Power, Party, People

Three Dichotomies of the Left

Partha Sarathi

Where the left has failed precisely? Probably it is the question of state that poses the greatest problematic to the left of all sorts. The ideological guru of the modem left, Marx and Engels espoused the theory that the old exploiting state serving the privileged few has to be smashed and replaced by an entirely new kind of state, a working class state, which would be run by and serve the vast majority of unprivileged working population. Their hypothesis is that the affairs of such a state can be managed by the vast majority of the working people who would work in unison to bring about not only their emancipation, but in the process emancipate the whole human race from all kinds of discrimination, exploitation and domination.

In such an alternate state, as the vast majority would be involved in running the state and very few left to be governed, the state would automatically begin to wither away. The existing system of state requiring a vast machinery to suppress the vast majority of people would then be rendered superfluous. Engels wrote in this regard in his famous book Anti-Duhring,1
The proletariat seizes state power and to begin with transforms the means of production into state property. But it thus puts an end to itself as proletariat, it thus puts an end to all class differences and class antagonisms and thus also to the state as state....... When ultimately it (the state) becomes real representative of the whole society, it renders itself superfluous. As soon as there is no social class to be held in subjection any longer, as soon as class domination and the struggle for individual existence based on the anarchy of production, existing up to now eliminated together with the collisions and excesses arising from them, there is nothing more to repress, nothing necessitating a special repressive force, a state. The first act in which the state really comes forward as the representative of the whole society—the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society—is at the same time its last act as a state. The interference of the state power in social relations becomes superfluous in one sphere after another, and then dies away of itself The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not 'abolished', it withers away. (Emphasis original)

Since then a number of revolutions happened during the last century beginning with the 'great' Russian Revolution, most of them led by people professing to follow the theories of Marx and hence called the Marxists. Initially, these new states, known as socialist or communist states, looked quite different from the old ones as the old army was disbanded and the people's liberation army took its place, the old bureaucracy was dismantled and a new set of people took over the governance and the old despotic rulers were replaced by the best of the revolutionaries, the leaders of the revolutionary party. But at the end, the state emerged more powerful than the revolution that wanted to replace it and make it superfluous.

If one looks back at the history of the last one century, the left after so many victorious revolutions is hard-pressed to find relevance in the present-day world principally as because the state has devoured everything that stands for revolution. One may conclude that, in an apparent reversal to what Marx-Engels proposed, presumably it is the state that exhausted the revolutionary essence of the left, eschewed the indomitable revolutionary spirit and wisdom, for which the left became so respected in the last century, and turned the revolutionaries into their opposites, the rulers of the masses. The question is how such reversals could happen?

It seems that, in view of the experiences of the past century, the left requires deeper study of the phenomenon, called state. Although the left generally accepts that the state means centralized power for governing people and suppressing dissent, they need to further delve into the problematic of centralization of power happening even in the new state set up after revolution. Here is how Lenin dealt the question of state in his famous writing 'The State and Revolution' :
The proletariat needs state power, the centralized organization of force, the organization of violence, both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population—the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie and semi-proletarians—in the work of organizing socialist economy. (Emphasis original)2

Here, Lenin speaks of the necessity of exercising the 'organization of violence' by the proletariat. But how can the proletariat, i.e. the modern working class, exercise this power? Lenin provided the answer in the same stretch :
By educating the workers' party, Marxism educates the vanguard of the proletariat which is capable of taking power and of leading the whole people to socialism, of orienting and organizing a new order, of being the teacher, the guide, the leader of all the working and exploited people in the task of building up their social life without the bourgeoisie and against the bourgeoisie. (Emphasis original)3

In this book written by Lenin just on the eve of the November Revolution (in August 1917) Lenin was proposing the workers' party, the vanguard of the proletariat, to take over power emphasizing that they are capable of leading the whole people to socialism. But prior to this Lenin explained in details that the alternative to bourgeois government must be the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies that had then already emerged as a parallel power. Lenin wrote in his article "Dual Power''4 in April 1917 :
What is this dual power? Alongside the Provisional Government, the government of the bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient; but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing—the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies.

This power is of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871. The fundamental characteristics of this type are: (1) the source of power is not a law previously discussed and enacted by parliament, but the direct initiative of the people from below, in their local areas—direct "seizure", to use a current expression; (2) the replacement of the police and the army, which are institutions divorced from the people and set against the people, by the direct arming of the whole people; order in the state under such a power is maintained by the armed workers and peasants themselves, by the armed people themselves; (3) officialdom, the bureaucracy, are either similarly replaced by the direct rule of the people themselves or at least placed under special control; they not only become elected officials, but are also subject to recall at the people's first demand; .... This and this alone, constitutes the essence of the Paris Commune as a special type of state.

The above two propositions seem self-contradictory as power to the Soviets and power to the party cannot be the same. Soviet power is characterized by direct initiative of the people from below and the replacement of the police and the army by the direct arming of the whole people and officialdom, the bureaucracy, are either similarly replaced by the direct rule of the people themselves. On the contrary, party is itself a highly centralized body, where all policies and decisions are taken by a handful few at the highest level and, notwithstanding differences within the ranks (and the people at large), everybody has to obey or implement the same.

Replacing the Soviet power by the party power or subjugating the Soviets under the party would obviously lead centralization of power to the handful at the top, and definitely kill the 'direct initiative of the people from below' and 'the direct rule of the people themselves' in complete reversal of the principles of the Commune. And precisely that had happened after revolution when the power of the state, the centralized organization of force and violence, rested on another highly centralized body, the party that usurped power in the name of the Soviets and the people.

With this reversal of the principles of Commune, the workers' revolution like all earlier revolutions finally leads to centralization of power in the society, this time probably to a higher degree of centralization than what had happened after previous revolutions. Because, after 'proletarian' revolution, all spheres of power, economic (the whole economy coming under state control), political (all state organs being controlled by the centralized party machinery) and social (every) person of the society coming under party surveillance), come under the control of a single body, the party, arming the party leadership probably with the highest possible power ever enjoyed by anybody in the human history.

Evidently, the assertion of Engels that 'the first act' of the 'proletarian state' i.e. taking possession of the means of production in the name of society would be 'at the same time its last act as a state' never happened. On the contrary, after taking possession of the means of production throughout the country, the new state became immensely powerful and the party officials became the de-facto controller of state-owned enterprises (i.e. almost the whole economy of a country) leading to the creation of an enormous state bureaucracy unprecedented in the human history.

All the socialist revolutions afterwards followed the same model, ironically called the Soviet model of state power, where Soviets (or similar other representative organizations of the masses) remained under the strictest control of the party and slowly lost all relevance. Lenin wanted to assert that the working class party taking power meant automatic delegation of power to the working class, to the downtrodden, to the vast majority of the people. But in reality, it did not happen anywhere and cannot happen whichever 'revolutionary' party comes to power.

Party vs People
The party, like the state, stands above the society, functions from above. Even when working in close relationship with the people, the party at the same time remains separated and alienated (to some extent or other) from the people. As a separate entity, the party can never represent the people, not even the working class and is bound to have contradictory interests with the same. Even when the party is leading people's struggle or even a revolution, it represents only 'the vanguards', a body of selected people, who assume that they represent the true interest of the people. But this very concept robs the (working) people of their right to self-determination, which seems to be basic to Marx's ideology of emancipation of mankind.

Most importantly, once the party turns into the ruling party having immensely concentrated power in its hand, although in the name of working class, in the name of the people, the character of the party, and in particular its leaders at the helm of affairs, is bound to change to that of the rulers, and obviously oppressors. The more power is concentrated in the hands of a few persons or a body of persons, the more it becomes oppressive and corrupt. Because power being concentrated in the party means exclusion of the larger body of the masses, the common people including the working masses, from power. With the 'vanguards' in power to 'lead' and 'guide' the people, the common people would automatically lose their right to choose their own representatives (the party committees would do so on their behalf and nobody would dare to oppose them), and lose their right to decide what is good and what is bad for them (again 'the vanguards' would do so in advance and place the same in the meetings of the Soviets or mass organizations and get their decisions passed), so on and so forth.

The irony is that 'the science of Marxism' prescribes in clear terms that the mankind can be emancipated only when all kinds of power is abolished and the people are free to decide their own fate. It also envisages that the left in power would initiate that process, the process of 'withering away of the state', and not the otherwise. Just to mention, Paris Commune happened without the leadership of the 'Marxists' (Marx was then alive and learnt from it), Russian workers formed Soviets and contested the state power in 1905 without the Bolsheviks to lead or guide them (Lenin taking cue from it). Still the Marxists claim to be the vanguard of the people who are capable of 'taking power and leading the people to socialism'.

The next important question is that after the left assumes state power, against whom the state's force and violence will be directed. Is it the bourgeoisie (a class that disappears after the state take over means of productions and being the most cunning would come to terms with the new regime in no times), or anyone and everyone opposing the party? As the party leaders are supposed to be 'the vanguards', the epitome of knowledge and wisdom, knowing everything that is correct for the people, representing the true interest of the working people, hence anyone opposing them would be assumed opposing the 'correct line', opposing the interest of the people and hence, enemy of the people, 'agents of the bourgeoisie', 'reactionaries' and so on.

In such a situation, it becomes natural that everyone daring to question or oppose the party and its leaders' style of ruling, way of functioning, their verdicts, their policies, their behavior and anything for which they stand in the name of 'revolution', 'working class' and 'Marxism' would be marked, isolated and liable to be persecuted. One would hardly find persons belonging to the bourgeoisie being punished or executed in the post-revolution societies, but scores of erstwhile 'revolutionaries' and 'comrades-in-arms' were punished for right or wrong reasons. Thus, in one of the most tragic reversal in the history of the left, the Maoists were suppressed in the land of Mao, immediately after his death, simply because the balance of power in the central committee of the party tilted in favour of the anti-Mao faction. The magnitude of centralism of power in the practice of 'socialism' was exposed contradicting the very basis of commune, which is supposed to be the direct rule of the people themselves. In the entire history of socialism, the people were never allowed to decide which path the state would traverse, the Stalin-path or the Khrushchev-path, the Mao-path or the Deng-path or some other path.

Hence, the relevant question is whether the people will control the party or the vise-versa. The principles of commune require people's control over each and every officials of the state, including the right to recall. But when the 'vanguards' are at the helm of the state, how can the people control or recall them? When the party, i.e. the vanguards are being assigned the task 'of leading the whole people to socialism, of orienting and organizing a new order, of being the teacher, the guide, the leader of all the working and exploited people', they would obviously remain above the people, beyond the rule or control of the people, who are supposed to be 'led' and 'guided' by the party. It is also obvious that after capturing power, all the vices of power would now be manifested inside the party, among the so-called vanguards, who would be entangled into irreconcilable contradictions with the people. Mao tried to resolve this contradiction through Cultural Revolution, but at the end the party came out as victorious over the people, being stronger and authoritative, trampling all dissents with an iron hand.

Hence, by the end of the last century, the consequences of different left rules, whether acquired by bloody revolution or by ballot in a parliamentary democracy, appear to be more or less the same. In all cases, the rule of the left turned out to be repressive to the majority of the people, including the working people, who probably suffered the most. At least that is what people have witnessed in the fragmentation and disintegration of the working class during the Left Front rule in West Bengal.

So it turns out to be 'the state versus revolution' and 'the party versus the people' dichotomies that posed the biggest problematic to the modern left politics, and the failure to resolve the same had been fatal to the left ideology. It is evident from human history that these aspects are contradictory to each other and inversely proportional. The more the state becomes powerful, the more the revolution comes to an end. The more the party becomes powerful, the more the people are disarmed and people's initiatives and people's role in the society take the backseat. Here it is essential to have a look at the third dichotomy, i.e. 'Theory vs Practice', which is probably at the root of the other dichotomies.

Theory vs practice
The left parties are probably the only political formations that vow to follow certain theory in their practices. The lefts are divided into umpteen groups, pronouncedly because they have differences in theoretical understandings of the national and international situations and in formulating their political strategies to advance revolution and the cause of the working people. Even when inner-party contradictions emerge over personal equations and power positions (inside the party), they try to cover it up by theoretical jargons to hoodwink the cadres and the common people. The brandings of 'rightists', 'revisionists', 'liquidationists', 'ultra-leftists' etc., etc. that one finds within the domain of left politics are supposed to be based on profound theoretical-ideological differences. Hence, in the face of it, it appears that theory has a very serious bearing on the practice of the left. Undoubtedly, Marx had laid down the theoretical basis of modern left politics, which was supposed to have the power to storm the heavens, words that Marx found suitable to describe the events during Paris Commune.

But, it seems perplexing that the basic Marxist theory of withering away of the state remains on paper even after century-long practices and experimenta-tions with state power by the Marxist left. It might seem more bewildering that in India none of the left parties has undertaken any serious theoretical endeavours to develop their understanding on the Indian situation leave aside their absolute indifference to indulge into deeper study on the failure of the so-called socialist states in implementing the basic tenet of Marxism. In fact, the Indian lefts have no theory of their own to be tested in practice.

Overall, the dichotomy of 'theory' and 'practice' always poses serious challenge to the left in general, as the theories they espouse or assert to be following are often countered by their own practices. Thus, the theory of 'dictatorship of the proletariat' practically becomes 'dictatorship of the party', the slogan 'all power to the Soviets' essentially turns out to be 'all power to the party'. The mainstream left in India essentially practices trade unionism and parliamentary politics, while mouthing revolution all through their history. The radical left, the Maoists, never undertake the task of 'concrete analysis of concrete conditions' to grasp the immensely varied Indian situation, although claiming to follow the legacy of theoreticians like Lenin and Mao, who became successful precisely by undertaking huge theoretical works to understand the concrete conditions of their respective countries at those particular junctures. Remarkably, even these great revolutionary leaders failed to resolve the contradictions between the people and the party to match the 'withering away' theory. The means do not help the people to reach the end and in all the experimentations of left politics in the world so far, the goals are reversed at the end.

To conclude, it seems that the dichotomy between theory and practice in the modern left politics is manifested in two events : the development of the basic theory of 'scientific socialism' in the nineteenth century by Marx and Engels are the subsequent 'successful' practice of the same in the twentieth century. The 'practice' of proletarian revolution deviates from its 'theory' once state power was seized and the gulf between theory and practice increasingly widened as the new state power was further 'consolidated' resulting in increasing alienation of the party from the (working) people.

Such consolidation of power in the hands of the party in the post-revolution societies continued throughout the last century, with the only exception being the efforts by Mao to reverse the process during Cultural Revolution (Cultural Revolution also had many problems that requires separate study and discussion). Ironically, such basic departure (completely forgetting or ignoring the withering away theory) is silently buried under the success stories of socialist countries and instead the huge growth of economic and military power in Soviet Union and other socialist countries was highlighted to spread left movement throughout the world in the last century. Left people in general still regret the 'loss' of the huge 'Soviet' state capable of challenging the capitalist West.

Even after the disintegration of the Soviet state and withering away of the hugely powerful Communist Party of Soviet Union, the left in general remain mesmerized by the 'success' of the first proletarian revolution without pondering into the root causes behind sprouting of the huge state bureaucracy and a vast military machine in complete opposition to the theory of 'withering away of the state' in the socialist countries in general. Similarly, the Indian Maoists remain mesmerized by the 'success' of the Chinese revolution without going into the causes of the great reversal in China. Ample evidences show rapid transformation of the 'vanguards' after they assume state power.5 Still the dichotomies between the state and revolution, between the party and the people and between theory and practice hardly find a place in the discourse of the contemporary left politics.

So, it seems that communist revolutionaries need to introspect and redefine the whole domain of left as theorized in the nineteenth century and practiced in the twentieth century with an open mind and without prejudice to this or that brand of the left party or allegiance to this or that brand of leadership. Revolutionary leaders of all ages function in their historically defined time and space and are limited by the same. The left revolutionaries are no exception. Their tireless efforts and various experimentations with theory and practice to bring in radical changes in the world order dominated by capital are extremely valuable for further advancement of the left in the new century.

This effort to introspect left politics is not intended to denigrate the historical role of the left in shaping the fate of human civilization, but to bring forth a few questions that perhaps need to be attended in any process of refurbishing left movement in India and elsewhere. Finally, it may be worth recollecting how Marx emphasized the decisive role of intellectual development of the working class and of all oppressed people at large in the emancipation of mankind. This was observed by Engels :
For the ultimate triumph of the ideas set in Manifesto, Marx relied solely and exclusively upon the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily had to ensue from united action and discussion.6

Taking cue from the above lines, one may conclude that future rejuvenation of left politics would depend 'solely and exclusively' upon the intellectual development of the working people. The category of working class probably needs to be redefined with the huge increase in the service sector. In short, left politics need to be reinvented in the new century and first of all require to be liberated from the vicious grip of petty bourgeois leadership (the bhadraloks in West Bengal) that remains as the stumbling block in the way of assertion of working people in politics. Let the working people decide their own course of action and rebuild their future.

(This article is the concluding chapter of a book on 'Left Politics in West Bengal' being written with the support of Indian Council of Social Science Research, Eastern Region.)
[Partha Banerjee <>]

Notes :
1.    Frederick Ejigels, Anti-Duhring, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1976, page-362-363.
2.   Lenin, The State and Revolution, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1976, page-32
3.   Ibid, page-32
4.   Lenin, Collected Works, Volume-24, From Marx to Mao, Digital Reprints, 201,
5.   Han, Dong Ping, The Unknown Cultural Revolution, Educational Reforms and their Impact on China's Development, Cornerstone Publications, Kharagpur, West Bengal, 2007.
6.         Preface written by Frederick Engels in 1890 to Manifesto of the Communist Party written jointly by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1975, page-20.

Vol. 48, No. 50, Jun 19 - 25, 2016