The Revolutionary Road in India
by Bernard D’Mello
The editors of Aneek have asked us to present, in brief, our stand regarding what we think is “the correct path” towards equality, cooperation, community, and human solidarity, that is, socialism in India. The struggle for socialism is going to be long, hard, and violent, and I, for one, cannot imagine a socialist India in isolation, in a hostile capitalist global order, though a successful Indian revolution would profoundly alter all international equations. Remember Marx once said that if the Irish made it, the rupture of the bourgeois order in Britain might not be too far behind. Let me not stray, though, from the task at hand. The question posed by the Aneek editors needs our focussed attention. We begin with an essential clarification with regard to the Maoist path, move on to the political context in India today, look at aspects of the Maoist strategy of uniting the majority of the Indian population in support of the struggle for a “new democratic” India leading on to socialism, and, in doing so, highlight one of Maoism’s promises to humanity.
The Maoist Path
As I understand, the Communist Party of India (Maoist)’s strategy — political and military — involves the seizure of political power through protracted people’s war (PPW), where the main form of struggle is armed struggle and the principal form of organisation is the people’s army (presently the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army [PLGA]). But mass organisations and political work among peasants, workers, students, youth, women, intellectuals, and other sections of the people are very much on the party’s agenda.
Indeed, as is well known, the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) (People’s War), which merged with the Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCCI) to form the CPI (Maoist) in September 2004 had developed powerful mass movements under the banner of the Rythu Coolie Sangham (RCS) and the Radical Students’ Union (RSU), but they were forced to go underground in the face of severe state repression. One might also recall the influence of the Revolutionary Writers’ Association, popularly known as VIRASAM (Viplava Rachayithala Sangham), and the hugely popular Jana Natya Mandali, which came to be regarded as the party’s cultural wing, and the Andhra Pradesh government’s crackdown on them for “propagating Naxalite ideology.” The question is whether the party can succeed in building such mass movements in the face of severe repression, further risking the loss of lives of the leaders and cadre of the mass organisations. Well, to their credit, they are making some headway on this count in the guerrilla zones.1 Take, for instance, the Kraantikari Adivasi Mahila Sanghatan, which Arundhati Roy refers to in her celebrated essay, “Walking with the Comrades” (Outlook, March 29, 2010).
Nevertheless, with the mass organisation forced to go underground and “utmost secrecy” imposed, through sheer necessity, wouldn’t the mass movements wither? The Maoists are well aware of the fact that a strategy of PPW cannot be successful without, in the first place, winning the active support of larger and larger proportions of the dominated, the exploited, and the oppressed in the rural areas. For this is the first step to establishing “base areas” there, carrying out “land to the tiller” and other social policies in these areas (run democratically as miniature, self-reliant states) to thereby build up a political mass base in the entire Indian countryside to finally encircle and win mass support in the cities. In other words, they are doubly conscious that it is politics that has to command the gun, and it is the quality of the party’s politics that is of utmost importance. The Maoist strategy unfolds in terms of an inner logic, which, going by the political component of the PPW, necessarily entails taking recourse to both violent (a tragic necessity) and non-violent means, the latter, in the form of the “mass line” (“from the masses, to the masses”).2 Unfortunately, however, the Indian state has been more successful so far in not allowing the non-violent means to unfold. Going by classical Maoist principles of revolutionary organisation, strategy, and behaviour, armed struggle plays a crucial supporting role on the road to liberation. But it is the strategy of the Indian state to reduce the movement to violence alone.
The Political Context
With this clarification, let me come to the political context in India today. At the very outset, first, I would like to caution the reader by stating that we can never really comprehend, in a radical way, the significance of the concrete social, political, economic, and cultural conditions prevailing if we are not deeply involved in the collective endeavour of changing those very conditions. I am alluding to my shortcomings on this score. Second, under the leadership of the CPI (Maoist), in parts of central and eastern India, the poorest of the poor are struggling for justice and have taken to violent means to achieve their ends. Who am I to judge whether this class struggle, with all the tragic loss of lives and limbs it has entailed, is warranted or unwarranted? Third, as a socialist, I do not advocate violence, but, unfortunately, violence is a tragic necessity in the prevailing circumstances. What then are those circumstances?
If “politics is the most concentrated expression of economics,” then we need to first get to the economic realm. India is a dependent, backward capitalist country in the periphery of the world capitalist system. The rate of exploitation is and has always been very high. Exploitation does not merely involve the appropriation of surplus value produced by the working class, but a large part of the workforce is exploited directly and indirectly by landlords, traders, and sahukars (moneylenders), primarily in the rural areas but also in the cities and towns. The surplus extorted is “commercialised and becomes indistinguishably mingled with capitalistically produced surplus value,” as Paul Sweezy once put it when he was analysing the periphery of the world capitalist system. We might also add that the pillage of Mother Nature and the expropriation of social property are rampant in India today.
All this enables the dominant classes to derive the privilege of consumption and levels of living corresponding to those of their counterparts in the US. However, what of their other — the workers, peasants, and the marginalised poor in the countryside and the urban slums? The latter are condemned to a life of poverty, misery, and degradation, often below the margins of what are, reasonably considered, subsistence levels of existence. The high rate of exploitation, built into the very structure of dependent, backward capitalism in India, is the source of its failure to develop a mass market and approach “developed” status.
Indeed, the very high rate of exploitation requires a highly repressive political system; the Indian constitution and the bourgeois democratic institutions copied from or modelled on Westminster are empty façades. Nevertheless, the political system is bourgeois-democratic, which, in certain contexts, renders the struggle against specific forms of exploitation, oppression, and domination less harrowing. This political order is, however, deeply flawed, for how can democracy flourish in a society that is so deeply marked by profound inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth, and manifest with discrimination on the basis of race, caste, gender, religion, and political affiliation? So we have the periodic charade of choosing members of the political establishment, those financed and co-opted by the dominant classes, who will then govern the country, the states, the municipalities, and the panchayats, where they exist, if at all, for the next five years. More than ever before, what we now get is governments of the markets, by the markets, and for the markets — the market, as one poet put it, which knows all about prices but nothing about values. Nevertheless, politics emanates from the set of basic conflicts in the society.
Over the last two decades, the economic, social, political, and cultural terrains in the country have been heavily overridden by a globalised landscape. The dominant classes and their representatives now claim that, following the strategic alliance cemented with Washington, the nation is on its way to becoming an economic superpower, never mind the reality of India, which is best characterised as the “Republic of Hunger,” as the political economist Utsa Patnaik portrayed it six years ago. One has only to look at the dispossessed masses, their lived experience, which represents “the focal point of all inhuman conditions in contemporary society.” It is in this mass of humanity that “the human being is lost,” but “has won a theoretical consciousness of loss and is compelled by unavoidable and absolutely compulsory need . . . to revolt against this inhumanity.” What we have paraphrased is what the young Marx and Engels wrote about the proletariat in Western Europe in 1844 in The Holy Family, but this applies so well to the wretched of the Indian earth and underlines the dire necessity of a socialist revolution in India, more so in the context of the utter failure of those laws and institutions of the Indian state that claim to safeguard the interests of the people. Moreover, after the demise of the Soviet Union and the completion of the ‘great leap backward’ to capitalism in China, the existential situation of the damned of the Indian earth has worsened. Capitalism has taken its gloves off — it has little or no qualms in resorting to brutal forms of expropriation in the process of accumulation, akin in some ways to what it did at its birth. What then is the way out of this quagmire?
Towards a ‘Correct Path’
In India, with universal suffrage, but a degenerate bourgeois-democratic political system, a huge, centralised state machinery and a well-equipped modern army, can a communist party capture power through winning an overwhelming majority in parliament, bringing in a socialist constitution, neutralising the repressive apparatus of the state, and, even as it attempts all of this, get ready for armed confrontation, finally breaking up the state and replacing it with one that represents the interests of the exploited? I think that the Indian ruling classes would never give up their wealth and power without armed resistance. We can now be more certain about this, confirmed by the Chilean episode (November 1970 to September 1973), as well as the Nicaraguan experience in the wake of the Sandinista revolution in 1979, the elections of 1984 which Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front won by an overwhelming majority but the US persisted in negating by its subversion and proxy war, which included the Iran-Contra affair. Nevertheless, whether the CPI (Maoist) should use parliament to spread its ideas and opinions, but subordinate this to developing mass movements and struggles as part of the PPW, and, in times of crisis, give top priority to the latter, is a matter of its political line. I do not think I am the right person to render advice, that too, unsolicited, on its choice of alternatives.
Spokespersons of the CPI (Marxist) often quote from Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder (written in April-May 1920 to encapsulate the lessons the Bolshevik party had learned from its involvement in the three revolutions in Russia) to paint the CPI (Maoist) in the darkest possible colours. But it is the CPM that, following in the footsteps of the CPI, has replaced Lenin’s State and Revolution (written in August-September 1917) by the un-Marxist and un-Leninist theory of peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism. A real Leninist party is one that devotes all it has to developing the ability and the will to lead a revolution. Frankly, it is the CPI (Maoist) that is developing that ability — if we were to go by Arundhati Roy’s essay, mentioned earlier, and Gautam Navlakha’s “Days and Nights in the Heartland of Rebellion” (Sanhati, April 1, 2010) — through a close relationship with the masses in the areas where it has gained a foothold. The party is empowering the wretched of the Indian earth on the revolutionary road to an egalitarian society. It has also been gathering the determination to lead a revolution by resisting the temptation to work within the framework of the system, instead doing all it can to take the class struggle to a successful conclusion. The CPM, in contrast, even as it is organised along Leninist lines, has virtually been taken over by the backward bourgeois society that India is, and has been turned into a reformist force. This is unfortunate, for the party, along with the CPI, still has, within its fold, a number of outstanding individuals.
Now, as we have said, in the CPI (Maoist)’s schema, PPW is the revolutionary path wherein the main form of struggle is armed struggle and the principal form of organisation is the people’s army. As I understand the party’s stand on boycotting elections, it argues that participation in elections is not compatible with the strategy of PPW. All the same, the party is trying to build alternative institutions of people’s power in the guerrilla zones. But the problem, from the Maoist perspective of progress in the PPW, is that the party has not been able to turn any of the guerrilla zones into a base area. It is impossible to advance the ongoing guerrilla war or the further spread of guerrilla zones without the establishment of base areas. In the plains areas — which are less suitable for guerrilla warfare and the establishment of guerrilla zones — the higher guerrilla units have been unable to continue their operations and gradually have had to move to the forest and hilly areas. Some of the existing guerrilla zones are potential candidates for transformation into base areas, but ‘the enemy’ has to be defeated there and the organs of political power have to then be established, a formidable task in the face of severe repression. From the Maoist point of view, if they create and sustain a few base areas, the PPW will be able to sustain itself over a long period; in the absence of base areas, the Maoist guerrilla army will not last long or grow — in guerrilla parlance, the base areas are its essential ‘rear’. However, I must mention that within the guerrilla zones, the Maoists have carved out their own domains in particular stretches, which they call guerrilla bases. The latter serve as a sort of ‘rear.’
Those of us who are not in tune with the essence of PPW often fail to understand that the combination of a people’s army and mass organisations has the ability to advance and retreat over long periods of time. If the formation of mass organisations before the building of a supporting armed force able to survive proves to be a failure, the reverse will be attempted, and the appropriate techniques of asymmetric warfare will be devised to support the growth of the mass organisations, even in the plains areas. After all, the party is learning by doing — practice, collective learning from its mistakes, practice again (with greater success), and so on, in ever greater, rising concentric circles.
However, the question that needs to be posed is whether the economic and political conditions in India today are, at least, somewhat similar to those of China in the 1930s and 1940s. No doubt, the peasant question is extremely important in India today, but it is being transformed from dispossession through class differentiation to dispossession via displacement and ecological degradation. At the macro-level, millions of rural people are being rendered proletarians (in the form of casual and contract labour), hungry, malnutrition-ridden, homeless and landless paupers, forced migrants, threatened autochthonous peoples, lumpenproletariat, and so on. This suggests a relatively rapid rise in the proportion of the population in the urban and semi-urban areas in the medium term, with an even larger proportion constituting the “precarious” classes — workers with little bargaining power vis-à-vis the capitalists, and a vast section of non-wage earners at the margins of subsistence in the urban informal sector.
Surely the CPI (Maoist) will have to reckon with this, which brings us to the question of how the urban movement provides the worker cadre and leaders for the revolutionary alliance of workers and peasants. The Maoists are often criticised for failing to organise the industrial working class. But even where they did make significant headway, for instance, in organising the coal miners of Singareni, under the banner Singareni Karmika Samakhya, the union was banned and its leaders driven underground. The Maoists are nevertheless conscious of the crucial importance of organising the workers, for it is the proletarian who, when she/he is politically socialistically sensitized, understands the value of socialising the means of production, knows that collectively the workers can bring the economy to a standstill, especially if they are organised in the “strategic” sectors of the economy, and again, understands that, collectively, they can overcome their exploitation. As far as organising in the urban areas is concerned, the party has been at it in the towns falling within and around the areas of armed struggle.
Now, besides the worker-peasant alliance, there is also the question of forming the “united front,” the so-called four-class alliance, as the Maoists conceive of it. But given the experience of the new democratic revolution (NDR) in China, where, with the Maoist tenet of uninterrupted revolution (correct, no doubt), the NDR becomes a socialist one immediately after the communist party comes to power, will any anti-imperialist section of the Indian bourgeoisie (if it exists at all) even commit to such an alliance? Moreover, in this age and time, it is doubtful if any section of the Indian bourgeoisie would be interested in any kind of revolution. It might then be best to infuse much more of a socialist content in the composition and programme of the united front.
Overall, then, on the question of the combination of mass organisations and the people’s army both of which are so fundamental to successfully carrying through the PPW, the radical left in India and elsewhere will be keenly following how the Maoists follow their scientific dictum of practice, collectively learning from one’s mistakes, practice again with greater success, and so on, in ever greater and rising concentric circles, and extending this ability to act and learn collectively to the vast majority of the Indian people and beyond, to humanity.
1 What we mean by guerrilla zones, guerrilla bases, and base areas and the differences among and between the three are explained in my article “Spring Thunder Anew: Neo-Robber Baron Capitalism vs. ‘New Democracy’ in India,” Monthly Review, March 2010.
2 What we mean by mass line, uninterrupted revolution, new democratic revolution, and other Maoist terms that we employ in this note are explained in my essay “What is Maoism?” in Bernard D’Mello (ed.), What is Maoism and Other Essays (Kharagpur: Cornerstone Publications), 2010.
Bernard D’Mello (email@example.com) is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, and a member of the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai. He thanks John Mage and P A Sebastian for their critical but helpful comments on an earlier draft. The usual disclaimers apply. This article first appeared in Bengali in the magazine Aneek in its July 2010 issue, which is a special number entitled ‘Somaj – Biplob o Soshostro Sangram’ (‘Social Revolution and Armed Struggle’).