Extremely optimistic sections among those concerned about the future of India’s official Marxist parties (better termed ‘Leninist)—such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India and variants of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)—dream of their comeback. The reality is that Indian Leftist parties never regained their past dominance once their area of influence declined. Take the Praja Socialist Party, Samyukta Socialist Party, CPI and even the CPI(ML)s. The CPI(ML) Liberation is confined to pockets in Bihar. Going by past experience, the CPM is unlikely to regain even a quarter of its influence in West Bengal and Tripura in the foreseeable future.
My hypothesis is that the weakening of these Communist parties that evolved during the growing years of the Communist International is correlated to the increasing irrelevance of Comintern-backed parties, including the once powerful Parti Communiste Français and Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI). Set up by the Russian Socialist Democratic Labour Party (Bolshevik), much later the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Comintern subordinated these affiliates (termed ‘sections’) . Even before the CPSU’s dissolution (1990), the PCI transitioned from doctrinaire communism to democratic socialism between the 1970s and 1980s. The new party was named Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left) and is affiliated to the Socialist International.
The CPI’s existence was threatened even before CPSU’s dissolution—a presentiment of the irrelevance of ‘totalitarian communism’. The CPM, which maintained an equidistance from the CPSU and Communist Party of China (after the Naxalbari uprising in 1967), identified itself more with nationalism than internationalism. But the Parliamentary influence of the two parties has been declining for nearly five decades. For instance, in the fourth Lok Sabha poll in 1967, the CPI got 23 seats (excluding S M Banerjee, elected as an independent candidate, supported by the party) and 5.11% of votes, and the CPM bagged 19 seats with a poll share of 4.28%. In the LS poll of 2019, the CPM and CPI won three and two seats respectively with corresponding poll shares of 1.75% and 0.58%.
Unbelievable as it seems today, in the first general elections (1951-52), the undivided CPI, together with the People’s Democratic Front, bagged 24 Lok Sabha seats with a vote share of 4.59%. The Communists contested as PDF candidates in Hyderabad almost immediately after the armed rebellion in Telangana against the autocratic Nizam regime that was yet to lift the ban on the CPI.
The legendary Telangana hero Ravi Narayan Reddy defeated the Congress candidate by the highest margin of over 2,10,000 votes, in an election where less than 20 MPs got more than 2,00,000 votes. He polled over 3,00,000 votes, around 70,000 more than Jawaharlal Nehru, elected from Phulpur in UP. Reddy’s comrade Sunkam Achalu, bagging more than 2,50,000 votes, trounced the Congress candidate by a margin of over 1,85,000 votes.
But these CPs rejoiced in the cradle of Leninism, which has more dissimilarities than similarities with Marxian ideas. Their basis was a totalitarian state that Karl Marx or Frederick Engels never even hinted at. The vanguardist experiment scripted by Vladimir Lenin reflected a distorted perception of Marx, who seemed to have foreseen the possibility of such aberrations. Shortly after Franz Mehring, the first biographer of Marx, coined the word ‘Marxism’ in 1881, Marx told two leading French socialists, Paul Lafargue (Marx’s elder son-in-law) and Jules Guesde in chaste French, “Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste” (If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist). Marx was annoyed with the two as they kept mum when Marx’s supporters in the International Workingmen’s Association (First International) were branded as ‘Marxists’; Marx felt irritated, more so due to the silent endorsement of the prefix ‘Marxist’ by his adversaries at a session of the First International. Marx, who had a scientific background (having enunciated ‘materialist dialectics’, not the misconceived ‘dialectical materialism’), knew that there was nothing called Newtonism.
Lenin’s words, “Marxism is omnipotent because it is true”, reflects the vulgarisation of Marx. Marx scholars who insulate themselves from the aberrant Leninist school assert that incompleteness was a systemic nature of Marx, rejecting the prefix omnipotent or omniscient. After the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx wanted to rewrite most of his texts including Das Kapital, Communist Manifesto and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
Let me pick a couple from the many important academic contributions negating Leninism. They were beholden to Marx, but many of them refused to be branded as Marxist. Norman Levine, in his Marx’s Rebellion Against Lenin: The Disappearance of Marx in Lenin, laments that in Lenin, “the writings of Marx suffered a tragic fate. Rather than speak of what Lenin knew of Marx, it is necessary to speak of what Lenin did not know of the writings of Marx. Destiny dictated that many of the most critical writings of Marx were not published until after Lenin’s death. He wrote from serious ignorance of Marx’s opinions on these matters. The invisibility of Marx compelled Lenin to be dependent on the writings of Engels. Lenin perpetuated the myth that Marx and Engels spoke with one voice”.
Take Paul Edward Gottfried’s The Strange Death of Marxism where he says: “Today European CPs survive merely as adjuncts of larger concentrations of power on the Left. Whatever the chief cause for this development, whether a general rise in living standards, a disintegrating working-class solidarity or the demonstrated unattractiveness of Communist practice, Communist parties in Western Europe have lost their electoral appeal. Although they occasionally do stage comebacks ... this may be happening because of populations spooked by an overly abrupt transition to a free or quasi-free market economy.”
Nonetheless, Marx and his theoretical formulations remain relevant, despite the fall of the Soviet Union, asserted Paresh Chattopadhyay, author of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on Communism in the six-volume Oxford Handbook on the History of Communism, a year before the onset of the financial tsunami in 2008. The rising sales graph of Das Kapital thereafter proved Chattopadhyay right. In contrast, Lenin’s books are left dusty at book stands, let alone those by Stalin and even Mao.
The crisis of Marxism or Marxian studies surfaced in the late twentieth century. The fault doesn’t lie in Marx, but in so-called Marxists and Marxist parties. The point is to discard the orthodox and vanguardist Marxism associated mainly with hierarchical or Comintern-subjugated Communist parties, most of which are in a semi-comatose state. The blame does not lie wholly in the Stalinisation of the USSR and its eventual collapse. The seeds were sown by Lenin and Len Trotsky when the RSDLP(B) was known as ‘party of Lenin and Trotsky’ (Rosa Luxemburg).
The role of Lenin’s mentor, Georgi Plekhanov, and Trotsky in introducing Marx and some of his basic works to revolutionaries were fault lines therein. Unfortunately, it took nearly a century to detect them. Whether Marx and his theories would lead to installation of ‘associated mode of production and association of free and de-alienated peoples’ is left to posterity, thanks to the strong logical foundations of Marx. But ‘official Marxism’ deserves a decent burial.
(Kolkata-based journalist, mainly writing on Left politics)