Practising Democratic Communism: The Kerala Experience

Michelle Williams


The twentieth century was marked by the emergence and growth of mass political parties that sought to control their respective states through either democratic or authoritarian means. For parties operating in democratic contexts, their relations to civil society tended to be more autonomous and revolved around support for electoral contests. For many communist parties, by contrast, the relation to civil society was top-down, with the mobilization of a mass base by a vanguard party vital to the communist project. Kerala’s Communist Party of India (Marxist) was trying to break with this tradition of heteronomous relations to its base through pioneering a new road to socialist democracy in which the party prioritized democratic institutions, practices, and processes as both means and end. In this process, the party was refashioning relations between the state and civil society, as well as between the party and state-civil society.

In this essay I argue that in the 1990s the CPI(M)’s People’s Plan Campaign for Democratic Decentralization represented a fundamental shift in the way politics and civil society interface: civil society mobilization went from redistributive claims-making protest politics to a generative politics that deepened and extended democratic practices. Indeed, it has been suggested that ‘the campaign’ (as it is popularly called) ‘in both its scope and design … represents the most ambitious and concerted state-led effort to build local institutions of participatory democratic governance ever taken in the subcontinent’. For the CPI(M) the campaign had twin goals: (1) institutional transformation making local governments more accountable and responsive to local needs; and (2) mass mobilization to build the capacity and culture for democratic participation among ordinary citizens. The CPI(M) was trying to extend civil society’s influence in the political and economic spheres through institutional changes and mobilizational efforts. It envisioned empowering ordinary citizens through democratizing local government in order to effect economic development and social justice. The party recognized, at least implicitly, that popular sovereignty requires the autonomy of popular movements.

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