quarta-feira, 10 de janeiro de 2018

The Problem with the Indian Left

Prabhat Patnaik

The current problem with the Indian Left, and in this term I include all
sections of the Left, from the so-called “parliamentary Left” to the so-called
“revolutionary Left”, is in my view, its lack of appreciation of the dialectics
between “reform” and “revolution”. There have been many critiques of the Indian
Left, but none to my knowledge has made this point; and their not making this
point is perhaps indicative of the fact that the critics themselves suffer as
much from this lack of appreciation of the dialectics between “reform” and
“revolution” as the Left that they are critiquing.
Before proceeding further however I should make it clear that I consider myself
very much a part of the Left; and everything I say below is meant in a
constructive sense, as a means of aiding Left praxis. I believe that the Left in
India is poised for a major advance provided it appreciates better the
dialectics between reform and revolution; or, to put it differently, the hurdle
before a Left advance in India at this moment is to a significant extent its
theoretical understanding.
By the dialectics of reform and revolution I mean the following: revolution is
the denouement of a persistent demand for reform on the part of the people which
the system cannot accommodate. Therefore pressing for reform and mobilizing
people around a demand for reform is not “reformism”; it is itself a
revolutionary task. The problem with social democracy which is avowedly
“reformist” is not that it asks for “reform” instead of “revolution” but that,
being avowedly “reformist” it tailors and limits its demand for reform only to
whatever the system can agree to. It does not ask for reforms that push the
boundaries of the system.
To be sure, one does not exactly know where the boundary of the system lies. But
that is inconsequential: if the system can yield one set of reforms that are
asked for, then that only provides the opportunity to push ahead for further
reforms; and when it cannot yield what is asked for, then that only provides the
opportunity to mobilize people around what is asked for and press further
towards a transcendence of the system. Systematically demanding reforms that the
people can respond to and that push against the boundaries of the existing order
is the way forward towards a revolution, which requires therefore a continuous
and intense engagement with the existing state of things within the order
A lack of such engagement, and a concentration either on fighting directly and
exclusively for a revolution, or simply waiting for the opportune moment to
launch a fight for a revolution but confining struggles in the meanwhile to
routine trade union, peasant and other mass front struggles, is what I call
missing the dialectics between reform and revolution. Whenever the Left has
actually based itself on this dialectics, it has registered great advance, an
instance of which is the CPI(M) between the mid-sixties and roughly the
mid-nineties, when it had led big struggles for altering land relations, for
re-ordering centre-state relations, for a democratic devolution of power and
resources down to the panchayat level, and (in Kerala) for the introduction of
massive “welfare state” measures. On the other hand, when it has missed this
dialectics, as I argue below it has done of late, it has been on the retreat.
For the Indian Communist movement the decision to fight parliamentary elections
and to form state governments wherever it is elected to a majority, had itself
meant an appreciation of this dialectics between reform and revolution. This is
why the very distinction between the “parliamentary Left” and the “revolutionary
Left”, unless meant in a purely descriptive sense, i.e. if it associates a
higher sense of purpose with the latter compared to the former, as is often
done, is itself unappreciative of the dialectics between reform and revolution:
it identifies in a facile manner a demand for reform as “reformism”.
To be sure, being “parliamentary” per se does not mean an application of the
dialectics between reform and revolution. One can be parliamentary and
reformist, and one can be parliamentary and revolutionary; and one can be
parliamentary and revolutionary and yet miss the dialectics between reform and
revolution (the “revolutionary Left” does so anyway). The point I wish to argue
is that the current problem with the Indian Left, even that section of it which
participates in parliamentary elections, is that it misses this dialectics.
Let me provide an example to clarify the general point I am making about a lack
of appreciation of the dialectics between reform and revolution. That segment of
the Left which is engaged in armed struggle and hence is working directly and
exclusively for a revolution, would, I do not doubt, want a universal healthcare
system for the people, But since it believes, quite rightly, that such a
universal healthcare system is not possible within capitalism in India, and that
it is fighting anyway for socialism, under which alone such universal healthcare
is possible, it sees no need to engage in any specific struggle for universal
healthcare within the existing order.
The so-called “parliamentary” Left too, though it is not engaged directly and
exclusively in armed struggle, for which it believes the time is not ripe, also
believes, rightly, that universal healthcare in India is possible only under
socialism. Since it is working anyway towards socialism, though without
resorting to armed struggle at the moment, it too does not raise the demand for
a universal healthcare arrangement: asking for universal healthcare under
capitalism would be analogous in its view to asking for the impossible. It too
therefore, while focusing on fighting against the concrete injustices heaped by
capitalism upon the people and mobilizing people through agitations against such
injustices, apart from doing its routine mass front activities, does not carry
out any specific struggle for universal healthcare.
Hence, we have this remarkable fact, namely that on perhaps the most important
single factor, the rising cost of healthcare, which has contributed to the
recent growing impoverishment of vast masses of the Indian population, there has
been scarcely any overarching demand for reforms on the part of the Left.
To criticize the Left for not raising such a demand is not to say that
capitalism would actually provide universal healthcare if such a demand were to
be raised: in that the Left is perfectly right. But not to demand something
under capitalism because its realization is not possible under capitalism is
precisely to miss the dialectics between reforms and revolution; on the contrary
the whole point of Left praxis must be to demand things which are not
necessarily possible under capitalism.
Not doing so has two overall results: first, even that which is potentially
achievable under capitalism (though it may not go as far as universal
healthcare) is not achieved. And, second, there is no concrete sense that is
provided to the people of what a socialist society can achieve, owing to the
absence of such major demands. The Left simply agitates against injustices (the
Maoists may do armed struggles around injustices); and at the same time promises
something apparently “mythical” called socialism. But a schism, an
un-connectedness, develops between its daily practice of agitations and its
promise of a radiant future.
Since the Left in India is not social democratic, in the sense of losing sight
of socialism (though different elements within the Left often call one another
“social democratic” as a term of abuse), it does not believe that any
significant reforms are possible within capitalism, which is a perfectly valid
proposition. But for that very reason it does not demand any significant reforms
within capitalism, while on the contrary it should be doing precisely that, and
doing so for the very same reason. This is what I mean by losing sight of the
dialectics between reform and revolution.
What I have just said may be readily conceded, but it has two necessary
implications that may not be so easily accepted, in which case conceding the
above point remains only facile and meaningless.
The first point is that wherever the Left comes to power, at the state or local
level, it must push against the boundaries of what is possible under capitalism.
A demand for universal healthcare on the part of the Left when it is nowhere in
power lacks meaning if there is no push towards it (though it may not be
actually achieved because of the limitations of state governments) when the Left
has state-level power, just as an opposition to neo-liberalism in Left documents
and agitations lacks credibility if the Left pursues exactly the same policies
as the proponents of neo-liberalism when it has state-level power. To do the
latter because of the limitations upon state governments within the existing
order, which are no doubt stringent, and to separately and unconnectedly
advocate a new order that transcends the existing one, is to miss the dialectics
between reform and revolution.
A corollary of this is the following: to miss any opportunity for pushing
against the boundaries of the existing order that may come the way of the Left,
whether at the state or at the national level, through the electoral system (as
had happened when Jyoti Basu was offered the Prime Ministership of the country),
is also tantamount to missing the dialectics between reform and revolution. It
is to treat the revolution purely as a matter for “tomorrow” for which we have
to remain “pure” today by not engaging in the messy politics of “today” even
though the latter offers us the possibility of pushing against the boundaries of
the system. It fails to see that pushing against the boundaries of the system
“today” increases the prospects of a revolutionary “tomorrow”.
The second implication can be seen as follows. I talked above about universal
healthcare which is a “good thing” per se. But people do not just suffer from
the absence of “good things”; they suffer from the inexorable logic of the
working of the capitalist system. Mobilizing people through agitations against
these sufferings would gain strength not just by holding before them an
alternative called “socialism” where such problems as they face because of this
inexorable logic would disappear; but by actually suggesting alternative
solutions to these problems, solutions which are short of socialism, which do
not per se visualize a transcendence of the present system itself, but which the
system itself may be incapable of adopting. The Left in other words must always
have an alternative way of resolving every existing problem facing the people, a
way that is not constrained by the logic of the system but that does not just
invoke an apparently mythical state called “socialism”.
In Greece for instance it was necessary for Syriza to have an alternative
solution to the problem of Greek debt compared to what the previous regimes had
tried; but it did not have such an alternative. On the other hand, the Greek
Communist Party simply shrugged off the problem itself by saying that they would
never be in Syriza’s shoes anyway. The Greek Left therefore was found wanting in
serving the Greek people. The Left, it follows, must always be engaged with the
people’s extant problems, in finding transitional resolutions for them, instead
of simply ignoring them and holding before them a vision of socialism where such
problems just would not exist, for that amounts to ignoring the dialectics
between reform and revolution.
What, it may be asked, has all this to do with the present conjuncture? The fact
that neo-liberalism has reached a dead-end from which there is no easy escape,
the fact that it has plunged the world economy into a crisis which for basic
structural reasons shows no signs of abating, are by now quite well-established
and I shall not labour them here. In this context, because the liberal
bourgeoisie is at the end of its tether, and has no solution to the crisis and
not even a cognizance of it, and because the Left has as yet been unprepared,
for reasons we need not go into here, to present to the people an alternative
route by which they can escape from their present predicament (as distinct from
merely advocating socialism which as I have just argued is inadequate), fascist
elements, propagating a combination of messianism and hatred of the “other”, are
on a world-wide ascendancy; and international finance capital is backing them to
buttress its position during the crisis against potential threats.
Such a scenario is being played out in India too where fascist elements are in
State power. We do not of course have a fascist State as yet, but these elements
are trying their best to push the neo-liberal State in the direction of a
fascist neo-liberal State. This period of transition, before severe fascist
repression is let loose upon the Left, provides it with an opportunity to
mobilize the people against the fascists and in defence of democracy and civil
For checking the fascist onslaught however it has to build up as large an
alliance of secular and democratic forces as possible, which raises the very
valid question: if the growth of fascism has been a result of the stasis created
by neo-liberalism then how can fascism be fought in alliance with parties that
uphold neo-liberalism? Doing so surely would only mean a persistence of the
stasis, so that even if the fascists are temporarily defeated, they would again
come back with a vengeance. How can the Left pursue a praxis that does not just
help in rolling back the immediate fascist onslaught, but also changes the very
conjuncture that gives rise to fascism?
Since the achievement of the first of these objectives cannot be consolidated
without achieving the second, there has been a strong opinion within the Left
that there should be no understanding with any neo-liberal bourgeois political
forces. And this opinion has been advanced in a refracted form by suggesting
that the Hindutva government in India does not represent a fascist dispensation.
The reason for this refracted opinion is that if one agrees that it is fascist
then by the Dimitrov thesis adopted at the seventh Congress of the Communist
International and generally accepted by Communists everywhere then and now, this
would call for an all-in oppositional unity, including even with the bourgeois
neo-liberal elements. (The Seventh Congress Position it may be recalled had come
as a rectification of the disastrous “third period” ultra-Leftist trend of the
Sixth Congress, because of which the German Communists had made no attempt to
unite with the German Social Democrats to keep Hitler out of power, which was
clearly possible in 1933). A rather odd debate therefore has arisen within the
India Left on whether the Modi dispensation is a fascist one or not.
This entire discussion however needs to be anchored in an appreciation of the
dialectics between reform and revolution, which it is not. In a situation where
vast numbers of the most oppressed people, the Muslims, the Dalits, the tribals,
the other religious minorities, women, agricultural labourers, the peasantry and
the petty producers, are groaning under the tyranny of the Modi dispensation,
for the Left to continue with its routine mass front struggles, supplemented no
doubt by resistance to specific acts of injustice, repression, authoritarianism
and suppression of civil liberties, is to evade its historic responsibility, to
forego a historic opportunity to fight for a change that, though immediately
apparently reformist, can have dialectically revolutionary implications.
The real issue in short is not what we call the Modi administration (its
extremely dangerous character is not altered one iota by what we call it); it is
not even whether there can be any basis for an understanding with the bourgeois
neo-liberal elements (a common minimum programme can always be worked out even
with them which advances the people’ interests and stalls the impact of
neo-liberalism; indeed the Left has to make such a programme happen). The real
issue is to recognize the political imperative for fighting the Modi
administration, which is itself a revolutionary task for the Left. Uniting all
possible forces for doing so, and working out the practical possibilities for
such unity, and practical proposals for alleviating the consequences of
neo-liberalism towards this end, is not a “reformist” task but something that is
demanded today, above all, by the needs of the Indian revolution.

December 27, 2017

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