ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Verdict 2009: An Appraisal of Critiques of the Left

Critiques of the mainstream left in India have questioned its political strategies and priorities, in the light of the left parties' defeat in the 15th Lok Sabha elections, following which the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has conducted a review - identifying its weaknesses and errors. The argument that the left should not have withdrawn support to the ruling alliance in 2008 over the nuclear deal and should have privileged its struggle for livelihood issues, ignores the impact of imperialism on national sovereignty. That there were organisational shortcomings and mistakes by the Left Front-led West Bengal government is undeniable, but a rejection of the "democratic centralism" model of functioning by the CPI(M) does not automatically follow. Also the notion that a "left sans the CPI(M)" is viable flows from a flawed argumentative basis.

Verdict 2009: An Appraisal of Critiques of the Left

Prasenjit Bose

evolved out of the political developments surrounding the left’s withdrawal of support in July 2008. Because of the success of the Congress and the failure of the non-Congress, non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alternative in the elections, many have questioned the left’s stand on the

Critiques of the mainstream left in India have questioned its political strategies and priorities, in the light of the left parties’ defeat in the 15th Lok Sabha elections, following which the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has conducted a review

– identifying its weaknesses and errors. The argument that the left should not have withdrawn support to the ruling alliance in 2008 over the nuclear deal and should have privileged its struggle for livelihood issues, ignores the impact of imperialism on national sovereignty. That there were organisational shortcomings and mistakes by the Left Front-led West Bengal government is undeniable, but a rejection of the “democratic centralism” model of functioning by the CPI(M) does not automatically follow. Also the notion that a “left sans the CPI(M)” is viable flows from a flawed argumentative basis.

The author would like to acknowledge Albeena Shakil, Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya and Sudhanva Deshpande for discussions of the draft of this article without implicating them in any way.

Prasenjit Bose ( is convenor, Research Unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

he serious electoral reverses suffered by the left parties in India, particularly the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections have generated an intense debate. Given the gravity of the situation, this is not altogether unexpected. Some of the criticisms made by the wellwishers of the left as well as the critics are valid. A few critiques, however, have raised questions regarding the basic understanding of the CPI(M) of the very world we live in and how to make it better. Other critiques have focused on the issues confronting the left in West Bengal and drawn strong conclusions, questioning the ability of the CPI(M) to offer economic and political alternatives to bourgeois-landlord rule in India in the era of globalisation. This has led in some cases to a diagnosis of irredeemability in the CPI(M).

Against the backdrop of this ongoing debate, the CPI(M) has also conducted a self-critical review of its electoral performance. This review, which was undertaken from the grass roots level upwards to the state committees and the central committee (CC), has sought to outline the political and organisational causes behind the electoral reverses and also identify some specific factors, on the basis of which corrective measures can be initiated, in the short as well as the medium run.1 In the light of that review, the present article makes an appraisal of the critiques that have been made regarding the CPI(M) and the left from various standpoints.

Yesterday’s Battle?

The view that the opposition of the left to the nuclear deal and the consequent withdrawal of support to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on that issue was a mistake has been aired from various quarters. This has gained currency since the electoral-tactical line of the CPI(M) at the national level had

october 3, 2009

nuclear deal itself.

The CPI(M)’s review has held that the decision to withdraw support was correct but holds that the weakness of the left lay in taking the issue to the people in an effective manner in order to create sufficient momentum to alter the correlation of political forces. The government eventually succeeded in pushing through the deal and also win the trust vote in Parliament. The failure to gather sufficient political support for its stand on the nuclear deal also had its impact on CPI(M)’s electoral tactics. The CPI(M) review notes that the call for a non-Congress, non-BJP government post elections could not carry much conviction, given the limited scope of the alliances and the unreliability of some of the coalition partners.

But does the electoral defeat nullify the left’s stand on the nuclear deal? The issue deserves serious consideration, because the argument not only comes from right wing sources, but also from those who consider themselves to be on the left. The most prominent among the latter is Amartya Sen, who has not only commented on this issue in the media but has also linked his critique of the left to his concepts of justice elaborated in his latest book, The Idea of Justice. Delivering his Hiren Mukherjee Memorial lecture in the Indian Parliament on “The Demands of Social Justice” in August 2008, days after the trust vote was won by the UPA government, Sen drew a distinction between two approaches towards justice in his lecture, niti or “transcendental institutionalism” and nyaya or “realisationfocused comparisons”. “This”, he said, “was not only a matter for political philosophy, but also a central issue in political practice”, and provided the following practical example:

It is easy enough to agitate about new problems that arise and generate immediate discontent, whether it is rising petrol prices or the fear of losing national sovereignty in signing a

vol xliv no 40


deal with another country. These too are, of course, issues of importance, but what is to me amazing is the quiet acceptance, with relatively little political murmur, of the continuation of the astounding misery of the least advantaged people of our country…There is something peculiarly puzzling about the priorities that are reflected in what seems to keep us awake at night (emphasis added).

While there can be little disagreement with Sen on the “astounding misery of the least advantaged people” of our country as reflected in persistent child malnutrition and lack of access to education and health facilities, the problem arises in his comparing the struggle against those manifest and persistent injustices with the struggle to defend national sovereignty. In the process he also underplays the very significance of national sovereignty and its relationship to social justice. The proactiveness of fiscal policy and the political will towards redistribution of resources, which are central to social justice, depend on the degree of freedom enjoyed by a state vis-à-vis international finance, i e, national sovereignty. Dependence on the international food market dominated by big corporates and speculative interests can be inimical to the objective of ensuring universal access to food, whereupon food security gets deeply linked to food self-sufficiency and national sovereignty. In the context of the changes in the national patent regimes ushered in by the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, access to life saving medicines gets linked to national sovereignty. From the point of view of the communist left, therefore, the question of national sovereignty and social justice is deeply interconnected.

That Sen is not only refusing to see these interconnections, but also evading the basic issue, whether sovereignty is indeed being lost by signing the nuclear deal, became clear in a recent interview to Outlook magazine, where he says that while he does not know “whether the Indo-US nuclear deal was a good thing or a bad thing”, he asserts that “gut anti-Americanism” has driven the left’s opposition to the nuclear deal.2 Given the importance of “reasoned justification” in Sen’s own scheme of things, this sounds quite outlandish. The left never viewed the nuclear deal as a stand-alone agreement,

Economic & Political Weekly

october 3, 2009

but as a “cementing factor” for a strategic

alliance between India and the United

States. The terms of the Hyde Act passed

in the US Congress in 2006 had made it

clear that the US was opening the doors of

limited civilian nuclear cooperation (trade

in nuclear fuel and reactors) only in order

to interlock India into its own strategic

game, further its own commercial inter

ests and eventually bring India within the

ambit of the unjust global nuclear order,

sabotaging the goal of universal nuclear

disarmament. The terms of the 123 Agree

ment, which was signed by the UPA govern

ment after going back on its commitments

made in the Parliament and misleading the

people with utterly bloated promises of

nuclear energy, imply that civil nuclear

cooperation can be termi nated if the US

were to determine at any stage that India

was not acting in the US interests on issues

ranging from “proliferation secu rity” to

Iran. Acceptance of this deal would mean

accepting India’s status as a subordinate

ally of the US in international affairs and

hinging India’s energy security to US’ hege

monic strategies and interests. The left’s

opposition to the nuclear deal was based

on these very compelling reasons, or in

terms of Sen’s paradigm, based on “realisa

tion focused comparisons”.

In fact, subsequent events have vindi

cated the left’s apprehensions about those

bad “realisations”: the fact that the Iran

Pakistan-India gas pipeline has been

shelved by India under US pressure; that

the Group of Eight (G8) countries have re

solved at US’ behest to prevent transfer of

enrichment and reprocessing technologies

to non-Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

(NPT) signatories like India; that the Indian

government has started shifting from its

positions in the crucial World Trade

Organisation (WTO) and climate change

negotiations; and that the recent End User

Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) signed

with the US for defence purchases has

highly intrusive provisions. Sen refuses to

even engage with these issues, which im

pinge on national sovereignty and have

serious implications for the basic socio

economic rights of the people.

Sen also states in the Outlook interview

that when problems of hunger and under

nourishment, “on which the left is the

natural party to protest loud and clear”,

vol xliv no 40

persisted, “they think about American imperialism rather than the consequence of living in the kind of world we live in”. This criticism is unfounded because whatever welfare measures were initiated by the UPA government, from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) to the rural health mission and the increased spending on school education and midday meals, the left had a significant role to play in their actualisation. The consistent struggle and pressure of the left against the steep rise in food prices has also contributed to the move towards the proposed food security legislation, although the current proposal is ridden with halfheartedness. It can, of course, be legitimately argued that much more could have been done by the left on these issues, both in terms of popular mobilisation as well as political pressure. But to argue that the left should have restricted its interventions only on these matters is to willy-nilly suggest that the left should have remained a mute spectator to everything else being done by the UPA government.

It was not the left that had brought the nuclear deal into the equation. It wanted to remain focused on issues like the agrarian crisis, food security, rural employment, education and health, which formed the core of the common minimum programme (CMP). However, for the Congress-led government, forging a strategic alliance with the US became increasingly more important than pursuing the CMP. The priorities set in the CMP were over time replaced by the imperatives of the strategic alliance with the US like the defence framework agreement, the votes against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005, the nuclear deal, joint military exercises and various neoliberal initiatives like more foreign direct investment in insurance, banking, retail trade, real estate, etc, following the recommendations of the US-India Chief Executive Officers forum. Should the left have ignored or overlooked these regressive shifts in the government’s policies? The nuclear deal was initiated and pursued by the UPA government, which was a breach of the CMP. The question before the left in the ultimate analysis, was to accept or oppose it. Since it chose the latter and the UPA government was equally insistent on going ahead, the matter was precipitated leading to the eventual withdrawal of support.

That Sen’s basic problem with the left’s stand is itself an ideological one is given away by his characterisation of the struggle against US imperialism as “yesterday’s battle”. This is precisely where the Communist left’s worldview diverges from Sen’s. Just because US imperialism eventually won the Cold War neither implies that imperialism has ceased to exist nor that the US has ceased to be an imperialist power. In the left’s scheme of things, US imperialism and its consequences continue to be central to understanding the present world: the structural inequalities between the advanced industrialised countries and the developing world; the global dominance of giant corporations and speculative finance capital (i e, globalisation) which has precipitated the ongoing global economic crisis; the ongoing occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine; the “war on terror”, which has provided a fillip to religious fundamentalism and terrorism; conflicts over energy resources; and embedding capitalist development in an environmentally unsustainable trajectory. Giving up on the struggle against imperialism for the left, therefore, would imply eschewing its strategic vision and reconciling with the patently unjust global reality of imperialism; the surest path towards liquidation.3

The left does not only stop at seeing the “consequence” of living in a world of hunger but also goes on to analyse the causes behind it, which, in turn, reveals that imperialism has much to do with it. The persistence of hunger in India, as in many other developing countries, caused by the structural deficiencies of our development path, also typifies a policy failure. The neoliberal policies promoted by imperialism are directly responsible for the persistence of hunger and malnourishment.4 On the one hand, the withdrawal of state support to agriculture has precipitated an agrarian crisis, which has brought about a secular decline in per capita foodgrains production and availability. On the other hand, the emphasis on “rationalisation” and “targeting” of subsidies has led to the weake ning of the public distribution system (PDS) and exclusion of a large number of poor from their entitlement to subsidised food. The left’s struggle against hunger, therefore, takes the shape of opposition to these neoliberal policies, which derive their sustenance from imperialism.

Sen’s concerns on persistent hunger, however, do not extend to a critique of these policies. He derides the left for not protesting enough on hunger but does not criticise the policies and policymakers who cause or fail to remove hunger. On the other hand, the focus of the left continues to be in trying to understand the underlying causes of manifest injustices; the struggle against those injustices remains incomplete at best, and infructuous at worst, unless the struggle is pitted against those systemic causes.

West Bengal: Whither Change?

A trenchant and passionate critique of the CPI(M) in West Bengal has come from AM, whose concerns are undeniably genuine (AM 2009). Many of his criticisms, especially regarding the undue haste displayed by the state government in its industrialisation drive as well as the way land acquisition was handled, have merit. The CPI(M)’s review also notes these aspects. It was clear from the results of the pan chayat elections held in 2008 that the fear of land being taken away for industrial projects had alienated sections of the peasantry. The Lok Sabha election results have further confirmed this trend. Errors were committed in dealing with land acquisition. The police firing in Nandigram was a serious mistake, which led to the very unfortunate loss of lives of poor villagers. This enabled the Trinamool Congress (TMC)-led opposition to launch a virulent campaign against the Left Front, which has been successful in driving a wedge between the left and sections of the rural poor. This played a major role in the CPI(M) and the Left Front failing to win a single seat in the districts of South and North 24 Paraganas, East Medinipur, Howrah and Nadia, from where it had won the bulk of the seats in the 2004 elections. The CPI(M) review notes:

The Party and the Left Front government will have to rework the industrialisation strategy. The apprehension about land acquisition which affected sections of the peasantry should be removed. Steps should be taken to restore the links with those sections of the peasantry who have been alienated.

october 3, 2009

However, the industrialisation issue deser ved a more balanced appraisal on AM’s part. The industrial policy was not merely a brainchild of some individual leaders of the CPI(M) in West Bengal, as has been suggested by AM, nor was it formulated only after the left emerged victorious in the 2006 assembly elections. It evolved out of debates and discussions within the CPI(M) and the left, since the period when the New Industrial Policy of the West Bengal government was formulated in 1994. In fact this has even earlier roots, going back to the debate over private sector participation in Haldia Petrochemicals in 1985. Since then, the CPI(M), both at the state level as well as the natio nal level, has debated and reviewed the industrial policy issue from time to time, including in the last party congress held in 2008. The basic argument behind adopting an industrialisation strategy based on private capital has been twofold. First, the objective of generating non-agricultural employment in a rapid manner in order to ensure balanced development and second, the difficulty of the state government to embark upon a course of public sector-led industrialisation, owing to its limited resources and the constraints imposed by the neoliberal regime at the centre. The need to generate non-agricultural employment acquired urgency in the backdrop of stagnating agricultural incomes, increasing fragmentation of land, increase in migration and proliferation of informal jobs in the absence of decent work opportunities. While the recent phase of the industria lisation drive has clearly generated problems and engendered popular discontent in the rural areas, its critique cannot be made in an ahistorical manner.

Dwaipayan Bhattacharya (2009), writing before the Lok Sabha elections on the basis of his fieldwork in two villages located in Bardhaman and North 24 Parganas, had made some perceptive observations about the “local – and not so local

– changes” that are altering the landscape of rural West Bengal, including rural class relations, and noted the consequent conflicts emerging in the political sphere:

In response to these changes two very different views – both clothed in the popular language of democracy – are proposed. The first is steeped in a yearning, in essence, for the

vol xliv no 40


preservation of older rural forms. Various creeds of romantic anti-developmentalists, environmentalists, and radical left outfits as well as some political opportunists are pushing this. The other view is drawing a rosy picture of rapid transformation – of rural areas to towns, agriculture to industry, livelihood demands to lifestyle preferences, and beneficiary status to stakeholder interests… In this sharply polarised world carving a morally acceptable route for development, without compromising its electoral prospect, is the greatest challenge for the CPI(M) and its coalition.

The challenge, so presciently identified by him, has turned out to be stiffer than expected. This has necessitated a debate over the nature of development and industrialisation, in terms of how best to address the needs and aspirations of the basic classes, especially the unemployment problem, in the most effective manner. However, viewing the industrialisation effort as a deviationist error in its entirety would only derail any constructive discourse.

There are very substantive issues to be discussed and debated for concretely conceiving or actualising alternatives, as far as balanced development and industrialisation is concerned. What can be the contours of an agrarian strategy in West Bengal, which can consolidate the gains of land reforms and increase the productivity of small peasant-based agriculture? How can non-agricultural employment be generated in a productive and sustained manner? What possible role can the public sector play in the states’ industrialisation effort, given that the resource constraint confronting the state government is real and hard? To what extent can it address the problem of unemployment? Can planning play a more important role at the state level? Should private corporate investment in capital-intensive sectors be shunned completely? If not, on what terms can private investments be invited? What policies can the state government adopt to determine or influence the choice of techniques? What should be the role of small and medium enterprises in the industrialisation strategy? What can the state government do to promote innovations? Should industrialisation be based on the home market alone or should exports also be promoted? What is the best way to promote rural industrialisation? What

Economic & Political Weekly

october 3, 2009

provisions should a progressive land-use policy as well as land acquisition and rehabilitation policy comprise of? There is a need for the debate on the left in India to move beyond polemics into these substantive domains, for a clearer left alternative on development and industrialisation to emerge in the near future. Neither is it productive beyond a point to think and debate in terms of extra-territorial “models” of today or of yesteryears, nor is it desirable to concede ground, either intellectually or at the policy level, to those for whom industrialisation represents nothing more than “develop mental terrorism”.

Areas of Failure

Despite many successes of the Left Front

government, most notably in the sphere of

land redistribution, tenancy reforms and

democratic decentralisation, there have

also been shortcomings in crucial areas

during the recent period, which relates to

the lives of the basic classes. These involve

primary education, public health, prepa

ration of the people below the poverty line

(BPL) list and distribution of ration cards,

functioning of the PDS, rural infrastruc

ture like electrification, roads, irrigation

and flood control and other developmen

tal areas. In the face of worsening terms of

centre-state relations under the neoliberal

regime, the state government’s own re

source mobilisation effort could not keep

pace, constraining development expendi

ture. The implementation of welfare pro

grammes initiated by the state govern

ment as well as those initiated by the

central government, like the NREGA, Tribal

Forest Rights Act, the loan waiver scheme,

etc, has also not been up to the mark. All

this has engendered discontent among

sections of the rural and urban poor. Con

tinued deprivation of the Muslim minori

ties, particularly vis-à-vis their access to

education, jobs and other socio-economic

opportunities for advancement, along

with specific issues like the role of the

police in Rizwanur Rahman’s death, have

over time caused their alienation. It is un

deniable that all this is an outcome of the

class orientation of the Left Front govern

ment being adversely affected.

However, to pin the blame on the prin

ciple of democratic centralism, which,

going by AM’s explanation, has led to an

vol xliv no 40

inevitable degeneration in the CPI(M), is confusing. If one accepts this as the basic flaw within the CPI(M), then the task of rectification should start by abandoning democratic centralism. The evidence across the world, especially in the European countries, clearly show that abandoning democratic centralism far from leading to any rejuvenation of the communist left in the post-Soviet Union period, has led to their ideological disarray and organisational decimation. This is because democratic centralism as a concept is central to the functioning of a communist party, arising out of the necessity to have an organised and disciplined structure, which can take on the organised might of the bourgeois state apparatus. This necessity does not arise only during a revolutionary situation, but remains generally valid because of the very nature and power of the bourgeois state, which is ever keen to weaken class struggle and snuff out the communists.

The application of democratic centralism in practice, however, is a challenging task. Serious distortions of democratic centralism had indeed occurred in the Soviet Union, about which the CPI(M) has itself been critical. CPI(M)’s own practice of democratic centralism has been fashioned in the course of its evolution as a mass revolutionary party with a collective leadership functioning within a multiparty bourgeois democracy. The continuous effort to strengthen inner-party democracy and the practice of criticism and self-criticism is also vital. But AM’s diagnosis that the CPI(M) in West Bengal has suffered from a problem of “excessive centralism” without any democracy is a onesided view. One can also argue that a bigger role in organisational deterioration was played by violations of collectivism, discipline and adherence to communist principles, which form the core of democratic centralism. The CPI(M) election review notes the negative trends and degeneration that have crept into the different levels of the party. The problems afflicting the CPI(M) organisation in West Bengal are multifaceted, which calls for a thorough rectification. However, abandoning democratic centralism, far from aiding the rectification effort will only derail any attempt at course correction.

The roots of much of the malaise afflicting the Left Front in West Bengal today can be found in the status quoist tendencies, which have crept in the course of being in power uninterruptedly for three decades. The persistent weaknesses of the state government and the party organisation coupled with the conflicts over land acquisition helped the TMC-led opposition to launch an offensive against the Left Front. The promise of change by the TMC-led opposition struck a chord with the electorate. However, what is the direction of the change that is being proposed by the anti-left opposition? Asking this question does not imply complaining about political opponents availing of “opportunities opened up for them by one’s own mistakes” as AM suggests, but trying to soberly understand the nature of the anti-left opposition. While the antiland acquisition agitation topped with the romanticist slogan of “Ma, Mati, Manush” has succeeded in weaning away a section of the rural poor towards it, the core class base of the TMC in south Bengal remains the rural rich and propertied cla sses. For these sections, the “yearning for a preservation of older rural forms”, which Bhattacharya identifies as the leitmotif of the anti-left opposition, does not represent the post-1977 status quo but a possible return to their hegemonic status of the earlier era. The ascendancy and consolidation of the TMC in the state carries the risk of a rollback of the land and tenancy reforms undertaken by the Left Front government and changing the correlation of forces in the rural areas in very regressive directions.

Had socio-political processes been as benign and democracy as perfect as AM’s parable, a spell of governance by the TMC disillusioning the people who would then “switch back their loyalty to the left, thus provid(ing) the CPI(M) with the opportunity for a new beginning”, the problem for the left would have been far simpler. However, the murderous spree unleashed by the TMC in connivance with the Communist Party of India (Maoist), targetting dedicated and popular grass roots activists and organisers of the CPI(M), dalit or adivasi peasants in most cases, is a pointer towards grimmer realities. Over 85 CPI(M) activists and supporters have been murdered by the anti-left forces across the state, since the announcement of the Lok Sabha elections. There was also an attempt to assassinate the chief minister of the state in November 2008 through a landmine blast, which the Maoists owned up and celebrated publicly. The TMC refused to condemn the incident terming it as stage-managed.


As far as Lalgarh is concerned, the initial anger among the tribals over the police operations follo wing the assassination attempt on the chief minister in November 2008 had indeed sparked off an anti-government agitation. But the agitation was subsequently hijacked by the Maoists, after assassinating Sudhir Mandal, leader of Bharat Jakat Majhi Marwa Sangathan, the adivasi organisation that had initiated the protests. The “liberated zone” of Lalgarh was then used to launch a series of brutal attacks by the Maoist death squads killing over 45 CPI(M) activists, four supporters of Jharkhand Party (Naren) and three Election Commission personnel since January 2009.5 Far from expressions of tribal resentment, these were planned murders by the Maoists, meant to physically eliminate all their opponents from the area and terrorise the tribals into submission. All along, the Maoists received tactical support from the TMC. The combination of the right wing populism of the TMC on the one hand, and the nihilist anarchism of the Maoists on the other, which has become the axis of the anti-left opposition in south Bengal, is much more than AM’s description of a “motley crowd with nothing much to offer beyond demagogy”; it represents the forces of reaction whose success would imply socio-economic retrogression and attenuation of democracy.

In order to prevent such a predicament of course, it is imperative for the CPI(M) and the Left Front government in West Bengal to correct its class orientation, reset its priorities and initiate thorough rectification in the party organisation. An effort in this direction has started, with the CPI(M) West Bengal State Committee adopting a blueprint for correctives in its meeting held on 1-2 August 2009.6 At the level of government policies, the meeting decided that the priorities need to be fixed

october 3, 2009

in accordance with a proper class outlook. Priority is to be accorded to land redistribution and agriculture, laying special emphasis on expansion of irrigation and ensuring poor peasants’ access to credit. Against the backdrop of increasing capital investments, the emphasis is to be laid on manufacturing and small and medium enterprises alongwith the adoption of transparent policies for land acquisition and rehabilitation. Land banks will be created excluding fertile agricultural land. Emphasis is also to be laid on developmental initiatives like state assistance to self-help groups, speedy preparation of the BPL list, ensuring ration cards for all citizens and improving the PDS functioning and expansion of welfare programmes for the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, Other Backward Classes, minorities and refugees. The implementation of the NREGA is to be improved by bringing the projects under the departments undertaking the construction of rural roads, social forestry, irrigation and flood control under its purview. Initiatives will be taken to expedite rural electrification, expand housing projects for the rural and urban poor, especially for the Muslim minorities, ensure universal access to school education for all children, improving the quality of school education as well as the public health infrastructure and properly implementing the social security schemes for the workers in the unorganised sector and the workers of closed factories. Organisational rectification, including steps against wrong trends in the party like corruption and ideological deviations is also to be initiated. For the CPI(M) and the Left Front in West Bengal, the success of these initiatives will be crucial in meeting the challenge posed by the TMC-led opposition.

The Left sans CPI(M)?

AM’s concluding observations about the “rigidity of internal discipline” making the left “excessively cautious” and “keeping them away from non-conformism of any genre” is indeed thought-provoking. He has also posed a rhetorical question:

Is it not remarkable that while several countries in Latin America have of late been swept by radical wave after radical wave, in none of their cases the leadership has come from the communist party?

vol xliv no 40


The issue deserves serious consideration. The radical wave in Latin America was basically a reaction to the right wing authoritarian regimes existing across countries since the 1970s, which were strongly allied with US imperialism and pursued neoliberal policies. It is true that the struggles against these regimes have not been led by Marxist-Leninist parties in most cases. Various kinds of progressive forces have led the left wing resurgence in the continent, the most radical of them being led by ex-military officer and president Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and the indigenous peasant leader and president Evo Morales in Bolivia. However, the ideological inspiration and support that the Latin American left has received from the socialist regime in Cuba is also undeniable. Cuba’s survival as a socialist regime in the face of the economic blockade imposed by the US since the early 1960s has been a powerful influence on the Latin American mass movements against US imperialism and neo liberal policies. The upshot is that the new radical forces in Latin America grew and came into power not by pitting themselves against or on the debris of the old communist left, but drawing inspiration from and in firm alliance with it. In fact, what is remarkable in the resuscitation of the left in Latin America is the very interesting marriage between the old and the new.

If AM is seriously concerned about a revival of the left in India drawing lessons from the Latin American experience, his question cannot be posed vis-à-vis the CPI(M) in West Bengal alone. What about the CPI(M) outside West Bengal or the left outside the CPI(M) and the Left Front? The Communist Party of India (MarxistLeninist)-Liberation for instance, which has been more than keen in politically attacking the CPI(M) at the first available opportunity, experienced a 20% decline in the total votes polled in the 2009 elections compared to 2004. Its predicament can hardly be attributed to the problems associated with the CPI(M) in West Bengal. Does not the challenge faced by the left, especially in terms of breaking new ground outside the three strongholds of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, which has remained unmet for several decades now, call for a rethink of the praxis of the left as a whole? How can it be the

Economic & Political Weekly

october 3, 2009

case that the entire burden of introspection and rectification following the electoral reverses of the left, falls only on the CPI(M) in West Bengal?

Raucous Criticism

It is important in this context to explore

the current thinking within the ultra-left

critics of the CPI(M). The tendency to com

pete with each other in denigrating the

CPI(M) in the most raucous manner, which

has become so fashionable within the ultra

left in recent times, is best reflected in

Sumanta Banerjee’s (2009) analysis. He

alleges that the CPI(M) central leadership

has “remained content with the regular

supply of a sufficient number of MPs from

the three states they ruled to keep the

party in the position of a broker in New

Delhi’s politics – the role assigned to

them by their late general secretary

Harkishan Singh Surjeet…”. Let alone

making an objective assessment, Baner

jee does not even make an attempt to se

riously critique the role that the CPI(M)

and the left have played at the centre,

when they were supporting the UPA

government from outside. Such name

calling under the garb of criticisms have

become the hallmark of much of the ul

tra-left today. In contrast, Deepankar

Basu who while deriding the “Social

Democratic Left” for its many failings,

has also noted the role left in halting fi

nancial sector reforms, privatisation of

various sectors and in providing relief to

the working people in India (Basu 2009).

The label “social democratic” used by

Basu to characterise the communist left in

India is of course a hangover of ultra-left

thinking. He will be hard put to show

where else in the world a social demo

cratic party is fighting against the neolib

eral policies in the way he himself notes

that the left has fought in India. Basu also

shares with other ultra-left critics, the to

tal absence of any understanding of impe

rialism in his scheme of things. That is

why the question of the nuclear deal and

India’s strategic relations with US imperi

alism does not figure in his analysis. How

ever, Basu’s willingness to at least acknow

ledge that the left has played a positive

role at the centre in fighting against

neoliberal policies reflects a break from

the usual ultra-left claptrap.

vol xliv no 40

Two distinct tendencies – the dominant one which competes with the right wing in heaping scorn and abuse on the CPI(M) and the dormant one, which attempts to critically engage with it – mark the ultraleft today. That the subjectivity ingrained in the former ultimately ends up in the terrain of the absurd can be seen from the political line propounded by Banerjee. He advocates a “common programme of left strategy and tactics” for the “[d]issenters within the CPI(M) like Abdur Rezzak Mollah, Somnath Chatterjee (in West Bengal), and the various breakaway groups from the CPI(M) in Kerala…in their search for re-establishing the ideological and moral values (that initially drew them to the CPI(M), but were betrayed by its present leaders)” and “the various popular movements breaking out in different parts of the country”, who, in turn, will “recognise and negotiate” with “armed Maoist insurgents”. It takes quite a lot of imaginative prowess indeed, to conceive of a “common programme” between, say, the former Lok Sabha Speaker, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Maoists. Underlying this “Left sans CPI(M)” theme is an unfortunate hegemonisation of some ultra-left minds by the anti-communist ideas of the ruling classes. It is precisely this ideological bankruptcy, which has led sections of the ultra-left to join the TMC led rainbow coalition against the Left Front in West Bengal.

Minuscule Contribution

Basu, on the other hand, while criticising the left for its “populism” and “parliamentary cretinism”, has called upon the left to “refashion itself by forging links with the rising tide of revolutionary mass movements in India against the neoliberal offensive” in order to “recover its potency and relevance”. The basic problem with the “revolutionary mass movements” in India that Basu seem to sympathise with is that they are so busy battling the communist left, as well as each other, that their contribution to the struggle against the neoliberal offensive, beyond rhetoric (“rising tide”), remains quite minuscule. Neither are they found in the struggle against US imperialism. If they are genuinely interested in that struggle, why are their energies being expended in weakening the communist left, which Basu himself notes as a force fighting neoliberalism? The communist left and Basu’s “revolutionary mass movements”, in order to “forge links” with each other, have to make a beginning with united struggles on common issues. Would Basu persuade his “revolutionary mass movements” to make common cause with the CPI(M) and the left on issues like food and PDS and against price rise, expansion of NREGA and relief to the peasantry in the context of the pervasive drought across the country?


In a context which was much different from what the CPI(M) and the left faces today in terms of the direction of change that is required, but equally ridden with difficulties and complexities, during the period following the adoption of the New Economic Policy in post-revolution Russia, Lenin had made some very insight ful observations about Communists’ making mistakes and correcting course:

Those communists are doomed who imagine that it is possible to finish such an epoch-making undertaking as completing the foundations of socialist economy (particularly in a small-peasant country) without making mistakes, without retreats, without numerous alterations to what is unfinished or wrongly done. Communists who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility “to begin from the beginning” over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish) (Lenin 1965).

It is of course not easy “to begin from the beginning” over and over again, especially for communists in the present conjuncture. But the left in India does not seem to have much choice today but to do so, both in terms of building struggles and movements across the country on peoples’ issues as well as reimagining left alternatives at the state level.


1 CPI(M)’s CC’s document, On the Review of the 15th Lok Sabha Elections available at: http:// election%20review.pdf.

2 See Amartya Sen’s Interview, “I Prefer to Fight Today’s Battles”, Outlook, 17 August 2009.

3 Here liquidation does not necessarily mean extinction but ceasing to be a communist force. On this see Patnaik (2009).

4 See Patnaik (2007) for detailed discussions on how the neoliberal policies under contemporary imperialism have caused agrarian crisis, rural distress and intensified hunger.

5 For an objective account of the Lalgarh developments, see Bhattacharya (2009). The casualty figures quoted by Bhattacharya are from 2003 onwards, while the ones cited in the present article are since January 2009.

6 Press Statement issued by West Bengal State Committee, CPI(M), 2 August 2009, Kolkata.


AM (2009): “The State of the CPI(M) in West Bengal”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLIV, No 30, 25 July.

Banerjee, Sumanta (2009): “Beyond the Debacle”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLIV, No 26 and 27, 27 June.

Basu, Deepankar (2009): “The Left and the 15th Lok Sabha Elections”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLIV, No 22, 30 May.

Bhattacharya, Dwaipayan (2009): “Of Control and Factions: The Changing ‘Party-Society’ in Rural West Bengal”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLIV, No 9, 28 February.

Bhattacharya, Malini (2009): “The Lalgarh Story”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLIV, No 33, 15 August.

Lenin, V I (1965): “Notes of a Publicist: On Ascending A High Mountain; The Harm Of Despondency; The Utility of Trade; Attitude Towards the Mensheviks, ETMC”, Collected Works, 2nd English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Vol 33.

Patnaik, Prabhat (2009): “Reflections on the Left”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XLIV, No 28, July 11.

Patnaik, Utsa (2007): The Republic of Hunger and Other Essays, Three Essays Collective.

october 3, 2009 vol xliv no 40

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top