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Goodbye Socialism

At the January 14-16 conference of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s West Bengal state committee, the one-point agenda of industrialisation with the market in command took the centre stage. Does this indicate a fundamental change in the party's approach to economic reforms, or a temporary stratagem in the implementation of its original programme?


Goodbye Socialism

Sumanta Banerjee

At the January 14-16 conference of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s West Bengal state committee, the one-point agenda of industrialisation with the market in command took the centre stage. Does this indicate a fundamental change in the party’s approach to economic reforms, or a temporary stratagem in the implementation of its original programme?

Sumanta Banerjee ( is best kn0wn for his book In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India (1980).

Economic & Political Weekly january 26, 2008

here is an apocryphal joke about Mao Zedong. When he took Nixon for a drive in the Chinese countryside in 1972, the car reached an intersection, and the chauffeur turned to Mao and asked: “Comrade Chairman, do we take the left or the right turn?” With a side-long glance at Nixon and a twinkle in his eyes, Mao said: “Give the left signal, but turn right!” Did the warhorse have an inkling of the course that his successors were to take after his departure?

In Mao’s car, the left-hand indicator at least still blinked. But in the Tata Nano of politics that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) is driving today, even that seems to have been switched off, as apparent from the latest utterance by the party’s octogenarian patriarch Jyoti Basu, followed by policy announcements made by his successor in West Bengal, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, at his party’s state conference in Kolkata. “Socialism is not possible now”, Jyoti Basu was reported to have said at a recent press conference in Kolkata, adding: “We had spoken about building a classless society, but that was a long time ago.” Hastening to reassure his followers of his continuing commitment to the cause, he said: “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, January 6, 2008). As an afterthought as it were, while inviting both foreign and domestic capital, he added the caveat: “But we have to take care of each other’s interests and also safeguard workers’ interests” (The Hindu, January 6, 2008).

A few days later, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya fleshed out Basu’s arguments in concrete terms while addressing the 22nd state conference of the West Bengal CPI(M). Explaining his government’s industrial pro

gramme, he came out with major policy decisions. “Let industry grow”, he said, “on its own momentum”. He added reassuringly: “There is no need for any political interference in the process of industrialisation”. He was reported to have stated that decisions regarding where and what type of industries should come up and which investors should be allowed to set up bases in West Bengal, should be kept out of the domain of either Writers’ Building (the state’s administrative head quarters) or Alimuddin Street (where the CPI(M)’s party headquarters is situated). The decisions should be left to the investors. But then – following the cue from his guru Jyoti Basu – according to press reports, Bhattacharya also sought to assuage the fears of his party’s working class followers by adding the usual caveat: “The only sphere in which the party’s involvement is needed is to ensure that corporate social responsibility is being carried out properly” (Indian Express, January 18, 2008).

A Paradigm Shift?

Do these statements and utterances indicate a fundamental change in the CPI(M)’s approach to economic reforms, or a temporary stratagem in the implementation of its original programme? To seek answers, we have to go back to a long simmering ideological debate that had marked the chequered history of the Indian left ever since 1957, when for the first time the communists came to power in Kerala through parliamentary elections. Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya have stoked – unwittingly though – the embers of that debate.

The Kerala event threw up a number of questions before communist activists like


us at that time. How far can our leaders implement pro-poor measures within the given structure of the Indian Constitution and its plethora of laws that are heavily loaded against the poor? By agreeing to govern a state under those laws, aren’t they legitimising the anti-poor system and diluting their commitment to the revolutionary goal of overhauling that very system? How are they to reconcile the twin priorities of “struggle” and “governance”

– struggle against the bourgeois order, and governance of states which they rule under the same order? Our party leaders then assured us that while the basic struggle would continue, the communist ministers would take advantage of the government machinery to give some immediate relief to the people within the system. E M S Namboodiripad, the first communist chief minister of Kerala, made it clear that his administration was doing no more than implementing the agrarian reform that had been suggested by the Congress itself. But the Congress government at the centre was unwilling to accept even such a modest programme of bourgeois social democratic reform, and under pressure from its feudal landlord lobby and orthodox religious constituency (both the Hindu Nairs and the Christian Catholics), dismissed the Kerala ministry.

Having gone through that bitter experience in Kerala in 1959, 10 years later in 1969 when the Indian communists again had a chance to share power in coalition governments in Kerala and West Bengal through elections, the leaders of the CPI(M) (the radical wing that had come into existence in 1964) chose to take a hard line. It prioritised “struggle” over “governance”. In June 1969, the veteran CPI(M) leader B T Ranadive, explaining the role of his party’s ministers in the United Front governments of Kerala and West Bengal, declared that their task was to “unleash the discontent of the people rather than give relief”. Elaborating on the issue, he added: “...the Marxist ministers have been told to press ahead with legislation which is likely to be vetoed by the centre or the high court. Such confrontations are designed to tell the masses of the impossibility of carrying through fundamental reform under the present Constitution” (Indian Express, June 22, 1969). But, then, was the CPI(M) in a position to mobilise these “discontented people” in an alternative viable direction, beyond giving them the negative message of the futility of reforms under the Constitution?

It faced the test soon, when in 1969 in West Bengal its ministers of the United Front government launched an agitation to distribute surplus land (held in excess by landlords) among the landless. As predicted by Ranadive, it came into confrontation with the centre and the judiciary, as the landlords obtained stay orders from the courts, and the CPI(M) defying such orders encouraged the peasants to forcibly occupy those lands, which prompted the Congressled centre to raise the bogey of violation of the sacrosanct “law and order”. The industrial scene was also marked by CPI(M)-led strikes in jute, tea, textile and engineering industries. While at times, they helped the workers to secure gains in terms of better wages and working conditions, in most cases the industrialists closed their units, and abandoned West Bengal for greener pastures elsewhere. Thus, a capital strike by the business interests left West Bengal sliding down in economic terms. In the absence of a long-term perspective of either radical innovative responses (by taking over the closed down factories, for instance, and running them by cooperatives of the retrenched workers, and follow-up programmes of further consolidation of the gains of the peasant movement in the countryside), or an alternative defensive stratagem of working out a compromise while retaining the gains, the CPI(M)’s confrontationist strategy ultimately ended up in its isolation.

The party’s isolation in the 1969-70 period was further aggravated by its belligerent attempt to extend its organisation and establish hegemony in the state’s political scene. The CPI(M) leaders made an adroit use of both their ministerial powers and police administration, as well as their armed activists, to oust their leftist rivals from their bases. The violent clashes between these CPI(M) activists and their political rivals which disrupted public life not only alienated the non-involved citizens, but also antagonised other partners of the ruling United Front, who banded together against the CPI(M). Their withdrawal of support led to the collapse of the United Front government in March 1970, the imposition of president’s rule, and a series of developments that were to stultify the organisational growth of the left movement in West Bengal for a long time, till the lifting of the Emergency in 1977.

‘Rationalising’ Capitalism

Given this chequered history of communists as rulers under a capitalist system, and the crossroads at which they stand today, the reported statements of both Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya acquire importance for the left movement. At face value, they may look like merely reaffirming what had been known since 1977, when the left came back to power again in West Bengal and Kerala. In this new phase, neither did the communist ministers of the Left Front state governments claim, nor did the people of these states expect that the left-led governments would bring in socialism. From a sober assessment of their capacities, the parliamentary communists only promised to provide the people with some basic socio-economic benefits like land reforms, wage rise, trade union rights and better governance, among other things. To quote the CPI(M) programme, such governments were of a “transitional character” with a “modest programme of giving immediate relief to the people”– in other words, to manage the prevalent bourgeois system in a more democratic and efficient manner with a tilt in favour of the poor and the underprivileged who voted them to power.

The objective approximated to the welfare state model that the social democratic parties had introduced in the post-World War west European capitalist states. Like them, the CPI(M), instead of breaking with the economic structure of the prevalent capitalist system, agreed to work within it to make it more amenable to the demands of the poor – perhaps humanise it. Fair enough! But again, its constant refrain that its hands were tied down by a capitalistruled centre’s impositions created the feeling that nothing much could be achieved till the left captured power at the centre in pursuit of its final objective of “the establishment of people’s democracy and socialist transformation through peaceful means”. As a result, its experiment in West Bengal degenerated into a half-hearted exercise of limited reforms, and a full-hearted

january 26, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


operation to extend solely its party organisation through money and muscle power – lulling its followers into the belief that by expanding in such a way the CPI(M) would one day come to power at the centre.

The short-term measures of providing “immediate relief” (the oft-quoted words used both in the party programme and by party leaders) met the economic demands of the rural poor and urban middle class employees. Once having satisfied them (through the initial land reform measures like Operation Barga, minimum wages for agricultural labourers, higher salary scales and perks for government employees, teachers, etc), during the last 30 years the Left Front government sat back, neglecting the long-term supplementary measures that were necessary to follow up the “immediate relief”. It ignored both the responsibility of completing the agrarian reforms (through redistribution of the vested land among the poor, encouraging them to build up co-operatives, creating agroeconomic small-scale industries to employ their sons and daughters), and the need of restoring the industries (jute, tea, engineering, among others) that were closed down throwing thousands of workers out of jobs. The CPI(M)-led Left Front government also remained indifferent to the task of improving social welfare measures in education and health (the two sectors where the Left Front government has notched up a miserable record, what with increasing dropouts in primary education and a steady deterioration in medical ser vices). It thus fails to meet even the standards of the welfare state model of the social democratic parties.

These accumulated failures are now coming home to roost. Faced by growing unemployment among the rural youth (victims of the Left Front’s negligence of the need to train them in employable vocations), and the crisis of the small farmers unable to sustain their small plots, the CPI(M) is desperately looking for a way out. Opting for industrialisation within the neo-liberal framework, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya trots out the argument – there is the need for creating jobs for which industries have to be set up, and since the state cannot mobilise capital for establishing them, the economy has to be opened up to private entrepreneurs like the Tatas and multinationals to invest in West Bengal. He

Economic & Political Weekly january 26, 2008

has spelt out the implications in unambiguous terms: these big corporations will guide all decision-making, the building of infrastructure will be oriented towards the promotion of their business interests, and investment in health and education will be made only if surplus resources are available. The much touted promise of increasing availability of jobs is again rele vant only for the technically skilled educated middle class youth, while the younger generation from the peasant homes whose requirements for training in skills had been neglected all these years by the Left government will lag behind, and can at best work as temporary labourers in the new industrial sites that are being set up (as is happening in the Tata Nano factory site in Singur, where the local farmers were offered, as compensation for the acquisition of their lands, jobs of manual labourers to cons truct the boundary wall of the proposed factory, but once the construction was over, they were fired).

Alternative Options

Is the CPI(M)’s present rationalisation of capitalism an inevitable fallout from its original decision to form governments within the prevalent economic system and constitutional structure? One need not come to that fatalistic conclusion if one remembers that alternative options were – and are – still available within this system. In fact, a number of leftist economists and social activists in West Bengal had been urging for years for popular measures from below, like small-scale agro-industrial projects, promotion of poultry, milk cooperatives, cultivation of selected commercial and high-yielding crops, building of infrastructure like roads and bridges, all of which could provide year-round employment to the rural people. Further, reopening of the closed factories and re-employment of their workers, attempts to run them by forming workers’ cooperatives and marketing networks, diversification in the manufacturing of products, etc, could have been the alternative measures in the industrial sector. They had been stressing the need for decentralisation of powers and democratic participation of local people in programme formulation, along with the revival of the planning, welfare and regulatory functions of the state for the coordination of economic activity and provision of basic social welfare services like health and education. Curiously enough, none of these alternative proposals found mention in the deliberations of the January 14-16 conference of the CPI(M)’s West Bengal state committee. The one-point agenda of industrialisation by putting only the market in command took the centre stage, reaffirming the self-righteous approach of the party leadership. In fact, its refusal to listen to suggestions of substitute options for development was evident much earlier when it set its goons on Medha Patkar and other social activists who opposed the Singur and Nandigram model of industrialisation.

“Many bourgeois leaders”, says the CPI(M) programme, “demagogically use socialist phraseology for deceiving the masses”. These words might well fit the party’s general secretary Prakash Karat when he talks about the CPI(M)’s goal of fighting against neoliberal forces and protecting the interests of the poor, while wholeheartedly patting on the back of his West Bengal comrade who is turning the goal upside down – protecting neo-liberal forces and fighting against the interests of the poor.

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