced the reversal of the first two conditions from probably 1820 up to 1914.
During the post-Independence period up to the 1970s, a new industrial policy of import substitution of manufactured consumer goods with a view to catching up with the developed western world was followed. But that policy was heavily dependent on the import of heavy machinery and thus remained completely entangled in the vicissitudes of the global market and the policy framework of global capital. The capitalist classes of India cannot step up their rates of accumulation without running into inflationary and balance-of-payments difficulties because they have to reckon with the formidable influence exerted on the world economy by the advanced capitalist classes. Also, due to fear of unrest of the Indian peasantry and the proletariat, the capitalist classes of India have to adjust to the demands of the property-owning strata in control of the agricultural sector characterised by pre-capitalist relations. The neo-liberal policy framework that was initiated by the Indian government in the face of the balance-of-payments crisis in the early 1990s let loose an onslaught on labour at the behest of the global capitalist class. The left, in power in a few Indian states, especially in West Bengal, also succumbed to this pressure with a policy paralysis. The Left failed to take stock of the rapidly changing urban and rural landscape arising out of the simultaneous pauperisation and prolitarianisation of the masses.
Dilemma of the Left
The total abdication of its role by a supposedly pro-labour government in West Bengal further worsened the situation. In 1988, for example, of the total 228 work stoppages, lockouts accounted for 85% and strikes 15%; 88% of the man-days lost were because of lockouts and 12% because of strikes. Of the 2,46,053 workers affected, a majority (60%) suffered owing to lockouts. The average duration of a strike was 33.4 days, while that of a lockout was 169 days. Lay-offs increased from 510 in 1985 to 1,572 in 1988 (Samaddar 2013). The unions and the state both remained a mute witness to the onslaught on workers during the decade. In fact, the unions often became part of a structure that resulted in managerial hegemony – just as the policies of the so-called pro-labour state government did.
The Left, in principle, must always strategically place itself in favour of a strike by labour, with tactical variations during the period of boom and of recession of global capitalism marked by underdevelopment, a restricted home market, stagflation, a large unorganised sector and technological restructuring of industry, as argued by Lenin long ago. But the Left in power in Bengal became a mere witness to the strike by capital in the 1980s. The Left could have sided with labour by initiating a policy of social security, cooperative management of the existing industries, building social infrastructure that also generates employment, and support to increase the demand for indigenous commodities through state purchases, as also, pushing the achievement of Operation Barga further ahead through land reforms and boosting agricultural commercialisation and cooperation. But it dared not pursue this pro-labour path, fearing the hostility of the global capitalist class and the reluctance of global investors who are interested in profiteering and in ensuring super-profits by hindering the combined development model and using the imperialistic supply line.
The extreme left, especially the Maoists, on the other hand – failing to take note of the changes in the urban and rural class structures and the balance of forces evolved during the long period of post-Independence capitalist reconstruction and institutionalisation of parliamentary democracy – put much emphasis on the immanence of the seizure of state power and on combating the coercive apparatus of the state. In adopting such a course, this section of the left was simply following the argumentation of the mechanical division of strategy in the countries of the East and the West.
The change in the agrarian class structure has diverse ramifications in the diverse geopolitical regions of the Indian nation. Acute peasant distress in the cash-crop areas is due to a strengthening of pre-capitalist relations and caste-community cleavages under the influence of usurious credit and merchant capitalism. But a region like Bengal where the Left had undertaken land reforms to a certain extent has unleashed the forces of agrarian commercialisation through the path of peasant capitalism. The proletarianisation of the peasantry would have opened up new vistas for working class unity and consciousness in both rural and urban areas had the left in power not given much emphasis on promoting the path of development based on global capitalist investors, and the extreme left not marginalised itself by practising a combatant politics that relies on the barrel of the gun. Both the mainstream left and the extreme left have missed the opportunity to build a sustained struggle for social security, working class unity and consciousness. Sadly, the traditional left forces like the CPI and CPI(M) have been pursuing the misplaced legacy of the strategic and tactical path of the Second International and Stalinist determinism without taking into cognisance the here and now of the post-Independence Indian reality.
Marxism and Binary Categories
In defence of the Marxist dialectics, E P Thompson (1978) wrote:
Marxist theory… can become a false consciousness if, instead of being used for the methodical investigation of reality through theory and practice, it is misused as a defence against that very reality… Those who wish to deprive Marxism of its critical, subversive power and turn it into an affirmative doctrine, generally dig in behind a series of stereotyped statements which, in their abstraction, are as irrefutable as devoid of result.
Citing the case of the CPI, he further reiterated:
...If one considers for a moment the possible consequences if the Communist Party of India (one of the most unreconstructed Stalinist parties in the world) were to reinforce its existing anti-libertarian tendencies and contempt for ‘petit-bourgeois’ masses – tendencies amply displayed in its partnership in the recent emergency – with a dose of Althusserian arrogance; and if it’s largely bourgeois and intellectual upper cadres were to become theoretical practitioners; and if the opportunity to practice, not only in theory, but upon the body of India, should return – then we could expect nothing less than the re-enactment of the full repertoire of high Stalinism within the raging inferno of Indian ‘scarcity’.
To a great extent, this argument is also applicable to the CPI(M). The Left Front’s role in West Bengal in the post-1970s was guided by the premise that the Party is able to decide the best interests of the working class on the basis of Marxist “science”, and to serve this interest through “ideological state apparatuses”. In this understanding, Marxism becomes an inert tool only to be handled by the Party to judge working class morality; in this framework, the working class becomes a passive onlooker who is only to be led and guided. Thus Marxist science degenerates into deterministic formulae to be used to predict the future.
Following this approach, both the variants of the Indian left, the CPI-CPI(M) and the CPI (Maoist), have conceptualised the reality within the binary framework of opposite categories of war of position versus war of manoeuvre. Another such category is “civil society” versus “political society”. The interconnectedness of these two categories and their dialectical relation with the state are missed while strategising the revolutionary movement. When the broad-based strategy to build a united front of all forms of movements for the rights of civil societies and movements to resist the onslaught of the ruling classes of political societies are not mooted, it becomes apparent that the content of diverse mass movements in India in this neo-liberal phase of capitalism against both the consent and coercion of the existing state is undermined. The two aspects of ruling class hegemony and domination, consent and coercion, have been segregated by the two variants of the left in their formulations of actual practice. A new approach needs to be developed for a new left to emerge with a view to resolve the conflict between the forces of production and the relations of production in this neo-liberal phase of capitalism in the country like India.
Bagchi, Amiya Kumar (2010): Colonialism and the Indian Economy (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).
CSD (2012): Social Development Report 2012 (New Delhi: Council for Social Development).
Dobb, Maurice (1946): Studies in the Development of Capitalism (London: Routledge).
Jha, Praveen (1997): Agricultural Labour in India (New Delhi: Vikas).
Ministry of Agriculture (2013): Pocket Book of Agricultural Statistics, 2013 (New Delhi: Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India).
Samaddar, Ranabir (2013): Passive Revolution in West Bengal, 1977-2011 (New Delhi: Sage).
Thomas, Peter D (2013): The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Delhi: Aakar Books, originally published by Brill in 2009).
Thompson, E P (1978): The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (London: Merlin).
Thorner, Alice, ed. (2001): Ten Daniel Thorner Memorial Lectures: Land, Labour and Rights (New Delhi: Tulika).
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