Articles posted by Radical Socialist on various issues.

Mexican electrical union fights for its life


Dan La Botz


The Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), made up of approximately 43,000 active and 22,000 retired workers in Mexico City and surrounding states, is fighting for its life. The union’s struggle has rallied allies in the labor movement and on the left in Mexico and solidarity from throughout the country and around the world, but, if it is to survive, the union and its supporters have to take stronger actions than they have so far, and time is not on their side.

On the night of October 10, President Calderón ordered federal police to seize the power plants, while he simultaneously liquidated the state-owned Light and Power Company, fired the entire workforce, and thus did away with the legal existence of the union. The Mexican president’s attack on the Electrical Workers Union might be compared to Ronald Regan’s firing of more than 11,500 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) in 1981 or to Margaret Thatcher’s smashing of the National Union of Minerworkers (NUM) in 1984 in which over 11,000 miners were arrested and the union defeated.

Changing the Balance of Force

Calderón’s move to destroy this union represents an important turning point in modern Mexican labor history, a decisive step to break the back of the unions once and for all. Following up on his three-year war on the Mexican Miners and Metal Workers Union (SNTMM), Calderón has now decided to take on the leading union in Mexico City. But, even more important, it is, as one Mexican political leader noted, it is an act intended “to change the balance of forces,” so that they favor the government. “After its electoral defeat and out of fear of social protest which the [economic] crisis is provoking, the government wants to give a demonstration of its power which everybody will understand: the left, the social movements, the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party], the unions, the Congress, the businessmen and the media. The logic is the same that was used in the [Salinas government’s] attack on La Quina [head of the Mexican Petroleum Workers Union] in 1989: if you can do it the strongest, then you can do it to the weakest. If the most combative union can be defeated, then so can any other force.”

Mexico City, where this blow has been delivered, is heart of the political opposition to Calderón and the base of support for left-wing leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador who claims to have won the last election. Mexico City is also the base of Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor of the metropolis, who some see as another possible presidential contender in 2012. So this attack on the union is also an attack on the left at its strongest point. And, at least at this moment — and while we still hope to see the Mexican workers take the strong measures needed — it seems as if the government can and has defeated the strongest, and can now turn its attention to the weaker.

A Turning Point

This is a turning point because it allows Mexico’s capitalist class to resume the neoliberal project begun under Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1988 but interrupted by a series of unforeseen events: the creation of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in 1989, the Chiapas Rebellion led by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in 1994, president Ernesto Zedillo’s precipitation of the economic crisis of 1994-96, and finally the end of the old one-party state under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its replacement by National Action Party (PAN).

Salinas had succeeded in privatizing the Mexican Telephone Company (TELMEX), the railroads, and the Cananea Copper Company, but he failed to finish the job, with the energy sector, petroleum and electric power generation still state owned. Now, after a twenty year interruption, Calderón has under taken to finish the job.

The Origin of an Independent Union

The full significance of these events can only be appreciated when one sees them in the light of both their history and the current political context. The Calderón administration has chosen to attack one of Mexico’s oldest, most militant and most democratic union. The Mexican Electrical Workers Union was born in the great Mexican Revolution of 1910-1940, a tumultuous upheaval from below by the country’s workers, farmers and peasants, swept away the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz and replaced it with a new order, if not exactly the order that the underdogs had been hoping for. In 1911, a group of electrical workers at the Light and Power Company organized the League of Electrical Workers. Then in 1914 they founded the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas).

The newly created Electrical Workers participated in the general strike of 1916 to defend the right of independent unions to exist. In 1917 the union negotiated its first contract, laying the basis for what would become one of the strongest collective bargaining agreements in the country. Less radical than some other unions and more independent than many, the Electrical Workers survived the labor wars of the 1920s that pitted corrupt, government-backed unions against revolutionary anarchists and Communists.

The Union in the Cárdenas Period

When the popular nationalist and leftist General Lázaro Cárdenas became president, he brought most of the Mexican labor unions into his orbit and under his influence. The Electrical Workers general secretary Francisco Breña Alvirez, however, guided the union along its own independent path. In June of 1936, the Electrical Workers Union faced a conflict over wages with the British-Canadian Mexican Light, which then owned the central electrical companies for which their members worked.

The Cárdenas government would have liked to avoid a strike and proposed arbitration, but the union rejected any form of arbitration and struck. The strike by the union’s 3,000 members shut off power in Mexico City — except to hospitals and other essential services — paralyzed the streetcars and brought management to the table. The union successfully defended the right to strike, eschewed arbitration, defeated the company, and maintained its independence form the government.

Between Scylla and Charybdis

During the late 1940s and 1950s, Mexico experienced its own wave of anti-Communism and its own version of McCarthyism, as the government deposed independent union leaders and replaced them with government-backed gangster leaders, the so-called charros. The Mexican Electrical Workers succeeded in avoiding the worst of that era, allowing it to emerge in the 1960s and to continue in the 1970s as an ally of the “worker insurgency” then taking place and as friend to the new independent unions that were then emerging.

During the 1980s, the Electrical Workers Union once again found itself in conflict with the government-employer. In 1987, as students also struck the university, the union shut off power to Mexico City once again as it had 50 years before. Throughout the the years of the Carlos Salinas presidency (1988-1994), the union maneuvered between the Scylla of government domination and the Charybdis of the president’s program of privatization.

The Electrical Workers veered toward the privatizing president to protect its own interests, but simultaneously strove to escape the sirens of patronage. That period was not its most heroic, yet, despite its compromises with Salinas, the Electrical Workers Union did not completely forfeit its independence and emerged in the 1990s and 2000s to lead coalitions to defend national electric power companies, Light and Power and the Federal Electric Commission, and the Mexican Petroleum Company (PEMEX) from privatization.

Fighting Privatization

The union was outspoken and active in its opposition to President Vicente Fox, his National Action Party (PAN), and its rightwing agenda. The Electrical Workers Union organized around it self a coalition of other unions, peasant leagues, and urban poor people to create the National Front Against Privatization. When Felipe Calderón became president in 2006, the Electrical Workers continued their struggle against privatization, joining with the National Union of Workers (the UNT), Mexico’s independent labor federation, to build a massive national coalition dedicated to changing the direction of the country.

For almost a decade the Electrical Workers and its allies have successfully stopped first Vicente Fox and then Felipe Calderón from selling off the national patrimony.

Most recently, the Electrical Workers and its Mexican Union Front (FSM), have brought together other labor unions, peasant leagues and organizations of the urban poor. The FSM in turn united with the independent National Union of Workers (UNT) to create the frentote — a gigantic coalition of virtually all of Mexico’s organized working people. The SME, thus, stood squarely in the path of President Felipe Calderón and his National Action Party.

The Union and its Contract

The Mexican Electrical Workers Union had developed over the years into a powerful institution. The union’s total members reached 43,000 working members and 22,000 retirees represented by between 700 and 840 full-time, paid delegates. The union contract, first negotiated in 1917, had evolved into a complex document describing 2,800 job categories and 92 wage scales for the various jobs. This contract protected the rights and privileges of union members, with SME union members having wages, benefits, and working conditions far superior to those of workers in many other unions and especially to unorganized workers.

The contract also gave the union power vis-à-vis the company in matters of financing, development and new technology. It required management to inform the union of the annual budget, building plans, investment and acquisitions, and current finances. The contract forbad the company from out-sourcing work even in non-electrical areas such as auto shops, construction and carpentry. The union had virtual control over all hiring and firing, and the union ran a technical school with more than 1,200 students preparing to become Light and Power employees. The union contract also required the company to provide the union with 75 million pesos (7.5 million dollars) for contracting expenses, cultural activities, for retirees, and in advances for union dues in June so that union members could buy school supplies. While critics called this the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” in was in reality a strong union contract, not so different than those found two decades ago in every industrial country in the world, providing its members with job security, economic security, and in general with social well-being. Calderón has swept away the union and torn its contract to bits.

Union Conflict Precipitates Crisis

Calderón may have been encouraged to make his bold move to eliminate both company and union by the development earlier this year of an internal union conflict. The Mexican Electrical Workers Union is a notoriously democratic union which has often seen rival factions struggle for leadership of the union. The June 2009 union elections saw Martín Esparza, the incumbent general secretary heading up the Green Slate of the Unity and Union Democracy caucus and Alejandro Muñoz, the union’s treasurer, heading up the Orange Slate of the Union Transparency caucus. Muñoz accused Esparza of having used his union office to line his own pockets, and Esparza made similar accusations against Muñoz. Esparza also accused Muñoz of colluding with César Nava, a PAN leader who previously served as Calderón’s closest aide (secretario particular). Muñoz denied the accusations that he was close to Nava.

Muñoz accused the union of irregularities in the electoral proceeding, but was convinced to await the results of the June election, which he lost to Esparza. A month later, Muñoz filed charges with the Federal Board of Conciliation and Arbitration. This opened the door for the government to intervene in the union. Subsequently, on September 10, Secretary of Labor Javier Lozano, declared that there had been irregularities in the election, and on October 5 he refused to recognize Martín Esparza as general secretary, effectively decapitating the union by declaring that it had no legally recognized leadership. The Mexican government has broad powers to withhold recognition (known as toma de nota) from union leaders. This government interference violates the International Labor Organization’s Convention 87 which says workers have the right to organize and run unions of their own choosing. Five days after Lozano refused to recognize the union leaders, Calderón sent the police and army to seize the plants.

It is hard to tell exactly how the internal conflict affected the union and its leaders, but in the crucial days before the government carried out its coup, the leadership failed to mobilize the union and its allies to defend their workplaces and union. Though the union had told the press a week before that it believed the government was preparing to seize the company facilities, it apparently took no steps to advise its members to resist the police and hold the plants. For example, on October 10 group of just 30 police officers seized the Systems Operation center which controls the electrical substations of the entire country — and amazingly the famously militant union did nothing to attempt to stop that takeover of that crucial facility or any others. At the same time the police also took over the union hall and its radio station, also without resistance. []

The Political and Labor Union Context Today

Calderón and his National Action Party, controlling the executive branch of government, have led this attack, but they have had the support of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which dominates the legislative branch. The government’s attack on the Mexican Electrical Workers Union has been opposed by the parties of the left: the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the Workers Party (PT), and Convergence. The PAN and the PRI together control more than two-thirds of the representatives and senators.

The PRI’s support has been important not only in the legislature but also in the organized labor movement. The PRI, the former ruling party of Mexico, controls the Congress of Labor, the Confederation of Mexican Workers and other confederations and industrial unions, such as the Petroleum Workers Union. So, though the Mexican Electrical Workers Union is party of the Congress of Labor, none of the other union leaders in that umbrella organization of the official labor movement have said a word in defense of the electrical workers, and none of those unions have come to is aid.

While the PRI controls most industrial unions, the head of the largest public employee unions Elba Esther Gordillo of the 1.5 million member Mexican Teachers Union (el SNTE) and Valdemar Gutiérrez Fragoso of the 300,000 member Mexican Social Security Workers Union (SNTSS) have been allied with the Calderón and the PAN. Gordillo joined Calderón in creating a new Alliance for Quality Education (ACE), which many critics see as opening the door privatization in that area. Gutiérrez Fragoso, in addition to his duties as head of his union is also a PAN legislator. Neither the Teachers Union nor the Social Security Workers Union have spoken out against the government attack nor acted in solidarity with the Electrical Workers Union.

Massive Protest March

Still, the Electrical Workers Union has many allies. Labor unions and social movements, and opposition political parties organized a huge protest march on Friday, October 16 which was estimated at between 150,000 and 300,000 participants. The march began at 4:00 p.m. at the Angel of Independence on Reforma Avenue and marched to the Zócalo, Mexico national plaza, the last marchers arriving at 8:00 p.m. University workers, nuclear workers, miners, the teachers union opposition, telephone workers and many others hiked through Mexico to show their solidarity. While the march was a strong show of support, it was not a show of force, never attempting to retake any of the facilities.

Early last week Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who, arguing that the won the 2006 election, calls himself the “Legitimate President of Mexico,” convened a mass meeting of tens of thousands of his supporters and turned the platform over to Martín Esparza, general secretary of the Electrical Workers Union. Both Esparza and López Obrador called the government’s action unconstitutional and illegal and both called for resistance. López Obrador called upon the legislature to create a commission to investigate the situation. No such investigation is likely to take place, given that the government party and its allies control the congress.

Since the police seized the power plants there have been daily rallies and demonstrations by thousands of Electrical Workers in Mexico City. Neither speaker proposed a plan of resistance through mass action aimed at the government bur rather inclined toward legal strategies.

The mass march pressure the government into holding a negotiating session with the union, but that session soon reached an impasse. Secretary of the Interior Fernando Gómez Mont said that the government’s decision was “irreversible.” Secretary of Labor also commented calling the liquidation of the company a “consummated fact.” The Mexican Electrical Workers also refused to compromise on its demands that the police be removed from the workplace, that the liquidation of the company be revoked, and that the government negotiate the issues with the union. Further progress in any negotiations seems unlikely, and become less likely with every passing day.

As that incident demonstrates, mass marches will not be able to force the government to reverse its decision, though it remains possible that a national response, a national civic uprising such as the local uprising in Oaxaca three years ago, might be capable of stopping the government. Still, if the union is not prepared to take the necessary action in Mexico City, it cannot expect others to come to the rescue. The union must lead or be swept away.

Solidarity from Mexico and Abroad

Throughout Mexico workers, students, and communities, labor unions and left parties rallied and marched to support the Mexican Electrical Workers Union. En Cuernavaca, Moreles some 3,500 marched. In Oaxaca the Union of Workers and Employees of the Benito Juárez Autonomous University shut down the university in protest and solidarity. In San Luis Potosi the Potosi Union Front carried protested the development at the State Legislature and expressed their solidarity with the electrical workers. Divers organizations — the National Union of General Tire Workers, the Board Popular Front (FAP), and the Party of the Democratic Revolution expressed support at the national, state and local levels.

Expression of international solidarity arrived from the United States and Canada, from Holland Germany, and even from workers in Iraq. Unions from around the world condemned the Mexican government and gave voice to their solidarity with the Mexican Electrical Workers Union. While such expressions of solidarity help to give heart to the struggle electrical workers of Mexico, unlike in industries such as shipping where dockworkers solidarity can have a direct impact, those foreign unions can have little leverage on a nationalized power company in another country — though the CFE does import coal, and coal miners, railroad workers, and marine workers might be able to interrupt those shipments.

Union’s Legal and Legislative Strategy

While marching in the streets, the Electrical Workers Union is also pursuing a legal strategy, having hired Néstor de Buen, the country’s leading labor lawyer, to argue that the Calderón government seizures of the company was unconstitutional and illegal. The union also plans to have its members file individual lawsuits called amparos, something like injunctions, arguing that their individual rights have been violated. While other unions have used the individual lawsuits as a mechanism to delay government actions, they would seem to be a weak tool in this case. The union says it will also pursue a legislative strategy, pressuring the Mexican Legislature to present a “constitutional controversy,” arguing in effect that the executive branch of the government overstepped its constitutional authority. Such a legislative strategy appears to have little hope of success given the alliance between President Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which together control a very large majority of both houses of congress. The union’s legal strategy is premised on the argument that since Light and Power was created by the legislative decree it cannot be eradicated by executive decrees. The union and its supporters have also argued that the president’s action violates both Mexican labor law and international labor standards.

Police, Army Still Occupy Plants

At this moment, 5,000 federal police, backed up by at least 10,000 police reserves, and 3,000 military officers still hold over 100 facilities. The plants are being operated by management and by 3,000 electrical workers brought in from the other state-owned power company, the Federal Electrical Commission (CFE), and another 800 engineers and technicians provided by the military. Workers at theCFE are members of the Sole Union of Electrical Workers of Mexico (SUTERM), a union historically controlled by the PRI whose leaders are eager to collude with the government in the hopes of sharing in the booty of jobs, union dues, and political influence.

Since the police took control of the plants there have been many localized blackouts that have shut off power for hours to Mexico City neighborhoods, to other cities and towns, and to industry, with hundreds of factories idled in the nearby State of Mexico. The government has blamed the blackouts on the union, while the union attributes the blackouts to the incompetence of the government and the workers brought into run the plants.

Future of the Light and Power

The Calderón government has said that, having extinguished the Light and Power Company, it will now turn its facilities over to a new company which it plans to merge with the Federal Electrical Commission in the near future. The government says it plans to hire 10,000 former Light and Power workers to work for the new company under new terms of employment. The 45,000 union workers have been told that they must collect their severance pay by mid-November to be eligible to be hired by the new company. So far about 1,400 workers have collected their severance pay. There have also been 11,700 payments to the 22,000 retirees. As an added inducement to workers, the Secretary of Labor has thrown in scholarships to study English for workers who file for their severance soon.

The government has set aside 20 billion pesos (about 200 million dollars) for the costs of the liquidation of the company labor force. Each worker is being paid the severance to which they are entitled under Mexican law, 300,000 to 400,000 pesos or about U.S.$30,000-40,000 each.

The Economic Argument

Felipe Calderón’s decision to liquidate the Light and Power Company did not result out of any contract negotiation or strike, but rather out of a political decision to do away with the nationalized company and the union which stands at the center of the Mexican left and in the path of the president’s privatizing agenda. The Calderón government, however, argues that this was a purely economic decision based on the economic and productive inefficiencies of Light and Power. There is, however, no clear cut economic case to be made; the issues are complex. The government argues that the Light and Power Company had an annual deficit of 44 billion pesos (400 million US dollars). Georgina Kessel Martínez, Secretary of Energy, asserts that Light and Powers expenses were almost always double its sales, requiring enormous government subsidies. In reality that “deficit” was largely the result of transferring electric power from the Federal Electric Commission (CFE) to Light and Power (LyF), both government owned companies.

Calderón in his speech to the nation justified eliminating the company because it was “losing one third of the electricity it distributed because of theft, technical failures, corruption, or inefficiencies.” That the CFEwas more productive than LyF seems beyond doubt, but many things explain that:

Mexico City, the Federal District and Central Mexico, which Light and Power served, represent the most difficult geographic, demographic, and economic area of the country. While rural areas present special challenges, the complex and constantly expanding and evolving megapolis of 20 million people and millions of others in surrounding central states is even more so.

The residents and businesses of Mexico City reputedly “steal” electrical energy from the system through illegal connections. I put “steal” in quotes because it is after all a national system which exists to provide electricity to the Mexican people at a reasonable cost.

Government agencies, for example Los Pinos, the Mexican presidential residence and office, did not pay for their electricity. For reasons that are unclear, the government company also failed to charge some Mexican businesses such as hotels for their electricity.

The union argues that for the last 20 years the government declined to invest in the company, allowing the plant and distribution system to deteriorate, in order to create an economic crisis.

The Question of Wages, Benefits, Pensions

The Calderón administration has suggested that at the center of Light and Power’s economic problems was the high cost of workers wages, benefits and pensions which threatened to bankrupt the system. The government says that 160 billion pesos out of its 240 billion peso wage bill went toward pensions for 20,000 retired workers.

Without a doubt, the Mexican Electrical Workers Union had succeeded in its 95-year history in winning for its members a labor union contract which might be the envy of workers throughout the country. Unlike most Mexican workers, Light and Power workers earned about 6,000 pesos (600 US dollars) per month, something approximating a living wage. Retired workers enjoyed very generous pensions equal to or greater than their work wages. But the alleged financial crisis of the company may not have been the real motive behind Calderón’s aggressive action.

The Real Economic Motive?

Martín Esparza, the union’s leader, argues that the real economic motive for the government’s action is the desire of private industry to get its hands on the 100 kilometer network of fiber optic cable which was the property of Light and Power. The fiber optic cable system which can be used for telecommunications was licensed in 1999 to WL Comunicaciones S.A. de C.V., a Spanish company.

A year later the company, whose majority partners are two former Secretaries of Energy, Fernando Canales Clariond and Ernesto Martens, gained the right to operate the fiber optic network for 30 years, with the possibility of further extensions. Secretary of Labor Javier Lozano has also been as a consultant, assisting WL Comunicaciones in winning its concssions. []

The Impact: Business Thrilled

Mexican and foreign capital is thrilled at Calderón’s action. The Business Coordinating Council (CCE), the Confederation of Mexican Employers (COPARMEX), the Federation of Industrial Chambers (CONCAMIN), the National Chamber of the Manufacturing Industry (CANACINTRA), and the Mexican Council of Businessmen (CMHN) all praised Calderón and encouraged him to see the attack on the electrical workers as just a first step. The Mexican capitalist class has had a taste of blood, likes it, and wants more.

Investors.com, speaking for and to international capital, in an article titled “Mexico Knocks a Union’s Lights Out” called it, “one of the best things to happen to Mexico.” Business Week, while less euphoric, speculated that Calderón might now take on the Mexican Teachers Union and the PEMEX, the state oil company, and the Petroleum Workers Union, and Carlos Slim’s TELMEX with its high telephone costs.

A More Authoritarian State

Senator Rosario Ibarra, Mexico’s first woman candidate for president in 1982 and longtime human rights activist, expresses her alarm at a whole series of recent developments — including the government’s seizure of Light and Power — which suggest that the Mexican government has become more authoritarian. []

José Narro Robles, the rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), suggests that the government’s seizure of the power plants and elimination of the company and the union will aggravate an already difficult situation for the country’s majority of working and poor people. Warning of possible social unrest, he says, “Our country is living in a very delicate moment. Nobody can deny it. No one can deny it when we have such a large number of millions of Mexicans in inadequate conditions, in poverty or in extreme poverty.”

Narro fears social unrest, and his fear is understandable, but it seems that if the Mexican Electrical Workers Union and the labor movement are to survive, it will take social unrest of a well organized and massive sort to stop the Calderón government. If such forces began to move, they might even push that government aside, though so far, there are no signs of such a development on the scale needed.

October 20th 2009

-Dan La Botz is the author of several books on Mexican labor unions, social movements and politics. He also edits Mexican Labor News and Analysis, an on-line publication of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) and the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), at: http://www.ueinternational.org/.


[] Manuel Camacho Solís, “SME: las verdaderas razones,” El Universal, October 12, 2009. Solís is a member of the leadership of the Broad Progressive Front (FAP).

[] Silvia Otero and Alberto Morales, “‘Apagan’ LyFC; liquidan empleados,” El Universal, October 11, 2009.

[] Rosalia Vergara, “Calderón y el SME: La guerra por la fibra óptica,” Proceso, October 17, 2009.

[] Rosario Ibarra, “Alarma ante la situación de los derechos humanos,” a statement distributed by the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT), on October 17, 2009.


Originally published in International Viewpoint, Online magazine : IV418 - November 2009


UAW-Ford workers in US tell the boss “No!”

Potential springboard to international industrial workers’ solidarity

Ron Lare

The United Auto Workers (UAW) in the US has resoundingly voted down this year’s second set of proposed modifications to their union contract at Ford.

This is the first time that a national UAW auto contract has been rejected. The national No vote was clear from early in the voting, ending in a 70% No vote among production workers and 75% No among skilled trades, for an overall 72% No vote. (UAW Solidarity House has not released the overall vote count, something that took an internal union appeal to extract in the 2005 vote.)

In the process, the national union leadership lost political control of the most important Ford plant in the US if not the world, the Dearborn Truck Plant at UAW Local 600 (Ford Rouge and other plants). That plant makes the F-150 pickup truck. Members there voted No by 93%. In Local 600 Ford plants as a whole the vote was No 3087, Yes 823.

This fault line in the Ford Empire should be an inspiration to workers everywhere.

The auto industry has long been a symbol of imperial industrial power and not without reason. In the US, autos and trucks consume rivers of basic manufactured materials from steel and other metals to glass to synthetic rubber. They move most people and goods over a sprawling highway system (US capital’s choice over more economical and environmentally sound mass transportation). Consumption of trucks and autos drives the expansion and contraction of the US economy, second only to housing. The vehicles have long been an emblem and lever of US competitive might abroad. Globalism and neoliberalism put some of these factors in question, but are embraced by US auto companies aiming to maintain imperial-industrial power on the backs of workers everywhere including in the US. Ford has traditionally been number two in size and prospects between General Motors and Chrysler. This lineup has been shuffled lately. In 2007 Ford was considered in the biggest trouble and was the only one of the three that the union did not strike. Just two years later, after bankruptcy and partial government takeover of GM and Chrysler, Ford looks strongest. Yet unlike the others it was not washed of its huge debt recently incurred. Profits announced the day after the contract voting further raised Ford’s competitive profile. Lust for true dominance fed demands for more worker concessions. Ford workers have now said “No,” shocking the entire ruling class. But the latest Reuters reports indicate more concessions talks with Ford are proceeding, despite the UAW president’s statement that the union will wait until the 2011 contract for more negotiations.

The Ford concessions just voted down included severe limitations on the right to strike, a six year freeze on new-hire pay that had already been cut in half, and the elimination of more skilled trades. At half pay, auto workers will not be able to buy the cars they build.

The proposed concessions to Ford in the US and in Canada have provoked a new layer of militant rank and file activism, including notably women on the shop floor who are in touch across borders.

A leaflet signed by 18 opponents of the concessions at UAW Local 600 UAW included:

“ The strike threat defends our money, benefits, rights--and UAW political clout…Power in Washington starts with our power right here (for true national health insurance, converting closed plants to greener jobs and alternative transportation for auto and other workers, and defending the gains of civil rights movements, etc.).

International solidarity:  CAW-Ford members like Lindsay Hinshelwood at Oakville assembly also organize against concessions. We need an independent Council of union reps and workers across borders, not Ford lobbying the International Metalworkers Federation Ford Network. Ford wants to lead the race to the bottom internationally. “

The national contract rejection sprang from factors ranging from a sense that Ford had come back for concessions a time too many, to rebellion by lower-level union officers in touch with the rank and file, to a socialist presence in some key union locals.

It remains to be seen whether unity against company attacks and rejection of timid union leadership can be converted into a sustained rank and file organization for action including strikes, union democracy, and international solidarity. This could feed social movement unionism to unite the working class and reverse the decades-long decline of the union movement in the US.

Some sobering notes should be struck. The vote was somewhat dependent on officers who have supported all the concessions up to this point. Some of these reached the conclusion that they could not be re-elected if they supported the latest concessions at a company returning to profitability. Such contradictions will be prominent until union officers have to take a more consistent side in national and international movements.

There is more coverage of this struggle at www.labornotes.org

Despite efforts at international solidarity against union concessions to Ford—see for example the petition below—the Canadian version of these concessions has been adopted by vote of the Canadian Auto Workers union. Today international union solidarity is required for any comprehensive fight for jobs, pay, and working conditions. In that spirit we would like to be in contact with Ford employees in India.


Stop international concessions!


We are active and retired Ford workers. We oppose any union concessions or give-backs to Ford.  We urge our fellow union members, including our union representatives, in all unions, across all borders, to speak, write and vote against concessions.



Name and union position if any



e-mail address

Gary Walkowicz,

Dearborn Truck Bargaining Committee

UAW Local 600


This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Lindsay Hinshelwood


CAW Local 707, Oakville



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Judy Wraight, former Tool & Die Exec. Board


UAW Local 600


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Ron Lare, former Guide


UAW Local 600


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Steve Dreyer

CAW Local 1520,

St. Thomas Assembly Plant



Larry Wells, former Sgt. at Arms


CAW Local 707, Oakville


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Eric Truss


UAW Local 600,



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Doug Kowalske, former Alt. Cmte,   former Alt. Health & Safety,  Parts Unit


UAW Local 600, Parts


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Labor donated, October 2009

Contribution to the debate

Michael Löwy


Daniel Tanuro’s report on climate change is one of the most important documents produced by our movement in recent years. It is an invaluable contribution to the political arming of revolutionary Marxists and to making them capable of facing up to the challenges of the 21st century.

The notes which follow are divided into two parts: 1) some criticisms and reservations on certain points, conceived as a kind of amendment to the document; 2) some remarks on ecosocialism, starting from questions that are suggested but not developed in the report (which could not, obviously, cover everything without becoming too long). So this is simply a contribution to the debate.

I. Critical comments

1. It seems to me that the formula “2100” or “the end of the century” must be replaced by “over the next few decades”. The most recent forecasts of scientists - not yet taken on board by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which, as the report indicates, always gets there late - envisage large-scale disasters over the next few decades if we continue with “business as usual”. That has obvious political consequences: who is going to worry about what will happen in 2100? Admittedly, certain philosophers – such as Hans Jonas – have raised the question of “our duties towards the generations not yet born”, but that does not interest many people. The question is very different when it concerns our own generation… That also applies to the formula “quasi-total abandonment of the use of fossil fuels, to be effected in less than a century”: to be replaced by “over the next few decades”.

2. Carbon capture: the report mentions the limited character of storage capacities, but it seems to consider it as an “acceptable transitional measure”. I think that it is necessary to be more reserved on this subject. The process is far from being developed, there are very few convincing examples, we do not yet have real security guarantees (the assurance that CO2 will not escape again into the atmosphere). Moreover, on the pretext of a future “clean coal”, we continue to use coal-fired power stations and to build new ones, which is, according to James Hansen, the recipe for a disaster in the near future. I think that we must associate ourselves with what Hansen proposes: while waiting for the technique of carbon capture to be really established - in ten years? - it is necessary to stop building coal-fired power stations and gradually abolish the existing ones.

3. The movement against climate change must demand that governments respect “the most careful conclusions of the IPCC”. This formula is too vague: what does “careful” mean? It is better to speak about the higher range of the proposals of the IPCC, i.e. 40 per cent between now and 2020 and 85 per cent between now and 2050. It is necessary to avoid the formula, which appears sometimes in the report, “reduction of between 25 and 40 per cent” between now and 2020. An appeal of ecological NGOs (Greenpeace, etc.) to Sarkozy speaks of a minimum of 40 per cent between now and 2020. We cannot demand less! Personally, I think that 40 per cent is too little and that it should be strongly suggested that it is a minimum, in reality very insufficient… The same thing applies to 2050: we should no longer write “reduction of between 50 and 85 per cent”, but immediately insist on the higher level: 85 per cent.

4. Marx’s error: according to the report, he “did not understand that the transition from wood to coal meant the abandonment of a renewable energy of flux in favour of an exhaustible energy of stock”. First of all, I have some reservations about the term “renewable” being applied to wood used as a source of energy: that could quickly lead to the destruction of the last forests! As for fossil energies: admittedly, they are “exhaustible”, but this argument seems tome to be out of date. There is still coal for 200 years and well before that, global warming will have caused a catastrophe without precedent. The error of Marx and especially of Engels (cf. Antiduhring) was to believe that the revolution must simply “suppress the relations of production which have become obstacles (or chains) preventing the free development of the productive forces created by capitalism”, as if these forces were neutral. It seems to me that we could take as a starting point the observations made by Marx about the Paris Commune: the workers cannot take possession of the capitalist state apparatus and put it at their service. They are forced “to smash it” and to replace it by a form of political power that is radically different, democratic and non-state. The same idea applies, mutatis-mutandis, to the productive apparatus, which far from being “neutral” carries in its structure the stamp of a development which favours the accumulation of capital and the unlimited expansion of the market, thus leading to ecological catastrophe.

5. According to the report, we will be able to really begin the enormous changes necessary “only after the victory of the socialist revolution on a world level”. It seems to me that, according to the logic of the permanent revolution, it is necessary to begin the changes that are necessary on the level of one or several countries, knowing that we will be able to complete the process only on the scale of the entire planet.

6. The draft says this about the rise in ocean levels: “the vast majority of the hundreds of millions of human beings threatened by the rise in the level of the oceans live in China (30 million), India (30 million), Bangladesh (15-20 million)…” etc. I do not question these figures, but I ask myself the following question: won’t the sea level also go up in the seaboard cities of the West, i.e. in Amsterdam, Venice, Antwerp, Copenhagen, New York, etc? This is a question which has a political dimension: it is fine to ask for solidarity from the inhabitants of the countries of the North with the suffering of Bangladesh, but we should show them that they are threatened with the same dangers.

II. On ecosocialism: a contribution to the debate

The ecosocialist project implies the establishment of democratic planning of the economy which takes into account the preservation of the environment and, in particular, prevents a catastrophic disruption of the climate. It is thanks to such planning that we will be able to make a revolution in the energy system, leading to the replacement of the current resources (especially fossil energy), which are responsible for climate change and the poisoning of the environment, by renewable energy resources: water, wind and sun.

The necessary prerequisite for this democratic and ecological planning is public control of the means of production: decision-making on matters of public interest concerning technological investment and change must be removed from the banks and the capitalist companies, if we want these decisions to serve the common good of society and the safeguarding of the environment. The whole of society will be free to democratically choose what kinds of production should be prioritised - according to social and ecological criteria - and the level of the resources which must be invested in alternative energies, in education, health and culture. The prices of the goods themselves would no longer be determined by the laws of supply and demand, but would as far as possible be fixed according to social, political and ecological criteria. This planning will have among its objectives the guarantee of full employment, thanks to the reduction of the working day. This condition is essential not only to fulfil the requirements of social justice, but also to make sure of the support of the working class, without which the process of structural ecological transformation of the productive forces cannot be carried out.

Far from being “despotic” as such, democratic planning is the exercise of the freedom of decision of the whole of society. This is a necessary exercise for society to free itself from the alienating and reifying “economic laws” and “iron cages” within capitalist and bureaucratic structures. Democratic planning, associated with the reduction of working time, would be a considerable progress of humanity towards what Marx called “the realm of freedom”: the increase in free time is in fact a condition for the participation of workers in democratic discussion and the running of the economy and society.

The kind of system of democratic planning that is envisaged by ecosocialists relates to the principal economic choices - in particular those concerning the dangers of global warming - and not the administration of local restaurants, grocery shops, bakeries, small stores and artisanal enterprises and services. In the same way, it is important to stress that planning is not in contradiction with the self-management of workers in their units of production. Whereas the decision to transform, for example, a car factory into a unit for the production of engines for wind farms would be taken by the whole of society, the organization and the internal functioning of the factory would be managed democratically by the workers themselves.

We have had lengthy discussions about the “centralized” or “decentralized” character of planning, but the important things remains the democratic control of the plan on all levels, local, regional, national, continental and, let us hope, planetary, since ecological themes such as global warming are issues that concern the whole world and can only be dealt with on this level. This proposal could be called “global democratic planning”. It has nothing to do with what is generally designated as “central planning”, because the economic and social decisions are not made by an unspecified “centre” but democratically decided by the populations concerned.

Ecosocialist planning must be based on democratic and pluralist debate, at every level of decision. Organized in the form of parties, platforms or any other kind of political movement, the delegates of the planning organizations would be elected and the various proposals would be presented to all those whom they concern. In other words, representative democracy must be enriched - and improved - by the direct democracy which makes it possible for people to directly choose - at the local, national and, finally, international level - between various proposals. The whole population would then discuss questions such as free public transport, a special tax paid by car owners to subsidize public transport, the subsidizing of solar energy, the reduction of working time to 30, 25 or even fewer hours a week, even if that involves a reduction of production. The democratic character of planning does not make it incompatible with the participation of experts whose role is not to decide, but to present their arguments - often different, even opposing - during the democratic process of decision-making.

A question arises: what guarantee do we have that people will make the right choices, those which protect the environment, even if the price to be paid is to change some of their consumption habits? Such a “guarantee” does not exist, only the reasonable prospect that the rationality of democratic decisions will triumph once the fetishism of consumer goods has been abolished. It is certain that people will make mistakes by making bad choices, but don’t the experts themselves make mistakes? It is impossible to conceive of the construction of a new society without the majority of people attaining a high level of socialist and ecological consciousness as a result of their struggles, their self-education and their social experience. Some ecologists consider that the only alternative to productivism is to stop growth as a whole, or to replace it by negative growth - called in France “decreasing”. To do this, it would be necessary to drastically reduce the excessive level of consumption of the population and to give up individual houses, central heating and washing machines, among other things, in order to lower the consumption of energy by half.

The “decreasers” have the merit of having put forward a radical critique of productivism and consumerism. But the concept of “decreasing” is related to a purely quantitative conception of “growth” and of the development the productive forces. It would be better to think about a qualitative transformation of development. That means two different but complementary approaches:

1. Not only the reduction but the suppression of entire economic sectors, in order to put a stop to the monstrous waste of resources which is caused by capitalism - a system based on the large-scale production of useless and/or harmful products. The arms industry is a good example, as are all these “products” manufactured in the capitalist system (with their programmed obsolescence) which have no other use than to create profits for the big companies. The question is not “excessive consumption” in the abstract, but rather the type of consumption which is dominant at present, and whose principal characteristics are: conspicuous consumption, massive waste, obsessive accumulation of goods and the compulsive acquisition of pseudo innovations imposed by “fashion”. A new society would direct production towards the satisfaction of genuine needs, starting with those that we could describe as “biblical” - water, food, clothing and housing - but including essential services: health, education, culture and transport. We could thus speak about “selective decreasing”.

2. In addition, it would be necessary to ensure the “selective growth” of certain branches of production or services that are neglected by capitalism: solar energy, organic farming (family or co-operative), public transport, etc. It is obvious that the countries where essential needs are far from being satisfied, i.e. the countries of the southern hemisphere, will have to “develop” much more - to build railways, hospitals, sewers and other infrastructures – than the industrialized countries, but that should be compatible with a system of production based on renewable energies and thus not harmful to the environment. These countries will need to produce large quantities of food for their populations, which are already affected by famine. But, as the peasant movements organized on the international level by the Via Campesina network have been arguing for years, this is an objective that it is much easier to attain via peasant organic farming organized through family units, co-operatives or collective farms, than by the destructive and antisocial methods of the agribusiness industry whose the principle is the intensive use of pesticides, chemical substances and genetically modified organisms. The odious present system of debt and imperialist exploitation of the resources of the South by the industrialized capitalist countries would give way to an upsurge in the technical and economic support of the North to the South.

There would be no need at all - as certain puritan and ascetic ecologists seem to believe - to reduce, in absolute terms, the standard of living of the European and North American populations. It would simply be necessary for these populations to get rid of useless products, those which do not satisfy any real need and whose obsessive consumption is supported by the capitalist system. While reducing their consumption, they would redefine the concept of standard of living to make way for a lifestyle which would actually be much richer.

How to distinguish genuine needs from artificial, false or simulated needs? The advertising industry - which exerts its influence on needs by mental manipulation – has penetrated every sphere of human life in modern capitalist societies. Everything is fashioned according to its rules, not only food and clothing, but also fields as varied as sport, culture, religion and politics. Advertising has invaded our streets, our letter-boxes, our television screens, our newspapers and our landscapes in an insidious, permanent and aggressive way. This sector contributes directly to conspicuous and compulsive spending habits. Moreover, it involves a phenomenal waste of oil, electricity, working time, paper and chemical substances, among other raw materials – all of this paid for by the consumers. It is a branch of “production” which is not only useless from the human point of view, but which is also in contradiction with real social needs. Whereas advertising is an essential dimension of a capitalist market economy, there would be no place for it in a society of transition towards socialism. It would be replaced by information on products and services, provided by consumers’ associations. The criterion for distinguishing a genuine need from an artificial need would be its permanence after the suppression of advertising. It is clear that for a certain time old spending patterns will persist, because nobody has the right to tell people what they need. The change in models of consumption is a historical process and an educational challenge.

Certain products, such as the individual car, raise more complex problems. Individual cars are a public nuisance. On a world scale, they kill or mutilate hundreds of thousands of people every year. They pollute the air of the big cities - with very harmful consequences for the health of children and the elderly - and they contribute considerably to climate change. However, the car satisfies real needs under the present conditions of capitalism. In a process of transition towards ecosocialism, public transport would be readily available and free – above ground and underground -, while there would be protected lanes for pedestrians and cyclists. Consequently, the individual car would play a much less important role than it does in bourgeois society, where it has become a fetish product promoted by insistent and aggressive advertising. In this transition towards a new society, it will be much easier to reduce in a Draconian fashion the transport of goods by road – which is responsible for tragic accidents and the too high level of pollution – and to replace it by transporting goods by rail or by transporting lorries by rail: only the absurd logic of capitalist “competitiveness” explains the development of road transport.

To these proposals, the pessimists will answer: yes, but individuals are motivated by infinite aspirations and desires which must be controlled, analyzed, driven back and even repressed if necessary. Democracy could then undergo certain restrictions. However, ecosocialism is founded on a reasonable assumption, already supported by Marx: the predominance of “being” over “having” in a society without social classes or capitalist alienation, i.e. the primacy of free time over the desire to have innumerable objects: personal fulfilment by means of real activities - cultural, sporting, playful, scientific, erotic, artistic and political. Commodity fetishism encourages compulsive buying through the ideology and the advertising that are proper to the capitalist system. Nothing proves that this is part of “eternal human nature”.

That does not mean, especially for the transitional period, that conflicts will be non-existent: between the needs of environmental protection and social needs, between the obligations concerning ecology and the need to develop basic infrastructures, in particular in the poor countries, between popular consumption habits and the lack of resources. A society without social classes is not a society without contradictions or conflicts. These are inevitable: it will be the role of democratic planning, in an ecosocialist perspective freed from the constraints of capital and profit, to resolve them thanks to open and pluralist discussions leading society itself to make the decisions. Such a democracy, common and participatory, is the only means, not to avoid making errors, but to correct them by the social community itself.

Michael Löwy, a philosopher and sociologist of Brazilian origin, is a member of the New Anti-capitalist Party in France and of the Fourth International. A Fellow of the IIRE in Amsterdam and former research director of the French National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS), he has written many books, including The Marxism of Che Guevara, Marxism and Liberation Theology, Fatherland or Mother Earth? and The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America. He is joint author (with Joel Kovel) of the International Ecosocialist Manifesto. He was also one of the organizers of the first International Ecosocialist Meeting, in Paris, in 2007.


1. Available on the site of International Viewpoint: http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1642.

2. Here is what the document says: “According to the IPCC, the maintenance of the current trends as regards emissions would lead, between now and the year 2100, to a rise of the average surface temperature ranging between 1.1 and 6.4°C compared to 1990. The width of the range is explained by the double uncertainty which comes from the climatic models, on the one hand, and the scenarios of human development, on the other hand.”

3. “Given the urgency of the situation and for social reasons, the capture and sequestration of carbon could be acceptable as a transitional measure, in the framework of a strategy of a rapid abandonment of fossil fuels: it could, in particular, make it possible to plan the redeployment of miners. But it is not envisaged this way at the moment. It is, on the contrary, a new capitalist attempt to push back physical limits without caring about the consequences. Governments talk about “clean coal”, but it is a myth if we take into account the great difficulty of mining it, dust pollution, the consequences for health and the ecological impact of coal mines.”

4. “The goal of this movement is not to work out sophisticated platforms but to force governments to act at least in accordance with the most careful conclusions arising from the evaluation reports of the IPCC, to respect the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, social and democratic rights and the right of everyone to a human existence worthy of the name. We defend this goal against the currents which lower the objectives of reduction in emissions in the name of realism, but also against those who denounce them as insufficient (we try to bring the latter round by asking “as a minimum” for the respect of the “most careful” conclusions of the IPCC).”

Theories of Stalinism

— Paul Le Blanc

The Marxism of Leon Trotsky
By Kunal Chattopadhyay
Kolkata: Progress Publishers, 2006, 672 pages, including index, $25 paperback.

Western Marxism and the Soviet Union
By Marcel van der Linden
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009, 379 pages, including index,
$20 paperback.

KARL MARX AND his comrades deemed their own approach “scientific,” as compared to “utopian” intellectual efforts on behalf of socialism, because they believed that practical efforts to challenge and ultimately replace capitalism with something better must be grounded in a serious study of economic, political, social, historical realities and dynamics.

More, they believed that lessons learned from practical organizing and political experiences of the working class and popular social movements — sometimes glorious victories and often tragic defeats — must also guide practical efforts of the future. The combination of such study and experience has been called “Marxist theory.”

The massive crisis of capitalism has put the meaning of “socialism” back into public debate. Superficially equating state intervention in the economy with “socialism,” some are inclined to agree with Newsweek magazine that “we are all socialists now.”

Despite far-right hysteria, however, President Obama is no socialist. Like President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the last big decline in capitalism’s fortunes, he is insistent that bailing out capitalism is the purpose of his administration’s hands-on approach to the economy. But those who perceive that — from the standpoint of human rights, the dignity of labor, the preservation of our health and communities and environment — “capitalism fouls things up,” will certainly feel that we must go beyond the limitations of Obama’s policies.

One of the many differences between the present global capitalist downturn and that of the 1930s is that back then there were millions of people throughout the world who believed the 1917 Revolution that the Bolshevik/Communist vanguard led in Russia had actually opened the pathway to the socialist-communist future — despite the dictatorial emergency measures brought on by foreign invasion and civil war. Rule by democratic councils (soviets) of the workers and peasants seemed to have been established, and a global Communist movement took shape for the purpose of carrying out similar revolutions throughout the world.

After the revolution’s universally acknowledged leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, died in 1924, a sharp struggle erupted over future perspectives, between the intransigent revolutionary Leon Trotsky and the seemingly more patient and easy-going Joseph Stalin. Victory within the Russian Communist Party went to Stalin — who then guided the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) into what was called a “revolution from above,” involving the forced collectivization of land and a fiercely rapid industrialization. By the 1930s, the Stalin regime claimed that it had finally achieved “socialism,” a claim accepted with hope and rejoicing by many workers, peasants, students, intellectuals, and others throughout the world.

As time went on, increasing numbers of people came to the conclusion that what existed in the USSR had little to do with the socialism forecast by Marx — a “free association of the producers” in which the laboring masses had won the battle for democracy to create an abundant society of the free and the equal. Instead, it was a society which continued to be marked by a considerable degree of inequality, drudgery, scarcity, and extreme restrictions on freedom.

If this was not the socialism that the Stalinists said it was, then what was it? How could its emergence be explained? The answers to such questions have obvious implications for other questions: Is a socialist alternative to capitalism actually possible? What are the preconditions, the barriers, and the possibilities for such a transition?  Such questions as these have a greater edge than ever in the present period of capitalist crisis. Each in their own way, the books under review here have relevance for those facing this dilemma.

Trotsky’s Marxism

The life and thought of Leon Trotsky have guided many seeking to understand the grandeur of the Russian Revolution and the tragedy of its betrayal. Kunal Chattopadhyay’s The Marxism of Leon Trotsky is not the first book to deal with the topic indicated in the title. The more serious biographies — by Isaac Deutscher and Pierre Broué (the latter still calls out for English translation) — naturally deal at length with Trotsky’s revolutionary perspectives, as does Tony Cliff’s more activist-oriented four-volume study.

Important discussions of Trotsky’s political orientation have been offered by such activist scholars as Ernest Mandel, Michael Löwy, Duncan Hallas, and John Molyneux — the first two inclined to embrace Trotsky without reservation, the latter two (along with Cliff) taking issue with him particularly for not agreeing with them that the USSR was “state capitalist,” and also for founding the fragile revolutionary socialist network known as the Fourth International.

But until the present volume, the only study reaching for a thorough and in-depth exposition has been Baruch Knei-Paz’s 1978 work The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky. When all is said and done, however, Knei-Paz is unsympathetic, even dismissive of Trotsky’s revolutionary Marxism, despite his devoting 598 pages to it. Chattopadhyay’s book (30 pages longer) provides a more sympathetic, insightful, reliable account.

A Professor of History at Calcutta’s prestigious Jadavpur University, Chattopadhyay brings to this study a sensibility developed through his own family’s long-time involvement in the substantial Indian Communist movement. In his youth, he himself was swept up in Maoist currents before experience and reflection brought him into the Fourth International. Such background may contribute to his ability to see and explain the coherence in the complexity and sweep of Trotsky’s thought.

It is unfortunate that this splendid book is not easily available to U.S. readers. Its length and polemical edge raise questions as to whether a U.S. publisher will be inclined to rectify the situation. Yet the occasional reference to recent debates within the Fourth International, or between the Fourth International and other left-wing currents, cannot obscure the fact that we are presented here with a clear, rigorous, richly textured examination of an amazing political theorist and revolutionary leader. Those seriously concerned with Trotsky, Marxism, revolutionary history and activism must take this massive contribution into account.

The book's chapters are grouped into four parts. “The Foundations” makes a distinction between Classical Marxism (associated with Marx and Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky) and the more rigid, mechanistic, dogmatic “Orthodox” Marxism supposedly predominant in the mainstream of the socialist movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Part Two, “The Strategy of Revolution,” offers two chapters exploring the development of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution in Russia, and then his generalization of it on a global scale.

Part Three, “The Revolutionary Process,” consists of three chapters dealing with the interrelationship of the working class and the revolutionary party, the relation between democratic workers’ councils and working-class political rule (or “dictatorship of the proletariat”), and the transition to socialism. The three chapters of Part Four, “Proletarian Internationalism,” deal respectively with imperialism, the Communist International which Lenin and Trotsky helped to found and lead (and which Stalin helped to corrupt and dissolve), and the Fourth International.

Chattopadyay helps us see in Trotsky’s thought the dynamic interplay of democracy and class struggle, the self-activity of the masses of laboring and oppressed people reaching for their own liberation within, while at the same time straining beyond, the context of global capitalism.

The three elements of his theory of permanent revolution — (a) the possibility and necessity, under the right circumstances, of democratic and immediate struggles spilling over into the struggle for working-class political power, (b) culminating in a transitional period going in the direction of socialism, (c) which can be realized only through the advance of similar struggles around the world — permeate Trotsky’s orientation from his youth to his death.

His vision of workers’ democracy, and his appreciation of the radical sub-culture created by the embattled working class, comes through in his failed effort to mobilize a Communist-Socialist united front against Hitler in the early 1930s:

“In the course of many decades, the workers have built up within the bourgeois democracy by utilizing it, by fighting against it, their own strongholds and bases of proletarian democracy: the trade unions, the political parties, the educational and sports clubs, the cooperatives, etc. The proletariat cannot attain power within the formal limits of bourgeois democracy but can do so only by taking the road to revolution … And these bulwarks of workers’ democracy [which Hitler’s Nazis were preparing to destroy] within the bourgeois state are absolutely essential for taking the revolutionary road.” (359)

The commitment to workers’ democracy also comes through in Trotsky’s effort to mobilize Communists in the Soviet Republic of the mid-1920s against the bureaucratic onslaught represented by Stalin:

“We must not build socialism by the bureaucratic road, we must not create a socialist society by administrative orders; only by way of the greatest initiative, individual activity, persistence and resilience of the opinion of the many-millioned masses, who sense and know that the matter is their own concern … socialist construction of possible only through the growth of genuine revolutionary democracy.” (398)

Chattopadhyay notes that in his 1936 classic analysis of the USSR, The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky rejected any “attempt to prettify the totalitarian regime.” Insisting “that statisation was not identical to the socialization of the means of production,” he “denied the claim that the USSR was in any sense a socialist society.” (537)

According to Chattopadhyay, “Stalinism (political counter-revolution within the workers’ state) and fascism (political counter-revolution in the bourgeois state) heralded a long black night. It was necessary to raise a new, ‘stainless banner,’ around which the revolutionary workers of a new generation could unite.” (515)

At the same time, running through Trotsky’s orientation is a thoroughgoing revolutionary internationalism which is rooted in a conception of “world economy and the class struggle as a totality subject to uneven and combined development,” as he put it, and an understanding that “today the entire globe — its dry land and water, its surface and interior — has become the arena of a worldwide economy; the dependence of each part on the other has become indissoluble.” (436)

The relevance of his perspectives for modern-day global justice movement seems striking:

“Imperialism represents the predatory capitalist expression of a progressive tendency in economic development — to construct a human economy on a world scale… Only socialism … which liberates the world economy … and thereby liberates national culture itself … offers a way out from the contradictions which have revealed themselves to us as a terrible threat to all of human culture.” (440)

And in sharp contrast to the ethnocentrism of many European socialists, he commented in 1919:

“We have up to now devoted too little attention to capitalism in Asia. However, the international situation is evidently shaping up in such a way that the [revolutionary] road to Paris and London lies via the towns of Afghanistan, the Punjab, and Bengal.” (447)

Critical Appreciation

While those inclined to take issue with key aspects of Trotsky’s thought will be dissatisfied with the author’s almost invariable defense, this is always accompanied by an informative and well-reasoned discussion that even the most severe critic would do well to consider. Nor is Chattopadhyay himself completely uncritical of Trotsky’s perspectives, and his contributions on this score are very much worth more attention and debate than will be possible here.

One of the sharpest criticisms seems to focus on what he views as Trotsky becoming, in a sense, too “Leninist.” While hardly rejecting Lenin’s fundamental orientation, Chattopadhyay approves of the young Trotsky’s conflict with what he portrays (wrongly, I think) as Lenin’s hyper-centralist deviations in What Is To Be Done? and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.

He is also critical of Trotsky initially giving too much ground to Bolshevism when he joined Lenin’s party in 1917. (For an impressive challenge to the gist of Trotsky’s 1904 criticism of Lenin, and thus of Chattopadhyay’s characterization, see Lars Lih’s splendid Lenin Rediscovered [Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008].)

Chattopadhyay’s argument is intriguing. In Trotsky’s anti-Lenin polemic Our Political Tasks (1904), “Trotsky made a point to which we will find him returning all his life: ‘The problems of the new [revolutionary] regime are so intricate that they can be solved only through the rivalry of the various methods of economic and political reconstruction, by long ‘debates,’ by systematic struggle — not only between the socialist and capitalist worlds, but also between the various tendencies within socialism, tendencies that must inevitably develop as soon as the dictatorship of proletariat creates tens and hundreds of new unresolved problems” (220).

This clear recognition of the necessity of political pluralism as an integral part of creating socialism is not present in Lenin’s otherwise magnificent The State and Revolution (1917). The calamities of civil war, foreign intervention, economic blockade, and social chaos following the 1917 revolution caused Lenin, Trotsky and the other Bolsheviks to establish a one-party dictatorship, curtail and ban various manifestations of political pluralism, and adopt other authoritarian measures on an “emergency” basis.

Some of Chattopadhyay’s sharpest criticisms of Trotsky center on this period of 1919-1922. In fact, the temporary expedients were never rescinded, contributing to the replacement of power of workers’ councils by the power of the state and party bureaucratic apparatus — and the crystallization of Stalinism. By 1923-24, Trotsky recognized the danger and began his leadership of the ill-fated Left Opposition.

In his final years, now living in exile before being murdered by a Stalinist agent in 1940, he had — Chattopadhyay shows us — explicitly reintegrated into his Bolshevik-Leninist orientation the pluralist insights of 1904, calling for a political revolution that would overthrow the bureaucratic dictatorship, and for a multi-party soviet democracy. Trotsky viewed this as a political revolution, which he believed could and must rescue the social and economic gains of the 1917 Revolution.

Making Sense of Stalin’s “Socialism”

The political revolution never happened, however. Trotsky himself spent more than 16 years seeking to make sense of Stalin’s “socialism,” a matter Chattopadhyay deals with capably, but not in great depth.* He never expected the bureaucratic dictatorship to last as long as it did.

In fact, several generations of Marxists labored to make sense of what the USSR represented and how it might be squared with Marxist perspectives. Marcel van der Linden, Research Director of Amsterdam’s prestigious International Institute of Social History, points out that “the ‘Russian Question’ was an absolutely central problem for Marxism in the twentieth century.”

In Western Marxism and the Soviet Union, van der Linden offers a survey of Marxist-influenced theorizations and debates. The discussion is not exhaustive but presents the thinking of over 100 people from 1917 to the dawn of the 21st century, whose works are listed here in 44 pages. The eyes and mind of even veteran Marxists may begin to blur after spending excessive stretches of time with this volume — but the author’s account is quite clear, coherent, fair-minded, and genuinely interesting.

The periodic crescendos of theory and debate (seven in all, van der Linden tells us, from 1917 to the end of the 1990s) have implications for the nature, but also the very possibility, of socialism. The nature of capitalism is also at issue, as are the capacities of the working class to improve its own situation and the world, and the adequacy of Marxism as a tool for understanding the world.

Marx’s materialist conception of history had posited a European historical development leading from a generalized primitive tribal communism, eventually giving way to the rise and fall of a succession of slave-based civilizations, then an extensive feudalism slowly evolving through the crystallization and expansion within it of a market economy, explosively giving way to a full-blown and dynamic capitalism, which would generate the possibility of immense productivity and abundance that would pave the way (after a working-class revolution) for a socialist future.

“It is necessary to reconsider the whole traditional structure of historical materialism,” according to dissident-Marxists György Bence and Janos Kis (under the pseudonym Marc Rakovskii) in Les Temps Modernes as they sought to comprehend Soviet-style societies. (247)

Indeed, how could such a society fit within the traditional Marxist schema? In 1980, Rumanian dissident Pavel Campeanu suggested a variety of contradictory elements that added up to “some kind of pre-capitalist socio-economic formation.” (284) Back in 1944 Czechoslovakian ex-Communist Josef Guttman, writing under the name Peter Meyer in the U.S. radical journal Politics, suggested what many others had concluded before him: “Perhaps there is neither capitalism nor socialism in Russia, but a third thing, something that is quite new in history.” (127)

As late as 1980, British economist Simon Mohun argued a point made by some other analysts, summarized by van der Linden in this way: “Just as the transition to capitalism could be understood only after capitalism was consolidated, the transition from capitalism to communism could only be fathomed once communism had become established.” (197-198) But others refused to assume that the USSR represented any such transition to socialism or communism.

In 1970s samizdat essays, Alexander Zimin, an old Bolshevik oppositionist who had somehow survived years in Stalin’s labor camps, suggested that the USSR represented “a mongrel and freakish social formation,” a stagnant evolutionary byway, a dead-end detour going away from both capitalism and socialism. (222) In the 1940s, German left-wing economist Fritz Sternberg had argued that the USSR was a hybrid form with progressive and reactionary tendencies (he increasingly saw the latter as predominant) and that one should resist labeling: “It is useless to attempt to cover with a name; it is misleading to mistake one side of the Russian development for the other.” (131)

This has not stopped many from seeking and applying one or another label. Van der Linden notes: “Numerous attempts were made to understand Soviet society, some with solid empirical foundations, but most lacking them; some consistent and carefully thought-out, others illogical and superficial.” (305)

The three “classical” theories predominating in critical-minded circles (each with some connection to the Trotskyist tradition) have been: (1) degenerated workers’ state, (2) bureaucratic collectivism, (3) state capitalism. Van der Linden argues that none of these matches up with what he calls “orthodox Marxism” — but we will see that some theorists have insisted that major aspects of Marxism itself have been thrown into question by the evolving realities.

Challenge to Marxist Theory

Among the early critics, some insisted that the existence of the authoritarianism and bureaucratic aspects of reality in the early Soviet Republic, and then the substantial concessions to market forces during the period of NEP (New Economic Policy, 1921-29), were far from the socialist goal. This meant, from the standpoint of the stages (primitive communal/slave civilization/feudalism/capitalism/socialism/communism) that have been associated with the Marxist schema, that what existed in Soviet Russia had to be some variety of capitalism, which the critics were inclined to dub “state capitalism.”

The Bolshevik leaders — Lenin and Trotsky most of all — never asserted that socialism had been established. Only Stalin and his followers would claim this, beginning in the 1930s. Lenin argued in 1921 that the 1917 working-class revolution had established a workers’ state (political rule by the workers’ councils, or soviets), but that under pressures of scarcity and war it was “a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations.” The transition to socialism could only be completed on the basis of further economic development, the deepening of workers’ experience and power, and the triumph of the revolution in other parts of the world.

Bolsheviks could also point to Marx’s comments that the future communist (or socialist) society must be seen “not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society, which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth-marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” (264)

Some socialists who had opposed the Bolshevik regime, such as the Menshevik Olga Domanevskaya, insisted that central dynamics of capitalism, such as economic competition and the insatiable quest for profit, were absent from the economy of Soviet Russia. Similarly, the famous Austrian Social-Democratic economist Rudolf Hilferding argued that “wages and prices still exist, but their function is no longer the same,” and that “while maintaining the form, a complete transformation of the function has occurred” in this emerging totalitarian order. (92)

This partly dovetails with the analysis of another Austrian Social-Democrat, Friedrich Adler, that (according to van der Linden’s summary) “Stalin’s ‘experiment’ should be judged as an attempt to realize, through the sacrifice of a whole generation of workers, the primitive accumulation process which in developed capitalism had occurred earlier, and in this way lay the foundation for a socialist Soviet Union.” (53) Hilferding, on the other hand, stressed that the bureaucratic-authoritarian state in Soviet Russia had fractured the classical Marxist dictum that the economic system determines the class nature of the state. Under Stalin it had converted itself into “an independent power” ruling over the Soviet people. (90)

Other challenges to traditional Marxist perspectives would crop up. For example, Simone Weil developed a 1933 analysis which argued that under modern capitalist production the growing division of labor and specialization increasingly resulted in the mass of individuals losing their ability to “see society in its totality,” which meant that they were “imprisoned in a social constellation” which prevented them from grasping the logic and history of social-economic reality. On the other hand, growing managerial and bureaucratic apparatuses were becoming essential for coordinating the “numerous fragmented activities.” If a revolution removed the capitalists, more likely than working-class rule would be the rising administrative forces becoming a new bureaucratic caste ruling over the economy, as in Stalin’s Russia. (74-75)

In fact, the division between intellectual and manual labor had been emphasized by many theorists, and had identified as a source of bureaucratization within the workers’ movement before World War I, and — by logical extension — in the first effort to create a workers’ state. This logic dovetailed with the perception of what actually manifested itself in the USSR, lucidly described in 1970 by U.S. Marxist economist and Monthly Review editor Paul Sweezy:

“The Party established a dictatorship which accomplished epic feats of industrialization and preparation for the inevitable onslaught of the imperialist powers [which took place during World War II], but the price was the proliferation of political and economic bureaucracies which repressed rather than represented the new Soviet working class; and gradually entrenched themselves in power as a new ruling class.” (209)

Some would come to perceive this inability to sustain workers’ power as involving a fatal shortcoming in the working class itself. As another left-wing economist, the Greek/French political theorist Cornelius Castoriadis put it in the late 1940s:

“Having overthrown the bourgeois government, having expropriated the capitalists (often against the wishes of the Bolsheviks), having occupied the factories, the workers thought that all that was necessary was to hand over management to the government, to the Bolshevik party, and to the trade union leaders. By doing so, the proletariat was abdicating its own essential role in the society it was striving to create.” (118)

Such perceptions contributed to some theorists — such as the 1970s East German Communist dissident Rudolf Bahro — concluding that since “the immediate needs of the subaltern strata and classes are always conservative, and never positively anticipate a new form of life,” the hope in bureaucratized “workers’ states” was with the more intellectual middle strata of specialists and administrators pushing aside the privileged bureaucratic elites in order to guide society to genuine socialism. (235-235)

For others, such as James Burnham — the most prominent Trotskyist intellectual in the United States before his rapid swing rightward to the Central Intelligence Agency and the editorial board of conservative journal National Review — a different conclusion became obvious: socialism is impossible.

Dismantling his previous Marxist convictions in the 1941 classic The Managerial Revolution, Burnham asserted that the inevitable wave of the future, already well under way and destined to be completed within half a century, was a global transition to variations of “managerial society” (already evident in the USSR, Nazi Germany, and the extensive social-liberalism of the New Deal in the United States). These different entities would enter into “direct competition in the days to come” for global empire. (83)

Varieties of Socialist Affirmation

While van der Linden feels “it is perfectly clear that the Soviet society can hardly be explained in orthodox Marxist terms at all,” his own sympathies bend toward those who refuse to abandon the Marxist method and the socialist goal. He gives greatest attention to those operating within the general revolutionary socialist framework personified by Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky himself followed the logic of Lenin (workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations) by terming the USSR as a degenerated workers’ state requiring a political revolution by the working class to replace the tyranny of the Stalinist bureaucracy with genuine workers’ rule. “Democracy,” he insisted, “is the one and only conceivable mechanism for preparing the socialist system of economy and realizing it in life.” He forecast in 1938:

“That which was “bureaucratic deformation” is at the present moment preparing to devour the workers’ state, without leaving any remains. . . . If the proletariat drives out the Soviet bureaucracy in time, then it will still find the nationalized means of production and the basic elements of the planned economy after its victory.” (66-67)

Some of Trotsky’s U.S. followers, led by Max Shachtman (and fleetingly Burnham), agreeing with Trotsky’s revolutionary-democratic thrust, concluded that by 1939 the bloated bureaucracy had indeed left “no remains” of the workers’ state. They held that a qualitatively new form of class society had crystallized — what they termed bureaucratic-collectivism. Its effective overthrow would require a much deeper break with the USSR than Trotsky was prepared to accept.

Van der Linden notes that for Trotsky “planned economy and bureaucratic dictatorship were fundamentally incompatible,” and that — as his French comrade Pierre Frank put it — “Stalinism was an accident, not a durable creation of history.” (67) He envisioned either the working class once again taking control of its own workers’ state, clearing away the bureaucratic deformations, and (within the context of working-class revolutions spreading to other lands) moving forward to socialism, or to continued bureaucratic decay ultimately resulting in a collapse that would pave the way for capitalist restoration — which is, of course, what took place 50 years after his death.

The weak point in Trotsky’s conceptualization was pinpointed by his one-time follower in Britain, Tony Cliff: “If the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class, then you cannot have a workers’ state without the workers having power to dictate what happens in society.” (119)

This was exactly the point made by Shachtman and other proponents of the bureaucratic-collectivist analysis — although the barely half-century survival of this purportedly “new stage of class society” does suggest the possibility that it was an optical illusion.

What Cliff and his co-thinkers came up with seems to avoid that problem. They asserted that the USSR under Stalin had evolved into a new variety of capitalism: state capitalism. The Cliff current has been one of the most influential proponents of the “state capitalism” analysis (though van der Linden also treats other proponents — the council communists, as well as C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya).

The “state capitalist” theorists have defended this conception from the types of criticisms noted earlier — for example, the absence of the dynamics of economic competition and of profit maximization as driving the capital accumulation process that defines capitalism — by claiming (as van der Linden summarizes Cliff’s thesis) “that the USSR should be defined as one big capital [or capitalist firm], which operated within the world market, and in so doing competed with the West, above all through the arms race.” (160)

One might question the analytical value of expanding the meaning of “capitalism” in this way. But, as was also the case with the bureaucratic collectivism concept, it served the function of drawing the sharpest line of demarcation between revolutionary socialism and the bogus “socialism” of Stalin and his successors. It also helped prevent, among its adherents, the demoralization and disorientation brought on by the collapse of Communism that afflicted so much of the Left in the 1990s.

On the other hand, van der Linden points out that Cliff and his supporters “had originally assumed that state capitalism represented a higher stage of development than Western capitalism” (258) and — ill-prepared for the crisis and impending collapse that became evident in the 1980s — were compelled to make dramatic if unacknowledged analytical shifts in their later theorizations. For that matter, even more “mainstream” Trotskyists — including such capable and brilliant figures as Ernest Mandel — were inclined to credit the USSR’s “nationalized, planned economy” with much greater efficiency than later proved justified.

It was maverick theorist Hillel Ticktin who in the 1970s broke important new ground by noting that bureaucratic “planning” — by denying democracy — was increasingly inefficient and wasteful, a point that Trotsky himself had made more than once. This allegedly planned economy was “really no more than a bargaining process at best, and a police process at worst.” Ticktin added that “the more intensive and more complex is the economy, the longer the chain of command, and the less intelligible is industry to the administrators, and so the greater the distortions and their proportionate importance.” (242, 243)

Ticktin’s view was that this represented neither a variety of capitalism nor a phase transitional to socialism nor a durable new form of society. Its insights, in fact, influenced competing views, as van der Linden observes:

“Increasingly dominant in all currents of thought became the idea that the Soviet Union embodied a model of economic growth which, although it had initially been successful using extensive methods of industrialization and extra economic coercion, could not maintain its economic and military position in the competition with globalizing world capitalism, because of growing inefficiencies and the absence of a transition to intensive growth.” (303)

Open Questions

In his conclusions to this rich volume, van der Linden emphasizes that while he does “not mean to imply that the old theories are of no use whatever in further theoretical developments,” his conviction is that a fully adequate analysis of the USSR has yet to be developed. (318)

It may be that if we are able to build mass movements and struggles — in various parts of the world, as the 21st century unfolds — that add to our experience of bringing about transitions from capitalism to socialism, a more fully adequate analysis will come more within our grasp.

Marxist theory and history have often been dismissed with shrugs and giggles and eye-rolling, even on the Left, with a few superficial comments being deemed sufficient to sweep away such “ideological cobwebs.” For those embracing that approach, the two volumes reviewed will seem explorations in irrelevancy. For serious activists, however, these books offer not only historical knowledge but insights on our struggle for a survivable future.

ATC 143, November-December 2009

Report on V. Geetha's Talk on the Sri Lankan Situation

V. Geetha, well known Tamil feminist, activist in the Dalit rights movement and author of several books, was in Calcutta as a visiting faculty at the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University. At the invitation of Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha, she delivered a talk on the Sri Lankan Situation and Women on 27th October, 2009.

About 21 people were present at the talk, including members of the NNPM, other women’s rights activists, students of Jadavpur University, activists from various left wing organisations and people involved in alternative media.

The programme began with a song, led by Ruchira Goswami. This was followed by a self-introduction session.

Geetha in her speech began with a very short presentation of the history of Tamils as a minority in Sri Lanka, and how the nation-building project by the Sri Lankan elite had systematically sought to exclude the Tamils, beginning with the disenfranchisement of the large numbers of so-called Indian Tamils. She noted how the rise of the LTTE took place, and identified the Indian Peace Keeping Force and its brutalities, including rape and sexual assault of women, as a crucial turning point. The failure of peaceful nationalist oppositions as well as the ideological collapse of the multi-national (Sinhala and Tamil) Left, like the LSSP, resulted in the LTTE emerging as an attractive option. That it degenerated subsequently does not take away the reality of its role at a certain juncture of history.

She explained how the LTTE had lost its ideology a long time back, and had become a militaristic organisation, semi-fascist in its structure and function, and argued that what nevertheless propelled many people towards it was the violence and utter hostility of the Sri Lankan elite. Her talk also examined the role of women inside the LTTE structures, and the issue of how far they had autonomy.

Another complexity of Sri Lankan society that Geetha mentioned was the identity and role of Muslims. They were also Tamil speaking, but had an uneasy relationship with a purely Tamil identity. The LTTE at one stage compelled Muslims to leave Jaffna with an 8-hour notice, and this certainly embittered many of them. In the Eastern province, where Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalas live close to each other, the Muslims are aware of being a minority within the minority, and tend to negotiate with both the Tamil and the State leadership.

Another dimension of her talk was the dispersal of Tamils over the years. 45 % of the Tamils now live in Diasporas, with major concentrations in France and Canada, especially Toronto. LTTE penetration of the Diasporas had been crucial for its fund raising and arms collecting. But she also argued that the Diaspora contained many voices, and even the supporters of the LTTE were not homogenous. For many the LTTE provided a link with home, while others supported it out of guilt, as they had left home, while others, yet, accepted it out of fear.

In the period after the defeat and destruction of the LTTE, Geetha argued, the Sri Lankan regime has not taken any steps towards reconciliation. Instead, a Zionist-type solution of permanent camps cannot be ruled out. There are currently about 430,000 people in the camps – 190,000 held over the last 15 years and 240000 held in 2009. Families have been torn apart. Camp life is terribly wretched. And along with a consciously stoked up inter-ethnic hostility, used by the Buddhist clergy and the ruling class to mobilize the Sinhala people, there is another dimension. Areas have been declared as high security zones, from which people have been evicted, in the name of combating the LTTE. But now, such areas are being turned over for making SEZs. The Government of India has been complicit in all this. Indian naval assurance that the LTTE would not be allowed to escape was crucial in the final offensive. And India’s own National Thermal Power Corporation wants its finger in the SEZ pie. Geetha suggested that this was not too far off from what is being done in a large number of places from Chhattisgarh to West Bengal.

In the camps, women face tremendous hardship. And unless they are removed soon, once the monsoon comes, their position will become worse. Given India’s engagement, she felt there should be a huge campaign to put pressure on the Government of India.

A spirited discussion followed her talk, and the meeting went on for nearly three hours. Questions were raised about how far a semi-fascist organization could talk of autonomy for women, what kind of reflection of the situation we find in literature, what role the rights groups and civil society organizations are playing in the current situation, and whether one can equate state-violence with non-state violence? A substantial discussion took place over the polarities created on one hand by pro-LTTE activists and on the other hand by forces like the Sri Lanka Democratic Forum, with the former talking in terms of either traitors or martyrs, while the latter insisted that till the LTTE was destroyed there could be no talk of reacting strongly to state violence.

Indian Nationalism, Hindutva and the Bomb


Sukla Sen

The survival of humanity inhabiting the South Asian subcontinent critically depends on the demystification of the nuclear myths, that invest the Bomb with magical powers of immense proportions, and consequent denuclearisation of the region as an integral and crucial component of global disarmament.

"If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, That would be like the splendour of the Mighty One... I am become Death, The shatterer of Worlds."
The Bhagavad-Gita (quoted by Dr. Robert Oppenheimer after the first experimental overground explosion of an atomic bomb)

"I heard the earth thundering below our feet and rising ahead of us in terror. It was a beautiful sight. It was a triumph of Indian science and technology."
Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam describes the Pokhran II nuclear explosions, The Times of India, June 28, 1998.

The moral to be legitimately drawn from the supreme tragedy of the bomb is that it will not be destroyed by counter-bombs even as violence cannot be by counter-violence. Mankind has to get out of violence only through non-violence. Hatred can be overcome only by love.
M K Gandhi quoted in ‘Atom Bomb and Ahimsa’


Gandhian Legacy and Its Decline

The frail, slightly stooping and ageing figure of Gandhi leaning on a long uneven stick firmly held in his emaciated hand, clad only in bare loincloth with an old round watch hanging alongside his waist - marching down the dusty Indian roads with transparent grit and determination to demonstratively defy the diktats of the all-powerful imperialist rulers is perhaps one of the most abiding pictures that almost reflexively rises to mind’s surface whenever one thinks of India’s epic struggle against colonial bondage.

True, the new rulers of independent India did little to show any real respect for the Gandhian values and principles, most of all “truth and non-violence”. Even at the very dawn of independence, which was ushered in amidst almost unimaginable sectarian violence and gory bloodshed leading to the vivisection of the country, he stood a tragic and forlorn figure.

And yet it is the image of Gandhi as the indomitable marcher, or working patiently at his spinning wheel, symbolising peace and non-violence, and quiet yet determined opposition to oppression and injustice - that the Indian state took great pains to associate itself with.

Over the decades, however, even this purely formal obeisance got diluted almost to the point of nullity.

The Big Bang and Rupture

But it is perhaps only in the fitness of things that the real break came when the BJP, the mass political/parliamentary wing of the hydra-headed RSS, came to power at the Centre - albeit aided by two dozen sundry political formations, in March 1998. In less than two months’ time the new government deliberately and publicly launched India’s nuclear weaponisation programme through a series of five nuclear explosions. This not only completely overturned India’s official position on the nuclear issue -acknowledging nuclear weapons as an unmitigated evil, being maintained - even if rather tenuously, till then; it also evidently signified a clear and categorical rupture with the Gandhian legacy - anti-colonial nationalism imbibed with the spirit of universalism, or whatever of it had remained.

11th May 1998 was the day the Government of India, constituted of a motley crowd of about two dozen political parties led by the “Hindu” nationalist BJP, carried out, as per its official declaration, three nuclear explosions as a deliberate act of military exhibitionism in the western desert of Rajasthan at a place called Pokhran. Two days after followed another two in the midst of world-wide shock and condemnation.

Just after a fortnight the neighbouring Pakistan, which became the prime target of vulgar taunts and boastful threats of the BJP/NDA leaders occupying senior government posts, retaliated with a series of six explosions.

Since then the South Asian region has virtually turned into a live volcano just waiting to erupt and decimate the lives and dreams of more than one billion human beings along with their habitat.

Indian Nationalism vis-a-vis “Hindu” Nationalism

The very magnitude of the success of BJP’s masterstroke, which appeared quite stunning at that point of time - with rapturous crowds bursting crackers and distributing sweets on the city streets appropriately captured on the TV-screens and banner headlines of the mainstream and venerable newspapers on the morning after screaming full-throated support to India’s “Explosion of Self-Esteem”, regardless of Buddha - whose birthday coincided with the first instalment of explosions, and Gandhi, pointed to a rather complex and problematic relationship between Indian nationalism - or its changing profile, and the politics of Hindutva - which, not too long ago, appeared to belong only to the lunatic fringe.

This relationship we will try to explore, albeit in very brief within the scope of the present monograph, at two distinct, even if interconnected, levels. One, in terms of the (compositional and) attitudinal change of the Indian elite. Then we will also try to map the policy shifts of the principal, or ‘natural’, party of Indian nationalism - the Indian National Congress. Both having profound impact on the appeal of Hindutva, and the fortunes of the RSS/BJP. And consequently the destiny of India.

The politics of ‘Hindutva’ - a term first coined and popularised by V D Savarkar in 1923, and later identified with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) - an organisation launched in 1925 on the Vijayaa Dashami Day by one Keshav Baliram Hedgewar to champion its cause, has a rather fascinating history. But before trying to plot the trajectory of Hindutva, it is imperative to keep in mind that the project of ’Hindutva’ is, in its essence, one of building up mass mobilisation, geared to the task of forging a new “Hindu” nation-state - out of the extant one through its appropriation and negation, around a core ’majority’, propelled by whipped up feelings of ’insecurity, paranoia, hatred and aggression’ against an array of ’adversarial and menacing others’, both internal and external, by making extensive and manipulative use of real and imaginary, past and contemporary ’history’ of fissures and conflicts. While religion is put to extensive and intensive instrumentalist use in this task of militant, exclusionist, majoritarian mobilisation, elements of (ultra)nationalism are also put to good use by borrowing and (mis)appropriating the idioms and icons of (widely accepted) mainstream (secular) nationalism, particularly (though not exclusively) of its rightwing variety.

Mainstream Indian nationalism, on the other, came into being through the process and as the culmination of India’s long drawn out struggle for emancipation from the British colonial rule. At its core lies the widely cherished dream of a democratic, pluralist and egalitarian India - at peace with itself and the world without. Consequently the ’idea of India’ that emerged and evolved over the last 150 years or so during the course of this epic struggle (and also in its aftermath) essentially recognises the legitimacy of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural character of the Indian society and consequently pluralist, secular, integrative democracy as the only viable basis for the independent Indian state. It bears reiteration that Hindutva calls for nothing short of deliberate negation of this ideological basis and undermining of the post-independence Indian state, along with its rather elaborate legal-constitutional and institutional framework, while masquerading itself as the greatest defender of the Indian nation state.

Before proceeding further with our investigation an important caveat needs be entered here for any meaningful journey down the line. Indian nationalism from its very inception assumed an ‘omnibus’ character. This deliberate ‘all-inclusiveness’ constituted its key characteristic and made it eminently suitable as the foundational ideology for the ‘India in the making’, given the size and vast diversities amongst the peoples of the subcontinent - in terms of culture, language, ethnicity, social-economic station and, of course, religious belief/practice. As a result we could find the call for ‘Ram Rajya’ and activist support for the Khilafat movement to go hand in hand. This tendency to (uncritically) accept all and reject nothing, overlook otherwise evident differences and contradictions, in so far as they meet the basic criteria of anti-colonialism, however, made it highly incapable of clearly demarcating itself from and consequently taking head on various aberrant tendencies within the broad spectrum. Moreover, the demography and history of the subcontinent saw to it that Indian nationalism, and its principal agency - the Indian National Congress, assumed a distinct (upper caste) Hindu flavour notwithstanding its pluralist and egalitarian commitments, particularly of its most visible symbols - Gandhi, Bose, Nehru, and also Tagore. The quest for and invention of a “golden past” as a critical element and the psychological ballast in the struggle against the commonly perceived civilisational superiority of the colonial rulers further blurred the dividing line between ‘secular’ liberal nationalism and “Hindu” communalism.

It is against this backdrop that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS - National Volunteers’ Federation) opened its shop in 1925, apparently borrowing the basic organisational model from the Anushilan Samity - a militant nationalist organisation in Bengal, to propagate its distinctive brand of “nationalism” under the cover of “character building”. It placed itself outside of the arena of “political” activities, unlike its ideological ancestor the Hindu Mahasabha (Hindus’ Grand Assembly). This made it easier to avoid any direct confrontation with the Congress, the principal vehicle of Indian nationalism, and also adverse attention of the colonial rulers. The strategy was essentially two-pronged : to critique and discredit the mainstream nationalism (in the eyes of its actual and prospective adherents); and (rather surreptitiously) supplant its broad pluralist vision with its own hate-filled sectarian one. In other words : delegitmise/subvert Indian nationalism; and (mis)appropriate it. It is quite significant that this basic duality till this day continues unabated. Praise Gandhi to the sky - claim him as one of your own; celebrate the memory of Nathuram Godse - his unrepentant killer. Demand forced respect for the national flag; spread disaffection against it for containing colours other than saffron. Ditto for the national anthem and the Indian constitution. Even as regards the nuclear explosions : project it as a bold departure from the pusillanimity of the nationalist/Congress traditions; claim it as the continuation and culmination of the earlier policy backed by broad national consensus.

While it definitely goes to the credit of the RSS that it could follow this strategy of duality with high degree of persistence and fiendish finesse, it could hardly have been possible without the intrinsic fuzziness of Indian nationalism, more noticeable on its fringes.

Transmutation of Indian Elite

Break with the Past

The imposition of the British rule, in the mid-eighteenth century, through the agency of the East India Company over vast stretches of the Indian sub-continent as the culmination of a series of persuasive and aggressive overtures to secure exclusive and unfettered trading rights for about two centuries and a half by the colonisers from the West across the seas - which would be, about a century later, converted into the direct rule of the British Crown, created more than a ripple in the life of the landmass called India. While the object was unmistakably to reap huge commercial benefits by buying cheap, mainly raw materials, and selling finished products from its mechanised factories at large margins, once the formal rule was established over the native population it had to be legitimised also in terms of a supposedly civilising mission. This was considered necessary to make the alien rule established on the strength of guns and cannons, aided by diplomatic manœuvres, a less disagreeable, if not outright welcome, development in the eyes of the colonised and thereby minimise the cost of maintaining such rule in a faraway land. But this also served an useful purpose in selling the blood-soaked venture to the domestic constituencies - another necessity, given the political structure at home.

While Marx had noted, with good justification, the revolutionary potentials of introduction of the railways on the Indian soil, it is the introduction of Western education, through the medium of English, with the express purpose of creating layers of subordinate state officials with unquestionable loyalty to the Crown from amongst the ranks of the natives to carry out the colonial rule which, at least on the face of it, turned out to be the most proximate factor in causing a ferment.

The Indian society, given its sub-continental dimensions and extremely wide diversities in terms of class, caste, language ethnicity, religion etc responded to this fundamentally novel experience in a highly complex and variegated manner.

A middle class, a new social category, arose - mainly in the newly emerging metropolises of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. And it is from the ranks of this English educated middle class, coming mainly from the various layers of upper caste Hindu gentry and purported to serve as the loyal agents of the colonial rulers, arose the future vanguards of the anti-colonial independence movement.

The “Sepoy Mutiny” of 1857 was the last attempt of the “traditional” India under the nominal and symbolic, even if rather reluctant, leadership of the then Mughal Emperor of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to overthrow the ever-expanding alien rule and restore the “old” order. The incipient “middle class’, the offspring of the”new order" stood aside.

Genesis and Growth

The introduction of the English education with the express and explicit goal, as enunciated by Lord Macaulay as far back as1835, of creating “a class [from amongst the native Indians] who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” produced a profoundly contradictory set of results beyond the wildest dreams, or nightmares, of its initiators. While on the face of it, it did achieve its intended goals with a stunning degree of success, it also caused a new ferment in the intellectual life of the subcontinent. With English education came the ideals of liberalism, rooted in the legacy of the Renaissance, and the traditions of the French Revolution succeeded by the Italian and Irish liberation movements. The rising middle class could not be kept hermetically sealed off from the stirring influence of the Bolshevik Revolution either.

But to be sure the social spread of the English educated middle class, engaged in various layers of government jobs, also in slowly proliferating private mercantile and industrial enterprises, and in professions in the fields of law, education, media and modern medicine, remained fairly confined to the upper strata of the traditional Indian society. Then again, the Muslim aristocracy, perhaps as a consequence of the crushed Mutiny, remained by and large outside of this new ferment.

Indian Freedom Movement had its roots in the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 - composed exclusively of prominent and illustrious members from the uppermost strata of the English educated class. The distinction from the leadership of the failed Mutiny, about three decades back, could have not been any starker. But the Movement came into its own only with the advent of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a barrister who had studied law in London, on the Indian shores in 1915 back from his stay at South Africa for just over two decades. Under the leadership of Gandhi, who took over in about five years, the Congress not only adopted more radical stance, it also, for the first time, assumed mass character. Nevertheless the leadership remained firmly in the hands of the middle class - a class while mindful of its own specific interests and consequently by and large jettisoned any revolutionary forms of movement seeking radical rupture with the past and adopted an entirely novel and gradualist strategy based on non-violent non-cooperation with the colonial rulers, was also at the same time fairly awake and sensitive to the needs of the subaltern masses. Numerous members of the class, within and outside the Congress, showed highest forms of self-less idealism and inspired the masses. The protection of self-interests was consciously attempted to be organically integrated with the concerns of the common people. As a result, the middle class leadership of the Freedom Movement earned a very high degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the entire ‘nation in the making’.

The middle class also, even if rather tentatively, worked out a new value system by synthesising elements of Western liberalism and Protestant work ethics e.g. rationalism, punctuality, objectivity, integrity with austerity and abstinence from the Brahminical traditions. However, it is the electrifying ambience of death-defying and self-sacrificing anti-colonial anti-imperialist independence struggle that had the most decisive impact on the moral world of the Indian middle class.


With Independence attained things changed, and changed rather radically - in more ways than one. With Independence the morally uplifting influence of the epic struggle started fading out. And the Nehruvian vision of nation building and his call for “tryst with destiny” failed to adequately fill the vacuum in spite of some initial success under rather trying conditions of abject economic backwardness in a highly diverse society riven by the extremely traumatic experience of the Partition. It did not take too long to start loosing its moral halo. Things had in fact started changing even before Independence, when Congress ministries took reins of power in their hands in the provinces under British rule. In time Khadi Kurta and Gandhi cap came to be recognised as the trademark for corruption and depravity rather than symbol of self-less patriotism as had been the case earlier.

With the launching of the massive industrialisation drive propelled by direct interventions of the ‘welfarist’ state rapidly proliferated the salaried middle class which included patronage dispensing state functionaries. The implementation of the land reforms, even if formulated and implemented in a rather scrappy fashion, together with other measures to promote food and agricultural productions caused the rise of a new strata of rich and middle peasants, mainly from amongst the ranks of the middle castes - the bulk of which have since come to be labelled as ‘Other backward Castes’ (OBC). The massive expansion of economic activities together with land reforms and job reservations in government/public sectors under a parliamentary democratic regime based on adult franchise thus triggered off irreversible changes in the social composition of the burgeoning middle class. The value system, earlier evolved, somewhat tentatively, by a class engaged in an intense anti-establishment struggle infused with egalitarian ideals, based on the synthesis of Western liberalism and elements of Brahminical traditions could not sustain the resultant strains. The new middle class, much larger in proportion than it had hitherto been, arose virtually as a junior partner of their much less numerous but decidedly more weighty cousins - the vastly expanded and expanding class of commercial, industrial and agricultural bourgeoisie, a community of self-seeking “rational fools” bereft of broader social commitments - driven by unenlightened, narrow and consumerist self-interests - for whom “greed is great”. It, however, took some time to decipher this new and momentous development.

Even the international scenario took a turn towards deradicalisation, ironically with the successful conclusion of the struggle for Vietnamese liberation in the early seventies as the befitting climax of a long drawn out process of decolonisation of the Third World - interspersed with Chinese liberation, Korean War, Cuban revolution and so and so forth. After a big spurt of radicalism in the sixties, both nationally and internationally, the manifestations of the ongoing profound changes and the consequent shift to the Right of the whole political spectrum across the board became unmistakably evident since the early/mid seventies. The trend picked up further momentum with the inauguration of the frankly neo-liberal new economic policies in the early nineties, with which the upcoming middle class developed a symbiotic relationship. The gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots” widened. The phenomenon of the “secession of the successful” came into being. And yet even the subaltern classes could not escape the morally corrosive influence of this hedonistic “new” middle class.

Degeneration of Congress and Rise of Hindutva

In order to make sense of the complex web of developments since Independence, observers had to perforce resort to periodisation. In the following we also do likewise, albeit in our own way and with necessary approximations .

1947 - 1965 : Predominance, Stability and Transformation

During this period, since 15th August 1947 when (truncated) India attained freedom through a negotiated transfer of power to the Indian National Congress (INC) - as the sole recognised representative of the Indian people, the INC was spectacularly successful in consolidating its hold. While the legacy of the long drawn out and gigantic freedom struggle played a very crucial role, the Nehruvian vision of New India - incorporating the agendas of (a) ‘national integration’, (b) ‘economic development’, (c ) ‘social equality’ and (d) consolidation of multiparty parliamentary democracy - also played no mean part. India declared itself a Republic on the 26th January of 1950 and the Constitution as worked out by the Constituent Assembly came into operation. With the demise of Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, since the early fifties Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, became the unassailable leader, both at the government and party level.

In the first three general elections, in 1952, ’57 and ’62, the Congress polled 45.0, 47.8, and 44.7% votes and gained 76.0, 77.0 and 73.5% of the seats in the Lok Sabha. The degree of predominance of the Congress becomes even clearer if we consider that the sum of votes polled by the top 2 parties were 56, 58 and 55%. And the sum for the top three were 61, 67 and 63%. So as compared to the second largest party the vote share of the Congress was around 4.5 times, and in comparison to the third largest it was between 5.5 and 9 times. The predominance appeared so overwhelming that Indian democracy came to be dubbed by the Western scholars as ‘One Party System’ or ‘Congress System’.

From the party of struggle the Congress transformed itself into the party of governance - governance not through mass mobilisation with the help of the extensive network of party organisation that was built bit by bit during the years of struggle - particularly since 1920, but an elaborate state machinery - the basic structure of which was inherited from the repressive colonial state, networked with the party caucuses at various appropriate levels. The concept of “planned economy”, worked out much before the actual attainment of Independence was operationalised in the form of Five Year Plans commencing in 1951. The planning process, however, came into its own with the inauguration of the Second Five Year Plan in 1956 with its explicit and elaborate emphasis on massive and direct state investment in building infrastructure and heavy industries requiring huge investments with long gestation periods, and thereby beyond the reach of private capitals. This was to serve as the foundation for further industrialisation, apart from opening up large job opportunities and facilitating growth of private capital in the consumer goods sector. The entry of foreign capital and goods was strictly regulated to protect the indigenous capital. The Third Five Year Plan continued on the same note.

The one area in which the rupture with the past was most noticeable was the coercive method of dealing with popular discontent in general - be it Tebhaga or Telengana movement led by the communists or movements for linguistic states. But it was by far at its brutal worst in the case of Naga and Mizo movements for independence in the North-East.

By the end of this period, in October 1962, came the Sino-Indian border war in which the Indian Army was badly humiliated. For the first time since Independence Nehru’s authority was seriously challenged. The then Defence Minister, V K Krishna Menon, a protégé of Nehru without independent political base had to resign. The hitherto highly acclaimed foreign policy was ferociously assailed. Right wing politics, both within and outside Congress, received a big boost and the RSS gained new respectability. Nehru himself died broken-hearted in the summer of ’64. Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded as the Prime Minister.

1965 - 1977 : Turbulence, Instability and Repression

After ’62 the defence budget had been substantially augmented. Then came ’65. The war with Pakistan. It again took its toll on the economy. Relation with the West was seriously impaired. Flow of aids throttled. Crisis of foreign exchange erupted. A large devaluation of the Indian rupee was resorted to. Agricultural productions failed for two consecutive years : ‘65-‘66 and ‘66-’67. Economy suffered severe recession. The planning process collapsed. For three years, ‘66-’69, there was ‘Plan Holiday’.

However, in ‘67-’68 the agricultural production, and food production in particular, rose significantly on a sustained basis as a result of use of hybrid seeds, better irrigation, increased use of fertilisers and pesticides, and mechanisation of agriculture. The rich and middle peasants, mainly from the ‘middle castes’ became the main vehicle and beneficiaries of this technology driven “Green Revolution”. The increased economic clout, in due course, sought and found reflection in social and political spheres as well. Aspirations spurted. Tensions in rural society further aggravated.

Indira Gandhi was installed by the Congress High Command, known as the Syndicate at that time, as Shastri’s successor, who died in January ’66. At the state levels Congress started facing large scale desertions of the local satraps, mainly representing the upcoming rural bourgeoisie.

The year 1965 saw food riots in Kerala. In 1966 severe food shortage triggered off organised mass protests under the leadership of the Left in West Bengal on an unprecedented scale. India was beset with widespread mass discontent and political agitation.

The Congress received a serious jolt in the 1967 elections. Its vote share in the Lok Sabha elections came down by about 4% points. Its number of seats fell more dramatically. From about three fourth it was reduced just over half. But even more significantly it lost power in as many as nine states. Something undreamt of even a couple of years back. Political instability at the state levels became the rule rather than exception. On top of that militant student and agrarian movements emanating from West Bengal started spreading to various other parts of India. Two decades after Independence India all of a sudden appeared to start wobbling.

After initial years of fumbling Indira struck out on her own. By the end of 1969 she split the Congress in pursuance of a populist politico-economic agenda. In the process humbled the ageing Congress bosses, adopted confrontationist politics, rejected the concept of Nehruvian/Gandhian consensus of the earlier years, virtually destroyed the complex hierarchical organisation structure of the Congress and crippled the independent support base of almost every other leader in the organisation - whether at the Centre or at the states. The Congress was in due course renamed after her as Congress (Indira).

The Lok Sabha was prematurely dissolved. Early election was called. She notched up a stunning victory, with 43.7% of the votes and 68.1% of the seats, on the strength of her call of garibi hatao (expel poverty). And yet the Congress under her leadership fell short of its 1962 performance. By the end of 1971 Pakistan was mutilated. Bangladesh came into being in place of the erstwhile East Pakistan. Indira played a decisive role in the whole process. She was hailed as goddess Durga even by her opponents. Her popularity reached the peak. In 1974 India carried out its first underground nuclear explosion, dubbed as ‘implosion’ in those days - ostensibly for peaceful purposes. No one took the claim too seriously. The move was widely hailed within the country, by the Right in particular.

And yet the political instability and mass discontent could not be squashed. Particularly since 1974 the anti-government agitation under the leadership of Jaya Prakash Narayan became more and more virulent. In the night of 25th June 1975 Emergency was proclaimed. All democratic rights were suspended. A reign of brutal repression was let loose. Thousands were sent to jails. The media was completely gagged.

During the course of Emergency Sanjay Gandhi, the second and youngest son of Indira, holding no official post emerged as the second most powerful person in India - exercising power in the most arbitrary and profligate manner. Under his leadership a highly coercive population control drive was launched - treating human beings, and the poor in particular, as no better than cattle. In the name of beautification of cities extreme cruelties were perpetrated against the homeless poor. Both these campaigns had noticeably anti-Muslim edge. In 1977, with the political opposition completely crushed and the terrorised media singing hallelujah to her, Indira Gandhi called for parliamentary elections, presumably to legitimise her reign of terror. But the eventual outcome was beyond the wildest dreams of her opponents. The Congress was swept aside in a massive avalanche of mass disapproval. Indira herself had to bite dust. The Congress vote rather dramatically fell to 34.5% and seats to 28.5%.

1977 - 1998 : Years of Drift

From ’77 to March ’98, in twenty one years, there were seven elections and eleven governments at the Centre. Out of these, three served full term or nearly full term. And all these three were Congress governments, two with comfortable majority. But the last one was actually a minority government led by Narasimha Rao, which survived with the (tacit) support of the BJP. It was somewhat a mirror image of what Indira did between ’69 and ’71 - indicative of the underlying shift in the balance and equation of political forces. Of the short-lived ones, the first one was a Janata Party government, which assumed power in 1977 with a comfortable majority. The now-dissolved Jana Sangh constituted an important component of the Janata Party which was formed out of the merger of the Cong(O), BLD, Jana Sangh and CFD. Another one was a National Front Government led by V P Singh supported by the BJP and the Left. In the fall of both these governments the JS/BJP played a major role.

In ’96 an United Front government came to power with the backing of the Left, some of the regional parties and also rather reluctant support from the Congress. The Congress caused the fall of the government in less than two years after effecting a change of leader in between.

In March 1998 eventually the BJP occupied the coveted seat of power at the Centre heading a coalition of about two dozen parties.

Over this period the actual distance between the Congress and BJP, or rather Saffron politics, considerably narrowed, and the dividing line blurred. While Rajiv Gandhi’s role in reopening the doors of the Babri Mosque to allow worship by the Hindus have been widely noted, the (spine-chilling) significance of the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, in which Congress polled 48.1% votes and 76.7% seats - an all-time record, with highest ever voter turn out, has not been adequately discussed and comprehended. This was an election which was almost literally fought over the dead bodies of hundreds of Sikhs - painted as anti-nationals and mercilessly slaughtered by the Congress goons led by some of its prominent leaders duly aided by the RSS. Consequently even during the elections the RSS support was mobilised behind the Congress to further reinforce the ambience of siege and fighting the election capitalising on the resultant paranoia. In a way, 1984 LS elections prefigured the Gujarat assembly election in 2002.

It is during this period, in 1996, the Congress vote share dipped below 30%. And that of the JS/BJP rose dramatically from around 10% ( 9.4 in ’67, 7.4 in ’71 and 11.5 in ’89) to over 20%.

In the two subsequent elections, in ’98 and ’99, Congress vote share further plummeted to 26-29% range. And the BJP improved its tally further - hovering around 25%. Then again, as the Congress remained a prisoner of its imperial hangover, the BJP managed to capture power by deftly indulging in coalition politics.

But before going over to this next and last period, i.e. ’98 March onwards, it is necessary to note that it is the period from ’77 to ’98 March which saw the most dramatic upsurge of the Saffron politics. And this did not simply mean the emergence of the BJP as the major player in the political arena. The Congress, which was and is still occupying the large middle ground in Indian politics, itself got more and more saffronised. This was both the cause and effect of the saffronisation of the civil society itself - which eventually led to the emergence of the BJP as the ruling power.

The steady switch over, endorsed by the successive Congress governments, from the time-honoured, even if somewhat cliched, slogan of “Unity in Diversity” to the strident exhortation “Join the National Mainstream” was only indicative of this profound subterranean shift. And this could have not but only gladdened the adherents of the Saffron camp as the legitimisation of their frank and unashamed, and till recently highly despised, drive for cultural homogenisation encapsulated in the call for “One Nation, One Culture, One People” or “Hindi, Hindu, Hindusthan”. Similarly the slogan coined during Rajiv Gandhi’s regime : Mera Bharat Mahan (My India is Great) was also indicative of the Indian elite’s desire to emerge as the regional bully, in the image of the international super-bully - reflected graphically in India’s disastrous intervention in neighbouring Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, and meshed well with the Hindutva vision of India’s role as a militarist superpower on the global stage - shorn of the ‘baggage’ of moral and ethical principles and considerations. (The total unconcern for ethics, or rather strong unconcealed contempt for it, is one of the defining characteristics of Hindutva - (identity) politics explicitly linked to Hindu religion. Quite in sharp contrast, Gandhi - a deeply religious Hindu but not given to performing traditional/customary religious rites, was elevated to the status of a Mahatma (a great soul) by the vast multitude of common Indians - predominantly Hindu, far overshadowing their established religious gurus and the likes, precisely because of his perceived adherence to the highest ethical principles - ‘Truth and Non-Violence’, in an unfaltering manner.)

At a more tangible level, however, the complicity of the Congress governments, led by Rajiv Gandhi and Narsimha Rao, in promoting the Ram Mandir Movement spearheaded by the Hindutva Brigade leading to the eventual demolition of the Babri Mosque turned out to be the most proximate cause in their phenomenal electoral success. The other major factors facilitating the rise of Hindutva include the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report by V P Singh-led National Front government and insurgency in Kasmir valley, since early nineties, preceded by the rise (and fall) of Sikh separatism in Punjab, in turn, coming on top of ongoing turbulence and insurgency in the North-East - contributing to the ambience of siege.

1998 March Onwards : ‘Hindutva’ On Top

After an extremely brief stint as the Prime Minister of India at the conclusion of the 1996 general election, when he lost the confidence vote just after twelve days of being sworn in, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP leader in the parliament, occupied the highly coveted chair after the 1998 election at the head of a coalition comprising around two dozen parties of widely varying size and influence. This time his government lasted for about thirteen months and collapsed after withdrawal of support by AIDMK, a key supporting partner, led by Jayalalitha. These thirteen months turned out to be quite eventful. ‘The party with a difference’ did not quite disappoint its traditional constituencies. If compulsions of coalition politics brought about a semblance of moderation - particularly on the temple front, then the tension between their age old commitments and the new imperatives were attempted to be resolved in a rather spectacular manner with a big bang or to be more precise, a series of five nuclear explosions in the first half of May barely seven weeks after assuming power. The causes and consequences of these we will examine in the following sections. Here it will suffice to note that these blasts were followed, quite ironically, by Vajpayee’s trip to Lahore in the following February, soon after the visit of Strobe Talbott, the Deputy Secretary of State of the US, to the region, ostensibly in search of peace with neighbouring Pakistan, the traditional bugbear of the Hindutva politicians, which had gone nuclear in about a fortnight of blasts on the Indian side of the border. Soon after in the month of April ‘Kargil War’ erupted on the Line of Control (LoC) running through the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The (undeclared) limited war came to an end only by the end of July after active intervention of the US President, Bill Clinton. In the meanwhile Vajpayee had already lost majority in the parliament and became the head of a caretaker government. In the ensuing election the ‘Kargil War’, which was made possible because of gross intelligence failure on the Indian part, quite paradoxically came to his rescue. And on 13th October 1999 he resumed charge as the head of the BJP-led coalition, NDA, with a significantly increased majority.

Apart from the ebb and flow of tensions between the two nuclear neighbours, India and Pakistan, largely mediated by the sole global superpower, the US, the other most important event during this period is the genocide of ‘minority’ Muslims in Gujarat, understandably planned and executed by the BJP government in power led by Narendra Modi, as the central piece of an unfolding agenda, with somewhat ambiguous backing of the Vajpayee-led Central government. The Congress in Gujarat abjectly failed to offer even any semblance of resistance.

Summing Up

To sum up, the rise of the Hindutva politics, constituting just not of ‘minority’/Muslim bashing but encompassing a changed conception of “nationalism” itself, since early eighties in particular, has a strong and clearly discernible correlation with the steady drift, decline and vicissitudes of the Congress, which had till then been not only the ruling power at the centre, albeit with a brief interlude, but also regarded as the very core of Indian nationalism.

Conversely, in the early days after Independence, despite the traumatic experience of the Partition, Hindutva was kept well under check by the Congress under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru in spite of many of its Chief Ministers in the states, and also quite a few other senior leaders, having been closet communalists. Nehru was, however, rather providentially aided in his task by the shocking assassination of Gandhi by a self-proclaimed “Hindu” militant - with RSS background and a close associate of V D Savarkar - the Hindutva mascot, and the consequent eclipse and premature demise of his main challenger - Vallabhbhai Patel, the first, and the then, Home Minister, and also Deputy Prime Minister, of Independent India.

India Goes Nuclear : Tracing the Trajectory

Nuclearisation of a state has essentially two dimensions : technological and doctrinal/ideological. It requires a certain level of scientific/technological development in a certain specific direction. More so, as unlike other armaments nuclear weapons and related technologies are not tradable commodities in the international markets. But then that by itself is not enough. It also calls for a conscious and deliberate political decision making based on an ideology/doctrine favouring a decisive move in the required direction. These are two distinctly different aspects, but not wholly unconnected and autonomous. The ‘technological development’ while by itself is not ‘sufficient’, even if ‘necessary’, it tends to generate its own momentum/pressure to reorient the ideological sphere. Similarly, the ideological orientation may very well precede the ‘technological development’ and in fact guide and steer it along a route, at least broadly, charted out in advance. Then again, quite significantly, there is no clear fault line demarcating the ‘technology’ required for ‘peaceful’ use of nuclear energy, or to be more precise nuclear power generation, and that for production of nuclear explosive devices meant for mass destruction. So, while the shift from peaceful use of nuclear energy to nuclear weaponisation involves a big leap in the realm of political decision making, in the domain of technology the transition is virtually seamless.

In order to make sense of the emergence of India as a declared Nuclear Weapon State (NWS) from the status of a founding and leading member of the Non Alignment Movement championing the cause of decolonisation, pacifism and nuclear disarmament over a period of just over half a century it is imperative to keep the broad clues offered above in close focus. But before we go into the specifics of the Indian case, we will have a cursory look at the international scenario to have a better appreciation of the proposition enunciated above. The terms of the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty (CTBT) adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 1996 provide that the treaty will come into force after being ratified by 44 states who were participants in the 1996 session of the Conference on Disarmament held in Geneva and possess nuclear power or research reactors.

Evidently the underlying assumption is that possession of nuclear power, or even research, reactor amounts to nuclear weapons (production) capability or thereabout. That is why, as the official argument would go, it was necessary to obtain their ratification as the precondition for the treaty coming into force. Now out of these 44 countries only five were recognised, as per the terms of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Nuclear Weapons States (NWS). Another two, India and Pakistan, subsequently became declared, even if unrecognised, NWS. Apart from these, Israel is held to be (clandestinely) in possession of nuclear weapons. North Korea and Iran enjoy somewhat ambiguous status. All the rest do not have the Bomb. Not only that, quite a few of them - e.g. Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Sweden, Ukraine, renounced their nuclear weapons programme/capability at some stage or the other. This does clearly illustrate that mere technological wherewithal for producing nuclear weapons, or nuclear capability, does not automatically and axiomatically lead to nuclear weaponisation. Nuclearisation, in the ultimate analysis, is a political act - albeit overlying a base of technological capability.

Coming back to India, the distinction between ‘technology’ and ‘ideology’ becomes all the more relevant and important if one is not to lose sight of the fact that Independent India started off its journey with no blueprint whatsoever for its eventual nuclearisation even as the endeavour for building up the requisite scientific/technological base had commenced even before the actual independence. With independence attained, the drive for technology in general, and nuclear in particular, gained further momentum. But that was more reflective of Independent India’s supreme leader Jawaharlal Nehru’s telling faith in science and technology, in stark contrast with his mentor Gandhi, not just as a great developmental tool but also as a liberating force of immense proportions. (Only with the benefit of actual historical experience and the hindsight of more than half a century one can now proceed to pronounce such visionary faith and optimism on his part somewhat naïve and misplaced). The other important aspect of India’s drive for nuclearisation, which would start off much later, is that quite contrary to the claims of its apologists this had only a tenuous correlation with any external threat perception. This has been rather brilliantly captured by a perceptive Indian observer in the following words : “Speaking after the nuclear tests that he had ordered [in May 1998], with a clear sense of being vindicated, Prime Minister Vajpayee declared ‘I have been advocating the cause of India going nuclear for well over four decades.’ In triumph were forgotten the careful, laboured explanations of the need for the bomb; there was no problem with the fact that four decades earlier China was seen as a special ally not threat, that China then had no nuclear weapons, that Pakistan was struggling to find its feet as a state.” A foreign observer, of great diligence and distinction, has also arrived at a broadly similar, even if rather prosaic and more detailed, conclusion : “Domestic factors, including moral and political norms, have been more significant in determining India’s nuclear policy… Often, tensions between domestic interests have made this policy appear ambivalent and ambiguous. India has been torn between a moral antagonism toward the production of weapons of mass destruction, on one hand, and on the other hand, an ambition to be regarded as a major power”.

Stages of Development

India’s journey towards eventual nuclearisation in May 1998 (and further development onwards) since Independence has passed through a couple of distinct phases.

1947 to 1964 : The first phase covers from 1947 to November 1964. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, with funding from the Tata Trust, had been launched in 1945 in the then Bombay. It was the brainchild of Dr Homi Bhabha, an extremely gifted world class physicist. Bhabha was its first Director and would often refer to this institute as the cradle of Indian atomic energy programme. In 1946 the Atomic Energy Research Committee was instituted, again Bhabha as its Chairman, to promote studies in nuclear physics in Indian colleges and universities. Within a year of attainment of Independence, at the initiative of Nehru, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) came into being, under an appropriate act passed by the parliament, led by Dr Bhabha reporting directly to the Prime Minister. Through the establishment of the AEC India’s atomic/nuclear energy programme was formally launched. The programme from the very beginning received highest indulgence from the PM and its progenitor highest degree of autonomy and institutionalised protection from parliamentary and other forms of enquiry/intervention. While the large overlap between the programmes for peaceful use of nuclear energy and weapon producing capability was clearly recognised, the Indian state at the doctrinal and policy level remained firmly wedded to the ideal of abjuring nuclear weapons. And this was very much in keeping with the overall foreign policy and its status as a pioneering and leading member of the Non Aligned Movement.

India’s foreign policy for the first time, however, came under serious assault, as had been noted in the foregoing, in the wake of October 1962 - as a consequence of terrible humiliation of the Indian Army at the hands of its Chinese counterpart. The Jana Sangh, the earlier incarnation of the BJP, took the opportunity to repeatedly put forward its decade old demand that India at least now must go nuclear. But Nehru, however, was able to weather the storms in spite of losing much of his moral/political stature.

On 16th October 1964 China carried out an overground nuclear explosion pursuant to the state policy adopted as far back as in 1958. On November 27, as the culmination of an ongoing outcry for an Indian Bomb - encouraged and reinforced by none other than Homi Bhabha’s public pronouncement promising cheap and quick nuclear deterrence capability if backed up by the Indian state, the Jana Sangh introduced a motion in the Lok sabha calling for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. While Lal Bahadur Shastri, the successor of Nehru, could manage to save the day, in the teeth of dissenting voices from influential quarters even within his own party, and even reiterated his earlier position of renouncing the Bomb, he nevertheless had to make two important concessions. From “No Bomb Ever”, the position shifted to “No Bomb Now”. And then, along with energy, the goal of developing technological capability for Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) was adopted. At that time it went by and large unnoticed, given the rather meagre presence of the JS in the parliament, that the politics of Hindutva had scored a significant victory with far-reaching consequences, with backing from the Samyukta Socialist Party and a section of the Congress itself. As would happen about thirty three and a half years later there was a complete convergence of interests between the scientocrats/technocrats representing India’s nuclear establishment and the rabidly chauvinist/jingoist “Hindu” nationalist party.

1965 to 1974 : During this period India fought an intense ten day war with Pakistan in August-September 1965. Faced economic/military sanctions from the US on that account. Both Shastri and Bhabha died premature death in January 1966. Indira Gandhi was installed as Shastri’s successor. And Mrs Gandhi chose Dr. Vikram Sarabhai as Bhabha’s successor. Sarabhai was unique in that he was the only head of India’s nuclear establishment who did not exhibit any marked enthusiasm to develop technological capability for manufacturing nuclear weapons or even (peaceful?) explosion. India in 1968 reiterated its resolve not to go in for nuclear weapons on practical considerations and refused to sign the [Nuclear] Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on the ground of it being discriminatory. In 1971 facilitated by India’s direct military intervention Pakistan was dismembered and the new state of Bangladesh came into being in place of the erstwhile East Pakistan. Dr Sarabhai died prematurely on 30thDecember 1971. On May 18, 1974 India carried out its first (underground) nuclear explosion, dubbed as ‘implosion’ for peaceful purpose, in Pokhran in the bordering state of Rajasthan. As per available accounts, which are at any rate rather scanty, the explosion was carried out at the initiative of India’s nuclear establishment and was endorsed by Mrs Gandhi to counteract the raging mass discontent against her rule. Nevertheless she took special care to emphasise the ‘peaceful’ nature and intent of the blast and even wrote a letter singing the same tune to Pakistani Prime Minister to dispel his misgivings four days after the blast. The blast was perceived as a great feat for Indian science and technology and India’s de facto entry into the big league. With few exceptions, the media and the political parties, the “nationalist” Jana Sangh in particular, welcomed the development with rapturous applause. But in so far as the official position was concerned, the attainment of nuclear weapon capability, which the ‘implosion’ demonstrated, however, remained only a powerful subtext - carefully and emphatically denied in all formal enunciation. While the nuclear establishment scored a landmark victory, Indira gained a political dividend which appeared quite impressive for a while but would soon prove to be rather transient and dubious.

As regards the external consequences, “[i]t increased US and international pressure on India to conform to the nonproliferation regime. It appeared to have no effect on China, and it had the negative impact of hardening Pakistan’s resolve to develop nuclear weapons.” As regards the process, “[t]here was no systematic analysis of costs and benefits. India’s foreign affairs establishment was not asked to assess likely international reactions and repercussions. The military services were not consulted…” The ‘process’, more than the ’consequences’, clearly points out that the motivation underlying the blast flowed essentially from domestic compulsions - and definitely not from any external threat perceptions.

1974 to 1984 : The ten years from ’74 to ‘84’ proved to be rather uneventful in terms of development on the nuclear front. Of the two Prime Ministers, who ruled for significant periods, Morarji Desai was implacably set against any nuclear programme. Even Indira seemed to have regained, at least partly, the strong moral aversion of her father, Independent India’s first Prime Minister. Despite persistent efforts the nuclear establishment failed to obtain any authorisation for any further test, peaceful or otherwise. Genera Sundarji, an advocate of nuclear weaponisation, later bitterly lamented, “Between the mid-Seventies and mid-Eighties, India’s [nuclear] decision-making … appear to have enjoyed something between a drugged sleep and a deep postprandial siesta.”

1984 to 1995 : After the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi took over the reins. In March 1985 an American documentary on Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear programme drew attention of the Indian press. In 1986 border tension between the two neighbours rose to a new pitch. Nevertheless commitment to restrict India’s nuclear programme to peaceful use only was repeatedly reiterated. India also took some initiative in the direction of global nuclear disarmament but steadfastly rejected any overture for regional disarmament. Concurrently the programme for developing nuclear weapon capability and also ballistic missiles went apace without resorting to any further test explosion.

1995 to May 1998 : The Final Push

In 1995 May the NPT was indefinitely extended without any commitment from the NWSs for a time-bound programme for deweaponisation. This in India was perceived as a perpetuation of the ‘nuclear apartheid’ regime and consequently a setback. Parallelly the negotiation to finalise the CTBT draft had already been under way since January 1994. This added to the nervousness of the nuclear lobby in India, comprising top functionaries of the DAE, BARC and DRDO, the so-called ‘strategic enclave’ on the one hand, backed up by a loose group of ‘strategic analysts’, and a section of the political milieu - the BJP in particular, on the other. They foresaw in the forthcoming CTBT a permanent closure of India’s nuclear weapon development programme in absence of the facility to carry out explosive testing, as the Treaty was meant to ban all explosive testing save the sub-critical ones. The objection, to be sure, was not because these developments would allow the P5 countries to maintain their nuclear arsenal indefinitely, as had been publicly claimed, but because it would stop India from joining this big league as a new member. At any rate, pressure was built up for authorising test explosions before the CTBT coming into force. Narasimha Rao led Congress government grappling with serious corruption charges and due to face election in the next year apparently gave green signal to the scientists to carry out test explosion in the month of December. However, the US intelligence got wind of it and under pressure the attempt was abandoned. Though at that time for evident reasons such report was vehemently denied. The Rao government somewhat compensated for the abandonment by flight-testing a 250 kilometre range Prthvi missile on January 27 next.

The Congress lost its majority in the election for the eleventh Lok Sabha. Vajpayee was sworn in as the PM on May 16 and on May 28 he lost the vote of confidence. Even within this short span the nuclear establishment and the BJP toyed with the idea of going ahead with nuclear explosion. For whatever reasons the attempt did not fructify.

H D Deve Gowda, the chosen leader of the United Front, with Congress support from outside took over. Inder Kumar Gujral became the External Affairs Minister. While the UF government reportedly turned down the nuclear lobby’s ardent plea to carry out further tests, it nevertheless came under tremendous pressure of BJP’s hawkish posture on the issue of CTBT to which it had to succumb. Rather ironically the position of the Left, an important prop for the UF government, on this issue remarkably converged with that of the BJP.

It was only since October 1995 the Indian government started making a clear linkage between the CTBT and a time-bound programme for disarmament by the P5 as a precondition for its accession. But as the negotiation inched towards the final phase Indian objection became more and more shrill and high-pitched reflecting the general mood amongst the debating ‘experts’ within the country.

On June 20, India’s representative at the Geneva talks, Arundhati Ghosh rejected the CTBT draft not only on the ground of discrimination, between the NWSs and non-NWSs, (quite unjustifiably, as the CTBT draft did not recognise different classes of state parties as regards its implementation) but also on the ground of “national security considerations”. This was a crucial departure from India’s traditional position on nuclear weapons. Even as recently as in March 1996, India’s the then Foreign Secretary, Salman Haider, had submitted to the same august body, Conference on Disarmament (CD) : “We do not believe that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is essential for national security, and we have followed a conscious decision in this regard. We are also convinced that the existence of nuclear weapons diminishes international security. We, therefore, seek their complete elimination. These are fundamental precepts that have been an integral basis of India’s foreign and national security policy.” On July 15 Gujral, the External Affairs Minister, reiterated in the parliament India’s resolve to scuttle the treaty by blocking the required consensus. On August 14 India carried out its threat in Geneva. The Treaty, however, eventually taken to the UN General Assembly and, on September 10, was voted for by a margin of 158 to 3. India was in the august company of only Bhutan and Libya.

The next day the Times of India noted : “India has hardly ever been so united internally, or so isolated internationally, as on the issue of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty”. In fact, it is the CTBT ‘debate’ - a virtually one-sided misleading campaign replete with deliberate disinformation, that had gone on furiously for the last one year or so in the domestic circles subsequently proved to be a major facilitator for India, under the “Hindu” Nationalist rule, to come out openly as a Nuclear Weapon State throwing all moral inhibitions of the yesteryears, so to say, to the dustbin of History. And the whole political class, without any significant exception, including the mainstream Left became willing participants in this grand extravaganza of political/moral degeneration.

The United Front government which became instrumental in rejecting the CTBT died a premature, and yet not wholly unexpected, death by the end of ’97. In between, I K Gujral, who had by then become the Prime Minister, made a public declaration on May 31, 1997 that India would not sign a prospective treaty banning fissile material production - in keeping with the hardened and belligerent posture adopted at the time of CTBT negotiations. This, however, went hand in hand with intermittent reassertion of India’s resolve not to go in for nuclear weapons.

On March 19, 1998 Atal Bihari Vajpayee was sworn in as the Indian Prime Minister. This time he could survive the confidence vote, even if rather narrowly, held on March 28. On 11th May, the Government of India claimed, before the stunned nation and the international community, to have carried out three underground nuclear explosions in Pokhran, to be followed by another two - two days later.

The Dynamics and The Propellants

The propulsion for ’nuclearism’ is often derived form a quest for raw power and potency, ’power’ shorn of any ’moral’ or ’ethical’ principles, ’power’ to dominate and subjugate, and ’potency’ coupled with grossest exhibitionism. While the ’elite’, or a section of it, functions as the main driving force; in order to gain legitimacy and momentum the ’quest’ must also infect and intoxicate the ’masses’, who would then join the ’quest’, even if in a vicarious manner. So, in the process , ’nuclearism’ has to and does actually set off a whole chain of motions transforming the individual and collective mind-set. Peace and non-violence is projected, and eventually comes to be regarded, as ’effeminate’, and ’machismo’ as the ’ultimate’ virtue.

In the specific Indian context, the leading support for the drive towards nuclear weaponisation, as has been narrated above, comes mainly from three distinct and yet somewhat overlapping segments. These are :

1.The scientific and technical establishments associated with the development of nuclear weapons. Their prestige and power are directly at stake. The scientocrats and technocrats connected with the BARC, AEC and the DRDO fall in this category.

The top echelons of the ’defence’ forces and the current breed of defence analysts played supportive roles, even if, as late entrants and junior collaborators.

These are the people who have most consistently and with single-minded fiendish determination pushed India towards nuclearisaition.

2. The new Indian elite, a product of the post-independence economic development, who gradually sidelined the ’old’ middle and lower middle classes - whose ideals and value systems were by and large rooted in the experiences of the epic anti-colonial liberation struggles of the past decades, and emerged as the most vocal section of the society.

Particularly since the mid-seventies the mainstream political parties more and more transformed themselves into the vehicle and mouthpiece of their hopes and aspirations. Fiercely narrow-minded and self-centred, they started viewing acquisition of nuclear weapons as the shortest path to enduring glory.

3.The triggering force behind the Pokhran-II blasts was, however, unarguably the forces and politics of ’Hindutva’.

For these sickeningly evil forces the nuclear explosion was to provide a grand opportunity to stir up bestial passions and trigger off an avalanche of murderous mass-hysteria, which would, at one go, radically consolidate and crystallise the exclusionist and majoritarian ’national’ identity sought to be built by them. And that is precisely why the explosions were engineered, in less than two months of their coming to power, as a part of a predetermined agenda, without the least pretence of carrying out any systematic and comprehensive review of India’s current security concerns and strategic needs. Even the Defence Minister and the three Service Chiefs, it came to light subsequently, had been informed, so to say, only at the last moment; even though the publisher of the RSS organ Organiser had been made privy to this schedule so that they could advance and coincide the publication of their special issue to commemorate the first nuclear blast (ostensibly for peaceful purpose) eighteen years back on 18th May 1974. This ‘leak’ alone is sufficient to blow the lid off the claim that the concern for ‘National Security’ was the motivating force for undertaking these explosions, even if ‘security’ is interpreted in the most narrow-minded right wing fashion - completely disconnected from the issues of food, shelter, health, education and such other basic necessities for sustaining human life.

Here it would be pertinent to mention, at least in passing, that in the immediate aftermath of the blasts two major strands of explanation emerged from its critics, particularly from the Left. One, the nuclearisation of India actually constituted a critical and essential component of the grand US imperialist strategy to encircle and contain the People’s Republic of China. The other, it was only a ploy on the part of the BJP-led government to sign and join the CTBT regime, which in any case is nothing but an imperialist trap, under the cover of the euphoria manufactured through these blasts. It goes without saying that both these lines of argument are actually complementary and built upon a common set of premises.

The major underlying assumptions are that the explosions were not an independent act on the part of India’s incumbent rulers. These were carried out at the behest of the US imperialism and hence enjoyed their covert, even if not overt, support. This explains the apparent failure of the omnipresent and omniscient US spy satellites to detect the preparations in advance and block further activities.

It would, at any rate, not be superfluous to reiterate that the subsequent developments completely rubbished these projections. For one, China itself discovered no hidden US hand and pinpointed compulsions of India’s domestic politics as the underlying cause. Then, the US under Bill Clinton took active and leading initiative in blackballing India, however, without closing the channels of communication altogether. Moreover, China was in those days dubbed as the strategic partner of the US. Bill Clinton once even suggested that China as the major regional power should mediate between the two feuding nuclear neighbours - India and Pakistan. A highly publicised trip was undertaken by the US President to China soon afterwards to cement the bonds of partnership.

As regards the CTBT, one must remember that the BJP had always been earnest in the extreme to scuttle it by making India withhold its assent. The point is not that the option of signing the CTBT, in the aftermath of the blasts, was never considered - but only as a fallback option and by no means as the preferred one. Notwithstanding all sorts of confusing and ambivalent statements from time to time, evidently to dodge American pressure, this they could eventually evade. (Of course, the transfer of the baton from Clinton to Bush, a die-hard opponent of the CTBT, in January 2001 came as a great providential help). In fact, to do anything otherwise would have gone against the very grain of their politics. It would be well to recall that Vajpayee, on a subsequent visit to America to attend the General Assembly session of the UN in New York, took special pains to meet Republican Senator Jesse Helms, the then head of the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate - a known nuclear hawk and a leading opponent of the CTBT, through the good offices of an NRI businessman. It is the same Helms, it would be of interest to note, who had pronounced, immediately after the Pokhran blasts, that the “Indian government has not shot itself in the foot - it has most likely shot itself in the head.” .Helms would subsequently play the decisive role in blocking the Senate’s ratification of America’s endorsement of the CTBT - a statutory requirement.

These deeply flawed analyses and projections must, however, not be taken as indicative of any ineptitude on the part of the individual analysts. They rather reflected the utter inadequacy, or profound irrelevance, of the analytical frameworks used - rooted in the long outmoded experiences and the imperatives of the Cold War days.

But what is most relevant and crucial from our point of view is the fact that these arguments tend to deny an autonomous role to the politics of Hindutva and thereby severely underrate the grave danger that it signifies by itself - irrespective of its equation with the US at any given point of time.

The Consequences

The strong international censure, which erupted almost instantaneously, and the attendant punitive measures, which would follow soon thereafter, apart - the most obvious and enduring outcome of Pokhran-II was evidently Chagai. Just in a fortnight’s time Pakistan retaliated with (the claim of) six blasts - in response to India’s five now and another one eighteen years back to square off the account. Those who had gone euphoric proclaiming India’s “strategic” superiority over Pakistan attained through the recent blasts and hailed it as the “Explosion of Self-Esteem” went livid with frustration and gave vent to their deep sense of bitterness by calling it a “Copycat” reaction. These descriptions, however, even if rather unwittingly, brought out a crucial element of the subcontinental reality. While Indian nuclearisation did not stem from any threat perception from Pakistan - having been rooted in its quest for Big Power status and the ascendancy of Hindutva politics, Pakistan’s was a purely reactive one. Be that as it may, at one single stroke India’s massive superiority in terms of extant military strength, estimated at around 2.5 (or 3) to 1, got virtually wiped out. Pakistan attained a ‘parity" of sorts, through Chagai triggered off by Pokhran - to the great dismay of the Indian elite, through their own monumental folly.

What, however, rather dramatically laid bare the depth of Indian ineptitude, amidst all sorts of fanciful and clamorous claims in the wake of Pokhran-II, is the utter lack of political anticipation and ground level intelligence on Pakistan’s reaction. On the 28th of May, 1998 an MP in the Lok Sabha rose to seek confirmation during the ongoing session from the treasury benches regarding the Pakistani blasts by then already reported in the electronic media. It caused a veritable flutter among the cabinet members. The Prime Minister himself was present. The Defence Minister rushed out of the hall. After a while the news was confirmed. Subsequently, in response to the queries made by the journalists, the Prime Minister solemnly observed that it was quite unfair to expect him to keep track of the Pakistani moves while he was sitting in the Lok Sabha.

Even a cursory look at the chain of events since 11th May ’98 , which evidently constitutes a watershed in the history of this subcontinent , up to the present would clearly demonstrate that every bit of the claims and projections made by the proponents and apologists of Pokhran-II in its defence have been thoroughly falsified by the subsequent developments. It is not only the Kargil episode in the summer of 1999, when Pakistan indulged in military adventurism - albeit on a limited scale and in a clandestine manner, after a lapse of about thirty four years, even the hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft, IC 814, in the following December, which obliged the Indian External Affairs Minister - a former army man himself, to personally escort the three Kashmiri militants released from Indian jails to Kandahar in exchange of civilian hostages, made nonsense of India’s claim to greater glory and military strength - in relation to Pakistan in particular. The pathetic fizzling out of the Operation Parakram (Show of Might), the biggest peacetime military mobilisation on the international border as a demonstrative act of “coercive diplomacy”, launched with much drum beating in the wake of terrorist attack on the Indian Parliment on Decmber 13, 2002, further underscored this predicament.

By including Farooq Abdullah, the then Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, in the entourage of the Prime Minister on his ceremonial visit to the blast site after the explosions a deliberate linkage was made between Kashmir and the Bomb, evidently to intimidate Pakistan. In the process, the Kashmir issue got internationalised, as never before since 1949, and identified as the most inflammable nuclear flash point in the present day world.

Instead of raising the level of India’s autonomy, India since May 1998 has become, along with Pakistan, far more vulnerable to American pressure and interference than ever before. The US has emerged as the de facto, even if not yet de jure, arbiter between the two perennially feuding nuclear neighbours.

The defence expenditure, even on conventional arms, has since sharply escalated - again contrary to the earlier claims.

Most importantly, Pokhran-II has triggered off an open-ended nuclear, and non-nuclear, arms race between India and Pakistan - as the cause as well as effect of perpetually mounting tensions and hardening postures on both the sides. This has seriously degraded the security environment of South Asia, instead of bringing about any ‘stability’ as had been projected. A nuclear holocaust now is no longer a distant possibility. During the Kargil War itself threats of nuclear strike and retaliation were exchanged with frightening frequency.

As recently as on September 1 2003, at its first meeting chaired by the Indian Prime Minister, the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA) - eight months after its creation consequent upon finalisation and formal adoption of the triadic Nuclear Doctrine, has decided to further “consolidate India’s nuclear deterrent”. And, Pakistan’s President in turn chaired a meeting of its National Command Authority only two days after, reminding very much the way Chagai had followed Pokhran in a prompt and almost reflexive tit for tat response, and announced that Pakistan would “keep upgrading its arsenal in order to maintain its minimum deterrent capability”. It is quite self-evident that the term ‘minimum’ in the present context is only an euphemism for ‘maximum possible’. This mutually reinforcing mindless drive for the weapons of mass destruction can only have spine-chilling consequences for the region. It is even more so, given the abysmally poor safety records of both the countries in all walks of life. Even an innocuous accident can very well lead to a catastrophic nuclear exchange.

Last but not the least, the nuclearisation of South Asia has also significantly contributed to the weakening of the process of global denuclearisation that was set in motion, howsoever tentatively, at the end of the Cold War.


Pokhran-II together with the demolition of the Babri Mosque, about five and half years earlier, constitute the two darkest spots in post-colonial Indian history - far more ominous than Gandhi assassination as it, in any case, had elicited massive and visceral disapproval on the part of the Indian masses. Both the cataclysmic events are symptomatic of a considerable closing of the gap, especially over the past quarter century or so, between Indian Nationalism and Hindu Nationalism - a rather unanticipated spin-off of India’s grand project for modernisation, and symbolise grave threats to the very concept of ‘India’ as had evolved through the epic freedom struggle. In spite of all the dismal consequences and, waiting to be realised, mind-numbing possibilities, Indian elite is yet to get over its phase of denial. It continues to most obstinately refuse, like a thoroughly spoilt brat, to acknowledge the stark reality staring in the face.

The survival of humanity inhabiting the South Asian subcontinent, nevertheless, critically depends on the demystification of the nuclear myths, that invest the Bomb with magical powers of immense proportions, and consequent denuclearisation of the region as an integral and crucial component of global disarmament.

Originally online on 11 May 2008. Reproduced with thanks to Rurope Solidaire Sans Frontieres


Statement in Support of the Demand for the Repeal of the Blasphemy law in Pakistan

We are deeply concerned by the recent blasphemy(?) related incidents in Gojra, Pakistan and other places where many innocent people were subjected to unabashed brutality and devastation.  The laws have specifically made minorities vulnerable but have also been used against people of the Muslim majority and several cases of public lynching and mob violence are incited on the premise of blasphemy
The recent deadly attacks on a Christian community in Punjab, Pakistan, whose members were accused of desecrating the Qur'an has raised an urgent demand for the abrogation of the law. Members of a banned Islamist group, Sipah-i-Sahaba, took the law into their own hands and it is reported that policeperson present did not try to control the mob and protect the citizens.
This violence was precipitated by an event at a wedding in the Korian village on 24 July 2009, when a few Muslims accused three Christians of tearing paper with Quranic verses. Muslim and Christian community leaders stepped in to resolve this conflict and requested that the accused apologise. However, on 30 July, the mosques of Korian and nearby villages began spreading the allegation of Christians desecrating the Quran, inciting attack on Christians. That evening, a mob of about 3,000 people descended on Korian, and demanded that those accused of desecrating the Quran be handed over to them. Out of a fear for their own safety the Christians ran away while the mob looted property and burnt Christians’ houses. As the rumour of this blasphemy proliferated, the hostility towards Christians escalated in the district.
On the morning of 1st August, the local Ulema (Muslim legal scholars) led a procession against the alleged desecration and approached the Christian colony. In the afternoon, the mob, led by some armed and masked men, attacked the colony and set fire to 68 houses. Six Christians, including four women and one child, were burnt alive, Mr. Hameed Masih, one of the accused, was shot, the residents’ belongings were taken and two churches were ransacked.
This draconian law is an outcome of the Islamicisation process of the Pakistan Penal Code by General Zia ul Haq under the the pretext of defending the honour of the holy Quran, the holy prophet, his wives and other holy personages of Islam. The amended order, known as the Blashpemy Laws, has become a convenient means to nurture the atmosphere of religious intolerance and to settle personal scores, because of its ambiguity and provision to arrest people without prior permission of a magistrate.
Due to the elusiveness of the Blasphemy Laws, both Muslims and non-Muslims suffer. Indeed, in many recorded cases of violence against religious minorities in Pakistan, police and local authorities have failed to act effectively despite prior warning of communal tensions. People are victims of false allegations of blasphemy, often on the word of just one witness. According to data collected by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, Pakistan, 960 individuals have been charged with blasphemy in Pakistan since 1986.
The Blasphemy Laws, especially Sections 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, have been used and misused, in the words of Hina Jilani, a lawyer with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan “… It's a tool to be used against anyone you are in conflict with.” Those who have worked to overturn false charges of blasphemy have themselves become the target of violence. A former Lahore High Court judge, Justice Arif Hussain Bhatti, was murdered by a religious extremist, reportedly because he acquitted a blasphemy case. A number of lawyers and journalists have also been harassed for defending people accused of blasphemy and campaigning against the Blasphemy Laws. The Blasphemy Laws are not only a convenient provision for the religious extremists to eliminate their enemies and intimidate civilians, but also for criminals to legitimise their violence.
We are in solidarity and support the Pakistani human rights organizations, international women’s groups and religious minorities calling Pakistan to urgently repeal its Blasphemy Laws which have not only curtailed citizens’ freedom of expression, but have also been misused by violent religious extremists to commit grave acts of violence against others and to spread religious intolerance. In several cases the law has been used to settle personal scores and rivalries.
We are deeply concerned by the recent blasphemy(?) related incidents in Gojra, Pakistan and other places where many innocent people were subjected to unabashed brutality and devastation.  The laws have specifically made minorities vulnerable but have also been used against people of the Muslim majority and several cases of public lynching and mob violence are incited on the premise of blasphemy
The recent deadly attacks on a Christian community in Punjab, Pakistan, whose members were accused of desecrating the Qur'an has raised an urgent demand for the abrogation of the law. Members of a banned Islamist group, Sipah-i-Sahaba, took the law into their own hands and it is reported that policeperson present did not try to control the mob and protect the citizens.
This violence was precipitated by an event at a wedding in the Korian village on 24 July 2009, when a few Muslims accused three Christians of tearing paper with Quranic verses. Muslim and Christian community leaders stepped in to resolve this conflict and requested that the accused apologise. However, on 30 July, the mosques of Korian and nearby villages began spreading the allegation of Christians desecrating the Quran, inciting attack on Christians. That evening, a mob of about 3,000 people descended on Korian, and demanded that those accused of desecrating the Quran be handed over to them. Out of a fear for their own safety the Christians ran away while the mob looted property and burnt Christians’ houses. As the rumour of this blasphemy proliferated, the hostility towards Christians escalated in the district.
On the morning of 1st August, the local Ulema (Muslim legal scholars) led a procession against the alleged desecration and approached the Christian colony. In the afternoon, the mob, led by some armed and masked men, attacked the colony and set fire to 68 houses. Six Christians, including four women and one child, were burnt alive, Mr. Hameed Masih, one of the accused, was shot, the residents’ belongings were taken and two churches were ransacked.
This draconian law is an outcome of the Islamicisation process of the Pakistan Penal Code by General Zia ul Haq under the the pretext of defending the honour of the holy Quran, the holy prophet, his wives and other holy personages of Islam. The amended order, known as the Blashpemy Laws, has become a convenient means to nurture the atmosphere of religious intolerance and to settle personal scores, because of its ambiguity and provision to arrest people without prior permission of a magistrate.
Due to the elusiveness of the Blasphemy Laws, both Muslims and non-Muslims suffer. Indeed, in many recorded cases of violence against religious minorities in Pakistan, police and local authorities have failed to act effectively despite prior warning of communal tensions. People are victims of false allegations of blasphemy, often on the word of just one witness. According to data collected by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, Pakistan, 960 individuals have been charged with blasphemy in Pakistan since 1986.
The Blasphemy Laws, especially Sections 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, have been used and misused, in the words of Hina Jilani, a lawyer with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan “… It's a tool to be used against anyone you are in conflict with.” Those who have worked to overturn false charges of blasphemy have themselves become the target of violence. A former Lahore High Court judge, Justice Arif Hussain Bhatti, was murdered by a religious extremist, reportedly because he acquitted a blasphemy case. A number of lawyers and journalists have also been harassed for defending people accused of blasphemy and campaigning against the Blasphemy Laws. The Blasphemy Laws are not only a convenient provision for the religious extremists to eliminate their enemies and intimidate civilians, but also for criminals to legitimise their violence.
We are in solidarity and support the Pakistani human rights organizations, international women’s groups and religious minorities calling Pakistan to urgently repeal its Blasphemy Laws which have not only curtailed citizens’ freedom of expression, but have also been misused by violent religious extremists to commit grave acts of violence against others and to spread religious intolerance. In several cases the law has been used to settle personal scores and rivalries.