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The new progressive

CPM must overcome defeatism, refresh itself to dominate debate.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
April 22, 2015 12:17:05 am
CPM, Sitaram Yechury, GK CPM general secretary, Left Front, Yechury, CPM central committee, CPM politburo member, S R Pillai, S Ramachandran Pillai, CPM meet, india news, nation news In the next few months, millions of first-time voters will have the most anxiety-ridden encounter with higher education, a space every government has been bent on decimating.

Sitaram Yechury must be hoping some deep dialectic at work can transform a moment of crisis for the CPM into an occasion for regeneration. The change in leadership is a small but good sign. Beyond that there is little evidence that the party has grasped the objective conditions it finds itself in. The CPM is playing the electoral game of a bourgeois democracy, but with neither the skills, nor the tool kit appropriate to it.

Parties can grow in one of four ways. In India, parties have tapped into a social base of caste and religion to at least acquire some momentum. In other countries, communist parties have been nationalist movements in disguise. This model is not replicable. The second way is building on local conjunctures in different states to acquire power, and then use that power to consolidate the party’s hold over the particular state. This was essentially what the CPM relied on in West Bengal and Kerala, but its own governance misjudgements frittered away that advantage. The third is using a moment of national crisis, like the Emergency, or the crescendo around corruption to become a locus of mobilisation. The AAP used that effectively to gain a toehold. But a party that is psychologically disposed to think of society as being in permanent crisis, will inevitably fail to spot a specifically political crisis and exploit it. The final option is riding on some sectoral movement: farmers, labour, students. But these are too fragmented to sustain political momentum.

To use the parlance of postmodern Marxism, it is not necessity, but the event, that will drive change. The question is, can the communists exercise political judgement to grasp the event when it happens? Or will they fritter away opportunities when they arise? In a way, the AAP took up a thought that intelligent Marxists should have come up with for at least that moment: “profits, not rents”. This is not utopia, but a slogan with political judgement.

The left’s intellectual hegemony was far in excess of its political power. But it is also complacent about this asset. There is often a complaint about the lack of rightwing intellectuals. But even the left has depleted fast in its capacity for deep theoretical reflection, more importantly, in its ability to produce diagnostics that are not just a rehash of time-worn slogans. The problem is not Marxism. Marxism still remains one of the most powerful lenses through which to illuminate reality, and some of the deepest insights into the workings of the global economy are still Marxist in character. But Indian left intellectuals, who were always a big draw for students, lost credibility on two fronts. First, the right managed to do enough to dent the credibility of the left version of history. The charge that it was a political project masquerading as history stuck and the left has never recovered. Indeed, the lesson is that it needs to put some space between itself and the history wars. Indeed, its position should be that whatever the past may turn out to be, we need to transcend it for a hopeful future. The general decimation of intellectualism, which the left abetted in no small measure, has come back to bite it. The systematic and whole-scale destruction of cultural and intellectual life that the CPM wrought in Kolkata not just undercut the soil that nourished it, but also permanently dented its reputation as a custodian of intellectual values. The CPM can carp about the privatisation of higher education, but just think of how different this history, and the debates around it, would have been if it could have kept just Calcutta University at its former glory. It is important for Yechury to understand that the best power in politics is the power of example. Even the left’s biggest asset, intellectual power, is precariously poised.

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But this is also a clue to where the CPM needs to focus. It needs to come down from its high horse of totalising categories such as neoliberalism and imperialism, which are better tools of analysis than politics. It needs to recast progressivism in ways that matter. Yechury talked of youth. In the next couple of months, millions of first-time voters will have the most anxiety-ridden encounter with higher education, a space every government has been bent on decimating. Yet, the left will be positioned as the obdurate defender of an untenable status quo: more in thrall to unions than students. Is there any progressive issue that matters to the youth on which the left’s progressivism has been ahead of the curve? These are spaces waiting to be occupied. Would you not imagine that a progressive party would have an agenda for accountable government, self-governing cities, intelligent taxation, sensible environment regulation, the transition from informal to formal economy, exemplary public education, building state capacity, industrialisation, enhancing female labour force participation, police accountability, detaching the idea of rights from identity? But these agendas will have to be fought for and negotiated at different sites; they have to be concretised through sensible proposals. This will have to involve institutional experimentation. But this is what the left abhors.

In the short run, the CPM has no option but to tactically cooperate with the Opposition to put pressure on the BJP. But it needs to outshine the Congress intellectually in public debate. It needs to dominate the debate space with a sense of freshness.

The left’s biggest psychological challenge will be overcoming defeatism. Instead of worrying about the future of the left, it needs to ask, what’s left of the future. It should not let the fear of the BJP crowd out its own long-term thinking. The party will also be strapped for the essential ingredients of political mobilisation: funds, cadres and even local-level leadership. It has to battle its own condescending elitism. The CPM is clueless about modern technologies of mobilisation. Its best bet is to try and consolidate where it still has a sizeable vote share — West Bengal and Kerala. But this will require hard-headed local politics.


Yechury has a reputation for being pragmatic. He is a credit to one of the left’s great traditions: producing brilliant parliamentarians. Whether he has the hunger, whether the party can overcome internal divisions and its ingrained habits of the mind, is an open question. But if it is any consolation to him, people used to speak of him as a potential middle-class style icon. And as Marx knew very well, in the bourgeois world of illusions, style in politics will matter as much as substance. Having eschewed revolution, the CPM will need to beat the bourgeoisie at its own game.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.

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First published on: 22-04-2015 at 12:17:05 am
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