People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 44

October 31, 2010


The Choice before the Maoists


Prabhat Patnaik



THE Maoist leadership has claimed that it had nothing to do with the Jnaneshwari Express accident that killed 150 persons. Let us take their word for it. But this also means that those who caused the sabotage, while nominally belonging to the ranks of the Maoists, were acting on their own. Nobody commits such a heinous crime against innocent people, unless the person is psychologically distanced from the victims, ie, unless the victims are perceived as belonging to “the other”, an amorphous mass against whom one is supposedly antagonistically arrayed. And it was not one or two individuals who were involved in the crime, but a whole organised group. We are in short in the presence of “identity politics” of the most violent kind. Underneath the veneer of “Maoism” we are witnessing a particularly vicious form of “identity politics.”


This is not necessarily to suggest that the Maoist leadership, in a conscious fashion, is merely promoting “identity politics”. As Marxists we must be totally opposed to the perspective of the Maoists, who, if ever successful, will, in a conscious fashion, foist upon this country a one-Party dictatorship that is the very anti-thesis of socialism (no matter how unavoidable it might have been in history) and that, in the Indian society in particular, which apotheosizes inequality, negates the only revolutionary gain the people have ever achieved, viz. one-person-one-vote; but let us deliberately refrain from accusing the Maoist leadership of conceptually privileging identity over class politics. Nor should identity politics of all hues be anathema for us. For super-oppressed groups like the tribal population, not taking cognizance of “identity” makes a mockery of all politics. All class politics must also reckon with their “identity”.


But while class politics can have room for reckoning with “identity”, there is no route from identity politics to class politics. The idea “let us start organising the tribal people and then we shall move on to organising workers and peasants” can never work. At that point of transition, if not much earlier, there will be an inevitable  rupture between the militant advocates of identity politics and those who wish to merge it into class politics. In the case of the Maoists, the sabotage of Jnaneshwari Express is a portent of this rupture.


Some may question the fundamental distinction that we have drawn between “class politics” and “identity politics”. They would argue that since “class” too is a form of “identity” (we talk after all of “class identity”), there is no distinction between “class politics” and “identity politics”, that class politics only holds one particular form of identity, viz. “class identity”, to be more important than other identities, but does not entail any qualitative difference in the form of politics that is followed.


This position however is wrong. “Class politics” holds one form of particular “identity” more important than others for a very specific reason, namely that the entire ensemble of institutions underlying class society, in the present case capitalism, gives it  a direction of movement which reproduces the underlying class relations , that class is not just one particular way, among a host of possible ways, of classifying or categorising the population; it is part of an understanding of systemic dynamics in a way that no other categorisation by identity is. Class in short stands apart from all other identities.


This is also why “class identity” is over-riding: since class relations are spontaneously, ie, in a self-propelled manner, reproduced through this dynamics, since the class society has immanent tendencies that produce wealth at pole and destitution at the other, a necessary condition for liberation for anyone who is part of class society, no matter what other identity that person has, is liberation from class exploitation, through a change in the institutional structure that underlies it.




It follows then that class politics is concerned with a change in institutions. While identity politics holds that “exploitation” of one social group by another can be overcome by changing their relative power, and hence talks exclusively of “us-versus-them”, with the aim of making “us” more powerful compared to “them” (or making “us” acquire the power that “they” have), as the solution to “exploitation”, “class politics” aims to bring about a fundamental change in institutions, especially those institutions which are summarised under the term “relations of production”.


The enemy according to class politics is not a particular group of persons (though in the concrete conditions of struggle a particular group of persons is invariably targeted, as in a war), but a set of relations of production. The distinction between power or force as the  source of “exploitation”, whence follows identity politics, and the underlying relations of production as the source of “exploitation”, whence follows class politics, was made by Friedrich Engels in Anti-Duhring. This distinction is crucial, and it follows from this distinction that class politics alone can be system-transcending in a manner that identity politics can never be.


It also follows that class politics can be inclusive precisely because it does not see the conflict in terms of one social group versus another, while identity politics is exclusionary because it believes the opposite. This is the reason why a transition from identity politics to class politics is not possible, without identity politics obliterating itself; and while some practitioners of identity politics may wish to make such a transition, others will oppose it with an even more virulent and exclusionary assertion of identity politics, outflanking them through their apparently greater militancy that makes an even stronger appeal to the group’s identity.


The objective of class politics, which aims to be system-transcending, is to polarise society at each moment of time into two camps: “the camp of the people” and the “camp of the enemies of the people” (to use Mao Zedong’s words), with the latter kept as small as possible through political praxis. Class politics therefore is necessarily about forming united fronts, about uniting as many people as possible at any given moment in the “camp of the people”. But identity politics is by nature not system-transcending: it is either reformist (to get more benefits for the identified group), or secessionist (often the case with oppressed groups), or in extreme cases downright fascist (demanding ethnic cleansing). For it to merge into class politics, as we have seen, it must negate itself as identity politics, and while some may be willing to do so, others in the movement will not be. This inevitably leads to ruptures and attempts to garner mass support (within the identified group) through acts of even greater mindless militancy. The recent happenings within the Gorkha movement are instructive in this respect.




This exclusionary nature of identity politics makes most such movements unthreatening from the point of view of imperialism (except of course those directly aimed against imperialism itself, and even in their case it is more a nuisance, even a serious nuisance, than a real threat). Indeed in India recently the central government has made extremely skilful use of political formations based on identity politics to push its neo-liberal agenda.        


But the precise course of development of movements based on identity politics does not concern us here. The basic point is that while class politics can and must reckon with certain forms of identity, class politics cannot be approached via identity. (A possible exception is where the two more or less coincide, ie, the classes that must constitute the “camp of the people” have the same identity; but this, which is relevant in the context of national liberation struggles for instance, is not germane here). The fact that let alone moving from one to the other, even the mixing of the two can be problematical is underscored by the experience of the Marxist Co-ordination Committee of AK Roy which had combined for a while with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha; the combination came apart and the subsequent history of the JMM is all too well-known.


Hence even leaving aside questions of whether the Maoist vision of the future society is a desirable one or not (in my view not), and whether even if it were desirable it could be achieved through the mode of struggle adopted by them, which glorifies armed struggle and abjures all forms of political activity possible within the Indian polity, there remains a basic problem: the impossibility of moving to class politics from identity politics.


It may of course be argued that the Maoists never had a choice in the matter. Driven out of Andhra Pradesh they had to regroup wherever they could. The tribal belt of Central India is where they could seek refuge; they had therefore to adjust to its ethos, which pushed them into a tribal identity politics.


But this argument is both irrelevant and erroneous. It is irrelevant because what is under discussion is their present predicament and not how they got to it; and if their predicament is seen as the outcome of the logic of their praxis, then that praxis has to be critiqued from the perspective of this predicament. Above all however this argument is erroneous, because there is always a choice, and a rectification in praxis can always be made.


When the Indian armed forces had marched into the erstwhile Hyderabad state to put an end to the Nizam’s rule, against which the Telengana peasant uprising was being conducted by the Communists, the undivided Communist Party of India could have continued its armed struggle on the basis of the support of the Koya tribesmen. The choice before it was either to call off the struggle and bargain with the government for a defence of the gains of the people from the struggle, or to continue the struggle on the basis of reduced support, confined only to the tribesmen. It chose the former course. One can only be grateful for that choice, for otherwise the most significant national force that exists in India today in defence of democracy, secularism, and modernity and the only consistent bulwark against neo-liberalism and “strategic alliance” with imperialism, would have been absent from the scene, busy chasing a will-o’-the-wisp in the jungles of Andhra Pradesh.


This choice is open to the Maoists today. If they persist in the present praxis their predicament will only worsen. Confronting the Indian State on the basis of the meager social support of the tribal population is bad enough (no matter how much of an advantage the terrain provides); but the fact that this meager social support can not be widened (for that involves the impossible task of moving from identity to class politics), and can only dwindle over time (because of the logic of identity politics which keeps throwing up ever more self-proclaimed “militant” representatives of the identity-group), makes it a tragic denouement. Will the Maoists show the wisdom that the undivided Communist Party had shown at the beginning of the fifties?