Clemens Dutt

The Role and Leadership of the Indian Working Class

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 11, December 1929, No. 12, pp. 741-752 (4,506 words).
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). 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 events of the past year in India leave no ground for uncertainty as to the advance of the revolutionary tide there. They fully confirm the estimate of a year ago that a new period of advance was opening out, the distinctive character of, which consisted in the leading role played by the Indian proletariat. Since then a good deal has happened. The strike wave has continued and developed, assuming an increasing political importance. British imperialism, acting through the Labour Government, has adopted the most ferocious measures of repression directed primarily against the mass movement. The nationalist movement has passed through a rapid process of evolution and differentiation, exposing the make-believe and treachery of the Indian bourgeoisie including even the so-called “extremist” leaders, and greatly accelerating the anti-imperialist and revolutionary understanding of the Indian masses.

It would, however, be erroneous to suggest that the Indian proletariat has already established in fact its leadership of the revolutionary forces. The noteworthy feature of the present situation is that events have clearly demonstrated that without such leadership the struggle against imperialism and exploitation cannot be carried on, but that the Indian working class is not yet sufficiently strongly organised and class conscious for it to assume fully its historic role of leadership in the Indian revolution. The peasant masses and the revolutionary rank and file of the organised nationalist movement are moving towards participation in mass struggle, but unless the Indian working class can establish not only political ascendancy over them, but also clear organisational forms through which that ascendancy can be expressed, the danger of surrender to the influence of the Indian bourgeoisie will always be present. This is the fundamental problem of the present period.

The Advance of the Proletariat

The continued attacks against the workers, the process of introducing rationalisation in Indian industry going forward mainly at their expense, and the developed methods of persecution and terrorism set in operation by the employers and the Government, have contributed very largely to the consolidation and education of the Indian working class. In the strike movement a great advance over 1928 is observable in the more militant and resolute attitude of the strikers, the great intensity of class feeling among them, the extension of the organisation of workers’ committees and factory councils, the vastly heightened political significance of the strike struggles and the general spreading of an understanding of the class struggle.

The struggle of the Bombay textile workers is typical of the advance that has taken place. The opposition they have had to encounter is incomparably greater than last year. First came the attempt in February to drown their struggle in the blood bath of the communal riots. Then came the arrest of all the chief leaders in the Meerut case. There followed at once the Fawcett textile report in favour of the employers which immediately stimulated the process that had already begun of victimisation and further attacks on wages and conditions. In spite of all this, the general strike called in April met with a unanimous response from the workers. The strike was met with the use of armed police and troops, the curfew order, prohibition of meetings, extensive importation of blacklegs and the passing of the Intimidation Act to prevent picketing. The reformist union appeared in the full role of a blackleg union and attempts were also made to sabotage the strike by the setting up of a so-called “blue” union by the employers directly and by the formation of a “green” Mohammedan union on a religious basis. The Bombay nationalists also came out in direct opposition to the strike and the Bombay Congress organisation voted money and means for open propaganda against the strike. Yet in the face of all this the strike went on; the workers departed for their village homes in large numbers and their places were gradually filled by new men. Finally, in the middle of September, the Girni Kamgar union was compelled to call off the strike without making conditions.

Only a few of the factors in the campaign against the textile workers have been mentioned above. The Girni Kamgar Union, the mass union of the textile workers with its Red Flag badge, aroused such rage and fury among the capitalists and British imperialists not so much on account of the strike, but because it gave a lesson to the whole Indian working class by practical experience of the meaning of class consciousness and militant struggle. The campaign against the “communist menace” has been a key-note of imperialist propaganda during the year. The report of the Riots Inquiry Committee set up to investigate the causes of the February communal riots and the report of the Textile Strike Inquiry Committee (consisting of three capitalist lawyers), appointed by the Government in July under the new Trade Disputes Act, are both made to serve as a means of attacking communism and the Girni Kamgar Union.

The Riots Committee examined eighty witnesses. According to the Press reports of the evidence, very few of them said that communist propaganda had anything to do with the riots and a number of prominent Indian public men emphatically denied that there was any connection. Nevertheless, the European Association made a strong statement declaring that the riots had their origin in the teaching of communist doctrines by labour leaders, that the Girni Kamgar union was a communist union responsible for the rapid progress of communism in Bombay and that special measures should be taken against it. It is noticeable that the Report of the Committee does not print any of the written statements or oral evidence but gives their verdict exactly on the lines of what was said by the European Association. Their first and primary recommendation is: “(1) Government should take drastic action against the activities of the communists in Bombay.” The following quotations are interesting evidence of the nature of the report.

It is admitted before us by the Treasurer of the Union that some of the leaders of the Union are communists, but a distinction is sought to be drawn between the policy of the individual leaders and that of the Union. This is a distinction without a difference. The very fact that the Union is known as the Red Flag Union, and that its symbols are a hammer and sickle, shows that it is a communist organisation.

We are of opinion that, in addition to action under the Intimidation. Act, strict action should be taken when necessary against communist agitators under the Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure. We are also of opinion that it should be considered whether section 22 of the Trade Union Act should not be amended so as to exclude communists from the management of any registered trade union.

The Attack on the Girni Kamgar Union

The Report of the Court of Inquiry into the 1929 textile strike carries the attack against the Girni Kamgar Union a good deal further. This report does not deal with general allegations of “communism” but concerns itself directly with the actual structure, administration and policy of the union. One of the biggest problems with which British imperialism is confronted in dealing with the growing revolutionary wave in India is that of preventing. trade union organisation from entering the path of militant class struggle. The growth of the Girni Kamgar Union, which is being taken as a model by other left-wing unions in India, has been sufficient to prove to the imperialists that it is necessary for them to take drastic action in order to mutilate and mould Indian trade union organisation into an exact copy of the reformist type developed in Britain by long years of imperialist corruption.

The first object of attack is what the Inquiry Report calls the “aggressive propaganda” of the Girni Kamgar Union. It declares:—

The Girni Kamgar Union has been described in the leaflets as the Red Flag Union, and its avowed object appears to be the destruction of capitalism.

The report quotes extracts from the leaflets and from the mill workers’ paper Kranti (Revolution) to illustrate this. Thus, the Kranti declares:—

The Bombay workmen unfurled the Red Flag in order to fight the owners and establish their union, and since then the owners are thinking how to kill this union. The owners were afraid that the mill committees of the Union were following the steps of the “factory soviets” in Russia, and that, as in Russia, this “Soviet” here will one day kick out the owners and establish the Labour Raj, and, therefore, in order to settle it finally they have declared war on the Red Flag. — (Kranti, May 19, 1929.)

But how will the agitation be stopped by arresting the leaders? Or how is the movement to be killed by declaring it to be illegal? Because the fight of the Red Flag is not dependent on the leaders, but will continue as long as capitalism is in existence. It will continue as long as the owners make money by looting workmen and until the unjust existence of capitalism is . . . . But the agitation which has been started by the workmen suffering under repression of capitalism and imperialism, not only of India but of the whole world, cannot be stopped by one or many Governments. In the world the Red Flag has never submitted before any Government.— (Kranti, June 16, 1929.)

The gap in the second quotation was left so in the Report; apparently the statement was too dangerous to reprint. The main object of attack in the report, however, is not the character of its propaganda, but its factory basis of organisation. The rules say that the Mill Committees are to be purely advisory. Accordingly, the Report says:—

There is hardly anything to quarrel with in the rules of the Union as framed. These rules make out the Union to have a sane constitution.

But even before the General Strike, the Mill Committees began to deal with local grievances on their own account and even to call local strikes. That this was freely tolerated is described as “an act on the part of the G. K. Union which clearly disclosed a revolutionary tendency.”

The whole of the Report is devoted to the attack on the Girni Kamgar Union. The aim of this attack is to prevent the development of trade union organisations which will not work in harmony with capitalism. In this connection it is interesting to note the interchange of remarks between Mr. Ranadive, one of the officials of the G. K. Union, and Mr. Mody, the Chairman of the Bombay Millowners’ Association. Mr. Mody complained that the G. K. Union was not following “recognised trade union principles.”

Mr. Ranadive: What are recognised methods?

Mr. Mody: In the case of a dispute to try and bring about a settlement by negotiations and not to provoke strike after strike.

Mr. Ranadive: Do other trade unions follow these recognised methods?

Mr. Mody: I should think so.

Mr. Ranadive: Is it not true that you were out for a fight to a finish in regard to the present strike?

Mr. Mody: I have already stated that the moment we found ourselves confronted with a Union which was bent upon the destruction of capitalism and organised industries we recognised that we had to fight it some day.

The whole of this experience in Bombay, together with similar experiences elsewhere and the gigantic object lesson of the Meerut trial, provides a political education for the Indian working class which is extremely rapidly raising their whole struggle to a higher plane and the effect of which reaches out to vast numbers beyond those actually participating at the moment in the strike movement. The political significance of strike action has been so underlined, and the Meerut trial has done so much to popularise the slogans of militant mass struggle, that a widespread consciousness of the international importance of the workers’ movement has developed out of the very efforts of the imperialists to stifle its growth. The cries of “Down with British imperialism,” “Long live the Indian revolution” and even the call for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and a Soviet India have not only spread everywhere among the workers and replaced the old shouts for Mahatma Gandhi and the National Congress, but have become common also on the lips of political demonstrators not belonging to the working class. Thus, it may be noticed that these proletarian slogans were brought forward in the manifesto of Bhagat Singh and Dutt, the two nationalists who were convicted of throwing a bomb in the Legislative Assembly, and they have been repeated by some of the accused nationalists on trial in the Lahore Conspiracy case and have been widely taken up by nationalist youth sections and mass demonstrations in support of Indian political prisoners. All this testifies to the marked growth of the leadership and influence of the revolutionary proletariat over the revolutionary sections of the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry.

At the present time not only are the bitter conflicts of the Tata tinplate workers and of the oil strikers in Bengal as well as various minor textile and other strikes still being waged, but it is possible that a further big strike on the railways may soon break out. Various sections of the organised railwaymen are calling for a general strike on the railways, a proposal which was only rejected at the All India Railwaymen’s Federation earlier in the year by a small majority. The following recent note in the Indian Press on the large mass meetings of railwaymen being held in Cawnpore is typical of what is happening in most parts:--

Processions with red flags passed through the railway colony singing various songs, the common theme being “Victory for Labour” and “Workers of the world unite.”

The Policy of the Whitley Commission

In the face of these developments, the policy of British imperialism is two-fold. In the first place, it uses every legal and arbitrary weapon to crush and destroy militant working class organisation and especially the incipient growth of a communist party. In the second place, alongside of the weapon of terror, it seeks to promote and encourage such forms of Indian labour organisation as will docilely fit in with the general scheme of imperialist exploitation. This, of course, is the outstanding object of the Whitley Royal Commission on Labour now touring India.

The Whitley Commission is the direct counterpart to the Meerut trial. The function of the one is to destroy, that of the other to build up. The spokesman of the Labour Government at the Labour Party Conference expressed his concern for “genuine trade unionism” in India, a phrase which has the same meaning as “sane trade unionism” employed in the Textile Inquiry report quoted above, and which takes us back to the “sane trade unionism” of Mr. Osborne of the Osborne judgment, whose principles are now being enforced through the medium of those who once opposed him. “Sane” trade unions are those which serve as useful adjuncts to the working of capitalism and concern of British imperialism, as it is that of Indian capitalism, to see that Indian labour organisation is guided into the channel of class collaboration and kept away from militant class struggle. The membership of the Whitley Commission is eloquent of its function. Mr. Whitley has the same task as he had in England in 1917. He has to turn the attention of Indian workers away from militancy while at the same time securing acquiescence in wage attacks and speeding up. Of the twelve members of the Commission, only two are connected with Indian trade unionism, but one of them is the reactionary General Secretary of the Indian Trade Union Congress. Nevertheless, the fight for boycott of the Commission is a very keen one and the division between the right and left wing in the Trade Union Congress which meets in Nagpur early in December will centre round this issue.

The issue is, however, not a simple one between militants and reformists because of the national issue involved. Many nominal leaders of Indian trade union organisations are bourgeois nationalists who have entered the movement in order to ensure that the masses remain under bourgeois leadership. For them, boycott of the Whitley Commission is only a political manoeuvre subsidiary to the main object of preventing attack on Indian capitalists. Thus, for instance, the United Provinces Provincial Trade Union Conference last September decided to boycott the Whitley Commission but the following quotation from Mr. Das Tandon, one of the prominent speakers, shows the kind of statement that was made at the same time:—

To lead a campaign of class war against your countrymen merely because they are capitalists or owners of land would be a suicidal policy and would help the foreign Government which we desire to replace by our own. Look at England itself! Mr. Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour Party are in power. Do they regard the labourers of other countries as their brethren whose interests they have to safeguard in preference to the interests of the capitalists of their own country? The answer is an obvious negative.

However apposite the comment on the Labour Party, the open fear of the Indian working class is a motive force which is driving the speaker and his allies into the arms of the British imperialists. This retreat before the working class is the governing factor in the nationalist movement and has been doubly emphasised by the events following the Irwin proclamation.

The Reaction on the Indian National Congress

What is the position with regard to the bourgeois leadership of the Indian National Congress? The advance of the proletariat during the past year has had its reaction in the corresponding retreat of the bourgeois nationalists. Already at the Calcutta session last December, the main feature was the actual surrender of the demand for independence, the secondary and complementary feature being the face-saving unreal ultimatum and threat of mass action a year ahead.

During the year this dual policy has been accentuated. Nothing was done to strengthen the anti-imperialist struggle. At the same time, in spite of the increasing anti-working class attitude of the chief leaders, the revolutionary phraseology about a coming “life and death struggle” and the expectation of action rallied a certain mass support to the Congress. After a recruiting campaign, the membership of the Congress was returned at about 450,000 at the end of September, at least four times the figure of a year ago. It may be noted in passing that even this figure falls short by about 140,000 from the quota arrived at, although the latter was taken as only one in four hundred of the population of the provinces of British India. To fulfil such a quota it is only necessary to recruit one or two persons from each village. These would in all probability be well-to-do peasants or landlords or petty bourgeois elements, and therefore even such a figure does not greatly affect the social composition of the Congress.

The hypocrisy and impotence of Indian bourgeois nationalism is not due to lack of reason for conflict with British imperialism. In fact, the many points for discord between them have been accentuated recently because the latter, instead of giving the Indian bourgeoisie facilities for progress and development, is actually driving them out of positions (as in the case of the iron and steel industry) which they formerly held.

If, then, in spite of serious grounds for conflict, the Indian bourgeoisie are reduced to practical subservience to imperialism, the reason is to be found in their abject fear in the face of the advancing Indian workers and peasants. This is forcibly brought out in the definite co-operation of the nationalists in the campaign of repression as far as it strikes at the working-class movement, as seen, for instance, in their support of the Trade Disputes Act and the failure to organise a campaign on behalf of the Meerut prisoners.

Yet Gandhi retreated to make way for the “left” nationalist Jawaharlal Nehru as President of the coming National Congress. This was only a move in the game and was intended more as a gesture to reassure the rank and file, who were becoming restive, than as a means to intimidate the British Government. Gandhi had openly declared the impossibility of fighting and as usual in such cases he puts the blame on the masses. He openly said that he was “sceptical about the forthcoming fight.” He declared that it was a “gross misrepresentation to say that the masses are impatient to be led to civil disobedience but that I am hanging back. I can only lead people who are prepared. I see no such signs on the horizon.”

Accordingly, Jawaharlal Nehru was put forward as the best chance of maintaining the ascendancy of the Congress over the masses. The Labour Government replied with the Irwin declaration with its vague promise of “Dominion Status” at the end of a long vista of time, a gesture as empty and insincere as the threat that it was supposed to meet. The whole thing was a piece of play acting which involved the tacit or secret collaboration of the two parties. The Labour Government only gave a very shadowy pretence of yielding to the paper sword of the National Congress. The Indian Nationalists only pretended that the gesture could be regarded as a hopeful move towards the satisfaction of their demands. But the underlying reality was that the Indian reformists, including their left spokesman, made a deal with the British bourgeoisie, acting through its Labour agents, for joint collaboration against a possible mass revolt.

Why then the outburst of criticism from the Tory and Liberal politicians? Essentially, there were two reasons. Firstly, to assist the Labour Government in making a show with their gesture by giving it the appearance of going above the authority of the Simon Commission. Secondly, to make it perfectly clear to the Labour agents of imperialism that they were only agents and that under no pressure may they depart one iota from the path prescribed by imperialism.

The resulting position is of especial interest as immediately affecting the future of the Indian National Congress and the role and leadership of the Indian proletariat. The document accepting the gesture of imperialism is signed by all the chief liberals and the main leaders of the Congress, including the young Nehru, the pillar of the left wing. After expressing the appreciation and hope resulting from the Viceroy’s message, it sets down the following conditions:—

(1) A policy of general conciliation should be definitely adopted to induce a calmer atmosphere.

(2) Political prisoners should be granted a general amnesty.

(3) The representation of progressive political organisations should be effectively secured, and that the Indian National Congress, as the largest among them, should have a predominant representation.

We understand that the Conference is to meet not to discuss when Dominion Status is to be established, but to frame a scheme of Dominion Status for India.

Naturally, British imperialism is not likely to accept these conditions. That has already been made clear and some of the signatories are said to have withdrawn their support. Such vacillations are to be expected but do not alter the significance in any way of having once signed such a document. The essential result is a terrific exposure of the Congress as a whole, left as well as right, sons as well as fathers, revealing the inherent impossibility of the Congress as an organ of the Indian bourgeoisie ever being capable of functioning as the leader of a mass struggle against British imperialism.

It is in decisive moments like this that the real alignment and role of such apparently intermediate sections as the I.L.P. in Britain and the “left” nationalists in India is plainly exposed, Just as the leaders of the I.L.P. line up with the Labour Government on this issue, where they had pretended to criticise them, so do the Independence Leaguers make a common front with the rest of the bourgeoisie in India. The effect will be evident to all at the coming Lahore Congress, where the question of action against British imperialism, except perhaps in the most limited, and unreal form, will once again be shelved.

The Future of the Anti-Imperialist Struggle

The Congress movement has passed a turning point. It can confidently be predicted that the mass following of the Congress will once again fall away. This last betrayal denotes the end of the role of the Indian National Congress even as the pretended leader of the anti-imperialist struggle.

Following the lead of the National Congress are many elements who had pinned their hopes on a victory of the left bourgeois nationalists in the Congress as signifying the opening of a radical struggle against imperialism. The last events must open their eyes to the impossibility of any uncompromising struggle under bourgeois leadership whether left or right. The way forward now is to be found only in a frank recognition that the Indian proletariat is the sole possible leader in the struggle for national, as well as for social, emancipation. The rank and file of the Congress must co-operate with the Indian working class in building up new forms of organisation for the national struggle in which bourgeois leadership will be eliminated.

How far can the working class be certain to secure its class leadership in such new forms of organisation? Clearly it can do so only in proportion as these new forms are dominated by mass organisations of the working class and in proportion as the political party of the working class, the Communist Party, is organised and developed. Such a bloc comprising petty bourgeois and peasant as well as working class elements may be constituted by a mass organisation of the League against Imperialism. As long as it remains a mass body in which working-class leadership is organised and expressed and is constituted as a joint body with limited aims for action during a certain limited period, it will have an important function to fulfil in the struggle.

The time is ripe for the working class in India to take the full leadership of the national struggle. It can only do so if it is itself led by a militant class-conscious organisation. That is the factor which is holding back the development of the mass national struggle for the overthrow of imperialism. In spite of repression and persecution, in spite of the joint onslaughts of British imperialism and Indian capitalism, the working class in India is going forward towards the accomplishment of its historic tasks. A period has opened in which one year witnesses a development outstripping that of a past decade, and it is precisely now that all the revolutionary classes look expectantly for the leadership of the Communist Party, which in international alliance with the militant workers of the world will guarantee the success of the Indian revolution.