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'The Left in Decline': A Historical Perspective

Why should the CPI(M) not be considered a ruling class party? The answer to this question and that of the transformation of the official Indian Left requires one to delve into the history of Stalinism, the Comintern, and the communist movement in India.







‘The Left in Decline’: A Historical Perspective

Arup Baisya

Why should the CPI(M) not be In extending the argument of Prabhat Patnaik (“The Left in Decline”, EPW,

considered a ruling class party?

16 July 2011) on the question of the

The answer to this question and

decline of the Left (read CPI(M) and CPI),

that of the transformation of

Hiren Gohain (“Decline of the Left: A the official Indian Left requires Critical Comment”, EPW, 17 September 2011) commented that one fails to under

one to delve into the history of

stand “why the familiar and clearer term

Stalinism, the Comintern, and the

‘revisionism’ should not be used” instead

communist movement in India.

of “empiricisation”. In a brief discussion on Prabhat Patnaik’s article, he wrote “the looming conclusion is that it has

Arup Baisya ( is a

botched its parliamentary role allowing

social activist based in Silchar, Assam.

bourgeois forces to gain the upper hand …”

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novemBER 19, 2011 vol xlvi no 47






He further remarked:

Participation in parliamentary democracy has also meant seeking and holding power in the states. That has meant acceptance of central policies to some extent, acquiescence in the anti-people role of the police, and compromises with the bureaucracy. True, there has been some degree of power-sharing at lower levels, and the panchayats had a more popular character. But there too the party became an instrument of domination rather than service to the people. Lastly it succumbed to the capitalist paradigm of development with it present mantra of private sector-led ….largely jobless growth, and was hustled into adoption of anti-people policies, robbing the masses of their right to land, water and other natural resources.

He concluded by saying how otherwise

one does explain the party’s “alienation

from the basic classes” without considering

the change of class character of the party. It is a good sign that critical arguments

on Left rule in Indian states are pouring


out from within the pro-left (especially pro-CPI(M)) intellectual quarters after the fall of Left Front in West Bengal. But the argument needs to be extended further, and a brainstorming exercise should be undertaken on the question of “Left resurgence” based on the experience of not only Left rule in some parts of India but also on the worldwide experience of building socialism. Why should the CPI(M) not be considered a ruling class party? The answer to this question and that of the transformation of the official Indian Left requires one to delve into the history of Stalinism, the Comintern,1 and the communist movement in India.

Toeing the Stalinist Line

From such a perspective, we can broadly underline the turn of the events when the Indian communist movement, the legacy of which is borne by the CPI(M), sided with the forces of reaction. When Stalinist forced collectivisation of the peasantry had shattered the worker-peasant alliance and reversed the trend from socialism to bourgeois nation-building, pursuing military intervention in the name of exporting socialism, Soviet Russia was transformed into a social-imperialist power. The CPI(M) emulated the Russian path as the model for building socialism. The Leninist party in the Soviet Russia, which was wellentrenched amongst the working class as well as the radical intelligentsia, achieved the alliance with the peasantry through radical land reform. But radical land reform realised the Russian peasants’ age-old dream of becoming landowners. The market forces thus released ended up producing growing differences within the peasantry. The Stalinist way of solving this problem did not advance the building of socialism. But parties like the CPI and the CPI(M), so infatuated with socialism in Russia, did not even notice that Maoist China had successfully addressed the “peasant question” through agrarian revolution instead of forced collectivisation and throttling the dissenting voices within the party. They toed the Russian line and served the Russian national goal of global expansion in the guise of “exporting communism” till the complete collapse of Soviet system and disintegration of Soviet Russia. Then these parties started to cite the success story of the Chinese model of “market socialism” when it became clear that the capitalist roaders gradually took control of the helm of affairs after the cultural revolution came to an unsuccessful end.

At the formative stage, the most of the leaders and organisers of the Bengal Left came from that section of young men and women who flaunted the extreme nationalist views of the Independence movement and engaged themselves in the extremist path of annihilating British magistrates and police officers with bombs and pistols. The political prisoners who were languishing in jail and had been converted to Marxism were released from jail for supporting the British war effort. Those who joined the Communist Party of India remained outside the jail during the Quit India Movement in 1942 and faced the people’s hatred for betraying the cause of Independence. However, the relentless and selfless service to famine stricken people in the Bengal famine gave the communist leaders some credence.

The post-Independence Left party in Bengal started further expanding its base due to the Left leanings of the refugee uppercaste, educated section who were sentimentally involved with the Hindu refugees in West Bengal. Most of these upper-caste youths came from Kulin zamindar families who earned their notoriety by being ruthless and oppressive vis-à-vis their Muslim and lower caste tenants in East Bengal. So those communist leaders were not organically linked with the working class who are predominantly comprised of the most oppressed castes and communities. But the displaced people had no other option but to embrace the Left who fought for their rights. The worldwide turbulent situation of the 1960s, the extension of support to the working class struggle, the resurgence of cultural and literary activities, and the participation of the Left in the food movement gave it overwhelming support from the Bengali masses. With this popular base, party apparatchiks emerged from above the working class and came to power in Bengal with a reformist agenda.

Comintern Hegemony

During the pre-Independence, anti-imperialist struggle, the Indian Left – toeing the line of the Comintern – failed to

novemBER 19, 2011

emerge as a mass communist party and build a mass organisation based on the worker-peasant alliance. After the death of Lenin, and especially during the period of 1935-43, the Comintern became the instrument of Soviet foreign policy. When the revolutionary wave subsided and the hope for the revolution in western Europe faded away, the national interest of Soviet Union gradually started coming to the fore. The changing policy directives of the Indian Left were in keeping with the vicissitudes of the Comintern’s character. In 1922, the demand for a comprehensive “Programme of National Liberation and Reconstruction” in the name of CPI was raised at the Gaya Session of the Congress that received a message of solidarity from Comintern. Against the background of peasant repression in Chauri Chaura and the growing militancy of the peasantry, an Indian Left manifesto, commonly known as Manilal Doctor’s manifesto, proposed the idea of a labour and kisan party of India and advocated the abolition of the standing army, arming of the masses and the organisation of militias with a view to radicalise political life. This document, subsequently revised in various phases, had the following features, according to G Adhikari: (1) it was an attempt to formulate a complete economic and political programme for national independence; (2) it urged the formation of a legal left-wing mass party inside the Congress; and (3) it emphasised the idea of forming workers’ and peasants’ mass organisations in defence of their class demands.

After the 1931 Calcutta session, the Indian Communists, instead of pursuing Lenin’s theses on the colonial question, adopted the colonial theses of the Comintern’s sixth congress and emphasised the control of the party leadership over the workers and peasants from above rather than the process of raising mass-consciousness and building a mass communist party whose members are organically linked with the struggling masses. The expulsion of the nationalist leadership from the league against imperialism also underlined the communist leadership’s endeavour to ensure the monolithic character of the mass organisation. The Indian communists also imbibed the idea of one-party rule in a post-revolutionary society from the practice of the Communist

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Party of the Soviet Union and the influence of the Comintern. Competition with parties representing the interests of other classes to win over the masses creates the space for a democratic environment which is necessary for the healthy interaction of diverse opinion within and outside the party. This acts as an important countervailing factor to save the party from plunging into the quagmire of ultra-centralism and inertia of moribund party life.

The foreign policy of Soviet Russia that advanced its own national interests blurred the distinction between fascism and bourgeois democracy; the united front strategy had gradually been abandoned after the death of Lenin. The concept of democratic centralism drifted in favour of centralism sans democracy, and those who differed with this new strategy were considered as rivals who were eliminated. The organisational arm-twisting and manoeuvring of the monolithic Russian communist party constricted the space within the Comintern for democratic debate of member revolutionaries, especially after the sixth congress.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union that changed the balance of forces was viewed by the Indian communists as transforming the character of the conflict

– from imperialist war to people’s war. The Indian communists toed the formulation of the Comintern and, in doing so, they even abandoned the line of “conditional support” to the British and opposed the August movement launched by Indian National Congress.

During Lenin’s time, the Comintern had a democratic character. In line with Lenin’s theses on colonial question, the Berlin group of Indian revolutionaries Maulana Barkatullah, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, Bhupendranath Dutta emphasised not only the unity of the anti-imperialist forces in India, but also the specificities of Indian society like caste question. But the present day major Left parties like the CPI and the CPI(M) bear the organisational and theoretical tradition of the Comintern of the post-Lenin period.

Party of the Ruling Class

So the major Indian Left parties mechanically toeing the post-Lenin Soviet line transformed themselves into regimented parties maintaining their relation with the

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novemBER 19, 2011

basic classes through a command structure. The release of initiative of the rural poor due to the land reform implemented by the Left Front in West Bengal was arrested after the incorporation of the new middle classes within party command structure. The party refrained from empowering the rural poor and the working class by furthering the agrarian reform process and by allowing active participation in the panchayati raj system through the Gram Sansad mechanism. By silencing the voice of the rural poor who could have been a potent force for modern agriculture, cooperative farming and for development of indigenous industries, the Left Front plunged into crisis. The vibrant rural life that resulted from the implementation of Operation Barga was subsequently throttled by the CPI(M)’s control of all spheres of public life through its command structure and control of the administration. This situation led them to follow the neo-liberal development path.

West Bengal sprang a major surprise when, two years into liberalisation, in September 1994, Jyoti Basu announced his government’s new industrial policy in the assembly. “We are all for new technology and investment in selective spheres where they help our economy and which are of mutual interest. We have the state sector, the private sector and also the joint sector. All these have a role to play”, said the chief minister. In pursuing this new policy of the Left, Basu exercised caution; Buddhadeb stomped. The latter even wanted the CPI(M) to back the Pension Fund Regulatory Development Authority Bill in Parliament. “Team Buddha” was so engrossed with the success story of the neo-liberal drive that his government not only invited notorious companies like Dow Chemicals, but was also planning to invite Wal-Mart to take hold of the retail market. The central CPI(M) leaders with their characteristic double speak always backed the neo-liberal policy of the Left Front in West Bengal. The major left parties like CPI(M) are ideologically and organisationally plunged deep into parliamentary cretinism and perhaps lost the will to revive the path of working class struggle. So there is no reason not to consider the present-day major Left parties like the CPI(M) as parties of the ruling class.


1 For the period 1920-42, we draw on Sobhanlal Datta Gupta’s Comintern and the Destiny of Communism in India, 1919-1943 (Kolkata: Seribaan, 2006).


May 21, 2011
A Case for Reframing the Cash Transfer Debate in India – Sudha Narayanan
Mexico’s Targeted and Conditional Transfers:
Between Oportunidades and Rights – Pablo Yanes
Brazil’s Bolsa Família: A Review – Fabio Veras Soares
Conditional Cash Transfers as a Tool of Social Policy – Francesca Bastagli
Cash Transfers as the Silver Bullet for Poverty Reduction:
A Sceptical Note – Jayati Ghosh
PDS Forever? – Ashok Kotwal, Milind Murugkar,
Bharat Ramaswami
Impact of Biometric Identification-Based Transfers – Arka Roy Chaudhuri, E Somanathan
The Shift to Cash Transfers:
Running Better But on the Wrong Road? – Devesh Kapur

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