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.