Friday, August 10, 2007

Marxism and the Indian Independent Struggle - 3 Part series

Socialist Democracy has a three part series on
Marxism and the Indian Independence Struggle

The views expressed in this article are purely that of the author alone.

Marxism and the Indian Independent Struggle - 3 Part series

As we approach the 60th anniversay of the end of British rule in India, I thought I’d post here something I wrote a couple of years ago on the subject of the Indian independence struggle and the relationship between it and the communist movement. The original paper I have split into three parts which I will post over the coming days, with the overall main focus being on trying to provide some of the reasons for the failure of the communist movement to develop a correct policy towards the independence struggle - which instead of ending in genuine liberation for the peoples of the subcontinent resulted merely in the replacement of one form injustice (the British raj) with the even greater tragedy of partition and a never-ending cycle of Hindu-Muslim communal bloodshed.

(1) Communism and Nationalism in India: the problematic heritage

The growth of revolutionary marxism – a product of the Western Enlightenment ideals of humanism and secularism – in a society such as that of India, so ridden with caste and religious divisions – has always seemed a highly improbable phenomenon.

Indeed, the view of India as a place not yet ripe for socialist transformation is one that has been widely accepted even among Marxists themselves. Thus Karl Marx, in a series of articles written in 1853 while he was working as a correspondent for the New York Times, lamented the impossibility of genuine human emancipation in a society founded upon “…a brutalising worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow."[1]

In Marx’s view the period of British rule in India was a regrettable but necessary phenomenon in so far as it fulfilled “…a double mission…one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of old Asiatic society and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia."[2]

Marx envisaged a straightforward linear process of historical development in which British imperialism would create the conditions for a modern capitalist economy as a result of the introduction of railways and industrial technology, together with the creation of a large class of landless poor through the destruction of traditional handicrafts by a wave of cheap European imports.

However, by the 1860s the age of laissez faire and the great trading empires which had been the domain of Marx and the classical economists such as David Ricardo and Adam Smith had come to an end. In Britain increasing competition between manufacturers led to a drive for greater labour productivity through increased investment in machinery and plant equipment. As a result of the increasing levels of capitalisation needed to be competitive, more and more firms were driven to the wall and the market became dominated by giant industrial combines or trusts. This was the beginning of the age of monopoly capitalism.

With the end of free competition the monopolists were able to reach agreements to limit production and avoid lowering prices any further, in turn creating a pool of surplus capital which was unable to find an outlet in productive investment. The only way that this situation could be overcome was through the export of capital to the colonies – thus in places such as India the process of industrialisation was effectively imposed from the outside on an economy still characterised by feudal rather than commodity relations. In the coastal cities of Mumbai and Madras a comprador class of Indian capitalists were able to take advantage of imported British technology and loans to establish a thriving cotton mill industry, however because this process was externally driven there was no incentive for them to emulate their elder cousins the British bourgeoisie in abolishing feudalism in the countryside. Also in the age of monopoly capitalism the crisis of profitability meant that industry had no productive use for a large pool of additional labour (one of the original factors driving the agrarian revolution in Western Europe). Therefore the dilemma was posed starkly: how could India be set on the path to an independent capitalist development when the political representatives of the Indian bourgeoisie were tied to the maintenance of India’s economically underdeveloped status?

With its blind confidence in the civilising mission of capitalism, Marxism in its classical form could have very little appeal to revolutionaries fighting for national political and economic independence in the colonial and semi-colonial world. This was perhaps most graphically illustrated by the debate which took place at the 1907 Stuttgart Congress of the Second International. There the majority of the delegates from the Western European socialist parties voted for a resolution which read in part:

“The Congress, while noting that in general the utility and the necessity of colonies, in particular for the working class, is greatly exaggerated, does not condemn in principle and for all time, every colonial policy; under a socialist regime, colonisation can be a work of civilisation."[3] [emphasis added]

While this resolution expressed only the temporary ascendancy of one current within international social democracy – the right-wing national-chauvinist tendency led by Eduard Bernstein – the attitude of the other European Marxists still managed to reflect an underlying contempt for the working class movement in the colonies and semi-colonies. Thus when Marxism first emerged in backward Russia in the 1890s its first adherents accepted without question the idea that the working class must wait for the bourgeoisie to take power in a democratic revolution which would clear away the remnants of feudalism and establish the conditions for socialism. This view found its logical expression in the events of the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, when the orthodox Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) handed the leadership of the mass movement to the bourgeois-liberal Kadets (Constitutional Democrats), who in turn were so frightened by the threat of social and economic instability that they ended up compromising with the forces of tsarism and reaction.

There was however one dissident strand of social democracy which attempted to rescue Marxism from the mire of economic determinism and defeatism in which it had become increasingly enmeshed. This was the Bolshevik faction of the RSDLP led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who despairing of the ability of the bourgeoisie to carry through the tasks of the democratic revolution (abolition of feudalism, creation of a centralised nation state with a unified home market, institution of parliamentary democracy) advanced the slogan “for the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”. Lenin believed that in Russia at least the comprador nature of the national bourgeoisie, who despite their involvement in industry and manufacturing still maintained an interest as large landowners in the preservation of feudal relations in the countryside, meant that they lacked the material will to establish their class dictatorship as the Jacobins had done in France in 1789 or as Cromwell had done in England 150 years earlier. Therefore it fell to the workers and peasants - the only two remaining classes with an interest in the abolition of both landlordism and feudal absolutism – to execute the bourgeois-democratic program.

It was left to Lenin’s revolutionary associate Leon Trotsky to point out that upon seizing power the proletariat could hardly be expected to limit itself to carrying out the program of its capitalist oppressors. Moreover, Trotsky pointed out, the slogan “dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” was misguided since at no point in history had the peasantry ever been able to represent itself as a separate class politically. Because of this, peasant movements would often express themselves in a form of religious millenarism (c.f. the Peasant War in Germany or the Diggers and Levellers in 17th century England) which would act as a substitute for the political and economic homogeneity that they so desperately lacked. Lacking a real sense of class consciousness, during a period of social revolution the peasantry would inevitably be taken in tow by those classes who were ideologically mobilised to fight in defence of their own common interests (i.e. the workers or the feudal reactionaries).

In the events leading up to and immediately following the final victorious Russian Revolution in 1917 it was Trotsky – not Lenin – whose analysis was shown to be substantially correct. Faced with the betrayals by the Menshevik and Right-wing Social Revolutionary leaders the Bolsheviks were forced to bypass the Constituent Assembly and lean on the support of the militant workers in Moscow and Petrograd to begin the tasks of socialist construction (despite realising their project was doomed to failure without a revolution in the advanced capitalist countries). However, this practical departure from Lenin’s original concept of a two-stage revolution was made purely under the impact of events and was not matched by a corresponding change at the theoretical level. This was to have grave consequences for the future development of the Communist Parties in other semi-colonial and colonial countries such as India and China where in place of the dictatorship of the proletariat and permanent revolution was erected the false idea of the anti-imperialist united front and of the “bloc of four classes”. But that is to anticipate a little.

Irrespective of what interpretations might be drawn from it, the Russian Revolution possessed an obvious attraction to revolutionary-minded workers and intellectuals throughout the colonial world. The emphasis placed by Lenin on the subjective factor – the revolutionary party – as being of equal importance to the objective economic conditions not only made sense scientifically but appealed greatly to the romantic, Promethean spirit of daring and human ambition. At the Second Congress of the Third (Communist) International in July 1920 the Bengali revolutionary M.N. Roy – who by a curious accident of events was present as the official representative of the Communist Party of Mexico – even surpassed Lenin and the Bolsheviks by claiming that not only did the colonies not have to wait upon a socialist revolution in the imperialist nations to undergo their own national independence (i.e. bourgeois-democratic) struggles, but that without a revolution in Asia the communist movement in the advanced capitalist nations – where the working class had long been corrupted with the super-profits of imperialism – could have no hope of success. However unlike Trotsky (but like Lenin before 1917), Roy believed that “the revolution in the colonies is not going to be a communist revolution in its first stages” instead “…revolutionary nationalism will be in the foreground. But at any rate this revolutionary nationalism is going to lead to the downfall of European imperialism…"[4] For Roy the only difference between the Indian communists and the Indian National Congress was that the communists were the only “real” nationalists! Roy’s supplementary theses to the official Comintern resolution on the national and colonial question, while at first seeming to represent an extremely ultra-left stance (opposing any kind of tactical orientation towards or temporary alliance with Congress) were in fact merely paving the way for the liquidation of the communists into a genuinely patriotic “Peoples’ Party” (the line employed with such disastrous effect by Roy during his time as Comintern agent in China, when the CCP was taught to place all its confidence in the forces of the “Left” Guomindang as a defence against Chiang Kai-shek). Before proceeding any further though to an analysis of the impact of the Comintern’s policies on the development of communism in India, it is first necessary to say something about the origins of the workers’ movement there.

[1]Karl Marx, “The British Rule in India,” New York Times 10 June, 1853. Republished in Karl Marx: Surveys from Exile, ed. David Fernbach (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1977), 306.

[2] Karl Marx, “The Future Results of the British Rule in India,” New York Times 22 July, 1853. Republished in Karl Marx: Surveys from Exile, ed. David Fernbach (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1977), 320.

[3]VIIe Congrés socialiste international tenu à Stuttgart du 16 au 24 août 1907,” translated and republished in Hélène Carrère d’Encausee and Stuart R. Schram, eds., Marxism and Asia: An Introduction with Readings. (London: Allen Lane, 1969), 129.

[4] “Second Congress of the Communist International: Extracts from the Debates in Plenary Session” in d’Encausee and Schram, eds., Marxism and Asia. 162-163.

2) Origins of the CPI

The greatest strength – and also the greatest weakness – of the communist movement in India has been the extent to which it has been embraced by various regional or marginalised groups in South Asian society. Thus in the period since the late 1960s the dominant force within post-war communism – the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – has maintained a virtual monopoly on power in the states of West Bengal and Tripura, as well as a significant base in Kerala. In the period of the Congress Party’s hold on power the CPI and then later the CPI (M) came to be perceived as the major party of opposition in these three regions, ensuring that any dissatisfaction with the central government in Delhi would almost certainly be diverted into votes for the communists. However, the strong association of the CPI (M) with the Left Front government in West Bengal and the strong Bengali representation in its leadership (including the only person from within its ranks to ever achieve a truly national profile, Jyoti Basu) is bound to limit its appeal in certain other parts of India especially the Hindi-speaking heartland of North India.

Indeed, the first cadres of the communist movement in South Asia were recruited from two distinct and marginal groups in Indian society – the bhadralok urban elite who formed the basis for the British colonial administration in Bengal and the Indian Muslims who participated in the hijarat or mass exodus from India at the conclusion of World War I.

The status of the bhadralok as an urban administrative elite had essentially evolved from the services which three of the main Hindu upper castes (Brahmins, Vaidyas and Kathayas) had provided to both the Mughal and British rulers by virtue of their ability to communicate in both Persian and English. They also commanded wealth as landowners but their relationship to the rural economy was more as rentiers and suppliers of credit rather than as agricultural producers.

As the dominant group in local government and administration (in 1901 they occupied 80% of senior government appointments in Bengal while comprising only 5% of the population) they also came to see themselves as the natural spokespeople for Bengal’s political and social aspirations. Having given many years of loyal service to the British raj they therefore reacted angrily to the decision in 1905 by the Viceroy of India Lord Curzon to partition Bengal along communal lines, despite same ethnicity and language being shared by 95% of the population. Partition had the effect of giving a powerful and radicalising boost to the nationalist movement not just in Bengal but right across India. Within the Congress Party support for non cooperation and violent agitation as against the earlier tactic of moral remonstrance grew, finally precipitating a split in the Bengali organisation between the so-called Moderates and Extremists.

By issuing a declaration in 1911 reversing the partition (while simultaneously detaching the provinces of Bihar and Orissa) the British were able to conciliate some of the radicals within Congress. In the meantime though outside the official nationalist movement there had now arisen a whole spectrum of secret patriotic societies resorting to terrorism and guerrilla warfare in what they regarded as a life-and-death struggle to maintain their traditional bhadralok culture and way of life. As a form of aristocratic anarchism their movement had much in common with the Narodniks in late nineteenth century Russia – their high caste status meant that despite all the revolutionary rhetoric they were not exactly ready converts for socialism.However it was from among these conspiratorial circles that Manabendra Nath Roy emerged to become the foundingfigure of Indian Marxism. Roy had been part of the terrorist Juguntar society which had solicited funds from Germany during World War I in order to try and organise a province-wide revolt against the British, the failure of which scheme had forced him to go into exile in Mexico in 1917.

The founder of the CPI, the Bengali revolutionary M.N. Roy

It was while in Mexico that Roy began to frequent various socialist discussion circles and this led him to discover an alternative source of support for his revolutionary activities in India, in the form of the Soviet emissary Borodin. Like many other nationalist revolutionaries – including the Chinese scholar Chen Duxiu and the Vietnamese patriot Ho Chi Minh – Roy was undoubtedly impressed by the offer of the Bolsheviks to renounce all of the so-called “unequal treaties” which Russian imperialism had forced upon its less powerful neighbours during the nineteenth century. In Soviet Russia these anti-imperialist fighters now saw the only ally that was prepared to aid them in the struggle for genuine political and economic emancipation. However as we have already suggested, this did not necessarily mean having to make a complete break with nationalism and the concept of a bourgeois-democratic (i.e. non-socialist) revolution.

After representing the newly-formed Communist Party of Mexico at the Second Congress of the Communist International in Moscow in July 1920, Roy was despatched to Tashkent in what was then the independent Soviet Republic of Turkestan to help establish the Comintern’s Central Asiatic Bureau. As part of his mission Roy was charged with providing arms and supplies to the restive tribes along India’s border with Afghanistan (now the Pakistani province of Baluchistan).

At the same time thousands of Muslims were beginning a mass exodus or hijarat from British India in protest at the dismemberment by the Entente powers of the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate. Many of them attempted the arduous journey over the Hindu Kush and across the Caspian Sea to go and enlist with the patriotic Turkish forces under Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Kemal Attaturk), with whom the Soviet government had recently concluded a military alliance. While travelling across Soviet Central Asia a small contingent of these muhajirun were recruited by Roy to undergo military training and form the nucleus for a future Indian army of national liberation. This nucleus took the form of the Indian Revolutionary Association, whose chairman Mohamed Abdur Rabb Barq headed a 14-strong Indian delegation at the First Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku (Azerbaijan) in September 1920.

As adherents of pan-Islamism most of the muhajirun (like the Bengali bhadralok) were not automatic converts to Bolshevism. However by the end of 1920 enough recruits had been ideologically won over to form a small émigré Indian communist party in Tashkent. In May 1921 the Comintern’s Central Asiatic Bureau and with it Roy’s military academy were dissolved and his base of operations shifted to Moscow, where the first Indian cadres attended the newly founded Communist University of the Toilers of the East.[2] At the heart of this move was the Soviet government’s desire to avoid providing the British with unnecessary provocation after the final defeat of the White Guard armies and also in light of the fact that the prospects for revolution in Western Europe – so promising in the immediate aftermath of the Great War – had now temporarily receded. Another crucial factor was the refusal of the Afghan government to allow free passage to Indian insurgents across its territory – thus Roy was unable to replicate the feat of the great Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, who from his original home in the Ferghana valley in modern day Uzbekistan had successfully invaded India in the sixteenth century via Kabul and the Khyber Pass. However after the advent of Stalin’s dictatorship in the latter half of the 1920s thousands of Turkic-speaking refugees from Soviet Central Asia did manage to make the journey southwards into Afghanistan and the Punjab where to this day they still constitute a distinct ethnic and linguistic community.

Meanwhile back in India the end of the First World War had been accompanied by revolutionary upheavals among the peasantry and working class. In 1919 over one million Mumbai textile workers came out on strike in protest at the promulgation of new draconian police powers. A campaign of mass civil disobedience was launched by Gandhi and the Congress Party which resulted in a further wave of mass demonstrations and strikes. At Jallianwala Bagh near Amritsar in Punjab British troops carried out a massacre of several hundred unarmed Sikh, Muslim and Hindu demonstrators, provoking yet more outrage and armed peasant rebellions in several areas including the province of Uttar Pradesh and the Malabar Coast. However the reaction of Gandhi and the Congress leaders was not to harness this mass outpouring of anti-imperialist sentiment to push forward the demand for immediate independence but rather to turn their backs on the mass movement. With the ending of the official Congress campaign of rent boycotts and passive resistance a tremendous vacuum had opened up in Indian politics.

Such was the degree of radicalisation affecting the labour and nationalist movements that even from exile in faraway Moscow Roy and his small group of revolutionary cadres were able to make contact with and win over several prominent leaders of the Bengali terrorist group Anushilan in Kolkata as well as a group of trade unionists in Mumbai including the future CPI chairman S.A. Dange. By 1922 there were small communist cells in the cities of Mumbai, Kolkata, Madras, Lahore and Meerut (U.P). However they soon attracted the attention of the British authorities and were brought to trial along with some of the CPI émigré leaders who had attempted to slip back into India in the Peshawar (1923) and Kanpur (1924) Conspiracy Cases. Throughout the rest of the 1920s the CPI would be forced to operate as an underground organisation, hampered by the fact that its most experienced leaders were frequently in jail while the remainder of its membership possessed only a very rudimentary grasp of revolutionary marxism. As a result the role of Roy and the rest of the Comintern would be absolutely crucial in determining the overall direction and fate of the communist movement in India.

3) Communism and the Independence Struggle in India 1924-1947

In the atmosphere of intense state repression that followed the Peshawar and Kanpur Conspiracy trials the underground CPI organisation was gradually able to rebuild and indeed grow its influence among the mass organisation of the working class. In 1926 the communists managed to take control of the Indian National Congress’ Labour Swaraj party in Bengal, soon afterwards changing the name to Workers’ and Peasants’ Party of Bengal. In January 1927 the communists in Mumbai (with the help of several émigré members of the CPGB) were able to set up a parallel WPP organisation within the local Congress Party. Among the membership were leaders of the powerful textile workers’ unions (Mumbai Textile Labour Union and Girni Kamgar Mahamandel) as well as D.R. Thengdi, president of the national trade union federation the AITUC. By the following year communist-controlled Workers’ and Peasants’ Parties had also sprung up in Meerut (U.P.) and the Punjab. In 1928 the Mumbai WPP issued a call for a general strike in response to plans by the cotton mill owners to lay off thousands of textile workers in the city. The strike began on April 16 and lasted for nearly six months, during which time sixty-eight of Mumbai’s seventy mills were completely shut down and more than 21 000 000 working days lost. Through a complicated series of splits and mergers the communists were able to engineer a reorganisation of the labour movement into moderate and WPP-controlled textile unions. The new WPP-dominated union – the Girni Kamgar (Mill Workers’) Union or GKU was to remain an important powerbase for the communist movement for many years to come.However, notwithstanding the success of its legal front organisations the underground CPI in the mid-late 1920s had failed to grow beyond more than a few dozen members nationally and while its members occupied many prominent positions in the labour movement their influence reflected more support for the cause of militant trade unionism rather than marxist ideas. Indeed, the first congress of the CPI on Indian soil did not take place until 1925, and after that the party virtually ceased to exist as anything more than a paper organisation with no systematic attempt being made to carry out propaganda and education work within the mass organisations that it led. Consequently, the Indian communists were theoretically ill-equipped to resist the increasingly bizarre changes of line and sudden political U-turns that were the hallmark of the Communist International after the Fourth World Congress in 1922.

At the Comintern’s Fifth Congress in 1924 the tendency towards subordinating socialist revolution to the anti-imperialist struggle – which as we have already argued was never entirely eliminated from the Bolshevik program – finally became crystallised in the doctrine of the “anti-imperialist united front”.

Essentially what this meant was that the communist parties in the semi-colonial and colonial countries were everywhere expected to not only ally themselves with but liquidate themselves into broader cross-class nationalist formations of the peasantry and “progressive” bourgeoisie. The idea that the bourgeoisie could play a progressive role in leading the anti-imperialist revolution was sustained on the basis of some quotations of dubious relevance from Lenin (who had never given much study or attention to the problems of revolution in Asia) and the new concept – developed by Joseph Stalin – that the bourgeoisie in the colonial countries could be divided into reactionary comprador and militarist elements on the one hand and the so-called national or patriotic bourgeoisie on the other. This theory made no pretence to base itself on objective economic factors and was rather a crude example of empirical reasoning, evolving out of the need of Soviet foreign policy makers in China to justify their alliance with the capitalist Guomindang regime in Canton against the British and United States-backed northern government in Beijing. The only qualification – really more of an ‘escape clause’ – in the anti-imperialist united front line was that the national bourgeoisie could only be a temporary ally in the struggle for national liberation, since they would inevitably turn against the working class and peasantry once the foreign capitalists and feudal princes were finally extirpated.

The main point of difference between strategy adopted by the Comintern in India as opposed to China during the period 1924-1928 was that in the case of the former it was argued that the national bourgeoisie had already gone over to the camp of counterrevolution. Thus M.N. Roy, in his dual roles as chief theoretician of the CPI and Comintern emissary to China, could feel that in arguing for the Indian communists to bypass Congress and instead set up a rival “Peoples” Party with broad nationalist appeal he was not contradicting his advice to the Chinese comrades to continue working as a left-wing fraction within the Guomindang, which the Comintern described as a “revolutionary bloc of four classes”.

In 1928 on the eve of the launch of Gandhi’s salt tax protest and the second great Non-Cooperation campaign, the Comintern’s Sixth Congress made a sudden turn to the left. The complete failure of the anti-imperialist united front strategy in China where the communists had placed all their hopes first in “Comrade Chiang” and then the Left Guomindang government of Wang Jingwei – only to have them then turn around and butcher thousands of peasant and working class activists – led Stalin to purge those who had been most closely associated with the debacle, including Roy and the head of the Comintern, Nikolai Bukharin. However this did not lead to the Comintern changing its “two-stage” theory of revolution (first bourgeois democracy, then socialism).

In India the main effect of this “Third Period” of ultra-leftism was to isolate the communists in the labour movement as they sought to set up their own breakaway ‘red’ trade union federation in opposition to the AITUC. Even worse, when the second wave of mass nationalist agitation began in 1930 the communists while correctly denouncing the pacificism and class-collaborationist tactics of Gandhi and Motilal Nehru reserved their most vitriolic condemnation for the Congress left-wing grouped around the Independence for India League of Subhas Chandra Bose. This was in line with the tactic then being employed by the Communist Party in Germany who denounced the Social Democrats as “worse than the fascists” and refused to engage with them in a united front to prevent Hitler coming to power.

As a result of these sectarian tactics, when Gandhi suspended the civil disobedience campaign for a second time in 1931 in order to gain entry into negotiations with the British the communists completely failed to attract any of the Congress Party trade unionists or youth who were angry and bitterly disillusioned with this betrayal of the goal of outright independence (officially adopted by the party at its 1929 Lahore Conference). Consequently many of these people were drawn instead into the newly-formed Congress Socialist Party, which despite maintaining a left-sounding marxist ideology refused to openly denounce Gandhi – the saintly lawyer in a sack cloth who opposed political strikes and declared that “we want to turn zamindars [landlords] into friends”.[1]

During this period the communists were also gravely weakened once more by the arrest of most of their prominent leaders in connection with the 1929 Meerut Conspiracy Case. With all of the main trade union activists behind bars the All-India Workers’ and Peasants Party which had brought together only a year earlier by the amalgamation of the various regional organisations soon fell apart.

Until 1936 the only marxist current to critically engage with the Indian independence struggle were the followers of M.N. Roy who were buried inside the Congress Socialist Party. After this date however they were also joined by the CPI, who in accordance with the latest directive from Moscow had executed a complete 180 degree turn and proclaimed a Popular Front of all nationalist and “progressive” forces. While the entry itself was perhaps justifiable from a tactical point of view this should have been only on the condition that the CPI waged a determined ideological struggle to expose the class nature of the Congress leadership and win over the more militant elements to a revolutionary marxist program.

On the contrary though the approach of the CPI was to stand aside and allow the nationalists a clear run in the elections to the reconstituted AITUC. Furthermore, when in 1939 Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the Congress left-wing was elected to the presidency of the INC, both the CSP and CPI who had supported him then abstained on a motion introduced by the conservative faction forcing Bose to select his working committee in consultation with Gandhi (the actual slogan adopted by the CPI at the time was “united leadership under the guidance of Gandhi”!).

Meanwhile workers and peasants all over India were getting a glimpse of what life would be like in an independent Congress-led India. In 1937 the British had for the first time allowed provincial elections to be held and Congress had swept to power in a number of key cities and states, including Mumbai, Madras, the United Provinces and Bihar, and before long the Congress ministries in those areas were ordering the police to shoot down striking workers and quell outbreaks of peasant rebellion. In other regions such as Bengal the INC’s close association with the class of Hindu zamindars or landlords drove the mainly Muslim peasantry into the arms of Jinnah’s Muslim League.

The militant peasant activist and CSP member Swami Sahajanand denounced Congress as a tool of the landlords and quit – yet both the CPI and the rest of the Congress Socialists refused to break with the capitalist leadership. However, soon afterwards a number of individuals from within the Bengali wing of the CSP searching around for an alternative came under the influence of Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International. In 1939 they left Congress to found the Revolutionary Socialist League in Kolkata, which then two years later merged with several groups of CPI dissidents in Kanpur, Mumbai and Gujurat to form the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India. The BLPI was organised as a sub-continental union of revolutionary marxist organisations and also had an important section in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where in the absence of either a strong Communist Party or Congress-equivalent the Trotskyists constituted the main leadership of the independence struggle.[2]

The first two years of World War II saw the CPI maintain its alliance with Congress in the struggle against the British. However with Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in 1941 the conflict was transformed from an imperialist war to a “struggle between democracy and fascism” in which the communists were suddenly obliged to throw their support behind the British war effort. While in countries such as neighbouring Burma (today Myanmar) which was under Japanese occupation the communists were able to combine the anti-fascist struggle with a revolutionary war for national independence, in India the CPI were once again isolated from the mass movement (especially with the launch in 1942 of the Quit India campaign).[3]

While it is true that Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi also declared in favour of the Allies, they at least qualified this support with the statement that India could not fight while still under British rule. Meanwhile the CPI in a secret communication with the British assured them should all their comrades who were currently imprisoned be released His Imperial Majesty’s government would offer “our wholehearted cooperation to rouse the patriotic instincts of the people in fighting in defence of our country, undertake recruitment of all branches of the fighting forces, do all we can to build fraternal relations between the army and the people, work out schemes for speeding up production etc. The government need have no hear of strikes as far as we Communists are concerned.”[4]

Unsurprisingly the CPI was the target of a severe backlash among the general population, with its offices and print shops bombed and activists assaulted. At the same time they had the temerity to attack the Trotskyists who played an active role in the Quit India movement (although having only about 400 members across all of India) as a “Fifth Column of Fascism”. The position of the BLPI during the war – defeat of all capitalist belligerents through revolution, defence only of the USSR – won a positive response among the mass movement and saw a number of their members elected to important trade union positions in Kolkata and Madras.

In 1945 the attempt by the British to put on trial members of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) who had fought a protracted guerrilla campaign against the colonial administration during World War II sparked another wave of resistance across India. The following year ratings of the Royal Indian Navy squadron in Mumbai started a mutiny which soon spread to naval bases right around the country and also provoked a general strike by 300 000 workers in Mumbai itself. Everywhere the leaders of the movement raised the flags not only of Congress and the Muslim League but also the red flag of the CPI. Eventually the naval ratings were persuaded to surrender by the INC president Patel who loyally declared: “Discipline in the army cannot be tampered with…We will want [the] army even in free India.”[5]

Yet despite this impressive show of workers’ unity the CPI leadership failed to oppose the plans for partition of India which were drawn up in 1947. Their logic was as follows: the coming revolution in India will be a bourgeois-democratic revolution. Therefore since we have to operate within the framework of capitalism the only option is to call for the construction of a national state along communal lines. CPI members in East Bengal and Western Punjab were told to liquidate their organisations into Jinnah’s Muslim League (hence the reason why today with the exception of some small Maoist and Trotskyist groups there is no communist movement to speak of in Pakistan or Bangladesh). The correct position would have been to recognise the right of self-determination for all nations within British South Asia while at the same time conducting a vigorous propaganda campaign against the attempts by the colonial administration – as well as the capitalist politicians in both Congress and the Muslim League – to deliberately encourage and play up communal divisions.

The great tragedy for India was that by the time of partition the CPI had so discredited itself in the eyes of the general population that even had it managed to take this position it would probably not have been in a position to decisively influence events. Meanwhile the forces of genuine marxism grouped together in the BLPI were still miniscule, and despite its initial successes the BLPI itself did not long survive the war. Today the communist movement in India manages to cling on to its traditional powerbases in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura but in its inability to advance even one single step closer to the socialist revolution it reveals all the symptoms of paralysis. Like a grotesque caricature of Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, it sits by the highway of history still waiting for the “progressive” section of the capitalist class to arrive and carry out its modernising and secularising mission. Just like the hapless characters in Godot however, it waits for something which will probably never arrive.

[1] Quoted in S. Sarkar, Modern India 1885-1947, (London: Macmillan, 1983), 210.

[2] Charles Erwin, “Trotskyism in India: 1935-1945,” Revolutionary History vol 1 no. 4 (Winter 1988-89).

[3] The Communist Party of Burma in fact originated as an offshoot of the Bengali communist movement and in its early years Bengali-speakers comprised an important section of the leadership – see John Badgely, “Burmese Communist Schisms,” in John Wilson Lewis (ed.), Peasant Rebellion and Communist Revolution in Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974).

Interestingly, the official title of the Trotskyist organisation launched in 1941 was the “Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India, Ceylon and Burma”, although it was never actually able to establish a section in Burma (Erwin, “Trotskyism in India”).

[4] Quoted in Time to Change Course! Communists and the Indian Revolution (Bangalore: Dudiyora Horaata, 1989), 19.

[5] Sarkar, p. 425.

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