The Indian Left Has to Move Beyond Lenin’s Rigid Formulations on the Role of the Party

While the decline of the Left in India continues, there is not enough debate on how the movement can renovate itself


Representative image. Credit: Flicr/CC BY 2.0

I wonder why there are so many Marxist-Leninist and other Left parties in India. More generally because, the Left is acutely aware that even the Partito Comunista d’Italia (PCI) – the party which produced the greatest Marxist theorist of the 20th century, Antonio Gramsci, who renovated political theory, Marxism in particular – declined in the post-Second World War period. Yet, the splintering or decline or even virtual disappearance of the Left, like that of the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), continues, while debate over the need to renovate and democratise the movement is still not adequate. Obviously, there has to be something very wrong happening in India, a country whose communist movement goes back to the 1920s. This is a humble intervention in the Left debate based on my experience in activism since the late 1960s and as a member of the Communist Party of India since 1973. I speak only as a Marxist who was fortunate to study, struggle and teach in a radical and theoretically rich university – Jawaharlal Nehru University.

To start at the beginning, the virtual equating of Marx and Lenin is highly problematic. Unlike Marx, Lenin had to opoerate in an extremely repressive Tsarist regime. He could not hold large meetings of party members in such dangerous conditions. Hence Lenin’s theory of “democratic centralism.” Here power flowed upwards, from the lowest and largest committee, to the higher committee and ultimately to the central committee, to the politburo (political bureau) and ultimately to the general secretary. Power did not flow down, however, and only in relatively few cases were top-down decisions overruled from below. The reaction to ‘democratic centralism’ was quick. The great revolutionary and leader of the Communist Party of Germany, Rosa Luxemburg, sharply criticised Lenin’s “ultra centralism” as disempowering the working class. Trotsky warned of the central committee being superseded by the politburo which would be taken over by an all powerful general secretary. In effect, this happened after Lenin’s death.

In his letter of January 1923, Lenin warned his party that Stalin was too rude to be a general secretary and that the party should find a way to remove him from his position. Other members of the politburo and central committee, excluding Trotsky, defended Stalin in the ensuing party congress. Later, ensconced in power, Stalin had almost all of Lenin’s contemporaries killed, some 90% of the central committee – except Trotsky, who was exiled and then later assassinated in Mexico City, and Lenin’s widow N. Krupskaya. All this archival material has been published in English by Progress Publishers, Moscow, since the 1960s and the Moscow archives have been open for decades. Yet there is no public criticism of Stalin or a critique of Stalinism, by almost all sections of the Left, except the Trotskyists. Democratic centralism, which emboldened and sanctified Stalinism, continues in most of the Indian Left. Studies by Roy Medvedev, whose book was produced for the de-Stalinisation programme by the Khrushchev-led politburo and government, was printed in Russian, and then in English; the remarkable three-volume study on Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher as well as his political biography of Stalin; and many other studies including Stephen Cohen’s book on Nikolai Bukharin on this period, have shed a lot of light on what happened. With few exceptions, these have not been studied by the communist parties.

Dictatorship of the proletariat was originally sought to be implemented by Lenin and others. This was because no sufficiently democratic atmosphere or rule existed. Lenin, reacting to the Kronstadt revolt, dissolved the Duma (parliament), creating a situation of the dictatorship of the party and not of the class. In modern democracies, terms justifying dictatorships would be considered fascist or extremely authoritarian. This concept is also obsolete, and many Left parties rightly reject it. Similarly, the vanguard role of the communist parties/Left. Just by their existence Left parties cannot claim leadership, which has to be earned by political work and successes. Even leadership of the working class/people has to be earned or socially accepted. All this would be a wrench for the Left in India, but this has been fairly widely accepted in the Americas, Asia, Europe and Africa.

Environment is a very important issue. Nuclear power, as accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have demonstrated, is very dangerous. The fact that the Modi government has agreed to purchase dated Westinghouse nuclear reactors on the basis of a diluted interpretation of India’s liability law shows how pliant governments can take potentially devastating decisions without adequate scientific scrutiny. Deforestation, dropping water levels in both rural and urban areas, are all environmental problems that must be dealt with as a huge crisis waiting to happen. Environmental issues have to be given priority by the Left and democratic forces.

The development of the idea  of “hegemony” by Gramsci is of utmost importance. Hegemony is not dictatorship or authoritarian control. To move towards this, Gramsci develops the idea of “common sense.” Common sense is a mixture of truth, myths, bits of religious doctrines and ideologies of various types. To create hegemony, Marxists have to counter common sense with “good sense.” Good sense is roughly analogous to the truth which, when it is overwhelming, becomes a potent force in cementing hegemony. But the struggle between common and good sense has to be the major role of intellectuals. Those who hold to old theories and entrenched class positions are termed traditional intellectuals. Those who are linked to the working people or what Gramsci termed the “subaltern classes” were the organic intellectuals. For hegemony to be possible, organic intellectuals and good sense must prevail. This is a major contribution by Gramsci which is greatly respected and highly influential.

There is much more for the Indian Left to read and discuss with other Left parties, in India and abroad. It is said that a long journey begins with the first step. It is critically important that the first step is taken by the Left.

Kamal Mitra Chenoy teaches political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University