New Orientation of the Working Class Movement: Prospects, Problems and Challenges
paper presented in the second Arvind Memorial Seminar
General Secretary, Progressive Engineering Workers Union, Chattisgarh
President, Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha
History is witness to the fact that the working class movement anywhere in the world has succeeded in taking a big leap after breaking the stagnation and in scaling new heights only when it has waged a ruthless, uncompromising struggle against the alien tendencies and various non-proletarian lines. When there is a period of stagnation and when the deviations are the order of the day, only those can stand up against the dogmatism, intellectual opportunism, economism-parliamentarianism, spontaneitism and the colourful expressions of “left-wing” and right-wing deviations, who have the true Leninist courage of swimming against the tide without bothering about the blames-abuses-slandering.
We are ready for an open and long debate, but we find it indisputable that in the changed economic and political conditions of the world and of India, the revolutionary working class movement needs to be rebuilt on a new ground and according to a new roadmap. It goes without saying that the legacy of all the working class movements and proletarian revolutions of the nineteenth-twentieth century is our heritage, without which we could not stand where we are today and could not discuss and analyze the present and future. But a new future cannot be created by merely repeating the struggles of the past. Today the primacy of the aspect of change has been established over the aspect of tradition. There is a lot which needs to be taken and learnt from the tradition but the new strategy and new path for the working class movement needs to be evolved after understanding the changes in the structure of the world capitalism and processes of capitalist production and exchange through the methodology of scientific materialism. The deviations present in the working class movement are the biggest stumbling block in understanding the new circumstances and evolving a new path. The dogmatists remain adamant that the imperialist world in which we are living is exactly the same as was told by Lenin or by the Chinese party in 1963. On the other hand, we have the intellectual opportunists who while wantonly analyzing the current phase of imperialism or the socialist experiments of the past, turn into “free thinkers” and in the name of developing the theory, plunge into the trash of the anarcho-syndicalism.
It is because of these reasons that we have decided that before discussing about the direction and possibilities of the Indian working class movement in the new circumstances, we would discuss those alien tendencies which are an impediment in understanding the orientation of change and in determining the correct line.
Leave aside the consummate representatives of revisionism, economism and trade unionism in the working class movement in the form of parliamentary left parties like CPI, CPM, CPI-ML (Liberation) and the trade unions affiliated with them, even the organizations from revolutionary left stream which claim to implement the mass-line and run trade unions in different parts of the country are different from the former only to the extent that in comparison with the economism of CITU, AITUC etc., they represent the economism of more militant style and in comparison with their trade unionism, a more militant trade unionism. All their activities are confined to the economic struggles, narrow immediate struggles and local political struggles. Neither do they take up the task of the political education of the working class (through a political newspaper or any other means) and acquaint them with their historical mission, nor do they show any inclination to advance their political struggle. In Leninist terms, their mass work among the working class is confined to the the economic struggles and the party work does not go beyond making some personal contacts and some routine meetings of cells, fractions etc. There are some revolutionary left organizations which instead of building a class movement of the proletariat manage to build only some militant mass movement on few popular demands and encash the same reputation for a long time. There are some which can not even make such a claim. They are involved in some routine work for decades. This clerk-like dedication is actually not good for the health of revolutionaries.
Most of the revolutionary left organizations which oppose the “left-wing” adventurism and claim to implement mass-line believe that India is still in the stage of democratic revolution. Since the issue of land ownership is not present anywhere and even the issue of redistribution of land to the landless in the rural areas is not an issue of a broad struggle, they engage themselves in the movements for the rich farmers to reduce the input cost of agriculture and for the minimum support price of the farm-produce and thus act like Narodniks. It is obvious that the burden of the minimum support price for the farm-produce would have to be borne by the consumers, majority of which include the proletariat and semi-proletariat population of the urban and rural areas. Even if the government provides subsidy from the public exchequer for giving minimum support price to the rich farmers, this burden would also be indirectly borne by the toiling workers because a large part of the public exchequer comes from the indirect taxes imposed on the people including workers. Now if the input cost of agriculture is reduced by lowering the prices of seeds, fertilizers, electricity, pesticides etc., this burden also would be incurred by labourers because the price of any commodity can be reduced only by lowering the cost of working class power (since the cost of raw material is directly transferred into the cost of the product) . It is the task of the Marxists to acquaint small and medium peasantry about the inevitability of their ruin in the capitalist agriculture and to unite them with the working class on the slogans of employment to all, right to housing, health etc. and thus to bring them closer to the objective of socialism. But the leftists of our country make the small farmers as appendage to the big farmers and while fighting for the prices they find themselves standing against the interests of the same proletarian population of the cities and villages whose vanguard they claim to be and whose population today exceeds the half of the population of the country. It is nothing but Narodnist conduct of the revolutionary left organizations which are carrying out only economic activities among the workers and are building the populist movements on the demands of the big farmers which are clearly anti-proletariat. If a revolutionary organization implements a programme which is based on the incorrect understanding of the socio-economic conditions, then while opposing the interests of the workers on the objective plane, in due course even subjectively it would fall prey to such deviation and a time would come when its class character would be altered. Obviously the revolutionary left organizations which are suffer from such Narodnik deviation can in no way give revolutionary direction to the working class movement. In the name of fulfilling the duty and to salvage the honour of being called as ‘communist’, they can at best perform some economistic rituals.
Now let’s talk about the “left-wing” adventurist stream. Here it is to be recalled that the CPI (M-L) under the leadership of Charu Majumdar after declaring the mass organizations of any kind and the trade union activities as revisionist, had expelled Shankar Guha Niyogi from the party in a highly undemocratic manner. It was after this that Niyogiji along with some worker comrades started building a working class movement in Chhattisgarh on mass-line. We belong to the same stream. All his life Niyogiji taught us – the workers – to fight against the economism-revisionism on the one hand and “left-wing” adventurist deviation on the other. He always emphasized that the true follower of Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin-Mao is the one who studies the concrete conditions without falling prey to dogmatism; who learns from the people, implements the mass-line and functions by building the organizational structure on Democratic Centralism. On this as a base, Niyogiji built a powerful working class movement and conducted many experiments of building mass institutions and mass platforms on the initiative of the working class which were the milestone in the history of Indian working class movement. However, while struggling with the problems and engagements of building a working class movement which did not tread the beaten track, he could not implement some of his own beliefs and did not get opportunity to analyse and sum up his own experiments. Today it is of utmost importance to discuss them. It was a firm belief of Niyogiji that the path to the emancipation of the working class and socialism does not open up only through the trade union struggle or economic struggles. The political struggle of the working class is necessary and a vanguard revolutionary party to give it leadership is also important. Reference to this can be found in many of his interviews and in his last message too, which he recorded in view of the potential threat to his life, he emphatically asserted that whenever the process of the formation of any such party takes place, the workers of Chhattisgarh must stand behind it without any hesitation. In the same message, he once again cautioned against the revisionist-economist and “left” terrorist deviations and mentioned about two such revolutionary organizations which, if freed from such deviations, could play an important role. His hopes have not been materialized in the course of time. One of these organizations is completely immersed into the mire of parliamentarism and the other is hell bent on extending the “left-wing” adventurist politics of “jungle and gun” to its logical conclusion. The engagements of the working class movement did not give opportunity to Niyogi to think and write over many of the theoretical questions. On many questions, his thoughts are present only in the form of interviews and comments. Today one might find some contradictions and lacuna at many places in his thoughts. But it is beyond doubt that he was a working class organizer armed with the Marxist thoughts who focused himself on this role. It was his habit to learn by summing up his experiences and move ahead and like a true Marxist he did not consider himself flawless. If he was not assassinated nineteen years back, he would surely have played an important role in determining the direction of the working class movement by understanding the essential dynamics of the last two decades of liberalization-privatization and perhaps would have been part of the attempts to form an All-India revolutionary party about which he stressed upon in his last message. Today his positive legacy includes: (1) He was opposed to both economism-revisionism-trade unionism as well as “leftist” adventurism. (2) Besides trade union, he believed, for the emancipation of working class it was necessary to form and build a revolutionary proletarian party armed with the ideology of Marxism-Leninism and which implements mass-line and is based on Democratic Centralism. (3) In order to educate the working class about the future construction of society, for awakening their collective initiative and for preparing a solid foundation of revolutionary politics amongst them, he used to stress upon the building of institutions and gave it the name of the politics of the ‘Struggle and Construction’ (Shaheed hospital, settling workers’ hamlets, alternative schooling for the children of workers, garage for the technical training of the workers, afforestation drive amongst them for environmental awareness etc. were such experiments). Whatever be the name, one must focus on the content and the legacy of Niyogiji must be linked with the stream of the revolutionary rebuilding of the Indian working class movement. Otherwise, the NGOites and the reformists of various hues would keep on owning up the legacy of Niyogi by manipulating and distorting it.
This discussion of the political legacy of Shankar Guha Niyogi is essential before discussing the “left-wing” adventurist stream. The region adjoining to the area where we work among the labourers has nowadays become the main laboratory of the politics of the CPI (Maoist) which is nothing but a new edition of the politics of the “left-wing” adventurism. It is true that the “people’s government” of the Maoists has built a solid base among the tribals, who are the victims of half a century of the governmental apathy and the atrocities of the police-bureaucracy and the contractors, by undertaking creative work and by organizing them for the resistance against the exploiters. The reports of Arundhati Roy and Gautam Navlakha regarding the “liberated zone” are not incorrect. But it is our humble appeal that this region of Dandakaranya can not be taken as whole India. If this was the whole of India, we would concede that the people’s war is successfully going on in a backward country. All such remote zones are less than ten percent of the total area of India and the tribal population comprises about eight percent of entire population. Many such “liberated zones” like Dandakaranya (economically, politically as well as militarily) cannot pose any challenge to the Indian bourgeois state; at best they can cause some headache, can provide some spice for propaganda to the bourgeois media and can give opportunity to the educated romantic middle class day dreamers to live in a fool’s paradise of bringing an overnight revolution. We believe that the state cannot easily demolish these base areas and the repression by the para-military forces would further fuel the resistance of the tribal population. However, this fire cannot spread outside these remote regions to the vast plains where the dominance of capital and hegemony of market has been established even to the far-flung villages, where the network of communication and transportation has been laid and the land relations have altered. In this post-colonial backward capitalist country, even if some “Chingkangshan” are built, neither “Yenan” is feasible nor the revolutionary strategic policy of encircling the cities from the villages would be effective. In the approximately 1 billion and 300 million population of India, the number of the total rural and urban proletariat exceeds 750 million today. The population of industrial proletariat definitely exceeds 150 million. Instead of organizing this huge population of the wage slaves for the economic and political struggles, if the people who call themselves communists wish to organize the tribals who reside in the extremely backward regions and have a backward consciousness (extremely militant though) on account of the backward production-relations, and want to make them the leaders of the proletarian revolution, the only advice which can be given to them is that they must study Marxism. Such people are not proletarian revolutionaries but the new avatars of Birsa Munda and other tribal rebels. It is not surprising that in the rural areas of the states like Andhra, Bihar and Jharkhand, the activities of these Maoists are almost non-existent. If at all, they formed the mass organizations amongst the peasantry here and there, they got stuck in the Narodnist struggle of the input cost and minimum support price and could not make any headway. In a few places where they did some work among the workers, they could not go beyond making some contacts and fighting some militant economist struggles. On the question of the repression-atrocities by the state, we surely raise our voice in the support of these “left-wing” adventurists, but their politics is a petty-bourgeois deviation which is extremely harmful for the working class.
It is a strange irony that while Niyogiji opposed the “left-wing” deviation throughout his life, some of the “path-breaking” leaders amongst us, who claim to be his able disciples were themselves attracted towards such politics and they managed to mislead some workers by sabotaging our movement through extremely conspiratorial means. However, the worker understands the futility of the “left-wing” adventurism through his natural class instinct. The cinematic imagination of the armed struggle engages the remotely seated intellectuals but very soon the workers understood that they do not have any role to play in the politics of “jungle and gun”. Consequently, it did not take much time for them to get disillusioned.
After the demise of Shankar Guha Niyogi, some people amongst us tried to confine the working class movement of Chhattisgarh to the routine militant trade unionist activities and also attempted disruption. They have been liquidated and have taken refuge in the bourgeois politics. Then some celestial schematicians showed the dream of an immediate emancipation through the path of “left-wing” adventurism to the workers. Soon the workers began to understand the reality and the sky-inhabiting intellectuals disappeared in the thin air. Earlier some trade unionist and syndicalist leaders of the Kanodia mill movement of Calcutta who were offshoots of the revolutionary “left” stream also visited Chhattisgarh with the hope of taking advantage of the void created after the death of Niyogi and in the belief that they would manage to win us over. However, armed with the experiences of struggle, the worker identifies the right from the wrong with his natural class instinct. The “Bengalee Babu revolutionaries” had to return empty handed.
Thus, the stream of Chhattisgarh working class movement built by Niyogiji, after struggling against both the rightist as well as “leftist” opportunistic deviations, is confronted with the new challenges at this stage. We do realize with a deep sense that after the death of Niyogiji the twenty years of liberalization-privatization has given birth to many changes in the process of production and exchange, the means of exploitation and in the nature of the contradictions between capital and labour. If Niyogiji was alive today he would have undertaken several changes in the tactics-strategy of the working class movement and would have accomplished many experiments by now. At the time of his unforeseen murder, there was no second line of ideologically matured leadership. There was much informalism in the structures of the unions-mass organizations which was taken much advantage of by the the opportunists. Even a mass organization like Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha did not have a formal structure and the task of summing up this experiment and that of the participation in the elections had not yet been done. It was at such a time that Niyogiji was assassinated. After that we invested all our efforts in fighting against the “left” and right deviations. Now we, along with those with whom we have managed to strike unity at the level of realization and concept after an elaborate discussion-debate, are firmly working on the agenda of formulating the agenda of the struggle for working class movement afresh in the era of globalization, taking a concrete task of the revolutionary revival of the working class movement, besides the economic-political struggles, carrying out the task of revolutionary propaganda, education and agitation among the working class with different means such as political newspaper, study circle etc. and acquainting them about their historical mission and making the effort of building afresh a truly proletarian vanguard party to lead the working class.
The stray communist revolutionary organizations infected with the rightist, “leftist”, Narodnik, anarcho-syndicalist and intellectual opportunist deviations, to a large extent, have reduced to the small factions of left intellectuals. Some are like loose associations of many factions. Around one and half to two decades have elapsed since we have been witnessing and understanding these. The emancipation of the working class is its own task. An All India Party of the proletariat can not be built by the unity of the revolutionary leftist organizations which have been converted into left intellectual factions. The working class unity would be achieved by extensive struggles and the summing up of the experiences thereof and the same would prepare the conducive ground for the building of any revolutionary leading centre.
However, it is also not our point that the building of a revolutionary party would take place automatically through the working class movements. The scientific revolutionary ideology would have to be brought into the working class movement through conscious efforts. This task can be initiated even by a few people equipped with the correct understanding. Even the radical youths coming from the middle class intellectuals who would align themselves with the aim of the proletarian revolution would have a role to play. Then, the real task would be that of the revolutionary recruitment of the advance, class conscious elements from the proletariat.
On the question of the programme of revolution, we believe that today the country has advanced from the stage of the democratic revolution and reached the stage of socialist revolution. Today there is no question of the ownership of the land. Except for few backward regions, everywhere the principal contradiction is the contradiction between capital and labour.
Now we will discuss the trade union movement and other mass work among the workers in light of the new changes. There is no denying the fact that we have to learn a lot from history, but more than that, we have to find ways by learning from the study of the changed circumstances. In other words, more than what we have to learn from the tradition, we have to find ways through our studies and experiments. That is to say, that the aspect of change is dominant over the aspect of tradition.
Here we would like to remind that the struggle of the workers of the iron ore mining, with which Niyogi’s experiments began in 1977, was in fact a struggle of the contract workers. At this point itself the foundation of the ‘Chhattisgarh Mines workers union’ was laid under whose banner the contract workers and other informal mining workers won many historic battles owing to their organized struggles. In 1990, in the Tata’s ACC factory situated in Jamul (Bhilai), the Bhilai movement was spear-headed on the question of the regularization of the contract workers and the foundation of ‘Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh’ was laid. The main force of the ‘Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh’ and our other unions were the contract workers and other unorganized workers themselves. Certainly, when this force was militantly organized then a section of the organized workers too, joined us. The history of our stream of the Chhattisgarh’s working class movement is the history of militant struggles, numerous firing incidents, brutal repression-atrocities and glorious martyrdom. The cold blooded murder of Niyogi and the brutal firing episode of 1st July, 1992, in which 16 workers were killed, were the events in continuation of the same process. During this struggle, along with the governments and bureaucracy, the character of judiciary and media was also exposed. On the issue of the illegal retrenchment of the 4200 workers in 1990 by the united industrialists of Durg-Bhilai, besides agitation, a long legal battle also unfolded which exposed the character of the the bourgeois state including judiciary in front of workers. It is a long and interesting tale. The murder of Niyogi and the 1992 firing episode were part of the same process. Till this date, the case of illegal retrenchment of 4200 workers is pending before the high-court and we are awaiting the verdict.
In this context, we want to assert that the phenomenon of the contractualization, informalization and casualization is a general trend in the current era of globalization. Today, there is a need to sum up our experience regarding organizing the unorganized workers of contract, daily wages and other categories in the broader perspective. In contrast to earlier times, today’s unorganized worker is a modern industrial proletariat who works in ultra modern sector and on ultra modern technologies. The difference is that now the production-process of the same product has been fragmented into remotely situated plants and the small workshops of contractors. Thus, now the huge population of the workers is not seen together on one factory floor. However, the other aspect is that the remotely situated workers (even the workers situated in different countries) are now connected with an invisible thread. If the leading force of the proletariat is organized, it can acquaint the workers with this extensive unity by simultaneously working amongst the workers of the remotely situated plants. An extensive and intensive revolutionary propaganda work is needed for this. The unorganized workers can be organized on the basis of their occupation (e.g. automobile, textile, engineering, chemical, cement etc.) or else on the neighbourhood basis or on both these bases. A factory-based union for such workers is not feasible as today they work in one factory and tomorrow in some other factory. They can be united in their neighbourhoods and not on the factory gates. One advantage of this situation was indicated even by Lenin. By continuously moving from one factory to another, the working class’s understanding of the capitalist production process and capitalist system is bettered and speeded up and it becomes easier for them to understand to fight against the entire capitalist class and not against just one of them.
The second important point is that besides trade unions, the diverse forms of mass work among the workers are needed to be done and by winning trust of not just the workers with advance consciousness, but also those with backward consciousness, the mass institutions of different kinds are to be built for preparing a strong mass base. This is not something new. Lenin also stated this and members of the Bolshevik party besides working in the unions in their control and other unions, used to organize many institutions in the working class neighbourhood such as sports and entertainment clubs, libraries, reading centres, adult schools, night schools, mutual help groups, co-operative societies, worker’s vocational training centre and voluntary squads etc. If there is no reformist tendency among the organizers or in the party organization, then by performing these acts of reform alone, one would not become reformist or NGOite. The NGOs’ can be uprooted on the strength of hard work rather than leaving the ground open for them. The reformists who work for salary and allowances can create problem for a short time by luring the masses, but they can never compete with the selfless dedicated worker organizers who while living amongst the toiling masses, organize various activities through the initiative and strength of masses themselves.
Shankar Guha Niyogi, too, besides unions, built many mass organizations such as schools, garage, Shaheed hospital etc. and cooperative societies on the initiative and strength of the workers. This was a unique experiment which exhibited the collective unified power of the workers. On the basis of the summing of the experience of the past it is our belief that if these experiments are to be advanced, their control, management and coordination must be handed over to the councils elected by the general assembly of workers and then to the co-ordination committees elected by the councils and not by unions or informal supervision by mass of workers. Thereby, some mass institutions, detached from unions, can be evolved, which in times of workers upsurge, can assume the form of the seeds of the alternative workers’ state like the soviets during the 1905-07 revolution in Russia.
We would like to assert one more point with reference to Lenin’s teachings and on the basis of our past experiences. Lenin stressed on the fact that for the success of the workers’ struggle, it is important to work amongst other toiling populace and the progressive intellectuals also. In this regard, we have a positive as well as a negative experience. The positive one is that in the lifetime of Niyogiji, besides the industrial workers, work was also carried out amongst the poor peasants and workers of villages and their burning problems too were made issues of the movement. This led to the expansion of the support-base of the working class movement. The negative experience is that though the intellectuals from different parts of the country, who were attracted by our experiments, joined us but we were not successful to the same extent at the local level to work in a planned and organized manner among the students and intellectuals and align them with the working class movement.
Today, while working in the workers’ settlements, it is extremely imperative to prepare support-base among the toiling masses and semi-proletariat in the nearby villages and towns by undertaking political and creative reform works. At the same time, in this new era of the rebuilding of the working class movement, it is absolutely important to recruit the young intellectuals (students-youths, young media persons) who are in favour of workers’ revolution by carrying out revolutionary propaganda among them. The old so-called progressive intellectuals have now become pragmatic and privilege-loving. Their souls are weary now. Only a few rebellious-wise youths of the middle class can be expected to courageously take the sides the workers, but these few people would play an extremely important role in planting the seeds of the revolutionary ideas in the working class movement and being their initial organizers. Another point is that the so-called communication revolution has provided a big weapon to the bourgeoisie for establishing its ideological-cultural hegemony. Our old cultural means are inadequate in countering it. We need a fresh team of the young intellectuals who are capable of not only publishing newspapers-magazines, building play and singing troupes but also of running the community radio, making the documentary films and short story films, creating CD-DVD of plays and songs, forming club-societies for film shows and who are capable of using all this for the propagation of the proletarian ideology and proletarian culture. The working class movement today cannot ignore the media and the cultural means at any cost.
To sum up, in this paper, we have tried to put forward our points of view, albeit in a crude manner, about the orientation, prospects, problems and challenges of the working class movement by linking it with our experience. It is not our claim that we have been able to implement these ideas and conclusions in practice. We ourselves are going through a difficult struggle of attempting to overcome the deadlock and of redetermining the orientation of our work according to new conditions and deriving lessons and summing up our experiences as well as the experience of the left fraternity of this country as much as possible. We have come here to share our experience and thoughts and to learn from yours. It is our belief that those who, free from the dogmatism, wish to resurrect the working class movement in a revolutionary manner will have to come together and that day is not too far.