Clemens Dutt

The Indian Struggle for Independence

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 10, March 1928, No. 3, pp. 155-162 (2,771 words).
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The session of the Indian National Congress held in Madras at the end of 1927 marks a turning point in the history of the Indian nationalist movement. It makes it necessary to examine very carefully the nature and significance of the new developments and, especially in view of reactions here, brings us sharply up against the question as to what should be the attitude of British labour towards the Indian struggle.

The focus of attention has been the boycott of the Statutory Commission appointed in accordance with the provisions of the Government of India Act of 1919, “for the purpose of inquiring into the working of the system of government” and to “report as to whether it is desirable to establish the principle of responsible government, or to extend, modify or restrict the degree of responsible government existing” in British India. The appointment of the Commission has raised the fundamental issue of acceptance of the right of the British ruling power to determine the character of the Indian constitution, and is noteworthy for the intensity and unanimity of the opposition and hostility it has evoked, but it is not itself the central feature of the present situation. The boycott of the Commission has been embarked upon for a variety of reasons and, while in itself an act of opposition to British imperialist interests, does not necessarily involve any fundamental antagonism.

The most outstanding immediately apparent mark of the new stage is the development of the struggle to one directed against British imperialism as a whole. This is very noticeably expressed in the new resolutions of the National Congress. In spite of the return of some right wing politicians, like Mrs. Annie Besant, who had long ago abandoned the Congress on account of its extremist “character”, the Madras session showed a pronounced move to the left. Decisions were taken which were even unexpected and surprising to the leaders themselves.

For the first time, it was proclaimed in clear terms that “the Congress declares the goal of the Indian people to be complete national independence.” This, at last, puts the nationalist movement on a level which goes beyond the aims of the upper-class Indians, and which was not previously reached even at the height of the non-co-operation movement. At that time Gandhi defined the object of the non-co-operation programme to be the “redress of the Punjab-Khilafat wrongs” and the establishment of “Swaraj,” an indefinite term which came to be accepted by the chief leaders as meaning merely Dominion Status within the British Empire.

Another characteristic sign of the present anti-imperialist standpoint was the decision to join and support the International League against Imperialism, founded at the Conference in Brussels in February, 1927. A resolution was passed opposing the war preparations of British imperialism in India and announcing:—

that in the event of the British Government embarking on any war-like adventure, and endeavouring to exploit India in it for the furtherance of their imperialist aims, it will be the duty of the people of India to refuse to take any part in such a war or to co-operate with them in any way.

A further indication is to be seen in the resolution recording “assurances of full sympathy with the people of China in their fight for emancipation, who, in the opinion of the Congress, are the comrades of the Indian people in their joint struggle against imperialism.”

The Chinese people are engaged in a mass struggle against foreign imperialism and against the agents and allies of foreign imperialism among themselves. Do the resolutions of the Indian National Congress then mean that the Congress forces are similarly pledged to a life and death struggle with British imperialism? It is here that the contradictions within the Indian Nationalist movement make themselves apparent. The definitely anti-imperialist character of the resolutions adopted by the Congress represents a notable advance, indicating the forces at work inside the movement, but the leaders of the Congress give no sign that they intend to translate them into action, which would involve a mass revolutionary struggle.

The Congress leadership is predominantly in. the hands of the Indian middle class, who are connected by a thousand ties, economic and political, with the system of British domination and exploitation. They are in the main the same leaders who were responsible for stifling the mass revolutionary movement in 1920-22. The right wing is openly hostile even to the attitude of anti-imperialism, is against the independence declaration, and only supports the boycott of the Simon Commission for tactical reasons. The Swarajists or Congress party, who constitute the largest section of the elected members of the legislatures based on the present narrow propertied franchise, look upon the independence resolution as a gesture, a reply to Birkenhead, rather than as a real aim for the attainment of which practical measures need to be devised. Up to the eve of the Congress, the old Swaraj party leaders maintained their opposition to the independence demand, and in the draft Constitution prepared for the Congress it finds no place.

The standpoint of the right wing was frankly expressed by Lajpat Rai, himself an ex-member of the Swarajist Party, who made the following comment:—

We feel that any talk of complete national independence at the present moment by our own efforts is mere moonshine. The practical politician in India directs his energies to a compromise with the British Government on such a basis as may be profitable to both ... But those negotiations the British Government will not enter into. That is why I am wholeheartedly in favour of boycotting the Commission.

This betrays the whole vacillating character of the bourgeois opposition to British imperialism. Even if the bourgeois nationalists do not admit, as Lajpat Rai does, that their object is an adjustment of relations with British imperialism which shall be “profitable to both,” yet they are in spirit opposed to their own Congress resolutions and averse to realising the consequences of their own decisions. Even on the boycott itself they are not united. Although those opposing the boycott are numerically insignificant, as shown, for example, in the large majority by which the Legislative Assembly determined that there should be no committees set up by it to co-operate with the Commission, there is a section of landholders and big capitalist interests that hold out, while some of those who oppose the Commission only do so because of the non-representation of Indians on it, and not in principle, while still more are opposed to the organisation of hartals and mass demonstrations.

What then determined the character of the anti-imperialist resolutions of the National Congress and their acceptance by the bourgeois leaders? The cause is to be found in the pressure from the rank and file of the nationalist movement which drove the leaders to take up a left position in order to prevent the leadership being taken out of their hands. Between the defeat of the non-co-operation movement in 1922 and the new forward move in 1928 is a period not merely of passive recuperation and recovery after defeat, but of active development and class differentiation. It was a period of intensified industrialisation and economic exploitation. The ranks of the working class were augmented and their organisations strengthened and rendered more class-conscious. The gulf was deepened between the proletarianised peasants and petty bourgeoisie and the Indian capitalists, who were more and more attracted towards union with British imperialism on the basis of the latter’s policy of economic concessions. Thus, while the bourgeois leadership moved steadily to the right, the petty-bourgeois left wing and the mass following of the Congress moved to the left and developed a more and more articulate voice in expressing its discontent with the policy of the leaders.

Take, for instance, the independence resolution. This has always been a demand of the left wing, and has been repeatedly put forward to the Congress by provincial organisations. The Mahratta, a leading right wing organ, in commenting on the passage of the resolution at Madras, notes that already in previous years, “Mahatma Gandhi had to use all his tact and influence to induce Congress men to reject the proposal.” Just prior to the Congress, in November, Pandit Motilal Nehru, the leader of the Congress Party, declared:—

The only result the present action of the Government is likely to lead to is to strengthen the hands of that growing body of Indians who are working for complete independence. I am afraid those who are still for full responsible Government within the Empire will find it difficult to maintain the majority which they undoubtedly have, at present.

It is clear that the leaders, who in November still felt that they had the majority, decided in December to bow to the storm, and to put forward the left wing resolutions themselves, rather than face the possibility of being defeated. Under the pressure from below, which especially easily influences the petty-bourgeois left wing, which is already conscious of the bankruptcy of bourgeois nationalist policy, the bourgeois leaders have been compelled to proclaim that they too stand for uncompromising struggle with imperialism.

The right wing elements, who are outside the Congress, naturally consider that this is a dangerous policy. They already see the red light and are alarmed. Thus, we find Sir H.S. Gour, a loyalist moderate, declaring:—

The mentality of the Congress has been the mentality of the proletariat. It is run by those who advocate the doctrine of Bolshevism. The under-current of its methods of work is Bolshevik.

This is interesting as an instinctive expression of class feeling, but, actually, as we have seen, it is untrue. In spite of its radical declarations, the Indian National Congress remains in the hands of the Indian bourgeoisie and cannot provide the leadership for a revolutionary mass struggle. Consequently, its anti-imperialist resolutions, although significant of the pressure from below, have not the importance of a new revolutionary policy. If there was no force ready to challenge the present bourgeois leadership, it could not be said that the Indian national movement had advanced to a new stage.

But the real significance of the new phase of the movement is to be found precisely in the emergence of such a challenge. The awakening revolutionary forces of the masses are beginning to group themselves under their own independent political leadership expressed through the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party. This party developed during the last two years through the alliance of left wing nationalist groups with politically conscious working class elements, and its growing activity and influence, was one of the most significant features in the history of the past year.

At the meeting of the All-India Congress Committee in May, 1927, the representatives of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party put forward a proposed programme for the National Congress which attracted considerable attention, although discussion on it was ruled out of order. The programme demanded the adoption of complete national independence as the goal of the Congress, and called for the preparation of direct action by the masses, including the organisation of a general strike as a political weapon, through agitation in support of a programme of demands for economic and political rights and organisation for the workers and peasants.

The Workers’ and Peasants’ Party played a prominent part in the Bengal-Nagpur railway strike, and in working-class and peasant demonstrations during the year. At the same time it has an influential hold on the Congress organisation in Bombay, and, in a lesser degree, elsewhere. It addressed its own Manifesto to the National Congress proposing the calling of a Constituent Assembly on the widest possible basis in order to determine a constitution for India, and a programme of action in support of it. Most noticeable of all is the fact that the mass demonstrations of workers which greeted the arrival of the Simon Commission in Bombay were organised under the direct leadership of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party.

This is a clear indication of the entry of the masses into the struggle as an independent political force. This it is that marks the new stage into which the Indian struggle for independence is entering. As yet the demands of the Indian workers and peasants have been given little heed to by the nationalist movement as a whole. In proportion as their political organisation increases in strength, the centre of gravity of the Indian national struggle will shift to their fight. Already this process is seen in the emphasis on the struggle against imperialism, for the overthrow of imperialist exploitation can only be realised through the independent revolutionary action of the masses. Every stage in the development of revolution, as Lenin has said, means a change in the mutual relations of the classes in the revolution. Such a change is taking place now in the Indian national revolution, when the leadership is passing from the hands of one class, the bourgeoisie, into the hands of another class, the proletariat, which itself carries with it and leads the struggle of the peasants.

Should the British working-class support the Indian struggle for independence?

The British Labour Party has already by its actions answered this question in the negative. Not merely does it refuse support to the mass struggle of the Indian nationalists, but, by the actions and declarations of its leaders and by the participation of its representatives in the Tory Government Commission, it has affirmed its solidarity with the policy of British imperialism in India.

While the leaders of the British Labour Party openly justify their solidarity with imperialism, proclaiming their faith in the Empire, in capitalist policy towards India and in the supreme rights of the British Parliament, there are some who defend their opposition to Indian nationalism on the ground that the Indian nationalist movement is led by capitalists and landlords who are only out for their own interests. This, for example, was the basis of the attack on Motilal Nehru which appeared in the Glasgow Forward as an answer to his criticism of the Labour Party.

Mr. Mardy Jones, M.P., speaking in India, in November, 1927, made the following observations on the attitude of the Labour Party towards Indian self-government:—

The [Labour] Party would not agree to place political power in the hands of wealthy merchants and landlord classes without a guarantee that the right of political citizenship should be extended to the people generally. . . They would require very strong proof that the political and industrial leaders of India were sincerely prepared to secure the betterment of the workers and peasants of India.

This kind of argument implies, in the first place, that Indian political freedom is a gift which the British Labour Party can bestow and not the outcome of a struggle against British imperialism. Secondly, it assumes that it is the wealthy classes to whom power will have to be given, provided only that proof of their good intentions is forthcoming.

But we have seen that the whole significance of recent developments is that the independent political struggle of the masses of the people is making headway even against the opposition of the upper class leaders. It should then follow that the attitude of distrust of the latter on the part of British workers should involve support of the political demands of the workers and peasants. The leaders of the Labour Party, however, condemn the bourgeois nationalists not from the point of view of the left wing, but from exactly the same standpoint as the reactionary merchants, landholders and flunkeys. MacDonald applauds the attempts of the Simon Commission to get the right wing nationalists to desert the Congress and join the reactionaries, and so does the Daily Herald. In such cases, therefore, the claim to oppose the selfish interests of Indian capitalism is only a cover for support of British imperialism.

The real struggle of the Indian masses is already coming into the forefront and will become more and more prominent. Since the existing British imperialist exploitation is the greatest oppressor of the Indian masses, the struggle of the latter must be waged under the slogan of complete national independence. Solidarity of the British and Indian Workers’ movements demands, therefore, first of all support of the Indian struggle for independence. This support must be given to the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party as the political leader of the revolutionary mass struggle. Only by full support of the anti-imperialist struggle in India will it be possible to prevent British imperialism using India as a weapon against the workers in this country. Unity in the fight against imperialism is the foremost need of the hour.