The Left is dead. Long live the Left!
That was my first reaction to the dismal performance of the Left parties in this Lok Sabha election. The outcome officially confirmed what was long suspected: Left as an organised entity, as an intellectual and political establishment is as good as dead. Yet, the outcome also underlined the continued relevance of and need for the Left as a political orientation and movement. It invites us to ask a big question: could the death of the orthodox Left herald the birth of a new Left?
For the last 100 years or so, the Left has come to mean a rigid, doctrinal politics. It meant adherence to Marxism, or rather its narrow interpretation by Lenin. This ideology encompassed a theory of history, an analysis of capitalist political economy, a belief in the inevitability of revolution, a vision of state-socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. For much of the Left, the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes were the exemplars of what a future society would look like. This politics was represented by the Communist Party of India, which fragmented over the years into CPI-M(Marxist), CPI-Maoist and several fractions of CPI-ML (Marxist-Leninist).
Lowest ever tally
This Left has been in terminal decline for quite some time. Only now, it’s shockingly visible. The lowest-ever tally of five (made respectable by a generous contribution of four seats from Tamil Nadu, thanks to the DMK) indicted something deeper than an electoral setback. The shock defeat of the LDF in Kerala may be a cyclical phenomenon but the wipe-out of the Left in West Bengal and Tripura is not. The way ex-CPI(M) cadre shifted to the BJP in West Bengal indicated a deeper hollowing out of the politics of the parliamentary Left.
The tiny band of ‘non-parliamentary’ Communists, the Maoists who continue to follow the path of armed rebellion against the Indian state, have lost their sense of direction quite some time ago and await final extermination by the security forces. Even in JNU, the last bastion of the Left, it survives only by forming a mahagathbandhan of all Left formations to keep the ABVP and the NSUI at bay.
Death of orthodox Left
The death of this orthodox Left is not accidental. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European Communist regimes had already exposed deep contradictions in the theory and practice of the Communist Left: its failure to respect human quest for liberty, its inability to recognise the need for economic incentives and enterprises, and its creation of the sheer bureaucratic monstrosity in the name of state socialism. Besides, as I had argued long ago, the Indian Left never quite understood Indian society: their Euro-centric frame prevented them from meaningfully engaging with the Indian national movement, Indian traditions and religions or taking on the caste system. The surprise is not that the orthodox Left faces a dead-end; the surprise is that it survived nearly three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yet, it would be tragic if the Left were to disappear from our public life. For all its failures, the Left played a critical role in maintaining the democratic character of Indian democracy. Its unwavering gaze on the stark economic inequalities kept the inhumanity and corruption of our capitalist system under check. The Left record of governance in West Bengal was not much to write home about, but its role in maintaining Hindu-Muslim unity in one of the most communally charged regions was glorious.
Besides producing some of the finest, selfless and reflective political leaders, the Left also contributed innumerable artists, poets, writers, teachers, journalists, scientists, rationalists and activists in all walks of life. Indian politics and modern Indian culture would be poorer in the absence of the Left.
Towards a new Left
This is why we need to look for and work towards a new Left. In its deeper, original, meaning, the Left referred to those who were anti-monarchy or anti-establishment. In the nineteenth century, the Left came to be identified with those who believed in equality, before the expression was captured by the Communist Left, post the Russian revolution. In the latter half of the 20th century, the label was occasionally applied to other movements and tendencies as well: civil right movements, feminists and environmentalists. In its broader meaning, Left stands for the idea of equality, for social justice, for participatory democracy, for ecological sustainability. It is to the ‘Left’ of and in opposition to the political establishment, caste hierarchies, patriarchy, and of course, the capitalist order.
There is a rich intellectual and political legacy, globally and within India, to this redefinition of the Left. The Preamble to the Indian Constitution is in this sense Leftist. The Indian socialist tradition – the non-Communist democratic socialists like Narendra Deva, Jayaprakash Narayan and Rammanohar Lohia – provide a ready corpus of ideas for the new Left.
Their political legacy – the various factions of the Janata family – is less appealing today. But that deficit can be made up by the peoples’ movements of various hues and inclinations: from movements for right to food, education, information and livelihood to those for gender and caste equality and for sustainable development. These movements and activists draw from various ideologies: environmentalism, feminism, socialism, Marxism, Phule-Ambedkarism, Gandhism and so on. They have diverse political orientation. Many of these groups come from various splinters of the orthodox Left. None of them is capable of creating a new Left on their own. But put together, they contain some of the most powerful ideas, programmes and activists of our time.
A new Left cannot be just an aggregate of the valuable remains of the old. Such unity is necessary but not sufficient. It would take courage to think afresh, to discard wooden-headed ideas about how to achieve a just and equal society, to embrace radically new policies, strategies and tactics to speak a new vocabulary. This might entail replacing the label itself.
The author is National President of Swaraj India. Views are personal.