In Search of a New Left

This is the Concept Note for a panel in the India Social Forum on “New Horizons For a Radical Democratic Politics: In search of a New Left”.

The panel is being proposed as a way of getting together activists and scholars in thinking afresh about the possibilities of a different kind of Left – a New Left, if you please – or radical democratic political practice. It is being proposed as a forum for thinking of ways of bringing together different kinds of radical urges and aspirations that have come forth in the last couple of decades. Many of these, broadly subsumed under the category of social movements, are based on sectional identities and interests. There are others that have been based on class questions but in a way quite different from conventional kinds of class politics. At the level of thinking however, most movements, despite having taken some extremely bold initiatives, have not really begun to articulate alternative theoretical positions or think through the far-reaching implications of their own practice.

Feminism, ecological movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan or the sexuality movements have undoubtedly made major contributions in terms of enabling us to think of democracy and ways of radicalizing it, of thinking about the good life very differently. Movements like the Dalit movement or some recent independent trade union initiatives that are inclined towards the idea of an autonomous workers’ movement have also started posing new questions for radical political practice – questions that are not always very comfortable.

Yet, the fact remains that the moment we begin to think about contemporary capitalism, we almost unthinkingly tend to lapse back into some nineteenth and early twentieth century formulations that  need to be seriously re-thought today. Much of the thinking on capitalism – influenced by Marxism of one shade or the other – has remained caught within the problematics of the state and the nation-state (both seem to us to be discrete but inter-related problematics). Even when we recognize that global capitalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century is an altogether different beast, all we get by way of theorization are tired repetitions from the Communist Manifesto (“the bourgeoisie seeks to build a world in its own image” or “the need for markets chases it all over the globe” etc). In contemporary capitalism this may tell us only a small part of the truth.

Further, in most of Left-wing discourse, nation-states continue to be posed as some sort of defense against global capital and the ultimate ground of emancipation and the state in general as the object of revolutionary politics, as that point where all transformative attention must be focused.

The panel is being proposed to explore questions connected with some of these articles of faith. As indicative of some of the questions that we could address, we list below some which we group together according to some broad themes. (To be sure, this is a tentative list):

  • We are all minorities: One of the questions thrown up insistently by the practice of many social movements, feminism, sexuality movements and most sharply by some strands of the Dalit movement is that there is no “oppressed majority with single and common interests” any more (if there ever was). It is important in this context to look afresh at the decades of experience of organizing the peasantry by the Left, for example. For to take the standpoint of the Dalit is to often adopt the minority standpoint in the village and to offend the savarna peasantry. On other issues, that peasantry may be open to larger alliances. What happens when we think of different kinds of oppressions, calling forth different kinds of strategic responses – not always in harmony with each other? How do we then imagine “another world” beyond capital, beyond borders…
  • This recognition that “we are all minorities” is also the logic that animates the formation of a space like the WSF. The question of forging a larger coalition from this standpoint is one of the future; it can not be assumed as a given but must emerge through a dialogue amongst equals.
  • Rethinking the ‘state’: Among some of the other critical issues that have emerged is the relationship of radical politics to what is called ‘state power’. It has been the historical experience of the past that whether this power is acquired through revolutionary struggle (former USSR, present-day China, Vietnam) or through elections (West Bengal or Kerala under the CPM in India, South Africa under the ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance, Brazil under Lula-led PT), they seem to inevitably enter into a compromise with neo-liberalism and/or capital/ism. We must wait to see the results of Venezuela, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia – all of which represent very different historical left-wing formations but will face the same questions sooner or later.
  • If we ask these questions, we do so, not from the vantage point of the old certainties espoused by  many shades of the ultra Left to whom the answer seems obvious and self evident: it lies in something called ‘reformism’ or worse, revisionism! For us the questions are very different. Does the near-inevitability of this fate of radical movements indicate something ‘essential’ about power or state power? Is the anarchist strategy or the Zapatista strategy then more to the point then: besiege the state rather than ‘capture’ power? Or, could it be the case that we have so reified our categories of thought and politics that it freezes all possibilities of action. Is power really something so ‘far off’ and does it really belong to such a rarified domain that till that domain is captured, we can only run to stay in the same place? Do we need to also ask further questions about ‘capital’ and its so-called indispensability for ‘growth’? Can we simply assume that these terms like ‘capital’, ‘growth’, ‘power’ and ‘state power’ mean something as self-evident as Left wing radical practice – and general common sense – assumes it to be?
  • What if we were to argue that rather than the ‘state’ being a constraint as such, it becomes a constraint because we never push the limits – caught as we are in some imaginary idea of a monolithic enemy where the ‘state’/’power’, ‘capital’, ‘imperialism’ are all but one single Big Enemy which we given the name “Capitalism” (this is the mirror image of the fiction of the Oppressed Majority) and we assume that till that is transformed/ displaced from power, “nothing can be done”. All revolutionaries in power must “build capitalism”! What if we were to argue that multiple alternatives – in the sphere of energy (wind, solar, bio-waste), forms of ownership (cooperative and small individual enterprise), water harvesting and conservation – all of which are being practiced – can be knitted together into interdependent and mutually supportive networks and markets, right here? What if we argue that revolutionaries in power do not have to surrender to the whims of capital but can always chart alternate pathways here and now?
  • Interrogating ‘capital’: What if one were to argue that (a) capital needs ‘us’ or ‘the people’ as labourers and consumers more than people ‘need’ capitalism? That people can really do without capital and capitalism but capitalism can’t without ‘them’. Capital, in order to become indispensable has to first destroy other ways of living; the struggle against it must involve keeping alive and creating new and different forms of life. The argument about the indispensability of capital is always erected on the basis of the need for creating jobs, because it is the only employer. What if we were to argue that radical politics must urgently get out of the mindset of job-slavery (the much valorized proletariat working as wage slave in the service of capital) and work towards building the basis of the new social economy today, everyday, here and now – as the work of some very significant movements like the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha under Shankar Guha Niyogi suggested? New and different forms ownership must be experimented with as a matter of course, rather than ‘takeover’ industry when capitalists have milked it dry and thrown it into crisis.
  • What if we were to argue that capital itself (in the sense of productive wealth) goes far beyond the capitalist and in fact often threatens the very foundations of capitalism? Piracy and contraband capital are probably bigger worries for global ‘Big Capital’ than anything else? Ordinary people – little capitalists involved in small scale commercial, ‘bourgeois’ activities – rather than helpless wage-slaves (‘proletarians’), always at the mercy of capitalist employers, are more likely to challenge capitalism in the creation of such contraband economies. These economies are also amenable to decentralized and more ecologically sustainable ways.
  • Beyond the nation-state: What then is capital? Can we think of it as a monolith with single and indivisible interests all across the globe? If not, how may radical political practice deal with these conflicts (they don’t appear only in the form of world wars and not in the contemporary word in any case)? It is worth revisiting the debate on the social clause for example, where the conflict between different capitals opened up some spaces of struggle for defense of workers’ interests in third world countries. Does it make sense, out of some vague sense of nationalism, for the Left to defend “its own bourgeoisie” to the extent of compromising on workers’ interests?
  • The world of nation-states, formed with the idea of providing for democratic citizenship, has also created alongside citizens, refugees and aliens on an ever growing scale as many scholars have pointed out. What were earlier population movements across different continents suddenly became prohibited and entire populations were transformed into refugees. It is worth considering whether a new 21st century radical practice can be sustained on this ground?
  • It is worth thinking in this context, how the insights of the feminist, ecological and sexuality movements can be brought into enriching our understanding of contemporary capitalism and of radical alternatives to it? Much in the same way that feminism displaces phallocentrism, even while recognizing the pervasive nature of patriarchy, capital can be put in its place, in the first instance, by theoretically re-focusing our vision. (Work done by feminist scholar/s JK Gibson-Graham provides an interesting move in this direction.)
  • Today, cities are where the action is. They are being rapidly transformed and reconfigured before our eyes, in order to suit the requirements of a certain globally circulating consumption elite. In that context, it should be crucially a part of the radical agenda to think thoroughly what is happening to Indian cities today? What is the new imagination of a rationalized, modernist city that is being propagated and put in place today – irrespective of the political colour of the formation in power? How might we think of a different, radical urbanism?

– Forum for Radical Democracy

2 thoughts on “In Search of a New Left”

  1. my kulab (urdu word which means heart inside the heart )too looks at the word NEW… so…
    the saner shall be part of the NEW left… else there is deprivation of social emanicipation…which is tragic

    my coming soon.. short ( semi fiction ) is about the iron smith, who makes all the tools under the fly over, suddenly feels pain in the chest, and on ex-ray at the clinic, the doctors sees a strange shadow of hammer and sickle , though he never was part of any political… let alone the conventional left…

    so, in search of NEW….

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