Some Challenges before the Left


Brinda Karat

ONE of the issues discussed in the 20th Party Congress was that of identity politics and the challenges this poses before the Left movement. Both the political resolution and the ideological resolution adopted at the Congress have dwelt on this issue.

The processes leading to the fragmentation of the identity of working people under the neo-liberal regime, pose new challenges before the Left, particularly in a society like ours where multiple divisions historically exist, based on caste, religion, region, language etc. In the last two decades, these divisions have been accentuated by a particular brand of politics which uses caste and/or community as tools to divide the working people and for the creation of vote banks for political mobilisation. This process has been aided by changes in the material conditions created by neo-liberal policies in which men and women work in India and all over the world. These policies also give birth to an ever-growing army of unemployed or underemployed youth whose growing frustration is tapped into by various reactionary forces. Taken together, there is an objective process at work which tends to weaken the identity of the worker as a worker and erode class consciousness.


Under the neo-liberal regime, there have been changes both in the production process and in the nature of labour contracts, which negate workers’ rights. On the one hand, there are the highly advanced production units, which are capital intensive and employ a negligible number of workers who require higher educational degrees and skills. On the other hand, capitalists find it more profitable, in the manufacturing sector as a whole, to decentralise, divide and sub-divide the production process through outsourcing of the various operations by the main company and then to finally assemble the finished product. The major trend in labour deployment is the mass casualisation and contractualisation of the workforce and a sharp deterioration of conditions under which men and women find employment. According to the International Labour Organisation workers in “vulnerable employment,” that is employment without security has greatly increased. It has estimated that in 2010 over 50 per cent of the global labour force, that is 1.5 billion (150 crore) workers, many of them women, were in extreme forms of work insecurity.

In India the number of workers in the organised sector comprise hardly seven per cent of the work force now. The public sector employs most of these workers. With the large scale Voluntary Retirement Scheme measures in place, recruitment is low and the employment rate is declining. On the other hand, in the private sector there is increasing informalisation of the work force. In the total number of workers in manufacturing sector (as per the Annual Survey of Industries) the share of contract workers has increased from 20 per cent in 1999-2000 to 32 per cent in 2008-2009. In both rural and urban India, the number of casual workers is increasing. The NSSO estimates that between 2004-2005 and 2009-2010, the number of casual workers increased by as many as 21 million workers. In contrast, regular workers whether in urban or rural areas increased by only 5.8 million.

A larger number of workers have multiple occupations, thus the worker identity tends to get blurred. With the decentralisation of the production process, the layers of contractors, supervisors or petty agents also conceal the direct relation between the worker and the employer. Thus, the sharp class contradiction between the workers and the employer as experienced in a factory no longer exists for a large section of the work force.

Historically, the growth of big manufacturing units with a large workforce under a single roof, often living together in contiguous areas, helped to develop a culture related to the collective work and lives of workers. In India, the textile workers living in Bombay or the textile industrial areas in Delhi or the jute and engineering factories in Bengal are some examples where a vibrant culture helped the development of a class based unity and identity. This is not to say that the caste system was eliminated; caste based discriminations worked in different forms. But the industrial working class organised in the old type of factories and mills and living in and around those industrial areas objectively provided the basis for a major political constituency of the working class. The identity of the worker was built on the premise of unity against class exploitation, which was buttressed by the experience of daily work.


Over the last two decades, with the changes in the production process there has been a fragmentation of the workforce and cultures have emerged which reflect this fragmentation. The bonds of workers collectively involved in the production process have weakened considerably. The old workers’ colonies have been bulldozed, replaced by real estate developers’ paradise of skyscrapers for the moneyed and big malls and shopping centres. The disappearance of the labour colonies from the urban landscape has been accompanied by the dispersal of workers and labourers, weakening their political weight and striking power, whether in the economy or cultural and social life. On the other hand with the outsourcing system and the decentralised process, the workers home often becomes his/her workplace. Thus traditional working class politics, based on worker mobilisations around the  work processes and the workplace, has got weakened.

This is the background for the intensification of politics based on non-class identities. The most obvious reflection of this fragmentation of identities of the working people is seen in the rapid growth and spread of organisations and movements which seek to utilise objective processes for narrow sectarian needs. This cannot be seen as affecting the trade union movement alone. It affects the wider social and political life of our country. In fact, it constitutes one of the biggest challenges to the Left movement as a whole.

How does the Left counter this? Clearly it is important to reach out and organise the vast army of the unorganised sector involved in the various outsourced processes. In addition, the effort has been to stress on the universal demands of all working people as a counter to these identity based movements which are proliferating. This, of course, is essential. The common bonds of class unity are based on the exploitation of all working people and this must be stressed. But in today’s context is this enough? It has been estimated for example that a dalit worker doing the same job as a non-dalit worker gets a wage, which is one third of what the latter gets, because he is a dalit. A woman worker gets a wage, which is one third to half of what is earned by a male worker, because of her gender. The Sachar committee report pointed to the discrimination in jobs and the access to education and skills faced by Muslims. As a result of this, Muslims were mostly employed in less paid more vulnerable trades and professions of self-employment.

The slogan of class unity will have meaning for a dalit worker only if working class movements mobilise all workers against the specific oppression and exploitation that he or she faces as a dalit; Muslims will be drawn to movements which take up and highlight the specific discrimination they face as Muslims; struggles against neo-liberal policies cannot go ahead without specific reference to the impact on working women. Peasant movements that seek to address agrarian distress have to specifically study the impact of such policies, say on tribal peasants as compared to non-tribal peasants. In other words, unless the specific oppressions, exploitations and discriminations are addressed which occur because of their being dalits, women, tribals or Muslims, Left strategies in India to counter identity politics cannot be successful. The slogan of class unity rings hollow to these masses if their specific issues are not given due prominence by all workers and progressive movements. We must understand the differentiation that is taking place due to neo-liberal policies and address it in a comprehensive manner.


Another aspect of the problem is the understanding that such issues are “social” issues which are subordinate to class issues. This is rooted in a very mechanical interpretation of the Marxist understanding of base and superstructure. In his preface to A Critique of Political Economy, Marx had written “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life … changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.” From this some sections of the Left have concluded that issues related to caste, gender or religion based discriminations are in the realm of the superstructure and therefore at best, are not priorities for the working class movement, and at worst are to be left to be dealt with after the revolution! Such an erroneous view has done incalculable damage to the movement. The way Indian society has historically developed with the close intertwining of caste and class, it is clear enough that caste has been used as a tool to extract more surplus from the labour of the so-called untouchables and shudras. Patriarchal cultures have been used to depress the value of female labour. In this context, therefore, caste and gender appear as class issues.

However, while the large majority of dalits and tribals belong to the basic classes of workers and small peasants, women and minorities are not homogenous communities. The discrimination a woman belonging to the better off sections may face certainly cannot be equated with a factory woman worker even though they are both women. But, at the same time, as a woman in this patriarchal society she is also vulnerable to patriarchal violence perpetrated on women. Among Muslims, although substantial sections belong to professions and communities which have been traditionally exploited, there is no homogeneity of class backgrounds. In this context, these are social issues, relating to the question of social oppression.

Thus, there are both class aspects as well as social aspects that the Left must address in its approach. By lumping all this together under the category of “social issues” we tend to underestimate the critical role that work among these sections plays in the current struggle to change the correlation of forces in India. On the contrary, the absence of Left initiatives will strengthen the trend of narrow identity politics driven by retrogressive forces.

Neo-liberal policies have had a wide ranging impact on society, on production processes as well as social relations. The urgency to take up issues of dalits, tribals, women and minorities cannot be emphasised enough. These are the social sections that should be the natural constituency for the Left and democratic forces in our country. Effectively combining the struggles against class exploitation and social oppression of these sections is a strategic task before the Left.

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