Whither the CPI(M):
The Rhetoric of Rectification and Beyond
The repeated electoral debacles suffered by the CPI(M) in the recent past have triggered a veritable churning in CPI(M) circles. The CPI(M) has never recognized any theoretical debate or practical criticism or questioning of the role, policies and priorities of state governments led by it from any Left quarter. Even after Singur and Nadigram, when sympathetic Left intellectuals too began to openly question the CPI(M)’s role and understanding, the party’s initial and rather instinctive response was to disown all those intellectuals and dogmatically dismiss all those debates as anti-industry peasant romanticism and anti-Left conspiracy. But when the votes were counted, and the chickens of Singur and Nandigram all came home to roost; the party needed something more than a conspiracy theory to account for its worst ever electoral performance.
Three major talking points seem to have emerged in the CPI(M)’s internal discourse – the need for a rectification campaign, the alleged violation of the line adopted at the party’s Coimbatore Congress (March 29-April 3, 2008) and reinforcing the principles of democratic centralism. While none of these three points really deals with the role of the CPI(M)-led governments, a fourth strand of inquiry can also be discerned in some recent writings of Ashok Mitra and Prabhat Patnaik, focusing not just on the specific role of the West Bengal government but also on the theoretical context in which this role is conceptualized and executed. We will briefly discuss all these four strands to assess the ongoing political churning within the CPI(M).
The rectification campaign is not exactly a new response to the recent electoral drubbings. The current resolution on rectification campaign (finalized by the CC in its meeting on October 23-25, 2009, an edited version of which has been printed in the January-March issue of “The Marxist”) draws heavily on the rectification document of 1996 and would appear to be a continuation of the 1996-97 campaign. Yet as was the case with the previous campaign, the present one too has so far proved a non-starter. The timeframe mentioned in the document for the implementation of the campaign is June 2010. But as it turns out the campaign has not really been initiated yet in West Bengal – in fact, reports have it that the document is yet to be translated and published in Bengali!
The real problem with the rectification campaign lies in its fundamental weaknesses – its lack of any clear ideological-political focus, lack of a sense of urgency and lack of a credible resolve to implement it. For example, the document talks of parliamentary and electoral opportunism and calls upon the party to ‘expose’ any such trend, but it does not identify the real malady of government-centrism. In West Bengal, the CPI(M) had long turned into the party of power, the establishment that rules the state. Everything has been revolving around the government and the power that comes from it, so much so that the party will now find it very difficult to reinvent itself as an opposition party. In fact, even as it appears that the party’s moment of exit from power is fast approaching, the CPI(M) is trying to convince the Bengal electorate that only the CPI(M) has the experience and expertise to govern and the TMC headed by the maverick Mamata Banerjee is too unpredictable to be trusted with governance. This government-centric approach is not confined to West Bengal, it informs the CPI(M)’s politics almost in every state and increasingly also nationally following the UF and UPA-I phases.
Let us take the question of consumerism, another important issue raised repeatedly in the document. The document identifies consumerism as a corrosive alien influence and argues that the new members recruited in the era of neo-liberal policies are particularly vulnerable to consumerist propaganda and values. Individual party members getting influenced by consumerist value system is of course a problem, but the document is conspicuously silent about the CPI(M)’s obsessively consumerist campaign in West Bengal over the Tata’s small car ‘Nano’.
When the peasants and sharecroppers of Singur rose in revolt against the forcible acquisition of 1,000 acres of fertile multi-cropped land for the Tata’s small car project, the CPI(M) thought it could overpower the peasant opposition to land acquisition by invoking the power of the Tata brand and the lure of the small car for the upwardly mobile urban middle class. This did not work and after Nandigram, the CPI(M) propaganda peddling land acquisition as a necessary price for industrialization and progress clearly began to backfire. Yet even as Mamata Banerjee built her entire poll campaign around her “Ma-Mati-Manush” (mother, land and the masses) theme, the CPI(M) poll campaign revolved around the ‘tragedy’ of Nano not being allowed to be born in West Bengal. Can the CPI(M) run any credible campaign against consumerism without first rejecting the corporate-driven consumerist politics of its own government?
The rectification campaign resolution also mentions the growing problem of corruption and business-politics nexus and the impact of big money in elections. But once again this problem is discussed either in abstract terms or as an electoral aberration of sorts. Viewed in the context of the CPI(M)’s attitude to the Lavlin controversy involving no less a person than the party’s Kerala secretary and a polit bureau member, the concern expressed in the rectification document rings utterly hollow. Many CPI(M) insiders in Kerala including veteran leaders, activists and intellectuals have long been complaining of the growing commercialization of the party apparatus. Tourism, hospitality, real estate, entertainment – the CPI(M) in Kerala is deeply entrenched in every lucrative sector of the Kerala economy.
The rectification document attributes all these problems to the objective milieu (the party having to operate in “a bourgeois and semi-feudal environment” – the CPI(M) has always taken exception to the term ‘semi-feudal’ used by the CPI(ML) to characterize the Indian society, now the CPI(M)’s rectification document talks of a ‘semi-feudal environment’), to the party’s bourgeois allies and to the class and demographic profile of the party membership. While all these factors may appear to be objectively given to a communist party, there is a crucial fourth factor which decides how a communist party looks at and deals with the objective conditions in a given situation. Yet the CPI(M)’s rectification document is completely silent about this fourth factor – the strategy and tactics employed by a communist party. The more a party draws its strength from the people’s movement, the more it can protect itself against corrosive bourgeois influences, but it is a totally different ballgame when a party begins to implement neo-liberal policies for the sake of a longer stay in power, and adjusts its programme and tactics to facilitate increased power-sharing in bourgeois governments. Any meaningful rectification must be bold enough to interrogate the programmatic perspective and tactical trajectory which has pushed the CPI(M) into its present state, but the rectification document scrupulously avoids any such exploration or interrogation.
Ironically, the question of tactical line is being raised by those who attribute the present crisis of the CPI(M) to its ‘rupture’ with the Congress over the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal. This view accuses the CPI(M) leadership of deviating from the line adopted at the Coimbatore Congress and argues that it was the anti-Congress adventurism of the central leadership which paved the way for a Congress-TMC rapprochement in West Bengal and in turn triggered the dramatic downslide of the CPI(M).
Here we have an ultra-opportunist critique of an opportunist line. The pragmatic assessment that the downslide in West Bengal could be averted by keeping the Congress away from the TMC is not borne out by facts. In 2001 Assembly elections, the Congress and TMC had fought the elections together and yet the LF had secured two-thirds majority. And now in the recently concluded municipal elections, the TMC and Congress failed to forge an alliance and contested separately. Yet the division hardly helped the CPI(M) – in spite of an absence of formal unity between the TMC and the Congress, the TMC swept the polls in Kolkata, made huge gains in almost all south Bengal districts, strengthened its presence in the south-western region districts of Purulia, Bankura and West Medinipur, and made inroads in North Bengal, where it has so far been rather non-existent.
The TMC has clearly emerged as the key anti-CPI(M) force in West Bengal and even if the CPI(M) could keep the Congress away from the TMC, it will hardly change the electoral outcome in the current situation in West Bengal where there is an overwhelming popular fatigue with, and even rejection of, the CPI(M). It is height of political naivete to not see this wave and, worse still, to try and counter this wave by seeking a pragmatic deal with the Congress.
Now let us look at the other end of this opportunist spectrum. The nuclear deal was brewing since July 2006 when Manmohan Singh and George W Bush laid the foundation during the former’s visit to Washington. Why did it take the CPI(M) two full years to withdraw support? Why during this interregnum the CPI(M) did not make any serious effort to develop a mass opposition to the bill and the strategic partnership? The answer lies in the customary opportunist-pragmatic approach of the CPI(M) leadership – they thought they could delay the deal by some deft bargaining with the Congress, there was also a perceived quid pro quo between the nuclear deal and Nandigram. Eventually all the attempts to ‘amend’ or ‘improve’ the nuclear deal came to naught and there was of course no way the Congress would have wanted or managed to save the CPI(M) from the post-Nandigram wrath of the people.
If the CPI(M) thought that the belated withdrawal of support to the UPA would be seen as a bold anti-imperialist statement, that anti-imperialism was rapidly diluted by the CPI(M)’s hurried move to cobble a third front with parties known for their eagerness to implement neo-liberal policies. On the eve of Orissa elections, Naveen Patnaik made a calculated move to sever ties with the BJP and Comrades Karat and Bardhan rushed to Bhubaneswar to embrace him as the latest secular hero. And to complete the secular and anti-imperialist third front circus, Mayawati was projected as the Prime Ministerial candidate if the third front came to power.
The 1996 rectification document of the CPI(M) had held electoral alliances with bourgeois parties as a key source of penetration of corrosive bourgeois style in the party: “The tactical alliance with bourgeois parties particularly electoral alliances have led to the possibilities for the penetration of the bourgeois style of functioning within the Party. The use of money power and other bourgeois practices by these parties act as a corroding influence on our cadres.” The current document repeats the point: “The association with bourgeois parties at various levels, particularly through electoral understandings have been continuing during the past 12 years since the 1996 rectification document. With the rise of the business-political nexus, there is a corresponding rise in use of money and other bourgeois practices. These have a corrosive effect on our cadres.”
Ironically, while the CPI(M) keeps repeating these words of caution regarding electoral alliances with bourgeois parties, it appears the party cannot really think of contesting elections without entering into electoral understanding with bourgeois parties, including ruling parties in different states. And the reason why the CPI(M) cannot think of contesting independently is not just it wants to improve its winning chances by forging ties with dominant bourgeois parties but something more fundamental than that. Actually, like the CPI, the CPI(M) too now believes that it has to project itself as part of a combination seeking to come to power and form government. Behind this is the bourgeois logic that people only vote for governments and not for opposition – opposition only comprises the ‘left-outs’ who cannot make it to the treasury benches. In the process, the CPI(M) has seriously compromised and virtually abandoned the established communist guideline for communist role in parliamentary arena which requires communists to function as a revolutionary opposition to the bourgeois state, even from possible positions of power in local bodies or provincial governments in a federal set-up.
Alongside the rectification resolution of the CPI(M) Central Committee, the recent issue of “The Marxist”, the theoretical quarterly of the CPI(M), also has an article “On Democratic Centralism” by Prakash Karat. The rectification document too identifies democratic centralism as a problem area and identifies some major wrong practices (factionalism, federalism, individualism, leakage of inner-party information to the media or worse still, systematic use of the media to settle factional scores, manipulation of party conferences, intolerance of criticism, and so on) that undermine democratic centralism in the party. Karat’s article however does not deal with such inner-party trends; it reaffirms the relevance of democratic centralism as the core organizing principle for a revolutionary party of the working class. “The critics of democratic centralism and those asking the CPI(M) to do away with democratic centralism are wittingly or unwittingly asking for a change in the Party’s basic character and strategy,” asserts Karat.
Karat is right in his defence of democratic centralism without which proletarian class politics cannot acquire a unified and consolidated shape. But democratic centralism, while necessary for a communist party, is certainly not a sufficient safeguard against social democracy. The CPI(M)’s steady slide into social-democracy has happened very much within the framework of CPI(M)-style democratic centralism. Karat cites the 1996 case of the party’s refusal to accept the offer of prime ministership to Jyoti Basu to refute the allegation of ‘commandism’ on the part of the central committee and says that the decision was arrived at only after thorough discussion on both the majority and minority views on the subject. He should have also mentioned that Jyoti Basu openly decried the CC decision as a ‘historic blunder’ and the Party never raised a finger against that. Most importantly, within four years of that incident the CPI(M) ‘updated’ its programme and whereas the previous programme ruled out participation in a bourgeois government at the Centre, the ‘updated’ programme made ample room for it. Allowing social-democracy to rule in practice and invoking the threat of social-democracy to defend the purity of organizational principles – it is this pragmatic approach to questions of ideology and strategy which explains the utter failure of the rectification campaigns of the CPI(M).
Among the intellectual ‘detractors of democratic centralism’, Karat has mentioned Ashok Mitra and Prabhat Patnaik. Ashok Mitra has been writing critical pieces about the state of affairs in CPI(M)-ruled Bengal for quite some time. Since Singur and Nandigram, his writing of course acquired a sharper edge and he has been systematically questioning the CPI(M)’s policy of corporatization in the name of industrialization. Of course, he also has strong words against the arrogant attitude of the rulers, and their utter disregard for the wide-ranging democratic protests against their numerous misdeeds. Karat of course cites Mitra in a different league, not as a critic of democratic centralism per se, but as a critic of how it is practised in West Bengal and then goes on to say that wrong policies or lines have nothing to do with the practice of democratic centralism. So when it suits him, he would delink democratic centralism from the policy context, and on other occasions he would invoke democratic centralism as a bulwark against revisionism/reformist poli-tics/social-democracy.
In spite of his utter disillusionment with the CPI(M) establishment in West Bengal, Ashok Mitra has always retained an element of hope that the central leadership could still make a corrective intervention at some stage. Instead of addressing Ashok Mitra’s basic criticism of CPI(M) policies, Karat cites him selectively. The policies followed by the West Bengal government have all along been endorsed by the CPI(M)’s central leadership. Even after Singur and Nandigram we have seen the central leadership dish out anti-Luddite anti-Narodnik rhetoric and conspiracy theories, even trying to suggest that imperialism wanted to destabilize the West Bengal government because of the CPI(M)’s opposition to Indo-US nuke deal. Ashok Mitra may have his personal faith and hope in the CPI(M)’s central leadership, but the central leadership is as much responsible as the Bengal bosses for the policy failure and political bankruptcy in West Bengal which lies at the root of Mitra’s anguish and disillusionment.
While Ashok Mitra writes more on a nostalgic and free-flowing literary note, Prabhat Patnaik’s criticism of CPI(M) policies has always been rather veiled, cryptic and extremely nuanced. Yet his essay “The Crisis of the Left”, published in the October 31, 2009 issue of EPW (the text of a lecture delivered by the author in Kolkata on 13 October 2009) poses a few key questions in a quite straightforward manner. The very talk of a crisis in the CPI(M) (when Patnaik or any other CPI(M) intellectual talks of the Left, they talk of the CPI(M), because their vision of the Left is a CPI(M)-centric vision) is quite significant and what is more significant he talks of a theoretical crisis which is obviously outside the purview of a narrowly conceived and perfunctorily implemented rectification campaign.
Patnaik rightly points out that with neo-liberalism mounting a major assault on peasant agriculture and inflicting large-scale losses of jobs and livelihood, the present conjuncture can also be a historic opportunity for the Left, as is being borne out by developments in Latin America. Yet ironically enough, this is precisely when the CPI(M) is facing an acute crisis. Patnaik mentions two mistaken theoretical responses from within Left to the offensive of imperialist globalization – (i) the illusion about the modernizing potential of globalization which will naturally weaken the pre-modern relations, and (ii) the notion that industrialization/modernization sponsored by globalization would lead to the development of productive forces. Such notions abound in CPI(M) circles in both West Bengal and Kerala and also some ‘clever’ variants that would dare defend the (now aborted) Tata project in Singur as an anti-globalisation measure (globalization for them is financial globalization which generally weakens the manufacturing sector whereas the Tata projected would have created some jobs in manufacturing)!
Referring to the crisis of peasant agriculture, Patnaik says rather euphemistically and politely that the Left “has not yet garnered the support of the peasantry which would be forthcoming in the new situation, even as it has lost ground among the urban middle classes, who have as yet been beneficiaries of the neoliberal dispensation.” Well, this is where the CPI(M) has gone horribly wrong in West Bengal. They took the traditional peasant support for granted and thought the urban middle classes would be mesmerized by the consumerist lure of big brands and growth talks. Yet Bengal most clearly showed that the question of democracy and justice could still overwhelm the much-maligned ‘consumerist’ middle class and any powerful peasant protest could still attract the youth and the intelligentsia and alter the political balance in a dramatic way.
As for the challenge of dealing with capital, Patnaik talks of two contrasting approaches – a conscious strategy of subversion of the logic of capital versus a helpless submission or subservience to the logic of capital. He points out that Left-led governments are a product of the dialectics of subversion of the logic of capital, and they must also carry forward the same dialectics of subversion. In particular, this subversion should mean “preventing all direct forms of primitive accumulation of capital, such as the forcible dispossession of peasants from their land in the name of ‘development’, or the forcible curtailment of the activities of the fishermen” and “insulating the basic classes in every possible manner from the consequences” of the logic of capital.
“Subscribing to the view that such a dialectics of subversion is impossible for the Left if it leads state governments, that the only immediate choice is between “development”, a euphemism for subservience to the logic of capital, and an attempt to overthrow the system, which is what both the “development advocates” and the ultra-Left would want us to believe, negates any scope for Left politics”, warns Patnaik. This again is a very polite way of not only saying that the CPI(M) is losing out politically in states like West Bengal and Kerala but also pointing out the theoretical basis underpinning the erosion and loss of political initiative.
In more familiar political terms, Patnaik is actually accusing the CPI(M)-led governments of giving up on class struggle and pursuing the social-democratic course of class collaboration. Instead of engaging in theoretical polemics on these all-important questions of strategy and tactics, Karat is seeking to skirt and circumvent the real political debate by questioning the intellectuals’ understanding of, or loyalty to, the principles of democratic centralism.
The characteristic centrist equilibrium that sustained the CPI(M) in its early years has long been tilting rightward. The loss of Left politics that Patnaik mentions did not happen overnight. Social-democratic subservience to the logic of capital clearly began to prevail over the dialectics of subversion of the logic of capital since the 1990s when the LF government adopted its industrial policy on the lines of the New Economic Policy of the central government and wooing private capital became the primary mission of the LF government. The last time the centrist equilibrium had reasserted itself was perhaps in 1996 when the majority opinion of the CPI(M) CC prevailed over a powerful minority opinion that wanted to join the UF government at the Centre and accept the offer of prime ministership for Jyoti Basu. But by 2000, the programme itself had been revised in a rightward direction.
During the UPA-I years, even though the CPI(M) tried to maintain the pretence of a hard bargain with the UPA at the Centre over economic and foreign policies, the continuing rightward descent of the CPI(M)-led state governments in West Bengal and Kerala has been clashing hard with the centrist posturing vis-a-vis the Congress-led UPA in national politics. The contradiction between the growing social-democratic direction and content of the party-led governments and the old centrist balance of the party is now too acute to be brushed aside. Hence the ongoing churning in the CPI(M). As the CPI(M) faces its most critical phases in its traditional strongholds, the rumblings are only likely to get louder in the coming days.