The Maoist leadership claims that it had nothing to do with the Jnaneshwari Express accident that killed 150 persons. I am willing to take their word for it. But this also means that those who caused the sabotage, while nominally belonging to the ranks of the Maoists, were acting on their own. Nobody commits such a heinous crime against innocent people, unless the person is psychologically distanced from the victims, i.e. unless the victims are perceived as belonging to “the other”, an amorphous mass against whom one is supposedly antagonistically arrayed. And it was not one or two individuals who were involved in the crime, but a whole organized group. We are, in short, in the presence of “identity politics” of the most violent kind. Underneath the veneer of “Maoism” we are witnessing a particularly vicious form of “identity politics”.
This is not to say that the Maoist leadership, in a conscious fashion, is merely promoting “identity politics”. As a Marxist, I am totally opposed to the perspective of the Maoists, who, if ever successful, will in a conscious fashion foist upon this country a one-Party dictatorship that is the very anti-thesis of socialism (no matter how unavoidable it might have been in history) and that (in the Indian society in particular, which apotheosizes inequality) negates the only revolutionary gain the people have ever achieved, namely one-person-one-vote. But I would not accuse the Maoist leadership of conceptually privileging identity over class politics. Nor is identity politics of all hues anathema for me. For super-oppressed groups like the tribal population, not taking cognizance of “identity” makes a mockery of all politics. All class politics must reckon with their “identity”.
But while class politics can have room for reckoning with “identity”, there is no route from identity politics to class politics. The idea “let us start organizing the tribal people and then we shall move on to organizing workers and peasants” can never work. At that point of transition, if not much earlier, there will be an inevitable rupture between the militant advocates of identity politics and those who wish to merge it into class politics. In the case of the Maoists, the sabotage of Jnaneshwari Express is a portent of this rupture.
The reason for the inevitability of this rupture is simple: identity politics is essentially exclusionary, while class politics is essentially inclusive. The objective of class politics, which aims to be system-transcending, is to polarize society at each moment of time into two camps: “the camp of the people” and the “camp of the enemies of the people” (to use Mao’s words), with the latter kept as small as possible through political praxis. Class politics therefore is necessarily about forming united fronts, about uniting as many people as possible at any given moment in the “camp of the people”. But identity politics is by nature not system-transcending: it is either reformist (to get more benefits for the identified group), or secessionist (often the case with oppressed groups), or in extreme cases downright fascist (demanding ethnic cleansing). For it to merge into class politics it must negate itself as identity politics, and while some may be willing to do so, others in the movement will not be. This inevitably leads to ruptures and attempts to garner mass support (within the identified group) through acts of even greater mindless militancy. The recent happenings within the Gorkha movement are instructive in this respect.
This exclusionary nature of identity politics makes most such movements unthreatening from the point of view of imperialism (except of course those directly aimed against imperialism itself, and even in their case it is more a nuisance, even a serious nuisance, than a real threat). Indeed, in India recently the central government has made extremely skilful use of political formations based on identity politics to push its neoliberal agenda.
But the precise course of development of movements based on identity politics does not concern me here. The basic point is that while class politics can and must reckon with certain forms of identity, class politics cannot be approached via identity. (A possible exception is where the two more or less coincide, i.e. the classes that must constitute the “camp of the people” have the same identity; but this is not germane here). The fact that, let alone moving from one to the other, even the mixing of the two can be problematical is underscored by the experience of the Marxist Co-ordination Committee of A.K. Roy which had combined for a while with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha; the combination came apart and the subsequent history of the JMM is all too well-known.
Hence, even leaving aside questions of whether the Maoist vision of the future society is a desirable one or not (in my view not), and whether, even if it were desirable, it could be achieved through the mode of struggle adopted by them, which glorifies armed struggle and abjures all forms of political activity possible within the Indian polity, there remains a basic problem: the impossibility of moving to class politics from identity politics.
It may of course be argued that the Maoists never had a choice in the matter. Driven out of Andhra Pradesh they had to regroup wherever they could. The tribal belt of Central India is where they could seek refuge; they had therefore to adjust to its ethos.
But this argument is both irrelevant and erroneous. It is irrelevant because what is under discussion is their present predicament and not how they got to it; and if their predicament is seen as the outcome of the logic of their praxis, then that praxis has to be critiqued from the perspective of this predicament. Above all, however, this argument is erroneous, because there is always a choice, and a rectification in praxis can always be made.
When the Indian forces had marched into the erstwhile Hyderabad state to put an end to the Nizam’s rule, against which the Telengana peasant uprising was being conducted by the Communists, the undivided Communist Party of India could have continued its armed struggle on the basis of the support of the Koya tribesmen. The choice before it was either to call off the struggle and bargain with the government for a defence of its gains, or to continue the struggle on the basis of reduced support, confined only to the tribesmen. It chose the former course. One can only be grateful for that choice, for otherwise the most significant national force that exists in India today in defence of democracy, secularism, and modernity and the only consistent bulwark against neoliberalism and “strategic alliance” with imperialism, would have been absent from the scene, busy chasing a will-o’-the-wisp in the jungles of Andhra Pradesh.
This choice is open to the Maoists. If they persist in the present praxis their predicament will only worsen. Confronting the Indian State on the basis of the meagre social support of the tribal population is bad enough (no matter how much of an advantage the terrain provides); but the fact that this meagre social support cannot be widened (for that involves the impossible task of moving from identity to class politics), and can only dwindle over time (because of the logic of identity politics), makes it a tragic denouement. Will the Maoists show the wisdom that the united Communist Party had shown at the beginning of the fifties?
Prabhat Patnaik is at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This article was first published in MacroScan on 9 July 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes. See, also, Chemkuri Azad Rajkumar, “The Poverty of the Intellectual Mind and the Enlightened Mind of the Backward Adivasi.”