Class Politics in the Time of “Corona”: Indian Left as the Mirror Image of Right-wing Politics

Maya John

When a liberal sees a beggar, he says the system isn’t working. When a Marxist does, he says it is.
-- Bill Livant

Communists who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility “to begin from the beginning” over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish).
-- V.I. Lenin

Our society is in the middle of an unprecedented crisis, which is borne most heavily by the working masses whose life, livelihood and liberty are at peril. It is expected that the repercussions of the pandemic-cum-lockdown shall be felt for a longer time to come. With each day of the crisis the poor grow restive. Food riots, conflicts with authorities like the Police, and growing assertion of migrant workers seeking to return to their native place are emerging. These struggles reflect the acute suffering and burgeoning discontent of the labouring poor. However, existing ‘communist’ groups, organizations and ‘parties’ have miserably failed to stand up to the historical task and have rendered themselves irrelevant to the exploited and oppressed in these difficult times. It is time to officially ring the death knell of the existing ‘Left’, and prepare the ground for regeneration of revolutionary forces that will enhance the capacity of the working masses to resist the combined onslaught of capital and the state. For this, it is necessary to dwell on the reasons for the marked failure of the Left. Here the Left’s three recent debacles are particularly worth noting.

The Indian Left has proven incapable of comprehending the existing conjuncture in its entirety. This is due to the Left leadership’s dependence on the dominant ideas of the day. Trapped by the hegemonic analytical paradigms of the upper classes, Left leaders have merely been reinforcing the views of real or manufactured crises at hand. In this way, our ability to comprehend and challenge the assessments of bourgeois intellectuals, politicians and media houses are severely curtailed by the dominant ideology. The immediate context of pandemic-cum-lockdown clearly reveals that, in spite of all its intellectual and organizational resources, the existing Left is incapable of exposing the skewed process by which some diseases gain singular prominence while several other rampant diseases and illnesses are simply ignored.

Overlooking the dynamics of class and region that influence ‘scientific’ research, the Left has been grossly negligent of the engrained biases of mainstream epidemiology and lax disease monitoring system. Consequently, they have failed to centre the debate on how some diseases are declared epidemics/pandemics by the scientific community, while scores of infectious diseases and illnesses affecting largely poorer regions and sections of society are downplayed as ‘ordinary’. In reality, diseases continue to be selectively discovered, whereby the majority of diseases that plague poorer regions and the less well-to-do are not even identified. In other words, the etiology or specific cause for such diseases are not even discovered, allowing for their symptoms to be simply clubbed together under generic terminology like ‘Respiratory Tract Infection’, ‘Urinary Tract Infection’, ‘Fever of Unknown Origin’, ‘Acute Undifferentiated Fever’ (AUF), ‘Acute Febrile Illness’ (AFI) etc.[1]  

Even when the identity of a contagious disease and its treatment are well known, it does not mean that the disease’s prevalence will generate the necessary reaction. TB is a suitable example. According to public health experts, one person in every ten seconds contracts TB, and up to 1400 people in India die every day of the disease. This indicates that TB has a R0 value (basic reproduction number) and fatality rate that is way higher than those attributed to Covid-19 so far. However, diseases like TB and numerous undifferentiated illnesses remain as undeclared persistent silent epidemics. The bourgeois disease surveillance system is skewed to say the least, but what is worse is the reinforcement of its assessments by the Left forces. There is an uncritical acceptance of ‘information’ disseminated by the disease surveillance system sponsored by governmental and global health agencies. Unfortunately, the Left’s indiscriminate reliance on the so-called expertise of the bourgeois system has meant that it echoes the same paranoia about Covid-19 as the elites. This co-option has also facilitated the Left to slide into the now hegemonic form of vertical health intervention, which is driven by global health agencies and pharmaceutical companies’ singular interest in the disease.

Just like the dominant classes, the Left too is supporting the surgical mode of intervention on a singular disease; leaving unaddressed the collateral damage, i.e. the increasing fatality rates of numerous other debilitating diseases and illnesses prevalent within the population, which only a horizontal health intervention or an expansive public health system can resolve. By not exposing the deadly ramifications of the closure of OPD services and the pushing back of scheduled surgeries in public hospitals, the existing Left has ended up simply reinforcing the overt prominence given to Covid-19. The ignoring of several other infectious diseases and deteriorating medical conditions of the working masses, coupled with the disruption of routine healthcare services in the wake of the lockdown, has culminated in aggravated health conditions. In instances of these unwell patients contracting Covid-19, the existing comorbidities or combination of diseases/medical conditions will rapidly breed devastatingly high fatality rates. Uninterrupted access to general, public healthcare is being denied by the state and the Left remains oblivious, to say the least.    

The Left has also proven incompetent in countering the Right-wing’s attempts to conceal the differential class impact of the lockdown by communalizing the issue of the spread of Covid-19. In real terms, the predominant Left-wing discourse reflects a disturbing preoccupation with reacting to Right-wing vitriol, and encapsulates the same displacement of class politics that the Right-wing is accused of. Indeed, class politics has been displaced twice, first by the Right-wing, and then by the Left. Whilst religious concerns continue to easily dislodge the class question, it is tragic that even in the time of unprecedented socio-economic crisis the Left has failed to displace religious issues with the class question. The abstract secularism of the Left at this conjuncture amounts to sliding into the turf of politics laid by the Right-wing, and so most of the time their politics is about endless reacting/responding to the Right-wing. The pseudo-secular engagement with the Right-wing narrative has prevented the Left to push into the forefront the rich/poor divide – an axis of politics which has greater potential to galvanize people who have otherwise become the social base of Right-wing politics. Devoid of class content, the abstract secularism of the existing Left easily appears as minority appeasement to the social base of the majoritarian Right-wing. In such a situation, in the eyes of the majority community, the Left appears as the enemy, further preventing the Left to wean away majority of the masses from the clutches of the Right-wing.

On the question of the current crisis, it is then imperative to compel the Right-wing to respond to the contradiction between the contented lives of the upper classes on the one hand, and on the other, the plight of the majority of the working masses who are at the brink of starvation and are exposed to aggravated medical conditions brought on by disrupted healthcare services in the wake of the coupled up phenomenon of pandemic and lockdown.

The third most fundamental debacle by which the Left has shown its complete bankruptcy is its full-fledged indulgence in charity work. It is a fact that as the Yechuris, Rajas and Bhattacharyas of the Indian Left relinquish the battlefield, their party cadres have been left to take initiatives in ways that they deem fit. In most cases, party cadres and even smaller Left organizations have taken to coordinating donations and other forms of charity. Such strategy reflects that the Left’s intervention is nothing but a mirror image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeals for largesse. In an uncanny resemblance to Prime Minister Modi who has been appreciating NGOs, civil society organizations, philanthropists, etc. for providing assistance, the Left forces too have been making appeals and showcasing their charity networks. The names of the relief funds may differ, a few words or emphases here and there may appear distinct, but essentially both Prime Minster Modi and the Left are on the same boat. They are both steering the working masses precisely into those waters where their imminent class consciousness and capacity to resist is sure to drown. Discontented labour is throwing up spatially disjunct forms of resistance. While these forms of resistance are important, for these to go beyond serialized, disjointed local conflicts, a programmatic intervention by the Party of the Left is needed. The truth is that the class power of labour vis-à-vis the upper classes and the capitalist state has to unfold to the extent that labour’s public actions are coterminous with the territorial range of the state, which labour must confront. For this, the Party has to give form to the disparate localized discontent, and thereby firmly set the agenda for the ‘national-popular’ aspirations of the masses.

Here again the existing Left has failed to deliver. Instead of positioning their intervention within the latent form of class hatred festering within the labouring poor, the Indian Left has anchored its intervention firmly within a politics of reconciliation with the socio-economic system. By not assigning primacy to the politics which highlights the workings of the rich/poor divide during the ensuing crisis, the Left has failed to expose the privileged access of the upper classes to a large number of commodities. Likewise, it has failed to emphasize that whilst the market for essential goods remains fully functional and provision stores are well stocked, the consumption crisis for the working masses persists due to the undermining of their livelihood. Given this contradiction, the Left’s indulgence in mass charity work simply reproduces docility in the labouring poor rather than instilling a sense of entitlement in them. In place of class hatred, it perpetuates class-neutral, reconciliatory notions among the poor that there are ‘good’ people in all classes.

In contrast, working-class politics works precisely to highlight the class contradiction inherent in the very exercise of charity and bourgeois philanthropy. The large disposable income of the dominant classes is attributed to the wealth accumulated by them in the process of exploiting the working masses. Charity is then a convenient modus operandi by which guilt-conscious upper classes can absolve themselves of their complicity and of the need to critique the capitalist system. Exposing this contradiction between donors and ‘beneficiaries’ means streamlining the class hatred of the working masses so as to crystallize their independent class consciousness against their patronizing donors. Whether you choose reconciliation over class hatred is what separates a Marxist revolutionary from a self-righteous liberal and reformist democrat. 

The succumbing of the existing Left to the Covid-19 paranoia, its pseudo-secularism and its shameless indulgence in bourgeois philanthropy at a time of unprecedented crisis are undeniable manifestations of its failure to fulfill the historical task of defending the interests of the working masses. Every irrelevant and self-defeating organizational thrust within the Left movement calls for harsh criticisms. In a context of widespread simmering class discontent, ideological and programmatic struggles on class lines clearly await regeneration and renewal. What shall replace the existing Left, or, what concrete form will the new revolutionary forces take is an issue that involves close introspection. As we reflect on past and present struggles of the working-class movement and the organizational capacity of the Left, there must be renewal of efforts that will not embody repetition of old redundant practices, but pave the way for struggles which streamline latent forms of working-class hatred into revolutionary proletarian consciousness.


1. For elaboration of this point, see Maya John (2020), “Knowability and Unknowability of Covid-19: Is there ‘Class’ in the Coronavirus Panic?”

Dr. Maya John, University of Delhi, Labour Historian & Activist with Gharelu Kamgar Union (GKU)

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May 7, 2020

Maya John 

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