From International Socialism, No.30 (1st series), Autumn 1967, pp.21-23.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
‘The worst that can befall the leader of an extremist party is to be compelled to take over the government at a time when the movement is not yet ripe for the rule of the class which he represents … He who gets himself in that false position is irredeemably lost’ (Engels, The Peasant War in Germany, 1850.)
The Indian Left is drawn almost entirely from the urban middle class, and, in particular, those employed or associated with the national state. Thus, as a political tendency, it has always found it difficult to reconcile either the divergent trends within the middle class or, more important, the divergence between the demands of its own origins and the demands arising from its fluctuating popular support in the urban and rural masses. On the one hand, the pressure towards state capitalism, a Stalinist solution to India’s backwardness and the impotence of the urban middle class before the power of the dominant peasant castes and national big business, vies with pressure from below for a working class and peasant movement that will both reach down to the rots of Indian society and overcome the fragmentation of India instigated by castes dominant in each state; on the other, the Left strategy of pressure within existing Parliamentary institutions for an expanded state sector, pressure either within Congress as carried on by the old Khrisna Menon-style left, or within state and national assemblies as pursued by the non-Congress left parties, competes with a contradictory strategy of fighting ion the factories and on the land. The second has usually been no more than an adjunct of the first in the past, and thus relatively sporadic, weak, fragmentary.
The issue of popular struggle or pressure within the citadels of power can be fudged for quite long periods with impunity. The experience of there Indonesian Communists (PKI) up to the abortive coup of 1965 demonstrates thus, as do successive episodes in the history of European Labour or social democratic parties. But sooner or later, a choice has to be made: either to help run the status quo properly or focus fully on the creation of a radical rank-and-file movement, for which parliament may or may not be a temporary but very subordinate outlet for publicity. The price of a failure to choose can also be seen in Indonesia and the terrible destruction wrought upon the PKI once the house of cards fell apart (cf. Notebook, IS24, Spring 1966 and the current issue); the disaster to the Chinese Communist Party in 1920 when the Kuomintang fell upon it comes into the same category. Point is added to this dilemma in India when it is recalled that politics there have been moving rightward for the past half decade.
The Indian left could perhaps evade a choice until the February General elections. Brutal and incompetent as Congress rule has been, in those elections its vote declined only marginally (from about 43 to 40 per cent of the total poll). As before, the cities were fairly hostile to Congress, but the dominant rural castes ensured its real base remained secure. However, the oddities of the simple majority system of elections and the united front tactics of the opposition parties (plus a series of important, if not particularly Left, revolts within Congress) produced a change of government in six States (three more have created non-Congress Ministries since then), in two of which, Kerala and West Bengal, the Left is the dominant force; in two others, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the Left is of importance. One need not follow the right Communists (CPI) in their strategy of a ‘national coalition government’ (in yoke with the party of big business, Swatantra, and that of lower middle class Hindu chauvinists, Jan Sangh) to see the grave dangers implicit in the situation.
India is currently suffering its worst famine for a very long time, concentrated most heavily in the food deficit States – Bihar, West Bengal, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh. The third Five Year Plan is now officially regarded as a failure, and the Fourth has faded into nothing before it even began: what the national State loses, big business will recoup. The economy is in severe recession (worst in the most industrialised zones – for example, West Bengal), with little hope of strong revival until famine passes and those American companies hoping to profit in India. Overall, Congress survives by permission of the US PL480 food grains programme, and is progressively over-shadowed by its own and foreign big business and the dominant rural castes of the states.
In such a situation, when, as The Call (organ of the Revolutionary Socialist Party , April 1967) puts it, ‘neither in West Bengal nor in Kerala can the people be regarded as ready for a socialist transformation. The class struggle of the workers and toiling peasantry in these two states is far from reaching that stage, whether by utilising the forum of Parliament and legislatures or outside them’ – in such a situation, the non-Congress Left has decided to assume responsibility for the disasters that must inevitably occur by forming non-Congress Governments. The rightward moving perspective for India might include at some stage a military coup to maintain ‘law and order,’ particularly as Congress State governments fall. In that situation, the articulate Left faces at worst physical annihilation – as in Indonesia – or mass imprisonment – as in Greece, Yet, with one marginal change in votes, the Left parties have accepted responsibility for administering this rightward moving status quo, for the starvation in the countryside and the unemployment and sheer human misery in the cities – the employers are currently intransigent on the question of mass redundancies. Whether planned beforehand or not, these issues are and will be exploited to the full by Congress as a mean to discredit the Left in power. The arguments advanced to justify participation in the Governments concerned indicate the absence of any coherent analysis of the situation facing the Left and the Indian working class. The Call (ibid.) speaks of a ‘progressive democratic programme’ to attack the bourgeois capitalist order, and of the Left having ‘now one advantage that they can do so from positions of constitutional and legal authority and with the effective sanction of militant mass movements behind them.’ Either this is a revolutionary situation and participation in the Government is at best an irrelevance or distraction, or it is not; and if it is not (as The Call admits), for what purpose is the Left holding power: to create a revolutionary situation from the vantage point of the Chief Ministers office? When a Calcutta police station beat up a former Left MP, followed by the West Bengal minister of revenue (of the Left CPI), the irony of seeking ‘constitutional and legal authority’ for revolution became painfully clear.
To survive, the Left must subordinate itself to the same logic as any other party seeking to administer the status quo. And in India, at the state level, that means helping the disintegration of the country by pressing the state claims above any national ones – Bihar has threatened to refuse coal exports from the State unless Delhi sends more food; E.M.S. Namboodirpad (Left CPI), Chief Minister of Kerala, has threatened to deny Delhi foreign exchange earnings on the State’s exports unless Kerala gets more food, and very early on, he breakfasted with G.D. Birla (one of the largest and most hated of Indian big businessmen), to beg some private investment funds for his State: Kerala’s Labour Minister has condemned gheraos (strikes where workers occupy the factory and prevent the management leaving) and threatened strong police retaliation; and in West Bengal, the police and army have put down both striking workers and peasants in revolt – in early July, Bengal’s Chief Minister despatched 1,000 police to suppress the maxillary peasant revolt in the north, saying the police had full power ‘to use tear gas, lathis (truncheons), charges and shooting to crush the pro-Chinese free zone.’ This sounds like the language of counter-revolution, whether spoken by a Communist or not.
The Left CPI, by far the largest revolutionary element in the two main States concerned (52 in a 133 seat house in Kerala and 44 of 280 seats in West Bengal) has no clearer perspective than The Call. Its explicitly Maoist Left elements certainly dragged their feet about entering the Government, but the broad bloc of the centrists (neutral as between Moscow and Pekin) which includes the Calcutta section led by Jyoti Basu (now West Bengal Finance Minister) and Namboodiripad, Kerala’s Chief Minister, have been eager to participate in the spoils. One Left CPI leader has sought some rationale – the elections, he said, would ‘unleash new forces, even within the ruling party and among the capitalist class’ which would enable India to adopt ‘genuine and national policies’ (viz. land reform, more progressive taxation, selective nationalisation and the ending of foreign aid). At best, this is disingenuous, at worst, positively fraudulent – ‘new forces’ and a ‘new phase’ are conjured out of a hat to cover a vacuum of opportunism. There is no word as to why the Indian ruling class should accept anything at all because of an electoral quirk – certainly the Left’s popgun is no match for the armed divisions standing behind Congress. The hunger of the starving is offered an end to US food grains aid, the peasant more land (although no mechanism to achieve this is cited, given the flop of Congress land reform), and the middle class more jobs in the expanded public bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the leadership of the Left is swallowed up in the decorous antics of government, and the class issues at stake are absorbed in empty phrases. The rationale is old – Millerand’s attitude to Kerensky’s provisional Russian Government in 1917; British minority labour Governments, and today, in India, the attitude of the right CPI and social democrats (Praja and SSP).
However, some have learned. The Left CPI Politburo meeting in Calcutta last May complained of ultra-left splinters in six States; in West Bengal, four Government Ministers resigned in June, and 19 Left CPI State Council members were expelled for ‘ultra-leftism.’ and in Naxalbari, north-east Bengal, one of the first full peasant revolts since the 1947 Telengana outbreak, has broken surface among the tribal people, partly engaged on the tea-plantations; there have been echoes westwards as far as Bihar and southwards to beyond Calcutta. No daunt the Left CPI will argue that the revolt has been permitted to develop as it has because it is in power, despite pressures for suppression of the rebellion from its major partner in Government, Bangla Congress (a group of defectors from Congress, based on the rural bourgeoisie of one district, Midnapore). But this is a transparent rationalisation, contradicted by the Government’s present attempts to suppress the revolt. The West Bengal Government cannot ‘succeed’ unless it puts down ‘anarchy’ in the shape of this revolt, and inputting it down, it destroys what should be its own popular base. The revolt has taken place in the face of efforts by the Left CPI to stifle it, and has precipitated the sectarian splintering of the Left CPI itself. More to the point, despite the cheering off-stage by Pekin (cf. Peking Review 29, 14 July 1967, p.24), the Indian army under Delhi’s command can annihilate both the State Government and the rebels (as it did in Telengana) as soon as Delhi is confident the short-term food crisis is over and that therefore it is creditable for Congress to resume power. It is the Left that will bear the responsibility for famine and suppressing popular protest, for interposing itself between the two millstones of rulers and ruled.
The argument is not, as many Indian socialists seem to think, about whether revolutionaries should co-operate with the Muslim league or Bangla Congress or anyone else. It is about what the Left can most effectively do to build its rank-and-file strength and guard against complete destruction as the rightward movement continues, about safeguarding and building organisations of real workers and peasants (rather than the empty abstractions that feature in much Indian socialist writing). At no stage in this process does the donning of Ministerial fancy clothes help; on the contrary, by confusing the issues, by putting the Left leadership in a position in which it cannot help but attack its own followers or ‘fail,’ it is a positively retrograde step. The main hope in India is that the Governments in which the Left participates can be defeated by Congress quickly to free the Left for more important matters.
1. cf. Ceylon: Hunting with the Hounds, on the occasion of the Ceylonese Trotskyists, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, joining the Bandaranaike coalition government, IS18, Autumn 1964.
2. For the background to the situation in India, cf. Himalayan Frostbite, IS12, Spring 1963, and Nigel Harris India: A First Approximation, IS17 and IS18, Summer and Autumn 1964.
Last updated on 31.12.2007