National Situation

The Defeat of the Left Front and the Search for Alternative Leftism

The Defeat of the Left Front and the Search for Alternative Leftism[*]

Soma Marik and Kunal Chattopadhyay

Even as late as 10 May, when the last round of polling was held for the 2011 West Bengal Assembly elections, Left Front leaders, especially Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) leaders were announcing with complete confidence and a degree of arrogance that they were going to form the 8th LF government. 24 Ghanta (24 Hours), a pro-CPI(M) television channel even produced an “exit poll” result, according to which the LF would get close to a majority. The counting of votes on 13 May showed how totally away from reality the Left Front leaders were. After this, CPI(M) leaders were heard complaining  that they had been dissociated from the masses. But this merely partial comment does not explain what had happened. A CPI(M) youth leader, currently political bureau member Sitaram Yechuri, had visited Romania shortly before the fall of the party-state regime there, and had reported that All IZZ Well. When the regime fell, some youth close to the party charged him with lying to the party. A party veteran,  M Basavapunnaiah defended him, saying, Yechuri had not lied to his party, nor had the Romanian party comrades lied to the Indian party. It was the people of Romania who had lied to their party. This arrogant belief that a personified history had given the communist party power for all time, and that people should serve the party rather than the other way round, has been bred deep into the official, Moscow-Beijing brands of communism. The Party imagines the ‘real’ people in terms of its wishes and its bureaucratic command systems. If the masses do not fit the imagination, they are non-proletarian, even reactionary. This attitude of manipulating the masses, of riding them to power, persists in all shades of Stalinism. If the CPI(M) believes in manipulating them for electoral gains, the CPI (Maoist) believes in taking power purely by force of arms and in declaring people who do not support them, whatever their class position, as enemy agents. As a result, the CPI(M) has so far been unable to make a class analysis of its defeat. Now that pro-TMC intellectuals and post-modernists are saying that the discourse of class is itself irrelevant, such an analysis is even more necessary, so we shall attempt a preliminary one. We have presented some statistical data in three tables.






Election results of major parties


Total Seats




Forward Bloc


Other Left

Other significant parties


238 (the figures for all seats not known)



Did not exist




 9 Jan Sangh, 4 Hindu Mahasabha








21 Praja Socialist Party

25 Hindu Mahasabha

















7 PSP, 7 SSP, 4 SUCI, 2 Workers Party, 1 Marxist FB

34 Bangla Congess, 1 Jan Sangh, 1 Swatantra









33 Bangla Congress, 4 Gorkha League








4 Other LF partners, 4 SUCI (anti-LF), 1 CPI(ML)

29 Janata Party









30 Trinamool Congress, 3 GNLF





40 (reduced to 39 after a by-poll)




184 TMC, 3 GJMM, 1 independent

The figures for all seats were not found. We have given the seats for the major Left Parties, the major Rightwing parties, and the most important national/ethnic minority party to win seats.

Congress – Traditional and principal party of Indian bourgeoisie.

CPI – Communist Party of India, from which a pro-China break off to found the CPI(M), and then the most pro-China people left it to form a number of Naxalite organisations

RSP – Revolutionary Socialist Party. Originally a large anti-Stalinist party which however dissociated itself from Trotskyism, though it ha d a few Trotskyists in its ranks. Member of the Left Front for a long time.

KMPP – Now defunct, merged into the socialist Party.

Jan Sangh – Hindu Rightwing party, predecessor of the BJP

Hindu Mahasabha – proto-fascist Hindu rightwng party, one of whose ex-members was responsible for the murder of Gandhi.

SUCI—Extreme Stalinist formation with its own cult leader, Sibdas Ghosh

MFB—split off from Forward Bloc

RCPI—Anti-Stalinist Party. Now a small group inside Left Front, with little political weight or anti-Stalinism left

Bangla Congress – Small landlord based split from Congress in 1966-67.

Janata Party – United organisation formed by the Socialist Party, the Congress (O) [which was the anti-Indira Gandhi faction when the Congress was split in 1969 by Indira Gandhi], the Jan Sangh and the Swatantra Party, along with dissidents from Indira Gandhi-led Congress. Formed in 1977, split in 1979-80. A predecessor of the subsequent janata Dal.

Swatantra Party – Formed by erstwhile rulers of princely states and advocates of economic liberalism and opponents of the state-led capitalist development model adopted after independence.

Gorkha League – First major Gorkha organisation speaking for the Gorkha [Indian Nepalo] population of the hill areas of West Bengal

GNLF – Gorkha National Liberation Front

GJMM – Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha [lit. Gorkha Peoples Liberation Platform]









Table – 2

Seats in the Burdwan District (mainly industrial areas)



Votes secured



Asansol North

Moloy Ghatak (TMC)


Ranu Roychowdhury (CPIM)


Asansol South

Tapas Banerjee (TMC)


Ashok Kr. Mukherjee (CPIM)



Md. Sohrab Ali (TMC)


Runu Dutta (CPIM)



Ujjal Chatterjee (TMC)


Maniklal Acharyya (FB)



Jahanara Khan (CPIM)


Pravat Kr. Chatterjee



Durgapur West

Apoorva Mukherjee (TMC)


Biprendu Kr. Chakraborty



Durgapur East

Nikhil Kumar Banerjee (TMC)


Alpana Chowdhury(CPIM)



Table- 3

Mostly Industrial and white collar Seats Near Kolkata








Trinamul Congress


Dum Dum North

Trinamul Congress



Trinamul Congress



Trinamul Congress



Trinamul Congress



Trinamul Congress



Trinamul Congress



Trinamul Congress



Trinamul Congress



Trinamul Congress



Trinamul Congress



Trinamul Congress



Trinamul Congress







The Meaning of the Statistical Data:

If we look at the votes received by the left forces from 1952 to the present, we find that the election of 2011 has pushed them to the position they had in 1957. We have omitted the massively rigged 1972 elections. Of course, CPI(M) leaders will try to explain the votes in diverse ways. They have already claimed that the total votes secured by the Left Front increased compared to the parliamentary polls of 2009. They are also presenting convoluted claims about percentages. This is all rather pointless. India has always had the British model first past the post system, and in the past the Left Front has benefitted, as when in 2001 Congress and TMC local level rivalries meant candidates against one another and the resultant left victory.

1.      The LF says it has received a high percentage of votes. True. But the Congress, and the Janata Party, had both received significant percentage of votes in 1977, when the LF came to power. We have the first past the post system in India, and flawed as it is, the LF itself has been its beneficiary for three decades.

2.      Even if we look at percentage points, the LF share has declined in comparison not only to 2006 Assembly elections, but even the 2009 parliamentary elections.

3.      In a whole series of predominantly working class seats the LF has done very badly. Both in the so-called red belt of Burdwan as well as in areas near Kolkata, the LF has fared badly in industrial seats. Thus both the organised and the unorganised working class voted solidly against the LF.

One simple calculation shows that the people, not merely the elite, had turned violently against the LF. The main mass organisations led by the LF parties, that is, trade unions, peasant organisations, women’s organisations, student organisations, youth organisations, teachers’ organisations, government employees’ organisations, put together had a membership of about 35 million or a bit more. If we assume a 25 per cent overlap (one person being member of more than one organisation) they still had about 26.2 million members. Across West Bengal the total votes received by the LF was 16.9 million. In other words, after the 2006 elections, a vast number of workers and peasants, formerly aligned with the LF, have turned increasingly against it. Postal ballots, cast by people on election duties, were mostly from government employee or school teacher categories. In these sectors the CPI(M) has had an iron grip for over three decades. But while overall the LF won 62 seats, in the postal ballot counting they were ahead in merely 39 seats. So neither a mono-causal harping on canards spread by the media, nor a claim that Singur mistakes resulted in the defeat, are enough. We must search for the causes in the transformations of the mainstream left and its class basis.

The Communist International and the Transformation of Indian Communism

Without understanding the transformation of communism in India, there is no point in either abusing the CPI(M), or the Maoists, or the SUCI’s love for the TMC. From the foundation of the CPI, whether in Tashkent or inside India, serious communists worked among the working class, built militant trade unions like the Girni Kamgar Union or the Bengal Chatkal Mazdoor Union. They also became vanguard fighters against British imperialism. At the Kolkata session of the Congress where the radicals were defeated by Gandhi in their attempt to pass a purna swaraj resolution, 50,000 workers marched up to the Congress pandal demanding full independence. Through Workers and Peasants Parties, the CPI also started working among peasants, though the two-class party conception .

In order to smash this growing communist threat, British imperialism launched a furious offensive. The Meerut Conspiracy Case was started, and most leading communists arrested and put on trial for a process that lasted several years. The party was in disarray. And before it could overcome these problems, there was a profound transformation wrought in international communism, to which we must turn.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, its leaders, like Lenin, Trotsky or Bukharin, were clear that the interests of the Russian working class were not national interests but class interests, and these class interests transcended international frontiers. Only a world socialist revolution would ensure socialism in their country as well. For the first time, European socialist revolutionaries decided that the struggles of the colonial masses were as important as the struggles in the imperialist metropolis. During the Brest Litovsk negotiations, the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Trotsky, announced that the Soviet government recognised the right of all exploited colonies to self determination. The foundation of the Communist International in 1919 also began a process of thought concerning how to achieve the colonial revolution. In 1920 came the celebrated Lenin-Roy debate. Roy’s thesis, often ignored, had an important point that Lenin conceded. Roy had made very erroneous comments – like charging that the European working class was incapable of being really revolutionary. But Roy had argued that not all colonies were the same. Some had powerful local capitalists, so in those countries the class struggle had to include opposition to local exploiters as sharply as the opposition to imperialism. While Lenin was right in stressing some of Roy’s one-sided formulations, and in amending them, he also supported accepting that document as a supplementary document.

Before World War I, Marxists believed that not only in colonies but also in backward countries like Russia, the coming revolution would be a bourgeois democratic revolution. Lenin wrote a thick book, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, where his debate with the Mensheviks was over the tactical line within a common understanding about the stage of revolution. In 1917, however, the Bolsheviks, not without internal debates, ended up accepting more or less the arguments advanced first in 1905 by Leon Trotsky, according to which, if the working class took the leading role in overthrowing tsarist autocracy, they would not be able to stop short at the bourgeois stage of revolution. Internal dynamics of class struggle would compel them , even if they tried to implement their minimum programme, to go beyond it and take over class power and make deep inroads into the rule of capital.

After 1919, these ideas were also taken up, gradually, in connection with the colonial revolutions. It was with the Chinese Revolution (1925-27) and its bloody defeat, that debates led to the clear separation of two opposite lines.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was part of a world revolution. There was an armed uprising for Irish freedom, in which Marxists like Conolly played an important role, in 1916. In 1918-19, revolutions broke out in Germany, Austria-Hungary. In Hungary, for a short while, there was even proclaimed a dictatorship of the proletariat. A general strike brought the Italian bourgeoisie almost to its knees in 1920. In 1919, China saw the famous May 4th Movement. In India, there were agitatins all the way from the Anti-Rowlatt Act agitations to the Non Violent Non Cooperation. But by 1920-21, most of these struggles were slowing down and capitalism getting a relative stability. Meanwhile an isolated soviet Russia had lost its bravest workers in a bloody civil war aided by imperialism and interventionist forces. Other vanguard workers were enmeshed in the essential tasks of running the working class state. But with all other parties more or less either siding with the Whites or playing an uncertain role, Soviet democracy virtually broke down.

At this juncture, Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades made two vital mistakes. First, in order to save the revolution during the civil war they had to adopt emergency measures that might have been essential but were temporary expedients that went against the basic premises of workers democracy. These included actions like banning the opposition press. Necessary during the civil war, it was a plain mistake to persist in this and to even justify it as a higher form of class rule. Secondly, because only one party stood for the revolution, increasingly the distinctions between party and state started getting blurred. From 1922, Lenin, Trotsky, and some other leaders and cadres felt worried about this. Lenin in particular saw the office and the staff of the General Secretary of the Party as a centre of the infection. Moshe Lewin’s book, Lenin’s Last Struggle, shows how the sick Lenin fought his best against Stalin and the bureaucratic power around him.

From mid-1923 Trotsky launched a battle for extension of democracy. 46 party leaders demanded discussions for a new course. This was the last time a democratic debate was begun. But as Trotsky and the Left Opposition looked like gaining huge support in Moscow, manipulations and anti-democratic methods were started. In the rest of the country there was hardly any open debate. Eventually at the 13th Party Conference the Left had only three representatives. Between 1924 and 1929, Stalin consolidated power. In the initial stages Zinoviev and Kamenev supported him in order to reduce the popularity of Trotsky, assuming it was a mere factional conflict without serious social implications. But the social reality was never absent. The defeat of the world revolution meant a precarious equilibrium. This made possible the rise of the bureaucracy. But the bureaucracy needed a certified Old Bolshevik. Stalin was willing. The Left Opposition was attacked for violating party discipline and was accused of being semi-Menshevik because (a) they did not believe it possible to build a classless society in isolated Russia, and (b)they thought that the social democracy was a reformist wing of the working class movement, so in order to defeat fascism a United Front with it was necessary.

After the defeat of Trotsky, Stalin, now supported by Bukharin, embarked on an economic policy that turned Zinoviev and Kamenev against them. Moreover, from this period the Communist International was turned into an instrument of Soviet foreign policy, which Zinoviev, the President of the Comintern, objected to. Routed at a rigged party congress, they now joined hands with Trotsky, and all other leftwing currents, to form the United Opposition. In 1926-27, this United Opposition fought over a number of issues – restoring working class democracy, industrialisation, support to revolutionary processes and working class independence, etc. This time they could not even present their views before the party. Instead, they were expelled. Zinoviev and Kamenev recanted, but the Left Opposition did not. It was sent into exile, then further repressed in the 1930s till the final purge when the surviving left opposition leaders were tried, forced to confess to absurd charges, and executed, or shot dead without even the pretence of a legal trial.

The Debate over the Chinese Revolution:

The new bureaucratic layer that began dominating detached the “national” interests of the USSR, which in turn was identified with the social privileges of this layer, from the historic interests of the international working class. The Communist International was turned into an instrument of foreign policy of the USSR. At one stage of this process, in the hope of getting the support of the Kuomintang regime of China against the imperialists, the Communist Party of China was turned into a subordinate of the Kuomintang. Much earlier, as a tactical measure, the CPC had entered the KMT. But when the KMT began putting forward demands that went against basic communist interests, including accepting Sun Yat Sen’s thought as the highest principle, and handing over the lists of party members inside the KMT to the KMT leadership, many leaders of the CPC objected. They included Chen Duxiu, the General Secretary of the CPC. But in the name of Comintern discipline, advisers from Moscow compelled them to follow this line. In the Comintern, Trotsky, Radek, Zinoviev, the Yugoslav communist Vuyovich, opposed this line. During debates in the Soviet communist Party and in the Comintern the line upheld in particular by the Left Opposition included the following points:

·         The Communist Party must have freedom of action

·         Only an independent working class power can properly lead the tremendous agrarian unrest

·         The bourgeoisie can compromise at any time with imperialism

·         If an anti-imperialist revolution was led by the working class and was based on a worker-peasant alliance then it would not stop at the bourgeois stage but would press forward to become a part of the world socialist revolution.

In response Stalin and his then ally Bukharin said the bourgeoisie was not in a position to betray – this speech of Stalin was naturally hidden from his so-called collected works, but post-glasnost research shows that documents published by Trotsky were accurate. Further, according to Stalin and Bukharin, an abstract notion of stage of revolution determined the tasks. Since this was seen as a bourgeois stage, so they concluded, one must keep the bourgeoisie as ally. Eventually, all the loyal allies on whom Stalin was banking, Chiang Kai Shek, Wang Ching Wei, and others, betrayed, if that isthe right word when they were serving their own class. The Chinese Revolution was drowned in blood. And then, to conceal this, an ultraleft, totally irresponsible uprising was organised in Canton, using surviving pro-Communist troops and some workers. This resulted in the total annihilation of the CCP from the major cities.

This experience led to a sharp polarisation of lines. Stalin and his friends said that in the colonies the bourgeoisie is an ally and must be kept pacified. The Left wing communists said that the colonial bourgeoisie might fight against imperialism in its own interest from time to time, but it will never hesitate to crush the rebellious workers and peasants and to form an alliance with imperialism for that cause. In order to counter the left opposition and also to defeat Bukharin, from 1928 Stalin embarked on a seemingly left line. This included suddenly declaring a “third period” of class struggle since World War I when revolution was imminent and there could be no alliance with any reformists. This saw the German Communist Party declaring the Social Democrats to be Social Fascists.

The Communist Party of India and Stalinism:

Founded in 1920 abroad and in 1925 in India, the Communist Party of India had a rather poor foundation. By the time the different Indian communist groups got together to create an all India party in 1925, the Communist International was already undergoing a transformation. M. N. Roy had shifted from his excessive leftism of the Second Congress to a right communist position, and was one of the advocates of the two class party idea. Workers and Peasants Parties were formed in a number of provinces. Then came the left line, faithfully parroted in India, whereby the All India Trade Union Congress was split and Red Trade Unions created, which enabled reformists to control the AITUC after a period of growing communist influence. There followed a massive blow. British imperialism had launched the Meerut Conspiracy Case. A large number of CPI leaders and trade unionists close to them were arrested. All the way to 1935, this sectarian line persisted, so that the genuine limitations of the bourgeois nationalist leadership could not be used to effectively fight to remove their hegemony over the freedom movement.

In 1935, two years after Hitler’s triumph, the Communist International changed its line.  Sobhanlal Dutta Gupta has argued persuasively that Dimitrov, who crafted the so-called United Front line, led people who were trying to resist and change Stalin’s line. Their subjective motives might be important. But Dutta Gupta underestimates the Stalinist bureaucracy’s own needs. When it felt threatened by Hitler, it did not simply call for working class united fronts. Instead, it went all out to forge alliances with capitalist, imperialist powers opposed to German aims. Thus, it became a sudden devotee of the League of Nations. The Communist International’s Seventh Congress saw a spurious United Front line being developed, in which “democratic” bourgeoisie also found place. The application for India came in the form of a document written by Veteran Stalinist R. Palme Dutt and Ben Bradley. As a result, this document has often been called the Dutt-Bradley thesis. It said that the entire Congress must be a partner in the struggles. Giving such an undertaking meant effectively abandoning any struggle for hegemony.

Reception of Stalinism and the Transformation of the CPI:

The Communist International control over the CPI, and hence effectively the Stalinist transformation of the CPI, was deeper in the period after this. As a result, those Maoists who claim that Khruschevite or Brezhnevite revisionism has dragged in class collaboration are simply covering up for certain crimes of Stalinism. One dimension that should be mentioned in particular is the recruitment of large numbers of revolutionary nationalists. This had contradictory effects. The revolutionary nationalists were men and women of middle class origin, especially in Bengal. They had rejected the Gandhian path and sought for more militant routes to overthrowing the British. This was what eventually attracted them to Marxism. At the same time, their previous politics and organisational tactics, which looked at the masses of people as passive supporters while the revolutionary organisation was the dynamic, heroic body, made them receptive to an interpretation of the communist party as vanguard where substitutionism became central. The former revolutionary nationalists played a decisive role in building the CPI in Bengal. But the substitutionism was retained, and would repeatedly come out and express itself, now decked in apparently Marxist forms, with quotations from Lenin and Stalin.

Between 1936 and 1948, the various lines of the CPI were united in their all being class collaborationist. Up to the outbreak of World War II, the attempt was to be with the Congress. This involved manoeuvrings, such as providing only limited support to Subhas Chandra Bose, the petty bourgeois leftist leader who was pushing for greater militancy and who was eventually pushed out of Congress by Gandhi and his supporters. During the war, once the USSR was invaded by Hitler, the CPI proclaimed the war to be a “Peoples’ War” and as a result opposed the Quit India movement and abandoned any pretence to any class struggle. After the war too, while the post-war upsurge saw the CPI gaining ground, it did so within a strategy of bourgeois hegemony. Thus, challenging the congress hegemony was completely out of its vision.

Within this, however, the CPI General Secretary through this entire period, P. C. Joshi, seems to have had a policy of extending CPI influence though civil society. He understood, correctly, that sectarianism or imposition of the party line from above would not allow for such penetration into civil society. But this in turn led to a blurring of class lines. Thus, in the final period before independence, when a major question was how to avoid partition, Joshi’s stress was not on class struggle to overcome religious sectarianism, but the appeal to Gandhi and Jinnah to meet and negotiate.

This was opposed by another member of the CPI Politbureau, B. T. Ranadive. By 1948, with Communist Information Bureau support and directive, his line was dominant. Ranadive replaced Joshi as Genersal Secretary. This was a call for rapid shift to a revolution by fiat. Party workers were told to push for agitations and conflicts. An ultra left outlook was imposed. Its culmination came with the call for an all-India railway general strike, an utterly unplanned and impractical move that in fact set back the railway union and demoralised cadres. Three key political errors committed by Randive remained, despite all formal criticism of that period, in the party’s outlook.

  • Imposition of complete party control on unions and other mass organisations.
  • Refusing to recognise that the Indian bourgeoisie had wrested considerable power from imperialism.
  • Calling for armed struggle in a country where (bourgeois) democratic freedoms were being set up and therefore in fact gaining in popularity.

These would be the features of “left” variants of Stalinism over all these years.

But the defeat of Ranadive did not end ultraleftism. The first round of Maoism in India came up in the form of the Andhra line. Rajeswar Rao (later CPI General Secretary), Tarimela Nagi Reddy (later the most important of the Andhra naxalite leaders), Devulapalli Venkateswara Rao and others pushed for a rural guerrilla warfare line in imitation of China.

What these alternatives meant was that Indian Stalinism oscillated between abject surrender to bourgeois democracy and absolute rejection of it even when it was present and could not be flatly rejected.

In the 1950s the inner-party debates in the CPI had three sides. One was the Maoist current, often submerged. The other two were two tactical lines within a general agreement that in a country like India a two stage revolution was essential, and this meant seeking bourgeois allies. The sophisticated verbal wrestling over National Front and Democratic Front essentially meant whether the allies were to be sought among “progressive Congressmen” or among parties outside the Congress. Led by Mohan Kumarmangalam, one large group took the logical next step and left CPI to join the Congress, themselves becoming “progressive Congressmen”.

From the United Front to the Left Front

In the context of West Bengal, the Dutt-Bradley thesis had its first triumphs in the form of the 1967 and 1969 West Bengal United Front governments. Popular discontent after two decades of Congress rule was harnessed to electoralism. Two fronts had been created, one through an alliance between the CPI and the Bangla Congress, a split off from the Congress, and the other under CPI(M) leadership. The CPI-CPI(M) split had been bitter, and the CPI(M) had been more concerned with establishing itself as the major force in opposition to the CPI. But it was seen that results were compelling the left parties to combine, along with Bangla Congress.

At the same time, the Maoists saw this as the opportunity to go in for a fresh attempt at revolution. For them, bourgeois democracy was not truncated democracy but not democracy at all. Fascism and bourgeois democracy were one and the same. The only way to remain a revolutionary was to call for armed struggle, which was being delayed, not for any objective reason, but solely because the leadership consisted of large numbers of traitors. So, basing themselves on militant peasant struggles for land that had broken out in Naxalbari, they decided to go in for armed revolution. This led to a split in the CPI(M) and the formation of the CPI(ML), the MCC and the UCCRI(ML), three of the principal Maoist organisations. For the CPI and the CPI(M), in the same period, the aim was to go into government, carry out some reforms, but ensure that the government lasted. Neither line was very successful. The UF was unstable, because the bourgeois partners were not willing to tolerate any kind of militancy. Ajoy Mukherjee, the Chief Minister and Bangla Congress leader, eventually carried out the farce of organising a protest against his own government. This period ended in 1971-72, when a new tough Congress leader, S. S. Ray, took charge in the province. He used a combination of police and central forces, along with groups of armed youth, to carry out tremendous violence against all shades of the left. This had different consequences for different parties. The Maoist groups were severely repressed. As a result, there were multiple splits, and it would be a long time before the number of Maoist groups came down and distinct strategies emerged.

For the CPI(M) it was different. This party had projected itself as being to the left of the CPI, and of being mainly a pro-China party in the international debate. Now it shifted stances. The search for bourgeois partners on the all-India scale intensified. As repression forced the party to turn to defensive action in West Bengal, it sought help from the anti-Congress (Indira) Grand Alliance (the Congress(O), the Swatantra, the Jan Sangh and the Socialist Party).In 1974-5, it participated in the “partyless” democracy movement launched by Jaya Prakash Narayan, and marched without flags side by side with cadres of the RSS and other rightwing forces. Meanwhile the CPI, which had been whittled down by the CPI(M) in West Bengal, had joined hands with S.S. Ray in the 1972 elections, under the plea that through actions like bank nationalisation Indira Gandhi had shown that her party represented the progressive national bourgeoisie. The 1972 elections to the West Bengal Assembly were conducted under a reign of rightwing terror. CPI(M) election agents were often simply driven away from polling stations. Booth capturing, false voting, forced voting, were rampant. The CPI saw its seats increasing as the junior partner of the Congress(I), but as a result of that very alliance, its reputation plummeted greatly. During the J.P.-led movement, the CPI argued that this was a fascist movement, by pointing to the RSS component. Having done so, it tail-ended the Congress(I), and when Indira Gandhi declared the “Emergency” (a suspension of many of the basic democratic rights and the establishment of a dictatorship) the CPI went on to support that.

In 1977 Indira Gandhi ended the emergency and went in for elections, under the impression that she would win. Instead she was swept away. The Bharatiya Lok Dal, formed by several anti-Congress (I) parties in 1974, was expanded, including Congress dissidents and the Jan Sangh, to become the Janata Party. A Janata government was formed. The CPI(M) was a purely default beneficiary of this process. Since CPI(M) leaders, confident that with the passage of years people have forgotten what the situation was, now make tall claims, let us quote briefly an article by Biman Basu, CPI(M) leader, where in an unguarded moment he had let slip the truth. “In the elections to the state assembly that were held soon afterwards, the Janata Party underestimated the Left Front, considered it as the junior constituent and adamantly demanded that it would fight 60 percent of the constituencies. Following a series of discussions between the leaders of the Janata Party and the Left Front, the Left Front finally placed the proposal that the Front would file candidates in 48 percent of the seats and the Janata Party in 52 percent. But the Janata Party would not accept anything below 56 percent of the seats, and the talks broke down. In the changed situation, the Left Front resolved to put up candidates in all the 294 assembly seats.”[1]

In other words, had Prafulla Sen, former Congress Chief Minister of West Bengal and in 1977 the leader of the Janata Party in West Bengal, not become too greedy,  there would have been no 34 year long Left Front government. When the CPI(M) leaders seek to remind people of the “progressive’ steps taken by the Left Front government, we need to be clear as to how progressive these were and why. Certainly, we make a distinction between reformism and rabid right wing politics. The Left Front won the elections of 1977, for whatever reasons, foolishness of Prafulla Sen or not. And they stated in power for 34 years. We have heard much talk about “scientific rigging” by the CPI(M) and so on. The real cases of rigging are well known – for example in the famous Garbeta election where CPI(M) polled over ninety percent votes in many booths, due to massive intimidation of voters by Susanto Ghosh. But the sustained victories were the result of a combination of reasons. They included the first past the post system and on one hand the unity of the Left Front and on the other the fragmentation of anti-Left Front votes; but they also included large scale voting by workers, peasants, agricultural labourers and the urban petty bourgeoisie in favour of the Left Front.  So we need a more serious probing of the politics and ideology behind the sustained victories of the Left Front.

Class Struggle:

In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the CITU [the CPI(M) led trade union centre] was certainly built through militant struggles. But it was also built by attacks on rival unions. Today, the CPI, as a friend of the CPI(M), may not admit it publicly, but if one reads the pages of the CPI daily Kalantar for the period under discussion, or if one looks at certain pamphlets put out by the CPI and the AITUC, the crude violence unleashed on the AITUC in order to “capture” unions is well recorded. Thus, violence within the working class in the name of defeating revisionism went hand in hand with struggles in jute mills. This combination of two trends intensified after 1977. The CITU sometimes carried out aggressive unionism. But state intervention helped its cause. And being in the wrong union was a serious offence. Police firing killed a worker in the Calcutta Docks early in LF days. Parimal Dasgupta, a trade union leader with Naxalite leanings, had built up a strong union among electricity workers. This union came in for a degree of attack that even many Naxalite critics had perhaps been unprepared for. But on the other side were certain measures, like security for trade unionists of certain types, as well as a growth in the numbers, wages and security of government employees and government-aided workers. In other words, sections of the working class were given patronage, and as long as it was possible to provide small scale benefits for workers without directly provoking the basic interests of the ruling class, some such actions were taken.

In the agrarian field, occupation of vested land and its distribution among landless peasants had been a major form adopted in the days of the United Front. The amount distributed under the long Left Front regime was less than what had been done through militant peasant participation in the 1960s. But still, a lot of small peasants got some land. Then came Operation Barga, the registration of sharecroppers. This was a purely bourgeois reformist move as it did not challenge class relations in the countryside at all. Registration merely listed the sharecropper. And it was a selective process. Moreover, studies have found that in a number of cases, big peasants leased in land posing as sharecroppers, from smaller peasants, so that they could not be “evicted”. In short, the consequences were far more complex. Finally, sharecroppers who lacked the ability to get modern material for agricultural work were left behind and often ended up part of their land.

Another action that initially strengthened the Left Front in the countryside was the three-tier panchayat system [rural local self government system]. Here, in the first elections, the CPI(M) showed an ability to use class struggle in a controlled manner for short term electoral gains. But within a short while, a new dominant layer rose up, combining party bureaucracy, middle peasant, and state bureaucracy under ultimate party control.

The Bengali Petty Bourgeois Elite:

The transfer of the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 began the process of Calcutta’s economic decline. After independence, while Bombay based itself on indigenous capitalists to grow in stature as an industrial as well as commercial city, a Calcutta centred economy actually bled West Bengal while failing to maintain the economic standing of Calcutta either. The spread of the railways, the rise of Gandhi and then the left, meant that in the twentieth century politics became mass politics and people all over the country were involved, a process deepened by parliamentary elections. Speaking eloquent and flowery English was no longer the sole passport to rising high in the political sphere. Thus, economically as well as politically, by the 1950s Calcutta was suffering a decline.

Left politics capitalised on this, but in the process transformed itself. From the 1920s to the 1940s, despite the growth of Stalinism, class struggle in some form, and a focus on worker-peasant mobilisation, even if in a controlled manner, had been vital to CPI politics. This changed from the 1950s. The tebhaga movement was the last major rural struggle launched in Bengal. From the 1950s, the new cornerstone of Stalinist politics in West Bengal was refugee politics. As a result of partition, and subsequent communal violence, there was history’s greatest population transfer between India and Pakistan. India took better care to settle refugees from West Pakistan, since many of them came so close to the capital Delhi. Refugees from East Pakistan got a much more raw deal. This enabled opposition parties to take upo the issue. If we look at the growth of the CPI and other left parties and the decline of the Hindu Right, a significant picture emerges. Congress got 150 seats in 1952, 152 in 1957 and 157 in 1962. It was the Jan Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha that were wiped out. It was thus a regionalist identity and a petty bourgeois ideology and politics that dominated. At its core was a belief that Bengal had a right, from which it had been cheated by an uncaring central government. This was even enshrined in print in a famous book by the journalist Ranajit Roy, entitled The Agony of West Bengal. Banned during the emergency, it virtually created the horizon of expectation of the Bengali middle class or bhadralok. This was then taken up in lieu of class struggle by the Left Front government. For its entire duration, a common song it used to sing was about the “central government’s step-motherly attitude to West Bengal”.

The second crucial political dynamics of left front rule in West Bengal was the Stalinist attitude about party and class. Their substitutionism, wedded to bourgeois parliamentarism, meant that the only role the masses had was to vote for the party and to dutifully turn out for meetings called by the party or take part in occasional bandhs called against the Central Government. The Stalinist nomenklatura was replicated in West Bengal as far as possible. In state, economy, civil society, everywhere the important position were occupied by people who were pushed into position by chosen people. Most of the time, loyalty to the party was the chief criterion for their selection. In municipalities, in public sector undertakings, in the health and education sectors, a vast network of patronage and distribution of benefits was set up. Though this, a large petty bourgeois population as tied to the party. These social layers had relatively little interest in investment and capital accumulation. They wanted positions in the bureaucracy, education and health sectors, and certain specific types of government-friendly industries.

In the field of education they were so massively present, that after the fall of the Left Front, the new incumbents have found it difficult to get a sufficient number of academics on their side. There was first the bid to capture Calcutta University. This was followed by the capture of other Universities, The College Service Commission, set up to streamline the process of teacher recruitment, became a recruiting ground for students who had followed the correct political choice. Then came a similar action with regard to schools, through the setting up of the School Service Commission. In the last fifteen years of Left front rule, Vice Chancellors of Universities were little more than rubber stamps for the state CPI(M) headquarters at Alimuddin Street. To be really skilled was quite often a certificate of disentitlement from more scholarly positions.

In the Health Sector, a major development was the decline of public health care and the nexus between party and promoters of private hospitals. One can add to this the nexus between party and house developer-promoters. Over the last two decades they have flouted every law in the books, filled up water bodies illegally, forcibly taken over land, used local hoodlums to get rid of poorer residents in many areas, and begun the building of massive urban complexes.

So what needs to be realised is that during its first twenty years, the Left Front gave a little bit to some sections of the working people. In the last fifteen to twenty years it has given much more to he newly wealthy layers. One might say that in a cruel paradox of history, by agreeing to take power and attempt to rule for such a long time in a capitalist set up with a backward economy, the Left Front has actually succeeded in creating a kind of capitalist layer in Bengal who are indigenous Bengalis. The upwardly mobile petty bourgeois, along with the party and state bureaucracy formed the principal social basis of the Left Front. The workers and poor peasants were taken for granted, but especially in the last decade, virtually never consulted or even thought about.

The Challenge of Globalisation

As the foregoing discussion shows, the nature of the class struggle was not the same through all 34 years. The Left Front government was, in the first place, a government of reformist parties of Stalinist origin within the bourgeois set up. They had brought about a kind of equilibrium for some time, based on bureaucratically ensuring largesse to some layers of workers, pay scales and dearness allowance, the granting of licenses etc. Leftism had come to mean some small donations for the toilers within the existing set up. From the 1990s, as the pressure of liberalisation mounted, maintaining this became ever more difficult. As private capital started playing an ever greater role compared to the state, the song and dance about how the centre was depriving Bengalis was also becoming obsolete.

Class struggle under the new circumstances demanded new tactics. In the name of accepting international agreements, exploitative terms were being imposed. The response to this had to be militant countrywide struggles. The creation of first Export Promotion Zones and then Special Economic Zones made it necessary to build new style trade unions, to organise the unorganised. But a policy of distributing patronage from the government could not cope with such changes. On the other hand, for many in the Maoist mould, the belief that armed struggle is true revolution and trade union building a reformist activity, meant that they too tended to underestimate the need for such sustained struggles. Yet the Stalinist two-stage theory of revolution made even the problem of peasants insurmountable as they were faced with the challenge of multinational agribusiness. The large-scale penetration of international capital into agriculture means greater stress on the production of commercial crops, class differentiation sharpening within the peasantry, and much more capital intensive production systems coming up. In a place like West Bengal, with limited land, substantial distribution and considerably low land ceiling, the solution for small peasants, agricultural labourers, sharecroppers, is only possible through cooperatives, collective farming and similar efforts. But that in turn is possible only if workers and peasants in alliance gain power and exercise it democratically.  The profit oriented short term agricultural strategies of capitalism have also caused untold harm for the environment, has ruined agricultural land, and depleted water. Yet the leftism of the Left Front never took any of this into cognizance.

When the CPI(M) saw that in the USSR, former Stalinists switched to capitalist restoration after breaking up the CPSU, and in China the CPC signboard was retained while restoring capitalism, its leadership also adopted a line of cautiously adapting to globalised capitalism in the Indian context. So their strategy underwent a sea-change. From 1977 to 1990, keeping in mind their contradictory situation – an opposition at the all-India level though a ruling party in West Bengal and periodically in Kerala, they had waged some amount of struggles, while keeping firmly to the basic class collaborationist popular frontism they had learnt from the 1930s. All Social Democratic and Stalinist reformism has been compelled to do this. But from the mid-1990s there was a clear change, as the CPI(M) decided to overcome the widening gap between old ideology and new reality. Their principal target, the urban petty bourgeoisie, was adapting to the lures of capitalism. Mobile phones, computers, shopping malls, more easily available Western goods as the trade barriers were removed, all attracted this layer. In order to ensure the profits of big capital and the desires of the petty bourgeoisie, privatisation grew in the fields of education, health care, and other services. Attacks were mounted on the workers, peasants, and the urban plebeian masses. The sequence began with Operation Sunshine in 1996, when hawkers were sought to be removed on the ground that they were illegal encroachers. Of course they were, but because the economy and the state have made no legal provisions for their survival. Then came the Tolly Nullah evictions in 2001, the eviction of shanty dwellers in Beliaghata, and a whole strategy of urbanisation that ignored the poor or the lower middle class. Peasants’ lands were purchased for a song in Rajarhat, near the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, and elsewhere, and handed over to promoters who are now getting per flat what they had paid per acre.

But this is where the Left Front stumbled. The closure of many old industries and the loss of jobs by workers, the systematic theft of PF money by factory owners, and government silence and even careful support to the owners, and the resultant demoralisation of the working class; the building of SEZs, the takeover of peasant land, turned peasants hostile. Two other vote banks were also placed in jeopardy. The situation of the former refugees has not remained static. For many, now that rehabilitation has been achieved, a feeling of grievance against Muslims (on the ground that they had been driven out of East Bengal by Muslims) resurfaced. The Hindutva forces, notably the BJP, has begun capitalising on this. On the other hand, Muslims had been told that the Left is their sole hope. But the publication of the Sachar Committee report showed that in reality Muslims are badly educated and generally backward in West Bengal. Reacting to this, the government tried a policy of soft pedalling about the activities of Muslim communalists, as though they represented the Muslims. As a result came the shameful events of 21 November 2007, when a small Muslim communalist organisation paralysed Kolkata, and the subsequent decision to throw out Taslima Nasreen from her refuge in West Bengal.

Is the CPI(M) Still a Communist Party? 

Theoreticians and intellectuals with supple spines and even more supple brains are not prevented from finding communism even in this degenerated CPI(M). According to Prabhat Patnaik, a CPI(M) intellectual, the CPI(M) remains a communist party, and cannot be called Social Democratic, because the crucial dividing line between a CP and an SD is anti-imperialism.  We need to pause a little before this pearl of wisdom. First of all, political dividing lines can change over time. Secondly, is it accurate to say today that any party that uses the word imperialism in some documents, takes out a demonstration supporting Chavez, is a Communist Party? During World War I, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg had analysed imperialism and had shown that anti-imperialism had to be a component of the struggle for international socialism. This was changed in the Stalin era. The existence of imperialism was formally recognised. But the twin theories of two-stage revolution and “building socialism in one country” meant that anti-imperialism was restricted to a bourgeois stage, and delinked from the struggle for socialism. Soviet foreign policy dictated who was a good imperialist and who bad. In the name of anti-imperialism an alliance was made with the Guomindang in China, resulting in the smashing of the Communist Party. This heritage and the heritage of Lenin and Trotsky are not the same.

In this Stalinist tradition the CPI(M) has supported all manner of dictators like the Ayatollahs of Iran, the family based rule pretending to be “socialist” in North Korea, etc. Forget foreign countries. In India, as long as the Indo-US nuclear deal was not inked, the CPI(M) had supported UPA-I, which in turn was welcoming imperialism into India. It had accepted, after the charade of protest that never went to jeopardise the government, the rising inflation, the destruction of the Public Distribution System, the passing of the SEZ Act.

Another point to note is, not all Social Democrats denied the existence of imperialism. Centrists like Kautsky had talked about imperialism. The difference between Kautsky and the revolutionary Marxists was over class struggle and its orientation, not just the existence of imperialism. The anti-imperialism of the Stalinists is hardly different. Verbal anti-imperialism went hand in hand with pathetic appeals to the imperialists to invest in West Bengal. This desire to serve capital is what has led to a growing anger against the CPI(M) and the Left Front. The anger was neither manufactured by the TMC nor the result of some media blitz.


The Future of the Left Front and the CPI(M)

Over ninety percent of the present members of the CPI(M) became members after 1977. Power, patronage, getting jobs for one member of the family, other advantages, and the fact that they could be “party members” while working for a ruling party, motivated most of them. Since the defeat they have been in a state of collapse.  Even the state leadership is hardly in a better state. They have little more to think of, other than the fact that someday the TMC will fail to deliver and people will (hopefully) vote CPI(M) again. In order to defend the West Bengal government, the CPI(M) and its mass fronts, or mass organisations it has controlled, have behaved in an utterly craven manner. Thus, West Bengal is supposed to be one of the provinces where teachers are best organised. Yet the West Bengal government (Left Front) had been chipping away at teachers’ rights. Retirement age was lowered in colleges by abolishing the provision for re-employment up to five years. Full time teachers have been replaced in many cases by part timers and contract teachers. Yet the college and university teachers’ association WBCUTA has not gone on strike even once, demanding that all Honours Departments must have a minimum of four full time teachers in Humanities departments, and more in Science departments, across West Bengal. This alone can ensure quality education in a large number of colleges, along with creating thousands of jobs. Instead, WBCUTA leaders had been busy explaining that with limited finances the state government cannot do more, and pointing to cases where the picture is even worse than in West Bengal. Among government employees, the CPI(M) dominated State Coordination Committee has forgotten the meaning of the word agitation. As a result, a purely negative, anti-Left Front feeling was born. This negative feeling resulted in voting for the TMC-Congress alliance in such a huge wave. Will the CPI(M) change its basic attitude? Initial responses don’t suggest that. The only question seems to be, whether it will follow Prakash Karat in keeping up a Stalinist front while serving world capitalism, or whether it will follow Buddhadev Bhattacharjee in openly transforming into a Social Democratic party.


Maoists after the Fall of the Left Front:

Maoist intellectual (the term is used in a generic sense, not at all to imply membership of any party) G. N. Saibaba has written, in an essay after the defeat of the CPI(M), that the CPI(M) is a Social Fascist party. This revival of the long discredited and utterly reactionary theory of Social Fascism is dangerous. Social Fascism is the theory used by Stalinists to reject the united front of the working class with the Social Democrats. It was used with great effect in Germany to ensure that Hitler came to power. To think that the Social Democrats who were destroyed by Hitler were fascists is absurd. To think that the CPI(M) is fascist is equally dangerous. This is a route to supporting bourgeois parties. The CPI(Maoist),  and its forerunner, the CPI(ML) PWG, have regularly called formally for boycotts but on the other hand used their false class analysis to justify votes for bourgeois parties. This time, the clearest indication that in the Jungle Mahal they supported the TMC is the relatively low votes scored by Chhatradhar mahato. This showed that many of the Maoist cadres of the People Committee Against Police Terror campaigned for the TMC. Kishenji, one of the CPI(Maoist) leaders, had long ago gone on record saying they would like Mamata Banerjee as Chief Minister of West Bengal.  The ex-Naxalite intelligentsia are in even worse shape. They have combined legitimate condemnation of CPI(M) sponsored violence with support for violence on CPI(M) supporters. They have also openly called for voting for the TMC. As a result, they are all set to discredit themselves within a short time, as brokers between impossible partners – the Maoists and the TMC.

After the Left Front:

The Left Front is not only defeated. It is dead. This was not merely a government. In the last 34 years an entire system of rule had been created. Even if some LF partners are later elected with a majority in parliament, From 1995-96, spontaneous revolts against it had begun. But in history pure spontaneity has little scope. As the radical left failed to take a clear stand on working class self emancipation and class struggle, the early efforts of leftist cadres to build struggles was hijacked by TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee. This was not inevitable. Back in 2007, a public meeting had been called by Swajan, a network of intellectuals and artistes. Amlan Dutta, a veteran anti-communist, Asok Sen, a former communist fellow traveller now known as a friend of the Post-Modernist intellectuals of Kolkata, and Kunal Chattopadhyay, a Fourth Internationalist, had been the invited speakers. Kunal Chattopadhyay stressed that in our necessary goal of defeating the fake left CPI(M) we must take the road of working class self emancipation. An ex-Naxalite, present in the meeting, took the floor to say that classical Marxism had been proved wanting, and it was necessary to plan how to topple the CPI(M) government. Like a vast onrushing flood, ex-Marxists of all hues started shouting, that in order to save democracy, the CPI(M) must go, and the opposition votes must not be wasted. As a result, they all helped to channel the left dissenting votes into the TMC ballot box.

At one go, therefore, nearly all shades of the older left in West Bengal have managed to destroy themselves, or at least damaged themselves deeply. A new left has to be rebuilt, though certainly attracting forces from the old left. What would its contours be like? Again, a full discussion cannot be presented here. We suggest only a few preliminary points.

  • A deeper democratic commitment. The answer to the hollowness of bourgeois democracy is not the dictatorship of the party, not regimentation, but broader working class democracy. This can be achieved only by a struggle waged by the proletariat.
  • To consider all issues of industrialisation, agricultural development, in the light of the environment. Class struggle and environmental concerns must be welded together.
  • Class analysis and the development of programmes by gendering the discourse of class.
  • Determining all tactics by remembering that in multi-lingual, multi-cultural India, any chauvinism is dangerous.
  • Becoming a party to genuine internationalism and the interational class struggle.



[*] Translated from Radical, the Bengali organ of Radical Socialist, post election 2011 issue.

[1] Biman Basu, ‘West Bengal: How The Left Front And Its Government Emerged’, Peoples’ Democracy, vol XXXI, No. 25, June 24, 2007.