Comrade, head or tail?

The recent talk of a happy reconciliation between the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) after some 47 years fills me with perverse nostalgia.
Many years ago, when rents were still affordable for small businesses in Central London, Charing Cross Road used to boast a quaint Left-wing bookshop called Collets.

Apart from stocking Marx, Lenin and the more abstruse authors of the New Left pantheon, the bookshop had an anteroom we called the Cave. The Cave was generously stocked with contemporary agitprop published by an astonishing variety of Left-wing groups. There were tomes by groups claiming to represent one of the umpteen Fourth Internationals, pamphlets produced by pro-Albanian Maoists, and even copies of speeches by a French Trotskyist named Jacques Posades, who, I was informed by a Maoist friend who claimed to know, actually favoured a nuclear strike on the West by the Soviet Union.
I never did imbibe the wisdom of Posades, but thanks to the esoteric company I chose to keep, I was introduced to an astonishing world of theological hair-splitting, feisty denunciations of individuals who have long since been forgotten and dissection of obscure sectarian battles in countries ranging from Iran to Peru. Apart from puerile titillation, the Cave introduced me to an important facet of the Left political culture: the visceral hatred Communists felt for each other. A loathing for those who had apparently deviated from the true path easily exceeded their distaste for the capitalist order.
In those halcyon days of the Seventies, there was still a Soviet Union that disbursed patronage to the official Communist parties and their “progressive” fellow travellers in the labour and peace movements. At that time China still hadn’t embraced capitalism and consequently confined its propaganda to distributing the Selected Works of Mao and organising tours for the gullible to China’s showcase communes. Finally, there were eccentric dictators such as Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi with enough spare cash to bankroll a daily newspaper in London run by a bunch of venal Trotskyists.
Patronage from modified equivalents of the old Comintern was one reason why many Communists still clung to a faith that increasingly generated diminishing returns. In post-1969 India, after the Soviet Union reposed all its faith in the “socialist” credentials of Indira Gandhi, the CPI virtually ceased to exist as an independent political entity. Apart from those old-timers who clung to the organisation either out of a sense of corporate loyalty or because they made a wrong choice in 1964, the CPI was reduced to two distinct groups: fellow-travelling intellectuals who became progressivism’s certifying authorities; and socialist entrepreneurs who profited enormously from trade with the Soviet Union.
By 1971, the CPI(M) replaced the CPI as the custodian of the Red Flag in India. However, the eclipse of the pro-Moscow party had little to do with the popularity of People’s Democracy over National Democracy. Ideology was never a strong point with India’s Communists: they attached a greater premium on activism and agitation. The CPI carried the Marxist intellectuals who had by then come to acknowledge the impossibility of a Communist-led revolution in a democratic country but the CPI(M) got the upper hand because it was more radical. In time the CPI(M) acquired its own intellectuals but by then the CPI had shrunk to a mere letterhead. After the Soviet Union collapsed, CPI lost its raison d’etre altogether. Like the Revolutionary Communist Party of India, Workers Party of India and something called the Bolshevik Party — groups that were part of the United Front in West Bengal as late as 1969 — the CPI has become a leftover from history.
Throughout this week, the idea of a grand reconciliation between the CPI and CPI(M) has been endorsed by stalwarts from both parties — cautiously by CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury and more enthusiastically by CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan. A CPI leader from Tamil Nadu has even identified March 2012 as the date when the process can be completed.
The impetus to Communist unity has, ironically, come out of the worst defeat the Left has suffered since Indira Gandhi (with lots of help from the CPI) decimated the CPI(M) in West Bengal in 1972. The Left Front government, which ruled West Bengal uninterruptedly for 34 years, wasn’t anything that remotely offered an attractive alternative to the much-despised bourgeois-landlord class rule. It suffered from inefficiencies, a lack of political imagination and its professed “pro-poor” tilt was tempered by the socialist cronyism that was the hallmark of the Soviet Union and other countries of the erstwhile socialist bloc. However, a succession of election victories in West Bengal enabled the Communist movement to cope with the shock waves from the collapse in Moscow in 1991.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the moral centre of the Communist movement, many Communist parties either went into terminal decline or gave up the battle altogether. The once-grand Communist Party in France has disappeared as an electoral force and its erstwhile voters have drifted to either the socialist camp or switched sides and become camp followers of the neo-fascists. In Britain, the Communist Party of Great Britain that once controlled the CPI through its “colonial department” simply dissolved itself.
The defeat in West Bengal and the collapse of its alternative model of governance should force the CPI(M) to confront an issue that should have been deliberated at least 20 years ago. In effect, the Communist movement has two choices. It can redefine itself as a socialist movement and tacitly acknowledge that the split from the Second International by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg in 1914 was wrong. Such a move would imply that much of the shrill orthodox denunciation of the “renegade Kautsky” was misplaced. Alternatively, it can embrace the class war being waged by the CPI(Maoist) and rekindle the revolutionary fires in the exhausted comrades.
Whichever “line” prevails, the outpouring of polemics in the coming months should be enthralling — but hopefully not as intense as the vendetta that drove a Stalinist to put a pickaxe into the brain of Trotsky. As I discovered in the Cave, Communists are best when hating each other.

Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist

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