The 2014 Indian general election was hailed as a watershed event that heralded in a majority government for the first time in 33 years. It is the first election in Indian history in which a single non-Congressional party won a majority. However, one aspect of the election that has barely been analyzed by pundits and political commentators is the steep decline in the fortunes of communist political parties in India2. In the 2014 election, the communist parties – the Revolutionary Socialist Party, All India Forward Bloc, Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Communist Party of India – won 11 seats out of 543, down from 24 seats in 2009 and 59 seats in 2004. Most critics have ascribed their political decline to their ineffective governance and their inability to resonate with the young and middle classes. While there is a history of Indian communism external to party politics, it largely manifests in guerilla movements rather than traditional party politics and follows a non-Marxist ideology. Marx himself likely would have thought that these electoral communist parties in India were bound to fail. His theories regarding development of economic systems and beliefs about Indian society signify that according to his praxis, a communist movement in modern India would not be feasible in the foreseeable future.
Brief Political History of Indian Communist Parties
Communist parties were the main national opposition party during the first decade of post-Independence India. They reached their apex on the national stage in the 2004 general elections when their alliance won 59 seats in the election. On the state level, communist parties enjoyed unprecedented success in Kerala and West Bengal. In 1957 they became the first non-Congressional party to hold power in an Indian State by winning the assembly election in Kerala, and in 1977, they won the assembly election in West Bengal. Communist parties also held significant pockets of influence in Tripura, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh Telangana, and Tamil Nadu. They reached their apex in the 2004 general elections when their alliance won 59 seats in the election.
Since the 1990s, however, the communist political movement in India has been on a long-term decline. The parties are now only in power in two states, Kerala and Tripura. They lost power in West Bengal in 2011 and their political fortunes in the states have only deteriorated (In 2016 assembly elections they could only win 32 seats out of a total of 294 seats). Nationally, their performance has also seen a steep decline. The number of seats held by Communist Parties went from 59 in 2004 to a dismal 11 in 2014.
Marx and Indian communists
The decline of Indian communist parties has been attributed to its poor governance while in power, smug leadership, and ideology that does not connect with youth and the middle class. However, even Karl Marx would have predicted that Indian communist parties would not be very successful in postcolonial India. To understand how, a closer look at Marxist economic philosophy is required.
Marx and Engels theorized that capitalist economies would fall one day, and that change will be brought forth by its internal forces and contradictions. This change in economic systems (i.e. say from feudal economy to “bourgeois” economy/industrial economy) occurs because inner tensions within one economic system (feudalism) lead to the next (capitalism).
They noted that human society had gone through different types of modes of production, from Asiatic to ancient to feudal to bourgeois, and predicted that ultimately humans would end up with communism (with socialism as an intermediate step between capitalism and communism). Hence, Marx and Engels saw capitalism as an important step in the way for a society to get to communism. They noted that most Western European nations had transformed from feudal systems to capitalistic systems and saw signs that these industrialized nations would then turn to the most ideal mode of production, communism. Under Marxist theory, for a country to become communist, it has to first be capitalist. Renowned economist Thomas Sowell notes in his book, Marxism, that “Though [Marx] made the criticism of capitalism his life’s work, Marx also saw the ‘transitory necessity for a capitalist mode of production’”
That is perhaps the most important problem with communists in India according to Marx – that a communist movement would not be appropriate in a country where industrial development had not occurred, because they would be skipping a key step in the development of communism. India, for that matter, has not yet become a fully capitalist nation. In the 1950’s, 72 percent of total working population in India was engaged in agriculture and about 50 percent of India’s national income was generated by agriculture and allied sector. Communism is based in the uprising against capitalism, and few Indians would be able to relate to exploitation by the capitalist factory owner if few of them worked in factories. Communism can be heralded only once India becomes a predominantly industrialized country, something that has yet to happen since 53% of the Indian workforce is still in agriculture.
Marx wrote about India in the 1850’s, at the beginning of the British Crown’s rule over the country. Although Marx was against colonialism in theory and criticized the British occupation of India, he also criticized Indian society for being prone to invasion by foreigners and actually preferred that Indians be colonized by British than other powers. He believed that the British invasion would force a change upon the never-changing and outdated Indian society, that the “disruptions caused by British invasion would create a more dynamic social and political order.” His assumption was that this “dynamic social order” would make Indian society more susceptible to economic transitions like the European nations. By painting British invasion of India as a sort of a necessary evil, he was endorsing the introduction of capitalistic systems upon traditional Indian society. If Marx considered capitalism a crucial step in progressing to Communism, it makes sense that he saw British invasion as way to bring capitalism to India.
Under Marx’s theory of economic development, every communist state has to first go through a capitalist phase. Without that crucial step, according to Marx, communism would not be viable. Therefore, if the communist parties, who claim to espouse Marxists ideology, really want to create a communist state in India, they should actually push for pro-capitalist, pro- free trade policies. The new Indian government, elected in 2014, has been one of the most pro-business and pro-free trade government in India. The most vocal opponents of the new government’s economic policy, inside and outside the parliament, have been the communist parties. But if they really believe in the economic ideas of Marx, they should be the most ardent cheerleaders of the government’s economic policies. After all it was Marx who said, “The free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favor of free trade”.