Fifty years ago, in April 1964, when the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was formed as a splinter from the parent party, the Communist Party of India, communism had seemed to be an achievable dream. In the 1960s, Soviet Russia was a powerful socialist country, and communism in China, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, appeared to many dreamers as a more acceptable alternative to the Soviet system. No one quite expected that within 30 years the Soviet system would collapse and China would take a turn towards capitalism. Neither could anyone predict in 1964 that this fledgling party, the CPI(M), would come to rule West Bengal for 34 years from 1977. The CPI(M), in its short life of 50 years, has thus made history and seen history being made and unmade. But change has not left any noticeable mark on the CPI(M) and on the way it is organized and the way it functions. It remains trapped in an obsolete rhetoric and a thoroughly predictable way of viewing events. It still believes in democratic centralism, the infallibility of the party’s general secretary and in being the herald of revolution in India. It refuses steadfastly to shuffle off its communist coils.
What is ironic is that in the course of 50 years, the CPI(M) in one critical sense is back from where it began. In 1964 it was a minuscule presence in the Indian political firmament and was taken seriously by only a handful of people. From there it became a dominant force in West Bengal and played a crucial role in first the survival and then the end of the first United Progressive Alliance government. But this was only an interlude. Today it is back to being a political presence that no one takes seriously and which has no influence on national politics. Only the CPI(M) takes the CPI(M) seriously. In the late 1990s, there was a brief moment when it seemed possible that India would have a CPI(M) prime minister. But the party leadership nullified such a possibility presumably because it would not further the cause of revolution. It is difficult to know how the CPI(M) reflects on its past and its future. It is difficult because the CPI(M) still sees itself as a revolutionary party that is shrouded in secrecy. Is its mood self-congratulatory? Or is it concerned about the historic blunders it committed? Cynics might wonder at the relevance of these questions about an endnote of history.