ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

The Left in Decline

A communist party in the 21st century has to engage with democracy, deepen it, and has to devise strategies based on a "concrete analysis of the concrete conditions". The CPI(M)'s empiricisation - not revisionism - has resulted in setbacks, and it has to strive to build a coalition of the workers and peasants to resist international fi nance capital and, where in power, usher in an alternate trajectory of development.


The Left in Decline

A Response

Prabhat Patnaik

could only end, as it did, with the collapse of that system. It follows that the socialism we envision today must be one that is associated with the most vigorous practice of d emo cracy, in which case a revolutionary party cannot turn its back on the already existing institutions of

A communist party in the 21st century has to engage with democracy, deepen it, and has to devise strategies based on a “concrete analysis of the concrete conditions”. The CPI(M)’s empiricisation – not revisionism

– has resulted in setbacks, and it has to strive to build a coalition of the workers and peasants to resist international fi nance capital and, where in power, usher in an alternate trajectory of development.

Prabhat Patnaik ( recently retired from the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Economic & Political Weekly

march 10, 2012

am gratified by the number of pieces that have appeared in the pages of this journal in response to my article “The Left in Decline” (EPW, 16 July 2011). I do not wish to react to each of them, or indeed to any of them, in detail; it is both tedious and unnecessary to do so. I do however wish to make some general points. The first point I wish to make is that the primary question before us is not whether the Communist Party of I ndia (Marxist) has fallen from revolutionary grace, or whether, as Kripa Shankar (EPW, 19 November) would have it, we need “a new communist party”. The primary question is: what should a communist party (or any revolutionary party for that matter) in the 21st century look like?

Engaging with Democracy

One element of the answer I believe is obvious: such a party must work on the basis of the existing institutions of democracy, and work with the objective of strengthening and deepening them, in direct oppo sition to international fi nance capital, and the domestic corporatefinancial elite that is integrated with it, which is striving its utmost to attenuate them. Indeed the collapse of the 20th century revolutions was attributable in no small measure to the completely unviable political form that post-revolutionary states took, viz, a one-party dictatorship that was supposed to be a surrogate for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even when the party that was exercising such dictatorship had, to start with, both deep roots within the basic classes, and a commitment to the revolution whose authenticity was unquestionable, such a state over time had the inevitable effect of depoliticising the basic classes, of turning them from “subjects” into “objects”. This was fundamentally antithetical to socialism and set up a dialectic that

vol xlviI no 10

democracy, no matter how flawed. It has to work with them and strive to strengthen and deepen them. (Needless to say, the defence of democracy itself, let alone its strengthening and deepening, requires continuous class struggle, and in certain contexts, e g, of military coups to scuttle it, even armed struggle by the people.)

This is particularly important in our country, with its millennia of institutionalised inequality where the practice of “one-person-one-vote” constitutes perhaps the greatest social revolution in our more recent history. The opposition to this practice, the attempt to attenuate it by running down the institutions of representative democracy based on it, is formidable. It is constituted not only by finance capital and its spokespersons but also by the legatees of our caste-based feudal-patriarchal order; and they draw upon an ideology that has deep roots in the psyche of our people. In opposition to these forces, the party has to defend and sustain these institutions even while working to cleanse them.

This is no easy task. The “filth and the muck” that surrounds them is bound to attach itself to the party, but it cannot run away from it in order to remain pure. (That would be acting like a real life left-wing friend of mine who was so committed to rigour in his expression that he hardly ever opened his mouth.) It just has to painstakingly cleanse itself of the “filth and the muck”. It can do so only if it is continuously imbued with the perspective of transcending capitalism, if it continuously examines itself and all its actions from this perspective, “if it epistemologically places itself outside the system”. I defi ne “empiricisation”, the term I used in my article, as a process of negation of this epistemological exteriority.

Communist praxis vis-à-vis the existing institutions of representative democracy


is often sought to be defi ned through formulae: “communists must keep away from bourgeois parliaments”, or “communists may participate in parliament but must never have truck with bourgeois parties”, or “communists may have truck with bourgeois parties but must never join any government with them”, etc; and I suspect that Dipankar Bhattacharya (EPW, 19 November) is thinking along these lines, of drawing a line of “propriety of conduct” on the part of a communist party based on some such formula. None of these formulae, however, can be taken as absolute; what the party does or does not do should depends upon a “concrete analysis of the concrete conditions”; the analysis may be right or wrong, the party’s action may be right or wrong, but this concrete analysis cannot be substituted by formulae. For reasons I have already mentioned, I believe that the party must participate in representative democratic institutions (though I can imagine situations where “elections” are merely a fraudulent device for legitimising authoritarian/fascist rule, where the party must not participate in them but insist on genuinely free elections). Likewise there may be situations where communists may have to participate in governments with other parties, like the French communist party under the leadership of Maurice Thorez had done in Paul Ramadier’s post-war government in France.

The real point is not adherence to any such formulae; it is that no matter what choice the party makes, it must never abandon its epistemological exteriority, its practice of looking at everything from the perspective of transcending the system, just as the French communists had done when they opposed the decisions of the same Paul Ramadier government that they had joined, to recolonise Vietnam and to impose a wage-freeze on the French workers. As long as the party does not abandon this perspective, even if it makes a mistake in its choice of the course of action, it can rectify the mistake.

‘Empiricisation’ or ‘Revisionism’

My point was that a tendency within the CPI(M) to abandon this perspective, and hence get “empiricised”, has cost it dear in terms of loss of support among the basic classes. My friend Hiren Gohain has raised the question: why not use the direct term “revisionism” instead of the elusive term “empiricisation”? Others like Siddhartha Lahiri, Kripa Shankar and Dipankar Bhattacharya (all in EPW, 19 November) share this feeling that I am “soft-pedalling” the issue by using such terminology. I have two reasons for choosing the term “empiricisation” rather than “revisionism”.

First, as the communist movement has got more and more fragmented, the term “revisionism”, used typically by one fragment against the other, has often lost in such usage the precise meaning that Lenin had given to it. Some, for instance, would consider any action other than carrying out armed struggle “revisionist”; others would consider the sheer fact of participating in parliamentary politics “revisionist”; still others would consider the sheer fact of leading a government in a state “revisionist”, and so on. The meaning that the term carries has come to depend upon who is using it. As against this, “empiricisation”, I believe, describes a very specific process, about whose meaning, as distinct from appositeness in a particular context, there can be no confusion.

Second, the imprecision surrounding the usage of the term “revisionist” is often compounded by the fact that the basis for attributing “revisionism” is not the theory of the impugned party, but this or that action by it. This I believe is incorrect. A communist party is formed on the basis of a theory; it must be judged on the basis of that theory. Interestingly, when communist parties change their theories in a direction that would be generally considered “revisionist”, they do so not shamefacedly or surreptitiously but quite openly. They do not shy away from doing so. From Eduard Bernstein’s original “revision” of Marxist theory, to Khrushchev’s “state of the whole people”, to Jiang Zemin’s “three represents”, to the Japanese communist party abandoning “Marxism-Leninism”, there has never been a shying away by those altering theory in what would be considered a “revisionist” direction from owning up to the fact that they are doing so,

march 10, 2012

which strengthens my argument that the charge of “revisionism” can stick only if it is located in the theory on which the party is founded.

There may be “revisionist” tendencies within a party, there always are, but that does not make it “revisionist” until such tendencies are reflected in a change in the theoretical foundation of a party. Since I do not know how strong the tendencies for a change in the CPI(M)’s basic theoretical positions are, but I can observe a process of “empiricisation”, which amounts to an implicit insinuation of bourgeois theoretical positions into a communist party whose basic theory remains unchanged, I prefer the latter concept.

I find it odd to be taken to task for this, and for not saying that the CPI(M) is, or is about to become, “revisionist”. At a time when communist parties have collapsed over large parts of the world, and the hegemony of finance capital holds sway, the fact that there exists a party in India that is theoretically committed to fi ghting this hegemony, and that has gathered lakhs of cadres around this theoretical programme, is for me a matter of immense satisfaction, precisely because I take this fight extremely seriously. The difference between this party and the numerous non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who fi ght specifi c instances of the fallout of this hegemony is its abiding theoretical commitment to transcendence of the system as a whole. To be told that I must assert as a fact the actual collapse, or the inevitability of collapse, of this theoretical position of one of the few remaining signifi cant communist parties of the world strikes me as very odd.

Impact of Globalisation

Hiren Gohain, however, raises an important issue: why are NGOs, rather than the party, in the forefront of organising people today against the fallout of policies of finance capital? He sees in the party’s apparent withdrawal from extra-parliamentary struggles an act of commission. In one specific area, which I had mentioned in my article of 16 July 2011 and shall discuss shortly, I believe he is right. Besides, it is also true that the

vol xlviI no 10


practice of “democratic centralism” often has the effect of introducing a certain stasis, because it tends to slip into “centralism” that stifles initiative. But, a far more important explanation in my view for the apparent quietude of the party in the terrain of extra-parliamentary struggles is the impact of “globalisation” itself on the class situation within the country.

Any centralisation of capital has the effect of giving it an edge over labour in class struggle, and this is no less true of the centralisation that makes capital into a global entity. If capital can move globally while workers are not organised in global unions, then they are handicapped in confronting capital. Globalisation of finance adds to this handicap, since it forces the nation state as long as it remains trapped within this vortex of globalised finance to follow economic policies to its liking (which is euphemistically called “retaining the confi dence of the investors”). Globalisation of capital therefore necessarily weakens the working class in every country.

An additional factor contributes to it, namely, the progressive strengthening of the private sector at the expense of the public. The public sector gives the working class a better opportunity to assert itself than the private sector, of which the remarkable strikes by the French public sector workers is an obvious example. Even in the US while almost a third of those employed in the government sector are unionised, the corresponding ratio for the private sector is a mere 7%. Privatisation, including the outsourcing by the railways for instance of many of their services to private contractors, has a debilitating effect on working class strength.

But that is not all. The process of primitive accumulation of capital, in the form of a squeeze or dispossession of petty producers, including the peasantry, which is unleashed by neo-liberalism, combined with the phenomenon of “jobless gro wth”, has the effect of swelling the relative size of the reserve army of labour. This directly saps the strength of the working class. But what is more, the reserve army in contemporary capita lism does not exist as an entity apart from the active army;

Economic & Political Weekly

march 10, 2012

on the contrary there is a process of worksharing between the two which manifests itself in growing “casualisation” or growth of “informal sector employment”, etc, which is an additional potent factor sapping the strength of the workers.

All this has an enfeebling effect on traditional communist parties because their usual mode of operation becomes increasingly infructuous. They have to innovate new strategies which take time and are not easy. The task is made further difficult by the fact that the middle class, from which communist intellectuals are usually drawn, has been to a signifi cant extent a beneficiary of the neo-liberal regime and provides less fertile ground at present for radical ideas. The middle class may get agitated over specifi c issues affecting it, or even general issues like corruption or pollution, which are no doubt important, but it is unwilling to join workers and peasants in any class action. Thus we have a denouement where “identity politics” of various hues flourish, and so may struggles on specifi c issues, but traditional communist politics becomes more difficult to sustain.

As against this, however, the possibility of mobilising the peasantry against the process of primitive accumulation of capital increases greatly. Since this has been an area of traditional communist politics, the opportunity for the party to engage in extra-parliamentary struggles in this sphere arises to an extent not seen since the 1930s and 1940s (which too had witnessed acute peasant distress). But this is where I think the pursuit of the goal of so-called “development”, under the influence of the Chinese example, and in a bid to appease the urban middle class, has come in the way, especially in West Bengal. And the West Bengal developments in turn have made the party lose some credibility in the eyes of the peasantry elsewhere in the country, leaving it in a more diffi cult position to lead peasant struggles.

An Alternative Trajectory

Lenin had drawn a distinction between two trajectories of capitalist development, one which involved the elimination of feudal or semi-feudal landownership and the distribution of land to the

vol xlviI no 10

peasants, and the other where capitalism developed on the basis of feudal or semi-feudal landownership itself (agriculture then got characterised by what he called “semi-feudal capitalism”). The first of these, which he called the more revolutionary path, ensures a much larger expansion of the home market, and hence a more vigorous development of capitalism. But in societies embarking late on capitalist development, where the bourgeoisie is incapable of smashing feudal and semi-feudal landownership, it is only semi-feudal capitalism that could develop under its leadership. In such societies it is the working class alone that can provide the leadership for undertaking the task of smashing feudal or semi-feudal landownership, whence arises the possibility and the necessity of building a worker-peasant alliance.

The worker-peasant alliance was absolutely central to Lenin’s thought. Julius Martov, the Menshevik leader for whom Lenin had much affection, had once asked: since the proletariat is numerically a small minority, how can it establish its rule over the society as a whole? Lenin’s reply was that it could do so only in alliance with the far more numerous peasantry. It follows not only that when the proletariat gives leadership to the democratic revolution (which entails smashing feudal and semi-feudal landlordism) it will not stop at the stage of building capitalism and will go on to socialism, but also that the kind of capitalism for which the conditions are created under the leadership of the proletariat at the democratic stage of the revolution will be entirely different from what the bourgeoisie would have built in these societies. A two-stage revolution therefore not only does not mean fi rst building capitalism and then proceeding to socialism, it also does not mean, even transitionally, creating conditions for some standardised capitalism. “Empiricisation”, by contrast, entails subscribing to a “stage theory” that inter alia also sees capitalism as one single homogeneous category, a standardised entity; this I believe is fundamentally opposed to the Leninist idea.

One can draw some conclusions from this even for a context in which the Left


is leading a state government within an overall scenario of capitalist development. Such a Left government of course can neither build socialism nor even see the capitalism developing under its aegis as being only a short transitory phase (since the country as a whole has to experience a revolution to make it transitory). Even so however it can and must make the capitalism developing under its aegis different from the capitalism developing in other states under the rule of bourgeois political formations. It must act not only towards building up a worker-peasant alliance, but also to e ffect the widest possible expansion of the mass market. Carrying out land redistribution at the expense of the feudal and semifeudal elements is, of course, an obvious task for such governments, a task that still has not been completed, even though much progress has been made in land reforms. (In Kerala for instance, despite considerable progress in land reforms, the plantation sector still remains outside their purview.) But even apart from land reforms, a whole gamut of social welfare measures directed towards the people at large has exactly the same effect of expanding the size of the mass market.

It follows then that the strategy of the Left must be – both where it is leading state governments and where it is not – to work towards building up the workerpeasant alliance through struggles and through governmental intervention by way of land reforms and other redistributive measures. The capitalism that deve lops under its aegis will not be a replica of what bourgeois political formations are promoting in other states, but something that emerges out of this process of land reforms and other redistributive measures. What is necessary for the Left is not shunning elections or forming state governments where it can, but using this opportunity for an alternative trajectory of development. To what extent it succeeds in doing so will determine its future.

History of the Communist Party

Finally, even though I have avoided getting into details of individual articles in this response, there are two factual matters that I must set right. The fi rst relates to Kripa Shankar’s claim that “the Communist Party of India opposed the Quit India Movement at the behest of the Soviet Union”. This is simply not true. The CPI’s stand on the Quit India Movement was a decision entirely of its leadership. In fact when the four-member CPI delegation went to Moscow to discuss internal party differences with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Stalin was critical of the CPI for having taken the stand it had done following the attack on the Soviet Union. (I have heard this personally from M Basavapunniah who was a member of the delegation.)

The second issue relates to Arup B aisya’s claim that “those who joined the Communist Party of India remained outside jail during the Quit India Movement in 1942”. This too is simply not true. There were hundreds of communists who were in the Congress, but had opposed the Quit India Movement within the Congress and hence had ipso facto exposed their communist identity (they were to be expelled from the Congress in 1946 because of this exposure). But despite being opposed to the Quit India Movement, they accepted long terms of imprisonment as participants in this movement. My own father who became a communist in 1936 but continued to r emain in the Congress was in jail until the end of 1944.

While one can be critical of the communists, sweeping statements of this kind which lack factual basis do not help the discussion. At no time in history has the project of human emancipation faced an enemy as complex as it faces now. This enemy, viz, international capital, is intangible, but its reach is enormous. Vanquishing it requires not only the maximum possible mobilisation of the people but also an unprecedented command over theory on their part. And it requires a degree of unity among the forces of resistance that can come about only through sustained and serious discussion.

January 28, 2012
Agrarian Transition and Emerging Challenges in Asian Agriculture: A Critical Assessment – P K Viswanathan, Gopal B Thapa,
Jayant K Routray, Mokbul M Ahmad
Institutional and Policy Aspects of Punjab Agriculture: A Smallholder Perspective – Sukhpal Singh
Khap Panchayats: A Socio-Historical Overview – Ajay Kumar
Rural Water Access: Governance and Contestation in a Semi-Arid Watershed
in Udaipur, Rajasthan – N C Narayanan, Lalitha Kamath
Panchayat Finances and the Need for Devolutions from the State Government – Anand Sahasranaman
Temporary and Seasonal Migration: Regional Pattern, Characteristics and Associated Factors – Kunal Keshri, R B Bhagat
For copies write to:
Circulation Manager,
Economic and Political Weekly,

320-321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013. email:

march 10, 2012 vol xlviI no 10

To read the full text Login

Get instant access

New 3 Month Subscription
to Digital Archives at

₹826for India

$50for overseas users


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top