The Continuing Relevance of the Left in India
An amended version of a talk given to the Secular Collective in Kozhikode,
An amended version of a talk given to the Secular Collective in Kozhikode,
First of all, thank you for allowing me to be a part of the honouring of TK Ramachandran. I did not know him, but I have done a little bit of research now, enough to know that he was not someone who shrunk from a debate or a discussion. I hope we can live up to that spirit here today.
I was asked to speak on “the Continuing Relevance of the Left in
The need for a Left
But first to the statement of fact. The left continues to be relevant in
And for this simple reason, the left is relevant in
The relevance of the Left
But being needed does not necessarily make it relevant, and here we turn to the second part of the title, the strategic challenge of how to ensure the relevance of the Left. And here perhaps the North American example can be constructive. I hate to admit it, but in
Partly this is because
Sticking to principles
That is the context. But what about what leftists do to be irrelevant? I think we do some things that reduce our relevance, but I think what we do to be irrelevant is the opposite of what many argue.
Many argue that the left is irrelevant because it is too far left. For sticking to our principles, we are seen as dogmatic and inflexible. I actually think the opposite is the case. Again take
And in fact, I think the Indian left shows this in a positive way. Take the debate on secularism. By being unapologetically secular, the left provides a stark contrast to the religious supremacists and communalists. It pulls the whole debate in a sensible direction and forces the reactionaries to expose themselves. It also provides more room to those who want to contest religious supremacy in ways that appeal to religious feeling: as Gandhiji did, for example.
The same goes for gender rights. By asserting strongly that there is no moral justification for any differences in power, wealth, or rights between men and women, the whole debate is made more reasonable, and even more so when the left's actions own actions, in power and in opposition, are consistent with its principles.
I am arguing that the left is stronger, not weaker, when it sticks to its principles and indeed, that is what the left is for. Let other political groups take measures of expediency. If the left finds that its principled positions are unpopular, it should take this as a sign of more work to be done. That is the political task: to make principled policies and actions popular so they can happen democratically. If the majority is sexist or caste-ist, believes capitalism is the most efficient system, the left has to recognize this as a major challenge. But it should not revise its position or principles.
Flexible strategy and analysis
Strategy and analysis are other matters, however.
Just as the left is relevant when it sticks to its principles, it is also only relevant to the degree that it can be flexible in its strategy and analysis.
This takes us to some of the strategic suggestions I will offer for ensuring the continuing relevance of the left in
There are also innovative ideas working their way through the system today. Decentralized development planning here in Kerala has been very interesting and offers challenges and lessons. The recent adoption of free/open source software by the state in Kerala is another very good move, one that goes way beyond not having to pay licensing fees and has to do with very important questions of freedom of information and equal access to it, questions that ultimately affect one's ability to participate fully in society. For this reason free software/open source software's natural home is the left, though it doesn't always seem that way and though many of its proponents are not leftists.
I also agree with the left stand on the Indo-US nuclear deal and its critique of neoliberalism. I am intrigued by the alliance the left has struck with some of the regional parties, and I think the points of unity (including secularism, anti-nuclear, dealing with agrarian and economic questions) are the right ones. Trying to break out of its strongholds in
But having said that, I will assume you didn't just want to hear that I agree with the left. So let me make four suggestions that might help with the relevance of the left in
Four suggestions for the left
1) Critical Thinking
First, I return to flexibility and also, independence, not only from other countries or contexts, but also independence of thought. If we believe firmly in our principles, there need be nothing sacred about any element of analysis or method. Marx, Trotsky, Lenin, Mao, Che, all become people who were working on specific problems in specific contexts, not people with formulas to be mechanically deployed. They all knew this. Mao's predecessor, for example, listened against his better judgment to the advice of Stalin and the Russian Communists about staying in the united front with the Nationalists – leading to the massacre at
Second, some economic thoughts, first short- and then long-term. In the short-term, take the criticisms of the Kerala model that always arise from the right: that labor militancy and empowered workers have frightened away investors and, therefore, growth, and that economic planning destroys incentives to work hard. I believe both these criticisms are incorrect, but the left sometimes responds to them by saying that growth is not important. But growth is important, in my view, and the idea of growth – technological progress, increasing productivity, interesting work choices and career paths available to people – is a positive thing that ought not to be conceded to the neoliberals. They would like there to be a dichotomy between empowered workers on the one hand and growth on the other. That is a false dichotomy, however, and if the left would be stronger if it included practical policies for growth.
What are such policies? Ha-Joon Chang, an economist of Korean origin working in the
Ha-Joon Chang would also argue, correctly, that Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are no path to development, but are a path to corporations seizing land, exploiting labour, and taking profits out of the country and offering nothing in return. All the damage that was done to people's lives and also to the dignity of the left at Nandigram to try to follow China to SEZ development was, in addition to being an ethical failure and a political one, based on incorrect economic analysis, including the notion that neoliberalism is a path to growth, when in fact it is a path to death.
In this light, we should also take a moment to celebrate the failure of the
We should also make a note about inflation, which is one of the points of unity in the electoral alliance the Indian left has entered. Macroeconomic theory teaches that inflation is caused by demand outstripping supply or an oversupply of money, so governments can either suppress demand using taxes and other policies or tighten money supply with interest rates. Neoliberals are usually monetarists so it's interest rate hikes that are favoured. But the inflation that is happening today is different from other kinds, because it is based on rising energy prices, which are rising for many reasons, but one of which is that cheap oil is running out and more expensive energy sources are being resorted to. This means that while energy prices will still fluctuate, they are on a long-term upward trend and will drag food, transportation, and almost everything else with it – the global economy is based on energy, especially fossil fuel energy (which needs to change for environmental reasons that I will mention). So neither demand nor monetary management is going to help with this inflation, and trying to cool down the economy now will just exclude people and imperil growth. To mention Ha-Joon Chang again, he shows how in economic history growth often goes along with inflation, which isn't such a problem if it is accompanied by growth. It is usually a bigger problem for holders of wealth, but they are not going to starve, unlike many who would be put at further risk from a combination of high food prices and economic stagnation. I hope the left recognizes this as it develops its ideas for tackling inflation in
What about the long-term? The Indian left is against markets and for planning, and the left's critics argue that planning in
Another long-term economic question has to do with classlessness. The left seeks a classless society, which means it ultimately does not want private property. But property is not the only source of class hierarchy – there is also the hierarchy of the workplace. A university has a division between faculty and staff. A hospital has a division between doctors, nurses, and staff. A law firm has a division between lawyers and clerks. These are hierarchical divisions based on roles in the workplace, and they are accompanied by huge differences in both pay and, importantly, status. A classless economy would re-define jobs themselves, so that everyone did some mental and some menial, some rote and some interesting work. This would be a very deep change and it would include profound changes in the education system and attitudes, and would have workplaces ultimately run by the workers themselves, in councils. In a country where caste was traditionally based on occupation, and where class status is so strong, it would be good for the left to be aware of this type of class hierarchy and endeavour to stop practicing it internally.
Yet another long-term economic question, this time about planning. Critics of planning say it can never be as efficient as the market for matching supply and demand, and that it leads to distortions in supply. But there are several ways to plan: imagine a planning procedure in which consumers indicated their preferences for consumption and, at work, indicated their capacities and intentions for the coming year. These preferences could be aggregated into a preliminary plan for the economy which could be refined iteratively – this is feasible to do with computers and simpler economies have simpler planning demands. Kerala has experience of decentralized planning. This procedure is called 'participatory planning' and is developed in several books by one of the founders of ZNet, Michael Albert, and economist Robin Hahnel. These three elements: remuneration by effort, classlessness in the workplace, and participatory planning, form a model for a socialist economy called 'participatory economics'. I believe it contains useful ideas for maintaining incentives and efficiency ascribed to markets while thoroughly destroying class and keeping the benefits of planning. Being aware of models such as these is good for the left because it enables us to check our own movement culture. The same goes for caste, which here in Kerala leftists did undermine through their own internal movement cultural practice. There is still some way to go with gender, on the left and in society, in Kerala and throughout
A third suggestion is about peace. The late American liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who was ambassador to
It seems that in today's dangerous, nuclear-armed world, armed conflicts favor capital, and armed left movements are far from power. While there is still a role for armed self-defense, especially of territory occupied by foreign invaders, the idea of a left group coming to power through armed struggle seems unlikely in the current context. The Maoists in
It strikes me that the Indian left could play a similar role in opening a dialogue with the Naxalites. They are fighting partly for survival and self-defense, partly as part of a bigger political struggle based on their analysis. If their survival could be ensured politically, it would be reasonable to ask them to take the political rather than the armed route. Of course, it is worth noting that part of why the FARC are reluctant to do so is that, when they tried in the 1980s, several thousand of their activists were killed. Staying armed is better than getting massacred – part of the work of the left is to create an ethical and political path to social change.
Also, the Indian left should argue strongly for nuclear disarmament and peace with
Fourth, and I won't elaborate on this because it is a separate talk, but as an environmental scientist I have to mention the natural environment.
Cautions and conclusions
Finally a few words of caution for the left in the current context. Watch out for non-governmental organizations. I have said independence of mind is necessary for the left. NGOs, usually funded by foreign governments in the rich countries, are dependent on their funders. The ideal relationship between a left organization and its constituency is one of mutuality: the organization depends on the people for funds and support, while representing and supporting the people's aspirations. NGOs break the mutuality: they provide assistance to people, and get the money to do so from funders, creating more of a patron-client relationship. They also take good, idealistic people away from left politics and into a more clientilistic world.
And last, I'll reiterate the point about internal movement culture. A left that is allergic to caste, class, and gender discrimination in its internal culture and practice as well as in its analysis will be extremely compelling to its natural allies in oppressed constituencies. Because
Thank you again for the chance to talk to you.
Justin Podur is a writer and activist of Indian (Malayali) origin, born and based in