Left, Right, Left

Who are Left after All?

Partha Sarathi

What traditionally distinguishes ‘left’ from the ‘right’? The term ‘left’ came into the political vocabulary since the French Revolution (1789-1799) when those opposing the Monarchy and supporting revolution including the formation of Republic and secularization used to seat on the left side of the parliament and those supporting Monarchy were seated on the right side. Since then the left had been identified as those in favour of radical changes in the traditional institutions, system and culture of the old regime, while parties or people doggedly preserving the old system or in favour of perpetuating it are termed as rightists. In today's world, since capitalism has emerged as the dominant system prevailing upon all other systems by imposing its dictate economically, diplomatically and militarily, persons and organizations opposing capitalism are generally identified as left, while those in favour of the capitalist world order may be termed as rightists.

During most parts of the twentieth century, the Marxists were considered to be in the forefront of anti-capitalist movements worldwide, establishing and projecting Socialist regimes in a number of countries as an alternative to capitalism. But the credibility of the Communists, particularly those who had ascended state power, as left and progressives has of late come under serious reappraisal due to a number of reasons. Firstly, the negation or lack of democracy in the practices of the Communist parties has been glaringly established by people's experiences in most countries under their rule. The 'dictatorship of the proletariat' has without exception turned into the dictatorship of the party, which is no less (if not more) repressive than the bourgeois state. State ownership under the party dictatorship has invariably transformed into state bureaucratic capitalism. As a corollary to this transformation, most of the Communist parties in power have finally embraced market economy or capitalistic path of development, thereby jeopardizing the very concept of 'socialism' being an alternative to capitalism. Secondly, in the context of emerging consciousness and movements for gender equality, environmental and ecological conservation, recognition of the rights of homosexuality and transgender, and against different forms of social injustices, like discriminations on the basis of caste, religion and tribe, as prevailing in India, the left in India in general seems to lack the vision and agenda to champion the causes of the deprived, notwithstanding their avowed stand against all kinds of inequality and discriminations.

In this context, it seems that the left ideology needs to be refurbished and broadened particularly to cope with the changing reality of the new century in view of the tremendous pace of democratization taking place in countries and societies world over and the incredibly fast development in communications connecting people across continents within the twinkling of an eye, thereby paving the way for new awakening among all sections of the people and new waves of movements throwing up newer questions and challenges to the rulers and political parties of all sorts. One may consider a number of movements in the recent phase, like the Arab Spring, the Shahabag Movement or the Occupy Wall Street movement and raise the question: are these left movements? Noticeably, these movements are not 'guided' by any traditional left parties or left ideology. Then how come they be considered as left?

It is not out of context to consider the fact that the existence of various institutions and mediums promoting freedom of speech and expressions (including the ever-expanding communication system in the digital world), numerous media houses contending with each other to provide 'breaking news' thereby bringing unprecedented scope of people's voice being heard and tyranny and corruption at the top level being exposed, the increasingly intervening judiciary (from the historic ruling to disqualify Indira Gandhi's electoral win in 1975 to recent judgments in favour of social justice), the multi-party democracy with universal franchise and innumerable non-state organizations active in the fields of social, cultural, civil rights, political, environmental, trade union etc have become part and parcel of the lives of hundreds of thousands of people even in this so-called backward country called India.

In sharp contrast to this, the left rulers have so far rejected these forms of 'bourgeois democracy', and instead stuck to one-party rule, though finally most of them compromised their socialist ideals and embraced bourgeois market economy to a great extent. But, nowhere the communists or left regimes worldwide seem to have been able to provide a better alternative to 'bourgeois' parliamentary democracy. The more recent experiments of Latin American socialism have reconciled with the parliamentary democracy, but probably it requires more time to study the successes and problems of these experimentations.

In fact, the last quarter of the twentieth century might be marked as a period of rapid spread of parliamentary democracy throughout the world either won by the people's struggles against despotic rulers of third world countries (being so far propped up by the western powers) or by the collapse of the so-called socialist system of governance in most of the socialist bloc countries. In view of the changing scenario in the erstwhile socialist countries, it would be interesting to find the reactions of the people of these countries about their new regimes vis-a-vis the old ones. The New Europe Barometer (NEB) surveyi provides social activists an insight to the extent of popular support enjoyed by the new political system in such countries. When asked what democracy means, people of these former socialist bloc countries emphasised three things: the freedom to do and say what you want; the choice of government by competitive elections and a welfare state. Democracy as an ideal was endorsed in all the 13 countries with 82% of those surveyed giving a positive rating favouring the same.ii

For one thing, when asked to evaluate the former communist regime, an average of 57% gave a positive reply, and the proportion was as high as 71% in Russia. Yet when asked whether they would like to see the communist regime return, most people who spoke favourably of the old regime did not want it back. Altogether 80% rejected a return to the communist era. In Russia 42% endorses a return to communist rule, although a larger majority does not vote for the Communist Party in the elections. In the 1993 NEB survey, people were asked to compare their freedom to voice their thought under new regimes with what was the case in the old regimes. In the ten countries who are new EU members, an average of 84% said they felt freer with communists gone, and very few felt less free. In the post-Soviet countries (Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) an average of 72% felt freer than before. This gain in freedom seems to have been an important factor in maintaining support for the new regimes in spite of their many weaknesses, the survey concludes.

Thus, (bourgeois) democracy seems to have won the battle not only against different forms of autocratic regimes in the post-colonial countries, but also in the countries of the erstwhile socialist bloc. Wherever people have tasted democracy, i.e. 'the freedom to do and say what they want' coupled with 'the choice of government by competitive elections', though not always accompanied by a truly welfare state, the same people would probably reject any regime with a lesser freedom. Hence, it seems no wonder that people of countries where parliamentary democracy is operating for a fairly long time have not been attracted to communism anywhere in the world. Communist parties have been successful to capture power only in countries having autocratic regimes or under colonial rule. And this is probably why the Western powers, in particular the US imperialism, who earlier openly supported the most repressive autocracies world over, are now proposing democracy as a more viable system in order to counter any threat to the capitalist system as well as to spread the tentacles of market economy to every nook and corner of the earth.

Interestingly enough, the initial idea about socialism was quite opposite. In 1905 Lenin had said,
‘‘The proletariat has nothing to lose but its chain, but with the aid of democratism it has the world to win. That is why the more consistent the bourgeois revolution is in achieving its democratic transformations, the less will it limit itself to what is of advantage exclusively to the bourgeoisie....... The more complete, determined and consistent the bourgeois revolution, the more assured will the proletariat's struggle be against the bourgeoisie and for socialism’’.iii

But this has not been the case. Evidently the struggle for socialism has failed to make much breakthrough in countries where bourgeois revolution had taken place and the rulers have been consistently practising bourgeois democracy for a long time (as in Western Europe). Even in post-colonial countries like India where bourgeois revolution has not taken place, but the rulers are pursuing parliamentary democracy for a fairly long time, broader sections of the people cannot be drawn to revolutionary struggles. Lenin's thesis that bourgeois democracy would be more advantageous to the proletariat (in advancing proletarian revolution) than the bourgeoisie itself apparently proved to the contrary in the world historic developments of the last one century. The ideas of socialism that had once attracted world famous personalities like Rabindranath Tagore, Kinstein, Einstein and Charlie Chaplin had somehow lost its glory principally by failing to uphold the banner of democracy and constricting the power of the people instead of broadening and deepening it further.

In this background, it seems that in the twenty first century, any left alternative to capitalism would only be viable by further advancing the practice of democracy besides establishing social control over the means of productions and wealth of the land. Here it would be interesting to note that these two aspects are intimately connected and dependent on each other. On the one hand, without live and day-to-day practice of democracy at the broadest possible way involving the masses of people, social control over means of production and wealth of the country can never be possible. It has been amply proved in the last century that state ownership only strengthens bureaucratic control over means of production, and that can hardly be conceived as socialistic pattern of development (as was projected in India in the 1970s after Indira Gandhi resorted to measures like nationalization of banks and collieries). It is no wonder that in India, people obnoxious of the bureaucratic control and corruption in public services often prefer privatization of even basic services.

On the other hand, without the transfer of wealth to the masses and establishing social control over means of productions, the significance of democracy in the lives of different sections of the impoverished people remain meaningless. When in the bourgeois society, scores of workers and employees are retrenched by the super rich employers rendering millions jobless and hankering for a livelihood, where wealth inequality increases by leaps and bounds, the practice of electoral democracy becomes just formal democracy, which is nothing but a cover on the crude exploitation and discrimination faced by the people. The following observation might be revealing in this respect :
‘‘Take the global society. The world's billionaires control $7 trillion, a sum 77 times the debt owed by Greece to the European banks. The richest 80 possess more than the combined wealth of the bottom 50% of the global population (3.5 billion people). By 2016 the richest 1% will own a greater share of the global wealth than the rest of us combined. The top 200 global corporations wield twice the economic power of the bottom 80% of the global population. Instead of a global society, capitalism is creating a global apartheid’’.iv

One may conclude that the revival of the left depends to a great extent to its attitude towards democracy, towards encouraging 'Let hundred flowers to bloom and thousands thoughts contend', and in the process re-invigorating itself by newer ideas and newer concepts emerging in particular in the newer generations. The left ideology, capable of inspiring and guiding people in transcending capitalism and establishing a society based on social and economic equality, would remain relevant and alive till the existence of the monster called capitalism, which is not only expropriating the mankind, but also ravaging the nature, thereby endangering the species called humans. But the million dollar question is whether and how the left parties being highly centralized and to that extent highly bureaucratic in nature can be able to cope with the increasing dernocratization of the society world over. It is the irony of history that the Communist party conceived by Marx to spearhead the establishment of communist society world-over has aimed into its opposite and has become the greatest enemy of the goal it espouses. Can there be an ideology or methodology that may liberate the ideals of communism from the grip of party bureaucracy? The revival of left probably lies in finding an answer to this question.

i.    The New Europe Barometer (NEB) survey was conducted in March 2007 in 13 countries of the erstwhile socialist bloc e.g., Russia, Belarus. Ukraine, Czeck Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgeria and Romania. Except the first three countries, rest 10 are new European Union members.
ii.   Richards Ross, The Democracy Barometer, Learning to support new regimes in Europe, Journal of Democracy, July 2007.
iii.  Lenin VII, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, Lenin Selected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977,
iv.  Faramarz Farbod, It's Capitalism, Stupid, Monthly Review, 2/06/15.

Vol. 48, No. 11, Sep 20 - 26, 2015