Bourgeois democracy and its others: a response to Jairus Banaji

October 14, 2012


The following article, written by Akram Javed, is a response to a 2011 article by Jairus Banaji called Fascism, Maoism, and the Democratic Left. The article critiques widely held views on different aspects of the left movements in the country, which we hope will generate a lively debate on the path ahead for various people’s struggles in India, for which we will continue to provide space.
– Editors

In 2011, Indian Marxist scholar Jairus Banaji wrote an article called “Fascism, Maoism and the Democratic Left,” in which he tries to show the commonalities amongst these three trends and tries to posit his own alternative. As this article is often circulated, it is worth looking at some of the things Banaji is saying, both for their insights and for their problems. If nothing else, Banaji has clearly read widely and synthesizes strands from various times and places into his argument—although this can also be part of the shortcoming of his article.

It is important to note that Banaji is criticizing certain trends or tendencies that he sees (vanguardism, mainly) which, whether in armed form or parliamentary form lead to degeneracy, be that infighting or not fighting at all. He is not substantively criticizing India’s Maoists or “democratic” Left (i.e., the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM), in the sense of looking at their conceptions of Indian society and democracy, examining how they theorize gender, caste, ethnicity, how they articulate the relationships of the party and movement to mass organizations, to broader democratic forces, and so on. One would imagine that Banaji would have something to say about these issues, yet there is no substantive engagement with these matters in this article. Instead, there are a few things Banaji is saying, so allow me to take these in turn, with the limited understanding of the situation in India that I do have.

First, Banaji is arguing for a sharp distinction between constitutional democracy and the state apparatus. For him constitutional democracy is really about the constitution, not so much about the democracy (where the latter would incorporate elections of representatives, etc.). Constitutions are about ensuring fundamental rights and freedoms. Second, he makes a distinction between capitalism, democracy and the state apparatus. Capitalism (capitalists) seeks to limit democracy through the state apparatus. This often involves violations of the constitution.

Banaji is, of course, both right and wrong. Theoretically, democracy need not have a functional relationship with capitalism, but unfortunately, it appears to have this functional relationship in India. One of the most interesting aspects of the Indian constitution is its guarantee of the right to private property, and how that has been used by the state to restrict popular movements and, indeed, democracy. In other words, I would actually introduce a further distinction here, that between the constitution and democracy. If you look at the Left Front (Kerala)’s attempts at formulating land reform legislation in the 1950s and later in the 1960s, and the ways it had to be formulated and reformulated so that it would satisfy the legal niceties of the constitutional and legal order, and the ways in which courts or Congress at the centre intervened to water down or strike down outright the land reform legislation, the whole picture of constitution-democracy-state-capitalism becomes a lot more complicated (see Ronald J. Herring’s discussion in Land to the Tiller, 1983). These things cannot so easily be distinguished, nor can they so easily be smashed together. The point is to understand the contradictions within the dialectical unity of Indian state.

Banaji is right that the constitution enshrines certain fundamental rights and freedoms which are worth defending. But, again, there is more to it. The Memoranda of Understanding signed by various state governments in India with multinational corporates are not violations of the constitution or of Indian democracy. Usurpation of lands of peasants by the government can sometimes be justified by the same exceptional amendments to the constitution that were meant to justify usurpation of lands from landlords for redistribution. These are the ways in which the constitution enables bourgeoisies, multinational and domestic. Courts are a part of the state apparatus, they are supposed to be the guardians of the constitution, and they often use this against democrats. However, courts are also sites of struggle where subaltern groups lodge claims against other parts of the state apparatus, at which point it is up to the latter to implement or not implement these things.

We could split these hairs ad infinitum. However, the problem for us is to grasp the overall logic of the system while also understanding its internal contradictions—the logics of countervailing tendencies—and taking advantage of them.

As much as Banaji wants to get rid of the notion, the overall logic of the system is still one of bourgeois democracy (predicated upon incredible inequality and deprivation in the countryside). We see that when radicals, especially the CPM, enter the system they tend to comport and conform themselves to the requirements of the system—until they become an integral enough part of the system that they begin to facilitate the bourgeoisie in obnoxious and perverse ways (Banaji notes this himself, though he vaguely blames it on vanguardism or Stalinism). This is not to deny that within the bourgeois democracy there are definitely contradictions and spaces for struggle of subalterns, for instance through legal struggles in courts, through trade union struggles for higher wages and more control over the labour process, or through what Partha Chatterjee calls the “politics of the governed.” These are all tactical offensives which can and should be used in a strategy for overthrowing the overall logic of the system, but they in and of themselves are not the logic of the system, nor can they, in and of themselves, overthrow the logic of the system. It is the logic of the system that Banaji does not address in any convincing way.

Third, Banaji notes, Maoism is similar to fascism, like that of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, because they both want to destroy the existing democracy and replace it with something else. The major difference is that Maoists want to establish new democracy, whereas the BJP wants something else.

Here, the problem of Banaji’s conflation of constitution and democracy becomes even more problematic. By noting that the Maoists and fascists are against the democracy, he implies they are against the constitution, and thus implies that they are against all those rights and freedoms enshrined therein. This is a stretch, to say the least. As some scholars have noted (e.g., Nandini Sundar), in many parts of India it is the Maoists who are doing a far better job of enforcing the constitution than the state apparatus by protecting the rights of marginalized sections of society.

Banaji appears to ignore that the constitution, the rights and freedoms enshrined therein, are social relations. These are not rights or freedoms that descended from Enlightenment, they are results of social struggle of the working class and peasantry all over the world, and depend upon social struggle for their enforcement and maintenance—or abdication.

Maoists do not reject, in principle, rights and freedoms. They reject the total logic of the system as it exists, of which the constitution is a part. There is no question that Indian Maoists want to get rid of the existing system of bourgeois democracy.

To argue the formal equivalence with the BJP or fascism is intellectually bankrupt, and a tired refrain of plenty of anti-communists, an unfortunate refrain Banaji is picking up. For one, the BJP has operated within and without the confines of Indian democracy—and has come to accommodate itself to Indian democracy. Indeed, the question that must be posed is how Indian democracy enabled, facilitated and accommodated something like the fascism of the BJP in the first place. To figure out the answer we must examine content: in no way is the BJP opposed to the bourgeoisie or to the semi-feudal compact, in no way is it opposed to casteism or communalism, in no way is it oriented toward the liberation of the women, etc. But then, neither is the Congress or any one of these high-caste, elite-led parties.

The Maoists, for all their problems—such as the absence of women and low-caste or untouchables in the leadership, and the ways in which they have applied violence—have nevertheless tackled these problems head-on. They are committed to ending the bourgeois and semi-feudal order through mobilization of masses. The point is to establish a new regime of rights and freedoms—new democracy.

Fourth, Banaji returns to the classics and argues that Marx and Engels said that communists do not form their own parties against working class parties. He contrasts this to vanguardism or Leninism, where you form a separate party that seeks to lead workers. This, he claims is the root of sectarianism because isolated sects claim to have true theory and be leaders of working class and fight each other. He then claims that this intrinsic sectarianism somehow transmogrifies itself into theoretical debates, which form the ground for splits that are actually rooted in international events. That is, theory comes to justify sectarianism, whereas in reality it is sectarianism grounded in vanguardism that is justifying theory.

If this sounds convoluted, it is not a result of my summary; the convolution is in Banaji’s analysis. It is an attempt to intellectually simplify the actual mess and the messy questions that need to be asked about the development and trajectories of India’s communist parties.

It appears to me difficult to plug the large communist parties—CPI, CPM and Maoists alike—which are mass parties that can mobilize and have mobilized hundreds of thousands and millions, into the category of isolated sects distant from the working classes or the masses. It is dishonest to make this claim about other Naxalite parties operating in India today, as well. Whatever one wants to say about the communist parties of our time, be they “Stalinist” or “revisionist” or “Naxalite,” one has to acknowledge that they are mass parties. They are hardly anything like the self-involved Trotskyist groupuscules that proliferate the leftist scene of the Anglophone world. The question that Trotskyists should be asking is how and why the communist parties gain and maintain mass followings and involvement.

It also appears to me difficult to hitch the wagon of international splits to the splits among Indian communists. These are really complicated splits which happened as a result of the way these parties sought to relate to domestic events, and tactics and strategies for revolution (or not). What does this have to do with the Sino-Soviet split? The symbols and theoretical repertoires used, and the sometimes tortuous attempt to claim legitimacy by reference to the classic texts, but they respond to actual problems of the Indian revolution. But one cannot reduce these splits to some dispute Mao and Khruschev may have had, the Indian splits have to be examined and understood in all their concrete messiness.

Now to the question of orienting to the working class parties, as against acting as the vanguards: Banaji has some kind of idealized view of the working class, which appears here as a homogenous, undifferentiated mass that exists outside of and separately from communists. It would be engaging to see Banaji parse this class out and make sense of the working class. Communists in India and elsewhere have not seen themselves as separate from the working class, they have organized amongst working class, they have organized sections of the working class, they have recruited from the working class, they have contributed to the taming of the working class, etc. This is the key: communists can form and have formed parties that organize the working classes. One wonders what “parties of the working class” Banaji is alluding to in India, to which true communists must orient themselves? Is there a pure working class party that emerges at some undetermined moment in history, for which communists must hang on and wait with stacks of Marx and Engels pamphlets translated into local languages at the ready? Certainly, I agree with Banaji in broad terms that communists should help to organize unions that are independent from the chain of command of the party, but which share the revolutionary thrust. More on these issues below.

Fifth, Banaji argues that vanguardism/sectarianism plus guns has led to insane levels of bloodletting amongst communist parties in India, particularly Naxalite parties.

Banaji is correct that something certainly led to great levels of bloodletting. It is worth examining in more detail. However, just blaming it on “vanguardism” strikes me as idealism, moving away from examination of concrete conditions. Certainly, the subjective element and self-understanding of Naxalites who ended up savaging each other is important, but we need an analysis of the objective conditions under which these things happened. Again, what is the mess, and how do we understand it, and how do we avoid it?

Moreover, Banaji ignores the ways in which Naxalite parties have taken to relating to each other now. There is hostility, and there are actual theoretical, tactical and strategic disagreements. But, despite this, there is also solidarity and cooperation—for instance, against Operation Green Hunt—that puts to rest simple conceptions of Naxalism in India. Some Naxalites criticize the armed struggle of the Maoists, while upholding that struggle nevertheless. How is this to be understood, beyond simple concepts of “vanguardism”?

Sixth, Banaji suggests that Indian Maoism is a particularistic movement, centred around adivasi struggle. Yes, and no. The party has a complex task of trying to balance not only its survival, but the survival of the base—the masses—it has in the rural areas, with the task of expanding and organizing in the cities and elsewhere. The Indian state is conducting a brutal war against the peoples of these areas and the nature (agriculture, forests, etc.) upon which they often depend for livelihood. The Maoists are sometimes the only defence, and the only avenue for counter-offense. His criticisms about the particularization of the struggle are important and pointed, but they have been taken into consideration and reflection by the party and it has developed, for instance, an urban strategy. Beyond this, there are Naxalites who appear to be organizing in the cities—indeed, there are plenty of activists who are being labeled Naxalite or Maoist by the Indian state. The Maoists concentration in rural areas and the brunt of Indian state’s offensive they are bearing is a complexity of the Indian revolution and the tactics that the Maoists have chosen, but to simply dismiss the Maoists as a result of these complexities is not being true to their theoretical and conceptual understanding. The theory of Maoist struggle is not restricted to adivasis.

Seventh, Banaji argues that Maoism has no element of a culture of mass democracy. This explains caste discrimination in the party. Without the culture of mass democracy, the masses will not be able to hold their own against the party/state in New Democracy. This is a result of vanguardism, which claims masses cannot create their own movements and cultures.

This is a simplification of Maoist thought and practice. In fact, Banaji is correct that parties have a tendency to place mass organizations under their control. However, this is not unique to Maoists. The question of democracy is really complicated and Banaji’s simplification does little to address it. What leads so many people to support the Maoists and to actively participate in the Maoist movement? Maoists do organize parallel structures of governance, administration, justice and development, which could not happen without mass participation and engagement. Whether or not that is balanced against the party’s authority is an important question to address. In many cases people have stopped giving their support to the party when it changed its line and practice, and have moved away from it—which shows that masses are not dupes, but are active participants. It is a question if that kind of generalized support is also institutionalized independently of the party’s chain of command. That is a good question, and an important one, about which I do not know. It is an important theoretical question about the proper relation between the party, its chain of command, and the mass organizations of revolutionary people’s power, that deserves to be addressed.

The theory of vanguardism has never claimed that masses are incapable of creating their own movements and cultures. Indeed, Lenin was clear that the communists must learn from the creativity of the masses and their struggles. It is difficult to imagine how any communist party would be able to produce, out of nothing, a movement of hundreds of thousands. Clearly, communism must build on the organization that already exists amongst the masses. The point is that a party is necessary to organize and lead the struggle against state and capital—not to create it, or control it—but to channel it. Parties may well declare themselves the vanguard, but that can only be proven in practice by the orientation of the revolutionary masses toward an actual vanguard.

Lastly, Banaji argues that communists need to return to the Marx—not forming parties but orienting themselves to the parties or movements of workers that do exist. Independent and radical unions offer the way forward.

While it is a nice sentiment, there are a few problems with Banaji’s conception. The space of activism in Egypt or North Africa is very different from that in India. Again, India has a bourgeois democracy which North African states did not have. The labour movement in India is saturated by several party fronts, whereas in North Africa the labour movement was saturated by the state. When the dividing line is between the state and everything outside of it, the formation of unions independent of the state’s unions (in Egypt), or the formation of independent and radical factions inside and outside of state-coopted unions (in Tunisia), is the only way to proceed. In India, democracy offers a series of choices among various unions, which have been coopted to varying degrees, like organized labour in the West, into state and capital. Hegemony, as per Gramsci, is accordingly thicker in India. This is not to say that there is no room for independent and radical unions in India, they do exist and communist parties must orient themselves toward them. This is particularly the case in India’s informal sector, where the party fronts are not saturated and, indeed, where the majority of the working class in India is actually employed. However, we also see that certain groups are organizing independent and radical unions themselves. There is, in other words, not a dichotomy between orienting toward independent unions and trying to kickstart them.

Moreover, in North African states, there was more to the uprisings than the labour movement; this is, moreover, the case all across the world. The question for communists, in terms of what Richard Seymour has called the realpolitik of the working class, and what Lenin, Mao, Gramsci and all of those clunkers who followed Marx noted, is not to concentrate only on “the working class” (whatever that means) but to determine and deploy a total political strategy.

Also, as much of the uprisings of 2011 must be celebrated, studied and understood, none of these movements have actually led to revolution. They are developing revolutionary situations.

The problem with Banaji’s approach is his almost exclusive focus on “the working class.” Here, it appears to be the metaphysical embodiment of the cutting edge of Enlightenment values (this is embedded in Marx’s theory, actually, but comes out in practical terms especially in Trotskyism and formal articulations of revisionist Marxism-Leninism). He romanticizes the working class in the way that some postcolonialists have homogenously romanticized the “subalterns”—the tribals or peasants, who exist out there, separate from the intelligentsia, or the party, or the elite. This is patently useless. We have to understand the differences and differentiations in the working classes, the links between working class and the parties and other ideologies, and so on. Banaji shows no such analysis. “The working class” is this undifferentiated, homogenous mass that exists, out there, waiting to come into its own. What do communists do until then?

Is the role of the party to sit around and wait until “the working class” organizes itself? Is it to go amongst “the working class” and to do propaganda until they feel like organizing themselves? Is it to go amongst “the working class” and organize the workers into unions which are led by a revolutionary ideology? To bring people to revolutionary ideology by working with them on their day to day conditions? What does revolution mean? How are we supposed to get there? What is the party’s role in that? Should we even have a party?

Banaji does not really articulate any strategy, no real next steps. His position appears to be to just kind of sit back and watch things happen, provide “the working class” with some tidbits from Marx and Engels and talkshops about socialism, or something along those lines, until “the working class” forms its own parties and movements and does the revolution thing. Unlike those vanguardist/ Stalinists out there, haughtily seeking to organize the working masses and attempting to overthrow state and capital, we true communists will be there, sitting in our universities, interpreting and reading Marx and Engels in the general direction of “the working class.”

Then again, that doesn’t sound too different from what we are doing right now.


5 Responses to “Bourgeois democracy and its others: a response to Jairus Banaji”

  1. Tony Says:
    October 15th, 2012 at 02:44

    well this is a well written article. however, the democracy in India is not “Bourgeois democracy” but a Brahmanic democracy. the brahmanic ideology has been deeply ingrained in both the elite’s and the masses’ psyche. the brahmanic elites may have replaced it with “rational choice” theory but the masses need to be re-educated in some alternative ideology other than brahmanic and it is a herculean task because the brahmanas for millannia have been pasturing the masses to serve the brahmanic elites (from a dharmic point of view) to get moksha and this is a reality for most of the masses (so called ‘communities’) in India. and this superstitious ideoly/faith has not been challenged as it should have been because all avenues of learning in India have been colonized by people who adhere to the brahmanic ideology. For a simple example, the brahman school teacher who teach at a tribal school would teach them to say pranam with joint hands instead of tribal children to be allowed to say johar by shaking hand with the other. The barahman guru cannot tolerate this because if he touches a tribal he gets polluted.

    Hence the the analysis will be more meaningful if it takes into consideration the adverse incorporation and social exclusion that happens when a triabl ‘revolutionary’ leader gets bought up by the brahmanic elite capitalist to advance his interest in the fifth-schedule areas in India – a phenomenon peculiar to Indian capitalism.

  2. Raji Murmu Says:
    October 17th, 2012 at 14:36

    So Tony in place of Brahmanic capitalism, you want Dalit capitalism? I think we should be opposed to both.

  3. Harsh Thakor Says:
    October 17th, 2012 at 23:37

    I really appreciate this reply by Akram Javed which analytically refutes Jairus Banaji’s negative writings towards Maoism,the vanguard party and the movement in India today.It is ridiculous to club Maoism with fascism as Jairus Banaji has done.

    This article explains that whatever its errors and polemical defects the Maoist movement is based on the broad masses of the people.The C.P.I.(Maoist) has done it’s utmost to correct it’s previous errors and forming mass organizations,particularly in Dandkaranya.Irrespective of whether it’s military line is defective or it reflects vanguardist tendencies towards the mass movements and organizations the C.P.I.(Maoist) is the most potent and genuine revolutionary force in the world today whose sacrifice and resistance will be remembered for ever in the annals of the revolutionary Movement.Infact it made a serious rectification effort towards working in the urban areas and the trade Unions in 2007.

    The most correct approach towards the relationship of mass organizations with the party was made by comrade Tarimela Nagi Reddy from the 1970’s in the Andhra Pradesh Co-ordination Commitee of Communist revolutionaries of India.In the mid 1970’s comrade Harbhajan Sohi adopted the same line when leading the Punjab Coordination Commitee of Communist revolutionaries which later merged into the Unity Center of Communist Revolutionaries of India.The struggles of the Punjab Students Union in the 1970’s depicted the correct trend of mass organizations ,which was again later reflected in the anti-communal and anti-repression front formed to combat Khalistani and State terrorism in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.Mass revolutionary combat forces were organised to resist the Khalistani fundamentalist forces but the front was never used as a forum for Naxalite groups.The same principles were upheld when holding a conference in commemoration of the martys of Naxalbari in Raajeana in November,1994.The practice of comrades of the Malkangiri Adivasi Sangh reflected the same approach.In the past erstwhile constituents of the C.P.I.(Maoist) like peoples War group when forming organizations like Radical Students Union or Revolutionary writers Association confused the mass organizations with the party and placed the ideology of Mao Tse Tung Thought in their manifestos.This was erroneous as this is the party ideology.Irrespective of this a huge movement was built up in Andhra Pradesh and similarly by groups like Party Unity and Bihar.On the theoretical front the most correct analysis on the question of mass organizations was made by the Centre of Communist Revolutionaries in India formed in 1988 which later merged into the Communist Party re-organization Center of India(Marxist-Leninist)

    It is ridiculuos to claim that India is a fully developed capitalist country.I visited Punjab about 10 months ago and learnt how poor peasants are virtually merciless at the hands of moneylender who buy their land at almost 10 time s less than the value.I agree India is not completely feudal or the same as pre-revolutionary China but remnants of feudalism still exist.Theoreticaly,the anti- Brahmanic concept has to be refuted tooth and nail which is not coherent with Marxism and completely replaces class struggle with caste struggle.Infact there is a trend where ML groups are trailing behind caste organizations without any class analysis,like Joining hands with Dalit Bahujan party.

    We have to respect the teachings of leaders like Marx,Lenin,Stalin and Mao and refute intellectuals who deride them like jairus Banaji.True India has characteristics that vary from China and the Indian conditions have to be correctly analysed.Possibly the theories of Lenin and Mao have to be further developed towards the greater independence of mass organizations,particularly in the Urban areas and the theory of the monolithic party.However negating the concept of the proletarian party would betray the entire revolution.

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    October 20th, 2012 at 09:06

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  5. Sudhansu Says:
    October 29th, 2012 at 10:09

    It is wrong to accuse Brahmans in each and every case. In fact it became a fashion to attack Brahmans and their belief. When Marx attacked religion and not any sect Indian Communists are attacking Hindus generally and Brhmans particularly. They must attack all religious extremism and take with them all poor and exploited classes not only castes. They must trust upper castes and must feel their grieviences. Without taking all a revoulation can not be successful.

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