Wednesday, August 10

Indian Communism : Good Practice, Bad Theory

The central paradox of Indian communism is that its practice is vastly superior to its theory. Communist leaders and activists are probably more intelligent than their counterparts in other parties. This is why it is such a great pity that their often honourable practice is crippled with an archaic and outmoded theory, says Ramachandra Guha.

In 1977, Left Fronts dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) came to power in the states of West Bengal and Kerala. A year later, the CPI(M) leader, B.T. Ranadive, wrote a pungent critique of the parliamentary path to socialism. This took the shape of a review of a recent book by the Spanish communist, Santiago Carillo, entitled 'Eurocommunism and the State'. In a 30-page essay in the Marxist monthly, Social Scientist, Ranadive attacked Carillo as a renegade, the last in the shameful but, alas, long line of 'revisionists' who had abandoned the path of revolution in favour of the softer option of reform.
The Indian communist charged his Spanish comrade with six heresies in particular:
First, Carillo thought that, at least in Western Europe, socialists and communists could now come to power via the ballot box rather than through armed revolution. In Ranadive's paraphrase, "the central point of Carillo's book is that there is absolutely no need for a revolution in the developed capitalist countries... According to him, socialism can be achieved peacefully, without violating any of the rules of bourgeois democracy..."
Second, Carillo claimed that communist parties did not necessarily possess a monopoly of the truth. According to him, the Spanish Communist Party "no longer regards itself as the only representative of the working class, of the working people and the forces of culture. It recognizes, in theory and practice, that other parties which are socialist in tendency can also be representative of particular sections of the working population..."
Third, Carillo held that private enterprise had a role to play in economic growth, albeit in alliance with the state. As the Spaniard put it, "the democratic road to socialism presupposes a process of economic transformation different from what we might regard as the classical model. That is to say, it presupposes the long-term co-existence of public and private forms of property."
Fourth, Carillo argued that in the Cold War, the Europeans should keep their distance from the Americans and the Soviets alike. As he wrote, "our aim is a Europe independent of the USSR and the United States, a Europe of the peoples, orientated towards socialism, in which our country will preserve its own individuality."
Fifth, Carillo believed that Marx, Engels and Lenin were not infallible, that their views were open to correction and even challenge with the passage of time and the evidence of history.
Sixth, Carillo believed that the Communist Party was not infallible either, that at least in non-political matters individuals should feel free to follow their own conscience. In the Spaniard's formulation, "outside collective political tasks, each [party] member is master of his own fate, as regards everything affecting his preferences, intellectual or artistic inclinations, and his personal relations". Then he significantly added: "In the field of research in the sciences of every kind, including the humanities, different schools may co-exist within [the party] and they should all have the possibility of untrammeled confrontation in its cultural bodies and publications."
Reading Carillo through the quotes provided by Ranadive, one cannot help but admire his honesty and his vision, his overdue but nonetheless brave recognition that the bloody history of his country (and continent) mandated a radical revision of the communist idea. But Ranadive saw it very differently. He spoke with withering contempt of Carillo?s faith in those "miserable parliamentary elections", and with even more disdain of his independence with regard to the Cold War. "Can any Communist," he fumed, "put the enemy of mankind, the gendarme of world reaction, American imperialism, on the same footing as Soviet Russia?"
Carillo's argument that other political parties can and should exist, indeed that these parties might even sometimes be right, was seen by Ranadive as tantamount to "giving a permanent charter of existence to non-Marxist, anti-Marxist and unscientific ideologies". It amounted to nothing less than a "liquidation of the Leninist concept of party". Further, the encouragement of a diversity of thought outside the sphere of politics was "the final denigration of the Marxist-Leninist Party in the name of freedom for all its members to profess any opinion they like on any subject". In contrast to the heterodox Spaniard, Ranadive felt that "the Party's outlook and the outlook of its members is determined by their firm allegiance to Marxism-Leninism and must be consistent with it".
Ranadive's own riposte to the renegade Carillo rested heavily on quotes from Marx, Engels and Lenin, the Holy Trinity whose works and words must never be questioned, emended, or ? Heaven forbid ? challenged. The Indian communist complained that "Carillo turns a blind eye to Lenin's teachings"; worse, "a large part of his argument is lifted from bourgeois writers and baiters of Marxism".
Reading Carillo as conveyed through Ranadive, one notices how akin his views are to those who wrote the Indian Constitution. Parliamentary democracy based on universal adult suffrage, the proliferation of political parties, a mixed economy with space for both public and private enterprise, a non-aligned and independent foreign policy, and freedom of creative expression ? these were the ideals enshrined in the Constitution, and the ideals embraced by Santiago Carillo almost thirty years later.
Ideals, however, which were anathema to a prominent Indian communist. It is necessary to point out here that in March 1948, it was the self-same B.T. Ranadive who led the Communist Party of India in an insurrection against the infant Indian state, seeking to come to power the Chinese way, through an armed revolution. That line was later abandoned, with the communists coming overground to fight the general elections of 1952. In 1957, the undivided CPI came to power in Kerala; ten years later, the CPI(M) won again in that state. Also in 1967, the CPI(M) was part of the ruling coalition in West Bengal; 10 years later, it came to power in the state more or less on its own.
And yet, these successes could not reconcile some leading communists to 'bourgeois' democracy. For Ranadive's critique of Carillo was really a warning to those among his comrades who might likewise think of revising the classical postulates of Marxism-Leninism. It is quite extraordinary, yet also quite in character, that so soon after his party had come to power in three states via the ballot box, did Ranadive choose to let loose this fusillade against parliamentary democracy, the mixed economy, freedom of expression, and non-alignment in foreign policy.
I have resurrected Ranadive's views here not simply out of a historian's interest in the strangeness of the past. For the prejudices he held ? and so vigorously articulated ? are unfortunately still quite widespread in the CPI(M) today. In practice their ideologues seem somewhat reconciled to parliamentary democracy, but they retain an irrational hostility to private enterprise, are still hostile to intellectual debate and dialogue, and yet cling to a faith in their party's infallibility.
I have long held that the central paradox of Indian communism is that its practice is vastly superior to its theory. Communist leaders and activists are probably more intelligent than their counterparts in other parties, and without question more honest. Where other kinds of politicians have eagerly embraced the Page 3 culture, many communists still do mix and mingle with the working people.
This is why it is such a great pity that their often honourable practice is crippled with an archaic and outmoded theory. For if the history of the 20th century teaches us anything, it is this ? that parliamentary democracy is, despite all its faults, superior to totalitarianisms of left and right; and that the market is, despite all its faults, a more efficient and cheaper allocator of economic resources than the state. This history also teaches us a third lesson, one specific to this country ? that, despite all their faults, Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar are thinkers more relevant to the practice of politics in India than are Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.
It is, however, that latter quartet whose works are discussed in CPI(M) party workshops, whose portraits adorn the podium at party congresses. From the continuing presence of those hard, unsmiling faces, we may deduce that while in his understanding and appreciation of democracy, the renegade Santiago Carillo may have been 30 years behind the framers of the Indian Constitution, he was still 30 years ahead of his comrades in the Indian communist movement.
(Ramachandra Guha is a historian, and a regular columnist)

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