Social democracy, not communism

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and its red empire, one minor principality of that empire, West Bengal, has also fallen. A post-election analysis by Brinda Karat shows how blind the CPM is to why first the Soviet Union and now West Bengal have fallen.

British imperialists claimed they were civilizing lesser breeds. Red imperialists also claimed to be uplifting those lacking revolutionary consciousness. Alas, the lesser breeds rebelled against imperial rule, first in the British colonies and, in 1989, in the Soviet colonies.

Earlier, the Brezhnev doctrine said the Soviets would never retreat from any territory they controlled. This doctrine died in the badlands of Afghanistan.

Brezhnev’s successor, Gorbachev, inherited a sinking economy unable to finance imperial adventures, rather like Britain earlier. He told Eastern European communist leaders that they could not depend on Soviet intervention for survival. Within six months of that message, the red empire in Eastern Europe collapsed, followed soon by the imperial master’s collapse.

European Marxists stood exposed as autocratic oppressors, and shamefacedly became social democrats. Eastern Europe proved that the supposed blessings of communism were as phony as the “Blessings of the British Empire” injected by the Raj into Indian school textbooks. But Karat and the CPM still swear by red imperialism as the epitome of civilization.

What ordinary folk call democracy is for Karat a bourgeois fraud. True democracy, in the Marxist view, consists of a politburo taking decisions on behalf of the unwashed masses that have not yet developed revolutionary consciousness and so vote for Mamata Banerjee.

Karat claims that issues are debated openly and decided in CPM forums, a “unique democratic process.” This would surprise communists like Saifuddin Chowdhury and Somnath Chatterjee who were expelled for speaking their minds. Yet their punishment was nothing compared with Stalin’s purges of dissenters.

For all his bloodiness, Stalin industrialized a backward country and enabled it to beat Hitler. As long as he shifted people out of agriculture into industry, economic productivity rose, since industry is far more productive than farming. But once this process was largely completed by the 1960s, the fundamental inefficiency of the Soviet model became apparent.

It could produce missiles and nuclear bombs galore, but could not produce a faucet or shirt of world class. Its agriculture refused to respond to ever larger doses of investment, and it became pathetically dependent on its mortal enemies—the US and Europe—for grain, meat and dairy products. Gorbachev hoped perestroika and glasnost would rescue the model. Instead the red empire collapsed.

The CPM chafes at being a revolutionary party temporizing in a capitalist democracy. It cannot see that the very curbs democracy has imposed account for most CPM successes. In India, it could not create communes or starve millions of farmers to death, as Stalin did in Ukraine. It had to make do with mild land reforms of the sort the World Bank advocated. A capitalist-farmer strategy financed by the World Bank had earlier produced a green revolution in Punjab, and the CPM brought the same green revolution to West Bengal. Soviet agriculture never achieved anything as good.

Yet the CPM remains ashamed of bypassing true communism, unable to see that Bengali farmers responded better to green revolution incentives than Soviet communes ever did. Agriculture helped make West Bengal national champion in poverty reduction, and Karat cites the World Bank to this effect.

The greatest failing of the CPM was in ruining the state’s industries through militant trade unionism. Once India’s top commercial centre, the state is now a backwater. Failure to progress from buoyant agriculture to buoyant industry helps explain why the CPM has been trashed by disillusioned voters with rising aspirations. The only jobs created were government and panchayat jobs, distributed almost entirely to party cadres.

Nevertheless, the very fact that the CPM won seven Assembly elections in a row (at a time when most incumbents lost elections) highlights its success in social democracy. Karat rightly says it is no disgrace to lose after 34 years in office.

This surely shows that the CPM’s future lies in converting itself to a social democratic party, junking its ideological commitment to Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev. This is what Marxists in Eastern Europe did. Instead, the CPM condemns European Marxists for selling out. It cannot see that the constraints of Indian democracy have actually been a blessing that has given Marxists a better name in West Bengal than in Eastern Europe or the former USSR. The sooner it realizes this, the greater will be its chances of coming back to power.

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