From International Socialism (1st series), No.103, November 1977, pp.24-26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
It is perhaps strange that there are no records of any Indian socialists before 1917, with only one possible exception.  There were, after all, a large number of Indian students in Britain even then, some of whom were nationalists. It might have been expected that some of them would have moved towards socialist politics by coming into contact with the socialist parties in Britain.
The truth is that British socialists paid only lip-service to anti-imperialism before World War I. In this they stood alongside most of the European socialists in parties affiliated to the Second International . In 1896 the London International Congress of Socialist Parties had adopted a resolution on the right of all nations to self-determination and called on all workers to join in a fight against capitalism for the achievement of international social-democracy.
The problem was that no action flowed from that resolution. Considering what eventually happened to the Second International this is hardly surprising. In 1912 there was an International Socialist Congress held in Basle specifically to deal with the growing threat of a war between the major imperialist powers. It produced a long resolution pointing out that the coming conflict would be a capitalist war of conquest and that it was the task of all socialists to oppose it and use the crisis to fight for socialist revolution.
Less than two years later there was the disgusting spectacle of the parliamentary leaders of most of the parties that participated in that Congress falling over themselves to vote war credits to their capitalist governments and, where possible, enter the war governments. The most blatant example of this was Karl Kautsky, a leader of the German Social Democratic Party, an associate of Engels and for almost twenty years the most authoritative spokesman for Marxism in the world. Yet in October 1914 he could write:
‘It is the right and duty of everyone to defend his fatherland; true internationalism consists in this right being recognised by the socialists of all nations, including those who are at war with my nation ...’ 
The ‘fatherland’ that Kautsky was saying socialists should defend was the Germany of the Kaiser, the Prussian army, Krupps and I.G. Farben. Given this kind of degeneration it is hardly surprising that Indian nationalists were not attracted towards socialism as portrayed by the Second International. It also explains why the Bolshevik Revolution did make an impact.
It had been the habit of some of the leaders of the Indian National Congress, the Indian Nationalist party, to draw unfavourable comparisons between the Czarist regime in Russia and British rule in India. More than that, the temporary success of the 1905 revolution in Russia had impressed the more radical sections of the Congress. In November 1905 B.G. Tilak, a leader of the so-called ‘Extremist’ faction, wrote in his newspaper Kesari:
‘People’s resistance and strikes are no mean forces. It is well-known that in comparison with the officers of the British Government the Russian Tsar and his officers are (or as it should now be said – were) more tyrannical and barbarous. But, when in Russia people of lower as well as upper classes, professors, and students, workers and factory owners, editors and shopkeepers, organised strikes everywhere and, without caring for anything persistently and courageously put forward their demands before the Tsar, the mightiest of all kings and commander of a strong army of 20-22 lakhs (2 million – BP), the "Tsar of all the Russias" had to conceded most of the demands of the subjects.’ 
As is apparent, Tilak’s ‘extremism’ consisted only in his willingness to adopt radical measures to get rid of the British. He did not view strikes as a weapon in a class war in any way whatsoever and this attitude to workers organisation was to have important consequences later on. Tilak, indeed, had contacts with right-wing terrorists, and part of the attractions which Russia had for Indian, nationalists of this time was the terrorists of the Social-Revolutionary party. Nevertheless the use of the collective power of the Russian workers had made an impression on the Extremist leaders. In Bombay and Calcutta there already was large-scale industry, mainly concentrated around the jute and textile mills. In Bombay, as most of the workers were recent rural immigrants, Tilak was able to use his political base in rural Maharashtra (the are of west India around Bombay), which was organised by dominant land-holding groups in the villages, who supplied the ‘jobbers’ who recruited labour for the mills. In effect, Tilak was organising workers by using foremen.
At this time the nationalist movement was on the upswing, starting from a campaign against a British decision in 1905 to partition the province of Bengal. This was seen as a move to break up a strong centre of opposition to British rule as the new province of East Bengal would be dominated by the collaborationist Muslim aristocracy.
The movement was soon extended into the Swadeshi campaign, which was a campaign to boycott British goods in favour of Indian ones. It was this which finally swung Indian capitalists behind the Congress since not surprisingly they made vast amounts of money out of the campaign.
Nevertheless also the first time when Indian workers moved into action on a large scale. Strikes occurred on the railways and in the Punjab and in the textile mills in Bombay, as well as in many small workplaces. All these struggles were carried on without any union organisation but simply by the powers of self-organisation by the workers themselves. This movement collapsed in the face of factional splits inside the Congress and of repression by the British. The last outbreak was the six-day general strike in Bombay after Tilak had been sentenced to six years’ deportation for sedition on 22 July 1908. The domination of the advanced workers by the bourgeois nationalist movement meant that there was almost no chance of a socialist movement emerging from within the working class. 
World War I undermined the control which the British had imposed after 1908. The spectacle of the imperialist powers at each others throats and fighting for their lives, especially Britain, encouraged the nationalists to start organising again, this time around a front called the Home Rule League, inspired by Irish nationalism. Under pressure, the British moved towards giving constitutional reforms which would placate the right wing of the Congress. These reforms contained, for the first time, an admission that British rule would not last forever, and provided for partially-elected governments in the Indian provinces. Announced in August 1917 they fell far short of the Home Rule (i.e. self-government) that the Congress had been demanding.
They also compared very unfavourably with the proclamation of the new Soviet government on 24th November 1917 which renounced (and published) the secret treaties, annulled the partition of Turkey and Persia that was part of the war deal between the Allies, and upheld the right of all nations to self-determination. Self-determination was prominent in the Allies war aims against Germany, Austria and Turkey but the gap between what was proclaimed in London and Washington and the reality was wide and obvious and it contrasted very badly with the practice of the new Soviet government. At the annual session (conference) of the Congress in December 1917 the president noted India’s ‘free and self-governing neighbours across the northern frontiers’ and declared that ‘in future unless India wins self-government, she will enviously look at her self-governing neighbours and the contrast will intensify her interests.’ 
After the end of the war there was an unprecedented upsurge in the Indian working class. Trade unions, which had not really existed before, started springing up all over the place as workers in a wide variety of industries started taking action over wages and conditions of work. In 1918 and 1919 there were strikes in almost all the Bombay textile mills, the heart of Indian industry at that time. In the first six months of 1921 a series of strikes against the Rowlatt Act, a new piece of oppressive legislation introduced by the British, involved over 1.5 million workers. Considering the size and rawness of the Indian working class that was a considerable achievement. A number of leading members of the Congress had projected themselves into the leadership of the new unions, possessing negotiating aids which the workers lacked as well as using their nationalist political influence. These people were instrumental in bringing together most of these new unions to a national organisation, the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) in October 1920.
The trouble was that very little had changed from the previous form of organisation. Not only was the platform filled at the inaugural AITUC congress with the Congress leaders who had taken over the leadership of the unions but there were prominent representatives of the Bombay mill-owners and other such friends of the working class. What actually happened when Indian workers struck against an Indian capitalist was best shown by the Ahmedabad textile workers strike of 1919.
Ahmedabad was the main industrial centre of Gujerat, the part of west India that Gandhi came from. The strike was directed against the local mill-owners, of whom the largest was one Ambalal Sarabhai. Gandhi, who was increasing his influence within the Congress at the time, managed to dictate the strikers’ tactics, imposing totally passive forms of activity so to speak. He could do this because not only was he on intimate terms with the Sarabhai family but one of the leaders of the strike committee was Ambalal Sarabhai’s sister. This shows the state of workers’ organisation in India at the time better than anything else and in the circumstances it is not surprising that Gandhi was able to persuade the demoralised workers to return to work defeated.
That incident shows why the Bolshevik revolution had so little practical effect in India. The workers movement was totally dominated by the bourgeois nationalists of the Congress. It did not matter that Tilak, visiting Britain in 1918, had established contact with the Labour Party. It did not matter that Lala Lajpat Rat, an old Extremist leader recalled from years of exile in the USA spoke about the world groaning under 150 years of capitalism at the founding conference of the AITUC. By 1919 the Congress leaders and their industrialist supporters realised that mass action by workers would be a direct threat to themselves unless it was rigidly controlled. The Bolshevik Revolution appealed to them in its democratic aspect – sweeping away the autocracy and the freeing of the subject nationalities. The revolutionary aspect – the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a workers state – appealed to them not at all.
That is why in desperation they turned to Gandhi. His reactionary religious fanaticism, his opposition to the twentieth century, appalled them, in private at least. But he solved the problem of keeping the mass of workers and peasant involved in nationalist activity which yet did not threaten the Indian bourgeoisie. Civil Disobedience was totally passive – just waiting to be arrested – and Gandhi always cut it off when it looked as if it might get out of control. There was no hope of a socialist movement emerging from this kind of politics.
In 1915 a number of Muslim students from the Punjab had left India hoping to fight for the Sultan of Turkey against the Allies. They only got as far as Afghanistan, but in 1918 another group of 80 managed to reach Soviet Central Asia. Eventually half of them stayed on to join the Communist University of the Toiling East at Baku. This had been established by the new Third International to train people who would be the core of the as yet non-existent Communist Parties in Asia. In October a Communist Party of India in exile was formed, in Tashkent in Central Asia, composing largely of these exiles. However, when these students attempted to return to India in 1922 they were quickly arrested.
The Communist Party in exile had been formed on the instigation of M.N. Roy, a former associate of the terrorist groups in Bengal, who had been absent from India since before the war. In 1917 he had ended up in Mexico following several years in the USA. Although he had been in contact with socialist groups in the USA, it was in Mexico that he came under the influence of the exiled Bolshevik Michael Borodin. Borodin was instrumental in getting Roy invited to the second Congress of the Third International in Moscow in 1919, officially as the delegate of the Communist Party of Mexico but mainly because this was the only chance of having an Indian Marxist attend the Congress. Despite having a fundamental disagreement with Lenin over the attitude that the Communists should have to the Indian National Congress – Roy held that it had gone completely over to imperialism – Roy was put in charge of work in the Eastern countries, especially India. But all he had to work with was a few students of doubtful political value (a number of them turned informers when they were arrested back in India) and a number of political freebooters who kept turning up in Europe and attaching themselves to him in the hope of a rake-off.
Leninism or Gandhism?
Fortunately for Roy despite censorship a considerable amount of Communist literature was circulating in India and some of this fell into the hands of young radicals dissatisfied with the passive strategy that Gandhi was imposing on the Congress. Mussafar Ahmed of Calcutta, who was involved in a radical political-cultural organisation, recalls how in November Can the Bolsheviks retain State Power and Left-wing Communism, an infantile disorder. At this time he met one Nalini Gipta, one of the freebooters who had attached himself to Roy in Moscow and who had been sent to India, to make contact with revolutionaries, if there were any to be found. Gupta was a crook (he later managed to keep operating an Indian restaurant in Nazi Germany) but he did take the names of Indian revolutionaries back to Roy in Moscow in 1920.
In Bombay the first contact came through two students, S.A. Dange and R.S. Nimbkar, who had been expelled from their colleges because they led opposition to compulsory Bible study. In 1921 Dange wrote a pamphlet entitled Gandhi vs. Lenin. This was actually rather soft on Gandhi but it brought Dange to the attention of Roy and the Third International. (Dange had mailed copies to Soviet missions in the countries surrounding India). A representative was sent from the British Communist Party was sent to meetDange in Bombay to give him money to send delegates to the Fourth Congress of the Third International in November 1922. None went.
In December 1922 a programme for the Indian National Congress was written by Roy in Moscow and printed in the Indian press via Reuters in London. The situation of Roy in Moscow trying to organise a Communist Party in India via the international postal services was doomed by its obvious futility. Those genuine socialists whom he did manage to recruit were compromised by the criminals and political opportunists whom he picked up too. In 1924 it was possible for the British to set up a show trial, the so-called Kanpur Conspiracy Case. Because the defendants were divided amongst themselves (Dange was negotiating with the British to turn informer) the defence was s shambles, although the publicity that the British gave to the case gave the Communist Party a certain amount of credibility all over India.
It would appear that the Bolshevik Revolution had precious little effect in India if all that existed seven years after the Revolution was an assorted collection of individuals scattered all over India, while the mass of Indian peasants and workers were under the domination of the Congress whose politics were largely determined by the religious fanatic Gandhi. Not until the early 1930s, when a new wave of recruits came out of the defeat of Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience campaign was there anything which could be called a party. The trouble was that by then the Third International was the poodle of the state capitalist bureaucracy in the USSR.
It was too much to expect that the Bolshevik Revolution, bursting unforeseen on the Indian workers, would magically create a Communist Party and in independent workers’ movement out of nothing. The fact that there was no socialist tradition at all in India made it impossible for the Third International to build a meaningful Communist Party in India in the years after the revolution. The sympathy of the Congress leaders extended no further than their speeches. Here we come back to the beginning. If the Second International had done its job properly (or indeed done it at all) they could have created a nucleus of socialists in India years before 1917. This would have especially been possible in the years after 1908, when the Congress was split and impotent. In the event there was no-one to take advantage of the coming together of the Revolution and the post-war crisis that hit India in 1918-20. This is a lesson for us all.
1. Shapurji Saklatvala, the first Communist MP in Britain, who was elected for Battersea for 1922-23 and 1924-29. He had joined the Independent Labour Party in 1910. To what extent he was a Marxist before 1917 is open to doubt.
2. The Second International, founded in 1889, included its membership all the social-democratic and workers parties of Europe. Although it was in theory Marxist, it was always more of a federation than the coordinating centre for world revolution.
3. In Die Neue Zeit of October 2nd 1914. Quoted in Lenin’s The Collapse of the Second International, p.17.
4. P.B. Sinha, Indian National Liberation Struggle and Russia (Delhi 1975), p.197.
5. But for a good description of the general strike, see the appendix in AITUC Fifty Years: Documents, Vol.I (Delhi 1973).
6. Zafar Imam, The Rise of Soviet Russia and Socialism in India 1920-29 (Calcutta 1967), p.81. Most of my information on the early Indian Communist Party comes from this book. The value is that unlike most of the leadership of the two Indian communist parties, the CPI and the Communist Party (Marxist), Muzaffar Ahmad was an honest man.
Last updated on 5.1.2008