A.K. Gopalan Bhawan
There is no truth in the rumour, alas, that A.K. Gopalan Bhawan, the headquarters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in New Delhi, is to be converted into a museum with one Prakash Karat as its curator. The interjection, “alas”, in the previous sentence is deliberate, since such a museum in such a location and with such a curator would be apposite under the present circumstances. The Left has made itself into a museum piece by refusing to recognize and keep pace with the changes that have been enveloping the world and India for some time.
The tides of change have been so swift and so overwhelming that it is now difficult — if not impossible — to define what exactly constitutes a left ideology. One glib answer could be that the left is concerned with the interests of the poor and the eradication of poverty. But then, which right-thinking (the pun is intended) person isn’t? No one wants to live with poverty and deprivation all around. Moreover, the great left regimes of the world — Soviet Russia and communist China — do not have a very successful record in addressing the problem of poverty and its eradication. Under both regimes, poverty was glaring and what was worse, the existence of poverty and the social discontent that grows from it were suppressed by severe State oppression. People were deprived of food, liberty and often their lives. Some communists continue to deny this harsh history and this is one reason why history has dumped them into what a communist leader called the “dustbin of history.’’
Poverty has never been and is not the sole concern of the left and its ideology. The great debate has been on the path to take for the removal/reduction of poverty. One suggestion is that if the forces of production are unshackled and if through this process wealth is generated, poverty would eventually be reduced or removed. The other suggestion is that human agency needs to be actively involved in the redistribution of wealth to the benefit of the underprivileged. The “human agency’’ in socialist regimes was embodied in the State, which not only controlled the means of production but also allocated wealth and resources. The Left for historical reasons — the fact that the experiment first took place in Soviet Russia — has identified itself with the second line of thought. By doing this, it was oblivious that Karl Marx himself wrote rather admiringly of the unleashing of the forces of production, and that it is highly doubtful if he would have approved of what happened politically, economically and socially in any of the socialist regimes. The comrades chose to place Lenin, Stalin and Mao above Marx.
The point to emphasize is that there is nothing specifically “left’’ in the notion of the State as a leading economic actor. The Left claimed it as its own because the Soviet Union had adopted this model. It was a political choice driven largely by blind loyalty.
Since the proper name, Karl Marx, has been invoked, it is time to turn to the idea most associated with him and the ideology of the Left: revolution. The views of Marx and his lifelong collaborator, Friedrich Engels, on this theme were by no means fixed or unambiguous. In The German Ideology, they argued that revolutions occurred when old institutional frameworks clashed with new forces of production that strained to break free of the existing framework; the new productive forces were championed by new groups in society who challenged the dominance of older groups. This clash led to changes through which one mode of production transformed itself to another, and history moved from one stage to the next.
Contrary to popular belief, Marx and Engels were not unequivocal advocates of the seizure of power through an armed revolution. They had been youthful enthusiasts of the 1848 revolution but drew from their experiences the lesson that a revolution to end capitalism would be a long drawn out struggle like the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. By 1895, Engels was writing that power could not be won by a surprise attack of a militant vanguard without the support of a whole class.
These writings notwithstanding, Lenin proceeded to seize power in Russia through a coup d’etat led by the Bolsheviks. This came to be seen by him and all subsequent communists as the model for a revolution. What the “Russian Revolution’’ did was to produce a State and society that could only be maintained through an elaborate system of terror and lies. This model could not be replicated in any European country, and in Asian countries where power was captured through a violent revolution, violence and terror became the hallmarks of the new State. This experience has discredited the idea of revolution, and the notion, at least in the way the communists practised it, is no longer taken seriously. Political, economic and social transformations, drawing from the original insights of Marx and Engels, are perceived to be more long drawn out and achievable through molecular changes in men’s minds, their attitude and culture.
The disappearance of the revolutionary agenda, the collapse of communism across Europe, the exposure of the violence embedded in socialist regimes and the turn towards capitalism taken by the Chinese communist party have all contributed to the erosion of the practice and the ideology of Left politics. Add to this the resilience of the capitalist system that continues to thrive and adapt itself in spite of facing occasional bouts of crisis. The energy of capital that Marx wrote about, at times approvingly, in the late 19th century, continues to drive it to the exploitation of resources and the creation of wealth.
It is significant that these manifestations of change are all denied by the CPI(M) and its leadership. It continues to believe that capitalism is in crisis and will collapse, that the fall of communism was the outcome of a US-led conspiracy and that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the Soviet system, the accounts of terror are exaggerated, and the revolution will come, only the timetable is not known. It is these beliefs and not only the CPI(M)’s rout in elections that have made it so utterly irrelevant. The CPI(M) lives in its own make-believe world.
Is there then nothing that can be seen as Left in the contemporary ideological firmament? The Left is also identified in an undefined way with what is called “anti-establishment’’, with a way of looking at the world that does not conform. This Left often does not include members of communist parties but groups of people engaged with problems of the environment, human rights, feminism, gay rights, protests against forms of oppression not often written about — an assortment of issues that States across the world — capitalist, socialist, welfarist, what have you — often tend to ignore, marginalize and suppress. Such engagements will continue as long as exploitation and oppression exist, as long as conscience makes heroes out of ordinary human beings. Perhaps these movements are the signs of the molecular changes in the attitudes and lives of human beings. The wanderings in the wilderness that Marx wrote about in the late 1840s continue.