The Necessity of Communism

Vijay Prashad surveys the conditions, facts and politics of India before suggesting ways the Left can move forward.



Before I went to graduate school, I was a journalist working in Delhi in the early 1990s. There were two landmark events that really marked my understanding of what was happening inside India at the time.

One was that Manmohan Singh decided to announce that India was going to borrow money from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He made the announcement in Bangkok.  We, that is the people who were reading the press releases, discovered that all the spellings in the document were American and we thought: well obviously, this document is written by some Yankee, who then faxed it to Manmohan Singh.

India was going to the IMF. You may not remember that India actually airlifted gold to the Bank of London, physically lifted gold, to also secure a loan from them. Think of the vulgarity of this. England would be a pretty insignificant little island, if not for the wealth it stole from South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Most likely, it wouldn’t have even had an industrial revolution without the value that it had extracted from the bodies of colonized and enslaved peoples in the global South. They basically worked for free for Britain, for John Bull, for Queen Victoria and in return Britain gave us famines, destroyed our way of life and so on.

And yet when India had a balance of payments shortfall in July of 1991, gold had to be sent to England so that India could get a bridge loan from the Bank of England. That struck me as the continuation of colonialism. There was something obscene about that.  The Soviet Union might have collapsed, but this obscenity of capitalism was still front and centre a problem.

The second event occurred in 1993 in Seelampur, a region in the northeast of Delhi. I was a young journalist covering the riots of Seelampur after the destruction of the Babri Masjid on December 6th, 1992. In Seelampur, there was a curfew because there was a massacre of Muslims taking place. During the curfew, I hid in a temple one of the nights. Maybe an hour after I was in the temple, there was a loud banging on the door. This group of killers came in. Their appearance struck me, as they looked kind of ordinary, except of course for their machetes, their knives and their smell of human blood.  We had to all sleep in the same place together.

A few hours later, there was another knock on the door. Now remember, this was a shoot-at-sight curfew. And the Indian constabulary, including the Border Security Force which was out around Delhi at that time, took this shoot-at-sight order seriously. We were frightened.

But as it turns out, it was only an old woman at the door. She handed a small packet to one of these men who handed it to the group’s leader. The leader looked bold and tough, and the old woman was his mother. She had come to deliver this package for him. The man took the package, opened it, took out its content and shot himself in the veins with it. Of course, this was his heroin.  

I sat there thinking this was wrong. Not only had these people just massacred other people, but one of them turns out to be a heroin addict. There is something deeply wrong in our civilization, I thought. There is something deeply wrong in a civilization committed increasingly to social labour and private accumulation. It was obvious that India was going to get much more unequal when all the different social welfare programs – however insufficient they may have been – were going to get dismantled. There was going to be a serious crisis in the country.  

Intellectuals, let us not forget, were going to play a role in this too. Capitalism is intelligent, in that it tries to conceal from the masses this contradiction between social labour and private accumulation. Increasingly, more and more intellectuals were moving from being intellectuals of the good side of history to being intellectuals on the bad side of history.  They were doing at least two things. One, they became intellectuals of capitalist production. Whether they were finding new ways to get people to work more “efficiently” using Taylorist methods or whether they were intellectuals of finance, these intellectuals were trying to squeeze more out of people's inability to create a livelihood. But then there was a second set of intellectuals: those who create desires and aspirations. These were the intellectuals who came in and created a new cultural universe. More people were entering the private media landscape as these sorts of intellectuals. This was already clear to us in the news media.

At the time, in the early 1990s, we in the press already sensed that something terrible was going to happen in the media landscape, that a construction of an immense falsity of desire was going to take place and there was going to be an exercise of concealing from the masses the reality of social labour and private accumulation.

This was a degeneracy that was creeping into society and it was quite clear that this new intellectual class, including a new political class with people like Lal Krishna Advani – a venomous, hateful character – were going to play a key role. These were the intellectuals who orchestrated the idea of scapegoating in society. This is not a new idea for places like India but the velocity of scapegoating was going to intensify. This was very clear to us.


There are 1.3 billion people roughly in India. According to a McKinsey study, close to 700 million of them go hungry every day or at least don't know when the next meal is coming from. That's about one in two Indians roughly. 300 million Indians – very conservative number – wouldn't be able to read that McKinsey report. 240 million Indians wouldn't be able to read that report at night because they don't have electricity. And stunningly, 1 million Indians enter the sewers of the country every year to clear them manually, despite the fact that there is equipment to do this work. There are more poor people in India than in the entirety of Sub-Saharan Africa. India is one of the poorest places on planet Earth. Yet, there are also millionaires. There are also nuclear bombs.

In 1916, M.K. Gandhi told an English audience, “the test of civilization is not the number of millionaires it boasts, but in the absence of starvation among the masses”. Now, just over 100 years later, it's clear India has failed this moral test. It’s a very elegant, simple test. India has totally failed it.


By the 1970s, or maybe by the 1980s, the reservoirs of Indian freedom struggle had been depleted. There was an exhaustion to Indian freedom struggles. For me, one good indicator of that is a notorious Planning Commission meeting in 1985. As Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi was the commission’s ex-officio Chairman, though he rarely ran the meetings. That job was for Manmohan Singh, who was Deputy Chairman of the commission at the time. At one of their meetings, Rajiv Gandhi was in attendance. After hearing the commission’s presentation, he vociferously voiced his disagreement with their approach. He didn’t understand why they were bothering about farmers and support prices. He thought instead they needed to be thinking about building American-style freeways, better airports and lavish shopping malls. This is interesting because other commission members were thinking about the opposite of malls: how to protect agricultural farmlands, how to secure farmers’ livelihoods and so forth. Now whether they did anything useful with those discussions or not, the point is that these issues were still on the agenda. But then Rajiv Gandhi came along and said that was all boring. India, instead, needed to become America.

National liberation was really exhausted by then. There was a constituency among the so-called middle-class – the word “middle-class” inserted itself in place of the dominant classes at the time, but what it really meant was the dominant classes in society – who were interested in transforming the kind of class compact that had been won through the national liberation movement.

This process had already started during the Emergency when I. K. Gujral, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, had come before the emergency parliament in 1976 and said that India needed to attract foreign exchange and cut the Licence Raj. It didn't happen until 1991, but slowly from the mid 1970s, the process had started. 1991 was the decisive break. The Congress party surrendered to neoliberalism and from 1991 onwards, Gandhian and socialist elements of the party got marginalized or left the party entirely. Some sections event left to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).  

The Samajwadi Party, the old socialist party, also began to lose steam. And we began to see that, whether it's the Samajwadi Party, this or that Janta party, this Lok Dal party or that one, Lalu Prasad here or Mulayam Singh there: one way or the other, they all began to collaborate fundamentally with the regional bourgeoisie. In fact, we used to call the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh the party of the Sahara Group. The Sahara group were basically the underwriters of Mulayam Singh Yadvav’s Samajwadi party in Uttar Pradesh.

The bulk of the political class, including some of the regional political parties, generally surrendered to a new policy dispensation, which favoured the trajectory of malls and airports, rather than support prices and forms of protection for the poor.

In this climate, it was very difficult for any political movement to chart an alternative. How were we going to create a national popular will to move the agenda in a different way? The Left was put on the back foot by the mid-1990s.

This brings us to that very important vote made by the central committee of my party, the Communist Party of Indian (Marxist) (CPI(M)), in 1996. After the fall of the 13-day old BJP government, a coalition of opposition parties in the United Front asked Jyoti Basu, a venerable leader of our party, if he would become the country’s prime minister. Our central committee had a very long meeting and decided at the end of it that Jyoti Basu should not become the prime minister because he'll merely become the prime minister of a government with a completely different political direction. And there wasn’t a strong alternative national-popular will that Jyoti Basu could have used to take India in a different policy direction.

In this same period, when every political party including the Congress surrendered to this policy direction – a direction which increased inequality and brought a great deal of agrarian suffering – there was the emergence of the fascistic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its political party, the BJP. This was a rapid ascension. And the ascension came through the mobilization of that one empty category: corruption. This was strategic genius on the part of the BJP and accounts in part for its national emergence.

Corruption, by the way, is an interesting category because it produces the Tweedledum-Tweedledee form for politics. Every bourgeois party, when it's out of power, will accuse the one in power of corruption. Bourgeois parties go back and forth saying each one is corrupt. Yet each time when these parties are out of power, they are able to make people forget that they too were corrupt when they were in power. They create a consensus where people forget that both parties are corrupt. This word “corruption” essentially produces a consensus for two-party rule, with the difference in India that one of those parties, the BJP, has this fascistic brain – the RSS – pushing it in a horrible direction.

The way forward

Under these conditions, what should the Left do? I’ve heard three responses to this question.

Become social democrats?

The historian Ramachandra Guha and I have had this conversation for years. Guha keeps telling me that the CPI(M) was basically social democratic when it ruled West Bengal, so it might as well admit it. He tells me the party should be honest: it should give up the hammer sickle, give up Lenin and Stalin, and formally embrace Bernsteinian social democracy.

Recently, after BJP supporters vandalized a statue of Lenin in Tripura, he even wrote a piece in The Telegraph basically confirming his view. He says that, for the Indian Left to become the backbone of a new revival, it needs to become social democratic.  

One thing to consider is that communism is confounded by the dialectic between the present and the future. If a political party – a communist party, a socialist party or any transformative party that believes in a post-capitalist future – accedes too much to the present, it will tend towards reformism. One of the interesting features in communist theory, in our understanding of how capitalism works, is that we don't find it credible that the dominant classes will share wealth and power with everybody else. We don't find that to be a credible approach to human reality.

We don't think that the dominant classes, infected somehow by liberalism, are going to give the poor a greater share of the surplus and ask the poor to govern with them. You'd have to have a completely upside-down vision of reality if you believe that the ruling class, just nudged a little bit by liberalism or good feeling, is going to give up capital, give up surplus or give up power – just to be considered decent people.

Whether the individuals in the ruling classes are decent people or not is besides the point. The point is that the ruling class as a structural force is propelled by an indecent political horizon. They are advantaged by an indecent and immoral structure. If you believe in social democratic politics alone, then what happens is you end up basically betraying the workers and peasants who are part of your movement because they are not going to be able to get a better deal unless they struggle, fight and build power. In this sense, acceding too much to the present leads to class collaboration with the elite and therefore to the surrender of the demands, grievances, hopes and aspirations of the working people of our society.

At the same time, if you go too far into demanding questions of the future, the party or political organization becomes cut off from the struggles of the present. This is a demand for purism. This will produce a tendency to sectarianism.

One of the challenges of the Left then is to be both present and future oriented. If it accedes to one or the other, then the Left has gone beyond the dialectic between the present and the future. And the dialectic between the present and the future is really the essence of a political project of the Left.

Dissolve the vanguard and let the so-called people be free?

I remember being very excited about Subaltern Studies when it launched in 1982. But then as I was reading their work, I thought it was quite extraordinary that there was little mention of “organization”. The category of “organization” was not there. In other words, Subaltern Studies seemed to promote the idea of spontaneity. The idea was that movements just happen, that subalterns make history by themselves.

In fact, Dipesh Chakrabarty attacked the very idea of the organizer, coming as they do, he assumed, from the outside. This is an interesting idea because, firstly, it assumes that organizations have always come from outside, that workers don't self-organize into unions themselves. It's not historically true but it's somehow assumed that organization is irrelevant.

If someone argues that struggles in the past took place without the work of organization, why should people organize in the present? What's the need of organizing? The way you construct the historical imagination has an immense impact on how people act in the world in the present. So, the erasure of organization in the past strikingly mirrored the kind of postmodern thinking emergent at the time (this is the argument I make in the introduction to Communist Histories, an edited collection from LeftWord Books). This was itself the mirror of Hayekian liberalism. Trying to change the world takes you to serfdom, as Hayek wrote in 1944. You should therefore not bother to try to change the world. Let the market change the world. It’s a stunning indictment of thinking in that period when these volumes were coming out.

There was a belief that spontaneity was good and organization was bad. A duality was set up. What was ignored was the old Bolshevik literature that worked through the divide between spontaneity and organization. I’m thinking especially of the work of Rosa Luxemburg.

Can there really be change without organization? I remember when I was reporting during the Arab Spring from Egypt, all the Western press were celebrating how there was no organization or leaders in Tahrir Square. But it was obvious to us that this was not the case. There was the Muslim Brotherhood. If they hadn't been there, there would’ve been no defence against the thugs that entered the square to beat people up. Then there was the liberal bloggers sitting in a corner with the computers on, the blue light shining in their faces. And then they were the young kids from the graveyard slums. These young kids, who were pelting stones at cops, were very organized.

Tahrir Square was a highly organized space. But it was organized in a way that was alien to most of the Western press because they couldn't see these young kids as part of an organized network, running in patterns and co-ordinating with each other as they had done when they confronted the police before.

The American journalist Thanassis Cambanis wrote a book on the Egyptian uprising called Once Upon a Revolution, in which he starts the book by attacking Leninist ideas of the vanguard. He believed that it was a great thing that during Egypt revolution, there was no vanguard. Later in the book, he starts discussing how the state media misrepresented the movement. He suggests that the protestors should have seized Maspero, a building that houses the headquarters of state-run media in Cairo, if they wanted to define this representation. I thought to myself: who is “they” exactly? When this journalist says “they” should have seized Maspero, whom exactly is he referring to? Who gets to say “comrades! Let's go seize Maspero!”?

How can someone believe that, on the one hand, it's good to have a revolution of the people without organization, but then suggest that a certain leadership should’ve made the call to seize Maspero in order to control the representation of the movement? For it takes a vanguard party – people with a theory of revolution, who've been steeled in various forms of struggle, who understand and who can feel the temperature of a movement – to make that kind of call.   

Between theory and practice, there is organization. When Lenin said you couldn’t have a revolutionary theory without revolutionary practice, he might have added: you cannot have either without the mediating concept of organization. Organization is what bridges theory and practice. These three concepts are essential to each other. You can't just have theory and practice. You have to have organization.

Dissolve the party and let identity movements develop?

By “identity movements”, I mean caste movements, religious movements, gender movements and so forth. In a sense, it's impossible to imagine any class struggle in South Asian history that has not engaged questions of caste, gender, indigeneity and so forth. These are, after all, the ways in which class manifests itself in the world. Class is not an essence. Class is an analytic understanding of power. People don't have a class like they have a religious, caste or gender identity. Class is understood analytically. It's the embodiment of various forms of suffering and consciousness together. Marx has a very nice distinction between class-for-itself and class-in-itself. What is important is not only your position in a class society but it's your understanding of that as well – and this understanding is typically refracted through religion, caste, gender and so forth.

I remember doing a project in Thanjavur district, which had an amazing peasant struggle in the early part of the 20th century. I was collecting material as I do when I travel around India, collecting stories, meeting old comrades and asking them about the past. The old comrades told me a compelling story about people like Srinivasa Rao and A. M. Gopu, who are important names in Tamil Nadu's Left history. They arrived in Thanjavur with an understanding of how to build an organization. They gave up their lives in Madras and Madurai and came to this rural area in Thanjavur district where there had been various problems of inequality, hunger, drought and so forth. Srinavas Rao decided that they had to build a unit. And so he gathered some people who were interested in left ideas, people who had understood some things through their own peasant struggles and they formed a small unit there.

Since their unit was spread out around the district, Srinivas Rao decided that they needed a courier who could pass messages back and forth between members. A young man, who said he was interested and he had bicycle to do the job, volunteered.

One day, Srinivasa Rao gives the young man a message to deliver to another area in the district. Eight to ten hours later, the courier comes back. Srinivasa Rao becomes furious at the fact it took him so longer to deliver the message and return. The message could’ve been an urgent one, Rao told him. The courier tells him that he’s a Dalit and, as such, cannot ride his bicycle straight through the middle of towns. He had to go all the way around, which is why it took so long to reach the destination and return. Srinivasa Rao, who up until now had not fully understood and digested the question of Dalit humiliation, turned his anger towards this.

The first campaign that their Kisan Sabha unit in Thanjavur therefore decided to wage was against this anti-Dalit bicycle restriction. And they won on that. People often criticize the Indian Left for not engaging in questions of caste, but if you actually go back and look at struggles of the past, you’ll see that that engagement was there to some extent. Anthropologist Kathleen Gough did some excellent work in Thanjavur. In her work, she connects peasants’ distress signals to the formation of a peasant class struggle. But she fails to mention how class had to be constructed through an anti-caste struggle. Caste was important for the Left in places such as Thanjavur.

In the 1950s, B.R. Ambedkar sat in his study and started to draft of a book on India and communism. But he never finished that book. We published what survived of this book in LeftWord last year. In this book. Ambedkar makes the point that, in India, a communist movement cannot move forward unless it strikes deeply at the root of caste. Caste struggle is essential to the creation of an Indian communist movement. That’s certainly true. But at the same time, I think we shouldn’t organize people on the ground of only caste, because then you risk creating caste polarization. You can create a caste war.

It is interesting to note that two adjoining districts in Tamil Nadu, one is East Thanjavur District and the other just to its west, had agrarian struggles – but they were led by different groups. The East Thanjavur struggle was led by the communists I mentioned above. They won a major struggle against the landlords. The other struggle, which was led by the Forward Bloc, degenerated into a caste war because the leadership placed an emphasis on simply caste. It led to inter-caste riots that lasted for a generation. We published another book at LeftWord about that district called Murder in Mudukulathur.

The lesson from these struggles in Tamil Nadu is that class struggle has to be constructed through caste struggles – but that we should not only focus on caste as a platform, otherwise we risk fomenting a caste war.

I'm emphasizing Tamil Nadu because, about 20 years ago, there was a serious move by the CPI(M) to organize against untouchability in the state. The Kisan Sabha, the Democratic Youth Federation and the All India Women's Democratic Association all found that they could not advance any struggles unless they directly hit untouchability. This was Ambedkar's lesson. It took many year for the CPI(M) to take heed of this lesson, but we eventually did. In Tamil Nadu, the CPI(M) organised the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front.

This front goes into villages, organizes people there and gives them confidence. Organizing provides a platform for confidence. People might have consciousness, they might have the willingness to act, but sometimes they don’t have the confidence to act. Confidence plays an immense role in the development of struggles. It can be of course self-generated – but it doesn't hurt to have political forces, such as parties or fronts, come in and provide the scaffolding for one’s confidence. The Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front has been going from village to village, organizing people against such abominations as caste walls. These are horrible walls built in the middle of various villages in Tamil Nadu. It’s like an apartheid wall. By engaging in these sorts of anti-caste struggles and connecting them to issues of class, other mass organizations of the CPI(M), such as the Kisan Sabha, have also gained members. There are more farmers' and agricultural workers' units now.

Challenges for the Left

I believe there are four serious challenges for the production of a new Left horizon.

First, the working class and the peasantry have been seriously decomposed. In today’s rural India, women and men, but mostly women, are spending five to six hours a day commuting to places where they are not guaranteed to get daily labour. There's no time for them to be in organizations. They're basically at the edge of survival.

This decomposition of the working class has been pushed forward by the construction of what are essentially maquiladoras within India. There are new belts of maquiladoras, where workers are brought from say Bihar to Karnataka and kept in compounds. And they work there and then they are sent by bus back to Bihar. It's very hard to organize in these spaces, where essentially factories have become prisons. This decomposition of the working class is a serious challenge.

The Indian Left has to take seriously the idea that if we cannot always organize at the point of production, we have to organize at the point of life. In other words, instead of mainly organizing in factories, we have to organize where people live: in slums and in their homes, the places where they come back to after spending months in a maquiladora elsewhere. But this is a very long-term and difficult project that, as they say in capitalist terms, is not going to pay “dividends” for a while. This is a serious project to try to politically recompose the decomposed working class. The CPI(M)’s urban front is a major step in this direction.

The second challenge relates to the new aspirations I discussed earlier. There has been an immense production of desire and aspiration by the media that is, in effect, concealing the contradiction between social labour and private accumulation. The Left has to reveal what is being concealed. But it also, I think, has to create its own aspirations in turn. How do we create socialist aspirations? What is that going to look like? What is a new national or international popular will going to look like? This is the serious challenge, not for this party or that organization, but for the totality of the Left. We have to engage frontally in the battle of ideas – engage the public with alternative aspirations, aspirations for a new collective, rather than individual, future.

Third, the Left has the challenge of thinking about a new social welfare project. If we remain within the dialectic of the present and the future, what kind of social welfare project can we envision? Do we come back to make greater demands for social wages? In other words, rather than demand individual wage rises, which is basically a neoliberal way to demand higher payments, do we demand more social wages? By this, I mean improvement of healthcare systems, education and so forth. We have to think very carefully about this, drawing from the best practices in other places: whether it's in Chhattisgarh, where they've built these community hospitals, or in Cuba, where they’ve experimented with a variety of social welfare programs, or in Honduras, where people like Luther Castillo Harry have developed interesting ways to deliver basic health care to people.

We have to be very imaginative about new forms of social welfare. What's the new thinking? How do we appeal to people, going back to point 2, with new aspirations? What have we decided could become a way in which society works? I've never been comfortable with idea that the Left should only be thinking about all the solutions only once they take power. We’ve got to think about this in the present. It's the dialectic between the present and the future.

Finally, we have to think about leisure. We have to make demands for leisure. Around a hundred years ago, they struggled for the 10-hour day, then the eight-hour day. I think it's about time the Left develop a slogan for a four-hour day or a three-hour workday. Socialists shouldn’t claim or demand that life is about work. That's a fascist slogan. “Arbeit mach frei” (“work sets you free”): that's the slogan the Nazis put up at the entrance of Auschwitz. That’s not our slogan. Our slogan is: we live as human beings to create community with other human beings. Whether we’re working 20 hours or eight hours a day, we should be working less. We need to spend more time building society. We need to spend more time with each other as people. Those simple demands need to be at the heart of our movement. We need to fight against capitalism, which is basically anti-life, and project ourselves, not simply as a negative force against capitalism, but as a life-giving force.

In a sense, that’s the real point. In July of 1991 when Manmohan Singh signed the IMF document with American spellings or in Seelampur when this gangster shot himself with heroin: these were anti-life openings. Life seemed to end in these openings. Something toxic entered the world. If the Left seriously attends to the four challenges I identified and projects itself as a life-giving force, it would be in a far better position to build a new horizon.

A draft of this paper was originally presented at the "Left Politics in South Asia: Past, Present, Future" workshop at the University of Toronto.

Vijay Prashad is the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books and the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is the author of No Free Left: the Future of Indian Communism.