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Nigel Harris

The ‘Marxist’ Left in India

(October 1972)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.53, October-December 1972, pp.23-29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

This article is the second part of an analysis of the Indian crisis. The first part, which appeared in our last issue, examined the economic background and the failure of Indian capitalism to solve the problem of development.

The failed revolution of West Bengal

The possibility of a revolutionary situation in Calcutta Metropolitan District depended entirely on the revolutionary political forces available. The objective conditions could hardly have been more favourable. Calcutta, with the right cast, could have played the role of Petrograd. In fact what revolutionary movement there was, crumbled against a ruling class far shrewder and tougher, far better organised and far more clearly aware of its interests than any of the Left alternatives. By comparison, the revolutionaries appeared to be only playing with words. The invasion of Bangladesh by the Indian army has made India the great power of South Asia. The much less publicised domestic baptism of fire took place in West Bengal.

What were the available organisations on the Left? The Indian Left is dominated by the two major fragments of the old Communist Party of India.

The Communist Party of India and the Communist Party (Marxist)

In 1964, the Communist Party split. The lines of the division had existed for quite a long time. In part, the dispute was about the domestic strategy to be pursued – separating those who thought the best way forward was in alliance with the Congress Left, and those who wanted one or another of the more radical alternatives. The divide also separated the local bases of party support and its rural organisation (the Left), and the party bureaucracy, members of the central and State assemblies and the trade unions (the Right). What made it impossible to hold the party together was partly the Sino-Soviet dispute, and more immediately the border clash between India and China in 1962. [5]

The smaller fragment of the split, the pro-Moscow Right under S.A. Dange, retained the party name, the Communist Party of India (CPI). The larger group which carried off the main geographical areas of CPI strength – in West Bengal, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh – called itself the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPM. Later on, the CPM also split, or rather crumbled on its Left wing, to produce a third Communist Party, avowedly against parliamentary politics altogether; this was the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), CPML.

The developing crisis in West Bengal – and also in Kerala – as well as the vagaries of the simple majority electoral system, brought the CPM and its allies increasingly close to a majority in the State Assembly. While the CPM was a minority party, it could sustain both parliamentary politics and revolutionary rhetoric whilst evading the question of what was the real method of attaining power. But the strangulation of West Bengal thrust the CPM forward into the position where it could attain parliamentary power. In 1967, when the West Bengal United Front (which included both the CPM and the CPI, along with 12 allies) won 51 per cent of the vote (as against 41 per cent for undivided Congress), the CPM could no longer evade the question of its attitude to forming the State government. It succumbed to the temptation and led its forces for some five years into the marsh of – not merely parliamentary representation – but pursuit or defence of State government power.

The United Front government fell in late 1968, after which President’s rule (that is, direct rule by the central government without a State assembly) lasted until new elections were held in February, 1969. In that election. Congress – again with 41 per cent of the votes – secured only 55 seats, whereas the CPM with 20 per cent of the votes, won 80 seats. The ensuing CPM-led coalition government lasted until March 1970 when another bout of President’s rule intervened until new elections in March 1971. It should be added that, in late 1969, Congress split between Mrs Gandhi’s Congress (R) and Congress (O). In the 1971 elections. Congress (R) won 28 per cent of the vote but secured 105 seats; the CPM with it’s highest voting score – 32 per cent – won 113 seats. A weak Congress-led coalition was formed and lasted until June of last year when President’s rule was again introduced. Delhi ruled until the elections of March of this year when Congress (R) won its highest proportion of the votes in West Bengal’s history – 50 per cent – and 216 seats. The CPM’s vote went down to about 28 per cent (a drop of 4 per cent only on 1971) but the number of seats dropped disastrously from 113 to 14. The Right Communists, the CPI, allied with Congress (R), won 12 per cent of the vote and 35 seats, giving the governing alliance 251 seats in an assembly of 280.

The only reason for giving these figures is that, in the sometimes random variations in number of seats, much of the articulate political middle class has lived a hectic, indeed, frenetic political life over the past five years. Yet from the variation in the vote – with the exception of the effects of the 1969 Congress split on the 1970 Congress (R) vote – it is clear that although there have been changes, these have not necessarily reflected any very powerful shifts of opinion. Congress vote has remained around 40 per cent throughout; the CPM vote has climbed from around 20 per cent to 30 per cent and now seems to have fallen back a little. The seat swings give CPM followers the excitement so signally lacking in the actual behaviour of the party, it seems as if hot and bloody class war is being fought out in the polling booths. Politically, the Right Communists, the CPI are now little more than a pressure group for the Soviet Union within the ruling Congress. CPI politics – simple, hardly even Left-wing, Social Democracy – distinguish the party in no way from the rhetoric of Mrs Gandhi’s Congress apart from its curious addiction to things Muscovite. Nevertheless, its politics and behaviour have some kind of coherent rationale. The CPM, by contrast, has failed to find for itself any clear role. What it has achieved over the past five years is the destruction of any serious revolutionary upsurge in West Bengal (or anywhere else). It has set back the possibility of a revolutionary movement a long way. Yet it has still not found any coherent kind of role – for example, pressing for ‘structural reform’, so beloved by Left parties seeking to escape revolutionary politics.

The Class Nature of the Indian Revolution

In 1967, the CPM decided (in New Situation and the Party’s Tasks) that a political crisis was maturing which might lead even to a non-Congress coalition in Delhi. The CPM, it said, should participate in various non-Congress governments, not because participation could lead to any serious reforms, but because the party must win allies and support – ‘it is imperative’, it said, no doubt with sceptical members in mind, ‘that our party realises that its immediate future in no small way depends on how it plays its worthy part in running the two State governments of Kerala and West Bengal’. [6] It argued that the central government was the organ of the class rule of the bourgeoisie and the landlords, led by the big bourgeoisie in alliance with foreign capital. The big bourgeoisie, because of its alliance, refused to complete ‘the democratic anti-imperialist tasks of the Indian Revolution’, one of which is the replacement of the government by a ‘State of People’s Democracy’ led by the working class (viz. the CPM). The CPI on the other hand regards Delhi as the ‘organ of the class rule of the national bourgeoisie as a whole which upholds and develops capitalism’. For the CPI, the national bourgeoisie and its government is basically progressive, but threatened by the monopolists and ‘feudal elements’. All progressive forces must rally round to support the progressive national bourgeoisie – Mrs Gandhi, no less – in order to create a government of ‘national democracy’ where power is jointly held by the working class (viz. the CPI) and the national bourgeoisie. [7]

Neither party believes that it is practicable to struggle for the socialist revolution. The disagreement between the two is over how progressive Mrs Gandhi’s Congress is. The CPM argues that ‘the basic and fundamental task of the revolution in today’s context cannot be carried out except in determined opposition to and struggle against the big bourgeoisie and its political representatives’. The CPI seeks rather to ‘transform Parliament from an instrument serving the bourgeoisie into a genuine instrument of the people’s will’. For the CPM, there is no chance of transforming parliament. Parliamentary and non-parliamentary methods of struggle must be combined to ‘push forward’ the movement. State governments, it argues, can do little to solve fundamental problems. For example, United Front governments should be ‘treated and understood as instruments of struggle in the hands of the people more than as governments that actually possess adequate power that can materially and substantially give relief to the people’.

This position permits the CPM to sustain a radical rhetoric – denouncing those with illusions in parliament – with a surprisingly conservative practice. When the CPM led the State governments of West Bengal and Kerala, it simultaneously initiated popular demonstrations against the central government – but feared to use its power as State government to influence the national government. Elementary reforms – or even trying to achieve elementary reforms – were neglected because supposedly this would lead to reformist illusions. Yet in practice, the CPM has become completely identified with the attempt to secure parliamentary power, and having secured it, keep it whatever the political cost.

Whatever the CPM leadership says, in practice on various occasions it has been nudged very close to the CPI. In the national parliament in late 1969 for example, when Congress split (to the delight of the CPI which was able then to identify Mrs Gandhi’s Congress (R) as the progressive national bourgeoisie), the CPM was forced to decide whether or not to support Mrs Gandhi’s minority government or write it off as indistinguishable from the rival Congress. In fact, it decided Congress (R) was the lesser evil and offered support. In the Presidential elections the CPM supported Mrs Gandhi’s candidate, Giri. President Giri is the man who twice since the CPM gave him their support has imposed President’s rule on CPM-led State governments.

Bangladesh and the CPM

In 1971, the CPM performed the same ideological acrobatics on the issue of Bangladesh. It had decided by then that Mrs Gandhi’s government was ‘semi-fascist’ since Congress thugs were beating up and murdering CPM members, instead of just concentrating on the cadres of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Yet the CPM gave unconditional support to Mrs Gandhi’s ‘semi-fascist’ government in its approach to East Bengal. It argued that war was threatened (before it actually broke out) by the Pakistan military dictators against ‘our country’ because India had helped the refugees and supported the independence struggle – ‘It is India’s duty and right to support this freedom struggle ... India must do this to safeguard her own independence and democracy [presumably a semi-fascist democracy – NH]. And if war is imposed upon us for doing this, it is war to defend freedom and democracy, a just war.’

The CPM trade union federation – CITU – accordingly promised to avoid strikes, continue production without interruptions through the war, see all disputes were settled quickly through negotiation and co-operation with the government. Unilaterally, it agreed to stop all strikes currently in progress, to accept government arbitration terms even when these were not satisfactory and collect funds from the workers for National Defence and Bangladesh relief – ‘Workers in every factory should contribute a day’s wages and get the employer to contribute an equal amount’. Presumably Mrs Gandhi’s government had become ‘progressive semi-fascist’. [8] The CPM leadership’s line is designed – as before – to assist unity, to carry both the chauvinists and the radical opponents of Congress (R) on the Bangladesh issue. But on occasions the muddle incites opposition. The CPM tried in 1967-8 to avoid taking a position on the Chinese case in the Sino-Soviet dispute in order to hold the party together, united in their opposition to the Soviet position. A draft document (the ‘Madurai document’) of mid-1968 rejected all the positions (except one) advanced by the Soviet Union but said nothing on China’s agreements. As a result, the Andhra Pradesh and Kashmir units of the CPM threw the document out. Nevertheless it was accepted by the national party at its Burdwan plenum. Some 60 per cent of the Andhra CPM then walked out of the party to form an explicitly Maoist group. Only when Peking itself directly attacked the CPM did it make any kind of reply, and even then its response was eclectic rather than coherent. It supported the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, warmly praised the Soviet attitude to the struggle in Bangladesh and also the Soviet position on Kashmir (a ‘domestic problem for the Indian government’; the Chinese are for the right of national self-determination of the Kashmiris). These gestures did not evoke any olive branches from Moscow so the CPM has tried to establish a ‘middle affiliation’ between Moscow and Peking. The CPM leaders now take their holidays in Roumania!

The Maoists Split

The ambivalence of the CPM as well as its participation in two State governments inevitably affected its more revolutionary members. What the CPM leadership called the ‘ultra-Left’ became increasingly important through 1967 and 1968. A whole range of revolutionary groups appeared on the Left flanks of the party, and this affected not only the local standing and tactics of the CPM but also its international standing. China was happy to accord the CPM a certain benevolent neutrality (which tended to keep the CPM’s Left moderately happy) while there was no alternative. Already in early 1967, two movements, of agrarian revolt were underway – in Naxalbari (whence ‘Naxalite’) in north Bengal and in Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh. Indeed, the attitude of the Andhra party to the Madurai document was partly conditioned by its involvement in Srikakulam, a development which seemed quite inconsistent with the CPM’s aspiration to government power. In Naxalbari, it was the activity of CPM cadres, in particular Kanu Sanyal, which generated the movement.

The CPM’s participation in the 1967 West Bengal State government persuaded the Communist Party of China that the CPM was not its chosen instrument in India. On the basis of the Naxalbari movement, Peking announced that India was now objectively ripe for armed struggle; only a Communist Party was lacking. On behalf of the CPM, Basavapunniah detected the hand of the big bourgeoisie – and subsequently the ubiquitous CIA – in the Naxalbari movement, claiming its was a conspiracy to discredit the CPM. However, at that stage the CPM was still trying to temporise; it denounced police violence and intervention in Naxalbari (the Minister in charge of the West Bengal police at that time was Jyoti Basu, the chief of West Bengal CPM) and called for negotiations. Subsequently, it was less discreet in its attempts to root out Naxalism by force.

Whatever successes were won in Naxalbari, they were temporary. The lessons that Kanu Sanyal drew from the failure of the north Bengal agitation (Report on the Peasant Movement in the Terai Region) were that it lacked a strong party organisation, it failed to build a powerful mass base and was guilty of ‘old line thinking’. None of this however moderated Peking’s adulation. It praised the Naxalbari to the skies and did not mention its failure, let alone discuss the reasons for this. It was anxious to attack the CPM through by the Naxalbari movement; in Andhra where the CPM was not participating in the government, the Srikakulam agitation at this stage received much less Chinese attention. The CPM scattered on its left flank a number of groups committed to rural guerilla warfare. Some of these came together to form a co-ordinating committee in West Bengal and start a journal, Liberation (Deshabrati). In November 1968 an All-India Co-ordinating Committee of Revolutionaries was formed (subsequently ‘Communist’ was inserted in this unwieldy title, hence AICCCR), but it still probably included only a minority of the Maoist groups in India (it did not include one of the largest groups, the Andhra group of Nagi Reddy).

The leading theoretician of the AICCCR was Charu Mazumdar, a former old-time CPM district leader from north Bengal. He argued – in contrast to the positions of the CPI and CPM – that the chief contradiction in India was between the peasantry and the ‘feudal order’, a contradiction that could be overcome only by armed peasant struggle against the landlords. A party would be formed, he said, out of the youth of the working class, of the peasantry and ‘the toiling middle class’, after the struggle had begun. The armed struggle was supposedly the first step in seizing the State, but in practice its main driving force – insofar as peasants were involved – seems to have been to seize crops and land.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)

In March 1969, the secret rural-based West Bengal AICCCR launched an open public rally in Calcutta to proclaim the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (CPML). The new party not only excluded the Andhra group but a number of others, all of which were denounced by the CPML. In July the CPML received official recognition; the Peking People’s Daily acknowledged the CPML as the only genuine Communist Party in India. The party had neither programme nor constitution. Instead of a strategy, it had a political resolution which committed its members to maintaining an organisation which was secret, rural and dedicated to armed struggle. There was no provision for building mass organisations, rural or urban, and indeed, Mazumdar implied that work in mass organisations would make difficult the party’s aim of remaining secret. In any case, it was suggested, mass organisations would inevitably permit the domination of rich peasants and lead to ‘revisionism’. Only a secret organisation could properly secure the leadership of the landless peasants in the movement. Mass organisations would become possible when particular rural areas had been cleared of class enemies (Peking did not contradict this argument although it was clearly quite inconsistent with Mao’s tactics – open mass organisations should precede, not follow, armed rural struggle).

Secrecy, as operated by the CPML, was inevitable elitist. The party was dependent on a few reliable cadres, and that increasingly prevented the involvement of those, the peasants, who were supposed to be emancipating themselves. Secrecy is necessary in all kinds of situations, but it is tolerable in a revolutionary organisation only where there are already organic links with the class the organisation claims to lead. Without this, the organisation isolates itself and becomes increasingly marginal to the class concerned. Originally, CPML squads of cadres – usually students from Calcutta – were to organise the peasants to act against landlords and police. But it became safer for the squads to attack the landlords themselves, without involving peasant support (quite often, the peasants were probably far too shrewd to get involved in what was clearly gangsterism, although they might be quite happy to share the rewards after the event). This is the origin of the notorious ‘annhilation tactic’ that Charu Mazumdar unveiled as his particular contribution to the corpus of Marxism-Leninism in February 1969. Cadres must win the support of the landless peasants by systematically murdering the most hated landlords and so clearing areas of class enemies.

The police net closed in with increasing rapidity wherever the CPML cadres undertook any kind of action. The Calcutta students were usually easy to identify in the rural areas. After a phase of demoralisation in the police when the United Front government dithered, the forces of the law used the inexperience of CPML cadres as a training ground for counter insurgency which will stand them in good stead in the future. Yet the worse the situation became, the fewer lessons Mazumdar seemed prepared to learn. He argued now that guerilla warfare could be started anywhere (not just in remote areas), mass organisations were always a hindrance in waging guerilla warfare, and guerilla warfare depended for success on first liquidating the ‘feudal classes’ in an area (Peking Review in 1969 gave some kind of sanction of this position although carefully emphasizing at the same time the importance of mass participation). In late 1969, Mazumdar announced that the party was on the verge of forming a People’s Liberation Army and beginning a civil war. By early 1971, he said, the army would begin its triumphant march across the plains of Bengal.

The Turn to Urban Terrorism

In the year up to the spring of 1970, the CPM-led government had been trying to establish an unchallengeable monopoly of political support in Calcutta. The CPM used its government power to try and eliminate Congress support – and indeed support for any other political party, including its allies in the government – first in the police and bureaucracy of the State, then among organised workers and in rural areas. The era of open violence had already begun.

It was in this situation that, in mid-1970, Mazumdar began to shift the centre of CPML activities out of the countryside into Calcutta city in order, he said, to unleash a ‘red terror’ against the ‘white terror’ stalking the city. To assist the campaign, the CPML recruited a motley gang of footloose thugs. Open street warfare ensued with considerable bloodshed on all sides. In Calcutta, the CPML tried to have a mini-Cultural Revolution. It attacked educational institutions, government offices, burnt pictures and books, smashed statues. Retrospectively, Mazumdar said the campaign constituted the students destroying the superstructure of society while the peasants attacked the base. However very few peasants were doing any attacking outside the daydreams of the CPML leadership. In July of 1970, the Calcutta district committee of the CPML decided on the murder of class enemies in the city – policemen, military personnel, capitalists, black marketeers. In practice, this usually meant policemen, and finally policemen who were known supporters of the CPM. Peking did not criticise the new turn, it ignored the CPML completely (from October 1970 to October 1971, Hsinhua was silent on the vast Indian revolution which, until then had reportedly been sweeping all before it). Mazumdar’s reversal of policy is difficult to explain. Perhaps it was a tactic of despair, after all attempts at a rural revolt had failed. Perhaps he calculated that the mass following of the CPM would respond to a sustained CPML campaign and replenish his reserves of cadres. Or perhaps the cadres, hunted continually in the rural areas, just voted with their feet and fled home to Calcutta as the only retreat safe from police search. Another argument has it that Mazumdar had in fact become a police agent or at least had entered some kind of deal with Mrs Gandhi.

Perhaps this story is malicious slander. It was certainly in the interest of the CPM to put about such stories: the CPML and the Congress (R), it could claim, were part of one conspiracy to destroy the only real revolutionary alternative. But even in CPML circles, the ‘explanation’ of the failure of the hallowed tactic of guerilla warfare could be simplified if Mazumdar was a traitor; the explanation would require no radical reappraisal of the whole strategy. In any case the CPML was wrested from the control of Mazumdar by another group, the Bihar-Orissa Committee (the leadership of which includes Ashim Chatterji and is largely in gaol); Mazumdar himself has been captured, and is now said to have died in prison.

Evasion characterises Peking’s attitude. Having given uncritical support to Mazumdar’s line of pure terrorism, Hsinhua has now moved over – without explanation or critical scrutiny of the record – to praising the Bihar-Orissa Committee (of Chatterji) and its emphasis on the role of mass organisations.

In the autumn of 1971, the Chatterji group produced a document that acknowledged the CPML’s mistaken attitude to mass organisations, to the recruitment of lumpen proletarian elements (the Calcutta thugs who practised annihilating class enemies) and to the ‘annihilation tactic’. However, in the same document, it also argued on the Bangladesh issue that since Peking supported Yahya Khan, all true revolutionaries must do likewise; Yahya, it said, was an anti-imperialist figure like Prince Sihanouk. By contrast, Mazumdar’s document acknowledged no mistakes but did say all true revolutionaries should support the struggle for an independent Bangladesh (perhaps Bangladesh was the issue that changed Peking’s mind).

The disastrous politics of Maoism remain unchanged by the debacle. Indeed, there are still areas of armed struggle, or at least, rural agitation in the country; in particular, the Revolutionary Communist Committee of Andhra Pradesh continues its operations in the Andhra forests; it opposes the ‘annihilation’ tactic, tries to build mass organisations and is fairly cautious in approach to the authorities. In West Bengal, doubts have certainly been expressed about China’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Bangladesh, but where Maoism is at its most vicious and destructive – in the domestic struggle – there are still few criticisms. Perhaps two or three thousand political activists have been murdered; the government claims to have 7,000 CPML supporters in gaol. Yet still the radicals of West Bengal cling to the politics of Peking. It took all of that loss to learn the primitive lesson that ‘when party warfare replaces political action, it provides a powerful reinforcement to Right reaction’. [9]

The Repression

The new Congress goevernment of the spring of 1971 tried to deliver the final blows in eliminating the CPML and the CPM. It is said that large numbers of CPML members crossed over to Congress to form the nucleus of the Congress youth organisation (Chattra Parishad); another story is that the government offered to release 800 ‘Naxalites’ provided they agreed to work for Congress. The youth Congress has certainly been the spearhead in trying to eliminate the CPM. Jyoti Basu claimed in January that 600 CPM activists had been killed in the preceding 18 months. The attacks continued through the period of President’s rule, culminating in a drive to ensure the CPM was defeated in the last elections. The constituency of Barangar in Calcutta had been held by Jyoti Basu with a very handsome majority since 1952; in March he lost the seat to the CPI (Congress’s ally) by 39,000 votes.

The violence did not stop with the election victory, for the youth Congress is now busy carving out a place for itself at the expense of both the CPM and, perhaps also the CPI and some elements of Congress itself. The Chattra Parishad has been trying to break up the CPM trade union organisation and establish itself in its place.

In February of this year, the CPM trade union federation, CITU, appealed plaintively to employers to protect their workers against Congress and police attacks – no talk of worker militia here.

Both the CPI and the CPM rejoiced originally at the destruction of the CPML. New Age (the CPI ‘central organ’) in March also crowed publicly at the liquidation of the CPML, the ‘ultra left’ – ‘It has paid dearly for its politics of terror, disruption, opportunism and clandestine liaison with the grand alliance of reaction’. Yet what has been done to the CPML and continues to be done to the CPM, can equally well be done to the CPI should it ever show any signs of independence.

The CPM has learned no lessons. At the 9th party Congress in July 1972, the Political Resolution was carried without major opposition and the leadership congratulated for steering between Right reformism and Left adventurism. The leadership explains its loss of so many seats at the last election – its radical defeat in pursuit of what, by default, must be seen as its primary tactic – by blaming all its troubles on Congress gangterism and manipulation of the vote (Congress’s intervention was not very successful, in this case, since the CPM vote was not cut so radically). Jyoti Basu and the CPM have now emerged as the most passionate defenders of Indian ‘democracy’ against Congress’s ‘anti-democratic’ actions. The party is boycotting the State assembly by way of protest (but not, it should be noted, the two houses of the central parliament). Basu’s complaints, along with the CPM’s characterisation of Congress as ‘semi-fascist’, might be taken as arguments for the party going underground. The rhetoric of the CPM leaders occasionally suggests such flights of fancy, but reality is less exciting. It is clear the party leadership is pathetically dependent on the existing parliamentary set-up. Without elections and parliament, what is it do do? The CPM leadership is old and tired (at the Congress, of the 408 delegates, only 57 were said to be under 35 years of age); it could not become revolutionary by small stages. If Mrs Gandhi will not allow it to be a parliamentary opposition, it no longer has any raison d’être.

The CPM is not now a cadre organisation. Nevertheless, it is better organised than most Indian political parties and in its heyday had roots in the organised working class of West Bengal. Yet the real force of its support came from the Calcutta lower middle class whose hopes and fears, for a short time, seem to have been embodied in the party. Both the CPI and the CPM draw support heavily from the educated. The last election howevet showed that such support provides no sure bulwark in elections. Only a small proportion of the CPM vote needed to swing behind Mrs Gandhi’s Left nationalist rhetoric to exaggerate the effect of the Congress offensive and the vagaries of the simple majority system.

The Lessons

The politics of the CPML embodied the attitudes of a particular social group, and, as a result, attracted recruits and support from the same social group. This was both cause and effect of the perpetuation of these attitudes. For the party never recruited a significant number of members from any stratum other than the student-intelligentsia milieu of Calcutta.

The political confusion, incoherence, implicit elitism and unashamed romanticism of the party’s politics were, in essence, Narodnik, and not accidentally. The CPML and the Narodniks were drawn from the same social source, embodied the same kind of frustration and idealism, and were attracted to certain similar kinds of activity. Where the power of a major social class is lacking, terrorism has an obvious attraction for the dedicated middle-class revolutionary. If one stratum of the Indian middle class reaches instinctively for terrorism (and there is a significant terrorist tradition in India), yet another demands the carefully circumscribed opposition of parliamentary radicalism, full of exciting rhetoric but not actually oversetting the existing order of society; raising the spectre of revolution, not to destroy the society, but rather to blackmail the Establishment into conceding more. This tradition is a more powerful one in India than that represented by the CPML, and has included a whole generation of those who struggled for Independence and, afterwards, against Congress Raj. But, like the membership of the CPM, it is ageing, and the certainties upon which controlled opposition depend – above all, that development, progress, is taking place, even if in an unfavourable way – are dissolving. The development crisis knocks away the raison d’être of parties like the CPM, for it means that only a real revolutionary force can tackle the problems.

So far in India, the Left has followed the sterile alternatives of rural guerilla warfare or terrorism, and parliamentary politics. The CPML’s adherence to the first is the mirror image of the CPM’s pursuit of the second. Both represent courses of action open to middle class radicals (even if drawn from different strata) that require neither conscious class politics nor identification with class interests. Both preserve the ‘independence’ of the radicals, that is, allow them to operate in accordance with their own social attitudes rather than with the interests of the classes they claim to represent (peasants or workers). Because of this ‘freedom’, it is possible for activists to swap between one alternative and the other without apparently any great political transition. The instability of the Indian Left reflects the shallowness of its social roots. It is outside the main arenas of class struggle and sees little necessity to be inside, except as a temporary foray to secure an audience or a stage army for a demonstration. For the most part, it dismisses the battles fought as no more than ‘economism’; in doing so, it gives up all opportunity of making itself the real leadership of the classes in struggle, of rooting itself securely. In exchange, it preserves its sectarianism, its voluntarism, its volatility and, for the most part, its irrelevance.

The social basis of the revolutionaries is also the source of the theoretical poverty of the Left. To know what Indian society is as a prelude to changing it requires the revolutionaries to be identified with the working class. Of course, all Indian socialists talk about the proletariat, urban or rural, but the word is largely detached from any real workers or real peasants; the concept is a puppet in the revolutionary’s private show, rather than embodying real people with wills and interests that cannot be automatically read off from some preexisting formula, but are revealed only by joining in the ongoing struggle. The outworn formulae of Stalinism and Maoism fill the vacuum, and much ingenuity and talent is devoted to trying to give meaning to these formulae rather than examining Indian reality. For example, the term ‘feudalism’, rarely defined or explained in any rigorous form, is in much vogue, even though it is doubtful whether any serious sense of the term could ever have been implied to India. A belief in the existence of Indian feudalism becomes a matter of faith, rather than a question for scientific enquiry. Conceptually, Indian cannot be allowed to be capitalist because that would put socialism on the agenda, and, after all, China has only just had its ‘national democratic revolution’. Politically, the argument is double edged. For the danger of ‘feudalism’, of reactionary forces, is one of the arguments for the CPI lining up with the ‘progressive national bourgeoisie’. Of course, in parts of India there are relationships which may disappear with the further growth of Indian capitalism, but to make them of central significance is to divert attention from the important tasks. The kulaks are not a feudal class but a rural capitalist class, and insofar as ‘feudal’ elements survive, they are part of the rich peasantry.

The tyranny of concepts does not end even when, as with the CPM, the socialists break with foreign patrons. The CPM’s alternative to loyalty to Moscow or Peking is not political independence but Indian nationalism and a reformism without reforms. It does not lead the party to root itself more securely in the working class, but to become even more free floating, blown by the temporary winds of middle class politics. The CPM, in practice, is the instrument of the section of the ‘toiling middle class’ which invariably sees itself as ‘the people’. And ‘the people’ are a vast nameless throng, suitable for demonstrations and voting, but not as the instrument of self-emancipation and the government of society. If the lack of a serious working class base impoverishes theory, it also makes a strong disciplined organisation impossible. Disciplined sects are certainly possible, but not an organisation that is politically significant, operating in the centres of power rather than on the margins of society, a village or a parliament. Yet the daily battle is still being fought out in the cities of India, and a force could be built there from which base it would make sense to attempt to create peasant organisations. Without that base, peasant work leads back to the same sterile alternatives.

Even those alternatives are scarcely worked out with any clarity. Where Marxism, in isolation from working class struggle, degenerates into a system of false consciousness, a style of talk which masks rather than clarifies and guides political purposes, revolutionaries can provide no clear direction or coherent leadership. On the Indian Left, there are enormous resources of idealism and self-sacrifice, but existing without any coherent political framework or serious revolutionary organisation. The vacuous ranting of politicians – ever onward and upwards – consoles the defeated and prevents the learning of lessons that might challenge the politicians. Indeed, in such circumstances, clarity itself is seen as defeatism. Even after the experience of the past three years in Calcutta, some of the so-called revolutionaries can still argue that it was all for the best: omelettes need egg breaking etc. The bombast of Peking’s propaganda provides a good example of this quite undiscriminating attitude to experience. For the Chinese Communist leaders, their propaganda is not important, for they are not called to account, not required to pay for their mistakes. Peking cares little for what happens in India, and has no serious interest in a coherent revolutionary alternative there. It requires only an echo, a few sycophants who can substantiate the Chinese claim to represent all the oppressed people’s of the world.

The Indian working class is the only force that can decisively wage war on the rulers of India. That the weakest link of West Bengal, in the last crisis did not snap, is partly attributable to the fact that the revolutionaries did the ruling class the favour of removing themselves from the working class centres and going into voluntary exile in the villages. In China (and also Vietnam) two decades were required to build a rural alternative. Time on that scale is something that will not be available in the coming phase. The rich peasants are soaking up the surplus that should go to industrialisation. The Indian bourgeoisie will almost certainly not be prepared to push its demands on the rich peasantry to the point of open social collision, simply because an open confrontation could produce a radical social breakdown. Imperialist domination of the world market makes it impossible for Indian capitalism to develop the country without an agrarian transformation. The result is a stalemate, accompanied by increasing corruption and social decay. The mass of the population will pay the costs. Increasing unemployment and shrinking mass consumption, now exacerbated by high rates of inflation, will generate successive sporadic revolts by the desperate. To curb rebellion will demand an increasingly authoritarian regime, modelled in the first instance on West Bengal. The army and the police will drain off an increasingly large chunk of resources, so making development – and job creation – even more difficult.

The need for a revolutionary alternative in these circumstances could hardly be more urgent. The vicious downward spiral of defence and unemployment can be broken only by a revolution that challenges the kulak at home and imperialism abroad. But to challenge these requires also a frontal assault on Indian capitalism. Only the Indian working class, with the help of sections of the peasantry, can break out of this stalemate and secure the concentrations of power against both the bourgeoisie and the rich peasants.


5. For an account of the early phases of the split see India: A First Approximation, IS 17 and IS 18, Summer and Autumn 1964; for more recent events, see the two books by Moham Ram, Indian Communism – Split within a Split, Delhi 1969, and Maoism in India, Delhi 1971, both of which contain much useful information if poorly organised; the author counts himself as a supporter of rural guerilla warfare (a sympathiser of the Andhra Naga Reddy group).

6. For a critique of this turn see Again, hunting with the hounds, IS 30, Autumn 1967.

7. The CPI leadership is not unaware that this position can prompt people to question the need for a Communist Party at all; for the members might well feel it more sensible to support the progressive national bourgeoisie by joining Congress (R) and dissolving a separate party (a problem that has persistently afflicted the Praja Socialist Party). The CPI’s Political Report and Political Resolution (for the Ninth Congress, Cochin, October 1971), p.113, notes ‘serious shortcomings’ in the party and a drift into reformism and ideological dilution; it says the party has a tendency to get ‘too bogged down’ in elections and parliamentary politics; as a result, the ‘demarcation between the CPI and the Congress has got blurred’.

8. Of course, in comparison to the CPI’s position, the CPM is clearly proletarian internationalism! The CPI Election Manifesto for 1972 speaks of the ‘glorious victory’ ‘our country has won in the brief war thrust upon us by the military junta of Pakistan through agression, aided and abetted by US imperialism and the Peking regime. These victories are truly the achievement of the nation as a whole, of its patriotic, secular and democratic forces’; ‘The CPI shares the thrill of our people at the magnificent victory of the liberation forces of Bangladesh and the gallant armed forces of our nation which repulsed the Pak aggressors. It shares the pride of our great people who went ahead to do their duty, despite the moving in of the US Seventh Fleet (sic) and the threats of the Maoists’, etc., etc.

9. Banerjee, in Frontier, November 20,1971.

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Last updated: 24.6.2008