West Bengal: From Statist Leftism to Reactionary Anti-Capitalism

Pothik Ghosh

Can the decimation of an institutionalised and bureaucratised working-class force like the CPI(M)-led Left Front in West Bengal be a legitimate revolutionary task of the proletariat? The answer to that must, doubtless, be a resounding yes! But does that make the Trinamool Congress juggernaut that demolished the 34-year-old decadent LF regime in the state the bearer of a progressive, working-class impulse? Strange as it may sound, the reply to that has to be an equally emphatic no! This paradox stems from the fact that the politics which helped Mamata Banerjee slay the “Stalinist” demon of Bengal has simultaneously enabled her alliance with the Congress to seek the perpetuation of its ideological project of discrediting the revolutionary working-class horizon that goes under the name of Communism. The open propaganda by the spinmeisters of Mamata Banerjee’s extended “family of democracy” on sundry ‘public’ fora, where they held up her decisive electoral triumph in West Bengal as an example of the ‘indisputable demise’ of the Communist political project and its Marxist ‘ideology’, bears that out.

But then there are those among Mamata’s sizeable ‘leftist’ vote bank who say with irritated impatience, ‘What’s in a name?’ Communism by any other name, they virtually claim, would smell as revolutionary. Fortunately, or otherwise, when names such as Communism and Marxism are in the play a lot is at stake for the working class. Those two names, and particularly Marxism as a theoretical heritage of the experiences of the revolutionary working class, together constitute an indispensable conceptual procedure for the working class to critique and challenge everything that smells of domination, including its own ‘revolutionary’ theologies and ideologies. That the Mamata Banerjee-led anti-LF alliance rejects not only those two names of Communism and Marxism but their substance as well has been more than borne out by its severance of the immediate issue of democratisation – without doubt real and crucial as it constitutes the determinate ground of concrete situation – from the strategic question of socialism that the question of democracy always potentially mediates and posits. What is, however, even more pernicious is that some of her propagandists from the ‘Left’ camp have been busy sanctifying this political project of democratisation-sans-socialism as a form of “New Leftism”.

It is such politics of democratisation minus socialism that Alain Badiou critically designates as “anti-capitalism” when he says in Philosophy in the Present: “Today there is an entire strand of political literature which carries out a radical critique of the economic order, but which contains a no less radical support for a certain political form. This is absolutely common. Today, innumerable people are fierce anti-capitalists: capitalism is frightful, it is an economic horror, and so on. But the same people are great defenders of democracy, of democracy in the precise sense that it exists in our societies.” (Emphasis added.) Badiou’s point, given his unswerving fidelity to the revolutionary event and the socialist politics such an event constitutes, is neither to reject such struggles against the economic horrors of capitalism nor reject democracy. His point, really, is to save democracy from its bourgeois liberal-representative form, which always and inevitably instrumentalises democracy to reinforce capitalism as a hierarchically competitive logic of social power. In such a scenario, such politics of democratisation merely serves to change a coercive regime of accumulation into another more competitively democratic regime of accumulation, even as the systemic crisis that such a coercive regime signifies is transferred to some other socio-historical locality by reconstituting that regime there. As a consequence, politics of democratisation minus socialist strategy becomes an alibi for maintaining and perpetuating capitalism as a total social system. This is exactly what the politics that drove the Trinamool-led social and political alliance to push out the decadent LF government has accomplished. Clearly, the Trinamool-helmed coalition and the CPI(M)’s Left Front are alternatives that form, to follow Badiou and Slavoj Zizek’s use of a Deleuzian term, a “disjunctive synthesis”. That is, they are “false alternatives” of one another not in spite of but because of their mutual hostility. They constitute, what Mao Zedong would have called, a “non-antagonistic contradiction”: apparently conflicted but essentially united. That is precisely why the mass upsurge behind the anti-CPI(M) politics of the Trinamool must be characterised as rightwing populism.

The current pro-Trinamool, anti-CPI(M) politics – or its movemental constituents to be absolutely accurate – have posed current socio-political forms of representative, and thus competitive, democracy against capital, which in such a scheme is always inevitably construed as an external invading force or form. What such politics is subjectively incapable of grasping is that capital is not merely this or that form or institution of domination. It is the total architectonic of social relations and power based on the twin principles of competition and exchange. A logic that is as much internal to the social and political forms of resistance as the dominant forms of capital that are being thus resisted. Therefore, representative democracy, which is basically democracy of competition, and undemocratic domination are constitutive of one another precisely in their mutual contradiction. Such a contradiction is, therefore, productive of capital and its extended reproduction.

Our criticism of the politics that has propelled the Trinamool Congress-led anti-LF alliance to power is, however, not a sign of ideological resentment. The revolutionary politics of the working class, which such criticism seeks to represent, cannot afford such destructive impulses. The two are, in fact, mutually exclusive. Critical theory in the Marxist tradition is meant to be both a symptom of the lack of proletarian political practice and a call for its actualisation. We would, therefore, wish that our criticism of the Trinamool’s anti-LF politics is received both as a registration of the failure of the revolutionary working-class forces to seize the initiative to lead the necessary struggle against the etatised CPI(M)-led Left Front regime – thereby ceding ground to the Trinamool-led reaction – and an urgent exhortation to reorient their praxis on the basis of a new, coherent and effective programme for socialist transformation.

The theoretical scope of our criticism of the politics that has driven the Trinamool’s ascendancy, and the concomitant ideology of that party, must be expanded to turn that criticism into a comprehensive scientific socialist critique of anti-capitalism. Anti-capitalism is nothing more than the impulse of competitive struggle in its particularised moments against dominant and/or dominating forms of (big) capital specific to the particularity of each of those moments of struggle. It must be recognised that struggles against dominant and dominating forms of capital are, by themselves, no more than competitive manoeuvres. They are directed as resistance against dominant capitalist forms and entities by subordinate locations so that the latter can maintain their concrete historical positions against the advancing encroachment of those big-capitalist forms and entities on certain materially mediating conditions that give the positions their historically concrete specificity. At best, they are battles waged from those subordinate locations to wrench more such materially-embedded conditions from the dominant and dominating capitalist forms and entities to enhance their position in the systemically mobile hierarchy called capitalism.

The politics of anti-capitalist democratisation tends to resolve, if at all, immediate demands of a section (or identity) of the working class, while leaving capitalism as the condition of possibility of those demands intact. As a matter of fact, such anti-capitalist politics of particularised resistance against forms of big capital and their constitutive monopolistic tendency towards complete socio-economic domination reinforces the logic of capitalist class power by allowing capital to resolve those demands by dividing the working class through its recomposition in order to create a differentiation within the working class so that the immediate social and/or economic demands of one of its sections can be fulfilled at the cost of other sections or segments subordinate to it. This process enables capital to reproduce itself through its continuous expansion. It also, therefore, ensures that the isolated struggles by different sections or segments of the working class are not able to transform themselves into one common, essentially united revolutionary movement for socialism because the propensity of capital to ensure the fulfillment of the immediate demands of each of those identities or segments of the working class in their respective sectional specificity, and at the cost of one another, leads to their petty embourgeoisement turning them against each other in a battle of mutually destructive competition.

Each of those anti-capitalisms is, in its isolated momentary particularity, articulated by the totalising competitive social logic of capitalism. Therefore, taken in their discrete momentary particularities, they constitute no more than social and political positions of antithesis. And those anti-capitalist social and political positions, precisely because of their antithetical orientation, become productive of capitalist social totality that is constitutively contradictory. To that extent, those competitive struggles are no more, or less, than petty-bourgeois struggles against the marauding, monopolistic manoeuvres of big capital. To say that such struggles, because of their competitive impulse and orientation, are articulated by and within the hegemonic logic of capital would not amount to an overstatement. No self-respecting Marxist can endorse such struggles as expressions of proletarian politics. And yet no communist formation can afford to ignore those struggles of (petty-bourgeois) anti-capitalism. For, those struggles constitute the various determinate grounds of critique of political economy and thus transformative proletarian politics. Anti-capitalism is, therefore, the tactically necessary mediating condition for articulating the socialist strategy in its practical actuality. It is by itself, however, not socialism. In fact, to see or pose such anti-capitalism as a revolutionary virtue in itself is bound to empty it of all its revolutionary socialist potential.

Such anti-capitalisms become relevant to the revolutionary practice of working-class politics only when their anti-capitalist assertions in the determinateness of their specific social and historical moments become simultaneously their own self-critiques to overcome the limitations of their respective historicities in order to actualise the tendency of counter-representational performativity that is constitutively immanent in each one of them. Such actualisation of the tendency of counter-representational performativity immanent in every antithetical subject-position occurs through its reconstitution in and as new historicities in the process of each such antithetical position tending to overcome itself. This process in its entirety is constitutively integral to the revolutionary working-class praxis.

The Mamata Wave: Political Economy and Class Orientation

But the wave that has swept Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress to power by sweeping the CPI(M)-led Left Front out is clearly not the first wave of that revolutionary tsunami of the working class. It is certainly composed of different sections (social identities) of West Bengal society, each with its own set of genuine anxieties, disaffections and discontent vis-à-vis the CPI(M) and its 34-year-long moribund Left Front regime. Those different social and economic groups or identities include – to name some of the principal ones – the embattled peasants of Nandigram and Singur, the predominantly tribal population of Jangalmahal brutalised by structural violence, the disenfranchised Koch-Rajbongshis of the Dooars, the marginalised Gorkhas of Darjeeling and the large masses of workers rendered unemployed by the sharp decline in the fortunes of the old industries in the state due to the extractive and super-exploitative designs of the owning classes. But those narratives of disaffection – which have ostensibly united these varied groups against the CPI(M)-led Left Front in their common grouse of an unconscionable democratic deficit – are not only disparate in their respective particularities, which is fairly obvious, but are mutually competitive too. One very obvious example of such mutual competition that may sooner or later erupt into a full-blown conflict is how the demand for Gorkhaland, which stakes claims on parts of the Dooars, clashes with the movement for a separate Rajbongshi state, thanks to their contending claims for parts of the same territory.

In contrast to such politics, a revolutionary programme of anti-CPI(M) politics would have been one that supported each of those struggles – insofar as they were directed at the LF regime as an ideological apparatus of the Indian state and thus capital in its global entirety – and through such support consolidated the assertion of proletarian elements against the petty-bourgeois revisionist ones within each of those identity struggles. That would have transformed those essentially competitive struggles into a comprehensive movement against the competitive social logic of capital by effecting a constellated unity among the proletarian tendencies at each of those diverse and disparate social locations.

The Trinamool’s politics of democratisation, given that it is not driven by any such revolutionary proletarian subjectivity or programme, has brought these groups and identities together on a purely additive basis. And this aggregative politics, precisely because it has no subjective-programmatic basis in revolutionary working-class politics, can be maintained, now that it is in power, through a governmental management of sectionalised interests of those mutually contradictory and conflicting groups or identities. Such politics, it must be reiterated, is social-corporatist populism.

The alliance of diverse social groups on which the Trinamool’s politics has based itself doubtless posed an effective challenge to the growing domination and advance of the big bourgeoisie and its politico-economic and socio-political institutional forms. But such an alliance is by no means counter-hegemonic. In fact, the ideological orientation of such an entente, precisely because of its logic of unity of disparate social forces on the basis of their particularised competitive struggles against the advance and manoeuvres of the big bourgeoisie in order to have their respective sets of immediate demands fulfilled, only serves to reinforce the hegemony of capital.

A revolutionary working-class movement can, under no circumstances, afford to see or envision governance as a purely techno-administrative question. For such a movement, governance is fundamentally a political question of how social power is structured. But that is certainly not the politics of Trinamool, which lacks the subjective capacity to articulate governance in those terms. And that should be clear from the way the Trinamool, not to forget its two key allies, the Congress and the Socialist Unity Centre of India, has posed its anti-CPI(M) politics. Such politics, to describe it briefly, has been exclusively about the resolution of immediate problems, undoubtedly real, instead of focusing on how to destroy the essential political-economic condition that has made those problems possible in the first place. In a modern social order constituted by the law of contradiction such a subjective envisioning of politics – which does not seek to do away with a logic of social power that is intrinsically and constitutively competitive – is condemned to yield management of diverse intra- and inter-class contradictions by way of governance. Therefore, the ascension to power of a social alliance driven by such politics would lead to just that. As a result, the crisis, whose unmanageability has so clearly been symptomatised by the collapse of the 34-year-long regime of the etatised Left Front, will continue to perpetuate itself through its continuous and ever-intensifying displacement from one social locality to another. And this is bound to register itself as coercive domination – primitive accumulation in political-economic parlance – of large sections of the working masses and petty bourgeoisie facing progressive immiseration by a coalition of upwardly mobile, prosperous petty-bourgeoisie and big capital. That this will not exercise the dominant public perception too much and will figure even less in the preponderant public discourse because of the celebratory ambience in which the public will now understandably bask for having witnessed the exit of an undemocratic, Stalinised Left force, is quite another matter.

Such class-collaborationist social corporatism, with its basis in coercive sectionalist domination of the working class, would arguably become visible, first and foremost, in the attempts and policy decisions of the new Trinamool-led West Bengal government to make good on its principal electoral promise of striking a “healthy balance between agriculture and industry”. A politics that is incapable of grasping the conflict between agriculture and industry as one of contradictions within and in between capital and labour – an inevitable outcome of the political-economic structuring of social reality and its integral logic of transfer and/or extraction of surplus value – can do no more than try to manage those class contradictions by way of striking that so-called healthy balance.

This political management of sectional interests will amount to no less than social domination of the rural (agrarian and non-agrarian) proletariat by a coalition of industrial and agrarian capitalists to extract surplus value. Such a coalition of capitals, given the constitutively competitive structure of capitalism, is not only bound to be inherently hierarchised but is also one in which the subordinate constituent of agrarian capitalists constantly seeks through competition and bargaining to better its position within that hierarchical coalition. This, in other words, means that the more powerful sections of agrarian capital tend towards industrial capital by seeking a more intimate partnership with the latter to further reinforce and consolidate industrial capitalism in hitherto rural-agrarian localities of capital, even as such a manoeuvre pushes the less powerful sections of agrarian capitalists increasingly towards pauperisation.

A brief political-economic analysis of the agriculture-versus-industry predicament that the ousted LF regime found itself in reveals how any attempt that relies on anything other than the weapon of transformative working-class politics to balance agriculture and industrial development will inevitably yield progressive pauperisation of the less powerful sections of agrarian capital, and an overall intensification in social domination of labour by capital. This analysis will, we hope, also indicate how the impulse for such immiserising capitalist industrial development is, contrary to prevailing common sense, not external to the socio-occupational locality of agrarian capitalism but is completely internal to it.

Operation Barga – which was meant to ensure tenurial security for sharecroppers immediately after the CPI(M)-led LF came to power in 1977 – eventually became the Achilles’ heel of the now-ousted regime. While it did push up agricultural productivity, the delayed advent of green revolution in the state in the ’80s undermined its gains. The economic unviability of petty sharecroppers, caused by expansion of capital-intensive agriculture that requires economies of scale to be viable, has been forcing them for a while now to give up their land for pittance to middle and large sharecroppers. In this process, those middle and large sharecroppers have been emerging as the new kulaks or rich peasants. The eviction rate of petty sharecroppers, by all accounts including the state government’s, is currently 15 per cent. In tribal- and Rajbongshi-dominated districts of south and north Bengal respectively, it is as high as 25-32 per cent.

This decisive shift of rural West Bengal towards capitalist socio-economic restoration, due to the inability and unwillingness of the LF to push its programme of land reform in a revolutionary proletarian direction, has been politically registered in the undermining and manipulation of another initial achievement of the CPI(M)-led “People’s Democratic Revolution”: the vigorous implementation of the panchayati raj model of decentralised governance. Increasing political might of the middle and large sharecroppers, commensurate with their increasing socio-economic power as the emergent class of rich peasantry, became evident in their ever-tightening control over local institutions of self-government. That has enabled this primarily upper- and middle-caste rich peasantry, which is the principal social force that drive the leadership of all the party constituents of the LF, to marshal the organisational machinery of their respective parties to stymie the empowerment of the proletarianised petty sharecroppers – mostly from tribal communities, lower castes and Muslims – by severely restricting their access to vital social wages such as education and public healthcare.

And it is from among this new class of rich peasants that the impulse for industrial development of their agrarian localities first emerged. Such an impulse was, however, not a caprice of the kulaks. It never is. Given the inherently hierarchical structure of capitalism, the terms of trade between agriculture and industry are always unequal. West Bengal cannot be an exception. Those terms of trade are weighted in favour of industrial capital and against agrarian capital. It is this that keeps the value of labour-power (in terms of the price of food that the working class must buy to reproduce itself) depressed in the localities of industrial capitalism. That is precisely the reason why archaic, coercive and non-competitive forms of pre-capitalist social domination continue to exist as ideologies in agrarian capitalist localities, where they are deployed by agrarian capital to keep its cost of production low so that it can subsidise the terms of trade that would otherwise weigh heavily against it. But agrarian capital cannot keep the pressures of the consequent class struggle at bay for long. Such pressures eventually make the continuance of agrarian capitalism in its original backward and archaic form unsustainable. Not surprisingly, agrarian capital, or at any rate its dominant sections, are impelled to seek a change in the organic composition of capital in order to maintain and reproduce their class power. This change is evident in the conversion of rural assets of agrarian capitalists into urban ones through a process of gradual diversification.

In West Bengal, the class struggle of the rural working masses against agrarian capital has taken the form of large-scale migratory flight of the former from the countryside to urban areas both within and outside the state. And the diversification through which the agrarian capitalists have sought to beat this crisis has been their gradual movement away from agriculture and towards other more urban forms of capitalism, primarily the real-estate business. It is not for nothing that the CPI(M) has today become the party of real-estate agents it is often accused of being. The sudden surge in policy and legislative decisions by the ousted LF, in its last five or six years in power, to get industry into the rural areas of the state has been nothing else but a reflection of the will of its predominantly rich-peasant leadership to diversify the rural economy. As a result, the anti-land acquisition struggles that such policy decisions have unleashed are, predominantly, competition between the dominant and the less powerful sections of agrarian capital over the best price of land. This ongoing struggle, contrary to appearances and misplaced ideological propaganda, is not merely one between homogeneous rural-agrarian communities and big capital coming from somewhere outside. Rather, it is a struggle in which the dominant sections of the LF-backed agrarian bourgeoisie – which has far more at stake in swift industrialisation of their agrarian localities – is completely one with the interests of big, corporate capital against the less powerful (petty-bourgeois) sections of agrarian capital. The struggles against land acquisition in West Bengal have, of course, another dimension: the struggle of both rural and migrant wage labourers for land as social wage to supplement their precarious employment and inadequate wages. But the demand for better and higher compensation, which has dominated the rhetoric of such struggles, proves those struggles are intra-capitalist and are completely at odds with the interests of the working class. Also, the politico-ideological project constitutive of those struggles is neo-liberal.

The land-acquisition model, posed by the Trinamool and enthusiastically backed by its so-called leftist supporters, proves that beyond doubt. This model, as opposed to the LF model of government-driven land acquisition that doubtless favoured its constituency of the dominant sections of the rich peasantry, calls for direct land deals between corporate capital and the peasantry. This peasantry, which the Trinamool model is meant to empower and benefit, consist of those less powerful sections of the agrarian bourgeoisie whose competitive, petty-bourgeois interests the LF’s land acquisition policy evidently hurt. Needless to say the Trinamool’s model of land acquisition does not address the working-class dimension of the land question and, in fact, completely undermines it. In this it is no different from the LF model. Even a sketchy class analysis of the anti-land acquisition movements in Singur and Nandigram, which purportedly triumphed under the leadership of the Trinamool Congress, reveals that. Those movements prefigured the emergent right-populist, social-corporatist model of politics and governance that a Trinamool-dominated West Bengal is about to experience.

The Trinamool’s assertion of striking a “healthy balance between agriculture and industry” will, therefore, mean more of the same. The only change will be a change of guard: sections of the less powerful agrarian bourgeoisie, on whose behalf Trinamool took up the cudgels, will now become the dominant force of the agrarian bourgeoisie vis-à-vis the LF-backed kulaks, who will come to occupy the weaker petty-bourgeois position. The working class will, on the other hand, continue to face increased social domination by capital. Worse, its demands and disaffections will be drafted by the recently-ousted agrarian bourgeoisie into its political project of strengthening its own competitive bargaining power with regard to both industrial capital and the newly dominant sections of agrarian capital.

A Plea for Leninist Vanguardism

A detour through the conceptual abstractions of theory and some exegetical polemics is probably in order here. The methodological gloss to our analysis of the concrete situation in West Bengal that such an exercise is meant to provide will, we believe, serve to anchor that analysis more firmly in concepts of Marxist critical theory and also indicate a rough programmatic direction for revolutionary working-class politics in this country.

We wish to begin by defending Lenin’s concept of vanguardism against the preponderant common sense of the anti-party ‘Left’. Lenin’s Vanguard, as opposed to the one posed by his epigones, is not an unmediated, transhistorical categorical imperative of communism. It is meant to be the form of continuously mutating historicities. A form co-constitutive of the will to constantly seek the communist logic in and through the mediateness of constantly proliferating, ever-renewing historicities. Historicities that are revolutionary only in the evental evanescence of their emergence in their critical performative constitutivity. We would do well to read more attentively Lenin’s explication, in What is to Be Done, of the Vanguard as “a compact group” marching “along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by hand” amid “constant enemy fire” “without retreating into the neighbouring marsh, the inhabitants of which, from the very outset, have reproached us with having separated ourselves into an exclusive group and with having chosen the path of struggle instead of the path of conciliation”. The “neighbouring marsh” (and its “inhabitants”) that Lenin polemically refers to is, arguably, the constantly failing historical localities of revolution – that is, historicities estranged from and evacuated of the critical revolutionary performativity. As for the Vanguard – the “compact group marching along a precipitous and difficult path” – it is embodiment of the will to constantly seek the communist logic in and through the mediateness of constantly proliferating historicities of contradictions. Clearly, the communist party is the form of constantly mutating historicities that arises from the internality of such historicities through their mutation-causing self-reflexivity.

The Leninist Vanguard is, therefore, not a transcendental Kantian tribune of reason that it has been made out to be by various so-called communist parties (which are really sects encapsulating working-class experience in the partiality of their respective socio-historical specificities) through the overgeneralised theorisation of their respective spontaneous practices, precisely the thing that Lenin criticised as economism in the process of conceptualising the Vanguard and/or the Communist Party that is meant to overcome such overgeneralisation of the local. The Leninist Vanguard is, in fact, the bearer and/or embodiment of Marx’s concept of experimental science, not in its positivistic-inductionist sense but as heuristics. Russian Marxist Boris Kagarlitsky, in a lecture last year at Delhi, provided a rather apposite metaphor for the Vanguard. He said the Vanguard is not an organisational collective of people who direct the course of revolutionary struggle from the top or from a distance. They constitute, he argued and we paraphrase, the first flank of militants to open up and enter a new battleground and are thus people who suffer the worst casualties. It should also be added here that the Vanguard is not one that possesses the knowledge of revolution but is one that is possessed of the knowledge that the revolution has to be constantly searched for amid the contingencies of history and in its strange and unknown wastelands. That is precisely the reason why we cannot think of the vanguardist Communist Party, which is the embodiment of the collective proletarian will of the working class, as anything other than a constantly formational social force and its perpetually open political organisation.

Hence the Leninist Vanguard, contrary to the preponderant commonsensical understanding of it among many of its proponents and almost all its detractors, is not meant to rule. That, at any rate, is not its primary function. In fact, the moment the Vanguard begins envisaging its task merely in terms of consolidation to become an institutional form of regime, it undermines its vanguardism, ceases being a vanguard and degenerates from being the movement-form it is meant to be to become a state-form. That is not to say that this degeneration can be in some way side-stepped by the revolutionary movement of the working class. The history of revolutions has revealed, over and over again, that such institutionalisation of a revolutionary movement is inevitable. It is, thanks to the dialectical and political-economic nature of reality and history, an inescapable tendency constitutive of the revolutionary process. But precisely by that same dialectical token the counter-tendency of overcoming such institutionalised, bureaucratisation also gets posited. And the social force that seeks to actualise this counter-tendency – which is always immanent in our constitutively contradictory reality – becomes in that moment of its actualisation the subjective embodiment of the vanguardist tendency.

The political-economic structuring of reality in capitalism ensures that power is always socially and economically mediated. And given that revolutionary politics of the working class is immanent critique of capital, it cannot escape that taint. This, in other words, means that the abstraction of one moment of the working-class movement – wherein such abstraction is nothing but the embodiment of counter-generalisation of the logic of capital – produces its own new set of contradictions. Such new contradictions, needless to say, are internal to the process of abstraction and the social ontology it yields. And the antithetical subject-positions, which are created by such abstraction and the social domination it embodies, have to be leveraged by communist-proletarian forces to not merely destroy the abstracted moment of their own working-class movement but through such destruction seek to negate the logic of capital that such an abstraction and institutionalised reification of one of its moments has come to embody. In fact, that is the necessary condition for communists to remain communists. But, of course, this communist logic has to be posed in its new social and economic mediateness, which constitute its specific historicity. That the communist task is to leverage the new antithetical subject-positions – generated as a consequence of the inevitable abstraction of prior moments of its revolutionary process – in order to continuously reconstitute the revolutionary process by continuously actualising the proletarian logic immanent in new antithetical social subject-positions that are generated with continuous inevitability due to abstractions of moments of the revolutionary process means that this communist-vanguardist task cannot be any other way.

Clearly, for the working class the only defence of revolution can be more revolution. The isolated defence of one moment of the unfolding revolutionary process is not only not revolutionary but is, in fact, restorative. That, after all, is the implication of the criticism that is justifiably directed at Stalin’s USSR: there could not have been socialism in one country.

A social subject is, arguably, being vanguardist when it embodies this tendency of defending a moment of the revolutionary process by seeking to make more revolution – which would obviously have to include a critical opposition to the isolated and thus institutionalised defence of congealed moments of the revolutionary process so that the proletarian-revolutionary logic can unfold by breaking free of those momentary prisons of its reification. And a constellation of various such vanguardist social subjects, together with the collective dynamic political form of the social forces that is integral to the constitution of such a constellation, is the Communist Party as a constantly formational and perpetually open vanguardist organisation.

Clearly, vanguardism and democracy are not mutually exclusive. Democracy, the lifeblood of revolutionary socialist politics, is integral to the concept of the Vanguard. The working class, in Marx’s sense of the “collective worker”, has to envisage democracy as something that arises through a process of struggle not only with capital in its purity but with the various petty-bourgeois tendencies that arise from within the working class in the course of its struggle, conducted in its specificity by its various sections, against capital. Constellated or essential unity among different sections of the working class or its proletarian social subject-positions implies this unity, unlike the additive identitarian unity of the rainbow multiculturalists, is constituted precisely through conflicts among the different social ontologies of those different working-class sections at the level of their appearances and the discursivities that those appearances, in asserting and affirming themselves as appearances, pose ideologically. Communists, in the business of posing the horizon of socialist politics as the horizon of “the real movement” (Marx and Engels in The German Ideology) cannot resort to this other horizon of the state-form in which democracy, in the established sense of competitive multiparty democracy, becomes a matter of regulation, adjudication and, thus, representation by an institutionalised categorical imperative al la Kant. For, such multiparty democracy can exist only through the intervention of some ‘benign’ regulator, which precisely because of its transhistorical externality would be anything but benign as it would suggest the continuance of representative, adjudicatory politics. The political-economic essence of such politics is determination of concrete labour by abstract labour (that is, subjugation of labour by capital) and the law of value. The revolutionary socialist project is, on the other hand, all about the destruction of the law of value.

To talk, in this Leninist spirit, of historicities estranged from or evacuated of their critical revolutionary performativity must, in the context of Trinamool’s anti-CPI(M) politics, amount to grasping the problem of democratisation minus the actualisation of the socialist immanence of democratic aspirations. In other words, such struggles for democracy minus socialism seek to merely resolve the immediate questions of democratisation while not following up with continuous struggle that moves with the displacement of the mediate possibility of socialism to other new socio-historical localities. Such politics of liberal democratisation often includes sectionalist manoeuvres of various segments of the working class to protect their competitive interests, thereby consolidating the petty-bourgeois tendency within those sections. That is so because their sectionalised demands for democratisation can be delivered upon only through recomposition of the working class in order to transfer value to that section either from some other already-existing subordinate locality (space-time) of the working class, or by production of such new subordinate localities, which in case of the section concerned would spell its division through internal differentiation. And such liberal politics of democratisation becomes, in our late capitalist epoch, a handmaiden of its neo-liberal architectonic by allowing social capital as a systemic totality to save itself by continuously transferring its crisis somewhere else and, in the same movement, reproduce itself through its expansion.

Capital is able to accomplish this because working masses involved in such sectionalist struggles do not seek to subjectively make their immediate specific questions of democratisation into a ground that would render the systemic crisis of capitalism non-transferable, thereby tending to decimate capitalism as a condition of possibility of their immediate disaffection. As a consequence of their unwillingness, or inability, to do that, such sectionalist struggles also, therefore, find themselves incapable of going beyond the specificity of their respective social and historical situations to continuously move against constant capitalist counter-generalisation – displacement of capital’s systemic crisis from one historicity to another – in order to wage capital-unravelling struggles in new spatio-temporal junctures of capital-labour contradiction. Capital, to reiterate an earlier point, is systemically programmed to keep producing such new space-times of contradiction by way of displacing its crisis in order to survive and reproduce itself. Clearly, capital envisages its crisis as a barrier to be broken or overcome while labour must re-envisage that same crisis as the limit to capital leading to its collapse. This is a perpetual dialectic of subjectively posing objectively posited tendencies. And which way the conjuncture is moving – the capital’s way or the labour’s way – is determined by who has the subjective upper hand in this dialectical struggle. This is exactly what Lenin, in the passage cited above from What Is To Be Done, informs us by way of telling his working-class constituency on how to gain the subjective upper hand in this perpetual and essential dialectic of history and social reality. That is precisely what the CPI(M)-led Left Front failed to accomplish in West Bengal. But that is precisely also not what the essence of the so-called democratising politics that unseated the LF government in West Bengal is.

West Bengal Politics: Abuses and Uses of Gramsci

Considering that the Mamata Banerjee-led wave that decimated the LF’s 34-year-old government in West Bengal is a combination of disparate social forces one could be tempted to resort to Gramsci’s much-abused ideas of hegemony and counter-hegemony as an alliance among various historical (and social) blocs. Indeed, some of the bankrupt ‘non-party’ Leftists, directly or indirectly supporting Mamata, have done exactly that and ended up sanctifying her essentially petty-bourgeois, right-populist politico-ideological project. Worse, they have, in the same movement, turned Gramsci against Leninism, which they believe is the bane of communist politics. But the truth is that Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is not something fundamentally opposed to the idea of Lenin’s Vanguard. It is merely its reclamation in the situation of his Italian difference. Gramsci implied precisely that when, in a different historical national setting, he conceptualised the dialectical relationship between “war of position” and “war of movement”. If we truly grasp this creative theorisation by Gramsci we shall realise that a war of position, which cannot simultaneously and dialectically transform itself into a war of movement, cannot qualify as revolutionary. It becomes, instead, a revisionist symptom of distortion of the revolutionary tendency constitutive of its emergence. In that context, we would do well to bear in mind that the Italian was, as Perry Anderson has repeatedly said, first and foremost “a Leninist militant of the Third International”.

Gramsci’s conception of hegemony through an alliance among historical blocs is, contrary to the revisionist view of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, not a conceptualisation of an aggregation of different socio-historical localities through consensual contract and negotiation. It is, instead, a unity of the proletarian logic across multiple historicities. To that extent, the unity among historical blocs is not aggregative but constellational and conjunctural. It is a unity of the proletarian or communist logic across multiple historicities. Such unity is, therefore, constitutive only in and through the movement of history produced by continuous, uninterrupted struggle between capital and labour in all its multiplying social and historical specifications. Clearly, such conjunctural or constellational unity among historical blocs can be accomplished only in and through simultaneous struggles against their common political adversary and among each other. Any effort to maintain or consolidate this coalition outside of such a peculiar struggle would immediately render it revisionist and an apparatus of capital.

Unfortunately, the erroneous Laclauian appropriation of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony as one of aggregative unity of diverse socio-economic identities has often been deployed by many phrase-mongering Leftists in West Bengal and elsewhere in the country to affirm the aggregative social alliance, which has driven Trinamool’s politics to victory, as “Leftist”. Such theoretically pernicious assertions, needless to say, have helped those ‘New Left’ phrase-mongers create an alibi for their bankrupt politics of tailing Mamata’s reaction in the name of fighting, what is without doubt, an etatised, degenerate working-class force. A force that through such bureaucratised etatisation has been transformed from being a militant representative of one moment in the history of working-class revolutionary struggle into an ideological state apparatus.

There are, of course, those really smart ones among the phrase-mongers – the likes of Aditya Nigam of Kafila fame – who try to be in consonance with the delicate aesthetic sensibility of their fellow-travellers of the anti-CPI(M) bhadralok left by declaring that while the LF regime needed to be unseated Mamata’s ascendancy is “disastrous”. That such disdain for Mamata’s politics is no more than an aesthetic problem of the bhadralok ‘leftist’ academics and intellectuals becomes evident in the programme of the ‘alternative Left’ that Nigam put forth in an article uploaded on Kafila a few days before the results of the West Bengal assembly elections were declared. Nigam’s programme is in no sense different from the reactionary petty-bourgeois politics that has driven the Trinamool Congress to power, save of course the label of alternative Left that he has attached to it with such careful unction. What makes Nigam’s attempt even more pathetic is the manner in which he, like an all-knowing Marxist Baba who has been there and done that, deliberately misappropriates Gramsci to serve his anti-communist politics that is not even properly insidious. He cites an entry from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks on how classes become detached from their traditional parties. This is what he quotes: “At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organizational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent and lead them, are no longer recognized by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression” – Antonio Gramsci, Prison Noteboooks, International Publishers, New York, 1971, p. 210. Emphasis added).” He then adds his spin: “And though Gramsci here was talking of the crisis of hegemony in the context of the traditional bourgeois parties, his discussion makes it clear that he was thinking of much more than that. There is no permanent relation of any party with the class or classes it claims to represent. Simply because a party that has ruled for thirty four years still has a signboard of a Communist Party does not mean it represents the working class or peasantry in perpetuity. It is patently clear from all evidences coming from West Bengal that the party there represents the interests of a combination of the real estate and builder mafia, corporate capitalists and a self-perpetuating party machinery.” What does this mean? What Nigam cites from Gramsci, together with the spin he gives to that quote, suggests that while a traditional party, in this particular case the CPI(M), has degenerated into a political form of domination by various sections of the bourgeoisie, the classes which detach themselves from such parties become, merely by virtue of such detachment, repositories of a progressive impulse.

Nigam’s indictment of the CPI(M) as a repository of reaction and the bureaucratised degeneration of a section of the working class, an ideological state apparatus, is a no-brainer. What is full of pathos, actually bathos, is his attempt to suggest and insinuate that the social classes that have revolted against it have been rendered progressive merely by that revolt of theirs. He either does not know, or mischievously pretends not to – probably it is a bit of both – that for Gramsci a crisis of representation was not automatically a crisis of hegemony. For the Italian Communist, a crisis of representation, which is what detachment “of social classes…from their traditional parties” signifies, is merely the necessary condition of creating that crisis of hegemony. And the emergence of that crisis of hegemony in Gramsci’s scheme, unlike what Nigam would have us believe, is directly contingent on subjective interventions to create a proletarian counter-hegemony by leveraging that objective crisis of representation. Such subjective interventions, together with the counter-hegemony it produces, constitutes the communist subjectivity and its collective politico-organisational form called the communist party. That this was Gramsci’s endeavour becomes evident when we read Nigam’s excerpt from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks together with Gramsci’s critique of Nikolai Bukharin’s Theory of Historical Materialism: A Manual of Marxist Sociology contained in the same text in a chapter titled ‘Problems of Marxism, under the section ‘Critical Notes On An Attempt At Popular Sociology’. Here is the excerpt that is most germane to our discussion:

“The first mistake of the Popular Manual is that it starts, at least implicitly, from the assumption that the elaboration of an original philosophy of the popular masses is to be opposed to the great systems of traditional philosophy and the religion of the leaders of the clergy – i.e. the conception of the world of the intellectuals and of high culture. In reality these systems are unknown to the multitude and have no direct influence on its way of thinking and acting. This does not mean of course that they are altogether without influence but it is influence of a different kind. These systems influence the popular masses as an external political force, an element of cohesive force exercised by the ruling classes and therefore an element of subordination to an external hegemony. This limits the original thought of the popular masses in a negative direction, without having the positive effect of a vital ferment of interior transformation of what the masses think in an embryonic and chaotic form about the world and life.”

What Gramsci adds to this argument by way of elaborating it is, however, even more relevant:

“The above remarks about the way in which the Popular Manual criticises systematic philosophies instead of starting from a critique of common sense, should be understood as a methodological point and within certain limits. Certainly they do not mean that the critique of the systematic philosophies of the intellectuals is to be neglected. When an individual from the masses succeeds in criticising and going beyond common sense, he by this very fact accepts a new philosophy. Hence the necessity, in an exposition of the philosophy of praxis, of a polemic with the traditional philosophies. Indeed, because by its very nature it tends towards being a mass philosophy, the philosophy of praxis can only be conceived in a polemical form and in the form of a perpetual struggle. None the less the starting point must always be that common sense which is the spontaneous philosophy of the multitude and which has to be made ideologically coherent.”

The way Gramsci articulates his critique of Bukharin proves beyond doubt that for him, like for any other rigorously committed Marxist, a crisis of representation cannot as such be crisis of hegemony. Rather, crisis of hegemony is potentially implicit in crisis of representation. That potential can, however, only be actualised through a counter-hegemonic subjective intervention. And the subjectivity that constitutes such an intervention is the Communist subjectivity and the collective organisational form through which that subjectivity realises itself is the Communist Party. Gramsci, through his critique of Bukharin, is clearly making a case for revolutionary working-class forces to focus their politics primarily on critiquing antithetical (subordinate) positions of the “popular masses” rather than the nomo-thetic ones occupied by the ruling classes. That is because he as a Marxist believes, not at all incorrectly, that antitheses are articulated – not in spite but because of its opposition to the dominant nomo-thetic forms and institutions of the dominating social forces – by the capitalist logic of competition and contradiction and thus hegemonised by that logic. A logic that is the condition of possibility of their subordination that compels them to occupy their positions of antithetical opposition in the first place.

Such argument is not a Gramscian blow for political quietism. What Gramsci is saying, as his critique of Bukharin’s Manual so clearly reveals, is that the recognition of an antithetical position is the first necessary condition of struggle against capitalism, but such antithetical opposition can unravel capital as a social system in its entirety only when that opposition transforms itself through simultaneous self-criticism, which obviously always has to be socio-economically mediated, from being the momentary antithesis it is to perpetual opposition against capitalism as a totality of ever-expanding reproduction of its hierarchically competitive logic of social relations.

The entries in the Prison Notebooks are, however, no idle theoretical speculation Gramsci had indulged in. They are basically the outcome of an attempt to continue his active Communist political project by theorising it in the register of conceptual abstraction when imprisonment for life in Mussolini’s Fascist goal put an end to his activity as a militant and an organiser. This becomes evident the moment we connect the entries from his Prison Notebooks with the theorisations of his Pre-Prison Writings. Gramsci’s Pre-Prison Writings are clearly integral to his task as a political organiser. For instance, if we look at the following excerpt from his pre-prison writings on the United Front tactics of the Communists we would immediately know how for Gramsci counter-hegemony and the concomitant crisis of bourgeois hegemony not only went hand in hand but were integral to the subjective manoeuvres of PCd’I militants like him to build the party.

In a paper Gramsci presented to the executive of the party at its meeting of August 2-3, 1926 he chooses to highlight the first of the “three basic factors” in the contemporary Italian political situation: “The positive, revolutionary factor, i.e. the progress achieved by the united front tactic. The current situation in the organization of Committees of Proletarian Unity and the tasks of the communist factions in these committees”. His emphasis on Committees of Proletarian Unity and the necessary presence of communist factions in these committees was in opposition to the line of Tasca and others close to the trade unions that insisted on concentrating on protecting established labour organisations and working through them. This reveals that while Gramsci was not willing to reify the social democratic gains of a section of the working class into revolutionary proletarian politics, he was not content with forging merely a political unity of all anti-capitalist social forces either. His stress on building Committees of Proletarian Unity through the presence of “communist factions” in them proves that for him essential unity among various working-class locations was possible only through polarisation of petty-bourgeois and proletarian tendencies on every determinate terrain of anti-capitalist struggle. The communist factions within those committees, which in themselves were really anti-capitalist or antithetical blocs, were meant to precisely embody and drive that polarisation from the proletarian side in the determinateness of their respective localities. Gramsci is quite accurate in showing how the United Front tactics of the PCd’I produced such antagonistic class polarisations:

“In practical terms, the question can be framed like this: in all parties, especially in democratic and social-democratic parties in which the organizational structure is very loose, there are three layers. The numerically very restricted upper layer, that is usually made up of parliamentary deputies and intellectuals, often closely linked to the ruling class. The bottom layer, made up of workers and peasants and members of the urban petite bourgeoisie, which provides the mass of Party members or the mass of those influenced by the Party. And an intermediate layer, which in the present situation is even more important than it is in normal circumstances, in that it often represents the only active and politically ‘live’ layer of these parties. It is this intermediate layer that maintains the link between the leading group at the top and the mass of members and sympathizers. It is on the solidity of this middle layer that the Party leaders are counting for a future renewal of the various parties and a reconstruction of these parties on a broad basis.

“Now, it is precisely on a significant section of these middle layers of the various popular parties that the influence of the movement in favour of a united front is making itself felt. It is within this middle layer that we are seeing this capillary phenomenon of disintegration of the old ideologies and political programmes and the first stirrings of a new political formation on the terrain of the united front…. These are the kind of elements over which our Party exercises an ever increasing influence and whose political spokesmen are a sure index of movements at a grass roots level that are often more radical than may appear from these individual shifts.” (Emphasis added)

This clearly indicates that for Gramsci – unlike Nigam or those other bankrupt Leftists who celebrate the ascendancy of the anti-LF rainbow coalition under Mamata’s leadership – proletarian counter-hegemony is all about generating a counter-representative politics that is contingent on the posing of socialism as an affirmative logical horizon of continuous movement of juridical destabilisation and subversion of institutions. This horizon is radically antagonistic to the bourgeois horizon of juridical stability, wherein motion does often get envisaged by the most radical inhabitants of that horizon but only in terms of the tendency to continuously replace one juridically stable regime with another juridically stabilised regime. In terms of political economy and its critique, the system of bourgeois democratic representation and juridical stability is a horizon constituted by the operation of the law of value and the tendency of abstract labour to determine concrete labours thus robbing them of their concreteness, while the horizon of continuous movement through constant juridical destabilisation embodies the tendency to destroy the operation of the law of value by constantly reclaiming creativity of concrete labours against the abstracted necessity imposed on them by the determinations of capital.

The Communist Horizon: For a Return to Marx’s Capital

It follows, therefore, that the communist horizon is one of continuous formation, constitutive of the logical tendency of the synthetic-singular. It is, by that same token, radically antagonistic to the anarchist and/or radical republican horizon, which is also on the face of it a horizon of process but where processuality is constitutive of the logical tendency of duality, non-antagonistic contradiction, and thus representation and abstract labour. In short, the latter political horizon is the horizon of capital as a logic of social relations and power. Therefore, the horizon of continuous, though punctuated, formation – which is radically antagonistic to and perpetually irreconcilable with the horizon of duality and non-antagonistic contradiction – must be grasped and envisaged in its dialectical logic. That, in the inescapable determinateness of concrete historicities, will be actualised as a continuous process of formation-deformation-formation ad infinitum.

Clearly, envisioning the anti-dialectic of perpetual opposition of the synthetic-singular horizon of continuous, though punctuated, formation against the capitalist horizon of duality and non-antagonistic contradictions is the key to the actualisation of the communist subjectivity and its organisational form. But the actualisation of this anti-dialectic is, paradoxically, contingent on the grasping of the dialectical logic immanent in the contradictory social reality of capitalism. Only when this anti-dialectic of perpetual opposition of the two systemic horizons – something that Marx conceptualised as “revolution in permanence” in The Class Struggles in France – is produced through dialectics will continuous democratisation (the diesel of working-class politics) cease being the civil-societal form of cooptative ‘democratisation’ it is today to become “uninterrupted revolution” in the sense that Mao formulated it.

The radicalness of the agenda of so-called continuous democratisation posed by (civil) social movements – of which even our communist outfits, including some of the most radical tendencies among them are also a part – is no more than the radicalness of their popular-republican agenda. To put it plainly, the agenda of so-called continuous democratisation posed by disparate, and often seemingly mutually opposed, politico-ideological forms of radical republicanism, which would include anarchist tendencies as well, can today be nothing more than the distorted, ideological articulation of genuine democratic aspirations by the material reality of late capitalism (neo-liberalism) as its ‘ethic’ of perpetually expanding the capitalist structure of competitive social relations.

The short point in all this is that any attempt to rebuild the Left, the revolutionary transformative politics of the working class to be accurate, must today necessarily be driven by a politico-theoretical programme to reconceptualise the communist subjectivity and its organisational embodiment: the communist party. And to do that one must grasp the working class, its revolutionary subjectivity as class-for-itself and its concomitant organisational form (the communist party) in continuous and, at the same time punctuated, formation in the hurly-burly of the empirically given field of politics (Lenin’s “concrete situation”). A field where all sorts of ideological tendencies are in play and where a real communist intervention will have to mean an encounter with all the tendencies, including even the non- and anti-communist ones, if only to critically slice through the ideological integuments of those socio-political subjectivities to grasp their inverted immanence and, in the same, movement, rescue that immanence from the prison of its ideologically cathected meaning. By the same token, the various fetishes of communist politics, wherein the party-as-movement-form has lapsed into party-as-state-form, will also have to be encountered with an equal measure of critical good faith. One must, however, take ample care to distinguish between the two different historico-logical trajectories of restoration of capitalist class power: one in which the revolutionary working-class potential of an empirically given struggle comes to be articulated, right from the very beginning, by one or more of the hegemonic ideologies; and the other, in which a movement that begins by consciously advancing towards revolutionary working-class politics degenerates into the capitalist logic of competitive politics due to it being forced, by a combination of the changing objective situation and the concomitant lack of subjective class capacity, to fight a “war of position” without being able to simultaneously and dialectically transform that into a “war of movement”.

The crux of the matter is that only through a critically engaged process of grasping the inverted immanence of a contradictory social reality can the immanent communist axiom be possibly actualised into a communist subjectivity. It is precisely such a manoeuvre that would be constitutive of the communist party as a form that is the true measure of itself only in the intermediacy of its dialectically unstable existence as a transit-form in between its generic (and thus philosophical) status and its politically actualised and thus historically specific state. And in order to conceptualise this form of the (communist) party – which, so to speak, constantly wills itself into existence only to constantly will its own disappearance – one must return to the Marx of Capital to rigorously follow his conceptualisation of the interrelationship between value/value-form and use-value/and its form, as also his explication of the inversion and transformation of the Hegelian dialectic in terms of the mutually entwined interrelationship of abstract and concrete labours. The exposition of his conceptual transfiguration of the Hegelian dialectic with which Marx concludes his ‘Afterword To The Second German Edition’ of Capital, Volume I, serves to indicate the drift of our argument and thus might prove useful here:

“In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence, because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.” (Emphases added)

India’s Move to the Right

Pothik Ghosh

This is not a practical joke. Something really outrageous has happened. The overwhelming victory of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the 15th Lok Sabha elections has meant an unqualified triumph for the sangh parivar’s ideological agenda. Of course, if one were to look for the emergence of an electoral centre consonant with such an ideological triumph – as the one symbolised by the Congress in the first two-and-a-half decades of Independence – one would find nothing to substantiate this. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is, with regard to the UPA, the second-largest coalition by far. One cannot, therefore, be faulted for dismissing the above claim as a product of an exaggeratedly apocalyptic imagination that loves to poop a glorious party.

But such, alas, is the irony of the situation that the BJP no longer needs to emerge as the leader of Parliament to culminate the sangh’s programme of establishing a majoritarian national political centre. And wasn’t this the RSS’s cherished dream after all, something that prevented it from seriously pursuing the project of backing a political party of its own for the first few decades of its inception? Well, that dream has come true when the sangh parivar least expected it, needless to say, despite the RSS and its political face.

No sense can, however, be discerned in this seemingly quixotic explanation unless the victory of liberalism, which the Congress’s thumping electoral win signifies, is located in its current historical moment. Otherwise, it would imply an uncritical acceptance of certain pre-given notions of liberalism. The Congress today, thanks to its current electoral revival as a strong centre of Indian polity, is similar to its post-Independence predecessor only in appearance. The consensus that has driven its current re-emergence is significantly and qualitatively different from the one that underpinned its earlier Nehruvian-liberal edition, and which collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions through the ’60s and’70s to unfold into Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and the Jayaprakash Narayan-led anti-Congress movement.

Development is the new shibboleth of the current Congress consensus and the liberal political centre it has purportedly propped up. And this new avatar of development has played, and will continue to play, a crucial role in shaping the social content of this consensus, even as it leaves its political idiom of liberal-secular citizenship intact. The aggressively competitive political-economic ethos of this neo-liberal form of development – which is geared towards socio-economic restructuring through alienation of people from their assets that are their means of life and/or livelihood – has come to increasingly determine what this constitutionally-ordained idea of liberal-secular citizenship actually amounts to in the everyday lives of individuals.

This process of total commodification of hitherto non-commodified or semi-commodified sectors of society and economy through coercive politico-economic and legislative practices – which Marx termed primitive accumulation of capital and which American economic-geographer David Harvey has redefined for our late capitalist times as “accumulation by dispossession” – will continue to shape the inner socio-political contours of the ideology of liberalism with renewed political legitimacy. The secular idea of a culturally neutral citizenship will, in such circumstances, become even more contingent on who gains from, and therefore naturally backs, this kind of development.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that competitive identity politics, which has always driven electoral competition in Indian society but which has never received overt sanction in its liberal-democratic polity, has of late been turning into a politically legitimate impulse of neo-liberal development that thrives on and encourages competitive dispossession of some socio-political groups by others. For, how else does one explain myriad incidents of land acquisition, effected through legislative changes and other repressive means by various state and central governments that enjoy the support of certain configurations of socio-economic and cultural identities which gain from such development?

That, however, is not the only way in which competitive dispossession, which is the dominant spirit of the reigning neo-liberal orthodoxy, has played out in this country. More indirect and legislatively less ‘legitimate’ means, not directly attributable to governments and their developmental agenda, have also been in evidence. The impulse of certain sections of the Hindu middle class of Gujarat to loot and destroy Muslim businesses, with a little more than tacit support from the BJP-led state government, during the 2002 post-Godhra carnage can, for instance, be located in socio-political, economic and cultural anxieties fostered by an intensely competitive ethos of a preponderantly expropriative political economy of neo-liberal development.

Clearly, citizenship, and its entitlements, remain as culturally neutral and secular as before but the access to development that enables the acquisition of such liberal-secular credentials is paved, now more legitimately than ever, with the bloody bricks of socio-economic and cultural cleansing of some identities by others.

That even the struggles of those socio-cultural identities, which have been at the receiving end of such dehumanising development, have failed to transcend the logic of competition and expropriation intrinsic to this neo-liberal developmental programme, proves there has been no political questioning of that model of development. Their struggles, whenever they have had the opportunity to move beyond defensive positioning, have ended up being contests where the subalterns have vied with the elite social groups to corner the privilege the latter enjoy. Those struggles, even as they have been directed at privileged and socially dominant groups and identities, have failed to focus on the neo-liberal logic of development that such elite groups both embody and are a function of.

This failure of subaltern groups to transform the competitive nature of their challenge – which is how such challenges are bound to be posed to begin with – into a critique of the current political-economic system and its model of development has ended up shattering their initial anti-elite solidarity, evident right through the JP movement up to the Mandal period and the ascendancy of the V P Singh-led National Front government in 1989. That has led to the degeneration of their politics into a regressive battle of social domination among themselves. The ideological expression of such degeneration is, for instance, evident in recent popular cultural histories written by various Dalit and backward-caste intellectuals of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the service of their politics of assertion. Not only do those historical accounts – some of which have been collected by social historian Badri Narayan into a book called Upekshit Samudayon ka Atm Itihas (Self Histories of Marginalised Peoples) – not question the idea of structuring society around a strong centre, they seek to build such centres to assert their caste dignity through their supremacist historiographies. Worse, they do so by often enough adopting the traditional terms and idioms of the exclusivist and oppressive Brahminical social discourse.

The decline in politico-ideological independence or electoral fortunes of various lower-caste, minority and regional political forces – which also includes the CPI(M)-led Left Front – in this Lok Sabha election is merely a manifestation of this troubling competitive identity politics within the subaltern camp. That has led to the gravitation of some of those outfits, and the ‘natural’ support base of the others, towards either the Congress or the BJP. A strong bipolar tendency in Indian polity, which the decline of such third forces portends, is nothing but a disturbing sign of consolidation of the neo-liberal consensus.

The current ascendancy of the Congress, given that it coincides with the emergence of such a strong bipolar political tendency, is especially disturbing. Both the real and imagined victims of neo-liberal development under this new Congress-led dispensation would, in the absence of any strong current of independent subaltern politics, come to rely on the BJP to politically articulate their competitive quest for development. That, needless to say, would prompt the BJP to pose the idea of liberal-secular citizenship, and the question of access to expropriative neo-liberal development that frames this idea, in consonance with the competitive aspirations of social groups it would seek to represent. That the ideology the BJP would deploy at the grassroots to electorally mobilise its potential support base for this battle for modern development and secular citizenship would be cultural nationalism is a no-brainer. In fact, the shift in BJP’s political-ideological tack, post Babri, anticipated precisely this peculiar sort of rightward movement in Indian polity. Since the late nineties the party stopped posing the Muslim as a dangerous alien to the Hindu community of this country, and has instead taken to mounting a zealous defence of a culturally deracinated but majoritarian national identity, and a form of modern development that produces it, from the depredations of groups that it emphasises has originated from within certain “backward” cultural identities (jihad-backing Muslims or Maoist-supporting Dalit Christians of Orissa). It has obfuscated the real causes of socio-economic dispossession and politico-cultural disenfranchisement that underpin such phenomena. That the BJP has forged the secular/pseudo-secular distinction, appropriating the first category for itself while ascribing the second to its opponents, shows there need exist no contradiction between liberal theories and revanchist political practices today.

The electoral pressures that such politics of the BJP would inevitably generate for the Congress and other non-BJP forces in a system of representative democracy, especially one tending towards bipolarity, cannot be overstated. That would, among other things, bolster the ongoing process of socio-ideological homogenisation of policymaking and lawmaking, even as normative, party-based differences are belaboured ad nauseum. The eerie similarity in legislative and policy rhetoric across the political spectrum – especially vis-à-vis questions of development, “jihadi” terror and Maoist insurgency – shows how the BJP-sangh’s ideological project, with more than a little facilitation from the global neo-liberal programme and its local secular backers, has indeed been universalised.

In such a situation – where the current neo-liberal form of development is constitutive of a majoritarian conception of modern political identity that gets projected as democratic — politics conducted in terms of the traditional secular-communal divide is, at best, useless and, at worst, perilously misleading.

What India would see more and more now is aggressively competitive identity politics at the grassroots, often culminating in civil violence, and the winners of such amoral competition rising up to be legitimately welcomed by a normatively liberal-secular political centre as ‘authentic’ and ‘enterprising’ citizens of the nation. This is, doubtless, the epoch when fascism and liberalism not only come to each other’s rescue, as Gramsci had observed, in their respective moments of regulatory crises, but co-exist in harmonious complementarity in the same temporal moment at the social and political levels respectively.

It is nobody’s case that the Congress and the liberal Indian polity were innocent about the ways of identity politics in their post-Independence heyday. Identity management, through competitive and differential distribution of patronage at the societal grassroots by a liberal polity, was the hallmark of the Nehruvian Indian National Congress — which was supported by the Brahmin-Muslim-Harijan combine in UP and Bihar, and the Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim coalition in Gujarat — till at least the advent of Emergency. But all grassroots Congress leaders, who emerged in legislative and parliamentary politics by dint of their victory in such identity struggles and the concomitant management of such intra-party competition, were ultimately tamed and chastened by the liberal-secular ethos of the party and polity. In other words, the identity loyalty of a particular leader that had launched him from the grassroots to the national polity was perforce sacrificed by him/her at the altar of liberal-secularism – still organic to the relatively more democratic culture of a pre-Independence, anti-colonial Congress – while participating in the business of policymaking and legislation. Clearly, competitive identity politics, and the differential distribution of patronage it entails, existed as the hypocritical and illegitimate unconscious of the Nehruvian Congress and its post-Independence polity. And it was precisely this contradiction – ineluctable in political liberalism, thanks to the political-economy of capitalism from which it emanates – that led to the collapse of the original Congress consensus.

Now, of course, it is a different story. The liberal ideas of culturally neutral citizenship and secularism are empty concepts into which any social content, no matter how illiberal, undemocratic or retrograde, can be poured and legitimised. Identity-based patronage politics, which had either been eyed with contempt or concealed shamefacedly by mainstream political parties, all of which practiced it, is now getting sanctified as inclusion (obviously differential and unequal) by its blessed contact with the neo-liberal dogma of competitive development. The competitiveness that is intrinsic to such politics is no longer an ugly and reactionary secret that liberal politics needs hide in its messy social closets. Given that globally acceptable neo-liberal development is driven by something similar, it is openly celebrated. Such competitiveness constitutes the developmental dynamic that shapes the internal configurations and contours of the liberal form. Unlike in the period of the Nehruvian Congress, caste- and community-based leaders, irrespective of their party affiliations, are not tamed by the liberal idea of secular citizenship. Instead, they fundamentally redefine that idea, with regard to policies and laws, in terms of the interests of the social groups they represent.

‘Democratic’ competition, in the absence of an impulse to socio-ideologically contest the status quo, ends up strengthening the system and its twin-logic of political domination and economic expropriation. That is particularly true in this neo-liberal epoch, which is determined by the operational primacy of finance capital. Before the onset of the neo-liberal era, a subaltern struggle, even if it was waged in the register of competitive identity politics, still had some fighting chance to posit a critique of the political economy of capitalism. Such competition for a slice of the developmental pie, by virtue of being directed at the state, automatically targeted the real sector of the economy that this state regulated. And considering that the real sector can respond more effectively to the autonomous needs of a society the less determined it is by the exigencies of international finance capital, the chances that competitive identity politics of subaltern groups in pre-neo-liberal times could democratise the socio-economic system by seeking to democratise the state and polity were much more than today.

Similar identity-based competitive struggles for a share in neo-liberal development have served to deepen systemic inequality and lack of democracy the more they have succeeded. That is because the real economy of India, ever since it started opening up to the world, has come to be increasingly subordinated to the speculative and profit-seeking demands of international finance capital. The intensified financialisation of the Indian economy this has resulted in has ensured the country’s real sector responds, not what members of Indian society would democratically and autonomously aspire to and demand, but what would yield profits in sectors on which international finance capital has placed its heaviest bets. As a consequence, the entire world of demand-and-supply, and the socio-economic realm of work and leisure constituted by it, has become totally administered, sometimes through repressive force but mostly through ideological production of consent. Development happens to be the mantra of that operation. In such a scenario, any social or political movement that seeks a share of such development cannot deepen democracy, not even objectively. It can only keep consolidating the system and its intrinsically undemocratic and inegalitarian political economy.

The Left – including its CPI(M)-led parliamentary bloc, and its various semi- and extra-parliamentary groups – has completely failed to recognise this peculiar impact of neo-liberalism and financialisation on Indian polity. Not surprisingly, they have continued to press ahead with their time-worn paradigms of politics. Subjective intervention by various Left groups, when it occurs through their pro-active engagement with the disaffections and aspirations of various dispossessed and disempowered socio-economic and cultural groups, can transform the competitive identitarian idiom of their struggles into a fundamental critique of the neo-liberal model of development. Only that, when it happens, can possibly yield, a real counter-hegemonic politics of resistance and restore to the Indian Left its lost political relevance.

Of course, the rejection of the CPI(M)-led Left Front’s authoritarianism by the electorates of Kerala, and particularly West Bengal, which brought its Lok Sabha tally down from 60 in 2004 to 24 this time around, must be hailed, especially since it has also failed to pose an alternative political-economic model of development to the current neo-liberal one, which it has all but normatively accepted. Yet, what must not be lost sight of is the LF’s political degeneration has been challenged and supplanted, not by tendencies from within the progressive tradition of working class politics, but by the Trinmool Congress-Congress coalition, which will be an integral part of the next Union government. In such circumstances, the electoral decimation of the CPI(M)-led Stalinist Left has only accelerated and strengthened Indian polity’s right-ward move.

Such a working-class challenge to the CPI(M) and its front is still desperately awaited to wipe out whatever remains of this degenerate Left, so that revolutionary politics can once again reclaim the trust of the broader toiling masses and mobilise them for an anti-neo-liberal, anti-capitalist battle. But for such a politics to emerge, genuine working-class forces, many of whom are still part of the LF constituents, need to be clear-sighted about what actually went wrong with the CPI(M)-led Left Front. The reactive anti-CPI(M) position, which many Left groups and individuals hold, would be of little help on that score.

We must, for starters, understand that the LF’s attempt to aggregate various anti-Congress, anti-BJP forces in the run-up to the 15th Lok Sabha polls, contrary to what the neo-liberal spinmeisters of our mainstream media have been contending, was not opportunist per se. The challenge, no matter how transient, posed by some caste and regional parties against the two principal political protagonists in question is actually a reflection of the disaffection of social identities that have been rendered provisionally subaltern, vis-à-vis the more privileged social groups patronised by those two parties. Considering that those privileged groups represent socio-economic and cultural domination – which the neo-liberal developmental agenda engendered by a political system hegemonised by the Congress and the BJP has created – any competitive challenge posed to them and their two parties by the provisional subalterns and their outfits is, to begin with, also an immanent and implicit critique of the hegemony of the entire system, and the competitive and expropriative political-economic logic of development that constitutes it. Such implicit critique posits the possibility of producing a rupture in the given neo-liberal conjuncture and thereby effect a complete social transformation.

However, if the immanence of this critique is not recognised and it is not consciously expressed by the movements that pose them, it ceases being the first unavoidable step towards counter-hegemonic politics, and ends up consolidating the hegemonic logic of competition, domination and monopolistic centre-building. The LF’s failure to engage with such implicit critiques so that they can be taken to their logical anti-systemic denouement, has always been responsible for delivering one or the other of these anti-Congress, anti-BJP outfits to either the Congress-led UPA or the BJP-led NDA as a client or junior partner, depending upon the pragmatic calculus of immediate interests and benefits such forces embody. It is this failure of the LF that has always rendered all its attempts to forge an anti-Congress, anti-BJP front opportunistic. And the failure stems from the LF’s fatally inverted mode of politics. Its tactics of sewing up such a third front would be electorally brilliant only if it was preceded by serious struggles that engaged with the disaffection of the subaltern support bases of anti-Congress, anti-BJP political forces and enabled them to articulate them in an anti-systemic and critical idiom of social and political transformation. Such an engagement would, as a matter of fact, make such front-building politically redundant for the CPI(M)-led Left Front’s political advance.

The LF, however, seems obsessed with the absurd idea of driving social change through electoral politics and alliance-building for votes. And that, very clearly, is a symptom of its social-democratic malaise, which it contracted nearly three decades ago when it decided to give up the strong immunity of working-class struggles. It is this social-democratic degeneration that has prevented the LF to envision development as something that needs to fundamentally transform society and its constitutive political-economic logic by re-imagining the hierarchical and alienating configurations of power that are both envisaged and embodied by the modern state in all its different forms, including the liberal-democratic.

The LF’s social-democratic cretinism — constitutive of the process of institutionalisation of the various working-class movements from which it emerged — is manifest not only in the growing authoritarianism with which its constituent parties and state governments are run, but also in its excessive reliance on a broad-based system of dispensing patronage to keep those governments going. Such wide, cadre-based distribution of political patronage is an inevitable regression of the social-democratic imagination. One that envisages social progress and the well-being of the working people and the poor essentially as a question of distributive justice, which it believes is achievable by merely regulating equitable distribution of a given basket of socio-economic entitlements. In such a ‘Leftist’ scheme there is no place for interventionist and transformative politics because the state, which is the instrument of such efficient regulation and equitable redistribution, is treated as a passive and neutral entity that only needs to be controlled.

The upholders of such social-democratic Leftism make no attempt, as a consequence, to rethink and transform the structure of the modern state through a process of constant critique and struggle directed against the political economy that makes such an alienated and coercive institution of power possible. From there to neo-liberalism it is, as we have seen, merely one small step. And what use can working-class politics possibly have for such ‘Leftists’ or their ‘Leftism’?

States of Emergency


The Late Indira Gandhi started the venerable tradition in Indian politics of pointing to the external forces that were trying to destabilize India. The only way to remain coherent as India, it was claimed was to vote for the gai bachhda (the Cow and Calf election symbol) and leave the rest to Mrs Gandhi’s wisdom. As the climax to the Singur controversy appears to be over, we can wait for the denouement, so we are beginning to hear voices now to wrap it all up. It appears that the CPIM is the only hope for the dalits and Muslims and anything that questions the manner in which the CPIM crafts its political and economic agendas and implements them is going to open the doors for the ‘right’ that is the BJP.

These arguments deserve to be considered in all seriousness. The trouble is not with the economic model, nor with human rights violations nor with plain old electoral and ideological rivalries. The trouble in very simple words is with the way the CPIM’s electoral base has changed. The party lost the votes of agricultural wage laborers and industrial working class and the Muslims in Bengal while gaining rural salaried and rural rich and urban middle class votes. This shift in its class base has serious implications for the party itself. The party more than anyone else knows what this means right down to the scale of the polling booth.

The question then is how is the party intending to recover these votes? It has several options to do this: as has been done in many states where aggressive reforms were pursued, these voters or at least their mobilizers in the form of party cadres can be bribed with various government schemes where everyone gets a small cut in the pie. This works very well in the short run. But beyond one or two elections the novelty wears off. It could look for newly mobilized social classes to join its support base, by mobilizing women, sections of Muslims, carve out new segments from old categories and provide them sops to switch their loyalties. If the party looks beyond the immediate electoral calculations, then the contours of the political and economic challenge ahead would look very different. But we can return to it later because for the moment, the main concern appears to be how to remain in power.

The trouble with framing the problem as one of how to keep the CPIM in power is that it simply jumps the gun by assuming that the only way to do politics is to get into the seat of power. So, we begin to assume from here on that the only way to keep the BJP in check is for the CPIM to get in power. But let us look at what the real dynamics of that would be. The only way for the CPIM to get into power was to cut into the BJP’s social base which is the middle class. But having done that, can the CPIM then speak to its middle class constituents about what is good economic policy? Or will it be driven by the desires and aspirations of that class?

Singur is an excellent example of those desires and aspirations. We have not seen such condensation of desire over any other object in public view since the Mandir. The Chief Minister says we cannot go back on this because “I persuaded Tata like anything and now I will not be able to raise my head again”. Tata says, “If someone holds a gun to my head he has to shoot or take away the gun, I am not going to move my head”. How did things come to such an emotional head? Is it that the deviant left is conspiring with right to derail legitimate and correct path to ‘socialism’ or is it that the opposition from multiple sources actually bring into sharper focus the nascent middle class desire for a better life at whatever cost?

Industrialization, economic growth, development, these are empty words. Their content is political, emotional and social and thus has to be struggled over. The CPIM in Bengal tried to take the short cut and run into rough weather. Whether the party has the capacity to learn from the experience and think over how to fight these battles in a progressive way is for history to decide. Personally I wouldn’t worry too much about whether fighting the CPIM on this issue is going to help the BJP. Because seriously communalism is not the only game in town. The majority of the massacres of Dalits in India happened under regimes to which the CPIM in no way provided any credible threat. Bihar under Laloo Prasad Yadav, Andhra under NTR and Chandrababu Naidu have been remarkably riot free. In fact it was the internal power struggles of the Congress that resulted in the most horrific riots in Hyderabad and that is the party which is in power at the center now thanks to the CPIM. The point I am making here is not that we are worse off under the Congress than under the BJP. But that the dynamics of communal violence is too complex to be reduced to party banners and rhetorics.

In my view, the big political challenge before the left in India today is that there are all sorts of crazy dynamics unfolding in places which are beyond the pale of the state to resolve. Thus one possibility is that progressive parliamentary political parties which are a product of that state have to work hard to stretch their imaginations to play a critical role in non-state domains. But that calls for a radical reengineering of the party organizational structures themselves. This has happened to a miniscule extent in Kerala although it ended up in intense power struggles within the party.

The other possibility is that the unrest and turmoil in the non-state domain will find its own leadership and goals and at least for the moment, it will appear to be completely incoherent. Now it will appear to bring together Medha and Mamata and Rajnath Singh and Dipankar Bhattacharya, and then again it could bring together a group of tribals and NGOs and a parochial movement for a smaller state in another region.

Mrs. Gandhi’s invoked the external foe, precisely at the moment when the first rumblings of the centrifugal forces from the regions began to be heard in Indian politics and responded to it by declaring external emergency and soon followed it up with declaration of the internal emergency. Now as these regional centrifugal forces get entangled in the global dynamics, there will be more such inventions of external and internal emergencies and the state responses will be much more complicated. History, it seems, has a way of repeating itself, but will the second time be a mere farce or a worse tragedy than the first time, depends entirely on us.

Singur and the Official Left’s Crisis in India

Pratyush Chandra

The Singur events are signs of a crisis borne out of a disjuncture between the Left Front’s pragmatic policies and the legacy of the movement and class interests that empowered it. For a long time, the open eruption of this crisis was evaded by the West Bengal government’s success in convincing its mass base of its ability to manoeuvre state apparatuses for small, yet continuous gains. It justified all its limitations and inefficacy by condemning the faulty centre-state relationship and a larger conspiracy to destabilise limited reformist gains – for instance, those from reforms in the Bargadari system.

The allegation of conspiracy seemed tangible only to the extent that parliamentary politics drives every opposition party to encash the difficulties incumbent governments face – by peddling popular grievances for advantages in electoral competition. This is the way a representative democracy disperses and defuses challenges to its stability. For illustration, one needs to just review the history of the exit-entry of governments and their economic policies over the past 20 years. There were economic grievances that contributed to the opposition’s success in destabilizing governments and forming alternative ones, yet there was a remarkable continuity in economic and financial policies. Because of the Indian State’s ability to contain popular opposition within the precincts of electoral democracy – the ritual of elections – it could evade any fundamental political economic crisis and did not have to deter from its neoliberal commitments.

Once the Left in West Bengal chose to play by the rules of parliamentary democracy, it faced the continuous threat of defeat in electoral competition. The internalisation of the need to evade this threat transformed its character, thus leading it to aspire beyond being a class party of workers and peasants. It had to become an all people’s party – a party that could internalise the dynamo of the status quo, negotiating between diverse, dynamic and antagonistic interests. In other parts of the country too the rise of coalition politics and the possibility of electing representatives decisively regimented the official left’s radical rhetoric.

A cosmetic radicalism though is advantageous in the states where it is the incumbent power. It can mobilise its traditional class base, by playing on victimhood, by ritualistic national strikes etc. The patent logic of the West Bengal government has been that in the absence of a friendly centre, it can do nothing but make the best out of the adverse conditions. Alongside, it has been increasingly using the threat of capital flight to justify its concurrence with the national economic policies.

Behind these usual mechanics of stabilizing its position in the representative democratic set-up resides an essential dilemma or crisis for the official left. The historical legacy of the peasants and workers’ movements that congealed its rule and continue to provide it stability has been both a boon and a bane. This has gravely severed its ability to use traditional means of state coercion for containing its mass base, forcing an informal accommodation or para-legalisation of the Left’s traditional mass organizations – their transformation into ideological state apparatuses. Herein lies the danger.

Once these organizations are identified with the officialdom, the grassroots are increasingly alienated and the scope for their independent assertion amplifies. In the history of Bengal’s left, this has happened many times – the most formidable one was definitely the Naxalbari movement. Another example was the self-organization of the Kanoria Jute Mill workers beyond bankrupt bureaucratic trade unionism in the mid-1990s. Singur is the latest case.

One can definitely question the motives of mainstream non-left political parties – like the Congress, Trinamool (TMC) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which compete with the Left Front to represent the interests of the neo-rich and landed gentry (which includes many absentee landowners) owning bigger portions of land, using ‘kishans’ – hired labours, bargadars, etc for cultivation. (EPW, Nov 18, 2006) This class, who the West Bengal government claims have consented to land alienation in Singur, joins such movements essentially to obtain various kinds of concessions – a higher price for giving up land to the State and perhaps also for increasing the price for future real estate speculation around the upcoming industrial belt. Moreover, until now the Left Front has succeeded in representing these class interests, which are the main offsprings of the limited agrarian and other economic reforms during its rule. But as opportunism is intrinsic to these interests, they are determined to utilise every available mechanism to gain concessions from the regime. Singur is a test case for the official Left’s pragmatism – being a local agency for reproducing the general conditions of capitalist accumulation, the Left Front government has to articulate larger neoliberal capitalist designs within the local hegemonic set-up, i.e., it will have to facilitate the representation of local hegemonies within “neoliberal state” apparatuses.

But there is a larger section of the landless, poor peasantry and those frequenting nearby towns for work; for them, the struggles like that of Singur are existential ones. There have been instances of reverse migration also with the closing down of traditional industries. These sections do not possess any faith in neoliberal industrialisation based on flexible, informal and mechanised labour processes. Recently in many parts of the country, these sections of rural poor have been the object and subject of radical mobilisations. It is the fear of their politicisation at the wake of its drive for competitive industrialisation, which is the real worry for the accommodated left in West Bengal, especially the CPM, which has traditionally resisted the mobilisation of the landless in the state, even by its own outfit.

However, the efficacy of capitalist parliamentarianism – the political arrangement suitable for the (post)modern “Eden of the innate rights of man” – lies in reducing class conflicts to lobby politics and competition for representation. Hence, the effective status quoist strategy would be to pose the systemic crisis merely as a temporary crisis of representation. The Left Front and the official opposition in the form of Trinamool and other mainstream parliamentary parties are effectively cooperating in this task. Efforts in this regard include the way the Singur struggle is being projected in corporate media and in political statements – as a Mamata-Buddhadeb tussle or even as manipulation by rival corporate interests etc. In order to make this strategy vital, the interests (rentier, concessionary or compensational) of local hegemonic classes need to be posed as universal and representative. This could happen only by subjugating the existential, need-based interests of rural poor and proletarians – these interests question the very logic of development within capitalism. Thus their subjugation through within-the-system representation effectively counters whatever counter-hegemonic potential such struggles have. The attempt to reduce the whole struggle to the issues of compensation and other kinds of concessions is part of this strategy. This allows an escape route for both the government and the official opposition – so that symbolic gestures negotiated between these parties can be posed as successes, which can be eventually played as trump cards in electoral competition.

Only the liberation of local struggles from such accommodation can decisively shape the continuity and effectiveness of counter-hegemonic mobilisations and struggles. But this requires radical segments within these struggles not to fall for the cosiness of politics based on vertically homogenised interests, as by default they are hegemonic.

This article has been published in a modified form in The Times of India, December 28, 2006 under the title, The Lost Left.

Singur in Context: Capital flight or Flight of Fancy?


Comrade Budhadeb Bhattacharjee is a man in a hurry – he has to undo the pyrrhic victory of the labor-peasant movement in West Bengal: capital flight. He thought he got it fixed when he had the party and the government machinery close in on Singur, to evict people, erect a barricade and encircle the site. A technique developed in the bygone labor militancy days – gherao (encirclement) came in handy even in distancing oneself from its fruit! Who knew! There was perhaps a fleeting smile on his face, a sigh of relief as now that the site is secured, it is only a political matter of dealing with the Banerjees, Patkars and Roys. But pesky Tapasi Malik came along to ruin it all. The teenage daughter of one of the evicted landless workers strayed into the site at night to relieve herself and ended up as a smoldering corpse in a pit, the stench waking up her folks. Any sensible woman would have known better than to venture into such territory so there must be an explanation – other than the unlikely fact that she was just a teenager who was not very sensible. With 14 per cent of all crime in India being rape or dowry related, Indian policemen do not need any lessons in creative writing. So the wheels of imagination began to spin: Tapasi had slipped out of her home for an illicit rendezvous with a jealous lover and pick your choice: 1) she committed suicide shortly after 2) the jealous lover along with his drunken friends raped and murdered her.

This is not exactly a laughing matter anymore. History and geography are serious business and if we get one wrong we get the other wrong too. So lets get to the bottom of it. According to Comrade Budhadeb Bhattacharjee and his party, and oddly enough according to any number of economists and politicians of all ideological pursuasions, Bengal experienced a flight of capital ever since the Left Front came to power in 1977. The left and the right diverge from that point on: if you are on the left, Bengal survived by enhancing agricultural productivity, taking over sick industries and selling power to neighboring states while Kolkata itself languished in interminable power outages. If you are on the right, then Bengal drove out industries, indoctrinated youth and captured all key institutions. Both agree, with some important differences over specific details, however, that Kolkata must be restored to its past glory as an entrepot to investments and to surplus extraction. It must be the port through which it will all flow in and out as majestically as the Ganges. Implanting the Tata people’s car plant on the Singur farmlands is the latest in that direction. (Did I just say that? You are right. The Ganges only flows out. But of course, this is different. Things will also flow in here and it will be good for the entire Eastern India because we will have downstream vendors, and suppliers. Don’t ask me which way is downstream because it is really hard to tell these days.)

Let us not waste time on the disagreements between the left and the right and instead look at what the left and the right agree on – namely the self evident fact that capital fled Bengal because of labor militancy. The most astounding thing about this ‘fact’ is that it is as if it were happening in outerspace and had nothing at all to do with the politics and economics and history of India. Little seems to be the need to explain what exactly was this labor militancy about. Where did capital fly to? How did it fly? But since such questions require an intimate detailed knowledge of Bengal, let us start the story from some other place to at least locate this outer space object in some relation to other objects in space. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPIM) came to power in Bengal at a peculiar moment in India. It was when an all-round anti-Congressism based on an aversion to its flirtation with the authoritarian Brazilian path to development, and a frustration with the singular failure of national coalitions found expression through the rising regional bourgeoisie whatever that word means – mostly rich and middle farmers, government employees, contractors, professionals, small and medium industrialists and so on. The specific configurations of these regional formations varied from state to state depending on local agrarian histories and the implications of caste identities in successive rounds of modernization. If it called itself NT Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh, it called itself Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar, it called itself Bhindranwale in Punjab just as it called itself Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra. This was truly a historic period in the Indian political economy. First and second generation sarkari employees were preparing to retire and look for avenues to invest their savings in the cities. Restless agrarian rich were moving into the cities. Some centrally owned public sector industries were slowly getting into trouble even as others especially in the electronics and communications sector began to thrive and supported a number of ancillaries. It was an economy in which older privately owned industries were getting into trouble because of technological outdatedness and changes in supply chains. In short in certain sectors industrialists were truly looking for labor trouble so they could legitimately pack up. What we know about these developments is mostly locked in the archives of area studies centers all over India with piles of MA, MPhil and PhD dissertations with microlevel local data.

Within this socio political dynamism in the state, the fight in Bengal as everywhere else was for regional autonomy, a freedom from the center – a process that Achin Vanaik described in a quaintly Newtonian metaphor: centrifugal and centripetal forces. What makes this a uniquely leftist endeavor is not clear but it is quite charming how many leftists would be offended if you were to suggest to them that this anti-center, anti-Congress trait was nothing peculiar to the Left. But perhaps we can press the comparison a little further to the actual strategies of the regional leaders. Most of the regional leaders faced a twin challenge: to wrest some degree of political autonomy from the center and curb threats posed by various Marxist-Leninist (ML) groups’ militant rural mobilizations. To this end, all of them experimented with political institutions, administrative structures and police strategies. The large section of rural voters who were restless under the Congress networks of feudal power and yet were urbane enough not to be attracted to the ML was the main target for the emerging regional leadership. In incorporating these sections into their politics, all the regional leaders followed similar patterns: tinker with panchayati and district political institutions to create appropriate avenues that would be accessible to these sections and not to the Congress, rustle up policy and administrative recipes to create stakes for these voters in the productivity of land – through sharecropper registrations, power subsidies, borewell subsidies and so on. Sharecropper registration data from Bengal villages overlaid with voting patterns over two or three successive elections in Bengal should reveal a pretty clear picture. But even without all that gimmickry, Pranab Bardhan and his colleagues demonstrate how sharecropper registration in Bengal was most intensive in villages where the left and right held equal power. Villages which were left strongholds reveal a pretty low level of sharecropper registration. Given their shared project of wresting autonomy from the center the regional leaders made common cause against the Congress, and came to each other’s rescue in national politics – Indira Gandhi’s nasty habit of using gubernatorial services to dismiss troublesome chief ministers was one issue that rallied together the left and the right in a remarkable way. Yet faced first with a crafty statesman in Indira Gandhi, and then her charismatic son, they also made pragmatic compromises with the center on an individual basis. Among other things, the Sarkaria Commission on center state relations was one of the major accomplishments of the solidarity among these regional leaders. So if this is at least in part the history of Bengal CPIM, why does it all sound so garbled? It is because the Bengal CPIM faces a challenge that no other regional leader faces: it has to tell a story of regional success, but it has to also tell it in national terms. That is the origin of the story of labor militancy. To acknowledge that Bengal CPIM is simply a cadre based regional operation to undermine the Congress party would make it sound parochial – something that does not suit the refined culture of its leadership. Hence it has to be packaged as a universal struggle against capital rather than a parochial fight against the Congress. This is why the CPIM’s cadre operations, capture of institutions, its day to day struggles and its police operations against Naxalites all these have to be packaged as labor militancy. Ordinary stories of mill closures because of ordinary reasons and ordinary collusions between union leaders and mill managements, and mundane stories of government will simply not do. It has to be the universal labor militancy. That is how Bengal’s elite distinguishes itself from the other regional elite.

After the launch of the economic reforms, the need for a united struggle against the center was largely gone. During the first five years itself, they started using their respective capacities to send MPs to the center to negotiate concessions to their own regions but in the second round of reforms this became an established practice in Indian politics. In fact, the political power of the regions was so striking that even the World Bank could not resist using it effectively. One powerful chief minister who commands sufficient MPs to threaten the central government is worth a dozen zealous bureaucrats at the center… so long as that chief minister is plied with enough funds to restructure the state’s economy, the central government will stay steady on reforms course. Bengal was not above this new dynamic of interregional competition for investments.

Against this backdrop, let us look at the actual history of Bengal’s industrial decline. Regardless of Comrade Budhadeb Bhattacharjee’s penchant to blame it on labor militancy, industrial decline of Bengal started soon after independence, as most of the investors in Bengal were foreigners. As these industries slowly packed up, the commanding heights economy centered in Delhi’s bureaucratic control, industrial finance clusters being located in Bombay proved disadvantageous to Bengal. The most pernicious of the policy interventions from Delhi was the freight equalization policy which effectively meant that eastern mining areas – Bengal, Bihar, Orissa all began losing to the southern states. Ever since the Left Front came to power in 1977, it largely blamed its industrial decline on discrimination by the center. While there is no clear evidence to establish this, substantial amounts of research based on time series data shows that mandays lost due to lockouts in Bengal is a significant proportion of the total mandays lost due to labor unrest.

A quick search indicates very little about how and where and when capital actually fled from Bengal because of labor militancy although everyone repeats it these days and it has actually begun to sound quite nice. “We are the guys who threw out capital and now we can do business as equals.” Regardless, it is possible to discern some patterns in inflows and growth elsewhere. During the 1980s in other states some of the public sector undertakings nurtured a fair amount of experimentation and growth especially in new industries like electronics, pharmaceuticals and so on. In the 1990s many of these came apart with workers being sent home with retrenchment packages, and senior level scientists and engineers walking away with technical knowhow. Using the social capital gained via their careers in these companies some of them sourced work, supply chains and work orders from abroad from Europe and the US – while some of them remained kitchen top pharmaceuticals and guest room data processing outfits, a few of them managed to grow into large corporations. To what extent this happened in Bengal is not clear. Available evidence suggests that the state did pretty well in attracting FDI in the post reforms period. It did alright in attracting the medium industry. It didn’t do too well with the sunrise industries and didn’t do too well with national big capital. Labor militancy cannot explain all this variation. As we have already seen, if some of it had to do with the ability of the regional leaders to negotiate with the center, some had to do with geohistoric inequities of the commanding heights economy, and some had to do with the social policies of the state government such as training the right kind of manpower, some had to do with corporate strategies and yet some of it was just contingent factors. If it is such a complex story even without any intimate knowledge of Bengal, why does everyone so glibly agree that labor militancy resulted in capital flight in Bengal? Why do statements ‘we must industrialize or we will perish’ sound right even when their blindness is so obvious? What kind of industry? What kind of labor? What kind of militancy and what kind of flight? Where to?

Part of the explanation could lie in CPIM’s need to distinguish itself from the run of the mill regional leaders. Part of it in Bengal’s nostalgia for its colonial industrial past. If that were all, there would be no reason to complain. Who could grudge the old comrade a touch of fancy? The trouble really is the consequence of that claim to inheritance of labor militancy gives the CPIM, the moral authority that is denied all other regional leaders to discipline workers and peasants now. It can conveniently wrap up a range of projects from real estate and retail to water privatization all in the industrialization blanket along with rising aspirations of the new middle class, the rent seeking behavior of politicians and bureaucrats and the recommendations of its international consultants. Bengal needs industrialization because for 25 years we have experienced capital flight due to labor militancy. If Kolkata develops East India develops. It is in that flight of fancy – rather than in the flight of capital that Tapasi’s death seems like a complicated case which needs creative scripting to suit the occasion. Why? Ask her mother. Tapasi died because she did not know that for Eastern India to develop she had to control her bladder!