The State and the Left : Prabhat Patnaik

THE Maoist attitude to the Indian State is clear; engaged in an armed struggle to overthrow the Indian State, the Maoists see this State as their enemy. What about that segment of the Left, however, which is not engaged in armed struggle, but participates in parliamentary elections, occasionally forms governments at the state level, and functions in accordance with the Constitution? Does it find the current Indian State acceptable? And since according to its analysis, this State is a bourgeois State (or a “bourgeois-landlord State”), committed to defending capitalist property, is the “parliamentary Left” then reconciled to the preservation of the capitalist system in India?

While many would answer this question in the affirmative, the Left itself would vehemently deny this charge. It would argue that it remains as committed to overthrowing capitalism and the bourgeois State as ever, but only when the conditions for it are ripe. Its functioning within the Constitution, and its accepting the bourgeois Indian State (and occasionally even being a part of it, since state governments are not outside the ambit of the State), is only a means of working from within the order, to garner the requisite popular support to overthrow the order itself. And for garnering this support, it works not only in the parliamentary arena but also in other spheres where it seeks to build up popular movements.

This was the argument that the undivided Communist Party had advanced when it called off the Telangana Armed Struggle and fought the first general elections in the country in 1952 under the new Constitution. This argument however invokes an odd image, of a Party patiently “waiting” for, or working diligently towards, a denouement where it will be rewarded with adequate public support, rather like the “virtuous” being rewarded on “the day of judgment”. Such an imagery is obviously unacceptable to the Left, which means that this argument cannot be so bald; it has to be embellished by a larger argument. This larger argument in my view, can be outlined as follows.

The bourgeois State is not a fixed thing; it can take diverse shapes and guises. A fascist dictatorship is as much a bourgeois State (where monopoly houses are directly involved with the exercise of State power), as a social democratic “welfare State”, since both are committed to the defence and promotion of capitalist property. The form and the content of the bourgeois State in other words changes over time, and this change is driven by two factors: one is the “spontaneous” changes occurring in the nature of capitalism, which the Left believes to be arising from the immanent tendencies of capital, from the inner logic of its functioning, such as for instance the “free competition” capitalism of Adam Smith’s time giving rise to monopoly capitalism; and the other is the degree of popular resistance and popular pressure that is employed on the State.

Capitalism typically wants that the intervention by the State should be to promote and further this inner logic of its functioning rather than in contravention of it. It is forever attempting to ensure that popular pressure on the State is kept in check, that the need for the State to adopt measures in response to the wishes of the people and against the demands of capital is abrogated; in short, it is forever attempting to attenuate democracy.

This fact is sometimes articulated openly. In 2006, for instance, when the Vajpayee government in India was voted out, The Wall Street Journal had rued this development, and candidly remarked that the electorate alone should not be allowed to choose the government; rather, all “stakeholders”, including “investors”, should have a say in the matter! More recently in Europe, in the wake of the referendum in Greece, the electorate was described as a “nuisance” by spokesmen of finance.

Of course, changes such as in 2006, do not necessarily impinge adversely on the “investors”. The next government, as long as it does not take the country out of the vortex of global financial flows (which globalisation, the outcome of the logic of functioning of capital, necessarily entails), is constrained to pursue the same policies as the one voted out, for fear that any departure from these policies would offend finance capital, and thereby cause capital outflows and a financial crisis. But this only underscores the fact that the caprices of finance capital override the demands of the people in an economy exposed to global financial flows, ie, that such exposure attenuates democracy. No matter who the people elect, no matter what the commitments given to the people before the elections, the newly-elected government necessarily betrays these commitments as long as it retains the same external linkages as the earlier one (as Syriza in Greece has just demonstrated).

But whether successful or not, the resistance of the people does act as a counterweight against this “spontaneous” tendency of capital to attenuate democracy; and in certain specific conjunctures it proves more powerful. The post-war period in Europe, when domestic working class resistance (Winston Churchill, remember, got voted out in the elections held immediately after the war in Britain because of working class abhorrence towards his socio-economic policies), and the fear of Communism, forced capital to make concessions, is an obvious example of such a conjuncture; Keynesian “demand management” and the “welfare State” were its products.

In that period in other words, the bourgeois State, without ceasing to be a bourgeois State, had got pushed in a welfarist direction under popular pressure and against the wishes of the bourgeoisie itself. At a later date, with capital becoming globalised as a consequence of its own immanent tendencies, the writ of neither the nation-State nor the working class movement (which continues to be organised along national lines) was powerful enough to deter the imposition of its agenda. The “spontaneity” of the system reasserted itself by throwing off State interference against its inner logic, which works towards a weakening of workers’ resistance and rights, the creation of a reserve army of labour, the rolling back of welfare State measures and an attenuation of democracy.

Since the spontaneous tendencies of capital are forever pushing the bourgeois State in the direction of authoritarianism, the defence and deepening of its existing democratic content, through the mobilisation of popular resistance, becomes a task of the Left. The Left, it follows, is not just concerned with quietly gathering its forces within the corpus of some fixed entity called the bourgeois State, until these forces become strong enough to overthrow that State; it is concerned with defending at every moment the democratic content of the bourgeois State against the attempt of the bourgeoisie itself to erode that content.

Put differently, within the strategic goal of replacing the existing bourgeois State,  defending the democratic content of the constitutional-political system against the bourgeoisie’s attempt to push it in a more authoritarian direction, becomes an essential tactic in the struggle for overcoming the bourgeois State. This is because such a struggle in defence of the democratic content of the bourgeois State also becomes a struggle against the dominant echelons of the bourgeoisie who are behind the authoritarian thrust.

Indeed, paradoxically, defending whatever democratic content that exists in the bourgeois State is a powerful and effective intervention in the overall fight against the bourgeois State. This is because this mode of overcoming the bourgeois State acts as a check against the imposition at a later date of any new kind of an authoritarianism, of any one-party dictatorship. And it involves at every stage mobilising large masses of people, together with other political formations also opposed to authoritarianism, which gives it a far greater potency.

All this is vividly illustrated by the current Indian situation. To carry forward neo-liberal “reforms” such as taking over peasants’ land without their consent (an instance of what Marx had called “primitive accumulation of capital”) and introducing “labour market flexibility” (meant to reduce workers’ rights and resistance), which are in keeping with the immanent tendencies of capital, corporate India in the last elections supported a political formation backed by a communal-fascist organisation whose avowed objective remains the creation of a “Hindu Rashtra”. This corporate-communal alliance that acquired power is already shifting the country quite palpably in an authoritarian direction. It is important at this juncture that instead of debunking whatever democratic content that exists within the State, as “sham”, the Left defends this democratic content of the bourgeois State. The democratic content of the bourgeois State in other words becomes a site for class struggle. Only by defending democracy can the Left hope to transcend the system.