by Pothik Ghosh
There was a time when the spectre of communism haunted private property, but times have changed. The spectre of private property haunts communism now. Even as the ‘communist’ government of West Bengal resorted to state terrorism in Nandigram to acquire land from unwilling villagers to jump-start industrialisation for ‘development’, Communist China passed a law that would make right to private property legally enforceable for the first time since the 1949 revolution. The legislation, which is meant to give people a stake in their assets and protect them from a capricious party bureaucracy that has used the proxy of state ownership to dispossess many of them, seems to be a markedly different response to development than that of their CPI(M) comrades in Bengal.
There are, of course, obvious limits to how far the common citizens of China can go with the law. Given the infamous unaccountability of the Chinese state, it’s most likely to be used by its avaricious political elite to legalise its ownership over assets acquired, in the name of the state and public good, by expropriating individual citizens.
Therefore, in terms of the final solution, the responses of the communists of China and West Bengal to the question of ownership have turned out to be not so different after all. The two cases are, however, not strictly comparable. For one, while post-revolutionary China has always been a one-party state, the Left Front has come to power in West Bengal and held on to it by participating in the Indian system of multi-party electoral democracy.
For another, LF-ruled West Bengal has always recognised the legally established form of mixed ownership of property in India. Yet, the vengeance with which the Indian state has often used the principle of eminent domain to dispossess traditional socio-economic communities in order to acquire land for ‘development’ and ‘public good’ emphasises its institutional affinity for the ideology and rhetoric of state socialism. It would, therefore, make perfect sense to historically examine the ‘socialist’ discourse on ownership of property.
State ownership cannot truly socialise property because of the way the state structurally is: an alien authority dispensing governance to a passive population. Public ownership of property is thus the ownership of bureaucracies, and ensembles of vested interests. Such institutionalised diminution of public participation by the modern state holds true even in a representative electoral system like India’s.
On the other hand, legally enforceable right to private property, even if it were to exist as a fundamental right, would not lead to a participatory democracy. The dangers that the new Chinese law poses, bears that out. Even as the disintegration of stratified pre-capitalist communities has always led to legalised private property and capitalism, such breakdown has not always yielded by itself even functional democracy.
The link between private property and democracy is much more tenuous than commonly accepted. While the 19th century Prussian model of Junker capitalism — where landlords and companies expropriated the peasantry from above and legalised property so acquired as their own — will certainly not yield democracy; the 19th century US way, where private property was established through the emergence of small-to-medium independent farmers from below, is a case of capitalistic ownership coinciding with the formal democratic project.
It was not without reason that Russian social democrats Plekhanov and Lenin championed the latter, rejected the former (enforced by liberals like Stolypin in Russia), and yet managed to distinguish themselves from the Populists and Narodniks, who opposed Stolypin’s reforms because it destroyed the traditional peasant community. Clearly then, asset redistribution programme was not merely an end in itself for the social democrats. It was of even greater consequence to them precisely because it engendered the possibility of an alternative conception of political power than that embodied by the modern state.
Lenin and his fellow-travellers’ quest, at least till the October Revolution of 1917, was as much socialisation of economic assets as an alternative political structure that was more democratic than any. The reason they envisaged the two together was because they understood the individual’s freedom from the community both as his freedom from the oppressive bonds of the community and from its protection. Their vision was to reconcile the question of individual liberty (rights) with that of communitarian protection (social entitlements). The social democrats knew that only universal empowerment would arm people with the capacity to both facilitate and participate in modern development.
The unfortunate part of the story is that as the movement progressed, the search for an alternative political structure became subordinate to the nature of ownership of property. This was largely because the Bolshevik Revolution, just like other similar Left-led movements that occurred later elsewhere, was forced by the exigencies of modern politics to concentrate on dealing with the might of the pre-revolutionary state and emphasised the seizure of state power as its cardinal goal. As a result, it was rendered incapable of imagining configurations of power outside the framework of the modern state.
The horrors of collectivisation of agriculture in the erstwhile USSR of 1920s must be ascribed to this derailment of political imagination. The alternative cannot, however, be a utopian community of subsistence farmers. Land and capital will have to be consolidated to make both agriculture and the larger socio-economic order more productive and viable. Chinese historian Qin Hui’s is opposed to both the ‘Leftists’, who favour state ownership; and ‘liberalisers’, who are all for privatisation.
In an interview to the New Left Review, the communist dissident has accurately likened the former to Russian Populists and the latter to Stolypin-style liberals. The opposition between the two, as is evident in China and, to a lesser extent, India, is false. They actually complement and fulfil each other. The real issue then is that of finding an alternative political culture and institutional structure, which will drive development through democratic management of the commons.
A modified version of an article published in The Economic Times