Three Responses to Prabhat Patnaik – Praful Bidwai, Dilip Simeon, Manash Bhattacharjee

[As part of the ongoing post-Nandigram debate, we publish below three more responses to Prabhat Patnaik’s earlier attack on non-CPM Left intellectuals. We publish them here for record and general interest and do not necessarily endorse all the comments. – Admin]

[Praful Bidwai’s piece was first published in Mathrubhoomi magazine. It was forwarded to us by way of Manju Menon with the following interesting prefatory comment:

“The West Bengal Coastal Zone Management Authority (WBCZMA) that recommended the change in status of Nayachar from CRZ I to CRZ III so that the chemical hub can be located here has as one of its members Smt Tamalika Panda Seth, the Haldia Municipality Chairperson. She is the wife of CPM MP Laxman Seth (“who was largely held responsible for the spiralling violence in Nandigram.”). She was made member of the
Authority when it was reconstituted in March 2005. She was elected as Chairperson when the CPM retained its power in Haldia in the 2007 civic polls.

The state Cabinet had approved the Nayachar site in its August 17 meeting. After this, it was only a matter of time before it prevailed over the WBCZMA! No amount of ‘scientific data’ can possibly stop the change of status of Nayachar from CRZ I to III.

‘Another case of regulatory capture’?”]


By Praful Bidwai

Prabhat Patnaik has done what no other intellectual allied to West Bengal’s Left Front has even attempted after Nandigram: namely, try to turn the tables on Left-leaning critics of the CPM by gratuitously attacking them for their ” messianic moralism” and their presumed
“disdain” for “the messy world of politics”.

His agenda goes well beyond defending the CPM or apologising for one of the most shameful episodes in the Indian Left’s history, involving the killing of peasants, devastation of thousands of livelihoods, sexual violence, and gross abuse of state power. It is to declare all criticism of the CPM’s policies and actions illegitimate and
misconceived, however sympathetic or inspired by radical ideas it might be.

The impact of Patnaik’s article will be to prevent rethinking within the CPM, which could produce course correction. Ironically for Patnaik, it will only strengthen the party’s neoliberal orientation and the “cult of development” that neoliberalism spawns, which he
rails against.

Worse, it will harden the West Bengal CPM’s readiness to brutalise peasants and workers (in whose name it speaks) in the interests of the rich and powerful, like the Tatas, Jindals, and the Salim group which is a front for Indonesia’s super-corrupt Suharto family.

Patnaik is wrong on both facts and logic. His claim that “thousands” of CPM supporters in Nandigram were forced to become refugees for months is backed by no credible or independent source. Citizens’ inquiries, including by a People’s Tribunal consisting of a retired High Court Chief Justice, say that refugees from CPM-inspired violence outnumbered “dislodged” CPM cadres by a factor of 10, if not 20.

BUPC-Trinamool thugs too practised violence, but they couldn’t have matched the state-assisted clout or scale of the militant operations of the well-oiled party apparatus. Leaks from the CBI report on the March violence, just submitted to the Calcutta High Court, speak of extensive collusion between CPM cadres and the police, which still continues.

As numerous reports in Tehelka, Hard News and Outlook have established, “recapturing” Nandigram wasn’t an act of “desperation”, which followed “the failure of every other effort at restoring normalcy”. It was a planned punitive operation, premised on the abdication by the state of its fundamental responsibility to protect the life and limb of all citizens. The government allowed party thugs to wreak havoc through hostage-taking, arson, illegal confinement, rape, and of course, outright killing.

Equally important was Nandigram’s policy context: an indefensible neoliberal plan to impose an SEZ on the people. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee indeed apologised for his “mistakes” in Nandigram. But he hasn’t even remotely changed his neoliberal orientation, nor dropped the SEZ plan. He has merely relocated the chemical hub to Nayachar, a geologically unstable island, where no industrial activity, least of all hazardous chemicals production, is permissible under the Coastal Zone Regulations.

For all the apologies and confessions, Bhattacharjee’s government appealed in the Supreme Court even against the High Court order for the payment of compensation to Nandigram’s victims—a disgraceful thing for a Left-led regime to do. For eight long months, the victims were offered, and got, nothing from the government or the CPM.

At any rate, Nandigram’s people don’t feel assured that the chemical hub story is over. PWD Minister Kshiti Goswami, no less, has publicly said that the CPM’s real plan is to build the hub at Nandigram, and use sparsely populated Nayachar to rehabilitate the displaced.

Patnaik doesn’t even pause to reflect on why the bulk of the progressive intelligentsia in West Bengal, and perhaps much of it in the rest of India, has been so critical of the CPM on Nandigram. He wishes away the enormity of what happened on the blind presumption that “the Party” must be right—as always, because by definition, it is with “the people”.

It’s not “intellectuals” alone who have turned critical of the CPM. Its own Front allies, including the CPI, Forward Bloc and RSP, have publicly accused it of acting unilaterally and dissociated themselves from its Nandigram actions. The Bloc has decided to contest next May’s panchayat elections independently. The RSP too will probably do that. The CPI has publicly criticised the CPM’s high-handed conduct and some of its economic policies.

These cracks in left unity have appeared for the first time in 30 years. If the Front splits, the CPM will have to carry the blame. If Patnaik is seriously concerned with political praxis — as he says he is in his attack on “moral messiahs”— these cracks should worry him far more than a few individuals’ comments comparing (although not equating) certain similarities in the violence in Bengal with patterns in the pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat.

This writer has always maintained that the two are not comparable in quality, scale, intention or effect. Referring to Gujarat’s communal carnage doesn’t help understand what happened in Singur and Nandigram under a secular government blinded by its zeal for industrialisation -at-any-cost, and led by a party whose 30 years in power have turned it conservative, and encouraged it to develop arrogant intolerance towards people within its own plebeian base.

Despite all these qualifications and distinctions, it’s impossible for Marxists, socialists or progressives to condone either the overt violence of Nandigram, or the covert violence inherent in the elitist, neoliberal developmentalism pursued by the Left Front. Patnaik simply fails to make, indeed even attempt, this discriminating judgment.

Patnaik’s principal explanation for a large number of Left-leaning intellectuals turning critical of the CPM is twofold: ” most” of them “are in any case strongly anti-organised Left, especially anti-Communist”; and second, many who “till yesterday were with the Left in fighting communal fascism” have changed their stance. “With the … perceived weakening of the BJP … and …. the communal fascist forces, a certain fracturing of the anti-communal coalition was inevitable …”

The first proposition begs the question: “in any case” says it all. Worse, it conflates disparate categories such as “erstwhile ‘socialist’ groups”, NGOs, Naxalite sympathiers, and “Free Thinkers” (a small, long-extinct student group in JNU). It fails to ask why many intellectuals who have had a lifelong commitment to the Left, and in particular the Communist Parties, feel disillusioned after Nandigram.

The second proposition assumes that the Left led the anti-communal struggle, which became critically important with the BJP’s ascendancy in the mid-1980s. This is open to question—despite the contributions
of groups like Sahmat and Sanskriti.

Frankly, the anti-communal fight was led by civil society organisations, public intellectuals, and combative activists who dissected BJP-directed textbooks, questioned Hindutva’s claims, and valiantly took on Parivar goons. Even journalists played a role, as did feminists. The Left, in particular the CPM, certainly participated in the struggle. But leadership is another matter.

The West Bengal Left Front didn’t stop LK Advani’s rath yatra in 1990. Bihar’s Laloo Prasad Yadav did. After the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, the CPM and its front organisations were marginal in exposing the culprits
or providing relief to the victims.

Immediately after the 2002 Gujarat carnage, the Left Front allowed Praveen Togadia to hold provocative meetings in Bengal, in which he justified the butchery of Muslims.

Similarly, the alliance between the organised Left and civil society groups and the progressive intelligentsia is not coming apart mainly under the impact of the BJP’s decline. This perception of decline is neither widely shared nor a driving force of the change in question.

That change is primarily attributable to the CPM’s increasing tilt towards neoliberalism, especially in the states where it rules, its growing sectarianism towards other Left currents, and its resort to strong-arm tactics against its own former constituency. Patnaik is no stranger to these traits in Kerala, where his attempt to combat pro-rich policies has met with stiff resistance from the CPM’s dominant pro-neoliberal faction.

If Patnaik’s basic premises are flawed, his charge that the Left’s intellectual critics wish to further the destruction of politics and withdrawal from political praxis is patently tendentious. He doesn’t cite a single instance to show that these detractors want to establish their “intellectual hegemony”. Indeed, the second half of the article is a series of peevish assertions without rationality or roots in reality.

Patnaik makes a false dichotomy by counterposing politics to morality. He altogether misses the point that Leftists are not amoral, but have different, indeed superior and more refined, moral standards than Rightists. They should be scrupulous in adhering to an ethics that makes fine distinctions between constitutional and unconstitutional means, is strong on justice, equity and gender equality, is genuinely inclusive, non-divisive and anti-sectarian, and espouses peace and negotiated conflict resolution.

Particularly objectionable is the charge that the “detractors” distrust politics in the same way as does the “development cult” propagated by Manmohan Singh, which segregates it from politics, considered dirty by the middle class. From here on, Patnaik indulges in pure fantasising: “The revolt against the CPI(M) is simultaneously a revolt against politics. The combination of anti-communism with a rejection of politics in general gives this revolt that added edge …”

Most of those whom he targets are in fact intensely political and have dedicated great energies to building a politics based on an abiding commitment to the poor, to principle, and to collective dialogue and action within the broad Left.

Perhaps the most deplorable part of Patnaik’s argument is the “two-camps” theory—a formulation reminiscent of Stalin’s crude dialectical materialism. This can be used, and was used, to justify suppression of freedoms and rights, fake trials, Gulags, invasions, brutalisation of exploited people, indeed, mass murder.

You can’t define the “people’s camp” by including certain parties regardless of their ideologies, policies or practices, and condemn others as “the enemy of the people” (a quaint-sounding phrase in the 21st century!)

Worthy partisanship does not lie in mindlessly supporting “my party, wrong or right”, but in advancing a politics that places the poor, exploited and oppressed at its core.

A final point. One of the most encouraging and healthy developments of the past decade has been the mutually empathetic dialogue and collaboration between the organised Left, on the one hand, and people’s movements, civil society organisations and committed Left-leaning intellectuals. This spans a range of issues, including neoliberal globalisation, the people’s right to food and employment, human rights, peace and nuclear disarmament, opposition to Empire and hegemonism, and of course, secularism.

Patnaik’s article is written not in the spirit of promoting such a dialogue or alliance. It will discourage, censor and delegitimise it—to the detriment of all concerned. Nothing can be more unfortunate.

————————— | 18 December 2007


Dilip Simeon

Professor Prabhat Patnaik’s criticism ( of the opponents of the Left Front’s policies and actions in Nandigram is instructive. In my view, the following points deserve especial notice:

1/ The title of his article is The Left and its “Intellectual” Detractors. Although many critics of the CPI (M) may not call themselves intellectuals, there are undoubtedly some scholars among them. Patnaik places their intellect within inverted commas. This grammatical sneer conveys the impression that the CPM’s detractors are mindless nullities. Patnaik’s contemptuous title suggests a mental annihilation of criticism.

2/ In Patnaik’s view, genuine politics consists in being able to distinguish between “alternative constellations of political forces” that represent the ‘camp of the people’ and the camp of those hostile to ‘the people’. Since the Left for him is by definition the CPM and its allies, it follows that the correct delineation of these camps may only be made by his party. Many of his comments on political correctness deal with the struggle against communal-fascist forces. This is significant. On the one hand we have before us the recent spectacle of the author Taslima Nasreen being hounded out of Kolkata by a contingent of these very forces. On the other, as late as 1989 his party was in an electoral alliance (euphemistically named ‘seat-adjustment’) with the BJP that assisted its political growth. It is clear that the ‘camp of the people’ undergoes frequent changes. In 1989 it included the front organisations of the RSS. Given his assumption of partisan infallibility, it follows that Patnaik’s party made the correct analysis 18 years ago, and has made yet another correct analysis today, when presumably the camp of the people includes corporate interest groups and real-estate developers. If this is the level of discernment that determines the CPM’s political decisions, surely we may ask whether the political emptiness to which Patnaik refers has not entered the portals of his own party, and whether the retention of political power has not become an end in itself.

3/ Patnaik states that the failure to distinguish between types of violence, to condemn all violence with equal abhorrence, to place all perpetrators of violence on an equal footing, “amounts in fact to a condemnation of nothing. To say that all are equally bad is not even morally meaningful.” He condemns this “messianic moralism”, and scorns those who adopt such positions as apolitical “Olympian moralists” who have removed themselves from “the messy world of politics”. Interestingly, Patnaik’s observations in (elliptical) defence of certain forms of violence, could be made by any left or right-wing extremist. Violence has a tendency to blur political distinctions. Such arguments are in fact raised by many political partisans who practice the tactical deployment of force to achieve their ends, and who believe that their own good intentions are the touchstone for converting murder and goondaism into virtuous acts. If there is messianism at work here, it is evident in the actions of those who believe themselves to be beyond good and evil, because all their actions are already certified by History. If political damage has been incurred by the Left Front, surely it is more on account of the images of masked men on motor-cycles carrying out armed actions in the name of the CPM, rather than because of irritating articles written by its detractors?

There is an established tradition of non-violent resistance in India. Gandhi was no Olympian moralist, if by this phrase Patnaik wants to denote a distaste for politics. Nor did Gandhi say that all violent protagonists were equally bad. What he did say made sense to ordinary people and spoke to everyday experience. He said, “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?” His commitment to non-violence was arguably his way of ensuring the evolution of a democratic public sphere. So close was Gandhi to the messiness of everyday life that in August 1947 he managed to touch the hearts of the people and thus prevent a repetition of the terrible events known as the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946, an achievement for which even his severest critics gave him credit.

4/ Criticisms of abstract moralism apart, Patnaik ignores a central concern of the CPM’s ‘detractors’. This is the sheer fact of the use of a political para-military in Nandigram. Granted that criminal acts were being committed by political groups interested in exploiting popular grievances in Nandigram, a sustained non-violent campaign could have been undertaken to re-establish the rights of those driven away by force. Such a course would have enhanced his party’s prestige. Along with that, the state government was always entitled to use legitimate force. However in March 2007, it sent in irregulars along with the police, and in November, it sent in hundreds of vigilantes after neutralising the police. (Patnaik refers to this as “re-occupation”). The Home Secretary of the state used the phrase “war-like situation” to describe the state of affairs. The deliberate disablement of the police by the political executive in order to enable the violent activities of paramilitary gangs, can only be described as state-terror. If this is an example of the centrality (to use Patnaiks’ phrase) that the CPM accords to politics, we are in a dangerous situation indeed. It was precisely this action that reminded the LF’s critics of Gujarat in 2002, notwithstanding the crucial difference that the Nandigram action was not a communally inspired massacre. West Bengal’s government violated its oath of office by depriving its political opponents of constitutionally guaranteed protections and subjecting them to blatantly partisan violence. This was illegal, politically inept and ethically indefensible. No amount of polemical scorn vented on critics can erase this fact. This is not an abstract question, nor will it go away. The Chief Minister has apologised for his words, but not for his deeds. Patnaik could have addressed this issue, but did not.

5/ It is good that Patnaik has raised the issue of the contemporary vaporisation of politics. One symptom of this phenomenon is the impossibility of rational conversation, because of the rapid degeneration of debate into personal attacks, ad hominem remarks, scorn and derision of the kind reflected in his own use of polemic to deal with what is a serious crisis of legitimacy for leftism. Undoubtedly, many sectors of the democratic polity and not just the CPM, indulge in such destructive forms of speech. But surely it is to the advantage of the CPM that reasoned discussion and a willingness to deal with inconvenient truths not be completely overtaken by blind loyalty and disregard for facts? Should political debate be reduced to a form of religious propaganda? (Our opponents wrong-doings are crimes, but we only commit ‘mistakes’). If no one will allow argument and dialogue to change their minds, why will anyone join the Left? If all our parties are always right, are we not living in a subjectivist universe, where the truth has been politically abolished and judgement replaced by whim? Intellectual shut-mindedness and physical intimidation are two sides of the same absolutist coin. They might bring satisfaction for awhile, but have always been the harbingers of disintegration. Patnaik should cast his critical gaze inwards – it might yet yield beneficial results.


The Party Is Not Always Right

Manash Bhattacharjee

The Party Is Not Always Right

Prabhat Patnaik is upset about the “heat generated” over Nandigram in “intellectual circles”. But he doesn’t state how the heat was directly proportional to the heat generated by the West Bengal Government over the lives of people in Nandigram. Patnaik is critically interested in only one side of the heat. Wonder why no heat was generated in him about the ruthless events in Nandigram. Maybe years of teaching have taken their toll. Or does belonging to the Party numb one’s senses more than anything else?

For Patnaik, the idea of the left intellectual seems to be of one who is first and foremost a thinking tool of and for the Party. Even Sartre with his idea of the “committed intellectual” would have shuddered at such a sterile expectation of the left intellectual. Patnaik can however be excused for falling short of Sartrean definitions because he doesn’t seem to have either the guts or the power to live up to them. But he can’t be excused, even within his modest intellect, for hiding the truth under the Party’s carpet of lies and go into the offensive against those who showed infinitely more courage than him to tear off the Party’s façade regarding Nandigram.

It was in a desperately reconciliatory gesture with the erstwhile Soviet leadership after Lenin’s death when a sidelined Trotsky declared, “the party is always right”. He had even, more disturbingly, equated such a sentiment with the notoriously colonialist English saying, “My country, right or wrong”. It seems Patnaik is in a similar predicament about proving his fidelity to the Party in the wake of serious intellectual criticism of the Party, from supporters of the left.

Patnaik wants to join issue with his intellectual adversaries “on the basis of facts”. Everybody knows the “facts”. But Patnaik’s “facts” only include CPI (M) supporters allegedly driven out of Nandigram. He turns a blind eye to all the atrocities committed by the Party. Patnaik seems to be a surgeon of facts. Those who follow the dictates of a clinical politics take up such a role.

Patnaik is happy about “normalcy” returning to Nandigram. Like a typical bourgeois citizen, all he cares for is normalcy. As if the state is a rational structure which normalises the abnormal tendencies of society. Society is neither normal nor abnormal. But society does not need such language to justify itself. The state does. The state creates these pathological distinctions by playing around with popular dichotomies in order to justify its atrocities. Patnaik should know how the so-called restoration of “normalcy” is a well-known gimmick-language of the state to clear up the blood in the streets and declare, “Look! There is no more blood flowing”. But what about the blood that has already flowed? Who will account for that? What about the skeletons in the Party’s cupboard? How is the Party going to normalise the raw wounds and memories of people who suffered the barbarism of CPI (M) cadres in Nandigram?

The Left Front Government, we learn from Patnaik, has made “serious mistakes” in “handling” Nandigram. As if Nandigram is the name of a wayward derelict. The LF has always admitted to “mistakes” in the past. These were mostly about ideological issues within the Party. But this time the mistakes aren’t mistakes but crimes. Taking away people’s lives and dignity can’t be called a mistake by any standards Mr. Patnaik. Society is anyway not responsible for paying the price of the Party’s “mistakes”. So the Party can’t get away by merely admitting to have committed them. Or else, we will have Narendra Modi trying to get away by admitting tomorrow having made “serious mistakes” in Gujarat. Ideological support cannot gloss over political crimes if there has to be a difference between the left and the right. Those who critiqued the LF know it. But Patnaik, by showing intolerance over their criticism, wants to erase that difference.

Patnaik should understand that equating the LF’s crimes in Nandigram with the acts of communal fascism in Gujarat is not to compare them in a similar manner ideologically, but is nevertheless to be deliberately provocative by forging them politically. It is precisely along the ruptures between ideology and politics that intellectual criticism takes place. The difference between the Party and the intellectual should ideally come into focus at this point. The Party will always justify its politics with its ideology but the intellectual has to highlight the difference between them. In that sense, every Party has totalitarian tendencies and every intellectual’s duty is to warn us of such tendencies. This difference is exactly what makes dissent possible. And dissent, as Vaclav Havel had famously said, means “living within truth”. This truth however isn’t “outside” politics as Patnaik might think. Even Gandhi did not make a distinction between truth and politics – rather, he saw them as one and the same thing. So we can even replace “dissent” with “politics” and say – Politics is living within truth. It is however not the totalitarian truth of the Party but the critical truth of the intellectual. There is nothing “anti-political” about it, as Patnaik understands. Anti-political is a word without any sense or meaning. One can be anti-religious because religion is a belief (or be anti-right or anti-left for the same reason). But one can’t be anti-political because politics is the name of the condition under which the world lives. You can reject a belief, but you can’t reject a condition. We learnt that from Marx.

There is certainly a degree of anarchism about the intellectual’s task but this anarchism alone helps the intellectual to be able to stand outside the Party (not politics) and judge its actions. The Party, ideally, should ask for such judgements about itself. The intellectual has to be the Party’s critical mirror. If the Party derives its power from a plurality of commitments, the intellectual derives his power by the singularity of his critical distance from the Party. This however doesn’t make the intellectuals who critiqued the LF stand on an “Olympian moral height” as Patnaik seems to think. The intellectual’s distance is not vertical but horizontal – he may stand away, but not necessarily above, the Party.

The intellectual’s struggle is twofold and paradoxical – to argue for and against power. The intellectual has to keep the Party in check. Or else, we will succumb to Stalinism.
The equation of politics with the Party by Patnaik thus exposes his totalitarian mindset. Just as there cannot be anything remotely “anti-political”, there cannot be anything more fanciful than a phrase like, “destruction of politics”. What he calls “the process of destruction of politics” on the part of those who attacked the CPI (M) is based on fallacious conceptual and political premises. The Party is only a political mediator between society and the state. How can the questioning of that mediation be the destruction of society’s own politics? The Party has to negotiate its policies, and if there is resentment against those policies, they have to be withdrawn. Politics exists in this very zone of Yes-or-No saying. Programmes forced upon the populace is not politics. Such an attitude smacks of a technological mindset where programmes are understood as machines and people are seen as guinea pigs. It is such brutal implementation of “programmes” which aim to destroy politics by destroying the possibility of raising questions over it. Politics is more about questions than about answers. Unless Patnaik wants to equate politics with “dadagiri”. Intellectuals with a conscience cannot be expected to be complicit in the Party’s crimes. Intellectuals can’t be seen as cows that survive on Party grass. This isn’t about Patnaik lecturing in the classroom to wide-eyed SFI students. Patnaik seems to be suffering from a godfather syndrome.

I don’t think there is any “perceived decline in the strength of the communal fascist forces”. The communal fascist forces are waiting in the wings and Modi is once again on the saddle. Everyone is constantly alert on the activities of the communal fascist forces. Just because they aren’t in power at the Centre doesn’t mean people have gone to sleep. In fact, if anything, there is a constantly perceived threat regarding the communal fascists.

Patnaik’s woe regarding the “fracturing of the anti-communal coalition” is a false nightmare. The anti-communal coalition is not, in the first place, a sacrosanct coalition. It is also an ideologically hotchpotch coalition. It helps us ward off the right wing threat, but doesn’t make us ward of the problems of the coalition rule itself. We can’t be expected to carry roses to the leaders of the UPA and thank them for keeping the BJP out. As Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, just as it is necessary to forget differences when fascists take over power, it is equally important to ruthlessly critique the workings of the democratic state when the fascists are not in power.

We have no choice but to walk this double edge of criticism. Political legitimacy should anyways be considered partial, never total. Or else, that legitimacy can always degenerate into political barbarism.

The phenomenon of globalisation, which Patnaik points out, has only come to mean so far, the destruction of people’s habitats and their livelihood. When people protested, it amounted to the destruction of their lives itself. This has been a very systematic political exercise by the state. Against the ruthless “political praxis” of the WB government, left intellectuals displayed their own sense of political praxis by strongly analysing and condemning the phenomenon. Patnaik’s creation of two camps – that “of the people” and that which is “hostile” to the “interests of the people” – is ridiculous. The idea of the “people” is a politically fictitious term that the state uses to legitimise its hegemony. The world has learnt many new lessons since the French Revolution. If the Party was anyway a “true”, representative of the “people”, then the problem of the dictatorship of the Party would not have occurred in history. In any case, it cannot evade the serious issue of representation. Also, Patnaik’s use of the term is designed to mean that the Party alone represents the “people” and those against the Party are against the “people”, which is an atrocious logic.
The term Patnaik must be feeling proud of is “messianic moralism”, which he uses to describe the phenomenon of those intellectuals who criticised the Party. According to Patnaik, messianic moralism stands for “the contemporary ambience of middle class disdain for politics” which “upholds causes, not programmes”, and comes from a desire to “stand above the messy world of politics”.

It will be good to remember Fredric Jameson’s assertion that part of the attraction of Marxism comes from the messianic nature of the ideology. There is an emancipatory affirmation in Marxism. Even Derrida has noted this in his Spectres of Marx and Jameson has responded approvingly to Derrida’s description.

Now comes the question for Patnaik – Can moralism be messianic? Moralism is normative, whereas the messianic is a liberating ideology. Every liberating ideology will have an idea of the good but an idea of the good is not based upon ideas of liberation. The idea of the good, or a set of normative moral principles, has a very different purpose to serve than the messianic. Moralism is not a liberating exercise. Patnaik assumes that moralism liberates the intellectual from the “messy world of politics”, but we know it isn’t true because no act can liberate anybody from politics. Also, to accept a messy world of politics doesn’t mean one has to justify it as well. Patnaik has lost all sense of distinction here.

Patnaik has tried to painfully argue on “the different episodes of violence” and condemns the presumed failure to distinguish between them. To have called the mechanisms of the West Bengal government fascist is to have categorically conveyed that no kind of right-wing politics will be tolerated, even if perpetrated in the name of the left. It is to have the politically nuanced view that right-wing politics is more generally as well as concretely any kind of violent, authoritarian politics that need not be sanctioned by a right-wing party alone. Those who differed from the LF and from intellectuals like Patnaik have not only differed on the “facts” in Nandigram, but also on “ideas” regarding what it means to be left.
Intellectual hegemony is anyway less powerful (but conversely, more political in the emancipatory sense) than Party hegemony. Every intellectual is not supposed to help make programmes. Just because Patnaik is a party intellectual who helps in making programmes doesn’t mean his credentials are intellectually superior. If that were true, then all those party members who made programmes for Communist parties in Europe would have been superior to Sartre and Walter Benjamin.

I would like to end by pointing out that the Party, which Patnaik defends with such dogmatic and slavish sentiments, has always been tested by Names – Naxalbari, Telangana and now Nandigram. These Names echo the history of atrocities and resistance, of movements that raised new questions and strategies of struggle. These Names highlight specific historical contexts against the Party’s general claims. These names loudly echo the presence of politics more than the CPI (M)’s “programmes”. These Names haunt the Party, because the Party has always been more interested to rule than to support the cause of the peasantry.

9 thoughts on “Three Responses to Prabhat Patnaik – Praful Bidwai, Dilip Simeon, Manash Bhattacharjee”

  1. Did Aditya Nigam see this from Vijay Prashad in Himal Magazine,
    Fat cats and the left rupture

    ….Professor John Holloway’s 2002 Change the World without Taking Power provides the best summary of this approach. It also finds its Indian face in the work of political scientist Aditya Nigam, particularly in his 2001 paper, “Radical Politics in the Times of Globalization”. Holloway argues that the structure of the state is compromised, and should be avoided in favour of the “power of doing” – of building something in opposition to the capitalist world. Classes and revolutionary subjects are irrelevant to this undertaking, since the “pure eager revolutionary subject” must give way to a “damaged humanity” – that is to say, everyone has to participate in the recuperation of our estranged selves.

    Holloway championed the Mexican Zapatista movement in the same way that Nigam extolled the NBA and Kanshi Ram of the Bahujan Samaj Party, both of which he sees as post-nationalist – indeed, as post-state. The argument against state power is, of course, the mirror image of the neo-liberal position that says that the state should be ignored in place of the private sector, that the state is itself the fount of tyranny. On the other hand, the question from the communist left is not so much whether or not to use the state institutions, but which classes actually control the state and to what end the state is utilised……
    It’s an interesting exercise.I don’t know whether Aditya Nigam has responded to it. I am eager to hear his response.

  2. Thanks Ajit, for drawing my attention to this piece by Vijay Prashad. I had actually not seen it. It is, I must acknowledge, refreshing in its tone and seems to be open to some kind of genuine debate. I however, continue to have serious problems with the kind of unsubstantiated assertions that are presented as self-evident truths or ‘knowledge’, in Communist-Left circles.

    Take for example, the assertion about the state in Prashad’s article (quite apart from insinuations that any critique of the state can only come from some version of neo-liberalism):

    “The argument against state power is, of course, the mirror image of the neo-liberal position that says that the state should be ignored in place of the private sector, that the state is itself the fount of tyranny.”

    “To eschew state-led sustainable development is to concede the terrain to the powerful social classes who are invested in private corporate-led development. PSPC’s lack of political economy, and the NGO left’s lack of a programme for the transformation of the world, tacitly endorses the politics of the fat cats.”

    Here we have the classic scenario. EITHER State OR Private Sector: there are and can be only these two possibilities and if you are opposed to one, you must be for the other. ‘Private’, mind you, is being made to work as a synonym for Capital and capitalist, which is far from the case. Even those whom Communists call petty bourgeois are often far from being capitalists. Neither by action nor by instinct, that is to say; their drive is not to accumulate. Such private entrepreneurship has existed for ages without giving birth to capital or capitalism. One need only read Marx’s Capital, once again on this, in there is need for scriptural sanction. Such property includes peasant and artisanal property – and I am far from believing, going by our contemporary experience, that these forms are obsolete. Second, in Communist Left theory, all kinds of cooperatives are also seen as variations of private property. This is more by way of definitional fiat. Once you have laid down the rule that whatever is not state, is private/capital, then this proposition naturally follows. However, cooperative forms have not been tried out – except when some enterprise has reached a terminal stage. Only in some parts of the world and in some pockets do we have cooperative that were set up not to meet a crisis but as important forms – and they seem to be functioning pretty well.
    So, in the first place, it is not clear, despite lot of obfuscation on this issue, that there are or can only be these two types of property ownership.

    Second, to respond to Prashad’s assertion that “to eschew state-led sustainable development is to concede the terrain to the powerful social classes who are invested in private corporate-led development,” I can only say that in the present day world, this is being refuted every day and every hour by practical experience. It is only through the state and thanks to the state that the land, forests and water of the world are being handed over to private corporate capital. And it matters NOT AT ALL who is in control of the state – Communists (China, Vietnam, West Bengal), or some kind of a Left Alliance (Brazil, South Africa) – all are complicit through the logic of the state in this cannibalization of the planet’s resources, people and what have you. So, before somebody asserts the self-evident nature of the virtues of the state or evokes this fantasy of state-as-resistance-to-capital, he or she will have to do some very hard work.
    Thanks again.

  3. If Ajit wants to have a conversation with Aditya, let him not waste this space because this is meant to be a response to those who have written here. So such arbitrary write-up is ridiculous. People should write here to engage, not ask for opinions.

  4. Manash, all sort of conversations take place on kafila. It is not for you to decide where people will speak, and about what.

  5. Nivedita, I guess I had certain misplaced expectations, which were perhaps too structured. I am no one to decide anything for anybody. I just voiced an opinion. Sorry for being didactic.

  6. If Ajit wants to have a conversation with Aditya, let him not waste this space because this is meant to be a response to those who have written here. So such arbitrary write-up is ridiculous. People should write here to engage, not ask for opinions.

    So my questions are ridiculous. Alright. It appears only the super smart intellectuals are allowed here.I am simply a small fish.I guess you guys must have felt insulted to see me here. Good luck to you then. Bye, Bye.

  7. Ajit, don’t say “you guys” because it was only me and I apologise. Please be around. By the way, I am no bigger a fish :-)

  8. Ajit, maan bhi jaiye! Nobody thought your questions were ridiculous, and we are all small fish in a very exciting ocean. Swim by again!

  9. Dear Readers:

    I enjoyed reading a debate on Prabhat Patnaik’s letter which I consider an over simplification of the reality on the ground. I find it appalling that he chose to label everyone who does not subscribe to an official version, as belonging to the Camp hostile to the interests of “the people”. Hopefully, he would not put me into the above category without checking my background first (see below).

    I do share some of his concerns about the role of the intellectuals from right to the far left using the Nandigram issue to grind axes against the CPI(M). However, his idea of two Camps theory sounds like US President George Bush’s slogan before the invasion of Afghanistan, “either you are with us or against us”. More recently such Mrs Sonia Gandhi also used the same slogan in relation nuclear civil agreement by saying, “…those who are oppose to Civil Nuclear Agreement are enemies of the people”. Frankly speaking Patnaik’s two Camps theory not qualitatively different from the above and could easily be construed as religion rather than Marxism. Further I do not consider everything written about the Nandigram issues could be considered by an independent observer (commonly defined as one who is familiar with the issues but who is not overly sensitive) as the revolt against the CPI(M)and hence revolt against politics. I am also somewhat concern about the intellectuals who take liberty to decide themselves their role for the left movement in general and the working class in particular. Perhaps, a reading of Regis Debary’s Revolution in the Revolution & Prisoner’s Diary might be of some assistance in understanding the role of intellectuals.

    Prabhat Patnaik also talks a lot about fight against communal fascism, a term often very loosely used by Indian intellectuals and politicians. However, recent defeat of Congress in Gujarat and Himachal has proved that the ‘people’ did not find UPA slogan of “secularism” quite appealing.

    My own experience of some of the Oxford-Cambridge-JNU Pseudo Marxists (with no mass base)has been, they suffer with a great deal of arrogance and have very little tolerance for dissent (although I have seen Donkeys at Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford but I call them suffering with an inferiority complex as if every thing which grows at Harvard and Cambridge is intellect and rest is fruitless?).

    In the middle of September 2007 I wrote to Prakash Karat as follows:

    Centre for Economics, Finance & Politics P.O. Box 17517-London-SE9 2ZP, Tel & Fax: 020-265 0536, Tel. & Fax: 020 88594657 & 07877008095 E-mail:,


    15 September 2007

    Com. Prakash Karat General Secretary, CPI (M) A.K. Gopalan Bhawan 27-29, Bhai Vir Singh Marg New Delhi 110 001 Fax: (91-11) 23747483

    Dear Comrade Prakash:

    Perhaps you will recall I wrote to you when you became General Secretary of the CPI (M). I was incredibly impressed with your speech when you refer to CPI(M) was not going to be a tail of anyone. The time has come when CPI (M) should be a leader rather than a follower. I wish this should have happened sometime back. Since I wrote to you earlier a sequence of events have taken place, which prompted me to write to you again. Although I am not a Party Cadre I consider myself a sympathizer and one who has ongoing interest in the left movement, particularly when the legacies and memories of the former Soviet Union are fast fading away. I outline my concerns as follows:

    1. Firstly I became concern during my visit to India in January 2006 when I came across an unnecessary controversial debate surrounding Baba Ramdeo on the ZEE TV. Although issues voiced in the debate may have had some relevance (though non-antagonistic), I was not convinced about the significance of the debate to the Party, mass movement and the people. I am also not so sure, if the debate was ever resolved, to date no one knows who were the winners and the losers? However, what I know is that the Hindu fundamentalist exploited the issue and since then Baba Ramdeo’s fees for personal audience to people living overseas have tremendously increased. Further Mr. Kofi Annan, a former Secretary General of the US led UN gave him official platform to become a goodwill ambassador for carrying out the message of Yoga all over the world as if that was the cure for all problems. When Baba Ram Deo returned to Delhi he appeared to have emerged an avant-garde champion of opposing discrimination on the basis of caste and religion, which has overshadowed UPA message of “secularism” under Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. In my view this entire issue raked up while there was no dearth of issues related to, “antagonistic contractions” far more vital purposes of mass mobilisation for a revolutionary transformation of society. Having said this, I am not trying to undermine Brenda’s positive contribution to parliamentary debate and for mass movement.

    2. Second issue that concerned me is Nandigram incident regardless of who instigated it, I am told it was Naxalite led. The incident in which more than 19 people had been killed in police firing ordered by Mr. Bhuddhdeb Bhattacharya led left front government, should not have taken place under any circumstances. No Marxian theory can justify such an action and it was least expected of a Left front government, in defence of illegitimate land acquisition for SEZs to cater the needs of industrialists under the umbrella of globalisation rather than for a proletarian revolution. Ironically, the CPI (M) was already condemning somewhat similar incident in Rajasthan which led to the police firing killing a number of CPI(M) peasants and an unlawful imprisonment of Comrade Hetram Beniwal of CPI (M) by the BJP Government. While defending left front government action, one of my friends, Com. Vesudev Sharma, General Secretary, CPI (M) in Rajasthan tried to persuade me that Stalin had taken even more drastic action against the Kulaks for the sake of collectivisation than Bhuddhdeb Bhattacharya. You know as well as I do, two wrongs do not make one right. Besides, the two actions are not comparable as the former was taken for the advancement of socialism and the latter for promoting global capitalism. The Nandigram incident also reminded me the dismissal of the first Left Front government led by Namboodripad on the recommendation of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then President of the Congress. Well, we could not save the Left Front government then but succeed this time although with the forewarning of UPA Chairperson, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi who reportedly told Com. Sita Ram Yechuri in a patronizing manner, “it should not be repeated” [I heard on the Zee TV]. As to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s ideological position one should not forget it was she who went to the United States to see President Clinton following her Party’s defeat in general election 1999, virtually asking her to give her a chance too and she got it. In contrast, when Henry Kissinger was asked his opinion about Mrs. Gandhi when she was assassinated, his reply to ABC news was, “She was an arrogant lady”. Although I was one of the victims of Mrs Gandhi when she declared the state of emergency in 1975 I was happy at this generous assessment of her by an arrogant former American Ambassador & the Secretary of State, as she appeared not to have bowed down before the US hegemony even after having accepted CIA money to fight Kerala elections. In my view, although CPI (M) by now should have sidelined Buddhdeb Bhattacharya to regain public confidence, I am wiling to accept your public statement making distinction between the actions of the Government and the Party’s position. However, criticism of Buddhdeb Bhattacharya’s government was somewhat less visible compared to Mukherjee’s coalition government in West Bengal in 1967-69.

    3. One of the most disturbing issues I find in the CPI (M) position is its stand on Civil Nuclear Agreement with the United States and recent joint naval exercises. As a student of Marxism I have learned that there is a dialectical connection between the domestic policy and the foreign policy. Although one can see a clear connection between UPA government’s domestic policies supporting globalisation under the World Bank programs [SEZs, Multinational investment, rapid expansion of private sector through divestment of public sector, etc.] and collaboration with the imperialists in the foreign policy, I wonder how could CPI (M) not see this and continues to support the UPA government? I believe the partnership in the UPA on the basis of common minimum program [mainly secularism] is fundamentally flawed. Had the basis of the partnership been on the common minimum economic program it would have addressed twin objectives, namely, the domestic and foreign policy. The CPI (M) was in the position of strength to negotiate with the Congress a common minimum economic program rather than minimum program to join the UPA. I wonder why CPI (M) did not do so although it was then in a position of strength to negotiate. After the complete sweep by BSP in UP elections clearly the CPI (M) negotiating position appears to have been somewhat compromised.

    4. In my opinion the CPI (M) can take cue from the successful experiment carried out under leadership of Hugo Chevaz in Venezuela by optimally combining the task in the sphere of domestic and foreign policies to usher in a socialist revolution. In the South – Latin American Countries they have successfully harnessed anti imperialist feelings of the masses to promote the cause of social transformation. The argument of holding the communal forces at bay under the pretext of secularism in defence of UPA Govt. does not hold water. It is only through an effective implementation of a radical common economic programme that a secular polity can be built and anti imperialist foreign policy course meaningfully pursued. In Venezuela Hugo Chevaz [no Marxist] and Ortega in Nicaragua have effectively used anti imperialist feelings to enhance the appeal of socialism and won the elections. In fact, I recall a telecast during the elections in Venezuela when a reporter asked a layman on the street “who are you going to vote for?” He told him, “Chavez, he will bring socialism”. When the reporter asked him what is socialism? His telling reply was, “I know what is socialism, freedom for poor”. No reading of Marx & Lenin’s works could have conveyed the meaning of socialism to a common man in such simple terms. On the other hand we continue to have a honeymoon [although there are signs of it being over if one goes by media reports] with a government, which has been openly collaborating with the United Sates – The only imperialist Superpower. I am disappointed to see one of the oldest and most experienced Communist Party of the World after the collapse of USSR still dragging it feet in this matter.

    5. The Party’s failure to pursue the anti imperialist line stands out in glaring contrast with the Venezuelan experiment. While the party was right in standing up (albeit belatedly) against US Imperialism on the ground that the nuclear deal was pushing the country into the “strategic embrace” of the United States helping it to proposed the name of Pranab Mukherjee as the UPA consensus candidate for the office of The President forgetting that he was the chief architect for the military cooperation agreement with the United States. This created a big credibility gap about its sincere commitment to anti imperialist course. The Party is not known to have taken up cudgel in the public against Pranab Da’s Speech at Carnegie Foundation a couple of years back where he had talked about, “Total convergence” of values and interests between the US and India. He again harped on the same theme in his address at the Defence Staff College in New Delhi. Only last week (overtaken since I drafted my letter)wrote)while speaking in New York before the Council for foreign relations, he again mentioned, “deepening convergence of values and interests”.

    6. On the domestic front I see very little influence, if there was any at all, of the CPI (M) policies on the UPA government. For example, last year CPI (M) protested nearly six months against the hike in Petrol prices. Ultimately Mrs. Sonia Gandhi hijacked the issue and got the credit by reducing the petrol prices. In spite of this Congress lost the elections in Delhi and UP where CPI (M) virtually has no base and has got no advantage for being a partner in the UPA. Even on the secular front, Mr. Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat has made a headway when he took an opposite turn and praised Mohammad Jinnah that he was a secular man which appeared to be more secular line than the UPA [though he did so to appease the Muslim voters]. We should not always blame the religious fundamentalism, as it would flourish wherever there is no alternative and there exits ideological vacuum. For example, emergence of Islamic fundamentalism in the former Soviet republics following the disintegration of the USSR. More recent examples are the hostage taking of Army officers in Myanmar and Islamic fundamentalists in Wazisistan area of Pakistan. Nor is the secular ideal per se as sacrosanct and progressive as it is some time made out to be some of its standards bearers keen to exploit it as a cover to conceal their real motives. History bears testimony to ‘secular Jinnah’ willingly acting as a tool in he hands of British imperialist in executing their nefarious design of partitioning India to create theocratic state of Pakistan which was opposed by orthodox Islamists, Ben Gurion, the founding father of Israel belonged to the secular groups of Jewish Nationalist. The United States, The most powerful Imperialist state is one of the most secular countries where the Church and the State are separated and religious education is prohibited in the schools. Secularism without a minimum pro people economic programme is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a really progressive popular alliance.

    One should not have delusions about the role of congress in the past and its secular character. Who needs to be reminded about its alliance with the Muslim League in Kerala. Its talk of “soft Hindutva” not so long ago and the recent reference to Rama as the “Management Guru” in the context of “Ram Setu” speaks volumes about its secular credentials.

    7. I also did not find any detailed statement of CPI (M) on the issue of reservation policy. It is not suffice to say that only socialism would eliminate problems of discrimination. I believe CPI (M) should come out with idea of positive action through training and monetary compensation and aggravated & punitive damages, if the employers were found guilty of discrimination on the basis of castes and religion through the Tribunals system as an alternative to quotas. This scheme will create a lot of job and burden will be shifted from all taxpayer to discriminatory employers both in the private and public sectors.

    8. Last but not the least, I would like to deal with the issue of Nature of the State. We were led to believe that main reason for split in the communist movement was on the characterization of the Nature of the State. Accordingly the CPI justified its alliance with the then Indira-Nehru Congress in completion of National Democratic Revolution. The CPI (M) on the other hand considered this to be a revisionist policy and opposed the congress because on the basis of the Nature of the State, it wanted to lead a Peoples’ Democratic Revolution. I do not understand how the Class character of the State has changed although since the Indira-Nehru era the character of the State has appears to be more pro imperialist due to globalisation, rapidly expanding private sector and open collaboration with the imperialists, which had not happened even during right wing Hindu fundamentalist government led A. B. Bajpai. On the hindsight what is the rational of change in the CPI (M) attitude towards Congress? One might say the character of Congress has dramatically changed since Mrs Gandhi’s era. However, Mrs Gandhi’s Congress then was also a break away group from the Old Congress although after V.V. Giri’s election as President the Old congress was annihilated by the New Congress.

    On a positive note I am very pleased that you have taken a hard line in view of recent developments. In my view early election have become inevitable and this is the most opportune time to say goodbye to UPA. At this critical juncture it is important not to unnecessarily kick up non-antagonistic contradictions over the Ram Setu. Hopefully you will take my comments in constructive sprits.

    With regards,

    Suresh Deman B.Sc., MA (India), MA & ADB (US), MPhil (UK), PhD (Japan) Director of Centre for Economics, Finance & Politics & Visiting Professor at the Markfield Institute PO Box 17517, London SE9 2ZP

    Although I would have very much liked to agree with Prof. Patnaik & his colleagues’ mild criticism on Nandigram issue since I wrote the above letter few other developments have taken place.

    (a) Some CC members of the CPI (M) proudly told me that over 100,00 CPI (M) militant supporters (I am told some of them armed) entered into Nandigram and got the trouble makers removed before Buddhdeb Bhattacharya could enter into Nandigram to apologies [there is no notion of safeguard against what is known as oppression by the majority, perhaps this would sound like a bourgeois concept), (b)Baba RamDeo, an arch enemy of Branda Karat, if not of the CPI(M), not only supported signing of Nuclear Civil Agreement but has also repeated Mrs Sonia’s words that anyone who opposes the agreement is an enemy of the people. (c) Last month again Pranab Mukherjee continued with his rhetoric in support of Nuclear Civil Treaty while addressing a NRI entrepreneurs conference with the Chief Ministers, (d)Com. Joyti Basu’s statement in support of Bourgeois Industrial revolution under the private ownership of means of production and opposition to the same idea in non CPI(M) states speaks volumes in light of collapse of Soviet model of socialism, (e)Again 5 people got killed in a recent firing resulted in a call for a Bengal Bandh.

    Clearly CPI(M) once again fell into the trap of right-wingers to the far left. It is to be noted CPI(M)’s major partner in the UPA i.e., Sonia Gandhi’s Congress called for a Bandh with BJP, Forward Block, Trimul Congress and others. All this flies into the face of CPI(M) fro which no one could be criticised but the CPI(M)intellectuals themselves. Rather then acknowledging the concerns of a fellow Marxist no answer is forthcoming from a Full Marx.

    See online : CPI(M) in Retrospect and Prospects – Nandigram Incident

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