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Trotskyism in India

Part One: Origins Through World War Two (1935-45)

[part I of II for the Trotsky Project Document Archive]

From Revolutionary History, Vol.1 No.4, Winter 1988-89. Used by permission.

This is the first of a three-part series of articles upon the history of Trotskyism in India. It is, to our knowledge, the first comprehensive study on the subject to be published in English. The research upon which it is based, which included dozens of interviews with the surviving members of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India (BLPI) as well as the examination of the (now rare) publications of the party, was done in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1973- 74, when Ervin was a supporter of the Spartacist League of the USA. The second and third parts of his account, covering the period from the end of the Second World War, will appear in subsequent issues of Revolutionary History.

Contact was established between the Socialist Workers Party of the USA and the BLPI during the War years, and the theses, of the BLPI and numerous articles on India were published in Fourth International magazine from 1942 to 1946. The Manifesto of the Fourth International: To the Workers and Peasants of India, appearing in the issue for October 1942. The Workers Party of Max Shachtman also maintained on interest in India, and in November 1942 published India in Revolt, a pamphlet by Henry Judd (Sherman Stanley).

Trotsky’s study, India Faced with Imperialist War appeared on 25 July 1939 and is included in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40), second edition, New York 1973, pp.28-34.

Much of the material of the Fourth International on the Indian situation, as well as other documents and articles by the Indian Trotskyist Gour Pal and by Pierre Broué appeared in a special issue of the Cahiers Leon Trotsky (No 21, March 1985). An English translation of Broué’s Notes sur l’historie des oppositions et du mouvement trotsyste en Inde dans la premiere moitie du 20 siecle (pp.11-44), now partly superseded by this study, can be obtained from John Archer at the address given elsewhere in this magazine.


The Trotskyist movement in India was launched in 1942, under wartime conditions of repression. The Bolshevik Leninist Party of India (BLPI) was created by emigre cadres of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Ceylon Socialist Party) and scattered groups of Indian Trotskyists. The Indian section of the Fourth International, though small in numbers, was a breakthrough for the beleaguered world Trotskyist movement during these dark days.

No sooner had the BLPI been formed than its militants were swept up in the mass ‘Quit India’ movement in August 1942. The Communist Party did everything to derail the struggle. The Trotskyists intervened admirably, and many went to jail as the British beat back the upsurge. The BLPI was forced underground before it was even consolidated. For the duration of the war, the Trotskyists in India worked clandestinely, gaining a foothold in important unions, publishing an exemplary party journal, and clarifying their politics through internal struggle.

At the end of the war the mass movement flared anew. The BLPI regrouped in 1945 and aggressively intervened on all fronts. The Fourth International had every reason to be optimistic and proud. In Madras, the Trotskyists captured several key unions and led strikes and mass struggles.

The British felt tremors of revolution in the naval mutiny of 1946, which raised the banner of Hindu-Muslim communal unity. Gandhi’s Congress and Jinnah’s Muslim League hastened to settle with British imperialism. The tide turned. Hindus and Muslims clashed in savage communal riots. India was torn asunder at independence, as millions perished in communal holocaust. As India approached its crossroads in 1947, the BLPI’s revolutionary will was put to the test. Though the BLPI had made impressive gains, it was still a tiny propaganda league facing staggering tasks. The leadership was weakened as Samasamajists returned to Ceylon, where the movement had split into rival parties. Defeatist moods were reflected inside the party. Grasping for opportunities, a minority proposed to enter the Congress Socialist Party. The BLPI leadership wavered, then collapsed. It had lost its Bolshevik backbone. In 1948 the BLPI was dissolved into the Socialist Party.

The ‘entry’ was the shipwreck of the Indian Trotskyist movement. The Trotskyists had no factional perspective or leadership. Some degenerated quickly into Social Democrats or trade union careerists. The Fourth International was no help; Pablo had turned into the biggest ‘entryist’ of them all. The subsequent history of the Indian movement is a pathetic tale of inadequacy, opportunism, and International misleadership.

Until recently, the history of Indian Trotskyism was essentially a closed book. Very few documents have survived, mostly unpublished, buried in personal collections in India and Ceylon. In 1985 a first effort at a history was made by Pierre Broué in the journal Cahiers Leon Trotsky. [1] Broué, however, didn’t uncover many original documents, nor did he interview participants. As a result, his work is uneven, with gaps and inaccuracies. It is distorted by an overemphasis on the Revolutionary Communist Party of India, which never was Trotskyist. His history, moreover, stops at the BLPI’s entry into the Socialist Party in 1948, without probing the role of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International in the India debacle.

I began research on this history back in 1973, when I went to India for a year to seek out documents and former Trotskyists willing to tell me what they remember about the movement. interviewed the surviving leaders. I also made three trips to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). I unearthed documents available nowhere else party newspapers. leaflets, internal bulletins. personal correspondence.

This is a history of Indian Trotskyism from its origins in the mid-1930s up to 1965. My goal has been to reconstruct a history of the movement in as much detail as possible and to pose what I believe are Important questions: How could a party that seemed to have so much going for it in 1947 collapse face down in the social democracy a year later? Why did the Ceylonese leadership pull out of the BLPI at its moment of crisis? Did the BLPI’s collapse prefigure the demise of the Ceylonese section of the Fourth International. the Bolshevik Samasamaja Party, in 1950? What was the International Secretariat doing about India all this time?

This work is in three parts. The first section covers the origins of the BLPI and its struggles during the war (1935-45). The second part focuses on the postwar gains of the BLPI and the entry dispute (1945-47). The final section traces the BLPI’s liquidation, and the subsequent regroupments and manoeuvres by Indian Trotskyists (1948-65).

Let me express my gratitude to all those in India and Ceylon who made this work possible. It is dedicated to the memory of the cadres of the BLPI, who in their finest hour brought honour to the banner of Trotskyism.

Origins of Indian Trotskyism

India loomed large in the revolutionary Comintern’s strategy, as it was the cornerstone of the Raj, the foundation of British Imperialism. Nationalist and class struggles flared on an unprecedented scale after the First World War, which had increased the Indian bourgeoisie’s economic growth and political leverage. Gandhi’s Indian National Congress, political apparatus of the Indian bourgeoisie, roused millions in its first Civil Disobedience campaign. At one point in 1920, a million and a half workers were on strike. Peasant revolts erupted in Bihar and Bengal. The British feared revolution, and so did Gandhi, who called off the campaign after peasants torched a police station with police inside. The London Times warned, ‘among the ignorant masses of India, a political revolution would become a social revolution in a very short time’. [2]

The Comintern’s early efforts to implant Communism in India were directed from afar by the Indian revolutionary M.N. Roy. In 1920 Roy formed a Communist Party of India at Tashkent, but in India itself progress was slower. British Intelligence monitored the Comintern’s every move and message, confiscating literature, jailing cadres, etc. Indian Communism was set back by the Cawnpore Bolshevik Conspiracy trial in 1924, but local Communist groups made headway among the awakening working class. The British again clobbered the Communists in the 1929 Meerut trial. At that time, the CPI consisted of barely a few dozen cadres with only a rudimentary grasp of Marxism and Bolshevik functioning.

By the mid-1920s Stalin’s bureaucratic reaction had triumphed in the Bolshevik party and the Comintern underwent a sea change. The Chinese Revolution became the burning issue in the East. The Chinese Communists were up to their necks in the Kuomintang. Stalin-Bukharin gambled everything on ‘Comrade Chiang’, while Trotsky’s Opposition fought for the CP to break free before it was too late. Roy went to China as Stalin’s agent to keep the CCP-KMT alliance together. Chiang turned on the Communists and decimated the party. Had Roy gone over to the Left Opposition, rather than to the Right, the whole story of Indian Trotskyism might have been quite different.

Congress launched its second great Civil Disobedience movement in 1930, but again Gandhi put on the brakes (the 1931 Gandhi-Irwin Pact), causing widespread disgruntlement and the growth of the Congress Left, led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. Meanwhile, the Comintern’s ultraleft ‘Third Period’ turn (1929-33) sent the CPI off into the political wilderness. It turned its back on the nationalist struggle and set up tiny, break away ‘red’ unions. The bourgeois Congress had a clear field. The Congress Left radicalised and grew. In 1934 the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) was formed within Congress, while the CPI was made illegal.

Popular Front

With the flip-flop to the Popular Front line, the CPI rediscovered Gandhi’s virtues, elevated the bourgeoisie to leader of the revolution, and rejoined Congress. The Stalinists formed an alliance with the Congress Socialists, who were Congressmen first, ‘Socialists’ second. The Popular Front in India took the form of Congress Ministries (1937-39) in seven of India’s eleven provinces. Congress took office, while the Congress Socialists, Stalinists, and their hangers on preached unity with the bourgeoisie in the name of the ‘National United Front’ (replay of Stalin’s script for the Kuomintang). Congress initially roused hopes and expectations by releasing political prisoners and passing legislation to help debt-ridden, impoverished peasants. But it didn’t ‘break the Constitution from within’, as it promised, nor even protest against the promulgation of the draconian Defence of India Rules, used to railroad independence fighters and militants.

As class struggles sharpened, the Congress Ministries proved to be no different from the imperialist interests they served. Congress intervened against strikes in Bombay and Madras. The powerful Bombay proletariat, concentrated in the textile mills, staged a general strike. Police shot down workers in Bombay, Kanpur, and Madras. In Bihar and the United Provinces, seething with peasant unrest, Congress came to the rescue of the landlords (zamindari). Its reactionary policies also fanned the flames of Muslim discontent, which played into the hands of the feudalist-communalist Muslim League.

The Congress ranks radicalised. Prominent peasant leader Swami Sahajanand, a Congress Socialist, denounced Congress as a tool of the landlords, and quit. But the Congress Socialists and their Stalinist allies refused to break with the bourgeoisie. The CSP’s relationship to Gandhi was, when push came to shove, support and surrender. Polarisation in Congress came to a head at the 1939 Congress Session, where Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the ‘Congress Left’, was elected president with the support of the CSP and Stalinists. But the Right introduced a motion to make Bose select his Working Committee in consultation with Gandhi. On the conference floor, the CSP remained neutral, causing the vote to go against Bose. In the face-off, the Stalinists likewise capitulated to the lawyer in loincloth, calling for ‘united leadership under the guidance of Gandhiji’. [3]

During the Popular Front period, opposition to the Stalinists grew within the CSP. Some, especially on the right, feared a CSP takeover by the Stalinists, who had grown rapidly (from about 150 in 1934 to over 3000 in 1939) and controlled entire CSP units. Others shared the British Labour Left’s criticisms of the Comintern’s Popular Front line, especially the rapprochement with Britain. The Moscow Trials also came as a shock. A former CPI leader later recalled:

The Congress left wing was also extremely critical of the purges taking place in Moscow, and some of their leaders were extremely disgusted by the propaganda contained in the CPI front journal National Front, which depicted Trotsky as a poisonous cobra and an agent of Fascism. Even Nehru, who was one of the first Congressmen who popularised the Russian Revolution and Soviet achievements, expressed his disapproval of the purges in 1938. [4]

Quite a few Congress Socialists were sympathetic to Trotsky. Swami Sahajanand, the famous peasant leader, quoted him. In 1937, the Congress Socialist carried an article by one Kamal Biswas paraphrasing Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR. It was a bombshell. The British CP leadership fired off a slanderous reply. [5] The Stalinists, of course, branded any left criticism as ‘Trotskyite’. In London, Krishna Menon, leader of the India League and by 1937 a CP sympathiser, wrote to Nehru expressing concern over the apparent spread of ‘Trotskyite’ views in India. [6] Menon also wrote several letters to Minoo Masani, fuming against the Biswas article and chastising Masani for softness ‘on the Trotsky propaganda within the party’. [7]

This ferment in the CSP didn’t go unnoticed by Trotskyists abroad. For years Trotsky’s International Secretariat had been seeking an opening in India, unsuccessfully. The American Trotskyists now aggressively pursued contacts with the Congress Socialists. Yusuf Mehrally met with them while on a visit to the US in 1938. [8]The SWP’s India expert, Sherman Stanley (Stanley Plastrik), began corresponding with Minoo Masani in August 1938. The following year the CSP’s weekly, Congress Socialist, printed several contributions by Shachtman and Stanley. [9] In July 1939, Trotsky wrote An Open Letter to the Workers of India to try to influence the CSP. [10]


In the late 1930s, a few militants began to work in the name of Trotskyism and the Fourth International. At the outbreak of the war there were Trotskyist circles in Calcutta, Bombay, the United Provinces (UP), and Gujarat. Each emerged independently of the others and for the most part in isolation from the international Trotskyist movement. Lack of resources stunted their growth. The early groups were very uneven and heterogeneous, largely shaped by local conditions and their respective backgrounds. The best and most important of these early groups was the Revolutionary Socialist League of Bengal, formed by Kamalesh Banerji. Bengal had its own leftist traditions, going back to the early Narodnik-like terrorist groups (M.N. Roy’s background). Bengal was Subhas Chandra Bose’s base, as well as the turf of ‘critical Stalinist’ Saumyendranath Tagore, who had launched his Communist League as a rival CP. The Bengali intelligentsia was very radical, politically literate, and sophisticated. From a well-off family, Banerji had joined Congress and participated in the Civil Disobedience campaign of 1930-32, for which he went to jail for six months. [11] Banerji, a true Bengali intellectual with a magnetic personality, resumed activity in the Bengali students’ movement, where Indra Sen was also politicised.


Although they were critical of the Popular Front line, they became Trotskyists under the influence of Ajit Poy Mukherji, Banerji’s former classmate. [12] As a law student in London in the early 1930s, Poy had become a CP sympathiser and joined the League Against Imperialism. [13] Poy would argue about Trotskyism with his friend Bai Krishna Gupta, who got him to read The History of the Russian Revolution. Poy was convinced by the appendix on ‘Socialism in one country’, contacted some of the British Trotskyist groups, and ended up with C.L.R. James. In 1937 Poy returned to Calcutta, and over the next year Banerji and Sen were won to Trotskyism. Poy then returned to London. His plan was for the Calcutta Trotskyists to follow, get experience working in Britain, and then return to India, but the war intervened.

In Calcutta, Banerji wrote for a Bengali cultural monthly, Purvasha (The East), edited by the young poet Sanjay Bhattacharya and patronised by Congress Socialist leader Humayun Kabir. [14] Banerji also wrote for Natum Patra (The New Journal), which he all but took over. In 1939 the Calcutta group adopted the name Revolutionary Socialist League, the name already taken by the C.L.R. James group. [15] The group was financed by Bal Krishna Gupta, who returned to India at the start of the war.

The Bolshevik-Leninist Party of the United Provinces and Bihar had its origins in the Communist Party. With the Comintern’s Popular Front turn, the Indian Communists had to crawl back to Congress and build up the Congress Socialist left wing. One Communist who baulked was Onkamath Shastri in Benares. [16] Shastri had been a student at Kashi Vidyapith, where his teachers included such Congress Socialist luminaries as Acharya Narendra Dev. Shastri joined the tiny CPI in 1932 and was schooled in the ultraleftism of the day. Shastri rebelled at CPI leader P.C. Joshi’s orders to negotiate joint work with the Congress Socialists. Joshi confronted Shastri, and demanded that he recant or face expulsion. Shastri quit the next day. Denounced as a ‘Trotskyite’, Shastri decided to investigate, and over the next year he studied works by Trotsky – notably, The History of the Russian Revolution and The Revolution Betrayed – which, as he later recalled, were ‘selling like hot cakes’ in Benares, Calcutta, and Bombay. [17]

In 1937 Shastri moved to Allahabad (UP), where a Congress friend set him up as editor of a small Hindi-language daily newspaper, Samaj (Society). Shastri used it as his Iskra. He popularised Communism, castigated the Stalinists, and started to serialise Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution in Hindi translation. Self-taught, Shastri’s grasp of Trotskyism was rudimentary, still tinged with Third Period Stalinism. For example, he continued to reject the slogan of a Constituent Assembly, even though it could be used as a programmatic weapon against the British-sponsored Popular Front Ministries, set up on the basis of what even Congress called a slave constitution.

Participating in Congress activities around UP and Bihar, Shastri attracted a personal following among students and petit-bourgeois youth. His young recruits intervened in Congress with Trotskyist literature, provoking attacks from Stalinists. [18] Evidently, Shastri was prominent enough to be invited to co-chair a conference with Dr Sampurnanand at Mirzapur in November 1937. [19] His attacks on Congress and the Congress Socialists were enough to cause his patron to cut off funds for Samaj, which folded.

In 1938 Shastri moved to Kanpur (UP), where Hariharnath Shastri, a Congress Socialist leader and president of the Cawnpore Mazdoor Sabha (Kanpur Workers Federation), asked him to lead study circles. Kanpur was a hotbed of labour militancy. In 1938, there was a general strike of textile workers against the Congress Ministry. As Shastri later recalled:

Stalinists had made the Socialists quite uncomfortable there. Thinking I could expose them to their advantage, he invited me there. I needed a proletarian field, so I went there. He financed me for one year and to his surprise he had to learn that most of his men became Trotskyists. [20]

It was (and still is) common for petit-bourgeois radicals like Shastri to assume positions in Labour and peasant organisations, a reflection of the vast gulf between the educated middle class and the masses of destitute, illiterate, backward workers and peasants. Shastri’s weakness, it seems, was that he wanted to be a ‘mass leader’ and neglected the slow, difficult, low-profile work of developing a propaganda group.

With the onset of war, Shastri was forced underground:

At the outbreak of the Second World War a warrant under section 124A was issued against me at Kanpur for a seditious speech made there, when I went underground and began to abscond. It was then and there that I formed the Bolshevik Party of India, the organising group consisting of industrial workers behind me. [21]

Evading the police, Shastri travelled around UP and Bihar, and in Calcutta he met Kamalesh Banerji, and they resolved to work jointly. Shastri had two supporters in Calcutta already (Karuna Kant Poy and Sheo Pratap) who were putting out Avaz (The Voice), in Hindi. [22] After meeting Banerji, Shastri changed the name of his group from Bolshevik Party to Bolshevik-Leninist Party of the United Provinces and Bihar.

The Bolshevik Mazdoor Party in Gujarat came about through a very similar process. The turn to the Popular Front disturbed Chandravadan Shukla, a young Gujarati intellectual who had joined the party in Ahmedabad in 1936. [23] He was local party secretary, an activist in the Ahmedabad student federation (Vidyarthi Mitramandal), and a functionary in the CPI-led Mill Kamgar Union – another typical example of the student radical in the labour movement. In February 1938 he attended the annual Congress session at Haripura, where he made his misgivings known to the CPI. Sometime later. Chandravadan Shukla, his wife and a few others in Ahmedabad and Bhauvnagar withdrew from the CPI to function as a rival Communist party.

Denounced as ‘Trotskyite’. they knew little about Trotsky. The dissident group foundered, and most drifted back to the CPI, except for the Shuklas and a few others, who began to study whatever literature they could get their hands on to formulate a critique of the CPI and Comintern. In 1938 or 1939 the group began publishing a Gujurati-language weekly, Age Kadam (Forward March!), which lasted seven or eight months, and also published pamphlets in the name of the Workers Literature Propaganda Association (Majur Sahitya Prachar Sabha). Later, the group took the name Bolshevik Mazdoor Party (Bolshevik Workers Party) of India.


In late 1939 Shukla published a manifesto in Gujurati, Communism and India, as a basis for leftist discussion and regroupment. [24] It denounced the CPI and the Popular Front policy, and discussed the role of the Indian proletariat and the dynamics of revolution in India. The Congress Socialists were criticised for providing a left cover for bourgeois nationalism. It was a classic two-tier, minimum/maximum programme. A series of democratic, minimum demands (eg, abolition of landlordism, repeal of repressive laws, release of political prisoners, the eight-hour work day, higher wages, eradication of illiteracy) were lumped together with revolutionary slogans (arming the workers, forming workers’ and peasants’ committees) and goals of socialist reconstruction (withering away of the state, creation of a classless society).

There was a definite hint of Trotskyism in the section on Internationalism. which criticised the bankrupt Comintern, Second International, and Amsterdam Bureau, and concluded: ‘The Fourth International seems to be a Marxist organisation, but not much is known about it’. [25] This was a deliberate understatement, as Shukla remembers. The BMP wasn’t mentioned because it was trying to appear ‘nonsectarian’.

At the outbreak of war Shukla’s BMP consisted of about ten members between Ahmedabad and Bhauvnagar, with sympathisers scattered in smaller towns of Gujarat, and in Indore and Ajmer. Shukla moved to Bombay in 1940 after being blacklisted in Ahmedabad. The BMP put out a Gujarati-language agitational sheet, Inkilah (Revolution), which denounced Gandhi’s satyagraha (passive resistance), opposed the war and conscription, and urged workers to fight for higher wages. [26]

In Bombay, the Petrograd of India, Trotskyism was first associated with a flamboyant, ultraleft adventurer. Dr Murray Gow Purdy, an emigre from South Africa of British descent. Purdy’s background is hard to verify; he added legends of his own. Purdy said he’d been a member oft he South African CP and in the early 1930s joined Trotskyist groups in Johannesburg. [27] After running foul of the South African authorities, he allegedly fled to Abyssinia, where he said he fought against the Italian fascist forces for a short time before moving to India. [28]

Settling in Bombay, Purdy got involved with Congress and the Congress Socialists. Evidently, in 1938 he formed a Friends of Trotsky Society. [29] That same year Purdy produced what seems to have been the first Trotskyist programme for India, the Bolshevik-Leninist-Trotskyist Draft Provisional Programme, based on Trotsky’s earlier 11-point programme for the International Left Opposition. [30] As is clear from this programme, Purdy’s politics were a mish mash of sectarian ultraleftism (a kind of third Period Trotskyism), harebrained pseudo-Marxist theories, infantile rhetoric, and recipes for opportunism. Purdy was quite energetic and, unfortunately, became widely known as India’s ‘Trotskyist’,

Purdy denied that Congress was a bourgeois party or organisation, calling it instead a “united front of the nation” – the same formulation used by the Congress Socialists, Stalinists, Royists, et al as a rationale for all sorts of opportunism. For all his talk about the need for an independent party, for soviets, and so on, Purdy clearly hadn’t grasped the basic lesson of Trotsky’s whole line on the Kuomintang. His draft programme condemned the Popular Front in Spain and France, but missed the one right in front of him.

Purdy’s claim to fame was his pet theory that India’s untouchables were the vanguard of the proletarian revolution. His pamphlet states:

“For the first time in its history we proudly affirm that the hereditary proletarians forming the untouchable Harijan class shall be the spinal cord of the proletarian government, of which the industrial proletariat must be the head. Unlike the Stalinist Communist Party we openly state our independence upon and integral unity with the Harijan propertyless proletarian class. Our work must be among our Harijan brethren, and we must oppose the treacherous Gandhian propaganda among them” [31].

Purdy clearly confuses caste and class. Harijans could be mobilized as important allies of the working class and a key pillar of Socialist government, but not as the Socialist vanguard. Purdy’s harijan vanguardism anticipated Fanon’s New Left dogma, “the most oppressed are the most revolutionary.”

Purdy peddled a lot of Third Period Stalinist politics in Trotskyist guise. Thus, his programme rejected all “so-called immediate demands” in general, and the slogan for a Constituent Assembly in particular, as an open abandonment of Marxism. In contrast, Trotsky in his Open Letter to the Workers of India emphasised the critical importance of fighting for partial, transitional, and purely democratic demands, including that of the Constituent Assembly.

Where Gandhi put a minus, Purdy put a big plus. Whereas Gandhi preached against what he called “violent and bloody revolution”, Purdy called Trotskyism the “violent and bloody revolutionary programme”. [32] Just about every page of his programme has some gratuitous mention of violence. On the cover, the first three slogans are:

1. Violent expulsion of British imperialism. 2. Violent expropriation of zamindar’s land by peasants. 3. Violent expropriation of capitalist means of production.

To his credit, Purdy grasped the fact that the destruction of the ancient caste system and all the feudal relics encrusted in Indian society – that is, the tasks of the democratic revolution – would take a violent, revolutionary conflagration of proportions not seen since Napoleonic Europe.

Murray Purdy was out to build a cult, where he’d be the guru surrounded by devotees – a tradition in Indian politics (e.g., the terrorists). By 1939, he had, it seems, a few followers, which at some point he called the Workers Group. [33] He had no press, but got an article printed in the Congress Socialist in which he made an orthodox Leninist case for a revolutionary defeatist position in the coming war. [34] He reprinted at least one Trotsky pamphlet. [35]

In 1940, Purdy began to collaborate with Chandravadan Shukla, who had relocated to Bombay, and in early 1941 they formed the Revolutionary Workers League. [36] It didn’t last long. In June 1941, when the Nazis attacked the USSR, Purdy changed his line on the war, adopting what amounted to a defencist position, in the name of support to the USSR. Shukla split over this issue. Purdy reverted back to his defeatist position in December 1941 when the Stalinists became defencists. [37]

The Ceylon Connection

Ceylonese Trotskyists played a dominant role in launching and leading the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India (BLPI). The decision to form the BLPI was part and parcel of the “Trotskyist turn” of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). From its beginnings, the LSSP had a revolutionary and a reformist wing, which overlapped. Those tendencies were carried over into the BLPI, and the struggles between them shaped its development, as well as the course of the Ceylonese movement itself for years to come.

In 1935 a small group of young, educated Ceylonese leftists launched the LSSP as a mass organisation to fight for independence and reforms. [38] The core leadership – Philip Gunawardena, Leslie Goonewardene, N.M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, SA Wickremasinghe - had been politicised as students in London in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Socialism was in the air. Back in Ceylon, they faced a unique situation. There was no Communist or Socialist party, and the Ceylon National Congress was a pale reflection of the Indian Congress. There was a vacuum of leadership on all fronts.

These Ceylonese Young Turks were talented, energetic, and had resources to pursue politics (most were from elite families). Ceylon’s Youth Leagues provided that arena. In 1931 S.A. Wickremasinghe was elected to the first State Council, the British version of a Duma for Ceylon. A few years later Philip Gunawardena, Colvin R. de Silva, and others ventured into labour organising and grass-roots relief work during the malaria epidemic of 1935-35. As elections to the second State Council approached, it was decided to form a party and field candidates. Only a few months after the LSSP was launched, Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera were elected to the State Council. Samasamajists were becoming the Nehrus of their little island.

The LSSP had a split personality from birth. Its leaders were sophisticated leftists, but the LSSP was deliberately intended to be a very broad, “soft” Socialist party, more nationalist than Marxist. As Philip Gunawardena announced in 1936, “Our party is not a Communist Party ... It is a party which is much less militant and less demanding than the Communist or Third International”. [39] The LSSP’s brief manifesto espoused Socialism in abstract, idealistic terms and put forward demands of a nationalist-populist character. Anyone who agreed with it and paid a nominal pledge could join. Thus the LSSP was a lot like the Congress Socialist Party, which also had a heterogeneous leadership (Marxian Socialists, Fabian Social Democrats, Gandhians) and a hotch-potch programme.

The LSSP was a petty-bourgeois radical party that also played the surrogate role of bourgeois-democratic movement (like the Indian Congress), most evidently in the State Council, where N.M. Perera and Philip Gunawardena often sounded like liberal democrats, promoting causes such as creating parochial schools, establishing a state bank, and using budget surpluses to pay off the national debt. As academic historian George Lerski noted, N.M. Perera’s speeches gave “not so much a Marxist as a Fabian reformist approach”. [40]

One of the strongest points of the early LSSP was its orientation to the Tamils, the core of Ceylon’s proletariat (Tamils were 85 per cent of the agricultural proletariat in 1931). Beginning in the 19th century, the British worked their tea and rubber plantations with impoverished peasants recruited from South India, mainly Tamil-speaking Hindus. These Tamils laboured like serfs, lived imprisoned on plantations that resembled mini-bantustans, and couldn’t vote. The LSSP championed democratic rights for the Indian minority. When Sinhalese chauvinists campaigned to halt further immigration and to deport Indian estate workers, the Samasamajists denounced the racist anti-Indian agitation and advocated extending the franchise to all “permanently domiciled” Tamils. Samasamajist cadres carried out exemplary grass-roots organising among the estate workers, against the opposition of the British and the Tamils’ communal leaders.

Within the LSSP there was a Trotskyist tendency, which is often called the “T Group”, which included Philip and Robert Gunawardena, Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, Edmund Samarakody, and N.M. Perera. Its origins are shrouded in myths. Clearly Philip Gunawardena was its leading light. A forceful personality, he had openly supported the International Left Opposition while still in the British CP and contacted Opposition groups in France and Spain on the way back to Ceylon. [41] Under his influence, Colvin R. de Silva and Leslie Goonewardene became Trotskyists somewhat later. The Moscow Trials and Stalin’s dirty work in Spain had a great impact, as did Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed, which became available in English in 1938. N.M. Perera was a very platonic Trotskyist. [42] So it would seem the “T Group” had characteristics of a political tendency and an old-boy clique.

The war posed point-blank the issue of Stalinism, forcing a resolution of the LSSP’s lingering ideological ambiguities. When the British and French Communist Parties first came out in support of the war, then flip flopped, it was obvious Stalin would sacrifice the support of colonial freedom for the sake of his allies of the moment. The LSSP denounced the Comintern:

The clash between the Trotskyists and the Stalinists now came into the open in the party. Shortly afterwards, the Stalinists were expelled. This was probably the first occasion in the history of party expulsions where the Trotskyists expelled the Stalinists, and not the reverse.
The Executive Committee of the party also adopted a new programme and constitution. Hitherto the programme of the party had been vague. Now a clear revolutionary programme was adopted, in line with the programme of the Fourth International, founded by Trotsky in 1938....An effort was thus made to convert the party from a loose body of individuals into a fighting organisation. [43]

Thus the LSSP became formally Trotskyist not through factional struggle but through what was basically a coup by the “T Group”. “The party ranks were presented with a fait accompli. The necessary political struggle had been short circuited, even if the outcome was favourable. Trotsky himself had once remarked, Without a bitter ideological and, consequently, factional struggle, young Communist parties, often having a Social Democratic past, cannot ripen for their historic role”. [44]

As the war unfolded, the LSSP became an even more annoying thorn in the side of the British. The party opposed the war and led militant plantation strikes, sparking renewed struggles by urban workers. As Samasamajist Doric de Souza later noted, the LSSP “began to crystallise politically as representing the working class”. [45] In June N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena, Colvin R. de Silva, and Edmund Samarakkody were arrested. The party press was sealed, Leslie Goonewardene and others went underground, and more arrests followed.

Faced with these objective conditions, conference held in April 1941 the LSSP was reorganised as a cadre party, adopted a nominally revolutionary programme, and proclaimed solidarity with the Fourth International. [46] The government had slammed the door on its parliamentary work, dashing whatever hopes the Samasamajists might have had in peaceful, legal reforms. Repression put an abrupt end to the LSSP’s functioning as a loose, open mass party. If only for self-preservation, a tighter cadre-type party organisation was now a necessity.

The crackdown in Ceylon also served to raise the political horizons of the LSSP. In India, despite mass arrests, Congress was very much alive and kicking. If India wrestled free, Ceylon’s Independence would probably follow in its wake. It made nationalist sense to see Ceylon as part of the larger revolution brewing in India. Moreover, it made practical sense for the Samasmajists to head for India themselves. Ceylon is a tiny island, and the Ceylon police were breathing down their necks. In India, they could work with less likelihood of discovery.

The LSSP had been developing contacts in India for years. It had established fraternal relations with the CSP, and Samasamajists contributed reports and political articles to the Congress Socialist. [47] In 1937 the LSSP sponsored rallies around the island for the CSP’s popular orator, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya. Even more importantly, the Samasamajists discovered that there were Trotskyists in India.


Part II



1. Pierre Broué, Notes sur l’histoire des oppositions et du mouvement trotskyste en Inde dans la premiè re moitiè du XX siècle, Cahiers Léon Trotsky, March 1985, pp.11-44.

2. The Times, 13 March 1924.

3. P.C. Joshi in National Front, 19 March 1939, p.96.

4. K. Damodaran, Memoir of an Indian Communist, New Left Review, no.93 (September/October 1975), p.38.

5. Kamal Biswas, Dictatorship of the proletariat and USSR, Congress Socialist, 5 June 1937, pp.15-16ff. The British CP’s response was The USSR and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Congress Socialist, 17 July 1937, pp.7-8ff.

6. Cited by Partha Sarathi Gupta, British Labour and the Indian Left in B.R. Nanda (ed.), Socialism in India (New York: Barnes & Noble 1972), p.117.

7. Quoted in Minoo Masani, Bliss Was It in that Dawn (New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann 1977), p.77.

8. See the internal party report by Max Shachtman, On the Question of the Congress Socialist Party, dated 18 October 1938, in the Max Schachtman Collection (microfilm reel 3387), Tamiment Institute, New York University Library.

9. Congress Socialist, 22 January 1939, 26 March 1939, 25 June 1939.

10. See Masani, Bliss Was It in that Dawn, p.140. According to Plastrik, it was he who, while serving as secretary to Trotsky in Mexico at that time, urged Trotsky to write the Open Letter. Interview with Sherman Plastrik (New York City), 7 December 1974.

11. Kamalesh Banerki died in 1967. This account is based on interviews with his comrade, Indra Sen (Calcutta), 16 January 1974, 1 February 1974, and 26 April 1974.

12. Interview with Ajit Roy (Calcutta), 10 February 1974. Also his tape-recorded narrative, Reminiscences of early days in India and Britain, made in December 1975, at the request of the British Trotskyist historians Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, who quote him in their work, Against the Stream, pp.262-63.

13. In this period he wrote a pamphlet, In Defense of the Colonial Revolution, which was later reprinted by the Revolutionary Communist Party, British Section of the Fourth International.

14. Letter from the Indian historian Gautam Chattopadhaya (Calcutta), dated 21 February 1978.

15. See S. Bornstein and A. Richardson, Against the Stream, p.268.

16. My account of Onkarnath Shastri is based on letters from him to me and on interviews and correspondence with his early recruits. Letters from Shastri (Allahabad UP) of June 1974, 11 October 1975, 15 November 1977. Interviews with Raj Narayan Arya (Kanpur), 21 April 1974, and Karuna Kant Roy (Calcutta), 30 January 1974. Letters from Raj Narayan Arya, 9 September 1977 and 18 January 1978.

17. Letter from Shastri, undated, received in February 1978.

18. Interview with Karuna Kant Roy (Calcutta), 30 January 1974.

19. Shastri reported the conference in an article, Convert imperialist war into civil war. Prepare for the expropriation of the zamindari without compensation, in Samaj, 17 January 1938, pp.10ff.

20. Letter from Onkarnath Shastri (Allahabad), undated put postmarked in June 1974.

21. Letter from Onkarnath Shastri (Kanpur), 15 November 1977.

22. No issues seem to have survived. Evidently about four or five were put out in Calcutta, irregularly, before it closed for lack of funds. interview with Karuna Kant Roy (Calcutta), 21 January 1975.

23. This account is based on interviews with Chandravadan Shukla (Bombay), 27 December 1973, 7, 12 and 13 June 1974.

24. Chandravadan Shukla, Samyavad ane hind (Communism and India). Ahmadabad: Majur Sahitya Prachar Sabha. Dated 10 October 1939.

25. Samyavad ane hind, p.34.

26. What is to be done?, Inkilab, no.8, October 1941.

27. See Purdy’s letter of December 1938 to Max Shachtman and James P. Cannon in the Exile Papers, Trotsky Archive, Houghton Library at Harvard University.

28. Interviews with Sitaram B. Kolpe (Bombay), 15 December 1973; Murlidhar Parija (Bombay), 12 and 23 December 1973; and Mahendra Singh (Varanasi), 2 January 1974. Broué relates, with appropriate scepticism, a different “legend” namely that Purdy went from South Africa to Spain where he fought in the Republican forces.

29. Information from a police file, Home (Pol) File No7/7/47 – Poll (1), pp.7-10, cited by Bankey Bihari Misra, The Indian Political Parties: an Historical Analysis of Political Behaviour up to 1947 (Delhi: Oxford University Press 1976), p.620.

30. Yarrumji Eedrupji [Murray Purdy], Bolshevik-Leninist-Trotskyist Draft Provisional Programme, n.p., n.d. “Yarrumji Eedrupji” is “Murray Purdy” spelled backward, with the Hindi honorific suffix, ji, added (as in “Gandhiji”).

31. Bolshevik-Leninist-Trotskyist Draft Provisional Programme, p.31.

32. Ibid., p.44.

33. Purdy states this in a subsequent programme. See Kamred Satnarayana [Murray Purdy], Karyakarm va dhyeya [Programme and Principles], Maharashtra Kamiti Prakashit, Hindi Mazdur Tatskist Parti, Mumbai, 1 March 1943, p.15.

34. M.G. Purdy, Is War Inevitable?, Congress Socialist, 4 June 1939, p3.

35. Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s Last Testament. American introduction by Max Shachtman (1935). Indian introduction by M.G. Purdy. Bombay, December 1940.

36. Interviews with C.V. Shukla (Bombay), 13 June 1974, and Sitaram B. Kolpe (Bombay), 19 June 1974. According to Kolpe, the discussions involved Chandravadan Shukla, his wife Shanta, Purdy, Kolpe, and A.H. Tilakr.

37. The British Trotskyists who met Purdy’s people in 1946 reported: “It is also true that after the USSR was attacked the group took a defencist position on the war, changing this when the Stalinists also took this position (which they did in December 1941)”. See DG [Douglas Garbutt], Report on the Fourth International Movement in India, internal document, Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain, undated [probably late 1946], p.15. Likewise, Leslie Goonewardene stated in a letter of 30 April 1975: “shortly after Hitler attacked the USSR, Purdy evolved the position of ‘revolutionary support of the war against Hitler and Mussolini’”. Shukla provided his side of the story in interviews in Bombay on 27 December 1973 and 13 June 1974.

38. See Leslie Goonewardene, A Short History of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (Colombo: LSSP 1960); George Jan Lerski, The Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon (Stanford: Hoover Institution 1968); Edmund Samarakkody, The Struggle for Trotskyism in Ceylon, Spartacist (New York), no.22 (Winter 1973-74); and V. Kumari Jayawardena, Origins of the left movement in Sri Lanka, Social Scientist, no.6/7, January/February 1974, p.9.

39. Quoted in George Jan Lerski, Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon, p.26.

40. G.J. Lerski, Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon, p.40.

41. V. Karalasingham, The Politics of Coalition (Colombo: International Publishers 1964), p.67.

42. As Karalasingham put it, “It is an open secret that Dr N.M. Perera was far from being a Marxist.” V. Karalasingham, The Politics of Coalition, p.65.

43. Leslie Goonewardene, A Short History of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, p.15.

44. Leon Trotsky, The Three Factions in the Comintern, in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1930) (New York: Pathfinder Press 1975), p.16.

45. Doric de Souza Parliamentary Democracy in Ceylon, Young Socialist [Colombo], October-December 1961, p.126.

46. Part of the programme, The Road to Freedom for Ceylon, was reprinted in Fourth International, April 1942, pp.117-18.

47. A column, Our Ceylon Letter, first appeared in Congress Socialist, 13 June 1936. For articles by Leslie Goonewardene, see Congress Socialist, 6 June 1936, 3 October 1936, 20 March 1937.

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