Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On Agrarian Transition in West Bengal

By Surya Mishra

NO. 2, APRIL TO JUNE, 2007

This article deals with changes in the agrarian situation in West Bengal over the last three decades, that is, since the inception of the Left Front Government in 1977. It also examines options before the Left Front at this juncture, as the Left Front Government strives to implement the policy programme to which it committed itself in the election manifesto issued before the Assembly elections of 2006. These are the specific objectives of this essay. The article deal with some issues of theory and policy before the Left Front Government and Left movement in respect of agrarian transition in West Bengal.


In the classical Marxist debate on the agrarian question, Lenin identified two distinct paths to the development of capitalism in agriculture, namely, the “Junker” (or “Prussian”) path (capitalism from above) and the “American” path (capitalism from below). Since then, the world has witnessed a rich variety of agrarian transitions, including those of present and erstwhile socialist economies and of countries in other parts of the Third World. The experiences of agrarian transition in India and in West Bengal have their own distinctive characteristics. While these experiences merit careful study, it can be stated with confidence that the capitalist development that has taken place in West Bengal in the last three or four decades is primarily a product of class struggle, that is, a form of capitalism “from below.” Given the situation in West Bengal today, what are the options before us? The CPI(M) has been of the considered opinion that production relations have to correspond to the degree of development of productive forces, and that a Marxist-Leninist assessment of the concrete situation, and of the correlation of class forces prevailing at the national and international levels, is required in this regard. After 1977, thanks to the land reform carried out by the Left Front Government, West Bengal achieved the highest agricultural growth rates in the country, and these were based on the productive performance of small farms. West Bengal made substantial progress in respect of rural per capita food grain consumption. It saw the sharpest decline in the country of income-poverty. The internal market expanded as a result of increased purchasing power in the hands of the rural masses. Above all, the policies of the Left Front Government changed the correlation of class forces in the countryside,a change that has been sustained for three decades. At the same time, there was some capital formation in the primary sector. Bank deposits in rural areas grew, and the State mobilised the highest levels of small savings in the country. Despite the fact that surpluses generated in the primary sector enhance the potential for the industrialisation of West Bengal, the class nature of the Indian state and specific policies of the Central Government have discouraged the industrial development of West Bengal.

With respect to agriculture, we certainly cannot embark on a policy of corporate farming in the way some other States have. These States have doled out vast stretches of agricultural land (on the pretext that they are wastelands) to agribusiness companies for captive farming. Some options, however, merit serious consideration.
First, we can upgrade small farms technologically. We can do so by mobilizing public and private investment, and utilizing contract farming arrangements in a way relevant and appropriate to our situation. This will enable us to replace, in collaboration with domestic capital, inefficient marketing systems as they exist today (and which have significant pre-capitalist characteristics). To ensure that the gains of this accrue the peasantry and the people, we have to depend on the bargaining power of the organised peasantry and regulatory measures by the Government.

Secondly, a functional consolidation of holdings, for instance by hiring in tractors and other equipment collectively, has emerged spontaneously in the West Bengal countryside.6 There is much room for organizing such initiatives in a planned manner. Cooperatives and self-help groups organised into clusters and federations can play a significant role in providing credit, other services, extension and marketing support. While it would be utopian to attempt large-scale cooperative farming or collectivisation in an age when even socialist economies like China or Vietnam have, on the basis of experience, gone in for decollectivisation followed by peasant farming, we must not be mistaken for those who eulogise petty commodity production from an anti-Marxist viewpoint and derive satisfaction from the collapse of collectives in the former USSR and elsewhere. The disastrous consequences of the forced dismantling of collective and State farms in former USSR have been noted even by bourgeois economists.

Thirdly, while de-peasantisation is not unexpected under capitalism, this phenomenon serves to emphasise the importance of using the possibilities of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP) to the full in order to create employment and new assets. Such employment and asset-creation may be in the form of water harvesting, land development, plantation in the lands of land-reform beneficiaries, the creation of assets and employment for households below the poverty line, Scheduled Caste and Tribe households, and other schemes.

The Industrialisation Imperative

The seventh Left Front Government came to office with a mandate to go ahead with industrialisation and consolidate the gains in agriculture. It can be said that the issues of the conversion of agricultural land to industrial land and the issue of whether elections in the State were free and fair became the two main issues on which the electorate delivered its verdict. The electoral verdict was unequivocal, and the strength of the Left Front increased both in terms of seats and vote-share. Any vacillation or backtracking with respect to industrialisation would represent a breach of faith in the trust reposed by the people in the Front.
The issue is not of industry versus agriculture, as the Opposition – who are the known enemies of the peasantry – would have us believe. The issue now is that of industrialisation for the sake of the peasantry and agriculture itself. All that the State and its people have achieved on the agrarian front will be at peril if balanced growth of secondary and tertiary sectors fails to take off.
Nothing other than such growth can release the burden of the workforce dependent on agriculture and subjected to both pre-capitalist and capitalist mode of exploitation, thereby making a more equitable distribution of work and earnings among the workforce in all three sectors possible; ensure a more sustainable growth of the primary sector by providing inputs necessary for the modernisation of and higher productivity from this sector; add value to primary-sector products, thereby enhancing income and employment; and · augment revenue resources of the State Government, thereby enabling more public investment in the primary sector in infrastructure, inputs, extension and human resource development possible. In class and political terms, nothing other than such growth can deliver yet another blow to pre-capitalist elements and their politicalmentors; utilise the contradiction between Indian big bourgeoisie and imperialism and the difference within the ruling classes and their parties in the country in such a way as to develop a Left and democratic alternative by changing the correlation of class forces; meet the onslaught of globalised finance capital to de-industrialise our economy; and meet the immediate need of forging the broadest possible unity of the peasantry, working class, petty bourgeoisie and all patriotic and democratic sections of the people to resist the terror let loose by the grand alliance of the most reactionary section of the ruling class. As contradictions and the class struggle intensify, Right and Left opportunists, along with vacillating sections of petty bourgeoisie, the lumpen proletariat and both varieties of communal forces are sought to be mobilised into this grand alliance in order to isolate and attack the CPI(M).

History teaches us that this attack against CPI(M) will not remain confined to the Party. The situation in West Bengal is reminiscent of the 1970-77 period, although it is too early to identify and list the common features at the present moment. The design to expand the current attack to a semi-fascist offensive against the all sections of people, irrespective of their political affiliation, in this advanced outpost of democracy in the country, has to be properly understood and explained to the people all over the country.


Many issues of theory and practice have been raised in the aftermath of the events in Singur and Nandigram. Some of these proceed from the assumption that the opposition of the Left Front Government to neo-liberal economic policy is less sharp, and has somehow been blunted in recent times. Such a perception maligns the most advanced outpost of democracy. It not only ignores the Budget speeches and other policy statements of the Left Front Government, but also the stark reality that West Bengal has made the biggest contribution – inside parliament and outside – to the struggle against neo-liberal policies. Critics who say that the Left Front Government is to be criticised for not protesting against the imposition of neoliberal economic policies on the people have lost sight of the fact that it is because of this resistance that the UPA Government is unable to push through fully the neo-liberal agenda to which it is committed.


With respect to industrialisation in the State, one position is that, since the only industrialisation possible under the neo-liberal regime is corporate industrialisation, it is anti-people, since very little, if any, new employment is created. This position rejects as baseless the argument that industrialisation is necessary because it will take surplus labour out of agriculture, and states that it is awareness of this fact that “makes peasants most reluctant to part with their land for industrial purposes.” Further, the argument goes, the situation in India today is not one of industrialists competing for the attention of State Governments, but of State Governments competing to attract capitalists to their respective States.

These arguments must be met squarely. First, they do not take into account the relative advantages of West Bengal as an industrial destination. We have mentioned the nature of changes wrought by land reform, and the situation with regard to small savings and other forms of capital formation in the primary sector. West Bengal also has a stable and transparent State Government and a vibrant system of local self-government. Its geographical location permits it to serve as a gateway for some 200 million people in the region, besides being a gateway to South East Asia. It also has a reasonably large pool of skilled workers. Going by our experience, we believe that the present situation, particularly after de-licensing and the partial withdrawal of freight equalisation, is more one of capitalists opting to invest in West Bengal than of the Left Front Government running after them to invest. The fact is that it was not the Tatas who threatened to go to Uttaranchal, but the grand alliance of anti-CPI(M) forces that threatened them and told them to move out of West Bengal. Nor must we forget that capitalists compete against each other and attempt to prevent their competitors from investing in “flagship” technology that threatens their own markets.

Secondly, it is useful to remember that the Left Front Government has never forced reluctant peasants to part with their land. It was the armed goons of the grand alliance who forced peasants not to transfer land in exchange for one of the best compensation and rehabilitation packages that have been offered in the country.

Thirdly, it is often forgotten that the Left Front Government in West Bengal distributes more land every year free of cost to the peasantry than it acquires for all purposes taken together – and the current period is no exception.

Fourthly, the Left Front Government has been able to make progress with respect to Public Sector Undertakings, Central and State. Over the last year, investment of Rs 10 billion for the modernisation of IISCO has been ensured; in addition, progress has been made with respect to the revival of Bengal Chemicals, Gluconate, Infusion India, as well as the fertilizer industry and the Mining and Allied Machinery Corporation.

The Left Front Government, too, is concerned about the limited potential of corporate industrialisation with respect to employment creation. In its last Party Congress, the CPI(M) emphasised the need to engage with the current situation, to look for new productive investment (including foreign direct investment that brings in new technology) and add to our productive capacity and ensure whatever employment growth is possible.

Thus, while the argument in question correctly opposes the Luddite argument against industry as indefensible, it also asserts that an employment argument for industrialisation is unacceptable. Our contention here is that the employment argument is valid, and serves to demystify the debate.

“Vulgar” Economy

Further, an exclusive reliance on the argument that industrialisation can be justified only on the grounds that it produces use values also has problems. As Marx wrote in the Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital, “overwhelming and exclusive emphasis on ‘thing-ness’ (use value) is nothing but a modern variant of ‘vulgar economy’.”

Let us pursue this matter further. While opposing any method of analyzing a situation exclusively based on the materiality of objects, that is, its “thing-ness” or use value (the “vulgar economy” error), Marxist-Leninists must not make the mistake of passing judgments exclusively based on social relations as they appear, ignoring their material basis. These deviations represent opportunisms of Right and Left variety in the sense that they attempt to erect a Chinese Wall between “things” and “relations”, “use value” and “exchange value”, “concrete labour” and “abstract labour”, “productive forces” and “production relations”, and so on. A commodity represents a unity of opposites — its origin, development, decay and final disappearance being manifestations of the intensification of the contradiction between its use value and exchange value, which correspond to concrete and abstract labour respectively.
An error of some Left intellectuals and progressive scholars is that of assuming that this two-fold nature did not characterize pre-capitalist societies. Such an assumption implies that commodity production was non-existent in pre-capitalist societies, which was clearly not the case. The most concise definition of capitalism was given by Lenin when he stated that capitalism is a system of generalized commodity production where labour power itself has become a commodity. This definition differentiates capitalist commodity production from pre-capitalist commodity production.

The relevance of the issue under discussion in the Indian context must not be underestimated. Production relations continue to exhibit pre-capitalist fetters. This explains in part the vulnerability of our economy to the pressure of globalised finance capital.

Issues of Strategy and Tactics

It is our position that, with the big bourgeoisie, which is the leader of the bourgeois-landlord class alliance, increasingly collaborating with global finance capital in the pursuit of its bankrupt capitalist path of development, it is only a People’s Democratic state that can accomplish the anti-feudal, anti-imperialist, anti-monopoly and democratic tasks of the Indian revolution. The CPI(M) has much experience of the disastrous consequences of mixing up the tasks of different stages of revolution. The entire construction of those engaged in the battle against “vulgar economy” runs the risk of being misunderstood. It gives the impression that there is nothing much left to be done to abolish new forms of landlordism, the hegemony of the rural rich, and remnants of feudalism. The underlying view here seems to be that the focal contradiction between the landlords and the peasantry is being replaced by a contradiction between imperialism and the Indian people as a whole, that is, including the entire rural population. Such a view fails to understand that mobilising the rural poor against landlordism is critical to ensuring the broadest mobilisation againstimperialism.

While the development of capitalism in agriculture as well as the development of democratic and peasant movements have been uneven in the country, nowhere (including in the Left-led States) have pre-capitalist relations been eliminated. There are wide variations in the levels of socio-economic development and in historical background even among the three Left-led States, and it cannot be wise to offer a single set of solutions for all situations. For example, if one area in India today has a Permanent Settlement background, another has a history of predominance of ryotwari, and yet another a history of tribal-communal ownership of land with shifting cultivation.

Even today, a substantial part of the peasant economy in West Bengal is characterised by a combination of subsistence farming and commodity production. That West Bengal is the highest producer of rice and has a relative surplus with respect to rice production today is because of the fact that poor peasants who benefited from land reform have focussed almost exclusively on rice production to ensure their own food security. They had, after all, learned lessons from the food movement and its brutal suppression in the days when West Bengal was dependent on the supply of rice from the Central pool. Thus, a good part of the rice that these peasants produce is for their own consumption, and has only use value (and no exchange value). This is a form of security that they would like to protect.

The fact that capitalism tends to destroy petty production shows that precapitalist relations are inherent in such production. That these relations survived so long is not because the Indian state after Independence has provided support in the interests of getting “crucial petty bourgeois support” for strengthening the base of capitalist development. They persist because of the inherent limitations of the development of the capitalist path pursued by the Indian state, which
provides all its support for landlord capitalism (from above) and not peasant capitalism (from below).

Let us reiterate an issue raised earlier in the article. While the solution to the present problems of petty production does not lie in corporate agriculture promoted by neo-liberalism, it is utopian to talk of “cooperatives and collective forms” (if those are to mean cooperative or collective farming) as an immediate alternative direction for the Left movement. Following the cataclysmic changes in the international polity and economy in the early 1990s, the discussion in the CPI(M) on “Certain Ideological Issues” concluded that production relations have to correspond to the degree of development of the productive forces. The point here is whether the Indian Left today can afford an alternative that is currently only being experimented with in socialist states. We are aware of some of the experiments pursued in People’s Republic of China. It may also be relevant here to quote the experience of the Communist Party of Vietnam with regard to collectivisation and cooperativisation:
However, despite the positive factors, there was stagnation of production and food scarcities, given the lack of sufficient care of collective land. The life of peasants became more difficult and there were years when 3-4 million peasants suffered from food shortage while tens of thousands of hectares of land were left uncultivated…Thanks to the extensive and intensive reform already undertaken, Vietnam has been transformed from a food importing country into one that not only meets its own needs but can also export 4 million tons of rice every year.”

Similarly, the Cuban experience is that The economic mechanism of the agrarian state sector was based on centralised planning with restricted enterprise autonomy, a limited market and little use of prices and finance. The mechanism was intrinsically expensive, inefficient and bureaucratic, which explains the unprofitability and high subsidies needed to cover losses that became unbearable for macroeconomic balance during economic crisis of the 1990s.

The Cubans also recognise the existence of a powerful peasant sector, which is growing rapidly in the rural Cuban environment today. Of course we would prefer the cooperative peasant, once he represents a higher productive and social form in our society.

As mentioned earlier, we in West Bengal believe that while cooperatives can help a lot in providing credit, other non-land inputs and services, and other forms of support, functional collectivisation in form of farmers collectively hiring machinery and so on, can provide support to sustain peasant farming.

Some Left intellectuals not only lay lopsided emphasis on production relations or productive forces in isolation from each other, but also fail to take an all-sided view of other phenomena as well. There are problems of de-linking tactics from strategy, realisable demands from propaganda slogans, the immediate from the ultimate and, above all, practice from theory.

The CPI(M) has to work for many alternatives. These include the socialist alternative (achievable only after the People’s Democratic revolution has been accomplished); the People’s Democratic alternative, which requires “the actuality of revolution” to occur; and the Left and democratic alternative, based on programmes to advance the cause of People’s Democratic Revolution that are worked out in Party Congresses. Our Party-led State Governments, however, cannot be expected to implement any of the alternative programmes mentioned above. Within the constitutional and other limitations under which they function, they offer alternatives that fall short of full Left and democratic programmes.

It is clear that the alternatives that the Party proposes at the national level are not ipso facto applicable to Left-led State Governments. Sweeping formulations that do not take this distinction into consideration create confusion. When the Left Front Government talks about the need for “a shift of the agriculture-dependent population to manufacturing and other non-agricultural pursuits”, “competitiveness”, “Public-Private Partnership (PPP)”, “productivity increases”, “modernisation”, or even “investment”, “ development”, and “growth rate”, it is not unaware of the class content with which each of these terms is loaded. Terms such as these have meanings that vary with the class interests that underlie their use. Awareness of such class content also involves a recognition of the present change in correlation of class forces at the international level in favour, albeit temporarily, of imperialism. How the Party and movement are to engage with such a situation has partly been dealt with in the document titled “Certain Policy Issues” approved by the 18th Party Congress.

There must be no confusion in our minds with regard to the difference between “Xian” and “Yenan”. Defence of the CPI(M)-led Governments and the Left bastions in the country is an integral part of the struggle against neoliberalism.

No comments: