On September 17, 2021, Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)) general secretary Sitaram Yechury indicated that the alliance of the Left Front with the centre-right Congress Party and the Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front (ISF) in West Bengal was over. Speaking at a party program in Kolkata, Yechury said that the Sanjukta Morcha - the banner under which Left-Congress-ISF fought - was formed for the West Bengal Assembly election and now that the polls were over, so was the Morcha. “The Morcha was there because of the elections. Now that the election is over, the Morcha is also over”.
The 2021 Assembly polls saw a comprehensive erosion of the Left which failed to elect any member to the Assembly almost after five decades. The CPI (M) contested 138 seats and got 4.73% of the votes. The Sanjukta Morcha secured 9.9% of the votes. Of this, the Left Front got 5.6% of the votes, the Congress got 2.3%, and the ISF got 1.38%. This abysmal performance of the Left was - apart from organizational deficiencies - closely linked to its problematic electoral strategy. In a post poll analysis of its defeat in West Bengal, the Central Committee (CC) of CPI (M) remarked, “The Sanjukta Morcha cannot be any permanent structure or a United Front with a common manifesto or programme.”
CPI (M)’s critical introspections on the character of electoral alliances are part of wider, important issues. With the rise of the right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) at the national level, the Indian Left has called for a two-pronged plan: broadest mobilization of secular forces against communalism and the construction of an anti-neoliberal alliance of Left and democratic forces. In West Bengal, this programmatic outlook was complicated by an oppositional stance toward the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) - an opportunist regional outfit. Thus, CPI (M)’s strategic orientation became preoccupied with the maximization of anti-BJP, anti-TMC votes. Economic visions were articulated only in a fragmentary manner.
Shubham Sharma notes: “Despite the Left leading relief work operations during the Amphan cyclone wherein TMC leaders engaged in wanton corruption by diverting relief funds into their own coffers; playing a central role in organising farm protests via its peasant front, the All-India Kisan Sabha; and running ‘shramik canteens’ for the poor during the COVID-19 crisis in West Bengal, it did not succeed in becoming the alternative to BJP and TMC.” The question is: why were these class agendas overshadowed and weakened by an ultimately unsuccessful critique of other political parties? Why did the Left’s socialistic practices fail to counteract the negative effects of its electoral association with bourgeois and conservative forces?
The political contradictions we are dealing with are specifically philosophical in form. CPI (M)’s ideological schemes in West Bengal were based on a synthetic separation of the economic and political instances of the social totality. Economy, in this perspective, is understood as another element of society, a factual agglomeration of the technological conditions of material production. The result: the economic base of society becomes an individually demarcated sphere of strictly economic structures with its own terrain of discourses and struggles. In contrast to this mechanical viewpoint, Karl Marx - in Volume 1 of Capital - conceptualized the economy as an essentially social and historical entity, the unity of the social relations of production and the productive forces.
Economic arenas are not general tendencies or historical regularities with their own set of rules; they are complex structures with many determinations, existing only in their effects, having no existence of their own other than that in concrete social formations. The economy is indissolubly interlinked with the entirety of concrete historical social formations, their relation of forces and the articulation and condensation of their contradictions into a unique historical moment. In other words, the movements of the economy are tightly intermeshed with the circumstances of their happening, so much so that they can be discerned only through them.
When the economy is understood in this manner - in its immanent complexity and not in isolation from the articulations of various relations, contradictions and practices of the social whole - it becomes a complex matrix of conflicts, ruptures and antagonisms. Since economic structures manifest themselves only through the structure of a given conjuncture, they can’t be untethered from the displacements and paradoxical unities of historically discrete events. This means that the economy is not a passive combination of externally related, abstract elements; it is an ensemble of relations, a provisionally stable complex of contradictions and social practices reproduced through the material apparatuses of the bourgeois class which are themselves conditioned by antagonistic strategies.
Since only reproduced relations have material effectivity as the basic blocks of society, the bourgeoisie realizes its hegemony through the integral extension of state into the diverse regions of society. While power is de-localized and dispersed through all the instances that take charge of the function of reproduction - law, religion, school, the family, and so on - the state is simultaneously re-configured as the structuring force where administrative-governmental authority becomes centralized and condensed, invested with the networks of ideology and consent entrenched in other domains of society. Elite hegemony, however, is never complete; there is neither the absolute victory of one side over another nor the total incorporation of one set of forces into another.
Hegemony fundamentally concerns the constant process of the formation and supersession of unstable equilibria. Social forces which lose out in any particular historical period do not disappear from the terrain of struggle; they are pushed to the peripheries of the battleground, changing the tendential balance in the relations of forces. Consequently, the subaltern is invariably constituted as an overdetermined figure of the non-totalizable unity of the ruling class’ hegemonic ideas. Subalternity denotes the point at which the lines of forces converge and concentrate, generating an unstable constellation of encounters that - while anchored in codes of dominance - threaten to give way to other encounters of different singularities.
Therefore, the subjectivity of the subaltern is an always-already-unevenly-developed composition of singular politico-ethical molecules, necessarily and essentially fractured by the differential formulations of reality advanced by different class projects. Insofar that the elaboration of a unified class worldview - and the establishment of durable social relations (structures) wherein the balance of forces remain tilted toward reproduction rather than rupture - is never full-fledged in nature, the reality of subalternity is irreducibly plural: inconsistencies/differences in the commonsense or social psychology of subalterns combine to undergird the ruling order but this combination is never a fusion, or a reduction to unity or simplicity. Each layer of consciousness possesses its own nature and effectivity: no instance is the phenomenal form of another.
Now, since the consciousness of the subaltern is incoherent, the task of the Left consists in crafting and refining the many ways in which ordinary people deal with the realities of life and social antagonism. This progress toward mass critical intellectuality is rooted in the emergence and consolidation of the proletarian party - the experimental laboratory for subalterns. In this long-drawn-out movement, as the antagonistic social relations that underpin the bourgeois reality come under increasing stress, separate individuals start forming a class in tandem with engagement in a common battle against another class. The experience of conflict among singular individuals produces politically meaningful cooperation among them, gradually eliminating the incongruent conceptions of the world they had acritically absorbed from multiple social environments.
As is evident, class is a highly political notion, explicated in the realm of practice and incapable of being disembodied from specific conjunctures and the singularity of a given situation. Classes, while being founded upon common conditions of existence, are also crosscut by the conflictual equations of subalternization in the actual course of historical formation. Insofar that the unity classes is never automatic and has to be necessarily produced - constructed, created, articulated - as a result of specific economic, political, and ideological practices, what matters is the defining political intervention or act that enables an encounter between elements already existing. Revolutionary politics has to actively re-organize the singularities that compose an existing encounter, creating conditions, producing results and forging new identities.
In West Bengal, the political act failed to materialize due to the theoretico-philosophical error of dividing the proletarian struggle into individual acts of protest against the supposedly separate levels of society. These divisions, as we have seen, arose from the conception of economy as an invariant structure of coercion and the general understanding of reality as a collection of oppressive objects. When the inherently antagonistic and relational nature of reality is abandoned, we are left with a stream of disconnected struggles, each waged against a different enemy, united only externally and verbally in the form of superficial slogans. Hegemony can’t be formed through these patchy moments of politics which fail to provide an organic experience of radicalism to the subaltern.
Thus, in West Bengal, the construction of a collective-popular will could not take place because the CPI (M) carried out two incompatible operations: on the political front, it framed electoral alliances in terms of a contract between political organizations which own their voters; on the economic front, it conceived tactics in terms of a combat waged by the organized section of the working class for the expansion of influence, directly engaging the party in mass struggle. The gap between these positions gave an amorphous edge to the Left’s political praxis, contributing to the drastic diminution of its social base.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.