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.