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Comrade VM and His Party

Dipankar Bhattacharya

"A month or so back, I met a comrade from an M-L faction. He had a lot of criticism of our party but he praised us for what he called expertise in party-building." Comrade VM had referred to this conversation in his inaugural address to the central party school held in Delhi in June 1994, and gone on to emphasise that "it is neither a question of organisational skill nor of charisma of individual leaders but taking the ideological-theoretical work as the key link of party building that has enabled us to advance the cause of party building amidst the all-round political confusion and organisational chaos in the M-L movement."

The fact that under Comrade VM’s leadership our party staged a historic recovery from the setback of the early 1970s and emerged as the largest M-L formation has to be admitted, however grudgingly, even by our bitterest critics and detractors. But even many of our admirers and well-wishers often seek to explain this "mystery" primarily in terms of Comrade VM’s charismatic personality and his legendary leadership qualities.

What do we really mean when we talk about the reorganisation and revival of the CPI(ML) under Comrade VM’s stewardship? How did he bring about our party’s historic recovery and glorious resurgence?

The setback suffered in the 1970s triggered a most chaotic retreat, a virtual political stampede. The early deserters, including some prominent leaders of the first phase of CPI(ML), lost little time before rushing to disown and denounce almost everything they themselves had said and done till the other day. VM drew his first line of demarcation in opposition to these renegades, ridiculers and "early rectifiers". For the best part of the 1970s he in fact made his best efforts to resurrect Naxalbari. Even when he became convinced of the impossibility and futility of such attempts and the focus shifted to what he called the rectification movement, there was no decline in his deep respect for Naxalbari and the first phase of the CPI(ML)’s heroic revolutionary offensive. All the mistakes committed in this first phase remained for him an integral part of a glorious chapter in the history of India’s communist movement, the first major dress rehearsal of revolution. This question of one’s attitude to the great peasant upsurge of Naxalbari and the entire campaign waged by the CPI(ML) under Comrade Charu Mazumder’s leadership always remained very crucial for him.

Secondly, while many academics, political observers and even M-L activists look at Naxalbari and the 1967-71 phase as a set of spontaneous or autonomous peasant and student-youth rebellions, Comrade VM always emphasised the conscious communist dimension of the entire period. He therefore never treated the unprecedented student-youth upsurge witnessed in the early CPI(ML) movement as an Indian version of the new Left student activism and assertion of the 1960s. What was central for him was the transformation of student-youth activists into communist revolutionaries through their integration with the life and struggles of the working class and especially of the rural poor. This is what CM repeatedly emphasised in his writings and like many of his comrades, VM himself was a product of this integration.

Similarly, Naxalbari for him was not another local peasant revolt prompted by a set of immediate demands. It was a political act waged under revolutionary communist leadership and the agenda it established so forcefully was not confined to agrarian reforms but went straight up to the all important question of seizure of political power.

In spite of significant influences of Mao, CPC and the Cultural Revolution, Naxalbari and CPI(ML) were not Maoist offshoots by any means. The so-called Maoist Communist Centre never became an integral part of the CPI(ML) movement, nor did the CPI(ML) ever describe itself as a Maoist formation. It remained a Marxist-Leninist communist party which also upheld Mao’s thought in the revolutionary tradition of Marxism-Leninism. No wonder, while most of the Maoist organisations in the world, without much of a root in their own class struggles and communist histories, have become virtually non-existent, CPI(ML) has only emerged stronger.

Naxalbari, for VM, was a glorious catalyst; the Great Debate in the international communist movement and the Cultural Revolution in China provided the external backdrop; but the soil on which CPI(ML) was born and nurtured was very much the soil of the Indian communist movement with its own ongoing struggle between "two tactics", between Bolshevism and Menshevism, between the revolutionary trend and the opportunist or revisionist current. This is why the rebellion in Naxalbari, the "spring thunder" as the Chinese Communist Party called it, served as a point of decisive rupture in the communist movement all over the country and the CPI(M) suffered a vertical split in almost all states. This is the way CM had looked at Naxalbari and VM later recovered this real spirit and context from among the host of fashionable neo-Left and anarchist misinterpretations of the CPI(ML) movement. He always opposed the popular description of the CPI and CPI(M) as "traditional left", stressing, as CM always did, that the CPI(ML) was and would always have to remain the true inheritor of every positive and revolutionary element in the Left and communist tradition in India.

The post-setback reorganisation of the CPI(ML) under Comrade VM’s leadership was therefore not just an organisational exercise, nor did it consist merely in the glorious rejuvenation and revitalisation of the revolutionary peasant movement in central Bihar. It meant above all the resurrection of the true spirit and meaning of Naxalbari, the real heritage of CPI(ML). Once the CPI(ML)’s unquestionable roots in the Indian communist movement were stressed and Naxalbari was understood as a revolutionary sequel to Telengana, it became so much easier to contextualise Naxalbari and the first phase of CPI(ML) as a specific response of revolutionary communists to a specific revolutionary crisis at a specific juncture of Indian history. All the questions of specific tactics and forms of struggle and organisation could now be separated from the question of revolutionary strategy or the overall revolutionary line.

This return from the particular to the general also opened up new vistas for again translating the general and universal into new sets of particulars. The challenge was no longer to revive Naxalbari in the narrow sense but to carry forward the battle of two tactics on newer fronts and in newer situations. And with this came the realisation that if the CPI(M) and CPI(ML) had emerged out of the ideological-political dynamics of the Indian communist movement, the same dynamics could also pave the way for fresh future rounds of realignment of revolutionary communists. The concepts of Left Confederation and eventual communist unification grew on such a dynamic and revolutionary premise of unity through struggle and for the sake of advancement of struggle as opposed to the liquidationist premise of unity only through unity and only for the sake of unity.

Under VM’s leadership, our party has also deepened the battle between two tactics with a revolutionary Marxist analysis and understanding of the social and historical peculiarities of the Indian situation. "Relations with the peasantry and with the bourgeoisie are two fundamental questions of tactics to be solved by the communist parties in backward countries with preponderant peasant populations", wrote Comrade VM in his masterly introduction to the "Report from the Flaming Fields of Bihar". And on both these scores, the progress of the Indian communist movement has been constrained and hindered by an uncritical faith on the nationalist and even socialist pretensions of dominant sections of the Indian bourgeoisie as also on the anti-feudal anti-imperialist potential of the rich farmers and other major beneficiaries of zamindari abolition and green revolution who are popularly described as the farm lobby or kulak lobby in today’s India. Our party’s line of independent Left assertion has developed in relentless struggle with this line of dependence on corporate India and the kulak lobby.

Inability of the communist movement to emerge as a strong force in the Hindi belt is considered a historical handicap for the movement. Many Marxist theoreticians have blamed the lack of a bourgeois renaissance or social reform or awakening movement for this paradoxical situation. It is paradoxical because it is in the Hindi belt that the presence of feudal survivals is still most pronounced and stubborn, and communists with their agenda of anti-feudal democratic revolution should have found the Hindi belt soil particularly challenging and promising. But somewhere along the line the Indian communist movement began to wait for a bourgeois social initiative, resigning itself to a side role in the Hindi belt. The rather economistic understanding of class and class struggle by the dominant communist school left the ground open for the socialist stream to retain and occasionally expand its base by highlighting and often counterposing the aspect of social oppression and backwardness to the basic reality of bourgeois-landlord rule and structural domination and exploitation of the working people. Comrade VM never tried to remedy this situation with any eclectic combination of caste and class, he led the party in attaining a dialectical understanding of India's complex social reality. In place of the popular liberal discourse which treats castes as basic social units, classes as economic units and power groups as political units, a discourse which has also been considerably assimilated by vulgar Marxists, he fought for a comprehensive and revolutionary Marxist social analysis. Under his leadership our party has attained considerable success in exposing the organic interconnections between social oppression, economic exploitation and political marginalisation or denial of political rights. The questions of dignity and power for the oppressed and the exploited have thus figured high on the agenda of our movement and this explains to a great extent the relative success of our party in the Hindi belt and especially in Bihar.

The strategic weakness of the official or dominant communist vision reflects itself in the tactical bankruptcy of the CPI-CPI(M) variety of tailist alliances with bourgeois parties. It was exposed most pathetically in the wake of the so-called Mandal wave when the ideologues of CPI and CPI(M) embraced the Mandal Commission as a full-scale social revolution and sought to appropriate most uncritically the dalit-backward discourse of the Mandal ideologues. The two parties have had to pay a very high price for this bankruptcy. We on the other hand had welcomed Mandal from the Marxist premise of classes and class struggle. The co-option of powerful sections of the backward castes and dalits into the ruling elite, we had pointed out, would help bring to the fore the underlying class reality by reducing caste imbalance and distortions. This would of course not happen automatically, we were only indicating the new conditions which communists must actively utilise to advance their comprehensive agenda of democratic revolution. As Comrade VM stated so succinctly in his last article, "Castes are undifferentiated classes and therefore the fight against all sorts of caste discrimination, an inalienable component of democratic movements, facilitates the process of class differentiation in the entire society. As communists, our primary concern is to consolidate the proletarian class forces emerging with a distinct identity amidst this great social churning and our party is doing precisely the same."

Harmonising grassroot struggles with political intervention from above has been another major point of debate in the communist movement. In the practice of the official communist parties, the two aspects seem to have grown almost disconnected, keeping grassroot struggles restricted to the narrow confines of economism and reducing the quality of political intervention from above to the level of empty political tricks and unseemly brokering for a slice of the cake of bourgeois power. Comrade VM resolved this dilemma by emphasising what he used to call bold and independent mass political initiative. He waged a ruthless struggle against every liberal illusion and notion which treats the masses as passive recipients of the received (liberal) wisdom and blunts and diffuses their consciousness instead of elevating and sharpening it. His confidence on the masses was active and political, it was a confidence not just on their numerical strength, but primarily on their dormant political capacity to discharge their role as the "heroes" of revolution. And this emphasis and confidence meant a simultaneous struggle against both right opportunism and anarchism. Social-democrats excel in their politics of tailism while anarchists continue to negate politics, the end-result in both cases is that the masses are left at the political mercy of bourgeois hegemony. Comrade VM, on the other hand, was single-minded in his emphasis on unleashing the active initiative of the masses and raising the level of this initiative to new political heights. This was the crux of his dialectical understanding of the interrelation between the party and the movement, of building and moulding the communist party in the fire of mass struggles.

In the history of the international communist movement, Comrade VM’s role can perhaps only be compared to the role played by Lenin in Russian revolution after the dress rehearsal of 1905, and that by Mao in developing a Chinese path for the Chinese revolution after the initial setback faced in copying the Russian model in China. Of course, while the Russian and Chinese revolutions were privileged to have Lenin and Mao till the point of victory and beyond, the Indian revolution has lost VM extremely prematurely. But he has left behind a vibrant and dynamic legacy -- a legacy rich with the unmistakable shades of both an Indian Mao and an Indian Lenin -- which has placed the CPI(ML) on a very firm revolutionary foundation and which will always guide and inspire us in the tortuous journey ahead.

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