The Challenges of the Time and the task before the Left
This is a very wide subject and I shall try to take up some of the major issues which we should be concerned with at this present juncture and how the Left should respond to these major issues and challenges.
We are witnessing very major changes in the world today. Exactly two decades ago, when the Soviet Union disintegrated all over the world there was the triumphant call that capitalism has won and that socialism, or the goal of socialism is no more relevant. And this capitalist triumphalism also proclaimed that for humanity, the eternal future is capitalism. Today if you go to the United States or to the advanced capitalist countries in Europe you find that this triumphant mood of capitalism has completely evaporated.
Today the discussion is about the uncertain future of capitalism. I read in the ‘Financial Times’ of London, which is the biggest business paper, an article written by a banker that said, “We are experiencing a very Marxist crisis today.”
What is happening today, what we had been saying earlier as well, is that this finance capital driven globalisation is unsustainable. And the fact that for four years this crisis has gone on, from 2007, and the ruling classes in Europe and America are not being able to find a solution to this crisis – they are trying all sorts of methods. First they bailed out the big banks and corporates, billions of dollars were spent to bail out the very people who created this crisis by speculation, excessive spending, etc. Once the bankers and corporates got the money and started making profits again, they said, stop this bailout and now impose austerity on the people. And that is what is going on in Europe and America today.
What we are seeing is cuts in jobs, cuts in wages, cuts in social security benefits – all the gains made by the working class and the working people in the second half of the 20th century. What is known as the social welfare State, where unemployment benefits, free health care, pensions were given – all this is being taken away now.
And people are now coming out in the streets in protest, students are protesting. In Britain, tuition fees have been tripled in universities. No student can afford an education; they have to take big loans from the banks. And after getting a job, for the rest of their life they will be paying back the loan taken for their education. So that is why the students are protesting. In Greece every month there is a general strike by the workers, because Greece is the epicentre of this crisis, it is in deep debt.
Even in America, which is a country without a strong Left movement, or a strong working class movement, you’ll find movements like the Occupy Wall Street which gives the slogan, ‘we are the 99 percent, you the one percent’ are the ones responsible for this crisis whom the government has bailed out.
The future of this finance capital driven system where inequalities have grown is uncertain. In America the middle class has one asset, they have their own house. They borrow money, mortgage and have their own house. In the last four years, three million houses have been taken back because these people could not pay their loans
So this is the depth of the crisis and it will affect us also eventually, but we have in India not suffered the same extent in the crisis. Why is that?
Firstly, because of the Left in India had never allowed the Central government to open up our financial sector to speculative foreign capital. None of the banks in India collapsed in 2008 or 2009 because the bulk of it is still in the nationalised sector and we have prevented the foreign banks buying up our Indian banks. It is because the Left parties during the first term of the UPA government refused to allow it to amend the law which would have allowed foreign banks to buy up Indian banks, refused to allow increase in foreign direct investment in the insurance sector, refused to allow privatisation pension funds. All this is there in the Western countries and that is why banks collapsed, financial sector collapsed, pensions were wiped out, savings were wiped out – that crisis India has not faced. That is because the Left in India could prevent the UPA government, which wanted to do it. Dr. Manmohan Singh & Company even now wants to do it. They are still trying to open up our financial sector.
So what has happened in the world today, our ruling classes have not drawn any lesson from it. Dr. Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Shri Pranab Mukherjee still say, yes we will increase FDI in banks, we will increase FDI in insurance. Unfortunately in Parliament many of these parties do not support us. If they support us, we can pass this.
So they are determined to carry on the neo-liberal agenda. This is the paradox. All over the world the neo-liberal policies are getting discredited. Even in America, the people are saying these policies have ruined us. They are not Marxists, these people. They are ordinary people, who have experience of neo-liberal capitalism. They are rejecting these policies, but our government and our ruling classes want to push through these policies.
If these policies continue in India, what will happen? That is the first major challenge we have.
In our country we have had economic growth for the last one-and-half to two decades after liberalisation. That economic growth has been of benefit to the big capitalists, the big corporates, the foreign multinationals and the urban and rural rich – only they have benefited.
So India can now boast of the highest rate of billionaires. Today there are 55 billionaires in India, and one billionaire means somebody having at least Rs. 5,000 crores of property. So you have 55 people in India owning one lakh crores or two lakh crores in property and assets. So we can claim that we have increased the number of billionaires in India; that is one product of liberalisation.
On the other hand, class exploitation of the working people has increased. I have the latest figures, which show that in the 1980s, before liberalisation, the total share of profits as part of the net value added was lower than the share of wages. The total share of wages, which was there in the value produced was more than the share of profits, share of profit was only 20 % of the net value. In 1990, the first decade of liberalisation for the first time the share of profits was more than the share of wages; it went up to 30 %. And now, from 2001 to 2008, the profits share has gone up to 60 percent. From 20% in 1980s, it has now reached 60%. The share of wages has come down accordingly.
This is the rate of exploitation and this is a challenge we are facing. Neo-liberal policies, have created new types of exploitations and new differentiations among the working people. When we talk about the working class, today everybody knows 86 % of the working people are in the unorganised sector – either contractual, casual or self-employed people. The Arjun Sengupta Commission’s report gave those statistics.
Now this section which isi not there in the organised sector, they are the most exploited by neo-liberal capitalism. Neo-liberal economics and capitalism creates a section of the working class which is outside the sphere of any protection, outside the sphere of any legislation or labour laws. They have no income security, no job security, no social security. Now this has become the bulk of your working class today and it is up to us to organise them.
This is the first challenge – under neo-liberal capitalism, to organise the working people, the bulk of whom are not in the organised sector, who are subject to the most ruthless exploitation. For them there is no question of protecting their social security benefits because they never had those benefits.
Organising them by trade unions, bringing them into the fold of the organisational movement – this is a big task before us. Because of the nature of this employment because it a scattered, because it is casual, because it is precarious – the jobs that they have – we have to find ways to organise them and bring them into the working class movement.
The earlier we do it, the more effectively we can fight these neo-liberal policies. We cannot do it with organising the workers in the organised sector alone. Of course we have to organise the working classes in the organised sector, but this large section of people who are today in various forms of contractual and casual work and who are not easily brought under the purview of the benefits are rights legally there for workers, how do we organise them? This is going to be the major issue for us in the coming days.
Here there are some positive developments. For the first time the central trade unions in our country, ranging from the INTUC to the BMS including the CITU, AITUC, Hind Mazdoor Sabha – all these trade unions have for the first time forged a joint platform. There was a general strike in September 2010, in which INTUC participated but BMS did not participate. Now we are going to have a strike in February 28 in which all trade unions have given the call jointly. One of the demands of that platform and that strike is exactly this demand to protect the rights of this contractual labour, to end this contractualisation of labour this process of casualisation of labour.
This is a movement not only in India, you go to any capitalist country in the world today, go to Japan, go to Germany, go to the United States – the working class is fighting against this major attack on its livelihood and their rights by this contractualisation and casualisation of labour. And this applies not only to industrial workers, it applies to all sections – service sector workers, etc.
This fight against neo-liberal policies and neo-liberal capitalism requires first of all this major urgent task of bringing into the organised movement all these sections of the working people.
The second major issue that I want to focus on is that in our country today still 50% of the workforce is in agriculture and agriculture related activities. And neo-liberal policies have caused havoc in agriculture. For the farmers, for the peasants the very basis for remunerative livelihood by producing crops – because of the high cost of inputs, because of the privatisation of all inputs, whether it is seeds, whether it is fertilisers whether it is electricity, whether it is water with the multinationals coming into these sectors and the price they get for their produce – it is becoming unviable for many small and medium farmers to continue with their agricultural pursuits.
We have seen large scale agrarian distress in the 90s, in the decade of liberalisation. The figures are there – from 1995 to 2010, according to the national crime bureau statistics 2,56,913 farmers have committed suicide in our country. It is most rampant in Andhra Pradesh, in Karnataka and in Maharashtra.
This distress is a feature we have experienced in most parts of India, but it was not experienced in West Bengal earlier. When the Left Front government was there we did not see the spectacle of farmers committing suicide because of agrarian distress, because of indebtedness or because of crop failure.
I’m told at least 21 farmers have committed suicides in the recent weeks in West Bengal. And that is also related to the policies of the State government. If you do not intervene to see that farmers get a minimum price through procurement, if you do not take steps to alleviate their indebtedness – this will happen.
I recall what happened in Kerala. Till 2006, there were a number of suicides in Kerala by farmers in one district called Wayanad. The Left Democratic Front came to power in May 2006 and took some measures. They passed a law in the Assembly whereby they set up a Commission for indebtedness. Farmers could apply to get relief from their debt, if they went to that Commission. Immediately the suicides stopped. By the end of 2006, there were no suicides in Wayanad and till 2011 there were no suicides.
Seven suicides have taken place in that district in the recent period after the Congress-led government has come to power.
Suicides are not natural disasters; they are man-made. Because of man-made policies, suicides happen and 2.5 lakhs farmers committing suicides is a telling commentary on the nature of Neo-liberal policies that were pursued in the last two decades in India. So we have this vast mass of people whose livelihood is threatened in India–those who are engaged in agricultural pursuits and the worst off are the agricultural workers, who do not get even minimum number of days work in agricultural operations.
So organising them and linking up this movement of the working class to build a powerful worker-peasant alliance is I think the most important task before the Left today.
The third area that I’d like to talk to you about is that why is it that our ruling classes – the UPA government or earlier the NDA government of the BJP – why are they pursuing these policies? When it is blatantly clear that if you pursue the policy of liberalisation, you can have high GDP growth, but that growth will only be beneficial to small strata of people, but will cause deprivation for the vast mass of the people, why are they pursuing these policies?
And there I would like to take up the third issue which is that the way capitalism is developing in our country. We have a very powerful stratum of Capitalists – the big Capitalists, the big Bourgeoisie. You have people like the Ambanis, who are some of the richest people in the world; their companies are some of the biggest companies in the world today. Now they have got completely interlinked with international capitalism and finance capital and their interests are more in tune with the interests of this international capital, not in tune with the interests of the people.
So you find that our ruling classes are more and more allying themselves with Imperialism, particularly United States – whether it is in our foreign policy, whether it is in our strategic alliances or our domestic policies.
I can give you an example. A few weeks ago, the government announced its decision on FDI in retail trade. I know that Dr. Manmohan Singh has been trying to get this policy implemented since around 2005. The first time I met him as the General Secretary of the Party, he told me, why are you opposing foreign companies coming in for retail trade? I said we can’t accept it. He said the Wal-Mart chief is coming and I’ve told him to go to Kolkata and meet Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to persuade him.
And that man came here to Kolkata, the Chief of Wal-Mart, and met Comrade Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at Writers Buildings.
After the meeting I telephoned Buddhadeb and asked him what happened. He said he came here and told me it will be very good if Wal-Mart comes, there will be more employment and he told him that so many people will lose their livelihoods – from small traders, to intermediaries to shopkeepers. So that we cannot accept.
So from 2005 to 2009, they could not bring this policy, because we were strongly opposed to it. Of course now I find that Ms. Mamata Banerjee has also become an opponent of FDI in retail, I don’t know where she was all these days, sleeping. Suddenly she has woken up. As long was we are supporting this government, there is no question of FDI in retail.
But they still want to bring it. Again they have said, once the Assembly elections are over, we will implement it. Everyone else is opposed to it; the people in this country are opposed to it, but why do they want to bring it? Because the United States of America has said that you have to do it.
This is an agenda they gave the UPA government in 2004, when they came to power. When Obama comes, Hillary Clinton comes they ask what have you done about retail. Bringing Wal-Mart to India is on the priority list of the American government because that is their biggest Multi-national company and they want it to enter India.
So, when we say we are opposed to American Imperialism’s influence in India or when we say we are opposed to the pro-US policies of India it is not abstract. It is because it directly affects the lives of the people in this country.
If Wal-Mart comes, lakhs of small shopkeepers and trades will lose their livelihoods. It has happened in other countries. FDI in agriculture, FDI in Higher education, FDI in Banking – all these we are opposing because it will have a disastrous effect on the lives of the people of this country. And that is why we say that this foreign policy which is a reflection of the internal domestic policies of tying up with the United States of America, that has to be fought – whether it is the Nuclear deal, whether it is FDI in retail, whether it is America pressurising us to give up our own interests.
We have to get oil from Iran. We purchase 12 percent of our oil from Iran. America says you cannot buy from Iran. They are pressurising us now. They’ve stopped the pipeline from Iran. We gave that up that. So this affects our own national interest.
The third area – in the coming days, the Left has to mobilise the people on a large scale against this pro-imperialist foreign policy, which also has a direct impact on the domestic policies and the livelihood of the people.
Another challenge that we face is the growing influence of identity politics. Identity politics means, politics based on the identity of caste, religion, ethnic community and so on – this sort of identity politics is being fostered and encouraged in our country. This is encouraged both by the ruling classes and imperialists.
We have seen after the fall of the Soviet Union, many countries were destabilised and Balkanised with the direct support of imperialism on the basis of identity politics. It started with Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia was a federation of six Republics – all of them were living in peace and harmony together. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, suddenly the Croats remembered they are Croats and the Serbians saw the Croats as their enemy and the Slovenians said we don’t want to be a part of this country. Everybody, based on their ethnic nationalism or their religious identity, eventually fought each other and it led to the disintegration and break up of Yugoslavia. It happened in many other parts of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
And today that identity politics has become globalised. It is being promoted. People are told that this is the way you must organise and mobilise, based on your identity of caste, identity of religion, identity of community and new ethnic identities are being manufactured, which did not exist before.
So many people face some oppression in our society. There is a lot of social oppression. Some communities, some groups and some castes – they suffer from oppression. But in the name of fighting that oppression, they are told only you should organise on the basis of your identity – no one else should join with you. Only people of one identity should combine to fight for your rights, and in the process you must also demarcate from others. And that is happening in many places.
If you go to the North-East, you will find ethnic groups and ethnic nationalisms have arisen which are pitted against each other. There is bloodshed, there is fratricide. The most deprived, the poorest the most wretched people are organising to fight an equally poorer and wretched people, who are now considered an enemy because they belong to another tribal or ethnic identity.
And that politics just leads to fragmenting people. People who are facing common oppression or exploitation get divided on identity lines. That identity politics is being utilised all over our country today to disrupt broader democratic movements, to disrupt the class based solidarity movements which have been built up over the years.
In West Bengal too we find that such identity politics has been utilised in the recent period to try to divide people, to pit people against each another.
This identity politics gets its backing from fashionable ideologies. In the West, Post-modernism is the basis for identity politics. It tells a worker in America, you are from the working class, but you are black first, organise only as blacks. It tells a woman worker, you are a woman. You may be a worker, but you are a woman, organise as women. It tells a male white worker that you are different from all these people, your interests are not common to any of these people in the working class with you, organise separately.
This politics has grown in the advanced Capitalist countries. It is now being spread, through the usual imperialist and ideological apparatuses, into our countries. You have NGOs spreading this in various places, many of which are foreign funded.
When I used to go to UP 20 years ago there used to be what is generally called the Other Backward Classes (OBC) mobilisation. Today that does not exist. That OBC has been broken up another dozen sub-castes and a dozen political parties have sprung up, representing each caste or sub-caste.
This is the politics of identity which is dividing people and it is the way to fight the Left – to break up the class based movements, to divide the class solidarity of people who face a common exploitation and oppression. We have to fight this identity politics.
To start believing that identity politics is a movement of only oppressed sections, minority groups and oppressed people and therefore is a progressive phenomenon, will be to fall into the trap set by imperialism and the ruling classes. We have to patiently counter identity politics.
Identity politics can only be effectively countered when we take up those genuine issues of oppression that is faced by those sections – whether it is caste oppression, whether it is gender oppression, whether it is oppression of the tribal people, who face a social oppression which distinct from class exploitation. If the Left does not take up those issues and fight, you will not be able to rally these people and bring them out of the influence of identity politics. That task will have to be waged by us in the coming days.
Increasingly in the globalised capitalism and finance capitalism which is imposing its hegemony in the rest of the world, you will find that in order to capture markets, in order to dominate those markets they find identity politics is a very convenient instrument. Because people are divided on ethnic, caste and religious lines but the market is homogenous. They will all go and buy coco-cola from the market.
So we have to take up this challenge. The old political slogans and methods will not do to counter identity politics. Understand the basis of the oppression of these communities which attracts them to identity politics, take up that cause, champion that cause and try to isolate those who purvey identity politics.
These are some of the immediate challenges we face in India. We should also look at the way forward. How do we take up the struggle against Neo-liberal capitalism, which is creating havoc with the lives of ordinary people? How do we counter identity politics? How do we prevent the steady erosion of our national sovereignty and the increasing influence of imperialist capital and ideologies?
In the world today no more is there a talk about the death of Socialism and Marxism. In fact, what is in the dock today is the future of Capitalism.
The alternative to capitalism today still is and can only be socialism. Today in the world, all progressive forces, all Marxists, all Left forces are discussing this – what can be the socialism that we can strive for in the 21st century? Can it be the exactly the same type of socialism that existed or was practiced in the 20th century?
Different ideas are coming up. That itself is a positive sign. That today in the world people are discussing, what is the alternative to capitalism? But if socialism is that alternative, how do we build that socialist alternative?
We have to learn from the experience of the 20th century. Starting with the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union and the socialism that existed in the countries after that, there were tremendous achievements and historic gains made by the working people in the history of the 20th century, which cannot be erased.
It was also a new system, that was charting a new course travelling on unchartered waters. There were mistakes made, there were errors and sometimes wrong turnings were taken in this journey. We have to identify the errors and mistakes that were made and learn from them so that we do not repeat them. That is why I say that we have to talk about fashioning socialism in the 21st century.
In one part of the world today, Latin America, we have seen the success of the Left movement. Amidst the setback to socialism and Left forces worldwide after to the fall of the Soviet Union, the change has come, the turn has come in Latin America – where country after country the Left has advanced through various struggles of the people against liberalisation, privatisation and imperialist hegemony. They have won elections and in some countries not once, but repeatedly like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
Particularly, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are countries where the government has implemented policies which are different from neo-liberal policies and shown that an alternative to neo-liberalism and imperialist hegemony is possible.
Unlike many other countries in the world, Venezuela has renationalised industries. The power industry had been privatised, now it has been renationalised. Telecom industry had been privatised, now it has been renationalised. All of the Oil and Gas resources – and Venezuela is the richest Oil and Gas country in Latin America – has now been brought under State control.
Same thing in Bolivia – they have brought oil and gas under State control. They have implemented land reforms. In West Bengal, we are proud to have distributed 11 lakh acres of surplus land to landless people. In Bolivia, in the last three years, they have distributed one crore acres of land – because there were huge landed estates with big landlords and companies, they have just taken it over. Here of course it was on a different scale as there were smaller land holdings.
They are moving in a different direction and that is why they are talking about a ‘21st century socialism’. This socialism is not the same type. They say, we will maintain a democratic system; we will contest elections and establish our hegemony through democratic politics.
In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has won three presidential elections so far, the fourth one is now coming up and they have won 13 elections at different levels – in provinces, in Parliament, etc. Evo Morales in Bolivia has increased his vote in his second election, he has crossed 60 percent. He represents the majority indigenous Indian community there, so he says our socialism will be based on how to bring up this indigenous community – that socialism will be different from what it was in the Soviet Union.
How do we go towards socialism, learning from the experience of the 20th century? Yes, certain steps were taken in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, where they thought socialism can come very quickly. Once we capture State power, we will pass certain resolutions, the party implements it and socialism will come.
It does not happen that way. There is a process. You have to develop the productive forces, you have to ensure the redistribution of income and wealth, you have to bring about basic changes in the State structure, it takes time. So that socialism will go through many phases and after the experience of 20th century socialism, we will make corrections.
Yes, there will be planned economy, there will be central planning, but market will not be eliminated. The market will be utilised, incorporated within the central planning. Because without the market we cannot get correct indicators in a modern economy of how much is to be produced, what is to be produced and how you can price that product.
Bringing in the market does not mean bringing in capitalism and development of capital in a big way. Within a planned economy, the market will have to play a role at various stages under socialism too. This is what is now being done in many of the socialist countries too, the most recent being Cuba, which has adopted it. Before that China and Vietnam had adopted it.
So, we will have to go through different phases of development of socialism, but I am confident that what is happening today in this world – the churning up that is taking place – out of this prolonged capitalist crisis, new contradictions will develop. The world cannot be the same again because America’s economic decline has set in – it is in a period of long term decline. China is going to emerge by 2025 as the world’s largest and most powerful economy, overtaking the United States of America.
There are going to be new contradictions. You can see that even today. When America, France, Britain and Japan are in crisis, you don’t find the same economic crisis in the major developing countries. China has no such crisis, India had very little of that crisis, Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey had very little of that crisis.
So within the capitalist world, the balance of forces is going to change. New capitalist economies will mean new contradictions. But that does not mean that the people of these countries will benefit. Even in these countries, India or Turkey or Brazil the working class exploitation has become more intense, there is unemployment, there is farmers’ distress – so the contradiction between the people of these developing countries and the imperialist countries, the big bourgeoisie along with the imperialist countries on one side and the people of these developing countries – these contradictions are going to increase and intensify in the coming days.
Our ruling classes are going to be with them, not with us in this fight. They are siding with imperialism. But the people of these countries and their contradictions with imperialism are going to intensify.
In this period the scope is increasing for developing the revolutionary movement, for utilising these contradictions to see that we are able to defend our national sovereignty, ensure that our country departs from this new-liberal path, adopts a new path. For that, how we rally all the forces in our country will show the way forward.
And the essential element of this new strategy and path will be how far we are successful in meeting these challenges that I told you about, how far we can successfully fight the neo-liberal capitalism and exploitation by mobilising and organising the working class, how we will fight against the increasing imperialist influence in our country and how we counter identity politics.
Since the Left has been the most consistent fighter against neo-liberal policies and this strategic alliance with the United States, it has invited the wrath of the ruling classes and imperialism.
And that is why we have seen in West Bengal, this attack has been very concentrated and severe against the CPI (M) and the Left. Because they feel that only by weakening the Left can their path to go ahead with these neo-liberal policies can be smoothened. Their alliance with the United States can go ahead, but the Left is the stumbling block.
It is our task to fight back these attacks, to counter these attacks by relying on the people and mobilising more and more forces to join us in the fight against neo-liberal capitalism and against the oppression and exploitation of the Indian people which is now so widespread.
I hope we will be able to meet these challenges in the coming days successfully.
(Full text of the speech given on the subject “Challenges of the time and the task before the Left” at a seminar on 17th January, 2012, organised by the CPI (M) North 24 Parganas District committee at Unnayan Bhavan Auditorium, Bidhannagar.)