Bernsteinian Hatchet and the Indian ‘Left’
Siddhartha Kumar Lahiri
In the second decade of the
twenty first century India, when objective condition of the socio-economic base demands aggressive left-consolidation to counter the rapid growth of fascism, it is ridiculous to observe that philosophy is in the backstage and psephology constitutes the principal intellectual grounding of the major left parliamentarian forces. In particular, the organisations known by some shades of a "Communist Party" of India who were supposed to be unwavering under all weather conditions to stick to their three fundamental tasks namely, to organise the workers as a class, dislodge the ruling class from the helms of political power and establishing working class driven body-politic to accelerate democratisation of the society have drifted far away from their fundamental objectives. The political economic significance of both the "C" and "P" words was filtered out and the anaemic body devoid of its profound libertarian optimism started functioning in a typical wishy-washy style of appeasement and clever articulations that can at best help to sharpen its cunning manoeuvrability but fail to earn trust and confidence among wide spectrum anti-fascist political identities. 'Comrades' campaigning during Bengal election from the Nanos and asking the jobless to unite for Tatas to bring 'industrial revolution' in the state was the sad story of a rich saga ending in complete bankruptcy. Another example was the post-election Kerala experience. The General Secretary, CPI(M) Sitaram Yechury compared V S Achuthanandan with Fidel Castro to diffuse the old power-play between the octogenarian and the septuagenarian Pinarayi Vijayan before he took oath on 25th May, 2016 as the 12th Chief Minister of Kerala. Pettiness in the leading left circles seldom reaches this low. In the minds of sensible workers having self-respect and dream for a better society a continuously ruminating question is—where have all those visionaries gone?
It was early 1986. Ashok Mitra, the most sensitive living Indian Marxist scholar, one of the topmost intellectuals of present time submitted his resignation from the post of Finance Minister of the state of West Bengal as well as from the primary membership of the CPI(M) party. He was highly frustrated about the surrendered attitude shown by the party on the question of playing vanguard role in the revolutionary struggle. Though the official line of the then CPI(M) suggested that the party considered trade unions and other forms of parliamentarian struggles as the means to guide and educate the proletariat for taking of the political power; Mitra could sense that it was succumbing fast in the quagmire of election politics in the name of energising the working class by providing whatsoever concessions possible within the framework of 'limited power'. And, he didn't consider himself capable enough to raise, organise and lead the intra-party debates to arrest the fall. The then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, the longest serving Chief Minister of India and perhaps the tallest of the left leaders Indian parliamentarian setup could produce tried his best to convince Ashok Mitra to withdraw his resignation letter. When nothing helped to dissolve the ice, Asim Dasgupta (who was supposed to take over subsequently the charge from Ashok Mitra and continue as the Minister of Finance and Excise of the West Bengal state for the period 5 June 1987-13 May 2011) who was much younger as well as smaller in all respects in comparison to the intellectual stature of Ashok Mitra dared to utter the following words :
"Your casual cynicism is no substitute for hard empiricism".
At the first instance, this might be taken as a virulent grunt of a technical expert in economics against a political economic thinker who refused to be identified on a different occasion as a so called bhadralok. But more significant thing was the Bernsteinian echo inside the statement. The question was what was Dasgupta's understanding of 'hard empiricism'?
If one does a parallel reading of Rosa Luxemburg on Bernstein, the pillars of 'hard empiricism' become nicely visible. Rosa writes,
"According to Bernstein, a general breakdown of capitalism is increasingly improbable because, on the one hand, capitalism shows a greater capacity of adaptation and, on the other hand, capitalist production becomes more and more varied. The capacity of capitalism to adapt itself, says Bernstein, is manifested, first, in the disappearance of general crises, thanks to the development of the credit system, employers' organizations, wider means of communication and informational services. It shows itself, secondly, in the tenacity of the middle classes, which follows from the continual differentiation of the branches of production and the elevation of vast strata of the proletariat into the middle class. It is furthermore proved, argues Bernstein, by the amelioration of the economic and political situation of the proletariat as a result of the trade-union struggle.
From this is derived the following general conclusion about the practical struggle of Social Democracy. It must not direct its activity toward the conquest of political power but toward the improvement of the condition of the working class. It must not expect to institute socialism as a result of a political and social crisis but by means of the progressive extension of social control and the gradual application of the principle of cooperation".
Ashok Mitra was no doubt sceptical about the possibility of revolution and even if under certain favourable circumstances it happened, he was cynical about its sustainability. But at the same time he was deeply convinced about the necessity of the revolutionary change of the society and the necessity of keeping the revolutionary character of a Leninist party intact. On the other hand, Asim Dasgupta, in spite of his young blood accepted the fact that remaining in the helms of the parliamentarian political power, orchestrating simultaneously the prospect of revolutionary power was not only a mismatch; it was simply impossible. Only thing that was possible was to prepare a decent welfare promoting budget under the limited power given by the centre to the state government.
In the philosophical plain, the matter rests on understanding the basic laws of dialectics. There is unity of the opposites as well as the struggle of the opposites. Which one is principal? For the revolutionaries, struggle is primary and a continuously boiling phenomenon, not only now but as declared in the very starting chapter of the Manifesto—
"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."
This is the basis of Marx's "dualism" and the prediction on the continuity of class struggle as long as the society remains divided on the basis of the 'class'. Bernstein on the other hand emphasised on the unity of the opposites and as a logical extension underestimated the anarchy within the capitalist system and discovered a peaceful home for the workers in the 'socialization of the process of production' (which is an inevitable situation for the capitalist mode of production, not by design rather by default) and accordingly suggested full cooperation to the 'politically progressive and morally healthy' bourgeoisie to achieve "the best in the best of all possible worlds..." It is quite obvious why for Bernstein the seizure of political power by the proletariat was always "too early" or "premature". For Marx, Engles, Lenin, Mao, Rosa, Gramsci, Castro, Che—those whom the proletariats of the world consider undisputedly as the greatest of revolutionaries, the necessity of the proletariats seizing power was always unquestionable. Naturally, their creative energy and the central intellectual pursuit was engaged to find out the solutions in the path of realising this first and foremost mission (not the end goal), a pre-requisite to initiate social restructuring. The extension of this approach in any 'periphery' country of the world in the present times can be implementation of a broad political programme for the reconstruction of a more democratic society by replacing the rule of finance capitalism and the indigenous collaborators constituted of crony-feudal-bureaucratic nexus. There can be different paths for different situations but does this position not conform empirical evidences supported even by the great non-Marxist thinkers of the day? Bernstein's position compelled him to evaluate theoretical dualism in Marx as "a survival of utopianism". By championing the perpetual continuity of capitalism and workers' struggle for concessions within the well defined boundary of the system, Bernstein stood for 'Monism'. As a consequence, he missed the fundamental dynamics of revolution-reform dualism—
"In effect, every legal constitution is the product of a revolution. In the history of classes, revolution is the act of political creation while legislation is the political expression of the life of a society that has already come into being. Work for legal reforms does not itself contain its own driving force independent from revolution. During every historical period, work for reforms is carried on only in the direction given it by the impetus of the last revolution, and continues as long as that impulsion continues to make itself felt. Or, to put it more concretely, it is carried on only in the framework of the social form created by the last revolution. Precisely here is the kernel of the problem".
The problem with philosophical positioning is one can either become a monist or a dualist; there is no middle ground and accordingly there cannot be a 'left of the centre' ground. On the other hand, political journey demands a continuous alertness from falling into the left anarchism and the right revisionism. Bernstein made a conscious choice for monistic revisionism.
Rosa Luxemburg summarised brilliantly Bernstein's parliamentarian social democratic path, in the following words—
"Just as all roads lead to Rome, so, too, we logically arrive at the conclusion that the revisionist proposal to abandon the ultimate goal of socialism is really a recommendation to renounce the socialist movement itself that its advice to Social Democracy, "to go to sleep" in the case of the conquest of power, is identical with the advice: to go to sleep now and forever, i.e., to give up the class struggle".
It is pathetic to find that the Indian parliamentarian left refused to learn from Rosa; the Bernsteinian hatchet kept on working silently inside the party organisations. The political left foodies and chefs kept on experimenting with left-overs; revolutionary alternatives with new studies, experimentations and fresh ideas were considered archaic. At this historical juncture at which the Indian parliamentarian 'communist' labelled teams have reduced to leftovers. To maintain their future relevance in the existing state of affairs demands routine retreat inside the refrigerators.
But, what about the predicament of the grassroots workers? Fast changing political economic situation during the severe recessionary phase of the global capitalism indicates heightened assertion and forcible grabbing of natural resources by the finance capitalism. Crony-feudal-bureaucratic nexus, due to its lack of consistent and cohesive philosophy will hobnob with all shades of reactionary forces under the umbrella of a ruthless fascist diktat. The bogey of terrorism and all types of fratricidal hatred will be concocted by this alliance to emasculate the democratic forces to raise the fundamental issues in the public space. The objective condition suggests the necessity to develop a strong democratic alternative joining every shade of anti-fascist anti-imperialist forces to consolidate and develop the democratic space as quickly as possible. Unless the Bernsteinian hatchet is blunted and the true revolutionary spirit is upheld, one may have to swallow the black humour common in Buenos Aires: ''Argentines", they say, "can be divided into the terrorized, the imprisoned, the buried, and the exiled". How many segments the Indian society be divided into? The Indian left must go back to the basics. All tactics and no strategy made left a dull party. The contemporary Indian scenario demands a resurgent and vibrant left—revisiting Rosa Luxemburg can definitely help.
1. Marx-Engels, Communist Manifesto (English translation by Samuel Moore. 1988), p.49-50.
2. The Indian Express, 29th April, 2016
3. The Times of India, 20th May, 2016
4. India Today magazine, February 15, 1986.
5. The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Edited by Peter Hudis &. Kevin B. Anderson, Cornerstone Publications, Kharagpur, 2005, p. 131
6. See reference 1, p.35.
7. See reference 5, p.161
9. —do—, p. 151.
10. —do—, p. 156.
11. —do—, pp. 159-160.
12. Lahiri, S K, 2011, Yadavji's anorexia and the decline of the left, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLVI, No 47, 74-75.
13. Eduardo Galeano, 2009, Days and Nights of Love and War. Aakar Books, p. 22.
Vol. 49, No.1, Jul 10 - 16, 2016