The Legacy of the Left


Maidul Islam, Mridula Mukherjee, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and Timothy Garton Ash in conversation with Patrick French


Harish Alagappa, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


With the election of Narendra Modi in India in 2014, the victory of Donald Trump in the United States in 2016, and right-wing political leaders ascendant all over Europe, many political commentators around the world have been writing obituaries for the left and all the ideologies they represent, namely socialism, equality in identity politics, and a decentralized, distributive system of economics.

Discussing the role of the left in India, academic, author, and President of the New Delhi-based thinktank the Centre Policy Research, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, noted the dichotomies inherent in the Indian left, stating that, ‘What you got in India was a left that was very conservative in its social base,’ where middle-class and wealthy upper-caste Indians ‘used left politics to maintain social hegemony.’ He quipped that ‘Marx did not account for caste.’

Disagreeing with this analysis, Mridula Mukherjee, another noted academic and author, and former Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, said that such an interpretation represented an “old, imperialist view” of the Indian left. She believed that one could ‘go on and on listing the caste origins of Indian left leaders, but that doesn’t take us anywhere.’

You say you want a revolution, but author and Professor of European Studies at Oxford, Timothy Garton Ash, worries they never end well. He challenged the panel and the audience ‘to find me a country where Marx-Lenin style communism came to power and it wasn’t bloody awful.’ He believes the fundamental problem with the left, particularly communism as it existed in Soviet Russia, China, and West Bengal, was that ‘communism assumed the people in the party were angels’ and thus, when they held power without a series of checks and balances, it always degenerated into oppression. ‘If you sincerely believe you are creating heaven on earth’, he summarized, ‘you are probably going to make hell on earth.’

Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Maidul Islam, believed that the ‘old model of the left and the old model of liberalism are failing. Next year, we could be talking about the legacy of liberalism.’ He pointed out that ‘one good legacy of the left in India is that they have been against communal forces’ and furthermore, they were ‘not as corrupt as other regional political parties.’

In this enlightening session, moderated by world-renowned author and historian Patrick French, the panel thoroughly dissected the failings of left-wing politics and how it can ever hope to become relevant again. Patrick French declared that in the aftermath of the 2008/09 financial crisis, ‘the revolt against the crash is coming from the right.’ Pratap Bhanu Mehta believed that this was because ‘the left got trapped by its own economic determinism’ and also, that ‘in times of crisis, a need for simplification arises in politics.’ Timothy Garton Ash suggested that the learning for left-wing political parties was that the right-wing nationalists had taken advantage of the damage of financial capitalism to ‘pick up the traditional electorate of the left.’

On the question of the legacy of the left, Mridula Mukherjee raised a pertinent point when she said ‘we are still in a world that’s talking about basic necessities of survival not being available to vast swathes of the population. In these societies, the ideas of the left are still relevant.’

Despite starting after lunch, the session on the Legacy of the Left was anything but sluggish. Engels observed that Darwin devised the laws of biology, which described the evolution of species, and Marx formulated the laws of history, which describe the evolution of societies. Perhaps the swing towards the right is another example of the cyclical nature of world history. The right survived the largely liberal and democratic 90s, and so one can expect the left to withstand the challenges of the upcoming years.


Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor


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