The CPI(M) and the Building of Capitalism Prabhat Patnaik

It could be just wishful thinking; or it could be a malicious attempt to spread confusion about the CPI(M); or it could be sheer ignorance about the rudiments of the CPI(M)’s theoretical understanding among the current generation of journalists, unlike those of an earlier generation; but, whatever the reason, the inference drawn by several of them from a remark of Jyoti Basu about having to work within the capitalist system, a remark which in itself was neither novel nor exceptionable, that the CPI(M) had abandoned socialism, was really quite breath-taking. But since this remark has given rise to some confusion even among Party sympathizers and well-wishers, it is worth making an effort to clarify certain basic issues.

Those claiming on the basis of the West Bengal government’s acceptance of private investment (which Jyoti Basu’s remark had defended) that the CPI(M) has abandoned socialism, are wrong on at least three counts: they do not distinguish between socialist and people’s democratic revolutions; they do not distinguish between working within a system and working not to transcend the system; and they do not distinguish between the Party and Party-led governments. Let us look at each of these distinctions seriatim.

A Communist Party is founded with the objective of achieving socialism. Its raison d’etre is to struggle for the achievement of this objective. But the achievement of socialism requires a social revolution which entails the substitution of private ownership of the means of production by social ownership, and of the bourgeois State that defends such private ownership by an alternative proletarian State which is a very different kind of State from all hitherto existing States, in the sense that it must “wither away” over a period of time. Since the conditions for such a social revolution take time to mature, all Communist Parties must work within the capitalist system for long stretches of time, bringing theory to the working class and helping it through its struggles to prepare itself for the historic task of leading this revolution.

All this however presupposes that the democratic revolution which the bourgeoisie had led historically led, has been more or less completed, so that a socialist revolution has come on the agenda. But in societies where the bourgeoisie appears late on the scene, it proves singularly incapable of completing the democratic revolution itself, and instead makes common cause with feudal and pre-bourgeois elements, since it is afraid that any attack on pre-bourgeois property could well encompass an attack on bourgeois property as well. This compromise which was evident in the case of pre-revolutionary Russia incorporates, in the context of third world societies, a compromise with imperialism as well.

The anti-feudal and anti-imperialist tasks of the democratic revolution in such societies therefore cannot be completed by the bourgeoisie which is historically unequal to the task, but devolve upon the proletariat which must carry the democratic revolution to completion. Its key ally in this democratic revolution is of course the broad mass of the peasantry. This democratic revolution led by the working class in alliance with the peasantry is called the “people’s democratic revolution” which, according to the CPI(M)’s programme is the historic task immediately on the agenda.

The people’s democratic revolution is a rich and complex concept. Since it entails a carrying forward of the democratic revolution, i.e. a completion by the proletariat of the task that the bourgeoisie historically had undertaken, its objective is to remove the fetters upon the most thorough-going bourgeois development; it creates therefore the conditions for the most vigorous and the most broad-based capitalist development. At the same time, since it is the proletariat that leads the people’s democratic revolution, it is not content only to create the conditions for the most thorough-going capitalist development, and then sit back and watch capitalism unfold in its full vigour; rather, it unleashes a historical process where the people’s democratic revolution leads on to the socialist revolution. Once the proletariat has acquired a “subject” role, it does not withdraw from that role; rather it uses that role to ensure that the people’s democratic revolution leads on to the socialist revolution over a more or less protracted period of time.

Two very important points have to be noted here: first, while the people’s democratic revolution creates conditions for capitalist development, the nature of this capitalist development is different from the capitalist development that would have occurred otherwise. “Capitalist development” is not a homogeneous term. There is capitalism and capitalism. What was developing in colonial India was capitalism; what the bourgeoisie leading the freedom struggle wanted was capitalism; what the Nehruvian development strategy promoted was capitalism; what neo-liberalism is promoting today is capitalism; and what the working class will create the conditions for, through the people’s democratic revolution, is also capitalism. So, to say that the people’s democratic revolution is meant to create conditions for the development of capitalism is only a half-truth; it is meant to create the conditions for the development of capitalism that is different from the capitalism that would have developed otherwise; it is meant to develop a capitalism that is the most thorough-going and broad-based, a capitalism that is based inter alia on radical land reforms and a widening of the mass market.

Secondly, the struggle for creating the conditions for the most thorough-going and broad-based capitalist development, which the proletariat has to lead in conditions like ours, does not become an end in itself; it leads on to the struggle for socialism. The continuity of this struggle was expressed by Lenin in his Two Tactics in the following words. “The proletariat must carry the democratic revolution to completion, allying to itself the mass of the peasantry in order to crush the autocracy’s resistance by force and paralyse the bourgeoisie’s instability. The proletariat must accomplish the socialist revolution, allying to itself the mass of the semi-proletarian elements of the population, so as to crush the bourgeoisie’s resistance by force and paralyse the instability of the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie.” Precisely because the consummation of the democratic revolution, the most thorough-going attempt at building capitalism, cannot occur in societies like ours under the aegis of the bourgeoisie, precisely because it can be carried out only under the aegis of the proletariat, the struggle for such development becomes integrated with the struggle for socialism, leads on to the struggle for socialism.

It follows then that the conception of a Communist Party being always concerned exclusively and immediately with the ushering in of socialism is theoretically erroneous. Let us now move to the second error of those claiming that the CPI(M) has abandoned socialism.

While the people’s democratic revolution is on the historic agenda in our country, in the sense that in its absence the democratic revolution would not only not be carried forward, but would actually witness retrogression (such as for instance the reversal of land reforms, the attenuation of bourgeois democracy, and an even greater integration with imperialism), it is by no means imminent. The Communists in other words have to work within the capitalist system even as they work for the maturing of the conditions for the people’s democratic revolution, let alone a socialist revolution. And this work involves not just work in trade unions, among the peasantry, on the various mass fronts, and in the parliamentary opposition, but also as leaders of state governments in the three states where the Party is powerful.

Work in the state governments is no different from work elsewhere, though the terrain of work is novel and the conditions of work constrained by explicit and specific provisions of the Constitution: its aim must also be to change the correlation of class forces, to prepare the conditions for the people’s democratic revolution by fighting to carry forward the democratic advance of the people and against all slide-backs, retrogression, and counter-revolutionary rolling back of this advance.

In the case of the state governments led by the Party, this requires a correct policy towards the development of the productive forces. This policy too must be informed by the objective of creating the conditions for the people’s democratic revolution, forging the class alliance required for it, raising the level of class consciousness, and strengthening the proletariat as a revolutionary force. Stagnation in the development of the productive forces in the Left-ruled states in comparison to others, i.e. stagnation that is not systemic but specific to such states, can damage this objective by restricting employment generation, and alienating the people from the Party (which indeed is one reason why the capitalists used deliberately to avoid investing in these states earlier); on the other hand, any development that, even while creating employment in some sectors, destroys employment in others, including in agriculture through the alteration of the land-use pattern, can also have a damaging effect.

Likewise, while boycott by capitalists, which amounts to an economic blockade of Left-ruled states, can damage the Party and hence the cause of the democratic revolution, any acceding to the demands of the capitalists that results in a hiatus between the basic classes (i.e. workers and peasants) and the Party can have an equally deleterious effect. Avoiding these deleterious consequences, striking a correct path based on an all-round appreciation of the situation, making use of investments by capitalists even while not succumbing to their excessive demands, by taking advantage of competition among them, and by building up the countervailing force of government investment, is not always easy. The exact strategy in each case has to be specifically determined. But the basic criterion for deciding on the correct course of action must be: does it contribute towards an advance of the democratic revolution?

While applying this criterion however it is clear that there is no reason for shunning capitalist investment, since within the capitalist system in which the Party-led governments are functioning, the investible resources are by definition concentrated in the hands of the capitalists. Of course, such capitalist investment must be treated with circumspection; it must not be allowed to thwart the advance towards a people’s democratic revolution; and for that purpose the Party-led state governments must have a counterweight against the excessive demands of capital; but shunning such investment altogether can also be equally damaging.

Such an understanding clearly does not entail an abandonment of socialism, or an acceptance of capitalism. It only recognizes the fact that the struggle for carrying forward the democratic revolution, towards its ultimate goal of socialism, has to be fought on many fronts, in complex terrains, and in conditions not of our choosing. While it is true that in coping with this complexity, the ultimate objective must not be lost sight of, a lack of recognition of this complexity makes the ultimate objective even more elusive in practice.

The critics of the Party are also wrong on a third count, quite apart from their lack of understanding of the concept of the people’s democratic revolution, and also of the complexity of the work needed to create the conditions for it. And this relates to a lack of distinction between the government and the Party. Party-led governments are not identical with the Party. The Party embodies a theory; a government per se does not, even when led by the Party. The Party works for a revolution; it works through many channels including through heading state governments. But just as there is a difference between the Party and its front organizations, there is a difference between the Party and the governments it leads, as indeed between these governments and the Party’s front organizations. These governments are formed in accordance with the provisions of a Constitution which in turn was framed as a scaffolding for the structure of a State led by the bourgeoisie. Their practical positions on a number of issues cannot always be expected to be co-terminus with what the Party’s theoretical understanding dictates. To infer from the practical policies of the state governments which are an empirical matter, the theoretical positions of the Party, is an inversion of reason.

Negotiating the complexities of the Indian revolution requires serious and intense debates and discussions, but a precondition for that is to get certain basic issues out of the way.