Reflections on the Left

Perhaps the most significant feature of the recent Indian election is the loss suffered by the Left.  The BJP’s defeat was more or less anticipated, except by the psephologists, as was some loss by the Left; but the actual extent of the Left’s loss has been quite staggering.  True, its vote share has fallen only marginally; but in its Bengal base it has majority in only about a third of the total Assembly segments, and in Kerala even less, which is a serious setback.  This setback is significant because the Left, even though not a contender for power at the Centre as of now, is a major driving force behind India’s journey towards a modern, secular and democratic society.  It is of course not the only such force: there are large numbers of progressive social and political movements which also play this role.  But it differs from all of them in one crucial respect, namely that it also has electoral strength which they lack; and such strength does matter.  Any impairing of such strength therefore portends ill for the progress of India’s democratic revolution.

The media have been full of analysis of the Left’s loss and of advice for its revival, much of which ultimately focuses on just one point: it must discard its “phobia” about “imperialism”.  This is occasionally expressed directly, such as by Lord Meghnad Desai in an interview to The Hindu, but usually indirectly.  Sometimes it is said that the Left should not have withdrawn support from the UPA government; but since the withdrawal was precisely on the question of India’s entering into a possible strategic alliance with U.S. imperialism, this argument amounts to saying that the Left exaggerates the imperialist threat.  Sometimes it is said that the people’s verdict was in favour of “development”, from which the inference can be drawn that the Left’s electoral loss must be attributed to its lack of success in ushering in “development” (meaning “development” within the neo-liberal paradigm, for which the different states in the country are vying with one another to attract corporate and MNC investment).  This again amounts to saying that the Left’s opposition to the neo-liberal paradigm, which is linked to its anti-imperialism, is responsible for its obsolescence, and hence defeat.  Sometimes it is argued that there was a “wave” in favour of a secular and stable government which worked to the advantage of the UPA and to the detriment of the Left, since the latter forged links in the “third front” with Parties that had done business with the BJP earlier.  If the conclusion from this claim is that the Left should have gone into the election alone rather than with “third front” allies, then that at least is compatible with the Left’s ideological premises (though it is unlikely to have made much difference to its electoral fortune); but if the conclusion is that the Left must always be with those who would be normally supposed to ride such a “wave”, then that amounts to suggesting that it should compromise on its anti-imperialism to become a permanent fixture of the UPA camp.  The commonest advice to the Left in short is to stop making a fuss over “imperialism”.

This is hardly surprising.  All over the world, in countries where the urban middle class has escaped as yet the adverse consequences of globalization, anti-imperialism among the students, the educated youth, and the literati is at low ebb.  On the contrary there is even a desire to welcome closer integration with the imperialist world as a means of ushering in a secular and progressive modernity, and of countering phenomena like feudal patriarchy, religious authoritarianism and communal-fascism.  Since Left ideas typically get nourishment from the literati and the urban intellectual strata, even though these ideas reach their fruition in the struggles of the workers and peasants, who are the victims of globalization but are sociologically distant from the intellectual strata, the Left movement gathers momentum in situations where the urban middle class has also suffered from globalization and hence makes common cause with the workers and the peasants.  But it faces problems in situations where the urban middle class is a beneficiary of globalization.  In such cases, the resistance to imperialism and globalization often gets championed by forces other than the Left; or, if the Left remains committed to the interests of the “basic classes” and resists globalization, it often suffers through isolation from the intellectual strata and the urban youth and students.  (This loss, though real, can of course be more than offset by an increase in its support base among the peasantry through its resistance to globalization).

The current anti-imperialist upsurge in Latin America, which has brought Left or Left-oriented governments to power over much of that continent, is a consequence of the long years of crises that hurt, and hence radicalized, the urban youth, students and intellectuals.  On the other hand, in much of central Asia, and now Iran, where the urban youth has not directly experienced the adversity inflicted by globalization, imperialism still retains the capacity to mobilize, or at least claim the sympathy of, vast numbers of the urban population in so-called “orange”, “tulip” and “velvet” “revolutions” that are supposed to bring in modernity and democracy together with neo-liberalism.  In India, since the adversity of workers, peasants, agricultural labourers and petty producers, under globalization, has been accompanied by high growth rates, and rapid increases in incomes and opportunities for the urban middle class, a degree of pro-imperialism among this class which includes intellectuals, media persons and professionals, and hence a degree of exasperation with the Left’s continued adherence to old “anti-imperialist shibboleths”, is hardly surprising.

The Left’s error that accounts for its loss in the recent elections can be located here.  As long as the urban middle class in India is not hit by the adverse consequences of globalization, it will continue to remain sympathetically disposed towards imperialism.  Anti-imperialist ideological appeals alone, though they must continue to be made, will not sway it much.  Two additional factors that will contribute towards this sympathy for imperialism are, first, the assumption of US Presidency by Barack Obama who represents “imperialism with a human face”, and, second, the strong opposition to imperialism coming at present from the Islamist movements with which broad sections of the Indian urban middle class have little affinity.  As long as the Indian Left remains true to its ideology and the interests of its class base, the pro-imperialist sympathies of the Indian urban middle class will necessarily entail some estrangement of this class from the Left.  This is a phenomenon that will haunt the Left for as long as the current conjuncture continues.  In the recent elections, it follows that a certain loss of urban support for the Left became unavoidable when it broke with the UPA because of its anti-imperialism.  (In Kerala, such alienation from the Left was compounded by certain specific local factors: the secular segments of the electorate could not accept the Left’s relationship with the PDP, and the Left’s stand on the SNC-Lavalin Deal carried little credibility.)

If the Left had managed to increase its support among the workers, peasants, petty producers and the rural poor, then it could have offset this loss among the urban middle class; even if it had managed to retain its support among the former, its overall loss would have still remained limited.  But, notwithstanding its opposition to imperialism, it did not have an alternative policy on development, different from what the neo-liberal paradigm dictated.  In West Bengal, the government led by it pursued policies of “development” similar to what the other states were following and in competition with them, which, being part of the neo-liberal paradigm, necessarily brought with them the threat of “primitive accumulation of capital” (in the form specifically of expropriation of peasants’ land).  These policies, though subsequently reversed in several instances, had an adverse impact on the “basic classes” and caused a crucial erosion of the class base of the Left.

While some loss of peasant support on account of Singur and Nandigram was anticipated in West Bengal, it was thought that the Opposition’s thwarting of “development” would make the urban middle class switch to the Left as the preferred alternative (because of which pictures of the Nano car were posted all over the state as part of the CPI(M)’s campaign to remind the electorate of the Opposition’s intransigence in thwarting “industrialization”).  As a matter of fact, however, the Left lost votes both among the urban middle class and among the peasants and the rural poor.  It lost votes among the urban middle class because this segment could not stomach the Left’s anti-imperialism and its fallout in the form of a distancing from the UPA; it lost votes among the peasants and the rural poor because the Left’s anti-imperialism was insufficient, in the sense that it did not extend to the formulation of an alternative economic policy.  True, the scope for a state government to produce such an alternative economic policy is limited; but no effort in this direction was discernible.

The Left, it follows, cannot pursue its resistance to imperialism unless it also evolves an alternative approach to “development”, different from the neo-liberal one which is promoted by imperialist agencies everywhere.  The central feature of such an approach must be the defence of the interests of the class base of the Left.  Development must be defined in the context of the carrying forward of the democratic revolution, as a phenomenon contributing to an improvement in the economic conditions of the “basic classes”, and hence to an accretion to their class-strength.  It must be seen as having a class dimension and not just referring to the augmentation of a mass of “things”.  A supra-class notion of development, such as the augmentation of a mass of “things” or the mere growth of GDP, is a form of commodity-fetishism, and a part, therefore, of the ideology of imperialism.  Hence any “development” that entails primitive accumulation of capital (which includes primitive accumulation through the state budget via the doling out of massive subsidies to capitalists for undertaking investment), that entails a reduction in workers’ wage-rates, rights, and security, cannot form part of the Left’s agenda.  If, in the context of the competition between different states, private investment refuses to come into Left-ruled states because of their development agenda being different, then alternative ways of undertaking investment (e.g. through public or cooperative sector investment) have to be explored; and of course whatever relief can possibly be given to the “basic classes” against the onslaught of the neo-liberal policies must be provided.

Accepting the advice given to it to overcome its “outdated” opposition to imperialism and to the neo-liberal policies promoted by it will amount to self-annihilation by the Left and to its incorporation into the structures of bourgeois hegemony; it would entail a transformation of the Left into a “Blairite” entity.  The argument may be made that a temporary acceptance of bourgeois hegemony will quicken the capitalist transformation of our society and hence bring the question of the transcendence of capitalism that much faster on to the agenda.  This argument is not just similar to, but actually identical with, the bourgeois argument that the imposition of absolute deprivation on workers, peasants and petty producers in the process of capitalist development is of no great moment since such deprivation is only temporary and will be more than made good in due course.  (The argument advanced, even by as sensitive an economist as Amartya Sen, during the Singur and Nandigram agitations, that building London and Manchester must also have meant the dispossession of some peasants of the time, suggesting that such losses are eventually more than compensated, is of this genre).

This is a flawed argument on several counts, of which the most obvious one is the following: capitalist transformation in societies like ours, even as it erodes pre-capitalist and non-capitalist structures, cannot absorb the producers displaced by such erosion into the fold of the capitalist sector itself, since the level of technology on the basis of which this transformation is undertaken, and the rate of its change, are such that its capacity to generate employment is negligible.  (The context in which London and Manchester were built was altogether different: inter alia large-scale emigration was possible at that time from the capitalist Centre to the temperate regions which were opened up through colonialism for white settlement).  Capitalist transformation in societies like ours is altogether different: it gives rise to a process of sheer pauperization but not of proletarianization of petty producers, for reasons quite different from those adduced by the Sixth Congress of the Communist International that had first cognized this phenomenon in colonial and third world societies.

The Sixth Congress had attributed this phenomenon to the fetters put on capitalist transformation in these societies by their integration into the world economy, under imperialist hegemony, which trapped them in a certain pattern of international division of labour.  But the phenomenon today would arise not from the fact of such fetters, which obviously are quite loose in the case of an economy like India: it can apparently break out of this international division of labour and experience rapid capitalist transformation within a neo-liberal dispensation.  The phenomenon arises today from the contemporary technological basis of such capitalist transformation.

It follows that if the Left fell prey to this argument, of first seeking to usher in capitalist transformation in the hope of working for its transcendence later, and hence proceeded today along a “Blairite” path, then it would remain a Blairite entity forever.  The moment of that passage from capitalist transformation to the transcendence of capitalism will never come as some natural historical break; and if there is no such discontinuity then this entire distinction between two phases becomes invalid.

Accepting the advice to eschew its opposition to imperialism will not only erode the existing class base of the Left, without ever creating the conditions for a revival of revolutionary resistance later on a new basis; it will not only fritter away the Left’s class base built through decades of struggles in exchange, not for a later rebirth as a revolutionary force but for an incorporation in a Blairite fashion into the structures of bourgeois and imperialist hegemony; but it will also push the “basic classes” into the arms of extremist ideologies, ranging from “Maoism” to Islamist anti-imperialism, which not just unleash violence and restrict mass political action, but, for this very reason, are also “unproductive”, in the sense of being intrinsically incapable of achieving even the intermediate goals they set for themselves, let alone achieving a society that emancipates people.  Anti-imperialism is not a product of the Left’s imagination; it arises from the objective conditions faced by the people.  If the Left abandons it, then others, no matter how incapable of overcoming these objective conditions, will step in to fill the vacuum, and the people will be left to their mercy.

Prabhat Patnaik is an economist at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning in the School of Social Sciences of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.  This article was first published by the International Development Economics Associates on 1 July 2009; it is reproduced here for educational purposes.