The Phoenix Moment review: This could be the new Left manifesto
Praful Bidwai’s posthumous book is a rich intellectual history of the Left, its contemporary fate and how it can fight back a neoliberal onslaught.books Updated: Jan 02, 2016 14:01 IST
Prakash Karat, the then top leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), made it plain. “It is virtually squeezing us out now,” Karat said, with his usual teasing grin.
The event in New Delhi, some three years ago, seemed less a public seminar, more an extended family huddle in crisis, attended by an entire galaxy of the Left intelligentsia.
The “it” in Karat’s line stood for neoliberal politics, a Marxist catchphrase for politics awash in business-funded slush money and the nexus between globalised finance capital and governments. To the Left’s large following in attendance, it was a worrying, if not surprising, admission.
Among them was Praful Bidwai, one of India’s finest Left journalists from an earlier era who died untimely on 24 June 2015.
The Phoenix Moment, a scholarly tome, is Bidwai’s posthumous book about an “existential crisis” in the Indian Left. It offers a rich intellectual history of the Left and its contemporary fate, not readily available in popular bookstores. Had he been alive, its launch in November 2015 may have occasioned an even bigger turnout than the one Karathad addressed. Without Bidwai, the event seemed to lack its soul somehow. He was the last of a tribe. For him journalism was about holding power to account, social justice and equity, albeit from a Marxist position.
Today, Left parties, often referred to as the ‘parliamentary Left’, are watching from the sidelines, unable to intervene at a time when middle-classes in many countries feel squeezed by joblessness, austerity, low wages, poor housing and living standards.
Left economics however has made a big comeback. Angus Deaton won the Economics Nobel this year. Two new books on income inequality — by Thomas Picketty and Anthony Atkinson — have become global bestsellers. By all accounts, the richest 20 percent is said to now hold at least 70 percent of all global wealth.
Anger against precisely this sort of neoliberal policies brought about a milestone when Greeks this year voted the Left-radical Syriza party to power.
In the rest of Europe, all this frustration has heightened the appeal not of the Left, but of the far-right. In India, too, the Left has failed to weigh in on the agrarian crisis, inequality and poverty. Yet, the Left is too important to be left to the Leftists alone or be written off. Viewed through rose-tinted glasses, it still has considerable mass support bases in India, when it is just a signpost elsewhere. It was in India that the world saw the first democratically elected Left government (in Kerala, 1957). The Left still has a strong voice in the upper house, where it has room to influence policy-making.
True to Marx’s ‘dialectical materialism’ — his germane theory that ideas don’t arise in vacuum but from real, material contexts—Bidwai historically foregrounds his book to show how the Left took roots in India.
“The Indian Left was born late,” he says, and it found expression in the “middle-of-the-road Indian National Congress”. The CPI was shaped by “high-Stalinism”. In essence, the Indian Left ideology was virtually born of the womb of Russian Communism. “Indian Communism remained unacquainted with the theoretical tradition of Western Marxism.”
Bidwai himself never joined a Left party because none of them was “sufficiently undogmatic or open to new ideas”, especially to his own sharply “anti-Stalinist views”. With little exposure to Western Marxism, Indian Communists could not accept that there could be other forms of socialism than Stalinist socialism. “This, among other factors, limited the CPI’s ability…to develop an understanding of India’s specific social, cultural and political realities and forge relevant strategic approaches.” Bidwai reiterates a widely held view that the Left reduced itself to mere “parliamentarism” — a jargon for electoral politics. Although not without merit, Bidwai’s hypothesis can be faulted. In a democracy, political ideology finds its true practical expression only through electoral politics. No less killing, Bidwai states, has been the Left’s “democratic centralism”, the name given to the Leninist structure in which members are free to air views but must ultimately abide by what is decided at the highest level.
It is an established political theory that if a movement gets bureaucratic, it dwindles. This is what happened in West Bengal. The Left would do well to come to terms with industrialization. As Engels said, industrialisation will and should happen. What must not happen is expropriation, which is precisely what took place in Singur and Nandigram under Left rule.
In the Hindi belt, as the first chief minister of Kerala EMS Namboodiripad once pointed out, the ground for the Left was never prepared by social reform of the sort in Bengal or coastal Maharashtra, which eliminated feudalism. The Left must now unlearn the lessons learnt in its Soviet alma mater and offer a new socialism, based on emerging aspirations. More importantly, it has to address a “transition to a post-capitalist society”.
It must theorise four things central to Indian society which it has surprisingly under-theorised: Caste, gender, environmental degradation and agriculture. The new Left therefore could take up pollution, water privatisation (which the AAP party successfully did, he says), Dalit emancipation and a general focus on livelihoods, social democracy and social justice.
The Phoenix Moment, rich and thorough, has the seeds for a new Left manifesto. But the Marxists would do well to remember what Marx famously said — thinkers have interpreted the situation for too long without realising that the point, after all, is to change it. Or something to that effect.