Theorization on phenomena that have occurred or are occurring presents little problem. Sagacious minds can link aspects of a particular phenomenon, weave them together in a format that has a strong rational base and is capable of offering a prognosis on the sequences that might follow. The prognosis could click with events unfolding in the future, or go amiss because other factors might enter the picture. That would be no reflection, however, on the integrity of the prognosis. Human history is, after all, full of twists and turns. Neither Marx nor, for that matter, Lenin ever discussed the possibility of the emergence of fascism.
Marx and Lenin, or any of the pioneering Marxists, could not foresee the possibility of capitalism being sabotaged from within by a political formation that pretended to speak on behalf of the oppressed and exploited masses, and with the spell of sheer demagogy, would seize State power through scoring a victory in the so-called democratic elections, which capitalism could afford to indulge in. Once installed in power, this formation would deftly avail itself of the established administrative wings of the government to smother the other political parties and take total control of executive and judicial authority. The party’s goons would be let loose on all dissenters. Unbridled terrorization and violence would visit whichever citizen or groups chose to resist or protest; the State’s army and constabulary would aid and abet such activities. Capitalists would gladly go along since their interests would be fully protected by the goon bosses.
Marxist theory evolves and incorporates the lessons from developments in the human condition. The vast literature on the pre-conditions leading to and shaping the instruments of fascism are mostly the contribution of Marxist scholars. The so-called neo-liberals had their own pastime, dissecting the entrails of ‘totalitarian communism’, which helped to rescue them from the looming nightmare of fascist savagery.
Recent events in West Bengal tempt me to suggest that perhaps another Marxist formulation is in need of some reappraisal. These events in this eastern state are not receiving enough attention in the national and international media. The media have already reported several stories concerning the wayward, and often outrageous, activities of the present chief minister of West Bengal. Her ever-greater challenging instances of infringing the country’s democratic institutions in recent months do not appear in their view as deserving of additional space. They could prove to be horrendously wrong. This is where I find it useful to draw some sort of a parallel between what happened in France in the 1840s with what is taking place in West Bengal 170 years later.
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx describes in magnificent prose the nature and avocations of the lumpenproletariat assembled by Louis Napoleon who were terrorizing the people and availing themselves in full of the breakdown of governance in France: “Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, rogues, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets...”. To this impressive list, Mao Zedong, keeping in mind the context of his own country, would later add sections of the rural population who had been rendered landless and fallen back on banditry and similar means to sustain themselves. In the celebrated Communist Manifesto he wrote in collaboration with Engels, Marx expressed grave doubts concerning the prospects of the lumpenproletariat ever emerging as a stable social force: their interests, he seems to suggest, are too heterogeneous, bereft of any social goals, each constituent keen to satisfy its immediate interests and, where these interests are in conflict, turn against one another and add to the social instability.
What makes me sit up, though, is the extraordinary, almost eerie, resemblance, amounting to nearly total identity, between the diverse groups forming the corpus of the lumpenproletariat then terrorizing France and the lot on the prowl in West Bengal at the moment. I particularly relish Marx’s last entry in the list, “pickpockets”, who are another important category ruling the roost at this hour in West Bengal under the benign protection of the ruling party. And this is exactly where I have a feeling that, had Marx been around in the present times, he might have added a footnote qualifying his deep cynicism regarding the viability of the lumpenproletariat as a stable social force. For over three years now, West Bengal has witnessed a virtual dictatorship of the lumpenproletariat who have organized themselves into a fascistic political party under one supreme leader. What is generally known as ‘law’ has been done away with. In the manner of incidents that happened in some countries in Europe seven or eight decades ago, the party of the lumpen has triumphed in the polls by promising the impoverished and exploited masses a regime of both peace as well as milk and honey, and thereby has come to occupy State power. Common criminals, murderers and rapists not excluded, currently control and guide the administration. More than one high court judge have failed to get arrested some of these lowest specimens of society against whom there are charges of the gravest nature and watch helplessly as their orders are not carried out. Their comments on the blatantly partisan manner the forces of law and order are going about in the performance of obligatory duties are left unanswered. But that is all. Their word is not law; in West Bengal, the lumpen now decide what constitutes the law.
It may appear to be a puzzling situation. India has a written Constitution asserting strict adherence to the tenets of democracy and explicitly laying down guidelines to prevent any deviation from their observance. Yet, how come in a particular part of the country, at this very moment, all democratic rules are being so blatantly defied, and those charged with the responsibility of ensuring the rule of law, especially the administration at the Centre, are keeping quiet?
The answer to the riddle is closely related to recent developments in the nation’s polity. The Congress-led coalition government, formally in power in New Delhi till a couple of months ago, having both sold itself out to the so-called Washington Consensus on several crucial political and economic issues and at the same time increasingly assuming the character of crony capitalism, was aware of the growing animosity of a very large section of the electorate towards it. It was apprehending a major set-back in this year’s Lok Sabha poll, but was still hopeful of forming the new government with help proffered by other, relatively minor, parties. In the circumstances, discretion, the Congress concluded, was the better part of valour before intervening in the affairs of West Bengal. There was also the sensitive issue of Centre-state relations. The syndicate of the lumpen that rules the state could make a huge hue and cry in case of any attempt to discipline them. Given the length they were capable of going to, the outcome could actually be the reverse of what was intended and the lumpen might gain further public support in the State. Seemingly both the Congress and the then major Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, were not altogether confident whether, following this year’s poll, they would or would not need outside help for putting together a viable coalition that could rule from New Delhi. Neither of them therefore had the daring to protest against the mayhem let loose by the lumpenproletariat in the eastern state. Applying the provisions of the well-known article 355 and 356, used in the past against recalcitrant Left regimes in the state, was not even dreamt of.
With the BJP on its own capturing more than half of the Lok Sabha seats, and forming on its own the government at the Centre, the circumstances ought to have altered fundamentally. They have not though. The BJP is in the horns of a dilemma. With the Left seeming to be completely obliterated, some BJP leaders are of course tempted to make a bid for power in West Bengal by getting rid of the lumpenproletariat. It could give the green signal to the CBI to pursue with vigour investigations into the innumerable criminal acts of the now defunct Saradha group with which many prominent members of the lumpenproletariat are reportedly directly involved. It could put the squeeze on the lumpen state administration by delaying or denying, on this or that pretext, funds from the national exchequer. But there is the other, much larger, alternative hypothesis that the BJP leaders cannot afford to brush aside. As the general and rail budgets presented by the BJP government have already confirmed, the party will further intensify the process of handing over the economy to foreign interests as well as to the corporate groups, foreigners will now take over close to one-half of the equity of the most sensitive defence industry and the insurance business, in addition to the grip they have established in the banking sector. The assets of the financially most lucrative public-sector units are to be increasingly offered for sale in the stock market, and the floodgates will be opened across the entire economy to the entry of private interests in the name of the expansion of public-private partnership. The ‘rising’ middle class benefiting from the bonanza spurting from the software boom will offer cheers, but they are a tiny minority of the nation.
This situation might compel the BJP leadership to realize the likelihood of disillusionment growing fast among the millions who were carried away by the Modi wave. One consequence of such a realization could well be the revival of the Left with its epicentre once again in West Bengal, under a new set of leadership determined never to withdraw from the path of systematic and fearless resistance to the onslaughts against the peasantry, the working class and the immiserized middle class.
Should such a situation arise, the BJP might well have second thoughts. They could find it useful to supplement the RSS muscle-power by enlisting the support of the lumpenproletariat in West Bengal. The lumpen have their specially honed tactics to crush people’s resistance and use State terror to throttle the Left. The BJP could then continue to ignore even judicial remonstrations and, in fact, further extend its mute support to the dictatorship of the lumpenproletariat in West Bengal; and be even more generous with the release of funds from the Centre so that the lumpen can have a whale of a time. In case the global economic crisis persists, India’s ruling class would face increasing resistance from the suffering people in town and country and forcing it to rely more and more on lumpen support.
There could therefore still be a poser for Marxist theory. Notwithstanding their quick disintegration in France in the 1840s, the lumpenproletariat might remain in control in one little corner of the globe for an indefinite period and practice with impunity their fascist dictatorship. Would that call for a little footnote to Marx’s assertion? We will have to wait and see.