Social Democratic Capitulation and the CPI(M)’s Decline: A Response to Prabhat Patnaik

Dipankar Bhattacharya

The crushing defeat suffered by the CPI(M)-led Left Front after an uninterrupted reign of 34 years in power in West Bengal has triggered renewed debates and considerable churning within Left circles in the country. The ruling classes and almost all major non-Left trends in Indian politics would love to treat this defeat as a veritable beginning of the end of the Left in India. Most voices within and around the Left have however rightly rejected this cry of bourgeois triumphalism. They have pointed out that the debacle suffered by the CPI(M) in West Bengal has been of the CPI(M)’s own making. The party and its government in West Bengal have been duly punished for their anti-people blunders, unmitigated arrogance and growing rightwing tendencies. There is a need for all genuine forces of the Left to learn from this experience and rejuvenate the Left movement.
The CPI(M) itself is yet to come out with any serious review of the West Bengal debacle. It remains to be seen how the next Congress of the party scheduled early next year deals with this critical juncture. Outwardly, CPI(M) leaders continue to downplay the Bengal debacle as just one electoral defeat coming after seven successive victories. But those aware of the ground reality in West Bengal know it very well that the situation facing the CPI(M) in the state today is anything but ‘normal’. Against this backdrop, Prabhat Patnaik’s recent piece in Economic and Political Weekly, placing the crisis of the CPI(M) (The Left in Decline, EPW, July 16, 2011) in a theoretical perspective marks a welcome departure.
Professor Patnaik attributes the CPI(M)’s defeat to a deep-seated process plaguing the party. He calls this process ‘empiricisation’ and finds it more worrying than the defeat itself, for the defeat may get reversed but the process of empiricisation, if not arrested immediately, would render the CPI(M) irrelevant. Patnaik’s faith in the CPI(M) however remains unflinching – he believes that even if the CPI(M) loses the plot it would be supplanted by a communist formation whose theoretical positions are akin to those of the CPI(M) today,  an ideological clone of the CPI(M), so to say.
What does Patnaik mean by ‘empiricisation’? Readers do not have to wait for an explanation of the term as he begins his article with this definitive sentence: “Empiricisation or the pursuit of a political praxis that is uninformed by the project of transcending capitalism was ultimately responsible for the defeat of the CPI(M) in West Bengal.” Using more familiar communist parlance, revolutionary communists have been describing the CPI(M)’s theory and practice in terms like opportunism or revisionism. Patnaik is of course perfectly welcome to choose his own term to present his case. It is interesting to note that Patnaik has used the word ‘praxis’ (conscious and purposeful practice, so to say) which belongs to the interface between theory and practice, and so presumably the charge of empiricisation implicates the CPI(M) both practically as well as theoretically.
Patnaik talks of four disturbing consequences of empiricisation. For one, this is the root cause behind all the widely manifest ills like careerism, bureaucratism and bossism (at local level, adds Patnaik) that are often mentioned in the party’s own rectification campaign calls or self-critical notes. A second consequence is the tendency to adjust to given situations, which in turn causes alienation from the basic classes even as the party’s interests are viewed in isolation and divergence from the interests of the basic classes. A third consequence shrinks the distance between the communist party and other (bourgeois) political formations while fourthly, and most fundamentally, empiricisation tends to promote greater empiricisation, and threatens to lead to a virtual disappearance of the distance between a communist party and other parties.
“At that point, even if the communists (or whatever other name they choose to call themselves by, at that date) win elections and form governments on their own, it makes little substantive difference either to the project of transcendence of capitalism or even to the conditions of the basic classes,” warns Patnaik. In other words, the process of empiricisation threatens to rob a communist party completely of its very communist content. An empiricised communist party retains only the communist signboard even as it abandons the basic classes and abandons the very project of transcendence of capitalism, submitting completely to the hegemony of capitalism and working only for some bourgeois reforms to make capitalism ‘tolerable’ and ‘humane’.
Coming from a cardholding CPI(M) intellectual like Prabhat Patnaik, this may sound too harsh and heretical an indictment of the CPI(M). Patnaik however quickly qualifies his observation with a couple of caveats. He assures his readers that the situation of the CPI(M) is still far from a dire scenario and the extent of empiricisation should not be overstressed. After all, didn’t the party demonstrate its anti-imperialist credentials only the other day by withdrawing support to the UPA-I on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal, even putting the party’s own immediate interest in jeopardy? Patnaik also tells us that his experience of the CPI(M) in Kerala has convinced him that the CPI(M) can successfully overcome the perils of empiricisation.

What is the source of empiricisation in the CPI(M)? Patnaik attributes it first of all to the CPI(M)’s stagnation beyond West Bengal. It is this stagnation which made the party desperate to consolidate its power in West Bengal through industrialization, but it boomeranged. While the peasantry in West Bengal got alienated, this in turn also weakened the party’s capacity and credibility to take up anti-corporate peasant struggles in other states and reinforced the party’s stagnation. Patnaik also relates this stagnation to the international communist scene – the demoralization induced by the collapse of the USSR and the negative impact of the Chinese example of ongoing capitalistic reforms. He also tells us that communists have always tended to falter after making early breakthroughs in agrarian reforms and the CPI(M) too has mishandled the question ‘what next after agrarian reforms’.
How can the CPI(M) resist the pressure of empiricisation? Patnaik says the CPI(M) must give up the temptation to build capitalism for “The party that presides over the building of capitalism will end up being no different from standard bourgeois parties; notwithstanding its lip service to the revolution.” His advice to the CPI(M) therefore is: “It must not only carry out struggles on the burning issues of the day wherever it can, undeterred by the empiricisation-dictated tactics of defending Left-led state governments whom such struggles may embarrass or threaten, but it must, even while running such state governments, ensure to the best of its ability that new ways are always innovated to advance the interests of the basic classes, to improve their material conditions so that their capacity to resist increases.”
Let us take a closer look at this advice. We have all along been told by CPI(M) leaders that West Bengal represents the most advanced outpost of class struggle in India and the uninterrupted reign of the Left Front government was the most incontrovertible evidence of this rather axiomatic truth. What Professor Patnaik tells us suggests a very different storyline. The CPI(M) in West Bengal has actually been busy building capitalism and defending its own government rather than fighting against the onslaught of capitalism and advancing the interests of the basic classes and improving their material conditions. And building capitalism involves ‘suppression of the basic classes’ – so the brutal repression in Singur and the massacres in Nandigram followed quite logically and the ‘empiricisation-driven tactics of defending Left-led governments’ made sure that CPI(M) intellectuals discredited themselves quite badly by trying to defend the indefensible.
Patnaik would like us to believe that the CPI(M) has faltered in handling the post-agrarian reform agenda. But what about the very agenda of agrarian reforms? Operation Barga was initially considered to be a stepping stone towards an eventual enforcement of the land-to-the-tiller policy. But that was never to happen. Even Operation Barga – the campaign to record all sharecroppers and guarantee their heritable right to cultivate and secure their legally stipulated crop share – was abandoned midway, paving the way for reversal of tenancy reforms. The evictions now being reported from West Bengal had in fact started much earlier, and the West Bengal Human Development Report had had to admit as much in 2004, quoting data from a study by the State Institute of Panchayats and Rural Development (Chakraborti et al, 2003, pages 53 and 57) to point towards a trend of increasing land alienation of pattadars and eviction of bargadars that was alarmingly high in some parts of the state.
It now turns out that the Left Front government had failed to give legal entitlement to many who had wrested ceiling-surplus land and other redistributable land in the course of militant peasant struggles. In many cases the land entitlement papers were kept in the custody of local party leaders, and the people on the ground had to depend on the party for the security of their land and tenure. These are the vulnerable people who, today, find themselves under renewed attack in rural Bengal as vested interests try to reclaim their lost ground by taking advantage of the change of dispensation in the state. It is another matter that some celebrated ‘land reform experts’ have also begun to sing a different tune with the arrival of the new regime.
Debabrata Bandyopadhyay, widely acknowledged as one of West Bengal’s biggest land reform experts and the administrative architect of Operation Barga, provides an instructive example. His study on West Bengal panchayat representatives in early 1980s had expressed concern about the marginalization of the poor and consolidation of middle classes in the rural power structure. His report to the LF government in 1993 had highlighted the need to distribute more than two lakh acres of available ceiling-surplus land, a finding also endorsed by the Land Reform Tribunal set up in 2000. But now the same Mr. Bandyopadhyay in his land policy document submitted to the new government calls upon the government to free land from the ‘illegal occupation’ of peasants/sharecroppers/agricultural labourers. He now says the Left-led peasant movement has all along promoted such ‘illegal occupation’, and he terms it ‘land robbery’ as opposed to land reforms!
This only goes to show that the agenda of land and agrarian reforms in West Bengal has been far from accomplished under 34 years of CPI(M)-led Left rule. And by no means could Singur be considered an example of the Left Front’s attempt to consolidate the gains of agrarian reforms through industrialization. An automobile plant set up by the Tatas in the heartland of Bengal’s highly fertile ‘green revolution’ belt could only have exemplified the government’s willingness to surrender agricultural gains and the livelihood of the rural poor at the altar of the greed and profit of monopoly capital. And the repression unleashed in Singur and Nandigram made it clear that the government had lost all sensitivity to understand the pain and anger of the peasantry, the very impulse that had propelled the growth of the communist movement in West Bengal since the days of the famous Tebhaga movement.
Patnaik argues that the CPI(M)’s flawed policies and priorities in West Bengal resulted from the party’s adjustment with the given situation. Was land acquisition in Singur the demand of the given situation? Had it been so, we would not have seen the CPI(M) pay such a heavy price for its stubborn stand on Singur. The fact is any given situation may be read and handled quite differently by different classes from different class viewpoints. Had the CPI(M) been sensitive to the conditions and demands of the rural poor and broad masses of peasantry in the given situation of West Bengal, it would have come out with a different set of priorities and different agenda of action. Having won a massive majority in 2006, the CPI(M) had seen it as an opportune moment not to resolve the pending issues of the rural poor but to rush with grand land acquisition plans for the Tatas and Salims, and history has already shown how horribly wrong the CPI(M) was!
The CPI(M) has always sought to justify its policies in West Bengal as a compulsion of the given situation. Nobody expected the CPI(M) to transcend capitalism and build socialism in West Bengal – but the limits of constitution and bourgeois domination can never be an excuse for a Left-led state government to pursue an aggressive pro-corporate economic policy. It is a fact that the CPI(M) saw the onset of the new economic policies as a blessing for its government in West Bengal inasmuch as the LF government could now independently invite private investment without bothering about the approving nod of the Centre. By 1994 the LF government had introduced its own new industrial policy, by 2000 the CPI(M) had ‘updated’ its party programme to legitimise the role of the World Bank and MNCs in Left-led states and by 2003 the LF government became a pioneer in the field of legislating on Special Economic Zones, two years before Parliament passed the SEZ Act 2005!
It is not the CPI(M)’s attempt to adjust with the given situation – nobody can defy the situation – but its submission to the interests of big capital and sacrifice of the interests of the basic classes which is responsible for the party’s growing alienation from the basic classes. In one place, Patnaik has rightly called it the abandoning of basic classes by the party. Blaming this act of ideological-political migration of the CPI(M) from the interests of the basic classes to the demands of capital, on the given situation can never hold water.
Patnaik would also like us to believe that the problem of empiricisation is essentially confined to the CPI(M) in West Bengal and the rest of the party has been more or less free from it. But has the CPI(M) been following any different policy in Kerala? Did not the CPI(M) centrally ‘update’ its programme in 2000 to accommodate the imperatives of ‘building capitalism’ under the aegis of Left-led governments? Did not the CPI(M) CC, PB and the party’s 19th Congress held in Coimbatore in 2008 justify the land acquisition in Singur and the massacres in Nandigram?
Equally unconvincing is his argument attributing the party’s predicament in West Bengal to the party’s failure to grow in other states. The CPI(M)’s stagnation in other states is a pretty old story – it has only been reinforced by the party’s loss of credibility since Singur and now the resultant debacle suffered by the party in 2011 West Bengal polls. The fact is the party’s 34-year-long reign in West Bengal failed to produce any favourable impact for the party in any of the neighbouring states or elsewhere in India. At the same time the party’s failure in the Hindi belt and other states cannot be attributed primarily to the party’s stagnation in West Bengal. The CPI(M)’s failure to challenge the feudal power structure in the Hindi belt or to sharpen the class struggle in any other arena has perhaps more to do with the party’s vacillating and collaborationist approach and uncritical adjustments with dominant bourgeois parties in these states than the CPI(M)’s stagnation and decline in West Bengal.
It was indeed a cruel quirk of history that after 2004 when the Congress sought to ‘reinvent’ itself with the rhetoric of ‘aam aadmi’ and measures like employment guarantee and forest rights acts, and following Singur, Mamata Banerjee began to stake claims to the Left agenda and tradition with her slogan of Ma-Mati-Manush (mother, land and the common man), the CPI(M) came to be identified with Tata Nano and SEZs. This cannot be blamed on the vagaries of the situation or stagnation in international communist movement, the cause must be identified squarely within the CPI(M)’s own theo¬¬ry and practice.
Patnaik rightly rejects the bourgeois advice to turn the CPI(M) into a declared social-democratic party, but he believes the only distinction between communist and social-democratic politics lies in the fact that only communists recognize imperialism as a structural development of capitalism while others have all abandoned the concept of imperialism. True, the Second International of social-democratic or socialist parties had collapsed in the wake of the rise of imperialism and especially the onset of the First World War. While reformist social-democrats rallied around their respective ‘own bourgeoisie’ in the inter-imperialist war, revolutionary socialists called for turning imperialist war into revolutionary civil war and grasped this opportunity to carry forward the revolutionary campaign in respective countries. The biggest success came in Russia in 1917 and revolutionary socialists everywhere rechristened themselves as communists and regrouped internationally under the banner of the Third or Communist International.
The crucial demarcation between social-democrats and communists in this historic juncture lay not just in the theoretical recognition of imperialism as the highest or latest phase of capitalism but in translating this recognition into a new wave of revolutionary practice. With the victory of November Revolution in Russia, Marx’s old distinction between Marxism and other schools of proletarian ideology and politics – that Marxists are distinguished only by the fact that they take class struggle forward right up to the goal of overthrow of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie by the dictatorship of the proletariat – came alive with utmost clarity. The Comintern however did not remain busy celebrating the 1917 victory; Lenin took utmost care to channelise the inspiration of 1917 through the Comintern to the spread of the communist movement all through Europe and in the colonies and semi-colonies in other continents. In fact, once it became clear that the Russian revolution would not be backed by revolutionary victories elsewhere in Europe, Lenin and Comintern devoted themselves to the task of formulating a whole set of organizational and political principles and policies to provide a comprehensive and long-term guideline for the communist movement in contrast to the reformist approach of social-democracy.
How to intervene in parliamentary politics and utilize electoral victories became a particularly important point of debate between social-democrats and communists. In contrast to the social-democratic thesis of participation in bourgeois governments and sharing of power with the bourgeoisie, communists resolved to use any power won in elections at local or provincial levels (outright communist victory in elections to the highest level of bourgeois state power was clearly considered highly unlikely) for the advancement of class struggle and as part and parcel of an overall revolutionary opposition to the central authority.
The CPI(M) had moved away from this communist policy quite early on in its protracted parliamentary journey. It was this debate that had provided the essential basis of the 1967-69 rupture between the CPI(M) and the CPI(ML) in the wake of the Naxalbari peasant uprising. Against the backdrop of the stunning and inspiring victory of the CPI(M) and its Left Front partners (the CPI was still not a constituent of the LF) in 1977, the slogan that had captured the imagination of Left ranks was none other than “bamfront sarkar sangramer hatiyar” (Left Front government is a weapon of struggle). But it did not take the CPI(M) long to realize that such a slogan would not be tenable with the imperatives of a stable government.  Thus the slogan was soon effectively withdrawn and replaced by “bamfront sarkar unnayaner hatiyar” (Left Front government is an instrument of ‘development’, experienced by the people mostly as bulldozer of development). In the wake of Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh a good majority of people in West Bengal saw it degenerate further as “utpiraner hatiyar” (instrument of repression) and Mamata Banerjee cashed in on the popular craving for liberation from the controlling clutches of the CPI(M) with her slogan of ‘paribarton’ or change.
If only Patnaik bothered to look beyond the question of a sheer theoretical recognition of the danger of imperialism into the realm of strategy and tactics of a communist party, he would notice how the CPI(M) had abandoned the communist attitude to the question of power in a bourgeois state to opt for a social-democratic framework of relief and reform through power-sharing. The updated CPI(M) programme of 2000 made a provision for the party’s participation in central government as a junior partner – a major departure from the famous Para 112 of the party’s 1964 programme which had distinguished the party from the CPI all through the 1960s and 1970s right up to the 1996-1998 period when the majority of the CPI(M) Central Committee refused  to let Jyoti Basu become the Prime Minister of a Congress-backed rag-tag United Front even as two CPI leaders accepted ministerial positions.
Patnaik does not see any problem in the CPI(M)’s model of intervention in parliamentary politics. According to him, the empiricisation being experienced by the party has nothing to do with the CPI(M)’s parliamentary role. Instead Patnaik accuses those who see a link between the two of being victims of what he calls parliamentary fetishism. Marx had taken on commodity fetishism to deepen the study of capital – starting from the surface of capitalism which is crowded by any number and kind of commodities, he had taken the reader to the core question of production and appropriation of surplus value. But instead of taking us beyond parliament to unravel the class nature of the state and explore the ways of stronger proletarian intervention in bourgeois politics, Patnaik employs the term parliamentary fetishism only against boycottists and those who may not have a proper understanding or estimation of parliament in a bourgeois state. Conspicuously absent is any critical gaze at all those who deliberately invoke parliament to limit the people’s political initiative and imagination, and who habitually always put the aura and privilege of parliament above the rights and struggles of the people.
And Patnaik seems to be completely oblivious of the fact that while fighting against boycottists and Left adventurists, Lenin always held that the communist movement faced a much bigger danger from parliamentary cretinism. It’s strange that Patnaik talks of parliamentary fetishism but does not remember Lenin’s warnings against the paralytic effect of parliamentary cretinism.
Recently in the wake of the Jan Lokpal agitation led by Anna Hazare we saw an interesting debate. Some people likened the popular mobilization for Jan Lokpal as a negation of parliament and threat to democracy, akin even to the communal mobilization that resulted in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is one thing to critique the framework or provisions of the Jan Lokpal Bill or the way of functioning of what has come to be known as Team Anna but to project the whole thing as a threat to democracy or parliament is clearly missing the wood for the trees. One understands the desperation of discredited bourgeois leaders to try and hide behind the parliamentary shield, but why should the forces of consistent democracy be afraid of an awakened people?
Are not the people perfectly within their rights to reject any parliamentary bill or insist on the enactment of some new law? Only a few years ago we saw Indian Parliament pass the SEZ Act 2005 without any opposition, yet no other Act in recent times has perhaps been rejected so overwhelmingly by large sections of the people. During the NDA government we had seen Parliament pass a draconian law like POTA through a joint session of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha – but the same POTA had to be repealed under the pressure of democratic opinion in the country.  Should communists keep aloof from the growing anti-corruption awakening among the people in the name of defending parliament and saving democracy from mobocracy or should communists welcome the people’s anger and try and direct it against the whole regime of corporate loot and denial of people’s rights?
The CPI(ML) has chosen precisely the latter course, refusing to let rightwing communal forces appropriate the anti-corruption climate to their advantage. Professor Patnaik however holds this against the CPI(ML) and on this basis he holds the CPI(ML) or the left-of-CPI(M) Left as being even more guilty of empiricisation than the CPI(M)! The Marxist professor is academically so sensitive on the question of imperialism. Surely he will agree that imperialism today has as much to do with India’s domestic economic and social policies as foreign policy. Should our anti-imperialism today be limited only to challenging the Indo-US nuclear deal and strategic partnership or should anti-imperialism prompt us to challenge the whole gamut of neoliberal policies that are promoting corporate loot and ravaging all our resources? Coupled with the popular struggles against mining loot and corporate land-grab, doesn’t the current anti-corruption anger of the people provide us with a major opportunity for a popular anti-imperialist awakening? Is it not the most sickening kind of parliamentary fetishism to let go of such an opportunity in the name of defence of parliament?
Patnaik is hopeful that the CPI(M) can still make an ideological turnaround to resist the push for empiricisation and he pins his biggest hope on the party’s experience in Kerala. Reports coming from Kerala portray a party no less mired in empiricisation than its West Bengal counterpart. The stories of commercialization and corruption thriving within the Kerala CPI(M) give a big lie to Patnaik’s hope and claim. Indeed, if the Kerala model were really about an alternative vision and praxis, why did we not see any major debate within the CPI(M) against the Bengal model of empiricisation? Also, if the CPI(M)’s failure to check empiricisation renders it irrelevant in the context of the communist/Left movement, why should it be supplanted by a communist formation with theoretical positions akin to those of the CPI(M)? Will the same theoretical positions that are today driving the CPI(M) down the road of empiricisation work differently for another communist formation? And if the left-of-CPI(M) Left is even more prone to empiricisation, from where does Patnaik visualize the emergence of the communist formation to supplant the CPI(M)?

Patnaik clearly does not have answers to these uncomfortable questions. But the relentless and protracted battle within the Indian communist movement between opportunist and revolutionary positions, between the trend of class collaboration and the indomitable current of class struggle and the resultant realignment of the fighting forces of the Left point to the direction in which the communist movement can and will indeed supplant the CPI(M) and overcome the crisis of the social-democratic model epitomized by the latter with the growing assertion of a rejuvenated and radical Left. The CPI(ML) has been working consistently in this direction and we are surely thankful to Prabhat Patnaik for raising the debate to this level, albeit in his own way.