The following article is the first of 2 articles looking at the evolution of the communist movement in India. The sequel will be published in our next issue (#94), due to be published in January 2012
In May this year, India found its way into the inside pages of a number of British newspapers. Unusually, however, it was not to celebrate some Bollywood actress, cricket player or home-grown billionaire. Rather, it was to hail, yet again, the "demise of communism", after the electoral defeat registered by one of India's communist parties - the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) - in its historical stronghold of West Bengal, India's 4th most populated state.
The CPI(M)-led Left Front coalition had been ruling this state for the past 34 years, since the 1977 election. However, in this year's election, the Left Front only managed to win 62 seats in the state's 294-strong assembly, compared to the 235 seats it held before the election. The CPI(M) was reduced to 40 out of these 62, compared to its previous 176 seats. As a result, West Bengal will now be ruled by a coalition which includes the Indian National Congress (INC) as a junior partner. The leading force in this coalition will be the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), an offshoot of the INC launched in the 1990s by Mamata Banerjee, a controversial populist demagogue and current Railway minister in the INC-led federal government, in Delhi.
While most commentators were quick to describe these results as a "terminal blow" for the CPI(M), they "forgot" to mention a few significant points. In fact, the CPI(M)'s candidates won, on their own, over 30% of the popular vote, with more than 14m votes on an 84.5% turnout - which can hardly be construed as a "terminal blow". Besides, with 41% of the vote, the Left Front's score was only 7% behind the score of the AITC-led coalition. In short, if the AITC managed to achieve such a sweeping victory in terms of seats, it had more to do with India's electoral system than with a dramatic downfall in the CPI(M)'s electoral weight.
Of course, these commentators would rather not acknowledge that India, which is so often hailed here as a "model democracy" for the Third World, is also one of the few so-called "democratic" countries, where parties adhering to the communist tradition, albeit in its distorted Stalinist form, still enjoy mass support among the poor sections of the population. Nor would these commentators care to admit that the country's two main communist parties - the CPI(M) already mentioned, which claims membership of over 800,000, and the Communist Party of India (CPI) - are among the very few large Indian parties which do not owe their political influence to the whipping up of religious, caste, tribal, regionalist, linguistic, nationalist, or other similar reactionary prejudices.
Of course, this is not to say that the Indian communist parties are "communist" in the sense that Lenin's and Trotsky's Third International gave to this word, when it was launched to spread the Russian revolution. Like their counterparts in other countries, the Indian communist parties abandoned the Bolshevik programme many decades ago, following the Stalinist degeneration of the state built by the Russian working class. They became mere pawns in the Soviet bureaucracy's foreign policy and turned their backs on their historical task of providing the working class and poor with a revolutionary weapon in their struggle against their exploiters - something which did not change after the implosion of the Soviet Union. Outside India, most of the communist parties which had managed to develop mass support in the past, have now been reduced to a shadow of their former selves. In India, however, they haven't. Despite the CPI(M)'s recent electoral setback, the two main Indian communist parties have retained significant support among the masses. And the fact that they have managed to retain this support on the basis of the communist tradition they claim to represent remains an important political fact in itself, no matter how critical revolutionary communists must be of the policies of these parties.
From the impact of October to the influence of Stalinism
Like in most colonised countries, the Indian communist movement was a relative latecomer. Before World War I, the Indian working class was still in the process of emerging and so was the working class movement. Although the first form of embryonic trade union went back to 1884, in the Bombay textile mills, it was only after World War I that the Indian working class began to intervene as a social force in its own right.
Nor did India have a socialist movement comparable to that of the industrialised countries, in which an internationalist left might have emerged to oppose this imperialist war and then embrace the new perspective opened up by the Russian revolution, in opposition to the old reformist leadership of the movement.
On the contrary, the Indian political scene had been occupied since 1885 by the INC, a very tame nationalist party launched with the assent of the British colonial authorities to serve as a conduit for the aspiring Indian bourgeoisie. Then, in 1906, the British authorities had encouraged the launch of the Muslim League as a counter-weight to the INC's influence, thereby driving a wedge within the ranks of the nationalist bourgeois forces. Even though numerous radical factions had emerged within INC ranks, against the subservience of the party's bourgeois leadership to the British rulers, they had no links with, nor concern, for the working class.
However, the wave of strikes which swept India from 1918, reaching its peak in the first half of 1920, with 200 strikes involving over 1 million workers, created a new situation. It was during this long wave of strikes that the Indian trade-union movement began to take shape, with the emergence of hundreds of unions across the country and the launch of the AITUC (All India Trade Union Congress, the ancestor of today's third largest union confederation, which is linked to the CPI) - albeit under a very "moderate" leadership favourable to conciliation with the bosses rather than confrontation in the class struggle.
Alongside the October revolution, which proved the ability of the working class to free Russia from its feudal, bourgeois and imperialist yokes, this wave of strikes played a role in convincing a number of radical nationalists that the working class would be a decisive force in the fight to free India from British rule and from the parasitism of its feudal and bourgeois classes.
This combination of factors was to give birth, eventually, to the Indian communist movement. But this took time. Although some Indian exiles, who had already been won over to communist ideas in Russia, started bringing out publications as early as 1920, it was only in 1924 that the first communist groups began to function in various parts of India. Eventually, a Communist Party of India (CPI) was formally launched in December 1925, with branches in today's Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and Kanpur - at the time, the countries' largest towns.
However, the launch of the new party was not without hitches. Its founders were certainly impressed by the October Revolution, but they had no common socialist references. Many came from a nationalist background, including some who still had illusions in Gandhi's "non-violence", but felt that he was not going far enough in that direction. These fault lines within the fledgling party were illustrated, for instance, by the fact that, while a majority of the delegates did vote in favour of joining the Third International, a strong minority expressed its nationalist outlook with statements such as: "Indian Communism is not Bolshevism, for Bolshevism is a form of Communism which the Russians have adopted in their country. We are not Russians".
Subsequently, this absence of political clarity was to be compounded by the fact that the CPI came into existence just at the time when, under the rising influence of Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy, the Soviet Union was beginning to turn its back on the revolutionary internationalist perspective of the October Revolution. No sooner was the CPI born, and long before it was able to develop any revolutionary militant experience on the basis of the Bolshevik programme, the Third International was to push the CPI into a series of opportunistic U-turns, most of which were to encourage the nationalist tendencies which were already rife within the party, right from its inception.
Building roots in the working class
Before anything else, it should be said that during most of its existence, including after independence, the party's activity and development were constantly hampered by repression, first from the British colonial authorities and subsequently from the independent Indian state.
Under British rule, strikers and protesters were systematically beaten up and shot at, while their organisers were often sentenced to long terms in prison. Communist activists were especially targeted in a long series of "conspiracy trials", four of which took place even before the formal launch of the party. Each time the movement was deprived for many months of its most experienced activists, and sometimes of any functioning leadership, while its organisations were effectively forced to operate underground.
This systematic repression provided ammunition to the most nationalist-minded elements in the party leadership, who argued that CPI activists should take shelter in the relative safety of nationalist organisations, even if this meant giving up their political independence.
This tendency was further reinforced by the policy of Stalin's Third International. In the name of a so-called "stageist" theory, which claimed that, in the colonised countries, a "national bourgeois democratic revolution" had to be carried out first, before the proletariat could carry out its own revolution, the communist parties were instructed to form alliances with nationalist forces, on the basis of their own nationalist programme - thereby putting the working class and poor in the tow of the radical nationalist bourgeoisie.
In India, this meant that almost immediately after its formation, the CPI virtually dissolved itself within so-called Workers' and Peasants' parties, set up on a regional basis. While these parties provided communist activists with a legal cover, their political agenda was not, contrary to their name, to provide a proletarian political framework for organising workers and peasants, but to attract disaffected "radicals" from the INC, by offering them a platform for their own ideas and by putting the militant energy of communist activists at their service.
Nevertheless, despite all the ambiguities of this policy, it was in this period of the second half of the 1920s that the communist activists began to throw themselves into the class struggle and build roots in the working class. 1925 saw a revival of workers' struggles. In Mumbai, the textile mill-owners' attempt to cut wages by 11% sparked off a 6-week strike which forced them to back down. The colonial rulers responded the following year, with the introduction of a punitive Trade Union Act, which reduced any form of militant trade-unionism to illegality. But this did not stop a wave of strikes from spreading, reaching a peak in 1928, with a record 3.2m days "lost" in strike action. This wave included, among others, a series of strikes against job cuts which hit the railways in several parts of India; two protracted strikes, against the impact of a rationalisation drive, involving almost 100,000 in Mumbai's giant textile industry; and a general strike against the 60-hour week and massive job cuts, in the jute mills of the region surrounding Kolkota.
In each one of these strikes, the young communist activists managed to win some credit among workers due to their commitment to the struggle and their stubborn resistance against the attempts of the existing union leadership - usually influenced by the INC - to sell them out. By the end of this period, in a matter of just a few years, their systematic intervention in the struggles of the working class had allowed Indian communists to develop roots among rank-and-file workers and to build a substantial cadre of activists whose experience was shaped by the difficult conditions in which these struggles had to be conducted. Through these struggles they had launched new militant unions and had won some existing ones to a militant line. Of course, they still had not reversed the domination of the conciliatory tendencies in the leadership of the trade-union movement, but they had become a force to be reckoned with.
So much so that, in March 1929, the British authorities arrested 29 Indian leaders of the Workers' and Peasants parties, including all the founding leaders of the CPI, and three British communist activists, as part of what came to be known as the "Meerut conspiracy case". This was to become a gigantic stage-managed operation, dreamt up by the Colonial Office bureaucrats, which lasted more than 4 years, involved 25 volumes of evidence against the defendants and a final judgment which took no less than 676 pages! But above all, it was designed to deprive the communist movement of a functioning leadership - which it did, as most of the defendants were only released on appeal, from 1933 onwards.
Caught in Stalin's U-turns
Had repression been the only problem faced by the Indian communists, maybe they would have been able to avoid the paralysis and isolation which they experienced during the subsequent period. But a further blow struck them, this time from Moscow, in the form of another U-turn in Stalin's policy.
The defeat of the Chinese revolution, in 1927, had just exposed the bankruptcy of the Third International's "stageist" policy. The Chinese communist party's nationalist "allies" - Chiang kai shek's Kuomintang - had turned against the working class, drowned the proletarian revolution in blood and executed tens of thousands of communist activists. But rather than criticising its previous policy and making the necessary adjustments, the Third International launched a frantic purge among its cadres in July 1929. A new worldwide revolutionary upsurge was announced and the International embarked on an ultra-left course, supposedly designed to prepare for it.
As a result, just three months after the beginning of the Meerut trial, the Indian communists were ordered to denounce their past left-nationalist allies as "social-fascists" and to immediately leave the Workers' and Peasant parties, which collapsed almost instantly as a result of their departure. By the same token, they were instructed to break away from the AITUC in order to launch a "Red" union confederation.
A significant number of communist activists were already in jail due to the repression of the previous years. The disorientation caused by Stalin's brutal U-turn and the absence of any organisational preparation for it, caused many others to drop out. So much so that, by 1930, the number of active communists was estimated to be no more than 1,000, scattered in small underground circles in a handful of big industrial centres. Besides, the massive flow of workers going back to their villages due to the devastating unemployment resulting from the world economic crisis, reduced the base of support of these remaining activists.
Over the following four years of isolation, however, these circles managed to maintain an activity on the ground, but without managing to find a common perspective around which to relaunch themselves as a national organisation. It was only with the release of some of the main communist defendants in the Meerut trial, in 1933, that a successful attempt to reorganise the CPI was made - only to be banned almost immediately by the colonial rulers, in 1934.
By that time, however, the Third International was preparing for another U-turn - this time, following Hitler's seizure of power in Germany. Fearing an immanent attack from Germany, Stalin now sought to use the communist parties to press for their own governments to adopt a "Soviet-friendly" policy. In the name of this "Popular Front" policy, the communist parties of the colonised countries were instructed to turn once again to nationalist bourgeois forces and form the broadest possible alliances against the fascist threat.
This change in course was facilitated by the polarisation which had developed within the ranks of the INC. Since 1932, the class struggle had resumed with a vengeance, often involving direct confrontations with the colonial state and putting the working class at the centre stage of the struggle against British rule. Despite this, not only had the INC leadership disowned these confrontations in the name of non-violence, but it had turned its back on the decision of its own 1929 conference, in favour of complete independence. Instead, it had embarked on negotiations with Britain over the setting up of new institutions for colonial India and, finally, called off its token campaign of "civil disobedience". The resulting frustration among the ranks of the INC left led to the formation of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP), in 1934, both as a faction within the INC and as a political party in its own right.
Many of the mostly middle-class activists of this new party had worked, at some point in the past, with communist activists, whom they saw as a possible conduit for expanding their own influence in the working class. Besides, with the Meerut trial, the British had, in some ways, shot themselves in both feet: the extraordinary publicity given to the trial and the length to which the Colonial Office had gone to fabricate a case against the defendants, had only succeeded in raising the communists' profile as the most determined enemies of British rule.
It was against this backdrop that, in 1935, the illegal CPI entered the CSP, having received this party's assurance that communist activists would be able to operate relatively freely within its ranks. During the same year the communists' "Red" trade-union confederation rejoined the AITUC. These new conditions, together with the growth of industrial employment in India due to the development of the British war industry, produced a new upsurge of militancy. This allowed the communist activists to do more than regain the ground they had lost over the previous years - especially from 1937, when the first Congress-dominated state administrations demonstrated their anti-working class policies by brutally repressing strikes, as was the case against textile workers in Mumbai.
Moreover, it was in this period, that the communist activists expanded their influence among the poor masses of the rural areas, in particular through their role in setting up the All India Kisan Sabha (farmers' union), in 1936, on the basis of a programme of struggle for the abolition of the zamindar system (feudal system of land ownership) and the cancellation of farmers' debts. Although initially set up under the auspices of the INC, this organisation was soon to break from the landowner-dominated Congress and the influence of the CPI was to become predominant within its ranks over the following years.
After Stalin's pact of non-aggression with Hitler, in August 1939, the CPI adjusted to the resulting new U-turn of the Third International. Having advocated a classless alliance of all "anti-fascist forces" against the threat of war ever since 1935, the CPI leaders suddenly moved to expose the imperialist aims behind Britain's war preparations against Germany - a rather belated "discovery" obviously aimed at serving Stalin's latest foreign policy twist.
After the war broke out, the CPI found itself in a difficult position. The colonial authorities were bound to step up the repression against activists who called on the working class to oppose the imperialist war. Moreover, the policy formulated by the CPI within the Congress Socialist Party in its "Proletarian Path" programmatic proposal, advocated taking advantage of the circumstantial weakening of the British state to bring its rule to an end by revolutionary means. But the CPI also found itself at odds over this policy with the nationalists. The objective of the INC leadership was to propose a bargain: its support for the war effort in exchange for its participation in a Provisional Indian National Government, as a first step towards comprehensive talks over independence after the war. And there was no way the INC would tolerate any overt, let alone militant, opposition to the war from within its ranks. So, in 1940, following a vicious anti-communist campaign, the CSP leaders, who had no difference with the INC leadership on this issue, expelled all CPI members.
Although the CPI lost the relative protection of operating from within the CSP and the resulting easy access it had to the large variety of INC satellite organisations, it was not severely weakened by its expulsion. Not only did it retain its positions and credit in the working class movement, in which the non-communist members of the CSP had never gained much influence at rank-and-file level, but a significant part of the CSP membership followed the expelled communists - especially in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andra Pradesh, where the whole CSP state organisations went over to the CPI. As a result, despite the repression, the CPI was able to use its forces to play a leading role in the on-going working class struggles sparked off by the war effort - mostly over inflation and the worsening of working conditions - without anyone challenging its leadership.
But this period of illegality was short-lived anyway. In June 1941, Hitler's troops attacked the Soviet Union and Stalin initiated another U-turn. Overnight the "imperialist war" turned into a "people's war" and all communist parties where ordered to do everything in their power to facilitate the victory of the Allied camp. For the PCI, the pill was a bit hard to swallow. Both Moscow and the British authorities had to call on the authority of Harry Pollitt and Palme Dutt, two leading figures of the British Communist Party, in order to convince the underground CPI leaders that their "theory of two wars" - supporting the Soviet Union against Hitler while fighting against Britain's rule - was not an option. Eventually, in February 1942, the CPI leadership caved in and endorsed Stalin's policy, advocating a United National Front bringing together all political forces, including the INC and Muslim League, in support of Britain's "people's war". The slogan of the day became "Make the Indian people play a people's role in a people's war" and, in July, the CPI was legalised while its imprisoned leaders and activists were released.
By an ironical twist, however, just six months after the CPI's U-turn, the INC leadership was to make a complete U-turn as well, making the CPI's "United National Front" policy largely irrelevant. The talks initiated by the British government the previous year, in order to secure the INC's support for its war effort, had ended up in a stalemate due to Stafford Cripps' insistence on giving the Muslim League and the feudal princes a right of veto over India's postwar status. On 8 August 1942, the INC leaders counter-attacked with Gandhi's famous launch of the "Quit India" campaign, calling on the population to "Do or die... Either free India or die in the attempt". The next day, the entire INC leadership was arrested, followed by hundreds of other members. An explosion of anger swept the country, in which rioters confronted the police and army in bloody clashes, while countless government buildings were burnt down. Overnight, the INC had regained the leading role in the fight against British rule, just at the CPI was being seen as shoring up this rule through its support for the war!
The wave of repression created a political vacuum allowing the CPI to take over leading positions in organisations linked to the INC, while creating new ones, especially among the urban petty-bourgeoisie. But this came at the cost of a dangerous opportunist drift to please the recruits and partners it was targeting. In particular, the CPI adopted a policy of wooing centrifugal forces - whether religious, by seeking the favours of the Muslim League as a "legitimate" representative of Indian Muslims, or regionalist, by recognising the right to secede for "every section of the Indian people which has a contiguous territory as its homeland, common historical traditions, common economic life".
But it was in the working class that the CPI's new course had the most drastic consequences. In the period up to 1941, the CPI had played a leading role in large-scale strikes against the forcible mobilisation of labour introduced by the British at the beginning of the war and against the way employers used these repressive measures to increase working hours and drive wages down in the context of rising inflation. In particular, in 1940, communist activists had led a successful 40-day strike in Mumbai's textile mills to obtain a cost-of-living allowance. As a result, of the 6,466 political and trade-union activists convicted in 1939-40, a large number, if not the majority, had been CPI supporters and members.
However, with the CPI's "people's war" turn, all that changed. The CPI switched to opposing all strike action deemed detrimental to the war effort, confining the class struggle to "responsible" negotiations over sectional, local demands - the very same kind of policy that communist activists had been fighting against in the previous period, when they were advocated by the reformist leaders of the AITUC. Although Britain's repression against INC and CSP supporters paved the way for CPI activists to be elected to the leadership of the AITUC, the party's new policy did not go down too well with workers. Thus, in his history of the working class of India, written in the 1970s, the CPI(M) and trade-union leader, Sukomal Sen, while justifying the CPI's "people's war", had to admit that "the working class could not on all occasions correctly follow the 'no-strike' policy of the communists and in consequence a sizeable section of the working class... got alienated from the communists during this time". And indeed, the CPI - but, above all, the Indian working class - was to pay a heavy price for this policy, just at the time when the masses were erupting onto the political scene, in the aftermath of the war.
The postwar explosion: a lost opportunity
As the end of the war came closer, the class struggle resumed with a vengeance. Four million work days were lost due to strike action in 1945, 12 million in 1946, 11 million just in the first eight months of 1947. Workers were striking to regain the ground lost during the war, against the hoarding of staple food by speculators, which was resulting in soaring inflation and even famine in some areas, and against the rising wave of job cuts, which was to reach an estimated 5 to 7 million by 1947.
However, two strikes were particularly prominent - the Royal Indian Navy ratings' strike in Mumbai, in February 1946, and the Post and Telegraph national strike, in July the same year. Indeed, because of their very nature, both strikes immediately took the form of a confrontation with the British authorities.
The navy ratings' strike was originally motivated by long-standing grievances over working conditions and the racist arrogance of the British officer caste. But the strikers immediately replaced the Union Jack which was flying over their ships with the flags of the INC and Muslim League. On hearing about the strike, Mumbai's workers came out in support. For three days, there were street battles in which the British army shot 250 protesters, while demonstrations of support were taking place in Kolkota, Chennai and Karachi, among others. At that point, the INC and Muslim League leaders stepped in to put pressure on the strikers' central strike committee to call the men back to work. And when the strikers bowed to these pressures, both parties went on to demand drastic disciplinary measures against the striking workers and naval ratings. The central strike committee's resolution to call off the strike contained a damning statement of fact, when it said "we surrender not to Britain, but to India".
The Post and Telegraph strike, on the other hand was condemned right from the beginning by the INC leadership. Its supporters within the union machineries did their best to sabotage it. But nevertheless it spread almost immediately to the entire country. In the end, the strikers went back to work after three weeks of a militant, often violent dispute, having won a significant number of their 16 demands - making it the first large-scale successful strike since the beginning of the war.
By then, not only had the INC dropped the past "radical" rhetoric of its "Quit India" movement, but it was now showing openly that it would oppose any intervention of the masses, whether in the form of strikes or otherwise - including when it directly challenged British rule. Its leaders were now busy negotiating the transition of India to independence with the British government, on behalf of the Indian bourgeoisie, and the last thing they wanted was for these negotiations to be derailed by the exploited classes.
The CPI leadership was certainly reluctant to take the risk of being accused of stirring up trouble during these negotiations. But, to paraphrase Sukomal Sen's assessment of the wartime situation, party activists "could not on all occasions correctly follow" concerns of their leaders. Not only were the CPI activists among the strikers everywhere, but they were often in a leading position.
This militant intervention together with the INC's perceived change of policy, created new opportunities for the CPI. Not only did this allow the party to make up for some of the discredit it had earned during the war because of its anti-strike, pro-British line, but it significantly increased its base of support, both within the working class and beyond - to the point where, by 1947, its membership reached 90,000. In the AITUC, in particular, although the CPI had already been the largest organised force since 1942, it became the leading force by the end of 1945, thanks to the rising wave of strikes. The growing influence of the CPI was also illustrated in the ballot box, in the provincial election held in 1946: although only 16% of the population had a vote in this election, thereby excluding a large part of the CPI's milieu, and despite the fact that the party only stood in less than 7% of the seats, its candidates managed to win 665,000 votes or 2.5% of the total votes cast - the 3rd largest score in the election, albeit far behind the INC and Muslim League.
The problem, however, was that the CPI had no political perspective to offer in order to meet the expectations of its new supporters. Its policy was unchanged: to defend the wartime alliance, leaving the issue of independence to be sorted out between Britain and the Indian bourgeoisie, while calling for a government to be formed jointly by the INC and Muslim League. Once again, they were putting the working class and poor in the tow of the Indian bourgeoisie.
The INC leaders were quick to take advantage of the CPI's lack of an offensive policy to try to isolate the party. In December 1946, the INC launched a vicious anti-communist witch-hunt within its ranks and in its satellite organisations, to purge those who showed any sympathy for the CPI and, by the same token, those who argued that independence should bring about some kind of social change. Five months later, in May 1947, having failed to wrest the leadership of the AITUC from the CPI, the INC was to engineer a split, forming its own union confederation - the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC).
The bloody turmoil of independence
The period preceding the independence and partition of India, in August 1947, and its immediate aftermath probably saw the worst pogroms ever orchestrated by imperialism up until then - in this case, with the obliging help of the two main Indian bourgeois parties. Estimates put the number of casualties between 180,000 and half-a-million, while 10m people were forced to leave their homes.
This political and human catastrophe did not come out the blue, though. A partition plan had been maturing for a long time at the London Colonial Office. In 1935, the British had already institutionalised the Muslim-Hindu split in the 1935 constitution by allocating one-third of the seats in the all-India parliament to Muslim-only constituencies. During WWII, they had secured the support of the Muslim League for their war effort in exchange for the promise of an independent Muslim state of Pakistan.
The CPI's attitude to these imperialist manoeuvres had been, at best, ambiguous. Since the mid-1930s, its policy had been to woo every possible centrifugal force, including religious forces, in the name of what they called the "Bolshevik principle of the right of nations to self-determination". Except, of course, that, in India unlike in the Czarist empire, the oppressing nation was Britain. Unlike the Bolsheviks, the Indian communists had no need to win over the support of India's minorities by recognising their right to secede, let alone encouraging them to do so. The emancipation of the poor masses of India could only be achieved by them joining forces together to boot the British out and overthrow the property relations which caused their social oppression. The complacency of the CPI leaders towards the religious overbidding between the Muslim League and the INC was even more nonsensical, especially as the "rights of nations" could hardly be stretched to include those of religious groups. And this complacency was even more catastrophic as it played right into the hands of the criminal designs of the British rulers, while making it impossible for the CPI to prepare the working class and poor to face up to the onslaught of the partition of India, let alone to prevent it. Whether it would have been able to do so, given the CPI's still limited influence, is another question, of course. But the fact was, that due to its opportunistic course, the party completely failed in its duty to the working class in these circumstances.
Meanwhile, India's independence coincided with the formal end of the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and the western imperialist countries, marking the beginning of the Cold War. The Cominform, which had taken over from the Third International after it was dissolved during the war, ordered all communist parties to switch to more offensive policies designed to expose and oppose the imperialist aims of their bourgeoisies. In India, the CPI was instructed to end its support for the INC government and call for its overthrow in order to set up a "people's democracy". In response, the CPI was banned in several states in early 1948, and Nehru, then India's INC prime minister, ordered the arrest of thousands of its members.
During the following 4-year period, the CPI pursued an ultra-left course, proclaiming that an armed revolution was on the agenda. In most of India, this new course had no visible impact. The only exception was the armed insurrection which took place in Telengana, India's largest princely state, with 17m inhabitants, located in today's state of Andra Pradesh.
However, the origins of the Telengana rebellion went back before the CPI's ultra-left turn, to 1946, when the local peasants had risen against the huge and costly privileges of the local prince, or Nizam, whose feudal rule had been carefully protected under the British colonial occupation. The brutal repression by the Nizam's armed thugs had soon transformed the movement into an armed uprising. As the INC opposed this movement, the CPI activists had found themselves propelled to its leadership.
After the country's independence, faced with the Nizam's refusal to join the new independent state, the INC government sent in its police and army to bring the Nizam under control - which they did easily. But then the INC proceeded to try to disarm the Telengana farmers, while refusing to yield to their demand for radical land reform, for fear that this demand might spread across the rural regions of India. As a result, this peasant uprising led by CPI activists turned into an uprising against the INC regime itself. The insurgency lasted until 1951, mobilising 60,000 troops and causing 4,000 casualties among the insurgents, while 25,000 were jailed. By the end of that period, in the absence of any political way forward, the movement finally degenerated into terrorism, without having achieved anything.
Initially, the CPI leaders had been taken unawares by the Telengana insurgency. It was only after their ultra-left turn, in the the first weeks of 1948, that they officially endorsed the insurgents. Later on, the polemics following the failure of the Telengana uprising within the CPI were to focus around whether or not this had been a correct adaptation of Mao tse-Tung's strategy to the Indian context. But when, in 1946, the fresh CPI recruits in Telengana had assumed the leading role in the uprising, they were probably more inspired by the mythical odyssey of the Indian National Army which had tried to launch a guerrilla war against the British during the war, than by the still relatively unknown guerilla strategy advocated by Mao tse-Tung.
In any case, by the end of this ultra-left interlude, the CPI had lost 3/4 of its membership nationally, due to repression certainly, but above all due to the blatant failure of its ultra-left course.
The parliamentary attraction
This organisational disaster caused a shift in the balance of power between the CPI's factions. At a special conference convened in Kolkota in 1951, the faction which had been behind the party's wartime support for Britain, managed to sideline the supporters of the discredited ultra-left course. There was no more talk about a revolution for the near future. At Moscow's request it was decided to begin immediate preparations to stand candidates in the country's first post-independence general election, due to take place in January 1952.
The party's election manifesto, issued in August 1951, included demands which hit directly at the main weaknesses of the INC regime. Against the tame land reform promised, but not even implemented by the INC, the CPI called for a radical reform which would result in the expropriation without compensation of all large landowners and feudal lords. Against the new turn of the screw added by the INC against workers' right to strike in the context of falling wages, the CPI called for the right to organise and strike to be enshrined in the constitution, for a large wage increase and for the confiscation of the industries owned by foreign companies. However, the election manifesto also made a point of calling for the protection of the "legitimate profits and interests" of Indian business, as if the "profits and interests" of the Indian bourgeoisie could have been compatible with the demands of the working class and poor! Finally, making a stand against the INC government, which it described as "anti-democratic" and "anti-popular", it advocated the constitution of a "coalition of all democratic anti-feudal and anti-imperialist forces of the country, capable of effectively guaranteeing the rights of the people". Of course, the issue of which class interests such a coalition would be meant to represent was carefully swept under the carpet.
Despite these dubious concessions to the bourgeoisie, the CPI managed to capture the vote of a large number of the discontented poor layers of society who had been disenfranchised so far. Its score came as a total surprise in most quarters. With only 63 candidates (out of over 500 constituencies), it managed to gain over 5 million votes or 5% of the total and to win 26 seats. In the much divided political landscape of India, this immediately promoted the CPI to the position of largest opposition party in the lower chamber of the Indian parliament. The CPI's official line was now to bid for political power against the INC on behalf of its "people's coalition". Behind the still radical rhetoric of the CPI and its continuing militant activity in the working class and among the poor peasants, the "parliamentary road to socialism" was now firmly on its agenda.
Within two years, however, something occurred - and this time on the international scene - which was to upset the agenda of the CPI leadership. So far, despite his proclaimed "non-aligned" policy in relation to the two main blocks of the Cold War, Nehru had maintained a privileged relationship not only with Britain, but also with the US. However, in 1954, as part of their efforts to tighten their control over the region, US leaders signed a military agreement with Pakistan. In retaliation, Nehru turned to the Soviet Union, signing a pact for economic assistance involving, among other things, the construction of steel mills. For its part, the Soviet Union was beginning to take an interest in Nehru's "non-alignment" policy, seeing it as a possible means of containing the expansion of the imperialist sphere of influence over the poor countries.
This led to yet another U-turn in Moscow, which started praising Nehru's "progressive policies" - which was rather ironical since, after all, despite their names, the "five-year plans" on which the INC's policies were based, had been inspired by the so-called Bombay Plan conceived by the representatives of India's two richest industrial families, the Tatas and the Birlas. Nevertheless, the CPI was instructed to take an "INC-friendly" turn. After almost two years of bitter polemics within the party, this resulted in a convoluted statement adopted by the 1956 congress of the party, which argued for "support for the government's stand in relation to the struggle for peace and efforts to strengthen it further; (..) support to all those measures of the government which weaken the position of imperialism and feudalism (..) and strengthen the national economy". To balance this, however, the same resolution proclaimed the need to "come forward as an independent national force (and)... as a party of opposition to the present government". Nevertheless, the CPI was positioning itself firmly in the nationalist camp, as a supportive and respectful opposition to the INC.
In the 2nd general election, held the following year, the CPI improved its results. With only 50% more candidates than in 1952, it doubled its score to over 10m votes, winning an additional seat in the federal parliament and retaining its position as largest opposition party. However what really made the headlines in this election was the CPI's success in the southern state of Kerala where, with the support of 5 independents, it was able to secure a majority of seats in the state parliament and form the new state administration - the first one not to be INC-led in India since 1935.
Once in office, the CPI administration played its role of respectful opposition to the central government by, in the words of first minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad, pledging to "implement those policies which the Congress and its central government declared but which its state governments failed to carry out". In particular, preparations for implementing the limited land reform announced by the INC after 1947, were made. But the Kerala government was not to be allowed the time to translate the legislation which came out of this effort into actual deeds.
Immediately after the election, the INC government unleashed a violent anti-communist campaign against the Kerala government. Every trick in the book was used to discredit the CPI, going so far as to reduce the vital supply of food grains to which Kerala was entitled, in the hope that the CPI would be blamed for the resulting shortage. Eventually, in July 1959, the INC used the constitutional rule allowing the introduction of "presidential rule" over a state, to effectively remove the elected Kerala assembly and government from office. The "parliamentary road" to office, if not to socialism, had turned out to be a dead end.
The 1964 split
The next general election, in 1962, saw the CPI increase its share of the vote again and consolidate its position in Delhi. However, this time, it did not win a majority in any state, not even in Kerala, where it was unable to mobilise voters against the INC's slander campaign.
The same year, India's war with China over the Tibetan border, coming just a few months after the formal split between the Soviet Union and China, confronted the CPI with a problem and fuelled the factional rivalries which were already rife within its ranks. The INC had claimed that China was the aggressor, although the conflict had been preceded by many border clashes and incursions initiated from India. In any case, India lost this war and to make up for this humiliation the INC unleashed a nationalist, anti-Chinese and anti-communist hysteria across the country. The "traitors" of the CPI were blamed for the defeat amidst yet another wave of arrests. This split the CPI right down the middle: some factions sided with China, others found reasons to go along with the INC's nationalist hysteria, others still refused to take sides.
These differences were to be blamed for the split which took place two years later, in April 1964, resulting in the emergence of the CPI(M) next to the maintained CPI. The membership of the two new parties was more or less half that of the old, but the split was uneven from a geographical point of view. The CPI(M) took most of the party forces in West Bengal, Kerala and Andra Pradesh, in particular, while the maintained CPI was more evenly, but also more thinly spread nationally.
The following years were to see on-going bitter wrangles between the two parties, which eventually spilled over into the trade-union movement. In 1970, the CPI(M) chose to engineer a split in the AITUC, to form the Confederation of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) - thereby showing, if it was needed, that for all its claims to being politically to the left of the CPI, the CPI(M) shared with the CPI the same Stalinist bureaucratic heritage and the same disregard for the interests of the working class.
While the issues of China, the Russo-Chinese split and the Indo-Chinese conflict were certainly factors in the split, they were by no means the main ones. In fact, the pro-Chinese activists who, initially, formed a fractious minority within the ranks of the CPI(M), were to go their own way within months of the split, forming a galaxy of small, usually local "Maoist" organisations, most of which were to finally join forces, in 1969, to form the CPI(M-L) (Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist).
In reality, the main factor behind the CPI split had more to do with the attitude that the party should have towards the INC. Indeed, following the dismissal of the CPI government in Kerala and the party's failure to recover from this setback in the subsequent elections, many activists were now questioning the long-standing policy of acting as a supportive and respectful opposition to the INC - on the grounds that this policy amounted to taking the attacks of the INC lying down. This led to polemics around the best tactics to adopt in order to win elected positions and, if possible, to get into office - whether it should be by sticking to the old policy towards the INC or by forming anti-INC alliances with whoever was willing to play ball.
Behind these tactical differences, however, lay quite another issue. Since the party's policy towards the INC had been dictated by Moscow back in 1956, its rejection provided ammunition to the section of the CPI leadership which had long wanted to get rid of the party's past alignment on the Soviet Union in order to transform itself into a "normal" Indian political party, with all the credentials required to be able to participate fully in the institutions of the bourgeois state, especially at state level, without taking the risk of being immediately ousted by a presidential decree, as had been the case in Kerala. In fact, this point of view, which was defended by the future leaders of the CPI(M), was comparable, in the Indian context, to the so-called "euro-communist" currents which were taking shape, more or less at the same time, in the rich countries' communist parties.
In this split, there was never any consideration for the political interests of the working class and poor. The two parties which came out of it shared the same reformist orientation, shaped by decades of Stalinism, and the same willingnesss to trade their credit among the poor masses for the right to manage the state institutions of the Indian bourgeoisie.
What made this reformism particularly abhorrent, however, was the backdrop of wholesale repression and violence against which it was taking place. Each year, thousands of activists and rank-and-file workers and peasants paid with their lives or with heavy jail sentences for the mere fact of fighting for their livelihoods. And the only perspective that the two communist parties were prepared to offer the working class and poor was to prop up the dead end of their reformism with workers' flesh and blood!
The second part of this article, in the next issue of Class Struggle, will deal with the consequences of this policy over the four decades since the 1964 split.