Behind CPI(M)’s Decline Lies Stalinist Structure, Ideological Confusion over Electoral Strategy 

The party’s recent decision to expel popular women’s leader Jagmati Sangwan highlights the increasing gap between its ideological standpoints and political practice.

Jagmati Sangwan addressing students at #StandWithJNU. Credit: Youtube

Jagmati Sangwan addressing students at #StandWithJNU. Credit: Youtube

On July 9, 1986, I met the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), general secretary E.M.S. Namboodiripad in Delhi for an interview. Over the past years, a number of important leaders of his party – Siyavar Sharan Srivastava in Bihar, Onkar in Andhra Pradesh, Mohan Punamia in Rajasthan, and Chatunni Master and M.V. Raghavan in Kerala – had been expelled. Raghavan was the last to be expelled, as he was in favour of an alliance with the Muslim League against the party line. In the course of the interview, the veteran leader declared, “No individual, no minority, has the right to differ with the party.” When I asked him if a member could differ with the majority view while continuing to implement the accepted party line in the day-to-day political work, he answered in the negative.

The recent summary expulsion of Jagmati Sangwan has once again shown that the kind of ‘democratic centralism’ advocated and practised by many communist parties including the CPI(M) does not really work. It may come as a surprise to many that the CPI(M) constitution virtually rules out the possibility of a member resigning from the party. Members are not allowed to resign. They are expelled. “If,” the party constitution says, “the resignation is on political grounds, the unit may refuse to accept the resignation and may expel him.” It goes on to state: “In the case where a party member wishing to resign from the party is liable to be charged with serious violation of party discipline which may warrant his or her expulsion and where such a charge is substantial, the resignation may be given effect to as expulsion from the party.”

The Sangwan episode has exposed the fault lines of a party that is still being run on Leninist organisational principles. While the first thing that Namboodiripad did after formally taking over as its general secretary in 1978 at the Jalandhar Congress was to turn it into a ‘mass revolutionary party’, the reality is that it has mostly acted as a ‘mass’ party with the self-image of being a ‘revolutionary’ party. Understandably, the mismatch between reality and self-image produces tensions in its functioning and eruptions take place rather regularly.

Not that the party is unaware of the problems it has been facing. It held a plenum on organisation in Kolkata in the last week of December 2015 and adopted a detailed report that frankly discussed the problems of corruption, moral turpitude, factionalism, federalism and careerism among its members and leaders. However, if one looks at the previous such documents of the party, one finds an extraordinary capacity for introspection and identification of everything that had been ailing it. Yet, instead of improving, its condition has been steadily deteriorating over the past so many decades.

Although Sangwan has been expelled from the CPI(M), she happens to be an elected general secretary of its affiliate All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). She is also the most popular left woman leader in the Hindi-speaking region and has earned wide acclaim for her stiff and obviously risky opposition to Haryana’s Khap Panchayats. While the Kolkata plenum resolution underlines the need to ensure the ‘independence’ of mass organisations from the party, it will be interesting to see if the party is able to put this understanding into practice and allows Sangwan to continue as AIDWA general secretary or not. After all, she has not resigned, or been expelled, from the women’s organisation.

The crucial link

The crux of the matter is that since independence, communist parties like the CPI(M) have been functioning in a democratic environment, but on the basis of Leninist principles of party organisation that envisage the party virtually as a well-disciplined army in which the command issued by a higher authority has to be obeyed unquestioningly. Lenin’s Bolshevik Party had to function under an autocratic monarchy and often go underground. Leszek Kolakowski explains that Lenin’s party was one “distinguished by ideological unity, efficiency, a hierarchic and centralized structure, and the conviction that it represents the interests of the proletariat whatever the proletariat itself may think”.

In the democratic India of the 21st century, even a modified Leninist party does not have much chance to attract the youth. At a time when people are enjoying their freedoms, the idea of submitting them to a party organisation is certainly not very appealing.

The mainstream communist parties in India have made little effort to establish what Italian communist Antonio Gramsci called ‘hegemony’. Gramsci, who died in Mussolini’s prison, had said that the ruling classes did not rule only by force but by establishing ideological dominance through forging social alliances. He underlined the need for a communist party to eschew sectarianism and establish this hegemony if it wanted to engineer a political revolution and set up an alternative class regime.

However, European communist parties from 1975 onwards made an attempt to change their ways. This trend came to be known as Eurocommunism and it placed a great deal of emphasis on the link between socialism and democracy. The Italian and French communist parties issued a joint communiqué in 1975 wherein they stated that “the French and Italian communists consider that the way to socialism…must be realized in a framework of constant democratisation of economic, social and political life. Socialism will the highest stage of democracy and freedom, democracy taken to the limit.” The two parties expressed complete faith in all the civil liberties that Western democracies traditionally offered such as freedom of thought, expression, press and association, and particularly the right of opposition and the plurality of political parties.

Eurocommunists gave up the theoretical concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, as the experience of the Soviet Union and China had shown that in practice it meant the ‘dictatorship of the communist party’. Italian communist leader Enrico Berlinguer said in 1977: “The experience we have gained has led us to the conclusion… that democracy is not only the terrain on which the class enemy is compelled to retreat but also a historically universal value which must be at the basis of the construction of an authentic socialist society.” This vision necessitated a new kind of communist party that would be very different from the Comintern type of Stalinist party.

Centralism sans democracy

However, Indian communist parties, though claiming to be mass revolutionary organisations, have not shed their Stalinist baggage. Their basic organisational principle remains ‘democratic centralism’ and this often degenerates into ‘centralism’ sans democracy. It is also obvious that revolution – people’s democratic or socialist – is nowhere on their immediate agenda and their revolutionary noises notwithstanding, the fact remains that they have more or less become full-fledged parliamentary parties that aim to change the country’s polity and economy through winning elections. The fast-changing political alignments in a parliamentary system necessitate quick reactions and changes in tactics. The communist parties find their hands tied in this respect as, in accordance to Leninist practice, the party’s political-tactical line can be changed only at a party congress and only minor adjustments can be made.

This constraint was at the root of the crisis recently faced by the CPI(M) à la the Sangwan affair. Contrary to its political-tactical line adopted at the party congress last year, the party went ahead and forged an informal alliance with the Congress in the West Bengal elections. Unfortunately, the move failed to pay off and the party’s poll performance was rather pathetic. Thus, for the party leadership, it was a case of double jeopardy. Sangwan was one of those who wanted this decision to be criticised unequivocally as a ‘violation’, while the leadership was in favour of describing it as ‘not in consonance with the party line’.

Perhaps the time has come for Indian communists to start thinking afresh about what kind of a party structure would be most suited to the democratic environment in which they have to function. Gone are the days when the communist party functioned as the well-regimented army of the working class led by a general command largely made up of intellectuals. It is true that no political party can be run without discipline but it is equally true that discipline cannot be rammed down the throat of party members and leaders without giving them opportunity and freedom to express themselves. More democracy and less centralism seems to be the need of the hour.

Kuldeep Kumar is a senior journalist who writes on politics and culture.

  • Kamal Mitra Chenoy

    There is a desperate need to renovate and democratise Marxism. Ultra centralism the alternative to the euphemism “democratic centralism” sharply criticised by Rosa Luxemburg, was also sharply rebutted by Leon Trotsky. This theory had some validity for the Bolsheviks who were fighting underground against the Tsar. “The dictatorship of the proletariat” died with Lenin who had no experience of democracy. Antonio Gramsci, a founder and General Secretary of the Italian Communist Party who died in facist control, and is considered to be the most important Marxist in the 20th century, is scarcely read by many intellectuals, not to speak of Left leaders. Too many complex issues which require more space, time. It is very brave and outspoken of Com. Kuldeep Kumar to write so clearly and critically about the believed necessity in the CPI(M) for expulsion of a prominent comrade who disagrees with the Party line. The anti-Congressism that Com.Jagmati Sangwan stood by has been the staple of the CPI(M) for almost its entire existence. The “line”cannot most of the time be unilinear. Hope the debate continues amidst more space for articulation of theoretical and organisational issues that have been ignored or misrepresented for much too long.

  • Anjan Basu

    A very important issue flagged here for the attention of the Indian Left! Very valid also. The basic problem with the main-stream Left in our country is its blinkered view of Stalinism despite the fact that accumulated historical experience shows how cruelly Stalinism undermined the core principles of Marxism. ( It is quite another matter that the Stalinist degeneration of Soviet Communism had a lot to do with the conditions under which October happened and later sought to consolidate the revolution’s gains.) My only reservation here is with the way this degeneration has been traced back to ‘ Leninist organisational principles’. It is true that Lenin was a determined ‘democratic centralist’ and could be ruhless in the implementation of that principle. But, in Lenin’s time — most certainly in the October years and till 1920– the party operated in a largely democratic spirit where even Lenin’s own strongly- advocated proposals could be shot down by the majority. The organisational structure hardened immeasurably after his passing. And, as for Trotsky, while it is a fact that he was firmly opposed to the Stalinist orthodoxy, he could often be as ruthless in suppressing all opposition as Stalin himself. The problems of the Russian Revolution owed their origin and rise to Russia’s backwardness, the revolution’s complete isolation and the failure of theEuropean revolution. The sooner our Indian comrades shrugged off their blind adherence to whatever Russia or China did the better.

  • samisosa

    The article is very well written with
    nuanced. But the thing is that CPI (M)’s Democratic Centralism is also very
    selective. I think Bolsheviks who fought against Tsar & latter against
    Fascist forces showed their commitment towards Marxism as well as Lenin’s idea
    of centralism with full integrity.
    But in CPI(M) party leaders use this Lenin’s idea for their own convenience to
    settle the score with the opponents in the party structure. I can give you an
    example for this. P. Sainath a veteran journalist & CPI (M)’s ideologue’
    had taken Rahul Gandhi to the Vidharbha’s drought prone area where Rahul met
    Kalawati. The same poor woman whose reference was given in parliament on the
    next day of this visit. It was happening when a party has been announced Elgar
    against congress on the issue of the nuclear deal. No action has been taken on Mr.
    Sainath. Just because he is a close friend of Karat Yechury.
    Several examples can be given about such selective use of democratic
    centralism. I think this selective use of democratic centralism is the problem
    & not the Lenin’s or Stalin’s idea about centralism which gave two great victories
    to communism from Tsar & from Hitler.