Hugo Rathbone

The Place of the Peasantry in the Indian Revolution

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 12, July 1930, No. 7, pp. 418-428 (3,913 words).
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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In its self-imposed mission of civilising the backward peoples of the earth imperialism in general, and British Imperialism in particular, nowhere more clearly reveals the hypocrisy of this objective than in relation to the peasant masses. This of course is but natural as the masses of the peasantry form the largest section of the peoples which are subjected to its exploitation, and therefore it is particularly on account of this section that the imperialist bourgeoisie endeavours to conceal its real aims, behind hypocritical tales of the benefits it is conferring on these backward peoples. As a matter of fact the hypocritical nature of these tales is seen in the fact that far from supposedly drawing these people forward out of their backward state it is just these “benefits” which are found on scientific analysis free from all hypocrisy to have the effect of perpetuating and of intensifying their “backwardness.”

Thus Imperialism places itself in the happy position of being able to show that the more it carries out its mission the more necessary is that mission found to be. Indeed this is no fairy tale romance, but only the distorted picture of the reality of British Imperialism—a constant endeavour to increase the exploitation of its subject peoples.

This hypocritical tale is spun with much force and vehemence by the members of the Indian Statutory Commission under the expert guidance of Sir John Simon with that unanimity which is rightly to be expected from the shareholders of such a mighty (sacred) trust as the Indian Empire, as long as profits are assured at the stupendous level of £160,000,000 a year. For make no mistake about it, Conservatives, Liberals, and Labour, all three each in their several ways, receive their “just” share of this tribute forcibly wrung from the blood and sweat of the Indian masses.

In Volume I of their Report, the Survey, three reasons are given for the backwardness of the peasantry. The first is the traditional method of husbandry, a characteristic feature of which is said to be the incessant breaking up of the holdings on inheritance; secondly, the lack of communications and commerce with the outside world; thirdly, the lack of security and undisturbed occupation of the soil before the British conquest. All these three obstacles to development are, it is asserted, being combated by the benefits which British Imperialism in its benevolence is showering on the Indian agriculturist.

In spite of this shower, however, the Report lets falls what might appear to be admissions that after 160 years of rule the effect of these benefits has been barren if not a great deal worse. Thus, for instance, it says: “The vast majority of the peasants live in debt to the moneylender”; or again after detailing the benefits of trade and communications with the outside world it says: “Here, again, the last fifty years have seen influences at work which have had profound effects upon the development of Indian agriculture, though it is difficult to see the result in the inspection of an ordinary Indian village”; Or finally, “But the fact remains, and must remain, that, in a country so extensive as India, the effects of a single measure are apt to be so dispersed that they can be discerned with difficulty, and that in spite of the progress that undoubtedly has been made and of the great increase in the gross wealth of the country, the ordinary cultivator on his tiny plot of land is still a man of few resources, with small means for meeting his limited needs....”

These apparent admissions to the failure of British Imperialism’s self-imposed task are, however, only embellishments to its chief aim—that of showing how much more necessary are these benefits to-day than ever before. The task in its own words is admittedly “stupendous”—yes, we agree, if 300,000,000 of peasantry are to be brought under effective exploitation—fifty years or indeed 160 years is but a short span compared with the fact that “from time immemorial, the rural population has lived in villages, the mud or bamboo houses of which are huddled together…” Therefore it naturally follows that:—

Any quickening of general political judgment; any widening of rural horizons beyond the traditional and engrossing interest of weather and water, and crops and cattle, with the round of festivals and fairs and family ceremonies, and the dread of famine and flood—any such change from these immemorial pre-occupations of the average Indian villager is bound to come very slowly indeed.

Thus because of this “very slow” development, British Imperialism sees its bloody lease of the sweat and toil of the Indian masses indefinitely extended.

But it is just here that it is mistaken. Precisely because Imperialism’s so-called benefits are in fact increasing the so-called backwardness of the Indian peasantry, precisely because the Indian peasantry are being goaded thereby to the breaking point, precisely because this exploitation of the peasants, who comprise the vast majority of the Indian population, is the basis of British Imperialism’s exploitation of India; so the agrarian revolution, forming as it does the only escape for the peasantry from their bondage, becomes the axis of the national revolutionary upheaval which is now developing. Further, in view, of the relationship of class forces in Indian society, a relationship which is akin to that of every other society where the bourgeoisie have not yet completed their revolution, this agrarian revolution can only be carried through under the leadership of the proletariat.

History will show that the prognostications of British Imperialism with regard to an almost indefinite period of rule over a subject India are as equally doomed to disappointment as all the other prognostications of the bourgeoisie, which have been based more on a teleological or wish-is-father-to-the-thought conception of developments than on any really scientific analysis—a conception which is no accident but inevitable in the epoch of the general crisis and decline of capitalism.

Hoover, at the head of a super-optimist American Imperialism, went on prating of “endless prosperity” long after the Stock Exchange crash of last year heralded the emptiness of such a boast. English bank chairmen regularly at the commencement, year after year, spoke optimistically of a revival in trade until from very monotony they desisted. Super imperialism is ever the ideal, but never the fact, of capitalism. In this sense the Simon Report was already a historical document before it was even printed, dead in relation to the facts of to-day, superseded as it has been by the scientific march of events, by the developing Indian Revolution.

But let us see what are these facts. Let us first see how the “backwardness” of the Indian peasant has indeed been promoted by the “benefits” of British Imperialism.

Take first the benefits of “peace and security” which British imperialism by its conquest has conferred on the Indian peasantry. This attainment of peace, this security, was followed closely, as the Simon Report itself brazenly states, by scientific recording of all rights in land on which were based new assessments to land revenue. In return for peace and security the peasant was scientifically taxed. The continuance of peace and security has meant not only a land tax but a tax on every other available article of peasant consumption. Unfortunately, as the report states: “The self-sufficiency of the Indian villages has limited the scope of internal excises to a few articles such as salt, kerosene oil and alcoholic liquors, for which the rural areas are dependent on extraneous supply.” The report admits the fact that the peasant pays “a substantial portion” of his means to the State. The benefits of 160 years of peace and security in advancing the backwardness of the peasantry are finally acclaimed in the following: “The low standard of living to which the mass of India’s population attain is one of the first things that strike a Western visitor .... the depth of poverty, the pervading presence of which cannot escape notice,” &c., &c.

Peace and security are thus merely the means to grind the peasant under a huge load of taxation.

Secondly, let us investigate those benefits of trade and communication with the outside world, the lack of which was given as the second reason for the backwardness of the Indian peasantry. The actual facts of this feature of British Imperialism’s benevolence are notorious. Many books exist showing how Indian village economy has been devastated by the importation of machine-made goods, how whole cities like Dacca have been depopulated. How the peasant economy, based as it was partly on tilling the soil and partly on handicraftsmanship, cut in half by the ruin of its handicrafts, has been forced back on the soil, abandoned and subjected to disease and famine. It is a fact that the compiler of one of the yearly post-war Government reports on “The Moral and Material Progress of India.” (what ponderous hypocrite invented this title?), felt himself justified in warning his masters that the process could not develop, as was the case with the “Industrial Revolution” here in Britain, so they should take steps to counteract the destruction of village economy by encouraging, of course along capitalist lines, the development of this village manufacture, e.g., by supplying electric power to handlooms. This contradictory development is in fact being undertaken, but it is manifestly only a palliative and cannot prevent the destructive effects of the competition of machine made goods on handicraftsmanship.

But the process of break up is developing in spite of all such warnings, at a faster and faster rate. For instance, calculations1 show that the population dependent on the handloom industry decreased in the period 1911-21 by some 33 per cent., while in the five-year period 1921-25 it decreased by 63 per cent, or roughly four times as fast as in the period 1911-2 1. This rate has probably not been maintained in the period since 1925 for a number of reasons.

The other side of the picture, the effects of the opening of the peasants’ agricultural products to the forces of the world market, are also disastrous. For obviously a peasant growing rice in his village cannot follow the course of world markets, and, even if he did, cannot hold off selling for a better price as his resources do not allow it. The result is that he becomes a prey to the agent of the rice merchant or to the moneylender, or to both—they are often one and the same individual. The tremendous profits made out of commercialised agricultural crops bear witness to the fleecing of the peasantry.

But the third benefit which British imperialism professes to confer on the peasant, education, research, &c., and propaganda against all the traditional methods of Indian agriculture, and in particular against the breaking up of holdings, is the very tip-top height of hypocrisy: for the whole system of exploitation of the peasantry has the precise effect of increasing this breaking up or fragmentation of holdings as it is called.

Certain statistics were given before the 1927 Agricultural Commission showing how this process worked. One district in Bombay of over a 1,000,000 acres was given which it was said was “infinitely better off than many others.” The changes between 1917 and 1922 were as follows (Vol. II, Part I of Evidence, p.292).

Acreage of Holdings Number of Holdings in 1917 Number of Holdings in 1922 Percentage decrease.(-) or increase (+)
Under 5 6,272 6,446 +2.6
Between 5 and 15 17,909 19,130 +6.8
Between 15 and 25 11,908 12,018 +0.9
Between 25 and 100 15,532 15,020 -3.3
Between 100 and 500 1,234 1,117 -9.5
Over 500 20 19 -5.3

The witness—a Government official in his own comment on these tables says:—

These figures referring only to a period of five years appear to me to show a very marked increase in the number of agriculturists cultivating holdings up to 15 acres, which except in a very few soils is not an area which can economically employ a pair of bullocks.... There is also a drop in the holdings of 25-100 acres, which means a decrease in the comparatively substantial agriculturist class who can with luck lay by a little capital.

Here is shown the first stage of pauperisation of the peasantry. A further table (quoted on p.76 of the same volume of the Agricultural Commission’s Evidence) showed that in Bombay, to such an extent had this fragmentation of holdings developed that no less than 88 per cent. of the total number of holdings in the whole of the Bombay Presidency Province were not more than twenty-five acres in area, the: vast majority of them being less even than fifteen acres and at least 48 per cent being less than five acres.

The meaning of this pauperisation is seen when it is recalled that the other witness before this Commission quoted by us above, asserted that only holdings over fifteen acres, could economically employ two bullocks, From this will be seen the criminal absurdity of the remark made on p.18 of the Survey Volume of the Simon Report to the effect that: “The typical agriculturist is still the man who possesses a pair of bullocks and cultivates a few acres, with the assistance of his family and of occasional hired labour,” and this incidentally after suggesting on p.15 that no one could regard himself “adequately informed” as to Indian rural life “until he has made some study of the survey made by the Agricultural Commission”—this same Agricultural Commission in which it is shown that the typical agriculturist of the Simon imperialist lackeys is an idle dream as regards fully half, if not three-quarters, of all the peasant holders of the Bombay province.

But this is not all; the pauperisation of the peasantry has been, and is being, taken a stage further; one witness before the 1926 Currency Commission (Vol. IV of Minutes of Evidence, p.202) asserted that during the last two or three years, “on an increasing scale,” the agricultural owner through the falling in of mortgages had become merely a tenant occupier. A still further stage in the degradation of the peasant was borne witness to at the Agricultural Commission (Vol. VIII, Part 2, p.54.) “The tendency,” he said, “in the village now is for people to be partially cultivators and partially labourers....”

The final stage of Complete expropriation is now attained for the majority of those dependent on the land. In 1882, 7½ millions of those engaged in agriculture were estimated to be “landless day labourers.” In 1921, the census gave 38 millions as the number of agricultural labourers and dependants. In 1927, N. M. Joshi, before the All India Trade Union Congress, estimated 25 millions to be the number of agricultural wage earners and 50 millions more to be partly working as wage earners on the land.

The typical agriculturist of the Simon Report, with a few acres and a pair of bullocks, becomes, before the cold light of facts, as mythical as the yeoman of legend with three acres and a cow. The typical agriculturalist is rather the peasant expropriated from his land by the exactions of Imperialism, but denied all alternative means of existence except the precarious income he can get from working as a day labourer in competition with the many millions of his fellows.

Thus the fragmentation of holdings is largely not consequent on any inheritance law or custom, but is due fundamentally to the over-pressure of the population forced back by British Imperialism on to the land.

The benefits of British Imperialism conferred on the peasantry can therefore be summed up as follows:—Taxed by the State to the hilt; rack-rented in other districts by an innumerable hierarchy of landlords; perpetually and ever deeper in debt to the money-lenders; driven from his land by mortgages, by forced sales, by competition of machine-made goods; forced by the Government to pay for large scale irrigation thus enabling only the richer peasant to survive; not only is the whole mass of peasantry being degraded to a tremendous degree, but the class differentiation on the land is becoming more pronounced. Millions are proletarianised, millions more have to eke out that subsistence from their tiny plots of land by hiring out their labour power. But a richer though a very small section, encouraged by the Government, if only by being hitherto exempted from income tax on their agricultural incomes, are themselves becoming petty landlords. If Indian industry was not distorted and hampered by the overriding aim of extracting the maximum of tribute from India, many of those who are being thus driven off the land would have become absorbed into industry. But in one way or another, in default of industrial development, they must get their living from the land.

Thus this general crisis of Indian agriculture, its culmination heralded by isolated risings in many different parts of India, and now reinforced by the present world economic crisis, which is particularly intense on the agrarian field, is now gathering momentum and is providing the basis on which an agrarian revolution is developing. The flowing tide of this revolution can in no way be finally checked or diverted by reforms.

The Simon Commission claims that any change in the immemorial traditional outlook of the peasantry must be “very slow indeed.” Slow indeed seemed the change in the immemorial traditional outlook of the Chinese peasant, but when the breaking point came in 1925, Peasant Leagues sprang into existence until by 1928 their membership had leapt up from 200,000 to 9,720,000—indeed a terrific advance.

It is, however, a historical fact that the peasantry as a class cannot themselves achieve a victorious revolution. They can make a war, they can revolt, but by themselves they cannot overthrow their oppressors. They must have allies, and not only allies but leaders. Two other classes might seem to be able to be their leaders: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Taking into account the relationship of class forces in India to-day, is there then the possibility of the bourgeoisie taking the lead in the agrarian revolution? Facts can only lead to a negative answer. The Indian bourgeoisie itself is proving incapable of carrying through its revolution. True it utters revolutionary phrases; true it calls for war to the death until independence is achieved; true it talks big about the total rejection of the Simon Report, an insult to the national cause, &c; true many of its leaders are now in the gaols of the British imperialists: but true also is it that Gandhi, its leader, openly offered an alliance with the Viceroy to suppress “the violent revolutionary,” when he put forward his eleven points to the latter before opening his Civil Disobedience Campaign. But true also is it that this very Civil Disobedience Campaign, based as it is on non-violence, is a betrayal of the revolution. Gandhi leads the masses in order to behead them, gets arrested, at once to pose as a martyr and so create illusions as to his revolutionary zeal, and to avoid the struggle, openly carries on a campaign which involves mass arrests, thus openly abdicating the leadership of the demonstrations and mass movements set in motion by this campaign. Thus he seeks to disarm the revolution. Finally, we have the picture of Pandit Motilal Nehru as the present leader of the National Congress, in an interview reported in the Daily Herald of June 23 with regard to the terms which they would, agree to in order to facilitate the transference of “power from the British Administration in India to a responsible Indian Government,” expressing the following sentiments: “We must meet the British people in order to discuss these terms as nation to nation on an equal footing.” Not only does he show by this sentence the insincerity of the struggle that the Congress professed to be carrying on against imperialism but by the assumption that British Imperialism will voluntarily regard India as its equal he creates illusions as to the nature of the rule of the financial oligarchy of British Imperialism over the whole of India.

But the determining fact showing the incapability of the Indian bourgeoisie to lead the agrarian revolution is that their class struggle with the proletariat has now developed so far that the bourgeoisie themselves are increasingly needing an ally to suppress the tide of working-class revolt, to assist them to make certain of their profits from the exploitation of the Indian working class. They therefore are more and more becoming closely bound up with the landowning class, who themselves are the chief agents of British Imperialism in India. Their repeated vacillations with regard to fulfilling their promise of a no-tax campaign coupled finally with a half-hearted call to resist the payment of the Government land revenue only; the omission of all mention of demands for the reduction in rents as distinct from land revenue, or for the cancellation or reduction of peasant indebtedness in the eleven points put forward by Gandhi to the Viceroy clearly prove that the nationalists’ class sympathies are already with the landowners rather than the peasantry.

But it is quite other with the proletariat. They are the only class which have nothing to lose but everything to gain from the Indian revolution. They are the only class which can lead the peasantry, can achieve in co-operation with the peasantry the aims of the Agrarian Revolution, can, if drawing in the reserves of the lower strata of the petty bourgeoisie, the expropriated artisans, and the revolutionary intelligentsia, carry on that All India revolutionary emancipatory struggle for freedom from the yoke of British imperialism and for the achievement of the aims of the bourgeois democratic revolution so ignominiously abandoned by the Indian bourgeoisie. Then by wielding power in co-operation with the peasantry in the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, they can march forward towards the social revolution.

That this perspective is no idle dream, but is being daily confirmed by facts, is shown on the one hand, for instance, by the acknowledgement of the leadership of the proletariat by the Peshawar peasant tribesmen in the adoption of the insignia, of the first Workers’ Dictatorship, and of certain though still unclear and confused use of proletarian ideas; by the constantly increasing use of proletarian slogans in the mass demonstrations now transcending the defeatism of the national reformists, the Indian bourgeoisie; in the open acknowledgement of the spread of Communism and the fear of the party of violence by these same bourgeoisie; and finally in the obviously leading part taken by the proletariat in the attempted seizure of power at Sholapur; on the other hand by the tremendous importance obviously attached by the British imperialists to the trial of the Meerut prisoners if only to prevent them finally exposing the national reformist betrayal of the Indian Revolution by themselves consolidating its leadership in the hands of the proletariat.

To insure above all that this leadership is finally consolidated is in fact the central and most urgent task of the Indian proletariat—to organise a strong revolutionary party to act as the vanguard of the proletarian hegemony in the Indian revolution.



1. Based on the Indian Census Reports of 1911 & 1921 and also on an article in the Mysore Economic Journal for June, 1927, dealing, in particular, with some figures taken from the Manchester Guardian Commercial.