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The Left in Decline

Empiricisation or the pursuit of a political praxis that is uninformed by the project of transcending capitalism was ultimately responsible for the defeat of the CPI(M) in West Bengal. It is this empiricisation that is far more worrying than the election defeat itself. In a period when many have abandoned the concept of imperialism, the CPI(M) remains steadfast in its adherence to this concept; as long as the concept and the project remain valid, the historical relevance of the party remains unimpaired. But if the party does not arrest the process of empiricisation it has been experiencing and finally ends up accepting the hegemony of bourgeois theory, then it will get supplanted by some other communist formation subscribing to a theoretical position similar to what it has today.


The Left in Decline
only means that the engagement with the “small change of politics” is on the basis of a theory that spans the entire distance b etween quotidienne politics and the Prabhat Patnaik project of transcending capitalism. If this

Empiricisation or the pursuit of a political praxis that is uninformed by the project of transcending capitalism was ultimately responsible for the defeat of the CPI(M) in West Bengal. It is this empiricisation that is far more worrying than the election defeat itself. In a period when many have abandoned the concept of imperialism, the CPI(M) remains steadfast in its adherence to this concept; as long as the concept and the project remain valid, the historical relevance of the party remains unimpaired. But if the party does not arrest the process of empiricisation it has been experiencing and finally ends up accepting the hegemony of bourgeois theory, then it will get supplanted by some other communist formation subscribing to a theoretical position similar to what it has today.

Non-incriminating thanks are due to Rajendra Prasad, Akeel Bilgrami, Utsa Patnaik, C P Chandrasekhar, Jayati Ghosh and Nishad Patnaik all of whom were kind enough to read through and comment upon an earlier draft of this paper.

Prabhat Patnaik ( recently retired from the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

t is ironical that the very process that has brought about the decline of the CPI(M) is being suggested by many as the panacea for its revival. I shall call this process which has caused the decline, a process of “empiricisation”, by which I mean the pursuit of a political praxis that is uninformed by the project of transcending capitalism. Of course the ripening of a revolutionary situation occurs only sporadically. For long stretches of time therefore the political praxis to be pursued appears mundane and pedestrian, and constitutes what B T Ranadive used to call “the small change of politics”. But even “the small change of politics” for a communist party must be informed by the project of transcending capitalism, and when this does not occur we have only “the small change of politics” per se, i e, empiricisation. This process of empiricisation, which is ultimately responsible also for the election defeat in West Bengal, is far more worrying for any Left sympathiser than the election defeat itself, for an election defeat may well get reversed the next time around, but it is much more difficult to reverse a process of empiricisation. Since a necessary condition for a reversal of empiricisation is an awareness of its occurring, I shall concern myself here with a discussion of this process. This may also help to prevent further deliberate empiricisation in a desperate bid for rejuvenation.


What distinguishes a communist party is not that it does not “soil its hands” with mundane, empirical, everyday politics (that would be barren ultra-Leftism), but that its process of engagement even with politics at this level is imbricated by its project of transcending capitalism, informed by a consciousness of what Lukacs (1924) had called “the actuality of the revolution”. To be animated by the “actuality of the revolution” does not mean to believe that the revolution is around the corner; it

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theory linking the “here and now” to the overall project of transcendence is absent from the praxis engaged in “here and now”, then we have a process of empiricisation of the movement.

Four Tendencies Arising from Empiricisation

Such empiricisation in the context of our polity gives rise to at least four kinds of tendencies: first, it gives rise to the range of “sins” attributed to the party by its opponents, and even mentioned in the selfcritical documents of the party itself as afflicting it at various levels, such as c areerism, “satrapism”, bureaucratism, and bossism at local level. Second, it gives rise to a tendency to “adjust” to given situations to prevent losses, instead of carrying it forward as a part of revolutionary praxis. This in turn entails a process of alienation of the party from the “basic classes” that it is supposed to struggle for, viz, the workers, peasants, agricultural labourers, and the rural poor. The “party’s interests” are seen in isolation from, and as being d istinct from, the interests of the basic classes, and for the defence of the “party’s i nterests” immediate, “here and now” measures are thought of and resorted to, which may well diverge from the interests of the basic classes. Third, empiricisation leads to a shrinking of the distance between the communist party and the other political formations.

All this has been visible for some time now, including especially in West Bengal where the alienation of the CPI(M) from the basic classes (especially the peasantry) led to its electoral defeat after 34 years of Left Front rule. But the fourth feature of empiricisation, a basic one, is that it tends to produce further empiricisation, giving rise to a dialectic. And if the process is a llowed to continue unchecked, then it leads eventually to the party’s being hegemonised by the ideology of capitalism, to its rejection of the concept of imperialism which underlay the original split in the

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Second International and the very formation of the communist movement, and to a virtual disappearance of the difference between the communists and other political formations. At that point, even if the communists (or whatever other name they choose to call themselves by, at that date) win elections and form governments on their own, it makes little substantive difference either to the project of transcendence of capitalism or even to the conditions of the basic classes.

Two caveats are in order here. First, the CPI(M), though launched on this process of empiricisation, is still far from any such dire scenario. Its empiricisation therefore must not be overstressed. The very fact that it pulled out its support from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, even though such pulling out damaged its “party interests” in an immediate sense, and evoked criticism even from its self-confessed wellwishers like Amartya Sen, shows paradoxically the degree to which it still remains free of empiricisation. The point is not whether it handled the entire episode of the nuclear deal well; it certainly did not. But the point is that on an issue which it perceived as being linked to imperialist hegemony over the country, it did not put any “party interest” above what it saw as the class interests of the “basic classes”. This fact underscores the extent of its freedom from empiricisation. Likewise the fact that at this very moment, thousands of party cadre in West Bengal are facing the most severe repression for the “sin” of remaining committed to the cause that the party stands for, underscores the vitality of the party. The fact that this vitality has not been snapped as yet by going too far down the road of empiricisation.

Second, this process of empiricisation is, if anything, even more pronounced in the case of the other segments of the Left, especially those who claim to be to the left of the CPI(M). Some of them have even gone to the extent of joining the “anti-corruption” movement of Anna Hazare which epistemologically substitutes itself for “the people” (and does not just theoretically argue for positions which it perceives to be in the people’s interests), without any mandate from the latter; and claims superiority over the body which does actually have, under the terms of the Constitution, mandate from the people, namely Parliament; and thereby undermines the democratic order to push to the forefront a “chosen few”. (The Maoists no doubt are a separate category; but, chasing a will-o’-the-wisp in the jungles of central India, they have taken themselves, paradoxically, out of any mainstream a nti-imperialist revolutionary project.)


The question that naturally arises is: why did such empiricisation occur in the ranks of the Left, and in particular of the CPI(M)? Some would argue that this is an inevitable outcome of parliamentary politics, but that is a complete non sequitur. Revolutionary politics, as Lenin always emphasised, thrives best when the revolutionary forces have complete freedom of operation, which is why bourgeois formations are forever trying to roll back the freedom of operation, that comes with parliamentary democracy, for the political formations that speak for “basic classes”. The role of the Left therefore, far from shunning parliamentary democracy, must be both to participate in its institutions and to struggle for a deepening of their democratic content. This has been so much a part of Marxist understanding that no less a revolutionary than Rosa Luxemburg had actually wanted her party to participate in the parliamentary elections in Germany, and had not been in favour of the Spartacist uprising (though Karl Liebknecht had been); but she had been outvoted and had consequently led the uprising along with Liebknecht, in the course of which both were murdered.

To see empiricisation as the inevitable outcome of participating in parliamentary politics not only lacks theoretical validity, but represents a form of fetishism. Karl Marx in Capital had talked of “commodity fetishism”, where social relations were perceived as relations between things, and the origin of surplus value was located in some mystical properties of the things constituting means of production. Here we have a situation where mystical powers are being attributed to parliamentary institutions per se.

Revisionist Theoretical Understanding

One obvious cause for such empiricisation that Marxist theory has always emphasised is of course the development of a r evisionist theoretical understanding. The material basis of such a development has also been much discussed in the Marxist literature, and has been typically located in the fact that a section of the working class becomes a beneficiary of the fruits of imperialist exploitation.

In Margarethe Von Trotta’s 1986 film Rosa Luxemburg there is a telling scene that captures the tendency towards empiricisation. The entire social democratic leadership of G ermany is sitting around a lunch table and Karl Kautsky tells Rosa Luxemburg, who was then engaged, along with Clara Zetkin and Franz Mehring, in a struggle to uphold the revolutionary tradition of the party: “Rosa, why don’t you involve yourself more in the women’s question?” The unspoken part of Kautsky’s question obviously is: “why do you bother about issues of imperialism and revolution?” We have here a double empiricisation: the “women’s question” is sought to be empiricisd by being detached from the overall revolutionary movement, and an outstanding revolutionary is being asked to submerge herself in something that is so detached from the revolutionary movement.

But when there is no obvious change in the theoretical understanding of a party, and no obvious material basis, of the sort emphasised by Lenin and others (viz, the improved material condition of a section of the “basic classes” made possible through the “super-exploitation” of o thers), that could be adduced as causing such a change in theoretical understanding, then the phenomenon of empiricisation still r emains to be explained. One circumstance that does induce such empiricisation is when the popular movement reaches a plateau, when it stagnates. Stagnation gives rise to the apprehension that there may be a slideback; to prevent such a slideback all sorts of temporary expedients are resorted to which mark the beginning of empiricisation, but such empiricisation contributes further to the stagnation of the movement, causing further resort to empiricisation, and thereby setting up, as mentioned e arlier, a dialectic of empiricisation.

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Such a dialectic is illustrated by a story about Czechoslovakia in 1968. During the “Prague Spring”, when Alexander Dubcek’s group was having discussions with the representatives of the Soviet Union (prior to Dubcek’s removal by the Soviets), they pointed out that “Prague Spring” should not be blighted since it would have a remarkable impact on the Left movement in western Europe. To this the Soviet representatives’ reply was: “Don’t talk nonsense, there is no possibility of any expansion of the Left in western Europe!”.1 Dubcek’s removal certainly eliminated any residual possibility of an expansion of the Left in western Europe. The process of empiricisation in the Soviet Union was itself a response to the stagnation of the Left in western Europe, and it consisted in consolidating its hold on whatever it controlled in eastern Europe without “risking” any “Prague Springs”. But this served precisely to reinforce further the stagnation of the Left in western Europe.

CPI(M)’s Situation

The CPI(M) has been in a somewhat similar situation. Its strength has remained confined to just a few regions of the country. In these regions too the base it has was created through struggles undertaken during the 1930s and the 1940s, and though there has been a subsequent expansion of this base (otherwise it would not have got the massive electoral support it did in the three states it ruled), that expansion has also reached a plateau. Its primary response to this stagnation has been to consolidate, the way it sees best, what it already has; and this fact itself has contributed to its stagnation. For instance, its attempt to pursue “industrialisation” in West Bengal in a bid to consolidate itself there by preventing possible middle class alienation from it, which it sees as essential in a context where the party is not growing elsewhere, has actually also stood in the way of the party’s growth elsewhere. Its capacity to take up peasant struggles against land alienation, which is the principal issue of struggle all over the country at present, has been hamstrung by its loss of credibility because of incidents like Singur.

But while stagnation may tend to induce empiricisation, both stagnation and empiricisation cannot be dissociated from the broader international context within which the CPI(M) has had to operate. The collapse of the Soviet Union has dealt a massive blow to the socialist project; and even though the CPI(M), as a disciplined party, has not suffered in terms of an erosion in its ranks, the damage to the core of its inner convictions is undeniable. The natural tendency has been to repose faith in China despite all misgivings about the trajectory it is following; and the remarkable economic “success” of China has bolstered such faith. In the process, however, the party which once had the courage to take on ideologically both the Soviet U nion and China, because, respectively, of their Right and Left deviations, has been remarkably reticent in expressing any rese r vations in public (notwithstanding per vasive private reservations) about China’s development from a socialist perspective. What is more, China’s apparent “success” has created a tendency within the party for accepting economic policies, such as providing incentives to corporate capital in states where it is in power, which would have been anathema some years ago. I ndeed, within the overall context of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the most potent factor behind the empiricisation of the party has been the influence of the C hinese example.


There has been an additional factor at work as well. And this relates to the fact that in communist literature, the question “what after land reforms?” has not received as satisfactory an answer as it requires. Lenin’s classic formulation in Two Tactics of Social Democracy which had been written in the Russian context but had provided the theoretical foundation for communist practice in the 20th century in countries, where the bourgeoisie arrived late on the historical scene, ran as follows:

The proletariat must carry the democratic revolution to completion, allying to itself the mass of the peasantry in order to crush the autocracy’s resistance by force and paralyse the bourgeoisie’s instability. The proletariat must accomplish the socialist revolution, allying to itself the mass of the semiproletarian elements of the population, so as to crush the bourgeoisie’s resistance by force and paralyse the instability of the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie (1977, 494).

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While the first part of the statement was clearly understood and implemented by third world communist revolutionary movements, the transition from the first to the second, when it should occur, what should be the correlation of class forces to be aimed at, what in particular should be the attitude of the socialist revolution to the peasantry, remained vexed questions. From the episode of collectivisation in the Soviet Union (even if one accepts that there was no alternative to it at the time because of kulak resistance) to the Great Leap Forward in China (even if one believes that the problem with the Great Leap was not that it was conceptually wrong but that its timing turned out to be unfortunate), this second stage of the transition is where problems have arisen, derailing, in each instance, the entire s ocialist project.

What after Agrarian Reforms?

If this problem, of how do we follow up the initial breakthrough by way of carrying forward the democratic revolution through agrarian reforms, has vexed the communist revolutionary project, it has by no means been absent even in cases like India where the Left has led state governments within an overall bourgeois order. Since the proletariat proper, consisting of production workers in the modern sector of the economy, has typically been too small in such states, the slogan of industrialisation, even on the basis of reliance on large private corporate capital, has tended to gather momentum, and this in turn has given rise, at the conceptual level, to a “stage theory”: let us follow up land reforms by developing capitalism first, and at the next stage we shall think of socialism.

A stage theory, however, is a direct theoretical expression of the process of empiricisation. This may appear odd at first sight: many would even consider the Marxist theory of history itself to be an example of “stage theory”. But this is erroneous, since Marxism does not just describe “stages” or divide history into different stages corresponding to different modes of production but seeks to explain the d ynamics of history, the transition, if at all, from one stage to another.2

More pertinently, it may be thought that the project of building capitalism

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does after all link the “here and now” to the revolution, since it is sustained by a perception of the revolution. But this is wrong: the building of capitalism requires a suppression of the basic classes, while the transcendence of capitalism requires an activation of the basic classes. The presumption behind a stage theory approach, if it is adopted by the communists therefore, is that at some point the very same party which presides over the suppression of the basic classes will suddenly and mysteriously start doing the exact opposite, and that the basic classes will follow it in either case, which is absurd. The party that presides over the building of capitalism will end up being no different from standard bourgeois parties; notwithstanding its lip service to the revolution therefore, building capitalism, like what any other bourgeois party tries to do, is an instance of empiricisation.

Forces Pushing Empiricisation

It follows that there are powerful forces in the current situation that push the Left t owards empiricisation. The Left has to resist this push; it has to overcome empiricisation if the socialist project is to be carried forward. It must not only carry out struggles on the burning issues of the day wherever it can, undeterred by the empiricisation-dictated tactics of defending Leftled state governments whom such struggles may embarrass or threaten, but it must, even while running such state governments, ensure to the best of its ability that new ways are always innovated to advance the interests of the basic classes, to improve their material conditions so that their capacity to resist increases. All this is not easy, but the Left has to come to terms with this problem; and I believe, based on my reading of the Kerala LDF experience, that it is possible for the Left to come to terms with it.

What it must not do, however, is to pay heed to the friendly advice that is emanating from many quarters that it should get further empiricised in order to improve its position. There are two kinds of suggestions that have typically been advanced. The first states that the Left should b ecome “social-democratic”, by which presumably is meant a dropping of its concept of imperialism, and hence by inference, an acceptance of the view that a humane society, which does not oppress other countries and peoples, is compatible with capitalism. This first suggestion amounts in short to asking the Left to abandon its entire transformational project.

Abandon the Basic Classes?

Now, if imperialism as a category did not actually exist, and was a mere figment of the Left’s imagination, the adherence to which was preventing the Left from fighting for the interests of the basic classes, then this advice would make eminent sense. But such advice is offered, not on the basis of any argument that imperialism does not exist, but on the grounds that the Left would “grow” if it abandoned such baggage. This is nothing else but empiricisation: it amounts to saying that to serve its own “party interests” the Left should abandon the interests of the basic classes it is supposed to represent, who are everywhere getting squeezed by the neo-liberal policies imposed by international finance capital which constitutes the core of contemporary imperialism. This would amount in short to a selfobliterating act on the part of the Left as Left, no matter what electoral dividends it brings in its wake.

The second suggestion talks of an Indian Left outside of the large communist parties, which together with progressive civil society groups that are taking up particular local issues in various parts of the country, can constitute an “Indian New Left” that can carry forward popular movements. Some versions of it visualise the inclusion of communists other than the CPI(M) in such a coalition; others may be “generous” enough to include even the CPI(M) provided it drops some of its s pecific characteristics. Now, a common feature of virtually all such groups that are supposed to constitute the core of the so-called “Indian New Left” is that they do not accept the category of imperialism. They may recognise and be opposed to specific “imperialist” acts like the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, or the bombing of Libya, but they do not see imperialism as a structural characteristic of capitalism.

The practical necessity for the transcendence of capitalism has been argued over the last hundred years on the basis of this structural characteristic of capitalism. A theoretical abandonment of this concept, for which, I repeat, no argument has been advanced, is tantamount to an abandonment of the project of transcending capitalism. It entails being incorporated within the system, fighting no doubt on behalf of the people on specific issues, but leaving its overall structure intact. It amounts, even in theory, to fighting merely for reforms within capitalism, and not for socialism.

Question of Capitalism vs Socialism

It may of course be thought that socialism is a pie in the sky, while fighting for reforms is a concrete means for improving the conditions of the people. For instance a movement for the advancement of the dalits, or for improving the condition of women can achieve much, without necessarily getting embroiled in questions of capitalism versus socialism. But this is an erroneous impression. Any improvement in the condition of rural women or any d ecisive blow against the caste system requires a breaking up of the old pre-capitalist “community”. Capitalism historically had done precisely that in its metropolitan base and the socialist project entailed the coming into being of a new “community” that is voluntarily entered into and is based on the position of individuals, uprooted from their original habitats, in the new production process that comes into being. But capitalism in our country, notwithstanding its apparently vigorous development, is failing precisely to break the old “community” because of its incapacity to absorb the individuals uprooted from their traditional habitats into a new proletariat, thanks to the phenomenon of “jobless growth”. This is the reason

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high growth rates coexist with khap panchayats; and as long as institutions like khap panchayats exist, the fetters upon the social advance of dalits or women will remain strong, which is why capitalism versus socialism remains as vital a question today as it ever was.3

Everybody, of course, is free to choose his or her political praxis and some may choose to be reformists without any project of transcending capitalism. But this, according to Marxist theory is erroneous praxis, not because one is ordained to desire socialism, but because no amount of fight for reforms can possibly make capitalism into a humane society, a proposition whose invalidity to my mind has not yet been established.

In a period when large numbers of people have abandoned the concept of imperialism, from “paid hirelings” of finance capital, to many western Marxists, to “official” spokesmen in China, to even third world intellectuals in countries like India, who willy-nilly are dazzled by the so-called high growth rates that have brought palpable benefits to the middle class, the CPI(M) remains steadfast in its adherence to this concept and hence to the entire project of transcendence, intellectually built around it by Lenin and others. As long as the concept and the project remain valid, the historical relevance of the CPI(M) remains unimpaired. And if perchance the party does not arrest the process of empiricisation it has been experiencing, and finally ends up accepting the hegemony of bourgeois theory, then it will get supplanted by some other communist formation subscribing to a theoretical p osition similar to what it has today. But no coalition of reformist forces, no matter




how well-meaning and serious, can possibly replace the communists as defenders of the interests of the basic classes. All this however does not preclude their working together on common issues.


1 This was narrated by an exiled member of Dubcek’s team at a meeting of the Tawney Group (of Left faculty members) in Cambridge, UK, in the early 1970s where I had been present.

2 For a critique of stage theory from a Marxist perspective, see the review of W W Rostow’s book The Stages of Economic Growth by Baran and Hobsbawm (1961).

3 For an elaboration of this argument see Patnaik (2011).


Baran, P A and E J Hobsbawm (1961): “The Stages of Economic Growth”, Kyklos, May.

Lenin, V I (1977): Selected Works (in Three Volumes), Volume 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers).

Lukacs, Georg (1924): Lenin: A Study of the Unity of His Thought, re-published by New Left Books, London, 1970.

Patnaik, P (2011): “Globalisation and Social Progress”, Social Scientist, January-February.




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