Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, Issue No. 14, 02 Apr, 2016

Book Reviews

Outstanding Chronicle of the Left in India

Sumanta Banerjee

The Phoenix Moment: Challenges Confronting the Indian Left by Praful Bidwai, Noida, Uttar Pradesh: HarperCollins, 2015; pp 586, Rs 599.

Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, will the Indian left re-emerge from the still-burning embers of its past history—of both heroic struggles and pathetic failures? Will it become a decisive force in today’s Indian politics? These were the queries, which both Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik (the inseparable friends), and me, along with a few other companions who occasionally joined them, tried to pursue often, during seminars (which Praful indefatigably organised in Delhi and other places), or over cups of coffee and glasses of drinks at the India International Centre.

Praful left us on 23 June 2015. But we are thankful to him for leaving behind for us this wonderful intellectually stimulating book that traces not only the history of the Indian communist movement, but also suggests an alternative courageous strategy for the left in the coming future.

Almost ever since its birth in the 1920s, the Indian communist movement had attracted a long list of archivists—starting from British intelligence agents to nationalist historians and foreign scholars. Praful adds a comprehensive bibliography of this literature at the end of his book, which will help young researchers discover the sources of much of the hitherto unknown nuggets of information, as well as spur them on to follow them up. Among all such books published so far, his The Phoenix Moment stands out as the most outstanding chronicle of the fascinating twists and turns of the communist movement and the tides and ebbs that it experienced spanning almost a century.

Praful updates the history till the present times, and most importantly, he pinpoints the political, social and economic challenges that the left is facing today, and outlines a programme of action (both ideological and based on grass-roots praxis) in his last chapter entitled “Towards a New Left.” This, I am sure, will inspire a new generation of members of leftist and social movements, Dalit and tribal activists, liberal and humanist scholars and researchers to come together on a common platform, to put up resistance against the approaching tanks of Hindu fascism.

Twists and Turns

The first three chapters of Praful’s book are a chronicle of the rise and development of the Indian left during the 1920–40 period—from the early years of a few communist groups trying to organise workers in the industrial sector and poor peasants in the countryside, to their emergence into a political force in the pre- and post-independence period. Praful traces the twists and turns in their ideological understanding, and ebbs and tides in their achievements. Notwithstanding the valour and sacrifice of individual left organisers, the communist-led left fumbled for a variety of reasons, the basic being, according to Praful—“the Left’s persistent ideological-theoretical and programmatic weaknesses” (p xi). In fact, this is the leit-motif that runs all through Praful’s narrative—a sympathetic, critical and helpful analysis that should aid the left to overcome their weaknesses, upgrade their ideas and chisel their tools of action to fight the enemy.

Praful critically identifies three areas of the left’s ideological–theoretical weaknesses:

   The Left has never adequately theorized caste or religion, despite their signal importance in India. Nor has it given the issue of gender the salience it deserves in India’s patriarchal and viciously male—supremacist society. And it has failed to incorporate the question of ecology and destruction of nature centrally into its critique of capitalism (p 20).

He then develops his own argument,

   for socialism as an altogether novel economic system or form of social organization based on a qualitatively transformed relationship between natural resources, human society, and production and consumption.

Having said this, Praful makes his position clear as a committed post-Marxian socialist (if that is the term that we can invent for ourselves): “This needs a major modification of conventional Marxist theory without losing sight of its foundational anti-capitalist tenets or goals of socialism” (p 20).

The next four chapters are a very well-documented history and analysis of the left’s rise to power in West Bengal and Kerala, and after its initial achievements there, its political and moral degeneration. As for West Bengal, Praful divides the record of the three-“decade”-old Left Front regime (“probably unmatched in a large region, province or city in any democracy”), into three broad phases.

The first (late 1970–late 1980 period) was marked by modest, social welfare and land reform measures delivered through administrative means, combined with limited people’s participation. The second phase in the 1990s saw “popular demobilisation and a turning away from redistributive policies, leading to alienation of the poorer strata” (p 161). It was this trend that reached its extreme stage in the third phase in the early years of the 21 century, when the Left Front government opted for a “further rightward shift and embrace of neo-liberalism, with predatory land acquisition and industrialization policies” (p 161).

Praful traverses this already well-documented shameful history of the CPI(M)-led left government’s atrocities in Nandigram, Singur, Lalgarh and other areas. But at the end, he sums up the tragedy of the left in West Bengal in these words:

   The Left lost multiple opportunities in West Bengal—instituting ambitious land reform, radicalizing the decentralization and devolution agenda, reinvigorating numerous social development sectors, conceptualization new and different models of agricultural growth, industrialization and urbanization, and building a participatory, non-clientelist relationship with its support base (p 187).

Praful’s critique of the West Bengal Left Front government is that it was “far too timid and pusillanimous on certain radical agendas, and far too rigid and orthodox in its industrialization and organizational policies” (p 187).

Communist Movement in Kerala

The next two chapters on the communist movement in Kerala, and their description of the fits and starts by which the left won and lost power there over the last several decades, make interesting reading. In fact, the Kerala communists were the first in India to gain a popular electoral verdict to form a government of their own under the charismatic chiefministership of E M S Namboodiripad in 1957. During the two years they were allowed to rule, they brought about legislations in favour of poor farmers and agricultural labourers, and also reforms in the educational system.

The reforms were not of a world-breaking revolutionary nature, but were mere implementation of promises of economic equity and social justice that the bourgeois Congress Party had been making all these years. But they were enough to upset the status quo of the upper caste landlord monopoly in Kerala’s agrarian sector and the vested religious clergy’s hold on the state’s educational structure. They persuaded the then Congress high command to allow them to whip up a violent public agitation against the left government, thus creating a law and order situation. In a knee-jerk reaction, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru acquiesced in the game plan that his daughter as the Congress president had fabricated, and he dismissed the Kerala left government on 31 July 1959.

A less discussed episode behind this shameful history is the role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)–Congress collaboration, which Praful exposes. Backed by hard evidence (like memoirs of former ambassadors of the United States (US) to India (Ellsworth Bunker and Daniel Patrick Moynihan) and recently declassified official US and British documents), Praful quite rightly concludes:

   …it is clear that the CIA funded and supported anti-CPI activities in Kerala in multiple ways and over a period of years. ….to topple the Namboodiripad ministry….The CIA secretly channelled funds to Congress office bearers and labour leaders to foment industrial unrest and political turmoil (p 210).

He refers in this connection to Paul Michael McGarr’s exposures in The Cold War in South Asia: Britain, the United States and the Indian Subcontinent, 1945–1965 (Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom).

The 1959 CIA–Congress plan—despite its temporary success that year—boomeranged in the long run, as evident from the phoenix-like return of the communist-led left front at intervals during the last several decades.

Unlike their comrades in West Bengal, who during the three decades of power that they enjoyed, squandered their opportunities by concentrating only on training apparatchiks as musclemen, and ignored the building of basic human infrastructure in terms of health facilities, housing, education among other social indices, the Kerala communist governments during their tenures registered achievements “in respect of health, poverty alleviation, education and other social sector areas between the 1970s and 1990s,” which were collectively identified by social scientists and development practitioners as the Kerala model.

Praful leaves to future researchers the task of investigating into the controversial questions that he has raised over the Kerala model. In the brief section entitled “Missed Opportunities” in Chapter 6, while recognising the importance of the model, he identifies the “frailties and flaws”—the unintended results of well-meaning measures like tenancy reforms that “led to an increase in the power of rich farmers, which adversely affected the interests of the poor…” Among the other limitations of the Kerala model, Praful points out “the exclusion of certain social groups, poor equity outcomes, relatively high ecological costs, imbalances between different economic sectors…” (p 222). He also describes the gradual decline in the moral standards of communist politicians that create “Cracks in the Kerala Edifice” (Chapter 7).

Sad Refrain

Running through the rest of Praful’s book is a sad refrain—the regret over the communist leadership’s lack of interest in theoretical matters and the relatively low priority accorded to Marxist theory, as distinct from programmatic and practical matters, in party education. I share with him his distaste for the then Communist Party of India’s (CPI) slavish loyalty to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Incidentally, could not the CPGB at its birth think of adopting an independent communist name instead of appending it to its imperial host?), and the later Indian Naxalite movement’s sycophancy towards Mao. Both betrayed a lack of innovative interpretation of Marxism and indigenous ways of practising it. Praful sums up the historical crisis of the Indian communists in the following words:

   The Left’s search for a strategic framework within which to fight for transformative social change based on popular counter-hegemony remains both inadequately theorized and practically unrealized (p 78).

I also agree with him when he says:

   the Indian Communist parties attracted the brightest of intellectuals and scholars, but they did not create or foster an internal climate where their theoretical abilities and analytical talent would be encouraged and original work rewarded (p 62).

Praful here raises the old question about the tenuous relationship between theory and practice. Brilliant theoreticians that the Marxist movement produced were marginalised—and often eliminated—in the erstwhile Soviet Union and East European states by the state administration in order to throttle any dissent that would challenge the hegemonic order.

People’s Charter

In the Indian situation today there is an urgent need for a renewal of relationship between Marxist theory and present social movements. It is necessary to re-interpret Marxism in the post-Marxian situation and reformulate strategy and tactics by the left to fight the twin enemies of the neo-liberal economic order and Hindu religious fundamentalism. It is against this political background that Praful ends his last chapter, appropriately entitled “Towards a New Left.”

He envisages a “People’s Charter” under a broad vision of a socialist agenda that incorporates, among other priorities, plans for (i) radicalising the continuing popular struggles and deepening democracy; (ii) evolving sector-based or micro-level alternatives on day-to-day issues of vital concerns to the poor and underprivileged; (iii) conceptualising a non-vanguardist relationship between the people and political parties, and between and within parties, based on democratic principles; and (iv) evolving a critique of chauvinist nationalism in India, and developing new forms of international solidarity among working people (p 335).

Praful’s People’s Charter is on its way. He would have been happy to hear the sounds of the footsteps of the future alternatives that are resonating around India today—the expansion of left–Dalit affinity; the consolidation of radical students and their teaching faculty all over India in the campuses in Film and Television Institute of India, University of Hyderabad, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jadavpur University and elsewhere; the solidarity of the writers, artists, dancers, painters, film-makers in their opposition to the barbaric policies and philistine practices of the present regime run by a prime minister who has emerged from the insides of a diseased and decaying political system.

Sumanta Banerjee (, a journalist and commentator, has written over many decades for the EPW.