Organization sans Ideology
Whither Indian Left?
Sobhanlal Datta Gupta
That the Left in India is in
a bad shape is a fact that is
undeniable today. The crisis was brewing over the years but it became visibly evident in 2011 when the 34-year-old Left front regime in West Bengal came to a close, following a humiliating defeat in the West Bengal Assembly polls. The crisis and the defeat, understandably, have had a telling effect on the future of the Left in the country. Consequently, efforts are on to analyze the defeat and provide explanations, the West Bengal scenario occupying the centre stage for obvious reasons. Basically the crucial factor that is being considered primary is the gradual alienation of the Left from the toiling masses through the years, as the taste of governmental power corrupted large segments of the Left, resulting in their organizational decay and eventual isolation. In other words, it is ultimately an exploration of the organizational question which constitutes the reference point of this kind of analysis. On the level of visibility this question, of course, is important, since electoral victory/defeat in a parliamentary democracy like India, where the voters demand to be motivated by the parties, ultimately is an affair of organizational presence and skill, which is experienced in the daily life of the citizen. This, however, is a notion of immediacy. But the Left, while operating on the organizational level, has also a notion of ulteriority, around which the notion of immediacy works. This refers to ideology. Organization is the instrument which is supposed to transform the ideological vision of the party in concrete terms and work it out for the masses to accept it.
This ideology-organization nexus is supposed to work at two levels. First, it is aimed at the party's own cadres, which gives them confidence and keeps them united and disciplined. Second, it is aimed at winning over the vast majority of non-party masses. There have been occasions in history when the credibility of this nexus has, indeed, been evident on these two levels, resulting in the precedence of ulteriority over immediacy. The victory of revolution in Russia, China, Vietnam and Cuba testifies to it. To a large extent the immediate aftermath of 1977, the year when the Left Front came to power in West Bengal with the historic pronouncement of Jyoti Basu that henceforth the state would be run not from Writers' Buildings but from the strongholds of the workers and peasants, was a witness to the fruition of this nexus. The organizational expansion of the Left succeeded because it was propelled by considerations of ideology and not vice versa.
There can, however, also be occasions when this nexus operates only within the party, hardly touching the masses who remain outside its fold. This, for instance, happened at the time of the CPI-CPI(M) split in 1964 and the CPI(M) - CPI(M-L) schism in 1969, when acrimonious debates on questions of ideology relating to strategy and tactics of revolution in India and matters relating to party life deeply affected the organizational structures of these parties. But these debates had hardly any bearing on public life, aimed as they were at the party insiders. However, what is common to both the situations is that ideology took predence over organization.
It is, however, a truism that the history of the Left has also been characterized by situations when ideology has taken a backseat and organizational considerations have been decisive, resulting in the reduction of ideological issues to paper documents with no real life implications. In fact, over the years this has become the new face of the Indian Left involving discussion of two interrelated questions. First : what makes ideology work on the mind of the common man, when it goes into their consciousness, when it becomes their own voice and is not considered as something extraneous to them? In other words, how is it that ideology ceases to be ideological, yet transforms the non-ideological consciousness of the ordinary masses into an ideological consciousness? This happens when the agenda of the Communist Party firmly and steadfastly subscribes to the cause of the oppressed majority, when the language in which it speaks is one not of domination, control and surveillance but of hegemony, as Gramsci famously stated in his Prison Notebooks. Further, the life style of the party leaders makes the appeal of ideology truly credible in the eyes of the masses. This reminds one of the austere life style of the ministers of the first united front government in West Bengal in 1967, when they so easily bridged the gap between the wielders of power and the beneficiaries of power. This correspondence of agenda, language and life style takes place when, again, ideology becomes the primary consideration, when ideological conviction becomes the driving force of the party, whether they are fighting for power or they are in power. It is the presence of this correspondence that makes ideology of the party reach out to the masses, when the masses are convinced that the cause of the party is their very own cause. It is precisely in this sense that Gramsci, drawing clues from Machiavelli, called for building up the Communist Party on the model of what he called the "Modern Prince", when it would become the symbol of "national, popular, collective consciousness".
Now comes the second question, namely, why does ideology take a backseat? Why does ideology fail? And why does the vacant space caused by the deficit of ideology require to be filled up by the orgagizational prowess of the party, resulting in the precedence of organization over ideology, the end result of which is what has happened to the Left, primarily the CPI(M), in West Bengal? A couple of explanations are in order here. First, it is an irony of history that, while all Left parties, inspired by the marxist ideology, initially put up before the masses an emancipatory agenda that is so convincing to them, yet ultimately end up in a reversal of the promise made. This is markedly evident in those cases where the Left has come to power, be it the Soviet Union, China or on a small scale, in West Bengal, where it held the reins of power for more than three decades. The central question that has emerged in all these places is : as before coming to power and in the immediate aftermath ideology played a crucial role in galvanizing the masses into action, the organizational issue being subservient to it, how is it that the consolidation of power witnesses a decline in ideology mismatched by an enormous, at times quite intimidating, growth of the party's organizational strength? How is it that a party of dedicated cadres, exhibiting superb moral fibre, eventually witnesses degeneration, a party once admired for its exemplary track record, becomes an object of public ridicule and condemnation. A standard explanation that is quite often given, following Foucault, is that it is the the play of power that kills the party. Like a cog in the wheel of a machine the party, once it makes its entry in the domain of power, is swallowed up by its network. This possibility, of course, is very much there. But in the case of the Communist Party more convincing explanations are necessary. One such explanation lies in the very standard proposition that the party is always right or that the party can never do any wrong. This article of faith keeps the cadre based party united and propels it into action. This, coupled with the fact that the party has come to power and has been able to sustain itself for a certain period, gives it the stamp of legitimacy. The success of the party in making a revolution or staying in power for a certain period gives it not simply a sense of complacency but the moral claim to justify all its actions, since in the common marxist parlance whatever is politically right is also morally right. Now, the success story of a Communist Party relating to its coming to power through revolution or constitutional means involves ultimately an organizational act, which translates the vision of coming to power into material reality and this exercise, again, largely hinges on the party's organizational skill and resources. This may eventually lead to major gaps between the promise, the vision and the agenda, which stem from the organizational limits that hinder their realization of the agenda grounded in an ideology. Thus two things happen. First, ideology becomes secondary. Second, for reasons of expediency organizational imperatives, tagged to a compromised ideology, get precedence and get morally justified. Government policies become a manifestation of this outlook. As organizational necessitities get priority, all sorts of short-term techniques are employed to retain hold over the organization at diffetrent levels, since organizational success is the key to the retention of power. This makes way for entry of undesirable elements in the party, but, following the logic stated above, this gets morally justified. This is how opportunists, sycophants, criminal elements take control of the party, corrupting and degenerating it.This is what happened in the Soviet Union, what is happening in China now and what happened to the Left Front regime in West Bengal.
Second, the comporomise on questions of ideology is often made for reasons of expediency which, however, is not admitted by the party leadership, since this would disorient the party organizationally. If it is found that ideology which acts as the cementing force in holding the party together in the battle for power requires reformulation through new inputs in the aftermath of its coming to power, it becomes a critical problem for the party leadership to convince the ranks of this new turn, since the cadres are trained in the understanding that marxism as an ideology is something fixed and frozen in time, following certain inexorable laws as in natural science. It is precisely this deterministic stance that keeps the organization alive, giving teeth to it, since determinism injects the sense of infallible victory and correctness of the line, excluding in the process all other options and possibilities. This is a strategy that serves a three-fold purpose, namely, first, the ideological hold over the party is reatined although it is robbed of its dynamics, as it is reduced to a sterile dogma, bereft of flesh and blood. Second, this ossified notion of ideology makes it subservient to organization, resulting in the instrumentalist use of ideology. Third, it is this repositioning of ideology-organization nexus that allows organizational considerations to justify all actions of the party, howsoever nefarious and criminal they are. Armed with a hollow and distorted notion of ideology it allows moral justification of all kinds of misdeeds, be it physical liquidation of those who are considered a threat to the party lesdership or suppression of the voice of dissent within the party.Its most alarming aspect is that it opens the gate for use of unbridled violence in defence of organizational expansion of the party.
This stultification of ideology for the cause of organizational survival and expansion snuffs out all creative debates in the party, making it an outfit ruled by the logic of mediocrity. This has a telling effect on the intellectual resources of the party, as has been evident time and again, at least on two levels. First, as dogmatism gripped international communism following the rise of Stalinism in the 1930s, Communist Parties of different countries lost some of their finest intellectuals over the years through their expulsion, voluntary resignation or virtual marginalization. These include such names as Maurice Cornforth, E P Thompson, Roger Garaudy in the West, while in India one can cite what happened to P C Joshi, Subhas Mukhopadhyay, to name a few. Second, when the frontiers of ideology get sealed, when ideology becomes a tool kit in the hands of the local party bosses, it truly becomes the death of ideology. It allows no enrichment, fresh thinking or entry of new inputs, as influx of new ideas would pose a threat to the party regime that is in power, which draws its strength from an army of cadres which, organizationally, acts as its protective belt. Consequently, any such churning of new ideas on the ideological level has never been tolerated. This explains the fate of M N Roy, when he expressed serious doubts about the course of international communism under the aegis of Comintern, following its Sixth Congress in 1928, the expulsion of August Thalheimer and Heinrich Brandler from the Communist Party of Germany when they voiced opposition to the official line of the party after 1928, the blanket ban on Rosa Luxemburg after Lenin's death, as she was castigated as a Menshevik and an opponent of the Russian Revolution because of her critical comments on the historic event of 1917, notwithstanding her championing of the cause of the great October. This explains the severe condemnation of Eurocommunism by the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party in 1973, when Santiago Carrillo (Communist Party of Spain), together with Enrico Berlinguer (Communist Party of Italy) and Georges Marchais (Communist Party of France), presented an alternative understanding of socialism in the West, which was a frontal challenge to the Soviet model. There were, however, two exceptions. In 1956 the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party and in 1985 the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR, followed by the advent of perestroika and glasnost, were ideological stirrings within the Soviet Communist Party itself, which questioned the Stalinist understanding of socialism and the world.But these programmes did not find favour with many communist parties. In India, for example, the undivided CPI in 1956 and CPI and CPI(M) in 1985 were deeply sceptical of these stirrings within the Soviet Communist Party. Interestingly, the conservative Soviet position on the Czech crisis in 1968 was immediately endorsed by the two parties with outstretched hands, as the neo-Stalinist stance of the Brezhnev leadership perfectly squared with their sterile understanding of marxism as an ideology.
As ideology takes a backseat in the political life of the Communist Party, maintaining only a semblance of it in the form of some rhetorics and coinage of expressions, it keeps the party united in a very superficial manner. The moment the party is confronted with a crisis, it stumbles, since real debate on ideological questions has always been put on leash. The crisis is sought to be met on organizational level, at best by a perfunctory reshuffling of personnel. If the political-ideological crisis of a Communist Party is sought to be handled on the organizational plane, this would give rise to bureaucratism. Stagnation of ideology calls for another device to hold the party together, namely, populism. As closure of ideological debate takes away the best intellectual resources of the party, it is now held together organizationally by populism and bureaucratic control. Populism breeds inefficiency and a culture of sycophancy. As Ashok Mitra once so rightly pointed out in Apila Chapila (his memoirs) that the crisis of the Left Front in West Bengal was manifest in the priority accorded to political loyalty rather than to excellence, resulting in a regime of inefficiency and bad governance. Populism blocks envisioning any long-term perspective, prevents taking challenging decisions, since by playing to the gallery it serves the cause of immediacy, the cause of ulteriority having been given a decent burial. Resort to populism would not have make it possible for one Lenin to adopt the NEP, for example. The vacuum in the realm of ideology thus makes populism and organizational bureau-cratism join hands, which kills the moral and political fibre of the party. It is not without reason that Lenin in his now famous 'Letters to the Congress' called for induction of more and more workers in the Central Committee and strengthening the ties of the party with the non-party masses. Mao's clarion call "Bombard the Headquarters" also has to be viewed in the same spirit.
If one looks back after thirty five years at the year 1977 when the Left Front Government came to power in West Bengal, riding on the wave of massive support of the poor masses, it becomes important to take a look at the agenda that stirred the people... Essentially it came down to the following : a) ensuring the establishment of an order based on democratic values and norms, which had been brutally sacrificed in the preceding years; b) giving the poor masses a sense of dignity through a programme of empowerment; c) an efficient, clean, transparent, people-friendly administration. These thoughts were propelled by the Left Front's deep idelogical commitment and in the initial years, at least in the first decade, this agenda was certainly the drving force. ‘Operation Barga’, the ‘Panchayat System’ and a series of pro-poor measures truly gave the common man a sense of security and dignity. But then, over the years things began to decline. Of course, a number of factors contributed to it, namely, the collapse of the Soviet Union, India's acceptance of the neo-liberal agenda and her entry in the globalized market society. As a part of this system and being a constituent of the Indian state many of these things were inescapable and this was manifest in the protests and agitations conducted under the auspices of the Left Front Government on many occasions. That the West Bengal Government was operating under many compulsions was understandable to the common man but doubts had not yet been cast on its sincere and good intentions. The jolt came after the 2006 Assembly election, when two processes coalesced. One had started making itself visible for quite sometime, namely, the gradual substitution of the voice of the masses by the voice of a single party, namely, the CPI(M), at all levels in a cold and calculated manner. This could happen for the reason that by the mid-1990s it was evident that the Congress would not be able to stage a comeback in West Bengal and that the formation of the Trinamool Congress in 1998 was going to be no threat to the massive bastion of the Left Front. In other words, its stay in power was assured for ages to come. The other factor was the adoption of an almost neo-liberal agenda in the name of industrialization and development by the Left Front Government after it got a massive majority in the 2006 Assembly polls, authored as it was primarily by the CPI(M) and swallowed by the other constituent partners without much protest. The Nandigram episode that followed, together with a series of pronouncements giving the message that pragmatism and not ideology was now the main consideration affected the party outfits at different levels. Instead of initiating any dialogue with the people on this question, instead of trying to understand their mind and instead of working out the complexities of this issue on the ideological level, since it involved the issue of eviction, insecurity and alternative employment, it was settled by the fiat of the party at all levels, caring the least for what the masses felt about it. It was an assault on democracy and human dignity, two things which, ironically, the Left Front regime had given to the poor. This was the most glaring instance of how the retreat of ideology made way for a kind of party regime based on holllow rhetorics, how the notion of immediacy got priority over ulteriority. The scenario looked especially clumsy and ridiculous when the constituents of the Left Front officially continued to chant the slogan of revolution, be it people's democratic, national democratic or socialist. This hiatus between ideological preachings and organizational practices was now evident even to the man in the street.
In West Bengal the sustenance of a kind of party regime for such a long period of more than three decades was particularly facilitated by the successful breaking down of the boundary between party and government. Strategically speaking, there is a logic in the argument that the agenda of the Left cannot be materialized with the help of personnel represnting the old order. Hence the state apparatuses must be manned and mined by the right kind of people. Theoretically it sounds good. But in the case of West Bengal it had the opposite effect, resulting in disaster. A party that had been severely infected with the virus of opportunism, sycophancy and lumpenization over the years would obviously promote people at different levels of administration who would be inefficient and corrupt, barring a few exceptions. Besides, in a parliamentary democratic set up the visible show of local police taking command from the party bosses in the concerned locality or non-committal yet professionally quite good, honest and efficient officers being forced to act at the behest of party high ups, who have very little idea of the nitty-gritty of governance, send ominous signals to administration, which ultimately affect the functioning of the government itself. This leads to promotion of cronyism and the entry of undesirable elements at all levels, as it happened in West Bengal.
There is a further problem which the Left Front regime has never bothered to understand. While in a classic revolutionary situation (as in Russia of 1917) the thought of replacement of the old political institutions by new ones had a basis, in the parliamentary democratic set up of the Indian state this is ruled out and, consequently, the autonomy of the institutions has to be respected. By simply inducting party personnel at different levels of government or by party control of the institutions of administration the character of the institutions cannot be changed, since the institutions far outlive the personnel. This is exactly where the play of power becomes relevant. The institutions being structures of power they mould the personnel who get into them according to the logic of power play. So what is necessary is to make best use of them in a bourgeois democratic set up with the help of people who are not swallowed up by the play of power but who are committed not necessarily to the party yet to a cause which objectively helps the party. This kind of person would serve the cause much better than a bunch of cronies and sycophants who lack skill and vision and feel much more comfortable in taking orders from the party bosses to faithfully carry out its immediate agenda by making manipulative use of the institutions. The above strategy worked at the time of implementation of ‘Operation Barga’ when the Benoy Choudhury-Debabrata Bandopadhyay team worked most successfully within the constraints of bourgeois democracy. But no such performance, which could differentiate the Left Front regime from any other state run by the non-Left parties, was visible in any other sphere like education, health or general administration. This could have presented West Bengal as a model before all other states. It is undeniable that ‘Operation Barga’ worked because it was guided by an ideological vision, the organizational factor being instrumental to it.
Impressive rallies organized by the party on different occasions, therefore, are of no avail. Such shows became annual rituals in the erstwhile Soviet Union and are conducted in today's China and North Korea with the full support of the government. This testifies to the party's organizational skill but ultimately it is a display of power without idelogical moorings. Once the party is out of power the crowd vanishes—a phenomenon to be explained in terms of the erosion of the party's ideological resources and not simply as an effect of its dwindling organizational strength. Impressive election rallies, yet no reflection of them in the ballot box—these are wake up calls, sending the signal that the power of organization lies in the power of ideology.
Vol. 45, No. 14 - 17, Oct 14 - Nov 10 2012
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