The opening section of this note dealing with the most important issue in the current political situation—’the Maoist’ or the Naxal issue—sets the context for the argument that follows, which deals with issues involved in understanding and acting in this situation. I reproduce some key passages, marginally modified and compressed in one case, from my 2008 T. Nagi Reddy Memorial Lecture—now available as Indian Politics Today published by Aakar Books, New Delhi—touching upon these issues; a little reason and ability to interconnect is all that is needed to recognise the issue involved. I conclude with a brief summing up of the argument.
With India’s ruling classes openly opting for a capitalist path of development for the country, the situation in the country today confronts our people with, possibly, the hardest and most fateful choices of their long history.
The most important feature of the current political situation in India is the Operation Green Hunt, the Indian state’s war on people being conducted by the Congress-led government, fully backed by the parties in Opposition ranging from the BJP to the CPI-Marxist. What is happening is however part of a larger story: the neo-liberal or capitalist path of development for the country which the Indian ruling classes have now openly opted for. This option has today become the greatest threat to the lives and livelihoods of our adivasi people in several States or regions of the country. The Maoists can well counter the government’s demand ‘to abjure violence’ with the demand on the government to abjure its neo-liberal violence on the most oppressed and long marginalised adivasi people of our country. This apart, the situation has a historical specificity of its own. In its pursuit of the capitalist path of development and therefore keenness to hand over the resource-rich, adivasi-inhabited areas to Indian and foreign corporates for ‘development’, the Indian Government has so forced the issue as to propel one formation of the Naxalite movement, the Maoists, to the centre stage of Indian politics. The Maoists have been active in these areas and they have the sympathy and the support of the adivasis. Our security forces being what they are, the Operation Green Hunt has only added to this sympathy and support for the Maoists.
There are, however, other formations of the Naxalite movement, the revolutionary Left born of the heroic traditions of India’s communist movement—Telengana, Tebhaga, Naxalbari and so on. They have differences amongst themselves including with the Maoists and each one is struggling to find the way forward, to redeem itself as a revolutionary formation. Some of them even struggle and hope for unity of the now badly splintered movement. The government and the media ignore all this, and lump them together as Maoists. They use the term Maoists, Naxals or Naxalites interchangeably but often with emphasis on the Naxal dimension (for example, in terms of origins, history, revolutionary politics, etc.) which suggests that in targeting the Maoists what is being targeted is the Naxalite movement and its revolutionary politics. This failure to make the necessary distinctions may not be always deliberate. It may even be a case of ‘arrogance of ignorance’ which has today come to characterise the corporate-hijacked media, especially its TV anchors. But it certainly has the consequence of creating a climate of distrust and disapproval, hostility and opposition towards the revolutionary Left which alone is, now or in the future, capable of mounting an effective challenge to ruling class politics and its capitalist policies and offering our people an effective alternative politics and policies geared to a pro-people path of development. Particularly noticeable in this regard is the effort of the government and the media to use negative factors in the situation, some of them flowing from the Maoist’s own theory and practice, to delegitimise not only the Maoist politics but all Naxalite or revolutionary politics as well. Most important here is the government’s focus on the issue of violence, which not only serves to discredit Maoist politics or delegitimise revolutionary politics in general, but invoking ‘nationalism’, ‘democracy’ etc., also helps mobilise popular support for the official politics and policies including its capitalist path of development. Already, for example, with help from the nationalistically hysterical media and its TV anchors, the notion of martyrdom stands denuded of whatever sanctity or hallowed associations it had during our freedom struggle; today every mercenary who gets killed in the government’s war on people is a martyr, another Bhagat Singh! The government wants the mercenaries to be lauded and glorified. It badly needs them and its neo-liberalism will need them even more badly in the future. The revolutionary Left, including the Maoists, need to shift the focus of debate and struggle from violence to politics, to policies and programmes, to the issue of the country’s path of development, which to be pro-people has to be a socialism-oriented path of development. As part of this shift the Maoists also need to reach out to other Naxal formations. A challenge for the Maoists, this shift and reaching out is a challenge for their ‘civil society’ sympathisers and supporters as well. They must not rest content with their opposition to the government’s war on people or with ‘peace initiatives’ etc. They need to help towards realisation of both this shift and unity among the Naxalites. Unless this happens and the focus of debates and struggle shifts from violence to politics, above all to the issue of the country’s path of development, Indian politics will remain stranded in the quagmire of violence to the benefit of the ruling establishment, the people’s support for the capitalist path of development will continue to be consolidated, democracy will continue to be eroded, giving way to the authoritarian form of bourgeois rule, misery and suffering, old and new, will continue to be visited upon our adivasi population, all revolutionary advance will stay stalled and winning popular support for a revolutionary transformation of Indian society, for an alternative politics that seeks to realise the Naxalite aspiration for a life worthy of human beings for all, will become increasingly more difficult.
Once the CPI-Marxist could have offered such socialism-oriented alternative politics to our people. However, the Party’s continued ideological disorientation and the accompanying organisational degeneration virtually rule out this possibility now. It is doubtful that it will recover from its tragedy in West Bengal—servants of the people become rulers over them, to recall Engels’ warning in this regard—to be any kind of Left force in Indian politics. More likely is its decline into a normal party of a bourgeois social order—one more in the country’s multi-party system—that contests (wins or loses) elections, or gains odd concessions for the people, to lend legitimacy to India’s established social order and its democratic façade. Even its rectification campaigns are conceived in essentially bourgeois terms.
Of course, to be able to offer a historically relevant alternative, a socialism-oriented alternative politics to our people, the Naxalite or the revolutionary Left including the CPI (Maoist) needs a radical reorientation of its theory and practice, apropos which I had thus concluded my 2008 T. Nagi Reddy Memorial Lecture:
While one continues to hope that compulsions of the objective situation, pressure from below and the remnants of Marxism and socialist commitment within, may yet push or persuade the mainstream communist Left to recover its ability to dream and, with it, its original promise to the Indian people, the future of this promise, it seems, is now linked to the future of the revolutionary Left. This Left can, if it wants, restore its lost honour to the word ‘communist’, once the proudest name in politics. It has the potential to offer our people the alternative revolutionary politics they need and are indeed looking for. But the realisation of this potential demands a fundamental reorientation of its politics and overcoming of its splintered state. It needs to abandon dogmas or orthodoxies of yesteryears (of both ‘official Marxist’ and ‘Maoist’ vintage) and return to the Marxism of Karl Marx, to ‘think as Marx would have thought in their place’—the only sense in which ‘the word Marxist has any raison d’être’, Engels had insisted. It needs to be Marxist in its assessment of what has happened in the Soviet Union and its implications. Still more, it has to assess its own past with the ‘ruthless severity’ and ‘mercilessness’, typical of Marx in matters of revolutionary theory and practice. There is the need for a concrete analysis of the changed and changing reality of India since 1947. Above all, its splintered parties and formations need to unite on a platform of socialism-oriented politics with primacy for extra-parliamentary struggles. As they struggle to come together, at the very least, each party or formation needs to be genuinely self-critical. They need to be fraternal towards each other and allow for differences over tactics, over forms or methods of struggle. Their polemics have to be less jargonised and more principled, and not abusive or denunciatory (‘revisionist’, ‘anarchist’ etc.). They should talk to and not at each other, and for a change, also talk to the Indian people in a language the people understand. Even their criticism of the mainstream (Communist) Left has to be less jargonised, better nuanced and persuasive—it has to be distinguishable from that of the Right (Congress, BJP, etc.) and in terms of an alternative revolutionary politics.
I know that this brief comment, asking for debate and struggle over so many sensitive issues, will not be welcome to many revolutionaries. But there is no denying the need for a theoretical renewal and a radical reorientation of the revolutionary Left’s politics.
Unless the revolutionary Left thus comes together to offer a historically relevant alternative, a socialism-oriented alternative politics, to the Indian people—and does so soon enough—its future in India is bleak. It will only further splinter and decline. It may continue to survive in its splintered areas of influence—this country has plenty of room for such ghettoised existence. But, as with the mainstream Left, it will cease to be any kind of Left force in Indian politics. ‘History’, Engels has said, ‘is about the most cruel of all goddesses’. It has been cruel to Marx, Lenin and Mao and, in its own way, to Gandhi, Nehru and many others. It can be cruel to us, the revolutionary Left, too.
People will of course continue to fight. If they do not fight the right battles, they will fight the wrong ones—and this will be yet another tragedy for them and for the Communist Left in India.
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Aware of the exploitative logic of the global capitalist market, of centuries of experience of imperialism which provides little evidence of the beneficial effect of foreign investment in countries of the Third World so far as the common people are concerned, and in its own way influenced by the interim successes of the Soviet Union, the post-independence (Nehruvian) national project opted for the strategic goal of a state-led self-reliant development, promising economic growth with ‘equity and distributive justice’ to the people. However, it did not work out the way it was intended. There was a significant degree of economic growth but not much equity or distributive justice for the people and the project ended up building an India-specific, government-supported capitalism. The rhetoric of ‘a socialistic pattern of society’ only deceived the people, legitimised the statist capitalism that was coming up and created confusion about it as ‘socialism’ that persists to this day, and the failure of this capitalism to deliver was and continues to be misinterpreted as the failure of socialism in India. But the point to be immediately noted is that passing through a series of economic and political crises, the national project, such as it was, finally and definitively collapsed in 1991, foregrounding once again, now in the context of the changed balance of forces in the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the question of strategic options for India’s future economic and social development.
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The post-independence national project having collapsed, 1991 onwards, India’s ruling classes, through their different political formations, notably, the Congress and the BJP, have gone in for ‘globalisation’ as their new strategic option, a shift from the state-supported capitalism to a privatised ‘free market’ capitalism and from self-reliance in economic development to reliance on Foreign Direct Investment and the multinationals—a shift euphemistically described as ‘economic reforms’ which has little to offer to the common Indian people. The much-touted growth rates are no indication of general well-being in a capitalist society; instead, as Amit Bhaduri has pointed out, ‘the unprecedented high economic growth on which privileged India prides itself is a measure of the high speed at which India of privilege is distancing itself from the India of crushing poverty . . . the higher the rate of economic growth along this pattern becomes, the greater would be underdevelopment of India’. The so-called ‘trickle down’, if and when it occurs, is no better than ‘feeding the horses with oats so that some of it passes down to the road for the sparrows’, as Galbraith once described it. Over the past couple of decades, whatever be the benefits ‘economic reforms’ has brought to a small section at the top, it has further polarised our society, played havoc with the lives of our common people and pushed them still further into a peripheralised existence within the global capitalist system, with the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) making their own specific contribution to this ruination of the common man. Describing it all as ‘developmental terrorism’, Amit Bhaduri has written:
Destruction of livelihoods and displacement of the poor in the name of industrialisation, big dams for power generation and irrigation, corporatisation of agriculture despite farmers’ suicides, modernisation and beautification of our cities by demolishing slums are showing everyday how development can turn perverse. . . . The devil in angel’s guise would soon appear when large populations in rural India would be rendered landless, jobless, homeless, incomeless, rootless and displaced, making way for gargantuan SEZs, the so-called epitomes of economic development.
This is nothing surprising. ‘Economic reforms’ is only a euphemism for capitalist development whose structural logic, as a former President of Brazil once reported it to the masters in Washington, is: ‘the economy is doing fine, the people are not’. Chary of using the word ‘capitalism’, even the advocates of globalisation, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and others, regularly admit and lament that ‘the fruits of globalisation’ are not reaching the people’, and Klaus Schwab (of the World Economic Forum) writes: ‘We are living in an increasingly schizophrenic world, where economies are booming and global signs are promising, but underneath are economic, political and social risks, as well as imbalances and inconsistencies.’ SEZs, as a part of the country’s capitalist development, is development at the cost of the people, above all the small peasant—a process akin to what Marx, in his account of the genesis and development of capitalism in the West, noticed as ‘primitive accumulation of capital’ which apart from the colonial plunder, slavery and massacres of indigenous populations, included mass uprooting of peasantry by force and legislation. The Indian Government would rather do to our adivasis what the state in North America did to that country’s original population, that is, virtually eliminate them as an obstacle to what it calls ‘development’.
A market-governed economic growth simply cannot deliver ‘inclusive growth’, to use another of the proliferating buzzwords of our time. Instead, it is by its very nature exclusionary and the logic of the market, with its inevitable winners and losers, only makes for ‘the secession of the successful’, as the economist Robert Reich once phrased it. One look at their economic policies or concerns, their lifestyles and values will reveal how far ‘the successful’ of India’s marketplace have already ‘seceded’ from the vast majority of their supposedly ‘unsuccessful’ fellow countrymen. Incidentally, market-governed, that is, capitalist industrialisation is claimed to be an answer to the problem of unemployment in the country. This, when unemployment, inherent in the very workings of capitalism, its capital accumulation process, has now come to stay as a permanent feature of the economy in the advanced capitalist countries, recognised and argued for by bourgeois ideologues as ‘structural unemployment’, a necessary condition for the economy to be in equilibrium and functional, with Milton Friedman even coining a scientific sounding term for this new orthodoxy, ‘a natural rate of unemployment’, a rate that is built into the very structure of the economy! This apart, it should be obvious that corporate-led industrialisation generally does not generate much employment. Even as it simultaneously destroys employment in activities supplanted by it and its offshoots, its primary concern with profit-making involves cutting costs including labour costs. It is indeed an illusion that corporate industrialisation with its labour-saving automated technologies can ever generate net employment opportunities. As to the promise of ‘indirect’ employment created in the wake of industry, it has been well described as ‘a pie in the sky for the peasants’. Above and beyond all this is the overarching issue of the quantity and even more the quality of employment in this age of globalisation, with its ‘jobless growth’, ruthless competition in the markets at home and abroad, and vast masses of our people reduced to be ‘the reserve army of labour’ for national and global capitalism.
Apropos India’s state-supported capitalist development during the Nehru era and later, I had written:
To borrow from Tom Paine’s metaphoric response to Burke’s attack on the French revolution, admiration for the ‘plumage’ of India’s ‘national development’ should not prevent us from seeing its failure in ‘the dying bird’. The world, indeed, looks very different from below, when the poor and oppressed of ‘our nation’ look at it.
This is even more true of the market-led capitalist development during the current era of neo-liberal ‘economic reforms’.
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Before proceeding with my argument about what I have elsewhere described as ‘contemporary India’s most important unraised political question’, the question of people’s strategic option, an alternative path of development distinct from and in opposition to that of India’s ruling classes, I would like to touch upon a few aspects or implications of the current shift to globalisation or ‘economic reforms’ which are immediately relevant to the present-day Indian situation.
To begin with, it is to be noted that prior to India’s independence in 1947, state intervention in the economy was deemed necessary by the then economically and legitimacy-wise politically weak Indian bourgeoisie itself (cf. Bombay Plan, 1944). A major beneficiary of ‘economic growth’ during the Nehru era and afterwards, it soon developed substantial strength of its own and grew hopeful of new avenues of profit-making at home and abroad in partnership with global capitalism. The shift to globalisation, therefore, can be viewed as a natural progress for the Indian bourgeoisie, signalling a further consolidation of its position and power in the state.
Again, the current shift to ‘market economy’ is usually justified by the bourgeois ideologues as a response to the failure of state intervention in the economy, more commonly the failure of the public sector. Now, apart from the fact that the public sector—which by itself has no socialist implications—has a successful presence in many capitalist economies and was a roaring success in the erstwhile ‘socialist’ countries, the public sector in India has not been the kind of failure bourgeois ideologues make it out to be. There are ‘the stunning achievements of the National Thermal Power Corporation, Bharat Heavy Electricals, Nalco, the Oil and Natural Gas Commission, the Gas Authority of India or the Indian Oil Corporation’, as a knowledgeable scholar has recently pointed out. And even the failure of the public sector in India, such as it has been, is better understood as the failure of Indian democracy whence alone correctives to its malfunctioning or failure could have come, unlike the private sector where correctives come from the market, though often needing to be backed by the state. Therefore, the answer to this failure is a differently working democracy, an effective exercise of people’s power in the state, and not a market-based private sector with its record of now well-established worse failures.
Yet again, the current shift to the market economy has its obvious implications for the future of democracy in India. It is not surprising that its pursuit of the new strategic option, the so-called ‘economic reforms’, had the consequence of the Congress losing its credibility with the people and power to the BJP-led NDA. The NDA Government now pursued the same ‘economic reforms’ agenda, necessarily producing, in the words of Radhika Desai, ‘a feel good factor among the propertied elite and foreign interests in India’ and creating ‘more than ever . . . two nations in India, already home to some of the starkest divides between poverty and wealth’. It was ‘India shining’, but only for a few at the top, with the many below experiencing its structurally other reality. Again, it was not surprising that the BJP lost the 2004 Lok Sabha election and its power at Delhi. Back in power on the aam aadmi (‘common man’) plank, compulsions of electoral politics forcing it to take note of the victim of ‘economic reforms’, the so-called aam aadmi, the Congress now again speaks the Nehruvian language of economic growth with equity and social justice, etc.—a Manmohan-Sonia farce, as it were, to Nehru’s tragedy, to paraphrase Marx’s famous observation on the caricatured re-appearance of historical phenomenon.*
The issue here goes beyond losing or winning elections. This also shows that the anti-people nature of neo-liberal policies demands authoritarian rule for their implementation. Already the erosion of whatever democracy we have is on. Hijacking by money and muscle power apart, our formal democracy is daily becoming a more formal affair, a set of routines or procedures without any substance to them or relevance to the interests of the people. A situation of undeclared emergency has come to exist in large parts of the country. The UAPA is a good indication of the shape of things to come. ‘Economic reforms’ and democracy simply don’t go together.
I may add that similar is the case with another of our cherished values, secularism, which is integral to India’s survival as a democratic polity. If ‘economic reforms’ and democracy do not go together, ‘economic reforms’ and secularism too do not in the sense that, in its success or failure, ‘the economic reforms’ regularly generates a basis for anti-secular developments. The shift to market economy has been accompanied or followed by the rise to prominence of the utterly reactionary, semi-fascist Hindutva ideology and politics, spelling its own disasters for the present and future of the Indian people. Here it needs to be understood that ‘Hindutva’ has come up because our society today provides a continuing social-material basis for the production and reproduction, the rise, sustenance and spread of such ideas or ideologies. One does not have to be a Marxist to understand or recognise this. A long time ago, suggesting that ideas do not rise and prosper through some inherent power of their own, Herbert Spencer had said: ‘Ideas wholly foreign to social state cannot be evolved, and if introduced from without, cannot get accepted, or if accepted die out.’ It is the economic, political and moral wreckage left behind by the failure of the Nehruvian national project which has provided the ‘social state’, that is, the necessary social-material basis for the rise and growing acceptance of ‘Hindutva’ as religious fundamentalism and a fascistic political ideology. ‘Globalisation’ or the so-called ‘economic reforms’, in its economic, political and moral-cultural consequences, is daily piling up more such wreckage, creating more social-material basis for all sorts of fundamentalism, regressive ideologies and disintegrative politics. That is how the decade of the most vigorous debate over the issue of communalism and equally vigorous advocacy of secularism, the 1990s, was also the decade of the most heinous anti-secular developments and the BJP’s rise to power at Delhi. One may well hazard the view that, with the globalisation that is on, communalism and its consequences may well be a specific feature of the barbaric situation in India as part of the universal barbarism that capitalism now threatens the world with. That is, if the people do not effectively intervene, and do so in time, with ideology and politics, a strategic alternative, of their own.
Finally: that the shift to globalisation or ‘economic reforms’ was unaccompanied by any debate or discussion, serious opposition or questioning, points, among other things, to the essential class character of the politics currently dominant in the country.
Marcuse has said somewhere that the success of a system is when it makes alternatives unthinkable. This is the success that capitalism achieved, or seemed to have achieved in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. The reality of capitalism catching up, the euphoria over this success is long over in most places. But, a Sainath may decry ‘corporate hijack’ of media agendas and a Bhikku Parekh may bemoan the country’s lack of ‘an inspiring moral vision’, capitalism’s success is resonant in the ‘silences’ of the public discourse in India and in the Indian ruling elites’ commitment to ‘economic reforms’. Capitalism or ‘market society’ is taken for granted; for them it is the only possible mode of existence. Even as the reality of a Third-Worldist capitalism is painfully there all around us, not only is socialism forgotten (except for occasional denigration), even a discussion of capitalism is conspicuously absent. In the consensus built around the establishment ideology, to think capitalism remains decreed out of bounds. The Congress and the BJP share in this consensus and its ideology—a class ideology, it may be noted—is seldom, if ever, all of one piece; generally it is constituted by many ideas, doctrines, systems of dogma and philosophies which seemingly compete and even contradict each other but are socially supplementary. For the same reason, like the Congress, the BJP represents the interests of India’s capitalist class and its allies, which representation is not a matter of class origin, background or membership in the class, or of personal inclinations or convictions, but, as Marx put it, ‘what makes them representatives (of the class) is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically’. It is thus that the two parties, or their leaderships, are unable to see beyond the limits postulated by the ‘economic reforms’. The only economy they know is ‘market economy’. The only possible form of development for them is capitalist development. The two are not that different as their leaders think or would have us believe. The differences between the two are important only at the tactical level. Strategically the BJP is as committed to ‘economic reforms’ as the Congress. That is why it is mistaken to see the BJP only as a communal party and that is how, while its opponents, including the Left, impotently locked themselves up in a ‘communalism-secularism trap’, the BJP merrily went on implementing the Congress-initiated ‘economic reforms’ without much notice or objection.
This, of course, cost the BJP the 2004 Lok Sabha election. But it was no ‘rout’ as the opponents’ wishful thinking tended to view it (the BJP’s tally was 136 seats to 145 for the Congress). The corporate world, happy over the BJP’s performance in power, are desperately hopeful about its future as a ‘modern’ political party, alternating with the Congress in the much longed-for two-party system in India’s parliamentary democracy. The corporates can well do with its Hindutva and the accompanying obscurantism. Capitalism needs science and technology, but, as we know from history, capitalist classes have always needed religion and obscurantism too. The BJP’s aggressive nationalist posture could well be an advantage in the harsh competitive world of global economy and politics.
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The ruling classes of India have, through their different political formations, decided to ‘secede’ from the people and opted for ‘globalisation’ as their strategic option for the future. The Indian people yet again face the question, whose full implications were somewhat obscured in 1947 due largely to the interim successes of the Soviet Union: what do they do in the current situation of global domination of capitalism? The historical experience in India and elsewhere in the Third World makes it abundantly clear that development which can meet the needs of our people is impossible within the framework of capitalism, national or globalised. Socialism has to be the strategic goal, whatever be the long or short transitional route to it.* Historical experience indeed allows no other choice.
Socialism, according to Marx, is not just a set of humane economic arrangements; as a negation of capitalism, it is an emancipatory project, a transition spanning an entire epoch, or perhaps more than one historical epoch. Therefore to speak of socialism in relation to contemporary capitalist societies, including India, is not to posit socialism as achievable today or tomorrow, or even the day after, but to posit it as people’s alternative strategic goal, as the principle governing people’s politics which links together their immediate, ongoing and emerging struggles in an ultimate project of revolutionary transformation of society, as the goal of a long transitional process whose specifics and speed will depend on the objective material conditions and the nature and balance of class forces involved at each stage of the struggle for the socialist goal. That is how, while expressions like ‘building socialism’ or ‘building socialism of the 21st century’ have a certain historical and political legitimacy, what is on the agenda is a socialism-oriented development, such that, no matter how slow or halting or contradictions-laden, it is a development away from capitalism and the imperatives of its market and towards Marx’s emancipatory vision of socialism. Immediately it means saying ‘no’ to globalisation, a ‘delinking’ from the global capitalist market and putting people’s politics in command of the economy.
To say ‘no’ to globalisation is not to argue for any kind of ‘autarky’ in economic development. Essentially, it is a question of control over what a country produces and what it buys and sells abroad, the terms on which it does business with foreigners and engages in international exchange. More precisely, it is to pose the issue of this development being governed by external imperatives, those issuing from the requirements of the world capitalist market (export-led growth etc.) and the associated consumerism of the rich, or primarily by internal imperatives, those flowing from an assessment of own resources and the needs of the people. Of course any attempt at saying ‘no’ to globalisation or ‘delinking’ is likely to exact a heavy price in many ways, including an unavoidable trade-off between the requirements of productivity and those of minimising the polarising impact of global capitalism’s enormous economic power. But once ‘productivism’ is abandoned and human welfare has the priority, this need not be a deterrent to adopting the strategy that ‘delinking’ involves. This strategy, it may be added, is born of the historical experience that the more an economy is part of the international network of capitalist trade and finance, the more it becomes dependent on it, the more its domestic economy must adapt to the world price system, the requirements of international finance (including the discipline imposed by the International Monetary Fund) and the capitalist business cycle, with the result that the constraints of the world market become a dominant influence and the country so involved increasingly loses control over its own destiny. It may be further added that the systemically anti-capitalist nature and direction of economic development is central to the strategy I am arguing for. Otherwise saying ‘no’ to globalisation, or ‘delinking’, may well get reduced to an argument for one or the other kind of national capitalist development which has already failed to deliver so far as the people’s interests are concerned.
The strategy being advocated postulates an effective exercise of people’s power in the state, with the state, truly committed to people’s welfare, undertaking at the very outset a comprehensive programme of eradication of mass poverty, universal primary education, health care, housing, and provision of basic necessities for all. Initiating steps towards redistribution of incomes and development of backward areas will be a priority for the state’s active intervention in the economy which, even as it covers such areas as foreign relations, production and social distribution, research and training, and the like, will need to secure an effective transitional combination of planning and market forces without letting the market or its values take over. Agrarian revolution benefiting the rural proletariat and small farmers, thereby improving the productive capacity in the rural areas, and laying the basis of cooperative effort and voluntary collectivisation of agriculture should be high on its agenda of economic reconstruction, as should be the transformation of the informal sector into a popularly managed transitional economy. A building up or restructuring of industry is obviously necessary. But it can neither be one based on ‘international competitiveness’ (that is, promoting exports through low costs of local labour) nor on ‘import substitution’ (promoting production for the consumption of the privileged local classes). Not that all effort in these directions is ruled out; some of it may even be necessary. Only priorities, for years to come, lie elsewhere. The important thing is to develop and organise productive forces in a manner that helps the rural sector leap forward, carries industrialisation to the countryside and in general ensures a pattern of growth which, refusing wasteful production to satisfy elite consumerism, immediately benefits the popular masses, satisfying their basic needs, needs created and satisfiable by the redistribution of income. It should be obvious that the overall development of our Third World country today cannot support the First World consumption levels of our elites. What is needed is a diversification and development of internal markets for domestic goods and services governed by the overall principle that, beyond a certain necessary priority charges of an unequal nature, private needs and wants should be satisfied (and this goes for their increasing satisfaction) only at a level at which they can be satisfied for all, and beyond this all increase in the production of consumer goods should be for collective consumption.
‘People politics in command’ means posing such questions as: growth, but which growth? For what purpose? For whose sake, whose benefit or profit? For what kind of society and within which environment? Are social needs the guide or the market and its profit-marking? Is it to get the maximum welfare of all the people, with priority for the needs of the poorest sections and the most backwards regions and for the protection of environment? Or is it to satisfy the market-induced, ecologically unsustainable consumerist hunger of the privileged part of the population seeking to maintain or attain the ‘high’ living standards of the West? These are questions which are central to any search for a real alternative to capitalism. We must ask: is our goal meeting ‘the needs of the economy’, its ‘anonymous masters’ as they have been called—’abstractions such as financial markets, interest rates, exchange rates, commodity prices, indexes and statistical artifacts of all kinds’—or satisfaction of the needs of the people, allowing citizens the possibility of living as human beings? Is the starting point of our economic exercises to be calculation of deficits in order to cut them at the cost of the people or a determination of resources needed to satisfy people’s needs in order to find or raise them? And our language? Do we practise the obscurantism of GDP, fiscal and revenue deficits, balance of payments, growth rates etc., or speak more humanely in terms of such things as food and clean drinking water, health care and sanitation, housing and education and the like so that the economy becomes a transparent and accountable means of integrating these basic human needs of the people with a planned use of domestic resources, a use which also takes care of the questions of equality, social justice including gender justice, employment, ecologically sustainable development, and so on? In other words, people’s politics in command is opting for a pro-people, socialism-oriented development.
Such a socialism-oriented pro-people autonomous development process will draw on our own strengths and domestic resources and capacities, including those of the hardworking poor who yet remain the most creative and productive force in our society. It will give our common people, an overwhelming mass of workers and peasants, a positive stake in the economy and mobilize them for building a better society as well as for the inevitable struggle against global imperialism and its local allies or partners—an awakened and aroused people are indeed the best defence even against armed aggression. Needless to add, such popular mobilization and struggle will be all the time necessary to carry through the strategic option that socialism-oriented delinking and development involve.
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Throughout its history socialism and democracy were invariably seen to be positively interlinked. Democracy is not only integral to socialism as a value, it is also a necessity for socialism. For, as against capitalism where the market commands the economy, providing it with the necessary indications and correctives (though often needing to be backed by the capitalist state), in socialism it is politics which commands the economy and the necessary guidance and correctives can only come from the people, that is, from democracy. The Soviet experience, its lack of political freedoms and gross abuse of power, the authoritarian deformation of Soviet socialism—Marx’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ never happened in the Soviet Union; it is, indeed, ‘the great absence’ in the historical experiment of ‘building socialism’ in the Soviet Union (which was at the same time a decisively important factor in its ultimate failure)—has had the consequence of opening up a gulf between socialism and democracy. It indeed gifted away democracy to capitalism. Hence the need to dissociate socialism from its authoritarian deformation, to recover democracy for socialism, to recover above all the socialist choice of a democratically planned economy, that is, democracy in the sphere of economy.
But the Soviet experience is not entirely a bitter heritage. Our assessment of this experience must be a balanced one. It must not throw any baby out with the bathwater. In other words, its authoritarian deformation notwithstanding, Soviet socialism had extraordinary economic and social achievements to its credit. Such was the overall achievement in the Soviet Union that it was hailed as a new civilisation. Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s monumental study, Soviet Communism—A New Civilisation, is at once recognition of and a tribute to what the revolution-inspired Soviet people and Communists had achieved, as they pioneered the path to socialism. That is how the Soviet experience more than validates our argument for the possibility as well as the desirability of a planned pro-people development. In other words, the Soviet Union remains the exemplar of a planned socialism-oriented path of development, or, to put it in the economists’ language, of a planned pro-people politicisation of the surplus utilization process as against the private profit-driven surplus utilization process of a ‘market-based economy’.
* * *
Finally a few words about this thing called ‘development’ and the issues it raises. Now, the concept of ‘development’ is by nature ideological in the sense that it is suggestive of something desirable, which obviously implies that it is not necessarily synonymous with capitalist development, that the people are free to reject the latter, its ‘way of the market’, as undesirable. Incidentally, the currently fashionable neo-liberal argument about the inseparability of ‘democracy’ and ‘market’ as the two fundamental requirements in a modern society is self-contradictory. If there is democracy then it is up to the people to determine whether or not (and to what extent and how) to use markets. It would be contradictory to leave the choice of institutions to the people and at the same time to foreclose that choice by insisting that the market form of organisation be, in fact, chosen. As Amartya Sen has put it, ‘If democracy is to be an irresistible force then the market system cannot be an immovable object.’ (And, it may be added that in the history of capitalism, market systems have cohabited most comfortably with dictatorial regimes.)
Again, that the initial modern economic and industrial development, that in the West, occurred in the capitalist form is no reason to assume that this is the only way it can take place. The man who best studied and theorised this development certainly did not think so. Marx was categorical in rejecting the idea that this was the path ‘every people is fated to tread’. He in fact regarded the capitalist path, the path of market-governed economic development, as simply unworthy of human beings. Hence his argument for socialism, for people ‘rationally, regulating their interchange with nature’ in a manner ‘worthy of their human nature’.
If needs to be noted that the issue here is not market but ‘capitalist market’, that is, the degree to which the market guides the flow of investment or is used as an independent regulator of the economy. The key question, in other words, is: who controls the surplus, and how is it used? In pursuit of profit or to serve human needs? Important here is the crucial distinction between market exchange and market forces. A market will be needed in a socialism-oriented economy, but not ‘market forces’. Thus, for example, about one kind, or use, of the market at least there should be little if any dispute. Under capitalism, however modified by history, state intervention etc., the market has three particularly important functions: it serves as a mechanism for allocating productive resources among various uses, as a way of deciding how much individuals and groups get paid for their labour or other assets they own, and as a means of distributing goods and services to consumers. In a socialism-oriented planned economy, while the first two functions, for the most part, and again with due modification, would be performed through democratic planning which would determine the priorities of economic development and human welfare, the third can be for the most part entrusted to the market. A market would be needed and useful for distributing most goods and services to the consumers. This apart, subject to the basic purposes of the socialism-oriented economy sought to be realised through democratic planning, the market can be used as a tool for operationalising the plan: in facilitating the overall responsiveness of the economy; in serving notice of people’s needs or preferences and of their relative strength by the direct pressure of supply and demand and thus ensuring, quantity and quality-wise, better distribution of goods and services; in providing an accurate idea of the costs of what is produced, though this will not govern the pricing policies; in economic accounting of the individual and collective participants in the economy; in helping check the overall adequacy and rationality of planning and providing indicators to monitor optimisation, and so on.
In other words, certain instruments and institutions now associated with the market can indeed be necessary and useful in a socialism-oriented economy, but the moving force of the economy has to emanate not from the market but from democratic planning which, replacing the rationality of the market as the driving mechanism, ensures that the benefits of this replacement accrue not to workers alone but to the people as a whole, benefits ranging from the terms and conditions of work and leisure to their large implication for the quality of social life, culture, the environment, and in general those ‘non-economic’ or ‘extra-economic’ goods which, according to Marx, make for a truly rich human existence.
The concept of development as something desirable also raises ‘the overarching question as to what kind of society we, as human beings, want to have’—a question in its own way implicit not only in Marx’s critique of capitalism but also in the Webb’s recognition of the Soviet achievement as ‘a new civilisation’, and the moral-cultural sickness of the ‘over-developed’ societies of advanced capitalism. Surely it is people and not ‘economic growth’ or ‘productivity’ that must come first in such a society. It has to be a humane society that fosters cooperation, solidarity and respect for universal ethical values, and makes for a non-alienated, ‘truly rich human life’ that Marx spoke of. Of course such a society is impossible without basic material security and need satisfaction. But to believe that you can assure need satisfaction through greed, private acquisitive drives, universal competition and strife and a production process which, as Marx said, turns the worker into ‘an automatic motor of a fractional operation’ and ‘cripples his body and mind’—the values and production process of capitalism—and yet hope for a humane society of cooperation and solidarity and social well-being is utopianism of the worst kind. Subordinating humanity to economics, to imperatives of the market, capitalism commodifies life and undermines and rots away the relations between human beings which constitute societies. Its ethos of the marketplace—competition, egoism, aggression, universal venality, in short the rat race, ‘the pseudo-moral principles’, as Keynes once put it, ‘which have hag-ridden us for 200 years [and] by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues’—creates a moral vacuum in which nothing counts except what the individual wants and can grab, here and now. At the end of it all, even when wants are satisfied, the people are ever more subordinated, ever less free, ever more flattened and made passive by the dictatorship of consumerism that arbitrarily shapes values, imposing on them the heavy burden of uniformity. The values of difference, individualisation (not individualism), all-sided development of man, of human freedom itself, disappear in the marketplace which is proclaimed to be free. As human beings, people simply don’t fit into capitalism. A capitalist society is not the society we want to have. However poor or backward today, we need to move away from capitalism-oriented development and, however slowly or falteringly, move towards building a humane, democratically functioning socialist society that fosters equality, cooperation, solidarity and respect for universal ethical values.
* * *
Revolution is not only armed struggle or insurrection, though these still cannot be ruled out. It does not at all help to see revolution as a punctual moment in history or in terms of iconic images like the taking of the Winter Palace or the storming of the Bastille. Revolution is best understood as a complete process of structural transformation of society—with special complexities of its own in regimes of bourgeois democracy.
A peaceful transition to socialism is of course the desirable thing. But the issue involved—peaceful or otherwise, or how peaceful—is really one for the ruling classes to respond to: are they willing to accept the people’s peaceful, democratic verdict for socialism? As it is, these ruling classes have not even remotely shown this willingness so far. Instead they have invariably used their enormous economic and political power, often across countries, to thwart changes far, far less radical in nature than socialism. One has only to recall the overthrow of Mohammad Massadegh in Iran in 1953, of Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, of Joao Goulart in Brazil in 1964, of Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic in 1965, of Salvador Allande in Chile in 1973, and so on right up to the current efforts to overthrow Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or Evo Morales in Bolivia—all of them constitutional democratic regimes.
The world over any effort to seek radical or revolutionary change through democratic processes has been seen by the ruling classes as a challenge to capitalism or the established order and therefore too dangerous to be allowed to proceed. It has been regularly thwarted or destroyed. Defending the America-backed armed intervention against democracy in Chile, Henry Kissinger declared: ‘I don’t see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible’. I will readily concede that democracy, bourgeois democracy to be precise, has often checked or corrected particular abuses of capitalism, made the struggle against its exploitation less painful, sometimes ratified victories that occurred elsewhere. But it has never yet led to the liberation of the oppressed classes.
Our experience with democracy in India has been no different. Two decades back, in 1992, I had written:
Obviously, democracy has not meant effective political power for the Indian people. Within almost two decades of Indian freedom and democracy, even so sympathetic a scholar as Gunnar Myrdal, a personal friend of Nehru, wrote of ‘the new government’s role as the successor to the British Raj’, of ‘the gulf between rulers and ruled’, and the life-style and conduct of the new rulers which ‘encouraged the view that political independence had done little more than displace a foreign with a native privileged group’. Pointing out that ‘India is ruled by a select group of upper class citizens who use their political power to secure their privileged positions’ and that ‘the power struggle has mainly remained one between individuals and groups in the upper class in the broader sense’, he concluded: ‘Democracy has not enabled the majority of poor people to grasp, and organise themselves for utilising, political power to advance their own interest.’ In 1973, V.K.R.V. Rao spoke of ‘a political alliance of the intermediate classes with the upper classes, resorting to socialist ideology only to win mass support but using all levers of power to facilitate a type of capitalist development in the interest of a narrow section of Indian society’; and fifteen years later he most emphatically stated that so far as ‘the poor and deprived sections of the people’ are concerned, ‘parliamentary democracy has not been able to meet the challenge’.
Five years later, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence, in a passing reference to the subject I had written:
. . . Democracy fought for and won by the people, still valuable to them, and throughout defended by them against subversion from above, yet only vindicated Bagehot’s classical observation about its being ‘the way to give the people the greatest illusion of power while, allowing them the smallest amount in reality’, even as it also served to legitimise the ruling class domination in society.
The assessment still holds.
This however is not to reject the peaceful road to socialist transformation which remains desirable. But if and when the people decide to travel the peaceful road, the principle is clear. This is how in his times, Cromwell, forced to make a revolution, put it: ‘Trust in God, and keep your powder dry!’ How to ‘keep their powder dry’ is thus the key question for the people. What is involved is forging adequate extra-parliamentary sanctions to defend and enforce their democratic verdict. Failure to do so will cost them dear, as it did the Chilean people in 1973. They failed to develop their own armed counterweight to defend their democratic verdict against the military coup which soon defied and overturned it and eventuated in a most brutal counter-revolution, massacre of virtually the entire Chilean Left including the democratically elected President Allende himself and the setting up of the notorious Pinochet dictatorship, all aided and abetted by the forces of international capital headed by the United States.
* * *
Participation in electoral or parliamentary politics is essentially a tactical and not a strategic question which, therefore, always admits of exceptions. But wherever possible or opted for, it has to be subordinated to extra-parliamentary class and mass politics, including the larger counter-hegemonic struggle against capitalism. People’s power grows primarily out of such politics, out of their own activity, organisation and struggle, as these come to be suffused with revolutionary consciousness. Following Lenin, Gramsci is a good guide here. For him, participation in electoral or parliamentary politics is a tactical issue contingent on the strategic struggles centered on the class and mass organisations challenging the ruling class state. This relationship between strategic extra-parliamentary and tactical electoral politics must not be inverted. Nor the notion of revolutionary praxis is to be divorced from the self-organised and autonomous class struggle of the working masses in the name of ‘flexible tactics’, ‘realism’ and ‘possibilism’, or by raising the bogey of ‘sectarianism’, ‘adventurism’ or ‘political immaturity’—formulas and phrases which social-democratic reformism has used over the years, all over the world, to rationalise class collaboration and justify or condone any and every kind of pragmatism, even opportunism on the terrain of bourgeois democratic politics.
It is necessary to recognise the decisive importance of extra-parliamentary class and mass politics for any renewed struggle for socialism, or for that matter, any significantly radical pro-people change in society. This is particularly necessary in view of the dismal failure of parliamentary politics in recent decades and globalisation’s continued undermining of parliamentary-democratic institutions. It is not only that capital is powerful over society by virtue of its dominance in the economy, its power is further reinforced by the capitalist classes’ ideology and personnel-wise domination of the various apparatuses of the state. This truly massive extra-parliamentary power of capitalism can only be matched by the working people’s extra-parliamentary force and modes of action, their articulation in forms which are capable of offensive action against capitalism. It is significant that important economic or political ‘gains’ of the working people have almost invariably been the result of their reliance on ‘extra-parliamentary’ forms of struggle and organisation, whether in unions, protest movements, militant actions, or elsewhere through the extra-electoral pressure they exercised on different institutions of the state. Indeed, to be at all effective, parliamentary politics itself has needed and today even more badly needs the radicalising pressure and support of extra-parliamentary politics. Beyond that, if the aim is socialism, it is unthinkable that the struggle for socialism can today at all advance without a radical reconstruction of the socialist movement as a strategically oriented and sustained extra-parliamentary mass movement capable of mounting an effective challenge to the capitalist powers that be.
Our emphasis on the importance of active extra-parliamentary politics does not imply any kind of lawlessness, nor, as we have already classified, an aprioristic rejection of electoral or parliamentary politics. But it does demand freeing of the working people’s movement from the crippling constraints which the parliamentary ‘rules of game’ one-sidedly impose on it in the name of ‘democratic policies’. It certainly rejects delusions of successful struggle against capitalism through parliamentary means. But it does not in any way pre-empt the issue of peaceful transition to socialism. Socialist politics, as we have insisted earlier, is not a matter of resorting to violence or picking up arms, which are purely tactical questions, though not to be dismissed on abstract moral grounds. Socialism is about a fundamental change in social production relations which a real, not merely juridical or formal, social ownership of the means of production makes possible. And here, properly interpreted, Marx still remains the guide: ‘peaceful if possible, with arms if necessary’. That is, it all depends on historical condition and possibilities of the objective situation.
* * *
I had at the outset of this note referred to the hard and fateful choices our people face today. One that encompasses them all (and which I have been discussing) concerns India’s path of development. Do we accept the globalisation-dictated capitalist path of development our rulers have opted for, which polarises our people and further peripheralises them within a global capitalist system? Or do we struggle for a socialism-oriented development with its promise of a humane, democratic and ecologically respectful even if economically less prosperous society, providing a life of security and fulfillment for all?
It is my argument that we choose the latter. This implies, among other things, that we learn from the past experiences with economic development, avoid its negative consequences, for example, the damage that capitalist development regularly inflicts upon human beings and natural environment, that we reject the supposedly-Marxist fascination for the ‘the development of productive forces’ that bedevilled the erstwhile ‘socialist’ economies and the obsession with ‘economic growth’ that plagues a capitalist economy, that we better negotiate the necessary trade-offs between economic development and social justice, between requirements of productivity or efficiency and environmental sustainability or quality of life which is not entirely a matter of material progress or economic growth. In other words, we have the opportunity ‘to do something new’, the all-important option of a path of development which subordinating economy to humanity, plans and develops it in a way that is, in Marx’s words, ‘worthy of our human nature.’
I know that this option, the struggle for a socialism-oriented development, means travelling along an uncharted road, and in a situation marked by an extraordinary dominance of capitalist ideology and an equally extraordinary inhibition of social imagination where our people, including those on the Left, seem to have lost the dreams they once had—the most terrible thing that can ever happen to a people—this option will be deemed impossible. But the situation demands nothing less, it indeed demands doing ‘impossible’ things. One recalls the adjuration of the students of Paris in their May-June uprising of 1968. They had said: ‘Be practical! Do the impossible!’ Four decades later, it may be added: ‘If we cannot do the impossible, we better prepare to face the unthinkable.’ Some of the ‘unthinkable’ is already happening around us.
* This is how it goes in the opening paragraph of Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.’
** It is socialism not as they built in the erstwhile Soviet Union but as visualized by its classical tradition: a humane, democratically functioning society, providing a superior and advanced form of freedom and self-determination to the people.
Randhir Singh, former Head of the Department of Political Science in the University of Delhi, is author of Crisis of Socialism: Notes in Defence of Commitment, Reason Revolution and Political Theory, Of Marxism and Indian Politics, and Five Lectures in Marxist Mode. See, also, Randhir Singh, “Future of Socialism” (MRZine, 29 December 2007).