Form and Content

India's Workers: Class sans Class

Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri

India is what physical scientists like to call a complex system. The needs of colonial exploitation grafted a capitalist infrastructure onto an essentially feudal economic and political base. The result was that emergent economic and political entities like rent, credit, and parliamentary democracy carried the names given by capitalism, but the content differed much from what was implied by the capitalist connotation of the terms—the debt portfolio of a factory worker might include the doorkeeper of the factory as well as mobile upcountry lenders of instant cash. His bank account alone would never be sufficient to study his indebtedness, and his social practice would include pre-capitalist considerations generated from the need to keep the money-lenders happy. The different types of credit would carry widely different rates of interest.

A trade union would include elements of caste or religious organizations. Even the Chambers of the capitalists had strong internal caste and community linkages.

The factory worker lived frugally and sent savings home to buy land, and, after a few years, might become an important social and political personage at home. In very many cases, his class outlook would become that of a rich peasant, as caught in the factory lines through his comments, opinions, electoral preferences and vacillation and opportunism in times of struggle. Another source of factory workers comprised impoverished drop-outs from the middle class. They were greatly concerned with educating their children and putting them on an elevator back to the middle class. All this right opportunism was sometimes supplanted by left adventurism, leading even to murder of management personnel (for example Jessop, 1949-51, Kolkata jute mills, 2005-14, Maruti 2013).

During the British occupation of India, workers participated in the anti-colonial movement mainly as individuals and through communities, seldom as members of workers' organizations. Political response of workers through political strikes or other such movements was muted, apart from reaction to iconic occurrences like the arrest of Tilak and the INA trials. The independence movement remained anti-British and reflected mainly the concerns of the big commercial bourgeoisie—

1)    graduation from dependence on British firms and managing agencies to junior partnership within multinational imperialist alliances and

2)   domination of the bourgeoisie over the working classes and a fragmented polity to achieve a political union under the big bourgeoisie with united markets of commodities, capital, and labour. Generally, before and even after the exit of the British, the political practice of workers remained stagnant at the level of economic bargaining at the production unit, their understanding subsuming at most industry-wise market variations and wage levels. The thought of fighting the political programmes of the bourgeoisie and replacing these with workers' programmes was absent. Even Gandhi, the doyen of commercial, bania capital presented the blueprint of a participatory democracy under the trusteeship of the big bourgeoisie, although this was to be discarded with contempt by the bourgeoisie and their landlord allies after he was killed. But, within the hard core of natural leaders of the workers, nobody was found who would be thinking of the idea of a workers' state. The textile workers of Bombay and sections of the railway workers fought the bourgeois millowners and the semi-colonial, semi-feudal state valiantly and a class sense began to germinate here, but these movements were defeated so thoroughly that any advanced, radical ideas which might have been emerging were decimated. The sprawling multitudes of Indian workers failed to rise to the consciousness of a class for itself.

Communist ideas were born within the highly educated radical bourgeoisie, whose class origin was the impoverished gentry, and, especially, their young scions, many of them newly converted from Narodnik or Irish type terror-based persuasions, a few salvaged from promising careers at the Bar. The workers had little influence over the deliberations of the so-called communist parties. Not only was this true at the time of initiation, this state of affairs continued throughout the life of such parties. Some of these parties, like the Telengana committees of the CPI, the CPI(M-L) and the CPI(Maoist) led important struggles of the peasant masses.

Now, in a situation where the working class is still in a process of formation, and a party of the working class is yet to emerge, one observes the setting up of scattered germs of political organisations, some quite advanced politically with impressive territorial spread. Yet, they are but parts in the entire process of formation of the proletarian party. A part like this may mistake itself for the party and insist on party discipline. Such discipline prevents assimilation of the parts into a whole, and has even been seen to produce antagonistic relations between two organisations of workers. This is the problem of sectarianism. These political "groups" are the single most important obstacle to the precipitation of a party of the workers.

The only way to avoid sectarian discipline in pre-party political formations is to follow the Paris commune principle of giving all power of making decisions to the general body in permanent session, with simple majority-minority division to decide in cases of disagreement. The geographical extent of a general body would be determined by the imperative of participatory democracy, and the different general bodies thus delineated would be linked by the principle of co-ordination. A general body with a lot of decisions to implement may require an executive arm, strictly subordinated to the general body and made up of clerical personnel. After the Paris commune, such organisation was seen in the Soviets set up in Russia by workers, soldiers, and peasants, and the Shanghai commune. Of course, there have to be different kinds of organisation and different kinds of discipline. People's struggles would require command structures, subordinate to the general body, but with stricter discipline appropriate to the nature of the struggle. The highest forms of struggle, may even require military discipline.

The unification of the working class requires common fields of work. For a long time the trade the bourgeoisie concentrated their attention on these fields and, today the trade union is a fully capitalist organisation, whose main function has become deluding the workers into believing that the capitalist is their benefactor.

In India, Sankar Guha Neogy developed the idea of Nirmaan—the setting up by organised workers, for the workimg masses, of low cost high quality hospitals, dispensaries, high schools, nursing schools, medical colleges and special coaching centres for entrance into professional courses, as well as infrastructure for agriculture and people's livelihood, for example, mini-hydroelectric sets and irrigation channels. These would be parts of a proletarian movement for agrarian co-operation, education and healthcare through self-organisation of the working people for the working people by the working people(as opposed to raising demands to be fulfilled by the bourgeoisie in government). A challenge to bourgeois rule directly in the sphere of production, Nirmaan would unite working people in multitudes, especially the working youth. One cannot but conclude that the bourgeoisie would attack Nirmaan, and Nirmaan would require supplementation by Sangharsh, the name given to the resistance of the people in defence of Nirmaan against the inevitable onslaught of the bourgeoisie. The greater the ambit of Nirmaan, the greater would be the number of people involved in its defence, provided the workers' party could find the wisdom to fit a path of struggle to suit every participant in Sangharsh, as did a former barrister named M K Gandhi, who understood three principles.

1)    To defeat the British would require the participation of every Indian.

2)   From fireworks to prairie fires, people would light fires of different intensities and degrees.

3)   The great majority of people would, in the beginning, participate perhaps only by lighting a candle.

Gandhi devised a whole gamut of tactics for a weak majority to fight and defeat a strong minority.

Any scenario for the unification of the working class has an important role in it for workers' intellectuals. The intellectuals produced in the schools of Nirmaan would dedicate themselves to the service of the working people, that is, they would serve the community, and would not spend their time making money for number one.

They would function as the links and chains between the communities, and postboxes for an all-India workers' newspaper, the template for the workers' party.

It is essential that this process be organised by the workers themselves and not by their petty-bourgeois friends. Otherwise, the class orientation will be disturbed and petty-bourgeois intellectuals will emerge as leaders, and resist self-organisation by the workers! 'Yes, sahib, we know Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao were not workers by birth or profession. But, you, too, sahib, are no Lenin or Mao. It is much safer for the workers to be led in their struggles by one of themselves rather than one of you. You are welcome to teach in our schools, work in our hospitals, tell us our histories. We must learn all that the bourgeois youngsters learn and more, before we can make a successful, continuing revolution. Learning afterwards will not be sufficient. Didn't llyich tell us that October was followed by retrograde steps because the Russian worker was backward culturally and failed to administer the factories and establish nation-wide accounting and control of production and distribution?'

The heroic struggles of the miners of Dalli-Rajhara and the ongoing fight of the encircled peasantry of Chhattisgarh have illustrated the meaning of Sangharsh. The Shahid hospital and the chain of Sramajeebe Haaspatals and Sramajeebee Vidyalayas are bringing Nirmaan to life. As yet, these movements are not conscious processes of the discovery and reconstruction of the working class for itself. But they are but one step away from self-discovery. And a new history of India will begin when Vivekananda discovers himself as a materialist.

Vol. 47, No.11-14, Sep 21 - Oct 18 2014