Friday, June 03, 2011

The Defeat of the CPI(Marxist) in West Bengal

THE RIGHT-wing swept the Left Front out of West Bengal in India’s legislative assembly elections in May. West Bengal, India’s fourth largest state in terms of population, with 90 million people, had been administered by the CPI(M)-led Left Front since 1977 without a break.

By Kumar Sarkar

The defeat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was expected, but not quite to the same extent as it actually happened. From my limited, though very recent, knowledge of present day West Bengal's urban and rural life, the opposition to the Left Front, stemming from frustrations in the urban areas, was massive, due primarily to extensive unemployment. The discontent in the rural areas has been a recent phenomenon, after the bureaucratic handling by the Left Front government of land acquisition to promote industrialisation. Otherwise, the support for the CPI(M) amongst the rural poor had been extensive after the “Operation Barga” (the code name for land distribution amongst the landless peasants). But, after that, the CPI(M) ran out of steam and did not do anything significant to weaken the semi-feudal rural life. “Panchayat” or the local level village administration was, of course, a big achievement, but this was not used with any vision for the future.
The socio-economic development of Indian society reflects uneven regional development. In this, West Bengal, Kerala, Andhra and Tamilnadu have a rich history of peasant struggles. The situation in Tamilnadu changed, for which I do not have good knowledge. Most of the Andhra communist leadership went to the side of various Naxalite groups and Andhra had been, until recently, a stronghold of the Maoists. Kerala and West Bengal have been the two bastions of the CPI(M).
In Kerala, the CPI(M) has a largely agrarian base of many radical peasant struggles. West Bengal is unique in many ways because of its early pre-colonial industrial development and consequent development of a significant middle class of “bhadraloks”, who control the self-styled revolutionary parties. They are comparable with Western petit-bourgeoisie, but remaining half-feudal in their socio-political outlook. They can be divided into two sub-classes: comprador and progressive or democratic. It is the latter sub-class that has been the backbone of the CPI(M) in West Bengal, which is the most democratic part of India.
Failing to grasp the essence of the uneven developments, the character of the semi-feudal and comprador bourgeois Indian society, and encouraged by understandable electoral successes in democratically advanced West Bengal, the CPI(M) has been gradually transformed into a reformist party, not comparable even with the Western Social Democracy. It has developed an all-India electoral strategy in which Bengal is attributed an "exemplary" role, which is supposed to attract the rest of India to follow suit!! And after 34 years, even the adjoining states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Odishi and Assam still live in the predominantly feudal times and have not seen many red flags except in Bihar and the tribal areas. And, of course, the decimation of the CPI(M) now is in the heartland itself!
With the abovementioned all-India strategy, the CPI(M) became a full-fledged party of “parliamentary cretinism”. With seven successive terms of electoral victories for the West Bengal Legislative Assembly over 34 years, achieved mainly by rural land distribution and to some extent by coercive practices in the urban areas and with a massive and largely disciplined membership, winning elections became the sole objective.
Within the narrow boundaries of a regional administration, in a fake federal system with member states having no real fiscal powers, soon it became impossible to satisfy the demands of the unemployed in the urban areas without initiating large scale industrialisation, which, again, could only be provided by the compradors! The problem was made worse by acquiring lands, paradoxically from those who had earlier been given lands, forcibly and using an archaic colonial act!!
With the class-consciousness emanating from 34 years of Left Front rule, the peasants firmly and militantly resisted such acquisition, led by the very forces, wearing the mask of populism, which had been cornered for three decades. An incredible irony indeed! The initially declared objective of using the Left Front government as an ”instrument of class struggle”, soon became, inevitably, an instrument of class collaboration!
To this can be added the antithesis of 34 years of continuous rule, the personal behaviour and high handedness and arrogance of thousands of cadres, and large-scale corruption of leaders, many of who have no ideological interests in the communist movement.
The electoral battle was fought almost entirely within the limits permitted by the ruling classes, represented by the regional Trinamul (Grassroots) Congress and the all-India Congress party. While the Trinamul wore the mask of populism, conveniently, to counter the leftwing signboards of the governing combine, the issues raised were naturally confined to good governance, law and order, corruption, education and jobs for sons and daughters of the bhadraloks and place of West Bengal in the all-India league table of capitalist exploitation.
Alongside this there was also the issue of the land acquisition policy for industrialisation to pacify the rural voters. Unashamedly the CPI(M) treated the issue of tribal struggle, led by Maoists in the western parts of the state, as a central issue of terrorism and law and order and asked for help from the Centre to crush it. Under these circumstances, the bourgeois media was highly successful in sending out waves of skilfully designed “news” item against the Left Front, and became instrumental in befooling even the most faithful that a “change” would be in their best interests, at least for one term.
The “electorate” chose the direct representatives of the bourgeois-semi feudal forces rather than their indirect bhadralok apologists. And, surprise, surprise, the bhadraloks have already promised, “to play the role of a responsible and constructive opposition” to feudal and comprador forces!!
The defeat of the CPI(M) creates an unforeseen political crisis. Tactics, which appear to be inappropriate, at least from outside, have prevented revolutionary communists from using, appropriately and positively, the heightened class consciousness in the countryside, originating from the Left rule, and accommodating this into an all-India strategy that has three inter-related components:

(a) Regions with land reforms completed;
(b) Regions with almost unchanged feudalism and;
(c) Tribal areas where production relations are older than feudalism.

The revolutionary process that has unfolded in the tribal areas is likely to resonate eventually in the areas of (b), creating its own dynamics. As for the areas of (a), the process may require some skilful initial use of electoral politics, with West Bengal being an appropriate component.
But to do so systematically, the issue of the democratic revolution as characterised by the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920 needs to be re-opened in the 21st century. The concept of democratic revolution in post-colonial and semi-feudal countries, with a big comprador bourgeoisie as distinct from its original anti-feudal European “counterpart”, and as a prelude to socialist revolution, remains a relatively undeveloped area in Marxism. The example of India elucidates this problem.
In India, an ex-colonial country of semi-feudalism and comprador bourgeoisie, there is still no “proletarian” working class of the Western type. As per official statistics, 43.9 per cent are self-employed (mostly agricultural, followed by wholesale and retail sales), 39.3 per cent are casual labour (mostly agricultural, followed by construction work) and 16.8 per cent are waged/salaried (mostly manufacturing, followed by community services). As per fields of work, 46 – 52 per cent of the working population is agricultural, 34 per cent is in the service sector and 14 per cent is in the industry, dominated by textiles; 65.8 per cent work in enterprises having fewer than 10 workers. 43.6 per cent are employed in seasonal or ad hoc type of enterprises [35.9 per cent of the total population is available for work, 63.5 per cent of the 15 – 59 age category; 9.4 per cent of those who are available for work are unemployed, 4.9 per cent in the 15 – 59 age group] (Source: Government of India, Ministry of Labour and Employment, Labour Bureau, October 2010). A large number of people are engaged in pre-capitalist mode of productions. All categories of workers have a dual character with a constant “backward” link with their peasant roots.
Of course this makes the worker-peasant alliance very convenient. In my last visit about two months ago to a Bengali village, about 20 miles from the large town of Howrah with its extensive small scale industries, I came across a growing trend of young members of peasant families daily commuting to Howrah to work in a sheet metal manufacturing factory. Some of these probably work sometimes as agricultural wage labourers.