A Communist Success Story

Story of a place where democratically elected Communist Parties is a real thing

Did you guys know there was an election recently where the Communists won? Pretty handily too? For those of you unaware, Kerala is a tiny sliver of a state on the south west side of India. It was named after coconut trees, has its own language and script, had the largest selling newspaper in India, and 35 million people! And it has probably the strongest functioning Communist party in a democracy.

Considering it's the political bogeyman that the entire Western world still calls its ideological opponent, its worth seeing what a success story might look like.

The Left Democratic Front (not the worst Communist party name by the way, only slight hints of power-hungriness and worry) was the party. And the win was for a historic consecutive second term. Considering the Communist party itself is a 102 years old in India, and Kerala had the world's second elected Communist government in 1957, it's a pretty fitting achievement.

The state has a population that boasts 100% literacy, high political awareness, reasonably high salaries in some sectors, strong healthcare and education, and a decent level of religious tolerance. Which is ... unique ... to say the least in India.

But first, since most of my readers are presumably not knee deep in the politics of a small state in India, a short history.

A short history

Before Independence, at the turn of the 19th century, Kerala contained within it three major kingdoms - Travancore, Cochin and Malabar. Cochin was famous partly because that's where Vasco Da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, arrived in Kerala in the late 1400s. The oldest synagogue in the whole of the Commonwealth is also in Kerala, in a lovely little enclave called Jewtown in Cochin. In the centuries since, the missionaries often came and built educational institutions in Kerala that helped educate more and more of the population.

In the 19th century, the area which constituted present-day Kerala—namely, Travancore, Cochin and Malabar—was an educationally and socially backward region. ... Most of the reform movements in this region emerged from the lower castes, unlike the north Indian renaissance, which was mainly an upper-caste preserve. ... In contrast with North India, enlightenment in Kerala was driven by lower castes. Narayana Guru, Ayyankali and others belonged to caste groups considered lower in the social settings of 19th century Kerala. Hence most of them emphasized the need for abolition of the caste system rather than its reformation.

In a funny twist of fate the North Indian Communists, who mostly faded away, looked upon the Communist leadership in Kerala and called them Social Fascists. Instead of the usual industrial agitation, Kerala, not having much industry, had social agitation. They encouraged education amongst everyone, which helped the populace get more politically active and resist some of the crazy religious tension that was the mainstay in the rest of the country.

There were multiple other schisms, for instance while the Communist party split into CPI(M) and CPI, one more socialist and one more Marxist. For now let's ignore these. But for fun:

The two Left parties fought against each other, with the CPI aligning itself with the Congress. There was a major campaign against the CPM, accusing them of being Chinese agents. Though CPM went on to become the single largest party, it couldn't form a government, as 29 of its 44 MLAs were in jail.

But anyway ... back to history.

The first thing to note was a religious renaissance that tried to root out casteism inherent in society. The existing societal reformation movements blended with the Communist party movement, and that's where the party succeeded!

It was the Left that first succeeded in implementing the ideological perspective of Sree Narayana Guru's Renaissance movement on the ground. Culturally progressive literary movements contributed to the state's overall development. Hence a major socio-cultural base was set up in Kerala, even before the first Left government was formed in 1957

The absolute banishment of any relationship between caste and position within the party worked in their favour. Whether cynical or practical or principled, this solidified the base who finally felt there was someone in the political spectrum aligned with their goals.

The second thing is the introduction of a heavily decentralised power distribution throughout the state. Starting with capital budgeting, all the way to healthcare and education, for the planning and implementation of a large number of state-wide activities, there was the heavy form of decentralisation that a modern blockchain adherent would drool at.

This was helpful of course, especially in making the citizenry feel involved with the workings of the government, who were no longer foreign and impersonal. The ultimate economic impact was more mixed, since the obvious issue of lack of talent at doing these things like budgeting at a highly local level had a cumulative negative impact.

The third thing was land reform. Most of the lower castes were workers in the land that was owned by others. Once you're getting educated and have some political power, this obviously seemed kind of ridiculous that the path to building capital didn't really exist. So the Land Reform act essentially broke up old, ancestral holdings and parcelled out the land to the workers who were living and working on it. (As an aside, when I was growing up there were several times when I've heard how the land our family owned "extended to those three hills" which were all owned by others. Two generations removed, but seemed fair.)

The fourth thing, more of an outcome, is that the educated and politically active youth started taking more of an active part in politics. Every college had representations of political parties that were quite powerful, highly engaged in social and moral causes, and agitated with the verve and sense of rightness that only teenagers possess. The Marxist organisations like SFI are often the vanguards of policies that the bigger party platform often adopts later on! Sometimes they're the guinea pigs trying things out like moral policing which ends up failing, and the bigger state-wide party gets to do some free experimentation.

The fifth thing is of course, unions. I dare you to find a sector of activity there that isn't heavily unionised, often with multiple unions. The political parties work with the unions to create worker strikes or bus strikes or rail strikes or shop strikes and generally make life for the normal person miserable. But it did have the intended benefit for the workers in the form of salary and perks.

The sixth and last thing is one of the coolest. The party started several cooperatives across most neighbourhoods, including Cooperative banks. It got started by the work from the worker's unions. For example, from one of the strikes they led:

One of the demands of the union was that the workers be allowed to read when they are not actually at work. It became a practice (one that continued at KDB) for workers to take turns at reading newspapers and books aloud to their co-workers.

The fact that the state spent a large portion of its budget on social welfare meant that the success for these initiatives became more likely, since the downside was often protected. The model was supposed to look like workers cooperatives that ran successfully, grew fast, and were profitable while providing a great place to work!

Good in theory. But did it work in practice?

On a new form of industrial organisation

The start came from a workers' cooperative society in 1969 who decided to take the means of production into their own hands. They were manufacturing beedis, small cigarettes. To overcome the crisis that all production was going to close in the region, the workers did something new.

To overcome this crisis, the workers led by the Communist Party mobilised Rs 1 from each unemployed worker to form a workers` cooperative society called Kerala Dinesh Beedi, which came into existence in February 1969. ... It was a peculiar situation of workers themselves becoming the owners of the industry. The major aim of the Workers Cooperative Society was to give employment to thousands of workers who were jobless at that time. The next 25 years saw a phenomenal expansion, making KDB the fourth-largest beedi firm in India.

And it wasn't just any old factory operation either. Look at its accomplishments:

  • Average worker wages went up 20x+ from Rs 4 per 1000 beedis to Rs 80 for 900

  • Workers got a bonus for their work, which reached up to 17%

  • They had flexible working! Choosing a schedule, lunch and tea breaks, maternity leave, pension etc etc

  • They could borrow from the cooperative's funds at zero interest

That's enough to make any firm pat itself on the back today! Though as a coda, it did eventually succumb to the fact that the market it was serving went away and consequently the company started falling apart. But it's nothing a thousand other firms hadn't also faced.

The impact

Now, an interesting note about Kerala is that several of the usual arguments against Communists kind of hold true in Kerala too. Lack of industry, check. Too much political organisation screwing up the industries that exist, check. Worker unions striking regularly, check. High unemployment or underemployment, check.

But a large enough part of the population is highly educated and goes abroad to work, historically to Dubai and Saudi Arabia, though nowadays includes UK and US. Enough so that they send enormous sums of money back. These remittances are the majority of the state's revenues, and therefore means that you can run a pretty weird government. You can run policies that make any capitalist want to run away while still ensuring an inflow of funds.

Studies of this phenomenon have consistently remarked on the importance of this rather odd economy that survives and thrives on foreign remittances and its impact on the economy.

As a result of the high growth rate of the economy assisted by international remittances and an early demographic transition, Kerala’s per capita income surpassed all India

Kerala does have the best Human Development Indicators of any state in India. Almost perfect literacy, great education, low infant mortality rates, high female to male ratios, all pretty strong!

But given its commendable achievement in reducing multidimensional poverty and enhanced human development, Kerala presents itself well in a developmentalist perspective. For example, the most recent estimate of Multidimensional Poverty for Indian States (see OPHI 2020) shows Kerala at the top with 1.1% of the population as multidimensionally poor as against 27.9% for India. ... Kerala’s performance is one of the best among all global regions and close to Europe and Central Asian average (1.0%)

They also have an impeccable record of unemployment and under employment. That's the flip side. It wasn't uncommon a couple decades ago to have folks with Masters degrees handing out goods in small shops. And note: that's handing items out as an employee, not a proud small business owner.

When my dad was a bank manager he knew a customer who came back from abroad to set up a factory. The customer took a loan, set up the factory at great expense to sell carbonated beverages, and started hiring. The local unions messed with him enough over the next two years that eventually he abandoned the factory, took the losses, shut it down and moved back abroad.

But even with that, it's interesting to see a success story for what's clearly seen as a failed model of government across the world. The secret seems to be:

  1. Like clockwork every five years the Marxists would get kicked out, and in came Congress (the centrist political party's name). This meant that complacency was never something that they could afford. If they weren't constantly scrabbling to engage their voters and actually provide something of value, they'd get kicked out.

  2. This also meant that grassroots campaigning became indispensable. With all the graft that this brings in terms of vegetable farming and subsidies, this meant they were at least in touch with the actual voter and actually provided things they needed.

  3. When the Marxists were in power, they did a tremendous amount for the bottom segments of the population. Better state schools and healthcare clinics in rural areas meant that the basic human rights was something the government cared about.

Despite the squabbling and the (occasional) violence and the relentless number of strikes (I think I missed c.30% of my school days), the state kind of ran okay. It's a perfect example of the strategy differences I talked about in a previous essay. The Marxists would "shore up the bottom" and squash economic opportunity, and Congress would desperately try to create some semblance of an economy, often through the same tropes of privatisation and encouraging commerce. Adversarial systems work.

When leashed in even a minor capacity, like being voted out of office regularly, they acted as a clear voice for the regular joe, fulfilling the schtick that every party talks about but almost none actually perform. To ensure people get food to eat, healthcare, and education. Which is a hell of a lot!

Does this all require Communism to have happened? No. There's enough data on both sides of that equation to disprove that black swan question. But it's interesting that it does. Even with an ideology that's roundly denounced by most of the world, there's a path to success if you actually help enough of the electorate. Sometimes when we argue ideology we forget that it actually is about whether you help the citizenry and that the name of the ideology is at best a useful crutch to hang ideas off of. Kerala here is a useful reminder!

It probably bears repeating that I'm not a Marxist, mostly because I find it difficult to live by the strictures of a fairy tale, but it's impressive nonetheless when someone else manages it. Just like I admire those who give away their life possessions to live as saints, I find it admirable and more than a little scary. They're the ultimate optimists. How can you not like those who believe intensely in the power of government to help the downtrodden?

It is however a trend that's now come to an end with a historical sequential second term. The voters have brought them in overwhelming numbers, and that kind of mandate is going to be hard to forget. It will change the dynamics in that state. Considering the challenges the state faces in diversifying its revenue streams, solving employment and creating a dynamic business sector, it'll be interesting to see how the strategy is likely to play out!

NB: A clarification since there's a few replies that suggest this isn't exactly a ringing endorsement for the political ideology, which I agree with, and mentioned above. What's interesting is that this relatively unique development hasn't brought with it the usual problems that we've seen in other Communist systems. To emphasise, this was interesting because it's so unlike what's expected (just imagine a small state in India which is ruled by Communists) not because it's a model to follow - it's not a contender against, let's say, the Nordic model. Also I like the idea that there are nice Communists who can win elections.