Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4


Communism in India

Sobhanlal Datta Gupta
Comintern and the Destiny of Communism in India 1919–1943
Seribaan, Kolkata 2006, pp. 329

THE author is a professor of political science at Calcutta University, a historian of Marxist ideas, as well as of the movement inspired by them. His sympathies lie, however, not with officialdom and its interpretation of the movement’s history, but with the critical evaluations produced since the archives became more accessible, and the dissenting, even oppositional, figures who advanced alternative strategies and programmes. In this spirit the author set to work examining Indian communism during the life of the Comintern. In the course of a decade’s research he used, among many other sources, the archives of the Comintern (Moscow), the CPGB (Manchester), and valuable collections of a noted GDR scholar and an anonymous Indian communist leader. In the preface Sobhanlal Datta Gupta (henceforth SDG) describes his task as having been “challenging”, due to the left in India being “still heavily dominated by the spirit of Stalinism”, but hopes that, by attempting “to understand the moments of crisis which communism in India has encountered and examining the possible alternatives”, the book will “encourage critical thinking and thus assist the left in finding a way forward”. (p. xx)

The first chapter sets out key issues for investigation vis-à-vis Comintern and the new historiography, and SDG points out that prior to the opening of the archives to Soviet scholars in 1987, and internationally in 1991, it was not possible to make an objective evaluation of the Comintern, one had the official view on one hand, or ones tending to subjective judgements, as evidence was lacking. Initially critical scholars attempting to reassess Comintern were met with resistance both in Russia and the GDR. The Stalin-Hitler Pact, the sectarian line towards social democracy, the repression meted out to political emigrants in the USSR, for example, investigated by the likes of F. Firsov and A. Vatlin, threatened to undermine the SED’s fundamentals. While party historians tried to shore-up the Stalinist view, it was Kurt Hager of all people, the SED’s chief ideologue, who came out for a reassessment. This encouraged Erwin Lewin to reassess the Comintern and the Pact, which “had led to severe downplaying of anti-fascist propaganda ... seriously hamper(ing) the resistance of the KPD … since not fascism, but British imperialism and its accomplice, namely, the leadership of Social Democracy, came to be targeted as the main forces responsible for the war”. (p. 11)

Assorted opinions on how to periodise the Comintern’s history are examined, the question of how much autonomy the parties enjoyed, the role of the Cadre Department, which was “an organ of surveillance … act(ing) in close coordination with the ECCI and the NKVD” (p. 21), the Russification process that meant decisions being first taken in the WKP(b) Politbureau. The process was possible, SDG informs us, resting upon a Russian source, “because no democratically conceived procedure for elections to the posts of Chairman, Secretary, General Secretary, members of the ECCI and the Presidium of the ECCI existed and their functions also were not clearly defined in the rules”. (p. 22) In discussing the repression in the Comintern, in which the ECCI was complicit, SDG refers to the resistance to it, which in my opinion was too little too late, and alternatives. The Pact, the Comintern’s dissolution, Stalin’s letter on Bolshevism’s history, are all brought in to the discussion prior to SDG going on to Indian communism vis-à-vis the new historiography.

Besides the Comintern archives, those of the CPGB provide a vital source for elaborating a reliable history of communism in India, as from the late 1920s it was through the CPGB that the Comintern related to the CPI, and from the mid-30s, India was represented in the Comintern officially by Ben Bradley, the other leading personality … in this connection being R. Palme Dutt. (pp. 35/6)

Apart from the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, which has begun an ambitious publishing project on Indo-Russian relations, in collaboration with the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, SDG regards the response to the possibilities opened up by the access to these priceless archives as “dismal, if not puzzling”, characterised by “a strange apathy, if not resistance, towards exploration of this area”. (p. 36) In fact, “after the opening or the archives, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the leading party of the mainstream Left in India today, has published several volumes and commentaries containing documents on the history of Indian communism in the Comintern period (without reference to the archives or new research), resulting in a simple repeat of the official version of Party history ...” (p. 37)

M.N. Roy was the dominant figure vis-à-vis Comintern and Indian communism until the late 1920s, and helped shape policy on the National Question, but in his research SDG has been able to flesh out the views of other Indian currents that were not so dismissive of mainstream nationalism in India, namely, the Indian Revolutionary association located in Tashkent, and the grouping in Berlin. The former insisted that a proletarian revolution under CP leadership was not just around the corner in India, and that one had to take into account not just of nationalism(s) but religion, caste and community. Neither could one gain influence by pure hostility to Gandhi. The Berlin group favoured an anti-imperialist front perspective uniting communists and non-communist revolutionaries.

SDG was also able to find materials relating to the political and military training of Indian revolutionaries in Soviet Russia and the key role played by the Soviet Embassy in Kabul in transporting them back to India. Amir Amanullah of Afghanistan was friendly disposed towards Soviet Russia, and his relations with Britain were strained. The break-up of empires, emergence of new states; wars in the Caucasus, the Bolshevik appeal to Muslim and oriental peoples, all helped create fear regarding India. This led to literature from or about Soviet Russia or Lenin being seized at special checkposts set up all over India. Indian communists residing in Russia during the purges suffered from the terror, and SDG found out what had happened to prominent figures.

With the exit of M.N. Roy from Comintern in 1929, the CPGB became de-facto guardian of the CPI, and SDG examines the reason why no Indian was entrusted with Indian affairs there. This was problematic from the start, he discovered, as the CPGB, was, as were European parties in general, “Eurocentric”, and seemed to be indifferent to the colonial question, and moreover, tended to “boss” Indian communists. Documents were found from the 20s to the 40s in which CP leaders express exasperation at an “empire consciousness” present within the ranks of the party, whereby the plight of India was absent from their minds. One can imagine the existence of such a consciousness within the working class in general, perhaps among some party members, but I doubt that it was a common feature. Surely communists would have faced great difficulties advancing policies opposed to British imperialism, perhaps they chose to prioritise other matters and put India on the back-burner, The private papers of both Palme Dutt and Bradley confirm their vehement hostility towards Gandhi, continuing a line set out by Roy, which harmed the CPI. It turns out that the CPGB maintained a close link with Jawaharlal Nehru during the late 30s and 40s.

The ultra-left line imposed by the Comintern following the adoption of the programme in 1928, and its consequences for India, is also examined. The orientation for the colonies set out in his time by Lenin, and elaborated at the 4th Congress into the anti-imperialist united front, was junked and all nationalist forces were denounced as henchmen of imperialism, particularly those on the left. Not only Gandhi but Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose were labelled “agents of British imperialism”. Crazy instructions were sent to the CPI which, at that time, barely existed as a party.

Comintern directives, SDG discovered, were not as hitherto believed, accepted uncritically by the CPI, and if the ultra-left line created problems, the shift following the 7th Congress of Comintern in 1935, proved difficult to gain acceptance, as the previous line, it was insisted, was not an error. With the Nazi-German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, WW2 underwent a change of character, the CPI had to be convinced to stop opposing British imperialism, which had ceased to be the most malign force on the planet, but to support this ally of the Soviet Union. This would have enormous repercussions for the CPI. These bizarre zig-zags of the Comintern seem to be all the more grotesque when imposed on the CP of a colony struggling for independence.

The book is divided into six chapters, the last of which discusses oppositional currents within the Comintern and what could have been, based on SDG’s analysis of the new research. For what it is worth I would agree with his general conclusions. The book has all the necessary scholarly attributes, including a bibliography and an index, and for ease the notes follow each chapter. There is an enormous amount of material packed into this study, of which I have only been able to give a flavour. It broadens our knowledge of the Comintern, Indian communism and the CPGB, as well as the relationship between them. One can only hope that the book gets a wider readership in India, where the communist movement is still an important political force, which could benefit from the knowledge contained within if discussed in an open fashion.

Mike Jones

Updated by ETOL: 31.10.2011