The CPI(M)’s problem is that it’s stuck over the ethics of political economy that “is acquisition, work, thrift, sobriety”.
The sales of Karl Marx’s large output of books have shot up after 2008. In 2018, he still sells; partly because it is his 200th birth anniversary and there are a slew of books, articles and weighty academic writings on the man who dissected capitalism, analysed the forces of history and arrived at the conclusion that a revolution of the working class was the best way to change things.
He wasn’t the first to think many of these thoughts. He was the best, as the market continues to affirm his relevance. And China, where the Communist Party is flourishing as is its state-capitalist economy, is an affirmation that Marx, reinterpreted by Stalin, Mao Zedong, Deng Xioping and now Xi Jinping, is a puzzle that remains to be cracked. It can be argued that if China is the alternative economic superpower, with its far-flung links of trade, investment and assets from South America to Africa, from Asia to America and Europe, then Marx is not only relevant, but the idea of a Communist Party with all its ideological underpinnings is also relevant. This raises the question — why is it that in India, where the Communist movement began before 1920, its formal date of coming into existence in Tashkent, the party is struggling to be effective.
The reduction of the largest Communist Party in this country, the CPI(M), in terms of size and its influence in politics, confirms there’s a crisis that it must deal with. The essence of being Communist can’t be framed as angst — to be open to working, albeit at arm’s length with the Congress, or not to be. Nor can it be a promise to provide an “alternative” economic vision for lifting India’s poor out of poverty, reducing the ferocious inequalities where one per cent of people own 73 per cent of wealth, without spelling out what the CPI(M) thinks on the political economy, which Marx described as a “natural result of the expansion of trade” under which “elementary, unscientific huckstering” was replaced by a “developed system of licensed fraud, an entire science of enrichment.” The CPI(M)’s problem is that it’s stuck over the ethics of political economy that “is acquisition, work, thrift, sobriety”. And, it has no solutions to the resulting tension between the real world and ethics, which was beautifully described by Marx as “each sphere applies to me a different and opposite yardstick”.
China has sorted it out and its qualms, whatever they are, about “different and opposite yardstick(s)”. Ideology, as the CPC understands it, has not got in the way of producing dozens of billionaires, of whom six per cent are self-made women entrepreneurs, making it the best in its class in the world. However worried Xi Jinping may be about the internal dynamics of an economy that is strongly unequal, (in China, one per cent of households own 25 per cent of the wealth, according to a Beijing University study), the fact is that the income gap is getting larger and larger, as experts within China acknowledge.
Turning squeamish at the thought of being practical is fine, but only for a bunch of intellectuals with the wherewithal to support a life of activism and the privileges of living a life of the mind. The lakhs of people who voted for the CPI(M) in Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal need a successful party that offers an alternative development programme which can make them better off, protect their assets and allow them to invest in securing a comfortable future. That is what matters.
As a party committed to leading a “people’s struggle” within the parliamentary democratic system, the challenges to defining the alternative are much greater than it is for China, where the Communists successfully led a revolution and abolished the old order, nationalising everything, and then reworked the mission of the government and party. China unleashed the animal spirits of capitalism, turned its rural population into an army of migrant workers and now has reached the point where a debate is under way on whether China is establishing a new model of colonisation, through the One Belt, One Road idea, or is its model more palliative, but as ruthless as the system that ended in 1949.
To an average person, that is the vast majority who haven’t been anointed by the CPI(M) as bonafide cadres, China looks to have made its deal with the market, neo-liberalism and global capital. When the CPI(M) voices its opposition to neo-liberalism and questions the intentions of every political party except its own and its coalition Left partners, it really doesn’t seem to have an alternative to offer. In 1957 in Kerala and again in 1977 in West Bengal, there were a slew of alternative policies and institutions that were established to implement these policies. In 1977, in West Bengal, the implementation of land reforms not only redistributed surplus land, but it also conferred on tenant farmers a legal right to cultivating the land. In 1978, it backed up these changes by putting in place a new institutional arrangement of three-tier panchayats as the first and nearest level of government. The CPI(M) government, which included men like the late Ashok Mitra, accepted there were limitations. But they found a way to push back on these limitations.
The same can’t be said of the ideologically puritanical spirits who continue to challenge the choices that a CPI(M) government, working within the parliamentary system, in any state is bound to face: of how to deliver “development” or economic opportunities to a population that lives and works within a political economy that is an entirely developed system of scientific enrichment. The political dilemma of who is the bigger enemy — the BJP or the Congress — has two hinges for the CPI(M): the first is secularism, communal harmony and religious diversity; and the second is neo-liberal policies and business-trade with international finance capitalism and US neo-imperialism. The hesitations over who is politically kosher extends to the regional parties as well, turning the Communists into an isolationist force of declining attraction.