Political Parties & Social Movements


Speech made by Prakash Karat
On January 18, 2004 at the WSF panel

1. Talking about political parties and social movements, we must first note that there are different types of political parties and social movements. Just as there are parties which represent the  ruling classes and the interests of the established order, so also there are social movements which play a socially regressive or divisive role.
There are political parties which seek basic social and economic transformations just as there are social movements which articulate and struggle for the interests of the oppressed and those marginalized in society.
2.  We are concerned with those parties and movements which strive for social and economic transformations to achieve social justice, democracy and equity. Here the entire historical experience shows that these two segments play separate roles, which  can be complementary or sequential.  Twentieth century history shows that mass democratic and Left political parties played the key role in delivering socio-economic benefits to the working people. It is the political change and the success of political struggle which brought about social and economic gains. Whether it be adult franchise, social welfare measures, universal education, sickness and unemployment benefits or the eight-hour working day.
While the actual change and delivery of social benefits were accomplished by a political agency through political changes, the raising of the problem, the highlighting of the issue and even mobilisation of public opinion were often initiated through social movements and organizations.
3. We are talking of the relationship between political parties and social movements. At this juncture this would mean recognizing what is common between them and what differentiates them.
Speaking of Left parties, their primary goal is to organize and mobilise support to fulfill a programme which involves influencing the State or forming a government to implement their programme. In many cases this would mean electoral mobilization as part of the programme of action. The parties of the Left would therefore be programme oriented which means taking up a whole range of issues and mobilizing different sections of the people. Within this Left spectrum there are parties of a Marxist orientation which relies on class strategies as their basic outlook.
At the present juncture, in India, the twin processes of liberalisation and communalism are being utilized by the ruling classes to maintain their class rule and system. This has meant  greater imperialist intervention and support for the political and economic processes at work in Indian society. The experience of the last one and a half decades is that there is a rightwing offensive drawing sustenance from both the communal-sectarian movement and the neo-liberal reforms. This has had a devastating effect on the working people and the socially oppressed sections. The Left has been subject to this onslaught as it has been  politically and ideologically opposed to both these trends.
The new social movements, as against the social movements of the earlier periods, have to respond to the impact of the imperialist driven globalisation and its social and economic consequences. Even when such movements have focused on single issues such as food, water, conserving community resources or women or dalit emancipation, they are responding and struggling against the attacks on the livelihood, rights or protection of the resources of various communities and groups. 
There is hence a convergence of interests and activities within the framework of a struggle against imperialist-globalisation and the domestic classes and order which facilitates its destructive effects by utilizing reactionary divisive politics based on religion, caste and  various forms of social chauvinism. That we are meeting and discussing this cooperation between parties and movements reflects this mutual realization.
There is another political and theoretical imperative to work for a relationship between the Left parties and radical social movements. Given the all invasive force of  US imperialism today, its globalising drive encompasses the economic, political, social and cultural spheres. The struggle cannot be confined or concentrated only on the political and economic. The social element is also vital and it must be incorporated in the struggle.
A phenomenon of imperialist globalisation is that its impact produces uneven effects and is socially fragmentative. It promotes identities which atomises rather than fosters collective solidarities.  In such a situation, the Left parties with their primacy for political goals are not equipped nor necessarily the best vehicles to take up the social and cultural struggles in a sustained manner.  The Left or Marxist parties would be weakening themselves by embracing identity politics. At the same time, it is necessary to draw in the socially fragmented sections who are the victims of both rightwing economic policies and sectarian-identity politics into the movement for social justice and the common democratic movement. This can be attempted by radical social movements who have the vision of linking up the issue, the local, to a wider democratic and political movement.
4.In order to bring such a cooperation to  realizable action and a common platform, it is necessary to recognise some hurdles and problems. They may be categorized as follows:
a)      The role of the State: Left political parties are fighting to ensure that the State remains accountable for fulfilling minimum needs of citizens and plays a role in redistributive justice and regulation of both international and domestic capital. A section of NGOs and social movements tend to negate this role of the State with an anti-statist outlook. The World Bank and big corporate foundations promote development in the developing countries with a philosophy of cutting off the State from its developmental and welfare responsibilities.  In India this issue is being increasingly resolved through practice.
b)      Alienation from the political: There is widespread distrust of politics and politicians, especially among the middle classes in India – from which are drawn a large section of the activists in social movements. This distrust extends to Left parties which are also partly a result of ideological and  philosophical differences. In India, the Left is predominantly of a Marxist character. Their programmatic outlook based on class and their organizational concepts are looked upon with suspicion or hostility. The argument is not about programme and organization per se. Because many social movements have veered to multi issue based programmes and coalitions and do not rely only on spontaneity from below. It goes deeper in the inability to comprehend that an anti-political stance is precisely what the forces of globalisation that they are ranged against, would wish them to adopt.
c)      Foreign funded socio-political activities: There has been an old debate in India about the role of foreign funded voluntary efforts which graduated from developmental activities to “empowerment” politics. Why did imperialism, the World Bank and Western government initiate this process in the late seventies and early eighties? This debate has helped clarify many issues. The positive development is that there is apart from the NGO sector which acts within the framework of the World Bank-Indian government funding philosophy, a new sector which has emerged which disavows such funding. They are the ones who are working in some of the new social movements amongst different sections of people. Foreign-funded NGOs in the development-empowerment business are in fact facilitators of the neo-liberal reforms and the imperialist strategy. At present, over 40 billion rupees (Rs. 4000 crore) every year, flows into India to NGOs for a whole range of activities.  Greater differentiation and demarcation from the World Bank concept of NGO/civil society development will help push the efforts for united action.
d)      The Left parties on their part, have still to catch up with some of the new realities and challenges. Their struggle for alternative policies, their conception of a left and democratic platform to challenge the imperialist-liberalisation-communalisation challenge is mainly centred on the daily economic struggles and the electoral-political battles. There is an insufficiency in both the conceptualization of and the struggles in the social and cultural spheres. Neither has the Left been able to fully deal with the complexities of technology-driven social trends and the social impact of the new economics. This gap, apart from other organizational constraints, makes it difficult for the Left to respond in a timely fashion to the issues raised by some of the social movements.
5.       The Left parties in Latin America have taken important strides in building platforms which embrace parties, movements and groups based on fighting neo-liberal policies and imperialism.  The Sao Paulo Forum which  began more than a decade ago was an important landmark.  The WSF at Porte Allegre followed.    The Left political parties in India, are in one sense fortunate that they have not suffered any significant erosion in their mass base after the profound changes on the world scene after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Those who call themselves Communists number over 1.5 million in various parties. There is a broader Left which involves another few million adherents.  The last decade has been difficult for the Left in India as it has been engaged in mainly a holding action. But then if we look around, this Left is the only Left that exists. And if we look  further, there are small but vital social movements challenging the attacks on the livelihood of the poor, the tribal peoples and  fighting caste  and gender oppression. They can find a meeting ground.