CASTLE THAT COMRADES BUILT - The party's shelter has cut communists off from reality

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By Rudrangshu Mukherjee
  • Published 13.07.08

Believe it or not, there are members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who still retain their sense of humour and the ability to laugh at themselves. One such member, described his own party as “a two-carat party”. The pun, like all jokes, contained an element of exaggeration.

Anyone who knows how a communist party functions is aware that decisions within it are not taken by only the general secretary and his wife. Party decisions are arrived at through a process of discussion at various levels, especially among the members of the central committee and the politburo. Individual members are free to express their views in these fora. Once a decision is taken, that becomes the party line and individual opinions cease to matter. The general secretary is then empowered by the party to publicly announce and explain the party line. It is possible, however absurd this may sound, that the general secretary in the internal discussions of the party took a position that was against what became the party line, and was thus forced to publicly present a view that is not his own. In the conflict between individual and party, the latter always prevails. An individual is free to leave the party and live with the taint of being called a “renegade”.

All this may sound too arcane for ordinary mortals, but that is how a communist party works, and has worked since it was born in the late 19th century in Europe. History made this process even more complicated and ruthless. In Soviet Russia, in China and in other parts of the world, for very long periods, communist parties functioned even without a semblance of discussion within the party. In Russia under Stalin, those who dared to express a view that was opposed to those of the all-powerful general secretary (that is, Stalin) found themselves and their families murdered, or if they were lucky, exiled to the Gulag. Think of Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin and innumerable others. Similar was the situation in China under Mao Zedong. The notion of inner-party democracy has always been a bit of a sham in communist parties. Fortunately, in India there is no Gulag, and members of the communist party cannot be bumped off after a show trial. Yet, how decisions are taken, say within the CPI(M), remains opaque to outsiders.

One will never get to know, for example, how individual members spoke in the central committee and the politburo on the Indo-US nuclear deal and the withdrawal of support from the government. Were there any dissenting voices? The party line is, by definition, unanimous, but surely that cannot be the case. It is difficult to imagine even communists being so programmed or brainwashed that they all thought along the same lines on an issue that critically affects the future of the party.

It could be argued, of course, that this is to give the comrades too much credit. For in the past, whenever communists have isolated themselves from the national mainstream, they have displayed a herd mentality.

In 1942, a diktat from the Soviet Union turned the CPI pro-British. In 1948, another directive from Moscow made the party under the leadership of B.T. Randive declare yeh azadi jhooti hai (this independence is a fake). In 1962, the group that became the CPI(M) shamelessly echoed China in accusing India of being the aggressor.

This is not to suggest that this time round also the communists are acting at the behest of a foreign power. But it needs to be remembered that the CPI(M), including its redoubtable general secretary, has not offered any substantial argument against the deal. Last year, when the controversy broke, Prakash Karat wrote in the party organ, People’s Democracy, that “the Left parties have been watching with disquiet the way the UPA government has gone about forging close strategic and military ties with the United States. The Left is clear that going ahead with the agreement will bind India to the United States in a manner that will seriously impair an independent foreign policy and our strategic autonomy”. Beyond this assertion, there has been no reasoned argument.

The assertion, it will be noticed, is premised on a visceral anti-Americanism. It cannot be denied that at one time, say in the Sixties, anti-Americanism had some relevance. The outcry against the US bombing of Vietnam, the students’ protests of 1968, the Tet offensive and the enthusiasm for the cultural revolution in China — all these fed anti-Americanism in India and elsewhere. That world is lost. Now in a state like West Bengal, ruled by communists for over 30 years, a poor boy in a remote district town, who has done extraordinarily well in his school-leaving examinations, wants to go to the MIT for further studies. No amount of ideological ranting can change this reality.

But why this refusal to accept reality on the part of the communists? The word refusal is used advisedly, since communist leaders are neither uneducated nor ignorant. The reason perhaps lies elsewhere.

It lies at least partly in the cocooned existence that the party provides. For thousands of communists and fellow-travellers, the doctrine of the infallible party was a haven. It gave them comfort and brought to them the faith that allowed them to suspend reason and thinking. The party did all that for them. The party did much more: it took over their identity. Communists are proud of saying that they have no identity save their party membership and party loyalty. Such faith made life simple.

One inevitable fallout of this is that communists have been and are perpetually out of touch with reality. Look at the way they swallowed without doubt or question the lies that emanated from various communist regimes. In India, this blind faith made communists surrender their nation’s interests and their own interests to orders coming from Moscow, London or Beijing. Similarly today, communists in West Bengal have surrendered their own interests and the interests of the people that elect them to the decision of comrades in Delhi who call the shots. All in the name of the party.

By surrendering their identity to the party, communists do not know what it is to feel vulnerable, what it is to react and respond like human beings. The party reacts and responds, individuals don’t.

In the Thirties and Forties, when communism represented a potent force against fascism, some of the best and the brightest minds of the era paid obeisance to the party and its doctrine. In retrospect, their attitude, especially given their learning, appears ridiculous. They all forgot that Karl Marx, the step-father of communism, had declared that his life’s motto was “Doubt everything”. Today, when, thanks to communists, communism lies discredited, those who are blind in their faith to the party do not even invite contempt and ridicule. Irrelevance is irrelevance is irrelevance is irrelevance.