A study in the Movement-Party Dialectic

(A slightly modified version of the article by Arindam Sen published in EPW, Vol. 52, Issue No. 21, May 27, 2017.)

Giving voice to a shared perception of all participants in the Naxalbari movement, Charu Mazumdar (CM) wrote a few months after the formation of CPI (ML):

“We must always remember that the revolutionary people of India repeatedly participated in the communist movement, fought, made immense sacrifices and laid down their lives. We are the inheritors of the glorious tradition which the heroic martyrs of Punnapra-Vayalar, the heroic fighters of Telangana and the fighting peasants and workers of every province of India established by sacrificing innumerable lives; we must be true to them and carry forward their tradition. The heroes of Kayyur went to the gallows with the name of the Communist Party on their lips: it is that Communist Party which we represent. This Party has become today’s Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).[1]

Radical rupture with revisionism and continuity of fine revolutionary traditions – such was CPI (ML)’s self-perception in relation to the entire course of communist movement in India. The understanding was that in both Tebhaga and Telangana movements, the immense potentials were left unexplored, rather destroyed, by the leadership of the party whose ranks had undertaken much of the groundwork. The same attempt was made in the case of Naxalbari also, but this time it failed because the revolutionaries did not submit to the diktats and took the Bolshevik way – the first time in India – of forming themselves into a distinct political group and then a party.

In particular, Naxalbari was seen as the torch-bearer of the great Telangana – the acme of Indian revolution in the pre-Naxalbari period. Indeed, the two historical milestones shared many things in common: communist leadership, the peasantry – the landless and poor peasants in particular – as the backbone force, endorsement of the “Chinese Path”, and both being initiated by district party leaders without any concrete planning from above.

For all the similarities there was one crucial difference, and that proved decisive. Naxalbari was preceded by Eight Documents and followed by AICCCR and CPI (ML); nothing of the sort happened in Telangana (or Tebhaga). Telangana itself was a mighty conflagration: relative to the Naxalbari uprising, it covered an incomparably larger area, rose to much higher levels of mass militancy and sustained itself for a longer period of time; but after setback and withdrawal of armed struggle it left no immediate trail precisely because no national-level revolutionary organization existed, or built up, to take care of that. It is true that the Andhra Secretariat of CPI was quick to take up leadership of the uprising initiated by district level cadres and it did conduct a powerful inner-party struggle to establish the correct revolutionary line. But this struggle could not have succeeded within the same party in the given balance of right opportunist, centrist and revolutionary elements in the Central Committee, where the first two jointly predominated. The Telangana radicals on the other hand were not prepared to organize themselves into a separate party or revolutionary wing. So, after an overly long-drawn and indecisive ideological struggle, the centrists gained effective control of the CC in 1951 with the support of right opportunists, abandoned the path of agrarian revolution for good and started taking the party, step by step, down the parliamentary path of non-revolution.

Naxalbari by contrast was both a product of and a catalyst in a conscious process of building a new Marxist-Leninist party based on a critical assimilation of the lessons of communist movement in India and a correct appraisal of the character of Indian society, state and revolution as well as of the prevailing political situation. This was how revolutionary communists carried to consummation the process that started with the 1964 split; this was what ensured that the tiny spark in Naxalbari (it was a spark, indeed, for the uprising in that particular area was crushed in about three months) uninterruptedly developed into a prairie fire across much of India.

The Foundational Eight Documents

When the CPI split in 1964, CM joined the CPI (M) — but only to embark on a new round of inner party struggle against what he termed “modern revisionism” and “centrism”. This he did through a series of documents meant for inner party circulation, collectively called the “Eight Documents”, written between January 1965 and April 1967.

In these documents, the basic political point (in addition to a host of important ideological/theoretical issues) CM made was that unending waves of spontaneous mass movement on all kinds of issues and rising militancy in all part of the country even in the face of brutal state repression signified that the first generalized confrontation between the rulers and the ruled in independent India had started. The latter were no longer prepared to live in the old way while the former, unable to solve the food crisis and other burning problems, were no longer able to rule in the old way through the Congress party. The international situation, marked by encouraging developments in Vietnam, Cuba, China etc. was highly favorable, too. The super-charged political atmosphere was calling for higher forms of struggle, a more conscious vanguard role of communists and matching organizational breakthrough in the shape of a true revolutionary party, he insisted.

The central task pinpointed in the documents was building a revolutionary party. The tone of the first few documents carries the impression that the discussion is about transforming the existing organization (CPI (M)) along revolutionary lines. As the ranks and the social base of the party learn from experience, the pitch is raised gradually and from the sixth document (titled “The Central Task Today is to Build a Genuine Revolutionary Party through Uncompromising Struggle against Revisionism”, August 1966) onward, a frontal attack is mounted on the party leadership. The call for building a new revolutionary party becomes loud and clear. Thanks to this strategy and the immense popularity of the Darjeeling radicals, the State leadership could not take immediate disciplinary action against them. And when they did, it was already too late.

While explaining his blueprint of agrarian revolution, CM highlighted the need for creating a real-life model – “a single spark in a single area” that would “Kindle a prairie fire in different corners of India”[2] and closely guided his comrades in the groundwork. Naxalbari was the outcome of this exemplary integration of theory and practice.

The Spring Thunder and AICCCR-CPI (ML)

The actual countdown to the historic uprising began in early March, 1967. On March 7 — just five days after the formation of the UF Government — CM said addressing a joint meeting of peasant and worker cadres,

“The peasants are not astir, so we may think they are cold as water. But we hardly see the burning pain in their hearts, which have accumulated over thousands of years. In fact what we see as water is actually like kerosene — just apply a lighted match stick and in no time it will blaze up….”

The message was very clear: the situation was ripe, the time for beginning the agrarian revolution had finally arrived.

With a view to chalking out a plan on how to do this, a convention of the “Terai Kishan Sabha” (a unit of the Bongio Pradeshik Kishan Sabha) was held on 18-19 March at an open field near Rambola village in Kharibari. A few thousands of peasants actively participated in the highly animated deliberations and resolved to carry out radical land reforms in defiance of landlord domination and bourgeois legalities, thereby establishing people’s power at the local level in an embryonic form. As per Kanu Sanyal’s “Report on the Peasant Movement in the Terai Region”,

“… The Siliguri sub-division peasant convention gave out the call to (i) establish the authority of the peasant committees in all matters of the village, (ii) get organized and be armed in order to crush the resistance of jotedars and rural reactionaries and (iii) smash the jotedars’ monopoly of ownership of the land and redistribute the land anew through the peasant committees.

Almost all the villages got organized during the period from the end of March to the end of April 1967. Whereas, previously, the membership strength of the Kisan Sabha could not be increased beyond 5,000, the membership now jumped to nearly 40,000. … With the speed of a storm the revolutionary peasants, in the course of about one and a half months, formed peasant committees through hundreds of group meetings and turned these committees into armed village defence groups. In a word, they organized about 90 per cent of the village population.

The great Lenin said: “Revolution is a festival of the masses.” What it means in reality was witnessed by us during the struggle of the Terai peasants….”[3]

The struggle developed from strength to strength, even as the CPI (M) leadership tried to persuade their ‘adventurist’ comrades to give up arms. But the latter were unrelenting and during a confrontation on 24 May, one police inspector was killed and two other officers injured by arrows shot by adivasi peasants. The United Front government in West Bengal, with the CPI (M) as its biggest constituent and Jyoti Basu as Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister, took revenge the very next day. Armed paramilitary forces let loose on the entire area fired upon a peaceful all-women protest march, killing eight women, one man and two babies tied to their mothers’ backs. And the party leadership now lost no time in expelling the radicals.

Savage repression on the Naxalbari uprising – that too by a ‘left’ government — and the bold resistance put up by peasant fighters and communist revolutionaries generated widespread protests within the CPI (M). Expressing solidarity with Naxalbari, revolutionary sections at all levels came together to form dissident groups at local/regional levels. These groups started networking among themselves and in May 1968 the All India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR) was formed. It provided a suitable forum for developing ideological-political understanding and also for successfully guiding its constituent groups in different states. After the basics in ideology and politics were laid down and two years of experience in revolutionary practice gained, the CPI (ML) was established on 22 April, 1969. Notably, for all its eagerness and enthusiasm about applying Mao Zedong Thought in Indian conditions, the new party called itself Marxist-Leninist (not Maoist) precisely to highlight its identity as a component part of the emerging Marxist-Leninist current in various countries in course of struggle against new (Soviet) revisionism. The first party Congress was held in May 1970 in Kolkata in clandestine conditions. A 21-member Central Committee was duly elected, with CM as General Secretary.

The Upsurge

The foundation of CPI (ML) greatly inspired the party ranks and the toiling masses. Revolutionary peasant struggles came up in the four corners of the country from Tripura to Kerala and from Punjab to Tamil Nadu, while areas like Srikakulam, Debra-Gopiballavpur and Birbhum shot into prominence as forward posts of agrarian revolution, in some cases semi-liberated zones of guerrilla warfare.

With the revolutionary anti-feudal struggle dealing body blows to the very base of old society, the entire ideological-political superstructure began to shake. Charu Mazumdar’s call — “The day has now come at last when we must settle the blood-debts of hundreds and thousands of martyrs, and overthrow the imperialists and the reactionary exploiting classes” – took young India by storm. Towns and cities saw a new type of anti-establishment student-youth movement, with large numbers of students rebelling against the bourgeois education system. As they were celebrating the festival of revolution in their own – in some cases rather adventurist – ways, CM personally met them and placed before them “only one task: go among workers and landless and poor peasants – integrate, integrate and integrate with them”.[4]

Students, youths, intellectuals and cultural activists – including a large number of women — joined the movement in hundreds and thousands. Many of them left behind the comforts of city life and lived with the most oppressed sections of peasants, adivasis, girijans and other toilers. Since the party concentrated all energy and attention on rural work, advanced workers were encouraged to leave the trade union work to ordinary workers and join their class allies in villages to speed up agrarian revolution. Hundreds of young professional revolutionaries — mainly from middle class and peasant backgrounds and a good many also from the working class — emerged as the backbone of the underground communist party. Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and other parts of the country witnessed a great flourish in revolutionary people’s culture inspired by the advancing waves of radical peasant movement.

Thus developed a radical social churning, a pro-active solidarity movement – unprecedented and till date unmatched in scale and intensity – with every section of people taking part in spite of all the threats involved, and often joining the core struggle itself. All these, particularly the spirited participation of the youth, immensely strengthened the movement and supplied valuable material for party building.

Deviations and Setback

The rapid intensification and expansion of the movement demanded a matching advance in the party’s political consolidation and organizational streamlining. That, however, was not forthcoming; rather the opposite happened.

On the political plane, the new-born party was soon afflicted with the “infantile disorder” of ultra-leftism. The most controverted issue here, of course, was annihilation of class enemies. For CM, who as an activist of the Tebhaga uprising had personally witnessed annihilation as a spontaneous outburst of class hatred and a liberating experience for the oppressed peasantry, it never implied negating the role of the masses and relying on a few vanguards. Rather it sought to combine, with some success, the beginnings of armed struggle with broad mass mobilization. In certain pockets this led to the formation of peasant squads, mass uprisings and agrarian reform measures. (The valuable experience thus gained would subsequently help build sustained armed peasant struggle in Bhojpur-Patna and some other regions in the post-1972 phase of the movement). But in many areas annihilation was wrongly conducted as a “campaign”, with a lot of indiscriminate and unnecessary killings, which resulted in a degree of isolation from peasants’ class struggle, making it easier for the enemy to smash those areas. In a serious departure from the Leninist principle of combination of various forms of struggle according to specific situations while striving for suitable higher forms, which was upheld in the Eight Documents, one form of struggle (armed struggle in general and annihilation in particular) suitable for a certain stage of the movement and for some areas was generalized as applicable – even necessary — always and everywhere. The uneven development of revolution in a vast country like India was thus ignored. All these and other serious mistakes combined to inflict immense losses on the party-movement.

Such deviations had their roots in various non-proletarian attitudes and subjectivist errors, such as overestimation of the revolutionary situation and failure to correctly assess the level of preparedness of revolutionary forces, a certain impetuosity as a reaction to the delay in Indian revolution, and so on. Moreover, there was a lax attitude toward ‘left’ deviations because from its formative period the party was accustomed to view reformism/right opportunism as the main threat – for all practical purposes, as the only danger.

CM tried to make amends when he noticed some of these trends5 but it was his formulation in the first CPI (ML) Congress – “class struggle, i.e., annihilation will solve all our problems” – that provided a theoretical justification to the excesses of the ‘annihilation campaign’ and thus rendered it all the more harmful. Interestingly, even on this particular point he repeatedly cautioned his comrades against excesses and appeared to revise/ reformulate his position after he witnessed the harm it was doing to the movement. To cite just one example, he said in March 1971,

“We kill only those who obstruct the establishment of the political power of the peasantry – whichever class that person might belong to. That is to say, such killings are but means to an end, which is seizure of power. You cannot kill an entire class. One should not equate struggle with killing.

… The main thing in class struggle is seizure of political power. Killings are not the main thing in class struggle, even though annihilation is a higher form of class struggle. On the face of it, the difference appears to be insignificant. But as we go into practice, we see that the difference is of a serious nature.”[6]

Such corrective ideas, however, did not percolate into the entire party body. Among many reasons, one was the poor state of the organization in the 1970s. An underground network had been built up, but it did not always prove strong and stable enough to carry on, in the face of constant hounding by the political police, normal party activities like holding regular meetings of party committees and maintaining live links between upper and lower level committees. Inner party debates could not be properly conducted and collective functioning suffered. There was a huge influx of new militant forces, especially in West Bengal, but they were not given adequate ideological-political training, nor were they properly organised in the basic structures of communist party. This resulted in weakening of political centralism even as grassroots activism continued without proper guidance, often in erroneous ways.

For all its shortcomings, however, the movement did throw up the first serious challenge, since independence, to the power of the ruling classes. Naturally they reacted with a vengeance, especially after closing their ranks and regaining political initiative under the leadership of Indira Gandhi. In view of the drastic change in situation, with counter-revolution on the offensive and both the revolutionary and the parliamentary wings of the left movement suffering setbacks in the early 1970s, CM in his last article (see below) placed before the party a policy of organised retreat in the shape of a militant united front of labouring people, particularly the toiling masses under the influence of left parties, against the common enemy — the Congress governments at the centre and in the states:

“People’s Interest is the Party’s Only Interest”

[Excerpts]

“We have suffered a setback after the armed struggle in our country reached a certain stage….

“It is our duty today to carry forward the work of building the Party among the basic masses and set up a joint front with the broadest sections of the people on the basis of struggle. It is possible to build the broadest joint front against Congress rule. Today the ‘leftist’ parties refuse to provide leadership to the common people in the struggle against the oppression the Congress perpetrates on them. The worker-peasant masses who are within the folds of those parties feel resentment against their leadership. We have to carry on efforts to unite with them on the basis of united struggle. Even those who once acted as our enemies will come forward in special circumstances to unite with us. We must have the largeness of mind to unite with such forces. … Today, it is the people’s interest that demands united struggle. It is the people’s interest that is the Party’s interest.”

(8 June 1972)

The orientation was correctly set, but a planned and orderly retreat could not be organized and with CM’s martyrdom on 28 July, 1972, the party-movement slowed to a halt.

Counter revolution was crowned with victory, but the spirit of rebellion lived on. Nor did the rock-solid achievement of the period of upsurge – the emergence of a revolutionary communist party based on a complete rupture with revisionism and an unflinching focus on agrarian revolution – melt into thin air. In the face of continuing repression, hundreds of organizers and activists in many parts of the country were trying to keep the flame alive at local/regional levels while also seeking out ways to revive the movement at the national level. The process – complex and long-drawn, replete with conflicts and often tiring – has by now culminated in the formation of a host of parties/factions/organizations which, between themselves, appear to represent the different dimensions of the movement.

Conclusion

The uniqueness of Naxalbari and its special contribution to the Indian people’s struggle for emancipation, the short review of the first phase of the movement (1967-72) suggests, consists in the fact that it was conceived as, and actually proved to be, not just another peasant insurgency but part of a larger project: founding a revolutionary communist party and, under its leadership, making the first comprehensive attempt to accomplish the new democratic revolution, with agrarian revolution as its axis, along the path of area-wise seizure of power.

In CM’s view (as evident in the “Eight Documents” through his other writings to the last write-up) the key link in the whole process was the communist party; the actual course of history also bears this out. The party-in-the-making launched the Naxalbari movement at a time when the Indian people’s fighting mood was at the highest. The specific timing was also significant — just after the installation of the UF government, which was not in a position to immediately launch a Congress-style repression, and this granted the struggle a breathing space to grow. And when finally para-military forces were deployed to crush it, the prudent decision to try and spread the movement to newer regions rather than staking everything on the fight in a single area supplied the bedrock for party formation, which in its turn contributed immensely to the expansion and intensification of the movement. The opposite happened when the party’s political deviations and organizational problems resulted in huge losses for the movement and splintering of the party itself. After the great setback also, revival of the movement depended on rebuilding the party/ its factions. Today as we look back on fifty years of Naxalbari, the movement-party dialectic appears to be a key to understanding the dynamics of Indian revolution in the 20th century and also in the 21st.

[Endnotes]

1  “Sum Up the Experience of Revolutionary Peasant Struggle in India and Move Forward”, December 1969.

2 All references to Charu Mazumdar’s writings are from “Collected Works of Charu Mazumdar”, published by Central Committee, CPI (ML) Liberation, 1975 “What Possibilities does the Year 1965 Indicate?” (Fifth document, late 1965)

3  See ii above.

4  “The Party’s Call to Students and Youths”, August 1969

5  Thus in “Fight against the Concrete Manifestations of Revisionism” (September 1969) he wrote, “…The influence of bourgeois ideology is also evident from the fact that we rely more on weapons than on people. …Another manifestation of bourgeois ideology is to magnify the importance of actions while giving no importance at all to political propaganda. This is what Chairman Mao has called ‘militarism’. …”

Later in “Strengthen the Party Organization” (October 1971) CM wrote: “As the struggle advances, the importance of political work also increases. One trend of thinking is that there has been enough of political work and that military work is now the main task. This has been stated clearly in the document submitted by Khokan [Asim Chatterjee – AS] and his associates. This deviation cannot take the struggle forward: it weakens the forces of the struggle.… Political work must be our priority task at every stage of class struggle.”

6  “Notes from A Talk Given in a Meeting Held After the Magurjan Incident”, March 1971.