J.R. Johnson

What India Means to the American Working Class

On the Role of the Indian Ruling Class

(14 December 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 50, 14 December 1942, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

If we want to see how absolutely bound, either to one imperialism or another, a colonial ruling class is, let us first look at Burma:

The administration of U. Saw, the former Burmese Premier, came into office during the days when Britain seemed about to collapse. U. Saw gave splendid support to Britain. But U. Saw naturally wanted as much power as he could get for himself and for those who supported him. Furthermore, the masses of the peasants and workers in Burma, as all over the Far East, have been so exploited by foreign imperialisms that no government could hope to get any sustained effort from them without, at least, promising some sort of independence, some new status after the war. That is the least, but, as India has shown, there are times when a promise will not suffice.

U. Saw went to Churchill and asked only for a promise of Dominion status after the war. U. Saw was willing to cooperate. But Churchill’s reply was, to quote one account, “very blunt.” He told U. Saw to get out. It was only then that U. Saw went to the Japanese, whereupon Churchill put him in jail and everybody called poor U. Saw a fifth columnist. U. Saw’s chief assistant, U. Tin Tut, who was imprisoned with him, has since been released and, it is said, has joined the British Burmese administration in India. Sir Paw Tun, who succeeded U. Saw, praised his work and said that serious unrest had broken out in Burma after U. Saw’s arrest. Yet, when the Japanese came, Sir Paw Tun crossed over into India with the British rulers.

In U. Saw playing see-saw between British imperialism and Japanese imperialism, and the suspicious masses looking hostilely on, you have the perfect picture of the general behavior of any colonial or semi-colonial ruling class. Now that France’s imperial power is broken, you see Darlan, for instance, doing the same between American and German imperialism, keeping a watchful eye on the French workers.

U. Saw See-Saw in India

The Indian ruling groups are in the same situation as the Burmese, but every contradiction and conflict in India is a hundred times as sharp as in Burma.

First, the British have been in Burma less than seventy-five years. They have been robbing India for three hundred. There is no powerful working class in Burma. The Indian proletariat has organized great trade unions and has repeatedly shaken India with great strikes, both economic and political. Burma has only a small history of struggle for independence. The last twenty years in India has been one long struggle of India to free itself from British imperialism. The situation in India is at the breaking point, and has been for years. We must get this very clearly in mind or we shall make mistakes.

We have noted that there is a Prime Minister in Burma. There is a Prime Minister in Egypt and a King and Parliament. There is even an Egyptian army. Some years ago the French government was able to come to some sort of pseudo-independence arrangement with the ruling groups in Syria. But the situation in India is such that the British cannot afford to do even that. They have tried for years to construct some sort of formula for Indian government whereby they would retain the power while giving titles, position and a little more share in the exploitation of the masses to the Indian ruling class. But India has gone far beyond that stage.

Some years ago, during the long and tiresome negotiations over a new constitution for India, the Manchester Guardian gave a perfect picture of the Indian deadlock. This paper, famous for its liberalism, said that what was required was a policy which would look like control in Britain and like freedom in India.

It is this impossible situation which explains the farcical offer of Cripps to the All-India Congress. What Cripps offered in essence was this: control by an Indian defense department of public relations, demobilization and post-war reconstruction; a petroleum officer to calculate petroleum for army, navy and air force; control of amenities for welfare of troops (an Indian USO); control of all canteen organizations, technical educational institutions, stationery, printing of forms for the army; reception and accommodation, and social arrangements (dances presumably) for all foreign missions, etc. This was the first installment of the self-government to come after the war. It reads like a joke. It was not. What else could the British offer at that time?

Such is the tension in India, such has it been for twenty years, that if an Indian government took charge of India today, during a war, after a few months it would have the British government at its mercy. War administration means power over taxation, over prices; it means power over industry, huge contracts, building new factories; it means control over propaganda, recruiting of Hindu regiments, appointment of Hindu officers, all sorts of emergency powers over property and people.

Gandhi and Nehru are weak, but they are not fools. Such power, which always grows in a war, would give them just that force which they need to make them a real factor in India. In any dispute they would lean back on Roosevelt, the dominant power in the United Nations. This was suitable to Roosevelt and American imperialism. At the end of the war, if victory was won, an Indian government would be firmly in the saddle. American imperialism would act as its god-father; it would have great prestige for having “won” independence. And Britain would have won the war and lost everything.

In fact, it is not too much to say that British imperialism might have offered a little more if it were not for the fact that anything like a reasonable offer was playing into the hands of American imperialism. These imperialists understand one another very well.

It was under those conditions that the Indian capitalists, bitterly disappointed, played their last card. They declared for civil disobedience. That this was meant only as a threat is shown by the fact that they organized nothing, had no economic demands which would appeal to the masses, and are begging to negotiate today. But the masses went much farther than they expected. Their disobedience was uncivil to the last degree. They rioted continuously. They showed what they might do tomorrow. It is this new force on the scene, what it has done, and what it might do, which has shown up the situation in the Far East for the dynamite that it is.

Roosevelt got seriously alarmed. So did Chiang Kai-shek. But Prime Minister Churchill has grown stiffer and stiffer. If more proof were needed of the pressure that is being brought to bear on him, it can be seen in his latest manifesto at the Lord Mayor’s banquet, flung in the teeth of everybody:

“Let me, however, make this clear, in case there should be any mistake about it in any quarter. [Note that “in any quarter.”] We mean to hold our own. I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside at the liquidation of the British Empire. For that task, if ever it were prescribed, someone else would have to be found and under a democracy I suppose the nation would have to be consulted.”

What this means is clear: he will resign first. He will call for a general election. As far as he and the Conservative Party are concerned, they will subordinate the national unity and the unity of the United Nations to this question. The workers should remember this when they are called upon to sacrifice everything for the war.

Of course, Churchill MAY do something. It will be boosted in the press. The Indian politicians may decide to make the best of it. Weak as they are they can only beg and threaten. But, from Churchill, the one thing they will not get is POWER. And yet, to give them some sort of power to hold the Indian masses in check is an imperative necessity in the Far East today.

Future in the Far East

The future in the Far East is, first, a military question. In a war, it is what armies do that counts. But it is far more than that. If there is anything that this war, a supreme crisis of capitalist society, has taught us so far, it is to avoid routine thinking. Of the dangers of this, the recent history of France is a notable example. In such a crisis as the present one, it is the apparently unexpected, the gigantic unpredictable, that becomes the normal, and increasingly so as the war goes on and the strains tighten. It is in these times that the writing and predictions and analyses of the great Marxists, which seem so far-fetched in normal times, become of great importance for us, not to repeat them, but to study and apply them.

The greatest in our time was Lenin, who studied the Far East closely. Just before he ceased work in 1923 he summed up his views. Soviet Russia, he said, was weak and poor and could not last long without help. That help would most likely come by means of a tremendous revolution in the Far East, embracing hundreds of millions of people, who with the Russians formed the majority of the world’s population. He meant, it would seem, that the general situation of the masses in the Far East was so bad, their exploitation was increasing at such a rate, that this revolution was imminent. If it succeeded in one place it would spread. And this would cripple and ruin the more powerful Western capitalist states to such a degree as to throw them into disorder and precipitate the world-wide downfall of imperialism.

Note that Lenin, however, was not mainly concerned with people like Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Chiang Kai-shek. He wrote of the MASS REVOLUTION, of workers and peasants.

Twenty years have passed. Russia, instead of helping the revolution in tie Far East, is today a counter-revolutionary force. A great revolution in China fifteen years ago was defeated. Yet in the view of this writer, the outstanding political feature of the war so far has been the way the masses in the Far East have pushed themselves forward to the very center of the political stage:

As the imperialist armies shock one another and the warring powers exhaust and demoralize the peoples of the world, the initiative will pass to these hundreds of millions. The full power may be delayed until after the war. We cannot predict how, when, or where. But today every calculation as to what may come out of this war must give their Far Eastern revolution a high rating.

Roosevelt, Willkie, Chiang Kai-shek, Gandhi, Nehru, the leaders of the former Dutch Empire, are all acutely aware of what is brewing, and the blows the Japanese armies have administered are made ten times worse by the obvious determination of the Axis leaders to use this enormous revolutionary power if they can.

It is this which gives importance to the Indian Congress. What Roosevelt hopes to do is to use the Indian ruling class to check this pent-up torrent. Chiang too wants exactly that solution. He cares nothing about Britain, but much for his own hide. There is already a pro-Japanese puppet administration in China under Wang Chin-Wei. There are pro-Japanese elements im Chiang’s “Free” China. As British “obstinacy” continues to imperil the whole United Nations cause in the Far East, these pro-Japanese elements obviously are strengthened in their view that it would be better to cooperate with Japan. If there is any catastrophe, military or political, Chiang and his supporters, wife, sisters and all, face extinction because the Japanese would not want to come to terms with Chiang. Nehru and the rest will probably be thrown out also as the Japanese already have their “Free” India government.

All groups are aware of the misery of the Chinese and Indian peasants and workers, they know the terrible strain of the war, they know their own economic weakness which makes them dependent either on the economic and political power of United Nations imperialism or the power of the Axis. Yet Britain offers nothing.

Churchill’s defiant speeches frighten Roosevelt, Gandhi and Chiang. They know that one powerful blow by the Japanese armies, or one powerful blow by the Indian masses, or a combination of both, may well set pro-Japanese and pro-American ruling groups fighting with each other in India and bring onto the stage the revolutionary masses, thus precipitating a bloody chaos of which no man can foresee the end. And these colonial countries in the Far East are infinitely more unstable today than was Czarist Russia in 1914.

The thing for the imperialists to do is to use the Indian capitalists to keep India quiet. Even when America is ready for Japan, it will be far easier and cheaper to control India by means of the Indian capitalists. Roosevelt and Willkie are striving with might and main to keep the name of American imperialism “right” with the Oriental masses. A British newspaper reports that it was Roosevelt who forced the unwilling British to join with him in giving up that monstrous system of privileges in China known as extra-territorial rights. Roosevelt (and all the American press behind him) is working hard to force Britain to some sort of accommodation with the Indian capitalists. The Chinese press clamors for it. But Churchill knows that every such step means more and more power to America in India. He says: “I will resign first!”

There, for the moment, the situation rests. It is huge, complicated with all sorts of unknown factors. In addition, the politicians and their press lie so much and are so skillful in confusing the workers, that unless one has a firm grasp of fundamental principles, one is likely to get lost in the mass of day-to-day detail.

And yet the American workers must watch and analyze and think. The war may last years longer and millions of workers will die, as a result of these tricks and maneuvers of the imperialist powers. Least of all must we pay too much attention to those miserable puppets, the leaders of the India Congress, and all these high-sounding speeches. Far more than Roosevelt, Churchill and Chiang, they, powerless as they are, live in mortal terror of the mass movement. The only power they will ever have is what the imperialists push into their hands or what the revolting workers force on them. Why this is so we shall see in the next two articles.

Last updated on 30 September 2014