The Continuing Relevance of the Left in India

An amended version of a talk given to the Secular Collective in Kozhikode, Kerala, India. August 2, 2008 in honour of TK Ramachandran.

by Justin Podur

First of all, thank you for allowing me to be a part of the honouring of TK Ramachandran. I did not know him, but I have done a little bit of research now, enough to know that he was not someone who shrunk from a debate or a discussion. I hope we can live up to that spirit here today.

I was asked to speak on “the Continuing Relevance of the Left in India”. To me this title has two parts. The first is a self-evident statement of fact. For reasons I will go into, the left continues to be relevant in India. The second is a strategic challenge: how can we ensure that the left continues to be relevant in India? This latter challenge will occupy most of the time for this talk.

The need for a Left

But first to the statement of fact. The left continues to be relevant in India. Why? Because what characterizes the left at the most basic level is that it values equality. There are other values that leftists share: liberty and solidarity. But these it shares with other movements. What distinguishes the left is that it strives for equality.

And for this simple reason, the left is relevant in India. India is riven by caste, class, gender discrimination. It exists in an unequal world order. Inequality creates conflict and some of these conflicts are a threat to human survival. Inequality is fed by capitalism and capitalism is also in the process of destroying the ecological basis for life on the planet. So long as these statements are true, there will be a dire need for a left. So long as there is inequality, there is a need for organized political forces to fight against it. Hence, in India, there is a need for a left.

The relevance of the Left

But being needed does not necessarily make it relevant, and here we turn to the second part of the title, the strategic challenge of how to ensure the relevance of the Left. And here perhaps the North American example can be constructive. I hate to admit it, but in North America, though a left is badly needed, the left is not really relevant in the sense that it is not a strong electoral or political force. In that context I prefer to use the term “leftists” rather than “the left” because “the left” doesn't really exist as an organized political force. To say that one is a communist, or a socialist, or an anarchist, in North America today is to announce that one has some kind of disease (one that is not communicable). It elicits some pity and misunderstanding, but little desire to engage. Increasingly, in fact, the same is true for any kind of political affiliation that is not simply a career option. Anti-communism has played a role in this, in North America, especially since the 1950s and the campaigns of Joseph McCarthy (but even before). But the context in North America is increasingly anti-politics, not just anti-communist.

Partly this is because North America is such an atomized society, and that is partly because of its physical layout: Highways and suburbs, travel between standalone homes with televisions in them and shopping malls and big-box stores by car, and a constant stream of corporate multimedia. Even in places with a different design, like New York City where people take transit, everyone is hooked up to headphones and lives, even in public, in their own privatized corporate music space. People are not used to having political conversations, let alone affiliations. Indeed, other affiliations – such as professional, consumer, ethnic or religious affiliations – are seen as normal. Political beliefs and affiliations, by contrast, make sense only either as professional choices (as in a job as a career politician) or some kind of niche, consumer-like “activist” affiliation – as in, some people take up activism the way someone might take up football or video games, as a hobby, as a private consumer choice. The idea that political life is part of being a fully engaged person is not strong, which makes openings for left politics rare. Margaret Thatcher said in the 1980s that “there is no such thing as a society”, and the neoliberals have gone out of their way to make it so. In North America they have, to a surprising degree, succeeded.

Sticking to principles

That is the context. But what about what leftists do to be irrelevant? I think we do some things that reduce our relevance, but I think what we do to be irrelevant is the opposite of what many argue.

Many argue that the left is irrelevant because it is too far left. For sticking to our principles, we are seen as dogmatic and inflexible. I actually think the opposite is the case. Again take North America. In Canada, social democratic feeling is widespread – present in indigenous, labour, ethnic and even political institutions, and has political expression in Canada's New Democratic Party or NDP. But, despite being attacked as 'dogmatic', I think this feeling is diluted because the organizations make too many concessions to political expediency. In the last election I kept waiting for the NDP leader to say he would, if elected Prime Minister (an extremely unlikely proposition, he knew) take Canada out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, which helped destroy Mexico's agriculture and industry and is a major factor in the food, unemployment, and other crises that Mexico is facing today. The Zapatistas called NAFTA a “death sentence for indigenous peoples.” Like other neoliberal agreements, it is designed to extend the rights of multinational corporations to operate without regulation or constraint, while putting many constraints on what elected governments can do for their people in the economy. In the debate, the NDP leader was asked directly if he would take Canada out of NAFTA and he said he would take a hard look at it. But a hard look at it reveals that it is a bad deal for working people in all three countries, and should be scrapped. US Presidential Canadidate Barack Obama recently said he would reconsider NAFTA – this was another opportunity for the left in Canada to say they would be happy to abandon it. But instead Obama backed off. I also wish that social democratic groups would be stronger and clearer on imperialism and the colonial relationship between the state and indigenous people. I think the reason they are not has more to do with perceptions of political expediency than a lack of principled understanding. This is a strategic mistake.

And in fact, I think the Indian left shows this in a positive way. Take the debate on secularism. By being unapologetically secular, the left provides a stark contrast to the religious supremacists and communalists. It pulls the whole debate in a sensible direction and forces the reactionaries to expose themselves. It also provides more room to those who want to contest religious supremacy in ways that appeal to religious feeling: as Gandhiji did, for example.

The same goes for gender rights. By asserting strongly that there is no moral justification for any differences in power, wealth, or rights between men and women, the whole debate is made more reasonable, and even more so when the left's actions own actions, in power and in opposition, are consistent with its principles.

I am arguing that the left is stronger, not weaker, when it sticks to its principles and indeed, that is what the left is for. Let other political groups take measures of expediency. If the left finds that its principled positions are unpopular, it should take this as a sign of more work to be done. That is the political task: to make principled policies and actions popular so they can happen democratically. If the majority is sexist or caste-ist, believes capitalism is the most efficient system, the left has to recognize this as a major challenge. But it should not revise its position or principles.

Flexible strategy and analysis

Strategy and analysis are other matters, however.

Just as the left is relevant when it sticks to its principles, it is also only relevant to the degree that it can be flexible in its strategy and analysis.

This takes us to some of the strategic suggestions I will offer for ensuring the continuing relevance of the left in India. But first I should say I agree with a lot of what is already being done. The Indian left has managed to operate in a democratic, electoral context – this is something very rare in the world. Often the left gets shut out by force, ends up in an armed confrontation with the state, which it either wins or loses. But very rarely can it operate as a normal, democratic force while retaining its strong left character. This shows strength and flexibility.

There are also innovative ideas working their way through the system today. Decentralized development planning here in Kerala has been very interesting and offers challenges and lessons. The recent adoption of free/open source software by the state in Kerala is another very good move, one that goes way beyond not having to pay licensing fees and has to do with very important questions of freedom of information and equal access to it, questions that ultimately affect one's ability to participate fully in society. For this reason free software/open source software's natural home is the left, though it doesn't always seem that way and though many of its proponents are not leftists.

I also agree with the left stand on the Indo-US nuclear deal and its critique of neoliberalism. I am intrigued by the alliance the left has struck with some of the regional parties, and I think the points of unity (including secularism, anti-nuclear, dealing with agrarian and economic questions) are the right ones. Trying to break out of its strongholds in West Bengal and Kerala is key.

But having said that, I will assume you didn't just want to hear that I agree with the left. So let me make four suggestions that might help with the relevance of the left in India.

Four suggestions for the left

1) Critical Thinking

First, I return to flexibility and also, independence, not only from other countries or contexts, but also independence of thought. If we believe firmly in our principles, there need be nothing sacred about any element of analysis or method. Marx, Trotsky, Lenin, Mao, Che, all become people who were working on specific problems in specific contexts, not people with formulas to be mechanically deployed. They all knew this. Mao's predecessor, for example, listened against his better judgment to the advice of Stalin and the Russian Communists about staying in the united front with the Nationalists – leading to the massacre at Shanghai. Mao ignored the advice and won. Lenin and Trotsky were constantly revising their theories in light of events and developments. One of the weaknesses of the old left in North America was its lack of independence from Russia. The task is always to analyze the context and take actions in that context, to critically evaluate what can be borrowed or used after modification, and what is particular to a time or place. This is part of the strength of Chomsky, too: he tries to get people to think for themselves, not follow formulas or leaders. What is surprising about the Indian left is that it has innovated a great deal to work in this context, but its theoretical innovations are not as advanced as its practice – or so it seems to me.

2) Economics

Second, some economic thoughts, first short- and then long-term. In the short-term, take the criticisms of the Kerala model that always arise from the right: that labor militancy and empowered workers have frightened away investors and, therefore, growth, and that economic planning destroys incentives to work hard. I believe both these criticisms are incorrect, but the left sometimes responds to them by saying that growth is not important. But growth is important, in my view, and the idea of growth – technological progress, increasing productivity, interesting work choices and career paths available to people – is a positive thing that ought not to be conceded to the neoliberals. They would like there to be a dichotomy between empowered workers on the one hand and growth on the other. That is a false dichotomy, however, and if the left would be stronger if it included practical policies for growth.

What are such policies? Ha-Joon Chang, an economist of Korean origin working in the UK, argues in his recent book 'Bad Samaritans' that infant industry protection is how all developed economies developed. They used tariffs, subsidies, scrimped and saved foreign exchange, consumed inferior goods for quite some time, and eventually developed industries in strategic sectors. He talks at some length about how, in Korea, it was seen as anti-national for the middle-class to consume foreign luxury goods: foreign exchange was to be used to purchase machinery and technology for the project of development. Imagine the response of those in the Keralite middle class who argue that labour militancy frightens investors to the argument that their consumption of luxury foreign goods is the greater impediment to investment savings and economic growth.

Ha-Joon Chang would also argue, correctly, that Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are no path to development, but are a path to corporations seizing land, exploiting labour, and taking profits out of the country and offering nothing in return. All the damage that was done to people's lives and also to the dignity of the left at Nandigram to try to follow China to SEZ development was, in addition to being an ethical failure and a political one, based on incorrect economic analysis, including the notion that neoliberalism is a path to growth, when in fact it is a path to death.

In this light, we should also take a moment to celebrate the failure of the Doha round of the WTO talks. We are not out of danger, however, because the talks failed because the developed countries would not drop their subsidies in order to have parity with the developing countries that were asked to drop theirs. But it is much more important that the poor countries be allowed to have subsidies than it is for the rich countries to drop their subsidies. Poor countries need protected markets more than export market access, in other words. India was not making this argument, however, and the left should recognize this.

We should also make a note about inflation, which is one of the points of unity in the electoral alliance the Indian left has entered. Macroeconomic theory teaches that inflation is caused by demand outstripping supply or an oversupply of money, so governments can either suppress demand using taxes and other policies or tighten money supply with interest rates. Neoliberals are usually monetarists so it's interest rate hikes that are favoured. But the inflation that is happening today is different from other kinds, because it is based on rising energy prices, which are rising for many reasons, but one of which is that cheap oil is running out and more expensive energy sources are being resorted to. This means that while energy prices will still fluctuate, they are on a long-term upward trend and will drag food, transportation, and almost everything else with it – the global economy is based on energy, especially fossil fuel energy (which needs to change for environmental reasons that I will mention). So neither demand nor monetary management is going to help with this inflation, and trying to cool down the economy now will just exclude people and imperil growth. To mention Ha-Joon Chang again, he shows how in economic history growth often goes along with inflation, which isn't such a problem if it is accompanied by growth. It is usually a bigger problem for holders of wealth, but they are not going to starve, unlike many who would be put at further risk from a combination of high food prices and economic stagnation. I hope the left recognizes this as it develops its ideas for tackling inflation in India.

What about the long-term? The Indian left is against markets and for planning, and the left's critics argue that planning in India slowed growth and destroyed incentives. The relationship between planning and slow growth in India is a complex one (Vivek Chibber's book has some interesting material on it). But turning to the incentive question, there might be something to the critique. BR Ambedkar, in his book “The Annihilation of Caste” (1936, and one of the most important books ever written in my opinion), argues for the annihilation of caste and the creation of a society based on liberty, equality, and fraternity. He says that there are three kinds of inequality that can cause differnces in output: one, inequality of resources or tools; two, inequality of talent or ability; and three, inequality of effort. Of these three, he says, we can only tolerate inequality of effort, because including inequality for effort could elicit the maximum from people. This idea, of remuneration according to effort and sacrifice expended at work, is one way to restore incentives in a planned economy.

Another long-term economic question has to do with classlessness. The left seeks a classless society, which means it ultimately does not want private property. But property is not the only source of class hierarchy – there is also the hierarchy of the workplace. A university has a division between faculty and staff. A hospital has a division between doctors, nurses, and staff. A law firm has a division between lawyers and clerks. These are hierarchical divisions based on roles in the workplace, and they are accompanied by huge differences in both pay and, importantly, status. A classless economy would re-define jobs themselves, so that everyone did some mental and some menial, some rote and some interesting work. This would be a very deep change and it would include profound changes in the education system and attitudes, and would have workplaces ultimately run by the workers themselves, in councils. In a country where caste was traditionally based on occupation, and where class status is so strong, it would be good for the left to be aware of this type of class hierarchy and endeavour to stop practicing it internally.

Yet another long-term economic question, this time about planning. Critics of planning say it can never be as efficient as the market for matching supply and demand, and that it leads to distortions in supply. But there are several ways to plan: imagine a planning procedure in which consumers indicated their preferences for consumption and, at work, indicated their capacities and intentions for the coming year. These preferences could be aggregated into a preliminary plan for the economy which could be refined iteratively – this is feasible to do with computers and simpler economies have simpler planning demands. Kerala has experience of decentralized planning. This procedure is called 'participatory planning' and is developed in several books by one of the founders of ZNet, Michael Albert, and economist Robin Hahnel. These three elements: remuneration by effort, classlessness in the workplace, and participatory planning, form a model for a socialist economy called 'participatory economics'. I believe it contains useful ideas for maintaining incentives and efficiency ascribed to markets while thoroughly destroying class and keeping the benefits of planning. Being aware of models such as these is good for the left because it enables us to check our own movement culture. The same goes for caste, which here in Kerala leftists did undermine through their own internal movement cultural practice. There is still some way to go with gender, on the left and in society, in Kerala and throughout India, it seems to me.

3) Peace

A third suggestion is about peace. The late American liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who was ambassador to India and a member of the Democratic Party in the US, argued that the US Democrats made a strategic error by trying to act as “tough” as the Republicans. He suggested they concede “toughness” to the Republicans and paint themselves as, if having smaller muscles, at least being sane and not about to blow up the world. They could never be as “tough”, but there was no reason they had to allow the Republicans to look tough and also appear as the sane guardians of peace.

It seems that in today's dangerous, nuclear-armed world, armed conflicts favor capital, and armed left movements are far from power. While there is still a role for armed self-defense, especially of territory occupied by foreign invaders, the idea of a left group coming to power through armed struggle seems unlikely in the current context. The Maoists in Nepal came close, then opted for the path of dialogue and politics (though of course they retain their social and armed power), and I think they were wise to do so on both counts.

In Latin America, Chavez tried to negotiate between the Colombian government and FARC, not because he disagrees with FARC's stated leftist goals, but because their tactics had perverse political impact, besides being unethical on their own merits (kidnapping civilians, for example). Chavez never ever supported violence against the guerrillas, but sought to bring about a political process that could change the country that way. The Colombian state rejected this, but Chavez's efforts were in the right direction and may yet help movements make change there there.

It strikes me that the Indian left could play a similar role in opening a dialogue with the Naxalites. They are fighting partly for survival and self-defense, partly as part of a bigger political struggle based on their analysis. If their survival could be ensured politically, it would be reasonable to ask them to take the political rather than the armed route. Of course, it is worth noting that part of why the FARC are reluctant to do so is that, when they tried in the 1980s, several thousand of their activists were killed. Staying armed is better than getting massacred – part of the work of the left is to create an ethical and political path to social change.

Also, the Indian left should argue strongly for nuclear disarmament and peace with Pakistan. There is nothing for India to celebrate in Pakistan's current travails, and now is a good time to make moves for peace and integration, rather than the current situation in which both countries look to the US rather than each other.

4) Environment

Fourth, and I won't elaborate on this because it is a separate talk, but as an environmental scientist I have to mention the natural environment. India is going to suffer a great deal from climate change and, even though the problem is not of its making, it has an obligation to develop in a way that does not destroy the planet for future generations, including its own. Environmental problems are going to be increasingly severe, and the issue will appear across the political spectrum, with reactionaries and leftists making policy suggestions for environmental problems. There is likely to be, at some point in the future, some form of 'Green Party' in India. The left should not wait for this – it should be the green party, and adopt sensible ecological policies and development paths. The natural home of ecological concerns is the left, and the left must take this on for the sake of the planet.

Cautions and conclusions

Finally a few words of caution for the left in the current context. Watch out for non-governmental organizations. I have said independence of mind is necessary for the left. NGOs, usually funded by foreign governments in the rich countries, are dependent on their funders. The ideal relationship between a left organization and its constituency is one of mutuality: the organization depends on the people for funds and support, while representing and supporting the people's aspirations. NGOs break the mutuality: they provide assistance to people, and get the money to do so from funders, creating more of a patron-client relationship. They also take good, idealistic people away from left politics and into a more clientilistic world.

And last, I'll reiterate the point about internal movement culture. A left that is allergic to caste, class, and gender discrimination in its internal culture and practice as well as in its analysis will be extremely compelling to its natural allies in oppressed constituencies. Because India's left, able to operate in a somewhat democratic context, has developed such strength, despite failings and mistakes, it has great potential to advance. India has shown the world the way more than once: in its freedom struggle, and in its nonaligned foreign policy, for example. If it shows the way again, it will be at least in part because of the continuing relevance of the left here.

Thank you again for the chance to talk to you.

Justin Podur is a writer and activist of Indian (Malayali) origin, born and based in Toronto, Canada. His blog is