The World Social Forum: What it could mean for the Indian left

by Kunal Chattopadhyay

After three editions in Brazil, the World Social Forum in 2004 will be held in India. For the Indian left, it could have been a great opportunity for rethinking politics. Unfortunately, significant sections think otherwise. So there is the risk of the Forum coming and going, but nothing positive emerging.

For readers outside India, this requires some explanation. The Indian left has a complex character, and an understanding of this is crucial for any attempt to situate the significance of the WSF in Mumbai. The explanation that follows is necessarily schematic, and for Indian readers, it will appear to have omitted much. I can only plead that this is not an essay on the history of the left, but an attempt to bring out certain elements which are needed explain the present situation of the left in India.

The Left in India—Some Background

The left in India developed out of the freedom movement. Militant nationalists who were in favor of armed struggle to overthrow British rule were enthused by the Russian revolution. The Communist Party of India (CPI), first “founded: in Tashkent in 1920, but in reality in 1925, when a number of Communist groups united at a conference in India, was virtually smashed by the Meerut Conspiracy Case of 1929. By the time the party was rebuilt, the grip of Stalinism on the international Communist movement was almost absolute. From then on, Indian Communism knew few of the debates and uncertainties that Communist parties experienced elsewhere.

Attempts were made, by different forces, to form anti-Stalinist parties [beginning mostly in the 1930s]. The three main efforts were: (1) formation of the Revolutionary Socialist Party of India, with a significant input from revolutionary nationalists who did not want to join the CPI but were becoming Marxists; (2) the Revolutionary Communist Party of India, led by Saumyendranath Tagore, who, under a pseudonym, had been a delegate to the Sixth Congress of the Comintern [in 1928], had been impressed by some of the criticisms made by Trotsky and the Left Opposition, and had been expelled for his pains when he tried, back home, to convince his comrades; and (3) the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, the Indian Section of the Fourth International.

A combination of several factors ensured that none of these could become well entrenched as alternatives to the CPI. In the first two parliaments of independent India [independence having been won in 1947], the CPI emerged as the major left-wing opposition. But this success also deepened an electoralist orientation. The supposedly deep theoretical dispute over whether the stage of revolution in India was to be “national democratic” or “people’s democratic,” and whether the section of the “progressive” bourgeoisie with which the working class was to ally itself was of one or the other kind, ultimately could be reduced to a question of which kind of opportunist alliance was to be forged — with so-called left Congress forces (the Indian National Congress being the historic bourgeois party) or with opposition bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties. This resulted in a split [during the 1960s]. However, one component of the split was disagreement over international issues.

The left wing in the CPI, which was critical of the excessive electoralist orientation, falsely identified Khrushchev as the inspirer of this strategy. There was good precedence for this strategy from the Stalin era, notably the People’s Front days of the 1930s and ‘40s. But the role of the Communist Party of China (CCP) was a vital factor. The CCP had the aura of a recently accomplished revolution, and it seemed to be denouncing Khrushchevite revisionism from the left. At the same time, it defended Stalin, and itself developed a “personality cult,” of Mao, which had important consequences in India.

The split in the CPI resulted in the formation of the “right” CPI, which openly advocated an alliance with the progressive national bourgeoisie, but which also had a more democratic (or at least less autocratic) inner party regime. The left split-off, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), was to become the world’s most unreconstructed Stalinist party. But it incorporated in an uneasy alliance two wings — those who wanted accommodation within the capitalist state under somewhat different theoretical premises than the CPI, and those who wanted an armed struggle to overthrow the “comprador-ruled, semi-feudal, semi-colonial state,” as they characterized India. Within a few years, this wing started accusing the other wing of the CPI(M) of being equally revisionist and opportunist, and eventually it split off to form the CPI(ML) and a few other Maoist parties. The spark which led to the split was a peasant uprising in Naxalbari, from which came the name “Naxalites” [a term often used in the press for the Maoists]. The CPI(ML) and the other Maoist groups splintered, united, splintered, and in the process, the original radicalism was lost. Before looking at that history, however, we need to look at a few other sectors of the left.

The Congress Socialist Party (CSP) had been a left-wing formation inside the Congress Party, including some Marxists as well as various other currents. When a successful entry into the CSP by the CPI caused a severe decline in the strength and popularity of the CSP, anti-Communism was added to the ideological mix of the CSP. Eventually, some of its leading lights switched to Gandhism or liberalism, while others developed a concept of “social justice” that strongly emphasized caste issues, partly as a counterpoint to class, and partly in genuine recognition of the specificity of the Indian social formation. Stalinist ideology tended to view caste as an element of “feudalism” and to argue that capitalist development would automatically abolish caste discrimination. The socialists therefore saw in caste oppression both a genuine point whereby common, exploited people could be mobilized, and a point from which the socialists could claim their Indianness and superiority over “Moscow-trained” Communists. However, despite substantial western Social Democratic funding and other forms of help, the Socialists proved to be ineffectual in advancing electorally. This, together with a previous anarchist influence, led to an anti-statist, anti-party tendency among them, which, however, was surprisingly able to remain within CSP structures. After independence, the CSP merged with another party, the KMPP. But they also had a record of splits, forming the SSP (united socialist party) and the PSP.

In the 1967 elections, the ruling Congress Party suffered major blows, and in a number of provincial legislative assemblies it fell short of the halfway mark. But forming governments under such circumstances necessitated left-right alliances, stretching from the Jana Sangh (forerunner of the present ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP) and the right-wing Swatantra Parry to the Socialists and the Communists. Maoist pressure kept the CPI(M) out except where the Jana Sangh and the Swatantra were kept out. The CPI, in contradiction to its own erstwhile theory that the “progressive bourgeoisie” was in the Congress Party, had fewer scruples about joining coalition governments. By and large the experiences were disastrous, with each partner in the coalition pushing its own agenda. But this, and subsequent experiences of short-term governance, also shaped the consciousness of younger generations of cadres in diverse ways. While a new breed of apparatchiks came up, interested only in the realities of power—the likes of Anil Biswas, Biman Bose, and Buddhadev Bhattacharjee of the CPI(M) in West Bengal, for example—others became intensely anti-parliament. In the case of the Maoists, this was encapsulated in the slogans: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”; and “Parliament is a pigsty.”

These Maoists boycotted not only elections, but mass organizations, and called for immediate revolution. Charu Majumdar, the main cult leader of the CPI(ML), even “predicted” that the Indian revolution would be accomplished in the year 1975. Cadres were trained in the politics of annihilating the class enemy. The state hit back with utmost brutality. Thousands were murdered, in fake encounters, in jail killings, in killings organized by the bourgeois and Stalinist parties. For example, in Barranagore-Cossipore, in the suburbs of Calcutta, Congress-backed thugs systematically hunted out Maoists and murdered them while a major escape route was kept blocked by CPI(M) cadres. The arrest and death of Majumdar broke up the CPI(ML).

Every time someone made a bid to argue that there should be more systematic mass work, that there should be trade union activities, or that in a country where elections are so deep-rooted the radical left cannot simply ignore elections, they were denounced as “neo-revisionists” and on occasion murdered. Eventually, by the mid-1990s, there were a few distinct currents. The biggest moderate Maoist group was the CPI(ML) Liberation. In the late 1970s, it had grown in Bihar through organizing armed struggle and by fighting for the rights of agricultural laborers, poor peasants, and dalits (those of the lowest castes, the “untouchables”).

When the CPI(ML) Liberation tried to spread to other provinces, it realized that more sophisticated politics were needed in places where the ruling class was not obliging it by blatant caste violence, etc. In particular, it also realized, after years of denouncing others, that elections could not be simply ignored, nor was it always useful to call for a boycott of elections. But when it made the turn, it took over many of the typical habits of Stalinism in India. Thus, instead of fighting within existing unions for class struggle orientations, it quickly floated its own “Central” Union, the All India Coordinating Committee of Trade Unions (AICCTU). This of course provides certain advantages — e.g., getting invited to meetings at the all-India level, getting access to ILO contacts, and so on, in a way that radical forces inside a different central union might not get.

But such small advantages are far outweighed by the fact that this so-called revolutionary unionism brings one more split into the fragmented trade union movement. Indeed, even where independent unitary unions were built, cadres of the CPI(ML) Liberation often acted to split the unions in the interest of affiliating a fragment to the AICCTU.

By the late 1990s, the CPI(ML) Liberation had indeed spread somewhat. But its real mobilizational power remained restricted to Bihar, and to Assam, where it had incorporated the Karbi Anglong movement. Its one MP came from Assam. In West Bengal, it proved to be a damp squib. In particular, its pretension of being an electoral alternative to the CPI(M) proved to be a total joke, with a large portion of its candidates in municipal elections getting votes in two figures. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous province, it tried to make headway by allying with the bourgeois party of Mulayam Singh Yadav, at one stage defense minister in the United Front government, especially in the petty bourgeois milieu of student politics, which remains its major recruiting ground in the cities.

Another major Maoist pole that developed was the threesome — CPI(ML) People’s War Group, or PWG; CPI(ML) Party Unity, or PU; and the Maoist Communist Center (MCC). These are the three main forces still insisting on the original armed struggle line, annihilation of the class enemy, and so on. Despite internecine turf wars among themselves, two of them, the PWG and the PU, united to form the CPI(ML) PW. These forces are extremely opportunistic. Since, according to their analysis, all other parties are bourgeois parties in the service of one or another fraction of a comprador bourgeoisie, they feel free to make any short-term alliance with any party against any other. So they make short-term alliances with various bourgeois parties in order to get footholds in different areas. In West Bengal, for example, where the CPI(M) is in power, at one stage they allied with the CPI(M), and at another stage with the right-wing regional party, the Trinamool Congress, which is a part of the BJP-led central government regime. They also use murderous violence in order to establish their control over different areas. The fact that there are extensive areas in India where even the twentieth century has hardly penetrated till now, however, gives their line of armed resistance and “protection” a seeming attraction to oppressed poor peasants and ethnic groups.

From Penetrating Society to Building NGOs

But from the mid-1970s, new developments were taking place, both within the Maoist and the Socialist milieus. In Gujarat, the radicalizing youth launched a non-party movement called Nav Nirman (New Construction). Only a very small wing became Marxists. Others imbibed ideologies of different types and came up with basically a rejection of the party system, a determination to work within civil society for social transformation, and to fight for civil liberties. The long terror unleashed, first in West Bengal to smash the Maoists and the CPI(M), and then all over India during the one and a half year of dictatorial government by Indira Gandhi, increased the commitment to civil liberties.

Many Maoist cadres, for their part, found that in order to gain the confidence of the people, it was necessary to do something other than simply preach armed struggle — except in pockets where the level of oppression was such that armed struggle was the only road to even the faintest of reforms. Finally, from the 1970s, a series of new social movements were developing: feminism; the dalit movement (a renewed movement among the lowest castes against caste oppression); struggles of tribal peoples where tribal survival rights and environmental issues were inextricably mixed (for example, whether the tiger should be saved simply by driving out tribal populations from their long-standing areas and occupations, or whether in the name of development forests should be cut down with effects on both the ecology and the tribal way of life, as in the Chipco movement); a significant anti-nuclear movement; a growing health movement involving both radicals in medical jobs and ordinary people who felt they had a right to know what was being done to them as well as a right to a minimum of decent health care, and so on. What was common to these movements was a deep suspicion of the purely electoralist orientation of all parties, including the mainstream left parties.

New movements called forth new organizations, or breathed life into old ones. And there were inevitable conflicts, some common the world over, some specific to the Indian situation, between old mass organizations and parties, on the one hand, and the new organizations. This was to result in the formation of a new type of radical milieu. The movements stressed autonomy, identity, and participatory democracy. By autonomy they meant that the movement must be independent of state control as well as control by any other external force — including political parties. The stress on identity was a response to all overarching claims that sought to subsume distinct struggles under a hegemonic banner. This included nationalism as well as the claim that the resolution of the class struggle would solve all other issues in passing.

At the same time, since many of the activists were members of the radical parties, this created a contradiction. They seemed to be living in two worlds. As a leading Trotskyist and feminist activist of the 1970s and 1980s, Vibhuti Patel, once told me, “I spend time telling my comrades in the party that feminism cannot be treated as a separatist movement and that the struggle for women’s liberation cannot be postponed till the socialist revolution is achieved; and I keep telling my friends in the women’s movement that the struggle for women’s liberation cannot be won unless we link it to the class struggle.” This was from a Trotskyist, a member of an organization that had more than a formal commitment to women’s liberation.


Every new form of struggle of the oppressed faced this problem. In some cases there were breakaway parties, like the Satya Shodhak Communist Party, a breakaway group from the CPI(M) which stressed that there was a need to link caste and class struggles in India. In many more cases, however, individual cadres of left parties, whether the mainstream or more often the Maoist left, as well as youth influenced by Lohiaite views about caste oppression [that is, those who followed the views of the late Ram Manohar Lohia, a socialist leader who stressed caste struggles], plus Jay Prakash Narayan’s ideas about partyless democracy, turned to forming new types of organizations, either after dropping their party memberships, or retaining that membership, but keeping two distinct identities.

A whole series of voluntary organizations were formed at that time. Initially, these were formed by radicals who thought they would be carrying on the class struggle, the caste liberation struggle, the women’s liberation struggle, etc., through these means. So these were open and democratic organizations. However, many of these groups soon found that there was a need to organize services, to work in such a manner within civil society that some self-help could be arranged, and so on. This meant the transformation of the structure of the organization. Willy-nilly, it was now working within civil society while accepting the existing social and political framework, especially the state. It was now making demands upon the state for reforms. This did not make the movement, or those sectors of the movement, automatically reformist. But this did pose serious questions before the Marxists working within those organizations or in those movements about what they should do in order to raise within every partial movement the historic, long-term goals of struggle, and what the appropriate ways of doing that should be.

This was where several problems converged. The first problem was simply a problem of funding. A mass movement finances itself — often badly, sometimes a little better, with contributions from active members as well as less active sympathisers. But when the focus shifts to building a special apparatus, such as a documentation center, or a shelter for battered women, or a literacy center (in effect, an alternative educational structure), there is always a pressure and a temptation to look beyond these sources. Badly printed booklets do not serve the cause of literacy and post-literacy continuing education well, nor do ill-paid volunteer medical workers or ill-paid “full-timers” serve the cause of any health or other movement for long. Sheer survival needs will drive many of them elsewhere. Back in the late 1970s, the aims were quite modest. It seemed quite a lot to offer 400 rupees per month to (about $40 then) for a volunteer full-timer to go and work in a remote rural area, such as Jharkhand. But even this fund was not easily obtainable.

So there began a search for funds, which led to a transformation of many of the voluntary organizations. In many of the cases this led back to the Indian state, under the claim that the state has the constitutional duty of providing for many services to the people, so there is nothing wrong with insisting that this be done partly though these voluntary organizations. In other cases there were linkages formed with like-minded people abroad, especially in the First World, and funding often came from them. However, once this funding began, and a definite structure came into existence, new dynamics began taking over. Regular funding became, from a partial goal, the central object of the fund-receiving organization. The search for donors steadily became more indiscriminate. And eventually, this meant a softening of the political stance. This happened in ways which are not unique to India. On one hand, donors began insisting on conditions to be fulfilled, and on the other hand, they began making funds more easily available for certain types of projects rather than certain other types.

International agencies like the United Nations and its various organizations played an important role in this process. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a dramatic change. The small voluntary organization which was linked to the mass movement still existed, but it was increasingly elbowed out by a chain, which ran from international donor agencies to large donor organizations in India with headquarters in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, etc., on to local offices or smaller NGOs in big cities, and through them to lesser NGOs in small towns, rural areas, or in working class or pauperized sectors of the big cities. And the entire language of the bulk of the NGOs had shifted. They tended to view the masses whom their activities served as “beneficiaries.” A clear hierarchy had sprung up. Behind the continuing veneer of participatory democracy, the reality was one of a steadily growing bureaucratization. In addition, NGOs, even when totally honest and dedicated, fostered relations of dependency.

Anti-globalization and Different Responses

Much of this is probably duplicated elsewhere. But the Indian left milieu is also marked by a considerable insularity. Relatively little about India gets reported in the West, and Indians in turn often get to know only about some few movements and struggles abroad. In part this is because the ex-Stalinist left in India, now half settled into a social democratic mold, albeit with organizational patterns that serve as reminders of their origins, retains a few set priorities. The Palestinian cause, for example, gets fairly strong coverage, as does Cuba solidarity. But the whole implication of the rise of the PT (the Workers Party, in Brazil), its subsequent turn to the right, with Lula accepting IMF terms, along with the complicated dynamics of Lula getting elected, and so on, has had no resonance in India. (Parenthetically, the present author found this out recently while trying to get signatures for a petition supporting the left wing of the PT.)

Also, the bulk of the Indian left took a stand rather uncritically in favor of Milosevic, while another wing, later on, in calling Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, architect of a massive pogrom of Muslims in 2002 the “Milosevic of India,” showed that they had adopted some of the U.S.-sponsored rhetoric.

The degree of insularity is best understood by looking at the early stages of the anti-globalization struggles. At the time of Seattle, there were very few public demonstrations on the day in India. During the Prague events in 2000, in Calcutta, Protest Initiative, a left regroupment effort involving the Inquilabi Communist Sangathan (West Bengal State Committee) (the ICS is the Indian Section of the Fourth International), the Majdoor Mukti Committee, the Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha (Forum Against Oppression of Women), the Sramajeevi Mahila Samity (Women Workers’ Association), the Indian Rationalist Association, and others organized a daylong program. But the mainstream left did not mobilize; nor did the CPI(ML) Liberation, which claims to be the real pole for an alternative left but which in fact is shifting simply to occupy the left reformist spot vacated by the CPI(M) as it becomes a servant of capitalist neoliberalism.

Two events have since then served to turn the bulk of the left around. One is the Asian Social Forum, held in Hyderabad in 2002, and the other is the global protest against the war in Iraq. Even the most insular of forces could not but be impressed by the depth of worldwide antiwar, anti-imperialist sentiments expressed in February–March 2003. However, the CPI(M) moved swiftly once it realized the potential, only in order to kill it off. Cashing in on the feelings of unity and nonpartisan mobilization, it organized a central program which had only slogans on the U.S.-British intervention in Iraq, and which in the name of unity did not allow others to have their own slogans, their own posters, analyses, etc.

In particular, there was a flat rejection of all attempts to bracket the regimes of India and Pakistan as twin warmongers and right-wing nuclear hawks, showing the ambivalence that has always marked the CPI(M)’s nuclear policy. It had always supported the India government’s policy of keeping the nuclear option open. When the Pokharan II nuclear tests were conducted, it rushed to protect the Indian scientists (led by current President of India A.P.J. Abdul Kalam) for their achievement, as though today, when the basic scientific principles and technologies of nuclear power and weapons are so well known, the achievement can in any way be detached from the explicitly warlike purpose. On the question of Kashmir, during the Kargil War (1999), the CPI(M)-led Left Front government of West Bengal broke up demonstrations and arrested peace marchers.

So the imposition of this artificial unity had the effect of stifling voices of protest. Many trade unions accepted this, because their leaders, themselves often CPI or CPI(M) activists, argued that imperialism is the principal contradiction, so all other issues should be subordinated to the anti-imperialist struggle.

An attempt was made to organize a second major pole, where all would be allowed to come with their own banners and leaflets, so long as they agreed to two central slogans — opposing imperialist aggression in Iraq, and opposing warmongering by India and Pakistan. This time the effort was torpedoed by a most unlikely combination. The CPI(ML) Peoples War does not function openly as a party, but only through front organizations. It, as well as the front organization of the MCC, joined hands with the West Bengal state unit of the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements to scuttle the bid to form an inclusive bloc by arguing that neither political parties nor NGOs should form part of the alliance. Their plea to exclude parties played on the anti-party sentiment of many people, but had the ulterior motive of excluding those organizations which openly function as parties while allowing their own front groups full freedom. The National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements is of course a different type of network. It was initiated by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Campaign, one of India’s best-known pro-toiler environmentalist organizations) and it includes diverse mass organizations as well as NGOs. For the NAPM, or even for one of its units, to flatly reject working with NGOs on the ground that they are agents of imperialism, was a surprising stand, reflecting more likely the personal stand of a few leading members of the state unit. As a result, several small initiatives developed, and none could be sustained for long.

As for the CPI(M)-led initiative, it observed a big “Day” and a big weeklong program, and then fizzled out, because it had not been interested in allowing the development of popular initiatives but of channeling them into a rigid bureaucratic structure. Outside West Bengal, with the CPI(M) lacking the twin forces of governmental power and the huge size of its West Bengal party apparatus, such dominant roles have not been played by any force. But while all forces have sought to mobilize against the war, the splits have been repeated. Basically, three loose poles have developed — the mainstream left (and sometimes the CPI(ML) Liberation along with it); the armed struggle camp and other sectarians who tag along with them; and a more mixed bag, including non-Stalinist left forces, some NGOs, some independent trade unions, and others (the NAPM West Bengal State unit’s action did not reflect the general politics of the NAPM, as I commented earlier).

Mobilizations over globalization saw a similar divide. For the mainstream left, ensconced in power for over a quarter of century in the province of West Bengal, it is not capitalist globalization per se that is bad, but the effort by imperialism to corner the gains of this globalization. In consonance with this stance, the mainstream left parties, notably the CPI(M), have welcomed private sector investments and have sought to show that they are capable of playing a balancing role between labor and capital. But the reality is one of surrender to globalization disguised under much rhetoric. Government funding for education and health, never a fantastic amount, has declined, including in West Bengal.

The West Bengal government has now stated clearly that it will no longer pay the salaries of teachers appointed to new posts in colleges. In schools, a school service commission has been set up to centralize appointments. This has two effects — it ensures that a fair sprinkling of party cadre get jobs — the West Bengal equivalent of the Nomenklatura — and it slows down the entire process of appointments, in effect cutting down employment in the educational sector.

At the college level, university rules state that any college, in order to open a full-fledged department offering honours courses, must have at least four teachers. But the government has sanctioned, in dozens of colleges, and all told in hundreds of departments, either one or two teachers. Colleges have been told that if they need more posts, they should appoint teachers on contract, at fixed salaries, and without such things as continuity of service, accumulated leave, retirement benefits, and so on. But even this salary can only be paid by hiking tuition fees from the present level (between 50 and 70 rupees per month) to several tens of thousands of rupees per year.

In hospitals, free services have been drastically cut, and the quality of the remaining free services have become such that they can lead to the demise of the recipient. Though the population of Calcutta has grown massively, in 25 years of Left Front rule no new government hospital has been opened. The government has also been moving slowly but definitely toward curbing dissent. It has freely used the terrorist tag against its opponents. And it has displayed its commitment to globalization by turning against even reformist trade union struggles for concessions for the workers, even while at the all-India level the CPI(M) continues to mouth platitudes about the rights of workers. Government efforts on environmental protection show the same upper class orientation. Several thousand people were driven out of their “illegal” shantytown dwellings, and in one case the entire massive shantytown was “accidentally” set on fire. Activists of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights, as well as other organizations like those fighting for the ousted residents, were arrested. In rural West Bengal, in the name of combating Maoism and “separatism,” a horrifying level of violence has been unleashed, justified before the bourgeois media, and thereby substantially hushed up.

Nonetheless, the CPI(M) despite its rightward-moving trajectory, cannot simply turn its back on the working class. Its main electoral and social base remains the working class and the rural poor. So it has adapted to the anti-globalization struggles. It was one of the key players in organizing the Asian Social Forum at Hyderabad. Formally the party was absent. But with a plethora of party-controlled mass fronts packing the arrangements, there was no problem with CPI(M) leaders getting ample space at the Forum. At the same time, by taking a stand supporting the exclusion of parties, they made sure that smaller left parties did not get much space.

The CPI(M) and the CPI continue to be important actors in organizing the upcoming World Social Forum in Mumbai, and it is desirable that such forces are part of the WSF. The point is, they have shown that, on the one hand, they will use their strength to push out other forces as far as possible. And on the other hand, they will try to use the WSF as a platform to mask their actual surrender to neoliberalism.

The NGO sector is of course well represented, even overrepresented at the WSF. And many of the NGOs do not even realize that their agenda turns them into safety nets for capitalism, not instruments of struggle. But at the same time, there are plenty of NGOs that take a different, and more radical, stand. But the mainstream left and the bulk of the radical left are dead set against all NGOs. Two recent attacks on the WSF display this. During the Asian Social Forum, the CPI(ML) PW called for a boycott and a counter-program. This time too, they have been trying to set up an alternative called Mumbai Resistance.

Ultraleft and Sectarian Attacks on the World Social Forum and the Brazilian Workers Party— their partial validity and ultimate failure

An ideological think tank connected to some Maoist groups in India has come out with a publication asserting that the WSF is a creation of imperialism. In a nutshell, the following is a summary of the points made by the publication entitled The Economics and Politics of the World Social Forum: Lessons for the Struggle against ‘Globalization’” by the Research Unit for Political Economy (RUPE):

A militant protest movement against the depredations of international capital came to the fore at the December 1999 Seattle conference of the World Trade Organization, and raged for one and a half years thereafter.

Failing to curb this movement by open force, imperialism sought a political strategy.

It was in this context that the WSF was initiated by ATTAC, a French NGO platform devoted to lobbying international financial institutions to reform and humanize themselves, and by the Brazilian Workers Party, whose leftist image and “participatory” techniques of government have not prevented it from scrupulously implementing the stipulations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The WSF meetings in Brazil for the past three years have tapped the widespread, inarticulate yearning for another social system. However, the very principles and structure of the WSF ensure that it will not evolve into a platform of people’s action and power against imperialism.

In the WSF, decisions are controlled by a handful of organizations, many of them with considerable financial resources and ties to the very countries which control the existing world order.

The WSF gatherings are structured to give prominence to celebrities of the NGO world, who propagate the NGO worldview. Thus, in all the talk about “alternatives,” the spotlight remains on alternative policies within the existing system, rather than a change of the very system itself.

Not only does the WSF as a body receive funds from agencies which are tied to imperialist interests and operations, but innumerable bodies participating in the WSF too are dependent on agencies like the Ford Foundation.

“Globalization,” a misleading word for the current onslaught by imperialism, can be resisted, and even defeated, by a combination of struggles at various levels, in various countries, in various forms; and forces fighting “globalization” will need to join hands in struggle against it. However, a careful analysis reveals that the World Social Forum is not an instrument of such struggle. It is a diversion from it.

The picture presented by the RUPE, as summarized above, is substantially unreal. Of course imperialism will inevitably try to penetrate any movement. There are radicals who, while opposing imperialism, do not even take time to think whether they should criticize the Taliban. Their grounds are that the Taliban are actually fighting the U.S. Activists on the extremist fringe of Maoism have expressed anger over people’s failure to solidarize with the Taliban. What they did not mention was that they and the U.S. had both supported the Taliban once upon a time, against the secular Soviet-backed regime. It was a serious mistake, even a crime, for the USSR to have invaded Afghanistan. But revolutionary developments in Afghanistan, especially the government of Taraki, preceded the Soviet invasion, and the period that began with the 1978 revolution (which brought the Taraki regime to power) was the one in Afghan history when social progress was achieved in some measure. Imperialism opposed that regime, and funded diverse Islamic fundamentalist groups, all in the name of the right to self-determination and democracy. When imperialism fell out with the Taliban they in turn were attacked.

The same radicals who support the Taliban are now turning their guns against the WSF, guided by the hoary old Maoist conception of “the principal contradiction” and “the principal aspect of the principal contradiction” (derived from Mao’s essay On Contradiction). When so-called “social imperialism” (the Soviet bureaucracy and its allies) was considered the main enemy, Maoists were willing to support a Taliban-U.S. alliance. Today, having woken up after the collapse of the bureaucratized workers’ states to the reality of U.S. imperialism, they are under the impression that only by building a front of the “pure” can they resist imperialist penetration of social movements.

In fact, this shows their utter failure to understand social reality. Imperialism is not something standing outside society. We live in a capitalist world, and every mass movement will be tainted by capitalism and its ideology, especially in its early stages. Marx’s method was not to argue that Communists should enter into no movement unless it was led from the beginning by them. Rather, he stressed that Communists should enter real movements and gain influence within them. The rise of the NGOs was, in India as well as elsewhere, often due to the manipulative and bureaucratic politics of the Maoists. It is surprising that even some civil liberties activists in India, like the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights, take the position that they will not collaborate with any NGO, because all NGOs are funded, ergo, agents of imperialism.

There are two souls of the NGOs, as we discussed earlier. On one hand they represent a desire to break out of the entirely party-dominated political culture, a desire to find or create space within civil society. On the other hand they also reveal major weaknesses — not merely because they are funded organizations, but also because, as single issue organizations, overall social transformation as an idea gets diluted, and struggle for a very specific aim takes such precedence that as long as that specific goal will be advanced, they are often willing to settle happily for lobbying bourgeois politicians and capitalists. The 65,000 whom I witnessed at the European Social Forum were mostly young, mostly committed to radical social transformation. The over 20,000 who thronged to Hyderabad likewise contained many who desire real social change. The way forward consists of trying to seriously link up with their concerns and, to paraphrase the Communist Manifesto, of raising within these struggles the historic goals of the toiling people.

On the Brazilian Workers Party, or PT

The attack on the PT is also a sleight of hand. It is particularly easy in India, where few have any idea about the kind of party the PT is, or of the tendency struggles in it. For Indian readers mainly, let me therefore summarize briefly the complexities of the PT, as well as the meaning of its participation in the WSF. The PT is a new working class party. By new, I mean it was founded in 1980. It was the result of class struggle proletarian currents deciding in Brazil that the old left was not good enough, and that they needed a new party of the working class, looking neither to the Moscow bureaucrats nor the Peking bureaucrats, nor to national capitalism. Radical forces, particularly Trotskyists, played an important role inside the PT. They included the Brazilian section of the Fourth International, the current known as the Socialist Democracy Tendency (SDT). There were also others, like the International Workers League, whose comrades are no longer inside the PT, but have a fairly strong radical left party named PSTU outside the PT. The SDT, by contrast, decided to continue working within the PT and played an important role in shaping the structure of the PT, including its internal democracy, the right of organized tendencies to exist, their right to be represented in leadership bodies in accordance with the proportion of votes received at the national Congresses of the PT, and so on.

Seven slates competed at the November 1999 PT Congress. Their relative strength was shown by the votes they received in the election for the National Directorate (DN). Listed in descending vote order, the five main slates were:

Democratic Revolution, the leadership slate, grouped around the Articulation Tendency of PT union leader and presidential candidate Luis Inácio (Lula) da Silva and PT President José (Zé) Dirceu, with 44 percent of the votes;

Socialism or Barbarism, grouped around Left Articulation, the largest left tendency in the PT, with 21 percent of the votes;

PT Movement, the self-proclaimed “center” slate, with 13 percent of the votes;

Our Time, the left slate grouped around the SDT, with 10 percent of the votes; and

Radical Democracy, the right slate, with 8 percent of the votes.

This internal democracy, and respect for the rights of differing tendencies, marks off the PT from both the CPI(M)-style left, which steamrolls internal opposition, and the Maoists, who go into the fission mode whenever differences occur.

Participatory democracy was a concept that emerged from the left wing of the PT. It had its limitations. The clearest limitation is the transformation of a partial solution into a final solution. But if we take the most advanced pre-Stalinist socialist experience—that is, the experience of Soviets, or workers’ councils—we should recognize that in today’s world that model is inadequate in a number of ways. A purely workplace-based setup would leave out huge numbers of proletarian and semi-proletarian masses. At the same time, some Trotskyists evidently had an overenthusiastic view of the participatory budget. As Adam Novak wrote in International Viewpoint several years ago:

“These policies are underpinned and reinforced by the expansion of the participatory budget from Porto Alegre [the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, where the PT has headed the municipal government since 1989] and the other municipal PT strongholds to the state administration. The process has been surprisingly successful, and is already transforming the relationship between the state and society.

“The participatory budget process is based on open public meetings at the local level. These establish local priorities for government spending, and elect delegates to a regional level, which discusses in greater detail. State officials provide assistance and information, but have no vote in the assembly, which approves and supervises implementation of the final budget…”

But the most lasting contribution of the PT project in Rio Grande do Sul may prove to be its reappropriation of democracy as a fundamentally progressive concept. According to Ubiratan de Souza, “The participatory budget combines direct democracy with representative democracy — which is one of humanity’s greatest conquests, and which should be preserved and developed. As we strive to deepen the democracy of human society, representative democracy is necessary, but insufficient. It is more important than ever before that we combine it with a wide variety of forms of direct democracy, where the citizen can not only participate in public administration, but also control the state. The participatory budget in Porto Alegre and the process of implementing a participatory budget at the level of Rio Grande do Sul state are concrete examples of direct democracy.”

The participatory budget in Rio Grande do Sul was undoubtedly an important learning experience for the workers and others who participated in the process. It undoubtedly contributed to the participants’ understanding of economic and political questions and their desire for more control over the decisions that affect their lives. And this concept was not developed by those who would ultimately surrender meekly to the IMF. However, as long as the state apparatus remains in the hands of the capitalists, the extension of democracy to direct democracy would not be as massive a change as Novak seems to have imagined. There would be a necessary conflict between the aspirations of the toiling people assembled in the participatory budget’s discussion processes, and the demands of the IMF, of imperialism, of Brazilian big capital and the central banking system.

As Lula, the historic leader of the PT, came closer to victory by 2002, this contradiction became evident. And Lula chose adjustment with capitalism. For the left wing, it was a difficult choice. They could not give up the PT before the masses supporting the PT could be convinced. So they fought for an alternative line within the PT. As several SDT leaders explained in articles and speeches, including at a conference where this author was present, it was an agonizing choice, which they made because they had been in the PT from the beginning, they had contributed hugely to the building of this party, and they could not afford to turn their backs on it until a significant part of the working class also decided that there was a need to fight Lula. In other words, it was the choice that radicals inside mass parties have often faced. They could not afford to look sectarian in the eyes of the very masses they were trying to convince.

This left wing is very underrepresented inside parliament — which is once again historically the usual case. In the first critical vote, when a right-winger was appointed governor of the Brazilian Central Bank, Senator Heloisa Helena (of the SDT) did not vote for him. By the time Lula moved in for gutting the pension funds, a few more MPs had joined her in opposing the PT leadership’s rightward drift. And instead of walking out of the PT, Helena is systematically criticizing Lula, forcing the PT right into expelling her, thereby showing in an exemplary manner to the Brazilian working class that the PT leaders have moved away from their origins.

By flattening out the differences in the PT, by pretending that the authors of the participatory budget and the authors of the current course of the Brazilian regime are one and the same, the RUPE article does not provide a really serious basis for understanding the PT experience. To recapitulate, the key positive aspects of the PT experience are: the rise of the PT on the basis of class struggle [at a time of mass strikes, led by Lula’s union, against the Brazilian military dictatorship in the late 1970s]; the construction of the PT as a democratic working class party, clearly committed, at least in its early period, to socialism; and the important role of the radical left within it. That radical left might prove to be a hybrid left-centrist current, if we use a now not very much understood jargon, which means forces straddling revolutionary socialist and reformist politics, taking one step left and the next one right. The PT participation in the WSF, till Lula’s election, did not represent a reformist attempt at cooptation of radicalizing tendencies, but a democratic attempt at creating space for radicalism beyond Brazilian boundaries as well.

As outsiders to the WSF process, the RUPE ideologues and their cothinkers use labels on those who do participate in the WSF. It is certainly true that huge numbers of reformist, or nonrevolutionary, organizations participate in the Social Forums. They include well-meaning reform-minded groups like those fighting for housing for all, and so on, to sheer cranks. But on November 9, 2002, when Florence was brought to a standstill by a million-strong demonstration against the planned imperialist war on Iraq, that too was associated with the European Social Forum, the European regional version of the WSF. It was quite an experience to be marching in that demonstration! Are we to suppose that those who called that march are also subtle agents of imperialism? In that case, at least they provide more support to the revolutionary cause by such huge mobilizations than anything they provide imperialism.

But there is a point in the criticisms of RUPE, or of the Gujarat-based members of the Inquilabi Communist Sangathan (ICS). The latter issued a statement, falsely in the name of the entire Indian Section of the Fourth International, though they had not discussed it with anyone from outside Baroda, and not even with all their Baroda comrades. This intervention was simply one that stressed the undemocratic character of keeping political parties at arm’s length. There are real problems here. The RUPE essay similarly takes on the WSF because it excludes forces that use individual terrorism (in a somewhat different formulation). This does rule out some forces on the radical left. At the same time, some of the arguments are disingenuous. Forces like the Communist Party of the Philippines, or the PW or MCC in India, have used violence indiscriminately. They have murdered other left activists in their turf wars. Unless they show a real willingness to have dialogues with other types of radicals, unless they are serious about pluralism and wider democracy, it is difficult to see how others on the left can provide them with much space.

The leaflet of the Baroda ICS is different. It represents the kind of flag-waving sectarianism that has no positive content. The PW, while opposing the WSF, has been trying to mobilize forces. The leaflet under discussion simply lectures activists about how central to social change a revolutionary party is. This kind of sterile and abstract lecture is useless. Unless radical parties or would-be radical parties can play serious roles as builders of mass struggles, of feminist struggles, of environmentalist struggles, in the Indian context of anti-communalist and dalit-liberation struggles, and unless they can rework their concepts of class struggle and revolutionary party to ensure that these dimensions are properly represented, they will remain armchair revolutionaries. The Baroda group that has issued the leaflet has been doing its best to push out the most important trade union activists, environmental activists, feminist activists, etc., from its fold because these activists refuse to allow “Marxist” experts who have no experience of the actual struggles to dictate to them how they should function in the mass movements.

If we expect the WSF itself to become the focal point for anti-imperialist struggles, we would be suffering from illusions. But if we think that we can ignore this, one of the world’s major anti-imperialist gatherings, we would simply be handing the thing over to reformist politicians. They come in droves. They come as CPI(M) leaders, and as European Social Democrats. And by the way, it is not quite correct that parties can have no role. One of the key debates around the European Social Forum was over whether and how to build a party of the European left, and the temperature suddenly mounted in Florence when the representatives of the French Communist Party and of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, French Section of the Fourth International, crossed swords. The WSF is a real event. Revolutionaries have to go in there, be a part of the real movement, and thereby seek to influence others in the movement. Forces like the NAPM, and others, have clearly taken a dual-track approach, building the movement and at the same time criticizing the NGO dependence. This alone shows the way ahead. Will the Indian left grasp this unique opportunity?