The Future of Indian Communism

Saanje se utee woh dhun sabne suni hai,

Jo thar pe gujri woh kis dhil kho patha hai 

(None ever realize the travails of the strings

All have heard only the notes they bring)

– Sahir Ludhianvi, the Marxist poet

Vijay Prashad in his book, ‘No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism’, has brought not the strains but the travails of the communist heart strings to the public domain. This book, while delineating the historical roots and actual praxis the communist movement, explores the polity, state and society in India from the Marxist perspective; bringing into sharp focus what remains buried under deep layers of oblivion in the annals of official and mainstream history. What he refers to as the ‘the Left’ are the formations of Communism and its left allies. The book notes the ‘Left’s’ valuable contributions to India’s Independence, its nation building endeavor. It captures the growth, fragmentation and consolidation of the ‘Left’; goes on to affirm that ‘Left’ has a coherent alternative political philosophy, its strategy and tactics surely need to be deftly honed to render it more ‘easily comprehensible’ to people with added ability to draw attention across the country.

Vijay Prashad introduces the term ‘Gandhi moment’, drawing on the robust criticism of Gandhi by Marxists RP Dutt, EMS Namboodripad and SA Dange, in the course of the freedom struggle itself; taking off from his earlier remark, ‘Indian nationalism was far richer than Gandhi’s contribution and Gandhi was not sacrosanct’, in the review of Perry Anderson’s ‘Indian Ideology’. In the 1920s, India bristled with popular energy when ‘democracy and justice’ were becoming its irreducible values’. In this milieu, the Gandhian Bargain with its implicit promise that ‘India’s freedom from British rule would produce a dynamic toward the fullest democracy and equality, even within the constraints of a structure that set one class against the other’; could bring ‘all the people, with divergent class background and interests, into the widest embrace of the national movement’. He goes on to add that the magnates, claiming to ‘represent healthy capitalism’, recognized these merits of Gandhi, were swept in to his moment ‘to help Gandhiji as far as possible’ and work with their own common objectives. Gandhi came to personify the Congress (Indian National Congress) – the dominant organization in the national movement. Vijay Prashad shows how these industrialists were quick to manipulate industrial strikes to morph into communal riots, which they managed to do when faced with industrial action in Bombay (1929); or ‘collude with the British against the socialists and the communists’, if need arose, as they did later when Congress proclaimed the ‘Quit India’ campaign in 1942 and they felt it was crossing the Rubicon.

Alongside the communists, Bhagat Singh, Subashchandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, MA Jinnah, BR Ambedkar, Jayaprakash Narayan, all ardent champions of the nationalist cause, were quick to perceive the contradictory role of Gandhi – his now ON and now OFF methods of launching and calling off mass civil disobedience – and his propensity to substitute ‘uncritical faith’ for ‘independent thinking’; and they formed the ensemble that contested ‘Gandhianism’, the dominant ethos of their period. Nehru succumbed to the inherent charms of Gandhianism sooner while his Socialist admirers joined the communists or remained immersed in their sterile anti-communism. Bhagat Singh was martyred and Subashchandra Bose exiled himself; while Jinnah, the secular democrat, Jayaprakash Narayan, the irrepressible socialist and Ambedkar, the eternal outspoken intellectual, all had to move along their own individual paths.

As Vijay Prashad, succinctly summed up in his article ‘Between Quam and Nation’, the anti-colonial freedom movement of the Subcontinent as ‘a river fed by powerful streams – some of them were revanchist and saturated in religious millenarianism, others came from indigenous socialist traditions that morphed with the entry of Marxism and the USSR into the currents of communism and socialism, and yet others drew from British liberalism (including the Fabian Society) and the worldview of the Indian capitalist class to forge the Nehruvian mainstream’. What united this stream of nationalism was its antipathy to colonial rule, although even this was only articulated in the mainstream as anti-colonialism at the end of the 1920s. The social effect of the Great Depression set off by the late 1920s, Gandhi’s compromises with Viceroy Irwin in 1931, and the hanging of Bhagat Singh by the British threatened the Congress hegemony and Gandhi’s sway over the national movement.

Why the Congress leadership and Gandhi, in particular, should move towards a truce when Bhagat Singh and his associates were being tried for sedition remains shrouded in mystery. Irfan Habib, in his ‘Studies in Ideology and History’, while pointing out Sumit Sarkar’s argument that Indian big business pressure was at work, concedes that Gandhi could not wholly ignore the opinion of this class, however much his own backers from amongst its ranks (like Ambalal Sarabhai and GD Birla) remained loyal and appeared unassertive. AG Noorani in his book ‘The Trial of Bhagat Singh’ brings to light the fact that Gandhi’s later claims of ‘having brought all the persuasion at his command to bear upon the Viceroy’ Irwin (for the release of Bhagat Singh) – while signing the infamous pact with him – ‘are belied by the record that came to light four decades later’. This was also the period when the British with their avowed zeal to crush the spreading ‘Bolshevik menace’ had launched a series of conspiracy cases against the communist agitators and activists, trying to set up its all-India centre and the mass organizations of peasants, workers and students. It was on March 5, 1930 that Gandhi signed his pact with the Viceroy Lord Irwin, wherein no demand was made for the release of these revolutionaries; Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were surreptitiously sent to the gallows on March 23, 1931. The source of India’s descent to the present could be located in this moment.

The Congress regained its waning popular appeal, in the aftermath of Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom; by articulating the general aspirations of the people through the resolutions it gave shape to at its Karachi session in 1931. The resolutions of the Karachi Congress session condensed the broad socialist demands that had become common sense in India by 1931. The ‘social contract’ enshrined in the Karachi Congress resolutions helped the Congress to capture power in the provincial legislatures in 1937 elections, held under the Government of India Act 1935 which bestowed voting rights for only 3 percent Indians. The terms of this ‘social contract’ were the building blocks of India’s Republican Constitution and became an inalienable part of the post-1947 ‘Nehruvian’ consensus as part of the Gandhian Bargain. The manner of functioning of the 1937 Congress ministries helped to cement its role as the arbiter of propertied class interests as it took a more strident anti-Left line. From here there was no looking back for the Congress and the bonds strengthened further after the transfer of power. In the post-independence period, the Congress reneged on the issue of ‘economic freedom’; and by default all the other terms of the above social contract are under a veritable attack by the Sangh Parivar (the Saffron family – Hindu Right) – the cluster of organisations forming the backbone of the right wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) – ensconced in the seats of power now.

The Congress leadership, having failed – at the most decisive moment – in 1931 to launch any campaign for the release trial of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, sensed their moment had come in 1942, when the hordes of the Axis Powers were marching ahead in almost every continent in all directions. With great alacrity it issued the call to ‘Do or Die’, premised on the mistaken reading of the prevailing international situation that the British were on the losing side and this was the most opportune moment for giving the final push to end British rule. In the years 1945-46 immediately after the war, a great mass upsurge spanned across several countries around the globe – China, Burma, Malaya, Indo-China, Indonesia, Greater Arabia as also Greece, Italy and France – and India was no exception. In India ‘the subterranean people’s movement did not translate into a general and open revolutionary upsurge’. The Cabinet Mission’s Plan, of May 16, 1946, envisaged a federal India and offered the basis for a historic compromise that failed to materialize; as at this momentous juncture, the Congress and the Muslim League were in as much hurry to assume the reins of power, as the British were eager to transfer power and. This cleared the road to perdition – for the holocaust of partition – altering irretrievably the subsequent history of the subcontinent. The ‘disruption of advanced peasant movements in Punjab and in Bengal’ was the less known but significant fallout of 1947 partition. The supremacy of the bourgeoisie from the initial phase of the freedom struggle, their presence among the peasantry and the failure of the working class ideology to establish its hegemony over the national movement coupled with an absence of ‘peasant rebelliousness’ (in the classical sense) capable of bringing about regime change helped in ample measure to bring about this dénouement.

To borrow Aijaz Ahmad’s expression: In the case of India, in 1947, ‘a revolution against foreign rulers (turned into) an immeasurably powerful ‘restoration’ of the rule of the indigenous propertied classes’.

Vijay Prashad takes us through the post-Independence history of India and points out how the big bourgeoisie had been calling the shots all along from the first years of Independence to this day; and how the ingredients of the Gandhian Bargain, sustained the major political events of the entire twentieth century, certainly till the 1980s, when the Bargain began to fray. ‘Early in its career, it (the big bourgeoisie) made the most of the import-substitution and license raj and when these policies had run their course it remained unwilling to plough in the profits towards any investments for industrial growth; and turned against these supports with vehemence, making the case that they had always been against these policies’. With the declaration of Emergency (by Indira Gandhi in 1975), the socialists, namely Jayaprakash Narayan, welcomed the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – established in 1925, drawing inspiration from Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist storm troopers) to the center of political life, giving it legitimacy and authority where it had none before. The socialists’ deep antipathy to Mrs. Gandhi and the Congress coupled with a deep seated animosity towards communism, their inability to draw a fine line between their national vision and that of the Indian Right allowed them to embrace the Hindu Right and turned them to being the enablers of the Hindu Right. The problem of the RSS tore through the Janata Party regime that took power after the revocation of Emergency in 1977. Indira Gandhi’s restoration in 1980 was made possible, in no small measure, by her transformation from a socialist into a defender of the Hindus and the dismantler of the system of state intervention in the economy, heralding the arrival of ‘political Hinduism’ and ‘liberalization’ – the shape of things to come.

The capitalist class’ political commitment to the Congress-run consensus withered as the party’s monopoly on power frayed. An earlier capitalist party – Swatantra Party (Freedom Party) – had failed to make a breakthrough between 1959 and 1974 because of Congress hegemony. By the 1980s, the BJP had absorbed sections of the Swatantra ethos, and the Congress itself had incubated elements eager to break with the Nehruvian paradigm national development path. In 1984 Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Rajiv Gandhi, who followed her, met the same fate in 1991. The Congress Party’s turn to liberalization in 1991 with the so-called ‘Rao-Manmohan reforms’, culminated a long process led by Rajiv Gandhi signaling the ‘onset of the neoliberal regime; and set in motion the ‘institutionalization of communalism in structures of the Indian state’ and kowtowing of imperialism as a subordinate ally. The BJP’s rise power, challenging the Congress hegemony, with the formation of ‘Vajpayee government in 1998 inaugurated a new phase in which a drastically reorganized power bloc, composed of all the non-Left parties, brought apparent stability to bourgeois rule in India; and heralded a new consensus in the Indian ruling class in favour of a closer alliance with imperialism externally and the imposition of neoliberal order domestically.’

Writing in general terms, on the ebbs and flows in the wave of communism that continues in India, Vijay Prashad says:

Over the course of history of the Indian republic from 1947 to 1991, the Left parties in governance – at the provincial level – provided the most significant land reform and agricultural worker tenancy programme, enacted deep local self-government schemes and provided a safe haven from the toxic social agenda of political religion. Outside the government, the Left participated in a wide range of struggles – for the rights of workers and peasants, for the defence of the good side of history against the bad. This was a period when the Left went through a series of major debates on its varied analysis of the role of imperialism, the class character of the Indian state, the nature of Indian democracy and the strength of the popular classes. Of the 29 provinces, Kerala, West Bengal, Tripura, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are the main pockets of Left influence. Most other regions of the country, beyond these core regions of the ‘Left’, remain ‘no land for communists’. The Left’s attempt to ‘govern and mobilize within the domain of industry in both Kerala and West Bengal’ crashed hard upon what Frantz Fanon called ‘the old granite block upon which the nation rests’. One of the most fascinating elements of the Indian communist movement’s history has been its creative and dynamic rural policy and its inability to develop as imaginative an industrial policy. What is clear is that a cognate industrial strategy of the Left was quite simply blocked. It could not take place. It is what produces the conjunctural crisis for the Left Front’s defeat in the 2011 West Bengal elections. The electoral defeat of the ‘Left’ is neither an ideological collapse nor an organisational rupture; it cannot be measured simply in terms of its electoral slide, it is an ideological defeat that one has to recognize. But the harm seems all the greater because of the apparent ‘annihilation of the working class block to fight against the very powerful bloc of Property and Privilege’. It reaffirms the fact that, in this epoch of complete hegemony of international finance capital, ‘the task of carrying forward the dialectics of subversion of the logic of capital should remain the bedrock of Left praxis – its political formations, mass organisations as also the state governments run by them’.

Prashad sums up the present thus: “The Congress remains wedded to its drift rightwards, the former socialist parties seek alliance of power rather than ideology (and) such a barren landscape leaves the Left on a lonely track, to plot a strategy to arise as the only capable alternative to the entire political class. India, of course, requires such an alternative.” It is not just the case that ‘Neoliberal policies have created great new differences amongst the rural population: a new class of beneficiaries emerges out of the old privileged sections, and the working classes are more and more fragmented’. As Aijaz Ahmad observed: ‘The neoliberal order is not only a vast system of brutal exploitation, a low wage regime…also of social uprooting and social disorientation…the social decomposition caused by this extreme capitalism contaminates and poisons the consciousness of countless’ among all classes. In the words of Prabhat Patnaik, ‘The horizon of possibility in India has been set by neoliberal policy with ‘full integration between neoliberal authoritarianism of capital in the domain of political economy with communal authoritarianism in ideology and state power’. It is on this count that the Congress has forfeited the affections of propertied classes.

Vijay Prashad’s summary findings in regard to parliamentary democracy in India are pertinent: ‘Livelihood is a central problem for the vast majority, but it is rarely the case that an election is fought on the sociology of starvation. It is rather fought constituency by constituency, with factors of caste and gender, political tradition and political violence as the main vectors’; and speaking of the present, in most cases, fealty to any political tendency is conspicuous by its absence. In the world’s largest democracy, election are won, by money and force, by the forces of rotting fascism’; and electoral success buttresses extra-legal power. The 2014 parliamentary elections were no exception this trend. Vijay Prashad drives home the fact that, in these elections, the BJP earned only thirty one percent of the popular vote, unevenly spread across most regions of the nation, except the Hindi heartland, with low margins of victory in much fractured contests which means that a plurality of India’s voters did not bring it to power. This was also the case with the BJP’s predecessor, the Congress Party, but the sweep of the Congress was more evenly spread across the nation for many decades before its gradual atrophy began.

Again reverting to Aijaz Ahmad’s expression, the passive revolution of 1947 that ‘restored’ the rule of the indigenous propertied class has now morphed into ‘complete negation of all that has been progressive in our history’, with the cultural hegemony of the RSS in place. The resistance to Hindutva fascism ‘necessitates a transformation of the national-popular consciousness through refounding of the communist movement to become a ‘collective intellectual’ for the anti-fascist forces, a reconstitution of a nationalism from the Left and the defence of the most cherished aspects of our national compact’.

It has been appositely said that the choice before us is ‘Socialism or barbarism’ and that ‘fascism is the result of our failure to make revolution’. Fascism is also the outcome of corralling the revolution. The book reaffirms that only the Left is equipped to meet the challenges of our times head on; its ideology, strategy and tactics have to be become common sense of the people.

Ramchandran Viswanathan lives in Pune, India.