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Red Brigade: Indian Communists Rally and Reflect

About a million Communists and sympathizers gathered in the center of Kolkata, India, for a massive rally on December 27. The rally took place on what is alternatively called the Maidan or the Brigade Ground. Red Flags fluttered from one end of the Maidan to the other. Two distinct but related events occasioned this massive show of force. The West Bengal Assembly elections will take place in 2016 – it is the first event of importance. The second is the Organizational Plenum being held by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI-M], its first such meeting after thirty-seven years. The Plenum will run for four days, setting the CPI-M up not only for the short-term electoral challenges it faces but also the longer-term political opportunities. The CPI-M remains India’s largest left party, which is in close partnership with other left parties in electoral and political alliances.

West Bengal

The Left Front held state power in West Bengal for thirty-four years, until the right-leaning populist Trinamul Congress (TMC) ousted the Left in 2011. Since then, the TMC and its leader Mamata Banerjee have opened the floodgates of violence against the Left. Assassination of its local leaders has come alongside the razing to the ground of its offices. The bourgeois press egged on the violence with incendiary language (“The Left continues to bleed,” The Telegraph, November 4, 2014). CPI-M State Secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra defined the repression along four axes: an attack on democracy and democratic institutions, an attack on the peoples’ livelihood, an attack on secularism as well as an attack on the Left. At the rally, he led with the slogan, “Oust Trinamul, Save Bengal.”

A few months ago the mood amongst the Left’s cadre was low. The attacks had their effect. To build momentum toward this rally – and toward the elections – the CPI-M organized a massive campaign of marches (jathas) at each of the 77,240 polling booths in the state. Small to large groups of Communists and their sympathizers paraded through terrain which had been forbidden until recently.

Violence met them. TMC activists blocked the jatha as it marched through Mishra’s assembly constituency of Narayangarh in West Bengal’s southwest. An attack on Mishra – who is also the leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal State Assembly – and others, did not stop the jatha from pushing ahead. This was not the only attack on the CPI-M jathas. Each time the jatha was blocked, the CPI-M cadres made sure to return to the scene of the attack and restart their march. It was a symbol of great confidence. No wonder a million people gathered on Brigade Ground on December 27.

The coming elections in the state pose a complex test. The national parliamentary (Lok Sabha) elections of 2014 offer an arithmetic solution for the defeat of the TMC. Despite a wave in its favor, the TMC won only 39% of the votes – a minority. The rest of the votes were split between the Left Front (23%), the right-wing BJP (17%) and the Congress Party (10%). Mamata Banerjee recognizes her vulnerability, which is why she has alternatively courted the BJP and the Congress. If one of them joins with her, then she will likely be unassailable. But future elections are not won by the past election’s totals.

Corruption scandals that implicate the TMC government and deterioration in living standards has seen a drift amongst the TMC supporters. Where would they go? The Left will have to fight to win back the trust of the workers and peasants who went to the TMC since the late 2000s. That is the only way forward. But will the Left be able to draw in sufficient people before the elections this year?

The arithmetic of alliances is a siren, but could also be false. Linkage with the BJP is impossible. It is committed to a politics of ethno-nationalism and neo-liberal economics. The Congress is notionally committed to secularism, but its most severe problems are in the realm of economic and political policy. One of the considerations is for the Left Front to appeal to Congress voters to abandon their party in the name of democracy. The call for these supporters to join the Communists is read in the press as a call for an electoral alliance with the Congress. The Congress is not a worthwhile ally. It is also an unviable ally. In 2016, the Left will also go to the polls in the Kerala State Assembly election, where its main adversary will be the Congress Party. The Left will find it hard to work with the Congress in one state and then fight it in another.

Time is brief for the Left to turn matters around in West Bengal. Can a strong Left emerge not only on the Maidan but also in the ballot box? This is not a theoretical question. The test will be in the villages and neighborhoods of West Bengal. It will take a great deal of courage for the Left activists to give confidence to their supporters. As the CPI-M’s General Secretary Sitaram Yechury put it recently, the Left can win only “when our Party’s links with our people deepen – Communists take to people like fish takes to water.”

Plenum

The CPI-M holds this Plenum at this juncture to discuss the shifts in the capacity of the working-class and peasantry to build their own organizations. Trade unions of the factories and the fields are on the back foot, as capital has created mechanisms to undermine their ability to organize. Production units are spread out across the world at a scale at which workers are forced to beggar each other to the benefit of capital. Mechanization of production displaces workers, rendering hundreds of millions of people into conditions of bare employment. Almost ninety per cent of Indian workers, for instance, are employed in the informal sector.

Over the course of the past year, the CPI-M has been studying the changes in the socio-economic conditions in India and the impact of neo-liberal policies on the different classes. Having made an attempt to understand these shifts, the CPI-M leadership will now have to determine how best to organize the workers and peasants. As Prakash Karat of the CPI-M put it, the new conditions require the adoption of “new slogans, tactics and organizational forms of work in order to develop the class and mass movements.” This is the core of what the Plenum will discuss. There will be a serious conversation about the forms for building up the unity of the informal workers, the slum dwellers, the landless and itinerant field workers: these are workers too, indeed they comprise the bulk of the working-class and peasantry. No full-blown models exist anywhere to show the way – but there are shadows of new ideas, such as to organize workers where they live rather than where they work. But these will have to be tested in struggle.

The CPI-M alone has over a million card-carrying members. There are tens of millions of people in the mass organization of the CPI-M. Its allied parties – the CPI, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Forward Bloc, the CPI-ML (Liberation) and the SUCI (Communist) – come to the table with millions of members and mass supporters of their own. The Indian Left remains vibrant. But it has suffered greatly from electoral defeats (most notably in West Bengal) and from slow attrition of membership.

Not only must the Left create tactics sensitive to the present, but it will also have to make a claim for the future. There is no captivating sense that the Left is the future—that the Left can indeed take power and that only the Left can find solutions to the pressing problems of today. The compelling urgency to believe that the future is the arena of the Left is no longer in place. It has to be created not merely by the struggles in the present but by a more robust and confident assertion for the future. The horizon of the Left remains in the midst of the present struggles. It will need to be stretched out into the future, to push aside the prevailing view that the future is the domain of the Right. This is what the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui imagined was the case in 1925.

“What most clearly and obviously differentiates [the bourgeoisie and the proletariat] in this era is myth. The bourgeoisie no longer has myths. It has become incredulous, skeptical, nihilist. The reborn liberal myth aged too much. The proletariat has a myth: the social revolution. It moves towards that myth with a passionate and active faith. The bourgeoisie denies; the proletariat affirms. The bourgeois intellectuals entertain themselves with a rationalist critique of the method, the theory, revolutionary technique. What misunderstanding! The strength of revolutionaries is not in their science; it is in their faith, their passion, in their will. It is a religious, mystical, spiritual power. It is the force of myth.”

Precisely what the communists have to invoke is the myth of the revolution. The revolution is the spell that the sorcerer conjures up from the nether world, and can no longer control. It affirms life and provides a full alternative to the present. But short of that myth are the smaller claims of governance—the communists are incorruptible and decent, able to govern for the needs of the people rather than simply be the brake on a corrupt and indecent system. Broader horizons that were once the coin of the Left need to be minted once more.

More articles by:

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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