What's that musty smell? Oh, it's the CPM

Prakash Karat, are you listening? The non-party Left in India is still alive and vibrant. But the Politburo meet proved that the stuffed shirt babus of the CPM are just tone deaf.

Shiv Visvanathan April 16, 2012 11:33:22 IST
What's that musty smell? Oh, it's the CPM

The recent two-day politburo meeting of the CPM in Delhi was a damp squib. Every time I watch the CPM in action, I remember TIME’s reaction to Charlie Chaplin’s comeback movie, The Countess from Hong Kong. TIME magazine panned it, observing it was ‘pickled in the formaldehyde of the thirties’. There is a smell of preservatives about the CPM. The sadness is that if the CPM did not exist, it would have to be invented. The challenge is how does one reinvent the CPM beyond the tutorial college Marxism of its ideologies?

Oddly the CPM needs the very thing it would condemn as a bourgeois weapon. It needs psychoanalysis to exorcise it of its Stalinism. Stalin might exist as a folklore icon in India. While children are  still christened Stalin, the ideologies and ideas of the man were literally genocidal. The CPM needs an ojha to exorcise it of the last vestiges of the man. I am saying this not out of any love for the more romantic Trotsky but because one feels the left and the party Left need to be anchored in a new vision of justice and struggle. What stops this?

Firstly, the CPM is a party of babus. Behind the epidermis of ideology, there is the sin of the clerical. Ambedkar’s dismissal of them as “a bunch of old Brahmin boys” still stings true. Yet this very bunch of Macaulayite Marxists literally criminalised a state. The criminalisation of politics was not just in UP and Bihar. The CPM acquired a patent on it, brutalising a society by turning the party into a collection of low level Mafiosi. The crime of the CPM was its destruction of hope in Bengal. Not that Mamata is the answer. But a society desperate to get out of the CPM stranglehold was desperate for any answer.

Whats that musty smell Oh its the CPM

Prakash Karat. AFP

Secondly, the CPM’s own competence has created a set of blinders that makes the party indifferent to marginals. The plight of the tribal in the development process, the fate of Dalits seen only as a figment of caste, the question of ecology, large dams found it indifferent. The CPM needs to consolidate its sense of parliamentary skill and trade union competence. It needs to re-look at the informal economy, and the commons to create new imaginaries for itself. Hiring JNU Professors who sound like clones of Joan Robinson, the much touted English Marxist, will only put it in further deep freeze.

Thirdly, one needs a more playful sense which takes the keywords of modern democracy like secularism, rights, governance, and minority and rework them more creatively. The non-party left in India is still a playful one. If the party were to interact more, the process could get interesting. It must allow for dissent. Karat and Yechury sound like Joint Secretaries in the ministry of ideology. The CPM needs an input from Social Science, a sense of new imaginaries. It has to realise that its idea of Marxism as common sense is neither common nor sense.

Such changes need an intellectual and moral courage which combines ethics and politics into a vision of history and democracy. This the leadership lacks. The Politburo functions as an octogenarian club. Karat himself realised this when he said that the Politburo for the first time had members under eighty! The party has to go radically beyond seniority and senility and create an imagination for a younger generation.

The CPM used to be an imaginative thinker on foreign policy. Its sense of solidarity with the Third World, as it was originally called, added to a sense of justice internationally. Today that sense of war and peace needs to be reworked. Often it has helped the Congress articulate a more radical sensitivity by being there.

But there is something more critical. It needs a framework of radical pluralism which includes critiques of the ecological, feminist imaginations. Brinda Karat’s fight with Dr Sabu George against female foeticide is important.  But the CPM has to go beyond its scientism. Its fetishisation of science and secularism has blinded it to the creative role of religion. By treating religion as a pathology and fetishising fundamentalism the CPM has emptied religion of possibilities.

A few decades ago Joseph Needham, the Marxist Sinologist remarked that Marxism should be translated into English and speak local dialects. He was referring to the English Marxists. But we too need Marxism of local imaginations instead of the standardised homogeneity of party Marxism and its lethal response to dissent.

Marxism does not need new commissars or death by committee. It needs a new commons, a new network of debate which transforms it from a piece of intellectual property to a people’s imagination. That time is now and the future will watch the new jugalbandi between Marxism and Democracy with fascination. The mind boggles at the sheer hopefulness of the process.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.

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