Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, United States. He is the author or editor of several books, including The Darker Nations: A Biography of the Short-Lived Third World and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (both from LeftWord). His latest book, No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism, is a compelling work on Indian politics. Excerpts:
“Nandigram” placed a heavy penalty on the communist movement in India. When the Andhra Pradesh unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), conducted a brave and unrelenting campaign for comprehensive development and land rights, the local Congress politicians went for what became the general accusation across the country: “Dragging West Bengal into the campaign, they accused us of adopting double standards.”
After 1991, as the impact of liberalisation struck the field workers and the factory workers, the unemployed and the slum dwellers, the reaction came swift. There was the grief of farmers’ suicides —between 1995 and 2010, a quarter of a million dead. There were the mass protests against encroachment of public land. Every state in India has experienced unrest, as living standards for the many have deteriorated and as job prospects have remained stagnant. When workers face the deafness of a political class and the bulldozers at their land, or the foreman on their heads, writes journalist Jaideep Hardikar, “protest is their only resort”.
But protest is not as commonplace as one imagines. The social order fragments social life, treating classes as individuals who bid desperately to sell their labour power in the marketplace. It is worse in a buyers’ market, where the masses of people find it torturously hard to find employment even for a day let alone for a career. Long-distance migration and long daily commutes to seek tenuous jobs for low remuneration sets the bar for solidarity at a high level. “It is an arrangement that suits employers everywhere well,” writes journalist Siddhartha Deb, “ensuring that the workers will be too insecure and uprooted to even mount organised protests against their conditions and wages. They are from distant regions, of no interest to local politicians seeking votes, and they are alienated from the local people by differences in language and culture.”
In 2012, the CPI(M)’s Prakash Karat assessed the impact that the neoliberal policies had had over the past two decades, including the rise of contract workers in the unorganised and organised sectors, the degradation of agricultural work, and the attenuation of the social sector. “It is necessary to concretely study the impact of the neoliberal policies on different classes and sections of the people,” he wrote. “The fight against neoliberal policies can advance only when we take up the various local issues of the people and develop sustained struggles on their behalf.”
The early workers’ movement concentrated its efforts on the organisation of trade unions in large factories, strategic sectors (such as transportation) and in the political fight for the nationalisation of entire industries. Karl Marx saw the factory as a strategic site to build power. Through trade unions, power was built at the site of production. These unions became the school of the working class, the leading edge of political militancy in society. But with the demise of the old-style of factories and of trade unions, these schools are less influential than they were in the creation of a socialist culture in working class communities.
In India, ninety per cent of the workforce is in the informal sector. This figure includes industrial workers, many of whom now work for sub-contractors and not directly for the firm’s factory. Industry has been organised to make trade union politics very difficult. Unions cannot be rebuilt easily. Nonetheless, workers in various difficult circumstances have been bravely fighting. There are the workers of the Maruti Suzuki factory in Manesar (Haryana) and of the Volvo Buses factory in Hosakote (Karnataka), the anganwadi workers of Gujarat and the ASHA workers of Punjab. Harsh conditions with irregular contracts and low pay as well as with state authorities decidedly against them, the workers nonetheless have struck work and held protests to make small and important gains. Attempts for workers to form unions are treated as criminal actions. Maruti Suzuki’s Management Executive Officer S.Y. Siddiqui said in June 2011, “The problem at Manesar is not one of industrial relations. It is an issue of crime and militancy.” The firm would not, he said, “tolerate any external affiliation of the union.” In other words, the workers who had created their own union would not be allowed to find political allies amongst the national labour federations to help their fledgling struggle. Violence against union organisers along the Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera-Rewari stretch is mirrored in the Coimbatore-Chennai belt. The immanent violence in both these zones led to industrial actions that resulted in the death of managers—the 2012 murder of Awanish Kumar Dev at the Maruti Suzuki plant and the 2009 murder of Roy George of the Toyota-General Motors Plant in Coimbatore. Such violence is the outcome of the suffocation of worker power exemplified by the August 6, 2003, Supreme Court judgment on T.K. Rangarajan vs Government of Tamil Nadu & Others —which suppressed strike actions. The general tenor of the courts matched the industrial lobbies. In 2009, after the uprisings in Coimbatore, Jayanta Davar, president of the Automotive Component Manufacturers Association of India, put it bluntly, “We can’t be a capitalist country that has socialist labour laws.” State power has increasingly and straightforwardly put itself behind industry and against workers, making trade unionism and industrial action tantamount to criminality.
If unions are on the back foot, the old strategy of nationalisation seems to have receded far into the background. Nationalisation was a strategy to capture the investment of capital and turn it over to society and workers through public sector management. The global commodity chain—disarticulated production of the factory across many countries—has made nationalisation almost impossible. In many cases, industrial plants no longer manufacture the entire final commodity—parts are made here, and parts are made there, with the various components assembled at a separate place. If a State government nationalises one factory, it would not be able to capture the entire process but only a part of it. The nationalised factory would now at best be able to operate like a subcontractor for global capital. Even if reservoirs of progressive nationalism were not depleted, the structural fragmentation of production has made this strategy of economic nationalism inert. Factory-based organisation and nationalisation are not eternal strategies. They have been worn to the bone. Other ways to reach the working class in the informal sector are necessary, as are other ways to leverage worker power against the disarticulated production system.
Victorious capital has nonetheless not been able to vanquish the labour it hires. Suppressed wages, rising prices, and difficulty in gaining access to basic needs creates the social basis for political unrest. Many of these struggles, however, have been at the point of consumption rather than the point of production. Worker housing built by factory owners or by the state no longer exist as they once did. In their place, the working class now lives largely in slums, where facilities for adequate survival are simply not available. Where housing is built, it is not for families, with the expectation that single men and women will migrate to work—working for a few years before returning to their homes. In slums, entire families can live, but only barely. This is the reason why the fights over water and power, sanitation and safety take up the leisure time of India’s workers. It is in these zones that struggles break out at the level of popular frustration.
The politics of the slum land was essential to the political victories in Venezuela and Bolivia—both countries where the fights over gas and water, the right to build settlements and the right to cheap public transportation provided activists with the opportunity to build local, militant organisations rooted in the slum lands. What is most interesting in Bolivia and Venezuela is that it was veteran trade unionists who spearheaded the fights over basic goods. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, a U.S.-based firm, Bechtel, took over the delivery of drinking water in 2002. They raised rates beyond the capacity of the city’s residents. The executive head of the Federation of Factory Workers, Oscar Olivera, was elected to lead the movement for defence of gas and water delivery. Olivera and the workers brought their expertise as trade union organisers into this working-class struggle—to defend their neighbourhoods and their livelihood. The Gas and Water Wars were workers fights in a place where workers live, where they already had a working class community. It was this concentration of workers that allowed for their political consolidation. The 2002 Water War of Cochabamba created a dynamic that linked the workers in cities to the workers in the countryside through the Movement for Socialism (MAS), led by Evo Morales, who had cut his teeth organising coca farmers. MAS had close ties to the social movements in the countryside and the cities. It threw itself from the water wars and into the gas wars of 2003. Consistent protests alongside the building of social bases in the neighbourhoods of workers pushed MAS to victory in the election of 2005.
Workers’ movements might no longer grow only from the factory to the community; it might work the other way around.
Workers are never only workers. They are also people, marked by community ties and gender, by the way they eat and the way they take their social pleasure. The divides amongst workers provide sufficient openings for Capital to break down the potential of united struggles. It is fear of disunity —and the legacy of Partition and communal riots—that had the Left insistent on united working class struggles to the detriment of close attention to caste, gender and religious hierarchies within working class communities.
But the people are fractured. It is part of their diversity and it is the mechanism of hierarchy. For example, in rural India, one of the most interesting features of the way in which politics works is that it does not run in a straight line with cultivators and landless labourers on one side and landowners and the state on the other. Fractures of caste and gender run deep, and are deepened in the agricultural crisis. Caste assertions emerge as one way that some landless labourers and cultivators have moved their agenda for dignity. This had been clear to the Kisan Sabha through its history in its practice. In 1987, Narendra Malussare of the Maharashtra Kisan Sabha recorded how the Sabha had formed a Bhoomiheen Suraksha Samiti (Protection of Landless Committee) to protect largely Dalit and Adivasi landholders from confiscation of their land by the state. The following year, under the auspices of the Samiti, the small holders and landless peasantry occupied six hundred acres of land. Short of a decade later, in 1996, and in the thick of the neoliberal policy impact on agriculture, M.V. Govindan of Kerala told the Agricultural Workers Union that they had to “mobilise more and more scheduled tribe and caste sections under our banner”. It was well known to these delegates to the Union’s conference that the vast mass of the agricultural workers were Dalits ; the Union had not yet taken up their special grievances as the demands of the Union itself. The Union’s General Secretary, A. Vijayaraghavan, summarised the discussion on caste to say, “We should take up important issues like atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Tribes, the struggle for house-sites, drinking water, lavatories, doing away with social disabilities of all kinds. So far, except in one or two States, we have failed to take up these issues as broad campaigns.”
In Midnapur, West Bengal, land reforms and tenancy registration had had a major impact on the lives of the rural poor. But strikingly, the reforms and registration favoured men, those who worked the tiller, in the conventional phrase. Single women had little access to the land distribution, and since they did not have access to rural trades, they suffered from the vagaries of wage work. The view that women did not use the plough was, as Jayoti Gupta put it, more a “social taboo rather than a physical inability”. Women did the hardest work in the fields, and merely because they had been forbidden in many places to use the plough they did not get rights to the land. Gupta’s close study in Midnapur uncovered something important. “This social handicap (of the plough) was used against strengthening the asset base of women,” she wrote. “It is only after the women’s organisation raised its voice and pressurised the government that provision was made to provide some land to the single women.” The role of AIDWA here is underlined. If the mass organisation had not taken up the special issue of women agriculturalists, their grievance might have passed by unattended. It was clear to the Agricultural Union’s A. Vijayaraghavan that while women comprise half the agricultural labour force “and have participated in our struggles, we have not been able to ensure equal wages for equal work on a countrywide basis or to deal with their specific problems as a priority”.
Ramadevi, a female delegate, pointed out, “Women took initiative in framing the wage demand, organising the strikes and in final discussion with the landlords. Even though the majority of the committee members in rural organisations are women, that is not reflected in mandal and district organisation, which is to be rectified.” All these women who raised the issue of equal wages and leadership for women were also members of AIDWA. They brought their AIDWA assessment to their union work, showing the power of the mass organisations in developing leadership and cross-fertilising movements.
In 2003, the CPI(M) reviewed the work of the Kisan Sabha and the Agricultural Workers’ Union. The report opens with the admission that despite the rising agricultural distress neither the Sabha nor the Union has been able to grow. This “constituted one of the most important weaknesses of the democratic movement in the country”. Why have these two mass fronts not been able to grow in this period? Two explanations are offered. The first is about organisational matters, since there remains confusion in the mass fronts over their relationship to the Communist Party. In some part of the country, “party decisions are mechanically imposed on mass organisations giving an impression that the mass organisations have no independent stature or existence”. The Sabha and the Union should be able to “rouse and activise its members from its own platform and earn the confidence of the masses. The true democratic functioning of the organisation alone can build class unity and develop democratic consciousness, which requires collective functioning at every level of the organisation.”
The second reason for the weakness was that these mass fronts had failed to take up the tangible struggles of the people apart from questions of wages and land reform. Failure to address issues of caste and gender discrimination, the review found, “had contributed to the slow growth of the movement in many parts of the country.” Where these issues had been taken up, the Kisan Sabha and the Agricultural Workers’ Union had “been able to expand their influence among these sections”. What has held back the Sabha and the Union? Caste prejudice and patriarchal attitudes play a large role. In terms of caste, there is a genuine —but misplaced—worry that taking up Dalit issues would alienate the other sections of the peasantry and weaken the union. “The hesitation to take up social issues,” the review concluded, “should be examined concretely in the States.”
The previous year, in 2002, the CPI(M) assessed the work of the trade union front, the CITU, and reached a similar conclusion. “Experience has shown that by taking up only economic issues based on class exploitation, an important dimension of the Dalit problem is ignored. This alienates them from the general trade union movement.” Since Dalits comprise a large section of the workers, it is self-defeating to disregard the most pressing issues for Dalits —namely social suffocation. The same goes for issues of gender oppression. Trade unions had ignored the fight against dowry and had not taken seriously issues of sexual harassment. “Apart from adopting resolutions against caste oppression, the trade unions led by us have done little to educate the upper caste workers to shed caste prejudices,” noted the review. Struggles against caste and gender oppression are “part of the working class struggle against feudal, bourgeois and extra-economic forms of exploitation”.
These fights, just as more conventional trade union fights, are part of the horizon of socialist struggle. This is the reason why the CPI(M) has been an active participant in the temple entry movement in southern Tamil Nadu. Gender questions have come to the fore in Haryana, where the khap panchayat has re-emerged as a central locus to fight a restive population made so by the agricultural crisis and the new cultural identities unleashed over the past few decades. The Left has to deepen its role in these sorts of “social” fights, because it is in these arenas that broad questions of rural power are being contested. To step away from this arena is to ignore the most important social struggles of our day, which are not merely about identity but always about dignity and survival, as well as the expansion of the imagination—the elements of socialism.
One of the consistent self-critiques made by the communists in the course of their assessments of the work is that there is no translation of the struggles into electoral gain. There seems to be a general feeling that whether the Left is voted into office or not, it would continue to lift up the banner of these struggles. The struggles that the Left leads are not premised on winning elections. The limitation of the Left to the level of social struggle has not occasioned the kind of debate that it perhaps should. What the Left has not been able to do is to make the case—within the limitations of bourgeois democracy—of why its delegates should be voted to the Houses of the people. Certainly the Left’s parliamentarians have been able to block initiatives that go against the interests of the working class and the peasantry. But what the Left has not been able to develop is a coherent narrative that motivates people to vote communist. There is no captivating sense that the Left is the future—that the Left can indeed take power and that only the Left can find solutions to the pressing problems of today. The compelling urgency to believe that the future is the arena of the Left is no longer in place. It has to be created not merely by the struggles in the present but by a more robust and confident assertion for the future. The horizon of the Left remains in the midst of the present struggles. It will need to be stretched out into the future, to push aside the prevailing view that the future is the domain of the Right. This is what the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui imagined was the case in 1925.
“What most clearly and obviously differentiates [the bourgeoisie and the proletariat] in this era is myth. The bourgeoisie no longer has myths. It has become incredulous, sceptical, nihilist. The reborn liberal myth aged too much. The proletariat has a myth: the social revolution. It moves towards that myth with a passionate and active faith. The bourgeoisie denies; the proletariat affirms. The bourgeois intellectuals entertain themselves with a rationalist critique of the method, the theory, revolutionary technique. What misunderstanding! The strength of revolutionaries is not in their science; it is in their faith, their passion, in their will. It is a religious, mystical, spiritual power. It is the force of myth.”
Precisely what the communists have to invoke is the myth of the revolution, its inevitability and its justice. The revolution is the spell that the sorcerer conjures up from the nether world, and can no longer control. It affirms life and provides a full alternative to the present. But short of that myth are the smaller myths of governance—the communists are incorruptible and decent, able to govern for the needs of the people rather than simply be the brake on a corrupt and indecent system. Broader horizons that were once the coin of the Left need to be minted once more.