[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
Globally, the left has some common problems. It would be a partial view if we believe that the left scenario in any country is largely driven by its internal dynamics. In the age of global media and instant communication, the politics of the world is intertwined in different ways. A victory for the Right in Europe, an advance for the left in Latin America and the rise of fundamentalist forces in different parts of the world, all have an impact on each country and the left forces there.
The decline of the left forces in the world can individually be attributed to the specifics of that country. Many of them win a few local or regional elections and then decline after some time. No doubt, the proximate causes of their decline can be identified with the specificities of their national situation. However, what we need to look at is the bigger picture. Is what is happening exclusive to these countries or are there similar trends elsewhere? If the left is not strong enough to create a revolutionary situation, what happens if it wins regional and municipal elections? What is the path of development that countries would need to follow which is significantly different from the neo-liberal agenda that still dominates the world? What is the left vision of a new socialist state, different from the one that failed in Soviet Union and that seems to be failing in China?
I will briefly discuss the context within which we have to look at these issues and then examine in little more details the changes in the sphere of production that distinguishes the 20th century from the 21st. I will then try and locate the debate on the new socialist vision in terms of these changes and how today’s options differ from that available in early 20th century Soviet Union. Finally, this socialist vision should not only be a template for a new socialist society but also provide a trajectory for left movement in different countries.
The Context of the Left Movement Today
Obviously, the decline of socialist countries, their disintegration in Russia and Eastern Europe, the market driven "socialism" in China have had a traumatic effect on the left movement across the globe. If we look at the post World War II scenario, socialism was advancing rapidly and the major imperialist powers — except the US — were in decline. Liberation struggles backed by the socialist camp were spreading across Asia and Africa. Today, not only has the socialist camp disintegrated, we have a resurgent imperialism, which under the guise of globalisation, is subjugating the economies of the Third World.
A number of people argue that the socialist forces deviated from a "correct" socialist path soon after the October revolution and there was no socialist project worth the name after that. For them, the trauma is not of recent origin but dates back much further. The socialist states were not – in this view – "distortions of socialism" but were states run by bureaucratic capital or state capital.
The problem with this view is that it is very "Western" in its location. The reality is that the even with all its problems, the Soviet Union provided a huge impetus to the national liberation struggles in the colonies. It did this in two ways – one is the direct support it provided to forces of national liberation. The second is providing an alternative post-independence model to the colonised nations: securing independence for the entire people and not just for their bourgeoisie. It was the socialist model as well the evidence of Soviet Union that under socialism, an underdeveloped economy can emerge quickly as a relatively developed one that inspired many of the national liberation struggles. Since the world was largely under colonial yoke, the role of a socialist Soviet Union has to be understood in this context. Even today, the fall of Soviet Union has had an enormous negative impact on the ability of third world countries to chart a relatively independent course.
In most countries in the world, the left has weakened considerably. From the powerful force that the Communist Parties (CP’s) were in many countries, they have become pale shadows of themselves. The non-CP left formations had believed that with the disintegration of the socialist camp, the Communist parties would also disintegrate, leaving the left space open for them. This has not happened and if we look at the left space today, for example in Europe, the decline of the CP’s has not lead to the emergence of new left formations to take their place.
The Latin American scenario is probably the most interesting from a global left perspective. Latin America was the first to fall under the neo-liberal sway. Pinochet’s Chile was the laboratory where its tools were first forged. Not surprisingly, it has been the first to emerge from the neo-liberal thrall – Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina – amongst others have seen major advances for the left.
In Asia, while the CP’s survived in many countries along with other left parties, the major CP’s outside the socialist countries that have still remained as important force in their countries are Nepal, India, Philippines and Japan. In other countries, the left remains splintered and fragmented wielding relatively less influence. In Palestine, the left could be a significant force, if the PFLP, PPP and DFLP come together in a united platform.
Africa, except for South Africa, Angola and Mozambique again remains a place where there are left forces but not organised left parties.
Though the left forces world over is seen to be weaker than they were post World War II, it must be seen that the left in numbers today are still significant. The anti War struggle before the Iraq invasion saw huge numbers march in countries where we might think the left is insignificant. They marched under the leadership of the old left of various hues, but nevertheless clearly identifiable as left. What is missing there today is the ability to translate these numbers into sustained political interventions, and this is primarily due to the weakening of organised political parties in the left spectrum. It is this inability to transform its numbers into political intervention that brings out the importance of organised political formations – namely the left parties.
State/Regional and Municipal Governments and the Left Movement
While struggles in all spheres, is the obvious route any organised left party will take for its growth, it will still have to address the vital question of how to capture state power. Does it stay out of electoral politics and wait for a revolutionary national (or global) situation or does it also regard elections as an arena of struggle? If it does, given the uneven development that is inevitable in the world, what happens if it wins such elections?
There are a number of places that the left forces had gained control of provincial or state governments. In most of these, after a period, the left forces were unable to continue their hegemony and lost to other forces. Most of these Governments had a number of innovative measures to their credit but somewhere a strategic understanding of the role of these state governments in building a larger left movement is missing and a more defensive mindset of how to continue in power became the de facto sine qua non of their practice.
In India, the land reforms in Bengal and the Peoples Plan in Kerala are two important examples of what the left has done which is completely different from other political parties. The recent reverses in both these states show that it is not possible to continue the current course indefinitely. In Brazil’s Rio Grande de Sul province and Porte Alegre, the town municipality, again participative peoples’ planning was amongst the innovations that the left introduced. However, here also the left lost in Rio Grande de Sul as well as in Porte Alegre.
The key issue here is how do we see those organs of state power, winning of which do not give the left a means to make a decisive shift and yet give a salience within the bourgeois state. When the left came into what were called United Front (UF) Governments in 1967 and 1969 in Bengal, they were still a minority within the UF. The UF Government was seen as an instrument of struggle. The Left within the UF was able to advance land struggles significantly in this period. It was the sharpening of the land struggles that saw the split within the UF and though the UF Governments fell. as a result the left forces and the mass movements really grew through this process.
After the 1977 victory, the left in Bengal faced a new scenario. They now had a dominant position within the state Government and could craft its policies within the context of the centre state relations in the country. It was no longer possible to confine the Government role of being an instrument of struggle but also use it to provide relief to the people. The land reforms and land distribution became the focal point of its immediate program and this is what built for the left in Bengal long-term support base. Its continuing electoral success was in a large measure due to the land reforms.
The question that the left faced and will face is that providing relief to the people cannot be a long-term task. It works if it is seen as a transitory phenomenon. With the stagnation of the left movement outside Bengal and Kerala, the problem then is what does the left do in such states? Does it then see its agenda as one of providing some relief to the people as well as running a bourgeois government -a kind of capitalism with a human face — or does it start thinking about an alternate vision of development, which it tries then to implement? The left did not squarely address this issue and instead, the left agenda became a kind of ad hoc reaction of providing relief within the measures that the central government was proposing. As the centre shifted more and more to the right and public investments dried up, it meant that even the left the state governments, in order to industrialise, joined the race to provide more and more incentives to private capital to invest in their states.
The crafting an alternate vision of development within which the regional/provincial governments can play some role is not an easy task. The easy ideological road that some of the anti-globalisation forces take is the neo-Gandhian one of remaining a agrarian, subsistence economy — only small agro industries eschewing big industrial plants. In this version of the anti-capitalist view, the village economy should be the basic economic unit, transformed only by infusion of micro technologies and made self-sustaining. Here localisation is the oppositional ideology to imperialist globalisation and a self-reliant village economy is the goal.
Any serious examination of this will show that this cannot address the problems of the people – we would also need urbanisation and industries – if we were to meet the needs of the people. The question that we need to pose is whether there is an alternate path of industrialisation instead of an alternate to industrialisation and what can the left in the state governments do to push such a path?
This is not only a challenge to the Indian left but also a global challenge. It is not only about what to do within the boundaries of capital today but also about the socialist vision of the future. The socialist economy cannot arise de novo from a capitalist one – its genesis and its forms must lie within the existing capitalist forms. If we are able to create this blue print of a socialist economy, then the task of the placing the regional governments at the centre of this struggle for an alternate trajectory can become meaningful. If not, then the left in state governments will run out of steam once the relief agenda finishes. If the major task of the left is to help capitalist industrialisation, the bickering and the self-serving nature of a section within the left then becomes a natural consequence.
The left in regional and other local governments in India and elsewhere, if they have to go beyond providing some relief to the people, must therefore address the local governments role within the context of this new socialist vision. This is not to argue for a kind of incremental view of reforming the capitalist system. It is creating hegemony of this socialist vision over the capitalist one – the predatory and neo-liberal globalisation that underlies today’s capitalist vision. The political struggle for socialism needs the instrument of regional/local governments to propagate this alternate vision of development and organisation of production.
Obsolescence of Economies of Scale and its Implications for the Socialist Mode of Production
The debate within the left has touched on many aspects of the failure of the socialist states. To many, it was a failure of the political formation that lead to the failure of the socialist states. To others, it was their economies, which failed to stand up to competition from the more technologically advanced capitalist countries. This article is not about the why the socialist states failed. What I am raising is can we attract people to the left without addressing the question of what kind of socialism do we want to build: whether we will build a new form of socialism or will we recreate the old one? Without addressing this central question, we are unlikely to go forward.
The central challenge confronting the left is to create a new vision of socialism that is distinct from the old one. This is not to argue that the old socialist vision was wrong. It was limited – as all visions are — by its time and its place. The time was the early twentieth century when technology was largely in the Fordian
paradigm of economies of scale. The place was Soviet Union, large parts of which were emerging from feudal autocracy. To create a socialist vision with the technology fix of early twentieth century is to miss the enormous possibilities of a decentralisation and flexible forms of production today. This is what global capital seeks to exploit, as it turns away from more productive forms of capital. If we look at production, the possibilities today of de-scaling technology and therefore creating a de-centralised model of production are immense.
This is not to argue that all production should or could be de-centralised and de-scaled. All that I am pointing out is that industrialisation based on huge, vertically integrated factories are no longer valid across a class of commodities. It may still be required in some specific sectors such as steel plants, but not in all.
The production systems today are changing rapidly from mass production of goods to mass customisation of goods. Mass production, starting with the industrial revolution to the Fordian paradigm, brought down cost while providing high quality. It achieved this using standardisation of components and goods, economies of scale and quality control. However, it produced rigid centralised production structures, large plants and eliminated lower level initiative and control over production. It also eliminated diversity of the product. As Henry Ford was reported to have said, "You can have any colour of car as long as it’s black". The end user was willing to sacrifice variety for quality and low cost.
The socialist system of production not only modelled the Fordian form of production, but also took it to the next level. In this, the entire economy was treated as one unit of production and the system as a whole optimised. While this had an obvious impact in reducing costs and making the economy more efficient, it also created the problem that any change in this system became difficult to introduce. It became a The changed technology regime today
, permits an alternate way of production, which maintains quality as well as produces goods at low costs. This is the direction we are moving today in manufacturing systems. The production process is being de-scaled and becoming more flexible. This also allows for a much greater diversity of products – we enter what is called the era of mass customisation – people can ask for