‘The specific threat of National Socialism was obscured amid general talk of the perils of “fascists”, a term egregiously applied to Bruning, Social Democrats and all and sundry. Dogmatic catastrophist theorising led the Communists to actively underplay the Nazis: Ernst Thalman warned the KPD [Communist Party of Germany] Central Committee in February 1932 “that nothing would be more disastrous than an opportunistic overestimation of Hitler-fascism.’ – Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich – A New History, p. 136
Ernst Thalman warned his party’s Central Committee against ‘opportunistically overestimating Hitler’, literally months before Hitler was appointed Chancellor in January the following year. What is more, this statement was made at a time when the intentions of the Nazis were hidden to nobody. As Burleigh puts it, they had frequently announced their contempt for the law and ‘by 1932 were vowing to intern Communists and Social Democrat opponents in concentration camps.’ (p. 149) Thalman, we know, was killed in the Buchenwald concentration camp in August 1944, eleven years after being held in captivity. Indeed, Thalman was arrested barely a year after he warned his party not to overestimate ‘Hitler-fascism’.
It is common knowledge that as the clouds of danger encircled Germany and the Depression was leading to cataclysmic shifts, the KPD continued to focus on Social Democrats as the main enemy. A brief entry on Thalman in the Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it pithily:
‘The party was almost completely unprepared when, in early 1933, Adolf Hitler ordered the mass arrests of communist functionaries; these arrests practically destroyed the party structure. Thälmann’s arrest came on March 3, 1933. All efforts to obtain his release failed, and he remained imprisoned for more than a decade until he was finally executed at Buchenwald concentration camp.’
‘The Most Dangerously Hidebound Force’
This quote above is not just about Germany. It is about a certain mindset widely prevalent in the Left. This mindset deploys the term ‘fascism’ quite indiscriminately, dissolving the specific threat of fascism into just another variant of ‘authoritarianism’ and misuse of power. Usually this happens because of incorrigibly reductionist thinking that sees in every authoritarian tendency a manifestation of ‘capitalism’, thereby reducing all of them to mere variations of the same. But it also happens becuase of what Antonio Gramsci saw as the party’s incapacity to ‘react against the force of habit, against the tendency to become mummified and anachronistic’ – a characteristic he attributed to the ‘most dangerously hidebound and conservative force’ namely, the ‘party bureaucracy’.
It is misleading to think in terms of historical analogies and one should normally avoid thinking of historical replays or re-enactments. Every historical situation is unique and has its own antecedent conditions. But there are always lessons to be learnt from speicfic historical experiences and one can ignore them only at one’s own peril.
The intentions of the current regime in India are not a secret any more and we have seen its contempt for the rule of law, over and over again. The ongoing farce of the Bhima-Koregaon arrests, or the fantastic conspiracy theories that have been woven around the North East Delhi communal violence earlier this year, are there for everyone to see. Have we forgotten that when Justice Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court insisted that the police see in the court, the crucial piece of evidence – that of Kapil Mishra’s video-recorded speech openly threatening violence and killing – he was transferred out of Delhi that very night? These aren’t just aberrations: the subversion of the rule of law that began with the isolated case of Judge Loya’s murder is now an everyday affair and the judges know what the costs of going against this regime can be. Of course, there have been many instances of the subversion of the criminal justice system during ‘riots’ and ‘communal violence’ in the past as well, but the overall sanctity of the law was maintained and things could still be challenged in court with some results.
One big difference between Germany in 1933 and India today, (among many other differences), is that even in early 1933, communists and social democrats mattered enough for Hitler to want to arrest them and clear the way for his untramelled exercise of power. In India today, the main opposition to key policy changes has come from ordinary people at large – the Citizenship Amendment Act being the most classic instance. No wonder then, those being arrested here are ordinary people and activists unaffiliated to any political party.
What is worse is that the dominant mainstream Left, has by and large, got caught up in the tendency that Gramsci described – to become mummified and anachronistic; the incapacity to react against the force of habit and formulaic thinking; the inability to recognize what is new in the situation. We have been witnessing a naked display of this tendency in the mainstream Left’s antics in Bengal, which created history in the 2019 parliament elections by mobilizing votes for the BJP. Now that the state assembly elections are due next year, things are assuming surreal dimensions.
Thus, the CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury argued in a television interview, later prominently displayed on the front page of the party’s Bengali daily Ganashakti, that ‘in order to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Trinamool Congress (TMC) must be defeated‘. This statement actually makes no sense whatsoever when the danger of Hindutva takeover of the state is imminent and elections are just round the corner. Perhaps, in a slightly longer term, this could have made some sense. The argument that there is great discontent against the TMC government and the anti-incumbency votes against it must be mopped up by the Left so that the BJP does not benefit, can make sense only when we are thinking of BJP’s growth in the medium term at the very least. But before examining this argument, it might just be worth asking that if that is really the case, how does the Left actually justify mobilizing votes for the BJP? This is not only evident in the ground reports that were coming in from Bengal but was also claimed by the Home Minister Amit Shah just a few days ago. In terms of electoral statistics too, it is clear that the extra votes that the BJP polled in the Lok Sabha elections came almost entirely from the CPI(M). According to CPI(ML) Liberation leader Kavita Krishnan, even now, among Left supporters in West Bengal, ‘arguments are rife on the ground suggesting “Ram in 2021 and Baam [Left] in 2026″‘.
It was a pleasure therefore to listen to Dipankar Bhattacharya, General Secretary of the CPI(ML) Liberation speak of the need to focus on the BJP as the main threat today – to India and to West Bengal. His responses to the various interviewers, even as the results of the Bihar elections were pouring in, were remarkably free of obfuscating jargon and spoke of the threat to democracy, to the rule of law and to civlizational values from the BJP. And that was enough for making the argument that it needed to be challenged in a united manner. No bookish arguments about whether this is fascism and what Dimitrov might have said about ‘united front’ tactics!
Signs of fresh thinking were quite evident in Bhattacharya’s call to ‘think in these new times, in a new way, in new conditions’, where he had no hesitation in including Ambedkar along with Bhagat Singh among the icons of the movement. As he put it, the slogan was ‘Naye Bharat ke vaaste, Bhagat Singh-Ambedkar ke Raaste’ (see video below). Indeed, the CPI(ML) Liberation has gone further and, as Jignesh Mevani pointed out, it did not field a single upper caste candidate in the Bihar elections, ‘changing the popular notion of the Brahminical, Savarna-dominated Left leadership.’
In the video below, Bhattacharya talks at length about a range of issues during the Bihar election campaign, to Nakul Singh Sawhney of Chalchitra Abhiyan.
The rethinking in this interview is quite fascinating also because, in order to think the question of caste and Dalit oppression and foregound the issue of dignity, Bhattacharya even indicates a preliminary theoretical willingness to understand ‘class’ as more than a purely economic category. This is, of course, a very difficult question and when he says class does not simply mean economic exploitation but also dignity, self-respect, culture and social justice – that move itself raises many other questions about specific forms of overdetermination. The multifarious implications of this proposition cannot be dealt with in this brief article but let us at least recognize that it opens up a conceptual space in the practice of the Left that can have far-reaching consequences.
A final point of great interest in this interview is that Bhattacharya here displays a sense of having thought through some of the issues relating to the ’employment question’ that had become the focus of the Mahagathbandhan (MGB – grand alliance) election campaign. Recall the way the CPI(M) and Left Front in West Bengal went about it. Theirs was primarily the neoliberal way of inviting Capital to invest in the state and let it dictate the terms. Large-scale land acquisition and the unfortunate developments of Singur and Nandigram were consquences of that model.
What Bhattacharya says here clearly is that the technology-intensive high-end industries are not going to be able to address Bihar’s problems and that the focus will need to be on more labour-oriented, medium and small enterprises which can provide far more employment than high-tech industries with least dislocation. But simultaenously, should the MGB win (the interview was conducted before the results were out), Bihar would also focus in developing itself as an IT hub – the vision is clearly not that of small industry based employment generation alone but has to go hand in hand with, rather than be obliterated by, big industry.
Of course these are critical issues and while one would have liked to hear a bit also about climate change and ‘green jobs’, in my view the beginning is itself quite significant and needs to be backed by the wider Left public. It is also important because, to my mind, the reason why the mainstream Left and the CPI(M) in particular have no appeal left in Bengal has a lot to do with their intransigence and refusal to rethink the neoliberal Singur-Nandigram model.
The struggle against Hindutva, it is clear today, cannot be fought on its turf of the secular-communal issue but must be taken to another terrain. A comprehensive rethink on a number of issues is necessary. One hopes that this stance of the CPI(ML) Liberation will be the beginning of a new chapter in the Left movement in this country.