Socialism after Modi?


A brief reflection on the decline of the Left in India

The self-inflicted defeat of the Left in India has received many obituaries in recent years. These reflections, which are anything but premature, have been laced with a tone of disbelief at the determination with which ostensibly leftist parties have delivered disappointment to their own constituencies. It’s time to overcome this refusal to confront the reasons for the present collapse. The historical circumstance before us is unprecedented, and yet part of the global circumstance. Both past and present alike cry out for fresh analysis and critique, and that requires, among much else, deprovincializing the history of the Indian left.

The dominant explanation of the left’s demise is as a consequence of the failure to square the necessities of capital and democratic governance. As a refrain, this is itself but an expression of a prevailing state of denial. The impasse is more fundamental and rooted in a series of compounded historical defeats.

The form that the Left took in India was conditioned by its failed struggle with imperialism (and with the anti-colonialism that took the place of the international struggle with imperialism). The rot stemmed from the roots. From the pre-Independence period and, on the basis of those failures, after 1947, the left in India pursued a course that led to the present, characterized by the degradation of party discipline, of engagement with society, and of the practice of theory. This was not least evident in the Communist left’s blindness towards, its refusal to engage, questions of caste and religious community on grounds of blinkered ideological purity. This, in turn, contributed to the Left’s inability to keep afloat after the neoliberal reforms of the early 1990s, a fact concealed by the seeming electoral successes of the 1990s and 2000s. Now that must be soberly reconsidered, even as neoliberalism’s passing is politically obscured by the seeming continuity in the rise and consolidation of BJP electoral dominance.

A major failing of the Left has been a marked incapacity to navigate the seeming conflict between recognition and redistribution, and hence to cede the terrain of both to the right. The Left failed, spectacularly, where they ought to have excelled, by neglecting to take advantage of the failings of the Indian National Congress going back to the time of Gandhi. Caste and community have not been rendered class questions, while the question has scarcely been seriously broached of organizationally achieving politics independent of the state yet capable of taking up the democratic discontents of the people. There were undoubtedly moments in India’s political history when the Left seemed poised to succeed in at least gaining genuine experience, when it appeared plausible that the Left might give meaningful shape and form to people’s demands, yet their potential was never realized in a permeation of the working classes of India beyond a few regional pockets, and, even there, it was accomplished at the price of fatal compromises. As for a socialism that could ventilate the innumerable and varied discontents of the whole of Indian society, that task was scarcely ever shouldered.

The post-Independence failure of the Left was due in large part to the Indian New Left’s incapacity to move beyond the shadow of anticolonial nationalism. We were unable, in the final analysis, to critically examine and push past the intellectual confines of Third World nationalism and the resultant lash-up with (or unmatured rejection of) the “anti-colonial” party of Gandhi and Nehru. Even in the 1960s and 70s, romantic fantasies and Maoist delusions substantially distracted the Indian left to the need for a long-term (and immense) project of building the independent capacities of the Indian people in and through the struggle for socialism. A parallel task was likewise neglected — that of overcoming the Cold War division of “socialist camps” and of participating in the reconstitution of socialist internationalism. Given the failure of the New Left on that score, that project has lain in ruins the world over for so long its scarcely remembered.

The shortcomings and deficiencies of the Indian Left cannot be understood, therefore, divorced from consideration of the setbacks the struggle for socialism has suffered the world over in the 20th century. What has ensued since the collapse of socialism in the core of capitalism may be read as a series of displacements and unconscious abandonments of socialist historical consciousness. But that collapse did commence, indeed it happened in and through, the posing of the question of world revolution. India is part of a world-wide story of the dissolution of the socialist left. As essentially formed in the 20th century, the struggle of the Indian laboring masses has, from the first, been both world-historical and its opposite, a world-antihistoric disintegration. A new history of the Indian left would have to confront and work through the still-unfolding disintegrative dialectics of defeat. The immediate task of escaping the present barbarism under Modi cannot, daunting as it is, be allowed to obscure the deeper problem, even if it be, even because it is, ultimately irresolvable on a national or subcontinental scale.

It is time to reconstitute the Left.