“Neoliberal” Leninism in India and its Class Character

Pratyush Chandra

“Criticism – the most keen, ruthless and uncompromising criticism – should be directed, not against parliamentarianism or parliamentary activities, but against those leaders who are unable – and still more against those who are unwilling – to utilise parliamentary elections and the parliamentary rostrum in a revolutionary and communist manner. Only such criticism-combined, of course, with the dismissal of incapable leaders and their replacement by capable ones-will constitute useful and fruitful revolutionary work that will simultaneously train the “leaders” to be worthy of the working class and of all working people, and train the masses to be able properly to understand the political situation and the often very complicated and intricate tasks that spring from that situation.” (V.I. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, Chapter 7)

1. Lenin and the CPIM’s Leninism

The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPIM)-led Left Front government in its endeavour to industrialise West Bengal, admittedly within the larger neoliberal framework of the Indian state’s economic policies, is ready to scuttle every act of popular vigilance in the manner which Lenin would have called “bureaucratic harassment” of workers-peasants’ self-organisation. India’s official left position on neoliberal industrialisation and its potentiality to generate employment is very akin to what Lenin characterised “Narodism melted into Liberalism”, as the official left “gloss[es] over [the] contradictions [of industrialisation] and try to damp down the class struggle inherent in it.”(1)

In fact, the mass organisations of the official left in West Bengal have for a long time been the main bulwarks of the state government to pre-empt any systematic upsurge of the workers and peasants. They have become increasingly what can be called the ideological state apparatuses to drug the masses and keep them in line. And in this, Leninism has been reduced to an ideology, an apologia for the Left Front’s convergence with other mainstream forces on the neoliberal path, giving its “steps backwards” a scriptural validity and promoting an image that in fact this is the path towards revolution – all in the name of consolidation and creating objective conditions for revolution. For justifying their compromises locally in West Bengal, CPIM leaders have found handy innumerable quotations from Lenin, and sometimes from Marx too.  Contradictory principles and doctrines can easily be derived from their statements, if read as scriptures and taken out of contexts. Hence, as a popular saying in India confirms, baabaa vaakyam pramaanam, which loosely means, you can prove anything on the basis of scriptures.

Of course, this can be a variety of Leninism, as there are varieties mushrooming like religious sects, but such was not Lenin. Lenin himself never treated Marx’s writings as scriptural for justifying his every tactical move. Furthermore, especially after the defeat of other European revolutions, on many occasions he was ready to acknowledge Russia’s “steps backwards”, even during the formulation and implementation of the New Economic Policy. His defence of the independence of working class organisation and power beyond state formation in his attack on Trotsky’s advocacy of the regimentation of trade unions was especially for countering the counter-revolutionary potential in the Russian state’s “steps backwards” by ever-stronger working class vigilance. Lenin had the guts to say, “We now have a state under which it is the business of the massively organised proletariat to protect itself, while we, for our part, must use these workers’ organisations to protect the workers from their state, and to get them to protect our state. Both forms of protection are achieved through the peculiar interweaving of our state measures and our agreeing or “coalescing” with our trade unions.”(2; emphasis mine)

Such was Lenin even as the leader of the Soviet State, unlike the CPIM-led Left Front’s leadership, which seeks to stabilise its rule in a tiny part of India, where, it admits, its government can have no sovereignty.

The CPIM’s energetic peasant leader Benoy Konar (who rails against Naxal conspiracy in every disturbance in West Bengal), a major stalwart in the present debate on repression and agitation in the state, says, “West Bengal is a federal state in a capitalist feudal country. What its government has done is just a miniscule step compared to what Lenin was forced to do, even after the revolution. If this is what upsets these “true” Marxists so much, we request them to stop living in their imaginations and step into the real world.”(3) This logic is very instructive, indeed. It is precisely the case – Lenin could afford to do what he was forced to do because the revolution had taken place. Also, the “steps backwards” were essentially for the sustainability of the state, without changing its basic character – workers-peasants state, taking the risk of further bureaucratisation and distortion, which he thought the independent assertion of the working class would weed out eventually. If Konar and his gurus are forcing themselves to do the same in a “capitalist feudal country”, then it is for whose sustainability – of the “capitalist feudal” state?

2. CPIM and its Self-Criticisms

Throughout its thirty years of continuous rule, the West Bengal government’s main concern has been to stabilise its local rule within the parameters set by India’s state formation, and the hegemonic political economic set-up in the country. It boasts of its successes, but at what cost? The exigencies of the parliamentarist integration reinforced the accommodation and consolidation of a “supra-class” ideology within the communist political habits imbibed during its appendage to the nationalist movement, throughout India in general, and West Bengal in particular. This explains a less radical approach towards land reforms in the region.(4) The CPI-CPIM’s role became limited to controlling and policing the radicalisation of its own mass base, as in the 1960s-70s, especially with regard to the Naxal movement. It is interesting to note today how every attempt to form an organisation of the rural proletarians and small peasantry, independent of the rich and middle peasant (who benefited from the movements on tenancy rights and against the Bargadari system) dominated Kisan Sabhas, is systematically repressed by Bengal’s state machinery and party.

When the CPIM capitulated to electoral politics resorting to tactical measures and strategic sloganeering, because of the so-called popular mandate in its parliamentarist pursuit, militancy became a thing to be repeated only in speeches and slogans as its practice can alienate few votes, precious votes. This is not to say that it was only a subjective transition or a matter of conscious choice, rather, it represented the latent politics of the party leadership’s class character. In fact, the only thing lacking was a conscious and consistent opposition within, despite the fact that the party was aware of this from the very beginning. In one of its early documents, it noted:

“The struggle against revisionism inside the Indian Communist movement will neither be fruitful nor effective unless the alien class orientation and work among the peasantry are completely discarded. No doubt, this is not an easy task, since it is deep-rooted and long-accumulated and also because the bulk of our leading kisan activists come from rich and middle peasant origin, rather than from agricultural labourers and poor peasants. Their class origin, social links and the long training given to them give a reformist ideological-political orientation which is alien to proletarian class point and prevent them from actively working among the agricultural labourers, poor and middle peasants with the zeal and crusading spirit demanded of Communists. Hence the need and urgency to rectify and remould the entire outlook and work of our Party in the kisan movement.”(5)

To this P. Sundarayya adds in 1973 (when he was the party’s general secretary), “the same old reformist deviation is still persisting in our understanding and practice”, which frequently leads to “the repudiation of the Party Programme formulations.” (6)

This was all before the concern for stabilising its rule and building social corporatism – “peace”, “harmony”, etc., in West Bengal became the party’s prime agenda. Today, the state government’s industrialisation and urbanisation policies express the needs of the neo-rich gentry, a considerable section of which is the class of absentee landowners, dominating the bureaucratic apparatuses and service sector, who legitimately want a share in India’s corporate development. When the Kolkata session of the All India Kisan Council held on January 5-6, 2007 asks “the state government to forge ahead on the path of industrialisation based on the success of land reforms and impressive agricultural growth” (7), it is simply expressing the interests of all those who have benefited the most from the success of limited agrarian reforms.

The party is aware that if they alienate these class forces, it will not be possible to remain in power in “a constitutional set-up that is not federal in nature” and which reproduces their ideological hegemony through various identitarian and legal relations influencing the voting pattern of the electorate. As the present party general secretary Prakash Karat, notes:

“It was clear then as now that the policies implemented by Left-led governments would always be circumscribed by the fact that State power vests with the centre while state governments have very limited powers and resources. This is the reality of a constitutional set-up that is not federal in nature. This understanding was further clarified when Left-led governments began to rule in the three states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura for longer periods of time. Within all the constraints and limitations of office, these governments have to take steps to fulfil their commitments to the people and offer relief to the working people. While there are urgent issues before Left-led governments, including those of protecting livelihoods in agriculture, creating jobs by means of industrial development, and improving the quality of people’s lives, alternative policies in certain spheres can be implemented only within the constraints imposed by the system.”(8)

If this is not the Third Way, the there-is-no-alternative (TINA) syndrome, then one wonders what it can be. Zizek defines the Third Way as “simply global capitalism with a human face, that is, an attempt to minimize the human costs of the global capitalist machinery, whose functioning is left undisturbed.”(9) It is an old disease that inflicts all social democratic parties, once they start talking about consolidation within the bourgeois framework. Compare:

“Let no one misunderstand us”; we don’t want “to relinquish our party and our programme but in our opinion we shall have enough to do for years to come if we concentrate our whole strength, our entire energies, on the attainment of certain immediate objectives which must in any case be won before there can be any thought of realising more ambitious aspirations.”

To this Marx and Engels answered back in 1879:

“The programme is not to be relinquished, but merely postponed – for some unspecified period. They accept it – not for themselves in their own lifetime but posthumously, as an heirloom for their children and their children’s children. Meanwhile they devote their “whole strength and energies” to all sorts of trifles, tinkering away at the capitalist social order so that at least something should appear to be done without at the same time alarming the bourgeoisie.”(10; emphasis original)

This is the state of a self-acclaimed “revolutionary” party caught up in an existential struggle – “tinkering away at the capitalist social order”! Why not, “the journey towards socialism would begin only after the accomplishment of the task of the bourgeoisie democratic revolution. If the bourgeois did not join the democratic revolution, it would be easier for the working class to establish its leadership in it which would help in the next stage of socialist revolution.”(11) So friends, nothing to worry about, on behalf of the working class, the CPIM is actually taking a time out for accomplishing the ‘democratic revolutionary’ tasks. If the working classes – rural and urban – are being forced to shut up, it is all for ensuring their leadership!  So, “the programme is not to be relinquished, but merely postponed – for some unspecified period…”

The CPI(M)’s capitulation to an alien class-ideological orientation is stark in its continuous effort to de-radicalise the left trade union politics. Parallel to Sundarayya’s self-criticism, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya too has been time and again indulging in his own variety of self-criticism. His statements are very straight-forward, as he seldom minces words in his pandering to corporate interests. In one of his interviews to The Hindu (November 16, 2005), he says: “We did commit certain wrong things in the past. There were investors really afraid of trade unions here. But things have changed… I am in constant touch with our senior trade union leaders and keep telling them that it is now a different situation. …I tell [trade union leaders] they must behave. If you do not behave companies will close, you will lose your jobs.”(12)

The combination of subjective and objective factors determines the tenor of the official left politics everywhere in India today. So the repression of strikers at the Kanoria jute mill in 1993-94 and Singur/Nandigram incidents are not something unexpected. They are expressions of the Left Front’s stable rule in West Bengal for thirty years. These are the imperatives rising from the limitations, about which the Front and CPIM never tire to talk, and in which their existential politics is embedded. They do so, as there-is-no-alternative.

3. No “Doublespeak”, but the “Narodnik-like Bourgeois” speaks

Unsurprisingly, the CPIM’s present general secretary Prakash Karat whom some of us used to admire for his strong positions uncomfortable for the parliamentarian lobbies within the party has come out strongly in defence of the same parliamentarianism. His general secretaryship demands that. In India, the days are gone when within these communist parties, a general secretary used to be the voice of a particular programmatic tendency. The designation has been increasingly reduced to a ‘post’ in the permanent hierarchy, where the post-holder like a civil servant voices whichever tendency dominates in the party.

Prakash Karat accuses the ‘left opposition’ to the Left Front’s industrialisation policies of Narodism, which too is not very surprising. It is one of our standard abuses, along with ‘infantile disorder’, ‘revisionism’, etc… However, Karat in his defence really means it, when he says: “The CPIM will continue to refute the modern-day Narodniks who claim to champion the cause of the peasantry”, as he appends this with a note on the Narodniks.(13)

It seems Karat is ignorant – either he feigns it, or it is real – about Lenin’s analysis of Narodism. Lenin’s criticism of the Narodnik revolutionaries was mainly centred on their faulty understanding of Russian reality; unlike the Narodniks he saw a slow, but definite evolution of capitalism and capitalist market. He stressed strategising on the basis of this new reality. On the other hand, the Narodniks saw capitalism still simply as a possibility, and thus like true petty bourgeois revolutionaries dreamt of evading the ruthlessness of capitalist accumulation, while often lauding bourgeois freedom and democracy. Lenin in his diatribes obviously underlined the utopianism of this programme, but only on the basis of a critique of the political economy of capitalism in Russia. His fundamental stress was to describe the processes of capitalist accumulation, the ruthlessness of which was compounded by its impurity, its ‘incompleteness’. Definitely, an important component of Lenin’s programme was embedding the democratic struggle against feudal remnants in the unfolding of the socialist revolution:

“Thus the red banner of the class-conscious workers means, first, that we support with all our might the peasants’ struggle for full freedom and all the land; secondly, it means that we do not stop at this, but go on further. We are waging, besides the struggle for freedom and land, a fight for socialism. The fight for socialism is a fight against the rule of capital. It is being carried on first and foremost by the wage-workers, who are directly and wholly dependent on capital. As for the small farmers, some of them own capital themselves, and often themselves exploit workers. Hence not all small peasants join the ranks of fighters for socialism; only those do so who resolutely and consciously side with the workers against capital, with public property against private property.”(14; emphasis mine)

Lenin’s analysis of capitalism in agriculture showed a growing peasant differentiation. This led him to stress on the heterogeneity of proletarian attitude towards diverse peasant classes. He criticised the populism of the Narodniks and also the liberals who put forward a homogenised notion of “narod” (people). The same notion is found in the Indian official left’s attitude towards the peasantry and its assessment of the land reform efforts in the left-ruled states. When it calls upon consolidating the gains from land reforms achieved in a “capitalist feudal” society and pursuing industrialisation on their basis, it consistently evades the question of peasant differentiation. Such evasion is a reflection of the consolidation, within the left leadership, of the hegemonic interests that necessarily rose after the limited land reforms measures. As Sundarayya indicated, this lobby had already congealed within the CPIM and been affecting its work in the rural areas, much before it enjoyed the cosiness of the state power. Its consistent success in undermining the rise of the rural proletarians and their organisation in West Bengal is indicative of the strength of this lobby. When Benoy Konar and the All India Kisan Sabha speak for industrialisation based on the gains in agriculture, they speak on the behalf of the rising kulaks and upper middle class in West Bengal who would like to invest and profit on the peripheries and as local agencies of the neoliberal industrialisation – in real estate, in outsourcing and other businesses which are concomitant appendages to the neoliberal expansion.

While differentiating the agrarian programme of the Social Democrats (when the revolutionary Marxists still identified themselves with this name) from that of the liberals, Lenin criticised the latter’s “distraught Narodism” – “Narodism melting into Liberalism”, which represented the Narodnik-like bourgeoisie, and explained:

“Firstly, the Social-Democrats want to effect the abolition of the remnants of feudalism (which both programmes directly advance as the aim) by revolutionary means and with revolutionary determination, the liberals – by reformist means and half-heartedly. Secondly, the Social-Democrats stress that the system to be purged of the remnants of feudalism is a bourgeois system; they already now, in advance, expose all its contradictions, and strive immediately to extend and render more conscious the class struggle that is inherent in this new system and is already coming to the surface. The liberals ignore the bourgeois character of the system purged of feudalism, gloss over its contradictions and try to damp down the class struggle inherent in it.”(15; emphasis mine)

Here Lenin clearly states that “distraught Narodism” lies, firstly, in its reformist means, and secondly, in not recognising that the system is already a bourgeois system, hence the basic struggle is against the rule of capital. As Lenin indicated and as it is clear in the case of the CPIM in West Bengal, the ideology of “distraught Narodism” is an ideology of the class of Narodnik-like local bourgeoisie, which is necessarily Janus-headed. On the one hand, it feels insecure before its established competitors and their ‘bigness’, thus consistently calls upon the state to protect its interests. On the other, it is mortified when it feels the presence of its impoverished twin – the growing number of proletarians – as a result of capitalism in agriculture and also due to neoliberal “primitive accumulation”. Most dangerous is the faithlessness and weariness that this class of rural and urban proletarians displays towards the neoliberal euphoria – since it has already experienced more than 150 years of ups and downs of capitalist industrialisation, and its increasingly moribund nature. The Bengali political elites’ “doublespeak” vocalised by the CPIM is actually the reflection of the “Narodnik-like” character of the local bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, torn between the ecstatic possibility of their neoliberal integration, on the one hand, and the rising competition and class struggle, on the other. However, the ideology of homogeneous Bengali interests, along with the “communist” organisations and pretensions come handy in controlling these volatile segments, at least temporarily. It is interesting to note, how the CPIM leadership evades recognising the class character of “land reforms”, “impressive agricultural growth” and industrialisation as far as possible in its discourse, while overstressing their virtues. It is similar to the discursive habits of the Russian liberals – “distraught Narodniks”, which Lenin thus noted, while criticising “Mr L.”:

“Depicting the beneficent effect of the French Revolution on the French peasantry, Mr. L. speaks glowingly of the disappearance of famines and the improvement and progress of agriculture; but about the fact that this was bourgeois progress, based on the formation of a “stable” class of agricultural wage-labourers and on chronic pauperism of the mass of the lower strata of the peasantry, this Narodnik-like bourgeois, of course, says never a word.”(16)

4. Conclusion

When enthusiasm for neoliberal industrialisation is not well received, as a last resort in defence of the neoliberal policies in West Bengal, ‘vanguards’ like Prakash Karat and his associates have a ready apologia that “in a constitutional set-up that is not federal in nature”, the left government policies “would always be circumscribed by the fact that State power vests with the centre while state governments have very limited powers and resources.” (It does not matter that the CPIM’s other leader, Benoy Konar, talks of the same constraints by admitting West Bengal as “a federal state in a capitalist feudal country.”)

It is tempting to interpret this demand for more federalism in India as representative of “the demand made in certain circles that local self-governing institutions should also be given the autonomy to borrow and to negotiate investment projects with capitalists, including multinational banks and corporations”, as Prabhat Patnaik, a foremost Indian political economist, known for his allegiance to the CPIM and who has been lately appointed as Kerala’s State Planning Board Vice-Chairman, puts it. He continues, “this will further increase the mismatch in bargaining strength between the capitalists and the state organ engaged in negotiating with them, and will further intensify the competitive struggle among the aspirants for investment… This can have only one possible result which is to raise the scale of social ‘bribes’ for capitalists’ investment. This increase in the scale of social “bribes” is an important feature of neo-liberalism.”(17)

Particularly relevant in this regard are the CPIM leadership’s and the West Bengal government’s statements on Singur, in which they consistently fetishise the Left Front’s ability to win away the Tata project from a poorer state of Uttarakhand – an example of its competency in ‘social bribery’! Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya again and again with all his frankness defended his Singur sale to Tata – “We showed them various sites, but they settled for Singur. We could not say no to such a project, otherwise it would have gone to Uttarakhand.”(18)

This is symptomatic of the extent to which the official Indian left has re-trained itself in the competitive culture of neoliberal industrialisation. Of course, it does not have any parliamentary stake in Uttarakhand. Or does the party leadership want to entice the Uttarakhand people to choose CPIM, for its efficiency in negotiating or ‘bribing’ for neoliberal projects? It is obvious that in order to remain the sole contender of the nationalising and globalising interests of the West Bengal hegemonic classes, the CPIM leadership has been giving vent to Bengali parochialism of the local “Narodnik-like bourgeoisie”.


(1) V.I. Lenin, The Narodnik-Like Bourgeoisie and Distraught Narodism, 1903.http://www.marxists.org.uk/archive/lenin/works/1903/nov/05a.htm

(2) V.I. Lenin, The Trade Unions. The Present Situation and Trotsky’s Mistakes, 1920.http://www.marx2mao.com/Lenin/TUTM20.html

(3) Benoy Konar, Left Front Govt And Bengal’s Industrialisation, People’s Democracy, October 08, 2006.http://pd.cpim.org/2006/1008/10082006_benoy%20konar.htm

(4) See Dipankar Basu, Political Economy of ‘Middleness’: Behind Violence in Rural Bengal, Economic & Political Weekly, April 21, 2001. http://www.epw.org.in/showArticles.php?root=2001&leaf=04&filename=2411&filetype=pdf

(5) P Sundarayya, Central Committee Resolution on Certain Agrarian Issues and An Explanatory Note, CPIM Publications, 1973.

(6) Ibid.

(7) All India Kisan Council, Resolution: Unite To Fight And Defeat All Moves To Stop The Industrialisation Of West Bengal, People’s Democracy, January 14 2007. http://pd.cpim.org/2007/0114/01142007_aiks%20meeting.htm

(8) Prakash Karat, “Double-Speak” Charge: Maligning The CPI(M), People’s Democracy, January 28 2007.http://pd.cpim.org/2007/0128/01282007_prakash.htm

(9) Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute, Verso, 2000, p.63.

(10) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Circular Letter to August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Wilhelm Bracke and Others, 1879. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1879/09/18.htm

(11) Benoy Konar, West Bengal: Rationale For Industrialisation, People’s Democracy, November 06, 2005.http://pd.cpim.org/2005/1106/11062005_benoy%20kumar.htm

(12) The Hindu November 16, 2005. http://www.hindu.com/2005/11/16/stories/2005111605361100.htm

(13) See (8)

(14) V.I. Lenin, The Proletariat and the Peasantry, 1905.http://www2.cddc.vt.edu/marxists//archive/lenin/works/1905/nov/12.htm

(15) See (1)

(16) Ibid.

(17) Prabhat Patnaik, An Aspect of Neoliberalism, People’s Democracy, December 24, 2006.http://pd.cpim.org/2006/1224/12242006_eco.htm

(18) Frontline, Jan. 27-Feb. 09, 2007. http://www.frontlineonnet.com/fl2402/stories/20070209002911200.htm


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