Naxalites and critique

The International Socialism Journal has published a very interesting piece by Jairus Banaji about the political “ironies” of Naxalism/Maoism in India.  This is a follow-up to a position that Banaji was developing earlier in response to Arundhati Roy’s now famous piece, “Walking with the comrades.”

It’s a very good history of Maoism, but I think it makes some strategic errors that prevent it from escaping the pattern of sectarian political debate of the left in India or from thinking about how one might be able to move the Maoists towards better political ideas/strategies.  One gets the sense, in much of the left critiques of Naxalism/Maoism that these are revolutionaries with hopelessly backwards ideas and dogmas (despite the fact that the histories of Maoism in India are nothing if not histories of aggressive, spirited debate).

As someone who critically supports the Naxalites against the Indian state, I find some of Banaji’s positions a little hard to swallow.  The most crucial part of the article are the four positions that he identifies that one can take with respect to the Naxalites.

Position/Alibi #1: Naxalite=Adivasi

Responses, critical or otherwise, from the left can be classified broadly into four categories. Maoists and Maoist sympathisers abstract from the profound deformities of the movement to engage in solidarity with it at any cost. They posit an almost mystical identity between the Maoists and “the people” and do precisely what Balagopal advised democratic circles not to do, namely use the poverty and general backwardness of the tribal areas as an excuse for not engaging with the CPI (Maoist) politically.

Now, I’m in no position to adjudicate this debate about how much or how little the Naxalites represent the Adivasis, but I suspect, like all ethnic groups, that there are serious divisions amongst the Adivasis and that while not all Adivasis support the Naxalites, a good many do (largely because the Naxalites have delivered some important reforms/changes for them).  I think that Banaji is right to call for a political engagement with the Maoists, but this has to be done under the heavy sign of the Indian state which is waging a fairly serious war against the Adivasis (and it doesn’t really care if kills the Naxalites amongst them or not).  It seems to me that after watching what the Sri Lankan state did to the LTTE, the best position that a left has if it wants to be taken seriously both by the Adivasis and by the rest of the exploited in India is to begin with a critique of the state and then engage with a strategic/theoretical debate with the Maoists about how best to do that.

The primary problem, though (and it’s one that Banaji recognizes but doesn’t put this critique in its context) is that there is no anti-Stalinist revolutionary left in India that has anything to offer the Adivasis.  For instance, if there were massive (or even substantial) working class, anti-Stalinist parties there would be a way to engage with the Maoists and offer them something tactical-theoretical.  Without that, a critique of the Maoists, while important, can’t really produce a change in their theoretical positions, their tactics, their understanding of the “comprador bourgeoisie”, etc.  In fact, Naxlism emerges in the wake of the decline of anti-Stalinist revolutionary politics in India as the orphan of those political parties.

Similarly, the civil society left that “romanticizes” the Naxalites (and this I think is something of a caricature … they used to do that in the 70s and 80s — there’s no mass abandoning of college classrooms for the forests happening now) does so because it sees the primary problem as the state and has no alternative to which it can hitch its wagon.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t critique the Maoists — every anti-Stalinist should.  But sometimes it feels like going after David instead of Goliath.

Position #2: the CPI(M)’s strategy of using state repression to defend its “leftist” position

A second line of response has been the CPI (Marxist)’s savage repression of all popular movements that challenge their own agendas for the state of West Bengal, using the machinery of the state to crush both the Maoists and much wider layers of the population (again largely tribal) they see as sympathising with them or opposing their own policies. Thus, whereas the CPI (Maoist) sabotaged a struggle like the one in Lalgarh by infiltrating the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities and eliminating all political rivals, the CPI (Marxist) fell back on its own vigilante groups and on state counterinsurgency forces to quell the movement there. Both parties (and large parts of the state apparatus, of course) have an interest in branding what began as and was for months a democratic popular upsurge as “Maoist”. And, of course, the two “Marxist” parties have been slaughtering each other’s cadre.

This seems hopelessly muddled to me.  I won’t defend political murder, but there has to be a difference between the CPI(M)’s violence (with all of the backing of the state) and the violence of the CPI(Maoist) (which doesn’t have the same infrastructure or monopoly on violence that the state does).

Position #3: the Naxalites are vicious and undemocratic

Sharply different from both the above has been the civil liberties critique that was largely represented in the writings of the late Balagopal through most of the 1990s down to his death in 2009. Balagopal’s critique recorded features that displayed an unmitigated authoritarianism on the part of a movement he had been closely associated with, features he saw as undermining its sources of support. He referred to the “ruthlessness” of the party (the PWG) that had evolved by the early 1990s, to the calculated use of terror as a political instrument, the “medieval forms of violence” that characterised the so-called People’s Courts, the lack of possibility of any opposition to the party “so long as the police are taken care of”, the “new” culture that had “permeated the Naxalite organisations” as they recruited large numbers of new cadres “more attracted by its weapons than its politics”, and the “recognisable deterioration of quality” this had brought with it. More substantially, he saw the movement in Andhra culminating in “stagnation” by the 2000s and forced to sidestep the crisis by expanding into new territory, failing to consolidate a second generation of support. And finally, there were clear elements of a critique of the substitutionism of a vanguard struggle where most decisions were “taken and implemented over the heads of the people but justified in the name of the people”, a politics that had simply “corrupted the masses into receivers of justice rather than fighters for it”.

About this, there can be little dispute.  But there are two questions that one wants to pose.  First, under what conditions do we imagine that this internal political culture can be changed and second, do we really believe that the Adivasis are uncritical dupes of irrelevant theoretical positions and anti-charismatic leaders?  It seems to me that the Naxalites have been able to win support amongst the Adivasis not because they are demagogues and authoritarians (even though they are) but because they have been heroic, they have delivered real gains, they protect and defend villages from unimaginable atrocities, and because they do so in the spirit of a democratic transformation of the hinterland.  Adivasis (like all oppressed people) are not idiots: they’re actually capable of making tough decisions for themselves (and it bears underlining that some have left the Naxalites at extraordinary personal costs).  If there were a better option (a working class movement that could challenge the state and either take attention away from the forests or offer real support to the Adivasis), I suspect that it would be quite difficult for them not to re-evaluate their theoretical/political allegiances.

Position #4: (the non-existent position) Anti-Stalinist Marxism from below

A fourth sort of response would have to come from Marxists who have never identified with any of the Stalinist political traditions in India and do not see revolutionary movements developing in a class vacuum, in complete isolation from industrial workers and the more organised groups of wage earners and employees in the economy at large. The bulk of the Indian labour force remains unorganised into unions, and it is stupefying to imagine that a revolution against capitalism can succeed while the mass of the workers are in a state of near-complete atomisation. The impoverished notions of democracy that either reduce it to a battle for electoral supremacy or dismiss it as a fraud, the failure to encourage and develop a culture of working class organisation and debate, to encourage forms of intervention that contest capitalism in concrete ways, and build a movement that can address the widest possible range of issues starting from the desperate struggle for survival of the millions of landless in India, are all part of the legacy of a left that was moribund intellectually and deeply conservative in its culture.

And about this, Banaji is totally right — but here’s where I think I differ from him.  This has to be the starting point of understanding the rise of Naxalism (not simply one of many approaches to critiquing the politics of the movement).  Without a meaningful anti-Stalinist revolutionary political formation, the two real ideologies that oppressed peoples fall into are liberalism and narodism (Maoism-Naxalism should be seen as part of this tradition, I think).  The reason for the splits away from the CPI(M) and into Naxalism have to do with the utter lack of an alternative revolutionary politics in India (the Stalinists have been pretty ruthless to the Trotskyists).  That’s why people who were aggravated with the parliamentary politics of the various Stalinist parties took their cue from Mao (the only theoretical tool they really had) and picked up the gun and went to the jungle.  And it has to be said (for all of their contradictory theoretical positions), they have embarrassed the hell out of the Indian state.

In the Russian Revolution, what shifted the peasants over to the side of the working class was the organization of massive revolutionary political formations in the working class (and not simply a critique of the political theories of the Narodniks).  Critiquing narodnism was important as a way for the urban revolutionaries to cut their teeth about what kinds of politics could make and lead a revolution, but even Lenin defended the Narodniks against the state (while disagreeing with their strategies for making a revolution).  I imagine that Banaji is interested in building an anti-Stalinist left in India; one of the things that anti-Stalinist left will need to learn is how to engage with the Naxalites and the people that they are pulling towards them.

Incidentally, a similar position to mine was taken up earlier by another blogger, Pratyush Chandra, here.

2 thoughts on “Naxalites and critique

  1. As usual, I appreciate your posts on this subject, which is of great importance to me, and your “critical support” for the Naxalites with a desire to avoid sectarianism. Yes, the primary enemy is the capitalist state, not the other left groups one disagrees with. As you say, one should not start with going after David instead of Goliath.

    I haven’t had time to read the Banaji article yet, but I will.

  2. thanks for these comments, newredindian. Here are some responses, advanced in a spirit of friendly debate.

    “how one might be able to move the Maoists towards better political ideas/strategies”. This seems perfectly utopian if by Maoists you mean the groups currently engaged in the armed struggle that has emerged in states like Chhattisgarh, Orisssa and Jharkhand. These of course are led chiefly by the CPI (Maoist) which is the product of a long evolution (of decades of political survival and expansion) and far from open to debate in the sense of being willing to rethink their perspectives in any serious way. Indeed, there is no political force on the left that is more conservative in this sense than the armed struggle current within Indian Naxalism. On the other hand, if by “Maoists” you mean a whole collection of groups and individuals that either simply sympathize with the former or represent groupings of their own distinct from the former and often opposed to them, then those of course can be influenced by debates such as this discussion piece (in ISJ) represents.

    “the histories of Maoism in India are nothing if not histories of aggressive, spirited debate”; I’m not sure what you mean by this; ‘debate’ is the last word I’d associate with the Naxals; what are you referring to? The history of the Naxalites has been one of repeated splits, mutual denunciation and the very opposite of anything resembling a culture of debate as such. Indeed, by the 1990s the different groups began to kill each others’ cadre in a big way, for example, the repeated targeting of C.P. Reddy cadre by the PWG in Telangana, the more recent example of Liberation being targeted by CPI (Maoist), and so on. This is just wrong.

    “while not all Adivasis support the Naxalites, a good many do”. Quite right, and this in two senses: first, that the bulk of the CPI (Maoist) cadre are tribal youth (just as outside the tribal areas they were mainly Dalits), second, in the more diffused sense that the violence of the state machinery and the terrible oppression of tribals at the hands of forest contractors and officials and caste Hindus who have illegally usurped their lands (these processes have been going on for decades) has created widespread support for the PWG (mainly), much of which is both sustained by the continuing brutality of the state or para-state agencies like the Salwa judum and simultaneously, more recently, being lost by the violence of the Maoists themselves, their authoritarianism and methods of control, their failure to create wider support in areas that were once their strongholds, etc. These points have been made most tellingly by others who have seen the movement at close quarters, e.g. Balagopal, Bela Bhatia, Nandini Sundar and scarcely need to be labored. The most powerful critique on these lines was the piece that Santosh Rana published in Kafila, one of the few ‘concrete analyses’ of a popular struggle the Maoists intervened in to take over and destroy. I presume you know who Santosh Rana is and why therefore such an analysis is so significant.

    The more general point here is that the distinction between the Maoists and self-managing adivasi struggles and movements is fundamental, even if repeatedly elided or ignored (e.g. in Roy, except more recently where we are told about the ‘tense dance’ between them).

    “the best position that a left has if it wants to be taken seriously both by the Adivasis and by the rest of the exploited in India is to begin with a critique of the state”. That goes without saying. There are numerous critiques of the Indian state on India’s left, defined both by common themes and by differences of emphasis and analysis, and at different levels of abstraction so to speak. These debates go back to the seventies if not earlier. Almost no part of the party left in India saw a socialist revolution as the goal towards which political work should be directed, since all of them subscribed to the two-stage line and fought for something that neither Marx nor Lenin would have understood let alone supported and agitated for. If humanity is oppressed by capitalism, both worldwide through its integration across national borders, and in countries like India (or China for that matter) in forms peculiar to those countries (cf. the continuing dominance of ‘family business’ in Indian industry in contrast, say, to the widespread influence exercised by institutional investors in the Anglo-American markets; this defines a completely different ‘style’ of capitalism for India and has profound implications both for the nexus between state and capital (Reliance runs India) and for the way the media is organized, controlled and comprehensively dominated by those groups), then a socialist movement, a movement for socialist emancipation is what Marxists, anarchists, radical Gandhians and every other section of the left should be consciously striving to create and to build; and the strategies and areas of work and forms of intervention appropriate to that revolutionary goal will also be completely different, it should mean, to start with, a clear focus on the mass of workers in this country, organized and unorganized, industrial and non-industrial, and on the need to organize the bulk of them who remain a defenceless mass of migrant workers, casual laborers, and so on, bereft of the protection extended to organized workers; a focus also on encouraging cultures of self-organization and debate among them (workers might be organized into unions and even combative within them, but have reactionary ideas of a communal and nationalist type propagated among them by parties of the far right; alas, the biggest unions in Maharashtra today are those of the BMS and MNS). Marx allowed for social revolutions breaking out in what he called ‘backward forms’ (see the excerpt in Anderson, Marx at the Margins, p.148) and that at best is what a reformed Maoist movement in India might throw up, though even that seems completely unlikely since the tribal areas have become a political ghetto, and should they ever spread into the urban areas, then armed struggle will simply mean even cruder forms of terrorism than the kinds of violence that characterize the armed struggle in the forests and plains areas.

    “Naxlism emerges in the wake of the decline of anti-Stalinist revolutionary politics in India as the orphan of those political parties”; ?? What histories of the Indian left have you been reading? On the contrary, the ‘anti-revisionist’ positions taken by the CPI(M) during and after its split from the CPI had a lot to do with the emergence of a dissident left within its own ranks.

    “there is no anti-Stalinist revolutionary left in India that has anything to offer the Adivasis”; this is typical of the kind of misinformation that is widespread on the left internationally because they are so obsessed with one type of movement in the tribal districts. It can be countered in two different ways. First, in Chhattisgarh, today a Maoist stronghold, the CPI created and continues to have a substantial base, even a mass base. What the recent escalation of conflict has meant for those cadres can best be answered by fearless young reporters like Javed Iqbal who actually know the reality on the ground better than at least some non-resident Trotskyists who think a smattering grasp of Indian politics entitles them to an endless stream of weighty pronouncements on these issues. The CPI does of course stem from a Stalinist tradition but no one today would want to say it is a ‘Stalinist’ party in the more conventional sense. The second counter-example: the numerous movements of resistance and struggle that are being led by non-party formations such as the PCAPA before that was hijacked by the CPI (Maoist) (see Rana’s analysis; also that by the Sarkars). These movements are certainly part of a radical left in India but have nothing to do with its Stalinist past or those parties in India today that are more strictly Stalinist in nature. You have a strangely vanguardist view of what constitutes a “revolutionary left”; anything not organized in the party form is almost by definition not part of it. This is an essentially sectarian view of the socialist movement, one that Marx never identified with, and a whole layer of the left in this country has always rejected as unviable (the country is saturated with parties, and the left is no exception). The point relates to the primacy of a focus on workers and on what we should mean by working-class politics and culture.

    “This seems hopelessly muddled to me”, on my comments about the murderous war between CPI (Marxist) cadre and the Maoists. I remember a famous piece by Prabhat Patnaik that sought to justify the violence of the CPI(M) cadre in areas of the Bengal countryside that had become flash points of confrontation between villagers, the party, and extraneous political elements like Mamata and others by calling it “revolutionary” violence. That seems to be what you’re doing here, except the positions are reversed. So who does one believe? You’ve missed the point of what Balagopal was driving at and why he felt the need to break with the APCLC and form a separate human rights platform. Violence breeds cultures of violence. The LTTE had degenerated into an ethno-fascist movement already by the eighties. It proceeded single-mindedly to wipe out every other form of Tamil political movement/opposition. Does that mean one supports the Sinhala supremacists who currently run Sri Lanka and the war crimes they committed in exterminating the LTTE and many more besides? Obviously not. The same sense of nuance has to work here in discussing the conflict in Bengal. There is frankly little to choose from between a left that uses the machinery of state repression to put down all movements of opposition, including the Maoists, and a left that systematically targets CPI(M) cadre while it aligns itself with reactionary politicians like Mamata Banerjee.

    “the Naxalites are vicious and undemocratic”; you start by summarizing my position in this way (I’d hardly use words like ‘vicious’) but then, surprisingly, end by saying that I am correct about this: “About this, there can be little dispute.” You then ask “under what conditions do we imagine that this internal political culture can be changed?” My response to this would be that the only substantial internal political critique that has ever emerged from the Naxal movement is the one that came from Balagopal over the 1990s and 2000s. That is why his work is so significant. His last paper on the Andhra Maoists has been published only in its original Telugu version and one desperately hopes there will be a chance to upload the English translation soon. It is the only critique that has emerged from inside the movement.

    “the Naxalites have been able to win support amongst the Adivasis not because they are demagogues and authoritarians (even though they are) but because they have been heroic, they have delivered real gains, they protect and defend villages from unimaginable atrocities, and because they do so in the spirit of a democratic transformation of the hinterland”; yes and no; on delivering “real gains” I’d support the comments of Manmohan Kumar on facebook; they have delivered much less in practice than they’d like the world to believe. Nandini Sundar’s piece in EPW 22/7/2006 is a much more balanced assessment of how things have panned out in their strongholds in Bastar than the piece Arundhati published in Outlook in March.

    “the utter lack of an alternative revolutionary politics in India” ; and where, pray, does this exist? In the US where you live? In Britain where the Trotskyist groups are at least marginally present? Why on earth should India be isolated for lacking a revolutionary politics when we know that this can only emerge from masses of people, from an organized working-class that manages its own political culture and is able to influence much wider sectors of struggle, as it has done, momentarily, in countries like France in the post-war period. No revolutionary movement in any meaningful sense of the term can emerge or exist when the class itself is in a state of contraction, when workers are losing jobs and factories closing down, when unions are being destroyed and civil liberties rapidly dismantled. The premise of any revolutionary movement that is to have a hope of succeeding is an expanding labor force, workers who draw confidence and combativity from their workplace situations, a level of political culture among those workers that is anti-racist, anti-militarist and anti-capitalist; etc, etc. Where exactly does any of this exist? Indeed, there is more democratic churning in India today than I can see in many advanced capitalist countries, even if much of this doesn’t attract the headlines that spectacular armed struggle movements certainly do.

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