A tangled tale

Issue: 129

Yuri Prasad

History Commission, CPI (M) History of the Communist Movement in India: Volume 1 (Leftword, 2005), $25

The 1917 Russian Revolution inspired millions of people living under colonial rule to take up the fight against empire. That workers and peasants in a backward country could throw off centuries of subjection led many Indian nationalists towards communist ideas and eventually to the founding of Communist Party of India in 1920. This anonymous “authorised history” from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) of the early years of the party documents in impressive—if somewhat exhausting—detail, the way in which early Indian Communists grappled with illegality, the developing mass movement against British rule—and a series of damaging factional clashes.

Running through the volume is the question of how revolutionaries should relate to the movement for independence led by the Indian bourgeoisie. It was a recurring problem that would see Communists at times playing a central role in the struggle, but playing down their commitment to working class emancipation, while at others completely abstaining from the movement out of fear that they were merely providing “left cover” for the Indian National Congress.

The Russian leaders of the newly-formed Communist International, the Comintern, focused on the problem time and again. Lenin in particular was eager to engage in debates on the subject, and agreed to amend his 1920 Theses on the National and Colonial Question following an exchange with Indian communist MN Roy.

Lenin had originally argued that it was necessary for Communists to “enter into a temporary alliance with the bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries”. Roy believed that the colonial bourgeoisie played a reactionary role and that their aim was merely “to replace the foreign exploiters in order to be able to do the exploiting themselves”. Following a debate, Lenin’s draft was amended so that it recommended alliance with the “revolutionary movement in the colonies”, rather than the “bourgeois-democratic movements” as originally proposed.

Unfortunately, readers of this book will be left largely unaware of the how seriously Lenin took Roy. This is in large part because, despite having founded both the Communist party of Mexico and the Communist Party of India, Roy was to fall foul of Stalin and was expelled from the Comintern in 1929. He was, according to the authors, suffering from “right reformist tendencies”.

Despite vicious British repression, and some frankly useless advice from Moscow, Communism in India grew steadily from the late 1920s onwards. Trade unionism flourished, Gandhi’s freedom movement gathered pace, and revolutionary nationalism emerged as a distinct current—and Communist militants played a leading role in all three spheres. But sharp tactical changes forced upon the Indian party by Stalin’s Comintern were to seriously undermine its success

Indian Communists, taking their cue from Lenin’s Theses, had originally set out to constitute a “strong left wing within Congress to counter-act bourgeois nationalism”. But by 1928, with the Comintern’s adoption of the disastrous “Third Period” policy, they saw Congress as little more than a fig leaf for British imperialism. Those on the left of Congress, including the young Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose, both of whom were prepared to countenance the use of violence against the British, became particular targets of Communists because they created an “illusion of radicalism”.

The authors freely admit that during the 1930s this sectarian approach cost the party dearly. But readers will search in vain for an explanation as to why Stalin imposed the policy, or why Indian Communists accepted it—except that the fight against Trotskyism in the international movement was the cause of some “distortions” in the application of Marxist theory. The real reason was that by 1928 Comintern policy no longer reflected the need to create a world revolution. It had become a simple extension of Russian foreign policy.

In the mid-1930s fear of fascism in Europe led the Comintern to kill off the Third Period and replace it with its polar opposite, the Popular Front. Now Communists were urged to put aside their differences with Congress leaders and place the needs of workers and peasants below those of their bosses and landlords—a strategy that would allow divisions between Hindus and Muslims to flourish.

The application of the Popular Front policy in India and the Communist Party’s withdrawal from it when the Second World War began forms the backdrop to the next volume. These are twists and turns that even the most loyal of Communists will find hard to explain.