The beach at Visakhapatnam, the largest city in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, was a sea of red this Sunday. Over a hundred thousand communist activists and sympathizers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI-M, gathered to conclude its 21st Party Congress. The CPI-M is the largest and most significant Left party in India, although it has been in close alliance with other Left parties with a new emphasis on the creation of a platform of Left Unity.
The CPI-M gathered at a difficult time for the Indian people. Half of India’s 1.2 billion people live in conditions of deprivation. Government policy over the past three decades – inspired by the neoliberal policy slate – has produced a hostile environment for survival. A quarter of a million farmers and peasants have committed suicide across the country, a direct consequence of capitalist agriculture and an adverse global trade order. The current government of the Hindu Right is not only the complete inheritor of such harsh economic policies, but it has the added disadvantage of being culturally suffocating. Attacks on freedom of expression and speech as well as a spectrum of threats against cultural and religious difference have begun to mark the social landscape.
No political force apart from the Left has an alternative to this policy direction. The problem for the Left is that despite its acidic critique and its beneficial policy ideas, it does not have the power to implement these. It will require the growth of the Left across the country to be able to put neo-liberalism in its place and inaugurate an alternative policy trajectory for India.
On the beach at Vizag.
How should the Left build its bases across the country? Important institutions of working-class power, such as trade unions, have been on the back-foot through these thirty years. Harsh anti-labor judgments from the courts and anti-labor laws from the government came alongside a new landscape for production – now increasingly in fragmented factories with sub-contracted migrant workers. Trade union organizing is not easy in this environment – although the unions continue to bravely push on behalf of the workers. In early April, ten thousand construction and brick kiln workers – under the banner of the CPI-M’s Centre for Indian Trade Unions – marched on India’s parliament to put down its flag against the anti-labor policies.
In 2003, the CPI-M’s Central Committee noted that the inability to grow the farmers and agricultural organizations “constituted one of the most important weaknesses of the democratic movement in the country.” The CPI-M studied the reason why both the trade union and the agricultural workers unions had not been able to expand their influence amidst rising distress. Failure to address issues of caste and gender discrimination, the Central Committee found, “contributed to the slow growth of the movement.” One of the main resources for the Left has been to take up all the demands of the working-class, not only economic demands but also social and cultural demands. These fights are not secondary, but should be regarded as central to the culture of socialism. Struggles against caste and gender oppression “are part of the working class struggle against feudal, bourgeois and extra-economic forms of exploitation,” noted the CPI-M in 2002.
Over the part decades, the communist movement in India has thrown itself into the struggles to defend the gains of the working-class and to expand the social universe to include the dignity and cultures of the entire working class. Mass organizations of the CPI-M, such as the All-Indian Democratic Women’s Association (on which, see Elisabeth Armstrong’s Gender & Neoliberalism, 2013) and the Democratic Youth Federation of India, have been active in these arenas – as have specific communist organizations such as the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front. These struggles against caste and gender hierarchies are the most important social struggles of our day, which are not merely about identity but always about dignity and survival, as well as the expansion of the imagination – the elements of socialism.
The new General Secretary of the CPI-M, Sitaram Yechury, said in his speech at the close of the Congress that it is imperative for the Left to take up these social fights, particularly the fights for the liberation of dalits (the oppressed caste communities). An Organizational Plenum will be held later in the year to discuss concrete steps to build the organizational capacity of the CPI-M, which will of course have a major impact on the entire Left.
During the Congress, the municipal polls took place in Kolkata, capital of West Bengal, which for thirty years was the bastion of the Communists. Over the course of the past five years, the atmosphere in West Bengal has been corroded. The party that took power from the Left Front, the Trinamul Congress (TMC), has more iron in its soul than humanity. Violence against the Left activists and sympathizers has been commonplace. Not long ago, for instance, TMC thugs went on the rampage in Bhatar, Bardhwan district in West Bengal. They caught a few CPI-M workers, killing forty-eight year old Mangal Hembram. I had covered the violence in rural West Bengal during the 2014 parliamentary elections for CounterPunch (here and here). This is a continuation of that.
Violence during these polls has been deadly. Two senior CPI-M leaders (Subhash Mukhopadhyay and Manash Mukhopadyay) were beaten in Belgharia, while another party member, Nanda Bose, was attacked by a TMC mob. “They were carrying rods and sticks, even swords,” said Bose. An hour after the polls closed, a police sub-inspector was shot near Girish Park. The Chief Minister of West Bengal, the TMC’s Mamata Banerjee said that these were “small incidents at a few places.” The city’s main newspaper, however, said, “Barring a few pockets of the southern fringes, the Left watches helplessly as the TMC writ runs across Kolkata.” What does it mean to say that its “writ runs” over the city? That the TMC’s “domination of polling booths is either complete or near-complete.”
It is in this environment of extreme state hostility that the Left has to re-build its momentum. Matters are no less difficult in other parts of India. Building a Left is not the same as conducting a seminar. It requires a great deal of courage to confront the congealed institutions of Power, Property and Privilege. Errors shall be natural, as will a loss of hope. What this Congress of the CPI-M showed, however, is that millions of Indians are ready to continue to defend the rights of the working-class and to imagine an alternative for all of India. “When a woman holds the Red Flag,” said CPI-M leader Brinda Karat at the concluding rally, “no force can take it away from her. The Red Flag will be there in every place where adivasi (tribal) land is being snatched away. Today we renew our commitment to take forward the Left alternative to the people of India.”