Bourgeois secularism and the communal challenge? (Part 5)

This is the final instalment of the article, which we began publishing in the January issue of Lalkar. It is a slightly extended version of that which appeared in The Marxist, Volume XIX, No 2 April-June 2003. The question of communalism and religious bigotry is extremely important, for it divides and weakens the working-class movement, therefore a Marxist analysis of the problem is essential to the development of a secular, democratic, anti-imperialist and socialist movement. In our view Comrade Grewal has done an excellent job in analysing the problem. However, the conclusions he reaches at the end do not follow from his premises and analysis. In fact, to be very frank, they contradict it. We are however fully aware of the reasons for the above discordance between Comrade Grewal’s premises and his conclusions. He is a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and as such, being a loyal party member, feels obliged to endorse his party’s incorrect pro-Congress political line. No perceptive reader would fail to notice this. We are publishing this article, not withstanding some of its erroneous conclusions, for we believe that it makes an important contribution to the understanding of this question. Comrades of Indian origin, as well as class conscious workers in the centres of imperialism, will benefit greatly from reading this article. [ Editor]

In order to be effective, the fight against communalism must involve resolute opposition to imperialism and the ruling class offensive, exemplified by the policies of economic liberalisation. Similarly, the fight against imperialism and these anti-people economic policies has to be linked to the struggle against communalism, whose divisive nature undermines the unity of the oppressed, so essential to beat back the class offensive of international and indigenous monopoly capital.

Fight Against Communalism: Certain Tactical Issues

However, the moot point about how this fight is to be waged remains. There is broad agreement among the Left on the need to mobilise the widest possible sections of the toiling people for fighting against the economic policies of the ruling classes. The formation of the National Platform of Mass Organisations is a reflection of this common perspective. The necessity of sharpening this struggle as a foil to the growth of communalism is also generally accepted. However, there are significant differences within the Left on the tactics necessary to counter the communal forces. These relate primarily to the role of secular bourgeois parties. This question assumes added importance in the light of the gravity of the communal challenge and the limited presence and influence of the Left in the country as a whole.

There are broadly two discernable trends within the Left on this issue. One trend represented by some smaller Left parties like the RSP and Forward Bloc professes a line of equidistance between the BJP and Congress and criticises the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) – for characterizing the BJP as the main threat. A reflection of this understanding was seen in the refusal of these parties to support the formation of a Congress Government in the aftermath of the defeat of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government in Parliament in 1999. The key issue involved here was that of displacing from power a communal Government that is wreaking havoc with the secular fabric of the nation. Unfortunately, the RSP and Forward Bloc along-with the Samajwadi Party by preventing the installation of a secular alternative to the BJP became instrumental in ensuring the latter’s return to power in the General Elections that followed. The CPI (M) correctly described these tactics of the RSP and Forward Bloc in the following words: “These two parties do not appreciate the changed situation which has come about with the rise of the BJP and the shift which has taken place with a substantial section of the big bourgeoisie and landlords supporting it. The danger of a communal party assuming power at the Centre is not properly appreciated. It is this failure which leads them to harp on equidistance between the BJP and the Congress.” (Political-Organisational Report, CPI (M), 17th Party Congress, 2002 p.21) Another variant of this approach is that of the CPI (M-L) – Liberation. This outlook underestimates the communal danger by equating secular bourgeois parties with those bourgeois parties that are out-rightly communal.

The second trend within the Left represented by the CPI (M) steers clear from the ‘equidistance’ thesis. It recognises the serious danger posed by the communal forces and characterises the BJP as the main enemy. It also recognises the existence of conflicting approaches within the bourgeoisie on the questions of communalism and defence of secularism. Significant sections of the bourgeoisie, with all the limitations in their approach pointed out in this article, do stand by secularism. This becomes more significant in light of the fact that today even their ‘sarva dharma sambhav’ variety of secularism is under attack. Besides, the masses rallied behind these parties are essentially secular and opposed to ravages of the communal forces. Any meaningful fight against communalism per se involves trying to mobilise these masses. Given these circumstances, the CPI (M) envisages a definite role of secular bourgeois parties in the fight against communalism. At the same time it does not lose sight of the proclivity of secular bourgeois parties for opportunist compromises with communal forces as well as the anti-people nature of the economic policies pursued by them, which besides wrecking havoc with people’s livelihood also provide fertile ground for the growth of communal and divisive forces. Its tactics vis-à-vis secular bourgeois parties are worked out keeping this complex reality in mind. They involve electoral understandings with non-Congress secular parties as well as joint actions with them on issues of defence of secularism, democracy and people’s livelihood. Besides advancing the struggle on these issues, such tactics also provide the Party an opportunity to access and influence the masses rallied behind these parties. Conversely, these tactics entail resolutely fighting both the anti-people policies of these parties as well as their vacillations and compromises vis-à-vis communalism.

Is Fascism Imminent?

There is an opinion in certain liberal intellectual circles which interprets the communal dangers inherent in the situation to mean that fascism is virtually knocking at the door. It therefore advocates that the Left must take the initiative for forming an anti-fascist front with the Congress as its integral part before it is too late. This viewpoint is not entirely without basis in objective reality. There can be no doubt about the fascist character of the RSS. The dangers inherent in the control over the levers of state power by the BJP and the backing provided by sections of the ruling class to the RSS-BJP, as noted earlier in this article, are very real. The fact that the RSS-BJP and their allied organisations resorted to terror of a fascist nature in the Gujarat genocide cannot be denied. Similarly, the view that majority communalism has the potential of becoming fascist is also essentially correct. The growth of authoritarian trends reflected in attempts to curb trade union and democratic rights as part of the liberalisation drive at the behest of imperialism and indigenous monopoly capital and interventions of the higher judiciary to restrict the right to strike and democratic protest also constitute disturbing aspects of current reality. From all this to come to the conclusion that fascism is imminent may appear logical. This understanding is, however, erroneous as it ignores the presence of countervailing factors to this outcome.

To arrive at a correct assessment of the fascist threat in India there is first a need to come to an understanding about what constitutes fascism. This is all the more necessary in light of the tendency in intellectual and political circles to dub every variety of authoritarianism and despotic rule as fascism. Such an approach is incorrect as it detracts from a concrete analysis of different dictatorial trends and tends to undermine and obfuscate the specific nature and content of fascism. For Marxists these are not mere intellectual questions but those which directly impact on tactics necessary to face up to existing reality and the foreseeable future.

Marxism views fascism as the most extreme form of terroristic dictatorship of monopoly capital and outlines the conditions necessary for its advent. Key among these is the inability of the bourgeoisie to “stabilise and perpetuate its rule” through the system of parliamentary democracy in the face of “the constant menace of mass proletarian action” (Programme of the Communist International, 1928, from R.P. Dutt, Fascism And Social Revolution, NBA, 1977, p.94). Certain critics of this view argue that this thesis does not hold water in the case of post World War II fascisms in 3rd world countries. They give the examples of Indonesia and Chile and accuse those who uphold the above understanding of the character of fascism and conditions necessary for its success of ‘mechanical scripturalism’. There is no doubt that the Communist International’s thesis on fascism was framed keeping the experience of German and Italian fascism in mind. It is also true that Indonesia and Chile did not have a developed monopoly bourgeoisie like that of Germany or Italy. Nor can it be denied that imperialism played the key role in the ushering in of fascist regimes in both these countries. Despite these dissimilarities the essential aspects of Dimitrov’s thesis are upheld by experience of both Indonesia and Chile.

The Indonesian Communist Party was the biggest Communist Party in Asia after the Communist Party of China. It had a huge mass base and a widespread and growing influence. This was seen as being a threat by both imperialism and substantial sections of the Indonesian bourgeoisie. The successes of the Communists in other parts of East and South-East Asia further aggravated this threat perception. These factors lay behind the massacre of 1 million Communists and sympathisers by the Indonesian army with the help of the C.I.A. in 1965 and the imposition of a fascist regime in Indonesia. In Chile a government consisting of Communists and Socialists had come into power through elections in 1970. This government attacked the class interests of the indigenous ruling classes and imperialism by nationalising the capital of multinational corporations and taking steps to make peasants owners of the land. It also had close relations with socialist Cuba. It is because of this that imperialism and the Chilean ruling classes conspired to overthrow President Allende and imposed a fascist regime headed by General Pinochet in 1973 which massacred thousands of Communists, Socialists and liberals besides depriving the people of all democratic rights and civil liberties for a prolonged period of time.

It is nobody’s case that the character of fascism and the conditions for its advent today will necessarily dovetail totally with the understanding laid down by the Communist International 75 years ago. International experience since then dictates that factors like the role of imperialism, the establishment of fascist regimes in countries that did not have a developed monopoly bourgeoisie, the varied ideological moorings of fascism in different countries ranging from the communalism of the RSS in India to the racist underpinnings of fascist trends in Europe etc must be kept in mind while assessing the dangers of fascism in any country today. However, the most crucial aspects of the Communist International’s understanding about the character of fascism and the conditions necessary for it to succeed remain valid in the main, even today. Thus, fascism whether in advanced capitalism or in the 3rd world can be nothing but the “most terroristic dictatorship” of capital. Similarly the presence of a tangible class challenge and therefore the inability of the bourgeoisie to advance its interests through parliamentary democracy remain essential conditions for the advent of fascism. In other words the experience of 3rd world countries, far from negating the Communist International’s thesis on fascism tends to confirm its key aspects, often with a vengeance, as in Indonesia and Chile.

The above-mentioned conditions necessary for the advent of fascism do not obtain in India today. Despite the inherent and recurrent crises of the capitalist path of development embarked upon by it, the Indian bourgeoisie is able to defend and further its interests via the existing parliamentary system and the class challenge to it is yet not of the magnitude that threatens its vital interests. Why then should it opt for fascism? In other words, though the RSS-BJP may desire a fascist regime, this is not the class requirement of the ruling class today. As experience shows, it is the class which ultimately calls the shots. Thus, the lifting of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1977 was at least partly brought about by the growing opposition to this authoritarian regime from within the ruling classes. The secular and democratic nature of the majority of the Indian people and the diversity and plurality of Indian society in terms of language, culture, identity, ethnicity etc., also provide objective roadblocks in the way of the fascist project.

Accepting the ‘imminence of fascism’ line today would in essence imply putting opposition to the anti-people policies pursued by secular bourgeois parties on hold and concentrating on the single point agenda of keeping the ‘communal fascists’ at bay. Followers of this line argue that such tactics and the sacrifice of immediate partisan interests, implicit in them, are justified keeping in mind the grave communal challenge. This viewpoint ignores the fact that communalism is a long-term phenomenon. It therefore implies long-term surrender of partisan interests by the Left. Nor does this understanding help the struggle against communalism in the ultimate analysis. It’s inherent go slow on struggle against the class policies of secular bourgeois parties implies that mass discontent will not be garnered in the proper direction, leaving the field open for communal forces to mobilize it around divisive slogans. The dangers represented by the communal forces must not be underestimated but artificially conjuring up the imminence of fascism can only lead to wrong tactics of tailing secular bourgeois parties to the detriment of the Left.

Attitude towards the Congress

The proponents of the above view also ask the CPI (M) why it treats the Congress differently from other secular bourgeois parties. Or why it doesn’t have electoral alliances or form a front with the Congress, the biggest of the secular bourgeois parties, if it is seriously interested in combating the communal menace. There are several tangible reasons for this. The CPI (M) characterises the Congress as a party of the big bourgeoisie, a class which heads the ruling class combine and is the leading enemy of the Indian people. The Congress state governments in over a dozen provinces are implementing the same anti-people economic policies that were initiated by the Congress Central Government in 1991. It lends full support to the BJP led NDA Government in Parliament to push forward the process of neo-liberal economic reforms. As noted earlier it persists in its vacillations on secularism. As a party of the big bourgeoisie it is hostile to federalism and devolution of greater power to the states. In its quest to settle scores with the CPI (M) it does not hesitate to enter into covert deals with the BJP-RSS in Kerala and West Bengal and with the political front of the terrorist and separatist NLFT in Tripura. It is precisely because of its class character and policies that the CPI (M) desists from forming any alliance or front with the Congress.

Despite the above character and record of the Congress, the CPI (M) does not treat it on the same footing as the BJP. Instead it holds that, “Both the BJP and the Congress have the same class character. However, the BJP is also a communal party which is guided by the R.S.S. which has a fascistic ideology. Since 1998, the BJP has been in the Central Government. Therefore, for the C.P.I.(M) fighting the BJP has priority. Both the BJP and the Congress cannot be treated as equal dangers. As the Political Resolution points out, the Party will oppose the policies of the Congress at the national level and of the state governments run by it. At the same time, within Parliament on various issues, the Left has to coordinate with the Congress to oppose the BJP led government and thwart its anti-democratic and anti-secular policies” (Political-Organisational Report, CPI (M), 17th Party Congress, 2002, pp. 20-21). Further it states that, “In the present situation where the BJP is the main target, the Party should adopt tactics which will enable all the secular and democratic forces to effectively thwart the game plan of the BJP-RSS combine. While doing so, efforts must be made to appeal and reach out to the mass base of the Congress as their mobilisation is essential for strengthening the fight against communalism.” (Political Resolution, CPI(M), 17th Party Congress, 2002, p.32)


To conclude, it needs to be reasserted that the secular potentialities of the bourgeoisie are curtailed by its compromise with landlordism, the logic of its liberalising economic policies and its class requirement of keeping the working people divided. Its ‘sarva dharma sambhav’ variety of secularism has harmed the interests of the Indian people by providing space for the misuse of religion as a political weapon and contributed to the growth of communalism. Despite this, given the gravity of the communal challenge and the concrete correlation of forces obtaining today the role of the secular bourgeoisie in fighting communalism cannot be wished away. Doing so would be a sectarian mistake which will adversely affect the fight against the communal danger. Recognising this role of the secular bourgeoisie however cannot mean that the Left give up its independent political-ideological positions and struggle on the issues of secularism and the economic policies being pursued by the ruling classes. It is hence incumbent upon the Left to follow such flexible tactics which enable it to utilise the potentialities prevalent in the situation to both isolate the communal forces and advance the class cause of the working class and other toilers. Those who are justifiably concerned about the grave communal danger confronting us today but choose to see it in isolation from the totality of challenges present in existing reality, need to seriously rethink their positions in light of the experience outlined above.

October 2003

[Note: The above is a somewhat enlarged version of an article printed in The Marxist, Volume XIX, No.2, April/June 2003. The additions made to the latter do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board of The Marxist.]