In the wake of an historic defeat, can India’s communists finally break with the hidebound dogmas of their past? Ramachandra Guha in Caravan:
The recent defeat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala and especially in West Bengal—where it ruled for 34 uninterrupted years—calls for a detached, dispassionate analysis of the party’s place in the history of modern India.
In what manner, and to what extent, did politicians committed in theory to the construction of a one-party state reconcile themselves in practice to bourgeois democracy? What were the sources of the CPI(M)’s electoral appeal in Kerala and West Bengal? How were its policies constrained or enabled by its ideology of Marxism-Leninism? How should this ideology be rethought or reworked in the light of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the manifest attachment of the people of India to multiparty democracy? How might the CPI(M) restore and reinvent itself after these electoral reversals in Kerala and West Bengal?
In seeking to answer these questions, I shall start with the analysis of a printed text. This is apposite, since Marxists are as much in thrall to the printed word, or Word, as are fundamentalist Muslims or Christians. True, their God had more than one Messenger, and these messengers wrote multiple Holy Books. Withal, like Christianity and Islam, Marxism is a faith whose practice is very heavily determined by its texts. Thus, communists the world over justify their actions on the basis of this or that passage in the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Mao.
It was the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre who first drew attention to the parallels between a professedly secular belief system and religious doctrine. In a 1968 book called Marxism and Christianity, MacIntyre observed that “creedal uniformity, as in religion, often seems to be valued by Marxists for its own sake”. He added that this secular creed, like its religious counterpart, endowed its adherents with an emancipatory role denied to individuals who believed in more humdrum ideologies. To quote MacIntrye, “both Marxism and Christianity rescue individual lives from the insignificance of finitude…by showing the individual that he has or can have some role in a world-historical drama.” In this, Marxism and Christianity are akin to one another, and to Islam, whose devoted or dogmatic adherents likewise believe that their life and death find meaning and fulfilment in a pleasure-filled and enemy-free utopia. More:
Also in Caravan: Scenes from the last days of communism in West Bengal