Udayan Dhar reviews ‘No Free Left - The Futures of Indian Communism’ and in a chat with the author Vijay Prashad, they talk about the role of the Communist parties in an increasingly neoliberal India.Vijay Prashad’s No Free Left – The Futures of Indian Communism is a history of the Indian Left movement, a speculative self-critique and a hope for a future where the Left’s vibrant socio-economic discourse remains key to bringing a real public policy dialog back to the people in the face of seemingly insurmountable tide of neo-liberalism.
The book charts the uniquely South Asian roots of the Indian Socialist movement with Gandhi’s focus on localised self-sustained economy, which was more or less nipped in the bud by Nehru’s keen interest in mass industrialisation and state centralisation post-independence. Although Nehru was, in the nineteen-thirties, drawn ideologically towards the Communists, his domestic policy was largely devoid of the earlier tilt, especially with his infamous dismissal of Kerala’s first Communist government. Vijay bemoans the fact that alternative political movements such as the Socialist parties of Ram Manohar Lohiya and EMS Namboodiripad soon degenerated into caste-based single-family dominated formations.
Where they failed, argues Vijay, is in offering a creative industrial policy. The fallout was of course in the Nandigram tragedy, which ultimately unseated the Left from power in Bengal.
Meanwhile, the Communist governments did get democratically elected in West Bengal and Kerala, and they carried out their land reform agenda, benefiting tens of thousands of landless peasants. They were also largely successful in tackling overt communalism. Where they failed, argues Vijay, is in offering a creative industrial policy. The fallout was of course in the Nandigram tragedy, which ultimately unseated the Left from power in Bengal.
A chapter on the general Rightward shift in public life in India makes for interesting reading. Vijay argues that irrespective of whether the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or the nominally socialist Congress is in power, centre-right policy is now the norm. Manmohan Singh called the liberalization move “an idea whose time has come” during his famous 1991 speech that ushered India into the globalised economy. A slew of other factors- from the rise of the “fifty-six inch chest” to the cozying-up to American foreign policy on Palestine and Iran, and even Bollywood films and television serials that are thoroughly grounded in the signs of a homogenised upper-caste Hindu constituency, have ensured that this trend becomes increasingly irreversible.
What works for the Left is the fact that they are much more ideologically inclined to take up issues of caste and class oppression, gender inequality and workers’ rights than the BJP or the Congress ever will be. Vijay’s book is also therefore a glimpse of the path ahead for the Indian Left.
Meanwhile, the impact of neoliberalism over the past two decades is yet to be fully assessed. There has definitely been a disempowerment of trade unions, rise in the proportion of contract workers in the organised and unorganised sectors, debasement of agricultural work, attenuation of the social sector, general dispossession of adivasis and extensive environmental degradation. Vijay quotes CPIM’s Prakash Karat, “The fight against neo-liberal policies can advance only when we take up the various local issues of the people”. What works for the Left is the fact that they are much more ideologically inclined to take up issues of caste and class oppression, gender inequality and workers’ rights than the BJP or the Congress ever will be. Vijay’s book is also therefore a glimpse of the path ahead for the Indian Left.
No Free Left has much more to it though, from throwing a critical light on some of the hallowed houses of corporate India (GD Birla and JRD Tata’s 1942 memo to the Viceroy against the Quit India movement) to describing the worrying levels of demagoguery in Indian politics (Mamata Banerjee’s speech in support of a local Trinamool leader who is a novice in politics – “You should vote for Dev, he is doing very well in films”), it makes for a unique take on the past decades of Indian politics from a self-confessed Left perspective, and contains ideas worth debating for India’s future.
Below are excerpts from an emailed interview with Vijay Prashad- author of “No Free Left” and Editor of LeftWord Books.
Has there been enough self-critique within Indian Communism? Is there room for more?There is always room for more critique and self-critique within the world of the Left. We are often critical of our work in public, and you can hear our leadership offering to the public the assessment that has taken place inside the party. This is often far more than bourgeois parties do. But we should not shy away from talking more openly about the difficulties on a global scale of building a Left – whether within a nation-state or internationally – when the resources for the Left (such as trade unions and peasant unions) have deteriorated along the global commodity chain.
You have written about Gandhi’s socialist ideas for India, and how Nehru’s vision of a modern, centralized economy had overridden that. Do you think there was a way for the two to have co-existed?
No. I think Gandhi’s vision, if taken seriously, is entirely in opposition to Nehru’s vision for India – namely to make Indian an advanced capitalist country with Fabian ideas of social democracy in place to help ameliorate the natural inequalities produced by capitalism. Gandhi’s acolytes failed his vision and became involved in small-scale activities that did not challenge the capitalist order. Some of them did very important work for the people amongst whom they worked, but if you look at the role of the Gandhians from a broader perspective, they became part of the large charity industry that grew in independent India. This is not what Gandhi had envisioned for his movement.
And would you say that Nehru’s model also failed somewhere down the line?
It would be an error to say that Nehru’s model failed. Nehru and those who came after him promoted a set of policies to turn Indian into an advanced capitalist society with some social democratic measures to help the poor. This is not socialism. Furthermore, what happened to India in the late 1980s was exactly what happened to most of the Third World states in that period (as I have written about in The Darker Nations). The debt crisis that hit the Global South as a result of the Volker Shock and the whiplash in the LIBOR brought these countries – that had integrated themselves into the world capitalist system – to their knees. So it was not so much merely Indian capitalism that went into crisis in the 1980s but that capitalist policy making in the entire Global South had a heart-attack. It went to the IMF to resuscitate itself through the Structural Adjustment Program, which we call ‘liberalisation’ in India.
The ‘alliance’ with the Congress in the West Bengal elections was not made formal. It was, largely, forged out of a sense that there was no other way to rebuild the bases of the Left destroyed by great terror in the countryside. I am sympathetic to the problems of the violence and the dangers of being fully wiped out by a state government that is acting like a mafia force.
Coming to Indian Communists, you respond to Ramachandra Guha’s criticism (in a Caravan article) about keeping away from coalition politics. What is your assessment of the UPA-1 alliance, and the more recent alliance with Congress in West Bengal elections?The UPA1 alliance was not strictly speaking an alliance. The Left provided parliamentary support to the government based on a Common Minimum Programme. Last year, I interviewed the leadership of the Portuguese Communist Party about their alliance with the socialists. They told me that – like the CMP – they published a document that laid out areas of total agreement (which they would implement), areas of mild agreement where they would disagree by degrees on the policies (which they would struggle over in government) and areas of total disagreement, which they would not be able to enact. This kind of public declaration is very important. It allows people to understand the problem of coalitions. The Left did make these kinds of statements during UPA1, but the media – sad to say – did not attempt to educate itself about some of these fundamental problems of alliances.
The ‘alliance’ with the Congress in the West Bengal elections was not made formal. It was, largely, forged out of a sense that there was no other way to rebuild the bases of the Left destroyed by great terror in the countryside. I am sympathetic to the problems of the violence and the dangers of being fully wiped out by a state government that is acting like a mafia force. However, as the election results showed, the ‘alliance’ also turned away people who could not understand the principles upon which it was based. People do not find their politics enthused by antipathy to a government. They want to believe in something.
You have called out the Maoists for their use of violence. Many would say that it is only after the Maoists had started attacking CPIM cadres that the Communists have realised that violence doesn’t work in a democratic set-up, and that the Communists should have never even provided any ideological support to them to start with.
Violence has never been a strategy for Communism. It was understood that one must exhaust all the political means in a social order. The Left will certainly face violence from the entrenched power structure, at which point self-defence is essential. The Communist movement learnt this lesson in the late 19th century, when it observed that the anarchist assassination strategy was not rooted in popular struggles.
Let’s move to some key issues of public policy in our country. You have written about the Communists’ continued support to adivasi causes. But you also feel Megha Patkar is not justified in some of her protests. What is the right balance on adivasi and environmental issues?
The balance between adivasi and environmental issues is fundamental to our times when adivasi regions are being plundered for their resources, with little benefit to the adivasi communities and no care for the environment. I think that there should be a broad popular conversation about resource use and the distribution of the profits from these resources. Anything short of that is theft, even in bourgeois terms. What we have now is basically old-fashioned plunder and theft of the resources of people who live above and around them. This should be repulsive to the population at large, but it is not. They have come to see the adivasis as anti-modern and therefore as expendable.
One solution is to demand that the productivity gains not be held hostage by the property owners. These gains should be used to finance social goods – free, good quality schools, free, good quality health care, free, good quality transportation.
Another of Guha’s criticisms was that the Left is “technophobic”- he gives the example of the Left’s opposition to computerisation of banks and railways in the early 90s, that was meant to support the organised working class, but disregarded millions of ordinary consumers who would benefit from it. How do you respond to this?Our problem is not with machines per se, but with the mode of production that allows the owners of property to seize the gains from productivity and throw the unemployed and the overworked to the wolves. Computerisation has indeed led to unemployment. One solution is to demand that the productivity gains not be held hostage by the property owners. These gains should be used to finance social goods – free, good quality schools, free, good quality health care, free, good quality transportation. Let mechanisation and its gains be used to produce a richer, healthier society not a more impoverished world. There is no sense in merely talking about consumers, for if there are more and more unemployed and overworked people there will be fewer and fewer consumers. And why should we think of technology as solely about consumers and not about what it does to producers and people in general?
There are close to 700,000 soldiers in Kashmir. Is that necessary? Certainly there are serious problems between India and Pakistan, but how is this helped by the arrogant attitude in Kashmir? The Left takes a strong position against the military solution to a political problem. We are for greater autonomy for the state.
And now last question on the policy front. How do you think a possible Communist government would handle these two controversial issues- relations with Israel, and the Kashmir dispute?
The Communist movement should always stand for the broadest interpretation of human freedom. That is why we oppose all forms of colonialism. Israel is one of the last bastions of European settler colonialism. The Left movement in India is consistently against Israeli colonialism. That is clear. On Kashmir, there is no question that when the ratio of Indian troops to the population in the valley is near 1 to 6 that we have a serious problem. There are close to 700,000 soldiers in Kashmir. Is that necessary? Certainly there are serious problems between India and Pakistan, but how is this helped by the arrogant attitude in Kashmir? The Left takes a strong position against the military solution to a political problem. We are for greater autonomy for the state. But I think we need to be clearer about what appears to be an occupation within the Indian state. It is intolerable for the people of the Valley and it should be intolerable for all Indians.
In the global crisis since the 2009 recession, many across the world are looking for alternatives. Some form of Communism could perhaps be one solution, but do you think that the word “Communism” itself too historically loaded for the twenty-first century?
All words come laden with the past’s problems or with the problems of today. Only now, decades later, has it been possible to look seriously at the great achievements of the Soviet Union for the people of wretchedly impoverished and powerless Tsarist dominions. That basic needs were taken care of, that culture and education was a priority, that life was not subsumed to fear of starvation was a great possibility for more. Of course the USSR collapsed. Of course it had problems. No one says that Communism is Utopia or that once won it is complete. We are after all dealing with human beings and human projects. They will have their failures. We are also dealing with a project that was relentlessly attacked from its first appearance.
Cruel populism is the new manifestation to control this global phenomenon. It is utterly meaningless in real terms. It cannot answer the question of inequality. It merely makes demons of vulnerable people and turns the wrath of those who are unable to benefit from the system on these minorities.
Neo-Liberalism is now under attack, not just from the Left, but now even by Donald Trump and Theresa May… how do you view this new anti-globalisation trend, and where is it headed?Neoliberalism is a policy answer to ‘globalisation’ – the new global architecture of production that spans the global commodity chain and is protected by intellectual property regimes and by the Western archipelago of bases and aircraft carriers. For twenty years, it was felt that the neoliberal policy slate would provide the ideological and institutional glue for globalisation. But globalisation has produced unimaginable levels of inequality. Eight individuals now hold as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the human family (that’s 3.6 billion people). Cruel populism is the new manifestation to control this global phenomenon. It is utterly meaningless in real terms. It cannot answer the question of inequality. It merely makes demons of vulnerable people and turns the wrath of those who are unable to benefit from the system on these minorities. For instance, cruel populism does not recognise that the problem of joblessness today is largely because of the increase of productivity not because of trade or migration. This means that cruel populism is – like neoliberalism – not capable of solving the problem of turbo-capitalism. That is why the Left is necessary.
So given these global realities, what is that alternative vision that the Left has to offer to India today?
The Left has placed a great many policies before the people to enhance the lives of more than half of the population, which lives in great distress. We have to fight to change our understanding of society, back from the individualistic vision that is driven by capitalism to a more social vision – where social goods are important once more, where social wages are important, where the idea that people must work to the bone to make a living should not be an unchallenged assumption. The Left has called for land reforms and price supports to our farmers, to resource mobilisation for health care and education, for more rights for women in our political system, and so on.
You can see already what the Left government has achieved in Kerala and what is has achieved in Tripura. There are no farmers’ suicides in Tripura. There is an appetite for decentralisation in Kerala, the use of scarce public funds to build housing for the working-class, to the creation of missions to tackle problems of drinking water and sanitation, conservation of water resources, education and so on. These are very valuable ways to mobilise people to tackle people’s needs. This is what the Left offers. A great way to bring people into a project against the inequality machine, namely capitalism.
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