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

A+| A| A-

Decline of the Left: A Critical Comment

Prabhat Patnaik's article "The Left in Decline" (16 July 2011) is disappointing as it soft-pedals the worrisome significance of certain developments in the Left. As Patnaik does not believe that there has been a change in the class-character of the party to explain the empiricisation, how then does one explain its "alienation from the basic classes"?


Decline of the Left: A Critical Comment

Hiren Gohain

power at the level of states, had never been summed up theoretically in a sharp, illuminating manner, but only described with tired clichés), but also the practical compromises with exigencies of bourgeois politics, like courting the support of certain communal forces and helping in prop-

Prabhat Patnaik’s article “The Left in Decline” (16 July 2011) is disappointing as it soft-pedals the worrisome significance of certain developments in the Left. As Patnaik does not believe that there has been a change in the class-character of the party to explain the empiricisation, how then does one explain its “alienation from the basic classes”?

Hiren Gohain ( is a distinguished Assamese literary and social critic.

Economic & Political Weekly

september 17, 2011

read Prabhat Patnaik’s thoughtful a rticle “The Left in Decline” with high expectations, but I must confess to a sense of disappointment (16 July 2011). The article ignores or soft-pedals the worrisome significance of certain developments among the Left that have reached maturity of late. My remarks will be confined to only a part, though a crucial part, of his argument, and will refer to those developments.


Though one might quibble about the term “empiricisation”, one recognises the fatal trend denoted by it. It covers such tendencies as bureaucratism and bossism, the propensity to “adjust” to given situations instead of attempting to transform them through revolutionary praxis leading to a hiatus between the “party’s interests” and those of the basic masses, gradual assimilation of the party to bourgeois parties in character, and virtual abandonment of the concept of imperialism during a period of world history when it has assumed a menacing all-engulfing form. The influence of the Chinese example at the time when the Left parties reached a plateau after securing partial land reform is cited as one of the major reasons for their straying from the revolutionary path. If such is the overall picture, one fails to understand why the familiar and clearer term “revisionism” should not be used. And once that term is applied, there would be an inexorable need for more severe and searching course-correction.

Actually the four tendencies are closely interrelated and they proceed from the same source, an abdication of revolutionary responsibility. This explains not only the absence or scarcity of theoretical e ngagement with the party’s experience at different stages of the class-struggle (the Left Front’s experience of holding

vol xlvI no 38

ping up short-lived coalitions at the centre. Such exercises took the attention of the party/ies away from the urgent work of organising and educating the masses at the grass-roots through struggle.

One has no quarrel with the proposition that the Left must make use of the opportunities for organising and educating the masses provided by parliamentary democracy. But it is quite another thing if the Left gradually sinks into the morass of parliamentary politics in the name of defending democracy from authoritarianism of various sorts. For it must be acknowledged clearly that the parliamentary d emocracy prevailing in India has a rather shallow and fragile basis.

Participation in Parliamentary Democracy

As Marx pointed out in his Critique of the Gotha Programme (Section I), “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby”. Now the s ocio-economic and political formation of contemporary India does not appear to be the same as that of the mature capitalist west. In collusion with imperialism and native capitalism powerful feudal remnants still dominate large parts of the countryside with the help of a bureaucracy and police with a feudal mindset. Only a small section of the people is entitled to civil liberties. Large sections of the population are held in a social and political stranglehold where these rights mean nothing to them. One does not see the Left engaged in a struggle along with these wretched victims of systemic oppression for acquisition of those rights. Rather it is assorted non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that form no unified bloc and are ideologically heterogeneous, who seem to be in the forefront of such struggles. The Left fights for such rights in parliamentary fora and legislatures, cushioned from the


actual circumstances and stresses of struggle on the ground. Rights to assemble and organise at the ground level are suppressed not only by the police and private armies of rich landlords in many parts of the country, but also by traditional feudal authority.

Practical assimilation to the attitudes of ruling-classes was seen at its worst in suppression of popular protests at Singur and Nandigram. There “party interest” definitely has overcome the interest of basic classes. Can one call it mere “empiricisation” and leave it at that?

The role of the Left in Parliament also has not come up to expectations. It has from time to time offered a reasoned criticism of the government’s policies and taken a stand against anti-people policies and legislation, but with little effect. Its role in Parliament has not awakened the masses to the harm inflicted on them by the classinterest of the government, or aroused resistance against it. Even in the matter of defending the hard-won rights of labour against the neo-liberal joint offensive of the government and private capital, they have not shown much success. Thus the customary justification for participation in parliamentary democracy does not ring true in this case.

Deep-rooted Malady?

How does one explain this failure? Only tactical errors or some other deep-rooted malady? Even the praiseworthy adamant stand against the nuclear deal with the United States did not click with the masses. On the all-important issue of the price rise, the Left has not been able to convey to the masses its interpretation of the p henomenon by combining parliamentary with extra-parliamentary struggles. The fight against corruption has benefited the Rightist forces more. The looming conclusion is that it has botched its parliamentary role allowing bourgeois forces to gain the upper hand. Can it be called a consequence of empiricisation? Or is it something more?

Participation in parliamentary democracy has also meant seeking and holding power in the states. That has meant a cceptance of central policies to some extent, acquiescence in the anti-people role of the police, and compromises with the bureaucracy. True, there has been some degree of power-sharing at lower levels, and the panchayats had a more popular character. But there too the party became an instrument of domination rather than service to the people.

Lastly, it succumbed to the capitalist para digm of development with its present mantra of private sector-led and exportoriented and largely jobless growth, and was hustled into adoption of anti-people policies, robbing the masses of their right to land, water and other natural resources.

The frenzy of elections often leading to bloody feuds among different sections of the masses undermining their democratic unity, and the lure of power, have seriously weakened the Left’s extra-parliamentary initiatives and programmes, reducing them to lifeless rituals. Rightists have shown more imagination (of the reactionary type) and vigour in such work. The unconscious tendency to lean on the (bourgeois) State as a source of positive power for the good of the masses has sapped the Left of its energy to work independently at the grass-root level. At this very moment rampant neo-liberal policies are disrupting and upsetting workers’ lives with rising prices, a food crisis and unemployment. Vast numbers of people are being proletarianised and they are b eing brutally exploited through contractual employment. Yet they are not being organised into a militant force, and are rather herded into dispersed NGOs like i slands in a sea of misery. They have become prey to superstition, religious mania and machination of an hundred and odd new-fangled cults.

I hope that the above incomplete account has shown how a particular nonrevolutionary approach to parliamentary democracy in India today has led to both ideological dilution and practical impotence. This trend has encouraged both a slackening of guard and large-scale infiltration of opportunist middle-class elements into party ranks. Patnaik does not believe that there has been a change in the class-character of the party to explain the empiricisation. But how otherwise does one explain its “alienation from the basic classes”?


China after 1978: Craters on the Moon

The breathtakingly rapid economic growth in China since 1978 has attracted world-wide attention. But the condition of more than 350 million workers is abysmal, especially that of the migrants among them. Why do the migrants put up with so much hardship in the urban factories? Has post-reform China forsaken the earlier goal of “socialist equality”? What has been the contribution of rural industries to regional development, alleviation of poverty and spatial inequality, and in relieving the grim employment situation? How has the meltdown in the global economy in the second half of 2008 affected the domestic economy? What of the current leadership’s call for a “harmonious society”? Does it signal an important “course correction”? A collection of essays from the Economic & Political Weekly seeks to find tentative answers to these questions, and more.

Pp viii + 318 ISBN 978-81-250-3953-2 2010 Rs 350

Windows of Opportunity


A ruminative memoir by one who saw much happen, and not happen, at a time when everything seemed possible and promising in India. K S Krishnaswamy was a leading light in the Reserve Bank of India and the Planning Commission between the 1950s and 1970s. He offers a ringside view of the pulls and pressures within the administration and outside it, the hopes that sustained a majority in the bureaucracy and the lasting ties he formed with the many he came in contact with. Even more relevant is what he has to say about political agendas eroding the Reserve Bank’s autonomy and degrading the numerous democratic institutions since the late 1960s.

Pp xii + 190 ISBN 978-81-250-3964-8 2010 Rs 440

Available from

Orient Blackswan Pvt Ltd Mumbai Chennai New Delhi Kolkata Bangalore Bhubaneshwar Ernakulam Guwahati Jaipur Lucknow Patna Chandigarh Hyderabad Contact:

september 17, 2011 vol xlvI no 38

Economic & Political Weekly

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here


To gain instant access to this article (download).

Pay INR 50.00

(Readers in India)

Pay $ 6.00

(Readers outside India)

Back to Top