Searching For Roots

What Ails Indian Communist Movement?

T Vijayendra

Alot of ordinary people in India—both women and men have a lot of respect for the communists and the communist-led mass movement. It is based on their direct knowledge from interactions with the communists in trade union agitations and other social and political movements. They are also impressed by the personal integrity of most of the communists. They are prepared to overlook aberrations of some of them.

They are puzzled as to why the communists had so little success. What went wrong? How did they get isolated? What major mistakes did they commit?

Many individuals were impressed by the news of the Russian Revolution by the early 1920s and some Indians living abroad also became communists. But it was the 1929 Great Depression that spread the idea of communism all over the world. It proved Marx’s prediction of periodic crisis of capitalism. But what impressed people was that the Soviet Union was unaffected by this crisis. The miseries that these events brought and the strikes by the workers gave birth to the communist movement in India.

However by that time the Indian National Movement had picked up energy and Gandhi was already established as a leader. Many early communists came from this movement and were influenced by Gandhi. They left Congress and Gandhi because Gandhi was rabidly anti-communist. Gandhi never talked about the Soviet Union or Socialism. He never visited the Soviet Union whereas most leaders did. Instead he went to the fascist Mussolini in December 1931, and even took a salute by his Blackshirts although his friend Romain Rolland advised him against going to Italy. Gandhi was opposed to class struggle and believed in class collaboration. He used the terms violence (for class struggle) and non- violence (for class collaboration) in his own way for them. This effectively hid his agenda. Instead he talked about trusteeship where the rich were supposed to be the trustees of their wealth and property. Acharya Dharmanand Kosambi pointed out that there is a contradiction between Gandhi’s belief in ‘Aparigrha’ (non accumulation) and trusteeship. But Gandhi did not bother about it. However many leftist remained in Congress and formed the Congress Socialist Party which later changed to various socialist parties.

This background was a heavy chain around the feet of the communists. They adopted some of Gandhi’s moral stands like celibacy, vegetarianism and anti-alcohol ideas. This isolated them from ordinary workers and the communist movement got dominated by upper castes.

The Second World War turned into a fascist people’s war as Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. The Indian communists could not join the Quit India movement against the British because England was part of the anti-fascist alliance. This created a lifelong rift with the Socialists, who were normally allies of the communists. Secondly, they got isolated from the Indian Mass Movement of Quit India. Thirdly, Indian mass imagination was captivated by Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. But since Bose was taking the help of the fascist Japan, the Indian Communists could not support him! All this isolated the Indian communists further.

The Indian National Movement was dominated by upper caste Hindus. The lower castes had no place in it. It was Dalit leader, Dr B R Ambedkar who successfully brought up the caste question and got some gains for the Dalits. His contribution, both in theory and practice, was formidable.

Communists have often been accused of not understanding the caste question. They thought that it was mainly a social question, belonging to the ‘superstructure’ of the society. They often relegated it to a ‘social reform’ kind of activity. Abolition of untouchability, inter caste marriage, discrimination in public places like hotels, schools etc. They thought this social evil will automatically vanish with the progress of industrialisation.

They never understood Ambedkar’s definition of caste as ‘closed class’. What he meant was that caste is a class where endogamy or marriage outside the caste is prohibited. D D Kosambi compared castes to medieval guilds of Europe.

In practice also the communists made major mistakes. In the Textile industry of Bombay the Dalits were not allowed some jobs where they had to join the broken thread with the saliva of their mouth. The reason was they were considered untouchables. The communist union, the Girni Kamgar Union did not take the side of the Dalits. Ambedkar was also active in the Bombay labour movement. He argued for abolition of this prejudice. The Union agreed with great reluctance. This created a lifelong distance between the communists and Dalits.
Today Dalit intellectual Anand Teltumble maintains that the classical caste divisions among Dalits have vanished. They are all landless labourers and they should unite as a class. In Delhi and in some other places, left wing student leaders are trying hard to create a unity among Dalits and communists.

India is a federal reality. The tension between central and state is one of the main driving forces of Indian polity. India is more like Europe with different regions and languages. In addition India also has ten developed scripts each with a significant printing history.

Unfortunately Indian political parties, including the communists refuse to accept this reality. For them India is a nation and it has to have a National language, which some want it to be Hindi. This has created enormous obstacles in the practical political work of the communist party in India and often resulted in losses. For example they have no clear line about supporting a demand for a separate state within the Indian Union—like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Uttarakhand. There are at least ten such movements waiting on the side and the communist have no clear stand on it. During the three movements mentioned above there was confusion among the communists and it was rebel leaders like A K Roy (in Jharkhand) and Shankar Guha Niyogi in Chhattisgarh who supported. Earlier in Samyukta Maharashtra and Telugu Desam movement the communists joined opportunistically and suffered heavy losses among their ranks.

Part of the confusion is due to Stalin’s thesis identifying nations with language. So although the Soviet Union was a federation, Russia was a dominant nation within it and the Russian language dominated. The Indian Constitution has some federal aspects but it is mainly unitary. This was the main reason for the formation of Pakistan. GST is just another example of this unitary trend.

 Due to the anti fascist movement a lot of democratic tendencies came in academics. Today the position is:

1.   All languages are equal. There is nothing called a dialect.
2.   The standard language is a language with a gun.

Thus not only all Indian languages are equal, but even the so-called dialects are also equal. The Pune Marathi is considered standard as Pune was the centre of power during the Peshwas. Today’s Maharashtra has five ecoregions: Desh (Western Ghats, Pune is located here), Konkan (Coastal Maharashtra), Marathwada (Central, with Aurangabad as its main city), Vidarbha (North East Maharashtra with Nagpur as its main city) and Khandesh (North West Maharashtra). A thumb rule is that each ecoregion has a language and a potential nation/nationality! So the demand for Vidarbha as a separate state has been there for many years. This author has estimated that there are 65 such ecoregions and India can have a federation of 65 states! British India had nearly five hundred local kings and states! If one wants to imagine a Federation of South Asia it will be nearly 100 states!

It will be good if the communist party units have organisations at a local eco-zone basis. They should be good in knowing the local language, culture, folklore, agriculture and industry etc. Then they will be effective.
Communists have an exemplary tradition in opposing communalism and supporting secularism.

For one thing communalism is not uniformly spread all over the country though the Hindutva outfit would like it to be so. One should understand its origins. Essentially it has roots in the 19th century Hindu renaissance and it was mainly located in North West India and Bengal. It was essentially a movement of educated Hindu middle class. It had three components: 1. responding to the Christian missionary’s criticism against the ‘evils’ of Hinduism. They wanted to shed some ‘bad’ texts and practices and wanted jobs in the new Company Raj 2. It was pro-British and rabidly anti-Muslim. 3. The British played the ‘divide and rule’ policy. They made Persian as the language of the courts as it was already there since the Mughal time and naturally Muslims had more jobs in the new situation.

Communists should recognise this history and concentrate on making the rest of India communal tension free.

Lenin in his book, ‘State and Revolution’ urged comrades to read anarchist literature to have a good critic of the State. The idea was that comrades will understand that Socialism was only a phase in the development of history and the next stage will be anarchism! One might as well define anarchism as one goes along to avoid misunderstanding. Briefly: 1. Anarchists are opposed to all authority, 2. Anarchists believe in self- management within a local community on the basis of ‘a free association of free people’, and 3. The Anarchist community will federate with other communities also on the basis of ‘a free association of free people’.

What does it mean in practice? Communist organisations should implement ‘self-management’ in their organisations. Thus trade unions or peasant organisations in their structure and functioning should be ‘socialist’ and ‘democratic’ and not hierarchical copying the ruling class! There is an urgent need that the communist should drop their antipathy towards anarchism and treat it as part of their programme. Chomsky does this and many other progressives are doing this.

The world is going through a deep crisis. It is a global emergency and the capitalist system is on the verge of collapse and life on earth is endangered. This began with the 2008 financial meltdown and is exasperated by global warming and resource depletion. The capitalist response is the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. No mainstream political parties, including the communist parties have a proper alternative. They cannot get out of the agenda of industrialisation or development.

 There are a lot of independent groups who are talking and practising alternatives and asking for stopping the development projects and asking for de-growth.

Masses or people who have experienced the ill effects of these policies have been protesting for a long time. From the early seventies, in the wake of revolutionary movements that started in the late 60s the consciousness about the evils of development began to grow. One of the earliest was the Silent Valley Movement in the Palakkad district of Kerala. It was started in 1973 to save the Silent Valley Reserve Forest from being flooded by a hydroelectric project. Since then there have been movements in practically every state in India. For example, Koel Karo movements in Jharkhand, Narmada Bachao Andolan spread over three states, Niyamgiri movement in Odisha, and Save Western Ghats which also was spread over several states and so on. While in most cases the movements ‘failed’ to achieve their goals, they transformed millions of people in their attitude towards ‘development’. These movements have prepared grounds for the alternatives to emerge – organic farming, education, health care, water harvesting, local self sufficiency etc.

 The so-called mainstream political parties have not participated or supported these movements in any significant way. Some units of the far left have supported and rebels in parties or some members of the opposition parties have also supported once in a while. In West Bengal the CPI (M) lost power due to their blatant support of the capitalist development agenda.

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Vol 56, No. 2, Jul 9 - 15, 2023