Berlin: Is there a more vivid panorama of the downward arc of the Communist movement than the view from the foundations where once stood the Nazi SS headquarters at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse 8? Before one’s eyes are photographs of men like the German Communist leader Ernst Thälmann. He was arrested in March 1933, right after Hitler came to power, taken to Albrecht-Strasse 8 and tortured. Never formally tried, he was murdered in Buchenwald on August 18, 1944.
Looking at the big photo of Thälmann–one of scores of German Communists and Socialists posted along that block–one can honor courage but also recall epic failures: the blunders of the Third Period, the defeat of the Popular Front in Spain, where a unit of the International Brigades was named for Thälmann. Raise your eyes from the line of photos and glance north and there is a stretch of the Berlin wall, which once ran a bit farther west past Martin-Gropius-Bau, then swung north along Ebert-Strasse, across Unter den Linden, leaving the Brandenburg Gate in East Berlin and the Reichstag in the West. Here, at the end of the 1980s, the East German government threw in the towel. Soon most of the wall was rubble, along with–so it seemed–the movement that grew from the writings of Marx and Engels, who studied at Humboldt University, a few hundred yards eastward along Unter den Linden.
Movements and political parties wither away when they lose touch, barricade themselves behind dead ideas and armed policemen. But look now at a braver prospect that continues to unfold–as it did through the twilight and collapse of Communist parties in the GDR and the Soviet Union–thousands of miles east of the old Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse.
Early in May a left front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) swept West Bengal with a three-fourths majority, winning 235 seats out of 293 declared. In a strictly supervised poll, it was the coalition’s biggest win since the heyday of the CPI-M’s land reforms in 1987, the left’s seventh win in polling for West Bengal’s state legislature and the fifteenth straight victory (if you take elections to the Central Parliament from West Bengal into account) since the voters put the left in power in 1977. In a state with a population nearing 100 million, about 40 million people, close to 80 percent of the eligible electorate, voted in West Bengal to give the CPI-M-led left front this kind of win.
In these regional elections the left also swept the southwestern state of Kerala (population: 32 million) with a three-fourths majority, the biggest left victory ever in Kerala’s history. The leftist Democratic Front won two-thirds of the seats, with the CPI-M itself prevailing in sixty-one of the ninety-eight seats secured by the alliance. In Kerala’s upland district of Wyanad, which I visited last year and where farmers have been committing suicide amid the devastations of neoliberal “reforms,” the left front won all three seats for the first time in the history of Kerala.
Among the biggest losers in Kerala was the reactionary Indian Union Muslim League, with countless thousands of Muslims, especially young people and women, going against them this time. The league lost seats it had held for decades. The Muslim minority knew a few things about the left: In no state ruled by the left has there ever been a communal riot unleashing sectarian violence.
All in all, this has been a round of enormously significant polls in which the story is the left victory, thus strengthening the left at the center, which means it can prod the Congress-led government a little harder on issues ranging from policies affecting the poor to Delhi’s ridiculous Iran policy.
The Indian national media are overwhelmingly anti-left. They made fools of themselves in 2004 and are in the process of doing so again. In West Bengal they offer the explanation that the latest CPI-M victory is all due to the splendid personality of Buddhadev Bhattacharya, chief minister of West Bengal, a man the elite see, in their own purblind optics, as a great “reformer.” In fact, the left has always been pro-reforms, in a decent use of the word, meaning land reform and labor reform, which they believe are a prerequisite to other kinds of reforms. They favor foreign investment if it adds to India’s technological base, does not undermine public interest and employment, and if it’s in productive sectors and not “hot money” that will disappear at the drop of a hat.
They are against privatization that simply means theft of public resources of the sort that newly elected president Evo Morales has just reversed in the natural gas sector in Bolivia. The left has led major agitations against privatization. The left’s astounding victories are causing dismay in the major media (with the usual honorable exception of The Hindu). The more you talk about the triumphs, the more you have to talk about “them,” the left, and to admit that the left’s take on “reforms” strikes a mighty chord with vital sections of the public, as it did to the elites’ amazement in 2004, when the voters of Andhra Pradesh tossed out the West’s great poster boy, Chandrababu Naidu. The elites might have to admit that the left politicians and organizers were the ones talking about hunger, starvation, food security, neoliberal “reforms,” the agrarian crisis, the public sector and privatization.
The implications of all this for the health and stability of the United Progressive Alliance government, kept in power by dint of the left coalition’s support, are a net positive. But they can be turned to political advantage only if the proper lesson is drawn from the different outcomes: Even in periods of fairly high economic growth, governments like India’s current ruling coalition, kept in power by the left, need to pay attention to the reality of mass deprivation and do something about it.
In West Bengal Hidai Sheikh, a 50-year-old farmer, told a reporter from the Indian biweekly Frontline, “the CPI-M is the only viable alternative we have. After all, in times of need, they are always there beside us.” The red flags I saw in villages in Wyanad are not antique emblems, like the bric-a-brac on sale at Checkpoint Charlie. In political terms they are alive and vibrant.