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Mainstream, Vol. XLIX, No 29, July 9, 2011

The Left in India: A Critical Appraisal

Sunday 10 July 2011, by Kripa Shankar

In the pre-independence period, the Communist Party of India had emerged as the main Left party although quite weak but conspicuous by its dedicated cadres who, by their immense sacrifice, had built bases among industrial workers and peasants. Their fight against the feudal elements led to a powerful base among peasantry in many pockets. Communism had an appeal among intellectuals and some top intellectuals were closely associated with the movement. The success of the Soviet Union in turning a backward country into a fast-moving egalitarian society with no unemployment and other evils of a capitalist society had influenced the leadership of the Congress as well and it also swore by planning as a way to reconstruct the country after the British would depart. Gandhi had emerged as the supreme leader of the nationalist movement for freedom as, among other things, he was fiercely opposed to the Western capitalist civilisation which had no value system except greed, accumulation and oppression. His opposition was so total that he would like India to return to the pre-feudal communitarian order with no machine production where village communities governed the society in a harmonious manner. Communism has a more scientific approach to the same quest. By harnessing the forces of production, not for individual profit but for common good, by eliminating private ownership over means of production and with the help of sophisticated technology, mankind could meet the physical needs of every individual and it would open the gates for his intellectual and spiritual advance-ment. Man would stand liberated for the first time.

The greatness of Gandhi lay in evolving a technique of mass mobilisation in the liberation struggle where the vast exploited peasantry and other sections of society could come forward to challenge the British rule. Satyagraha and civil disobedience had a vast appeal as it suited the genius of the people who wanted to protest and fight but had no instrument. Gandhi could bring the entire Indian humanity into the vortex of the freedom struggle which was unprecedented.

GANDHI, all the same, was the leader of the colonial bourgeoisie which had its genesis in the colonial order that had various strata of exploiters and vested interests. The landlords, moneylenders, traders in agricultural and other commodities and bureaucracy were the privileged groups. Being the product of the colonial set-up its interests lay not in dismantling that order but in striving for some political space within that order. It never intended to confront the British. When Gandhi emerged on the scene and made the Congress a mass organisation through his unique techniques of Satyagraha and mass civil disobedience, he used it as pressure tactics. In 1922 when during the civil disobedience movement he found that the masses were likely to assume the leadership and the movement may take the shape of an upheaval against the colonial set-up, he was so scared that not only did he withdraw the movement to the dismay of all patriotic forces, but publicly announced that his call for civil disobedience was a “Himalayan blunder”.1 Gandhi did not talk of any mass struggle afterwards and only during the Second World War when the Cripps Mission failed, he gave the slogan of ‘Do or Die’ only to pressurise the government but did not spell out as to what the people should do to accomplish it. And within a week after his arrest he wrote to the Viceroy that he intended to meet him after the ‘Quit India’ resolution was passed and was sure that some understanding would have been reached but his arrest pre-empted this possibility.

The point that is being conveyed is that as the Congress did not want to launch any struggle as such, the Communists could come up to the forefront of the movement had they supported it. The 1942 movement was taken up by the people as a clarion call for final emancipation of the country and in many places British rule ended for a few days. But the Communists were found opposing this movement at the bidding of the Soviet Union.

The tragedy of the communist movement has been that its leadership had completely subordinated itself to the dictates of the Soviet Union thinking that any directive from it was the last wisdom and the Communists have no other task but to faithfully implement it. When in June 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, it (the CPI) declared that the character of the war had changed from an imperialist war to a people’s one and the task of the Indian Communists was to support the war efforts. The Communists did so at huge cost. They were isolated from the masses. If Britain was fighting a people’s war, why was it not transferring political power to the Indians? Similarly what prevented it from opening a ‘second front’ against Germany?

There was no answer to such questions. An independent India would not have weakened the fight against fascism but would have strengthened it. Be that as it may, the Communists lost a big opportunity of coming up as a powerful political force unlike the Communist Party of China which, by opposing Japanese imperialism, became a formidable force and ultimately seized power.

After the end of the Second World War, although the Soviet Union emerged victorious, yet it found that all the imperialist powers were conspiring to weaken it. In 1948 the Soviet Union took the line that the final struggle between capitalism and socialism had begun and all the Communist Parties have to initiate the final assault against their governments which should take the shape of armed struggle in a country like India where running dogs of imperialism were in power, according to its formulation. The orthodoxy in the CPI was such that the more faithfully one stood for and implemented the Soviet line, the more revolutionary leader he was. There was some resistance to this adventurist— almost suicidal—line, but all such elements were denounced as cowards and expelled. But then came a bolt from the blue.

The Soviet Union, which hitherto considered governments in newly independent countries as lackeys of imperialism, revised its line. It found that such governments were willing to cooperate with the Soviet Union for their economic development and wanted to befriend it and were for increasing collaboration with it. Hence they were not lackeys of imperialism and should be supported in their effort to modernise their economy. Now the Communist Parties were required to support the bourgeois govern-ments in newly independent countries. This came in the form of a directive published in For a Lasting Peace, For People’s Democracy in January 1950 which was, for all practical purposes, the central organ of the international communist movement in the early fifties. The article mentioned by name the Communist Party of India that it should now form an alliance with the national bourgeoisie to oppose the machinations of the imperialists and their native allies.

Following the Soviet directive, the CPI now entered a new phase of supporting the Congress Government at the Centre. Gone was the vision of overthrowing the bourgeois government and of smashing the state structure as a precondition for ushering in a proletarian revolution. Under the new dispensation joining bourgeois govern-ments, if the opportunity arose, was the preferred destination. It was a U-turn for a party of revolution to be turned into a party of the Establishment not for furthering any revolutionary causes but simply because the Soviet Union had so directed it.

China, which had emerged as another centre of communist power, wanted to have hegemony over the communist movement and with this end in view it was willing to divide the movement. The Communist Party of India was an easy target as a large section of it considered the Chinese path of revolution to be more relevant for India as both were agrarian economies dominated by imperialist powers. China denounced the Soviet Union as revisionist and social imperialist and gave a call for a split in the CPI. Like any middle-class party the CPI was not above factions and without any reason or rhyme a big section came out of the CPI to form a new party to be called Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM). There was no ideological issue involved in the division. It was a part of the same old story. Communists in India have to abide by what the communist powers dictate. Yesterday it was the prerogative of the Soviet Union alone and now it was the Communist Party of China (CPC) as a rival centre of communist power. Soon after the split the Communist Party of China wanted the Indian Communists to take to armed struggle as it considered the Indian bourgeoisie to be its enemy. The CPM could not go the whole hog with this line although a small group, later known as the Naxalbari group, gave a call for armed struggle and coined the slogan China’s Chairman (Comrade Mao) is our Chairman” which later on was withdrawn as the CPC did not approve of it.

ALL this shows that if one were to ask as to what has been the chief characteristic of the communist movement in India, the answer is that it was to blindly follow the dictates of the Soviet Union or China like religious fanatics without applying any reason whatsoever or analysing the objective reality in the false belief that the former are doing what can be done to promote revolution whereas actually they were only pursuing their country’s self-interest that had nothing to do with promoting revolution.
In order to justify the new line of supporting the bourgeois government in India, the Soviet Union had propounded a false theory to the effect that the bourgeoisie is divided into two broad groups. One is comprador which wants to ally with imperialism and the other one is nationalist which is fighting imperialism. Hence Communists should support the latter so that the former may not take over the state. Now in the phase of globalisation no one can agree to this absurd formulation. But the CPI and CPM could not question it as this proposition came from the Soviet Union. Secondly, changing this line would have meant confronting the bourgeoisie and its government and adopting the path of struggle for which the CPI and CPM were not prepared because they had metamorphosed into parties of the Establishment during this long period of collaboration with the bourgeoisie. This resulted in such degeneration that in West Bengal, where it was in absolute power for more than three decades, it only ended up as the party of the status quo.

The CPM, which had a strong base in West Bengal, emerged as the ruling party and formed the government in 1977 in coalition with smaller Left parties. Having an absolute majority it was expected that the CPM would chart an alternative path of development in the given situation and thus the Left in India will eventually emerge as the galvanising force of all the Left and democratic forces to challenge the rule of the bourgeoisie. But the saddest part of the story is that the Left Front did nothing to initiate such a path. This required, in the first instance, that the people should be empowered to take their destiny in their own hands and the bureaucracy, which now stands above the people, should be shown the door. Fortunately this became easier when under the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution in 1992 village Panchayats and municipalities were to be endowed by law by the State governments with such power and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self- government with respect to “(a) the preparation for plans of economic development and social justice; (b) the implementation of schemes for economic development and social justice…” as enshrined in Sections 343G and 243W of the Constitution. The Eleventh and Twelfth Schedules were incor-porated in the Constitution which enumerated 29 activities to be implemented by the Panchayats and 18 activities to be implemented by the municipalities.

In other States the political leadership along with the bureaucracy was fiercely opposed to devolution as it impacted on their power. But what is most surprising is the fact that the Left Front Government was almost equally opposed to endow them with power or funds except in a very limited manner. The allocation of funds also remained minuscule hovering around less than one per cent of the revenue expenditure. The expenditure on the police had generally been five times higher than what was allocated as assignments and compensation to local bodies and Panchayati Raj Institutions in West Bengal. Significantly, the expenditure on the police had been higher than the combined expenditure on agriculture and all allied activities like animal husbandry, soil and water conser-vation, dairy, fishery, forestry, storage, cooperation, agricultural research, minor irrigation and flood control. The expenditure on the police was generally three times higher than on industry and minerals. It was also generally two-and-a-half times than on power. The State has the highest debt per capita among the major States and on account of the high debt the annual interest payment took away nearly one-third of the annual revenue of the State leaving little for developmental activities which was quite low on per capita basis among the major States. Unlike some other States it had been loathe in taxing the better-off sections. This had created a situation where it only cajoled the bog corporate houses, both internal and foreign, to make investment and in order to woo them it could go to any extent as in Nandigram. Even simple measures which could help the poor could not be taken. For example, if the poor could get hassle-free bank loans, say, at three per cent, as is the case in Karnataka regarding farmers, the poor, who are indebted to moneylenders, could come out of their clutches and make small investments in animal husbandry, fisheries and other income generating activities. This would involve giving interest subvention to the banks as they usually lend at 14 per cent. But the scheme did not find favour with the Left Front Government.

THE CPM, which has been the biggest Left formation, can now no longer be said to be a party of the Left. It is a part of the Establishment and serves the vested interest. The Maoist party, which is a radical Left party, has taken to armed struggle not because the situation is ripe for it but Mao had said that power comes from the barrel of the gun. The tribal belt in India is on the radar of national and international capital on account of its mineral wealth. The tribal livelihood is at stake and the fight must go on but armed struggle will only help the govern-ment in crushing the movement.

The Left has failed but the Left must succeed. What is necessary is to organise a new Left party which should not be guided by dogma and received knowledge but should have the capacity to think and act accordingly. Capitalism cannot deliver the goods, more so in a country like India which had been ravaged under colonial rule. With no value system it cannot produce a better man. It has only turned man into a wolf to another man. It has failed to create a sane society and mankind will continue to struggle for a better world.

The whole ethos of the Indian people is against capitalism and if there is an organised party of the Left it can mobilise the entire people against this system. What is needed is continuous mobilisation and struggle of the masses on specific issues. It should be clearly recognised that it will be mass mobilisation that will be instrumental in bringing about a change and not exclusively electoral politics. While there would be no call for boycott of elections and the people will be asked to electorally defeat reactionary parties that stand for the status quo, all the same the people will be called upon to come out on the streets for bringing about a change. How things will unfold is in the realm of the future but the new Left should not be bogged down in the mire of elections. The ruling classes create the illusion that the masses should wait for the next election and should do nothing in the meanwhile as they can change the government through elections. That myth should be broken. Only a sustained mass mobilisation and unrelenting struggle can create a situation wherein the ruling class can be dethroned.


1. The peasants in Chauri Chaura in eastern UP organised a peaceful dharna and in the evening began to return to their respective homes. The station officer of Chauri Chaura police station was away at the district headquarters in connection with some case and when he returned he found that peasants had organised a dharna and they were the returning. He ordered the police to fire on the returning peasants from behind and about a half-a-dozen died on the spot. This infuriated the peasants who marched back to the police station. All the bullets had already been used and this forced the police personnel to lock themselves in a room. The infuriated farmers torched the room by pouring kerosene and some policemen were burnt alive. This led Gandhi to withdraw the movement and call it a Himalayan blunder to have started this movement. Had the bullets not been exhausted hundreds would have been killed. Gandhi explained that in no case violence can be countenanced on the part of the people. If Gandhi was such a votary of non-violence why did he ask the people to join the First World War? Was it being fought for non-violence? Gandhi never called that a mistake on his part.

Dr Kripa Shankar an Honorary Fellow, G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. Earlier he was a wholetime worker of the Communist Party of India for nearly three decades.

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