Growing Leftism in National Politics And the UF Line

The second half of the 1930s has been widely acclaimed as one of the richest periods in left politics in India. Workers’, peasants’, students’ and cultural movements took giant strides in a fine combination of the movement for national emancipation and those for socio-economic emancipation and progress. The general leftward shift was reflected in a remarkable expansion of the INC, the growing militancy of its ranks and local leaders and the consecutive election of the two most known ‘leftists’ — Nehru and Bose — to the presidential chair of the Congress. Nehru’s fiery ‘socialist’ speech at the Lucknow session and his role as Congress president as mentioned earlier both reflected and contributed to the growing left mood. All this found a continuity in Subhas Bose, who even contributed a few write-ups to the communist weekly National Front.

Another mark of the leftward shift was evidenced in the rapid growth of the CSP. At its second conference held in Meerut in January 1936, the party held out a warm invitation to communists to join the CSP. The response was lukewarm at first, but when the new UF line reached India, the CPI enthusiastically grasped the opportunity to develop left unity and at the same time work within the Congress.

It was in this particularly conducive political setting that the communist movement in India finally embarked on a new course of struggle combining national and class demands. The first clear-cut call for the application of the UF tactics in the form of work within the Indian National Congress was put forward in an article in the Inprecor, March 9,1935, that is well before the Seventh Comintern Congress. Criticising the CPI for its isolation from the anti-imperialist struggle, the article recommended that mass organisations under communist influence should obtain “collective membership” in “local organisations of the Congress … while preserving their independence and face”. This would serve to “counter-balance national-reformism” and provide “a certain field of legal activity”. Of course, slips might occur and there might be tendencies towards renunciation of the struggle against “national-reformist conciliators”, regarding which the Party “must exercise a genuine check-up”. But the crucial need of the hour, as the concluding sentence pointed out, was : “it [the CPI] must learn in Bolshevist fashion how to rally and consolidate the masses who still stand at the crossroads between the revolutionary struggle and the impasse of national-reformist conciliation”. The very next month, The Communist came up with a lead article — “The Present Situation and Our Tasks” — which continuing the attack against “national reformism and its ‘left’ agents”, conveyed the main points of the Inprecor article.

The best-known programmatic document of the period — the Dutt-Bradley thesis — appeared in the Inprecor on February 29,1936 (Text VIIg). basing itself on a ECCI document entitled “Suggestions on the Indian Question”, the thesis put forward the following salient points:

  • An Anti-Imperialist People’s Front must be forged on the basis of (1) “a line of consistent struggle against imperialism” and (2) “active struggle for the vital needs of the toiling masses.”
  • The Congress can play “a foremost part” in realising this Front, or may itself get transformed into one, but at the moment it is miles away from it as regards programme, constitution, leadership and activity.
  • To start with, therefore, it is necessary to establish joint bodies of the National Congress with “all the existing ….. TUs, peasants’ unions, youth associations” etc. at all levels and also to encourage “collective affiliation” of these anti-imperialist mass organisations with the INC.
  • The “Congress machinery” must be thoroughly democratised, so that ordinary members can freely raise issues and move resolutions, all committees and office-bearers are elected, and so on; in short, the organisation should run “on the principles, not of personal dictatorship, but of democratic centralism”.
  • “The dogma of ‘non-violence’ should be omitted. The entire emphasis should be placed” on mass movements, class organisations and on linking up the workers’ and peasants’ immediate struggles with “the political anti-imperialist struggle”. While a “sharp ideological struggle” was needed for this, that “should not be allowed to split the national front”.
  • A left bloc should be immediately formed within the Congress comprising CSP-men, trade unionists, communists and other left Congressmen on the basis of “a minimum programme” of consistent anti-imperialism, development of mass struggle and mass organisation and a “fight for changes in the Congress constitution, policy, organisation and leadership”. The CSP must play “an especially important part in this”.
  • In the forthcoming elections, this left bloc or “anti-imperialist bloc” should field its own candidates with the just-mentioned “minimum programme” as its platform. For this purpose it should seek seat-adjustments with the existing Congress leadership or, if possible, contest “as a group with their specific programme within the Congress panel” — in either case “cooperating with the Congress candidates in other constituencies who run on the [Congress’] official programme”
  • While continuing the propaganda for Soviet power, communists should put forward the immediate slogan of “a Constituent Assembly based upon a universal and equal franchise and direct and secret ballot.” At the present stage, this should become the “central slogan of action … of the Anti-Imperialist People’s Front, uniting all the partial and immediate struggles in this central political fight.

Permeating the entire thesis was a very sincere urge for UF with the national mainstream, having as its core a closer alliance with yesterday’s worst political enemies — the left-wingers. The CPI fully endorsed the thesis[1] and by the middle of 1936 laid out a meticulously formulated new path of advance. The most instructive concretisation of the new UF line was to be found, as regards the Party’s political tactics, in the electoral policy and, as regards the organisational shape of the Front, in the proposals for collective affiliation and joint bodies. A very well-written PB circular for Party members (Text VII-9) and a couple of editorials in the July 1936 issue of the The Communist (Text VII-10 and VII-11) clarified the Party’s position and proposals in the following terms:

  • “The CP considers the slave constitution worth only one thing — blowing it up.” Still, it is against boycott, for thereby “we isolate ourselves from the masses and allow a free hand to our enemies and friends of imperialism.” The banned Party should therefore “use the legal opportunities provided by the elections” for popularising the Party’s slogans and for furthering the extra-parliamentary mass movement against imperialism.
  • The CP proposes three draft electoral platforms — one for communist candidates; another for “socialist and revolutionary anti-imperialist candidates; and still another for Congress candidates in general”.
  • The electoral UF is to be regarded as one of the building blocs of the anti-imperialist People’s Front. It will be based on “People’s Election Committees”, elected by the masses at local, city and district levels, through which the campaign for the UF platform should be conducted. In all these activities, the local TUs, peasant unions, youth leagues, Congress committees and CSP bodies must be actively mobilised.
  • On the controversial question of office-acceptance, the Party feels that wherever possible the Congress should form ministries “to carry through their major election pledges within a stipulated short period of time and actively help the development of the mass movement outside.” In all likelihood this would force the Governors “to assume dictatorial powers, dismiss the ministers, dissolve the legislatures” and this would lay bare the true face of the sham constitution (i.e., the Government of India Act, 1935, under which the provincial governments were to be elected — Editor) before the broad masses and rouse them to higher level of anti-imperialist struggle. But since at the present moment the office-acceptance slogan is being identified with the greedy rightists whereas “the Anti-Imperialist sentiment of politically conscious people is expressing itself as the Anti-Ministry slogan, Anti-Ministry is part of the platform of all left nationalists and other Anti-Imperialist elements”, the CPI does not press for what it considers the correct tactics. In public it endorses the unified left position of anti-ministry and privately urges the CSP and other left friends to consider the possibility of a revolutionary application of the office-acceptance tactics.

Documented here, particularly in the second editorial (Text VII-11), is a rare example of a communist party working out and placing before all left elements a correct political tactic and yet withholding it for the sake of broad left unity against the Congress Right. Of course, no surrender of principles was involved. “That the policy outlined by us cannot be pursued is our fault” — the Party frankly admitted — “… if we had formulated our above policy [i.e., ministry-making from a revolutionary perspective — Editor] in time … we would have succeeded in making it generally acceptable …” For a Party just emerging out of a prolonged and bitter isolation from the national mainstream, this could be the only correct course. The accent on unity (while not relinquishing friendly debates) helped restore the acceptability of the CPI among the different left-leaning nationalist forces and yielded rich political harvests for the Party in the next few years. As Text VI-28 would show, the three draft electoral platforms (see above) prepared by it were also fine examples of UF work.

Note :

1. 14-page Polit Bureau statement appeared id The Communist, September 1936 along with the full text of the Dutt-Bradley thesis. The statement acclaimed the thesis by declaring that “no political document has evoked such an enthusiastic response from all the anti-imperialist elements”. Evidently this was an over-statement to conceal the normal initial confusion and resistance to the new line, as recorded in some other documents (see Text VIII4). It did not, however, take long for the entire Party to broadly accept the new line, since a good section of Party leaders and ranks had already in 1933-35 embarked on a journey beyond isolationism. We do not reproduce the PB statement because it contains nothing new apart from some rather unseemly personal praise of comrades Dutt and Bradley.

While the new UF line was enthusiastically accepted in general, an important debate broke out on the particular policy of a campaign for individual enrolment (of workers and others under the influence of the CPI) with the INC. The proposal came from the CSP and was accepted by the CPI as a supplement to the main method of collective affiliation of TUs etc. Some leaders, however, strongly objected to individual enrolment. The logic was that workers can be expected to play a radicalising role inside the Congress only if and when they join it as a body organised in their primary class organisation; otherwise they would only trail behind the bourgeois leadership of the Congress. The best spokesman for this view was “Moonje” (a pseudonym of SG Sardesai) whose “Thesis Against Individual Enrolment” was published in the August 1936 issue of The Communist, along with an article containing the official line[2] and a rejoinder to Moonje’s thesis by “Ali” (Michael Scott), supporting the official line. A powerful document explaining the official line was presented also by “Nirmal” (PC Joshi). The debate was decisively concluded by a PB circular, which clarified that individual enrolment was being recommended as “only one of the means to intensify the agitation and strengthen the demand for collective affiliation from the inside the INC platform” and gave a detailed explanation of all the ideological as well as practical-political questions involved. To give the readers a fair view of both sides of the debate, we reproduce extracts from Moonje’s thesis, Nirmal’s document and the PB circular on “Individual Enrolment to INC” (Texts VIII-4, 5 and 6 respectively).

Beneath this debate there was a more fundamental, though less pronounced, conceptual difference. Starting with the Dutt-Bradley thesis there developed a trend of analysis which, while criticising the Congress programme, constitution and role of restraining mass struggles, avoided specifying the bourgeois class character of the INC, as if that was a thing of the past. This was perfectly understandable in UF appeals, but in documents and write-ups meant for the Party members this omission certainly gave quarters to CSP-like illusions. The Dutt-Bradley thesis had stated that the INC itself might, “by the further transformation (i.e., in addition to the positive transformation which, according to Dutt-Bradley, had already taken place — Editor) of its organisation and programme”, become the anti-imperialist people’s front; and taking the cue from here, a lead article in The Communist, September 1936 (Text VII-12) portrayed Nehru and “the whole leftward tendency which his leadership represents in the Congress” as “a tendency which springs up from below, from the mass of exploited workers in towns and villages”. Moonje in his thesis lashed out at the “Royist illusion” of viewing the INC as “essentially a people’s organization” — an illusion “which, due to its supposed acceptance by comrades Dutt and Bradley in their recent article, has assumed serious importance” — and declared : “For us … there can be no question of broadening the INC into an anti-imperialist organisation.” Moonje fully endorsed the UF tactic in recognition of the fact that “the platform of the INC can be made the means of rallying the masses for a genuine struggle against imperialism” and that “a given appeal from the INC platform inspires and sets in motion a hundred thousand time more persons than what it can from any other platform”, but at the same time warned against “the liquidationist danger inherent in this tactic”.

If the simultaneous publication of Moonje’s thesis and Ali’s rejoinder[3] in the same issue of the Party organ vouched for a healthy inner-party democracy, centralism was enforced with the PB circular No. 4 (Text VIII-6). It rejected Moonje’s opposition to individual enrolment but did not uphold Ali’s rejoinder and put forward a whole set of practical guidelines for UF work to suit the varying conditions of different provinces — guidelines which reflected not tailism but a determination to infiltrate the Congress as speedily and effectively as possible. But this was not to be at the cost of independent political assertion : “It is only in proportion of our independent activities that our work inside the INC will prove effective while … our work inside the INC will become today one of the most potent means of strengthening and extending the base of our independent party and united front work”. Finally, it was clarified that the idea behind individual enrolment was “not to strengthen the Congress as already [the] anti-imperialist front of the people but to strengthen the anti-imperialist wing within the Congress and launch a broad-based revolutionary struggle out of which alone can the People’s Front emerge. …” (emphasis added).

From early 1937, the Anti-Imperialist People’s Front (AIPF) began to be called the United National Front (UNF) to stress the inclusion of the national bourgeoisie in it. Here again the cue came from an article published in the Inprecor, November 7,1936, entitled “The United National Front” and signed by Harry Politt, RP Dutt and Ben Bradely “For the CC of CPGB”. The writers chose the expression “middle classes” for the Indian bourgeoisie (the euphemism could be justified on the ground that Marx and Engels in many places had used this expression to connote to the bourgeoisie in medieval or backward capitalist conditions) which must be drawn into the UNF and declared : “Every effort must be made to make the INC the pivot of the UNF”. In the March 1937 issue of The Communist was published a PB statement — “For the United National Front” and in June appeared an article strongly defending the PB statement and taking pains to prove that the UNF did not, as some “confused” ranks wrongly (!) believed, mean “something wider in scope than the AIPF” — that both referred to “one and the same thing”. As Text VII13 would reveal, however, this article and another companion article actually sought to show that, “crushed from above (i.e., by British imperialism — Ed.) and pushed from below, the Indian bourgeoisie was swinging leftward” and that, therefore, “the class composition of the UNF is visualised as very broad embracing all classes of the Indian people including large sections of the Indian bourgeoisie barring the small top knot section of the pro-Imperialist bourgeoisie and the big landlords and Princes”, The idea of a “Toilers’ Front” mooted by some comrades was rejected as a “sectarian tendency”.

So this was the shape of the Party’s UF line just on the eve of the Congress assumption of office. How the line was put into practice during the tenure of the Congress ministries, i.e., the little more than two years upto the Second World War, constitutes a new chapter of the story subdivided into two sections : (a) relations with the CSP and other left forces and (b) political tactics vis-a-vis the Congress as a ruling party at provincial level.

Notes :

2. “The National Congress and the Immediate Tasks of Indian Communists” by Swadesh Priya.

3. We do not reproduce Ali’s rejoinder because it hardly makes any new point not covered by other write-ups reproduced by us — Ed.

Broad left unity as the core of United Front

Shortly after the invitation to join the CSP reached the CPI, the latter prepared a 16-page theoretical “Note on the CSP”. Tracing the historical background of its emergence from the 1920s and analysing the current trends within it, the Note concluded that “The CSP represents today a radical tendency within the Congress and cannot be described as a Party. It is a platform which mobilises elements opposed to the present leadership of the Congress and its policy. … Briefly, the Party has remained a propagandist body popularising only general anti-imperialist demands …” The Note recommended “joint mass action on specific demands of toilers”, but resented the “absence of basic organizations” as a hindrance to “building up the United Front.”

When the communists started entering the CSP on individual basis from around the middle of 1936/naturally they put the stress on building up the “basic organizations” at local and district levels. This along with their advanced role in joint struggles began to get them leading positions at all levels despite stiff opposition from some leaders like MR Masani. A political debate developed when in early 1937 the CPI adopted the UNF concept to include the national bourgeoisie. The CSP denounced this as betrayal of Marxism and was in turn accused by the CPI of “left sectarianism”. It was indeed odd for the CSP, which had from its very inception in practice carried the UF line to the extent of becoming an organic and permanent part of the Congress, to adopt this left posture in theory. Anyway, by early 1938, unity-and-struggle with the CSP became a major plank of the Party’s theoretical and practical work. Editorials and other write-ups in the weekly National Front were frequently devoted to this purpose, as Text VI-29 would show. Serious comradely polemics were conducted by both sides. Thus we find both the National Front and the monthly New Age carry on a prolonged “discussion” on Masani’s article “A Lesson From France”, where he attacked Dimitrov’s political positions, particularly the latter’s alleged insistence on “domination of the CP” as the basis of communist-socialist unity in Europe. In Text VIII-7 we reproduce extracts from a serialised article by Ajoy Kumar Ghosh, which clarifies the principled basis of the communist approach to unity: “unifying the two major socialist forces that have developed with the national and working class movements and have remained apart because of the mutual isolation of these movements” (emphasis in the original).

As regards practical work within the CSP, the best available document is a business-like “plan of work” dated 9.5.1938 (Text III-20). Systematising the UF work through “contact committees” at all-India and some provincial levels, overcoming the sectarianism and other defects of CPI ranks in some places, utilising local organisation like the Labour Party in Calcutta the Radical Workers League in the Central Provinces (both under communist influence) in the broader scheme of left unity, dealing with Masani’s endeavours to weed out the communists — these are some of the question discussed. In all the diverse conditions obtaining in various provinces, the singleness of purpose stands out: develop mass action and promote left unity on that basis, curb the rightist lobby within the CSP, achieve and/or consolidate communist majority in CSP bodies at different levels.

This inner-Party circular fell into the hands of Masani who published it in September under the title “Communist Plot against the CSP”. Masani raised a high alarm but general secretary Jayaprakash Narain (who was mainly responsible for the invitation to communists two years ago) still opted for unity. Relations were, however, getting more and more strained. Already in the Lahore conference of CSP (early 1938) the communists placed an alternative panel for the election of the National Executive which was voted out by a slender margin. IP’s panel was carried, which “gave the communists no less than one-third of seats, including a couple of positions as Joint Secretaries”[4]. After heated discussions the CSP decided not to allow any further entry of communists in its ranks, but did not expel the existing ones. In order to secure the expulsion of communists, Masani, Ashok Mehta, Achyut Patwardhan and Rammanohar Lohia resigned from the CSP executive in May 1939. This demand was to be met, as we would see in Volume II, a year later in the Ramgarh conference of CSP.

The alliance with the CSP earned the communists very high dividends. In the standard literature on the subject, the organisational gains are accorded pride of place — the placement of communists on “vantage positions” of the CSP — e.g., Sajjad Zaheer (Joint Secretary of the CSP and later General Secretary of the Pakistan Communist Party), EMS Namboodiripad (another JS of the CSP; his later career is well known), Dr. ZA Ahmed, AK Gopalan, P Sundaraya, P Ramamurthi and so on. As the names themselves suggest, the entire infrastructure of the CPI in south India Was built up in course of CSP practices. Through the CSP communists also secured, by 1939, as many as 20 seats in the AICC, with many of them firmly installed in major provincial posts (like Mian Iftikharuddin, the president of the Provincial Congress Committee of Punjab). But far more vital than the organisational posts was the political benefit: the isolation from the national movement, overcome in theory during 1936-37, was terminated in real life in course of the new UF practice with Left Alliance at its core. The growth period of WPPs came back, sans the surrender of the communist banner which had stigmatised that period. The danger of dilution of the Party’s political independence remained, but broadly speaking the Party succeeded in preserving it. Before we proceed to examine the Party’s UF practice vis-a-vis the Congress, the record of CPI-Royists relations needs to be updated.

Starting with the countrywide textile strike of early 1934 jointly sponsored by Royists and communists, united actions gained some momentum in the second half of 1930s. But the process was hampered by two factors — (a) Roy’s drift towards Jacobinism until he finally declared in 1940 that Indian Communists should “raise the banner, not of Communism, but of Jacobinism”[5]; and (b) the Royists’ increasingly harsh criticism of, and finally their group-by-group resignations from, the CSP (calculated to discredit the party as effectively as possible) in mid 1937[6]. Given this political perspective, little more than some localised joint actions was possible between the CPI and the Royists. Of course, polemics continued on both sides, as can be seen in Text VII-7 (“Royism in Action”, an article in The Communist, May 1937) and the appendix to Text VIII (extracts from a Royist manifesto published in 1935).


4. See The Communist Party of India A Short History by MR Masani, Derek Verschoyle (London, 1954), pp 69-71

5. Cited by John Patrick Haithcox in Communism and Nationalism in India Princeton University Press, (1971) p 171.

6. The main logic behind Roy’s declared aim of “liquidating” the CSP was that the latter tended to divide Congressmen into socialists and non-socialists, thus hampering the unity of all radical nationalists as against the rightists.