The romance and rejection of an ideology that let us dream
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
I WAS BORN in a communist household in Kannur, a stronghold of the Left movement and home to many of its legendary leaders, one of them being my late father. Although he died at the unsuitable age of 41, when I was past four, I grew up on an intellectual and ideological diet of communist thought—various communist party meetings in those days in the early 1980s were held at homes where kids were forced to be curious listeners to expressions they would comprehend only years later. Photographs of Marx, Lenin and Engels, besides those of P Sundarayya, EMS Namboodiripad, AK Gopalan and others adorned the walls (in my case both at my paternal and maternal homes), and we children were told who they were without any elaboration, making us feel slightly guilty as if our ignorance were a crime. Among the common Malayalam dailies you would invariably read in such homes were the Marxist mouthpiece Deshabhimani that carried opinion pieces by tall party leaders. They were treated by the elders like gold dust. Magazines whose covers glittered and left a lasting impression, thanks to men and women with white skin, were those that came from the Soviet Union, including Soviet Land, Sputnik, etcetera. The pages had a peculiar scent, adding to the mystique about a nation that anyone would crave to live in.
Slowly, other perceptions surfaced. Big businesses were mostly leeches and the ruling Congress promoted them to exploit the working class. Internationally, the Soviet Union stood for everything good in the world, never mind they were Cold War allies with India’s ruling Congress because, in the final lap, they would back their tribe, the communists—that was acquired wisdom. So were Soviet satellite countries, some of which came to play football for the Nehru Cup in Kochi. We cheered them against non-socialist nations. I still remember what a fellow communist and neighbour said on the eve of a match between Poland and Hungary:
“Whoever wins, we aren’t worried. Both are socialist.”
When you aren’t yet 10, conversations are absorbed like a sponge soaks water. Certain symbols get embedded deep, certain expressions invoke respect and many others contempt and revulsion. Because he was gone at an age I could hardly remember much except for the final rites and large crowds, my father, the late Pattiam Gopalan, made his appearance every day in my mind. Once a year at his death anniversary, various programmes and processions were held and we had to pay floral tributes at his memorial. Those were uneasy moments for a child who was told that his dad would return when he grew up. Speeches followed at such events. Again, the thrust was on the interests of the working class and the wicked intent of the monied powers. Often, big names turned up there to speak. On one such occasion, I was introduced to EMS. “Study well, read monstrously,” EMS is said to have told me. My memory from then is that of a bespectacled leader with a big grin who ate with a great love for food—not a foodie in the normal course, but someone who relished whatever was served.
Photos of Marx, Lenin, Engels, P Sundarayya, EMS, AK Gopalan and others adorned the walls. We children were told who they were without any elaboration, making us feel guilty as if our ignorance were a crime
Again, I had this habit of leafing through the autobiography of AK Gopalan titled In the Cause of the People, which the great mass leader—who was the first de facto leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha when Jawaharlal Nehru was the premier—had personally signed for my mother. I felt extremely upset when I lost that page after I went to boarding school. I had shown that page to a trusted friend who, I guess, plucked it out for reasons only 10-year-old boys know. Surely, I haven’t forgiven him to this day for what he did. Coming to think of AKG, my memories are of the famous Payyambalam beach in Kannur where he was cremated after his death in 1977. It is said that he died a happy man after learning of Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the national elections. I was too young to remember his demise, and yet I have a vague memory of a huge crimson sunset from that evening. We were told that ordinary people had come from Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere to see him one last time. It was certainly the end of an era, in hindsight. Another striking memory of the late 1970s—well, I was not supposed to have acquired faculties for remembering by then, but then I cannot help it—is that of Jyoti Basu in an open jeep in a large procession in Kannur and my father walking alongside the slow-moving vehicle. It was a red jeep, and it was an automobile to die for, as if it had descended from someplace else.
My school life at Sainik School was tough. We debated politics at an early age. I had an upper hand in socialism versus capitalism debates because the Soviet Union was still there and there was hope that economic prosperity was possible through socialist means of production or through a hybrid process. Life was smooth until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the mid-1980s and launched his reforms called Perestroika and Glasnost, and when articles began to appear in Sputnik about Trotsky (although not in glowing terms). There were negative hints about Stalin, his collectivisation programme and certain other measures (that we now know as the Great Purges). Lenin alone was still untouchable in the Soviet scheme of things. More news started to come from Afghanistan which was under Soviet watch. I recall the news about Raisa Gorbacheva, wife of the supreme leader of the Communist Party of the SovietUnion (CPSU), skipping an official event to buy diamonds. Unacceptable! The change was slow, but drastic when it did occur. Things looked both bleak and optimistic, depending on the shifting sands of politics. On the one hand, the communist bureaucracy seemed hard to crack and even resisted efforts for change—even CIA experts ruled out an immediate fall or decline of the Soviet Union even as late as the late 1980s. On the other hand, the Soviet leadership looked unsure and jittery as it faced—what we learnt later—a massive economic crisis thanks primarily to overspending in the nuclear arms race for supremacy with the US, a mighty economic power. The crisis of confidence in my belief was intense and often painful.
Within India, politics wasn’t as uncertain around then for communists, except for the growing demand to justify their ideological existence in a time of crisis in the Soviet Bloc and socialism, an irresistible idea and the biggest dream of the 20th century for which modern empires launched ships and spaceships. It was only then that we could (or maybe tried to) lay our hands on books by Rosa Luxemburg and revisit those of Antonio Gramsci and European communists who had criticised the Bolshevik experiment long before Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote his masterpieces. Rosa Luxemburg’s many quotations began to make great sense. One of them that I found endearing was: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” It was true of everyone, including the subjects of the Soviet Union who had to endure state oppression or domination by what the great communist and dissident Milovan Djilas called the New Class in his eponymous book.
Slowly, as things began to unravel, I began to unlearn, as it often happens to people who have picked up ideological lessons from home and early in life. But one does not have to disown the good to unlearn. What dawns is a realisation that what some people consider best is not often suitable for another occasion or period of history. What immediately followed was a desire to understand Marx from outside of Soviet publications. One didn’t have to make much of an effort but go with the flow and learn new lessons when the tide turned as the dream called the Soviet Union declined and fell in rapid succession. The Balkanisation of Eastern Europe was like the floodgates opening. Across the world, there was either bloodshed or efforts to change course in former Soviet colonies. Some countries like Yugoslavia were ravaged by ethnic nationalism and mindless violence while in South Africa, white supremacists saw an opportunity to end Apartheid and look for ways to accommodate Blacks in power. The US was the toast among most of my political opponents, including those affiliated to Congress which, ironically, had enjoyed Soviet patronage, support and largesse much more than any other political entity in the country.
The world order changed and India had to change, too. New Delhi had to drastically alter its priorities in order to forge ahead. Faced with the balance of payments crisis, Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in 1991 kickstarted the liberalisation process which Indira Gandhi had soft-launched in the previous decade. Manmohan Singh as finance minister presided over the changes. How I hated him for selling the country down the drain! GATT and its ‘tentacular’ provisions were the hot debates of the time. Although we were poked fun at back then, now the world has changed much further, with capitalism coming under criticism for the beasts it has unleashed since.
Those who wanted Basu as prime minister were the old guard that included EMS and Harkishan Singh Surjeet. The young brigade stuck to its position—our way or the highway. Surjeet, dejected, refused to visit the party HQ, calling his younger comrades ‘Naxalites’. Basu called the decision a ‘historic blunder’
It was in the 1990s that there were flickers of hope for the Hindu right to snake its way to power. It was an unthinkable thought to have the country ruled by a bunch of people who detested secularism and wanted to build a Hindu Rashtra. The repulsion I felt towards any such prospect was visceral and instinctive. Coming from my own atheist, scientific and socialist background, it was a shocking proposal, disturbing and glum.
In 1996, when President Shankar Dayal Sharma asked Atal Bihari Vajpayee to form the Government after the polls, I was as downcast as I had been four years earlier when I had heard the news of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Anyhow, in 1996, the logic was that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—which was formed in 1980 and came into prominence during the time of the VP Singh Government in 1989 and later thanks to the Ayodhya movement—was the single largest party. But there was also a counter-argument: How can you invite someone who cannot find support from the majority of big and small parties? That decision still remains as controversial as it was that day. I learnt decades later while researching for a biography of Vajpayee I wrote in 2016, titled The Untold Vajpayee (Penguin Random House), that Sharma had already consulted astrologers and chosen a time for Vajpayee to be sworn in. But the Government fell in 13 days and I rejoiced as it meant the formation of a non-BJP government at the Centre. I was overjoyed at the proposal, put forth by a likely rainbow coalition of parties, to make Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) leader Jyoti Basu the prime minister of India. But it was rejected outright by CPM. Not only was it considered un-communist and a capitulation on all its values by a majority of my friends in the Left, but it was also seen as parliamentary deviation by even those who had backed it. Interestingly, those who wanted Basu as prime minister were the old guard that included EMS himself (despite perceived frictions between him and Basu), then party General Secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet and others. The young brigade of the party’s top leadership stuck to its position—our way or the highway. To cut the long story of despair short, HD Deve Gowda became the consensus prime minister. Surjeet, dejected, refused to visit the party HQ, calling his younger comrades “Naxalites”. Basu called the decision a “historic blunder”.
As things began to unravel, I began to unlearn, as it often happens to people who have picked up ideological lessons from home and early in life. What followed was a desire to understand Marx from outside of Soviet publications
That I was in a minority within the circle of leftist friends made me rethink further about the flawed tactics of Indian communists. It is, in fact, an agonising feeling to take stock of their tragedy of errors and blunders. But for me, 1996 was the beginning of a new calling—to assess issues based on their merit and not from the perspective of the so-called ‘party line’.
Party lines click only when the time is ripe and there is effective leadership in charge, be it a dictatorship, an authoritarian regime or a democracy. That was also a period of myriad lessons in humility. Confronted with an economic crisis, Lenin had embraced the New Economic Policy shortly after the October Revolution of 1917, and the Chinese under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping embarked on “capitalism with communist characteristics” as a way to escape the fate of the Soviet Union even before the latter fell. Deng, while returning from an American tour, is said to have told his comrades that countries that ally with the US normally flourish while those that oppose it fail. It is clear what he wanted for China. His policy was destined to lift millions of his countrymen out of poverty and help China grow at breakneck speed to become an economic and military powerhouse.
I wasn’t entirely excited about the Chinese progress because the romance of the revolution is extremely tough to shake off. But the story of that country’s laser-like rise from extreme poverty to prosperity was so dizzying that it left an indelible impression. It was in the 1990s that I began to think more about growth as a means to power welfare schemes. In Kerala, a metaphor for a redistribution-oriented economic model (or experience, as Amartya Sen says), discussions on growth were frowned upon or disapproved of.
History, including that of Communist resistance, offers us lessons in how to wait and act. It is in this context one has to look at the insistence of the CPM leadership on withdrawing support from Manmohan Singh’s UPA in 2008
Notwithstanding the global turmoil and setback for communism as an ideology and philosophy, in Kerala, communists found the going relatively easy although Vajpayee returned to power for six years in 1998 (in his 13-month Government and then for a full term following the 1999 victory). BJP lost power in 2004, heralding the return of a non-BJP government, this time led by Congress and backed by a number of allies and supported from the outside by the communists who were determined to influence the policies of the new dispensation led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The communist parties had a record high number of representations in both Houses of Parliament back then.
I have personally felt that dissimulation is a successful tactic often employed by individuals and groups to tackle phases in which the momentum is not in their favour. Theses have been written about political cycles and the surge of various streams of thought. It does not require much intelligence to realise that following the Soviet debacle, rightwing movements started surfacing across the world. It is not that they came out of nowhere, it is just that they replaced a movement that was on the wane. Pro-market sentiments and pro-American stances were in full bloom, overtly or covertly (the way Deng smuggled it into mainland China). Punching above one’s weight at a time when political (or military) mobilisation against bigger powers that have acquired an edge for a variety of reasons is often a suicidal step. Stalin—during World War II, despite all the early blunders and a reported nervous breakdown following the June 22nd, 1941 Operation Barbarossa, or the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany and a few of its Axis allies—bought time before planning a military masterstroke, assisted by the likes of General Georgy Zhukov. Many war historians share this view of how the Soviet leader came back from the brink to stage a historic comeback and assault. He had personally consulted literature and wartime experiences of erstwhile generals, notably Marshal Kutuzov of the Russian Empire who had trounced Napoleon in the Patriotic War of 1812. Stalin’s own priorities on China were not hinged on any international communist alliance but the interests of the Soviet Union which the likes of Mao, despite his subservience to the Russian leader, detested.
History, including that of communist resistance the world over, offers us lessons in how to wait and act—the art of dissimulation and war—until victory seems near-certain, while not fearing risks. Even Lenin’s attempt at dislodging the Mensheviks was plotted with backing from unexpected quarters—temporary allies who were razor-sharp and amazingly disciplined—and never an adventurist measure.
It is in this context that one has to look at the insistence of the dominant leadership of CPM and the whole of the Left bloc on withdrawing support from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) of Manmohan Singh in 2008. The bone of contention was the India-US civilian nuclear deal, and the communists, forgetting pragmatism and practical concerns, hurriedly snapped ties without pulling the punches expected of coalition politics. The vehemence with which the federal coalition leader retaliated was evident first in the setback the Left Front suffered in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal where it set the ball rolling that strengthened the hands of its opponents. The Left was immediately seen as an ally stuck in the past with contrived ideological prerogatives. Its electoral decline is a subject I have often written about. The past decade saw the communists shrinking further and further to pockets in parliamentary politics. Kerala, where CPM returned to power this year, remains the only state where the Left is an electoral force. What a fall from being the 20th century dream to being a 21st century disaster!
In India, in sharp contrast to their poll fortunes, Leftists steer intellectual dissent and remain a formidable voice of reason. The success of the farmers’ movement, led mostly by Leftists and Left-leaning organisations, is a constant reminder of such prowess
Communist workers, especially the ones I have watched closely in Kannur, have a special knack for enduring both adversity and navigating opportunities. Mentally conditioned to brave odds and to conquer fear, they have continued to resist and carry on with their activities. Yet, among the leaders, there is a conspicuous tendency that Djilas had taught us long ago: thriving as a new class. While the extent of the damage or adaptability of communists in the time of enormous difficulties is yet to be seen, I personally think that despite its great dexterity and malleability, capitalism too continues to face more challenges than ever. If the economic meltdown of 2008 was not a confirmation of the ills, the rise of white supremacist forces at the height of an economic distress and the growing disenchantment among ordinary Americans against the social mores that tech giants have engendered are portends of chaos. The return of “a Victorian society” in rich neighbourhoods in the US, especially where more technology companies are housed, is marked by homes being manned by butlers and a battalion of helps, quite an un-American phenomenon since the end of slavery. Growing suspicion about the designs of the superrich is aggravating a social crisis, aided by sordid stories of rampant sexism, racism and sexual harassment behind the doors of certain tech bigwigs, not to mention the fomenting of real-life violence through cold algorithms. Of course, it is still possible that capitalism may survive despite the odds thanks to its profound workability. The counterweight is a rigid political formation that nonetheless exerts tremendous influence outside of electoral politics. For instance, in India, in sharp contrast to their poll fortunes, leftists steer intellectual dissent and remain a formidable voice of reason against the reported majoritarian tendencies of the ruling dispensation. The success of the farmers’ movement, led mostly by leftists and Left-leaning organisations, is a constant reminder of such prowess.
Communists and sympathisers often look for rays of hope to feel energised. For instance, the change of guard in Chile is cause for cheer. Securing 56 per cent of the votes, 35-year-old leftist Gabriel Boric, who defeated his far-right opponent, is Chile’s youngest modern president. The question still remains: Will the Left remain forever confined as a force of intellectual dissent or will it regain lost glory?
One can never say for sure, but my best guess is that the role of the Left will remain that of a corrective entity unless it learns to master realpolitik. Cuba is facing its biggest trouble yet. An aggressive China is seen as enemy No 1 by the powers that be. In democracies, communist parties continue to make the mistake of aligning with forces that end up swallowing them. In India, such chances cannot be completely ruled out thanks to the misplaced ideas of a few at the top. Often, places where communists or socialists ride to power are those that had got fed up with authoritarian regimes that plundered or sold natural resources in a quid pro quo arrangement with corporations and deep states. It is a different thing to watch the winning smile of communist leader Camila Vallejo exhorting fellow Chileans to be class conscious, saying in an interview that the right in the country will stop at nothing to defend ruling-class interests. But it is another to be able to frame policies and organise cohesively so as to make the Left a viable alternative in both peace and war, conflict and lack of it.
For the moment though, the signs of any such massive transition within the confines of the Left seem somewhat improbable even in the midst of capitalism’s biggest crisis in a long time. I say this because I believe there is a correlation between freedom of thought and intelligence. This isn’t an attack on communism or its adherents who often refuse to see possibilities or on those who sacrifice all their values to pursue totalitarian goals. It is something Rosa Luxemburg had often warned about when she said, “Freedom is always, and exclusively, freedom for the one who thinks differently.” Leftist politics definitely needs more than a makeover to meet the challenges of populism, nationalism and the ruthless political adaptability of its rivals. In politics, after all, what is in order for the Left is a giant leap from rigidity to agility.