The CPI(M) As Labour Lieutenants of Predatory Capital

In the Aftermath of Nandigram (EPW, 26 may 2007) saw Prabhat Patnaik (PP) coming forward with an indirect, partial but deep critique of the model of ‘industrialisation’ being pursued in Buddhadeb’s Bengal. The three main points in his submission were: (a) the Left Front government (LFG), instead of opposing the neoliberal policy regime imposed by the Centre, has accepted that; (b) Nandigram-type tragedies are inevitable so long as such policies continue; (c) the present day corporate industrialisation is “necessarily anti-people” and it creates less employment (including “downstream employment generation”) than the jobs lost by evicted peasants. These views were promptly and rudely dismissed by the West Bengal Chief Minister, in an interview with CNN-IBN on 30 June 2007, as those of an “academic” who does not “understand the real situation”. And now when the party prepares for its 19th congress in an atmosphere of intense debate over the same policies of Left-led governments, we find PP offering a vigorous defence of the builders of the very same neoliberal model of capitalism in West Bengal. (The Communists and the Building of Capitalism, EPW, 2 February 2008) Of course, he has a stratagem to make the shift appear less shocking: he skirts the real, concrete issues of Left polemics, presents a ridiculously oversimplified and de-contextualised version of the debate, and on that ground pretends to get his job done simply by “restating certain bread-and- butter theoretical propositions”.

Trivialising the Debate

“Does the fact of communist-led state governments operating within a capitalist system and hence playing host to private investment, necessarily entail that the communists have abandoned socialism?”

This is how PP introduces the debate. While mediapersons in his reckoning seem to say yes, he dishes out a lot of theory to prove the opposite and then solemnly proclaims the final judgement: no, “there is no reason for shunning capitalist investment”.

Well, did anybody ever expect or advocate a blanket ban on capitalist investment on the part of a government that has happily completed more than 30 years in the bourgeois- landlord set-up? He refers only to “media reactions to statements by some West Bengal communist leaders”; why does he not confront the specific objections emanating from left circles — including the smaller partners of Left Front, parties like the CPI (ML) and a host of Marxist intellectuals? And how about the “confusion even among Party sympathizers and well-wishers”, which PP referred to in an earlier, and a bit more forthright, web version of the same commentary? Are all these critics from various shades of the Left so stupid as not to understand the immediate practical-political context of the Left-led governments or to mix up the tasks of the democratic and socialist revolutions and demand a total onslaught on capital? Or is there something in the statements of CPI(M) leaders in West Bengal and — more importantly — in the particular contexts they were made (and the connotation they thereby acquired) to justify the critical responses?

Let us start from facts. Here is what Jyoti Basu (JB) said at a Kolkata press conference in early January: “Socialism is not possible now…We had spoken about building a classless society, but that was a long time ago… Socialism is our political agenda and was mentioned in our party document, but capitalism will continue to be the compulsion for the future” (Indian Express, 6 January 2008). Of course, he did not forget to add the customary commitments on protecting “workers’ interests” etc.

The ex-CM’s views were further elaborated by his successor at the party’s highest state-level forum, the 22nd state conference:

“Let industry grow on its own momentum... There is no need for any political interference in the process of industrialisation.” To leave no room for doubt, he clarified that neither the party not the government should interfere in matters regarding where and what type of industries are to be set up, and by whom. (Indian Express, 18 January 2008)

Such patently neoliberal positions (Buddhadev Bhattacharya (BB) also spoke of “corporate social responsibility”, but that is routine with all standard neoliberal prescriptions nowadays), later endorsed by General Secretary Prakash Karat, paint only a rosy picture of the actual goings-on in West Bengal. Whoever, whenever, whatever — industrialists and industries must not only be invited and appeased with all kinds of sops, the state government must unleash all its financial and coercive prowess to get things done in their favour. If somebody comes and demands the most fertile triple-cropped land for setting up a car factory, the government must not only oblige but quickly evict the reluctant peasants at gunpoint to clear up the tracts. When someone with a gruesome anti-communist track record offers to build an SEZ and the locals disagree, the government and the ruling party must join forces to enact one, two, three... any number of bloodbaths to pave the way. If the world’s most hated chemical MNC and killer of Bhopal wishes to construct the most polluting chemical hub — one that Western nations won’t allow coming up in their countries — the ‘communist’-led government must go out of its way to arrange for that on a virgin island, throwing all environmental concerns to the winds. The government must actively open up wholesale trade and even the retail sector for corporate invasion, including invasion by foreign concerns either directly or in joint ventures with Indian companies; what happens to hundreds of thousands of petty traders and shopkeepers being none of its concerns. It is these specific developments and policy stances that drew a lot of flak from left and democratic forces and the CPI(M) leaders’ sweeping comments were arrogant responses to those reasonable points of criticism.

Now, what kind of capitalism is this? If “what neoliberalism is promoting today is capitalism; and what the working class will create the conditions for, through the people’s democratic revolution, is also capitalism”, as PP correctly observes, is it not very clear that the West Bengal version does not have the faintest inclination towards the latter trajectory and conforms fully to the former?

Without a doubt it does. It is the stark reality of Singur-Nandigram path of capitalism which alone provides a necessary perspective to the utterances of CPI(M) leaders; these alone supplies a specific meaning to the otherwise very general — almost empty and often harmless — words and phrases like “capitalism”, there being “no alternative” to capitalism and so on, appearing in those utterances. All those who either praised or criticised these statements, in the media or elsewhere, did so because they correctly grasped this. No amount of abstract theorisation on PP’s part is going to fool them.

But this is not to say that the theoretical discussion Patnaik has launched is irrelevant. It is very relevant, very important; only we have to set right the subversion of Marxism he has managed to produce in his eagerness to prove the “inversion of reason” on the part of his opponents.

In the Web version of his comment, PP says that the CPI(M)’s detractors “are wrong on at least three counts: they do not distinguish between socialist and people’s democratic revolutions …between working within a system and working not to transcend the system…and…between the Party and Party-led governments.” These lines do not appear in the politically somewhat sterilised EPW commentary, but discussion of these distinctions constitutes the main body of the latter version too.

Democratic and socialist revolutions

Pointing out the continuity of struggle between the two stages, PP speaks of a single “historical process where the people’s democratic revolution leads on to the socialist revolution”. In this context, he asserts, “to say that the people’s democratic revolution is meant to create conditions for the development of capitalism is only a half-truth; it is meant to create the conditions for the development of capitalism that is different from the capitalism that would have developed otherwise”.

Fine. It naturally follows that informed by this vision, the proletarian party leading the people’s democratic revolution (PDR) should, when it administers a state government or even an organ of local self-government, strive to utilise that instrument for, inter alia, developing a form of capitalism that is different from the dominant form preferred by the big bourgeoisie. It should be, as PP points out, most “broad-based” and “based on thoroughgoing land reforms and the widening of the mass market”. Has the West Bengal government in its 30-year rule introduced the maximum possible degree of land reforms that is permissible under the Indian Constitution — as in Kerala for example? CPI (M) leaders themselves concede that it has not, and that survivals of feudalism are still to be seen. Also it is well known that Operation Barga has not been followed up by the next logical step of eliminating all intermediaries between the state and actual tillers and conferring ownership rights to the recorded bagadars. And that reverse land reform is now on the order of the day in West Bengal just as in other parts of India. This major lapse on the part of the West Bengal government does not find a place in Patnaik’s note.

Talking of the tasks of PDR, the author mentions only two of them — “the anti-feudal and anti-imperialist tasks”. He leaves out the struggle against Indian monopoly capital, presumably because that would render his defence of CPI(M) even more tenuous. But this is a very serious gap. Not only does big monopoly capital hinder the free and broad development of productive forces, its deep-rooted dependence on and growing alliance with imperialist finance capital obstructs India’s independent economic development and poses a big blockade to any real national awakening. Moreover, as the General Programme of CPI (ML) points out,
“Though the primary aim of this democratic revolution will be to abolish all feudal remnants and the concomitant autocratic and bureaucratic distortions in the polity, it will necessarily have several socialist aspects as well. Beyond creating conditions for a decisive victory of democratic revolution, the struggle against big capital will also pave the way for an uninterrupted transition from the democratic to the socialist stage of revolution.”

Bereft of this dialectical understanding of the organic link between the two stages — the necessary material basis for progress from democratic to socialist revolution — Patnaik’s intervention appears dull and lifeless in the current Indian context.

As for the party, in theory the CPI(M) still counts the struggle against big monopoly capital among tasks of PDR. But its governments conduct themselves in exactly the opposite way, fighting for Tatas, Salems and Ambanis against the rural and urban poor, while the party leadership fully supports that and brings pressure to bear, with great success, on trade unions to abandon the struggle in the states under its rule. However, this is not an aberration or sudden development. Right from the days of the UF governments in West Bengal in the late 1960s, democratic revolution for the CPI(M) had never been anything more than a narrow project of limited reform and with the stabilisation of governmental power in that state thanks to a historic compromise with the ruling classes, it degenerated further, as a matter of course, into a programme of bourgeois ‘development’ under the aegis of predatory big capital, indigenous and foreign.

Immediate task and transcending the system

In the movement of the present communists represent and take care of the future of that movement, as Marx and Engels famously stated in the Manifesto. This principle prompts them, inter alia, to work for transcending the bourgeois system even as they have to work within that system. In our country the ruling Left has no doubt scored impressive success in the role of responsible operators of the bourgeois state machine according to the rules of bourgeois constitution; how about their role in the struggle for transcending the system? It is difficult to find any such role; rather an increasingly conformist stance particularly on economic matters has firmly established the CPI(M) as just another state-level ruling party, as part and parcel of the system. PP in his commentary does not make any attempt to refute this widely held notion. He only presents a broad policy guideline for “state governments led by communists”. He says that economic stagnation caused by lack of investment (capital boycott) can damage the objective of creating the conditions for PDR “by restricting employment generation, and alienating the people from the communists”, but “on the other hand, any development that, even while creating employment in some sectors, destroys employment in others, including in agriculture through the alteration of the land use pattern can also have a damaging effect.”

While capital boycott, PP adds, “can damage the communists and hence the cause of the democratic revolution, any acceding to the demands of the capitalists that results in a hiatus between the basic classes... and the party can have an equally deleterious effect.” So “capitalist investment must be treated with circumspection” and left-led governments should adopt a policy of “making use of investments by capitalists even while not succumbing to their excessive demands, by taking advantage of competition among them, and by building up the countervailing force of government investment.”

Destroying employment in agriculture “through the alteration of the land use pattern”, succumbing to capitalists’ “excessive demands” resulting in “a hiatus between the basic classes and the party” — does this not read like an apt description of the CPI(M)’s Bengal bastion post-Singur-Nandigram? For the benefit of those who might think that the caveat came rather too late in the day, let it be noted here that PP has been issuing such warnings right since the LF’s victory in the 2006 assembly elections in West Bengal — a landslide victory, but one marked by a shift in support base from the downtrodden to the middle, upper-middle and affluent sections of society. (The Left in Government, Frontline, 2 June 2006). It is better not to ask what effect it produced on the party leadership.

Party and government

As his last line of defence PP puts forward the argument of party-government distinction. The government has to function according to provisions of the bourgeois constitution and cannot freely implement the party’s theory, he points out, and therefore “to infer from the practical policies of the state governments which are an empirical matter, the theoretical positions of the party, is an inversion of reason.”

What a gem! Well, the Indian constitution does set a broad capitalist framework within which all state governments are required to operate. But does it bind a state government to a particular type/pattern/trajectory of development in preference over another? Did it force the LFG to play such a brazenly proactive role in regard to SEZs, which have come to symbolise the latest and most ruthless onslaught of foreign and Indian monopoly capital? Nandigram is well known, but not everyone knows that the CPI(M)-led government passed its own SEZ act in 2003, well before the central government did it in 2005; was this a compulsion? Does the central government prevent the West Bengal government to go in for a comprehensive alternative package comprising small-scale agro-industrial projects, reinvigoration of cooperatives in various fields and so on, for relatively inclusive growth?

One might go on like this ad infinitum, but the point is already made. The Chinese wall between “the theoretical” and “the empirical” — between the state government’s practical policies and the ruling party’s theoretical and political positions and priorities — exist only in Patnaik’s fancy. In real life, the former always reflect and, within certain broad constitutional limits, are largely determined by, the ruling party’s political preferences.

More importantly, the reverse is also true: whatever the West Bengal government does, whatever policy it adopts, is supported and accepted by the party centre and incorporated into its theoretical framework. It is indeed a two-way process. The party-government overlap or identity is getting more pronounced by the day, and Patnaik’s attempt to guard the party and its ideological positions from the impact of growing “reservations” about policies of state governments run by it will prove utterly futile. 

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