". . .the party congress held recently at Coimbatore had decided that the CPI(M) should directly take up social issues."
(Prakash Karat as reported by The Hindu, May 8)
As I sit to write this comment, I have before me a long-winded draft that took a whole day to do.
I now think my requirement for the task here must be to underscore without baggage or ambiguity the point I wish to make.
As to the first part of my title, much comment is already available internationally, especially within American writing itself, that establishes the endgame status of neo-liberal globalism that was installed as neo-imperialist world policy by the Washington Consensus of 1990 (put in place by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the American Development Bank).
For example, Kevin Philip who looked forward to a republican future—by which he had meant a regime of openness and democracy wherein enterprise would be fairly rewarded without lapsing into totalitarian consolidation—in his book Emerging Republican Majority (1969) now acknowledges the betrayal of that dream in a new book, titled Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism.
In short, the book concludes that American republicanism has after all turned out to be a handmaiden to Wall Street, and that the long battle to rein in big finance that began from the time of Jefferson has been lost.
And with that has also been lost the hegemonic pretensions of American democracy.
Indeed, no less a man than Martin Wolf, chief economic commentator of The Financial Times was to say that "the dream of global free market capitalism died" the day that Bear Stearns bailout was announced.
This failure has happened despite invasion, war, brutal repression, denial of every conceivable liberty within the anglo-saxon world and in the invaded territories, and the most unthinkable forms of inhuman and degrading torture, not to speak of the loss of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.
And it has been accompanied by the ascendance of Left or Centre-Left regimes world-wide.
In the erstwhile "backyard," namely South America, there are now but one or two regimes still holding on to the imperialist apron-string. The latest to go red after some 61 years of right-wing dictatorship is Paraguay, and as if to drive home a point, Fernando Lugo, the new communist President, is a former Catholic Bishop to boot.
In Europe, it is Spain and Cyprus that seem poised to shape the political future.
Not only do the playboy French President’s ratings plunge to some 30% from some 70% in less than a year, but one local election after another gets lost to the socialists. Same in Germany. And in Britain, New Labour must now be thought to be dead.
Closer home, the combined perfidies of imperialism, theocratic monarchy, and upper caste Indian establishments friendly to it have failed to stop the march of the Left in Nepal—an eventuality that this writer had rather foolhardily prognosticated as early as june 10,2006 (see "India and Nepal," Znet).
To cap all this, the world now hears agonized calls from besieged corporates and financial institutions for that hated thing called state interventions to save the sinking ship, even as the fuel and food crisis puts paid to the free-wheeling criminalities of free-trade.
Only in an aspiring India do the new-money ruling classes continue to be inebriated with consumerist inundations, as their shallow and oblivious Podsnappery merrily disregards some three fourths of their fellow Indians who spend less than fifty cents a day. They remain secure in the knowledge that the government of the day is headed by renowned free-marketeers who will not be persuaded that the water may be seeping from under the crevices of the gateways of state.
So the question that is uppermost in many minds: how well is the Indian Left poised to assume these histories to advantage—for the Left and for the people of India.
For a number of concrete reasons, the work of the Left in post-independence India has not been easy—and not always for the fault of Left praxis.
Where all of Latin America speaks either Spanish or Portugese, and all countries in Europe use pretty much one or two languages, and all of China—over 90% Han—the same, and all of Russia, Russi, known proficiently also to territories that comprised the erstwhile Soviet Union, India is a Babel by contrast. By itself not a compelling argument about why the Left should have been tardy, but taken with the fact that language habits in various regions of India remain inseparable from chequered and entrenched local histories and perceptions, a matter of considerable difficulty.
Similarly, the fact that the Left has crucially yielded to sectarian/regional/casteist forces in Hindi/Punjabi speaking regions where it had strong organizations and a record of militant sacrifices through and after the national movement for freedom from colonial rule owes as much to weaknesses within the Left (especially after the division of 1964) as to the consolidation of landlordism and caste identity politics both by the Congress and upper and middle castes opposed to bourgeois-English-speaking rule from the Centre. A further dimension of difficulty has been added since the ascendance of right-wing Hindu politics since the demolition of the Babri mosque and subsequent anti-minority pogroms. Over the last two decades, fascist forces have made the fullest use of the ordinary Indian’s propensity towards the mythic, the occult, and the mysterious—fertile ground for literally thousands of "godmen" whose public businesses flourish, including on India’s corporate TV channels.
Not surprisingly, rationalist/humanist calls for struggle and unity against exploiting classes has tended to fragment against a slew of imperatives that have seemed more immediate and existential. Political consolidation has seemed available to only such political forces that have proceeded on the strength of some emotive slogan or the other—anti-colonial record of nationalism, cultural nationalism, regional/linguistic pride, caste affinity and so on.
Skirting all these, the Left has found it an uphill task to mobilize vast number of Indians on issues bearing exclusively on class exploitation.
Capping all this, India’s unequal and often lumpen-bougeois ‘development’ has tended to generate new middle classes whose concerns and allegiances remain a far cry from middle classes that were in the vanguard of the anti-colonial freedom struggle.
Within such a mind-bogling complex of factors, all modulated with unique specificities in various regions of the new nation, the appeal to class has seemed a far-away abstraction. Often the very "toiling masses" including copy-book wage-workers, have both participated in Left-led movements as well as gone and voted for their caste or community candidates during elections. As much was admitted to me some years ago by an important local leader of the CPI(M).
This woefully thumb-nail sketch may suggest that the work of the Left in India, however patriotic, has tended to suffer from a lack of imagination, or, conversely, a rather lordly refusal of social and cultural pluralities that frustrate class consolidation of any straightforward kind.
The fact is that in India, even as class-rule remains the abiding source of immiseration, the conditioning of vast numbers to imagine any alternate system of the production and distribution of wealth has tended to render calls to a humanist essentialism across fractious identities something utopian in contrast to more concrete invocations of realities that have seemed rooted in lived and deeply traditional forms of being.
Often, these entrenched sources of oppression have been attributed to cycles of karma and deserved rebirth into unequal stations in life.
Thus, vast numbers of Indians have tended to experience their social and cultural identities as issuing from a priori and unchanging sources, unamenable to historical transformation. And often not without reason. Consider that, theoretically atleast, a wage-worker may not always remain a wage-worker (which is not to challenge the truth that within the Capitalist wage system, educational possibilities and other forms of socialization are ruthlessly controlled to ensure the reproduction of the existing relations of production), but a dalit or a woman or a muslim remains a dalit or a woman or a muslim even after she has succeeded in jumping class. Pretty much as happens to many black people in that other great democracy, America.
Having taken to the parliamentary route after the failure of the armed struggle in Telengana (1946-51)—a struggle that was to yield considerable electoral fruit to the Left in the first-ever elections in Independent India in 1952—Left politics would seem to have been debilitated by a twin-failure: of disregarding for the most part those a priori forms of consciousness spoken of above, and failing to mount militant challenges of country-wide magnitude purely on issues of class.
Clearly, the Left is not too well placed today either to return to the "Calcutta Thesis" of 1943 (armed struggle), nor to reap through appeals to class oppression alone the kind of electoral dividends that have accrued to the communists in Nepal.
This is the context that lends great meaning to the decision of the CPI(M)’s 19th Party Congress at Coimbatore to address social issues directly.
I may be permitted the indulgence to reproduce a bit from an article I had written on the eve of the cpi(m)’s 16th party congress:
". . .social cultural inequities in the mofussil cannot be automatically incorporated into class-struggle. The Left will need to devise ways of ingress here which fully recognize the relative autonomy of these inequities, even as those inequities are transformed over time into class consciousness. The Left need not fight shy of finding itself engaging in Dalit temple-entry movements. . .since vast masses that suffer social/religious oppression of one kind or another must first be approached at the first point of exclusion and ostracism before they can be expected to see the linkages between those oppressions and class-rule. To the extent that ruling class ideology in the form of accreted myths that have functioned as "grounds" for discriminatory and inegalitarian histories retain a hold among the disenfranchised, the meaning of that Leninist text—"class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is only from outside the economic struggle (1902, CW 5, p.422) must be considered as an injunction to free the mass of Indians from ideological oppressions." (see my "Left Renewal: An Opportunity", Mainstream, April 30, 2005).
I had concluded that article with the following insight from the British Marxist, Terry Eagleton:
"The proletariat in ancient society were those who were too poor to serve the state by holding property, and who served it instead by producing children (proles, offspring) as labour power. They are those who have nothing to give but their bodies. Proletarians and women are thus intimately allied, as indeed they are in the impoverished regions of the world today. The ultimate poverty or loss of being is to be left with nothing but yourself. It is to work directly with your body, like the other animals. And since this is still the condition of men and women on the planet today, it is strange to be told that the proletariat has disappeared." (see his After Theory, Allen Lane, 2003, p.42).
At another time, indeed, I had the privilege to write to the then General Secretary of the CPI(M) on the subject of the location of women within class struggle, making the simple point that so long as it is the case that not all oppressions suffered by women across the board can be cognized exclusively in class terms, any Marxism that proceeded on the basis of refusing that reality in this day and age could not draw much credence. This especially at a time when the Left has been in the forefront of demanding 33% reservation for women in Parliament!
What the CPI(M) has thus achieved just the other day at Muthapuram in the Madurai district of Tamil Nadu in pursuance of the Coimbatore resolve signifies far beyond the particular event.
At Muthapuram its cadres, supported by state agencies, demolished a part of a wall that has been built by upper castes to keep dalit communities from using common facilities.
In breaching that wall, the Left has symbolically pulled down a bigger wall—its resistance/hesitance thus far to address issues of social oppression as an autonomous revolutionary activity from, in Lenin’s above-cited parlance, "without... the economic struggle."
Clearly this is the way to go if sufficiently puissant mass struggles are to be waged over the next decade that can begin to relegate the politics of status quoist capitalism, however welfarist it may sound, or however congenial to forms of inherited slaveries.
The Karat statement cited by The Hindu of May 8 includes two other significant perceptions: one that political struggles must not remain wedded to concerns of immediate electoral dividend, and, two, that the organized Left now must take up the sort of work that has tended to be done in recent years by voluntary organizations.
It is this sort of praxis that, if conducted with diligence and conviction over a decade or so, truly bears the promise of hollowing out the humbugs dished out by "mainstream" political formations, and substituting in their place a more lasting and substantial politics of equity.