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Should the Left Become Social Democratic?
by Prabhat Patnaik

On a television channel on counting day, the panellists discussing the assembly election results were asked to offer advice to the Left, which had lost both the large states it ruled, one of them quite massively, on how it should reform itself for a future resurrection. The overwhelming opinion among them was that it should forget Lenin, and, as the anchor explicated, become ‘social democratic’. The Left I suppose should be obliged to the panellists for being so concerned about its future; the question is: should it follow their advice and become ‘social democratic’?

The central difference between social democracy and communism is the latter’s acceptance of the category of imperialism; other differences derive from it. Indeed, the basic split in the Second International on the attitude to the First World War arose from a difference in perspectives on imperialism. On one side were those social democrats who supported their respective countries’ war efforts since they did not see it as an ‘imperialist war’; on the other side were those who not only were unwilling to do so, as they saw the war as an ‘imperialist war’ through which ‘their’ respective monopoly bourgeoisies were trying to grab more ‘economic territory’, but wanted the ‘imperialist war’ to be turned into a ‘civil war’ for the overthrow of the monopoly capitalist order, which made workers of one country fight fellow workers of another across the trenches. (A third position between these two, which tried to reconcile these irreconcilable positions, gradually lost relevance.)

The second group of social democrats split from the parent parties to form communist parties, and they included not only Lenin but also Rosa Luxemburg, who, notwithstanding her many differences with Lenin, attended the founding congress of the German communist party a fortnight before her murder. This underscores the centrality of the question of imperialism to the communist position vis-à-vis the social democrats. And bound up with this question is the case for system-transcendence: if capitalism can be made into a peaceful, non-imperialist, non-aggressive system, as the social democrats believed it could, then it can also be made ‘humane’, and any pressing need for its transcendence by socialism disappears.

Advising the communists to become social democrats amounts, therefore, to asking them to abandon not only their basic objective of socialism, but also their persistent opposition to imperialism; indeed, one panellist on the aforementioned TV show explicitly asked the communists to forget about ‘imperialism’.

The proximate difference between the communists and the bulk of the NGOs, including some highly progressive ones which are associated with the World Social Forum, relates precisely to imperialism. Opposition to the Iraq war or to American interventions, which many progressive NGOs would express, does not necessarily mean accepting the concept of imperialism (even when the material interests underlying such interventions are recognized), since one can still see these as episodic events. The communists see imperialism not as a set of episodes, but as an entire order that springs from the nature of capitalism itself.

Even those who see only episodes of imperialism have missed, alas, certain glaring recent episodes, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden which violated all norms of international conduct. One country sent in troops to attack a target in another sovereign nation, without so much as a ‘by your leave’; murdered an unarmed man, who was offering no resistance, in front of his family; took his body away; and dumped it into the sea. Osama may have been a villain, but what is at issue here is, first, the act of aggression against a sovereign country; and second, the ethical and legal questionability of the act of killing a person without a trial, which even the Nazi mass murderers were not denied. And yet, while Fidel Castro and Noam Chomsky have raised their voices on these questions, there has been a virtual silence over them in our country, as indeed there has been over the Nato bombing of Libya, which is in violation of international law (no matter how dictatorial Muammar Gaddafi may be).

There are no doubt fewer takers for the concept of imperialism today than was the case in the colonial era, when the imperial order was palpable. In particular, the much-hyped gross domestic product growth rates of China and India give the impression today that the earlier asymmetry between a first and a third world, implicit in the concept of imperialism, is disappearing, and that the latter is emerging as a replica of the former. This supposed replication, however, is obviously untrue: despite high growth, the working population in India and China continues to consist predominantly of peasants (including the landless) and petty producers, pushed even deeper into distress by such growth. Besides, this so-called levelling of differences across nations has strengthened, and not weakened, the position of first world capital. Much of China’s export growth, for instance, which sustains its high growth, is accounted for by American corporations locating plants in China to export back to their home economy. The capitals of these and other ’emerging economies’ too have grown stronger, but only by integrating themselves with metropolitan capital to the detriment of their own people. Hence, the concept of imperialism has not lost importance either in its sociological aspect (capitalism encroaching upon pre-capitalist producers) or in its spatial aspect (capital from the metropolis imposing an order where it expropriates for itself resources and primary commodities from all over the world).

But isn’t obtaining resources from outside in lieu of one’s own products what ‘trade’ is all about? Why should ‘trade’ be called ‘expropriation’? This is because underlying what appears as normal ‘trade’ is a complex mechanism which deliberately compresses demand by the working people of the third world to ‘release’ exhaustible resources, and commodities producible only by the limited tropical land-mass, for the use of metropolitan capital. In colonial times, such compression was through taxation by the colonial regime, and the ‘draining away’ without any quid pro quo of the commodity counterpart of such tax revenue. Nowadays, such compression is through a variety of neo-liberal measures, all of which restrict purchasing power in the hands of the working people.

Such compression, the essence of imperialism, arises in turn from an asymmetry: these resources and commodities are either not producible at all or cannot be produced in sufficient quantities within the metropolitan countries, but the goods and services produced in the metropolis can, given time and appropriate arrangements, always be produced in third-world economies.

Communist practice must derive from theory, whose only test is correctness and not vote-catching capacity. Their forgetting ‘imperialism’, as the panellists advised them to do, will not only make them indistinguishable from others and hence historically irrelevant, but also leave the resistance to imperialism, which is bound to occur anyway, to terrorists, religious fundamentalists, and the Osama bin Ladens.

The reform they must undertake is not to abandon the concept of ‘imperialism’, but the very opposite, that is, to be even more firm in adhering to it. They must be even more vigilant that the basic classes whose interests they seek to defend — namely the workers, the peasants, the agricultural labourers — are provided relief rather than distress (through encroachments by imperialism and domestic corporate interests). And for this they must ensure space within the party for debate, discussion and dissent, so that it becomes a thriving hub of intellectual activity, rather than a monolithic entity where a decision taken at the behest of some local satrap or bureaucrat in a Left-ruled state is defended, as revolutionary duty, by its members and sympathizers all over the country.

It may be asked: isn’t this what being ‘social democratic’ means? The answer is ‘no’. Rosa Luxemburg rejected social democracy and, along with Karl Liebknecht, was murdered by troops under a social democratic government; and she believed in no monoliths. Nor did Lenin. When the besieged and beleaguered revolutionary government under him signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, over the objections of Bukharin and others, they brought out a theoretical journal, Kommunist, to attack the treaty, which the Bolshevik government or the party did not proscribe even in those times. Greater space for dissent within the party is not synonymous with ‘social democracy’. The advice to communists to become social democrats, therefore, though well-meant, reflects only the Indian elite’s own ‘adjustment’ with imperialism and distance from the working people.


Prabhat Patnaik is a Marxist economist in India. This article was first published in The Telegraph on 24 May 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational article.








  1. Article succinctly describes the core difference between social democrats and communists. This article should be read by all left leaning individuals. It answers many questions which were in my mind.
    It would be useful if we could examine the Chinese “progress” in this regard. Perhaps comparing the similarities and differences with Indian economical growth will be useful.

    Posted by Tanveer Imam | June 4, 2011, 6:59 am
    • It is a very pertinent and incisive article. The question you have raised is an important one. While the economic system in India and its future is very obvious, the long term effects on China’s economic and political structure has to studied in deapth to come to correct conclusions

      Posted by apnakal | June 5, 2011, 1:21 am
  2. I think the pertinent question is what is practically possible. Now we have 60 years of history since discussion on Bolshevik Communism and Stalinism gained pace. Surely we can look at various movements and struggle in various countries of the world and analyse the situation scientifically. On a lighter side, some of our leftist friends are so rigid in their understanding that they mimic religious leaders.
    In response to your question, most people will wonder whether to continue their support for classical communism or to move on to a gradual transformation of capitalism into socialism or indeed (some will be annoyed at mere mention of it), to a welfare state capitalism.

    Posted by Syed Razi Muhammad | June 5, 2011, 1:01 pm
  3. A student of politics with scientific thinking is aware that changes are happening every second, not only in every cell of his body but entire universe. Truth and justice must be the guiding principle. If I find tomorrow that what I thought was wrong, I have no shame on honestly accepting it.
    Nevertheless, I believe that most of the basic principles of Marxism are right and have stood the test of time. At the same time, I also believe that it is against Marxism not to question and explore it with changing times.

    Posted by Syed Razi Muhammad | June 5, 2011, 1:11 pm
  4. The problem with every ideology is that it inevitably gets infested by romanticist/ idealist elements. Which is fine except that it inculcates dogmatic opinions (fatwas) into progressive scientific discussions.
    None of us can always be wrong or right, as we are all partners in understanding the history and events in scientific manner. However, our opinion is honest and we need to explore the question to gradually move forward to better understanding.Of course, there will be times when we will have to agree to disagree and respect the difference of opinion. But that should be after all venues of exploration have been cleverly explored.

    Posted by Syed Razi Muhammad | June 6, 2011, 9:46 am

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