MN Roy

Good Criticism but Bad Programme

Date: September 1, 1923
Published: Vanguard, Vol.3. No.2
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Mike B.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). 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 Socialist criticizes the manifesto of the projected Workers' and Peasants' Party of India. The manifesto certainly contains many points which call for criticism of much severer nature than that ventured by the Socialist. It is a very confused document, full of undigested ideas of the labour movement, sloppy sentimentality and clauses which are positively pernicious. The authors obviously lack the understanding of the task they have set themselves to do. Among the innumerable contradictions and incongruities contained in that manifesto, the Socialist picks up only two points to criticize. They are concerning the aim of the proposed party, and private property. 'Achievement of Labour Swaraj' is certainly a vague programme so long as 'Labour Swaraj' is left undefined. We have had so many brands and interpretations of Swaraj during the last three years that one more variety does not make much difference, nor does it dissipate the confusion into which the people have been thrown. The Socialist points out this ambiguity, and suggests that the object of the projected party should be not a 'class-Swaraj' but a 'classless Swaraj'. So far so good; but the criticism should be more penetrating if the ideological confusion of the authors of the manifesto is to be cleared, in order that the party may be born under proper auspices. The term 'Labour Swaraj' does not necessarily mean the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Socialist appears to assume. It is hard to say what is in the mind of those who wrote the manifesto; but a perusal of the document certainly does not permit such a conclusion. The pretence of a programme formulated in the manifesto certainly does not tend towards any dictatorship. On the other hand, 'Labour Swaraj' may mean the 'classless Swaraj' which the Socialist suggests because, when the class living on unearned income is eliminated, the society will be so composed that every member will have to contribute a certain amount of labour for its upkeep. But the 'Labour Swaraj' of the manifesto means neither one nor the other. It is just an empty phrase, coined by people perhaps with good intentions, but certainly without any understanding of the term. Had it not been so, the manifesto would deal with more immediate political questions, without solving which, 'Labour Swaraj', neither of one sort nor of the other, can be attained. However, the Socialist certainly justifies its name by frowning upon such childish phrases, although it fails to go as far as it should have gone.

Then, the question of private property is not the only question which has not been touched in the manifesto. The Socialist could point out omissions of much more vital significance. Coupled with 'Labour Swaraj',' the question of private property, of course, stands out as the most glaring of such omissions because it is simply ridiculous to talk of 'Labour Swaraj', be it dictatorship of the proletariat or be it a communist society, without committing oneself to the total abolition of private property. Lack of clarity on such a vital question will not only 'create dissension in its ranks', as the Socialist warns, but will make the very existence of a working class party impossible. In its earlier stages, the working class party may find it necessary to put forward a minimum programme, which leaves out questions of fundamental social readjustment. It goes without saying that the workers and peasants of India, under the present circumstances, must be organized with slogans corresponding to their most immediate necessities. Therefore, such questions as the abolition of private property, communal reconstruction of social economy etc. need not be included in the minimum programme. Why, then, talk of such far-off things as 'labour Swaraj'? It does not come within the purview of immediate necessities. It is certainly out of the realm of practical politics. But the outstanding feature of the manifesto is the lack of all sense of proportion. We have already fully expressed our views on the manifesto and the so-called programme of the projected Workers' and Peasants' Party (The Vanguard, 1 August). Here a reference to the criticism of the Socialist is only intended.

The commendable criticism of the Socialist, however, is followed by a bad programme. The prospects of a working class party in India would not be brighter if the programme set forth in the manifesto is rejected in favour of the suggestions made by the Socialist. If the one is ambiguous and childish, the other is incoherent and mechanical.

There is no system in the programme suggested by the Socialist. In it the far-off ideal is mixed up with what is supposed to be the 'tactics' or the methods of immediate fight. Much more attention is given to the building up of the 'classless Swaraj' (which, according to the Socialist, should be the aim of the party) than to immediate political problems and economic necessities. The economics of the Socialist is rather shaky. For example, it goes merrily on to the pleasant task of setting up nice little village units, which are to be inhabited by free cultivators, without bothering itself with the thorny question of landlordism, which reigns supreme in India. The Labour-Peasants Party Manifesto advocates a 'Labour Swaraj' (whatever that might be), without defining its attitude about private property; the programme advanced by the Socialist proposes a re-grouping of the village, without saying a word as to what should happen to those who own the land today. It is difficult to choose one from the other.

The Programme proposed by the Socialist calls for a 'classless Swaraj' which, according to the definition given, is something like a socialist commonwealth. It is certainly a far-fetched programme just at this moment. There are much nearer goals to attain. It is no use being utopians or absolutists. A more immediate and more workable political programme is necessary. It is a long jump from mediaeval feudal-patriarchy to a socialist commonwealth. There is danger of breaking one's neck or being laughed at. Socialism, at least a correct understanding of it, does not overlook the various stages of political existence through which a given community must pass before socialized production, distribution and exchange are reached. The Indian masses will still have to go through not a few of these economic and political stages. A normal march along this line of social evolution has been obstructed by Imperialism; therefore, the first and foremost task is the overthrow of the latter. National liberation is no less necessary for the ultimate freedom of the working class than for the immediate aggrandizement of the native bourgeoisie. It is idle to talk about the socialization of the means of production while this still remains in an almost primitive stage. Neither a handloom nor a piece of land held by the greed of a small peasant can be socialized by dint of a programme. In India we still live in the age of the handloom and of primitive agriculture. Is it not premature to talk of the socialization of the means of production? The production itself is yet far from being socialized. Therefore, we need not fix our gaze so high up in the air. A political institution, which is necessary for carrying our people through the intervening stages of economic development, should be our immediate goal. To lead the working class for the conquest of that goal is our task.

The Socialist naturally (because it is socialist) won't have private property. It proposes nationalization of public utilities, key-industries and 'housing land'. But then comes the fatal slip and the whole programme becomes mere words. 'The owners of socialized property will be maintained .by the State by way of compensation'. How is the State going to get the money for this purpose? By selling the 'confiscated' (?) properties or by taxation? The first will mean simply a change of hand and the second embarrassment of riches for the worker. The entire value of the socialized properry cannot be covered by taxation at once. It has to be spread over a certain period, and for this period the State will be the debtor to the expropriated (?) class. The conclusion of this situation is not difficult to make: a circle will be described - the state-power will revert ere long to those who hold the purse-string. The vision of classless Swaraj will vanish in the thin air. Too academic and too puritanical understanding of socialism leads us to such a vicious circle. Socialism tempered by realism, or in other words, ability to apply Marxian dialectics to the Indian situation is what is needed. The programme suggested by the Socialist lacks this ability no less conspicuously than the confused manifesto.

The economic structure of the village units, which, according to the Socialist, should be the cornerstone of the new society, is too mechanical to be applied on a large scale. Besides, the meaning of that particular clause is far from clear. As soon as something concrete is approached, a serious contradiction is revealed. For instance, in the 'classless Swaraj', the 'hiring of labour will be permitted'. What does it mean? The wage-system is not to be abolished. And the inevitable outcome of a situation where wages are paid and taken, is the development of classes with conflicting interests. Furthermore, 'any ryot unable to run his quota may hire himself out, lease his holding or share it with another'. Such an arrangement will inevitably lead to the accumulation of land in the hands of a few, and it will not be very long before we come back to the same point from where we started the journey towards the 'classless Swaraj', which can never be reached through such a mechanical and perfunctory programme. So, on the question of landownership, which is the most vital economic problem in contemporary India, the programme misses fire altogether.

Although in a previous clause private property is allowed except in the public utilities and some vital industries, in another place it is stipulated that 'private trading will be absolutely forbidden in foodstuffs etc'. This is another of the contradictions that result not from simple oversight, but from the slipshod manner in which is drafted a programme for the building of such a far-off ideal as a 'classless Swaraj'. Better results could be expected if the Socialist would apply itself to problems which affect the Indian working class more immediately.

Such topics as tactics, direct action, propaganda, strike, boycott and general strike are dealt with. Not only the definitions of these terms given are not always correct, but nothing at all is said as to what should be the tactics of an Indian working class party at this period of political subjugation, economic backwardness and social stagnation.

In short, the programme is very defective theoretically. If it is meant to be the maximum programme of a Socialist Party, it falls very short of the mark. Nor is it the minimum programme for the building of a working class party. No attempt has been made to formulate the demands which will correspond to the every-day necessities of the worker and peasant. The vague ideals and perfunctory economic proposals contained in it do not make the programme any more understandable for the masses than the programme of the bourgeois parties. The profound theoretical difference between spiritual Swaraj and classless Swaraj is certainly beyond the intellectual ken of the average Indian peasant or worker. It is not enough to say what will happen when the general strike takes place: what is more important is to formulate a programme of action which will develop the movement in such a way that the possibilities of a general strike will be nearer every day. But the Socialist has nothing to suggest in this respect. Its programme confines itself, on the one hand, to a mechanical scheme of a new social order and, on the other, to some incorrect definitions.

M. N. Roy


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