The Social Democratic Left and its Apologists (open for comments)

December 17, 2007

By Dipankar Basu, Sanhati

Prof. Prabhat Patnaik’s (PP henceforth) recent diatribe against the Left’s presumed intellectual detractors strikes one as decidedly odd. For it is obvious from the very beginning that PP is carefully setting up a straw man to be knocked out with a flourish a few paragraphs down the line. Conflating the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] with the Left, or with what he sometimes refers to as the “organized Left”, and equating a critique of CPI(M) with a negation of politics are the two rhetorical devices repeatedly used by PP to achieve his goal. After glossing over crucial facts, repeating some oft-heard falsehoods and offering his definition of political praxis (to which I agree with minor reservations!), PP discovers messianic moralism as the ground on which the recent critique of CPI(M) rests. With this stupendous discovery PP’s straw man is fully constructed; it remains to knock him down to oblivion and this PP does with his usual elan.

The fact of the matter is that the intellectual detractors that PP trains his guns on are not detractors of the Left, but are detractors of a stream of the Left, the stream that PP and Karat belongs to, a stream that Tony Blair and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee represent, a stream that the later-day Karl Kautsky and the born-again Chinese Communist Party stands for. For if one were to carefully study the political landscape of contemporary India, one would discern three streams within the Left: the social democratic left (which PP so ardently and skillfully defends), the non-Party radical social movements (various dalit movements, women’s movements, ecological movements, etc., all outside the framework of a communist party), and the revolutionary left. Of course these divisions are not watertight, and they may even entail some simplifications, but nonetheless they are helpful in organizing our thinking about contemporary Indian politics, especially on the left end of the political spectrum. These rough-and-ready divisions are especially illuminating in this context because the recent critique of CPI(M) has come from the second and third stream of the Indian Left. To put it simply, that critique has been directed against the recent neoliberal turn of the CPI(M), as evidenced by the events in Singur and Nandigram [1]. By labeling detractors of the CPI(M) as detractors of the Left, PP displays his intellectual dishonesty: the critics of the CPI(M) are not critics of the Left, they are critics of the CPI(M) variety of Left. For most of those against whom PP fulminates under the label of messianic moralism continues to hold Leftist ideals and engage in Leftist political practice, in sharp contrast to CPI(M)’s surrender to neoliberalism.

PP knows, as well as his comrades in the CPI(M) that he so badly wants to defend, that all the arguments against the CPI(M), in particular the argument against Singur, and the argument against Nandigram are political. It is to dodge this intensely political argument that PP creates the bogey of messianic moralism, an imagined ideological adversary that he can easily subdue and overpower to the thrill of his social democratic comrades. For no one, other than possibly in a marginal manner, has made any moral argument against the CPI(M)’s conduct in Singur and Nandigram. Let us remind ourselves that the main argument against the CPI(M) has been it’s abject surrender to neoliberalism, to it’s shameful acceptance of the argument that only corporate-led capitalism can usher in industrialization in West Bengal. In this context, it is important to see Nandigram and Singur as part of the national struggle against the imposition of the neoliberal model of development on the Indian people, where the State is making all efforts to hand over natural resources to corporate capital with total disregard for the lives and livelihood of the people as well as the demands of ecological balance. Rapacious corporate capital, backed by the might of the Indian State, is currently conducting the largest “land garb” in the history of independent India. This historical “land grab”, which is merely a convenient way to summarize corporate capital’s bid to gain monopoly control over all natural resources, lies behind Singur and Nandigram as much as it lies behind Kalinganagar and Jagatsinghpur (Orissa) and Munnar (Kerala), it lies behind the resistance to the construction of the Navi Mumbai SEZ as much as it lies in the resistance to the rapid erosion of civil liberties in Chattisgarh. The rationale for this unprecedented land grab – if a rationale is at all needed – being offered by the political establishment and the corporate media is that there is no alternative to this form of development, corporate-led capitalist development. When Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee parrots this same logic and Prakash Karat comes out in his defense, one should understand that opposition to CPI(M) is then opposition to this logic.

There have been two subsidiary arguments too: first about the Janus-faced nature of the CPI(M), where to keep up its pretense of a party of “the people” it regularly dishes out anti-neoliberal rhetoric at the national level while assiduously implementing those same policies in West Bengal; and second about the authoritarian tendency of the Party, where dissent of all kinds is ruthlessly crushed. None of these arguments, it is obvious, emerge from the grounds of messianic moralism; neither are they arguments against politics; they are intensely political arguments, arguments about the contending class interests – with CPI(M) defending the interests of corporate capital against the peasantry and the rural proletariat – and command over resources and political power. The equation of the critique of the CPI(M) to a “revolt against politics” is therefore totally disingenuous:

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, that special anger. It is the anger of the morality of the “anti-political” against the morality of the “political”, for Communism, notwithstanding its substitution of the “political” for the “moral”, has nonetheless a moral appeal. The venom in the anti-Left intellectuals’ attack on the Left comes from the fact that this struggle, of the “morality of the anti-political” against the “morality of the political”, takes on the character of a desperate last struggle, a final push to destroy the latter, since “our day has come at last!”.

As the above passage amply demonstrates, shadow boxing seems to have lately emerged as PP’s forte. For it is well known that the revolt against the CPI(M) has a substantial communist stream (as I have pointed out earlier); PP’s refusal to engage with this stream signals a lack of arguments and he masks this lack of real arguments with his diatribe against the imagined adversary of messianic moralism. In fact, the revolt against the CPI(M) is a revolt against the degeneration of politics, it is not a rejection of “politics in general”; it is a revolt against the attempt to define politics as politicking, it is the revolt against the opportunism that has so infected the mainstream Left, it is the revolt against the attempt to reduce politics to mere electoral calculus; in short, it is an attempt to recover the radical edge of Left politics.

With these general comments, let me now turn to a more detailed engagement with PP’s arguments. The first things that strikes one as seriously problematic is the very title of the piece (which gives us a true picture of the focus of his discourse): The Left and its “Intellectual” Detractors. I am referring to PP’s focus on the “intellectual” detractors of what he considers as the Left. By this PP means that section of the middle class sympathizers of the Left movement who have the wherewithal to make their voices heard in the national and regional media. What about those peasants and landless labourers who fought the battles of Singur and Nandigram with non-linguistic tools? Are they not the real detractors of what PP considers the Left? Does PP have any arguments in his arsenal to counter the rage of the displaced peasant, the anger of the raped woman, the despair of the landless?

It is obvious to many, though bears mentioning in this context, that the revolt of the Intellectuals rests on, was built on, the revolt of the peasants and landless labourers; that revolt is the primary revolt; it is that revolt in Singur, and then in Nandigram, that energized the intellectuals. The intellectuals who were open to the anguish and rage of the marginalized merely gave expression to that primal revolt. So, if PP wants to argue against the detractors of what he considers the Left, he has to argue against those peasants and landless labourers who fought pitched battles with the CPI(M) cadres, he has to argue against opposition to CPI(M)’s capitulation to capital, to its neoliberal turn. This becomes especially relevant once we take into account the fact that most of the peasants and landless labourers who resisted the State government’s plan for land acquisition in Nandigram, and lost their lives in the battles, were former CPI(M) members and sympathizers.

Early on in the piece PP laments that arguing “on the basis of facts on the specificities of Nandigram”, which is what they have been doing till now no longer seems to be enough. Before I come to Nandigram, it is important to point towards one dangerous trend among CPI(M) intellectuals: the constant attempt to de-link Nandigram and Singur. The fact of the matter is that the two are intimately linked: both are specific episodes in the struggle against the implementation of neoliberal policies in West Bengal. And in fact, it was the relative success of the struggle in Singur that spread the news about both the LF Government’s intentions and the people’s struggle against it to Nandigram.

But what are the facts “on the specificities of Nandigram” that PP has argued on? In the name of facts, this (and only this) is what PP has to offer:

It is not enough for instance to underscore the fact, implicitly or explicitly denied by virtually all of them, that thousands of poor people were driven out of their homes into refugee camps for the only “crime” of being CPI(M) supporters; it is not enough to argue against them that there was no semblance of an excuse for keeping Nandigram out of bounds for these refugees and for the civil administration even after the Left Front government had categorically declared that no chemical hub would be built there; it is not enough to point out that the so-called “re-occupation” of Nandigram in November was an act of desperation which followed the failure of every other effort at restoring normalcy and bringing the refugees back to their homes. All these facts and arguments have been advanced at length, and are by now passé.

It is true that several CPI(M) supporters and sympathizers were driven out of Nandigram; this happened over a period of several months and the reasons are easy to understand. In the backdrop of Singur, people in Nandigram were wary of losing their land for the construction of the chemical hub (as announced by the notice issued by the Haldia Development Authority and reiterated in several public meeting led by the local MP, Lakshman Seth). Since the CPI(M) machinery was in the forefront of this bid to dispossess peasants, the ire of the resistance was naturally directed against CPI(M) members. Moreover, being erstwhile CPI(M) members themselves, most of the resisting peasants were fully conversant with the tactics of the CPI(M); in their bid to protect themselves from the machinations of the CPI(M) and in a defensive gesture, the resistance movement drove out the CPI(M) sympathizers as potential enemies and agent saboteurs and cordoned off the area from the reaches of the State, a heroic attempt – with all its problems – to carve out a space free from the dictates of corporate capital.

It is interesting that in PP’s brief narrative about “facts”, there is no mention of March 14th, when the CPI(M) tried to wrest back control of Nandigram for the first time using organized force of the Party and the State. At least 14 lives were lost in that brutal episode [2], but the people managed to re-group and continue the resistance. Several attempts after March 14th towards reconciliation failed because of one simple reason: the resistance asked that the culprits of March 14th be punished as a gesture of the conciliatory intentions of the CPI(M) – a fair demand by all measures – but the CPI(M) refused! Why does this fact never find mention in PP’s narrative of “every effort to restore normalcy” in Nandigram? From then on, there were daily attacks by CPI(M) cadres and hooligans on the people of Nandigram, assisted no doubt by a pliant state machinery, leading to operation “re-capture” in November. There is one aspect of “operation recapture” that is willfully ignored by the likes of PP: the extensive use by the CPI(M) of mercenaries and criminals that the Party keeps in handy. It was not a battle waged by the evicted CPI(M) cadres of Nandigram but the hooligans of the Party – called in from far and wide – that was arrayed against the resistance movement.

It is noteworthy that in PP’s narrative, Nandigram is reduced to a mere “mistake”. It is important to remind ourselves that when Singur erupted on the political firmament of West Bengal, many like him had similarly referred to Singur as a “mistake”. But when we see Singur and then Nandigram as episodes in the same drama, it is difficult to see either of them as mistakes. Rather, what seems to be on display is the sordid tale of an erstwhile party of labour bending over backwards to accommodate the interests of capital. It is precisely to deny evidence of this accommodation that PP and his comrades try to keep Nandigram and Singur separate.

Let us now look a little more closely at PP’s attack on the straw man that he has so carefully constructed: messianic moralism. Talking of the fallacies of messianic moralism, PP says:

An attitude that does not distinguish between types of violence, between the different episodes of violence, that condemns all violence with equal abhorrence, that places on a footing of equality all presumed perpetrators of violence, amounts in fact to a condemnation of nothing. To say that all are equally bad is not even morally meaningful.

Quite true! Many have been saying this over and over again, with regard to the situation in Nandigram; they have been pointing out that we need to distinguish between types of violence. We need to distinguish between the violence of the ruling party, CPI(M), backed by the state machinery from the violence of the people resisting eviction, resisting the encroachment of corporate interests on their fragile livelihoods, a violence that arises from desperation and against enormous odds. The first is an instance of violence by the State in favour of corporate capital; the second is violence as resistance. If PP is true to his understanding of political praxis, then he needs to make this distinction and stand behind the second – with reservations no doubt – and in opposition to the first. But he does not. So has PP fallen prey to the very trend – messianic moralism – he is arguing against?

Talking of the attractiveness of messianic moralism, he says:

Messianic moralism always has a seductive appeal for intellectuals. To avoid systematic partisanship, to stand above the messy world of politics, to pronounce judgements on issues from Olympian moral heights, and to be applauded for one’s presumed “non-partisanship”, gives one a sense of both comfort and fulfillment. This seductive appeal is heightened by the contemporary ambience of middle class disdain for politics which the phenomenon of globalization, subtly but assiduously, nurtures and promotes.

It is quite revealing that PP should argue with so much fervour in favour of partisanship to a party that is part and parcel of the State machinery, a party that is close to the echelons of power, a party that is known for its ability to skillfully distribute largesse to the middle class in rural West Bengal to cement its hold over the Panchayat system, a party that is known to distribute privileges of various kinds amongst its loyalists. Is PP glorifying partisanship to this party? This party? Is PP chastising the intellectual detractors of what he considers the Left for refusing to obsequiously follow the dictates of such a party? if he is, then it is an affront to the whole notion of partisanship understood as “speaking to power”. Systematic partisanship should rather mean a partisanship to the working class project for the radical transformation of Indian society and not a blind loyalty to a Party seduced by the indiscreet charm of neoliberalism.

Let me end by offering a simple, direct and intuitive answer to the question that PP laboured over: why did so many intellectuals suddenly turn against the CPI(M) with such amazing fury on the Nandigram issue? The simple answer is this: in all probability Nandigram was the last straw that broke the laden camel’s back. The social democratic Left’s three decade long chicanery finally became unbearable on that fateful day in November when CPI(M)’s armed hirelings attempted to “recapture” Nandigram; the cynicism, the opportunism, the repeated falsehoods, the stratagems, the corruption, in short the real face of CPI(M) suddenly came to view in bold relief. And some intellectuals who still hold dear their “systematic partisanship” to the project for a radical reconstruction of Indian society poured out onto the streets in outrage, in anger, in shame, in solidarity with the struggling people of Nandigram.


1. The gradual shift in the politics of the CPI(M) have been noted by acute social commentators right from the mid-1980s. Left critics of the CPI(M) have noted the ascendancy of the “middles” in rural West Bengal as a result of Operation Barga and how their gradual infiltration into the Party slowly but surely turned it towards social democracy; for a succinct account see Bandyopadhyay (2007). It was, therefore, the logic inherent in this social democratic (or “new labour”) politics that found full expression in the recent neoliberal turn of the CPI(M).

2. 14 deaths is the officially accepted figure; reports of human rights group like the APDR and MASUM and others tend to suggest that this is a gross underestimation.


Bandyopadhyay, D. N. “Has the Left taken one Right turn too Many?”, Mainstream, Nov. 24, 2007. (


7 Responses to “The Social Democratic Left and its Apologists (open for comments)”

  1. Garga Chatterjee Says:
    December 18th, 2007 at 03:06

    This article raises a few question which I think is important to raise:
    1.When Dipankar says “a stream of the Left, the stream that PP and Karat belongs to, a stream
    that Tony Blair and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee represent, a stream that the
    later-day Karl Kautsky and the born-again Chinese Communist Party stands
    for”, he sadly, does the same conflation error.To Probhat Pottonayok, “Left” in India means a specific party.But when Dipankar also talks about the characterizations of it, he only has one variant of post-enlightenment liberal though in mind – namely mid 19th century socialism – possibly Marxian and other varieties.Thats why, when he talks about the CPM type “left” being the new CCP kind or the Kautsky-ite kind, he clearly situates his discussion in that strain of leftism – Marxian and anarcho-syndicalist creeds as well as other socialist thoughts.He might not have intended to have come off like this, but I think this characterization style is indicative of certain assumptions – assumptions of what is left and what is not.I would only want to mention that broad unity has to be forged across these definitions.I am glad that just after this line he goes on to acknowledge many other movements and strains which may not have much bearing with “progressive” ideas of occidental import.
    The point is, for some, of the Marxian creed, social democracy is as evil as mahishashur but for some other thought lines, it may not appear all too much different than some of the more “radical” strains of the post-enlightenment creeds.So, when Probhat Pottonayok defends CPM from social-democratic label, it can be a point of relevance only as an inside dialogue within than creed.

    Apart from this, I found the article a brilliant piece, summing up the history and details of machinations CPM is now using to subvert critique and resistance in the left.

  2. dsenter Says:
    December 22nd, 2007 at 14:45

    By calling the many other movements leftist, Bhadrolok intelligensia of Sanhati is appropriating those movements for their own political interest. Hopefully Sanhati will provide a platform to understand the aspirations and worldviews and practices of these so called “many other movements”. Tragically, I do not see that happening because the Sanhati intellectuals like activist cousins such as Medha and Mhasweta have deliberately supressed some basic facts about Singur. By looking at things that you like and leaving out the ones which you do not like can be good strategy but that ends up in disasters.

  3. Garga Chatterjee Says:
    December 23rd, 2007 at 10:19

    dsenter, if labelling/calling could appropriate movements, then movements could be launched from computers.Sanhati has no such illusion.
    What fact did Mahashweta Debi suppress ? Please do let us know with some documentation.Just stating it is most unuseful..provide a proof of such deliberate misrepresentation by Mahashweta Debi, not allegation but proof.
    Sanhati has very many political trends within.To practitioners of politics who are privy to exclusivist theories of deliverance, it can be uncomfortable.But then that is something we plan to preserve.
    Please have a detailed look at Sanhati- many movemnets have been covered and analysed – probably the huge archive is putting off.Do a search, go to the archive – you will surely find more stuff.I especially mention the Ongoing struggles and Resistance News sections, which can be accessed from the front page.

  4. Toton Patra Says:
    December 24th, 2007 at 05:15

    Somewhat agree to dsenter’s views. While I see nothing wrong in what Mahasweta Debi and Medhaji are doing, instead of appreciating social democratic views sanhati is criticizing it. Social democracy transformed the political arena and economics of almost all western European countries and in process in many South American countries. CPM because of its past history and affiliation to communism cannot adopt social democracy even if it claims to do so. Sanhati better point your finger to your own ineffective ideology before pointing to other far more effective ideologies.

  5. Charvaka Acharya Says:
    February 26th, 2008 at 12:23

    I don’t understand what dsenter and Mr. Patra refers to as “ineffective idelogies” and are criticising Sanhati. The underlying tone of their arguments is as follows:

    Sanhati has to co-opt social democratic ideology and its interpretation of world view because that’s prevalent.

    Here’s the point. Sanhati is neither a communist party or a group or a leftist organization. It is a umbrella forum of many groups and individuals who are fighting “neoliberalism”. True, social democracy is also fighting liberalism, but from a different standpoint. Sanhati and its supporters take a more radical approach, so what’s so wrong about that. On a personal note, I find social democracy to be nothing short of a poor cousin of liberalism. It is nothing but the same wolf, but in a sheep’s cape.

    And if you consider that the only ideology which should be prevalent is unrivalled growth with sustained inequality, then you got to be liberal and not social democratic. Or better laissez faire!! Why be social democratic, which doesn’t even campaign for end to equality.

    There are people in this world who still put man before money, who think inequality and non-distibutive growth is the biggest social evil and Sanhati is definitely a platform for such folks. Social democratic parties and their platforms are not for such folks.

  6. Charvaka Acharya Says:
    February 26th, 2008 at 12:25

    Why be social democratic, which doesn’t even campaign for end to equality (should be read as)

    Why be social democratic, which doesn’t even campaign for end to in-equality.

  7. utpal Says:
    March 23rd, 2008 at 15:34

    I used to think that I am person ( a man actually ) of at least average intelligence – but the article has made my head spin and I am unable to cope with it. I just hope that the essence of the article can be brought and made alive to those who do not have money by those who have money but also have so successfully put – at least that is what they seem to believe – people over money.

    I am also left with a few existential question — what should I do ( now I know that I shall get a plentiful of advice here ), how should I behave? should I wear a hat like Marx ( did he wear a hat in European winter ) or a langoti like Gandhi – and will it help the poor if I do that? Or should I leave all this and live out a span of 70 odd years trying to help the few around me but admitting my inability to cope with Singur and the Tibet issue and the Nuclear deal? Or should I be like radharaman babu and establish Amar Kutir where the dispossessed make bags so that those with a lot of possession can buy these bags? Perhaps, I should just keep quiet and not pollute the environment unnecessarily …

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