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Reading Marx’s Brumaire in Mamata’s Bengal

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl (1818-1883) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arindam Sen

Exactly as we had forewarned before the 2011 assembly elections, the new government in West Bengal has started baring its fangs. In sync with a series of backtrackings and betrayals on electoral promises and an utterly inhuman, irresponsible attitude towards shocking developments like farmers’ suicides, baby deaths in hospitals and growing violence on women (see our August 2011 and March 2012 issues) it is out to unleash wanton attacks on popular struggles and democratic dissent. The recent incident of beating up and midnight arrest of a Jadavpur University professor has unleashed a wave of angry protests throughout the country, but as we have shown elsewhere, the trend started pretty earlier.
But why did the lady who started her stint in power with slogans like “change, not revenge” and really surprised and pleased many with her initial civilised ways, reverse her approach so quickly and so decisively? Offering an apologia of sorts, one panelist in a televised discussion on the assault on the JU professor opined that her intolerance or angry reactions should be understood as an expression of the “hyper-sensitivity” of the first woman Chief Minister of West Bengal. Many, including some of her erstwhile supporters and admirers among the intelligentsia, have freely used against her invectives like madness, megalomania, fascist mindset and so on. It has also been observed that a deep-seated sense of personal insecurity lurks behind the CM’s overreaction to criticism.

Well, such psychological traits of the person in exclusive command do shed some light on the goings on. But should we not, as Marxists, try and move beyond the individual and grasp the class character and peculiar features of the regime as such as it evolves on the debris of a social democratic dispensation and takes a definite shape before our eyes? We have carefully investigated the collapse of the LF government and its implications for the left movement; should we not focus the spotlight now on the political formation that took its place?

This government has yet to complete one year in office, so we can have only a preliminary assessment. However, even that might be helpful in dispelling some of the confusion which still afflicts sections of people who had voted the Trinamool Congress to power with much expectation.

The task is no doubt challenging, so let us turn to Marx for assistance. Among Marxist works on contemporary history such as Class Struggle in 1848-50, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Revolution and Counterrevolution in Germany and Civil War in France, the second one, dealing with the counter-revolutionary coup d’état of December 2, 1851, should be most relevant for us. The obvious and huge differences between the French national scenario in mid-19th century and the situation in one state in India in the 21st century notwithstanding, we can profit from the brilliant analysis of how, under what political circumstances, the fruits of popular struggles could be usurped by an upstart-turned autocrat.

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In February 1848, monarchy was overthrown in France and the country was proclaimed a Republic. Power passed into the hands of the bourgeoisie. They deceived the working class, the main force of the revolution, by taking the most influential workers’ leader Louis Blanc into the provisional government. In May they consolidated their power, abandoned and other popular leaders and went on an offensive against the proletariat. The latter responded with the June uprising which was ruthlessly crushed. On December 10 the same year elections to the Presidency of the Republic took place. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I the Emperor – an obscure hedonist engaged in the pursuit of thrills and melodrama and leading the life of a princely vagabond, became a candidate. To the utter surprise of all, he won on the support extended by the impoverished small-holding peasantry who believed that a man named would bring all the past glory back to them. In December 1851, he staged a coup and seized absolute power. A year later he formally abolished the Republic and declared himself Emperor of the Second Empire, .

Marx wrote The Eighteenth Brumaire – originally intended to be an article – immediately after the coup of December 1851, when the full features of the new regime were yet to reveal themselves. He examined the dramatic developments (up to the coup of December 1851) in terms of the given balance of class forces and the vicissitudes of class struggle and then at the end of the pamphlet discussed the apparent and actual class character of the Bonapartist regime.

Several other books on the coup were published almost simultaneously. Among these, two were especially notable. One was “Napoleon the Little” by Victor Hugo and the other, Pierre Joseph Proudhon’s “The Social Revolution in the Light of the December 2 Coup”. Neither the great humanist writer and Republican nor the eminent anarchist ideologue really got to the bottom of the matter. Hugo scornfully depicted the whole thing as the sinister handiwork of a single individual, unwittingly making “this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative such as would be without parallel in world history.” (Karl Marx, Preface to the Second Edition of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) Proudhon on the other hand did try to present a historical construction of the coup d’état but his method made it into “a historical apologia for its hero.” (ibid) Contrasting his own work against these two, Marx wrote: “I, on the contrary, demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.”

Louis Bonaparte sees himself, writes Marx, as the defender of the “bourgeois order” and hence as “the representative of the middle class” (read the capitalist class, mainly the middle bourgeoisie); “at the same time, as the representative of the peasants and of the people in general, who wants to make the lower classes of the people happy within the frame of bourgeois society”; but “above all, Bonaparte himself as the chief of the Society of December 10 , as the representative of the lumpenproletariat to which he himself, his entourage, his government and his army belong, and whose prime consideration is to benefit itself and draw California lottery prizes from the state treasury.”
Thus, “Bonaparte would like to appear as the patriarchal benefactor of all classes. But he cannot give to one class without taking from another.” Ultimately he manages to mobilize all the classes against himself.

Marx is merciless in depicting the ways of the despot.  “Bonaparte, who precisely because he was a bohemian, a princely lumpenproletariat, had the advantage over a rascally bourgeois in that he could conduct the struggle meanly…”, Marx says, and adds that his court and administration were made up of thieves, cheats, worthless sycophants, fortune seekers and the like.

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The tumultuous decade of revolution and counterrevolution in West Bengal (1967-77) ended with a relatively stable arrangement of class compromise presided over by a social democratic government. Over time the compromise, never perfect, decayed and collapsed under the crushing weight of sharpening contradictions – with social-democracy embracing the neo-liberal trajectory and the people responding with heightened resistance, the social-democratic dispensation lost the plot. Perhaps it had already outlived the role history had assigned for itself. In came the messiah of ma-mati-manush with an assortment of populist slogans.

Emerging in this socio-historical context, Mamata Banerjee could not but promise a new deal for the good of all. However, like the “patriarchal benefactor” in France, the benevolent didi of West Bengal finds herself in an eternal predicament: one “cannot give to one class (or section of people, let us add) without taking from another”. Worse, unlike the President of France the Chief Minister of West Bengal does not have the country’s financial reins in her hands. So, for example, if she wishes to please lakhs of commuters by refusing to grant any fare hike, she has to alienate thousands of auto rickshaw, taxi and bus operators. If any section of the latter chooses to press for their demands, they are in for trouble. Thus when autowallahs in Kolkata struck work and staged militant road blockades to highlight their demands, TMC goons led by party MLA Paresh Pal pounded on them, sending the secretary of the union (a TMC cadre) to a hospital. TV channels showed the MLA himself beating up and otherwise “punishing” the auto drivers and transport Minister Madan Mitra aggressively shouting at them, “if you are to ply your vehicles, you must say ‘Mamata Banerjee Zindabad’”.

Mamata Banerjee’s success at the hustings, like Louis Bonaparte’s, rested most crucially on the support extended by the aggrieved peasantry. Naturally she has been trying her level best to keep the illusion alive by means of measures such as the hurriedly passed legislation to return agricultural land in Singur to the so-called ‘unwilling peasants’, the Kisan Credit Card project and the like. Such superficial measures could not possibly do any real good, and very soon the spate of farmers’ suicides revealed some of the fault lines, compelling her to take shelter behind a wall of denials. Well, how could the proud builder of “Sonar Bangla” accept such blemishes and other complaints like growing violence on women?

Banerjee has also to keep in good humour the middle classes and the townspeople in general, who voted not only for herself as usual, but this time also for her party candidates en masse. Then there are other important votebanks to be satisfied: younger generations, the minorities, women. However, for all her gimmicks and promises there is little evidence that any one of these sections is happy with the government.

But there is one stratum which is thriving better than before: the lumpenproletariat. Engaged in all kinds of informal/illegal/semi- legal trades and activities including collection of illegal levies, the overwhelming majority of them lump together to constitute the base of the ubiquitous TMC networks comparable to Bonaparte’s Society of December 10. In many places these elements are organised as “syndicates” – local cartels of order suppliers dealing with building materials, or of transport operators and so on. Even behind the midnight assault and unwarranted arrest of Prof Mahapatra of JU was the long hand of the local “syndicate”. Its leaders actually utilised the cartoon mail forwarded by the professor to punish and pressure him over some disputed bills pending with the housing complex committee (of which Prof Mahapatra is an office bearer).

Not that the erstwhile rulers of West Bengal did not have such networks under their patronage. In fact the new ones are to a large extent made up of turncoats from the old networks. The difference is, whereas the local mafiosi commandeered by the CPI(M) had emerged and spread during the later years of its rule, in the present case these gangs have served as the TMC’s active and effective social base from the very beginning. And they are rapidly multiplying in a situation of severe unemployment, contributing to growing lawlessness and sexual crimes.

The politically nurtured lumpenproletariat is too powerful to be touched by the police. On the contrary, whenever necessary they take up the role of the police with greater effect and lesser legal hassles. For example, they severely beat up mediapersons doing their work on 28 February, the day of all-India industrial strike, in Gangulybagan area of Kolkata. They also disrupted a protest demonstration organised by a civil rights body a few days later at the Hazra Crossing in the city. In both cases the police force did nothing to restrain the assailants and at Hazra they arrested some of the activists instead. Such extra-legal methods of gagging the press and curbing political democracy surely had the blessings of the highest authority; in fact the same purpose was later sought to be served by administrative measures like banning the entry of leading newspapers in government-aided libraries and booking some of the protesters against eviction in Nonadanga under draconian laws and very serious charges.

So what we see today in West Bengal is a PPP in silencing critics and opponents –an emerging goonda raj that works in close coordination with the Police. The motley crowd of lumpenproletariat form the loose base of the TMC power structure and work under the direction of local party functionaries, municipal councilors, panchayat office bearers etc. Above them are the block/district leaders, MLAs, in some cases MPs. The next higher rung is composed of a select group of veterans like Partha Chatterjee and Subrata Mukherjee together with emerging leaders and ministers like Madan Mitra, Jyotipriyo Mullick, who compete among themselves to show the highest loyalty to the supreme commander and extreme aggressiveness towards the CPI(M). At the top of the hierarchy, of course, alone rules the dictator who has no pretensions about the luxury called inner party democracy. It is a loose-knit organization, where violent inner party clashes – often fought on the question of who are the ‘genuine Trinamooli’ (the old cadre or the newcomers from Congress/left parties) – are a daily occurrence.

If authoritarian rule bolstered by partisan terror has emerged as the most obnoxious characteristic of the new dispensation, there are also some other features to count.
It is as much an anti-people government as any other. The series of evictions of hawkers and slum dwellers, and steps like abrupt stoppage of subsidies to public sector transport corporations resulting in non-payment of salaries to hundreds of employees have already made this clear as daylight. Naturally it is also anti-democratic, as evidenced by, inter alia, moves to make elected panchayat bodies more subservient to administrative officials.

It is a government based on falsehoods and deception. To add further boost to the Goebbelsian propaganda, the state budget this year has allocated the highest amount of money to the Ministry of Information and Culture – raising the amount, by nearly 125%, to Rs. 110 crore.

It is an authoritarian government where all power is monopolised by the CM (as they say, there is only one post in the ministry, all others are lamp posts). It is a confused and self-contradictory government marked by utter lack of consistency in policy matters (say on whether political prisoners should be released and whether talks with Maoists should be seriously taken up). Business policy too (e.g., on issues like raising electricity tariff and allowing set top boxes for cable TV transmission) is also a victim of indecision and inconsistency.

But behind all this there is something more than personal whims and caprices: a frantic effort to satisfy contending interests. As Marx wrote about Louis Bonaparte, “Driven by the contradictory demands of his situation and being at the same time, like a conjurer, under the necessity of keeping the public gaze fixed on himself,… by springing constant surprises,… Bonaparte throws the entire bourgeois economy into confusion … and produces actual anarchy in the name of order, while at the same time stripping its halo from the entire state machine, profanes it and makes it at once loathsome and ridiculous…”
Marx also observed that the “contradictory task of the man [Louis Bonaparte] explains the contradictions of his government, the confused groping about which seeks now to win, now to humiliate first one class and then another and arrays all of them uniformly against him…”

Well, this is yet to happen in West Bengal, but the trend is clearly in that direction. The intelligentsia and expanding cross sections of people are already saying: we did want change, but not this kind of change. The days are not far off when their angry protests on the streets of Kolkata are backed up by organised class action of workers and peasants, throwing up a real, effective challenge to the arrogant autocrat.

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[] This organisation came into existence in 1849. “On the pretext of founding a benevolent society”, writes Marx, “the lumpenproletariat of Paris had been organised into secret sections, each section being led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole. Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, where vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers… rag-pickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither… from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the Society of December 10.”

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