Crisis of Working Class Politics – Challenges for Rebuilding the Left


In this year of COVID19, the organized ‘working class’ movement completes a hundred years of its history. It was on October 31 1920, that the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the first central trade union organization, came into being. This might be a good occasion to take stock – to look back into history from what can only be described as a very troubled and difficult present – and peer forward into the future.

Workers, the long trek
Workers – the long trek, Image courtesy, The Wire

The year of COVID19 reveals, among other things, the very fragile and unstable nature of this entity called ‘the working class’ in countries like India. The monstrous situation arising out of the pandemic only provides us the window to that long and endless process by which the ‘working class’ is constantly made and remade. In a very important sense, unlike the peasantry which has a far more stable existence (till, for the requirements of Capital, it is uprooted and thrown into urban labour markets), the working class is an inherently structurally unstable social group. Given that its fate is tied to the requirements, caprices and maneouvres of Capital, the working class is not given to us readymade, once and for all. For as long-term changes in industry and technology occur or capital takes flight in the face of worker militancy, the working class too undergoes changes.

The ‘working class’ is not only unstable – of which we will see more later in subsequent posts – it is also a hugely diverse entity with no single or singular interest. And here I talk of only of sheer ‘economic’ diversity, leaving out ethnic, religious, linguistic or other kinds for the moment.

As labour historian Ian Kerr had put it in an early article, ‘In India…peasants, tribals and landless labourers took up  contract, seasonal or temporary wage-labour’ and ‘capitalist penetration led to both a more orthodoxly defined proletariat…and to a body of workers who were ambiguously and simultaneously semi-proletarian and semi-peasants.’ [Kerr, ‘Working Class Protest in  19th Century India’, EPW, 20 (4) 1985, emphasis added.] Kerr uses past tense but actually, this kind of diversity of forms remains even today and it is useful to keep that in mind as we go along.

‘Working class’ struggles in India have a much longer history that goes back at least to around the late 1850s and 1860s, as many labour historians have pointed out, even though there were no organized trade unions in the country till fifty to sixty years later. Nor were there any communists around, even till the time of the formation of the AITUC, though the emigre Communist Party of India had just been formed in Tashkent barely two weeks before that.

This is to underline that there is no necessary connection either between the ‘working class’ of the earlier period and the fictive entity called the ‘organized working class’, whose very existence is usually tied to marxism and communist politics in the highly ideological accounts produced on the Left. At this point, therefore, I should clarify that I use the term ‘working class’ (hereafter without quotation marks) to refer to this broader section of working population operating at the lowest levels of our society. Its emergence is no doubt tied to the development of the modern industrial economy but it is not quite the working class that we might see in stylized political narratives of ‘working class’ or ‘proletarian hegemony’ associated with communist politics, at least in India. These are highly problematic  categories that attribute a specific ‘consciousness’ to this particular mode of being called the ‘working class’ (in quotes). Though Marxists elsewhere have now much more complex accounts of this difference between the ‘imputed consciousness’ and the ’empirical consciousness’ (the disctinction being Lukacs’) of the working class, in India this remains one of the great unthoughts of Left movement here.

Both in terms of the actual material modes of existence as well as in terms of the ‘forms of consciousness’ – the working class is a far more complicated entity than Indian Marxists would often care to acknowledge. In my own experience of work in the trade unions in the 1980s and my continuing conversations with trade union organizers even today, I am convinced that a trade union organizer instinctively undertands the layers of difficulty involved in this purported correspondence between ‘class being’ and ‘class consciousness’ much better.

Let me illustrate this with the example of a September 2016 workers’ strike in which, by the trade unions’ estimation 180 million (18 crore) workers participated. A report in the Los Angeles Times painted a fantastic picture of a working class in revolt – so much that I began to wonder how I missed being witness to this great revolt.  But the reason I bring this up here is different. The report being a journalist’s report, it had to have spoken to participants and could not simply purvey the opinion dominant in Left-wing quarters. Thus the reporter, Shashank Bengali, went on to observe:

‘Though the strike was called historic, it disappeared from the headlines just as quickly as the 16 previous general strikes held in India since 1991. Indian news networks, many of which are backed by powerful corporations, gave it scant coverage. Services in the biggest cities, Mumbai and New Delhi, were barely affected.’ (emphasis added)

The reporter then spoke to participants, one of whom, Vishwas Utagi, an organizer of the bank employees – the All India Bank Employees Association – expressed what, in my opinion, constitutes a key issue before the working class movement today. Utagi said that

‘he longed for a leader like Sen. Bernie Sanders, who brought income inequality and workers’ rights into the national conversation in the United States in his campaign.’

This statement (and the desire) of wanting to see workers rights and income inequality issues articulated in the political domain, actually underlines the key crisis of the movement today. Once upon a time they used to be part of public political debates but they are no longer considered issues worth talking about – just as was the case in the USA some years ago. ‘Bernie Sanders’ to many, is the name of an audacity, such that Utagi has not seen in a long long while, that brings in these issues into the electoral arena. Here, in India, these issues do not matter politically at all and that has obviously meant that they are no longer considered legitimate in policy circles.

In a very convoluted sense, however, the working class movement in India has continued to live the role of a protagonist in someone else’s autobiography. Its presence is required but the voice has to be that someone else’s – the voice of the ideologue. Thus, Vijay Prashad, the  professor-ideologue, came right back to assert that ‘India doesn’t need a Bernie Sanders, ‘It just had 180 million of them on the street.’ 180 million Bernie Sanders? Talk of ‘imputed consciousness’ (where many of them actually could be Shiv Sena or BJP voters). Actually the reason why the previous 16 general strikes had disappeared from headlines wasn’t simply because of the corporate big media but because these were just one-off strikes that had little impact generally. What is more, they are signs of a stasis, of the inability to conduct a sustained movement.

What then does one make of this assertion? I have only taken one instance here for the purpose of illustrating my point but this is not an exception. The choice of words might be different but two things are common to ideologues across the spectrum: firstly, unlike the actual organizer, the ideologue refuses to acknowledge that there is any crisis or anything to worry about; secondly, the ideologue is supremely anxious to put down any autonomous, unfiltered expression by the living, empirical worker, lest other uncomfortable questions start arising.

The difficulty for the working class movement is that its fate has apparently become very closely tied to that of the Left – but in a profound sense this is only apparently so. This need for the political articulation of issues in terms of workers’ rights and equality is only felt by Left-leaning organizers like Utagi but for the working class at large, there is no such compulsion. If not with the Left, it will find its place within Right-wing politics and the Left will have only itself to blame. An uncritical Left attitude that refuses to reckon with the big changes that have occurrred  – such as this one that has no conception of the working class outside the party line  –  will only ensure that the Left’s rupture with the working class will be more sharp and clear in the near future.

This certainly is no hypothetical matter, for by now it is evident from any number of studies that the working class does not and cannot afford to live under the illusion that the Left and Left alone is its saviour. Studies of the rise of the Shiv Sena in the industrial belts of Bombay in the  1960s and 1970s [for instance, Juned Shaikh, ‘Worker Politics, Trade Unions and the Shiv Sena’s Rise in Central Bombay, EPW, 40 (18) 2005] clearly indicate that the marginalization and eventual disappearance of the Left from those working class areas had to do, most fundamentally, with the illusion that the ‘working class’ is ‘our class’ and that the Shiv Sena is simply a capitalist stooge, leading to the complete underestimation of the Shiv Sena. Secondly, it also indicates that workplace based organizing placed the communists at a major disadvantage: workers have other lives outside the capital-labour relationship and the neighbourhoods were left free for Shiv Sena to take over. But more importantly, it shows – as do other studies of the structural transformation of the Bombay industry (and therefore working class) – that workers make choices and decisions depending upon the options best available before them. Studies also show the ways in which the working class is continuously made and remade in the course of urban and industrial tansformations – and how these impact trade union activity. [See Stephen Sherlock’s study, ‘Class Re-formations in Mumbai: Has Organized Labour Risen to the Challenge?’, EPW,  31 (52), 1996]

In some ways more striking and disturbing is Nandini Gooptu’s study of jute industry labour in Kolkata, conducted between 2000 and 2005 – that is to say the period just before the 2006 election in which the CPI(M) and Left Front won the landslide victory under Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s leadership. How that massive vote in favour of the Left evaporated overnight, in the aftermath of Singur and Nandigram (2006 and 2007) can perhaps be better understood after reading this study. This industry and its militant workforce had been the pride of the West Bengal CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) but Gooptu’s interviews tell the tale of what was happening as the earlier organized power of the working class dissipated, with governmental imperatives leading the CITU to more and more compromises with Capital. Workers felt abandoned and some of them gradually turned towards petty crime while others sought other avenues. [See Nandini Gooptu, ‘Economic Liberalization, Work and Democracy: Industrial Decline and Urban Politics in Kolkata’, EPW, 42 (21), 2007]

There is no way you will get even a whiff of such complicated emotions among workers, in accounts like Varma’s monotone narrative to which I have linked above.

In this brief post, I have tried to indicatively raise certain issues that obviously need to be followed up with further explorations. I intend to return later to some of the key issues that have not been raised in this post or need further elaboration.

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