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Mainstream, Vol. XLIX, No 14, March 26, 2011

Why the Left Matters

Monday 28 March 2011, by Prabhat Patnaik


The following article, by one of the CPI-M’s intellectual pillars, appeared in The Indian Express (March 17, 2011). We are reproducing it with due acknowledgement alongwith a reply by a noted Left-wing journalist and writer who has sent it for publication in Mainstream.

India has witnessed a veritable social transfor-mation in the 20th century. A society characterised for millennia by institutionalised inequality in its most grotesque forms, like “untouchability” and “unseeability”, has made a transition to juridical equality, a set of fundamental rights for all citizens, and a form of government based no parliamentary democracy with universal adult franchise. The significance of this transition, despite the fact that it still falls far short of authentic equality, cannot be overstated. It constitutes a part of our long democratic revolution.

This democratic revolution needs to be carried forward, for if it is not, then there will be an inevitable slide-back. Revolutions do not stand still; they either move forward or are over-whelmed by counter-revolutions. The Indian democratic revolution today is faced with the prospects of being so overwhelmed: counter-revolution is gathering strength, and the main reason for this lies in the shift in the position of the bourgeoisie.

HOW, it is worth asking, does the big bourgeoisie manage to impose upon society such massive increases in inequality, even though the people enjoy formal democratic rights? What, in other words, are the mechanisms of abridgement of democracy that permit such inequalities? The range of such mechanisms is wide; some of them are well known; and all of them are clearly visible. A formal abridgement of democracy is the obvious first option. Indira Gandhi during the Emergency actually succeeded for a brief period in doing this, but eventually came a cropper. The BJP-led NDA, during its attempt to “revise” the Constitution, sought to institutionalise such an abridgement, but that attempt too failed. Even so, however, thanks to a plethora of measures, often initiated by the judiciary, like bans on bandhs, restrictions on the right to strike, and curbs on public meetings, there has been a whittling down of people’s democratic rights.

The second obvious mechanism is the nurturing of communal-fascism, which, as Michal Kalecki put it, is kept like a “dog on a leash”. It is occasionally unleashed, with devastating impact; and, even when it is leashed, the fear of its being unleashed serves to reconcile people to the neo-liberal measures of a non-communal-fascist bourgeois government. Since unemployment and distress provide fertile ground for fascist tendencies, this is a mechanism that neo-liberalism spontaneously generates for itself.

The third mechanism is to “incorporate” dissent, and to criminalise such dissent that cannot be incorporated. Here the very fact of the economy being open to the vortex of financial flows helps the neo-liberal cause: any attempt to pursue policies different from what international finance capital favours is fraught with the danger of capital flight, and this forces a degree of uniformity in policy-making among all political formations that do not have the courage to go beyond the existing arrangements altogether. Ideologically too, slogans like “keep development above politics” which is a euphemism for “let us unite to endorse neo-liberalism”, and “let us endorse primitive accumulation of capital”, play the role of incorporating dissent. Refusal to be so incorporated on the other hand brings the charge of sabotaging “the nation’s prospects of emerging as a superpower” and hence being “anti-national”. Through a myriad means in other words, involving in particular the use of corporate media, a propaganda barrage is unleashed that identifies the interests of the corporate and financial magnates as the “nation’s interest”.

The fourth is the spread of religiosity and the resurgence of pre-modern authoritarian institutions like khap panchayats, which the bourgeois political formations treat with benignity. No doubt, an individual has a right to pursue any religion in his or her private life; but religiosity which entails the intrusion of religious practices and rituals into public life, serves to depoliticise and disunite people.

INDEED the essence of the project of the big bourgeoisie is to depoliticise and disunite people, convert them into atomised empirical entities, rob them effectively of any subject role, and enfeeble them in the matter of defending their democratic rights. The uniqueness of the Left consists in the fact that it is opposed to all this, that its agenda on the contrary is to unite and politicise the people, which alone can make them capable of defending their democratic rights. The Left, in short, is the only consistent force that works in the direction of carrying forward the long democratic revolution in our country.

The Left is different from all of them because it can visualise going beyond the boundaries of capitalism. It can be consistently democratic because it is not imprisoned within the antagonism between capitalism, dominated by globalised finance, on the one hand, and authentic democracy on the other. It is prepared to resolve this anta-gonism by going beyond capitalism, which is why it can be consistently democratic.

The Left in India, notwithstanding its many mistakes, has consistently stood for the carrying forward of the democratic revolution; for further abrogating, systematically, the millennia-old institutionalised inequality of our old order; for struggling against the hegemony of international finance capital and the deep hiatus that a regime characterised by such hegemony produces; for struggling against communal-fascism; for resisting all attempts to curb the democratic rights of the people in the name of “order”, “combating chaos and anarchy” and “develop-ment” (to the point of even issuing public rebukes to senior leaders whose remarks could be interpreted otherwise); and for overcoming religiosity and separateness through political praxis.

Any weakening of the Left weakens the democratic revolution in our country and hence our march to “modernity”. India’s march to “modernity” requires not 8, 9, 10, or 11 per cent growth rate; it requires a carrying forward of the democratic revolution. This is the touchstone by which all political formations have to be judged, and on this criterion the Left, notwithstanding all its weaknesses, emerges superior to all other political formations.

The opposition to the Left, alas, has now gathered momentum to a point where many, claiming to be “progressive”, use the very arguments mentioned above to attack the Left. I can hear, for instance, an immediate riposte to what I have said above: what about Singur, what about Nandigram?

Much has been written about Singur and Nandigram, and we need not go over all that here. Let us for argument’s sake accept the account of the events put forward by the opponents of the Left. Even so, nobody can possibly argue that they reflected the Left’s subscription to an abridgement of the regime of rights of the people. However mistaken one may think the handling of those two cases by the Left Front Government was, one cannot say that they represented an attempt by the Left to dilute or abrogate the regime of democratic rights of the people. Of course, any police firing can be interpreted ipso facto, whether rightly or wrongly, as constituting an attack on the democratic rights of the people; but there is a difference between an episode of police firing and a change in stand on the regime of rights. The Left has never changed its basic class position on the regime of democratic rights of the people. It has stood consistently against all attempts to abridge the regime of rights (to a point where it even opposed the banning of the Maoists despite their rampant murderous attacks on CPM cadres). Nandigram and Singur in short were tragic episodes; they do not represent an iota of shift on the part of the Left to any alternative, abridged, regime of rights.

All this has a vital importance in the current election season. The outcome of these polls will have a crucial bearing upon the future of the Left in India. And if the Left receives a setback then the democratic revolution in our country will be in jeopardy.

(Courtesy: The Indian Express)

The author is the Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board and was formerly a Professor of Economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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