Fear of the Unfamiliar – Responding to Patnaik (open for comments)

December 16, 2007

By Partho Sarathi Ray, Sanhati

A spectre is haunting the CPI(M)- the spectre of the People. All the powers of the old Left (or to borrow their term, the “organized Left”) have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Prakash Karat, Prabhat Patnaik and N. Ram, party cadres and state police.

The first step in the process of exorcism is delegitimization. The resistance of the people of Singur and Nandigram has long been attempted to be delegitimized by attributing it to the so-called unholy alliance of the Trinamool Congress, Jamaat and the Maoists. That is familiar terrain, to brand all opposition as the handiwork of right wing or ultra Left forces, and hence deny it’s political legitimacy. However, what was unfamiliar for the CPI(M) was “so many intellectuals suddenly turn(ing) against the Party with such amazing fury on this issue”. That tens of thousands of common people would accompany these intellectuals, many of them long time fellow-travellers and supporters of the Left Front, out on the streets in a spontaneous show of outrage and protest was something totally unfamiliar to the CPI(M), which has converted “the people” into a fetish. And, Prabhat Patnaik’s essay seems to have been born out of a fear of this unfamiliar.

The problem for the CPI(M), and for Prof. Patnaik, has been the category in which these intellectuals could be included in order to rationalize this unfamiliar phenomenon, and to delegitimize their protest. Here they were, marching under no party banners, vociferously opposing the party with which several of them were associated till “yesterday”. Prof. Patnaik, in his essay, first tries to suggest that these intellectuals were basically “anti-organized Left, especially anti-Communist (and in particular anti-CPI(M)), belonging as they do to the erstwhile “socialist” groups, to NGOs, to the ranks of Naxalite sympathizers, to the community of “Free Thinkers”, and to various shades of “populism””. But he himself finds this explanation wanting, in his black and white world of “either you are with us or against us”, as “they did make common cause with it (the CPIM) on several issues till recently”. So he opens up a new line of attack, the ultimate rationalization, of accusing these intellectuals of not just being anti-“organized Left”, but being anti-political. He thinks that once it is possible to attribute their opposition to a “withdrawal from politics”, to a “messianic moralization”, it can be proved to be devoid of any political content, and correspondingly attributing the resistance of the peasants to the handiwork of Trinamool Congress, the Jamaat and Maoists, the spectre of the people rising up can be firmly put to rest. This is a dangerous stratagem of denying all legitimacy to the opposition from the intellectuals, of making it “smug, self-righteous, self-adulatory, and, above all, empty”.

Why is this cunning rationalization required? I would be presumptuous to remind Prof. Patnaik the etymology of the word “political”. It derives from the Greek politikos, “of the citizens or the state”, which in ancient Greece was the “polis”. By actively playing their role as citizens, coming out on the streets and organizing to publicly oppose actions of the state, are the intellectuals not doing exactly what Prof. Patnaik accuses them of doing, of demonstrating “disdain for politics, this contempt for the political process”? Or does the “political process” for Prof. Patnaik just mean the dutiful casting of votes during elections, of docile participation in meetings organized or sanctioned by the Party, or of indulging in “friendly criticism, articles, and open letters”? Or is it that the intellectuals are really making a political statement by their protest, a statement of their involvement in the affairs of the state, which makes Prof. Patnaik so uncomfortable? Would he have been more comfortable if they marched under the banner of the Trinamool Congress or the Maoists, as that would have placed them in his comfortable dualistic world where their protest could be attributed to the opportunistic or anarchist “politics” of the opposition?

I understand that Prof. Patnaik finds it hard to believe that “the people” can start organizing outside the auspices of a political party, that such organization can, and has become in the past, the nucleus of a very political movement, and rather than being a process of “destruction of politics” it is the very affirmation of the “political”. Or maybe it’s just that what unnerves him, and the CPI(M) bosses, that “the people” have finally refused to just being a fetish which can be invoked according to convenience, and have decided to mobilize politically, to actively assert their role in the affairs of the “polis”. This would put into serious jeopardy the mantle of the “organized Left”, which Prof. Patnaik claims for the CPI(M). It is a surprising mantle of monopoly, considering the fact that several Left political parties have been actively involved in the people’s resistance and the protests. Does Prof. Patnaik consider them to be “disorganized Left” or “organized non-Left”? Or does “organized Left” for Prof. Patnaik just means the Left entrenched in power, the Left which can use the contrivances available in an electoral democracy to regularly churn up votes during elections. It is evidently unfamiliar for Prof. Patnaik that hundreds of struggles are breaking out in India, where the people have correctly identified imperialism to be the “principal contradiction” of the times – imperialism that is equally represented by the nuclear deal between the USA and India and the attempts to take over their lands and livelihoods for the profits of corporations like the Tatas and the Salims – and have therefore consciously distanced themselves from the “organized left” in their struggles against imperialism. It is the fear of this unfamiliar that has shaken the “organized Left” or rather the “un-Left”, a description inspired by the mythical “un-dead”, like which it has the appearance of life but is actually dead, ensconced in its grave of power for the last thirty years, now busily hammering the last nail of neo-liberalism into its own coffin.


6 Responses to “Fear of the Unfamiliar – Responding to Patnaik (open for comments)”

  1. sanjay mukherjee Says:
    December 17th, 2007 at 13:56

    wonderful analysis.
    some people have started thinking that the seeds of this new kind of uprising, hitherto unknown in Indian politics, will soon have its natural death as we have forgotten the Chandmuni Tea Estate, Kanoria Jute Mill, Hindusthan Motors strike, Nanoor mass murder etc etc.new issues may come and go but the spirit is difficult to die down this time. what we genuinely need is an organised new political outfit with true democratic values. i sincerely believe that too will come out before the next general elections. i draw inspiration from the history book… a Prague Spring or an Orange revolution in recent past. Chile,thailand and burma too have shown in very recent past that it is achievable.i look forward to that NEW DAWN (the real one …not of Biman Bose variety)

  2. Dilip Simeon Says:
    December 19th, 2007 at 11:37

    Professor Patnaik and the Aftermath of Nandigram

    by Dilip Simeon (posted on SACW Dec 15-19)

    Professor Prabhat Patnaik’s criticism (http://www.pragoti.org) 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.

  3. Atanu Chakraborty Says:
    December 21st, 2007 at 05:24

    Partho, again a wonderful analysis which suits you. CPM knows it is a mass uprising and whatever the state does in such a condition, they are doing everything. They forgot that the capitalist does not have any country, any idealistic strategy, they are dividing them as good capitalist and bad one. So inevitably the US are bad, though Buddha is sending his industrial minister to US. Again, in Odissa, anti-posco movement are organized by lefts. What a hypocrisy. In a recent district meeting, CPM compared Tapan and Sukur with Che. This is the height of political bankruptcy of CPM.

  4. Kunal Chattopadhyay Says:
    December 22nd, 2007 at 13:51

    There are a series of important points in patnaik’s essay. The first is the assumption that if a lot of intellectuals have moved away from the CPI(M), it means thet have to be delegitimised as intellectuals. For that, first the word itself must be put in quotation marks. This is a form of vulgar attack that moves away from any type of reasoned argument to pinning a label in order to shoot the opponents. I am sure different intellectuals have different attitudes to this crudity. For myself, I would like to say that if Patnaik feels the intellectuals who have attacked the CPI(M) are not real intellectuals, he must being by naming them, then by proving that they are non intellectuals. By waffling around, by using a lot of words but not naming most (I suppose, since he mentions responses to Chomsky et al, I, along with the signatories to a collective letter, do qualify), he creates a kind of psychological terrorism : “you better watch your step, or I may put you in the list of quotation mark intellectuals, buddy”. As, however, I seem to be one of the definite targets, I would like to know what he means by intellectual, and how they differ from the “intellectual”. Presumably, blind loyalty to the CPI(M) and/or its tail between the leg ally CPI is a major factor. Only in India can this demand be made. Across the world, the crimes of Stalinism are too well known. Also well known are the crtimes of those intellectuals who forgot that their first duty was to be honest. No artist, no historian, no economist, no intellectual worth the term, can be dishonest. How can you serve the cause of progress by covering up the crimes of so called progressives? We are told that you should write friendly criticisms, open letters, etc, not strong criticisms that equate Buddha with Modi. Well, I will not quite do the latter. But just for example, the world’s most powerful communist party, outside the Soviet Union, in the early 1930s, was the Communist Party of Germany. It was subsequently smashed. Stalin had a big role in muzzling it, in stopping it from forging a united front with the Socialist Party. Then, after it was smashed, Stalin murdered 4 of its PB members, Hitler 3. In India, even getting this truth published is difficult. In the Indian History Congress, a paper of mine with this and related data was killed, though the Sectional President, a solid scholar named Madhavan Palat, had okayed it. This is what Patnaik’s call for supporting the proper camp means.
    I will come back to his essay further in subsequent posts.

  5. ks Says:
    December 22nd, 2007 at 23:15

    Kunal, you write: “Also well known are the crtimes of those intellectuals who forgot that their first duty was to be honest.”

    How far is it possible to do realistic politics and be able to denounce dishonesty when one sees it? It has always been a game of optimization, hasn’t it? One can argue that Sweezy, Rolland, and a host of intellectuals became Stalinist apologists in the 1930s, to preserve what they perceived to be the only genuine “Left” movement. Now, one can also argue from the other side – that the amount of Stalinist terror injected into the countryside, and seeping steadily into the cities, emanating from the destruction of inner party democracy, really made the movement “non-Left”. But then one can also argue that the economic program followed was essentially the Trotsky/Preobrazhensky/Yoffe exiled opposition’s economic program, pursued with force and unprecedented terror. Most of the exiled opposition in fact crumbled as much due to Stalinist persecution as to the fact that it perceived no differences in the economic program. Most of the opposition that remained in the opposition did so because it placed more importance on the destruction of democracy, in the party, the Comintern, and in society. A destruction that led for example to the Stalinist Comintern’s disastrous role in China’s 1927 movement and afterwards…

    Parties and politically-minded people have continued to choose sides on such issues, through processes of optimization.

    Is it possible to remain within a certain school of politics, let alone an organization or party, and realistically express oneself unequivocally?

    If not, should we not criticize Patnaik not for being calculating and “dishonest”, but doing the wrong calculations? In other words, the defence of a party that is neoliberal, anti-democratic to the core, perhaps because of an identification (thoroughly wrong) of it’s being the only genuine “left” alternative, etc.?

    It would be nice if you discussed this in more detail.

  6. music Says:
    January 6th, 2008 at 22:56

    very interesting.
    i’m adding in RSS Reader

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